The Da Vinci Code. By Dan Brown. Doubleday, 2003.
You have probably read The Da Vinci Code. Or, if you haven’t, you almost certainly know someone who has. Only a few months ago, the book rocketed to the top of the national bestseller lists, becoming so popular that for a time even the boy wizard from Privet Drive seemed like a distant memory. Its popularity, however, was not due to its masterful writing or its sharp social commentary—because really, although the book’s plot is exciting in a cliffhanger, made-for-TV-movie sort of way, it isn’t all that good. Its popularity was a result of its conspiratorial creation of an alternative history of the Christian Church—perhaps, Dan Brown hinted to us, Jesus wasn’t who our Sunday School teachers made him out to be. Maybe he was married! Maybe Mary Magdalene was his wife! And maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t God after all! These suggestions form the core of Dan Brown’s book, and were shocking enough to sell millions of copies. But why, one might ask, were these suggestions enough to made The Da Vinci Code a number-one bestseller? Aren’t there plenty of people around who deny that Jesus was the Son of God? Why don’t their books become number-one bestsellers? The simple answer is that their books just aren’t as exciting as Brown’s—Steven Pinker denies that Jesus is the Son of God too, but no one (except the odd Harvard student) is going to take How the Mind Works with them to the beach. Brown’s accomplishment was to popularize an alternative history of the Christian Church in a way no one before him had managed to do. For the last thirty years or so, a group of scholars and pseudo-scholars have busied themselves constructing an alternative history of the Church, in which Jesus is not God, and in which the principal activity of the Church for the last two thousand years has been to purposefully mislead millions into thinking that he was, all the while suppressing the real truth somewhere in the secret archives of the Vatican. The problem with this is that it simply is not true. Dan Brown, and the scholars and pseudo-scholars upon whom he relies, have constructed an alternative Church history based upon ancient Gnostic texts that is almost completely spurious. Brown begins his book by hinting that it is all somehow “based on a true story,” when in reality, The Da Vinci Code has about as much historical merit as the last installment of Harry Potter.
The Christian Church, according to Dan Brown, began with Jesus of Nazareth. So far, so good—but of course, there’s a catch. Dan Brown’s Jesus was a good but relatively normal man who had no pretensions to deity. He was a good moral teacher, and no one thought him to be anything more. He was a family man, too—he married Mary Magdelene, found work as a carpenter and traveling preacher, and had a couple of kids. His striking moral teaching attracted a group of followers, who persisted in keeping his memory and words alive after his early and tragic death. But after a few hundred years, things turned nasty when the scheming Constantine decided to convert to Christianity in order to use it for political ends. Constantine immediately convened the Council of Nicaea in order to remake Christianity in his own image—he picked out four Gospels that made Jesus out to be not just a good moral teacher, but God incarnate. He got rid of the notion that Jesus was married, set up a patriarchal authority system, and gave Mary Magdalene and all other women second-place status. The real truth about Jesus had to be suppressed, so Constantine shoved all of the accurate writings about him under the rug. A few daring souls took it upon themselves to preserve the truth, and so founded organizations like the Knights Templar and the mysterious Priory of Sion to keep alive the true teachings of Jesus. They, of course, were ruthlessly persecuted by the Church, whose foremost goal for the next sixteen hundred years was to guard and propagate what basically amounted to Constantine’s big fat lie. It all makes for quite an interesting and appealing story—indeed, as long as there are still people who watch The X-Files and Unsolved Mysteries, there will be people who will buy into Dan Brown’s version of Church history. But those people will be seriously deluded, as there are significant problems with Brown’s research.
First, and most problematic, is Brown’s dismissal of the biblical Gospel accounts in favor of more obscure Gnostic texts. Brown is not alone in doing this—in recent years, a veritable cottage industry has sprung up around the rediscovery of old Gnostic writings, or as they are now more popularly known, the “hidden gospels.” Philip Jenkins, among other scholars, has pointed out the problems in their position. Gnosticism, in the time of Christ, was a reasonably well-known dualist philosophical and religious movement which espoused that all matter is evil and only “spirit” is good. Enlightenment, in Gnosticism, was attained only when rational thought was interrupted, as all thought was tainted by the physical body (seen as evil precisely because it was physical). In such moments of interrupted thought, hidden knowledge was revealed. Some Gnostics, as a result, placed emphasis on orgiastic rituals as a means for interrupting rational thought. Additionally, Gnostics believed the genders to be equal, not because women were intrinsically good and worthy of respect, but because both female and male bodies were equally evil physical vessels. Like any other religious movement, Gnostics created texts to propagate their teachings, notably for our interests the so-called Gnostic Gospels. The Gnostics did not particularly care if they were historically accurate, as it did not matter to them whether or not the history of the evil, physical world was correctly recorded. They were primarily intended to communicate Gnostic teachings by piggybacking on the popularity of Christianity. To that end, they debunk Jesus’ divinity (as his teachings contradicted Gnosticism), make Jesus out to be a Gnostic teacher, and emphasize the role of Mary Magdalene (playing the role of the female goddess, important to certain branches of Gnosticism). These writings were never sanctioned by the Church, as they clearly were fabrications put together years after the events occurred. However, they are what Brown uses as the foundation for his alternative Church history. Clearly, Brown’s use of these texts is extremely problematic for his historical project.
Second, to make his version of history plausible, Brown not only has to make use of spurious Gnostic texts, but also has to discredit the accepted biblical accounts. To do so, he declares that Jesus was not believed by early Christians to be divine, but instead was declared so by Constantine centuries after the fact for political reasons. This assertion is patently false, and verges on the ridiculous. Even the most liberal scholars believe that the majority of the New Testament was written from the years 50-100 A.D. (1) In Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians alone we find the terms “Lord Jesus Christ” and “Christ Jesus” appearing fifty times, which was well understood by his readers to be a proclamation of Jesus’ divinity (2). Paul makes quite clear that he understood Jesus to be God throughout his letters, and his belief that Jesus was God was shared by all the earliest Christians; no biblical scholar will refute that this is so. Brown’s assertion, then, is not only false but also deliberately misleading. It is a matter of historical record that the earliest Christians believed in Christ’s divinity, and Brown is being nothing but deceptive.
Additionally, there is little evidence of a debate between different Christian ideologies until the second century (3). That is to say, the Gnostic gospels were written well after the canonical books. The early Church leaders Iraneaus, Tertulian, and Eusebius all agreed that the four canonical Gospels should be included in 180, 190, and 300 A.D. respectively (4). All of this took place before the Council of Nicaea in 325, where the four Gospels were agreed upon by a vote of at least 210 to 2 by hardened local preachers who were accustomed to persecution by Roman emperors and not in the least likely to bow to Constantine’s will (5). Moreover, we have 5,465 copies, 50 of which are complete, of the New Testament dating before 325 A.D. with only a few minor textual errors (6). We do not have that kind of textual certainty for any other book from the ancient world: the only other book to even come close is Homer’s Illiad, for which we have 644 copies, only one of which is complete before 1250 A.D. (7) Given the massive evidence in favor of the New Testament’s early composition and textual accuracy, we can only assume that Brown has deliberately turned a blind eye to history.
Once we have arrived at the conclusion that the Gnostic gospels are historically spurious, and that the New Testament provides us with an accurate picture of what the earliest Christians believed about Christ, there is little left standing of Brown’s argument. However, Brown’s claims do not end with Constantine; he goes on to postulate the existence of a vast and powerful secret society called the Priory of Sion which, like the Knights Templar before them, has kept alive the truth about Jesus Christ. According to Brown, the Priory of Sion is a real organization that has existed since the time of the Crusades and has included figures like Victor Hugo and Leonardo da Vinci. The New York Times, however, reports that the real Priory is a “tiny, harmless group of like-minded friends formed in 1956,” created by an anti-Semitic outlaw named Pierre Plantard, who was helped by an accomplice to manufacture documents placing the Priory well back into the 1100’s (8). This has also been documented by the BBC and even admitted to by the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail (the pseudo-historical book on which Brown heavily relies) (9).
The Knights Templar are named by Brown as the historical predecessor of the Priory of Sion. According to Brown, they kept alive the truth about Jesus until they were brutally massacred by the Vatican under Pope Clement V in 1307 with the help of King Phillip IV of France, in an attempt to destroy the secret knowledge that they held. This claim, like the others, is simply false. Brown first demonstrates his ignorance of history by referring to “the Vatican,” when the papacy at the time had been moved to Avignon, France. Furthermore, he is wrong in claiming that Pope Clement V was responsible for the Knights’ demise. The papacy at the time was weak and dominated by King Phillip IV, who in 1307 burned about 120 French Knights Templar at the stake for political reasons. The real Knights Templar were in fact wealthy and powerful, but not nearly as exciting as Brown makes them out to be.
And so, in the end, we have clearly seen that Brown’s construction of an alternative Church history is based upon a web of historical inaccuracies, and is on the whole really quite ridiculous. Indeed, it is hardly even scholastically interesting to dismantle his arguments—the entire project is something like taking a historical sledgehammer after a gnat. If this is so, then, why is it necessary to even bother? Unfortunately, it remains necessary to point out Brown’s egregious inaccuracies because he insists upon their truth. On his very well-visited website, he maintains that his argument is “too well documented and significant…to dismiss.” He states that his “information is anything but new” and implies very heavily that although his book might be fictional, the alternative Church history upon which it is based is not. Students of history may laugh at Brown’s wild conspiracy theory, but for millions of less educated people who have read The Da Vinci Code, his assertions are no laughing matter. Undoubtedly, many faithful Christians have been disturbed by Brown’s novel—Christianity is a foundational part of many people’s lives, and the notion that one’s faith is based upon a web of lies can be deeply troubling. The point of this review, of course, was not to prove or disprove the truth of Christianity. The take-away lesson is much simpler than that: the acceptance or rejection of Christianity, just as with any other faith, is a gravely serious endeavor that requires the complete energy of one’s mind. Thoughtful people should weigh carefully all the evidence both for and against Christianity before they come to a decision. If one ultimately decides against the Christian faith, however, it should most definitely not be on account of The Da Vinci Code.
1. Olson with Miesal 1
2. Philip Jenkins, Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost its Way (London, Oxford Press: 2002) 80-81.
3. Olson with Miesal 1
5. Olson with Miesal Part 2 of a Special Planet Envoy Critique of The Da Vinci Code” updated 2003, <http://www.envoymagazine.com/planetenvoy/Review-DaVinci-part2-Full.htm> (cited 16 Apr 2004).
Adam D. Hilkemann ’07 is a History concentrator in Wigglesworth.