Popular fascination with Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code continues unabated. The book has been on the bestseller list for more than 160 weeks with more than 10,000,000 (that’s 10 million) copies sold. The May 19 release of the feature film based on this fast-paced adventure story and starring Tom Hanks as the handsome scholar Robert Langdon exposes Brown’s provocative and disturbing ideas about Jesus Christ and early Christianity to an even larger audience. A directive from the Vatican urging Roman Catholics to boycott the movie will probably only increase the desire of some people to see the film.
For many readers of The Da Vinci Code, the book is simply an entertaining work of fiction–an enjoyable but not particularly well-written romp through the streets of Paris to unravel a clever conspiracy hidden in well-known works of art and ancient manuscripts that supposedly hold the key to early Christianity and the identity of Jesus Christ. Such readers know that the novel is a work of fiction.
For other readers, however, Dan Brown’s claim under the bold-type headline FACT – that “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate” has raised disturbing questions about Jesus and the Christian faith. Did Jesus really father a child with Mary Magdalene? Do the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Codices document the original form of Christianity as a religion honoring the divine feminine? Has the Roman Catholic Church conspired to suppress the true nature of Christianity and bankrolled members of the Opus Dei organization who protect the secret? Did the artist Leonardo DaVinci embed in his paintings information known only to a secret society that has maintained an unbroken chain of knowledge regarding the Holy Grail?
Many scholars of the Bible and early Christianity as well as art historians and medievalists have pointed out the misleading nature of Brown’s intriguing web of half-truths and outright errors.
Brown’s pseudo-scholarship is no-where more evident than in the use of a quotation from the Gospel of Phillip, a second century apocryphal gospel included in the collection of Gnostic writings found near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945. Brown has the historian Teabing show the heroine Sophie Neveu a volume entitled The Gnostic Gospels. It is said to contain the following quotation: “The companion of the Saviour is Mary Magdalene. Christ loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her often on her mouth.” The statement does come from The Gospel of Phillip, but it is found in a damaged place in the manuscript where much of the text has been lost.
Careful scholars translate the passage as follows, (with square brackets indicating where they are making educated conjectures of what may have originally been in the text but is now lost): “And [the] companion of the [savior was] Mary Magdalene. The [savior used to love her] more than [all] the disciples [and used to] kiss her [many] times on her […]. Less cautious scholars have reconstructed the text to conclude the sentence with the word “mouth.” Novelist Brown, looking for evidence of a carnal relationship between Jesus and Mary, ignores the gap in the text and claims to have exposed “the greatest cover-up in human history. Not only was Jesus Christ married, but He was a father.”
Brown’s fertile imagination goes on to assert that Jesus was really only an extraordinary human being who was declared to be the divine Son of God some three centuries later by the Council of Nicaea as the result of intense political pressure from the emperor Constantine, who also is credited with “collating” the Bible as we know it today. The Gnostics, declared heretics by the orthodox Christian church, were champions of a mystery cult that revered the divine feminine and made sexual intercourse a sacrament, according to Brown.
Such an inaccurate and fanciful reconstruction of Christian doctrine and history should quickly be recognized as the fiction it actually is. Nevertheless, many readers who lack sound knowledge of the Bible and church history can be influenced by these groundless claims. But there may also be more sinister reasons why Brown’s preposterous pronouncements have attracted such a large audience. The allure of secret ancient documents, a cover-up conspiracy implicating the Vatican, an orgiastic cult worshipping the divine feminine, coded messages encoded in great works of art–they all appear to be fascinating to a culture that is already inclined toward skepticism and unbelief regarding institutional religion and particularly orthodox Christianity. And when these titillating half-truths or outright falsehoods are promoted within best-selling novels or highly publicized feature-length films, the possibility of misleading or even deceiving many is very real.
Boycotting the film based on The Da Vinci Code is probably going to be counter-productive. It is better to recognize The DaVinci Code for what it is–a poorly researched but very cleverly written work of fiction.
James A. Brashler is Professor of Bible at Union-PSCE at Richmond, Va. Currently he is an elder and clerk of session at Second Church, Richmond.