The Da Vinci Code Redux
Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code has been a publishing phenomenon. With 82 million copies sold worldwide in over 40 different languages, it easily ranks as one of the most popular novels of the 21st century. In September 2016, the publisher has made it even more accessible by publishing an abridged version aimed at a teenage audience. Although AP has published articles addressing con-cerns generated by the book before (see Lyons 2006a, Lyons 2006b), it will be helpful to have a quick reference for the significant errors found in the book.
A conspiracy lies at the heart of the novel’s plot. Robert Langdon, a “Professor of Symbology” at Harvard University, is wanted by French authorities on suspicion of murder. While evading the police, Langdon and his companion Sophie Neveu discover hidden truths about Christendom concealed for two millennia. The Roman Catholic Church has attempted to suppress these facts, with clergy willing to murder to ensure that the public remains unaware. Langdon and Neveau have to overcome personal betrayal, a shadowy assassin, and the revelation of Western Civilization’s most carefully-guarded secret: Jesus and Mary Magdalene married and had a family whose descendants still survive in the present.
The novel contains much to which a reader might object: sex rituals, brutal murders, and steady demonization of Christianity. It also features a complete rewrite of both Christian and pagan history. Despite the claim that the religious and historical details of the book are identified as “FACT” (p. 1), little of the book is rooted in reality. Indeed, many key features are as fictitious as the charac-ters themselves.
Although most of the fanfare concerning Brown’s flawed novel has long since died down, it will be helpful to rehearse some of his blunders. These errors are common ones that will doubtless continue to be repeated by skeptics and critics. It is significant that most of Brown’s mistakes are not new; in fact, some are ancient heresies.
Error #1: Jesus was Only a Man. The novel claims Jesus was divinized at the council of Nicea (AD 325) by a “relatively close vote” (p. 233). This leaves readers with the impression that Jesus’ deity was something that took a long time to win acceptance and may have generated consider-able resistance on the part of at least some ancient believers. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The vote at Nicea concerned the heresy of Arianism, which was defeated by a vote of about 300 to 2. The bishops who gathered at Nicea already believed Jesus was divine—the issue was whether Jesus was divine in the same manner as God the Father. In the end, the council affirmed the already centu-ries-old belief in Christ’s deity.
The Gospel according to John teaches Jesus’ divinity (especially through the great I AM statements)—a fact recognized by “every biblical scholar of every stripe” (Blomberg, 2004). The Synoptic Gospels also make Jesus’ deity clear. One of the best examples of this is at his trial. The high priest asks Jesus, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God” (Matt. 26:63; see Mark 14:61; Luke 22:69). In all three Synoptic accounts, Jesus connects himself with the divine figure of Daniel 7:13-14. Denying Christ’s divine status, the religious authorities mis-understand him to be committing blasphemy. This was punishable by death under the law (Lev. 24:10-16), which is precisely the penalty they seek (Matt. 26:66).
Christian sources outside the Gospels are clear concerning the deity of Christ. Paul frequently speaks of Jesus as “Lord” (Greek kyrios; Phil. 2:11). Early Christian authors continued to speak of Christ as divine. Early in the second century, Ignatius of Antioch spoke of Jesus being “God in man” (Ephesians 7.2). The anonymous author of 2 Clement—probably an early second-century homily or sermon—states that “Christ the Lord … being first spirit, then became flesh” (2 Clement 9.5; cf. John 4:24). In the late second century, Tatian explicitly stated that in Jesus “God was born in the form of man” (Address to the Greeks 21). Another anonymous, late second-century source identified Christ the craftsman and creator of the universe (Epistle to Diognetus 7.2; cf. Colossians 1:16).
Opponents of the early church understood Christians to worship Jesus. Early in the second century, the pagan Roman governor Pliny the Younger noted that Christians sang hymns to Christ as divine (Letters 10.96). The second-century Greek satirist Lucian calls Jesus a “man” and a “crucified sage,” and stated that Christians worship him (Death of Peregrinus 11-13).
Error #2: Jesus and Mary Were Husband and Wife. Ancient sources cannot justify the prominence of Mary Magdalene as a teacher or apostle. The idea she and Jesus married is an assump-tion based on a passage in the Gospel of Philip. This third-century work depicts Jesus kissing Mary (Gospel of Philip 63:33-64:9). We do not know where he kisses her because of a lacuna (missing portion) in the text. Brown and others assume Jesus kisses Mary on the mouth, which would be ap-propriate only for a husband and wife. This is just one possibility, however, and perhaps not even the most likely one. Harvard professor Karen King states, “Kissing here apparently refers to the inti-mate reception of spiritual teaching” because “the Lord suggest[s] that the male disciples should seek to be loved by him in the same way” (King 2003, p. 146).
It seems clear that the kiss is not romantic or sexual because it upsets the other disciples. Their response would have been inappropriate if Mary was Jesus’ wife. However, it would be understand-able if the kiss was a sign of respect or honor, indicating Mary received truths that the other disciples did not (see Evans 2006, p. 211). In another instance Thomas receives special wisdom from Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas. Jesus takes him aside privately, and upon his return to the group the other dis-ciples demand to know what Jesus told him. Thomas warns his fellow disciples that he could not re-veal anything Jesus said. If he did, the others would pick up stones to throw at him, but a fire would come out of the stones to burn them up (Gospel of Thomas 13).
In one exchange in The Da Vinci Code, historian Leigh Teabing points to a place in the Gos-pel of Philip which states, “And the companion of the Saviour is Mary Magdalene” (a loose quota-tion of Gospel of Philip 36). He explains, “As any Aramaic scholar will tell you, the word compan-ion, in those days, literally meant spouse” (Brown p. 246, ital. in orig.). There are two major prob-lems here. First, the text of the Gospel of Philip is in Coptic, not Aramaic. Second, the Coptic term traces its origin to the Greek word koinonos, which means “partner” or “companion” but not “spouse” (see Huggins n.d.). Brown’s assertions here are not merely baseless but supported with false evidence.
One of the themes of the Da Vinci Code is the elevation of the feminine. Brown believes that the church has historically demonized women and does his best here to balance the scales. In one sense, we could argue that he is guilty of the very behavior he condemns. He has disparaged the his-torical Mary Magdalene by manipulating her history and using her as an unwilling pawn.
Error #3: Jesus Must Have Been Married. A fairly common objection to the bachelorhood of Jesus is the idea that all respectable Jewish men married in the first century. Brown claims that those who did not were condemned (p. 245). This is untrue. Some Jewish and Christian believers celebrated and advocated celibacy. The site of Qumran near the Dead Sea—known for the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered there—was home to a small community of perhaps 200 ascetics who may have been Essenes. In the 1950s, French archaeologist Roland de Vaux excavated the cemetery to the west of the site and found that there were no graves of children, and less than a dozen women (archaeolo-gists disagree over whether the remains belong to women who lived at Qumran or Bedouin women from a later time; see Magness 2002, pp. 172-173). Most, perhaps all, of these individuals remained unmarried after joining the community.
The verdict on Jesus’ marriage is clear. Neither the Bible nor early Christian writings claim he married. This must be inferred from later sources that are far from authoritative. Commenting on this claim, Bart Ehrman states, “Not a single one of our ancient sources indicates that Jesus was married, let alone married to Mary Magdalene. All such claims are part of modern fictional reconstructions of Jesus’ life, not rooted in the surviving accounts themselves” (Ehrman, pp. 144-145). In fact, much of Brown’s information about Mary Magdalene is incorrect or invented, as Ehrman’s devastating cri-tique demonstrates (pp. 152-162).
Error #4: Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper contains a picture of Mary Magdalene. A vital component of Brown’s theories concerns what is arguably da Vinci’s most famous piece other than the Mona Lisa. The figure he identifies as Mary Magdalene—universally interpreted by art his-torians as a young apostle John—is leaning away from Jesus, causing the pair to form a V shape, which he identifies as a feminine symbol. This supposedly symbolizes the female womb, which he claims is the real Holy Grail.
The figure directly to Christ’s right is the apostle John, not Mary Magdalene. Da Vinci depict-ed John as a beardless youth, probably because tradition states he lived into the mid-90s AD (other European artists followed a similar practice). If a teenager at the time of Christ’s death in AD 30 or 33, John would have been about 80 years old when tradition claims he wrote the book of Revelation (AD 95 or 96). Young men in da Vinci’s paintings and drawings were portrayed similarly (one ex-ample is da Vinci’s strikingly effeminate depiction of John in St. John the Baptist).
The Last Supper has traditionally been interpreted as depicting the moment that Christ has just revealed his impending death to the Twelve (see Wasserman 2007, p. 29). It is far more likely that the figure in question is John in a state of surprise. The Bible identifies John as the one whom Jesus loved and who leaned against him at the last supper (John 13:25). It may be that da Vinci was depict-ing the young apostle as reacting so sharply to the news of Jesus’ death that John not only leans away from Jesus but turns his face away as well.
Additional Errors. Brown’s work features many historical blunders concerning essential el-ements of the novel’s plot and setting. Although these errors are small, they go far to undermine the book as a supposedly well-researched novel. They include the following:
The main character is identified as a Professor of Religious Symbology at Harvard University (p. 7). There is no such discipline in academic studies. The closest equivalent would be semi-otics, or the study of signs and symbols.
Rather than respond to challenges concerning the historical and theological accuracy of the novel, Brown stated, “Let the biblical scholars and historians battle it out.” In reality, there is no such battle - biblical scholars and historians would agree that Brown’s work contains numerous demon-strable errors. Hero Robert Langdon makes the bizarre statement, “almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false (p. 235, ital. in orig.). If so, someone neglected to tell the biblical writ-ers, ancient Jewish and pagan authors, and modern scholars, almost all of whom believe Christ to have been a historical figure who was worshipped as deity by the earliest Christians.
The challenges presented by The Da Vinci Code are not new or novel. Similar ideas appear elsewhere in the work of critics. However, the more significant concern is a shift in the thinking of the West. Brown’s views were once dismissed out of hand immediately; now they find ready ac-ceptance among more than just those at the fringes. As Witherington warns, “While many traditional Christians might be tempted to scoff at and dismiss such books as either mere fiction or the opinions of a few fringe scholars, this would be a serious mistake. We are facing a serious revolution regarding some of the long-held truths about Jesus, early Christianity and the Bible” (Witherington 2004, p. 12).
The popularity of Brown’s novel is a reminder that the need for defending the gospel contin-ues. Challenges will appear again and again, each time bearing a fresh face for the next generation. While numerous books and articles appeared to debunk Brown’s absurd claims, now another edition has emerged and answers must once again be given to those seeking the truth.
Blomberg, Craig L. (2004). “The Da Vinci Code: A Novel.” Denver Seminary Journal vol. 7. Online: www.denverseminary.edu/article/the-da-vinci-code-a-novel/.
Brown, Dan (2003). The Da Vinci Code. New York, NY: Doubleday.
Ehrman, Bart (2004). Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Evans, Craig A. (2006). Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Huggins, Ronald V. (n.d.) “Cracks in the Da Vinci Code.” Online: http://irr.org/cracks-in-da-vinci-code.
King, Karen L. (2003). The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle. Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press.
Lucian of Samosata (1949). “The Death of Peregrine” in The Works of Lucian of Samosata, vol. 4. Translated by H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Lyons, Eric (2006a). “The Da Vinci Code and the Deity of Christ.”[Online], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=10&article=1823.
Lyons, Eric (2006b). “The Da Vinci Code and the Uniqueness of Christ.” [Online], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=10&article=1890&topic=24.