Observations on ...

The Da Vinci Code

Noel Cheer
November 2003

The Da Vinci Code
Dan Brown
Bantam Press 2003


IMPORTANT

The following should be read only by those who have already read the book because it discloses important plot developments.

Introduction

My personal opinion is that it was a thoroughly enjoyable, fast-paced novel in which we are drip-fed information at a pace sufficient to hold our attention. I was left wondering "just how much of it should we take seriously?"

To approach an answer we must review the "claims" implicit in the story while granting that, althought various fictional characters treat them seriously, we have no information as to whether the author does. Ultimately of course, that doesn't matter. The deconstructionist approach to literature is that we don't need to speculate as to what the author had in mind and we are free to treat his work in any way we please. Cavalier? yes, but quite liberating!

The Plot Line

The plot claims that Mary Magdalene played a important role in early Christianity and an enduring one to this day. The story claims that Mary Magdalene (Mary from Magdala, the "Magdalene") was married to Jesus and was appointed by him ahead of Peter to carry on his mission. Furthermore she was pregnant to Jesus at his death and started a line of successors which emerged as the Merovingians in France, descendants of which survive to the present. The "official" church, favouring Peter, suppressed this information but medieval Knights Templars have kept documentary evidence in safe-keeping and they are in a permanent standoff with the Roman Catholic Church.

None of the above am I competent to assess, except on a "commonsense" intuitive basis and, on that count, the story is no less credible than the official version. But credibility is not the same as certainty.

Other Assessments

The Jesus Seminar

They assign maximum probability to these statements:
  • Mary Magdalene was among the early witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus (Gospels of Matthew and John).
  • Mary Magdalene was considered a leader in the early Jesus movement along with Peter and Paul.

John Spong

... in his Born of a Woman (1992) on pages 188-198, notes:
  • "the negativity towards the idea [that Jesus might have been married to Mary Magdalene] is increasingly strange in our age."
  • A suggestion in I Cor 9 that it was common for wives to accompany preaching apostles. The only other common categories were as mothers or prostitutes. Given the pre-eminence of MM is listing which cite her, "prostitute" is unlikely. Hence, maybe, wife — of Jesus?
  • In the wedding at Cana (Jn 2), Mary mother of Jesus is so concerned at the disrupted proceedings that maybe it was her son's wedding — maybe, given other evidence — to MM?
  • MM has a starring role in the pre-Resurrection events of Jn 20. The use of "my lord" before resurrection points to the possibility of the title "my lord" meaning "husband".

Bruce Boucher, Curator at the Art Institue of Chicago

He is somewhat skeptical of the author's homework:
"... the author's grasp of the historical Leonardo is shaky. One small but telling point comes in Mr. Brown's references to Leonardo as "Da Vinci," as if that were the painter's last name, yet it is no surname but simply a reference to the fact that he was the illegitimate son of Ser Piero of Vinci, in the Florentine territory. Like other great artists, with or without last names, Leonardo is invariably referred to by his given name and not by da Vinci."

"The nomenclature suggests a lack of familiarity with the copious bibliography on the painter, as do Mr. Brown's references to Leonardo's "enormous output" of Christian art and "hundreds of lucrative Vatican commissions." Leonardo was, in fact, notorious for his meager production and spent little time in Rome. Neither, for that matter, is it accurate to call Leonardo a "flamboyant homosexual": despite a charge of sodomy against him as a young man, the evidence of his sexual orientation remains inconclusiveand fragmentary. It is also breathtaking to read that the heroine, Sophie Neveu, uses one of Leonardo's paintings, "The Madonna of the Rocks," as a shield, pressing it so close to her body that it bends. More than six feet tall and painted on wood, not canvas, the "Madonna" is unlikely to be so supple."

Issues for Christianity

The value of a story like this lies not in its technical competence nor its literal truth, even if that could be established. This is a story to be dealt with like the science fiction genre in which we are permitted to look for "truths" of a non-literal kind.

Some examples: "Star Wars" deals well with some Jungian concepts; "The Matrix" dramatises the classic "brain in a vat" thought experiment; "Frankenstein" considers the "mind-body" problem and "The Lord of The Rings" is wall-to-wall heroics by decent chaps fighting some thoroughly nasty ones.

We can be comfortable, deconstructionism notwithstanding, in treating the story thematically because the author isn't obviously trying to "sell" us the thesis that is central to the story.

Although "The Da Vinci Code" is not offered as a "myth" (remembering that in theological circles a myth is a perfectly respectable genre — something like "metaphors gathered together in narrative form") we can give it the same sort of attention. In other words, we can exempt it from the obligation of providing a literal account of the actual events and look for value elsewhere, as we already do in the case of works of fiction, "science-" and other.

One way in which such a story can be valuable is to provoke discussion and provide tentative answers to the question "what difference would it make" if it were literally true. In what follows I will set out what I take to be fruitful lines of such a discussion. I have graded the questions according to the degree of departure from the status quo that each implies:

  • Was the RC church, and especially Opus Dei, treated fairly?

  • Do we have confidence that the New Testament record of first century events, is broadly speaking accurate? How much of it is historical chronicle and how much "interpretive overlay"?

  • Is there room, in the historical events as we understand them, for a cover-up as the story suggests?

  • Is the "classic-Christian" view of sexuality a healthy one? What about homosexuality?

  • What would have to change if it became known that Jesus was as much a sexual creature as other males of his day? How probable do you rate this?

  • What is the justification for celibate clergy in the RC tradition? Is this the same as chastity?

  • Paul is quoted in Galatians 3:28 as saying that "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." Does traditional Christianity deliver on that vision?

  • Is the status of women in Christianity satisfactory? If not, what ought to be done?

  • If a "blood descendant" of Jesus could be identified today, how ought we treat her/him?

  • What are the implications of the assertion in the story that Jesus appointed Mary Magdalene as his successor?

Appendix: Themes in the Novel

  • Atbash Cypher 303, 318-321
  • Baphomet 316
  • Bible, composition of 231ff
  • Chalice, as metaphor 162
  • Christian symbolism, derivative 232ff
  • Church, the: bad behaviour 125, 407
  • Crosses 145
  • Cryptix 198
  • Cryptography, especially anagrams 43ff, 199
  • Divine Proportion 93
  • Electronic bugging 365-366, 372
  • Emperor Constantine 232, 234
  • End of Days 268, 401
  • Fibonacci Sequence 60
  • Golden Section 93
  • Heiros Gamos 125, 141, 307-309, 311
  • "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" book 253
  • Holy Grail as person, 236ff, 243
  • Kaballa 98
  • Keystone 13, 203
  • Knights Templar 158, 316, 338, 346
  • Leonardo da Vinci 45
  • Leonardo's art containing hidden messages 169
  • Les Dossiers Secrets 206
  • "Madonna of the Rocks" painting, 138
  • Malleus Maleficarum 125
  • Mary Magdalene, importance of 243ff, 261, 444, 454
  • Masonic temples 436
  • Merovingians 257ff
  • Mirror writing 298-301
  • Mona Lisa 101
  • "Mona Lisa" painting 114, 118-121
  • Opus Dei 28, 279
  • Pentacle 35
  • PHI93
  • Priory of Sion 113, 157, 267, 326
  • "Q" document, authored by Jesus 256
  • Religious Symbology 7, 434
  • Rose Line 105, 452
  • Rose symbolism 201ff, 254
  • Rosslyn Chapel 432ff
  • Sacred Feminine 24
  • Sangreal = San greal = Holy Grail 160ff, 230ff
  • Sangreal = Sang real = Holy Blood 250
  • Sex and Christianity 309-310
  • Symbols 434
  • Tarot 92
  • "The Last Supper", painting 235, 243, 261
  • Vatican Bank 416
  • Vitruvian Man 45
  • Westminster Abbey 395