Fact, Fiction, and The Da Vinci Code

Here is a cultural mystery to solve: It has sold over 7.5-million copies in just over a year. The author has claimed on national TV interviews and on his web page that this piece of fiction contains fact when it comes to theories about art and the Christian faith. It has spawned more than a dozen response books.

What is it? Of course, it is the best-selling mystery thriller, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.

This novel is a good read. The mystery, which I will not give away, is tied to the idea that the church suppressed the reality of Jesus’ being married to Mary Magdalene, that he had children, that such truths are located in secret, but newly discovered gospels, that Jesus’ divinity is an idea voted upon for approval in the 4th Century, and that Leonardo da Vinci knew of the secret and painted a clue in the Last Supper, where a feminine figure alleged to be Mary sits at the right side of Jesus on the other side of a “V” space, a sign of femininity. Thus, we have the title The Da Vinci Code.

This book has touched a nerve. It is a page-turner mystery that claims to reveal several facts about the church’s early history. In effect the story accuses the church of lying to people for centuries. Told under the guise of fiction, it weaves its way through a less well-known period of history and leaves the reader wondering if some or all of its facts are true.

Underscoring this impression to be more than a novel, the author claims his work is thoroughly researched and has characters of high credibility pour forth the novel’s ideas. In fact, Dan Brown has said on his web site that he wanted these issues discussed because the theories he sets forth have been espoused for some time.

Many writers have obliged him on the matter of discussion and have challenged his claims. These include my Breaking the Da Vinci Code as well as books by Amy Wellborn (De-Coding Da Vinci), Richard Abanes (The Truth Behind the Da Vinci Code), James Garlow with Peter Jones (Cracking Da Vinci’s Code), and Carl Olson with Sandra Miesel (The Da Vinci Hoax).

The first question all of us have been asked is why critique the history of a novel? The question is a good one, had this been just a novel, but the author’s claims and the questions this story has raised about the early Christian history meant that the record needed to be set straight. Other books are essentially A-to-Z guides of issues The Da Vinci Code raises. Two of the best here are by Daniel Burstein (Secrets of the Code) and Simon Cox (Cracking the Da Vinci Code).

Let’s deal first with da Vinci’s art. Art historians that I interact with tell me that there is no way the figure next to Jesus is Mary. Not only do we have a sketch of the fresco that identifies the figure as John, but had Mary been there she would be a 14th figure in the painting placed at Jesus’ feet, not one to replace John. This takes place in two other frescos of the period.

What about the church history? Here is a list of the problems:

First, there is not a single ancient text that says Jesus was married, and we have hundreds of pages of text, both orthodox and unorthodox, from the first five centuries. The closest we get to such a claim is the idea in two extra-biblical gospels that Jesus loved Mary more than anyone else.

Second, had Jesus been married, there would have been no need to cover it up to “protect” Jesus’ divinity as the novel claims. Had Jesus been married, it would have affirmed his humanity, something the church also affirmed about Jesus. (With this, the key rationale for the plot goes.)

Third, the church did not choose the four biblical gospels from over 80 such texts as the novel claims. We have about 16 such gospel texts, and the four gospels of the Bible had established themselves as the key texts of information about Jesus by the end of the 2nd Century, a full 150 years before the novel claims.

Fourth, the church did not have a close vote on Jesus’ divinity in the early 4th Century. The earliest church documents we have from the mid-1st Century affirm Jesus’ divinity. We also have a letter from the Roman ruler, Pliny the Younger, describing Christians singing hymns to Jesus as a god, and he has no theological axe to grind. What Nicea affirmed was a particular form of deity tied to Jesus. There were only two dissenting votes at that council out of at least 218 bishops attending.

Fifth, the so-called “secret” gospels that allegedly have a “human” Jesus were not so secret. We have known of their contents since the 2nd Century. Not only that, but many of these works do not have a human Jesus. In some of these early texts, Jesus did not die on the cross, because in this theology, Jesus as a god could not take on real humanity. In some of these texts Jesus laughs at those who think they are crucifying him. Thus the novel is riddled with error portrayed as fact.

Why does this make a difference? It is because Dan Brown has sloppily appealed to edges of scholarship that are seeking to “revise” or “redefine” Christianity, by taking the unique, divine claims about Jesus out of the faith’s early history. What remains is a human, religious figure, Jesus, not the unique one sent from God.

This relativizing of the Christian faith leaves us with Jesusanity, not Christianity. It distorts the history of one of the key monotheistic faiths and reduces God’s sent Messiah and Son to a mere prophetic figure. For a movement as crucial to the formation of our culture as Christianity, such distortions leave us out of touch with our own roots. It also leaves millions of readers who do not know this history with the impression that there is little unique about the Christian faith. The Da Vinci Code may be a good read, but the history is as bad as the story is good.