A review of The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, 2003 New York: Doubleday, 455 pages
Ordinarily, reviewing fiction doesn't come under the purview of Skeptic Magazine. However, like The Exorcist in the 1970s, The Da Vinci Code has become so popular (it has for weeks been number one on the New York Times bestseller list) that the mythic elements within it have given energy to a set of beliefs about the real world, beliefs that do fall under the scope of skeptical investigation.
The popularity of The Exorcist was owed to its novelty, to its well researched material on the whole culture of the Roman Catholic church, and its approach to the subject of demonic possession and exorcism. It was, of course, a well-crafted work of fiction. But a deeper reason for the success of The Exorcist is that it tapped into a basic human fear of mind control from within. Possession would amount to the ultimate violation of one's integrity, and the paranoid fear that unseen intelligences have specifically targeted one for such an invasion is sufficient to override rational objections against its likelihood. The popularity of The Da Vinci Code likewise owes something to the novelty of its central idea, the soundness of its supporting research, and the professional crafting of its plot and characters. However, it also owes much of its success to the provocative religious theory and mythic theme at its core.
The story opens with the murder of Jacques Sauniere, curator of the Louvre Museum in Paris late at night at the hands of a fanatical albino monk. As he is lying fatally wounded in the stomach, Sauniere tries to think of a way to pass on the secret. The novel's hero, Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor of religious symbology, is awakened after midnight by a visitor to his hotel room in Paris. Earlier in the evening he had given a lecture and slide show on pagan symbolism hidden in the stones of Chartres Cathedral. The visitor is from the Judicial Police (the French equivalent of the FBI). He informs Langdon of the murder of Sauniere, and says that his name was in Sauniere's day planner. Langdon is wanted for questioning. Before escorting him to the murder scene at the Louvre, the visitor shows Langdon a photo of the body. Before he died. Sauniere stripped and lay down on the floor in the position of a male figure in a famous anatomical drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci, the Vitruvian Man. He also drew a pentagram on his stomach in his own blood, and left a bizarre message written in a black light marker near his body:
O Draconian devil!
Oh, lame saint!
This, it turns out, is all an elaborate coded message Sauniere had left for Langdon. However, since Sauniere had originally intended to meet Langdon earlier in the evening, Captain Bezu Fache of the Judicial Police has all but concluded that Langdon is the murderer.
Meanwhile, Silas, the murderous albino, has spoken over the phone to a man identified only as "the Teacher," informing him of the success of his mission.
Silas is the devoted follower of Bishop Manuel Aringarosa, and both men are members of a rabidly militant Catholic organization called Opus Dei (Latin for "the Work of God"), bent on destroying a secret society called the Priory of Sion, founded in 1099.
Back at the Louvre, Fache is irritated by the arrival of the beautiful cryptographer from the Judicial Police, Sophie Nevue. By an elaborate ruse she secretly communicates to Langdon that he is the murder suspect and is in danger. She then proceeds to unravel part of Suaniere's mysterious message. The numbers, when sequenced from low to high, are a Fibonacci series:
This is a sequence of numbers created by adding the last two numbers in the sequence to get the next one. Thus, starting with 1, we get 1 + 0 = 1, then 1 + 1=2, then 1 + 2 =3 , etc. This sequential system was invented by the 13th-century Italian mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci. Sophie then reveals to Langdon the final line of the coded message, which Fache had covered up: "P.S. Find Robert Langdon."
This is why Fache suspects Langdon of the murder. However, it turns out that the message Sauniere left wasn't for the police at all, but for Sophie Nevue:
P.S. stands for Princess Sophie, Sauniere's nickname for her. Sophie is his granddaughter. Langdon figures out that the rest of the coded message is an anagram:
O Draconian devil! (Leonardo Da Vinci)
Oh, lame saint (The Mona Lisa)
Sophie also shows him that Fache's men have planted a tracking device in his jacket. They throw it out the window to make Fache and his men believe that Langdon has fled the Louvre. With the police gone, Sophie and Langdon go to where the Mona Lisa is hanging and find another cryptic black light message scrawled over the protective plexiglass cover: "So Dark the Con of Man." This, it turns out, is another anagram, leading to another work by Leonardo Da Vinci: Madonna of the Rocks. Sauniere, it turns out, was the last of the leaders of a secret society called the Priory of Sion, of which Leonardo, among other luminaries, including Isaac Newton, was the Grand Master. The Priory has been preserving the true religion started by Jesus and brought to France (then Gaul) by his wife, none other than Mary Magdalene. This religion is much more egalitarian than historical Christianity, and Da Vinci and others were devoted to the sacred feminine, which was early on excluded by the church. The Priory has also kept secret the bloodline of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, still in existence today. This bloodline, it turns out, is also the Holy Grail (the Grail as the cup of Christ, holding Christ's blood, being merely symbolic).
The reason the society has to keep the bloodline secret is that the Catholic Church wishes to extinguish it and wipe out all traces of the rival religion, which it sees as a threat to its existence. This is why the crazed albino monk from Opus Dei is out to murder all of the leaders of the Priory. The rest of the story is a well-balanced mix of a harrowing, protracted chase in which the hero and heroine are pursued both by the Judicial Police and the albino monk and the gradual unraveling of the Da Vinci Code. It is full of meanings beneath meanings. For example, the P.S. in Sauniere's message not only means Princess Sofie, but Priory of Sion as well. The book is an excellent read, its intricate plot twists and rich historical background putting it well above most books of this genre.
However, readers may reasonably ask: Is any of it true? The Priory of Sion, the author states, is a real organization, a European secret society founded in 1099, and Leonardo Da Vinci was a member. This was discovered in 1975 when certain parchments, known as Les Dossiers Secrets, were discovered in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. As to whether this society still exists or not, we cannot say. Secret societies such as the Rosecrucians and the Freemasons flourished at the end of the Middle Ages, each of them claiming knowledge of secret wisdom hidden from all but the initiates. The Freemasons, for example, though coming into existence late in the Middle Ages, claim to have been founded by Hyram, the Phoenician architect hired by King Solomon to build the Temple. He passed on to his followers secret knowledge from ancient Egypt. Beyond all this hocus pocus, however, such secret fraternities were quite important in societies in which one could be put to death for espousing heretical religious or political views. Within the Masonic Lodges one could speak freely. In fact, most of America's revolutionary leaders, including George Washington, were Masons.
Opus Dei is also a real organization, a deeply pious and conservative group within the Roman Catholic church. It has been involved in controversy over its use of corporal mortification and accusations against it of coercion and brainwashing. "Corporal mortification" can run a gamut of anything from fasting, celibacy, and sleeping on hard surfaces, on one , to self-flagellation and like practices on the other. The growing power of Opus Dei, along with other reactionary trends in the Catholic church at this time, are disheartening to those of us who would like to see a softening of certain doctrines such as condemnation of artificial birth control and refusal to ordain women. However, Opus Dei hasn't been accused, to my knowledge, of such skullduggery as assassination.
To his credit Dan Brown portrays the group as being duped by the Teacher, the real arch-villain of the book. Now we come to the meat of the matter: Did Jesus and Mary Magdalene have a sexual relationship? Is there a living bloodline descended from Jesus and Mary? Is the Grail legend part of this? First, let's deal with Mary Magdalene. Tradition has it that she was a prostitute reformed by Jesus. The problem here is that this is entirely an extra biblical account. Our earliest introduction to Mary is in Luke 8:1, 2: Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good news. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod's steward, and Susanna and many others, who provided for them out of their means.
This immediately follows a story in Luke 7 that while Jesus is preaching in the city of Capurnum a Pharisee named Simon invites him to his house. While he is there a woman comes in who is a sinner and starts weeping, wetting Jesus feet with her tears, wiping them with her hair and anointing them with ointment. Jesus tells her that her faith has saved her and to go in peace. The word translated as sinner is hamartolos in the original Greek, a word related to hamartia, the Greek concept of a fatal flaw. It is only by implication that this woman is identified as a prostitute, and only by unfortunate textual juxtaposition that Mary Magdalene (Mary of Magdala) was identified with the woman in Luke 7.
Mary Magdalene turns up again at the Crucifixion in Mark 15:40 (parallel verses in Mt. 27:61 and Jn. 19:25). She also is present at the burial of Jesus (Mk. 15:47; Mt. 27:61) and the Resurrection (Mk. 16:1-8; Mt. 28: 1-10; Lk. 24: 10). In the Gospel of John she sees the stone rolled away from the sepulcher and Jesus" body missing (Jn. 20: 1), then is the first person to meet him in his resurrected state (Jn. 20:11-18). The only aspersion cast on her character in
the Bible is Luke saying that she had been possessed by seven demons, which were driven out of her by Jesus.
That Mary is the first one to see the resurrected Jesus in John indicates a special relationship between them; but was it sexual? In Jn. 20:17 Jesus tells Mary not to touch him (in the King James version) and not to hold him (in the Revised Standard Version), because he has not yet ascended. The actual word in the original Greek is haptomai, "to attach oneself to," and is related to hapto meaning "to fasten" and also "to set on fire." This implies a certain emotional intensity, that Mary is trying to embrace him. However, it is in the Gnostic gospels where we see Mary Magdalene exalted above the apostles and possibly portrayed as Jesus" lover or wife. In the Gospel of Mary, Peter at first exalts her: Peter said to Mary, "Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of women. Tell us the words of the Savior that you remember, which you know [but] we do not. Nor have we heard them."
Later, however, after the apostles have heard the message she claims she received in a vision, they are disturbed by it. Peter thinks it unlikely that Mary would be given a message denied the other apostles and asks, "Did he prefer her to us?" In the Gospel of Philip she is referred to as Jesus companion and in one tantalizing passage, portions of which are blurred to the point of being doubtful or even beyond recognition, we find this: And the companion of the ... Mary Magdalene [... loved] her more than [all] the disciples [and used to] kiss her often on her ... The rest of the ... they said, "Why do you love her more than us?"
Is this passage saying that Jesus often kissed her on the mouth? If that is so, were they lovers? There are a number of problems with accepting the passage above as evidence of a sexual relationship. First, while the canonical gospels were probably all written well after the time Jesus died (and written by people who probably were not eyewitnesses), they were at least probably written in late in the 1st century. The Nag Hammadi scrolls, from which we get most of the Gnostic gospels, are from the 4th century. They are probably copies, and the gospels of Philip and Mary are tentatively dated to the second century.
Were they written earlier even than that? We do not know. We do know that when Irenaeus (130?-202?) became bishop of Lyons in eastern France in the second century he found, much to his chagrin, that Gnostic Christians were already established there. Since they seem to have expanded west at the same time as more orthodox Christians it is possible that their writings are quite early.
Another problem is that even if Jesus kissed her on the lips--something that seems to us intimate and usually limited to immediate family members or lovers this doesn't necessarily imply a sexual relationship. Other societies are often more emotionally demonstrative than ours. The kisses may have been quite platonic. Remember that in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss. Also, there are a number of odd passages in the
gospels for which we have no explanation that could be interpreted in a number of suggestive ways. For example, consider the following curious incident from the arrest of Jesus in Mark. The apostles have scattered, and Jesus is being led away when we are told (Mk. 14:51, 52): "And a young man followed them with nothing but a linen cloth about his body; and they seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked." This odd passage, found only in Mark, has been interpreted as everything from a young man (possibly Mark himself) who was sleeping in the house near where the arrest was made, to evidence of a bizarre (possibly homosexual) initiation ceremony. The fact is that we don't know its significance, and basing any theory on it is folly. We are on firmer ground with respect to Mary Magdalene.
Together, the Synoptic Gospels, the Gospel of John, and the Gnostic Gospels can be taken as three varying points of view. So, while not necessarily proven as historical, the position of Mary as a close friend and disciple of Jesus has what is called multiple attestation: A number of disparate sources agree on her having a close relationship with Jesus. As to whether it was sexual or not we have no idea.
As to whether such a relationship would have been denigrated, even to the point of labeling Mary a prostitute, there is considerable evidence that an early tendency toward egalitarianism in Christianity shifted fairly quickly to a position of suppressing women and feminine expression in the church. At the end of Paul's epistle to the Romans he says (Rom. 16:7): Greet Andronicus and Junius, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners; they are men of note among the apostle and they were in Christ before me.
In a copy of Romans dating from ca. 200 Junias is Junia, a feminine form, which was corrected in later versions of the letter. Some letters attributed to Paul are now largely recognized as deuteropauline, a polite way of saying that they were probably written in the second century and falsely ascribed to Paul to lend weight to their doctrine. Most scholars agree that the Pastoral letters, I and 2 Timothy, and Titus, fall into this category. Early on in 1 Timothy Paul puts women in their place (I Tim. 2:11-14): Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.
So, Mary Magdalene could have been the victim of a muted smear campaign. For all that, the idea that she and Jesus had children together is unfounded. It could have happened, but we have no evidence of it.
The next question to consider is this: Did Leonardo Da Vinci encode cryptic messages in his paintings, perhaps supporting a more feminist form of Christianity? Quite possibly. Of particular note is his rendering of one figure in his painting the Last Supper. This figure, generally considered to be John, the apostle Jesus loved (see Jn. 13:23) is beardless, has long hair and looks quite feminine. Could this in reality have been Mary Magdalene? It's possible, but critics point out that young men of Leonardo's day were often beardless and wore their hair long. Further, the robes worn by the disciples in the painting are ambiguous with respect to gender.
Of course, the very ambiguity of the situation would have made it possible for Leonardo to sneak a woman into the painting. Without further evidence, however, the assertion that the artist slipped a feminine disciple in under the nose of the Church must remain nothing more than an intriguing possibility.
Now let us consider the story of the Holy Grail. Was it the cup Christ drank from at the Last Supper? Was his blood actually caught in it by Joseph of Arimathaea at the Crucifixion? Or is it, as The Da Vinci Code has it, a metaphor for Jesus and Mary's bloodline? While Joseph of Arimathaea is shown in all four gospels as procuring the body of Jesus from Pontius Pilate and providing a sepulcher for it, the story of him catching blood from the wounds of Jesus in a chalice is not in the Bible, and the story was unknown in the eastern Mediterranean region. The earliest mention of the Grail is generally considered to be Chreten de Troyes poem Le Conte del Graal, which is thought to have been written between 1180 and 1190, though some scholars feel that Robert de Borron's Le Petit St. Graal was written earlier. By 1210 a more elaborate romance, written by Wolfram von Eshenbach, featured the characters Parzival and the Fisher king. The complete legend, that includes Joseph of Arimathaea catching Christ's blood in a chalice and transporting it to France, then, was quite late in origin. However, the motif of a vessel full of blood is thought to derive from pagan Celtic myth. Among the Celts great ornate cauldrons were used for boiling the carcasses of large animals and had a sacred aspect as well. The most well known of these is the Gundestrup cauldron, a myth of rebirth. If a dead man were thrown into it he emerge from it alive. Such cauldrons may also have been used to catch the blood of human sacrificial victims, a symbol that dovetails nicely with the crucified Jesus as an atonement (hence a sacrifice) for our sins. The medieval synthesis then would have been to Christianize a pagan Celtic symbol, which would explain why the Grail myth comes exclusively from western Europe.
The word Grail (or in its older form Graal) seems to be a shortened form of gradalis, medieval Latin for "cup" or "dish." Gradalis in turn seems to be acorruption of the original Latin word, crater, with cratalis as an intermediate form. The graal was eventually known as the san grael or "holy chalice."
By a slight change of spelling one can emphasize the blood over the chalice holding it: san grael to sang real, "blood royal." From there it is easy to see Mary Magdalene, pregnant with the child of Jesus, as the vessel carrying the blood royal" or royal bloodline.
That theory was advanced in the 1982 book Holy Blood, Holy Grail, by Michael Baigent, Richard Lewis and Henry Lincoln, in which the authors assert that the Merovingian kings, who ruled the Franks before Charlemagne (from ca. 500 to 752) were descended from Mary and Jesus, and that their line constitutes the holy blood of the Grail. If that is the case one can't say much about divine genetics. The Merovingians were rather a mediocre lot noted more than anything for their ineffectual rule and violent civil wars.
The attempt to tie a royal bloodline to an illustrious ancestor--what I call the Royal Myth--is nothing new, though claiming descent from Jesus may set a record in hubris. One of the more common choices for royal ancestors are the Trojans. Virgil's Aenead was not the only attempt to claim them as ancestors. In his Historia Regurn Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), published in 1138, Geoffrey of Monmouth, who introduced the legend of King Arthur, said that the first king of Britain was Brutus, great grandson of the Trojan Aeneus, hence his people were called Britons.
Writing in the 1200s, Icelandic author Snorri Sturluson (d. 1244) claimed in the Prose Edda that the Ynglings, the legendary dynasty in Sweden from whom the kings of Norway claimed descent, were founded by men who fooled the Swedes into believing they were gods. They were headed by Thor, originally called Tror, grandson of King Priam of Troy. Another way a royal myth was established was to assume the mantle of imperial Rome. This is what Charlemagne did when he had the Pope crown him Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. After Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the niece of the last emperor of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, Zoe Palaeogina, fled to Russia and eventually married Ivan III, Grand Prince of Moscow. The princes of Moscow, soon to be the czars of all Russia, declared that Moscow was the "Third Rome" (the first Rome being the original empire and the second being Constantinople). The mantle of Rome was again claimed by Napoleon Bonaparte, when he had the Pope crown him Emperor, a conscious reenactment of Charlemagne's coronation. When all is said and done it really doesn't matter whether Jesus and Mary Magdalene left lineal descendants or not, or whether the Roman Catholic church purged the true message of Jesus or not. The fact is that the religion most acceptable to the decaying Roman Empire was the one that would win out. This is the Christianity we have inherited, whether or not a more egalitarian and feminist Christianity was secreted away for centuries.
Geoffrey of Monmouth. 1136. (Translation by Sebastian Evans, revised by
Charles W. Dunn, 1958.) History of the Kings of Britain. New York: E. P. Dutton.
Hastings, James (ed.). 1934. Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics. (4th. ed.)
Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark. New York: Charles Scribner's.
Robinson, James M. 1988. The Nag Harmmadi Library in English. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
Snorri Sturluson. c. 1200s. (Translation by Arthur Gilchrist Broedeur, 1929.)
The Prose Edda. New York: The American-Scandinavian Foundation.
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