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Deciphering the Da Vinci code

ACCORDING TO Time Magazine, Dan Brown is one of the 100 most influential people of all time. His novel, The Da Vinci Code, has sold 40 million copies and the BBC claims it is the best selling novel ever and none less than Tom Hanks will star in the Ron Howard film version being released worldwide on May 19, 2006.

The Da Vinci Code is a white-knuckled thriller that races through some of Europe’s most exotic and mysterious locations.

From the opening pages where the Louvre’s curator is murdered in bizarre circumstances the chase is on to decipher a trail of cryptic clues and discover the secret the curator died to protect.

This is great material for one of the most controversial novels of our time, with a subplot that makes some challenging claims regarding Jesus and Christianity.

According to the novel, Jesus never considered himself to be the Son of God nor was he particularly Jewish.
In this story, the historical Jesus was a pagan worshipper of feminine deities who lived an earthy life and then married Mary Magdalene.

The novel proposes that in the 4th century AD the Roman emperor Constantine manipulated the church to create a divine Jesus whose words could help the emperor achieve his political goals and the only reason we have an inkling of the true Jesus is that some very early, authentic gospels survived the 4th century makeover, documents such as the Gnostic gospels and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

And if that seems hard to swallow, Jesus and Mary had a daughter who, after the crucifixion, fled with Mary to France where her descendents eventually married French royalty.

This theory proposes that descendents of Jesus are alive today though their identity is known only to members of the Priory of Sion, a secret society sworn to protect them from the murderous Catholic Church (keen to maintain its control over people’s beliefs), and preserve the Holy Grail, a stash of secret documents proving all this.

Most of the controversy hinges on the novel’s opening page which begins with the word “FACT”, followed by claims about the novel’s historical integrity including the statement, “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.”

This is quite serious because I have encountered a significant number of young people whose faith has been shaken by the novel’s air of scholarship, and others who have warmly embraced its neo-pagan ideals, such as worshipping the ‘sacred feminine’.

It is difficult to critique Brown’s use of historical documents without seeming malicious. Perhaps the description ‘imaginative’ would suffice.

Take the example of Jesus’ alleged marriage where the novel’s fictitious scholar confidently asserts, “I shan’t bore you with the countless references to Jesus and Magdalene’s union” (p.247) implying dozens of ancient references to the marriage.

In fact, there are two, located in the Gospel of Phillip and the Gospel of Mary Magdala. Both these ancient texts are what we call Gnostic gospels, written hundreds of years after Christ’s life, very un-Jewish in their form and composition, portraying Jesus in a dramatically different light to our earliest writings about him (Paul’s epistles). Neither actually mentions marriage.

One of these, the gospel of Phillip, is a damaged text. In numerous places holes in the parchment have erased words. In Chapter 63:33-36 it says, “And the companion of the [….] Mary Magdalene […. ] her more than the disciples [….] kiss her on her [….]” The brackets represent missing text. Brown fills in the gaps to make the passage claim Jesus and Mary kissed on the mouth.

Apart from the questionable relevance of the document, there is simply no way we can know what it originally said. Much has been made of the word ‘companion’. The novel claims that in Aramaic it means spouse. However the gospel of Phillip is written in Coptic not Aramaic and actually borrows a Greek word for companion, koinonos, a generic word that is rarely used for spouse but often for friend.

While Brown refers to many historical people, events and documents, he weaves them into his plot without much historical integrity.

Christianity has little to fear from The Da Vinci Code, but if we are able to arm ourselves with a few key historical facts, there is opportunity to engage a questioning society to ponder the integrity of Jesus and the Gospels, encouraging people to enjoy the novel, but read it as just that: a novel.

Simon Gomersall runs a consultancy and training business with his wife Selena, a psychologist www.cahootz.com.au.

He has been a teacher, youth worker and school chaplain. Simon offers audio visual presentations on The Da Vinci Code to churches, schools and community groups.
For more information click here to email.

Some suggested reading
Michael Green, The Books the Church Suppressed, Monarch, 2005
Darrell Bock, Breaking the Da Vinci Code, Thomas Nelson, 2004
Ben Witherington, The Gospel Code, IVP, 2000