Decoding Da Vinci

  • Several people have contacted freelance theology and asked questions about international bestseller The Da Vinci Code, written by Dan Brown. So, for them, here’s freelance theology’s brief look at some of the issues raised.

    The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, if you believe the hype, is a publishing phenomenon. It has ruffled a few feathers in the Christian publishing trade as well –the religious section of Borders Bookshop in Union Square, San Francisco has six books disproving The Da Vinci Code on display. So, why all the fuss about a work of fiction?

    Well, for one thing, Dan Brown states rather a lot of the fiction as absolute fact. Scholars have been quick to pick up on the obvious discrepancies in his book (lumping the Dead Sea Scrolls in with early Christian non-canonical ‘gospels’ on page 317 being a good example). But the real outcry has come over the central theme of the story – that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and belonged to a fertility-cult that worshipped the ‘sacred feminine’ or fertility-goddess, that they had a child and subsequent generations of the Messiah’s blood-line, coded as the ‘holy grail’, have been protected by secret society ever since.

    What Brown has done quite well is take some of the frankly wacky ideas from the fringes of scholarly research and try and work them into a coherent whole. He dresses much of it up in ‘symbology’ – revolving around imagery in Leonardo Da Vinci’s paintings, much of which has been covered in quasi-historical New Age literature before. What he has not done is critique the ‘hidden meanings’, disregarding the fact that, as in Michael Drosnin’s The Bible Code, if you look hard enough for something that you know must be there, then you will probably find it.

    The Da Vinci Code could be dismissed as nothing more than a poorly-researched thriller, but the fact remains that there are people who will use this book as a basis from which to critique Christianity. By selectively promoting a fringe view and by omitting key aspects of the ‘mainstream’ story, Brown cleverly manipulates any readers without an understanding of early Christianity into thinking that somehow they have been misled.

    Some errors and omissions
    [This is not a complete list, just the most annoying and obvious ones]

    Error #1
    Brown repeats throughout the book that the Emperor Constantine’s new official church wanted to excise Mary Magdalene from the story. He alleges that a deliberate campaign was waged against proponents of the ‘truth’, so the followers of Magdalene went underground. The real truth can be found in the books that Constantine tried to ban: the ‘Gnostic’ gospels.

    In fact, there are virtually no references to Mary Magdalene in the writings of the earliest Christians, Gnostic or not. Constantine only declared Christianity to be the official religion in 313, by which time there were several types of Christianity around, many sects outside the Roman Empire (e.g. Armenia, outside the Imperial borders was the first official ‘Christian country’). If Brown’s hypothesis about Mary Magdalene had ever been regarded as true, then it would have survived somewhere. For Christianity to be heterodox, yet there be no reference anywhere to the belief that Jesus and Mary produced a Messianic heir, is an indicator that it did not happen. It is not even listed as a heresy in ancient texts that list all the ‘false’ beliefs doing the rounds. Contrary to the exaggerated claim on page 316 there simply were not “thousands of books chronicling His life as a mortal man”.

    Most of the ‘gospels’ that Brown quotes from are of doubtful provenance. Some even date from after the time of Constantine. Most of these Gnostic texts relate to hugely complicated belief-systems, whereby the divine spark that exists in all humans can be liberated from its fleshly material prison through secret knowledge ‘gnosis’. Very few of them have any concrete information about Jesus’ life.

    On page 331, the best ‘alternative history’ that Brown can find, the ‘Gospel of Philip’, is introduced. In this ‘lost gospel’, Mary Magdalene is described as “the companion of the Saviour”, whom he kissed on the mouth. But what Brown leaves out is that the ‘Gospel of Philip’ was found in fragments. The word translated as ‘mouth’ is one that is missing and has been guessed at by interpreters – it might also be ‘head’. Brown’s characters go on to explain the text by saying that the Aramaic for ‘companion’ often meant ‘spouse’. That may be true but it is an utterly irrelevant point. The ‘Gospel of Philip’ was found in Nag Hammadi in Egypt and was written in Coptic, not Aramaic. There is no evidence that it was ever translated from an Aramaic original.

    ‘Several other passages’ are alluded to, but conveniently not quoted, before the ‘Gospel of Mary Magdalene’ is quoted on page 333. In this section Peter is criticising Mary and Levi sticks up for her, saying that Jesus might have told her secret stuff ‘because he loved her more than us.’ Two things need to be said about this. Firstly this passage has nothing to do with the ‘sacred feminine’; the complete passage is about complicated Gnostic cosmology that ‘Mary’ is presenting to the other disciples. Secondly, the conflict with ‘Peter’ may be an allusion to conflict with the Petrine tradition centred on Rome, but Levi vouching for Mary is about the authority of this gospel against the accepted canon, not about the real Mary Magdalene’s authority or otherwise in the post-resurrection Christian community.

    Error #2
    On page 315 of The Da Vinci Code, Brown has one of his characters reveal that it was only at the Council of Nicea in 325AD, that Jesus was declared “Son of God” and that his divine status was the result solely of the vote. Before that he was considered human.

    Anybody who has ever studied the formation of the Christian creeds will know that the statements found on page 315 are ignorant in the extreme. The debate at Nicea was not about Jesus’ divinity compared to humanity at all. It was a debate between those who viewed Jesus as being the very same nature as God (‘homoousios’/ consubstantial/ literally: ‘of the same stuff’) and those who wanted to identify Jesus as the first created being, the ‘Logos’ or ‘Wisdom’, who in turn created the world. This slightly lesser form of divinity has been identified with Arius, and is thus called Arianism, although really it is a Christianising of Greek philosophical thought, merged with Gnostic ideas.

    Jesus divinity was never questioned at Nicea. The debate was over the level of divinity that should be ascribed to him.

    Error #3
    In a couple of places, Brown hints that ‘Jehovah’, the Old Testament name of God, was formed by merging the names of pre-OT male and female deities (‘Jah’ and ‘Huvah’). Elsewhere, he refers to ‘Shekinah’ as a possible female consort of Jehovah, who was later edited out as the Jewish religion became monotheist.

    ‘Jehovah’ as a name for God was formed by merging two words, but not in the way Brown suggests. The four-letter name of God revealed to Moses, known as the Tetragrammaton, transliterates into English as YHWH (often referred to as Yahweh). Because the earliest Hebrew texts contain no vowel sounds the exact pronunciation is unknown. The revealed name of God was considered holy and saying it aloud was blasphemy under Jewish law (an over-literal interpretation of the third of the Ten Commandments). So a person reading out the Torah or other holy scriptures would say the word ‘adonai’ meaning ‘lord’. When vowel sounds were added to the Hebrew alphabet, in the form of dotted markings above the letters, the vowels for adonai (a,o,a) were added to YHWH, giving the word YaHoWaH. Because J and V are interchangeable with the Hebrew Yodh and Waw respectively, this became Jehovah in the early English translations of the Bible. ‘Jehovah’ does not exist as a word in the original Hebrew and it certainly did not come into existence by merging the names of two other Gods.

    ‘Shekinah’ is the Hebrew word for ‘Glory’, which does have an almost tangible nature to it in the Old Testament. ‘The Glory of the Lord’ affects people, is visible, overwhelms those who see it etc. Like the feminine-gendered Wisdom found in the book of Proverbs, ‘Shekinah’ is something that emanates from God. Referring to it as ‘she’ would be a mistake, because as in many languages, just because a thing has feminine gender does not mean it has personal status.

    Omission #1
    The central thrust of The Da Vinci Code is to assert the loss of the original ‘sacred feminine’. There is much truth in the list of pagan symbols and activities that were taken over and Christianised. However, the idea that Jesus was somehow actively promoting the religion of the Goddess is un-provable nonsense.

    Jesus, as a first-century Jew, would have had nothing to do with paganism. What Brown fails to tell the reader is that Judaism was unflinching in its avoidance of syncretism and pagan notions of Goddess-worship would not be tolerated among Jews in first century Palestine. The reason there were moneychangers in the Temple courts was because the graven image of Caesar’s head on the reverse of Roman coins was considered idolatrously offensive to Yahweh and so could not be allowed in the Temple vaults. Worshippers had to excahnge their idolatrous coinage for ‘holy’ money – at inflated rates. The Old Testament history of Israel is one of Yahweh-worship in conflict with fertility cults (that’s why Baal had altars, but the goddess Asherah had ‘poles’ – think about it!). The suggestion that Yahweh worship was originally one of these fertility cults has no basis.

    Omission #2
    Given that The Da Vinci Code is about the survival of Goddess-worship/the ‘sacred feminine’, despite the persecutory attention of the Church, it seems very strange that no mention is made at all of the Roman Catholic cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Extreme proponents of Mariolotry as it’s sometimes called, refer to her as the Queen of Heaven (which, incidentally, is an ancient pagan term) and want to see her officially declared as co-redemptrix with Christ. So far the Pope has refused to do this. For Brown to fail to include even a passing reference to the Blessed Virgin indicates that whatever does not fit with the story has been conveniently placed to one side.

    This sort of thing is not new. Every so often a different version of this idea will come out. It’s the theological version of the JFK conspiaracy theory. But now they say there were no shots fired from the grassy knoll and the official version of events may have been true after all. It seems that despite the weight of scholarship – from all wings of the church and even from people with no faith at all – there will still be those who believe ‘the truth’, even when it’s so obviously made up.

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