Deciphering the Da Vinci Code, 1

by Craig Smith

With The Da Vinci Code’s amazing popularity, Christians have been presented with a tremendous opportunity for witnessing about the truth of the Gospel and the saving work of Jesus Christ.  I have not gotten on a plane in the last 4 months that I did not see at least 3 people reading the book.  What a tremendous opportunity Satan has unwittingly presented us with.  The catch is, though, that we must be prepared with some basic information to be able to make use of such opportunities.


What does The Da Vinci Code actually claim? (a sample)

1.  Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and had a child with her.

2.  Jesus never claimed to be divine and the early church (pre-325 A.D.) saw him only as a prophet.

3.  The early church was strongly sexist and worked hard to cover up the fact that Jesus intended to leave the Church in Mary Magdalene’s hands.

4.  There was no authoritative canon of Scripture until 325 A.D. when the Council of Nicea arbitrarily created one.

5.  The Council of Nicea and the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire were both political moves by the emperor Constantine.

6.  The Gnostic Gospels and other non-canonical pseudo-biblical books are actually much more historically reliable than the canonical scriptures.

7.  The Catholic Church executed as witches more than 5 million women during the 300 years of the Inquisitions. 

Why all the fuss?  After all, isn’t it just fiction?

The book appears to be a skillful blend of fictional writing and academic research.  It was certainly marketed this way:

Publisher’s Weekly:  “Brown’s latest thriller (after Angels and Demons) is an exhaustively researched page-turner about secret religious societies, ancient coverups and savage vengeance.”

USA Today:  “A murder mystery set against a religious conspiracy theory involving Leonardo Da Vinci’s paintings, Jesus, Mary Magdalene, their child and the Holy Grail, The Da Vinci Code mixes page-turning suspense with art history, architecture and religious history.”

 The Library Journal calls The Da Vinci Code a “…compelling blend of history and page-turning suspense…”

Did author Dan Brown think of it in those terms?

In the preface, Brown claims that:  “The Priory of Sion – a European secret society founded in 1099 – is a real organization.  In 1975 Paris’ Bibliotheque Nationale discovered parchements known as Le Dossiers Secrets, identifying numerous members of the Priory of Sion, including Sir Isaac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo and Leonardo da Vinci.”

More importantly, he says this:  “All documents of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.”

In an interview with Beliefnet, Brown says this:  “…the secret I reveal is one that has been whispered for centuries.”

When asked in an ABC interview how much of the book’s historical information was true, Brown’s answer was “all of it.”

So, is the book really “exhaustively researched”?

Regarding Leonardo da Vinci

“Da Vinci” is the name of the Florentine territory where Leonardo was born.  It is not a surname.  In art history work, the artist is referred to simply by his first name of Leonardo, like other great artists  (i.e. Michelangelo or Rembrandt).  In spite of this fact, Brown repeatedly refers to him as “Da Vinci”, akin to using “of Nazareth” as a name for Jesus.  This is a small, but telling detail.  If Brown had researched Leonardo’s life and work as extensively as he claims, would he have made what is, to art scholars, a glaring error?

Brown speaks of Leonardo’s “enormous output” of Christian art and “hundreds of lucrative Vatican commissions.”  Yet art historians tell us that Leonardo was notorious for his meager production and spent little time in Rome.

Brown states that Leonardo was a “flamboyant homosexual” yet only one charge of sodomy from his youth supports this.  Art historians acknowledge that his sexual orientation is inconclusive and fragmentary.

One of Brown’s characters bends Leonardo’s painting “Madonna of the Rocks” around her as a shield, but “Madonna of the Rocks” was painted on six-foot wood plank.

One of Brown’s main characters, Robert Langdon, is said to be a professor of “symbology.”  No such discipline exists.  The fictitious academic field appears to be an eclectic blend of art symbolism and the study of numerology.

Brown has Robert Langdon deliver a lecture in which it is stated that art historians believe that the “Mona Lisa” is Leonardo in drag, and that this is a “subtle message of androgyny.”  This belief, Brown has Langdon claim, is strengthened by computer analysis of the “Mona Lisa” and of self-portraits of Leonardo.  This belief has enjoyed some popularity outside of academia, but contemporary documents clearly indicate that the sitter for the portrait was a woman.  Besides, no self-portraits of Leonardo have been conclusively identified.

Brown has Langdon and another character claim that Leonardo’s “Last Supper” painting portrays Mary Magdalene at Jesus’ right hand on the basis of the fact that the figure appears somewhat effeminate.  However, it widely acknowledged that most Florentine depictions of John the Disciple dating to this time tended to depict John as a beautiful young man, with features that would have been considered striking at the time but which are interpreted by modern viewers as effeminate.  Leonardo’s depiction of the figure to Jesus’ right seems to follow this trend and for that reason alone it is highly unlikely that the figure is Mary Magdalene.

Regarding The Priory of Sion

Brown claims (through his characters) that the existence and function of the Priory of Sion is well-established historical fact.  However, the claims that Leonardo, Victor Hugo and other important historical figures were affiliated with the order is highly questionable.  In fact, the claims seem to be based on a single set of parchments found in the French National Library.  Research of the last twenty years seems to have shown conclusively that the documents were part of a hoax perpetrated by an “extreme right-wing French nationalist” by the name of Pierre Plantard.  A BBC special and several French books expose the parchments as being entirely fraudulent.

          Regarding Jesus’ Marriage to Mary Magdalene?

Brown seems to think that the notion of Jesus as a married man enjoys widespread academic support.  It is difficult to imagine how this could be further from the truth.  While the occasional Catholic conspiracy theory is advanced, suggesting that the Catholic Church suppressed this fact, such notions are simply unsupportable for several reasons:

1.  The canonical gospels never say any such thing.

2.  Even the non-canonical gospels make no such claim.

3.  It is sometimes suggested that Jesus was a rabbi and, as such, would have had to have been married.  Jesus was not a rabbi.  Though this honorific was applied to him by his disciples, it is absolutely certain that he was not a technical rabbi.  Questions to Jesus such as “by what authority do you do these things” (like cast out demons, forgive sins or cleanse the temple; cf. Mk 11:28) flow directly from the clear fact that he had no “official” role within Jewish society.  Consequently, he need not have been married since he held no office that required such a thing.

4.  The argument that Jesus’ marriage was covered up by the Catholic Church so as to prevent difficulty with their policy of requiring priests to be celibate is nonsense.  To begin with, the “Catholic” Church, which is the only one that has ever had such a universal prohibition, didn’t exist until considerably later than the formation of the N.T. canon.  Second, even for the Catholic Church, the universal requirement of a celibate priesthood did not enter the picture until the 12th century.  Third, if the Catholic Church was looking to rid itself of texts which were embarrassing in light of their practices, they did a rather pathetic job (cf. texts indicating Peter’s failures and the existence of Jesus’ brothers and hence Mary’s non-perpetual virgin-hood). 

Regarding Early Church Christology

Brown has one of his characters make the following claim, which is foundational to the entire novel:  “until that moment in history [Council of Nicea, 325 A.D.], Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet…a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless.”  This is ridiculous and even the most liberal scholars will tend to be somewhat shocked by such a claim.

It is true that the Council of Nicea was convened, in part, to respond to denials of Jesus’ co-equality with God the Father by an Alexandrian theologian named Arius.  Arianism, as this school of thought was known, did not deny divinity to Jesus, but denied that he was divine in precisely the same way that the Father was and therefore held Christ to be inferior to the Father.

Regardless, the notion that Arius represented the dominant thinking of the early church while the Nicean Council held to a new and unorthodox line of thinking is simply preposterous.  All the Council did was re-affirm the historic teaching of the early church.  As early as the 2nd and 3rd century, the church fathers were writing defenses of the orthodox teaching about Jesus’ divinity.  Regardless of what you make of their need to pen such defenses, their existence proves conclusively that the belief in Jesus as divine was the central teaching of the Church from its earliest days.


The book is clearly not “exhaustively” researched.  Some of its assertions are drawn from the work of revisionist historians and some appear to be complete fabrications.

Obviously, this is not necessarily a problem for a work of fiction.  However, the marketing of the book and the author’s own statements assert the historical reliability of its claims.  Given that such assertions are obviously false, even in the reckoning of scholars who have no interest in defending the historical validity of the Christian faith, what should we make of such claims?  As one reviewer notes:  “…what is stranger, Brown could have written pretty much the same book, without inventing any major historical facts…but instead of citing only historical facts, Brown makes numerous claims about historic Christianity and Christian doctrine which if he is right – undermine the essential beliefs of Christianity.” (Gregory Jones.  Cracking the Code, 9.  Available online at http://www.doers.orgBreaking%20the%20Da%20Vinci%20Code.pdf)

So, the real question is not “is the book exhaustively researched” but “why are these particular assertions made under the false guise of historical accuracy?”

Next Issue:  The Da Vinci Code and the New Testament