The Da Vinci Code: Of Magdalene, Gnostics, the Goddess and the Grail
Released in March 2003, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown has sold more than 4.5 million copies (as of January 2004, despite the six percent decline in hardback sales overall). It has camped atop the New York Times bestseller list. In November, ABC aired a primetime special entitled Jesus, Mary and Da Vinci: Exploring Controversial Theories About Religious Figures and the Holy Grail. Variety.com recently announced, “Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and Akiva Goldsman—the Oscar-winning triumvirate from ‘A Beautiful Mind’—are reteaming to make ‘The Da Vinci Code’ for Sony Pictures Entertainment.” According to USA Today, “Code’ s popularity shows that ‘readers are clamoring for books which combine historic fact with a contemporary story line,’ says Carol Fitzgerald, president of Bookreporter.com…. ‘They say, “I like being able to learn something as well as read a story”.'” USA Today also noted at least 90 related books on religion, history and art, which have seen sales rise as well.
According to Richard Wightman Fox, author of the soon-to-be-published Jesus in America in a U.S. News and World Report article last month, The Da Vinci Code “is riding the wave of revulsion against corruption in the Catholic Church.” The article continues, “What Brown’s novel taps into above all is a persistent American desire to recapture the true, original Jesus. ‘That’s what Protestantism itself has always been about,’ says Fox.”
The book—complete with footnotes of source materials—is a novel, but in a controversial introductory note, Brown writes that “all descriptions of documents and secret rituals are accurate.” Are they? An incomplete list of author Dan Brown’s theses include (the following list primarily based on The feminist mystique, first published in Haaretz Daily (Jerusalem) by Aviad Kleinberg November 7, 2003):
early Christianity entailed “the cult of the Great Mother”
Mary Magdalene represented the feminine cult and the Holy Grail of traditional lore
she was also Jesus’ wife and the mother of his children
Magdalene’s womb, carrying Jesus offspring, was the legendary Holy Grail (as seen in Da Vinci’s encoded paining, The Last Supper)
Jesus was not seen as divine (God) by His followers until Emperor Constantine declared him so for his own purposes
The Nicean Council of the 3rd Century was the context for Constantine’s power grab and the relationship of Magdalene as paramour of Christ was quashed there
“Mary Magdalene’s remains and the secret documents that tell the real story were found on the Temple Mount when Jerusalem was conquered in the First Crusade.”
Brown sees a connection between the Nag Hammadi documents (a.k.a., Gnostic Gospels) discovered in 1945 and this storyline
The “truth” about Christ and Mary Magdalene has been kept alive by a secret society named the Priory of Sion that was lead by great minds like Da Vinci
Dubious doctrines like Goddess worship and neo-Gnosticism, critics charge, provide the core of Brown’s acclaimed novel (although Brown makes egregious errors even within those, e.g., Gnostics would be repulsed by the idea of physical relations between Mary Magdalene and Jesus). Given the book’s liberal use of long-debunked heresies and flashy but baseless theories on everything from church tradition to architecture to the heads of a secret society, cataloguing Brown’s scholarly infractions will exhaust the casual reader who will likelier readily embrace such fast-paced fiction uncritically. As Sandra Miesner (featured below) states, “The Da Vinci Code takes esoterica mainstream.” Thus, as similar volumes and a film adaptation follow on its tail, we hope to shed light on at least some of the critical, if unoriginal, issues raised by the book.
Critics assail Brown’s appeals to scholarship and history, which range from questionable to outlandish to (some say) outrageous. Yet, hot sales and fawning reviews by the press and readers alike (see Amazon.com’s listing of the book and accompanying opinions) indicate that many are buying into this brew of conspiracy theory, romance novel and pseudo-scholarship. Perhaps postmodernists, given to thinking via emotions and wide-open to conspiracy theories surrounding empowered groups, have found the perfect mix. Do Brown’s claims and implications line up with evidence, historical fact or truth? Does this matter or is “truth” only a bargaining chip for the empowered group of the day, such as the Catholic Church?
Where did these notions originate? Dr. James Hitchcock, cited on Beliefnet.com December 30, 2003 (beliefnet.com/story/135/story_13519.html), writes, “The Gnostics did not accept the Incarnation of Jesus and treated doctrinal orthodoxy as being too literal-minded. The gospels were not to be taken at face value but as stories with hidden symbolic meanings.” Hitchcock further explains, “Thus it was possible to write new ‘gospels,’ since the Gnostics were not bound by what may or may not have happened while Jesus was on earth. Mary Magdalene could become Jesus’ intimate, and the New Testament could be dismissed as essentially false. ([Again,] modern people like Dan Brown, who treat the Gnostic gospels as history, miss the point—to the Gnostics themselves it was irrelevant what actually happened when Jesus was on earth, if he ever was.)”
Writing in Crisis , Sandra Meisel coolly notes, “By manipulating his audience through the conventions of romance-writing, Brown invites readers to identify with his smart, glamorous characters who’ve seen through the impostures of the clerics who hide the ‘truth’ about Jesus and his wife. Blasphemy is delivered in a soft voice with a knowing chuckle: ‘[E]very faith in the world is based on fabrication.’”
The wisest sage of all time wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1: 9b). Here, in The Da Vinci Code, we hear echoes of the Jesus Seminar which in its heyday in the 1990s recycled Gnostic heresies and took the dead-end path of higher criticism of the late 19th Century. Apologetics researcher Rich Poll observes that the early Church spent much of its energy battling heresy. This doctrinal war, in many ways, culminatated in the Nicene Council’s creed. How interesting that a revisionist account of such times and issues dressed up as well-researched historical fiction brings us full circle.
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