Sensational Secrets

Book cover
The Da Vinci Codeby By Dan BrownDoubleday. 454p $24.95

Dan Brown’s TheDa Vinci Code is a fast-paced, well-plotted murder mystery that takes the reader through the Louvre, a long night of murders and a police chase out of Paris to a wet morning in London. There the identity of the evil “Teacher” who masterminded the killings is revealed in the Chapter House of Westminster Abbey.

Using as his prime piece of evidence Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” Brown proposes that the figure on Christ’s right is not the beloved disciple but Mary Magdalene, who married Jesus and bore him a child. She was the Holy Grail for his blood and Jesus wanted her to succeed him in leading his followers. The official church suppressed the truth about Mary’s relationship with Jesus and did its best to belittle her as a prostitute. So much for the tributes Church Fathers like Hippolytus, Gregory the Great and Leo the Great paid to her as “the apostle of the apostles,” “the representative of the church” and “the new Eve announcing not death but life” to the male disciples!

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Since the 12th century, a secret society called the Priory of Sion, which practices sex orgies, has safeguarded the “real,” explosive secret of the Holy Grail: that Jesus was married to Mary Magadalene and that their bloodline continues today. Threatened with the loss of their personal prelature at the hands of a new, liberal pope, the bishop who leads Opus Dei promises help to the secretary of state, curiously called the “Secretariat Vaticana,” who is the head of “the Secretariat Council” (a group that does not exist in the Roman Curia). A numerary of Opus Dei, a reformed killer, is set loose to recover from the leaders of the Prior of Sion the cryptex that contains the sensational secret about Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

There is to be no killing, but the plan goes astray. The mysterious Teacher provides the numerary with a gun and prompts him to kill four top officials of the priory and a nun who tries to defend a hiding place in the Church of Saint-Sulpice.

High on suspense, the novel concentrates on six major characters: a fanatical but ingenuous bishop of Opus Dei; Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor; Sophie Neveu, an attractive French cryptologist who turns out to be descended from Jesus and Mary Magdalene; Silas, a huge albino killer; Sir Leigh Teabing, an immensely wealthy seeker of the Holy Grail; and a brilliant French detective whose toughness conceals a heart of gold. A love affair develops between Robert and Sophie. But before they enjoy a week together in Florence, Robert returns to Paris to locate the resting place of Mary Magdalene, now disclosed as being under the Louvre Pyramid.

In The New York Times (8/3), Bruce Boucher exposed the eccentric nonsense about Leonardo that masquerades as new expertise. But there is more to be said about the effort to discredit mainstream Christianity and exalt the sacred feminine, and even goddess worship that was supposedly driven underground by orthodox church leaders.

Quite a few earlier writers have tried their hand at “proving” a liaison between Jesus and Mary Magdalene—notoriously Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln in Holy Blood, Holy Grail (1982). They alleged that several royal families of Europe (but not the Windsors) are descended from Jesus and Mary. Brown is more cautious and names only the ancient Merovingians as belonging to Jesus’ bloodline. His case rests on cracking the code of Leonardo’s painting. But his interpretation, as Boucher shows, is “extremely eccentric” and, frankly, misinformed.

The Da Vinci Code teems with historical misinformation. The claim that the Emperor Constantine shifted the Christian day of worship to Sunday (p. 232) is simply false. Evidence from St. Paul and the Acts of the Apostles shows that right from the start of the Christian movement Christians replaced Saturday with Sunday as their day of worship. Sunday was the day when Jesus rose from the dead. What Constantine did on March 3, 321, was to decree Sunday to be a day of rest from work. He did not make Sunday the day of worship for Christians; it had been that from the first century.

Brown tells us that under pressure from Constantine, Christ was declared to be divine at the Council of Nicaea in 325. “Until that moment in his history Jesus was viewed by his followers as a mortal prophet...a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless.” Would Brown please read St John’s Gospel, which has St. Thomas calling Jesus “My Lord and my God” and expresses Christ’s divinity in many other passages. Decades before John’s Gospel was finished, St. Paul’s letters repeatedly affirm faith in Christ as divine. The Council of Nicaea did not invent faith in Christ’s divinity but added another (semi-philosophical) way of confessing it—declaring his “being of one substance with the Father.”

When pleading his case for the eternal feminine and goddess worship, Brown ignores recent scholarship and belittles the Jewish roots of Christianity. He assures us that “virtually all the elements of Catholic ritual—the miter, the altar, the doxology and communion, the act of ‘God-eating’—were taken directly from earlier pagan mystery religions.” Doesn’t Brown know about the use of altars in Jewish worship, in which much of Christian ritual has its roots? The wearing of the miter by patriarchs and then by other bishops in Eastern Christianity originated from the emperor’s crown. In the West the use of miters can be traced back to the 11th century, when the pagan mystery religions had long disappeared. The Christian doxology (“Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit”) is based on some of the Jewish psalms (e.g., Psalms 8, 66, 150). Holy Communion has its origins in the Jewish Passover, celebrated by Jesus and his disciples on the night before he died.

Apropos of Judaism, Brown introduces some stunning errors about ritualistic sex and God. Old Testament scholars agree that prostitution was sometimes used to obtain money for the temple. But there is no convincing evidence for sacred or ritual prostitution, and none at all for Israelite men coming to the temple to experience the divine and achieve spiritual wholeness by having sex with priestesses (p. 309). On the same page, Brown explains that the Holy of Holies “housed not only God but also His powerful female equal, Shekinah.” A word not found as such in the Bible but in later rabbinic writings, Shekinah refers to the nearness of God to his people and not to some female consort.

It is also breathtaking nonsense to assert as a “fact” that the sacred tetragrammaton, YHWH, was “derived from Jehovah, an androgynous physical union between the masculine Jah and the pre-Hebraic name for Eve, Havah.” YHWH is written in Hebrew without any vowel signs. Jews did not pronounce the sacred name, but “Yahweh” was apparently the correct vocalization of the four consonants. In the 16th century some Christian writers introduced Jehovah, under the mistaken notion that the vowels they used were the correct ones. Jehovah is an artificial name created less than 500 years ago, and certainly not an ancient, androgynous name from which YHWH derived.

One could go on and on, pointing out the historical errors in The Da Vinci Code. One last example. Killing so-called witches was a horrible crime in the story of Christianity. But the idea that the Catholic Church burned at the stake “five million women” (p. 125) is bizarre. Savagery of that extent would have depopulated Europe. Experts give instead the figure of around 50,000 victims over the three centuries when witch hunts were carried out by Catholics and Protestants. But it suits the tenor of Brown’s book to multiply the figure by 100.

The historical misinformation is put in the mouth of the villainous Sir Leigh Teabing, a former British Royal Historian (is there such a post?), and in the mouth of the hero, Robert Langdon, a “professor of symbology” (a new field to me). On their performance, I would not have given either of them their jobs, let alone voted for Langdon’s tenure.

In short, enjoy the read, but discount the history. Dan Brown adds no new evidence to previous, discredited attempts to establish that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and fathered children by her.

For review of "Da Vinci Code" movie, click here.

See also "Krispy Kremes and ‘The Da Vinci Code’" by James McDermott, S.J.

See also Jesus Decoded, USCCB jesusdecoded.com

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
14 years 5 months ago
Gerald O’Collins sets out to dismiss the scholarship of Dan Brown in his popular novel, The DaVinci Code, arguing point by point how the author misleads the reader about truths of the church. O’Collins scoffs at Dan Brown’s proposition that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. He debunks the suggestion that the church did its best to belittle Mary Magdalene as a prostitute by invoking the church fathers who hailed her as the “apostles of the apostles” and the “new Eve announcing not death but life.”

I do not have the credentials to argue with O’Collins about matters of history. However, from this Catholic’s point of view The DaVinci Code was an extremely satisfying read. A work of fiction can have value in its ability to evoke heartfelt sentiments from its readers. Besides being fast paced and well plotted, The DaVinci Code may be so popular because it speaks to key issues in the contemporary church. Leo the Great, Hippolytus, and Gregory the Great’s tribute to Mary Magdalene notwithstanding, contemporary catholic women still await an equitable forum for announcing the Good News in the Roman Catholic Church. Furthermore, Opus Dei does not triumph in the novel. Its ultra-orthodox clinging to tradition does not speak to the experience of most Catholics who understand the church as a community in which there is room to embrace all of the faithful, including members who share differences as well as similarities in background, belief, and orientation.

An article in the same issue of America (El Camino Speaks) addresses the number of disaffected young Catholics in Europe taking the pilgrammage to Compostelo. With regard to understanding the legitimate yearnings of a growing number of Catholic women and men, the question remains: Are we (the church leadership) listening?

14 years 5 months ago
I am a new subscriber and appreciate your magazine, however, in the December 15, 2003 issue Gerald O'Collins, S.J., reviewed THE DA VINCI CODE stating correctly that Brown, the author, was "frankly misinformed".

O'Collins is also very "misinformed" on his Church History! He states that "right from the start of the Christian movement Christians replaced Saturday with Sunday as their day of worship..." Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi, did his doctoral work in Church History at the same institution where Dr. O'Collins teaches, the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. His dissertation ANTI-JUDAISM AND THE ORIGIN OF SUNDAY refutes beyond academic question O'Collins' claim that the change occured "right from the start..." It was gradual, over several centuries, and was influenced by anti-semitism and pagan issues. A quick trip to the library of the University will allow a review of Bacchiocchi's 1975 work with its copious patristic and other documentation.

14 years 5 months ago
I very much enjoyed Gerry O'Collins's review of "The Da Vinici Code," which is an intermittently enjoyable farrago of nonsense, but it's too bad Fr. O'Collins couldn't at least have mentioned Jane Schaberg's The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene, of which Karin King, writing in "The Women's Review of Books," said: "If readers are looking for one book on the historical Mary Magdalene, this is the book they should read." Or Schaberg's book could have been reviewed in tandem with Elizabeth A. Johnson's Truly Our Sister. Surely the two best books currently available on the two most important women in the New Testament. But then perhaps I'm prejudiced, having been involved in the publication of both!

11 years 3 months ago
The refutation by your reviewer Gerald O’Collins, S.J., (12/15) of the mass of misinformation in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is probably useful. But why do we need a distinguished scholar like Father O’Collins to refute a work of fiction? Fiction is just that, fiction. Why do we sense the need to refute Brown’s Code when we don’t take on the “facts” in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein or L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz or a thousand other imaginative pieces?

When Brown replies on his Web site to questions about how much of his novel is based on fact, he writes, “The paintings, locations, historical documents, and organizations described in the novel all exist.” Read his answer carefully. Places and articles are real. The book is a novel. Add only that a novel is fiction, which is literally “not true.”

Brown is an excellent writer despite his lack of basic character development. His Code is a page-turner thriller. For the development of his story, he dredges up every sort of half-truth, supposition and myth from the past 2,000 years.

What about those who may accept Brown’s fiction as truth? Many look for any and every justification for their prejudices or diminished faith. They jump at reports of the priest who fondles young boys, or of a cardinal who dies in the bed of his mistress or the reduction of the female to less than the male. Are any of these acts worse than God’s chosen Apostle who gave that kiss of affection as betrayal? These people may need a reminder that fiction is no more than fiction, no matter how it is written, how it is packaged, how it is hyped. Wishing fiction to be truth does not make it so.

What about the age-old allegations that Christ was in love with a woman or even married? We need to recall that Jesus was both human and divine. We believe that Christ was human like us in all matters except sin. Is it a sin for a man to love a woman, to be married? Surely our faith does not hinge on the celibacy of Christ.

Most of us in this day and age are blessed to have sufficient background and understanding to cope with the multitudinous challenges to our faith. Conspiracies, secret revelations, false doctrines, all pepper church history. But we do not allow them to degrade our gift of faith. Our theology is sacred and secure.

Brown’s novel is not to be missed, but to be enjoyed and accepted for what it is, fiction.

11 years 3 months ago
Gerald O’Collins, S.J., has joined a chorus of critics who find Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code factually and theologically flawed. The critics seem so fervent, if not vehement, as if they must protect Holy Mother Church from great danger in the form of this potboiler.

And probably for good reason. In light of the clerical sexual abuse scandal and clerical discrimination against women, it is pretty much open season on the Catholic bishops—who are desperate to maintain what credibility they have left.

Flawed this book may be, but Father O’Collins and his fellow critics are, I believe, missing the point. Why have millions of people purchased and enjoyed reading the book, despite its flaws?

First, because whatever the book’s historical facts, the overarching fact of the matter today is that many readers wouldn’t put it past the bishops/Vatican to suppress, if they could, anything that might threaten the organizational church.

Second, because whatever the book’s historical theology, the search for the sacred feminine in our historical moment is immensely important to millions of people. And the popularity of that search is growing steadily, despite the efforts of church leaders to impede it.

That is, in my opinion, the point of The Da Vinci Code. The book also may strongly hint at a code for the hierarchy’s status in its struggle with the sacred feminine. It is the one used in life-threatening situations in television hospital dramas: code blue.

11 years 3 months ago
I agree with and am grateful to Gerald O’Collins for pointing to the historical inaccuracies of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. With precision he has warned us about the inauthenticity of many of the trees placed before us in Brown’s bestseller. But what about the forest? No book in recent years has provoked more conversation over drinks and dinner as has this work. So what is its attraction? Why does it appeal to me, who know full well that license was taken by the author in dealing with actual history? Does its power lie in the revelation of the nefarious dealings of such groups as Opus Dei or the devious operations of the Vatican? No, I don’t think so. It’s something deeper—and more important.

The real power of this book lies in its questioning of how the church over the centuries has dealt with the sacred realities of women, human sexuality and marriage. The author raises before us the possibility that the church has been guilty of subverting some of the truth that was brought to us through the life and teaching of Jesus. Whether this was some kind of plot—always an option—or whether it happened because other matters were deemed more important, who can say? The fact is that for too long the church has not been on the side of women, in favor of God’s gift of sexuality or the importance of marriage.

Fortunately, this appears to be changing. Brown has creatively pulled back a curtain, and many have said that he is on to something very important. Not in the detail, but, as the economists say, in the bottom line. I hope that Brown has stimulated a conversation that will continue, but a conversation based on solid fact and Christ’s full teaching about the value of all people in their sacred, incarnate lives.

14 years 5 months ago
Gerald O’Collins sets out to dismiss the scholarship of Dan Brown in his popular novel, The DaVinci Code, arguing point by point how the author misleads the reader about truths of the church. O’Collins scoffs at Dan Brown’s proposition that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. He debunks the suggestion that the church did its best to belittle Mary Magdalene as a prostitute by invoking the church fathers who hailed her as the “apostles of the apostles” and the “new Eve announcing not death but life.”

I do not have the credentials to argue with O’Collins about matters of history. However, from this Catholic’s point of view The DaVinci Code was an extremely satisfying read. A work of fiction can have value in its ability to evoke heartfelt sentiments from its readers. Besides being fast paced and well plotted, The DaVinci Code may be so popular because it speaks to key issues in the contemporary church. Leo the Great, Hippolytus, and Gregory the Great’s tribute to Mary Magdalene notwithstanding, contemporary catholic women still await an equitable forum for announcing the Good News in the Roman Catholic Church. Furthermore, Opus Dei does not triumph in the novel. Its ultra-orthodox clinging to tradition does not speak to the experience of most Catholics who understand the church as a community in which there is room to embrace all of the faithful, including members who share differences as well as similarities in background, belief, and orientation.

An article in the same issue of America (El Camino Speaks) addresses the number of disaffected young Catholics in Europe taking the pilgrammage to Compostelo. With regard to understanding the legitimate yearnings of a growing number of Catholic women and men, the question remains: Are we (the church leadership) listening?

14 years 5 months ago
I am a new subscriber and appreciate your magazine, however, in the December 15, 2003 issue Gerald O'Collins, S.J., reviewed THE DA VINCI CODE stating correctly that Brown, the author, was "frankly misinformed".

O'Collins is also very "misinformed" on his Church History! He states that "right from the start of the Christian movement Christians replaced Saturday with Sunday as their day of worship..." Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi, did his doctoral work in Church History at the same institution where Dr. O'Collins teaches, the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. His dissertation ANTI-JUDAISM AND THE ORIGIN OF SUNDAY refutes beyond academic question O'Collins' claim that the change occured "right from the start..." It was gradual, over several centuries, and was influenced by anti-semitism and pagan issues. A quick trip to the library of the University will allow a review of Bacchiocchi's 1975 work with its copious patristic and other documentation.

14 years 5 months ago
I very much enjoyed Gerry O'Collins's review of "The Da Vinici Code," which is an intermittently enjoyable farrago of nonsense, but it's too bad Fr. O'Collins couldn't at least have mentioned Jane Schaberg's The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene, of which Karin King, writing in "The Women's Review of Books," said: "If readers are looking for one book on the historical Mary Magdalene, this is the book they should read." Or Schaberg's book could have been reviewed in tandem with Elizabeth A. Johnson's Truly Our Sister. Surely the two best books currently available on the two most important women in the New Testament. But then perhaps I'm prejudiced, having been involved in the publication of both!

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