16 May 2006
Da Vinci Code Hype, Gnostic Gospels, and The True Holy Grail
This story has been moved.
A lot has been written recently on The Da Vinci Code book and now movie. Many experts have deftly examined the claims and inferences from the novel, valditating some and debunking most. A whole cottage industry has sprung up around The Da Vinci Code, almost claiming entire shelves at your local bookstore. Just do a search at Amazon to see what I mean.
Why do we care?
There are a couple of reasons that I see:
- The novel itself has been widely successful. We love a good conspiracy theory and puzzle. The book is a good read and very enjoyable whether you're on an airplane, reclining on a beach, or curled up on your couch. The ideas presented are interesting and the style is riveting. Word-of-mouth about The Da Vinci Code spread like it has for few books in the age of television, movies in HD, and multi-million dollar budget videogames.
- Dan Brown did not come up with the idea of Jesus fathering a child on his own. There is a body of supporting works out there. If you haven't heard by now, much of the research concerning the theory that Jesus fathered a child who then grew up in the south of France is found in the book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail written by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln – published in 1983. In addition to that work there is a lot of buzz around the Gnostic Gospels, ideas about Leonardo da Vinci's heresy, and various other aspects of the novel which Brown interweaves masterfully. I had to laugh at the recent lawsuit by the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail because their book was out of print and no longer discussed until the 2003 release of Brown's book. Instead of suing Brown, they should have thrown him a party. Their book is back in print and selling off the shevles almost as quickly as Brown's novel did.
- People like to stick it to the establishment. In our postmodern world, the Church (especially the Roman Catholic Church) – with its anachronistic rules and ideas about gender – is a ripe target for criticism. The Da Vinci Code puts forth a plausible explanation for why women have been given a smaller role in Western Civilization and Christainity. It brings postmodern senisbilities to bear on the ancient traditions and roots of Christainity, and the Catholic Church specifically.
When you add all that together with the bold claims on the very first page of the book, before the story even begins that much of what we are about to read is fact. Dan Brown himself claimed in an interview that had he written a non-fiction book, the story would have been same except for the suspenseful story concerning his own fictious characters of Langdon, Sophie, Teabing, etc… And to be sure, some of it is. Facts are woven together with fiction and placed so close to other facts that they appear related when they are indeed completely unrelated. The tapestry of facts and fiction creates a truly remarkable story that draws the reader in and may lead some believers to believe things to be true which are actually false. The things that people are lead to believe slander not just one denomination but a whole institution that has been central to the development of Western Civilization. This is why people write and read articles and books on this one particular novel. We want to know if what we read is true and we want to show others what we know of the facts behind the story.
Areas of Inaccuracy
Brown does base much of the facts in the novel on things that do happen to be true, though some are half true. Still, many of the locations and ideas presented in the novel are accurate. Through my reading both before and after I read the novel I have found several inaccuracies:
- The Priory of Scion: During the Crusades the Knights Templar was an actual monastic martial organization (a fancy way of saying that they were holy knights). And, within that organiztion there was an "Order of Sion". However, all historical documents say that the whole organiztion ended when the French monarchy and the Catholic leadership decided to claim the Templar assests for themselves. The Templars became rich through one principal method: pilgrims heading to the Holy Land would deposit funds with the Knights and could withdraw that sum minus a fee in the Holy Land or vice versa (they carried an encrypted promissary note with them). This enabled people to travel with out the fear that their money would be stolen by bandits. The Dossiers Secrets, which was deposited in the Bibliothque Nationale (the French version of the Library of Congress) in 1975 claims to list the leadership of the Priory of Sion from the middle ages until the modern era. (Ironic that this secret society needed some public record.) Just about every important (male!) figure from Europe is listed as a former grand master of this organization. Most scholars attribute the creation of these documents to a man named Pierre Plantard, a plumber who registered the Priory of Sion as an organization in France in 1956 and later proclaimed that he was the current grand master of the Priory and the descendant of the Merovingian line. He tied his story to that of a priest at Rennes-le-Château named Bérenger Saunière who mysteriously amassed a fortune while working as a humble priest there. We now know that the priest did not get paid off by the Catholic Church to keep quiet as presented in Holy Blood, Holy Grail – but took money for religous services that he never gave (sometimes thousands in one year). The whole idea of a modern Priory of Sion is a matter of a creative hoax perpetrated by Plantard himself. Incidentally, the name Saunière is used as the name of Sophie's grandfather in the novel.
- Mary Magdalene: Magdalene is introduced in the Gospel of Luke (Chapter 8) after an unamed woman is introduced who is assumed to have have committed a sexual sin. The early Church did not think of her as a prostitute, but Pope Gregory the Great linked these two women in a sermon in the year 591 AD (or CE if you prefer). I will not assign motives to Gregory's action, but the view of women in the Church was not high at the time and it is certainly plausible that he was seeking to diminish Magdalene’s role and prominence in the Gospel. I will be exploring the hows and whys of that in a later post. Mary Magdalene was one of Jesus's most faithful disciples, and, according to the gospel accounts, one of the first people in history to proclaim that Jesus had been resurrected. There is nothing in the gospels from the Bible that indicates the relationship between Magdalene and Jesus was more than that of a disciple. I will address the Gnostic Gospel account next. There is a legend of two or three Mary's landing in the south of France during the First Century – at Les Saintes Maries de la Mer. The girl, Sara, who travelled with them was indentified in Holy Blood, Holy Grail as the daughter of Magdalene and Jesus, but is described in the local stories as an Egyptian slave girl. You can see a church built at the site and a statue of the girl here. As to Magdalene appearing in the Last Supper fresco, Da Vinci was not the only artist to depict the apostle John as a youthful and effeminate man. It was the accepted way of identifying John in paintings at the time. Renaissance paintings relied on a shared symbology in order for their stories to be understood by all during a time when most people were illiterate.
- Gnostic Gospels: I wil be doing a deeper exploration of the Gnostic Gosepls in a later post, but for now… Quite simply, the Gnostic Gospels were written more than a century after the gospels included in the New Testament. They do show a flavor of Christainity in the first few centuries of the Common Era, but they also show the influence of pre-Christain ideas being merged with the growing Christain relgion (Gnosticism predates Christainity in certain areas but was blended with Christainity after it gained popularity – similar to Voodoo in the Carribean today). The teachings of the Christain Gnostics were condemned during the Second and Third Centuries by Christian writters of the time and the Gnostic doctrine was never widely accepted outside of small pockets. Despite what the novel and Elain Pagels claim, the Gnostic texts were largley written in Egyptian and Coptic, with a smattering of Greek – not Aramaic (language spoken in Palestine during Biblical times). They were found in 1945 in a place known as Nag Hammadi in Egypt. The novel claims that the Council of Nicea threw out these texts and altered the gospels that were included in the Bible. Yet experts know that the Gnostic Gospels were not read by mainstream Christains at all – not even enough to be thought about at Nicea. Additionally, pre-Nicea and post-Nicea copies of the Gospel of John (which details the divinity of Christ) are identical. In the novel Brown typically mentions the Dead Sea scrolls – Jewish texts found in a cave not far from Jerusalem – right next to the Gnostic Gospels. Despite what the novel claims the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls (the Essences) were not Christain and kept no record any gospel – Gnostic or otherwise. They have revealed some interesting insights into Jewish scripture, however – but nothing related to Christ, the Holy Grail, or beliefs outside of mainstream Judaism. Gnostics believed in a multilayered world where the material was evil and the spiritual was good. They further believed that God as described in the Torah (Old Testmament) was the material (evil) god and that the good deity only revealed himself through Jesus who they believed to be a kind of flesh puppet for the spiritual Jesus and that the two were completely separate (i.e. Jesus the deity did not even feel pain during the crucifixtion because it wasn’t him). Most Gnostics considered being female to be a detriment to gaining salvation (in direct contradiction with the claims in the novel and the work of Pagels). At the end of the Gospel of Thomas (a Gnostic text) Jesus tells the diciples that only after Mary becomes a male can she enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The Gnostics still revered Magdalene – however, the Gnostic text Brown cites where Jesus kisses Mary on the mouth actually reads: “And the companion of the […] Mary Madgalene. […loved] her more than [all] the disciples [and used to] kiss her [often] on her […].” The gaps in the manuscripts leave much room for the imagination, but fall short of telling us the two were married.
- Technical Aspects: Tracy V. Wilson, in a great post on How Stuff Works, breaks down several technical problems with the novel such as the how GPS works, which paintings are where, what the paintings are made from, locations within Paris, gas efficiency of a SmartCar, and albinism – just to name a few of the topics she discusses in a very thoughtful manner. To be sure, Brown took the license any author has with facts such as the layout of a major city and altered them slightly to fit the narrative he wished to portray. The presence of these technical errors does not invalidate other claims he makes through his book, but it does show that he will take that license if it suits the story.
- The Holy Grail: In pre-Christain and pre-Anglo-Saxon England the Celtic peoples had a thriving culture. Among their many tales was that of a cauldron that would heal the wounded and raise the dead in addition to speaking wisdom and producing many wonders. This story is what inspired the Black Cauldron story by Lloyd Alexander, which was itself made into a Disney movie a few years back. The original tale would eventually be woven into the pre-Christain Grail cycle with heroes like the Fisher King, Perceval, and Gawain – itself a part of the larger Arthurian legends. At this point the grail is not a cauldron, but a platter or chalice with the head of a fallen warrior upon it. Once Christainity came to Great Britain the Arthurian tales took on a Chritain flavor (around 600 AD). This was something that Christain monks did to old tales to keep them around after all pagan myths and rituals were abandoned. The grail then became then vessel which Jesus drank out of at the Last Supper and which caught his blood at the crucifixtion, later brought to England by Joseph of Arimathea (the man who donated Jesus's tomb). Through the French romances of Arthur we see the Holy Grail become an object of questing and holy reward for a chaste and sinless life. The truth is that no knight ever quested for the Grail, sacred feminine methaphor or otherwise. The roots of the grail legends lay not in Christainity, nor pagans responding to Christainity – but in the mythology of people who had never heard of Christains.
How does this all related to the idea of neomodernism? Well, part of our postmodern culture seems to view even facts as relative. The political parties are great at this – they can look at the same information and come away not just with different interpretations of the facts, but actually different facts altogether. To the neomodern, even a secular one, relative facts and playing fast-and-loose with the truth are alien. As a work of total fiction (even historical fiction) there is nothing wrong with The Da Vinci Code. But my puporting to represent facts, Brown must respect a certain fidelity to the actual facts or get criticized.
Brown's novel would likely not have been sucessful as it has been had Brown not took on such sensitive subjects. Had he not taken license with the things he did, had he not taken up the controverial theory presented in Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and had he not put the "FACT" disclaimer at the front of his book – we wouldn't be talking about it. But we are talking about it and if you haven't read the book or seen the movie you might now be tempted to. That's fine. I just wanted to arm you with some information in order to separate the fiction and the facts that come packaged together and under the same header.
In the end does it matter to Christainity if Jesus Christ had been married? As Darrel Bock noted in a recent interview on this subject, Jesus was all human and all divine. If he married, that is just part of being human. Chirstain scholars take exception to the claim that Christ married Mary Madgalene not because it would mean Jesus wasn’t the messiah but because there is nothing in Scripture (even in the heretical Gnostic Gospels) to back up such an idea. Being married would not have taken away from the significance of the life of Jesus.
One postscript to this post. The movie debuted at the Cannes film festival to a cold response. The novel was very popular in France, so this is very interesting.
The Secrets of Rennes-le-Château. Polidoro, Massimo. 2004.
Dan Brown and the Grail that Never Was. Lacy, Norris. Arthuriana 14.3. 2004.
Breaking the Da Vinci Code. Bock, Darrel, Ph.D. Thomas Nelson, Inc. 2004.
Celtic Myth and Legend. Squire, Charles. New Page Books 2001.
The Dead Sea Scrolls Today. VanderKam, James. Eerdmans. 1994.
The Gnostic Gospels. Pagels, Elaine. Random House, 2004. (I disagree with her take, but interesting read)
The Nag Hammadi Library. Robinson, James M. (trans). 1978. (the actual Gnostic Gospels)
The Templars. Barber, Malcolm and Bate, Keith. Manchester University Press. 2002.