The Historical Basis of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code

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Excerpt There is none! But that doesn't make for much of an article, and I have some really important things to say about this book. This article is not a book review, but a response to the novel because of the impact it has had on the general public... Continue reading

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This article was first published in the July 2004 ABR Electronic Newsletter.

At the outset, it must be remembered that Dan Brown's bestseller is just a novel. He and his publisher (Doubleday) agreed on that fact and announced it on the book's cover and title page: The Da Vinci Code: A Novel. They also included the standard legal disclaimed on the book's copyright page: "All of the characters and events in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental." The Da Vinci Code is just another piece of fiction.

The book's message has generated a groundswell of public reaction in America, not unlike the way Mel Gibson's "The Passion of The Christ" has touched a nerve. But the difference between the two is at the core of our discussion. Gibson's movie is based on historical facts presented in the four Gospels, while Brown's book is based on non-historical theories. Yet The Da Vinci Code is being accepted just as seriously. Comments from Christians and non-Christians, both on screen and in print, have expressed outrage at "the Church" for its dishonesty throughout the centuries in regard to the truth about the Bible, Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

I have been amazed that so many have gotten so worked up over a novel, and not even a historical novel, at that! Then I began reading some very fine responses to the book from my colleagues and I decided I should read the book, myself. Thankfully, I didn't have to go out and buy the book. A friend bought it and got so disgusted that she threw it in the trash!

It has been a long time since I read a novel, so I was a bit surprised how interesting the story was to me. Of course, Brown sucked me in right at the beginning with the "Harrison Ford in tweed" (9) comment about his main character, Harvard professor Robert Langdon. In fact, the book's two major themes happen to be favorite subjects of mine: the Holy Grail and Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper.

Just for the record, I have not even read the books in Tim LaHaye's Left Behind series. But I do have a copy of Babylon Rising, the first in a new series by LaHaye, and I plan to read it. The main character here is field archaeologist Michael Murphy, a sort of Biblical Indiana Jones. I have a personal interest in the book since a couple of our Associates for Biblical Research staff members provided archaeological material to LaHaye for the new series.

Brown is a good writer; he kept me off guard throughout the entire book. I told my wife I had figured out the identity of the bad guy, only to find out how totally wrong I was on page 405 (of the 454 page book). In addition, for those who have not read the book, there was almost no profanity and no sordid sexual liaisons, a refreshing exception to most of today's literature.

But the reason I read the book was to see what was said about Jesus, the Bible and Christian faith. After finishing it, I would estimate that there were only about 20 pages of material that I found offensive as a Christian, and it always related to these themes. Honestly, it was not new stuff. The book simply popularized theories that a number of scholars have been saying and writing with regularity.

And, just to be fair to Brown, after finishing the book I realize that the most biased and offensive statements come from the story's antagonist – his real agenda is not clear until the end. Whether good or bad, it is still not a good idea to get your worldview from a fictional character in a novel! It is so sad that Brown's characters say such things in a novel, and that he repeatedly espoused these views as historical truth and his beliefs in interviews. I do not know if he actually believes this stuff, or if it is just part of a public relations campaign to extend sales.

Just the Facts

Consequently, I found the book much more offensive as a scholar than as a believer. While making clear The Da Vinci Code is a novel, Brown sets the reader up to see it as a historical novel, where fictional characters and plot are placed in true historical contexts. Brown does this in three ways. First, it would appear that he drew widely from both his wife's expertise as an art historian and painter and his father's knowledge as a mathematics teacher (see the acknowledgements). Throughout the book, Brown offers trivial tidbits of historical truth from both fields.

Secondly, Brown also begins his novel with a page titled "Fact" (1), where he references three "truths":

1.) Priory of Sion
2.) The Vatican prelature known as Opus Dei
3.) "…all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate."

Consequently, the reader might well feel that statements about Jesus, the Bible and the Christian faith are also established historical truth. They are far from that!

The third way Brown passes off his unique views as solid historical truth comes from an effective literary technique. Brown's main character, Harvard professor Robert Langdon, is portrayed as a careful and thoughtful scholar, always contrasted with popularizers and conspiracy theorists.

Yet, this not-so-carefully-researched non-historical novel constantly has the thoughtful academician be an expert on subjects that are at best disputed historical facts in the real world. Even worse, Brown throws in absolutely outrageous theories that even the critical and feminist scholars whose views he espouses would agree are non-historical fringe ideas. But that is good writing--fictional characters do not need to believe or think true thoughts. And in Brown's novel they don't!

Of particular importance to the story are a number of historical documents from various periods of history, documents said to be described accurately on his "Fact" page (1). Most of these texts are outside my area of expertise; I have not done significant study of most of them and it appears neither did Brown! His story takes liberties that he says in the beginning he doesn't do. But what should one expect from a novel? Unfortunately, the subjects the book addresses and the serious position the author has taken in interviews demand a careful analysis of the facts.

Since the publication of The Da Vinci Code, a number of books and articles have been written in response by those familiar with the texts. My favorite is Breaking the Da Vinci Code (2004) by Darrell Bock, Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. Time after time, speaking from their special area of expertise, these writers have identified problems in Brown's use of historical texts.

I am not going to review their arguments in detail here, but I will briefly address two areas of Brown's "descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents... in this novel that are accurate" (1): the architectural elements of one structure and one document. Both are very familiar to students of Biblical material.

Architecture (the Jerusalem Temple) and Texts (the Dead Sea Scrolls)

First, architectural elements of the Jerusalem Temple. Brown suggests that the Holy of Holies was a massive subterranean structure (433-34). While there are numerous subterranean structures beneath the Jerusalem Temple Mount, the Holy of Holies was a small interior structure on the top of the mount (1 Kgs 6:14-22; 2 Chr 3:8-14).

Brown's main character, professor Langdon, also speaks of the Knights Templar taking up residence in the stables under the ruins of the temple (159). While an area beneath the southern end of the Temple Mount has been traditionally known as Solomon's Stables, it has long been known by scholars that this area never served as stables. The academician that Langdon was should have known such. Somebody did not do his research!

Also part of the Jerusalem Temple, Langdon discusses the two pillars – Jachin and Boaz (435-56). He calls them "the most duplicated architectural structures in history" and describes the "exact replicas" standing at the Rosslyn Chapel near Edinburgh, Scotland. While the two pillars are frequently described in the Bible (1 Kgs 7:15-23; 2 Kgs 25:16-17; 2 Chr 3:15-17; 4:12-13; Jer 52:21-23), their precise details are lost in history. I know it is a small thing, but since they are "the most duplicated architectural structures in history," I assumed this expert should have understood we don't have enough information for "exact replicas."

A side issue of the Jewish Temple, Brown speaks of the Shekinah as the female deity residing there (309, 446). Not found in the Old Testament, it was a Hebrew word used in rabbinic texts. Coming from the Hebrew verb "to dwell" it was used to describe God's glorious presence, especially at the Temple in Jerusalem. The rabbis never considered the Shekinah to be a separate deity or consort to their God. But let's not allow facts to get in the way of a good story!

Speaking of Israel's God Who resided in the Jerusalem Temple, Brown also has some insights about Jehovah – the Temple's male deity (309)! In the book, professor Langdom explains that Jehovah is the androgynous union of the masculine Jah and the feminine pre-Hebraic name from Eve – Havah. And from this comes the Jewish YHWH (the Tetragrammaton; Greek "four letters").

I suppose that there may be an obscure Jewish folklore or Kabalistic statement that suggests such an idea, but any serious scholar knows Jehovah is an Anglicized form of the Hebrew term YAHWEH (YHWH being the Tetragrammaton's "four letters"). Furthermore, the etymology of Yahweh comes from the third person singular form of the verb "to be" – that is, the Hebrew word "he is." What Brown couches in academic terms and puts in the mouth of his scholarly main character is outrageous, and he makes it sound like historical truth.

One group of ancient documents championed by Brown's characters as containing "the earliest Christian records" (245) and "unaltered gospels" (248) is the Dead Sea Scrolls (234, 245). He misdates their discovery (the 1950's) and suggests they included the gospels Constantine attempted to eradicate from history (234). The established fact is that there is no known New Testament material among the Dead Sea Scrolls; all the scrolls were written before Christ. So much for accurate descriptions of all documents (1)!

Leonardo Da Vinci and The Last Supper

Central to the story of The Da Vinci Code is Leonardo Da Vinci's painting The Last Supper. Not a painting on canvas (like the Mona Lisa), The Last Supper covers one wall in the rectory (dining hall) of the Dominican Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. Measuring 15 by 29 feet, it was not a true fresco of tempera paint on wet plaster where both dry together. Known for not liking to be held to a timetable, Da Vinci experimented with a new technique that would allow him to work at his own pace. He painted the wet plaster with a lead-white primer and then later added the color (Bertelli 1983: 678). Commissioned by the Duke of Milan, he spent some three years on the project, between 1495 and 1497.

An oft-painted Renaissance theme, Da Vinci's Last Supper was unlike any other of his day. Arguably the greatest example of one point perspective ever created, every element of the painting directs attention to the painting's mid-point, on Christ's head. Renaissance Last Suppers portrayed the disciples as if posed, while the genius of Da Vinci's work was his depiction of the moment Jesus announced, "one of you shall betray me" (Mt 26:21). At that moment, only Jesus and Judas sit motionless as all others react to the news.

With 13 people situated along one side of the table, Jesus is conspicuous alone in the center (Bertelli 1983: 680). Traditionally, each person is identified. The disciples are placed in four groups of three. From left to right they are identified as Bartholomew, James the Less (of Alphaeus), Andrew, Judas, Peter, John, Jesus, Thomas (raised finger), James the Elder (of Zebedee), Philip, Simon the Canaanite-Zealot, Jude, Matthew (Constantio 2004: 72).

It has been standard artistic convention to use certain elements to identify specific people at the table. Jesus is always indicated, as well as Judas and sometimes John. In Da Vinci's Last Supper, Jesus is alone in the center and John, depicted as apparently the youngest of the disciples, is on His right. The Bible places John next to Jesus and leaning on him (Jn 13:23-25), a usual depiction of John in Last Supper scenes (Bertelli 1983: 680). John appears younger than everyone else at the table with long hair and no beard. While the Bible does not mention John's youth (but maybe hinted at in Jn 20:2-6), church history suggests John was the youngest apostle. Da Vinci depicts Peter as beckoning to John to ask Jesus who the betrayer is (Jn 13:24).

Judas, motionless at the table, is also seen holding the bag (Jn 12:6; 13:29). The bag as mentioned in the Gospel of John suggests Judas was the group's treasurer and it has been an almost universal marker of Judas in Last Supper representations (Fackler 2000: 23). While not appearing today on Da Vinci's Last Supper wall painting, another subtle artistic marker for Judas was portrayed on a large canvas copy by Da Vinci's student Marco di Omagiono. Next to Judas' arm on the table, where he holds the moneybag on the table, is a spilled vessel of salt. Salt was a Biblical symbol for covenant (Lv 2:13; 2 Chr 13:5) and may have been another indicator of Judas (Fackler 2000: 23-4).

Immediately acclaimed as a masterpiece, several large scale copies of his Last Supper were also made during his lifetime, including at least two by his students (Bertelli 1983: 679). Even today, it continues to be one of history's most famous and copied paintings. Amazingly, it is one of only a few finished paintings of Da Vinci that we have, including the 21 by 28 inch Mona Lisa.

Unfortunately, the painting technique turned out to be a disaster. Within two decades, while Da Vinci was still alive, the painting began to peel and flake. Believing the painting had already been lost; in 1652 the monks enlarged a doorway, cutting into the middle of the wall erasing Jesus' feet beneath the table (Bertelli 1983: 670). Eventually filled in, the doorway can still be seen today.

For the record, the deterioration may not have been Da Vinci's fault. He was a very careful man and the specific reasons for the painting's decay are still not clear today. But there is evidence that those were dry years, with no snow on the Alps. Nature may have had more to do with it than shortcomings on Da Vinci's part (Bertelli 1983: 679).

In 1796, Napoleon's troops used the refectory as a stable and armory; soldiers threw rocks at the disciples and climbed ladders to gouge out their eyes (Bertelli 1983: 680). During World War II, Allied bombs destroyed the rectory, coming within just a yard of destroying the wall painting.

The first of six restoration projects on The Last Supper began in 1652 (Bertelli 1983: 674). Unfortunately, most of them did more damage to the original than anything else. Only with the last restoration has modern technology been employed to preserve the painting. Working from 1979 to May 1999, it took over five times longer to restore it than it took Da Vinci to originally paint it! Today, protected by a sophisticated air filtration system, groups of 25 people are allowed to view it for 15 minutes. Two additional interesting stories from Da Vinci's Last Supper are the hand and unclear "knife." While appearing to be associated with Peter, it does not seem to anatomically fit any of the figures at the table. Unusual, since Da Vinci was so interested in accurate perspective of the human body.

Another famous story about Da Vinci's Last Supper is the story about the model that sat for both Jesus and Judas. The last face to paint was Judas. Da Vinci unwittingly used the same man for Judas that he used for Jesus between 10 and 20 years earlier (although most scholars believe the painting was completed in three years). The intervening years had been rough for that man and the one whose sweet face had one been used to represent the Savior was now hardened and twisted enough to represent Judas. Unfortunately there is no historical evidence behind the story. We know nothing about of any of Da Vinci's models. It is apparently just an urban legend, like much of The Da Vinci Code.

Dan Brown and Mary Magdalene

But Brown sees The Last Supper in an entirely different light. John, seated next to Jesus, is not John. In fact, he is not even a man. "The disciple whom Jesus loved" in John's Gospel (Jn 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20) is in fact Mary Magdalene! Now to be fair, Brown did not come up with this himself; it has been surmised by a number of writers and a few scholars. Based on the group of texts that Brown referred to as "the earliest Christian records" (245) and "unaltered gospels" (248), some scholars have suggested that Mary had a special relationship with Jesus, and that she was the "the beloved disciple" and the writer of the Gospel of John. Brown quotes two of the best known of these ancient texts, the Gospels of Philip and Mary Magdalene as historical fact (245-47). That makes Mary Magdalene actually the longhaired beardless one seated next to Jesus at Da Vinci's Last Supper--the key to Da Vinci's code!

Further proof of this thesis is the "V" form that Mary/John make with Jesus on Da Vinci's painting. This, Brown's character point out, is the ancient symbol for the feminine gender (244). In addition, Mary/John and Jesus help form the letter "M" while sitting at the table. The "M" stands for Mary (245) and that pretty much settles things for the book's characters.

Historically, we know that the church fathers (second and third centuries) wrote against a group of texts that taught heretical things about Jesus. Mentioned frequently as an immediate issue they needed to address, copies of these actual documents were discovered in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Egypt (234). Known today as the Gnostic Gospels (from the Greek word ginosko "to know" and the basis of our English word agnostic "not/know"), Brown did not use that designation in the book. Maybe he thought people had heard about them and he wanted his texts to sound more "secret." Either way, these texts were condemned by the church fathers for teach things contrary to revealed truth.

But Brown, his characters and Da Vinci believe they have the real truth and the rest of us have had it all wrong for centuries (that was the mindset of the ancient Gnostics – we know something you don't!). Mary, the "beloved disciple," eventually married Jesus, they had children and their family line continues to this day. Mary represents the sacred feminine and as the wife of Jesus, she herself is the Holy Grail holding and passing on his royal bloodline. Mary represents the sacred feminine found in all ancient religions that has been suppressed by the church for centuries. That is the message that Da Vinci passed on to posterity in code in The Last Supper.

Conclusion

While I do not agree with the focus and conclusions of scholars working with these ancient texts, I respect the academic work they are doing and I know we can learn from their research. I also agree that Dan Brown has every right to write whatever kind of crazy ideas he chooses and call them fact – especially because his book is a novel and pure fiction! And it's a free country and you can believe anything you want.

Based on The Da Vinci Code, I would say Dan Brown is a pretty good writer. I could only hope to write this article as well as he wrote his book. But his book does espouse an agenda. It is a worldview I do not agree with, but he is free to say it and, of course, I am free to criticize it. He may or may not really believe what he wrote. Either way, I imagine he is laughing all the way to the bank.



Bibliography


Bertelli, Carlo
1983  Restoration Reveals the Last Supper. National Geographic 164.5 : 664-85.

Bock, Darrell L. 2004  Breaking the Da Vinci Code. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Brown, Dan 2003  The Da Vinci Code. New York: Doubleday.

Costantino, Maria 2004  Leonardo. London: PRC Publishing Ltd.

Fackler, Gene 2000  The Last Supper in Art and History. Bible and Spade 13: 23-28.

LaHaye, Tim 2003  Babylon Rising. New York: Bantam Books.

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