David Witmer is a Church Planter and Pastor and currently serves as pastoral mentor with the HopeNet Fellowship of Churches, Lancaster County, PA.
Daniel Brown’s 2003 novel, The Da Vinci Code, has sold over 36 million copies in 44 languages and has been a best seller for months. According to Brown, persecution is carried out throughout the medieval ages against those who hold a secret that could destroy the Christian church. In a climate of prominent corporate scandals readers are intrigued by the possibility of a centuries old religious scandal. People reading the Da Vinci Code wonder what the church may be hiding. Has the real truth about Jesus been repressed? Is Christianity a fraud?
Brown wants his readers to believe that he is revealing a long-concealed Christian secret. He seems intent on exposing Catholic propaganda designed to hide the truth from the world. But are The Da Vinci Code’s claims fact or fiction? Is the novel as well researched as it claims?
It is not surprising that Hollywood would secure the movie rights for a book that has sold millions. The Da Vinci Code movie released in May, 2006 will likely stir more questions, and may cause some to mistake Brown’s mixture of history, legend and fiction as the real truth about Jesus and his church. It will provide a fresh opportunity for the church to retell the story of Jesus.
Actually, none of the concepts of The Da Vinci Code are new; Brown’s novel is a contemporary compilation of legends circulating for centuries. His modern remixing of fact and fiction is the basis for a sensational mystery novel about secret heresy encoded in one of history’s great artists, Leonardo Da Vinci, thus the name of the novel.
The following overview is much too brief to satisfy the serious seeker or skeptic. The endnotes provide sources for more documented study.
The Basic Plot
The Da Vinci Code is based on the assertion that Mary Magdeline was married to Jesus, bears a child to him and that she was eventually worshipped as a goddess. When Jesus is crucified, so the story goes, Mary is pregnant with his child. She flees to Egypt to save herself and to give birth to a daughter, Sarah, the only royal blood descendant of Jesus. Brown draws from a legend that around AD 42, Mary takes Sarah, now twelve years old, to the southern Gaul area of France. Here, according to The Da Vinci Code, Sarah marries into a line of French Merovingian kings who rule until AD 751.
The Priory of Sion
The Da Vinci Code asserts that a secret order, the Priory of Sion, is established solely to protect this secret bloodline of Jesus. Brown claims the Priory formed the Knights Templar, the warrior monks that are sent to Solomon’s temple to excavate the ruins in order to recover the genealogies of Jesus’ descendants. The documents they discover are the “San Greal” documents, or so the story goes. Using these scandalous documents, the novel suggests that the Templars extort money from the Roman church and become very wealthy, secretive and hated by the church. On Friday the 13th in 1307, King Phillippe IV of France attacked the Templars, torturing and killing their leaders and imprisoning their ranks. (The superstition of this being an unlucky day is attributed to this event.) The Da Vinci Code imagines that a few Templars escape and flee to Europe, placing the San Greal into safe keeping with the Priory of Sion there.
Passed from one Priory of Sion grand master to another, the novel suggests that the San Greal documents eventually fall into the hands of Leonardo Da Vinci, a brilliant thinker of his day and a supposed grand master of the Priory of Sion. The novel asserts that Da Vinci incorporated codes into his paintings regarding the Mary Magdeline secret. Brown imagines that the figure to Jesus’ right in Da Vinci’s Last Supper masterpiece is actually Jesus’ wife, Mary Magdeline.
The words San Greal, (pronounced “sawn-grey-el”) mean sainted grail. Brown suggests, however, a subtle respelling “Sang Real” meaning “holy blood.” The Da Vinci Code imagines that the legendary medieval search for the Holy Grail was actually a search for the bloodline of Mary rather than the chalice that supposedly once contained Jesus’ blood.
REAL HISTORY: When the Crusaders captured Jerusalem, the Abbey of Our Lady of Mount Zion was founded in 1099 in Jerusalem by Godefroy de Bouillon, who later became King of Jerusalem after the First Crusade. The Abbey (and not “Priory”) continued to exist until 1291, when the advancing Muslims destroyed it. The few surviving monks fled to Sicily, where their community was extinguished in the 14th century. In 1956, an occultic group borrowed the name to promote the legend of a holy bloodline.
Brown bases his claims about the Priory of Sion on the Les Dossiers, false documents compiled in the year 1967 by Pierre Plantard. Within a few years, all the people involved in this deliberate deception admitted to the hoax. Curiously Brown openly identifies these discredited false documents as his source on his official website.
There is no historical connection between a “Priory of Sion” and the Templars as Brown has created in the novel. The Knights Templar were headquartered at the ruins of Solomon’s temple mount in Jerusalem, hence their name. In reality these knights functioned to protect pilgrims coming to and from the holy city. There is no evidence that their main function was to search for hidden genealogies. When Jerusalem fell to the Muslims in 1187, the Templars lost their founding mandate. By 1312, Jerusalem was back under Muslim control and the Templars were disbanded by Pope Clement V. Brown tells part of this real history but dismisses it in typical conspirator fashion, stating that it is cover-up propaganda.
There is no evidence that the Knights Templar ever found any documents as Brown’s novel suggests. The San Greal parchments are fiction. Scholars agree that the Templar rise in wealth was ironically due to their promotion by the church, namely St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and not through blackmail. They entered the banking business amassing extensive land holdings and great wealth. Many people became indebted to them. The assault by Phillippe IV of France in 1307 was not to suppress a scandalous secret, but because Phillip was nearly bankrupt and he wanted to gain the order’s wealth and strike a blow at the papacy with whom he was disputing.
The Da Vinci Connection
REAL HISTORY: In fact, among the many Renaissance paintings of the last supper, the youthful disciple John is always placed at Jesus’ right hand. John is typically shown with long flowing hair and a delicate face. Da Vinci’s own painting of Saint John the Baptist depicts a young man with long hair and an effeminate face. It is Brown’s subjective invention to see a woman.
There is also no evidence that Leonardo Da Vinci was ever a part of the Priory of Sion or one of its grand masters as Brown’s novel claims. Historians describe Da Vinci as a loner, and there is no evidence he was involved in any secret societies. And when Brown says that Leonardo was “widely believed to have hidden secret messages within much of his artwork,” he is exaggerating. No historian or scholar has ever supported such a characterization.
At the beginning of the novel, Brown states that his descriptions of artwork and secret rites are “accurate.” This may be so. The alert reader will notice, however, that Brown does not claim that his historical claims or interpretations are accurate.
The Council of Nicea and the Divine Feminine
At the core of Dan Brown’s novel is the assertion of the sacred divine feminine and the divine generative power of women. Much of the novel focuses on feminine goddess worship and male-female fertility beliefs, including symbols of phallus (masculine) and chalice (feminine) and the “v” for the feminine.
In 1944 ancient first century writings were found, the Gnostic gospels, that record unorthodox accounts of Jesus, including that he kissed Mary. The Gnostics were not a mainstream sect, but The Da Vinci Code asserts that these writings reveal the real origins of Christian faith. Further, the novel claims that the church destroyed these Gnostic writings to suppress the sacred feminine.
REAL HISTORY: The Jesus of the Gnostic writings is barely recognizable when compared to the New Testament Gospels. Unlike the eyewitness New Testament Gospels, the Gnostic Gospels were written years later. In fact, the Gnostic Gospels contain no evidence of a Jesus/Mary marriage or a Mary pregnancy. Even the references to kisses are more vague than Brown asserts.
According to Brown, these Gnostic writings and the worship of Mary was suppressed by a conference of bishops in AD 325, the Council of Nicea, called by Roman Emperor Constantine. The Da Vinci Code claims that it was at this council that the secret of the sacred feminine role of Mary Magdeline was erased from history. Brown mistakenly implies that Constantine was baptized against his wishes in AD 232. This was not the case, as Constantine actively requested baptism.
REAL HISTORY: At the Nicea Council, the agenda is to bring the church together in unity around a commonly accepted faith and to put an end to fragmented warring among bishops. A significant, unifying creed was agreed upon, affirming what had been widely accepted for hundreds of years by all Christian groups. The Nicene Creed was not a revision of belief. History shows that there was no discussion about excluding Gnostic writings or selecting the cannon of Scripture; there was no debate about gospels and writings. The decision about what was included in the 27 books of the New Testament was established 42 years after the Council of Nicea. The claim that the Council destroyed writings as a cover up at the Council is pure fiction.
REAL HISTORY: There are no writings that refer to Mary Magdeline as a goddess. Neither the Biblical gospels nor the Gnostic gospels describe her as fertile. Further, she is never associated with the pagan societies, such as the goddess Isis worship, in which fertility and sexual unions are prominent. The church actually made Mary Magdeline a saint, something unlikely if the church wanted to remove her from history. In 1969, the Roman church cleared her from the legend that she was a prostitute. (Luke’s Gospel simply calls her a “sinful woman.” A pope centuries later once called her a prostitute when emphasizing that even the worst person could receive grace, and the label stuck for centuries.)
Brown makes much of symbols, claiming that the five-sided star is long associated with the feminine. He states that kings David and Solomon used the six-sided “Star of David”.
REAL HISTORY: The fact is that the earliest known usage of this symbol is not until a second century synagogue in Capernaum. The star became a common symbol for Jewish identity and nationality only in the Middle Ages and not before. And the five-sided pentigram has never been solely connected with the feminine.
A large church in the Gaul area of southern France dating from the 9th century contains a shrine that includes a statue of a girl named Sarah. Brown suggests this is Jesus’ daughter, Sarah, who settles here with her mother, Mary Magdeline.
REAL HISTORY: Unlike the book, serious scholars have long believed that this Sarah represents a servant girl brought from Egypt. The statue depicts the girl with very dark skin. Actually, the church commemorates the belief that two Marys settled here, one a sister to Jesus’ mother, and the other the mother of James and John, but not Mary Magdeline.
The French Connection
The Da Vinci Code novel also draws from a legend from the village of Rennes-le-Château in southern France, where a country priest renovated his church. The priest did several strange things, including setting up a demonic statue, a picture of Jesus being removed from his tomb at night and a tower dedicated to Mary Magdeline. Legend has it that the priest discovered parchments that tell the story of an ancient bloodline of medieval Merovingian kings that may have carried Jesus’ bloodline. The 1982 book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail describes this story.
Forced out of France, where do the Templars take the San Greal? The Da Vinci Code suggests that they take them to the Temple Church in London built by the Templars in 1185. A section of the church contains carving of Templar knights. Brown’s novel suggests that the San Greal documents find refuge for one night before being moved to another location in Scotland near Edinburgh.
REAL HISTORY: The column where the priest is supposed to have found the parchments has no hollow space large enough to hold documents. There is no proof that these Merovingian kings were from any bloodline associated with Mary or her alleged daughter, Sarah.
The English Connection
The Da Vinci Code refers to the Roslyn Chapel, built in 1446, as the “cathedral of codes.” The novel claims carvings tie together the St. Clair family, the Templars and the Priory of Sion. The novel links the “rose line,” the original prime meridian before it was moved to Greenwich, England, that supposedly runs through the Roslyn chapel, the pyramid shaped Louvre Museum in Paris (reminiscent of Sarah’s alleged birth place Brown claims) and the Paris church of Saint-Sulpice. Running down the middle of the massive Saint-Sulpice church is a brass line, the rose line the novel says. And a mysterious P and S intertwined in a stained glass window reveals the Priory of Sion, according to Brown.
REAL HISTORY: Scholars agree that there is no connection between the St. Clairs of Roslyn and the Templars. The stone bearing a Templar name in the chapel did not originate at the chapel and does not refer to its founder. The rose pedal carvings in the chapel are associated with the name Roslyn, not the rose line.
As for the P and S in the stained glass in the Paris Saint-Sulpice church, it stands for St. Peter, and the brass line in the floor is a sun marker not associated with the prime meridian. In fact, the prime meridian “rose line” does not and has never run through this Paris church.
In France where Brown’s story takes place and where much of The Da Vinci Code legends are already well known, the novel is not taken as serious history. Brown states on the copyright page that his novel is fiction and the French agree. The Priory of Sion did not found the Templars. The San Greal documents never existed. The Council of Nicea did not suppress writings. There is no written evidence of Mary’s marriage or of having a child. There is no holy bloodline.
Brown has captured the imagination of many people with a fictional story of conspiracy and intrigue, but his novel is not a factual account of Jesus, of his life, of the church or of solidly researched church history.
The 2006 Da Vinci Code movie will likely boost sales and prolong the run of this novel. The popularity of a Brown’s religious fiction may indicate our unrelenting interest in spiritual matters and specifically the origins of Christian faith itself. Twenty-first century readers are searching for a trustworthy faith. My hope is that it heightens the conversation about the real Christian story.
The novel’s final scene is one of goddess worship, as the hero falls on his knees in a profound spiritual connection to the sacred feminine. He can even hear her voice.
What Brown’s entire story misses is something that his feminine goddess bloodline tale never offers. The Christ of the Gospels and Christian faith is the reality of intriguing life-changing redemption. Jesus Christ revealed himself fully as the Son of God, died to take our punishment upon himself, and rose victorious from the dead. His power to heal and transform comes not from a secret bloodline, but through a living relationship today. This is the astonishing mystery that redeemed Christians have been exposing throughout history.
Brown’s novel ends on a sad note; the secret remains. Many readers will be left hungering for something more, something much better.
Recommended Resources for Further Study
This overview was brief in order to give a sense of the plot and of flaws in Brown’s history. For more thorough and historically documented responses, please read from these other sources.
There are a number of books that debunk Dan Brown's erroneous claims, such as:
Breaking the Da Vinci Code: Answers to the Questions Everyone's Asking
by Darrell L. Bock.
The Da Vinci Code: Fact or Fiction
by Hank Hanegraff and Paul Maier
Several helpful articles from Leadership U. include:
And, an article written by ABR staff archaeologist, Rev. Gary Byers.
The Historical Basis of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code
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