Da Vinci Code Book Essay

"Everybody loves a conspiracy."

The Da Vinci Code is everywhere. It has prompted an hour-long ABC Primetime special, garnered the cover of Newsweek, is the subject of book clubs across the country and will soon be a motion picture. It also has sparked controversy and doubt. Many reading the book reconfirm their suspicions that the Bible is not a trustworthy and reliable document, while some Christians have even been led to doubt the reliability of the Bible, and in turn, their faith which is based upon it.

How is it that a single novel—a fictional account—can generate such a strong response?

If you haven’t read this book, you should. From a literary perspective, it’s a fast-paced, page turner that tantalizes the reader with fascinating digressions into the history of art, explanations of pagan cultic practices, insights into secret societies and it unfolds like a murder mystery that spans some 2,000 years.

It is also an unrelenting attack on the Catholic Church in specific, and Christianity in general. It is a book that attacks what some feel to be the soft underbelly of the Christian faith—namely, the biblical canon, the list of books accepted by the church for centuries as inspired by God.

The basic premise of the book is similar to that of the Gnostic Gospels, written by Elaine Pagels. In fact, it seems clear that Dan Brown, the author of The Da Vinci Code, is very familiar with Pagels’ book. Both books argue that there is an alternate history of Christianity, and of Jesus himself, which the church has suppressed, hidden and sought to destroy for nearly 2,000 years.

The history that we in the West have inherited is not the real history, but rather, that recounted by the winners: white, patriarchal, Christian, men. Dan Brown merely puts the thesis in a form that is accessible and interesting to the modern reader.   

Pagels and Brown both use as the cornerstone of their intellectual edifice, a set of documents discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt , in 1945, often referred to as the Gnostic gospels.   These so-called gospels paint the picture of a Jesus who is a sage or a prophet, an incarnation of deity, but not a suffering Messiah dying for sin of mankind. Brown uses these documents as the jumping off point for his creative imagination.

One of the most insidious aspects of this book is that it clothes itself in the mantle of history. The main character of the book is a historian who consistently spouts conjecture, theory and gross historical inaccuracies, as though they were well-known and well-accepted historical facts.

The effect of this literary device is to give an air of credibility to a piece of writing that would otherwise be in-credible. Had this book been written as a paper and submitted to a history journal, it would have been rejected outright for its numerous fallacies and blatant historical errors.

Let’s look at a few of the major fallacies propounded by this book. I’ll quote from The Da Vinci Code and follow the quote with some facts.

Fallacy: “Fortunately for historians…some of the gospels that Constantine attempted to eradicate managed to survive. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the 1950s hidden in a cave near Qumran in the Judean desert” (p. 234).

Fact: The first cache of the DSS was discovered in 1947 with more caves discovered in the following decade. None of these caves held any “gospels” or any other kind of Christian manuscripts.

Fallacy: “Christianity honored the Jewish Sabbath of Saturday, but Constantine shifted it to coincide with the pagan’s veneration day of the sun” (p. 232-233).

Fact: The earliest Christians were Jewish and did celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday, but “the Lord’s day” has always been Sunday to commemorate the resurrection. Consider the words of Justin Martyr, fully 200 years prior to Constantine, “On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits.”

Fallacy: “ Constantine commissioned and financed a new Bible, which omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ’s human traits and embellished those gospels that made him godlike. The earlier gospels were outlawed, gathered up, and burned” (p. 234).

Fact: Constantine did in fact commission 50 copies of the Bible around 325 AD. Due to the exorbitant cost of hand copying such a large document on parchment, only an emperor could afford to do this.

Constantine ’s Bible is a reflection, not of his ideology, but of the prevailing view of churches at that time, many of which possessed originals or copies of the apostles’ writings. The sectarian (lit. heretical) writings that Brown alludes to were widely rejected by the churches of Constantine ’s day.

Fallacy: “More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relative few were chosen for inclusion…The Bible as we know it today was collated by the pagan Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (p. 231).

Fact: There are not some 80 gospels in existence. Actually, maybe half that many are known to have existed loosely as Gnostic “scriptures.” The vast majority of these are not stories of the life of Jesus, but rather explanations of the Gnostic worldview.

Fallacy: The New Testament was “chosen” or selected by an individual or group.

Fact: Churches around the Mediterranean world operated on an ad-hoc basis collecting documents known to have been written by the apostles. These collections would circulate among different churches and new letters would be added as they were written and copied. See Paul’s words in Colossians 4:16 , 1 Thessalonians 5:27 and 2 Timothy 4:13 where he instructs the churches to copy and circulate these letters. In fact, no official church pronouncement was made on the canon for nearly 400 years after Jesus’ day quite simply because none was needed. The vast majority of the churches during this period knew what the biblical canon was and had roughly the same documents in their collections.

The historical inaccuracies in The Da Vinci Code are far too many to enumerate here, but it would be wise for us to consider where we can agree with Brown. This book has proved enormously popular and is a great jumping off point for discussion with friends. Here are a few points we can agree on:

The history of the church has often been discriminatory toward women. Brown states, “Jesus was the original feminist” (p. 248). Indeed, Jesus is the original feminist, as he makes clear in his discussion with Mary and Martha about where a woman belongs (Luke 10:40ff), namely with the men learning at the feet of Jesus. Paul echoes Jesus’ position on women when he says that “there is neither male nor female but all are one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28 ).  

The Gnostics, on the other hand, were not feminists, and held a view of women that was no better than the culture in which they lived. It is in fact disingenuous of Brown to argue that the Sacred Feminine somehow elevated women within pagan cultures. He goes so far as to infer that the egregious practice of temple prostitution, in which young girls were sold into slavery, was a way of honoring women in pagan culture. This is an outlandish claim that no reasonable person, let alone any feminist, should countenance.

Consider this passage from the so called Gospel of Thomas, “Simon Peter said to them, `Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life.’

“Jesus said, `I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven ’” (114).

It’s no wonder that Brown does not quote these documents. Their tenor, for the most part, does not sustain the Brown’s thesis of a merely mortal Jesus with feminist sympathies. Nor does this quote lend credence to his thesis that Jesus and Mary were actually intimate.

Much of what Brown reacts to in his novel is an overly authoritarian church. He is right that the church has often misrepresented Jesus.

There is nothing wrong or frightening about reading some of the Gnostic writings on Jesus. The discerning reader will quickly see that the Jesus in these writings is nothing more than a mouthpiece used to promote a peculiar vision of the world and that they are not historically reliable documents.

But who is a reliable witness to the events that transpired in Palestine early in the first century? Pagels and Brown put much emphasis on the Gnostic documents, as though they were a credible witness to the events of Jesus’ life.

Their claim is that the Gnostic voice was squelched by the leaders of the early church, and that the historical Jesus is someone very different from the picture given to us by the New Testament.

Could this be true? Is there a reliable tradition about Jesus that is outside of the New Testament?

The key word here is “reliable.” Gnosticism is considered by the vast majority of scholars to be something foreign to the time of Jesus and Christian Gnosticism a second-century invention.

The Gnostics had a bad habit of placing their teachings in the mouth of a credible historical figure in order to lend authority to their teachings. We have writings from the second and third centuries that claim to be written by apostles and famous figures in the early church that could not possibly have been written by them.

Most of the Gnostic documents found in Nag Hammadi were in fact written in the third and fourth centuries after Jesus, around 350 A.D., in a language known as Coptic which Jesus did not speak. The Gospel of Thomas is among the earliest of these documents and may date back at the very earliest to 140 A.D., clearly too late for Thomas to have written it.

Not only is the historical evidence for these writings poor, but the manuscript evidence is also poor. We have only a handful of Gnostic writings, most of them dating hundreds of years after Jesus’ life. By comparison, we possess over a hundred Greek manuscripts of the New Testament books and tens of thousands of quotes from early church leaders of those same books that date prior to the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. The earliest of our New Testament manuscripts dates to 125 A.D. a mere 20-30 years after it was written. How can the traditions possibly be compared?

It is clearly disingenuous of Pagels and Brown to argue that these documents are a reliable witness to the events. Rather, I think what we see is a historical recreation in service to an ideology—exactly the problem we see with Gnosticism itself. Gnostics unashamedly hijacked historical figures of an earlier period and reinvented them in service to their peculiar philosophy.

Pagels and Brown are doing the same in our own day.

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Essay Q&A

1) Briefly discuss The Da Vinci Code using the framework of a traditional “Grail quest” legend.

>In the October 2000 issue of the journal Folklore, author Juliette Wood acknowledges that while “no consistent ‘Grail story’ emerges from the several [medieval] romances in which [Holy Grail-related] material appears, “ “a basic story outline would be something like the following: A mysterious vessel or object which sustains life and/or provides sustenance is guarded in a castle which is difficult to find. The owner of the castle is either lame or sick and often (but not always) the surrounding land is barren. The owner can only be restored if a knight finds the castle and, after seeing a mysterious procession, asks a certain question. If he fails in this task, everything will remain as before and the search must begin again. After wanderings and adventures (many of which relate to events which the young hero fails to understand the first time), the knight returns to the castle and asks the question which cures the king and restores the land. The hero knight succeeds the wounded king (usually called the Fisher King) as guardian of the castle and its contents” (http:findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2386/is_2_111/
ai_69202444/?tag=content;col1). Langdon and Sophie are the true knights on this particular Grail quest (Sir Teabing’s knigthood notwithstanding!), and they must, time and again, ask the correct questions in order to restore the world that has been robbed of a holistic spirituality.

2) Assess The Da Vinci Code’s argument that traditional Christianity bears much of the blame for eradicating the “sacred feminine” from modern spiritual life. How much of these claims strike you as valid? How much of them, if any, strike you as unfair?

>The seeds of Christianity’s assignment of blame for humanity’s fallen, sinful state are present in Scripture itself: e.g., “I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression” (1 Timothy 2:12-14, KJV). Much subsequent Christian tradition, of course, rejects any misogynistic readings of the Eden narrative (Genesis 3, wherein Eve and Adam eat the forbidden fruit); however, it is still sometimes a basis for unequal and unfair treatment of women, both within and outside of ecclesiastical communities. Certainly, classical Christianity is not exempt from charges of being opposed to women’s best interests. Langdon’s reflections regarding such historical episodes as the Inquisition and the witch trials do speak to the mistrust and abuse to which the institutional church has often subjected women. Yet Langdon may be oversimplifying or overstating the case when he reflects, “The propaganda and bloodshed had worked. Today’s world was living proof… The days of the goddess were over… Mother Earth had become a man’s world, and the gods of destruction and war were taking their toll” (pp. 134-135). Although Langdon is correct about the leadership roles denied to women in some religious traditions, other religious traditions, including many within Christianity, encourage and actively seek female leadership. And among the “enormous good the modern Church [does] in today’s troubled world” that Langdon acknowledges (p. 134) are very often efforts on behalf of women, particularly women and children in poor communities and in the developing world. Other student responses will vary.

3) Select and analyze a specific instance in which Brown advances his novel’s extraordinary conspiracy theory by relating it to a mundane detail with which readers can readily identify.

>Multiple examples are available from the text; many are cited in this NovelGuide. One example occurs in Chapter 37. Brown lends his account the verisimilitude it needs to make his novel work by tying its elaborate, intricate structure to small details ordinary readers can verify on the basis of their own experience: in this case, most notably, the date of Pope Clement’s actions against the Templars: “Pope Clement issued secret sealed orders to be opened simultaneously by his soldiers all across Europe on Friday, October 13 of 1307… [and] to this day, Friday the thirteenth was considered unlucky” (p. 173).

4) Although she is omnipresent in advertising both the book and the film, the Mona Lisa herself occupies relatively little space in The Da Vinci Code. What is the famous painting’s thematic function within Dan Brown’s novel?

>The Mona Lisa, for Robert Langdon, is visual evidence of the fact that “Da Vinci was in tune with the balance between male and female. He believed that a human soul could not be enlightened unless it had both male and female elements” (p. 129). This statement aptly summarizes the novel’s overriding thematic concern that those two elements be reunited in a healthy fashion.

5) The Da Vinci Code occasionally makes skillful use of quotations from ancient sources such as the Bible. In Chapter 29, for instance, Silas encounters Job 38:11 when he is stymied in his search for the keystone. Why is this Bible verse an especially appropriate one for this juncture in the plot?

>The Brotherhood’s choice of Bible verse is appropriate as a message to those who would seek the keystone beyond the plain meaning of the words. In its original context, Job 38:11 is part of God’s lengthy response to Job after Job has spent most of the book questioning God’s wisdom and motives. God never directly addresses the charges that Job levels against him, but instead overpowers Job into silence by reminding Job that only God created the universe and controls all of its elements. Specifically, the words of 38:11 are words that God spoke at creation to establish divine mastery over the chaotic seas (see vv. 8-11). Thus, the verse, even in its original context, is a message intended to silence the proud and confound those who consider themselves wise—as anyone who thought they had managed to crack the Brotherhood’s secret codes would surely consider themselves to be. As used by the Brotherhood, the verse confronts their enemies with the fact that their “wisdom” has failed them, just as wisdom failed Job.

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