- The Da Vinci Code—the best-selling book by Dan Brown—is a real book. In 2003, it was published and quickly became the #1 bestseller. Today, it still enjoys enormous popularity.
- The Da Vinci Code has been a catalyst for controversy as it calls into question the record of Jesus that millions have accepted for thousands of years.
- All descriptions of The Da Vinci Code and its claims in this article are accurate.
Novels rarely inspire controversy, but when they do, it’s not usually the story itself that generates a stir; it’s the ideas behind the story. Narrative can be a powerful tool, and not even the author can ever really calculate its influence in advance.
Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, says he’s stunned” at his controversial book’s success. It’s already been a little over a year since the novel’s initial publication and the craze over “Code” shows no signs of letting up. Over seven million copies of the book have been printed and it’s still on weekly bestseller lists all over the world. A sequel and a movie are in the works.
But while Brown may be surprised that his novel is such a sensation, one doubts that he can really be surprised at the controversy surrounding it. After all, most truly controversial works challenge the way people think and feel about important topics. And Brown certainly had this goal in mind when he chose a subject so sacred to so many.
The Da Vinci Code opens with the murder of the Louvre’s curator, who leaves behind a series of clues that bring together Harvard “symbologist” (and murder suspect) Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu, Parisian cryptographer and granddaughter of the curator. For the rest of the novel, the two of them embark on a fast-paced search for clues as to who committed the crime and, in the process, learn more and more about a massive religious conspiracy to cover up, among other things, the “truth” about Jesus.
Da Vinci Code: The Facts, Fictions and Factions
The Da Vinci Code posits:
- that Jesus was not divine
- that he married the Mary Magdalene of the New Testament, and had a child with her
- that the bloodline survived in France
- that the Catholic Church conspired for millennia to hide the truth
- that the idea of the divinity of Jesus was hatched…as a political power play
All of this adds up to what Brown has dubbed the “greatest conspiracy of the past 2,000 years.”
Where does Leonardo fit in? Brown (through the characters in his novel) alleges that da Vinci was one of the Priory of Sion—guardians of this secret—and his famous paintings are laced with clues to the massive cover-up.
But it’s just fiction, right? So what’s the big deal?
Were it not for the fact that so many people are taking The Da Vinci Code as truth, this article could end here. But the ideas in the novel have been taken seriously, seriously enough to prompt a special one-hour news program called “Jesus, Mary and da Vinci,” which explored the theories discussed in the book. In her review of The Da Vinci Code in the New York Times, Janet Maslin even advised people: “…you may want to investigate the same matters that Langdon and Agent Neveu pursue as they tap into a mother lode of religious conspiracy theory.”1 People are doing just that—not only are they buying Brown’s book; they are buying the books he references in his novel for further research.
People gravitate toward conspiracies
The ideas in this novel are not, after all, novel ideas. They have been purported for hundreds of years and are predominantly found in esoteric and New Age literature such as Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent. Mainstream biblical scholars have long dismissed these concepts as conjecture. “There is no credible evidence…but Brown’s book combines legends with history, art symbology and cryptography to create a world in which it seems true,” writes journalist Richard Jones.2 Further, Brown asserts at the beginning of his book, among other things, “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate,”3 thereby confusing readers’ perceptions further.
Several scholars and theologians have come out against Brown’s earlier stated hypotheses. At least four anti-Da Vinci Code books have hit the marketplace, but Brown is convinced of the veracity of his claims and says he hopes that his work will serve as a “springboard for people to discuss the important topics of faith, religion and history.”4 Since so many people are doing just that, and coming away with what might very well be a skewed view of all three, we thought we’d join the discussion.
Behind The Da Vinci Code: The Implications
People from all sorts of backgrounds, including Jewish people, are devouring The Da Vinci Code. Synagogues and Jewish community centers are offering lectures and classes based on the novel. Many Da Vinci Code readers claim they are searching, not just for a good read, but also for historical and spiritual answers.
It’s interesting to note how people who are on a quest for answers are bypassing traditional categories such as history, religion and philosophy and heading straight to the fiction shelf. “Best-selling fiction—despite being ‘just fiction’—is a source of theology, philosophy and history for a growing number of readers.”5 Why?
Conspiracies are compelling
People gravitate toward conspiracies. From those who continue to speculate about the assassination of American president John F. Kennedy to those who immersed themselves in the “Bible codes” phenomenon of a few years ago, it seems that conspiracy theories strike a chord within many of us, and not just for entertainment’s sake.
Jewish writer David Klinghoffer offers this observation: “This…is what makes a conspiracy thrilling, the revelation of concealed complexity all around. Likewise, it’s what attracts many of us to thinking spiritual matters—the gut-level perception, powerful if unproved, of an existence beyond the one of our mundane daily lives.”6
The appetite for conspiracy is indicative of a hunger in all of us to ask the “what if?” questions. This aspect resonates particularly with Jewish people, as Judaism has traditionally prided itself on its ability to ask and answer tough questions. Moreover, as salon.com writer Charles Taylor comments:
And if conspiracy theories have their safe side, offering us a world where everything falls neatly into place, they also promise a weird sort of freedom. Suddenly there are symbols everywhere just waiting to be deciphered, offering revelation to all who can read them…everything is up for grabs. What could be…more thrilling than that?7
So our fascination with conspiracy reveals something deeper within us: a paradox wherein we want to consider strange, new “what if?” possibilities, and at the same time have all the answers neatly packaged.
As Jewish people we are, unfortunately, familiar with the power of conspiracy theories. From the vague notion that there is a “Jewish conspiracy” to control the media and global economy, to the forgery known as the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” we’ve borne witness to the dangerous potential of malicious rumors left unchecked. Such hypotheses have long provided justification for blaming our people for everything from economic downturns to Germany’s loss of World War I. Conspiracy theories can make for easy scapegoats.
Yet it is precisely conspiracy theories’ ability to feed both our skepticism and our search for greater meaning that make them so captivating.
Food for skeptical thought
We live in an age of skepticism. Its presence is nothing new; however it has become much more prevalent, reaching into areas hitherto unscathed.
Increasingly, over the past century, as academic theories about the study of history have trickled down into the common culture, we as a people have become more and more skeptical about historical claims.…I suspect that so problematic a book [as The Da Vinci Code] could only have reached such popularity in a culture which has completed the shift from adoring respect for authority to full-fledged, though largely unconscious, skepticism.8
In the past, history was a discipline that could be trusted as solid reference for truth. Jewish people especially have valued history (specifically our own long history) as a teacher and a treasure. According to one writer for the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, this proclivity is drawing Jewish people to The Da Vinci Code:
What grabs Jews is the return to history.…If you look at the adult education classes being offered all over town, you see people in the Jewish community are very hungry for history, for learning. That is where The Da Vinci Code is the most dangerous.…On the one hand, it resonates with a deep desire for education; on the other hand, you’re satisfying that desire with inaccurate information. It’s like watching “CSI” and taking it all as scientific fact, or watching “ER” and trying to practice medicine.9
These days history itself is judged instinctively and intuitively by the individual. If, as in the case of The Da Vinci Code, the historical record takes issue with you, then you need simply to take issue with history. Many have adopted Henry Ford’s well-known statement, “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.”10 Or, as Dan Brown puts it more gently: “…we should first ask ourselves a far deeper question: How historically accurate is history itself?”11
But does the average person know enough to make that call? The upshot of this point of view is that truth has become increasingly more subjective. The individual must determine what he or she believes based on…well, based on what?
Since no institution, not even history, is safe from skepticism, people are likely to stick to their preconceived notions about a subject. Ironically, the slogan for today’s brand of skepticism seems to be, “Question everything…except yourself.”
In an age when the volume of available information vastly exceeds the quality of education, it is easy to look for and find someone or something that will substantiate what you want to believe is true.
This explains why millions of people would rather take the word of a novelist over that of 2,000 years of history—because if they care to admit it, most are more comfortable with a Jesus who is merely human, a Jesus who isn’t perfect, a Jesus more like them. Most people, Jewish people in particular, have long felt doubtful of Jesus’ claims to be God. In his new book, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, author Stephen Prothero observes:
Approaching the New Testament with a hermeneutics of suspicion, they [Jewish scholars] draw a sharp distinction between the religion of Jesus and the religion about Jesus.…They reject claims of Jesus’ divinity and messiahship…[however they do see] Jesus as a fascinating figure, the enigma of Second Temple Judaism.12
Dan Brown’s novel reinforces these opinions and allows Jewish skeptics—and all skeptics—to stick to preconceived notions about Jesus. The Da Vinci Code helps clear the path for creating a whole new Jesus without stepping into the world of faith. Or so it would seem.
It’s not that questioning things, even institutions once deemed sacred, is harmful. However, it’s ironic that Dan Brown does ask that his readers accept some of what he says without question.
For instance, he has one of the characters say, “Every faith is based on fabrication.” Brown is dismissive toward religion and faith; yet he asks that you accept his view of Jesus with virtually no documentation. He wants us to believe that everything that has been traditionally taught about Jesus is “false.”
Jesus’ divinity is not, Brown tells us, a sign of God but rather something decided upon by a vote. As for the revealed word of God, well, Brown says, what we know as the Bible was created from…suppression of all the gospels that related Jesus’ human traits.13
But why take his view as fact, when, “…for more than two centuries Americans have been busy recasting the image of Jesus to suit contemporary sensibilities and to advance personal or political agendas.”14 Journalist Gary Stern comments, “…it seems there is a Jesus for everybody.”15
Again, “People tend to look for the version of Jesus that reinforces the one they already have.”16 With so many ideas and theories about Jesus out there, how can we really tell fact from fiction? Whose narrative should we believe? What’s the real story?
Beyond The Da Vinci Code
Reading The Da Vinci Code as a reliable record of Jesus has been likened to “taking the play Julius Caesar, and using it as a biography to study the life of Caesar.”17 The best place to go for accounts of Jesus is and always has been the Bible. In The Da Vinci Code, the author and characters rarely reference the Bible directly. Yet, for serious seekers, it’s a “must-read.”
But perhaps the Bible should come with a warning, much like the “fact” statements that preface The Da Vinci Code. Readers should be cautioned that the Bible is not easy. It does not offer a quick fix, nor is there a code for deciphering it. Rather, the Bible is mysterious and its key figure, Jesus, is likewise mysterious at times.
What the Bible tells us is that there is a conspiracy, a divine conspiracy that has been unfolding since before Jesus walked the earth, before we knew how to mark time and before we began recording history. The instigator is God. And his motive? Love. In our skeptical day and age it may be difficult to believe, but Jesus’ crucifixion, which he endured willingly, should prove something of that love to us.
Brown says that the church hid Jesus’ humanity, but in the Bible Jesus’ humanity is clearly on display. The gospel records of his life show him as a boy, the son of a carpenter; they show him being tired and hungry and tempted—and they tell of his suffering on a cross as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of humanity.
But if Jesus were only human, and not divine, he could not have performed the miracles he did and healed the people he healed and predicted his own death and risen from the dead. These facts were recorded even by people who opposed him; and thousands of years later, millions of people still believe Jesus was who he said he was.
“I am the way, the truth and the life.” (John 14:6)
Perhaps instead of asking whether everything that’s been taught about Jesus is a lie, it might be best to ask, what if what he said about himself is true? To answer this question, the best place to start is not The Da Vinci Code, but the bestseller that has withstood the test of time.
- “Spinning a Thriller from the Louvre,” New York Times, 17 March 2003
- ‘Da Vinci Code’ illuminates ongoing fascination with Jesus ContraCostaTimes, 8 February 2004
- Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code. (New York: Doubleday, 2003), p. 1
- Official Website of Dan Brown
- “‘Just’ Fiction?” National Catholic Register, 10 August 2003
- David Klinghoffer, “Books, Arts, and Manners,” National Review, 8 December 2003.
- Charles Taylor, “The Da Vinci Code, A Review,”, 4 April 2003
- “Deciphering The Da Vinci Code”
- “Cracking a Controversial ‘Code'”
- Interview in Chicago Tribune, 25 May 1916
- Official Website of Dan Brown
- Stephen Prothero, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), p. 264
- Charles Taylor, “The Da Vinci Code, A Review,”, 4 April 2003
- Linda Kulman and Jay Tolson, “Jesus in America,” U.S. News and World Report, 22 December 2003.
- Gary Stern, “Jesus Takes Center Stage in Popular Culture,” The Journal News, 25 April 2004.
- Carl E. Olson, “Relative Revelations” National Review Online, 4 May 2004
- Kat Bergeronthe, “‘Da Vinci Code‘ fascinates readers” Sun Herald, 21 November 2003 (requires searching in the Herald’s index and paying for article)