The Da Vinci Code
by Paul Hazelden


I've put off writing this for too long, but here goes...

This is a personal response to the incredibly popular book, and now the film based on the book, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. It is going to be short and incomplete as a response, partly because many other people have already said a great deal already, and partly because the nature of the subject matter ensures that whatever I say, there will be many other things which are important to other people left unsaid.

Before I start, please accept my apologies. Whoever you are, something in this article is likely to upset or offend you. Please take my word that this is not deliberate.

It's just a story, guys

The first obvious point that needs to be made is: this is just a story. A work of fiction. Anyone who confuses this with fact is going to get terribly confused. Of course, Dan Brown is drawing on a rich tradition to provide an entertaining background to the plot, as authors have done for centuries. To take one obvious example, Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur draws on Geoffrey of Monmouth, as did Chrétien de Troyes.

In each of these cases, the fact that the author draws on an older tradition does not mean that the tradition is true. There are old traditions concerning faries at the bottom of my garden: people have told fairy stories for centuries. There are many reasons why these stories are popular and have lasted so long, but the stories themselves are neither fact nor based on fact. (Correction: the stories may well be based on fact of some kind - the dialogue, questions, challenges, choices and other elements in the stories all may be based on fact. But the central aspect of the plot - a human being encountering fairies - is not based on fact.)

Uncovering a conspiracy is one of the standard plot devices used by authors down the centuries. It is a good piece of marketing for Dan Brown to suggest that in telling this fictional story he is also revealing a real life conspiracy story. It could be that this suggestion is the main reason why the book became such a best seller: I find it hard to imagine a more plausible reason.

A moment's reflection should be sufficient to convince anyone on this point. At least three points seem blindingly obvious.

So - is it based on true facts?

Okay: the story is fiction. There is no explosive secret; there are no powerful secret societies. But the ideas discussed in the book are based on hard evidence, aren't they? There is documentary evidence proving, or at least supporting, those controversial claims, isn't there?

Technically, yes, there is. All the claims made by Dan Brown are supported by documentary evidence. But you have to understand what this means. 'Documentary evidence' is simply a piece of paper (or parchment, or papyrus, or...) which says something.

I have documentary evidence for Father Christmas sitting on my bookshelf - it begins: "'Twas the night before Christmas". There is documentary evidence that the moon is made of green cheese, and that Elvis was abducted by aliens.

The real question is not whether documentary evidence exists to support some claim or other - the question is about the quality of the evidence. Perhaps a document claims to be an ancient text, but turns out to be written in biro. Perhaps it refers to people or events that were centuries after the supposed date of composition. Perhaps it was found by someone who needed evidence to back up a controversial claim. Perhaps other experts don't recognise it as genuine for a dozen technical reasons.

Did the church suppress the truth?

Perhaps there are no ancient documents backing up Dan Brown's claims because the church suppressed or destroyed them?

People seem to have a very strange image of the early church. The fact is this: at no point in history has the Christian church been a single, united entity.

In the first century, communication was slow, uncertain and expensive. Groups of believers sprung up wherever other believers travelled, and all these groups believed and practiced different things. From the earliest days, there were different traditions, different ways of interpreting the scriptures, different customs and traditions in each place. It's all in the history books, and well documented: Jerusalem was quite different from Antioch, and they were both very different from Alexandria or Rome.

Over the centuries, a form of hierarchy grew up, and what we now know as the Catholic Church formed. But many Christian groups were never part of the Catholic Church, and many others were only nominally a part. The arguments about when Easter should be celebrated are a good demonstration of the lack of unity and the total lack of a single decision-making body in the church.

So, for every group that might have wanted to suppress information about Jesus' marriage, there would have been other groups keen to proclaim and celebrate it. Once you have read about the different beliefs within the early church, and the bitter arguments between the various groups, you will understand that there is no way these different groups could all have agreed to suppress anything. And there never has been any means by which such an agreement could have been enforced.

So what is really going on, then?

The good news is that the real story is much more entertaining than the fiction.

Back in 1982, an obscure book called The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail was published. The authors (Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln) drew on many previously publised works to create a sort of mega-conspiracy theory. For some reason, it caught the popular imagination, and it went on to sell some 2 million copies.

In 2003, Dan Brown wrote a thriller based on a conspiracy theory and a secret society, called Angels and Demons. Some people love that sort of thing, while others are too frustrated by the plot holes, impossible or vastly improbable events, familiar plot devices and sub-Mills and Boon romance. On the plus side, it did have some fairly original ideas worked into the (arguably) dreadful story.

In my personal opinion, what happened next is clear enough: Dan Brown discovered the earlier book by Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln, and realised that it would have worked much more successfully as the central mystery being uncovered in his book. So he re-wrote his earlier book with a new mystery at the centre. There is a new girl, a new set of puzzles to solve, and new places to rush around, but in all other aspects, The Da Vinci Code is Angels and Demons with a different title. In several places, he even points out that this improbable event had happened to his hero before!

I know that the High Court in London ruled that The Da Vinci Code did not breach the copyright of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, and this is quite true. The actual words are different, but the central ideas are the same. You can't copyright ideas.

In both books, Dan Brown seems very keen on attacking the Catholic Church, in the mistaken belief that he is attacking the Christian faith. He really does not seem to grasp that there are many Christians who are not part of the Catholic Church, and some of them would even welcome the demise of Catholicism. But then, this is the level of understanding that any educated reader of these books would have come to expect.

Does it really matter, anyway?

The previous points were likely to upset the folk who take Dan Brown and the whole Holy Blood and Holy Grail thing seriously. This next bit is likly to upset most of the Christians who read this article, from the conversations I've had to date.

The final point is very simple. Even if everything Dan Brown suggests is true - even if there was an ancient conspiracy to cover up the truth that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had a child - so what?

If you could prove these claims somehow, what difference would it make? Okay, a lot of Christians would get upset. Some conspiracy theorists would jump up and down, saying "I told you so!" But what difference would it actually make?

I don't think that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, but that is only because there is no real evidence to suggest that they were. The Bible is actually silent on the subject. The Bible does not say that Jesus was not married, and it does not say that He had no children. It says nothing about His marital state, just as it says nothing about His eye colour, height or favourite food.

At this point, the Christians are generally trying to demonstrate that I'm wrong and that this does matter. The fact is that none of us like to be proved wrong. None of us like to have our ideas turned upside down. But God kept on doing it in the Bible, and there is no reason to suppose He isn't still doing it. The question is not whether we are wrong, but where.

To date, nobody has been able to explain to me from the Bible why Jesus could not have been married or have children.

People usually start with something along the lines of: "Jesus was divine, so he can't have any children. After all, what would they be - half divine?"

But nobody believes that Jesus was divine because of His genetic code. His DNA is what made Him fully human; being fully divine is part of the mystery of the incarnation. If we found a piece of the true cross with Jesus' blood on it and created a clone, that clone would be the exact image of Jesus at the physical level, but the clone would be no more divine than you or me. Similarly, if He had children, those children would be ordinary humans, albeit humans born into an extraordinary family.

The next argument is usually: "The Bible would have said if Jesus was married." But would it? There are lots of questions the Bible does not answer - many questions we consider to be really important. What about the problem of pain? How does divine providence fit alongside human free will? The fact that we want to know something is no gurarantee that the Bible will tell us. We may want to know if Jesus was married, but the Bible is silent on the subject.

There are grounds for arguing that Jesus was probably married. Marriage was a duty for all good Jewish boys, so the fact that we are not explicitly told that He was single could count as evidence that He was married. Similarly, a Rabbi was expected to be married, so when Jesus is called 'Rabbi', the expectation of His culture was that He would be married. His wife would not have been mentioned, as in the culture of the day she was just not considered to be important. We only know that Simon Peter was married because of a passing reference to his mother in law.

On the other side, the Post-Apostolic writings seem to assume that Jesus was unmarried. And these people were probably in close enough touch with the eyewitnesses to have been able to check on that sort of detail... if it occurred to them to ask.

As I have said many times before: God is able to tell us every thing He wants us to know. If He considers somethimg to be important, He makes it abundantly clear: we are to love Him, and love one another. If something is unclear or completely ignored in the Bible, then it probably doesn't matter that much.

I know there are many Christians for whom the question of Jesus' marital state is deeply important. But for me, and probably for many others, it simply does not matter.

What I do find interesting is that two thousand years after an obscure Galilean preacher was executed, people are still trying to understand and come to terms with His life and ministry. Believe in Him or not, people just can't leave Jesus alone.

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Copyright © 2006 Paul Hazelden was last updated 26 May 2008
Page content last modified: 25 July 2006
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