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Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code | Excerpts from The Da Vinci Hoax | Carl E. Olson and Sandra Miesel

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(Note: Footnotes for these selected excerpts have been removed.)

Introduction: The Da Vinci Code Phenomenon

The immense success of The Da Vinci Code and its strong language about early Christianity and the Catholic Church has resulted in substantial controversy over many of the "facts" within its pages. Not only is the novel influencing the views of non-Christian readers, it is raising difficult questions in the minds of many Christians, some of whom are being asked about Brown’s interpretation of Church history and theology. One such reader recently wrote to us, saying: "I own a Catholic bookstore. We are getting bombarded daily by people who are buying into the garbage in this book. You cannot believe how many people have been exposed to this book. . . . We even had an elderly aunt talking about Opus Dei tonight and yelling at us that the book is true or it couldn’t be printed." Another reader openly admitted the doubts that The Da Vinci Code has raised in his mind:

"Honestly, [reading the book] shook my whole faith. I realize that the book is fiction, but much of what he wrote about seemed like it was based on historical facts aside from the characters. Since I am not a Christian scholar I don’t even know where to begin to refute these claims. As the Catholic church holds much of the evidence that would refute the drivel in The Da Vinci Code, I was wondering if you could point me in the right direction to a scholarly non-Christian book that might help me make better sense of the whole historical chain of events. If Christianity is nothing more than a big accommodation, it becomes relegated to a lifestyle choice and not a religion, which I do not want to believe."
We’ve heard many similar stories in recent months and expect to hear more, which is the main reason this book has been written. Just as the Left Behind books have been used to promote a premillennial dispensationalist understanding of Scripture and the end times, The Da Vinci Code has proven to be an effective tool for attacking Christian doctrine and undermining the faith of those uncertain of how to respond to the many accusations leveled against the Church.

Sadly, it’s not surprising that a work of fiction has produced confusion among some Christians about Church history and doctrine at a time when catechesis and basic knowledge of the Faith are so poor. It is even less surprising that non-Christian readers would be taken in by Brown’s revisionist history of the Church. After all, it’s a demonstrated fact that most Americans are illiterate about major events in the history of their own country. For example, one recent study of historical literacy among young Americans found that most "College seniors could not identify Valley Forge, words from the Gettysburg Address, or even the basic principles of the U.S. Constitution". So why should we expect them to be able to discern fact from fiction when it comes to early Church history and the complex debates over the divinity and person of Jesus Christ that took place in the first four centuries of the Church? An example of this is a recent online article about a Catholic discussion group meeting to discuss The Da Vinci Code at a Catholic parish. The author of the article, David Rotert writes:
"I queried several in the audience why they were there, and what their reaction was to the book and the evenings’ discussion. One woman told of her teenage son who was reluctant to go through the sacrament of Confirmation, yet after reading the book found a more believable, understandable, even human Jesus. That actually inspired him to continue the path. Another person said that such material added to the mystery, and in doing so served to strengthen her faith. For one it called into question the credibility of the teaching of the Church, yet felt that faith needs to be challenged to be pursued. Others voiced the idea that this book reinforced a disenchantment with the Church."
This group, and others similar to it, obviously emphasize opinion and feelings over careful and objective study. This ambivalent approach to the claims of the novel are summarized well in Rotert’s remark: "Fortunately the evenings [sic] participants did not come expecting Yes/No answers". The same remark could be made about religious education in many parishes and churches today, again highlighting the need for a more rigorous approach to popular works such as The Da Vinci Code.

Fiction, especially best-selling popular fiction such as The Da Vinci Code, has become a major means of "educating" the masses about many, varied topics, but especially issues that are controversial and can be easily sensationalized. The belief that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, had children, and was not divine has existed for several decades in American pop culture and can even be traced back to feminist groups in the nineteenth-century. Yet many, if not most, readers of Brown’s novel seem unaware of this–even though the novel provides the titles of several books written in the last two or three decades proposing such beliefs.

Chapter 1: Gnosticism: The Religion of the Code

A serious question ignored by The Da Vinci Code is this: Why should the writings of the Gnostics be considered more dependable than the canonical writings, especially when they were written some fifty to three hundred years later than the New Testament writings? It’s easy for writers such as Brown, who are sympathetic to the gnostics (or at least to some of their ideas), to criticize the canonical Gospels and call many of the stories and sayings contained in them into question. But without the canonical Gospels there would be no historical Jesus at all, no meaningful narrative of his life, and no decent sense of what he did, how he acted, and how he related to others.

As we pointed out, the "gnostic gospels" aren’t gospels at all in the sense of the four canonical gospels, which are filled with narrative, concrete details, historical figures, political activity, and details about social and religious life. Contrary to Teabing’s assertion that "the early Church literally stole Jesus" and shrouded his "human message . . . in an impenetrable cloak of divinity", and used it to expand their own power (233), the Church was intent, from the very beginning, on holding on to the humanity and divinity of Christ and on telling the story of his life on earth without washing away the sorrow, pain, joy, and blood that so often accompanied it. The Church fought to keep Christianity firmly rooted in history and fact "rather than the random mythologies reinvented at the whim of each rising Gnostic sage. The church was struggling to retain the idea of Jesus as a historical human being who lived and died in a specific place and time, not in a timeless never-never land."

The Jesus of the gnostic writings is rarely recognizable as a Jewish carpenter, teacher, and prophet dwelling in first century Palestine; instead, he is often described as a phantom-like creature who lectures at length about the "deficiency of aeons", "the mother", "the Arrogant One", and "the archons"–all terms that only the gnostic elite would comprehend, hence their secretive, gnostic character. One strain of gnosticism, known as docetism, held that Jesus only seemed, or appeared, to be a man. Adherents believed this because of their dislike for the physical body and the material realm, a common trait among gnostics. The tendency towards a docetist understanding of Jesus–if not a fully formed docetist Christology–existed in the first century and was addressed in some of the later writings of Paul (Colossians and the pastoral Epistles) and John (cf. 1 Jn 4:2; 5:6; 2 Jn 7). In the second century, docetism became a developed theology and made its appearance in various Gnostic writings, including the Acts of John, written in the late second century:
"Sometimes when I would lay hold on him, I met with a material and solid body, and at other times, again, when I felt him, the substance was immaterial and as if it existed not at all. And if at any time he were bidden by some one of the Pharisees and went to the bidding, we went with him, and there was set before each one of us a loaf by them that had bidden us, and with us he also received one; and his own he would bless and part it among us: and of that little every one was filled, and our own loaves were saved whole, so that they which bade him were amazed. And oftentimes when I walked with him, I desired to see the print of his foot, whether it appeared on the earth; for I saw him as it were lifting himself up from the earth: and I never saw it."

If the material realm is evil, as almost all gnostic groups believed, why would a being such as Christ have anything to with it? And why should we be concerned at all with history and the common life of ordinary people? The gnostic Christ is not interested in earthly, historical events as much as freeing the spirit from the entrapment of the body. In many gnostic texts, Christ and Jesus are posited as two separate beings–Christ being from above and Jesus, the bodily vessel that Christ dwelled in for a time on earth, from below. "This kind of Christology could be called ‘separationist,’ in that it saw two clear and separate persons, the human being Jesus and the divine aeon Christ who temporarily dwelled in him", notes Ehrman. "According to some forms of these Gnostic views, the Christ descended into Jesus at his baptism, empowering him for his ministry, and then left him prior to his death. Thus it was that the divine Christ escaped suffering. Jesus, in this view, suffered alone."

Gnosticism was exclusive, elitist, and esoteric, open only to a few. Christianity, on the other hand, is inclusive and exoteric, open to all those who acknowledge the beliefs of the Faith handed down by Jesus and enter into a life-giving relationship with him. Jesus Christ of the canonical Gospels is a breathing, flesh-and-blood person; he gets hungry, weeps, eats and drinks with common people, and dies. Jesus Christ of the gnostic writings is a phantom, a spirit who sometimes inhabits a body and sometimes doesn’t, and who talks in ways that very few could understand. Once again, The Da Vinci Code has it backwards.

Chapter 2: The Magdalene: Saint, Sinner, or Goddess?

Any supposed attempts to rid the Church of Mary Magdalene or ban her name from being mentioned did not succeed, simply because they didn’t exist. In fact, many of the early Church Fathers remark about the Magdalene, and she is described by Hippolytus (c. 170-c. 236) as "the apostle to the apostles" in his commentary on the Song of Songs. Even feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether, hardly a supporter of the Catholic hierarchy, scoffs at the notion of a conspiracy against Mary Magdalene, pointing to the positive treatment she received from the early Church Fathers:

"This high regard for Mary Magdalene continues in the fourth- and fifth-century Latin fathers of the church. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, associated Mary Magdalene with the New Eve who clings to Christ as the new Tree of Life, thereby reversing the unfaithfulness of the first Eve. Augustine maintains this view, pairing Mary Magdalene with Christ as symbol of the New Eve and the church in relation to Christ as the New Adam. Her faithfulness reversed the sin of the first Eve."
By the eighth century the Western Church was celebrating a feast day for Mary Magdalene, the twenty-second day of July. By the ninth century there were specific prayers for her feast day, and by the eleventh century there was "a complete mass dedicated to the saint (with introit, gradual, offertory, communion, and lessons)". It was also in the eleventh century that devotion to the Magdalene began to noticeably increase. The cult of Mary Magdalene was established at Vézelay, the Romanesque church in Burgandy that had been founded in the ninth century and was originally dedicated to the Virgin Mary. During the abbacy of Geoffrey (1037-1052) Mary was recognized as the patron of that church in a papal bull dated April 27, 1050, by Pope Leo IX. At the same time, relics of the Magdalene were being sought and gathered in earnest, and soon Vézelay became a major destination for pilgrimages.

Numerous stories, almost all of them fanciful and legendary in nature, were created to explain how Mary’s remains had arrived at Vézelay. A leading tradition in the West held that Mary Magdalene, Martha, and Lazarus were expelled from Palestine following the crucifixion of Christ. Floating in an oarless boat, they eventually arrived at the southern coast of France. In the East, a tradition stated that Mary had been the companion of the Apostle John and Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and that they had all settled in Ephesus. According to The Golden Legend, the Magdalene and John were betrothed. Some legends depict Mary living her final days in a cave in France, a hermit covered only by her long hair; these stories probably date back no farther than the ninth century.

During the late medieval era it was common to hear sermons about Mary Magdalene and how she fulfilled the apostolic life. She was also a model for Christians seeking to leave behind a life of sensuality and luxury, an encouragement to monks and nuns, as well as an exhortation to prostitutes. "But most of all a Magdalene sermon was the vehicle by which preachers called people to penance and offered them the hope of salvation. . . . We must not forget that it is our own age that officially memorializes Saint Mary Magdalene as a disciple; it was the ‘Dark Ages’ that honored her as a preacher and apostle of the apostles."

Chapter 3: The Christ and the Code

So what about Teabing’s claim that until A.D. 325–nearly three centuries following Jesus’ time on earth–nobody believed that Jesus was anything more than "a mortal prophet" and a "a great and powerful man"? Notice that Teabing does not personally reject the divinity of Jesus (many people do reject it), or claim that certain modern day scholars deny that Jesus was somehow divine (many scholars do deny it), but that the early followers of Jesus–the Christians of the first three centuries following Jesus’ time on earth–believed that he was not divine at all, but "a mortal" only. For one thing, this seriously undermines the credibility of Teabing’s character, for any historian, whether or Christian or not, knows that the early Christians most definitely believed that Jesus of Nazareth was somehow divine, being the "Son of God" and the resurrected Christ. In fact, the central issue at the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 was not whether Jesus was merely human or something more, but how exactly his divinity–which even the heretic Arius acknowledged–was to be understood: Was he fully divine? Was the Son equal to the Father? Was he a lesser god? What did it mean to say that the Son was "begotten", as the Gospel of John states in several places (Jn 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18)?

Even Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Templar Revelation, two of Brown’s main sources for his statements about Jesus, Constantine, paganism, and the Council of Nicaea, do not propose that prior to A.D. 325 nobody believed Jesus was divine. In fact, the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail do not even deny the possibility that Jesus was divine; their main interest is insisting that Jesus was marred to Mary Magdalene: "And while we ourselves cannot subscribe to Jesus’ divinity, our conclusions do not preclude others from doing so. Quite simply there is no reason why Jesus could not have married and fathered children while still retaining his divinity."

The authors of The Templar Revelation have a different perspective; although they admit that Jesus was called the "Son of God" by his early followers, they write that this was a mistake, and that "Jesus was not so much the Son of God as a devoted son of the Goddess." Their central thesis is that Jesus was "essentially an Egyptian missionary" intent on promoting the pagan religion of the Isis/Osiris mystery cult of Egypt. "Christianity was not the religion founded by the unique Son of God who died for all our sins", they write, "it was the worship of Isis and Osiris repackaged. However, it rapidly became a personality cult, centered on Jesus." Both books agree that Jesus’ main goal was the establishment of political power, that he did not die on the cross, and that his resurrection was a clever and elaborate hoax, all of which is either stated directly or hinted at in The Da Vinci Code.

The essential point is that Teabing’s statements, which apparently reflect Brown’s beliefs as well, are not only false, they aren’t even supported by Brown’s main sources. What The Da Vinci Code does share with The Templar Revelation and Holy Blood, Holy Grail is the conviction that historical, creedal Christianity is a lie, an elaborate ruse born out the thirst for power and a violent desire to suppress the truth about Jesus: that he was a mere mortal, or a married man with lofty political goals, or the high priest of an Egyptian mystery religion. In their own ways, each denies the death and resurrection of Jesus, his salvific work, and the establishment of a unique people–the Church–bound not by ethnicity or gender or social status, but by the unique work of Jesus Christ, the God-man. "For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus", the apostle tells the Christians in Galatia, "For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:26-28).

Chapter 4: Constantine, Paganism, and Nicaea

Constantine’s move from paganism to Christianity was not immediate or always consistent. But over the course of several years he increased his support of the Church and implemented laws against certain pagan practices and activities."For a time it seemed as if merely tolerance and equality were to prevail", states The Catholic Encyclopedia, "Constantine showed equal favour to both religious. As pontifex maximus he watched over the heathen worship and protected its rights. The one thing he did was to suppress divination and magic; this the heathen emperors had also at times sought to do. Thus, in 320, the emperor forbade the diviners or haruspices to enter a private house under pain of death."

Some scholars argue that the chasm between the monotheism of Christianity and the cult of Sol Invictus was not as wide as it might initially appear. The cult of Sol Invictus was not polytheistic or even pantheistic, but monotheistic; it was "the worship of the divine spirit by whom the whole universe was ruled, the spirit whose symbol is the sun; a symbol in which this spirit in some way specially manifests itself. . . . The whole cult is penetrated with the idea of an overruling divine monarchy. Moreover, the cult was in harmony with a philosophical religion steadily growing, in the high places of the administration, throughout this same [fourth] century, the cult of Summus Deus–the God who is supreme."

For Constantine–a man without concern for theological precision–there was probably little, if any, distinction between the pagan and Christian notions of God (even though he surely recognized the differences in worship and morality)."The transition from solar monotheism (the most popular form of contemporary paganism) to Christianity was not difficult", writes Henry Chadwick. "In Old Testament prophecy Christ was entitled ‘the sun of righteousness’[Mal. 4:2]. Clement of Alexandria (c. A.D. 200) speaks of Christ driving his chariot across the sky like a Sun-god. . . . Tertullian says that many pagans imagined the Christians worshiped the sun because they met on Sundays and prayed towards the East."

The Da Vinci Code
implies that Constantine was baptized against his wishes (232). This was not the case. He had desired to be baptized in the waters of the Jordan River, where Jesus had been baptized, but it was not to be. Not long after the Easter of 337 he called together some bishops, removed his purple robe, and put on the white garments of a catachumen, then was baptized by Eusebius, the bishop of Nicomedia. He died a few days later. It was common for Christians at the time to put off baptism until their deathbed. Serious sins committed after baptism would require severe penance, so some considered it safer to wait until the end of life to be baptized. This practice was mentioned by Augustine in his Confessions; as a child he nearly died of illness and his mother considered having him baptized. Augustine writes that once he recovered, however, "my cleansing was deferred, as if it were inevitable that, if I should live, I would be further polluted; and, further, because the guilt contracted by sin after baptism would be still greater and more perilous."18 This approach to baptism would have fit Constantine’s case since he undoubtedly understood that many of his actions were considered grave sins by the Church: "It was common at this time (and continued so until about A.D. 400) to postpone baptism to the end of one’s life, especially if one’s duty as an official included torture and execution of criminals. Part of the reason for postponement lay in the seriousness with which the responsibilities were taken."

Constantine did see Christianity as a unifying force–and he was correct in his assessment that Christianity, not paganism, had the moral core and theological vision to change society for the better. He may not have been a saint, but neither was he simply a political operator without concern for truth and goodness. William Durant, hardly partial to the Catholic Church, writes, "His Christianity, beginning as policy, appears to have graduated into sincere conviction. He became the most persistent preacher in his realm, persecuted heretics faithfully, and took God into partnership at every step. Wiser than Diocletian, he gave new life to an aging Empire by associating it with a young religion, a vigorous organization, a fresh morality." Constantine was not a life-long pagan or a cynical manipulator, as The Da Vinci Code suggests. "[Dan] Brown has turned him into a cartoonish villain", states Dr. Mitchell. "That Constantine the emperor had "political" motives (The Da Vinci Code, p. 234) is hardly news to anyone! The question is how religion and politics (which cannot be separated in the ancient world) were interrelated in him." The "answers" that Brown gives to that question are less than satisfying as we’ll see in his explanation of how Constantine supposedly "created" a "hybrid religion" of paganism and Christianity.

Read Part Two of Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code


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