Fact and Fiction: 'The Da Vinci Code' — Part III

Have you seen the double trapdoor through which “Da Vinci” critics are falling headfirst? It’s hard to miss. Both flaps are adorned with tantalizing signs. The first says, “Burn the book, it’s the devil.” The second laughs mockingly or innocently, “Relax, it is just fiction, after all.”

Trapdoors always lead down. Here’s looking up…

Dan Brown’s book is not the devil and it’s not just fiction. He purports it to be a historic novel founded on scrupulous research. In reality, it is a devilish hodgepodge of well-disguised fiction and fact. His intentions were to confuse, and confuse he did.

Sticking to our thesis that this phenomenon is a blessing in disguise for curious minds, today we’ll unravel four of Brown’s most tightly wound knots. Some of you expect me to preach, to set the story straight with a call to belief. You won’t find that here. Nonetheless, a clear mind is the best soil for seeds of faith, and God knows, there’s a lot of clearing to do.


Fiction: Mr. Brown says it is Mary Magdalene seated to the right of Jesus, not John the Apostle, in Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting, “The Last Supper.”

Fact: In his own “Treatise on Painting,” Leonardo Da Vinci says the classic “student” should be shown as youthful, long-haired, and clean-shaven. He was true to this approach in his depiction of St. John, as the youngest of the apostles. Neither his contemporary artists nor reputable art historians have doubted his original intention.

Fiction: The Da Vinci Code says Leonardo Da Vinci’s "Mona Lisa" was an androgynous self-portrait whose title is a mocking anagram of two Egyptian fertility deities—Amon and L’isa.

Fact: It was commonly known at the time of the painting and today, that the "Mona Lisa" portrays a real woman, Madonna Lisa, the wife of Francesco de Bartolomeo del Giocondo.

Summary: There is no historical evidence Leonardo Da Vinci used his paintings to reveal secrets or protest traditional beliefs.


Fiction: The Da Vinci Code claims, "...The Bible as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great." (Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, New York: Doubleday, 2003, p. 231)

Fact: No Bible scholar holds Constantine played a role in the development of the Scriptures. The Old Testament canon (the first part of the Christian Bible) was already essentially developed at the time of Jesus and he and his disciples recognized its authority (Luke 24:27, John 5:39).

By the late second century, the early Christian community recognized the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (written from approximately 60-120 A.D.) as the four inspired narratives of the life of Christ. Consensus about the contents of the entire New Testament was already growing by the middle of the second-century.

The early Christian Fathers of the second century (Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Irenaeus) refer to the four Christian gospels and their authors, and give them a unique place within worship (liturgy) and tradition. It was not until the late 300s and early 400s that regional councils of bishops began the process of official definition.

Summary: Christian theology teaches the Bible was written, collated, and defined by human beings inspired by God. No major Christian tradition claims the process was magical. It is easier, not harder, to accept the presence of such inspiration when we consider the unity of Christian belief on essential points of Christian doctrine, despite the human, social, and political influences that could have hijacked its content and interpretation along the way.


Fiction: The Da Vinci Code claims that before the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325, the followers of Jesus did not consider him divine. Listen in:

"Until that moment in history, Jesus was viewed by his followers as a mortal prophet...a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless. A mortal...By officially endorsing Jesus as the Son of God, Constantine turned Jesus into a deity." (Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, New York: Doubleday, 2003, p. 233)

Fact: New Testament writings (written before the Council), early Church Fathers, and deliberations of the Council itself, show clearly the belief in the divinity of Christ. Here are a few quotations from early Christians who all wrote about their belief in the divinity of Jesus before the Council of Nicaea:

"For our God, Jesus Christ, was conceived by Mary in accord with God’s plan: of the seed of David, it is true, but also of the Holy Spirit." (Ignatius of Antioch—A.D. 110)

"We are not playing the fool, you Greeks, nor do we talk nonsense, when we report that God was born in the form of a man." (Tatian the Syrian—A.D. 170)

Perhaps the greatest proof of the early Christian community’s belief in the divinity of Christ are the estimated 100,000 – 200,000 deaths of men and women of the first centuries of Christianity who preferred death by torture to the denial of their faith. The Roman emperors Decius (249-251) and Diocletian (284 - ) persecuted Christians because they refused to worship pagan gods. In the Coliseum, the Circus Maximus, and on the streets of Rome, Christians uttered the name of Jesus as they went to their death.

Summary: Early Christians believed in the divinity of Jesus from the very beginning. Their beliefs were supported by the Gospels in which Jesus himself makes the claim (John 5:18, John 8: 58, John 20:28, and many more) and in early New Testament writers such as St. Paul (Phil 2:6) continued the oral and written tradition.


Fiction: The Da Vinci Code claims:

"Behold...the greatest cover-up in human history. Not only was Jesus Christ married, but He was a father..."

"The early Church feared that if the lineage were permitted to grow, the secret of Jesus and Magdalene would eventually surface and challenge the fundamental Catholic doctrine — that of a divine Messiah who did not consort with women or engage in sexual union." (Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, New York: Doubleday, 2003, p. 249, 257)

Fact: Christianity’s most fundamental doctrine is not Jesus’ decision to remain single, but rather that God took the form of man to save humanity from our sins — a thesis, in my opinion, much harder for the human mind to grasp than that of a God who would marry.

Beyond the unfounded claim of such a relationship, it is important to note that the underlining thesis should be offensive to women: the only way to redeem the character of Mary Magdalene is to suggest she had a romantic relationship with her boss. Whether or not she was the prostitute Jesus forgave (unclear from the Gospels) makes no difference regarding her personal worth. She was a beautiful soul and a disciple of Jesus.

Summary: According to the Christian Gospels, Jesus broke all sorts of social norms of his day, including having close and public contact with women. All evidence points to the historicity of his decision to break another social norm and remain single and celibate.

I’m well aware that both my characterization of The Da Vinci Code and my rebuttal with facts are incomplete and unsatisfying. We could discuss forever the beliefs of early Christians, the Roman Catholic Church, Gnosticism, and the responsibility of authors to present fiction and fact for what they are. My hope, nevertheless, is this three-part series (see Monday's and Wednesday's entries) is a reminder to each of us to continue our quest for knowledge of the historic Jesus.

Dan Brown says the greatest challenge for religion today is the evolution of our brains. I not only disagree, I think his theory is upside down and inside out.

A little knowledge is dangerous, Mr. Brown, for religion and for life. But a lot of knowledge (and a little humility) makes wise men; men and woman who see God not only in scientific gaps, but in their ability to grasp, if only in part, the grandeur of creation, including themselves.

I hope this has helped. Let me know.

God bless, Father Jonathan

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