Dan Brown gives us an alternative view of history in his novel THE DA VINCI CODE. Published in 2003, it has become a worldwide bestseller with over 40 million copies sold. It’s also generated a lot of critical reviews from both secular and religious quarters. But the subtle way Brown blends fiction with fact makes it difficult for the unskilled reader to assess his claim that Christianity’s best-kept secret has now at last been ‘outed’.
And the secret? Well, according to the Da Vinci Code, Christ married Mary Magdalene, and together they had a child whose descendents in turn grew up in France and intermingled with French royalty – in a lineage still traceable today! Since Constantine, Brown claims, the ‘Church’ has hidden the truth: Jesus was no more than merely human!
It’s claimed in the book that Jesus Christ was never regarded as the Son of God until the fourth century, and his divine status was only taught after the Council of Nicea in 325 AD (which was influenced by the Emperor Constantine). This, however, is in conflict with the basic historical facts: for from the beginning, in both the New Testament and in the works of early Christian writers, Jesus is indeed viewed as divine. The Council merely affirmed that view of his divinity.
As for Mary, very early traditions tended to identify Mary Magdalene with the unnamed, repentant, sinful woman of Luke 7:36-50 or with Mary of Bethany (John 12:1-8), the sister of Lazarus, but this is certainly not apparent from the Bible text itself. Such a merging of what are in reality different figures in the person of Mary Magdalene was a development in the western Latin-speaking Catholic church (which interestingly never found a place in its eastern traditions).
Of course, in Brown’s revisionist treatment of the subject the plain teaching of undisputed Bible texts are not favoured over contentious documents like ‘The Gospel according to Mary Magdalene’ which was found in Cairo in 1896 (but which has no rightful place in the Bible, whose ‘canon’ was settled beyond dispute before the fourth century Council mentioned earlier. In other words, the Council simply affirmed the 27 books of the New Testament which are generally accepted today as being the only ones to have a rightful place in the New Testament Bible. So, once again, the Council was affirming and not innovating). In this other gospel, however, we’re told that Mary Magdalene appears as one of the disciples in conflict with the apostles Peter and Andrew who were specifically contesting the fact that she would have had access to specialized knowledge through Jesus.
This hint of a power struggle, and of an intended special role for Mary Magdalene, has been bound up with the substance of the legend of the ‘Holy Grail’ which originated in medieval Europe, supposedly from a clue in Leonardo’s painting of the Last Supper. Brown takes the ‘Holy Grail’ (the vessel or cup) to be Mary Magdalene herself, since she, according to him, was the bearer of Christ’s child, the bearer (chalice) of his bloodline which later intermingled with the French royal line. In this spin, the Holy Grail becomes a metaphor for Mary or for her womb.
Dan Brown speculates that in his painting of the Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci has actually drawn Mary Magdalene as one of the disciples seated next to Jesus. Da Vinci-specialist Frank Zollner from Leipzig University comments that in the extensive range of writings which Da Vinci left us there’s not the slightest indication of him holding any such view.
But Brown’s idea is far from new. Pierre Plantard, founder of the Priory of Sion, claimed that Mary Magdalene arrived in France with the help of Joseph of Arimathea, and that she there gave birth to a daughter who became the matriarch of the French royal bloodline. In this legend also, Mary is viewed as being the Holy Grail. Elements of this older speculation – also that Mary was Jesus wife – reappear in Dan Brown’s novel which has not been without charges of plagiarism against it, of course.
On the other hand, the Bible does not give us a lot of information about Mary Magdalene. We’re told that Jesus freed her from possession by 7 demons (Luke 8:2); and that she followed Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem; and was present at the cross (Mark 15:40, Mat. 27:55,56,61 & John 19:25). We further learn that she was also present when they laid Jesus in the tomb (Mark 15:47 & Mat.27:61), and she was the first to see Jesus in resurrection (John 20:1-18). Evidently, she was from Magdala or Magadan, a village on the westerly shoreline of Lake Galilee. Luke calls her ‘Mary, who was called Magdalene’ (Luke 8:2).
In contrast to those few innocent facts, stands the most scandalous claim which Brown repeats in his book, namely that of an alleged relationship between Jesus and this Mary who is often viewed as an ex-prostitute. However, even those hostile to Jesus Christ have never been able to show that he was ever criticised by his enemies for his conduct with women (though his enemies did accuse him of other things like breaking the Sabbath and fraternizing with blatant sinners). If sincere proponents of Brown’s conspiracy theory are prepared to pay at least as much attention to the Bible as they do to extra-biblical sources, then it would surely repay them to study the text of 1 Cor.9:5 where the apostle Paul asserts his right to be married if he were to so chose, because, he says, other apostles like Peter had done so. This essentially amounts to a proof (for those who may need one) that Jesus was never married, for Paul would never have cited the example of Peter as a married man if he could have cited the example of Jesus himself! No, Jesus lived a single life: and that’s something equally clear from ancient sources both for or against the Bible.
So what then is the appeal in Brown’s type of story which is a fresh serving up of speculative ideas that have been around for two thousand years and never made it past legend status? Could it simply be that many people find conspiracy theories fascinating? For example, many people seemingly would like to know if there really was a plot to eliminate Diana, Princess of Wales? Or if the US government is telling us all there is to know about claimed UFO landings? And is there a secret organisation that controls the direction of world governments? To this list we should add this other, most persistent theory: have major religious institutions suppressed the truth that Jesus was just a man, that he married Mary Magdalene, and has descendents living now in France?
The allure of a conspiracy theory is that it taps into a sense that many people appear to share: that there are powers out there that want to keep us in the dark and feed us a lie, and that somewhere there’s a greater liberating truth if only we could find it. Well, here’s a plot for you! It involves powerful forces in dark places. It’s worldwide. It touches the lives of everyone on the planet. I can tell you that there truly is a dark conspiracy to keep the real truth from us and it’s woven with half-truths and downright lies, and the consequences are serious.
One ancient writer describes it like this: ‘The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools’. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator– who is for ever praised. Amen (The Apostle Paul in Romans 1:18-25).
The question to ask is: Am I part of this conspiracy? Am I suppressing the truth? Am I in denial about the God who made us? Do I choose instead to believe a lie? Our first parents, the Bible tells us (in Genesis chapter 3), bought into a conspiracy theory that there was something better than what God had planned for them to enjoy. Their story is our story too. For we, too, often believe we know better than what God says in the Bible. It may be we interpret science against it or comfort ourselves with a man-made, substitute religion which is in conflict with divinely revealed truth.
To discover the liberating truth for ourselves we need to be prepared to go from hero to zero: to acknowledge that, actually, we’re the villain of this plot, which is the greatest ever perpetuated since the dawn of time: a plot to suppress the truth about God. The Da Vinci Code is only a small part of it. The Bible fact is that Jesus came to liberate us with the truth (John 8:32).
On the basis of solid biblical evidence we need to face up to the fact that Jesus was, and is, more than a man. He’s identified with God (‘I and My Father are one’ John 10:30); he accepted worship (‘And he worshiped Him’ John 9:38); he forgave sins (‘Your sins are forgiven you’ Mark 2:5); His character was ‘without blemish and without spot’ (1 Pet.1:19); and he was understood to claim to make ‘Himself equal with God’ (John 5:18).
These facts are from the Bible which claims to be the Word of God to us (and demonstrates that by the fulfilled prophecies it contains over 300 of which materialized in an exceptionally detailed way in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ). What’s more, the form in which we have the Bible today is reliable as judged by the same objective criteria which experts of ancient literature apply to all ancient texts. Their unequivocal conclusion is that if we can’t accept the Bible as authentic then we must doubt all ancient literature! One small but significant piece of internal evidence for the Bible’s authenticity is the place it gives to women (like Mary Magdalene!). At a time when their testimony counted for little in society, the Bible uses them as lead witnesses to the best-attested fact of all history – the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Bible’s liberating truth is best expressed in the words of Jesus:
‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6)