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March 4, 2004

Cracking the ‘Da Vinci Code’

davinci“Everyone loves a conspiracy,” a librarian character observes in Dan Brown’s Holy Grail murder mystery, “The Da Vinci Code.”

For evidence of that, you needed to look no further on Feb. 20 than the 35th floor of the Cathedral of Learning, where the Honors College presented a lecture by religious studies professor Rebecca I. Denova entitled, “All in the Family: Jesus, Mary Magdalene and ‘The Da Vinci Code.’”

About 90 students, faculty and staff squeezed into every chair and square foot of floor space in the Honors College quarters, even sitting shoulder-to-shoulder all the way up the stairs leading to the 36th floor’s reading room balcony.

All to hear about a best-selling thriller (more than 2 million hardback copies sold, and counting) that posits a conspiracy of literally Biblical proportions: A paternalistic, power-hoarding Roman Catholic Church has suppressed the truth about Jesus — that he was, in fact, a mortal prophet elevated to god-like status by the pagan emperor Constantine for political reasons, and actually was married to Mary Magdalene, who at his crucifixion was carrying his unborn child; their descendants turned up in France as the Merovingian royal dynasty.

Brown’s symbologist hero and code-cracking heroine learn that the Holy Grail was not the chalice from which Jesus drank but, rather, a metaphor for Mary Magdalene’s womb, as Leonardo Da Vinci made clear in his painting of the Last Supper, which shows no chalice but does depict a feminine-looking figure to Jesus’ right commonly thought to be St. John but who was, in reality, Mary Magdalene….

“There’s almost nothing new here,” Denova declared. “Dan Brown didn’t make up a whole lot that hadn’t already been claimed by earlier writers,” the best-known in recent memory being the authors of “Holy Blood, Holy Grail,” published in the 1980s and hugely successful in Europe (which is one reason “The Da Vinci Code” hasn’t electrified Europeans as much as it has Americans, Denova said).

Brown’s real accomplishment, according to Denova, was in synthesizing many different conspiracy theories and historical themes: Grail mythology, the Knights Templar and their shadowy (most historians say fictitious) successors the Prior of Sion, the Catholic sect Opus Dei (the personal prelature of Pope John Paul II), Gnosticism and — linking all of these elements — the cult of the “sacred feminine” Mother Earth goddess.

“The theory is that many of the elements of the rise of the cult of Mary in medieval Europe actually are a cover. It’s not really the mother of Jesus they’re talking about at all, it’s Mary Magdalene,” Denova said.

“Could Jesus have been married?” she asked, rhetorically. “Yes. Do I personally think he was? Yes.”

Any adult male in Jesus’s culture would have married, said Denova, author of “The Things Accomplished Among Us: Prophetic Tradition in the Structural Pattern of Luke-Acts” (Sheffield, 1997) and numerous articles on early Christianity.

“There were no such things as committed or confirmed bachelors in the ancient world,” she maintained, apparently discounting the influence on Jesus and Jewish society of contemporary ascetic sects such as the Essenes.

“I can’t imagine a man of Jesus’ age not being married and having credibility with the crowd,” Denova continued. “And we know he had credibility with crowds because if he hadn’t had a large following, Rome would not have bothered to execute him.”

She said a growing number of historians are exploring the theory (which made its way into “The Da Vinci Code”) that Jesus was less a sacrificial lamb than a political revolutionary pressing his rightful claim as a descendant of King David to the ancient throne of Israel. “This theory holds that the real reason Rome killed him had nothing to do with his spiritual teachings,” said Denova. “The mobs following him wanted a king of the Jews so they could get rid of Rome.”

As for book’s dismissal of Jesus’ divinity, Denova commented: “In the first three gospels, Jesus is depicted as a human being. ‘Son of God’ does not mean divinity and it couldn’t mean divinity. This is a Jewish world. Nobody would have listened to a word he said if he actually claimed to be, literally, the son of God. Son of God was a title used by all Jews…but particularly holy men or prophets or anyone who claimed to have a special relationship with God.

“In Mark, Matthew and Luke, in order for the crucifixion to mean anything, it had to hurt. If Jesus is God on the cross, that’s the biggest sham in history. The writers do not present him as a divine being on that cross. He’s very human. It hurts like hell. That’s their point. It is only in the Gospel of John where we begin to get this different concept. John introduces the idea of something called the ‘divine man,’ something very common in the Mediterranean basin — that you could come from the outside and be human simultaneously. It’s a lot more complicated than the way the later church would have you read John.”

Before Arian Christianity (which held that Jesus was mortal) was declared to be heretical at the Council of Nicea in 325, it had spread into the Balkans and up the Danube to central Europe, where migrating tribes adopted it, said Denova. “Most Christians don’t know that all of those horrible, mean barbarians that sacked Rome were, in fact, Christians. Only they’re heretic Christians. They’re the wrong kind. They’re Arians.”

Gnostics, who differentiated between Christ the heavenly redeemer and Jesus the man, also thrived among early European Christians. Some Gnostics preached that Christ never took on a human body at all.

At the far reaches of the Christianized Roman Empire, Arians, Gnostics and other heretics “could more or less do their own thing because church authority hadn’t reached that far yet,” Denova said. “So that’s why, from very early on, you have this tradition of non-traditional or unorthodox thinking among Christians in Europe” — a tradition that “The Da Vinci Code” taps into.

Denova called the novel “great beach trash” and Brown “a great writer,” a wildly generous assessment compared with those of most reviewers.

Although The New York Times gave it a big thumbs-up, other mainstream publications mocked the novel’s easy-to-solve riddles and telegraphed plot twists, and decried its historical inaccuracies, theological distortions and relentless Vatican-bashing. Writing in The Times of London, critic Peter Millar called the book “without doubt, the silliest, most inaccurate, ill-informed, stereotype-driven, cloth-eared, cardboard-cutout-populated piece of pulp fiction that I have read. And that’s saying something.”

Among the numerous howlers that “Da Vinci Code”-busters have cited:

• “During Constantine’s time, Christianity was not a religion on the rise, but a persecuted cult whose very existence was in danger,” wrote Tel Aviv University professor Aviad Kleinberg, in a review of “The Da Vinci Code” published in Jerusalem’s Haaretz Daily. “At the Council of Nicea it was not decided that Jesus was divine — this is already hinted at in the New Testament and has been accepted by most Christians since the beginnings of Christianity.”

• The belief in a secret order called the Priory of Sion (supposedly presided over through the centuries by such luminaries as Da Vinci, Sir Isaac Newton and Jean Cocteau) originated with forged documents placed in Paris’s Bibliotheque Nationale in the 1930s and 1940s.

• The Opus Dei “monk” who murders to suppress the “sacred feminine” truth about Mary Magdalene is portrayed wearing monkish robes. Opus Dei has no monks.

• Rather than representing an androgynous self-portrait, Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” has been well-documented as portraying the wife of nobleman Francesco da Giocondo.

• Leonardo’s “The Last Supper” is not a fresco, as Brown repeatedly describes it, but a tempera painting on stone. And because it depicts the moment when Jesus announces that one of his disciples will betray him — not the blessing of the wine — it’s no surprise that a chalice is not in sight. As for the figure to Jesus’ right, John traditionally was depicted as an effeminately handsome youth with long hair.

The list goes on…a 14th century pope hardly could have thrown the ashes of Knights Templar into the Tiber, being in exile in Avignon at the time…Brown’s contention that the church burned 5 million witches at the stake is at least 100 times higher than the actual number…bishops, not the Knights Templar, built Europe’s gothic cathedrals…. None of the above stopped “The Da Vinci Code” from becoming America’s No. 1 best-selling fiction title and the beach-read of last summer.

As a religious studies professor and a historian, Denova said, she has “many problems” with the novel.

As a professional writer, she confessed: “My biggest complaint is that I didn’t think of the idea first.”

—Bruce Steele

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