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A Beginner's Guide to The Da Vinci Code

   This page isn't a comprehensive guide to Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code.  There are plenty of other books and websites which analyse the novel in every detail.  This Beginner's Guide is a short and simple look at the novel's portrayal of Christianity and the history of the Church.  It aims to answer some of the questions which Christians and non-Christians may have after reading the book.  But if you're looking for arcane stuff about architecture, art history and the real layout of streets in Paris, you'll need to go elsewhere.

   This is part of the website of the Anglican parish of St John's Roslyn, in Dunedin, New Zealand.  If you're interested in Christianity, you might want to look at our Beginner's Guide to the Anglican Church as well as this page.

   Warning: the following text may reveal things about the plot of The Da Vinci Code!  We recommend you read the book first.

A Church website recommends reading The Da Vinci Code?!

   Why not?  We aren't out to suppress free speech, and The Da Vinci Code is a readable and often very clever thriller.  But don't forget that it's a work of fiction.  Some of the material which it presents as fact is actually highly incorrect.  The sections below look at some of this material, and we try to sort out what's real from what isn't.

   Please click on one of the section titles below if you want to go directly to that section.

    1: Constantine, the Early Church and the Bible

   According to The Da Vinci Code, Christianity as we know it was largely the creation of the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th century.  Characters in the novel make the claim that Jesus started something very different, which was suppressed when the Church became part of the state.

Who was Constantine and how was he involved with the Church?

   Constantine was Emperor of Rome from A.D. 312 to 337.  There is a story that he had a vision of a Christian cross before an important military victory; in truth, his conversion to Christianity was probably at least partly for political reasons.  In A.D. 325 he convened the Council of Nicaea, which established some rules for Church administration and also developed the Nicene Creed, a formal statement of Christian belief.

Is it true that he chose the content of the New Testament for political ends?

   No.  Although the Biblical canon (the set of writings which Christians count as scripture) was made official in Constantine's time, there was general agreement on almost the same selection of books by about A.D. 200.

What about Dan Brown's claim that the four Gospels were chosen, out of over 80 candidate documents, to support the idea that Jesus was divine?

   The four Gospels, and only those four, were generally accepted by the Church before A.D. 200.  There are many other documents from the period of the early Church which are called Gospels, but in general they are shorter and more specific pieces of writing, and not general narrative histories like the four Gospels that made it into the Bible.  Many of them are of later date, but the canonical Gospels were all written by about A.D. 100.

   The four canonical Gospels are definitely not the ones which most emphasise the divinity of Jesus.  Some of the unused texts contain descriptions of showy, crowd-pleasing miracles which the main Gospels sensibly ignore.  The Church has always held that Jesus was fully divine but also fully human, and the four Gospels reflect this view.

What about "Q"?

   Apart from being a character in Star Trek, Q is the name given to a lost source document which scholars believe provided material for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  Q stands for the German word Quelle, which just means "source".  Dan Brown suggests that Q was written by Jesus Himself, but there is no evidence for this.

Is it true that a vote was taken at the Council of Nicaea about whether or not Jesus was divine?

   No.  Dan Brown is probably referring to one of the Council's main issues, the Arian controversy.  This was a dispute about the exact nature of the relationship between God and Jesus, but the divinity of Jesus was not in question.  And the vote wasn't "relatively close"; only two bishops, of more than two hundred present, refused to agree to the new Creed.

Was Constantine really a reluctant Christian, baptised only on his deathbed?

   It's true that Constantine was baptised on his deathbed, but the reasons for this are less obvious and more interesting.  Christian belief has always been that a person can only be baptised once.  Baptism (like marriage) is supposed to be permanent.  For much of the history of the Church, Christians also believed that Baptism was essential to get to Heaven.  But certain sins were believed to be so bad that they were unpardonable except by Baptism.  So if a baptised person slipped up too badly, there wasn't a second chance.  It was quite common in the early Church for people to delay their Baptism, for fear of gaining salvation and then losing it again, permanently.

   Our views on forgiveness have changed since, particularly in the Reformed churches.  But at Constantine's time, the fact that he delayed his Baptism is actually a sign that he took Christian teaching very seriously.

   It's undoubtedly true that his support of the religion was partly for political reasons, and he may have had a poor understanding of parts of Christian doctrine, but the evidence suggests that he was genuinely committed to and enthusiastic about his new faith

    2: Mary Magdalene

   Probably the most controversial thing in The Da Vinci Code is the suggestion that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, and that they had a child.

What do we really know about Mary Magdalene and her relationship with Jesus?

   Dan Brown is partly right here.  It's true that Mary probably wasn't a prostitute.  This popular belief arose simply because there are several Marys in the Gospels and people got them, and some un-named characters, mixed up.  (It probably wasn't a deliberate smear campaign.)  Scholars now know better, but the old associations are hard to remove.

   It's also true that Jesus was astonishingly inclusive when it came to women.  The Gospel accounts tell us that Mary was the first person to meet the risen Christ, and she was clearly an important member of His band of followers.

Why are Christians so bothered about the idea that they were married?  Is marriage somehow "wrong"?

   Well, the old Anglican Prayer Book describes marriage as "an honourable estate, instituted of God" and adds that it was, in part, "ordained for the procreation of children".  So, officially, no.

   However, there's always been a strong element in the Church which has held that anything worldly - and especially anything to do with sexual relations or alcohol - is tainted and incompatible with a Godly life.  The more extreme forms of this belief have led to branches of the Church which have seen music, theatre and stained-glass windows as evil.

   These ideas may have their roots in Jewish tradition, where there were holy people known as Nazarites who took vows of celibacy and abstinence.  But it's worth noting that Jesus wasn't one of them; in fact, He was criticised by others for enjoying food and drink, and His first miracle as recorded in John's Gospel was the creation of a very considerable quantity of wine for a party!

   It would actually make very little difference to Christian belief if Jesus had been married.  
It certainly wouldn't "prove" that Jesus wasn't divine, as The Da Vinci Code suggests.  The only significant thing the Church would have to rethink is the Catholic doctrine of priestly celibacy.

Is Dan Brown right in saying that the Church squashed all this worldly stuff?

   To a certain extent, although the Church hasn't generally supported the extremes of asceticism.  Hermits living alone in little huts in remote places have usually been considered especially holy, but the Church has never suggested that most people should be living this way.  Similarly, the Church has (for obvious reasons) never advocated celibacy for the entire population!

But the Church did push women out of leadership roles?

   Guilty as charged!  In the first few centuries, women could and did take part in Church leadership; there were some restrictions, but Christianity was far more inclusive than most other organisations at that time.

   However, the patriarchal structure of Christendom isn't really something the Church created.  When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, it took responsibility for enforcing the Roman social system, which was male-dominated.  So Constantine does take some of the blame here.

   Parts of the Church are now making an attempt to redress the balance and give women an equal place in leadership roles.  The Anglican Church in New Zealand has many female clergy, and the Diocese of Dunedin was, in 1990, the first in the world to appoint a female bishop.

So were Mary and Jesus married?

   Sorry, but there's no reliable evidence that they were.  It's very hard to believe that they could have been married without any definite record having survived.  (Plenty of anti-Christian writings from the time of the early Church are still extant.)

   It would have been unusual for a man like Jesus not to be married, but the usual interpretation of this is simply that He was too busy!  His (step-)father Joseph appears to have died by this time, and Jesus would have had a business and relatives to look after.  Later on He was fully occupied in His ministry.

What about the quotation from the Gospel of Philip?

   Dan Brown's quotation from one of the Nag Hammadi documents is genuine, but its meaning isn't nearly as clear as he makes out.  Firstly, the original document only survives in damaged form, and parts of the quoted passage have been "reconstructed".  Secondly, the Nag Hammadi documents are full of mystical and allegorical meanings, and it's extremely dangerous to take a passage out of context and treat it as "evidence".  Thirdly, the Gospel of Philip may have been written as late as the 3rd century A.D.

   And the novel's claim that, "As any Aramaic scholar will tell you, the word companion . . . literally meant spouse" is completely irrelevant, because the Nag Hammadi documents aren't in Aramaic.  They're Coptic translations from Greek.

Does Leonardo da Vinci's painting "The Last Supper" really depict Mary Magdalene with Jesus?

   No.  The figure to the right (our left) of Jesus is St John, who is normally depicted as a young, beardless man.  He's traditionally the same John who wrote the fourth Gospel some sixty or seventy years later.

   The painting is in poor condition and has been retouched several times, and Dan Brown's description of some of its details goes well beyond what the available evidence can support.

    3: Sinister Secret Societies

   Much of the plot of The Da Vinci Code is about the history and current activities of several secret societies, in particular the Priory of Sion.  Standing in opposition to the Priory, according to the novel, is the shadowy Catholic organisation Opus Dei.

Is the Priory of Sion a real organisation?

   The answer is a resounding "Yes, But".  The organisation does technically exist.  It was registered (rather odd behaviour for a secret society) in France in 1956.  The Dossiers Secrets, a set of documents about the Priory's alleged history found in the French National Library, provided the basis for a book called The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln.  This book in turn provided some of the "historical" background for The Da Vinci Code.  (Possibly too much of the background; a recent court case explored this issue!)  For example, the list of alleged Grand Masters of the Priory of Sion in The Da Vinci Code appears almost identically in the earlier book, which in turn got it from the Dossiers Secrets.

   Unfortunately, the Dossiers Secrets are generally considered to be fakes, and the modern-day Priory of Sion is probably part of the same elaborate hoax.  Most scholars dismiss the ideas in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail as historically unsound.  The modern-day Priory of Sion almost certainly has no real connection to any older organisations.

And the Knights Templar?

   The novel isn't too inaccurate here.  The bits about the organisation finding and looking after the alleged Mary Magdalene documents are fictional, but not actually incompatible with recorded history.  As Dan Brown states, the Templars were brutally suppressed in the early fourteenth century, because they had too much political power.

   It's also true that the Templars were accused of all sorts of un-Christian behaviour, including pagan rites.  But bear in mind that these accusations came from the people who were looking for an excuse to shut them down; they were probably exaggerated and possibly complete fabrications.

   The organisation was probably a legitimate Christian order which simply became too successful for its own good.

What about Opus Dei?

   How would we know?  We're Anglicans, not Catholics.  But it's worth noting that, if you read The Da Vinci Code to the end, you'll find that the only particularly extreme character from Opus Dei is being influenced and directed throughout by a devious and murderous atheist.  The truth is probably that Opus Dei contains some people with extreme views, but that the organisation itself does not support those views.

   The founder's main intention for Opus Dei was to encourage Christians to be attuned to God seven days a week rather than just on Sunday mornings.  This is a good idea, and we approve!

    4: Hidden Pagan Symbols

   In The Da Vinci Code, Leigh Teabing claims that, "Nothing in Christianity is original", and that pre-Christian pagan religion survives secretly in almost every aspect of our culture.

Is it true that a lot of Christianity is just copied from earlier pagan religions?

   The answer is a qualified yes.  A lot of pre-Christian customs were adopted by Christianity, because (a) they were fun and (b) eradicating them wasn't worth the trouble.  Christmas trees are an excellent example, and the date of Christmas is probably pagan in origin; the real birthday of Jesus is unknown.

   One important part of Christian belief is that there is some good in everything, and that in general things can be redeemed instead of being destroyed.

   It's not true that Constantine set Sunday as the Christian day of worship because of his own pagan beliefs.  Sunday was adopted as the Christian sabbath very early on, because it was the day of the Resurrection.  (It was in Constantine's time, when Christianity became the state religion, that Sunday became a public holiday.)

But what about Christian beliefs, such as the Resurrection?  Do they have pagan origins too?

   It's true that Christianity and many earlier religions have much in common.  But this doesn't necessarily mean that Christianity is "just another myth".  C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (who were eminent classical scholars as well as famous authors) believed that some of the big ideas of Christianity are built into the structure of the Universe in such a way that they keep poking through.  The realities underlying the Christian Resurrection, and things like Communion, are always with us, and the pre-Christian religions saw them in a partial form.

   So the truth may be not that Christian beliefs have pagan origins, but that both pagan and Christian beliefs have the same origins.  The Christian position, of course, is that "our" version is the most complete one available to date.  That isn't to say that it's anywhere near being perfect!

So is all that stuff about the "sacred feminine" real?  Are there really hidden pagan meanings all through the world's art and literature?

   It's useful to remember that any adequately large set of data contains things that look like information, but which are really just accidental.  Humans are very good at seeing patterns and meanings in things, whether they exist or not.  Conspiracy theories are fun, but usually the "real" explanation is the simpler one!

   As an example, let's have a quick look at some of the symbolism "hidden" in a well-known novel - The Da Vinci Code itself.  Adopting Dan Brown's own methods, we can easily see that, despite its apparent meaning, it's a strongly pro-Christian book, supporting the divinity of Jesus.  Why?  One clue is that Jesus gets capitalised pronouns throughout, while the "sacred feminine" remains firmly lower-case.  Also, consider the blank verse clues - there are three of them, and they each have three verses.  Three, the number of the Trinity, is a strongly Christian number.  And then there are the anagrams.  "O, Draconian devil!  Oh, lame saint!" is a perfect anagram of "Dan lied!  A vile anachronism too!"

    5: The Holy Grail

   In The Da Vinci Code, the Holy Grail is two things combined: the bloodline of the (alleged) descendants of Jesus, and a set of hidden documents about Jesus and Mary Magdalene.  This interpretation is not the traditional one.

What is the Holy Grail?

   The Grail as we know it was first seen in the 12th-century writings of Chrétien de Troyes, a source for much of the mythology about King Arthur (who was actually a real person, although not a king) and his knights.  Traditionally, it's the cup or chalice used by Jesus at the Last Supper.  However, the Grail story probably pre-dates this association.  It may have roots in Celtic mythology, and the Grail has always been more of a metaphor than a real physical object.

Where do the Knights Templar come into the Grail story?

   The elaborate history outlined in The Da Vinci Code is fictional, but some authors have linked the Grail to the Knights Templar.  A 13th-century Grail story suggests that the Templars were guardians of the Grail.  More recently, author Ian Wilson has argued that the "head" which the Templars were accused of worshipping, and which comes into one of the verse clues in The Da Vinci Code, was in fact the artefact we now know as the Turin Shroud.  This is a long piece of linen cloth which bears a subtle image said to be of Jesus in the tomb after the Crucifixion.  Ian Wilson suggests that the Templars were in possession of the Shroud, folded up and framed so that only the face was visible.

   If this is true, he suggests that the Grail is in fact the Shroud of Turin.  This approach, unlike the one in Dan Brown's book, makes the Grail a strongly Christian object.  Ian Wilson's case is tenuous in places, but in general it fits the evidence.  The only problem is that a subsequent carbon-14 dating places the Shroud's origin firmly in the fourteenth century, well after the Templars were supposed to have it.  However, the dating has recently been questioned, so we don't really have a final answer on this one.

So the Grail isn't a pile of documents about Mary Magdalene?

   It's unlikely.  One of the weakest parts of the plot of The Da Vinci Code is the idea that these documents could be so crucially important.  Most of the characters seem already to know all the information that they contain!  The discovery of a Grail like this would be extremely interesting to scholars, but fairly boring to everyone else.  And, given the amount of contrary evidence from the same period which we already have, Christian belief would probably be unaffected.

What about the alternative translation?

   In the oldest sources, the Grail is called San Graal (or closely related words), meaning Holy Grail.  Dan Brown suggests that this, with slight tweaks to the spelling, is a typo for Sang Real which means Royal Blood.  This idea is at the centre of the book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.

   However, few scholars would support this translation.  And again, even if there were descendants of Jesus, it's hard to see that it would have much effect on anything after all this time.

The name Dunedin is an ancient form of Edinburgh.  So if the Holy Grail isn't hidden at Rosslyn, Edinburgh . . . what about Roslyn, Dunedin?

   No comment!

   If you found this web page interesting, you might like to listen to some of the sound recordings of sermons available elsewhere on this website.  (Don't be put off by the bad reputation of the word "sermons" - they are actually quite good!)  Some particularly relevant ones are:

sermon title
Constantine, the Nicene Creed and Christendom
2004 Archive
Women in the early Church
Searching for Eden
2006 Archive
The Church and sexuality
The Song of Songs
2003 Archive
The Da Vinci Code and the Priory of Sion
What Have You Got to Say for Yourself?
2005 Archive
Pagan customs in Christianity
The Fir Tree
2003 Archive
C.S. Lewis, Christianity and pagan beliefs
Echoes of Deep Truth
2006 Archive
The Holy Grail as a Christian metaphor
Whom Does the Grail Serve?
2003 Archive

A Beginner's Guide to the Anglican Church
Anglicans Online
A good source of information about all things Anglican, worldwide

Text on this page copyright Alan Firth 2006

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