Saturday, July 31, 2004

Dan Brown’s bestselling novel “The Da Vinci Code,” whose print run is now in the 6 million range a little more than a year after its release, is probably the only airport-rack whodunnit in history to spawn its own debunking industry.

Although “Da Vinci” is a work of fiction, Mr. Brown has argued that its chief claim — that Jesus Christ married Mary Magdalene and founded a feminist religion which the official Christian church suppressed — is historically accurate and based upon reputable research by leading scholars.

That claim, in turn, has provoked outrage among traditionalist Christians, especially Catholics, at what they believe are the gross liberties Mr. Brown has taken with the core historical beliefs of their faith.

“The Da Vinci Hoax,” by Carl E. Olson, editor of Envoy, a Catholic magazine, and Sandra Miesel, a trained medievalist and veteran Catholic journalist, is the latest and perhaps the most thorough (amply sourced and footnoted) and engrossing of the many anti-Brown books that have emerged as sales of “The Da Vinci Code” itself have soared.

It’s also one of the longest, its 307 pages approaching the length of Mr. Brown’s 457-page novel. If that looks to be too long a read for you, try instead Amy Welborn’s “De-Coding Da Vinci” (published by Our Sunday Visitor), which covers the same ground in a brisk 124 pages.

Mr. Brown’s bestseller rests on its author’s assertion that Jesus was not the Jewish Messiah, the founder of Christianity, the Savior of the world, or the Son of God, as Christians have traditionally believed.

Instead, Mr. Brown claims in his book, Jesus was an ordinary rabbi who married his favorite disciple, Mary Magdalene, and sailed with her from the Holy Land to southern France, where their daughter, Sarah, became the head of the religion Jesus actually founded: a form of goddess-worship centered around the “sacred feminine,” as Mr. Brown calls it.

The reason most Christians know nothing about this is that patriarchal and power-grabbing Christian bishops and emperors conspired to cover it up, squelching writings deemed heretical, turning Mary into a prostitute, and, in the most egregious step of all, voting to turn Jesus from mere human being into the Son of God at the Council of Nicaea in 325.

Nonetheless, Jesus’ offspring and the religion they practiced survived underground in Europe in various forms: Gnostic teaching, the Cathar heresy, a medieval cult in southern France dedicated to Mary Magdalene, the Order of the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, and even the witches of today’s Wicca, as well as their claimed predecessors burned at the stake for practicing not witchcraft, but the true religion of Jesus, says Mr. Brown.

The Merovingian dynasty — the Frankish kings who ruled during the early Dark Ages before the era of Charlemagne — were of the bloodline of Jesus, says Mr. Brown, so the Holy Grail of medieval legend (“sangreal,” or “royal blood” in medieval French, according to Mr. Brown) is also part of the story.

The Grail, however, wasn’t really the chalice of Christ’s blood used at the Last Supper, as authors of the Middle Ages believed, but Mary Magdalene’s own female body, Mr. Brown asserts.

Leonardo da Vinci is a key character in the novel because he painted a famous fresco of the Last Supper that includes a blond and beardless apostle John — who Mr. Brown insists was actually Mary Magdalene. For Leonardo was one of the underground faith’s secret followers too. Hence the name of the novel.

Otherwise, as Mr. Olson and Mrs. Miesel shrewdly observe, Mr. Brown’s novel is essentially high-end chick-lit, a mystery-cum-bodice-buster featuring good-looking cardboard characters, a formulaic plot (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, etc.), and a smattering of erudition to flatter the reader’s intellectual vanity.

The hero, Robert Langdon, is a Harvard professor, specializing in something called “symbology,” whatever that is. He meets lovely French anthropologist Sophie Neveu after the corpse of her uncle, a curator at the Louvre, turns up dead in Chapter One.

The killer has arranged the body to resemble another of Leonardo’s famous artworks, his drawing of a naked man inside a compass circle. As the scholarly pair searches for the murderer, it is revealed that Sophie and her uncle are descendants of Jesus, and that the Roman Catholic Church, in the form of the secretive, sinister Catholic religious order Opus Dei, is determined to squelch this information in order to preserve its hegemony over Christian belief.

This twist, too, is scarcely original; the year 2003 also saw the release of “The Order,” a film about a secretive, sinister, Opus Dei-like Catholic religious order also responsible for much villainy.

Any biblical scholar — or medievalist — could have told you that the purported historical basis for Mr. Brown’s plot is so much hokum.

For starters, although there was indeed a medieval cult of Mary Magdalene centered in Provence, there is no evidence that it existed before the 11th century, when the events leading up to the First Crusade generated a Western European rage for all things connected to the Holy Land, and legends about a voyage by Mary from the Levant to France suddenly sprang up out of nowhere.

As for Jesus’ marrying her or anyone else, the New Testament, other early Christian literature, and even the Gnostic texts that Mr. Brown cites as authoritative do not support a conclusion that Jesus had a wife (contrary to Mr. Brown’s assertion in his novel, celibate holy men were a commonplace of first-century Judaism).

In fact, Mr. Brown (as he freely admits) cribbed most of his supposed historical facts from “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” (1982), by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, three non-scholars with vivid imaginations who also link Mary Magdalene, the Merovingians, the Cathars, the Grail, the Templars, and so forth.

Nonetheless, when “The Da Vinci Code” emerged early last year, people who should have known better praised the novel’s supposed erudition. “Exhilaratingly brainy,” said the New York Times. The Chicago Tribune said that Mr. Brown’s book contained “several doctorates’ worth of fascinating history and learned speculation.” The New York Daily News called Mr. Brown’s research “impeccable.” ABC turned the novel into a documentary special, “Jesus, Mary and Da Vinci.”

Mr. Brown had clearly told the nation’s cultural elite what it wanted to hear: that the traditional Christian Gospels were unreliable; that heretics, not orthodox Christians, were the true followers of Jesus; and that there had once been a feminist Christianity that the male-dominated Christian hierarchy had ruthlessly suppressed.

It was not until late last year, as Mr. Olson and Mrs. Miesel point out, when professional art historians began ridiculing Mr. Brown’s misinformation about Leonardo — starting with the appellation “da Vinci,” which was not his last name as Mr. Brown assumes but merely the name of his hometown — that the novelist began to lose his high standing among intellectuals.

All of this and much more Mr. Olson and Mrs. Miesel explore with a meticulousness verging on the finicky in their fine book, and they (unlike Mr. Brown) buttress their conclusions with the research of a panoply of leading scholars of ancient and medieval Christianity.

Their explanation of why Western Christians identified Mary Magdalene with a reformed prostitute is especially thoughtful; they were not seeking to denigrate Mary but to see in her a powerful icon of repentance, “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,” they write.

Nor was the Council of Nicaea the first anyone had ever heard of Jesus’ divinity. Mr. Olson and Mrs. Miesel note that Christians (including nearly all heretics) had believed that Jesus was “in the form of God” since earliest days, and Nicaea merely settled — by an overwhelming vote of the bishops — the technical language for expressing the belief that he was both human and divine.

My own quibbles with this book are of the most niggling sort. I wish that the authors had quoted from more primary sources of ancient material: genuine Gnostic texts rather than scholars writing about Gnosticism.

They incorrectly assert that the word “sangreal” could never have meant “royal blood” as well as “Holy Grail” in Old French. The word “real” was a perfectly good Old French word meaning “royal” (as it does in today’s Spanish); Mr. Brown’s error in translation springs from his vast ignorance of the history of the medieval Grail legend, not false etymology.

Otherwise, Mr. Olson and Mrs. Miesel write gracefully, wear their erudition lightly, and have produced a work that is far more readable, intelligent and valuable than the novel it debunks.

That is as it should be. Soon enough the world will forget Dan Brown’s silly work of fiction. The real battle, which Mr. Olson and Mrs. Miesel fight valiantly, is against the intellectual misapprehensions about Christian history that showered critical acclaim on such a fraudulent book as “The Da Vinci Code.”

Charlotte Allen is the author of “The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus.”

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