Running The Da Vinci Code Through Academic Analysis

June 16, 2006 at 7:16 am 3 comments

The Da Vinci Code:

Dan Brown’s, The Da Vinci Code has become a best-seller. Unlike most best-selling fictional novels, Brown’s work has inspired many of the reading public to accept his fictional reworking of Christianity. This particular occurrence has become an increasing migraine to both various Christianities and the academic discipline of study of religion as a whole. As Richard Swanson has noted, the question on many people’s minds, is, “but is it true?” This essay firstly seeks to answer that very question. I shall provide an outline of Brown’s theory as presented in The Da Vinci Code, and consider its historical and theological validity. Despite the fact that I answer this question with a clearly resounding, “no”, I will also attempt to consider why in fact Brown’s novel and theories have enjoyed such a popular reception. It is my contention that Brown has, rather skilfully, drawn upon pre-existing conceptions of Jesus and Christian history. Brown’s success can be largely drawn to his placement of pre-existing notions together.

The Da Vinci Code is essentially concerned with a conspiracy within the Catholic Church to maintain the secrecy of the ‘true’ story of Jesus. The novel begins with the murder of a curator of the Louvre, ‘Jacques Souneire’. Due to the symbolism found on Souneire’s body, the novel’s main character, ‘Robert Langdon’, a professor of ‘Religious Symbology’ at Harvard University is called in. Very quickly, Langdon is on a fast paced chased through the works of Leonardo Da Vinci with the help of ‘Sophie Nevue’, a cryptologist, to track down the secret that Souneire died keeping: the matter of the holy blood line of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Their adventure to the truth is met with varying degrees of resistance, through the work of the Catholic order, Opus Dei.

Throughout the novel, Brown constructs a significantly altered portrayal of Jesus and early Christianity, all of which he holds to be factual.

According to Brown, Jesus and Mary Magdalene were a married couple, the offspring of which became the bloodline of the Holy Grail; as the Holy Grail is in fact, the womb of Mary Magdalene. Through this ‘radical revelation’, Brown tells his audience that the traditional grail myths of Arthurian Romance were actually a quest to discover the, “lost goddess.” The grail is used symbolically in the mythological texts, as these quests were performed against a background of the rule of the Catholic Church, who, “subjugated women and banished the Goddess.”

Not only does the Church wish to keep Jesus and Mary Magdalene relationship hidden, but has also greatly distorted early Christian religious belief and practice. The above relationship resulted in the practice of ‘hieros gamos’: sacred sexual intercourse performed in recognition of Jesus’ and Mary Magdalene’s union. Furthermore, contends Brown, within early Christianity, Jesus was worshipped as a noble, wise, yet wholly human figure. The deification of Jesus was initiated by Constantine who did so out of personal political motivations. Constantine was also responsible for the rejection and demonisation of Mary Magdalene as a figure and her worship. Further to this, the changes that Constantine initiated required him to reject a large number of ‘extra gospels’ that do not correlate with the above changes. These rejected gospels, of which states Brown, there are approximately 80, can now be seen in the Gnostic texts found in the Nag Hammadi Codices. Those gospels that are not found here can be seen in the texts held by the Priory of Sion: a secret society that has such esteemed members as Leonardo Da Vinci and Sir Isaac Newton.

Brown’s novel, in its attempt to portray history, is an example of deeply flawed pseudo-history. He has primarily relied on a collection of ‘alternative history’ sources; when he has utilised primary sources, such as the Nag Hammadi texts, his interpretations border on ridiculous.

The notion that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married is primarily based on the following statement in the Gnostic text, The Gospel of Philip:

As for the Wisdom who is called “the barren,” she is the mother of the angels. And the companion of the […] Mary Magdalene. […] loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her [mouth.]

However, as the writers at note, this exchange between Mary and Jesus is far from romantic. Rather, it is a symbolic act. This can be easily discovered in a preceding passage of the Gospel of Philip:

It is from being promised to the heavenly place that man receives nourishment. […] him from the mouth. And had the word gone out from that place, it would be nourished from the mouth and it would become perfect. For it is by a kiss that the perfect conceive and give birth. For this reason we also kiss one another. We receive conception from the grace which is in one another.

In using Gnostic texts as evidence for this relationship, Brown ignores the inherent asceticism and doceticism of Gnosticism. For many Gnostics, the notion of Jesus and Mary Magdalene married would have been quite abhorrent! Let alone any notion of sacred sexuality. Additionally, Brown fails to consider the importance of ‘breath’ in its Gnostic context.

In The Hypostasis of The Archons, God gives the clay man, Adam, created by the Archons a soul through breath: “ …and he breathed into his face; and the man came to have a soul (and remained) upon the ground many days.” Clearly, Brown’s use of Gnostic texts greatly distorts their meaning.

Furthermore, Brown assumes that the notion of Jesus being married, to Mary Magdalene or any other, would be dangerous or damaging to Christianity. However, as Darrell Brock notes, this surely wouldn’t have been the case. Brock points out that in Paul’s defence of his right to take a wife, he mentions that other apostles took wives: “had Jesus been married, Paul would have certainly mentioned such an important detail; it would have clinched his argument.” Additionally, it would be strange indeed if the Christian tradition were threatened by Jesus being married, considering the great importance that tradition and the Gospels place upon marriage.

Brown’s contention that the Holy Grail myth is concerned with the bloodline of Mary Magdalene and Jesus is also problematic. The grail myths have their origins in late 12th century Britain, and were concerned with a quest for the cup of the last supper of Jesus and his apostles. While the Catholic Church did not sanction or encourage them, the notion that they are representative of the worship of Mary Magdalene is in contradiction to currently available archaeological evidence. Britain, despite its Christianisation, held onto its paganistic burial practices until the 8th century. However, by the 12th century, Britain was by the large part, wholly Christianised.

Rather than finding sacred sexuality in gnosicism, one can see clear parallels between Browns use of the chalice or grail, and the practice of ‘hieros gamos’ in modern Neo-Pagan and occult practices. There exists very little evidence for the practice of sacred sexuality within Christianity. The exception can be drawn to claims of such practices within Valentinian Gnosticism.
However these concepts are drawn from Christian heresologists, who perhaps used such notions in an attempt to demonise Gnosticism. Furthermore, as stated above, Gnosticism was generally strictly docetic, thus any notion of sacred sexuality is incredibly unlikely.

While it is possible that Brown has drawn the notion of hieros gamos from ancient pagan rituals, the context that Brown places this practice in has very little to do with fertility rites! Indeed, Brown presents the hieros gamos as a tool for contacting the divine: “the next time you find yourself with a woman, look into your heart and see if you can approach sex as a mystical, spiritual act…find the spark of divinity that man only can achieve through the sacred feminine.” Indeed, this description is reminiscent of the practices of Aliester Crowley and Gerald Gardner. The use of a woman to achieve union with the divine is considerably similar to Crowley’s conception of such practices. Furthermore, the notion of utilising sexual intercourse to cause the individuation process: the joining of the masculine and feminine within oneself, is a Jungian notion that has been incorporated into Neo-Pagan belief. The connection between Brown’s hieros gamos and Neo-Pagan concepts is furthered when one considers Brown’s use of the chalice or grail as a symbol of Mary Magdalene’s body. Within Neo-Paganism, the chalice is also considered to be representative of the female body, and is often used in a symbolic re-enactment of sexual union. Evidently, Brown’s conception of sacred sexuality is not related to Christianity, but it is highly possible that it is drawn from modern Neo-Pagan and occult practices.

Brown’s contention that Constantine was responsible for the deification of Jesus is blatantly incorrect and deeply ignorant of Christian history. It is clear that Jesus was indeed considered to be divine from the very beginning of the Christian movement. Furthermore, the notion that Constantine was responsible for the rejection of texts on the basis that they spoke of Jesus’ humanity and celebrated Mary Magdalene and the sacred feminine is deeply problematic. This ignores the focus on Jesus’ earthly life that the New Testament gospels provide.
Furthermore, in contradiction to what Brown claims, the Gnostic gospels are primarily focused on the spiritual, ethereal Jesus, not an earthly, materialistic man. Brown condemns the Catholic Church’s and the New Testament’s portrayal of women, and Mary Magdalene in particular. While this may be appropriate to a certain point, looking toward Gnostic texts is not necessarily an adequate solution. In some texts, women and Mary Magdalene are certainly given a higher status and more positive evaluation than they are afforded by ‘orthodox’ treatments. However, Gnostic texts also exhibit the self-same misogynism that Brown attacks in the New Testament and the Catholic tradition.

Clearly, much of what Brown has concocted deeply problematic; indeed one may say that he is ignorant of religious history. However, The Da Vinci Code is immensely popular, and many readers accept Brown’s particular portrayal of religious history, despite its clear flaws. This phenomenon reminds us that there are many Jesus’. Brown’s Jesus is perhaps so popular because he reflects the images of Jesus that can be found in wider, secularised popular culture. Brown has utilised the work of various alternative historians, and has seemingly meshed these ideas with the popularised representations of Jesus.

Brown’s representation of Jesus’ humanity and sexuality has a clear place in both alternative history and popular culture. Clinton Bennet traces this conception of Jesus to the work of Joseph Renan in the 19th century. Renan portrayed an inherently human Jesus. Despite Renan’s Jesus never actually indulging in sexual activity, the theme of sexuality runs throughout his work. However, it is by Brown’s own admittance that he has utilised the work of Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincon, Holy Blood, Holy Grail. This work, as with Brown’s was immensely popular. Brown’s and Baigent’s et al, conception of Jesus as a human, sexual being is widely reflected in popular culture. In Tim Beaudin’s study of the spirituality of ‘Generation X’ through popular culture, he found the above two themes represented in abundance.
Indeed, according to Beaudin, Jesus is often depicted as an old man, who essentially has aged as with the rest of humanity. Furthermore, the connection of the sacred with sexuality is apparently a driving force in our postmodern world. Cathy McKee has stated that: “religious imagery is twice as likely to be found in videos that also use sexual imagery than those without.” Burrows and Terry Eagleton has summarised my point. Both contend that Brown’s popularity can be drawn to his connection of the sacred with the sexual. This is in stark contrast to the absolute nonexistance of sexuality in the Christian tradition. As Eagleton has noted, “the New Testament says nothing (of sex), while the general population is obsessed with it.”

Brown’s portrayal of the Catholic Church as a sinister and powerful institution who both takes Jesus away from his ‘true’ meaning, and has demonised women, especially Mary Magdalene, is also not original. Beaudin and Harvey Cox have noted a particularly strong trend in Generation X to de-institutionalise Jesus: Jesus is seen as separate and even against the Church. A prime attack by Brown against the Catholic Church has been its treatment of women, and its portrayal of Mary Magdalene. This too comes as no surprise. The feminist movement has long criticised Christianity, and especially the Catholic Church. Popular movements, ranging from Neo-Paganism to neo-Gnostic feminist spirituality are currently attempting to recover the ‘sacred divine’. Indeed, many of these groups are particularly interested in reclaiming Christian images of divine femininity.

Wendy Griffin noted the ‘reclaiming’ of the Virgin Mary in her study of feminist witchcraft:
As she circled the altar, her robes swirling gently around her ankles, Mary smiled and said she too was the Goddess…. the priestess/Mary said:
“The Church Fathers and their artists always dress me in blue and white. What they never tell you is that under my robes I wear a red petticoat,” and she lifted her drape to her knees, revealing a bright red petticoat with flounces!
Clearly, Brown’s portrayal of Jesus, the Catholic Church and Mary Magdalene are not original to The Da Vinci Code. Rather, one can perceive the concepts to be part of a wider phenomenon within popular culture.
This essay has provided both an attempt to critique and understand Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. While my outline and critique of Brown’s theory is most certainly not complete, I have explored the main themes of Brown’s work. That the picture of Jesus and Christian history that Brown has provided is erroneous and problematic is clear. Indeed, there exists a fairly wide range of rebuttals to Brown’s theory on the internet. However, despite the apparent ease of which one could discover critiques on Brown’s work, many still consider Brown to have uncovered the ‘truth’. I have attempted to briefly consider why Brown’s theory has been given accepted so widely by considering wider conceptions of the themes behind his work. As there is little academic enquiry as to the reasons why Brown has enjoyed such immense popularity, my examination of this has been necessarily brief. Despite this lack of academic enquiry, my consideration has still drawn important links between Brown’s work and other cultural phenomenon that may help explain the particular cultural phenomenon of The Da Vinci Code.

Bennett, C. 2001. In Search of Jesus. Continuum, London

Beaudin, T. 2001. Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X. Joney-Bass, San Francisco.

Brock, D. 2004. “The Good News of Da Vinci” Christianity Today. vol. 48 no. 1 p. 62.

Brown, D. The Da Vinci Code >> FAQ’s >> Official Website of Dan Brown. accessed on 14/6/06 at 10:00am.

Brown, D. 2004. The Da Vinci Code. Corgi, London.

Cox, H. 1998. “Jesus and Generation X” in Marcus Borg (ed) Jesus at 2000. p. 89. Westview Press, Oxford.

Crowley, V. 1989. Wicca: the Old Religion in the New Age. Aquarian Press, London.

Eagleton, T. 2005. “A Response” Literature and Theology. vol. 19 no. 2. pp. 132-138.

Garlow, J. & Jones, P. Bible Teachers James L. Barlow and Peter Jones Debunk The Da Vinci Code. accessed on the 15/6/06 at 12:35pm.

Griffin, W. 1995. “The Embodied Goddess: Feminist Witchcraft and Female Divinity” Sociology of Religion. vol. 56 no. 1. pp. 35-60.

Burrows, M. 2004. “Gospel Century” The Christian Century. vol. 121 vol. 11. pp. 20-23.

Layton, Bentley. Trans. “The Hypostasis of The Archons” at The Gnostic Society Library. accessed on 14/6/06 at 12:10pm | Frequently Asked Questions. accessed on 14/6/06 at 11:40 am.

McKee, C. 1995. “Strange Bedfellows” Youth and Society, vol. 26 no. 4. pp. 438-449.

Quispel, G. 1996 “The Original Doctrine of Valentinus the Gnostic” Vigiliae Christianae. vol. 50 no. 4 pp. 327-352.

Stortz, M. 2004. “The Da Vinci Code: A Cultural and Religious Phenomenon” Dialog: A Journal of Theology. vol. 48 no. 2. pp. 91-95.

Swanson, R. “Review: The Da Vinci Code: Dan Brown” Dialog: A Journal of Theology. vol. 43 no. 2. pp. 143-144.


Entry filed under: Criticism - The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown, Gnosticism, Jesus, Jesus and Popular Culture, Mary Magdalene, Popular Culture, The Da Vinci Code, Uncategorized.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jane  |  July 24, 2006 at 6:29 am

    you still amaze me with your writing. You should be so proud of yourself.

  • 2. Lana  |  June 20, 2007 at 3:59 am

    I have been reading “The Da Vinci Code” and was fascinated by how everything did seem to fit together so perfectly, and had wondered if it were true. I am so glad you wrote this article. I can tell you are not just someone who thinks they know what they are talking about, and that you have clearly researched this topic. Thank you for the insight, as it was helpful. I’m interested in this topic, so if you have any good recommended reading, I’d love it if you’d e-mail me at Thank you.

  • 3. L.A. Yaqin  |  April 19, 2008 at 1:14 am

    I need helping for all that read this massege, now i am still doing my research related to the da vinci code. title the controversial idiologi view voint in novel the da vinci code wrriten by dan brown.
    would you like to help me. with reference or idea.


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