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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
But what about Christian
beliefs, such as the Resurrection? Do they have pagan origins
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
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
The name Dunedin is
an ancient form of Edinburgh. So if the Holy Grail isn't hidden
at Rosslyn, Edinburgh . . . what about Roslyn, Dunedin?
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:
|Constantine, the Nicene
Creed and Christendom
|Women in the early Church
|Searching for Eden
|The Church and sexuality
|The Song of Songs
|The Da Vinci Code and
the Priory of Sion
|What Have You Got to Say for
|Pagan customs in Christianity
|The Fir Tree
|C.S. Lewis, Christianity and
|Echoes of Deep Truth
|The Holy Grail as a Christian
|Whom Does the Grail Serve?
on this page copyright Alan Firth 2006