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The da Vinci code (book review)

The Da Vinci Code (Robert Langdon, #2)The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

One of the best-selling novels in recent times has been The da Vinci code by Dan Brown, and now the story has been made into a film.

Not only has the novel sold very well, but it has also generated a number of lucrative spin-offs – there are more than 20 books that claim to interpret The da Vinci code. There was a court case in which the authors of some other books sued Dan Brown for stealing some of his ideas from their books. They lost their case, but the publicity did them no harm: sales of their books soared as well.

In many ways the enormous popularity of The da Vinci code is hard to understand. It is not a particularly well-written book. It is a mystery/conspiracy novel, and there have been several other novels of that type recently, some better-written than Dan Brown’s book, but none of them has sold nearly as many copies, or been the subject of quite as much hype.

One feature of the book, which has led to several television programmes and feature articles in magazines and newspapers, has been that the novel puts forward some tendentious ideas on history in general, and church history and art history in particular, which the author has hinted are based on fact. The articles and TV programmes have treated us to quotes and sound bites from experts in various fields, and usually end up by saying that it’s up to the reader or viewer to choose between the various views expressed.

One of the most obvious errors in The da Vinci code concerns St Mary Magdalene, one of the three Holy Myrrhbearers and Equal to the Apostles. Dan Brown tries to give the impression that the Church has somehow tried to suppress all information about her, and to portray her as a prostitute.

We should be quite clear that the Orthodox Church has never tried to portray St Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. She was healed by Jesus and became one of his disciples. She was a witness to his burial, and was the first witness of his resurrection, bearing the news to the other disciples (for this reason she is called Equal-to-the-Apostles).

After our Lord’s bodily Ascension she continued to bear witness to the resurrection, and it is said that she once met the Roman Emperor, and was holding an egg in her hand. When she told him of the resurrection of Christ, the Emperor was sceptical, and said if someone rose from the dead, the egg in her hand would turn red, and it promptly did – hence the custom of blessing red eggs at Pascha.

St Mary Magdalene worked with St John the Theologian in Ephesus, where she died and was buried, and in the 9th century her incorrupt relics were removed to the Church of the Monastery of St Lazarus in Constantinople.

In the West a very late and quite unfounded legend arose at the time of the translation of her relics that she had gone with Martha and Lazarus to the south of France by sea and was buried there. In his novel, Dan Brown treats this legend as fact.

There is no evidence that St Mary Magdalene bore a child to Jesus, as Dan Brown asserts, or that the descendants of this line were the Merovingian kings of France. Of course The da Vinci code is fiction, and a novelist can make his characters say or do anything he likes.

But Dan Brown got most of his ideas on church history from books that are not novels, but claim to be serious and factual. They are Holy blood and Holy Grail and The messianic legacy by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln.

Since so much of the “factual” material in The da Vinci code is taken from The Messianic legacy, it too needs a review, and the question is, is it history or fiction?

The main theme of The messianic legacy appears to be the way in which a small semi-secret society, the Prieuré de Sion, is seeking to achieve its objective of restoring a Merovingian monarch to the throne of France. The Merovingians apparently claimed descent from the Old Testament House of David, and in an earlier work, The holy blood and the holy grail, the authors put forward the hypothesis that this decent was through Jesus or his immediate family.

The Merovingians (descendants of Merovech) were kings in what is now France from the 5th to the 8th century, and they conquered the Visigoths who had sacked Rome in AD 410, bringing away treasure reputed to include the treasures of the temple at Jerusalem, which had itself been sacked by the Romans in AD 70.

Baigent et al. have written the book in three parts. The first, “The Messiah” deals with the idea of the Messiah in Judaism and early Christianity. The second, “The quest for meaning”, deals with faith and symbolism in modern Western society. The third is a bewilderingly detailed account of contacts and connections between the Prieure de Sion and various national and international figures and organisations in the twentieth century.

The connections between the three parts of the book are not at all clear, and nor it is clear how material in the first two parts contributes to the hypothesis. The authors have included a lot of material without bothering to make it clear why they have included it.

The first part, on the idea of the Messiah, seems to be intended to show that a descendant of the Jewish royal line could have gone to the Celtic area, on the Western seaboard of Europe. The authors throw in facts, fallacies, speculations and conjectures, most of which seem irrelevant to whatever point it is they are trying to make. Their knowledge of history seems shaky at several points, and they don’t even attempt to paper over the cracks.

Briefly, their thesis seems to be that Jesus went to Jerusalem intending to become king of the Jews. The attempt was foiled by his arrest and execution at the hands of the Romans and Jewish collaborators. The succession passed to his brother James, and then this Jewish royalist/nationalist movement split, with the larger part, led by Paul, severing connections with Jewish nationalism. The nationalist section continued, however, as the Ebionites, who later made an alliance with the Nestorians, who provided a kind of theological halfway house. The Nestorians were influential in Egypt, and from there spread to Ireland, where in some unspecified fashion they were linked to the Prieuré de Sion. There are too many gaps, and much of it is based on false assumptions. It simply does not make sense.

Quite a large proportion of the illustrations in the book make the point of similarities between Egyptian and Irish Christianity. The authors say that Nestorius was exiled to Egypt, and when Nestorius was condemned as a heretic in 451 the Egyptian Church refused to accept the ruling it split with “Roman Orthodoxy” and formed the Coptic Church.

This is simply a gross distortion of history, and shows that the authors did not do their homework. The majority of Egyptian Christians did not accept the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon in 451, but for precisely the opposite reason that Baigent & Co hint at. They thought the Council was too Nestorian, they and preferred the teaching of their own former bishop Cyril, who was utterly opposed to Nestorius. The reason the Nestorian leaders were exiled to Egypt was quite simple: The Egyptian church was so opposed to Nestorianism that if they tried to preach it there, there would be no danger that anyone would believe them. So whatever was exported from Egypt to Ireland or anywhere else, it was not Nestorian/Ebionite teaching, but the exact opposite.

Egyptian missionaries did go to France, and Christian monasticism was first developed in Egypt. Monasticism was exported to most other parts of the Christian world, and thus provided the chief instrument for the evangelisation of Europe and part of Asia. Between 500 and 1500 most Christian missionaries were monks. Baigent et al., however, make some astoundingly naive statements – for example that the monastic movement in Egypt “represented a form of opposition to the rigidly hierarchical structures of Rome”, and that the monks were “tolerant” as opposed to the “intolerant” urban church. In fact the reverse was true. The Egyptian monks regarded the urban church as lax and effete, and they kept out of the cities for that reason.

The second part of the book deals with faith and symbols in Western European society. In some ways it is the best part. The authors are for the most part giving their own opinions, and are therefore not trying to base conclusions on “facts” that (in the first part) often turn out to be conjecture or wrong guesses. They look at the loss of faith in Western European society, and the consequent search for substitute faiths, such as Communism and Nazism. When they get on to some aspects of modern Christianity, they go off the rails again. A notable example is their attempt to make the British Israel theory a necessary part of fundamentalism, and even of South African apartheid. Now while it is true that some British Israelites might be fundamentalists, and that some supporters of apartheid were British Israelites, the British Israel theory was certainly not a part of fundamentalism, nor was it necessarily part of the thinking of those who formulated the apartheid policy. This is a failure in logic as well as in facts.

How it fits in with the third part is not clear, unless it is intended to show that monarchy is a powerful symbol that can be linked with faith. But if that is the intention, it certainly does not succeed.

The third part is a very detailed account of meetings and connections of various members of the Prieure de Sion and possible members with insurers, spies, politicians and others. It seems to bear no relation to the other two parts, and the point it is trying to make is obscure. The authors end up by saying that they are sympathetic towards some of the objectives of the Prieuré de Sion, but sceptical or dubious about others. The trouble is that they have not made it very clear what those aims are. They do seem to think, however, that the Prieuré de Sion might be capable of producing a Messiah of the kind that the authors think Jesus actually was.

But this, like much of the rest of the book, is based on a fallacy.

The Prieuré de Sion, usually rendered in English translation as Priory of Sion or Priory of Zion, has, since 1956, been an alleged cabal featured in many conspiracy theories and works of pseudohistory. It has been characterized as anything from the most influential secret society in Western history to a modern Rosicrucian-esque ludibrium, but, ultimately, has been shown to be a hoax created by Pierre Plantard. Most of the evidence presented in support of claims pertaining to its historical existence, let alone significance, have not been considered authentic or persuasive by established historians, academics, and universities (from Wikipedia).

The real mystery of The da Vinci code

The real mystery of The da Vinci code is how such a mediocre book has managed to sell so many copies. Even in the genre of conspiracy novels, it is far from the best (if you want a good conspiracy novel, try Foucault’s pendulum, by Umberto Eco). The da Vinci code is too predictable and unconvincing.

The main characters, supposedly an expert cryptographer and symbologist (whatever that may be) who cannot recognise mirror writing (which Leonardo da Vinci was known to have practised) are just too thick for words. They go on for pages as pages wondering what can be the meaning of some or other puzzle, when the reader can see that the answer is starting them in the face. And this happens not once, but several times in the book. The de Villiers code by Tom Eaton was a much better read, though since it is a send-up of The da Vinci code, one needs to have read that first. It’s the only good reason I can think of for reading it.

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