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The Da Vinci Code:
A Fun Bunch of Hooey

By Cathy Schultz, Ph.D.

Leave it to Tom Hanks to put The Da Vinci Code into perspective.

Interviewed for London's Evening Standard, the star of the upcoming blockbuster insists the furor over the film is misplaced. "It's a damn good story and a lot of fun," he asserted, adding that no one should take the film too seriously. It's loaded, he said, "with all sorts of hooey."

He's right, of course. Ultimately the novel--and the film--are enjoyable pieces of escapist fiction. Why then, the uproar--outraged denials from Catholic leaders, testy rebukes from academics, and calls for boycotts from Vatican officials?

Because author Dan Brown has insisted, in interviews and in the novel itself, that his fictional thriller isn't so fictional. The uber-bestseller opens with a page of purported FACTS (the bold capitals are his) asserting that all descriptions of artwork, secret documents, and shadowy organizations like the Priory of Sion are wholly "accurate."

Um, no. They're not.

An army of scholars--both religious and secular--have exposed countless errors in Brown's supposed "facts." Here's a handy distillation of their arguments, designed to help viewers separate the hooey from the truth in The Da Vinci Code.

Q. The Da Vinci Code's main premise is that Jesus actually married Mary Magdalene. True?
A. This notion has floated around for centuries in the shadowy realm of legend and myth. But as historians like Bart Erhman point out, the historical evidence against it is overwhelming. For one thing, not one of the early sources on the historical Jesus--not even the Gnostic gospels Dan Brown cites--ever mention a wife.

But the sources do mention other members of Jesus's family surrounding him, and they mention the spouses of Jesus's followers. So if Jesus had been married, it's logical to assume that at least one mention of her would have survived. But none exist.

Q. But The Da Vinci Code says Jewish custom at the time would "virtually forbid" Jewish men to remain single.
A. That's an exaggeration. Being single may have been unusual, but it wasn't forbidden. Some of Jesus's followers stayed single. And the Essene community (most famous as the producers of the Dead Sea Scrolls) were Jewish contemporaries of Jesus who eschewed marriage.

Q. What about all those secret scrolls which Brown claims reveal a close relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene?
A. Brown vastly overstates this, and the documents he cites are far more ambiguous than he lets on. Here's an example. A passage in the Gospel of Philip, a Gnostic Gospel, refers to Mary as the "companion" of Jesus. In The Da Vinci Code, this passage is cited as powerful evidence of Mary's marriage to Jesus, because, as one character sagely notes, in Aramaic, "companion" actually meant "spouse."

There's just one problem. The Gospel of Philip wasn't written in Aramaic, but in Coptic. And in Coptic, "companion" meant "friend."

Whoops.

The movie dances around this mistake by making the line deliberately fuzzy. Companion meant spouse "in those days," we're told.

Oh, yeah? In what language, pray tell?

Q. In the film, Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen) says the 4th century Council of Nicea (under Constantine) created the New Testament by suppressing gospels that emphasized Jesus's humanity. Also, that they "voted" to "make Jesus divine." True?
A. Off the mark, again. The four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were established as authoritative fairly early in church history. And as Bart Ehrman notes, by 180 A.D. (150 years before Nicea) at least twenty-two of the eventual twenty-seven books in the New Testament had already been fixed as canonical. As for Jesus's divinity, most of his followers had been proclaiming that since the first century A.D.

Other gospels did exist, and those which didn't make the cut contain intriguing ideas which are worth studying. But contrary to what The Da Vinci Code claims, many of those gospels tend to overemphasize Jesus's divine power. And some are just plain odd. Take the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, for instance, in which five-year-old Jesus uses his superhuman powers to kill his playmates when they annoy him.

Kind of glad they left that one out.

Q. Isn't a woman painted next to Jesus in Da Vinci's The Last Supper?
A. Virtually all art historians scoff at this claim, arguing that the figure is instead John, Jesus' favorite disciple. Artists typically painted him closest to Jesus, and made him young, beardless, and beautiful--quite "feminine" to modern eyes.

Q. What about the Priory of Sion, which The Da Vinci Code says has guarded the secret of Mary Magdalene and Jesus since 1099?
A. CBS's 60 Minutes recently aired a piece thoroughly debunking this claim. Turns out the Priory of Sion was a hoax, created in 1956 by a delusional (and anti-Semitic) Frenchman named Pierre Plantard. Plantard declared that the Priory had been founded in the Middle Ages, and that luminaries like Leonardo Da Vinci and Isaac Newton had served as former Grand Masters, claims that Brown turned into "facts."

For proof of all this, Plantard (and The Da Vinci Code) point us to Les Dossiers Secrets, documents supposedly centuries old. But as 60 Minutes noted, analysis of the documents reveal them instead to date from the 1960s. And in fact, a friend of Plantard's admitted years ago to forging them, in order to create, he said, "a good hoax." With Brown's help, he succeeded.

Q. Where can I get more information?
A. Dan Burstein's Secrets of the Code, and Bart Ehrman's Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code are both good. Read them, then take Tom Hanks's advice. Enjoy the film as fiction, and don't buy into the hooey.

But now that I've seen the film, I do have a final pressing question for Mr. Hanks.

Dude, what's with the mullet?

This column will appear in newspapers the weekend of May 19, 2006.

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois, and writes a syndicated column on historical films.

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Sophie wonders if Langdon is just having a bad hair day.

Is it a woman in this painting?



© 2004 History in the Movies
cschultz@stfrancis.edu