comparing the historical evidence to the claims of a fictional novel?
There's no doubt that the novel is fiction. Robert Langdon, Sophie,
Teabing and the other characters do not exist and the events and action
in the story are purely imaginary. But it's not the story or the characters
that have caused confusion and controversy; it's the novel's 'historical
background' and the claims the author has made about them that has
caused concern. [More]
But Dan Brown
never claimed the history in the book was really true, did
Actually, that's precisely what Dan Brown claimed. Repeatedly, in
fact. It was those claims that helped his initial sales immensely
and thus first sparked the controversy about the novel. Unfortunately,
a great many readers genuinely believed those categorical claims by
Brown, despite the fact no historian or art expert on Earth accepts
controversy and the condemnations by Christian Churches turn this
novel into a bestseller? Were they, therefore, counterproductive?
The novel became a massive bestseller long before any Churches made
any kind of statement or condemnation of it. Thanks to the most expensive
pre-publication publicity campaign in recent publishing history, The
Da Vinci Code became a best-seller in its first week. Those initial
sales were swollen by good notices given by reviewers that Brown's
publishers had carefully cultivated, by paid TV appearances by Brown
where he emphasised that the novel's historical background was 'all
true' and by a puzzle competition with a trip to Paris as a prize.
Churches and other
critics of the historical errrors in the novel only began to speak
out when the sales of the book were in the tens of millions. So the
condemnations were sparked by the sales, not the other way around.
Isn't it true,
though, that this legend of Jesus marrying Mary Magdalene has been
around for centuries anyway? It's not like Dan Brown made it up.
The idea that Jesus married anyone, including Mary Magdalene, is not
a legend that has been around for centuries. There is no such legend
and this idea doesn't even appear at all until the Nineteenth Century.
In the Nineteenth
Century a few German 'Higher Criticism' Biblical scholars suggested
that Jesus may have married, but purely as speculation as they realised
there was absolutely no source or evidence which says this or even
hints it. The 'theory' of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and the 'Holy Bloodline'
did not appear until 1982, when it was presented in Holy Blood,
Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln.
Their theory was then taken up and expanded on by authors like Lynn
Picknett and Clive Prince (The Templar Revelation: Secret Guardians
of the True Identity of Christ), 'Margaret Starbird' (The Woman
with the Alabaster Jar), and Lawrence Gardner (Bloodline of
the Holy Grail). It is an entirely modern speculative theory invented
by amateurs, not an ancient legend. [More]
But some of
the things in the book definitely are true. For example, isn't it
true that the Bible was edited by the Emperor Constantine and created
at the Council of Nicea?
This is not true at all. The canon of the New Testament was well established
at least 100 years before Constantine was even born and he had nothing
to do with that process. He played no part in the formation of this
Canon and the Council of Nicea did not even discuss it, let alone
determine it. This is something else that Brown gets wrong. [More]
But isn't it
true that the Church deliberately left gospels which depicted Jesus
as simply a mortal prophet out of the Bible?
Many texts, some of them gospels, which were used as 'scripture' in
the first four centuries of Christianity were 'left out of the
Bible'. Virtually none of them depicted Jesus as simply a mortal
prophet. On the contrary, most of the texts which were rejected from
the final New Testament Canon were later Gnostic texts, which were
considered 'heretical' because they downplayed Jesus' humanity
and depicted him as a purely spiritual, totally non-human being.
It was the fact
that these texts were written much later than the canonical gospels
and the fact that they did not depict Jesus as human at all
that led to their rejection. It was not because they depicted him
as a human. The gospels that were accepted as part of the Bible depict
him as far more human than the Gnostic texts that were excluded. Brown
gets his facts on this point completely backwards. [More]
Okay, but I
looked at a copy of The Last Supper and that person next to Jesus
really does look like a woman. Isn't it reasonable to think
it's Mary Magdalene, as Brown claims?
No, it isn't. Brown says that Leonardo put Mary Magdalene in his painting
because he was a Grandmaster of the 'Priory of Sion' which knew Mary
married Jesus. Except it's well known that the 'Priory' didn't even
exist in Leonardo's time and was simply a modern hoax cooked up in
France in the 1960s. [More]
John was always painted as a beardless youth in Renaissance art and
Leonardo tended to paint highly feminine-looking youths.
that the model he used for this youth was his favourite pupil, Gian
Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, also known as 'Salai'. Salai was a very
pretty and very feminine-looking young man, but he was definitely
a man, not a woman. The figure next to Jesus is, according
to all the evidence, the disciple John and not Mary Magdalene. [More]
Isn't it true
that the Knights Templar were secret heretics who opposed the rule
of the Catholic Church? Didn't they discover secret documents in Jerusalem
and wasn't this the reason they were suppressed by the Pope?
The Templars were accused of being 'heretics' by
their political enemies, since this was a classic way of discrediting
a group that you wanted to persecute. The only admissions by Templars
that this was true were made under torture. These so-called 'confessions'
totally contradicted each other and the tortured Templars who made
them later retracted them totally and said they had only been made
The clearly false
accusation of 'heresy' has led to various later legends arising about
the 'real, secret beliefs' of the Templars. These later legends also
led to the idea that they had discovered 'secret documents' while
in Jerusalem, even though there is zero evidence to support these
later, modern, wild speculations.
The Templars were
suppressed by the King of France, against the objections of the (relatively
weak) Pope. The Pope actually did everything he could to stop
the King's persecution - which was motivated purely by greed - and
to protect the Templars. He ultimately failed in both aims. Once again,
Brown's version of events is largely fantasy. [More]
But the things
the novel says about Leonardo are all true and well researched, aren't
No, virtually everything Dan Brown's novel says about Leonardo is
completely incorrect. It is not 'well documented' that he
was a Goddess-worshipper, he was never in any conflict with the Catholic
Church, he held no heretical or unusual religious beliefs, he did
not receive 'hundreds of lucrative commission from the Vatican',
his homosexuality was not 'flamboyant' and he did not practice
alchemy, in fact he ridiculed it.
Brown also makes
fundamental errors of fact about Leonardo's paintings and passes off
discredited fringe theories about the 'symbolism' in Leonardo's
work as though they are well-respected and accepted ideas. [More]
Brown research his novel for over a year using information from experts?
Brown's characters often claim that 'historians', 'scholars' and 'experts'
agree with the historical and artistic information they impart. Dan
Brown, however, clearly and demonstrably used arguments and claims
made by amateurs, conspiracy theorists and New Age writers rather
than works by respected and reputable professional historians and
In the 2006 plagarism
court case over the novel, Brown revealed that he himself didn't actually
even read these books in full. His wife, Blythe Brown, read them and
then e-mailed summaries of what she thought were key points to her
husband. Brown explained to the court that he worked this way because
he has 'a short attention span'. Brown used discredited, amateur,
secondary 'sources' and didn't even bother to actually read them.
Not surprisingly, the historical 'information' he related in his novel
via this strange method of 'research' - which he later confidently
claimed is 'all true' - has since been utterly rejected by real historians
Isn't it true
that 'history is written by the winners?'
Many historical sources are written by the 'winners'. Others are written
by the 'losers'. Others still are written by people who are neither.
No modern historian takes any source at face value and always takes
the perspective, biases, context and objectives of each source into
account in their analysis. Archaeology, inscriptions, letters, diaries,
household accounts and a host of other sources of information are
also used so that, even when the 'winners' do try to manipulate information
(which is rare), current professional historians are not forced to
rely only on their perspective.
that 'history is written by the winners' is a totally oversimplified
cliche, and one he uses to try to excuse the complete lack of evidence
for most of his claims.
Are you a Christian?
I'm an atheist with an academic background in medieval literature
and ancient and medieval history and a knowledge of the history of
Christianity. Where this site's analysis touches on religious topics
it does so purely in terms of history and attempts to handle current
religious concerns, beliefs and controversies with neutrality. I have
absolutely zero commitment to any religion - my interest in these
subjects is based purely on an historian's dedication to what can
be reasonably argued from the available evidence.