Code Breakers

by John J. Miller on August 3, 2010

in Articles,Culture

  • Sumo

April 23, 2004



The best thrillers are unputdownable — a word that many readers surely attach to Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code.” It’s difficult to ride a subway or walk through an airport these days and not see somebody engrossed in its page-turning tale of murder and conspiracy. In 13 months since publication, the book has sold more than seven million copies.

But partway through reading “The Da Vinci Code,” I did put it down. Then I logged onto the Web and summoned an image of “The Last Supper,” Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous painting. I wanted to take a long and hard look at it, because Mr. Brown’s plot turns on something Da Vinci supposedly portrays.

The novel’s claim is startling: The person seated to the immediate right of Jesus, it says, is not John the Evangelist but Mary Magdalene, who, by the way, is God’s daughter-in-law — i.e., the wife of Jesus. “Sophie made her way closer to the painting, scanning the thirteen figures,” writes Mr. Brown at a moment of revelation in his story. “The individual had flowing red hair, delicate folded hands, and the hint of a bosom. It was, without a doubt . . . female.”

Now, “The Last Supper” may be grainy and imprecise, but the most that might be said is that John looks vaguely effeminate, like a biblical-era metrosexual. For Mr. Brown, however, the John-is-really-Mary observation is a jumping-off point for far grander claims. One of his characters insists that “almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false.” Did you know, for instance, that Jesus and Mary had a daughter?

If it sounds like hogwash, well, that’s because it is — the purest fantasy. By now, however, the book has become more than a mere diversion — its amazing popularity has made it a cultural phenomenon that has spawned magazine cover stories, an ABC News special and the inevitable forthcoming movie. More important, there is something in Mr. Brown’s cabalistic earnestness that urges readers to take his flight of imagination seriously. That is the book’s vexing subtext: Maybe this is true. Mary Magdalene may not be the wife of Jesus, but Dan Brown is a kindred spirit of Oliver Stone.

So it comes as no surprise that a half-dozen publishers are now issuing books to crack the code, so to speak. What they share, other than a desire to capitalize on Mr. Brown’s success, is a notion that “The Da Vinci Code” raises more questions than it answers and a conviction that readers of the novel will want to know more.

The best of the bunch is “Breaking the Da Vinci Code” by Darrell L. Bock, a professor at the Dallas Theological Seminary. Grounding his arguments in scholarship and logic, Mr. Bock is concise and persuasive on all the key points: No, Jesus was not married; no, Jesus did not have children; no, the Council of Nicea was not a sham. Mr. Bock shows that Mr. Brown’s central contentions are based on evidence so thin that calling them conjecture would be a compliment.

The fundamental problem with “The Da Vinci Code” is that it subjects the traditional story of Jesus to unforgiving scrutiny, like an inquisitor who simply won’t accept what his tortured victim is screaming at him. Then it proposes an elaborate thesis based on wide-eyed speculation, claiming that a few scraps of ancient writing — e.g., the so-called Gospel of Philip, a Gnostic text written in the third century — assert things that they barely even hint at. If this represents an assault on two millennia of Christian thought, as some have claimed, then the faithful can rest easy. They’ve survived Galileo and Darwin; they’ll outlast Dan Brown.

“The Da Vinci Code” may even perform a useful service to true believers if it compels them to explore the roots of their religion. Whatever else the book has done, it has taught many people — accurately — that Mary Magdalene wasn’t a prostitute. Others are reading biographies of Leonardo Da Vinci and studying “The Last Supper.” This is not a bad thing.

Maybe there is a deeper matter as well, though Mr. Brown almost certainly doesn’t intend it. Readers of “Paradise Lost” usually fall for Satan. That’s not heresy but part of Milton’s higher purpose, which is to show that we’re all vulnerable to the glamour of evil. The whole point is to feel its pull and then reject it.

Likewise, “The Da Vinci Code” is a seductive tale — and a rollicking good one. The challenge is to suspend your disbelief while you’re enjoying it, then to set it down and remember that you can’t put your faith in everything you read.

Mr. Miller is a writer for National Review.

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