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The Da Vinci Code: What’s the truth?

Channel 4 website
May 2006

The Da Vinci Code is full of action, including murders, chases and escapes. And yet the most revelatory scene happens in the quiet of Sir Leigh Teabing's study, when he explains the book's central mystery to cryptologist Sophie Neveu: ‘Behold the greatest cover-up in human history. Not only was Jesus Christ married, but He was a father. My dear, Mary Magdalene was the Holy Vessel.’

What's the truth behind The Da Vinci Code? Is it purely a fiction, full of conspiracies and claims which have no basis in the real world, or are the central claims of the novel, which portray Christianity and the Roman Catholic Church in a very poor light, intended to be taken seriously?

Dan Brown himself seems to see The Da Vinci Code as more than just a fiction. In July 2003, shortly after publication, he commented about the claim that Jesus was married: ‘I was sceptical, but after a year and a half of research, I became a believer.’

Christians, too, have taken The Da Vinci Code as a serious challenge to their faith. Books such as The Da Vinci Hoax, and innumerable websites, have risen to the challenge of refuting the claims in the book. Tony Campolo, a left-wing Christian commentator, recently said: ‘I'm not even Roman Catholic and I'm furious. To say that the church is one gigantic, lying conspirator doesn't help anybody.’

What is the evidence that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were lovers? There is no evidence for this in the four gospels (the accounts of Jesus' life and death) in the Bible, but The Da Vinci Code is right in saying that there were other gospels which were never accepted by the church, but were outlawed and destroyed instead. Many of these forbidden gospels ended up on church bonfires over 1,500 years ago, but a very few copies have been rediscovered in recent times.

One of them, the Gospel of Philip, was found near the Egyptian village of Nag Hammadi in 1945, along with a number of other forgotten books. This copy of the gospel, written about 250 years after the life of Christ, contains some intriguing verses about Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Sir Leigh Teabing in The Da Vinci Code quotes them as a major piece of evidence in support of his theory. The verses say...

‘The companion of the Saviour is Mary of Magdala. The Saviour loved her more than all the disciples, and he kissed her often on her mouth.’

That may seem to clinch the argument, but ancient manuscripts are notoriously difficult to pin down. For a start, the Gospel of Philip is full of holes. Literal holes, because the ancient manuscript has been damaged over the many centuries when it lay buried in a sealed jar. Modern editors have tried to supply the words which have been eaten away, but their expert opinions are argued over. In the case of the verses about Jesus kissing Mary, the words which are missing from the manuscript include ‘often’ and ‘mouth’ - which robs the quotation of a lot of its power.

Also, the Gospel of Philip was very probably written by a group called the Gnostics, who believed the visible world was evil and corrupt, and created by an inferior god. They disapproved of sex and had no interest in the idea of Jesus living a physical life in the material world. So it's likely they would have reacted to the idea of Jesus having sex in the same way that a Christian fundamentalist would today. The verses about Jesus kissing Mary were therefore probably seen by them as a spiritual allegory.

Unfortunately for conspiracy theorists, the Gospel of Philip is as good as it gets as evidence that Jesus and Mary were lovers. No ancient document says that Jesus and Mary were married, so these few, hole-riddled verses are the best evidence we have. Which is rather at odds with Sir Leigh Teabing's statement that ‘the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene is part of the historical record.’

Separating fact from fiction in The Da Vinci Code involves detailed detective work by experts in history, archaeology, theology, art and other disciplines. The novel provokes more questions than answers. Whether you believe its claims to be true or not probably depends on whether you subscribe to the conspiracy or cock-up approach to history.

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