2016-06-30
Are you confused about "The Da Vinci Code" and the strong reactions it's received from both supporters and detractors? You're not alone. No novel sells 50 million copies without hitting some kind of nerve in the popular imagination. The following Study Guide is intended to help spur personal thought and group discussion about the many spiritual issues raised in "The Da Vinci Code." It was created by Richard Smoley, who has more than 25 years of experience studying and practicing the Western mystical tradition.

  
Why Is "The Da Vinci Code" So Compelling?
The key probably lies in the secrets it mentions--a strange alternative history of the last 2,000 years, starting with the claim that Jesus Christ was married to Mary Magdalene.
 
Points to Consider:
• According to the novel, Jesus’ and Mary Magdalene’s descendants included the Merovingians, dynastic rulers who led what is now France from the fifth to the eighth centuries C.E. This theory holds that even after the Merovingians fell from power, the sacred bloodline survived. That would mean descendants of Jesus could be alive today.

• This sacred bloodline was known as the sang réal, meaning “royal blood” in Old French, according to"The Da Vinci Code." Later it became known as the Sangreal, which later produced its English equivalent, the “Holy Grail.” Although the Holy Grail is usually imagined as the cup that Christ used at the Last Supper, according to Brown’s novel, the real Grail is actually this “royal blood,” this sacred bloodline.

• Old legends in Europe say the couple did have children, who were eventually brought either to France or England (the versions differ). But these are legends, and there isn’t much, if any, documentation to prove they are true.

For More Information:
• "The Da Vinci Code"--Faith, Doubt, and the Search for Truth: Beliefnet's full "Da Vinci" coverage

• "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" (New York: Dell, 1983), by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, inspired many of the ideas in "The Da Vinci Code." Baigent and Leigh recently sued Brown for plagiarism in an unsuccessful but highly publicized case. A good discussion of why the suit lost can be found on the website Out-Law.com.

•  John Matthews’ "Sources of the Grail" (Hudson, N.Y.: Lindisfarne, 1998) is the best single-volume collection of the original Grail texts, which date from the Middle Ages. (The texts don’t talk about a sacred bloodline, though.

Questions to Ponder:
• Do you find "The Da Vinci Code" compelling? If so, why?

• Do you believe that the Grail could have been a sacred bloodline

• Would it change your beliefs to know that Jesus had surviving descendants?
 

How Many of The Claims in the Story Are True?
There are a lot assertions presented as fact in the novel. A number of these can be verified. But the theories in it are extremely speculative. The evidence for these theories is not very strong.
 
Points to Consider:
• "The Da Vinci Code" is a novel. Brown would have been within his rights to make up everything in it.
 
• Most of the novel’s theories are considered by mainstream scholars to fall into the category of “fringe” or “alternative” history--popular accounts of mysteries in the past that are based on highly circumstantial evidence. Very few scholars take these theories seriously.
 
• Brown himself has said, “The documents, rituals, organization, artwork, and architecture in the novel all exist,” but he goes on to say that he makes no claim to advocate “any of the ancient theories discussed by fictional characters. Interpreting those ideas is left to the reader.”
 
For More Information:
•  Watch an exclusive Beliefnet video, "Demystifying 'Da Vinci'": www.beliefnet.com/templechurch
 
• Brown’s views can be found on his Web site: http://www.danbrown.com.
 
• A good online source on alternative Christianity is the Gnosis Archive: www.webcom.com/gnosis/.
 
Questions to Ponder:

• Do you think the theories in "The Da Vinci Code" are valid?

• Does "The Da Vinci Code" misinform the public, as some of its critics allege?

• If the novel’s theories are true, do they threaten the hierarchy of the Christian Church as it exists today?

 

Was Jesus Married to Mary Magdalene?
The evidence that they were married is very slim. The Bible doesn’t say whether Jesus was married or not. The evidence that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had offspring is even slimmer.

Points to Consider:
• There is an apocryphal text--that is, one that didn’t make it into the Bible--called the Gospel of Philip. It says Jesus was very fond of Mary Magdalene and used to kiss her often. The other disciples complained, “Why do you love her more than all of us?” According to the Gospel, Jesus replied, “Why do I not love you like her?” (The answer would presumably be obvious.)

• The Gospel of Philip is a late work. It was probably written 200 years after Jesus’ life. Most scholars don’t attach much value to it as a historical source.
 
For More Information:
Were Jesus and Mary Magdalene Married? A Beliefnet Scholarly Smackdown
 
• "The Nag Hammadi Library in English" (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1977), edited by James M. Robinson, contains the Gospel of Philip as well as an extremely brief Gospel of Mary Magdalene.
 
• Rosamonde Miller, a Gnostic bishop in California, belongs to an order that traces its origins back to Mary Magdalene and has only recently gone public: http://www.gnosticsanctuary.org.
 
Questions to Ponder:
• If Jesus was married, do you think the Bible would have mentioned it?

• Would it affect your faith if you learned that Jesus was married?

• What authority should alternative sources--such as Gospels that didn’t make it into the Bible--have on matters of faith?


So Who Was Mary Magdalene Really?
The earliest evidence suggests that she was a disciple of Christ’s who enjoyed very high status in early Christianity.
 
Points to Consider:
• The Gospels describe Mary Magdalene as the first person to learn that Jesus had risen from the dead, so she was sometimes known as “the Apostle to the Apostles.”
 
• Some of the earliest Christian texts describe Mary Magdalene as having a status that was equal, if not superior to, the Twelve Apostles.
 
• Some scholars say that as men began to dominate the church hierarchy, and women were relegated to second place, the figure of Mary Magdalene was also pushed into the background.
 
• In medieval times, Mary Magdalene was equated with the woman taken in adultery whom Jesus saves from stoning (John 8:1–11), and Christian legend and art began to depict her as a repentant whore.
 
• The Gospels themselves give no reason to connect Mary Magdalene with the woman taken in adultery.
 
For More Information:
• Mary Magdalene & the Feminine Divine, an audio slide show and other features.
 
• The best book on Mary Magdalene and her role in history is probably Susan Haskins’s "Mary Magdalene: Myth and Metaphor" (New York: Riverhead, 1995).
 
• A more spiritual outlook can be found in Siobhán Houston’s book, "Invoking Mary Magdalene: Accessing the Wisdom of the Divine Feminine" (Boulder, Colo.: Sounds True, 2006).
 
Questions to Ponder:
• Who do you think Mary Magdalene really was?
 
• Do you believe that today it’s possible to have a spiritual connection with her?
 
• Do you feel that men and women should have equal status in religion?

Was There a Variety of Traditions in Early Christianity?
Yes. Some of them vanished, but they have left a legacy that survives to this day.
 
Points to consider:
• Scholars are concluding that originally there was no one “true” version of Christianity. There were many interpretations of Christ’s teaching, probably as early as the time of the Apostles.
 
• The version of Christianity that triumphed is sometimes known as proto-orthodox or proto-catholic Christianity. That’s because it was the ancestor of the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches as we know them today. (Protestantism is an offshoot of Catholicism.)
 
• Other versions of Christianity held radically different views from what became the orthodox faith. "The Da Vinci Code" mentions some--for example, Christians who believed that although Jesus was a great teacher, he was not divine.
 
• The Gnostics, another collection of seekers, believed that the key to the human condition was not salvation from sin but inner illumination or enlightenment, which they called gnosis (meaning knowledge in Greek).
 
• Today there are versions of Christianity that focus on the story of Christ as symbolism rather than literal truth. This approach is sometimes called inner Christianity or esoteric Christianity. The word esoteric comes from Greek roots meaning further in. Because these truths are not about facts or history, you have to go further into your own being through meditation or contemplation to understand them.
 
For more information:
• "Would Jesus Approve of Today's Christianity?" A Beliefnet exploration.
 
• By far the most popular and influential discussion of alternative Christianities in the first two centuries C.E. is Elaine Pagels’s "Gnostic Gospels" (Vintage, 1981).
 
• For a good introduction to Gnosticism and other forms of ancient Christianity, see "The Beliefnet Guide to Gnosticism and Other Vanished Christianities" (Doubleday, 2006).
 
• My own book "Forbidden Faith: The Gnostic Legacy from the Gospels to The Da Vinci Code" (Harper San Francisco, 2006) talks about how these traditions have survived into our own time.
 
• For a good introduction to the inner tradition today, see my "Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition" (Shambhala, 2002).
 
Questions:
• Do you believe that the Bible is literally true?
 
• Which version(s) of Christianity do you believe are closest to Christ’s teaching?
 
• Is there--or must there be--one "right" way to be Christian?
 
• What are the inner dimensions of your own faith?
  

Why Did Catholic and Orthodox Christianity Triumph?
Partly because they were fairly easy to understand: They emphasized salvation from sin. They also received a tremendous political boost from being adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century C.E.
 
Points to consider:
• The turning point in Christian history was probably the Council of Nicea, a conference of bishops, in 325 C.E. The council was called by the Roman Emperor Constantine I to determine whether Christ was fully equal or subordinate to God the Father.
 
• At Nicea the Trinitarian view triumphed, holding that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were coequal “Persons” in the Godhead. It was not a new view at the time, but  after the Council of Nicea, the power in Christianity began to be centralized in what became Catholicism and Orthodoxy. (The Catholic and Orthodox churches did not fully separate until 1054.)
 
• Bible was compiled by the Church, whose leaders chose which of the early Christian texts would be included in it. The first complete list of the New Testament books as we have them today is found in a letter by a bishop called Athanasius, dating from 367 C.E.
 
• Later struggles and controversies--which went on from the fourth to the eighth centuries C.E.--solidified Catholic and Eastern Orthodox doctrine.
 
For more information:
The best work on the subject as a whole is probably Paul Johnson, "A History of Christianity" (Atheneum, 1987).
 
If you’re interested in some of the books that didn’t make it into the New Testament, a good place to start is Ron Cameron’s collection "The Other Gospels: Non-Canonical Gospel Texts" (Westminster, 1982).
 
My book "Forbidden Faith: The Gnostic Legacy from the Gospels to The Da Vinci Code" (Harper San Francisco, 2006) traces the history of alternative Christianities from the time of Christ to the present.
 
Questions:
• Do you feel that the “right side” won in all the disputes on Christian doctrine?
 
• How important is it to your faith to have the right beliefs?
 
• Does it affect your faith to know that political and ideological struggles had a strong role in shaping Christianity? What role do you think God played in determining the outcome of these struggles?

What Was the Priory Of Sion?
According to "The Da Vinci Code," this secret society was entrusted with the care of the sacred bloodline of Jesus.
 
Points to Consider:
• According to the novel, the Priory goes back to medieval times. Until recently, according to "The Da Vinci Code," the Priory of Sion has stayed in the shadows, but the order’s leaders have included figures such as Isaac Newton, the novelist Victor Hugo, and the composer Claude Debussy.
 
• In fact, there was a Priory of Sion, but it wasn’t a secret society. It was a medieval religious order. It ceased to exist in 1617, when it was absorbed into the Jesuit order.
 
• The modern “Priory of Sion” was the creation of a Frenchman named Pierre Plantard. Plantard founded the organization in 1956. The group promoted right-wing monarchist and anti-Semitic ideas in the 1950s and 1960s, and created a number of documents intended to make it seem as if the society was much older.
 
• There’s no evidence that either Dan Brown or the authors of "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" were part of Plantard’s scheme. Instead, they may simply have made the mistake of taking Plantard’s claims at face value.
 
For More Information:
What is the Priory of Scion? A Beliefnet exploration.
 
• An article by Robert Richardson called “The Priory of Sion Hoax” is a good place to start. The article first appeared in Gnosis magazine in 1999 (http://www.lumen.org/) and can be found online here.
 
Questions to Ponder:
• Do you believe that secret societies affect the course of history?
 
• Does the story of the Priory of Sion ring true to you?
 
• Secret societies are just that--secret. What kind of evidence would you need in order to believe in their existence?
  

What is the Holy Grail?
Ultimately, the true Holy Grail may be each person’s awakened and illumined heart.
 
Points to Consider:
Legends of the Grail began in medieval times, not in the years immediately following Jesus' death.
 
In most accounts, the Grail is the cup used in the Last Supper, when Christ said, “This is my blood.”
 
• Symbolically, the Grail is a cup that holds blood--that is, the heart.
 
• In the original stories, the Grail can only be found by the pure of heart. The Grail may be seen as a symbol of the heart when it’s open to God.
 
• The legends say that when the Grail appears to a knight, he is supposed to ask, “Whom does the Grail serve?”
 
For More Information:
• On Beliefnet: "On the Trail of the Holy Grail"
 
• See my article “The Illumined Heart”: http://www.lumen.org/intros/intro51.html. Chapter 8 of my book "Inner Christianity" (Boston: Shambhala, 2002) also discusses the symbolism of the Grail in the context of the inner Christian path.
 
• For spiritual practices connected with the Grail, see Gareth Knight, "Experience of the Inner Worlds" (Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, U.K.: Helios, 1975).
 
Questions to Ponder:
• What do you think the Holy Grail is?

• What’s your own personal Holy Grail? How do you pursue it?

• Whom, or what, does your heart serve?



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