As one who specializes in New Testament studies, I have been asked repeatedly about various elements in this novel since its release. My first encounter with the issues raised by the novel came in the summer of 2003 when a reporter for Beliefnet asked me if I could discuss with her the question of whether Jesus had been married and the significance of Mary Magdalene to the church. She was writing a piece evaluating and discussing the theories tied to Mary. I did the interview and spent an hour or so with her on the phone diving into various aspects of the issue.
At the time, I thought she was asking an odd set of questions, but we never know what will show up as a point of discussion in the public square.
But the same questions never went away. Next came a set of queries from a friend working in New Testament at another school as I was preparing to participate in a seminar series on Jesus that he was sponsoring at his church. He asked me to be prepared to answer questions about Jesus and The DaVinci Code. I emailed him that I did not know much about the novel, just some of the things it was claiming. Within a week of that email exchange came an invitation from ABCNews to discuss the biblical basis for the novel's views, as well as a subsequent invitation to write a counterpoint commentary piece for the network news web site.
It was time to read the book in order to put my remarks in its context and not just in the context of what I knew about the Bible. During that reading, I decided there was something more that people needed to be made aware of and appreciate about the roots of the novel.
I did the ABC interview, wrote the counterpoint piece, and agreed to do a few Sunday school classes on the book to help people sort out the claims. At the same time friends, colleagues and even relatives started to ask me about the issues in the book. Some of those questions reflected a sense that maybe the novel was saying something true and maybe we needed to take a fresh look at the faith. After all, could four million readers be wrong?
The Da Vinci Code use the words of [wealthy historian and Holy Grail fanatic Leigh] Teabing to give an assessment of what might be called the Great Cover-Up: "Leonardo is not the only one who has been trying to tell the world the truth about the Holy Grail. The royal bloodline of Jesus Christ has been chronicled in exhaustive detail by scores of historians." In the novel's subsequent listing of these historical works after this quotation, Holy Blood, Holy Grail is given the prime place. That work is described in the novel as the "best-known tome" and an "international best-seller."
We have examined this claim and found it wanting historically at every key point. Mary Magdalene is not married to Jesus. Jesus was not married to anyone else. He had no children. Jesus was single in a manner that Jews of His time could appreciate. Jesus, as a religious Jew, could be single.
The secret gospels do not tell us very much new about the centuries just after Christ, othern than to make clear that they contain a distinct theology from the biblical books, to show that the church fathers who described their views did so accurately, and to let us hear them present their views in their own word. The secret gospels noted in the novel were part of a contentious dispute among various Christian factions about who spoke best for Jesus and Christianity. Thee gospels, written after the four Gospels of the New Testament, claimed access to revelation from God independent of the writings that many in the church regarded as authoritative and a a reflection of the church's most historic tradition. The presence of such views fueled the formal recognition of the canon, a process completed in the fourth century.
The deity of Jesus was not a creation of a fourth-century vote or council but is based on the teaching of the four Gospels and other New Testament books. These four canonical Gospels are rooted in apostolic tradition, and they were firmly established as the defining texts of the Christian church by the end of the second century, if not earlier.
Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute, but neither was that description part of an act of suppression. Mary was affirmed in her role as a witness to the Resurrection, a role that made her among the first to announce the Resurrection to the 11 remaining apostles. In that sense, she was an "apostle to the apostles." The dispute of the early Christian centuries was not primarily about gender or gender roles, but about theology, namely, views about God, Jesus, salvation, spirituality, and revelation. The historical foundation for almost all of what The Da Vinci Code claims is not substantive.
In all of this, The Da Vinci Code fails to deliver on its claim that its skeleton is historical. If the foundation of its argument about Jesus being married and having a bloodline is this thin, then all the subsequent history it relates becomes irrelevant. All the theories attached to the Sion Priory, the Knights Templar, Opus Dei, and the Merovingian line tied to a bloodline of Jesus fall to the side. There is no good historical reason to discuss these later groups in relationship to a theory about Jesus whose foundation is lacking. These groups did exist and they have a history that is fascinating in its own right, but they do not have any connection to issues about a bloodline from Jesus. Of one thing our study is absolutely certain: whatever Mary Magdalene is, she is no Holy Grail with a trail of royal descendants from Jesus.
Two historical claims of the novel stand: 1. women were elevated by what Jesus taught (although probably not as much as some would suggest), and 2. Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute. The remaining foundation of the novel is made of sand. The dots do not connect historically.
The breaking of the code is that there is no basis for theorizing about the Holy Grail as Mary Magdalene, a Merovingian line that goes back to Jesus, a Sion Priory that has a reason to exist, or any cover-up involving Opus Dei. Whatever those groups were or are, they cannot have been involved in a story that had anything to do with the descendants of Jesus. Fiction is fiction, and readers should appreciate it as such.