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The Da Vinci Hoax
Robert M. Price
There exists a surprisingly large public for books that claim to "blow the lid off Christianity" by means of new discoveries, real or imagined. Many such readers are what one might call sophomoric skeptics. They have learned proper suspicion toward their inherited Christian faith, but they seem to be completely uncritical about the assertions of those who would substitute some other hypothesis, often equally wild. These people, despite their admirable intellectual curiosity, just do not know how to separate fact from fiction. And in recent days their imaginations have been much stirred up by the best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. It is a fictional narrative, but its author claims it is based on fact. That, too, alas, is part of the fiction.
The Da Vinci Code is certainly a page-turner. Its brisk narrative is full of twists and turns, and the reader’s perseverance is frequently rewarded with deft turns of phrase, sparkling metaphors, and resonating observations, the stock in trade of an author who can show us not only what we did not know but also what we did know but were not aware of knowing. And yet the book has certain major shortcomings.
First, there is no real protagonist. The ostensible hero is a Harvard professor. No Indiana Jones, our man is merely an intra-narrative incarnation of the reader, purely passive, figuring out occasional puzzles simply because the narrative requires them to be solved before the action can get any farther. The dutiful appearance of such solutions in the text at the appropriate point is often conveyed merely by means of italics and an exclamation mark, as if author Brown is cuing the reader, in the manner of a sitcom laugh track, to feel astonishment and a sense of (illusory) discovery.
Second, much of the resolution of the plot depends on a series of arbitrary mechanical reversals, with this or that character suddenly revealing unsuspected good or evil dimensions or hitherto-unhinted connections with other characters. Too much of it comes off as mere fiat on the part of the omnipotent author who feels he has the right to jerk the reader around as he sees fit.
Third, Brown trips over himself when he tries to supply a background of plausibility for the great secret that forms the prize that all the characters seek: the fanciful speculation that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene married and gave rise to the Merovingian dynasty of France with present-day heirs. Surely the whole premise of the book is that this supposed knowledge is a carefully guarded secret, in fact the secret of the ages. And yet we shortly discover that, thanks to books like Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln’s Holy Blood, Holy Grail, this "secret" is well known among scholars! Apparently it is only the definitive proof, in the form of a trove of first-century documents salvaged from the ruins of the Jerusalem Temple, of the secret blood line of Jesus and Mary that awaits disclosure. But all this comes across as confusing back-pedaling. What exactly is the secret? The truth or the proof? Brown seems to shift from one foot to the other and back again.
In view of the manifest shortcomings of The Da Vinci Code as a piece of narrative art, the book has achieved a remarkable degree of popularity. We may hope the reason for this is a suspicion on the part of many that there is a deeper truth to Christian origins than their churches have taught them, and that people are hungry to know the inside story. Too bad they aren’t getting it in The Da Vinci Code. The trouble is, the author assures them that they are. Right up front he promises the reader: "The Priory of Sion – a European secret society founded in 1099 – is a real organization. In 1975 Paris’s Bibliotheque Nationale discovered parchments known as Les Dossiers Secrets, identifying numerous members of the Priory of Sion, including Sir Isaac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo, and Leonardo da Vinci."1 None of this is quite true.
The fact is that, while there was indeed a medieval monastic order called the Priory of Sion (Zion), it long ago died out, absorbed by the Jesuits in 1617. The name was revived and appropriated in 1956 by a far-right French political faction, previously called Alpha Galates and led by Pierre Plantard, an anti-Semite Vichy sympathizer who fancied himself the rightful Merovingian heir to the throne of France. Plantard’s group claimed connection with the original Priory for the same reason the Masonic Lodges claim (spuriously) to be descended from the Knights Templar.2 It is no surprise that the Priory of Sion also claims descent from the Templars and, again like the Masons, to have received from them secret knowledge. This is like Ralph Kramden’s Raccoon Lodge claiming the ancient secrets of Solomon. And as for the Secret Dossier, AKA the Priory Documents, these have been exposed as modern fakes perpetrated by the same political sect as part of the attempt to fabricate a venerable pedigree.3 Once these facts are known, the whole house of cards collapses.
The Priory of Sion hoax (to which Dan Brown appears to be a victim, not an accomplice) was made popular twenty years ago through a long and tedious pseudo-documentary tome called Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. (Brown’s scholarly character Lee Teabing is a scrambled version of the names of Baigent and Leigh.) These gents argued that the Templar Knights were sent by the ultra-secret Priory of Sion on a top-secret mission to retrieve the legendary treasure of Solomon’s Temple. They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, discovering also the aforementioned cache of documents telling the real story of the Holy Grail, i.e., the royal blood line of Jesus. Possession of these moneys and of the highly volatile secret of Jesus and his queen Mary Magdalene enabled the Templars and Priory of Sion to bribe and blackmail their way to unchallenged prominence for centuries, all the while protecting the descendants of Jesus and Mary among the Merovingian dynasty. In turn, the Merovingian heirs, notably Crusader Godfrey de Bouillon, mindful of the messianic destiny implied in their very DNA, sought to regain their lost glory, finally establishing the short-lived Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem.
These authors seem unacquainted with inductive historical method. They proceed instead, as they themselves recount the evolution of their hypothesis, more in a novelistic fashion, just like their recent disciple Dan Brown. That is, Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln constantly connect the dots of data provided by medieval chronicles, etc., linking them with one speculation after another: "What if A were really B?" "What if B were really C?" "It is not impossible that…" "If so-and-so were the case, this would certainly explain that and that." Admittedly, had the Templars discovered proof that Jesus and the Magdalene were husband and wife and threatened to reveal it, this might account for their considerable clout. But what are the chances that this is the explanation? It is a shot in the dark, seeking to explain one unknown by a bigger one. We are familiar with this logic from tabloid theories that space aliens built the pyramids. Or that we may explain the Big Bang by positing that God lit the fuse.
The Knights Who Say…
Who were the Templar Knights? They were a monastic order, the Poor Knights of the Temple of Solomon, founded between 1110 and 1120. Their sworn duty was to protect Christian pilgrims on their way to and from Jerusalem. Over the years, as ascetic and admired religious groups tend to do, they acquired considerable fortunes and clout, eventually founding the practice of modern banking, as they used their vast funds to bail out the crowned heads of Europe. Finally, in 1308, Philip the Fair, King of France, subjected the Templars to a ruthless inquisition, stripping them of their moneys, the real object of his covetous lust. What was the pretext of the persecution? It is difficult to tell, precisely as in the case of the so-called witches persecuted in Europe. We can never know the degree to which tortured wretches eagerly signed any crazy-sounding confession shoved in front of them. The beleaguered Templar Knights "confessed" to blasphemies including the worship of a goat-headed demon statue called Baphomet and kissing its anus, as well as ritual homosexuality, trampling the cross, and eliciting oracles from a still-living severed head! Actually, "Baphomet" is, contra Baigent and company, almost surely an Old French spelling of "Mahomet" or "Muhammad."4 This in turn means the accusations against the Templars reflect not actual Gnosticism or even diabolism, but garbled French beliefs about Islam. In just the same way, the medieval Song of Roland (verses 2580-2591) imagines Muslims as worshipping idols and devils including Mohammed, Termagant, and Apollo.5
The Templars became lionized in folklore and in esotericist belief as adepts who guarded heretical secret doctrines which they had discovered, perhaps in the form of rediscovered manuscripts, while resident in Jerusalem. Baigent, Leigh, Lincoln, and Brown, echoing groundless speculations of various nineteenth-century eccentrics (including Joseph Hammer, The Mystery of Baphomet Revealed), link the Templars with the French Cathars (or Albigensians) wiped out in the Albigensian Crusade in 1209. These Cathars were Gnostics who had rediscovered or reinvented something like ancient Manichean Gnosticism.6 Legend claimed that during the Catholic siege of the Cathar mountain fortress of Montsalvat, a few Cathars escaped with the group’s great treasure, perhaps the Grail itself. But any link between the Cathars and the Templars is, again, part of the latter-day syncretism of modern occultists trying to cobble together an appearance of antiquity for their own inventions.
Sweet Dreams and Flying Machines in Pieces on the Ground
What on earth does the great name of Leonardo da Vinci have to do with the Templars, Mary Magdalene, etc.? Not much. Throughout Holy Blood, Holy Grail, the authors refer to their attempts to authenticate a sheaf of modern, privately printed documents, the Secret Dossier or Priory Documents, already mentioned, which have been exposed as hoaxes planted by Pierre Plantard’s sect. And it is only this false source that lists the great artist Da Vinci as one of the Grand Masters of the secret order. Thus there is no Da Vinci connection at all.
What of Brown’s claim that Mary Magdalene appears next to Jesus in DaVinci’s Last Supper? There is nothing to it. The figure is surely intended as John, son of Zebedee. In view of church traditions which imagined John penning his gospel as an old man at the close of the first century, it was traditional to picture John as a callow youth among the disciples of Jesus. In Renaissance painting, this means he winds up looking effeminate, as Jesus himself would were he not sporting a beard.
We have several times had to get ahead of ourselves by mentioning the tantalizing notion that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene were married, and that their union would have issued in the Merovingian dynasty beloved by the modern French Far-Right. How does the Teabing hypothesis (if we may so denominate it, using the name of Brown’s scholarly character to stand for Brown’s recycling of the fanciful pseudo-scholarship of his mentors) make this connection? There are a number of individual issues tangled up here.
First, is it possible for Mary and Jesus to have been married or at least to have been romantically involved? Of course it is. As all discussions of this issue point out, the Gospel of Philip says, "Now Mary was the favorite of the Savior, and he often used to kiss her on the lips." Indeed, if there is any historical basis to the gospel portrait of Jesus traveling with unattached women (Mark 15:40-41; Luke 8:1-3), we must even consider whether, a la the suspicions of husbands alienated from their wives who have left them to follow the Christian apostles in the Apocryphal Acts, Jesus had been using the group of women as his harem. And in view of parallel cases from the whole history of Mystery Religions and Utopian communities, we cannot dismiss the possibility.
Still, possibility is not probability, as it seems to have become for upholders of the Teabing hypothesis. The notorious tendency of conservative apologists and New Age paperback writers alike is to leap from mere possibility to the right to believe. "If there might be space aliens, we can assume there are." "If the idea of Atlantis is not impossible, we can take it for granted." "If the traditional view of gospel authorship cannot be definitively debunked, we can go right on assuming its truth." No, you can’t. And though Jesus might have had sex with one or many women or men, the mere possibility is of no help. He might have been a space alien, too. Some think he was. But historians don’t.
Second, would it be a theological scandal if Jesus could be shown to have mated with a woman? The Teabing hypothesis so asserts. One of the gross historical errors in The Da Vinci Code is the claim that, in the interests of imperial propaganda, Constantine and his vest pocket bishops abruptly replaced the hitherto-prevailing understanding of Jesus as a simple mortal with the mythic view of Jesus as a god who only seemed to be human. As any seminary freshman knows, Constantinian/Nicene orthodoxy stipulated that the Word that was made flesh (John 1:14) shared the same divine nature as the Father, not that he was no longer to be considered human. Subsequent Christological councils (Constantinople, Ephesus, Chalcedon) only made clearer the true humanity of the God-man. Look, even if we feel we must reject these ancient formulae, at least let us not misrepresent them. And in any event, it is in no way clear that for Jesus to have had sex or begotten children would have been incompatible with either his sinlessness or his divine character.
Third, what would any of this have to do with the Merovingian dynasty of Clovis, Pepin, Dagobert and Sigisbert? Our authors appeal to fourth-century French legends that Mary Magdalene eventually arrived in a boat on the shores of Gaul. In later versions she arrives with the Holy Grail. We usually think of the Grail as the communion cup of the Last Supper, and various medieval Grail epics have Joseph of Arimathea bring the Grail to Brittany, whence it is taken to England to figure into the Arthurian mythos. But in fact the Grail is variously described. Wolfram von Eschenbach pictured it as an engraved emerald tablet like those mentioned in the Hermetic documents, where such artifacts are the vehicles of esoteric revelations (eventually reflected by the Golden Plates of Joseph Smith, also influenced by Masonry).7 According to the Teabing hypothesis, the Holy Grail (San Greal) is really the Holy Bloodline (Sang Real), the dynasty of the Messiah, to which the Merovingians belonged.
Whence comes the legend of Mary Magdalene’s advent in the south of France? It is possible that it stems from the activity, of which Irenaeus, ca. 180 CE, tells us, of Carpocratian missionaries in the region (Against Heresies 1:25:1-3). They claimed to have received choice revelations from Mary Magdalene, as did many early Gnostics. But even if they did, that does not imply Mary’s own presence there. Another attractive possibility is the suggestion of Dr. Robert Eisenman8 that the legend of Mary Magdalene, bearer of a royal bloodline, taking refuge in Gaul is a scrambled memory of the fact that the disgraced Herodian heirs, Herod Antipas, Herodias, and Herod Agrippa, were exiled to the same region. These are royalty with New Testament associations, and it is easy to see how the confusion might have arisen.
Hoax or History
If engagement with the sources and impostures of the Templar/Magdalene hoax teaches us anything, it may be that the modern gospels cut from the cloth of sheer imagination are in principle not so different from the venerable four that we have long known. After all, the methods we have used here to account for the one text work pretty much the same way when we study the others. If a "gospel" fires our imagination, perhaps it has done its proper work. But some are better than others. One of Professor Teabing’s revelations to Dan Brown’s readers is that there were in the early church some eighty gospels to pick from. That is not much of a stretch; casual scrutiny of the table of contents in J.K. Elliott’s Apocryphal New Testament will yield at least some sixty-five texts that could reasonably be denominated as gospels. But not all gospels are on the same level. One only need read them, and one will find oneself making one’s own "canonical" list! Brown’s Da Vinci Code, I must admit, would not be on my list.
1. Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code. (NY: Doubleday, 2003), p. 1.
2. Robert Richardson. "The Priory of Sion Hoax." Alpheus: Site for Esoteric History. http://www.alpheus.org/html/articles/esoteric_history/richardson1.html
3. As such, they are only the most recent in a long chain of Templar-related forgeries. See Richard Partner, TheMurdered Magicians:The Templars and their Myth (NY: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. 103, 135, 140, 146, 161-163.
4. Partner, p. 138.
5. Robert Harrison, Trans. The Song of Roland. NY: New American Library, 1970, pp. 129-130.
6. Steven Runciman, The Medieval Manichee: A Study of the Christian Dualist Heresy. NY: Viking Press, 1961, Chapter VI, "The Cathars," pp. 116-170.
7. John L. Brooke, The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844 Cambridge University Press, 1994.
8. Robert Eisenman, e-mail to the present writer, November, 2003.
Baigent, Michael, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. Holy Blood, Holy Grail. NY: Dell Publishing, 1982, 1983.
Blake, Peter, and Paul S. Blezard, The Arcadian Cipher: The Quest to Crack the Code of Christianity’s Greatest Secret. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 2000.
Brooke, John L. The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844 Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Brown, Dan. The Da Vinci Code. NY: Doubleday, 2003.
Gardner, Laurence. Bloodline of the Holy Grail: The Hidden Lineage of Jesus Revealed. Rockport: Element Books, 1996.
Harrison, Robert. Trans. The Song of Roland. NY: New American Library, 1970.
Knight, Christopher, and Robert Lomas. The Hiram Key: Pharaohs, Freemasons and the Discovery of the Secret Scrolls of Jesus. Rockport: Element Books, 1997.
Madaule, Jacques. The Albigensian Crusade: An Historical Essay. Trans. Barbara Wall. NY: Fordham University Press, 1967.
Partner, Peter. The Murdered Magicians: The Templars and their Myth. NY: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Picknett, Lynn, and Clive Prince. The Templar Revelation: Secret Guardians of the True Identity of Christ. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1997.
Richardson, Robert. "The Priory of Sion Hoax." Alpheus: Site for Esoteric History. http://www.alpheus.org/html/articles/esoteric_history/richardson1.html
Runciman, Steven. The Medieval Manichee: A Study of the Christian Dualist Heresy. NY: Viking Press, 1961.
Thiering, Barbara. Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Unlocking the Secrets of his Life Story. NY: HarperCollins, 1992.
______________."The Unholy Grail: Notes on Laurence Gardner’s The Bloodline of the Holy Grail." (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/qumran_origin/)
Robert M Price
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