Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code or the Enduring Appeal of Conspiracy Theories

Harold W. Attridge, Yale School Divinity School

Date: April 26, 2006

Event Recap

Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is nothing short of a cultural phenomenon. With forty million copies sold, it is one of the most widely read novels in history. Its influence reaches beyond sales, however. The novel has blurred the line between fact and fiction for many of its readers. The novel’s discussion of a Catholic conspiracy to cover up such issues as the marriage of Jesus have delighted some, appalled others, and raised questions for still others. Accordingly, the Boisi Center invited Harold W. Attridge, Dean of Yale Divinity School and Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament, to assess the novel and its many claims about Christian history. Dr. Attridge delivered his lecture, “Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code,” to a full house in the Fulton auditorium, with late arrivals standing in the aisles. Dr. Attridge, an alumnus of Boston College (A&S ‘67), has become an expert in unveiling the problems with Brown’s imaginative tale. Attridge noted that there are facts in the book, but that the facts are taken out of historical context and spun wildly to fit the conspiratorial theme of the novel. After briefly interrogating Brown’s sources, including Holy Blood, Holy Grail (1982) which was based on false documents deposited in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris in the 1950s, Attridge launched into an investigation of four of the novel’s claims: the art of Da Vinci as a secret code; the worship of goddesses in antiquity; the formation of belief in Christ as divine; and the interpretation of Mary Magdalene as a romantic companion of Jesus. Attridge began by contextualizing the art of Leonardo Da Vinci. Brown’s book exploits the fact that the Last Supper painting includes a figure at Jesus’ right who appears more feminine than masculine, thus supporting the claim that Mary Magdalene was romantically attached to Jesus. Attridge explained that such feminine depictions of males in the Renaissance were quite common, and he showed works by Da Vinci and other painters of the period to demonstrate his point. Next, Attridge exposed Brown’s oversimplification of goddess worship among Jews and early Christians. The majority of Jews and Christians, he argued, criticized such practices as heretical in light of their monotheistic beliefs. In addition, contrary to Brown’s account, goddesses in the ancient tradition were not simply beneficent but were also warlike and judging gods. From there, Attridge dismissed the novel’s assertion that the Christian Church developed the idea of Jesus’ divinity in the fourth century at the urging of the Roman Emperor Constantine. The Christian Gospels, as well as texts external to the Christian faith from the second century, identify early believers professing Jesus’ divinity. Attridge concluded with discussion of the probability of Mary Magdalene’s marriage to Jesus. He contended that the marriage was possible but not at all likely. According to Attridge, Brown’s use of non-canonical gospels that record the disciples at one point proclaiming “He [Jesus] loved her [Mary] more than the rest of us,” is taken out of context.  Biblical scholars understand the quote as a move by the authors of these gospels in support of female leadership in the church by alluding to Jesus’ support of Mary, rather than a clue to any special relationship between Jesus and Mary. During the question and answer portion of the program another fallacy of the novel came to light. A student asked about Brown’s claim that the name Mona Lisa (the novel begins in the Louvre with a corpse stationed below Da Vinci’s famous painting) is an anagram of two Egyptian fertility deities Amon and L’lsa. Attridge informed the student that not until years after Da Vinci painted his masterpiece was it actually called the Mona Lisa. At that point, the extent of Brown’s creativity with history seemed to fully register with the audience, leaving little doubt about the book as a work of fiction.