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Ann Smith of Edenton Street United Methodist Church in Raleigh, N.C., was looking forward to a discussion at her church led by Bruce Stanley, director of field education at the divinity school. A French teacher, Smith says she enjoyed the book’s historic settings, focus on art and exciting plot twists. She also welcomes the questions the novel raised for her.

“Faith is a journey of constantly questioning and trying to get the answers,” Smith says. “I loved comparing the book to what I thought I knew, and then asking questions. But we have to remember that this is literature. It is a work of fiction.”

As long as readers take that point of view, clergy have little to worry about. The problem arises when readers fail to pause and question.

“The Church should never be afraid of the truth and should pursue it with reckless abandon,” says Kocher. “I’m glad Dan Brown’s book is challenging us to try to discover what is true about Christianity and about our lives. That’s always the challenge: to ask questions and look for the truth.”

Duke Divinity professors and alumni help clarify the facts from the fictions in The Da Vinci Code. (Stop here if you want to read the book and be surprised).

  • Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married.

    Duke Divinity Professor Teresa Berger points out that no evidence of this union is found in the Bible or other ancient documents, and statements attributed to Jesus point to the contrary.

  • The two had a child who went on to found the Merovingian line of royalty in France.

    The very idea makes many theologians roll their eyes, says James Howell D’79, senior minister of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C. Scholars say no evidence of any kind supports this.

  • Emperor Constantine decided on the four Gospels to be included in the New Testament in a political deal struck after the year 300 A.D. The same emperor fabricated the idea of Jesus’ divinity for political purposes.

    The early church believed in the divine aspect of Jesus well before the political deals supposedly struck at the Council of Nicaea, says Craig Kocher D ’01, assistant dean of Duke Chapel and director of religious life for Duke University. Documents reveal that the Council did discuss His divinity and humanity, but not in the simplistic way portrayed in the novel.

  • An ancient order called the Priory of Scion, whose members included Leonardo Da Vinci, Sir Isaac Newton and Victor Hugo, has been battling the church for nearly a millennia to keep the above “truths” alive.

There is no evidence of any of this, says Professor Berger. According to scholars, the group initially was no more than a hoax and actually was founded as a simple social club in the 1950s.

  • The person seated next to Jesus in Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” is really Mary Magdalene, not the disciple John. Evidence cited is that the person in the painting has no beard and has long hair. Since she is carrying His baby, the book claims, Mary is the Holy Grail – the vessel carrying the blood of Christ.

    John, often portrayed as young and beardless, certainly would have been at this meal, says Howell. Scripture clearly states that he was beloved to Jesus, and he would not be absent from this depiction of The Last Supper. If that figure is Mary Magdalene, it would have to mean that John was absent. Again, the idea the Jesus and Mary Magdalene had children is unsupported. Art experts also strongly dispute that the figure next to Jesus in the painting is anyone other than John.

More about Mary Magdalene

Dan Brown writes extensively about Mary Magdalene and her importance to early Christianity. Truth be told, little is written about her in the Bible despite her central role in the early church. Here are some books recommended by Duke Divinity Professor Teresa Berger about her:

  • Mary of Magdala, Apostle and Leader, by Mary R. Thompson, 1995.

  • Mary Magdalene, Beyond the Myth, by Esther de Boer, 1996.

  • Mary Magdalene, The First Apostle. The Struggle for Authority, by Ann Graham Brock, 2003.

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DIVINITY Online Edition :: Spring 2004 Volume 3 Number 3 Duke Divinity School