[2 February 2005]
After two years at the top of the Washington Post‘s bestseller list and with an upcoming film starring Tom Hanks, it is impossible to ignore the cultural impact of Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code. The thriller revolves around Jesus Christ’s bloodline, and “reveals” that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and they had a child, resulting in the survival of his lineage to modern day. Even though The DaVinci Code provides an engaging plot, a decent narrative structure and good character development, its colossal success cannot be explained merely as a result of its prose.
Written in the same detailed style that characterizes techno-thrillers by Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy, The DaVinci Code offers persuasive arguments that suggest its story may be based on fact. Perhaps its adoption as a source of arcane historical information was predictable, when one considers current crises of organized religions, as well as the proliferation of pseudoscientific and conspiracy theories that illustrate a lack of critical thinking.
Attempting to capitalize on the success of Brown’s book, ABC News’ Jesus, Mary, and DaVinci attempts to discern fact from fiction in The DaVinci Code. Presented by Elizabeth Vargas, JMD takes viewers from Jerusalem and Italy, to Southern France and England, interviewing along the way several experts in history and religion. Unfortunately, even though JMD arrives at the historically correct conclusion that no evidence exists to indicate a holy bloodline, the documentary offers faulty research and analysis.
The scope of JMD is grand: it takes on Jesus, Mary Magdalene, DaVinci, the Templar Knights, and even the esoteric Gnostic Manuscripts. JMD compromises its trustworthiness from the beginning, as it fails to inform the audience what is “truly” known about Jesus. It avoids even acknowledging the difficult, essential subject of “truth” versus “belief” in the religious exegesis of the life of Jesus. Considering that all the evidence about Jesus’ existence is based on historically unreliable anecdotal references in the New Testament, any serious investigation has to be strictly bounded within the context of the Holy Scriptures. Questions about whether Mary Magdalene was prostitute are even more challenging, as is the unorthodox thesis that a Jesus/MM bloodline survives. For a documentary that attempts to distinguish fact from fiction, it is worrisome that JMD is never concerned about the reliability and contextualization of its information.
JMD further investigates the story that Jesus and Mary Magdalene’s bloodline was a closely guarded secret kept by the Templar Knights. According to The DaVinci Code, the Holy Grail that was zealously protected by the Templars was not the vase used to collect Jesus’ blood at the cross, but an allegory to his bloodline. Even though Dan Brown popularized this theory, his arguments are based on those put forward by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln in their book Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which presents convoluted arguments based on obscure medieval records that suggest that the Templars were the guardians of Jesus’ lineage. Although Brown makes several appearances in JMD, these three authors are conspicuously absent from the documentary, suggesting that it means to mark his work only. Though it concludes that there is no serious evidence indicating that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were ever married or produced offspring, the documentary also suggests there is nothing to disprove the possibility of a holy bloodline. The documentary thus ignores a vast body of academic work, to continue promoting the pseudo-historical conspiratorial mystery popularized by The DaVinci Code.
Such misconceptions are extended in the section devoted to Leonardo DaVinci. According to Brown and other “experts” interviewed here, DaVinci was member of a secret society who knew about Jesus’ bloodline and encoded this information in his famous Last Supper. This claim is based on two points. First, there is no grail at the table, which suggests it is a metaphor rather than an object. And second, the image of John appears to be a woman instead of a man. While these observations are interesting in their own right, Brown and JMD jump very quickly to a particular and wrong conclusion, pronouncing that the painting depicts Mary Magdalene instead of John. JMD spends an unreasonable amount of time interviewing followers of this bizarre theory, all of whom ignore the fact that, since medieval times, it was an artistic tradition to paint John as a young, effeminate man. Such a crucial piece of information is relegated to an uncredited older man who, to the surprise of Vargas, fails to see a woman in place of John. Her response corresponds with the documentary’s apparent conclusion that the Code is right and dissenters are naïve.
JMD doesn’t ask difficult questions. If it is true that John is in Mary Magdalene, where is John in the painting of such an important moment in the life of Jesus? Is this proof that there is a bizarre conspiracy against John? Or maybe DaVinci had a grudge against him? Such convoluted conclusions are equally available because of JMD‘s intellectual failures. In advancing the pseudo-historical conspiratorial mystery popularized by The DaVinci Code, it gives short shrift to a brief interview with Umberto Eco (no stranger to Catholic conspiracy theory), who asserts that the entire argument for the Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and DaVinci connection belongs to the “history of wrong ideas.”