The Da Vinci Code

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Once upon a time the world was happy and benign, ruled by benevolent and peaceful matriarchies. Sex was holy and wholesome and an integral part of worship. But then Christianity was perverted into its present patriarchal form. Sex became dirty and humanity’s blocked sexual drive found its outlet in oppression and war. If that’s your take on history, and if you subscribe to the school of anthropology that views anything that is longer than it is wide as a phallic symbol, you’ll enjoy The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.

The Plot

According to the book, everything you knew about Christianity turns out to be wrong. Jesus was basically a secular teacher, married to Mary Magdalene, and she was pregnant at the time of the Crucifixion. Since both of them were of royal descent, their child would have a real claim to the throne of Judea. To protect the child, Mary Magdalene fled to Gaul. Her descendants eventually married into the Merovingian dynasty and survive to the present day. Jesus intended for Mary Magdalene to run his church after his death, much to the disgruntlement of Peter. When the Roman emperor Constantine elevated Christianity to preferred status, the Council of Nicaea purged the Christian scriptures of any gospels they found unpalatable and turned Christianity into a rigid patriarchy. Ever since then the Vatican has sought to ferret out and suppress all evidence of the Church’s true origins. 

Protecting the truth, and the descendants of Christ and Mary Magdalene, is a secret society, the Priory of Sion. The Holy Grail is not a chalice (the chalice is only a symbol) but a great cache of documents and possibly also the bones of Mary Magdalene herself. It’s a symbol of tantalizing truth just out of reach, of the possibility of a kinder, gentler world. It’s something for everyone. It dices, slices, peels and purees, removes yellow wax buildup and removes unsightly blemishes. 

The Priory and the Grail are put in mortal peril when the four top leaders of the Priory are murdered and all knowledge of the whereabouts of the Grail apparently lost. But one of the leaders lives long enough to lay an intricately interlaced set of clues. An American art professor and a beautiful (what else?) French police agent follow the twists and turns of anagrams, numerology, word play in English and French and some very dubious history to save the day.  I have my doubts whether a stomach wound like the wounded Prior got would be as quickly fatal as the book claims, and even more grave doubts that someone with an imminently fatal wound would be in any physical or mental condition to lay a fantastically intricate trail of clues. It's a pity Herbert Lom (Inspector Dreyfus of the Pink Panther films) is dead. I can so see him as the police chief when this book is turned into a movie.

The conservative Catholic group Opus Dei is about to be given its walking papers by the Vatican. When the Spanish cardinal who heads the group is offered a chance to get the Grail, and thereby immense leverage over the Vatican, he leaps at the chance. Although it looks throughout the book like the Vatican, and especially Opus Dei, are behind the murders, it turns out that they are both being set up to take the fall. The real mastermind is a disgruntled member of the Priory who is frustrated at the Priory’s failure to reveal the documents at the turn of the millennium (2000 or 2001, take your pick). 

Oh, yes, the Da Vinci connection. He supposedly was Grand Master of the Priory at one time and concealed clues to his beliefs in the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper among other works. Also, a combination lock box of Da Vinci’s design is used to conceal clues leading to the Grail (it’s under the Louvre, if you’re interested.)

Claim Testing 

I found myself thinking of Immanuel Velikovsky as I read this book. Like Velikovsky, Brown weaves a vast array of odds and ends into an intricate pattern that looks so coherent it simply has to be true. And even though the book is fiction, we can be certain there are a lot of people ready to accept its premises as historical reality. Books like these, that hint at vast conspiracies and hidden truths, are all but immune to conventional modes of analysis. Point to absence of evidence and believers will simply say the evidence has been suppressed. Point to conflicts with other evidence and believers will say that history is written by the winners and the historical evidence has been altered or faked. 

So what I like to do is find out if the author gets obvious stuff wrong. If he botches something a high school sophomore should be ashamed to screw up, we can be reasonably sure he doesn’t do any better with the hidden truths. So in Chapter 56, we learn that an upside down V (^) is a stylized phallic symbol called the "blade", while a regular V is a female symbol called the "chalice." Brown missed an opportunity to come up with some puns involving the Greek letter lambda or the letter V, or maybe the Roman numeral, but he goes on to give us this choice tidbit of scholarship. The American art historian explains: 

”This icon is formally known as the blade and it represents aggression and manhood. In fact, this exact phallus symbol is used today on modern military uniforms to denote rank.” 

After reading this a couple of times to be sure my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me, I thought this guy needs to go to Blockbuster and rent some classic Westerns. Prior to World War I, the chevrons on U.S. Army uniforms pointed down, not up (nobody knows just why the orientation was switched). So apparently the Civil War, a masculine and aggressive event if there ever was one, was fought by soldiers who marched proudly into battle wearing a symbol that “communicates femininity, womanhood and fertility.” Furthermore, to this very day the chevrons on U.S. Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard uniforms point down. (Insert your own quip about the Village People’s In the Navy here.) 

Let’s give Brown the benefit of the doubt and assume, in keeping with the hidden codes in the book, that a blooper on this scale is a signal not to take the historical and symbological content of the book seriously.

About Venus

According to the book, the patriarchal conspiracy included inverting a lot of previously sacred symbols into diabolical ones, for example, the pentacle or five-pointed star. It further claims that the planet Venus inscribes a perfect (emphasis original) pentacle within the sky.

Wellll .... kinda sorta. If you actually map the path of Venus in the sky (or run a planetarium program to do it for you) you will be hard pressed to find anything resembling a five-pointed star. What does happen is this. It takes Venus 583.9 days on the average to gain a lap on the earth and repeat the same relative configuration of earth, Venus and sun. Five of these synodic periods equal 2919.5 days. Eight years equal 2922 days. So while the match isn't perfect, it's quite close. Here's an animation of The (Almost) Venus-Earth Pentagram. (Note, will not run on IE8 or lower)

For example, on June 8, 2004, Venus passed in front of the Sun as seen over almost all the inhabited earth. Only the western part of North America and far southern South America missed it. No such event (called a transit) has been seen for 122 years, and there was no living person who had ever seen one. The next one  occurred on June 6, 2012, 2920 days later. But transits can only occur when earth and Venus are close to the line where their orbital planes intersect (narrow windows in June and December), and after another eight years, the alignment will not be good enough to permit transits.

The discrepancy of 2.5 days in the two cycles corresponds to roughly 2.5 degrees around the earth's orbit. Since alignments of the earth, sun and Venus are spaced about 72 degrees apart, we'll see transits again when another alignment "walks" into position at the rate of 2.5 degrees per eight year cycle. The next candidate is on the far side of the earth's orbit about 36 degrees out of position, so it will take 36/2.5 or 14.4 cycles for transits to repeat. Transits occur in pairs alternating between June and December, with pairs separated alternately by 105 or 122 years.

So while this 5:8 cycle isn't absolutely perfect, it's quite close, and probably explains why, for example, the Maya had an eight year Venus cycle in their calendar.

Anti-Religious ? 

Although the book has been widely described as anti-Catholic, there are other groups far more likely to be offended by it. The idea of Jesus being married is unconventional, but not new. There is simply nothing in the New Testament one way or the other on the question. Most any reference on the New Testament will tell you exactly what the book does: that the popular image of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute is no more Biblical than the Three Wise Men. Both are popular traditions that actually have no Biblical basis (the Bible nowhere says how many Wise Men there were). Actually, there's nothing cynical or conspiratorial about making Mary Magdalene a prostitute. Christ treated prostitutes compassionately and was harshly criticized for it; it makes perfect sense that one of his close female followers might have been a reformed prostitute. The idea of Jesus fathering a child is a bit more radical, but there is absolutely nothing impossible about the idea. According to traditional Christian theology, Christ was fully human and fully divine, but his divinity would not be passed along to his children. They would be perfectly ordinary human beings. (We can safely assume that every bite we take includes carbon atoms that were once part of the body of Christ, but that doesn’t make us divine.) So while the idea of descendants of Christ living to the present day rattles a lot of peoples’ images of Christ, there is nothing whatever in the idea that contradicts the Bible or challenges the theology of Christ. 

Although the Vatican and the conservative group Opus Dei take a fair amount of slams, both turn out to be innocent. The book takes some pains to explain that most members of Opus Dei are perfectly rational people, that only a small minority engage in some of the group’s more controversial forms of asceticism, and that there have been cases of Opus Dei members being falsely accused of extreme practices. The Spanish cardinal who leads Opus Dei goes to the police as soon as he discovers his plans to get at the Grail have gone horribly wrong. Even the actual killer ends up a somewhat sympathetic figure, a once horribly abused man whose only experience of kindness was through Opus Dei, and whose misguided loyalty leads him to kill in its defense. 

On the other hand, we can expect orthodox Jews to be absolutely thrilled by the claim that early Jewish worship involved sex rites. But probably the group most likely to be offended by the book’s claims would be evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants. If Christ envisioned himself as a secular teacher and potential restorer of the throne of David, then the whole evangelical concept of Christianity crumbles. If the original Christian canon included many books that were suppressed in the fourth century, then the fundamentalist picture of the Bible as a unified and definitive whole falls apart. Even if you try to salvage the Bible by saying that the excluded works were spurious, eliminating any evidence of the “sacred feminine” from the Bible implies a total rewrite of the Old Testament (how did they persuade the Jews to go along?) And the idea that Christianity originally countenanced sex in worship and had few if any prohibitions on sexual conduct is not likely to be popular in either camp.

Weird History 

The most far-fetched idea in the book, perhaps, is the idea that lineal descendants of Christ would pose any serious threat to anyone. Supposedly, Jesus and Mary Magdalene could unite two royal lines and thereby create a viable claim to the throne of Judaea. On the other hand, Joseph and Mary couldn’t find lodging when they went to Bethlehem for the census, so it’s not like lineal descendants of David were an endangered species. Nor, since Joseph didn’t even have the clout to rent a room, is it as if Jesus came from a prominent family. There would have been many other people with equally strong claims to restoring the throne. And then there were the Romans. Herod was so insecure precisely because he was not of the line of David, and the Herodean dynasty, from a Roman perspective, would have been eminently expendable. The Romans would likely have responded to a serious attempt to restore the throne by either finding a pliable claimant of their own or simply squashing the attempt like a bug.

Assuming that Jesus’ child survived, she was a girl living in a Jewish diaspora community. Let’s assume the Jews initially protected her in the hope of keeping the royal line alive. Eventually the line merged with the Merovingian dynasty, which ruled France for 400 years. That’s a long time for the Church to put up with a mortal threat to its authority. Furthermore, since female descent is equally important in the book (the whole male descent thing apparently being an artifact of the patriarchy imposed by Constantine), there should be vast numbers of descendants by now. There could be only a few purely male lines of descent and the likelihood of one of them remaining continuous over 2,000 years is vanishingly small, but if we include female descent, the family tree becomes enormous. It could well include most of the population of Western Europe if not the world. 

As for the idea that Constantine imposed patriarchy on the world, one need only look at the list of female rulers of Rome, Persia, Egypt, Babylonia, or China before the time of Constantine. How exactly did Christianity turn Arabia into a male-dominated society so that the Islamic world became so male dominated? How did it penetrate Africa to introduce female genital mutilation in areas where it had scarcely any other impact? And if the “sacred feminine” is so potent a force for gentleness, how did India, a culture with no shortage of female deities, come to have its caste system? 

In fact, the book seems blissfully unaware that there are any Christian documents that predate Constantine. There’s not a hint of the writings of Clement, Polycarp, Ignatius, Barnabas, Papias, Aristides, or Justin Martyr, all of whom wrote in the Second Century. Sorry, I forgot. They’re all forgeries. 

Anti-Intellectual 

But the most offensive idea in the book comes at the very end: “In fact, the Priory has always maintained that the Grail should never be unveiled….It is the mystery and wonderment that serve our souls, not the Grail itself.” 

Say what? After bloodshed and pursuit, hundreds of pages lamenting the evils perpetrated by a vast conspiracy, and heroic efforts to prevent the possible loss of the truth forever, the people who possess it are going to keep on concealing it? The central message of the book is not anti-Christian, it is anti-intellectual. Mystical feeling is better than knowledge. The sentiment is exactly the same expressed by the author who once complained he could never forgive the man who explained to him the cause of the rainbow because it robbed the rainbow of all its mystery and beauty. 

In fact, both science and religion face a common threat that is much more serious than the threat either poses to the other. To the modern Gnostics, both science and religion are the last remaining impediments to a world of total solipsism, a world in which nobody has the power to say that any idea is wrong.

Do the Math

Atoms Shared With Famous People

Merely mentioning Christ in anything but the most rigidly traditional way rattles some people, but what follows is absolutely orthodox Christian theology. If Jesus was fully human, he ate, exhaled carbon dioxide, and had all the metabolic functions of a normal human being.

We can assume Jesus was a fairly small person in keeping with the general nutritional standards of the time. If he needed 1500 calories a day, and carbohydrates typically contain 6 calories a gram, then he ate about 250 grams of food a day, or about 90 kilograms a year, or about 3000 kilograms over the course of his life. Most biological material is about 18 per cent carbon, so about 500 kilograms of carbon passed through Jesus’ body during his lifetime. 

The total biosphere contains about 1016 kilograms of carbon. After 2000 years we can assume that any carbon that passed through Jesus’ body has thoroughly spread through the biosphere (a great deal would have been exhaled as carbon dioxide). So the fraction of biosphere carbon that was once in Jesus’ body is 500/1016. If you weigh 50 kilograms, you contain about 9 kilograms of carbon or 4.5 x 1026  atoms of carbon. That means the number of carbon atoms in your body that were also in the body of Jesus are about 4.5 x 1026 x 500/1016  or 2 x 1013. The actual calculation is more complex because some carbon has become incorporated into rocks, dissolved in the sea, or is still in the atmosphere.

If this calculation makes you feel exalted, bear in mind that we could do exactly the same calculation, and get just about identical results, for Judas, Pontius Pilate, or Herod. In fact, we could do the same calculation for King David, Julius Caesar, Confucius or Buddha.

If Jesus ate 50 grams of food at the Last Supper, about 10 grams of that would have been carbon, or about 1/50,000 of his lifetime total consumption. So of the carbon atoms everyone shares with Christ, one in 50,000 is from the Last Supper. At any given time you have about 400 million carbon atoms in your body from the Last Supper.

Family Trees

Assume 20 years per generation, so 2000 years is 100 generations. If each descendant has two offspring, after 100 generations there are 2100 or 1.3 x 1030 descendants, incomparably more than the population of the earth. Even a mere 1.3 descendants per generation would result in 250 billion descendants in 100 generations, enough to populate the earth 40 times over.


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Created 21 January, 2003,  Last Update 13 March, 2013

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