The Da Vinci Fraud

Robert M. Price

From The Fourth R
Volume 17-1
January-February 2004

The goal of the Westar Institute is to promote religious literacy, especially in the field of the historical Jesus and Gospel scholarship. We see ourselves, usually, as engaged in an uphill battle against the misconceptions of popular, TV-preacher driven fundamentalism. But we have our work cut out for us in another direction, too. For there exists a surprisingly large public who have notions about Jesus and the Bible that are every bit as ill-founded and erroneous as those of the fundamentalists, only these people believe themselves to be, like us, scientific critics of scripture. These are avid readers of books that claim to “blow the lid off Christianity” by means of new discoveries, real or imagined.

Don’t get me wrong: in many ways the work of the Jesus Seminar has itself threatened to blow the lid off traditional faith, or so our critics claim. But such is not our goal. Our aim is only to pursue the facts wherever they seem to lead. By contrast, much of the popular radical criticism is based squarely on fiction. This is not on purpose, mind you. It is just that 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.

Jesus at the Movies

Novel Idea

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. There is a wisdom in such art. And yet the book has certain major shortcomings.

First, there is no real protagonist. The ostensible hero is Robert Langdon, who also stars in Brown’s previous novel Angels and Demons. He is a Harvard professor of Symbology (is there such a thing?). But that appears to be a pretty sedentary job. No Indiana Jones, our man Langdon seems merely an intra-narrative incarnation of the reader, purely passive, figuring out occasional puzzles simply because the narrative requires them to be solved at this or that juncture 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. By contrast, one expects a polished mystery to invite the reader to shift already-extant factors into different possible configurations (like a Rubik’s Cube), so as to disclose an implicit thread of logic. The greater the number of surprises needed to make the lot work, the less organic, the less plausible, the story will seem. Like the “hero,” the reader is reduced to near-passivity.

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.

False Facts

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 Bibliothèque 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 died out long ago, 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.

We may hope the reason for [The Da Vinci Code‘s popularity] 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.

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 or Herod’s Temple (which seem to the authors to be the same thing). They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, discovering also the aforementioned cache of documents telling the real story of the Holy Grail, that is, 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.

Despite their indefatigable research, motivated no doubt by true scholarly zeal, Baigent and his co-authors seem unacquainted with inductive historical method. They proceed instead 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.” These are the flashes of imaginative inspiration that allow fiction writers like Dan Brown to trace out intriguing plots. It is essentially a creative enterprise, not one of historical reconstruction. The authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail concocted a novel much like that of Brown and, like him, they managed to convince themselves that it was really true. Admittedly, had the Templars discovered proof that Jesus and the Magdalene were husband and wife, messianic king and queen, and threatened to reveal it, this might account for the Knights’ 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…

The Templar Knights 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. We can never know the degree to which tortured wretches eagerly signed any crazy-sounding confession shoved in front of them. As the witches confessed under duress to having sex with the devil himself, so did the beleaguered Templar Knights confess to blasphemies including the worship of a goat-headed demon statue called Baphomet! 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. Wolfram von Eschenbach, in his spiritual allegory of the Holy Grail, Parzifal, so depicts the Templars. 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, another Catholic-backed persecution, 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. There is no basis in fact or evidence. Only dots to be connected.

Brown and his sources want to take as much of this material as possible as factual in nature. But their “historiography” too often amounts to the reasoning of protagonists in horror movies: “But every legend has a basis in fact!” Not this one. It is rather simply part and parcel with the spurious lore of the Masons. And yet it is absolutely integral to 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. And this means their Templar castle is built on sinking sand.

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. They do not claim to know who wrote these documents, but since they were able to verify certain non-controversial points in them against independent documentary sources, they venture further to accept the controversial and otherwise-unattested claims in them as well. (We recognize this as precisely the same pseudo-scholarly procedure of apologists for the historical accuracy of the New Testament: if there was a Pilate or a Gallio, then all those stories of Jesus and Paul must be accurate!)7 But it is precisely these documents which have since been exposed as hoaxes planted by Pierre Plantard’s sect who also appropriated the name of the Priory of Sion. 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.

O Negative

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 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.” There is some reason to think the word “kiss” was becoming a euphemism for sexual intercourse, and the Gospel of Philip even seems to reflect this (“For the perfect conceive through a kiss and give birth.”). It is obvious that the erotic imagery is being used metaphorically in such passages, and yet who can discount the possibility that here, as in other cases, some notion, originally taken in a physical, material sense, has been “docetized,” its offense to squeamish readers removed by “not taking it literally”? 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.”8 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 do not.

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 (or used to know, until Green politics and Encounter groups took over the theological curriculum), 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. Many of us feel uneasy with these ancient formulae, but 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. And this point is crucial to the Teabing hypothesis: the marriage of Jesus would be the bombshell to demolish historic Christianity. But would it? It would certainly surprise a lot of people. I am reminded of an anecdote told by my old mentor David M. Scholer. One day a woman in his church recounted a dream in which she saw Jesus roller skating and smoking a cigarette! Though the skating gave her no pause, the smoking did, but only for a moment. Then, she said, she realized Jesus was Jewish, and “I remembered: Jews smoke!” They also have sex.

Third, what would any of this have to do with the Merovingian dynasty of Clovis, Pepin, Dagobert and Sigisbert? The Teabing hypothesis follows in the footsteps of conventional Mason-Templar pseudo-lore in positing an underground stream of esoteric knowledge passed on, ultimately, from the ancient Gnostics and Essenes. And it has always been irresistible to speculate whether Jesus and/or John the Baptist may have been connected with the Essenes and/or Dead Sea Scrolls community. Another advocate of the Templar Jesus scenario, Laurence Gardner (Bloodline of the Holy Grail ), cleverly appropriates the work of Dr. Barbara Thiering in order to gain new plausibility for this connection. Dr. Thiering has advanced a controversial theory about Jesus which does happen to parallel two cardinal features of the Teabing hypothesis. The first of these is that Jesus, a messiah-designate of the Qumran Essenes, did marry Mary Magdalene and beget an heir, also born to royal pretensions. The second is that Jesus survived crucifixion thanks to Essene allies.9 None of these notions is absurd, despite the unwillingness of mainstream scholars to entertain them seriously. None of these suggestions is either new or intrinsically unlikely. Dr. Thiering is well aware of the need to buttress such claims with evidence, and she has provided it in the form of a complex body of work which subjects the gospels to the same sort of “pesher” (decoding) exegesis used by the Qumran scribes on their own scriptures. Her unique mastery of the textual, hermeneutical, and calendrical lore involved has left her a voice crying in the wilderness, as none of her critics so far seem to be in a position to evaluate her theories competently, either positively or negatively. Suffice it to say that Dr. Thiering’s reconstruction of the cult-political connections of Jesus would come in very handy for the Teabing hypothesis. But Dr. Thiering vociferously repudiates the connection, pointing out in some detail how Gardner selectively misrepresents her work, then gratuitously extends it. If Gardner even understands why Thiering says what she does, he does not attempt to explain where he derives the rest of his “insights” on the connections between Jesus, Magdalene, and the Essenes.

Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln did not have the advantage of being able to misappropriate Dr. Thiering’s work. It seems to be enough for them to 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).10 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. And yet we can easily picture later half-recollections of their preaching turning into the legend that she was there with them, just as Suetonius seems to have erroneously inferred that Roman rioting over Christian preaching must have stemmed from “Chrestus'” own presence there (The Twelve Caesars 25:4).

Another attractive possibility is the suggestion of Dr. Robert Eisenman11 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 ago come to know and love. 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. Perhaps neither needs to be historically factual. 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.

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  1. Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code, p. 1.
  2. Robert Richardson. “The Priory of Sion Hoax.”
  3. As such, they are only the most recent in a long chain of Templar-related forgeries.
 See Richard Partner, The Murdered Magicians, pp. 103, 135, 140, 146, 161-63.
  4. Partner, p. 138.
  5. Robert Harrison, Trans. The Song of Roland, pp. 129-130.
  6. Steven Runciman, The Medieval Manichee, pp. 116-70.
  7. F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents , pp. 80-92.
  8. Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, e.g., pp. 507, 620, 758.
  9. Barbara Thiering, Jesus and the Riddle, pp. 87-89, 116-120.
  10. John L. Brooke, The Refiner’s Fire.
  11. 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.

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 of Laurence Gardner’s The Bloodline of the Holy Grail .” (

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