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"The Da Vinci Code"

Aired September 27, 2004 - 23:00:00   ET


JONATHAN MANN, CNN HOST: Conspiracies within the Catholic Church, secrets about Jesus hidden for centuries unraveled by a murder in the worlds most famous museum. "The Di Vinci Code" is a worldwide bestseller that strains credulity, but has a lot of people out there looking for clues.
Hello and welcome.

The biggest mystery of the "The Di Vinci Code" may simply be its success. How does an author turn myths, half-truths and odds and ends from the attic of the Catholic Church into a far-fetched detective yarn and then convince so many people that much of it is true?

That there are some 12 million copies of the "The Di Vinci Code" out there around the world. It is a bestseller in several languages and by some estimates the best-selling hard cover novel of all time.

If you haven't read it we won't spoil it by telling you that the book starts with a homicide and leads its characters through at least two conspiracies in landmark locations in Western Europe.

Deciphering what is one of the most important secrets in Western history. But the "The Di Vinci Code" is want just this years favorite read. It has grown a lot bigger than that.

On our program today, "Di Vinci Code" culture. Here's CNN's Jim Bitterman.


JIM BITTERMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It is a dark and stormy night. Yet at the Church of San Sulpice, in Paris, there is want a single self-mutilating albino monk in sight. Along the Grand Gallery of the Louvre Museum, not even one dead curator sprawls on the famed parquet floor, and in the hayloft of a chateau outside Paris, the secret listening post is just not there.

Yet even if they can't find all the details mentioned in the book, "The Di Vinci Code" fans seem to have an insatiable need to link the fiction to reality, especially at the Louvre Museum, where the opening murder scene takes place.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our curiosity about the things that may be true about the book or is it all myth.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One of the reasons we're going to the Louvre, I mean, we've been here several times, but we try to see it again exactly because of "The Di Vinci Code".

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: For sure, they're trying to match the truth and the fiction.

BITTERMAN: On art historian who gives tours of the Louvre happily corrects the implausibilities in the murder mystery, including one in the first paragraph where the victim is described as a 76 year old curator. Everyone knows, he says, mandatory retirement age in France is 65.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The curator of the museum gets killed not so far from one of the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) when he is lying there. Well, actually, there is only one place where it could happen. It would be here, actually, and this is where the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) is actually with the security system, a big iron gate. As you can see, there is no iron gate here. It's a big door. So these are real things, of course, that don't matter much, but it's the possibility that is quite fun for us to show during the tour.

BITTERMAN: Still, the art expert does not complain about those now known as "Di Vinci Code" tourists.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is no bad reason to come to the Louvre. No, for us it's very interesting as well because, I mean, we can start a conversation and talk about some other things. If we spend more time in front of the paintings and they try to spot details, symbols, basically what the painters wanted to tell them, rather than what they wanted to show them.

BITTERMAN: But across town at the Church of San Sulpice, where the novel's mad monk supposedly used a candleholder to murder a fictional nun, the church fathers are not so up beat about the additional tourists. They felt obliged to put up a sign explains that the brass strip running across the floor is not a pagan astronomical device and say at contrary to the narrative, no secret society spelled out its initials on the church's stained glass.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It says a lot of things that are not true and I'm annoyed at the first three lines in the opening of the book, which says the history, though controversial, is accurate, they say, because of course most of the things in the book are not true. Especially much of what is said about this church.

BITTERMAN: But what it says about the church annoys others, some of whom view it as an attack on Christianity.

(on camera): The book supposes that Mary Magdalene was the lover if not wife of Jesus Christ and that the two had a child who then became part of the bloodline of the kings of France and that Opus Dei, one of the fastest growing movements in the Catholic Church, is populated with assassins and plotters.

(voice-over): At the Opus Dei headquarters, scene of yet another murder in the novel, officials are not amused and have taken to inviting "Di Vinci Code" tourists in for damage control.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is a concern, because although it's a novel and one doesn't want to overreact, it does have a pseudo-academic disguise, and therefore things that are represented as facts are unusually damaging.

BITTERMAN: Another factor that has caused Catholics in particular to take a work of fiction so seriously is the novel's huge popularity on both sides of the Atlantic. 600,000 copies have been sold in France alone since it went on sale in April.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think the deeper question here that the church really has to ask is, you know, how is it that they have a hard time getting people to come to church on Sunday and yet millions and millions and millions of people are willing to plunk down 35 bucks to pick up a hardback copy of "The Di Vinci Code".

I mean, in other words, what that indicates is that there is a tremendous spiritual interest and tremendous hunger out there that for whenever reason institutional Christianity does that seem to be able to satisfy.

BITTERMAN: What is clear is that the passions of the code-heads run deep.

At the Chateau de Villette, near Paris, American owner Olivia Decker (ph) discovered months after "The Di Vinci Code" came out that her 185 acre property figures notably in the book, and while up until now she's only rented the place out to a few high-end filmmakers and high-rolling tourists, now she's getting into "The Di Vinci Code" tourism, sharing her 18 bedroom home for $55,000 a week.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That is the whole week, complete tour, there's meals and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) here and different sites and we also throw in other sides besides what is in the book. That's including Versailles and Monet's Garden and other locations, yes.

BITTERMAN: Decker (ph) believes the book is popular because it puts ancient mysteries in simple language and poses a different view of Christian teachings, and she says it's popularity is just beginning. She has already been contacted by a movie company planning to shoot "The Di Vinci Code" in and around her chateau.

Jim Bitterman, Villette, France.


MANN: We take a break. When we come back, how accurate is "The Di Vinci Code". A scholar has his stay.

Stay with us.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Whispers of this secret have been passed along for centuries in countless languages, including art, music and literature, and that one could find veiled references and clues to it in the works and Mozart, Wagner, Isaac Newton, Botticelli as well as in the pagan traditions of the tarot cards and the songs of the troubadours.

I became absolutely fascinated with this idea of a lost historical secret and began researching, but the further I progressed into my research, the more troublesome the information became.



MANN: Opus Dei, the work of God, is a little known institution within the Roman Catholic Church whose founder was canonized as saint in the year 2002. Its stated goal: to encourage ordinary Catholics to live holy lives in their regular lives, at work, at home, in their families and their communities.

It has more than 80,000 members around the world, but even some prominent Catholics consider Opus Dei the most controversial institution in the Church.

Welcome back.

Opus Dei does not widely publicize itself or the specifics of its teachings, and even many Catholics aren't sure of exactly what it does. But outside of the pages of "The Da Vinci Code" it is not often accused of murdering people.

Trying to clear up the questions raised in that book has become a small industry that Catholic organizations and scholars are being drawn into.

We invited the author of "The Da Vinci Code," Dan Brown, to join us on our program today, but he declined.

Joining us now to talk about the book's accuracy is Bart Ehrman, Chair of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He's the author, as well, of "Lost Christianities" and the forthcoming "The Truth Behind `The Da Vinci Code.'"

Thanks so much for being with us.

When tourists travel around, they can go to the church at San Sulpice, they can see the museum, the Louvre, in Paris. How much of what you have seen when you looked around at that book seemed accurate to you?

BART EHRMAN, AUTHOR: Well, my area of interest is in early Christianity and the history of the early Church, Jesus and his disciples and such, and when it comes to that more ancient material, the book is fascinating, but I'm afraid often it has mistakes in it that, for those interested in the history of Christianity, need to be corrected.

MANN: For example?

EHRMAN: Well, there's a wide range of things. There's a lot of things that Dan Brown says in the book that could have been easily corrected if he had simply done a little bit more homework, I think. For example, there is a repeated claim that there are gospels of Jesus found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, which of course is not true at all. The Dead Sea Scrolls were a collection of Jewish documents, not Christian documents.

There are lost gospels that have been discovered, but they don't actually say the sorts of things that Dan Brown indicates that they say.

MANN: Let's talk about the really big thing that he says. Do serious scholars entertain the idea that Jesus was married, that he fathered a child, and that his descendents have been hidden from the world ever since?

EHRMAN: Well, serious scholars in fact don't think so. There is no record of Jesus having been married in the New Testament gospels, which are our best sources for knowing what happened to the historical Jesus.

But even outside the New Testament, in other gospels that are preserved, we don't have accounts of Jesus actually being married and carrying on a sexual relationship with anyone, let alone with Mary Magdalene.

MANN: It jumps right out at you. It's kind of a screaming assertion to make.

Let me ask you about other figures in the Christian tradition. Does he tend to get those right?

EHRMAN: Well, he doesn't talk too much about other figure except for some of the disciples of Jesus, and he spends a good deal of time, of course, on Mary Magdalene and on Jesus himself. He says some things about Jesus that are open to question.

He says at one point, for example, that it would have been highly unusual for a Jewish man in the 1st century to have been a celibate. And in fact that's not true at all. We know of numerous instances of Jewish men in the 1st century who lived the celibate life, including the men who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls.

MANN: How about Constantine?

EHRMAN: Well, we know a lot about Constantine, and a lot of what's reported by Dan Brown in fact is in error.

One of the points of "The Da Vinci Code" is that Constantine decided which books would be included in the New Testament. As it turns out, Constantine had nothing to do with deciding which books belonged in the New Testament. That decision was made by Church authorities long before Constantine's day in terms of knowing basically which books would belong. And then it was at a later time that Church officials decided which 27 books would finally belong in our New Testaments.

MANN: If so much of this book is so off-base, why do you think people are so drawn to it?

EHRMAN: Well, it's a fascinating story. It's a page-turner. It's a murder mystery that includes interesting historical speculation.

I think the difficulty is that at the beginning of the book, Dan Brown lists on a page a set of facts and he includes a statement that all art, architecture and documents described in the book are factual, whereas in point of fact that is not true.

So people are confused about whether what he says is accurate or not, and it takes a historian, probably, to straighten out the record.

MANN: It doesn't take a historian to wonder if in fact the Catholic Church or anyone in a position of power inside of it would be happy to organize serial killing, and for that reason, I'm just curious whether you think it's one long libel against the Catholic Church as a whole.

EHRMAN: Well, it can certainly be read as libelous. The Catholic Church in the book is not only responsible for murder in places but also for cover up. Cover up of documents, for example, that could reveal the truth, if only they had been released.

In point of fact, the Catholic Church has never been in the business of covering up documents, such as those that have been discovered in modern times. They're accessible to scholars and to any reader, really, who is able to read for themselves what these documents say, and they simply don't say the sorts of things that Dan Brown claims they do.

MANN: Now, you are a serious scholar, and your most recent book before the one you've written about "The Da Vinci Code" is a very serious look at the early history of Christianity. Why do people like you, who have a day job, get drawn in to this debate about this work of fiction, do you think?

EHRMAN: Well, I think for a lot of us, it's interesting to see how diverse early Christianity actually was, to see what we think of today as one religion, Christianity, in the ancient world in fact was a number of different religions with different beliefs about such fundamental things as whether there is a single God or multiple Gods, believes about who Jesus was, whether he was human or divine or something else. There is such a wide range of belief in early Christianity and a wide range of practice, that it's fascinating to anybody who has any interest at all in history.

MANN: Bart Ehrman, author of "The Truth Behind "The Da Vinci Code,"" thanks so much for this.

EHRMAN: Thank you.

MANN: We take a break. When we come back, a look at some equally intriguing stuff, and it's nonfiction.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Many historians now believe, as do I, that engaging the historical accuracy of a given concept, we must first ask ourselves a far deeper question: How historically accurate is history itself?

In many cases we'll never know the answer, but that certainly doesn't mean we shouldn't be asking the question. And nobody asked more questions that Leonardo Da Vinci.



MANN: Leonard Da Vinci painted The Last Supper in the closing years of the 15th century, and ever since it's been one of the iconic images of Christianity. Jesus gathered with his apostles, teaching that bread and wine would become the Eucharist. "The Da Vinci Code" makes a startling claim about the figure to the left of Jesus.

The novel says Da Vinci painted a woman, Mary Magdalene, into the picture instead of one of the apostles.

Welcome back.

Find a book or go to the Internet and have a good, close look at the painting. We'll leave it up to you about who you see there. But Mary Magdalene, for centuries regarded by the Church as a reformed prostitute, is a figure who gets a very different reading among some scholars nowadays.

Joining us now to talk about some of the historical reexamination of the early Christian tradition is Elaine Pagels, author of many works, among them "The Gnostic Gospels" and "Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas."

Thanks so much for being with us.

Let me ask you first of all about these secret texts. It sounds like another piece of fiction out of "The Da Vinci Code" and in fact they're mentioned in "The Da Vinci Code," but they are the texts that were recovered at Nag Hammadi, that you have studied.

Can you tell us about them?

ELAINE PAGELS, AUTHOR: Yes. I think what makes "The Da Vinci Code" so fascinating to many people is not just that it's a fictional thriller, of course, but that it claims to talk about actual events and actual secret gospels, and it's true that in 1945 there was an extraordinary archeological discovery in upper Egypt that gave us for the first time the complete text of many early Christian works that had been in fact unknown and suppressed for thousands of years, including the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of Truth and the Gospel of Peter and so forth.

So these texts have changed what we know about the early Christian movement, and that was what started Dan Brown on his quest.

MANN: Can you tell us about what you have learned about the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, for example?

PAGELS: Yes. I must say that what I love about these texts is that they give us a chance to find a much more interesting and complicated picture of the early Christian movement, and the book of "The Da Vinci Code" raises the question, what else didn't we know about the early Christian movement.

Mary Magdalene, of course, is known in Christian tradition as a reformed prostitute, but the early sources suggest, the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Thomas, that she was one of the disciples of Jesus, that she was a participant in their discussions and a preacher and a teacher, and there is nothing about a prostitute in these texts.

MANN: In "The Da Vinci Code," and we'll go back there all the time, it's alleged that there have been conspiracies to hide the truth about the history of the church. Is anything remotely like that responsible for the loss of the Nag Hammadi texts?

PAGELS: Yes, I think so, because we know that in the year 367, the Archbishop of Egypt told the monks in Egypt that there were 27 books that he called "The Springs of Salvation," and he told them to get rid of all the other, he called them illegitimate, secret books they had, which included many other secret gospels.

And books which the monks treasured in their monastery library were then hidden until they were discovered in 1945. That's why now we have a very different picture of the early Christian movement.

MANN: Now, I'm going to stop you right there, because anybody watching this program who doesn't know about your reputation is going to say, she's saying "The Da Vinci Code" is true.


MANN: . is she a conspiracy nut. You are a very serious scholar of wide repute in the United States and in the English-speaking world. Are you suggesting that there is some truth to "The Da Vinci Code" book?

PAGELS: I'm saying that there are secret texts which haven't been known and which are now available to read, as Professor Bart Ehrman pointed out, and what we find is I think much more interesting than what we could make up.

I'm not a conspiracy theorist, so I find the historical investigation of these much more fascinating than the fiction which he makes up.

For example, he starts with the Gospel of Philip, which speaks of Mary Magdalene as the companion of Jesus, whom he loved very much, and the Gospel of Philip goes on to describe Mary Magdalene as one who represents the Holy Spirit and the Church as the bride of Christ. It's a powerful symbolic and remarkable gospel, quite different from what he presents in his novel.

MANN: It is so intriguing because I thought you would be annoyed by the whole "The Da Vinci Code" phenomenon, and you don't seem that. You seem rather cheerful about all of it.

PAGELS: Well, I don't take very seriously the fictional thriller side of it, but I think it raises a very important question, which is what else didn't we know about the early Christian movement, and the answer is a great deal. And now we have an enormous amount of information and material and in the secret gospels that simply we hadn't known in full. We hadn't had the full text available since they were mostly buried and destroyed in the early centuries of the Christian era.

They were found by chance in 1945 and they've transformed what we think about the early Christian movement.

MANN: Once again, going back to "The Da Vinci Code," there was an evil, murderous conspiracy to hide the truth. How has the institution of the Roman Catholic Church responded to the kinds of research that people like you are doing about the Nag Hammadi texts?

PAGELS: Well, as I said, I don't deal in conspiracy theories or blaming the Catholic Church. Some of us are trying to understand what were the pressures on followers of Jesus during the first centuries that required the suppression of certain material so that they sorted out a simple Canon to try to organize the church and provide a certain kind of leadership in a time when the movement might have been destroyed.

I certainly don't buy Dan Brown's version of it, but I don't think he meant it quite seriously.

MANN: And how does the Church today respond to all of this?

PAGELS: Well, I think there are many Roman Catholic scholars among those who are exploring the early history of the Christian movement and the questions about the historical Jesus. So there are many Catholics who participate in this research and there are some Christians, Catholic and otherwise, who find it awful that we should be exploring these issues and raising these questions.

MANN: Fascinating stuff, though, isn't it. Elaine Pagels, author of "The Gnostic Gospels" and "Beyond Belief," thank you so much for talking with us.

PAGELS: Thank you.

MANN: A final thing before we go that may be ironic or appropriate for a book about secret texts and hidden crimes. Some writers are accusing "The Da Vinci Code" author of stealing their work.

Back in 1983, an author named Lewis Perdue wrote a book called "The Da Vinci Legacy" about the famous painter, Christianity, conspiracies and killing, and he says Dan Brown copied some of it for "The Da Vinci Code."

Brown adamantly denies the claims, but other writers of another `80s cult favorite on a similar subject you may have heard of called "Holy Blood, Holy Grail," are also said to be considering their legal actions. So far, though, no one has mentioned homicide or blamed a secret global conspiracy.

That's INSIGHT for this day. I'm Jonathan Mann. The news continues.



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