The Da Vinci Code: bad writing for Biblical illiterates
As with other long-running franchises, Jesus has been reinvented with ever more bizarre storylines
MARK STEYN | May 10, 2006
It's a good rule in this line of work to respect a hit. But golly, The Da Vinci Code makes it hard. At the start of the book, Dan Brown pledges, "All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate." It's everything else that's hokum, beginning with the title, whose false tinkle testifies to Brown's penchant for weirdly inauthentic historicity. Referring to "Leonardo da Vinci" as "da Vinci" is like listing Lawrence of Arabia in the phone book as "Of Arabia, Mr. L," or those computer-generated letters that write to the Duke of Wellington as "Dear Mr. Duke, you may already have won!"
So I didn't like the title and then I began reading the book. In the beginning was the word, and Mr. Brown's very first one seems to have gone missing:
"Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's Grand Gallery."
And after that I found it hard to stagger on myself. Shouldn't it be "The renowned curator"? What happened to the definite article? Did Mr. Brown choose to leave it off in order to affect an urgent investigative journalistic style? No, it's just the way he writes. Here's the first sentence of Angels &Demons:
"Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own."
The linguist Geoffrey Pullum -- or linguist Geoffrey Pullum, as novelist Dan Brown would say -- identifies this as the anarthrous occupational nominal premodifier, to which renowned novelist Dan Brown is unusually partial. In Deception Point, in what must count as a wild experiment in form for him, he holds off on the AONP until the second sentence:
"Death, in this forsaken place, could come in countless forms. Geologist Charles Brophy had endured the savage splendor of this terrain for years . . ."
Novelist Dan Brown staggered through the formulaic splendour of his opening sentence. I've discussed his anarthrous kickoff with a couple of novelists and they say things like, "It doesn't sound like a novel," and I usually reply that that's the point. If The Da Vinci Code were just a novel, it would just be crummy writing. But insofar as it evokes one of those interminable Newsweek background pieces reconstructing the John Kerry presidential campaign or some such, it bolsters the sleight of hand of the book: it rhythmically supports the impression that this is not a work of fiction, but a documentary unlocking of a two-millennia-old secret -- to wit, that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and sired a long line of descendants unto(anarthrous alert)police cryptologist Sophie Neveu, played in the movie by renowned French actress Audrey Tautou. In other words, the Gospels are a crock. Acclaimed painter Leonardo da Vinci knew the truth and left clues in his acclaimed paintings.
This premise has made anarthrous novelist Dan Brown the bestselling anarthrous novelist in the world. Even in a largely post-Christian West, Jesus is still a hit brand but, like other long-running franchises, he's been reinvented. It's like one of those bizarro Superman/alternate universe specials the comic books like to do. Or maybe one of those sputtering soaps that take refuge in ever more bizarre storylines -- that season of Dallas where they wrote off the previous year's worth of shows as a bad dream of Pam Ewing's.
The latest Bizarro Christ bestseller is the so-called Gospel of Judas, lost for 1,600 years but apparently rediscovered 20 minutes ago, edited by various scholars and now published by the National Geographic Society in Washington. Evidently, National Geographic has fallen on hard times since the days when anthropological studies of remote tribes were a young man's only readily available source of pictures of naked women. So I hope this new wrinkle works out for them. Renowned betrayer Judas Iscariot, you'll recall, was the disciple who sold out Jesus. Only it turns out he didn't! He was in on the plot! The betrayal was all part of the plan! For, as the Gospel of Judas exclusively reveals, Christ came to him and said, "Rudolph, with your nose so bright . . ." No, wait, that's a later codex. Christ said to Judas that he "will exceed all" the other disciples because it had fallen to him to "sacrifice the man that clothes me."
As with The Da Vinci Code, the air of scholarship is important. So here's the first sentence of the Gospel of Judas:
"The secret account1 of the revelation2 that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week3 three days before he celebrated Passover4."
Scholarly or what? Four footnotes in the first sentence. And when you go down to the foot, footnote one says: "or, 'treatise,' 'discourse,' 'word'(Coptic, from Greek, logos)." Footnote two reads: "Or, 'declaration,' 'exposition,' 'statement'. . ." What is this? The Thesaurus of Judas? Here's number three: "literally, 'during eight days,' probably intended to indicate a week."
You think so? Or could it indicate a little over a week?
On the face of it, sticking a bunch of speed bumps into every sentence would not normally be considered helpful to the reader. But once again the point is tonal: it's to remind you, relentlessly, that this is "authentic" -- it was actually written by long-time Jesus sidekick Judas! Well, okay, it wasn't. It's a fourth-century Coptic text by some guy, but it's believed to be pretty close to the original second-century Greek text. Okay, Judas wasn't around in the second century, but the fellows who wrote his "Gospel" likely got it from a friend of a friend of a friend of his. As Dr. Simon Gathercole of the University of Aberdeen told my old pal Dalya Alberge in the London Times, the alleged Gospel of Judas "contains a number of religious themes which are completely alien to the first-century world of Jesus and Judas, but which did become popular later, in the second century AD. An analogy would be finding a speech claiming to be written by Queen Victoria, in which she talked about The Lord Of The Rings and her CD collection."
And that would probably sell, too, if you put in a bit about how she was the love child of John the Baptist, but the Knights Templar covered it up until the manuscript was discovered at an Elks Lodge. The "Gospel" of Judas isn't a Gospel as the term is understood in the New Testament. It has minimal narrative and no moral teachings. If it's authentic, it joins the club of marginal second-century Gnostic texts that are floating around out there. If you're a believing Christian, it's thin gruel. Nonetheless, the New York Times hails it as "revealing the diversity of beliefs and practices among early followers of Jesus."
"Diversity," eh? Now what could they mean by that? Interestingly, for those gay-marriage advocates who point out that Jesus never said a word about homosexuality in his entire life, there are a couple of moments here in which Jesus refers to priests who are fornicators and "sleep with men." But don't worry. As footnote 51 assures us, "The accusation of sexual impropriety is a standard feature of polemical argumentation. One's opponents are frequently said to be immoral people."
In other words, it's just a bit of rhetorical red meat. Don't take it as Gospel. It seems curious to me that, on the one hand, one can claim this book in general blows the lid off Christ's final days and, at the same time, that in particular it's full of period tics that shouldn't be taken literally. These Christianesque bestsellers surely testify to something, but God knows what(as it were). It's interesting that so many non-churchgoing readers are interested in Jesus, disheartening that they're so Biblically illiterate. Still, given the success he's had dismissing the premise of the New Testament as a fraud, perhaps Dan Brown could try writing a revisionist biography of acclaimed prophet Muhammad. Just a thought.
To comment, email email@example.com