By Alan Boyle Science editor
updated 5/18/2006 9:59:21 PM ET 2006-05-19T01:59:21

The hype over “The Da Vinci Code” is reaching its zenith with the movie’s premiere at Cannes, providing another shot of publicity for unorthodox religious claims and grand conspiracies. But how much truth is buried in the "Code"?

The movie , like Dan Brown's novel, weaves a fast-paced plot around the idea that Jesus had children with Mary Magdalene, and that a secret society has been wrangling with Christian orthodoxy over this hidden knowledge ever since. Like the book, the movie has stirred up angry protests from organizations that are getting a bad rap, such as the Catholic-affiliated Opus Dei .

Scholars who focus on the frontiers of scriptural study generally agree with mainstream religious leaders on this one: There’s a lot of hooey wrapped around slivers of the Bible story. But at least some scholars say that if the hype gets people thinking about what they believe ... well, maybe that's not such a bad thing.

Harvard Professor Karen King, who has written extensively about Mary Magdalene and the role of women in the early Christian church, hopes the book and the movie will raise awareness about lesser-known versions of the scriptural story. These "non-canonical" books, also known as the Gnostic gospels, include the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip and the recently published Gospel of Judas .

"It's a positive whenever it leads people to ask questions, to find out what these new gospels are," she told me today. "It's negative if they don't take it further. ... That would be a big problem."

King says she assumes that moviegoers will realize the story is a work of fiction, not a documentary. And she hopes they won't blindly accept the "Da Vinci Code" version of Christianity, even though a recent British survey indicates that could well happen.

Already, "The Da Vinci Code" and its ilk have added some much-needed perspective to the traditional Bible stories. For example, for centuries Mary Magdalene was portrayed as little more than a reformed prostitute who fell in with Jesus' crowd. "Now everyone, including scholars and the Catholic Church, agrees that that portrait is not accurate," she said.

Mary Magdalene has now become a media-hyped "it" girl — but more seriously, scholars have come to accept her as an influential follower of Jesus who never got her historical due. Does that mean she was Jesus' secret lover? "The Da Vinci Code" and other books may make that claim, but there's absolutely no evidence of that even in the non-canonical scriptures, King pointed out.

"One sees that they're not really promoting any kind of sexual relationship at all," she said. The Gospel of Philip may make mention of a kiss between the two, or claim that Mary was Jesus' most loved disciple — but all that is clearly set in a spiritual rather than a sexual context.

"He loves her more than the other disciples, because she understands the teaching and is able to preach the gospel," King said.

Another common "Da Vinci Code" misconception is that the Gnostic gospels were judged heretical because they portrayed Jesus as more of a human figure, King said: "In fact, these texts portray Jesus as only divine, and not human. Their heresy is not that they claim he was human, their heresy is that they claim he was only divine."

Video: Matt talks with ‘Da Vinci Code’ cast Looking beyond the scriptures themselves, "The Da Vinci Code" builds its page-turning plot around the conflict between the guardians of orthodoxy on one hand, and a secret society that supposedly included Leonardo da Vinci and other luminaries of humanism on the other. King said she was in no position to talk about that aspect of the story — but scriptural scholar Robert Price, a participant in the controversial Jesus Seminar, takes it on with gusto in an essay titled "The Da Vinci Hoax."

Like other historical sleuths, Price contends that the secret society cited in "The Da Vinci Code," known as the Priory of Sion, was largely made up in the 1950s by a right-wing Frenchman named Pierre Plantard to boost his claim to royalty.

"There was a Priory of Sion that had some connection with the Jesuits, but that folded in 1617," Price told me today. "Plantard pretty much revived the name 'Priory of Sion' to give his original right-wing political group a false mystique. ... It's like saying Ralph Kramden's Raccoon Lodge holds the secrets of Western civilization."

Plantard's claptrap found its way into a variety of books, including "Holy Blood, Holy Grail," which in turn provided the underpinnings for Dan Brown's totally fictional plot. "You find these books in the 'New Age' and occult section, which ought to be a tip-off," Price said.

Perhaps the most unfortunate side effect of the "Da Vinci Code" hype is the taint of anti-Catholicism that it leaves behind, Harvard's King said. She said that only contributes to a troubling trend of religious divisiveness in society.

But Price said the anti-"Da Vinci Code" protests may be counterproductive. "I'm really at the opposite pole from these poor religious zealots who want to boycott the movie. It's ludicrous, and it only promotes the movie," he said.

Price, whose career as a theologian has taken him from fundamentalism to deep skepticism about religious claims, said portraying the scriptural debate as a case of "The Da Vinci Code" vs. orthodoxy is way too simplistic.

"The question that's more interesting is: 'Are you that sure that the Gospels are not equally fictitious?' As a religious scholar, I say that they are," Price declared. "The real issue is, do we really know what Jesus was about? There are many scholarly guesses, and 'The Da Vinci Code' isn't one of them."

Even the scholars haven't yet fully worked out the meaning of recently discovered writings such as the Gospel of Judas, and the flap over "The Da Vinci Code" is by no means the last word on the grand debate.

"One thing I really want to get out in this climate of movie hysteria is that it's not a question of whether 'The Da Vinci Code' is true and therefore Christianity is debunked, or 'The Da Vinci Code' is bunk and therefore Christianity is true," Price said. "There's a third and a fourth and a fifth option, and if we get those out there, that's a good thing."

This report originally appeared in Cosmic Log on May 17, 2006.

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