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updated 5/26/2006 6:12:25 PM ET

Dateline NBC

Secrets behind 'The Da Vinci Code'
Dateline travels throughout Europe to investigate best-selling novel's controversial claims
By Stone Phillips
Dateline NBC

This report airs Dateline Friday, 8 p.m.

Inside the Louvre Museum, under the mysterious gaze of the Mona Lisa, a museum curator is gunned down. In his dying moments, he leaves behind a bizarre trail of clues, some written in his own blood. The gunman is a towering albino monk, but police suspect the murderer is a Harvard professor of religious symbols and art.

As the professor races off into the Paris night to prove his innocence, he embarks on a journey through ancient history, art, and the Bible, and the discovery of dangerous truths hidden for 2,000 years -- secrets, that if revealed, could "devastate the very foundation of Christianity."

That scene, from the opening pages of “The Da Vinci Code” is, of course, fiction. But readers are told right from the start that "all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate." That provocative statement gives an air of credibility to the book's elaborate conspiracy theories and it's caused millions of readers to wonder how much they really know about Jesus and a woman named Mary Magdalene.

"Fiction, as if it were fact, as if it were history, and say 'Well, this really rocks my world? What I’ve always come to understand about Jesus and the Catholic church is suddenly everything’s up for grabs and that shakes a lot of people up,” says NBC News analyst Father Thomas Williams of Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

In the book, the monk kills the curator in a quest for the legendary Holy Grail, a mythical vessel often thought of as the cup that Jesus drank from at the Last Supper. But in “The Da Vinci Code,” the grail takes on an entirely new meaning. It might not be a cup at al, but a secret, the author suggests, that would radically change our understanding of Jesus and the life he led.

To understand that secret and to separate fact from fiction in “The Da Vinci Code,” we pieced together a portrait of the novel's key figure, a woman who lived 2,000 years ago: Mary Magdalene.

Mary Magdalene was born, it is believed, in the town of Magdala, a fishing village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. She lives in our memory as the Biblical figure with the flowing red hair, a fallen woman until she is forgiven by Jesus.

Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King is an authority on women's roles in the early church and author of a recent book on Mary Magdalene.

Stone Phillips, Dateline correspondent: How important do you think she was to Jesus?

Karen King, Harvard Divinity School professor: Mary Magdalene had to be one of the most important people in Jesus' life. And she's said to be the first witness to the resurrection. That role in his story places her at the center of the Christian message, and, one has to assume, at the center of Jesus' life.

Few scholars doubt that Mary was an important follower, but there is another label that has stubbornly shadowed her through the ages -- prostitute.

Phillips: Was Mary Magdalene a prostitute?

Dr. Ben Witherington, III, Asbury Theological Seminary: No. No, she wasn't. In no text in the New Testament is Mary Magdalene ever said to be an adulterer or a sinful woman.

Even so, in a 6th century Easter sermon, Pope Gregory the Great declared that Mary was a prostitute. Why would he do that? Many believe he simply mixed her up with another Bible figure, an unnamed prostitute who appears just before Mary is introduced in the Book of Luke.

Bart Ehrman, author of "Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code": They’re clearly different women. But Pope Gregory the Great identified the two and said they were the same. And from that point on, in the 6th century, it came to be thought that Mary Magdalene must have been a prostitute.

But the novel's professor, who's trying to unravel the mystery of the grail, suggests something more sinister behind the slander: a conspiracy by the church to hide the true nature of Mary's relationship to Jesus. The fictional professor points to some tantalizing clues, buried in the sand for almost 1,600 years, that help explain Mary's secret connection to the grail. They're clues that are, in fact, based on something real.

In December 1945 near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi, a peasant smashed open an earthenware jar and pulled out more than 50 ancient texts hidden since the 4th century. “The Da Vinci Code” refers to them as scrolls, but they are, in fact, leather bound books, part of a collection known as the Gnostic Gospels. These texts have never been recognized by the church, but some scholars say they contain revealing new insights about Mary.

King: We get these later Gospels that elaborate on these possibilities for what Jesus may have told Mary. And later tradition also sees her as someone who was a leader in the church. And that set of images, make for a strong figure.

Phillips: Not the shy, retiring, passive type?

King: Not the shy retiring, passive type.

In these more recently discovered alternative Gospels, Mary emerges as a kind of original feminist, Jesus' most trusted disciple and advisor, and a rival to the apostle Peter, the fisherman thought to be the first head of the church.

Phillips: I think most people will be surprised to hear that there is a gospel in which she is foremost among the Apostles.

King: According to this Gospel, Mary was the disciple who understood. She was the one who was able to carry on Jesus' teachings.

Phillips: She got it.

King: And to preach the Gospel. She got it.

The novel says passages of the once secret books depict Mary as the true heir to Jesus' church and a threat to its male leaders. But many, like noted Evangelical scholar Darrell Bock, say that's misreading the text.

Dr. Darrell Bock is research professor of New Testament Studies and professor of Spiritual Development and Culture at Dallas Theological Seminary.

Darrell Bock: Now Mary Magdalene is a very important figure in the early church and in the Bible. But it is a misrepresentation to suggest that she held some kind of formal office or had some formal teaching role. We have no real evidence of that at all.

As it is with most figures from the Bible, the portrait of Mary is incomplete. Her life is a puzzle with some intriguing pieces; a scrap of parchment, a few lines in an ancient manuscript. The novel says the truth about Mary and her link to the Holy Grail is "everywhere once you open your eyes..." including some of the world's greatest works of art. You just have to know how to read the clues.

Phillips: According to this book, "The Last Supper" by Leonardo Da Vinci, holds the key to the mystery of the Holy Grail.

David Nolta, art historian: It's the crucial image in ‘The Da Vinci Code.’

Are the clues in a crucial image, hiding in plain sight— revealing the dangerous secret behind “The Da Vinci Code”? The bond between Mary and Jesus may have run far deeper than anyone imaged.

Buried deep in the pages of “The Da Vinci Code” is a secret about Mary Magdalene, one the book says the church has suppressed for centuries. If you look carefully, there are clues pointing to it everywhere: in the Bible, in historical documents, and in works of art by Leonardo Da Vinci— complex codes and mysterious messages that the novel claims were cleverly hidden by the artist. 

But are they really there?

David Nolta, art historian: He was one of most mysterious people in the history of Western civilization. When people think of the renaissance man, they often think of Leonardo Da Vinci.

Art historian David Nolta teaches a course on “The Da Vinci Code. He considers Leonardo a genius whose work still evokes a deep sense of awe and mystery. His paintings, abundant drawings, and notes, (many of which are written backwards), seem full of secrets and fantasies. Leonardo was an architect, musician, anatomist, and engineer.

Stone Phillips, Dateline anchor: And according to this book, the keeper of the Holy Grail.

Nolta: Right.

According to “The Da Vinci Code,” Leonardo offers the key to the secret of Mary Magdalene and her relationship to Jesus in his masterpiece in Milan, the Last Supper.

The novel turns conventional wisdom on its head with this declaration that "The Last Supper" doesn't depict 13 men, but 12 men and a woman. Could that be true? For answers, the novel instructs us to take a closer look at the figure to Jesus' right. We asked Nolta to help us demystify the meaning of the painting. Could it be that the beardless apostle, always believed to be St. John, is really a woman? And if so, who is she?

Phillips: This figure does appear to be more feminine than any other figure in the painting.

Nolta: I totally agree, most feminine.

If that's true, what could the painting be telling us? The book points to another clue.  The "M" evoked by the outline of the central figures could actually be a secret code that stands for Mary Magdalene.

Nolta: You can find an "M", certainly… which could stand for Mary Magdalene.

Or the book says it could stand for something far more provocative, like matrimonio or marriage. Could Mary Magdalene and Jesus have been husband and wife? “The Da Vinci Code” claims the Last Supper practically shouts out that they were a pair. To find out if there's any truth to this radical claim, we must travel back 2,000 years.

Mary and Jesus are thought to have come from Galilee. Mary, some believe, was from a prosperous fishing family and Jesus was a Jewish preacher with a reputation for performing miracles. 

The New Testament says they came together when Jesus cast out Mary's "seven demons," spirits once thought to represent her wayward past. But today, it is widely seen as a metaphor for illness, perhaps epilepsy.

Soon, the Bible says that Mary was traveling the countryside with Jesus and even contributing money to his ministry. She was with him during his final days in Jerusalem, one of the few followers to remain by his side at his moment of death.

Phillips: How significant a figure was Mary Magdalene in Jesus' life?

Karen King, Harvard divinity school professor: Mary Magdalene had to be the most important woman in Jesus' life, perhaps other than his mother. He surrounded himself by a group that followed him. Jesus loved her more than the others. The question is, why?

Margaret Starbird, author: I think they were a couple. I think he found her irresistible.

Author Margaret Starbird, whose controversial research on Mary Magdalene is cited in “The Da Vinci Code,” says there's no need to look to art for clues of an intimate relationship between Mary and Jesus. All you have to do, she says, is read the New Testament. It's right there in the Book of John.

Starbird: When Mary Magdalene comes to the garden to mourn for Jesus and to anoint him for his final anointing and finds him resurrected in the garden, she is overjoyed.

Before Jesus ascends to heaven, Mary reaches out to him and he tells her "do not touch me." 

Starbird: He's saying "I can't stay with you now" and she's trying to hold on. It's not just a touch. It's an embrace. If she weren't married to him, she wouldn't have dreamed of touching him.

Most scholars and of course the Catholic Church refute the notion that the scene in the garden suggests anything intimate between Jesus and Mary. But Starbird says that outside of the Bible, in those unrecognized gospels found in the Egyptian desert, there are more clues, like phrases from the Gospel of Phillip that say Mary Magdalene "always walked with the Lord" and is "the one who was called his companion."

Phillips: Would the word "companion" translate to "spouse"?

King: It can mean spouse as well as companion.

Others say "companion" might simply mean a spiritual companion or fellow traveler.  But “The Da Vinci Code” quotes another line in the same passage as proof that Jesus and marry shared a sexual relationship.   It reads, "Christ loved her more than all the other disciples and used to kiss her often on her mouth."

But many scholars, like Bart Ehrman author of "Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code," say that's stretching the truth.

Bart Ehrman, author of "Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code": The manuscript that has the Gospel of Philip has holes in it. And so there are places where the words don't come through. And so what it says is that Jesus loved blank. And frequently blank kiss blank on the blank. So it looks like Jesus is kissing Mary Magdalene somewhere on her body but we don't know where.

Phillips: That's all we've got.

Ehrman: That's all we got.

Phillips: Literally holes in the story.

So the picture is incomplete.  But wherever Jesus kissed Mary, other scholars add, it doesn't tell us anything more about their relationship.

Phillips: Are there other instances of Jesus kissing other disciples?

Dr. Ben Witherington, III, Asbury Theological Seminary: Oh sure. Absolutely. And of course, you have the famous one that's in the reverse where Judas kisses Jesus to identify him when he's betrayed. What we know about early Jewish culture is that this was the traditional greeting.

And, as for the book's claim that a married Jesus makes infinitely more sense than our view of Jesus as a bachelor, scholarly opinion is mixed.

Elaine Pagels: It's certainly true that most Jewish men got married. Rabbis in particular. And it could well be that Jesus was married.

Witherington: It was the norm and it was normal that Jews got married. Were there a lot of notable exceptions? Absolutely there were. And Jesus could be one.

But one thing scholars agree on is this: nowhere in the New Testament or in any other Christian teachings does it spell out whether or not Jesus was married. That's because it never happened. But for others, that silence is rich with possibility.

King: If there were any definitive piece of evidence that Jesus and Mary were married, it would have been told many times.

Phillips: That's a secret that would not have kept.

King: What we really have is silence, and silence is pregnant with many kinds of meaning.

But what if there was a reason for that silence, a truth, says “The Da Vinci Code,” that if revealed, was far more threatening to the church than a marriage?

At the heart of the mystery unraveled in “The Da Vinci Code” lies the enigmatic figure of Mary Magdalene. For centuries she was dismissed as a reformed prostitute, but Dan Rrown re-imagines her as a powerful figure who not only followed—but married—Jesus of Nazareth. 

And the book also implies that there’s more to her story than that—a truth so startling that it could rock the very foundations of Christianity. Again, the novel says the answer is hidden all around us.

One set of clues brings us to a sleepy village along the Mediterranean coast of France.

There is a legend there that is said to reveal the truth about Jesus and Mary Magdalene. It is the place where an oarless boat full of refugees from the Holy Land washed ashore not long after Jesus was crucified.

Margaret Starbird, author: They landed on the coast of France and brought with them the Holy Grail.

Among those onboard was Mary Magdalene, who, the legend says, settled there and raised a daughter named Sarah.

Starbird: She's pre-adolescent in 42 AD, which means she's between 9 and 12 years old in 42 AD. And so the timing is right in the legend.

But in “The Da Vinci Code,” Sarah is no mere legend. She exists and her lineage is the most astonishing revelation of the story. Sarah, the novel proclaims, is the daughter of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. This, the book says, is the true secret of the Holy Grail: That Jesus' marriage to Mary Magdalene produced a child, a little girl, who grew up in the South of France. According to the legend, Sarah bore children of her own, carrying on her father's bloodline. It flowed through generations, eventually reaching the French royal family, and from there, the rest of the world.  

There is, of course, no birth certificate, or entry in some ancient ledger telling of Sarah's arrival or who her parents might have been. For clues, the book once again leads us right back to Leonardo DaVinci and the Last Supper. It is one of many renaissance depictions of Jesus and his Apostles sharing Passover on the night before his crucifixion.

But Leonardo's version leaves out an important icon. Jesus' chalice, the legendary Holy Grail, is missing.  And according to “The Da Vinci Code,” its absence is no mistake. It's just another clue leading us to the truth about Mary Magdalene.

The book says the painting literally spells it out. First, there's that "M" which could stand for "Magdalene" or "marriage." Then, there's another clue found by tracing the line formed by the central figures -- a "V,” the shape of the missing chalice and the ancient symbol for female fertility, conjuring the image of a mother's womb.

And so, the book concludes, Da Vinci is trying to tell us that Mary Magdalene was the "holy vessel" who carried "the royal bloodline of Jesus Christ" by bearing his child.

Starbird: And probably a girl child since the vessel, the shape, the cup is actually a feminine symbol.

But why would Leonardo bury these symbols in his masterpiece?

Stone Phillips: The book depicts Leonardo Da Vinci as a subversive slipping hidden messages into his art.

David Nolta, art historian: Uh-huh.

Phillips: The artist's eccentricities projected an admittedly demonic aura.

Nolta: He was a man of a considerable range of activities, certainly.

Leonardo's activities, according to “The Da Vinci Code,” included leading a secret brotherhood, a group entrusted with protecting the truth about Jesus, Mary and their child -- The Priory of Sion.

Richard Leigh, co-author "Holy Blood, Holy Grail": The original Priory of Sion was established in 1099 by the Crusaders after Jerusalem fell.

You won't find the Priory of Sion mentioned in any conventional biography of Leonardo DaVinci, but the book says that for proof of his membership, all you have to do is look in the French National Library at a collection of papers called the Secret Documents or Dossiers Secret.

Leigh: Dossiers Secret are documents deposited anonymously in the Bibliotheque Nationale.

Richard Leigh was among the first to evaluate the documents which were, in fact, discovered in the library in the 1970s. The documents include a directory of leaders, called grand masters, men whose mission, Leigh says, was to hide the secret of the bloodline, then pass it down through the ages.

Leigh: Leonardo appears on the list of grand masters. There's no question that he was also connected with the figures who immediately proceed and immediately follow him on the list.

The list opens with obscure French noblemen, but goes on to read like the contents table of an introductory course to Western civilization.

Leigh: Obviously when we first saw the names, names like Leonardo, Botticelli, Newton, we were skeptical. On the other hand if you wanted to concoct a list of illustrious figures, why include so many non-entities? And why not bring in more? Why not have Goethe on the list for example? Why not have Shakespeare?

A generation ago, Leigh poured over these enigmatic papers, matching them point by point to documented French history and local legends -- including the story of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, and a girl named Sarah. It all points, he says, towards a cataclysmic possibility.

Leigh: That there were progeny or at least one child from this union and that a bloodline continued.

Could these cryptic documents reveal some ancient knowledge and could they hold the key to finding the heirs of Jesus living among us today?

In the book, they are startling truths that have been protected and passed down through the ages by the members of an elite secret society called the Priory of Sion.

And while “The Da Vinci Code” is, once again, fiction, page one opens with these words -- "fact: The Priory of Sion, a European secret society founded in 1099, is a real organization." And if that society is real, some readers reason, then the secret it holds about Jesus and Mary must be real, too. But does the Priory of Sion exist?

Bill Putnam, archeologist: On page one or page two, it says, ‘fact.’ The large word, ‘fact.’ My reaction was screams.

“The Da Vinci Code” isn't the first book to make a case that the Priory of Sion and its secrets about Mary and Jesus are real. A similar story was first told in 1982 in a non fiction book called "Holy Blood, Holy Grail."

Co-authors Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln remember the controversy all too well.

Henry Lincoln, co-author "Holy Blood, Holy Grail": What we have now with ‘The Da Vinci Code’ Is repeat of what happened about 20 years ago when ‘Holy Blood, Holy Grail’ was published.

Richard Leigh,co-author "Holy Blood, Holy Grail":  The whole thing turned into a circus.

To separate fact from fiction in both books, you have to understand the true story at the heart of "Holy Blood, Holy Grail," one that began more than a 100 years ago, in a tiny village in the south of France called Rennes le Chateau.

It all centers around a man named Sauniere. the same name author Dan Brown gave the curator in “The Da Vinci Code.” The real-life Sauniere was a young, penniless priest. But soon after he began renovating a church, all of that changed. He became rich, which left many in town wondering how he came by his fortune and what secrets it might hold....

Local legend has it Sauniere found some mysterious documents hidden deep in the church's altar.

Lincoln: The priest, in repairing his church, supposedly found some parchments. These parchments contained secret messages.

Secret messages, it was said, that led the priest to a buried treasure. But when the authors of "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" analyzed the parchments, they came up with a different theory: Sauniere had stumbled onto not gold and jewels, but evidence of a secret society that had been guarding the descendents of Jesus and Mary Magdalene for centuries.

The clues, they say, are there in the parchments. If you look closely enough you can find the letters, "Sion" and "PS," code for the Priory of Sion.

Lincoln: Nobody knows anything about the Priory of Sion.

To find out more about the Priory, the authors headed to the French National Library, and soon, made another discovery, a list of Priory leaders, or grand masters. The same list is featured in “The Da Vinci Code.”

Leigh: We checked all of these, even those that seemed irrelevant to the main story, and they all checked out.

But that wasn't all. The same files contained papers filled with elaborate family trees, genealogies and codes that seemed to directly tie a line of French kings and queens to the descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

Leigh: If we read the clues they provided correctly they claim, one, Jesus was married. At some point subsequent to the crucifixion Jesus' wife or widow, as the case, might be escaped either pregnant or with child to the South of France. Around 496 AD this blood line supposedly intermarries with the royal line of the Francs.

Could this radical -- even sacrilegious -- story be the real secret the priest stumbled onto all those years ago? And did he use that knowledge to extort money from someone, the Church perhaps, to keep silent?

Leigh: Whom could he blackmail? Well, he could blackmail the Vatican.

The authors followed the documents further and it wasn't long before those family trees led them to the doorstep of an eccentric Frenchman named Pierre Plantard.

Lincoln: Pierre Plantard was a charming man. I liked him very much.

Plantard was the soft-spoken son of a butler and a cook, who'd lived an unremarkable life as a low ranking government paper-pusher. But when the authors interviewed Plantard, a grander story emerged. Plantard said that the Priory of Sion was real and that he was a member.

Leigh: When we first established contact with members of Priory, Plantard was their official spokesman.

But in this 1979 BBC documentary interview, Plantard went one step further.

Lincoln:Can you tell us whether the Priory of Sion still exists today.
Plantard: At this moment Priory of Sion still exists.
Lincoln: Monsieur Plantard, you have supported the Priory of Sion.
Plantard: We have supported Sion and Sion has supported us.
Lincoln:  We? Who are we?
Plantard: We. I am speaking of the Merovingian line.

The same royal line described on the family trees— which raised the possibility that Plantard wasn't just a member of the priory, but also perhaps, a descendant of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

And in 1982, they laid out the following theory in their non-fiction book: The Priory of Sion was a real organization that had been protecting the untold story of Jesus, Mary and their French descendants for centuries. A generation later, The Priory of Sion appeared in the “The Da Vinci Code,” on that page labeled "fact.”

There was just one problem.

Putnam: The whole thing is made up.

Archeologist Bill Putnam is one of several scholars, historians, and journalists who have called The Priory of Sion nothing more than a modern-day con.

Putnam: It's the greatest hoax in my experience.

By comparing the Priory documents to other paperwork, Putnam concluded that the grand master list, the family trees, the secret "Sion" and "PS" codes were all a hoax, fabricated by none other than Pierre Plantard.

Putnam: He's a very strange man. He's a very strange man. One might call him a fantasy worker.

Putnam says the deception began when Plantard heard legends about the French priest and his unexplained wealth and decided to fabricate coded parchments that would appear to explain the mystery of the priest's fortune.

Putnam: He creates a body called the Priory of Sion and argues that this had been in existence for 1,000 years.

Next, Putnam says, Plantard planted the list of priory grand masters and those family trees linking him to French royalty in the French National Library.

So why would Plantard go to all this trouble?

Putnam: He got the idea that he ought to be King of France, believe it or not.

Pierre Plantard died in 2000.  But Priory of Sion lives on in the pages of “The Da Vinci Code.”

And if you're wondering how that priest, Sauniere, amassed that mysterious fortune, it had nothing to do with unearthing secrets about the Holy Grail. It turns out he was accused of selling mail-order prayer services for the dead -- a scandal that got him suspended from the pulpit. It appears all other explanations for the mystery are simply fiction.

Unless, of course, like some true believers, you think the fake documents, the Sauniere mystery, and Plantard's story are just another smokescreen. Perhaps the Priory of Sion has managed, once again, to avoid detection— still carefully guarding its holy secret about Mary Magdalene. Are they eluding -- as “The Da Vinci Code” suggests, the all powerful Roman Catholic Church?

Lincoln: The simple facts are there are no facts. We just don't know.

Fascination with “The Da Vinci Code” has become so intense that some at the Vatican fear believers may be treating Dan Brown's fiction as Gospel truth. Worshipers there for Good Friday services heard a sermon condemning the book. It was an extraordinary reaction to a secular work of art and not the only response from church leaders.

Last month in Genoa, an Italian Cardinal told Catholics not to buy the novel, calling it, "a sack full of lies against the Church."

"I think there's a serious concern, says Father Thomas Williams, an NBC News consultant and dean of theology at a college affiliated with the Vatican. “It certainly has elements that are a little hostile to the Catholic Church, especially the organization Opus Dei."

Opus Dei is a small, Catholic group that's featured prominently in “The Da Vinci Code.” The albino monk who kills the curator and four others is a member. Aspects of the organization are painted as secretive and ruthless, portrayals that Opus Dei members and many Catholics say is flat out wrong.

Stone Phillips, Dateline correspondent: No Albino monk hit men?

Father Williams: I haven't met one yet... I know members of Opus Dei who are wonderful very good normal people, believing Christians, wonderful members of society. And I think they have been hurt by this.

Phillips: I guess if you're inclined to be suspicious of an institution like the church this is certainly going to feed that.

Father Williams: It is a mysterious institution. You can fit a lot in there. You can create conspiracies because of the richness of its history and this fascinates people.

Dan Brown declined to comment on accusations that the book is anti-Catholic or anti-Christian. He does, however, address the issue on his Web site, which reads:

This book is not anti-anything. It's a novel... The vast majority of devout Christians understand this fact.

At a lecture in New Hampshire recently, the author spoke for the first time about the controversy his novel has created.

"You don't have to believe a single word of this story to enjoy it, to engage in the debate, to remiain open-minded to perspectives that make us think, perspectives that challenge us to ponder why we believe what we believe," says Brown.

And how does Brown feel about the avalance of books the "Da Vinci Code" has spawned?

Brown: I think these books are absolutely wonderful. These authors and I obviously disagree but the dialogue that' sbeing created is powerful and positive. The more vigorously we all consider and debate thes topics, the better understanding of our own spirituality.

In February, two of the authors of Holy Bood, Holy Grail sued Dan Brown's publisher for copyright infringement and lost. Even the judge in that case seemed to embrace the fever: He embedded a code into his ruling, an obscure reference to a BRitish naval ship, a code that was ultimately cracked.

Still, "The Da Vinci COde" phenomenon continues. In the U.S., the movie is number one at the box office, and around the world, the film was the second biggest opening ever.

Outside of the theatre, there are tours— "Grail Trails" that draw fans from all over the world to the story's European locations.

And in Milan, you'll find fans scouring that Leonardo Da Vinci masterpiece for clues. Is there that "M" for marriage? That "V" symbolizing Mary’s womb or the chalice?

Art historian David Nolta says he could have saved them the trip.

David Nolta, art historian:  As I tell my students, you can find almost every letter in the alphabet in this picture. You can make the V into a W, if you turn it upside down.

Phillips: You don't think that's intentional on Leonardo's part.

Nolta: Not at all. Any more than it's intentional that you and I, sitting here like this right now, years from now, someone could see this tape and read into the form of our two bodies… And with the proof that one of us, or not both of us, were vegetarians and promulgating vegetarianism.

And as for the novel's claim that St. John, the feminine-looking figure to the right of Jesus, is really Mary Madeline, Prof. Nolta told us that most painters of that era represented St. John that way.

And finally, when it comes to the big question at the heart of “The Da Vinci Code,” nearly every scholar we spoke to had the same thing to say.

Phillips: Is there any historical evidence that Jesus fathered any children?

Bart Ehrman, author of "Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code": No. There's not one scrap of historical evidence.

Dr. Ben Witherington, III, Asbury Theological Seminary: No evidence whatsoever.

Karen King, Harvard Divinity School professor : There's no evidence at all.

“The Da Vinci Code,” an amalgam of truth and fiction, fact and hoax, sacred and profane, has clearly enthralled millions. But when last chapter is read, and readers pause to reflect, just what might they think?

Ehrman: I'd say to readers that they should enjoy it as a work of fiction and not take it's fictional claims as factual claims.

And as for the historical Mary Magdalene, that alluringly mysterious woman so critical to “The Da Vinci Code,” she remains forever shrouded in the mists of legend and faith, a saintly and human image, all in the eye of the beholder.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive. Reprints

 
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