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Da Vinci mystery gets more conjecture

Predictably, "Unlocking Da Vinci's Code: The Full Story" will probably most interest those already familiar with the best-selling book "The Da Vinci Code," the inspiration for this National Geographic Channel documentary airing tomorrow night at 9.

In Dan Brown's controversial novel, a murder at the Louvre in Paris sparks an investigation into an ancient society sworn to protect information held close since the days of Jesus Christ. The secret is that Jesus was actually married to Mary Magdalene, who bore him a child and created a bloodline, which has been sustained for centuries. Leonardo Da Vinci was supposedly a member of this society, and he planted clues about Mary Magdalene's true role in his famed painting "The Last Supper." (Some believe that's Mary, not the apostle John, positioned on Jesus' immediate right.

Such rumors have been around for hundreds of years, and this two-hour special tries to sift fact from fiction and decide whether the church has concealed Mary Magdalene's possible position as"the most important person" in Jesus' ministry, as narrator ABC's Elizabeth Vargas put it.

If this story made for a compelling page-turner, it seems a bit of a yawn in this documentary, which plays at times like a cross between a detective yarn and "Access Hollywood," what with all the speculation on Jesus' marital status. As earnest as Vargas is, it's hard not to giggle when she says in all seriousness, "It's true the Bible doesn't say Jesus was married, but it also doesn't say he was single." This leads to a strange discussion about whether a young Jewish man in Jesus' time could have gotten away with being a bachelor. We're told that such a thing would have been so unusual the word "bachelor" didn't even exist.

All this leads to a bit of comic relief from Paul L. Maier, author of "The Da Vinci Code: Fact or Fiction?" (The success of Brown's book has spawned more responses than a rapper's diss record.) Dismissing notions of a married Messiah, Maier says: "I think, especially in the last 40 years, there have been so many books written trying to get Jesus married off like some anxious mother for her eligible bachelor son."

One believer, of course, is Brown, whom Vargas interviewed. "I began as a skeptic," Brown says. "As I started researching 'The Da Vinci Code,' I really thought I would disprove a lot of this theory about Mary Magdalene and holy blood and all of that. I became a believer." Then again, with millions of copies of his novel in print, what else could he be expected to say?

Early on it's made clear that Brown is a novelist, not a biblical scholar or theologian, although there are plenty of those here as well. There's also a lot of vaguely religious music, and Vargas globetrotting from Jerusalem to the south of France to Scotland, locales that all play into this twisty little story.

Naturally, there's more conjecture and opinion than definitive answers here. Though Vargas hints that "there are parallels" among Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Da Vinci, it ultimately winds up as a New Testament variation on that game that finds similarities between the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy

Perhaps the Rev. Richard McBrien, a Catholic priest, sums up the whole Da Vinci phenomenon best: "Every vacuum needs to be filled, and that's how legends grow up," he says. "You know something about someone, then you want to know more, and things get put into the biography that are a little bit exaggerated, and as time goes on, more gets put in. You get further away from the original source, and soon you're not so sure what's reality and what's legend."

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