Fact, Fiction and The Da Vinci Code

The latest title to address the contents of The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown is an offering from Bart D. Ehrman, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. One might well ask why the world needs yet another account of the deficiencies of Brown’s work. But this book stands out among the ever-growing number of counter-Code treatises. 

As a historian, Ehrman’s specialty is the period known as “early church,” which incorporates church history up to 500 or 600 C.E. His contribution to the debate about the Da Vinci Code is therefore a significant one. Although he teaches at a university in what is labeled America’s “Bible Belt,” he does not bring a fundamentalist or Roman Catholic bias to bear on the discussion as some other critics have. Ehrman treats the New Testament as an object of study rather than belief. His is the dispassionate approach of a historian, albeit honed by the skepticism of liberal critical methodology. 

Nor does he seek to address every aspect of the Code. He devotes himself to only those areas that fall within his area of expertise. Hence Opus Dei does not rate a mention in his pages. The Priory of Sion is addressed briefly, but only insofar as it relates to Ehrman’s areas of interest. His focus is on the historical foundations of The Da Vinci Code: he analyzes the facts or details that Brown claims are drawn from documents of the earliest church period. 

Ehrman is not a stranger to the issues discussed in Brown’s novel. Among his earlier published works is a book titled The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (1993), a text-critical discussion of changes made to the New Testament to support various teachings that were promulgated in the first few centuries after Christ’s death. He went on to author a number of books dealing with the writings of the church fathers and the noncanonical books that abounded in the early centuries. Most recent are two volumes that address issues specifically raised in The Da Vinci Code: in 2003, Oxford University Press published Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, dealing with groups that existed outside of what became orthodox Christianity in the early centuries; and as a companion title, Lost Scriptures: Books That Did Not Make It Into the New Testament, a compilation of texts that were used by those various groups. 

Ehrman is an academic whose interests are not at cross purposes with Brown’s as they relate to this novel. In fact, with Ehrman’s background, Brown would have done well to engage him as an academic advisor during the research and writing of the Code. 

This is not the first time Ehrman has addressed The Da Vinci Code. Shortly after it was published, he listed 10 points that he felt were factual errors in the book. These appeared on the Internet and were eventually incorporated, unedited, into the Secrets of the Code: The Unauthorized Guide to the Mysteries Behind The Da Vinci Code by Dan Burstein (see the Winter 2005 issue of Vision for a review of Burstein’s book). Ehrman’s concern, and his reason for writing a volume of his own, is that too frequently the public creates views of history from the distorted or erroneous presentations of popular writers or movie producers and so end up with a false sense of history. As a historian, Ehrman wishes to fight against the substitution of literary fiction for historical fact. This is an issue Ehrman returns to frequently throughout his book. It is not that he is against the writing of historical fiction or the producing of movies on historical subjects. His concern is whether the author or producer is able to differentiate, in his or her own mind, between fact and fiction. If not, then what hope does the average reader or viewer have? In that context, he clearly feels that Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code has major problems. 

That said, Ehrman willingly acknowledges instances where Brown gets facts and details right. They are few, however, compared to the errors he sees. 

The value of Ehrman’s book is twofold. First, he recontextualizes much of what Brown has written. He also presents to the reader the methodological approach of historians in evaluating information from the sources with which they deal. It is by these criteria that he analyzes the purported facts presented throughout The Da Vinci Code

The book is divided into two major sections, each having four chapters. The first section is titled “The Emperor Constantine, the New Testament, and the Other Gospels.” Ehrman starts by discussing the role of Constantine within orthodoxy, addressing in particular the issues relating to the divinity of Christ. This is followed by a chapter on the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library, which are central to Brown’s thesis. Next he presents details of other known gospels, and then an overview of the canonization of the New Testament as seen by academics such as himself. The simple task of recontextualizing this material immediately highlights some of the factual difficulties that Brown has created for his audience. 

The second section is titled “Jesus and Mary Magdalene.” It looks at the historical sources for Jesus and then turns the evidence around to look at the historical Jesus according to those sources. This is followed by a chapter dealing with the possibility of a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, after which he addresses views of “the feminine principle” in early Christianity. In this section Ehrman explores historiography—the manner in which historians handle information and evaluate sources. Viewed through a historiographic lens, the whole fabric of documentary evidence that Brown has created for his fiction falls apart. 

The two main sections are followed by an epilogue, in which Ehrman sums up his findings and concerns. The book also contains an extensive index, as well as endnotes, though many of these simply refer to his previous writings. The notes nevertheless provide the reader with greater detail on aspects they may wish to pursue. Overall the book is written in an engaging manner rather than as a dry, academic tome of historiography. Ehrman shows his skill as a teacher by keeping his presentation appropriate to those who may have been mesmerized by The Da Vinci Code

While Ehrman has confined himself to the documentary evidence of earliest Christianity, the result of his work is to undermine the whole basis of The Da Vinci Code. If Brown has gotten so many facts and details wrong with regard to early church history, or if he understands the whole basis of Christianity so poorly, what might we find when we turn to his so-called facts in other areas? Might they not be equally fallacious? 

In addition, Ehrman has created a useful primer in the history of the early church using more recent historiographic methods than those established by Adolf von Harnack at the start of the 20th century. While those who recognize the Bible as the inspired Word of God will disagree with some of Ehrman’s premises and conclusions, he does serve any student of church history well in that he demonstrates how current church historians undertake their work.