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Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code
A Historian Reveals What We Really Know About Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Constantine
By Bart D. Ehrman
Oxford University Press
HC, 207 pages, US$20
ISBN: 0-1951-8140-9

Truth that's better than fiction

By Steven Martinovich
web posted November 8, 2004

Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code: A Historian Reveals What We Really Know About Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and ConstantineAlthough it seems like we live in an irreligious society it is clear that there is some thirst for religion. The mammoth success of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ in theatres and the longevity of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code on the bestsellers list seems to indicate that there are millions who are at least curious about religion. Relying on popular culture for an education in the subject, however, carries its own risks.

The Da Vinci Code is a good example of that. The mystery story revolves around an alleged millennia old plot by the Catholic Church -- aided by the Roman Emperor Constantine -- to cover up that the bloodline of Jesus Christ continues to this day. A secretive organization known as the Priory of Sion protects the descendents of Christ and documentation that proves that he was mortal prophet, not divine as mainstream Christianity maintains. According to the story, Jesus Christ married Mary Magdalene before his crucifixion and she gave birth after he was killed. The modern day protagonists of the story must struggle against agents of the church who do not want the real story to be told.

While Brown declared at the beginning of The Da Vinci Code "All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate," scholars of early Christianity were appalled. The novel is rife with historical errors that sounded plausible thanks to the first-class mystery that Brown wrapped around them. Bart D. Ehrman, a renowned authority on the early Christian church, decided to correct the record. Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code: A Historian Reveals What We Really Know About Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Constantine, no less interesting than the book it is responding to, surveys what we know about early Christianity.

Fans of The Da Vinci Code might be tempted to dismiss Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code as a party pooper's attempt to ruin the fun but that is not Ehrman's goal. A fan of the novel, Ehrman simply wants to present the reader with a more accurate view of the early Christian church. The Da Vinci Code is good reading, and should be judged on that basis, but it is poor history. Enjoy the novel, he tells the reader, but be armed with what we really know about the historical figures and events that Brown employs.

Ehrman focuses his attention on the claims made by the novel's characters about the church, including whether Jesus Christ married Mary Magdalene and fathered a child, what role Constantine played in the formation of the New Testament, the theory that the early church buried texts that argued Jesus Christ was fully human and whether a feminine aspect of Christianity was suppressed, among others. Unlike Brown, who relied on a discredited book -- Michael Baigent's Holy Blood, Holy Grail -- which served as the basis for many of the claims that made by The Da Vinci Code, Ehrman marshals the latest in scholarship on early Christianity.

He shows, for example, that the formation of the New Testament was a drawn out affair that lasted for centuries -- not a stroke of the pen declaration by the early church and Constantine. Sects -- both before and after Constantine -- battled each other to determine what would be the approved canon. The texts that were eventually declared heretical generally do not support a claim that Jesus Christ was human, as The Da Vinci Code argues, but rather even more divine then we consider him today. Some texts were obvious fakes while others argued in radically different ways of how Christians were to perceive the world.

As Ehrman proves, the history of the early Christian church is no less interesting than the fictional version put forward by Brown's The Da Vinci Code. In fact, his earlier effort Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew showed that the reality is more interesting than any conspiracy theory. Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code is an enjoyable and very accessible tour of a complex subject, one that fans of the novel will no doubt find to be just as engaging.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

Buy Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code at Amazon.com for only $14 (30% off)

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

  • A history of lost Christianities by Steven Martinovich (October 13, 2003)
    The early history of Christianity is explored in Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scriptures and the Faiths We Never Knew and Steve Martinovich thinks Bart D. Ehrman has a winner on his hands
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