Book Reviews

Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code

Bart D. Ehrman Oxford 2006-03-31

Like many other historians, Ehrman is put off by the faulty historical claims that Brown presents as a foundation to support his fictional novel. Ehrman is particularly frustrated that Brown’s novel is all that the average person may ever read regarding this period in history. Ehrman’s critique hopes to ensure that the fictitious ideas that Brown parades as facts do not become “the way it happened” in many people’s minds, especially those ideas regarding Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Constantine. What is most refreshing about Ehrman’s critique is his plea for people to use real evidence when making historical claims, and not simply defend something because it sounds controversial but has no historical backing.

Part one of Ehrman’s book addresses Brown’s claims about Constantine, the New Testament, and extrabiblical gospels. Ehrman affirms that Constantine did not divinize Jesus, and the Dead Sea Scrolls do not contain additional gospels. Ehrman also gives a helpful history of what is known about Constantine’s place in Christian history, the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi Library, and similar topics. Many readers will benefit from and agree with almost all that Ehrman says in this first part of his book. The only segment that might cause some pause is his chapter on the formation of the New Testament canon. Ehrman rightly denounces Brown’s claim that the canon was formed by Constantine, and Ehrman states that the canon was formed in the first and second centuries. But then he emphasizes the diversity among believers in those early centuries, as if a sense of orthodoxy were only a later product. This leads Ehrman to further suggest that the canon became what it was, not because of Constantine, but because those who were later called orthodox won the battle against competing views in the first and second centuries.

However, Ehrman fails to note the reasons orthodox Christianity won this battle. His leaving the reader hanging on this point suggests that orthodox Christianity survived because of luck or power. But one must remember that the church of the second century had no power, being subject to persecution and martyrdom, and yet what became orthodox clearly already had the upper hand among those who called themselves Christians. The most likely reason orthodox Christianity was maintained is that it was the oldest, most traditionally connected, and consequently most accurate representation of the teachings of Christ. (For more on this see Darrell L. Bock, The Missing Gospels [Nashville: Nelson, 2006]; and Larry W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005].)

Ehrman also points out that the New Testament canon was not completely settled until the fourth century at the earliest. And yet the fact that the church at this period was not sure about the canonicity of certain books did not cause its faith to fall apart, because that faith was rooted in Christ, who is not replaced by books but is the ground for the books that bear witness to Him.

The second part of Ehrman’s book addresses Jesus and His relationship with Mary Magdalene. Ehrman points out that, contrary to Brown’s novel, Q was not a source written by Jesus, that it was perfectly acceptable for Him to have been single, and that there is no shred of evidence anywhere suggesting that Mary Magdalene was more than a close friend of Jesus. Ehrman gives good information about what the historical Jesus was like, as well as how the treatment of women in the church was probably better in Jesus’ day than any other period in the church until the present. Since Ehrman is not a conservative Christian, he also states a few things that conservatives will find unsettling. Most troubling is his overemphasis on minor differences between the Gospel accounts, which gives the impression of discrediting their historicity.

Overall, Ehrman’s book is a solid source for pointing out many of the glaring errors in The Da Vinci Code. And he does an excellent job in explaining the true history that the novel missed. Therefore, if one takes note of the few places where his prejudice against conservative Christianity is evident, this is a worthwhile book to read. 

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