2016-06-30
More than two years after it was published, "The Da Vinci Code" remains a huge best-seller-and a point of contention among evangelical Christians, most of whom consider it blasphemous. Still, "The Da Vinci" juggernaut moves forward. In the last couple of weeks, Sony Pictures, the studio behind the Ron Howard-directed adaptation of Dan Brown's novel, has released a short "Da Vinci Code" trailer, which is playing in theaters before the new Star Wars movie. The trailer debuts just as Britain's Westminster Abbey announced it would not allow Howard's movie to film there because the abbey considers the book "theologically unsound."

Bart Ehrman has written widely on early Christian documents. Like a lot of Americans, he loved reading "The Da Vinci Code," but Ehrman also immediately noticed factual errors ("howlers," he calls them). Focusing on ten issues-including the role Constantine played in the formation of the Bible and the evidence for Jesus' marriage to Mary Magdalene-Ehrman gives readers a lesson in how the Bible is scrutinized by scholars, without a theological wrist-slap. Beliefnet senior editor Deborah Caldwell recently talked with Ehrman about the "Da Vinci" errors.


What did you think of "The Da Vinci Code"?

I liked "The Da Vinci Code" as a work of fiction. But the thing that troubled me is that the fiction is allegedly based on historical fact. Dan Brown begins the book by laying out what he calls historical facts, and he includes the statement that all descriptions of art, architecture, sacred rituals, and documents are factual. The difficulty I had reading through "The Da Vinci Code" with that in mind was that most of the descriptions of ancient documents, in fact, are not factual-they're part of his fiction. But people reading the book aren't equipped to separate the fact from the fiction.

How is your book different from previous "Da Vinci Code" spinoffs?

I haven't made a precise study of this, but I think almost all of the other books are written by evangelical Christians who are concerned that "The Da Vinci Code" might lead their people astray. And that isn't my agenda at all. My agenda really is more historical-making sure people understand the historical realities of the life of Jesus, his relationship to Mary Magdalene, how we got our New Testament Gospels, why other gospels were excluded, what the role of Constantine was in the formation of Christianity. These are for me purely historical interests. And people are obviously interested; some are interested in them for religious reasons and some just because they're interested in our culture's past.

I had just published my book, "Lost Christianities," which discusses the various forms of Christianity that didn't make it from the second and third century, including the Gnostics, for example, and various Christian groups who had gospels that didn't make it into the New Testament but that supported their points of view. My editor at Oxford thought I really should read "The Da Vinci Code" because the Lost Gospels are talked about-a lot. But the things that Dan Brown says about them are wrong. And so, since this was right at the top of my head at the time, I wanted to write a book that dealt with his claims about these Lost Gospels and the Jesus they portrayed to set the record straight for people interested in knowing what really happened.

Can you outline the main points of departure between what we know historically and "The Da Vinci Code"?

Well, there are big discrepancies and small discrepancies.

Let's start with the big ones.

Some of the big ones: It's not true that before Constantine, Christians understood Jesus to be human but not divine. That's absolutely false. Most people thought Jesus was divine centuries before Constantine. Second, it's not true that Constantine decided which books to include in the New Testament; he had nothing to do with it. And the Council of Nicea didn't have anything to do with which books to include in the New Testament.

Can you explain the Council of Nicea?

It was called to resolve the issue of how to understand Jesus' divinity. Everybody at the council agreed that Jesus was divine, so it wasn't a question of whether he was divine or not divine; the question was, in what sense is he divine? There was a Christian teacher named [Arius] who said that Jesus was the first being created by God, that Jesus was a divine being created by God, that Jesus created the entire world but that there was a time when he didn't exist. And the Council of Nicea took up that issue, about whether Jesus was a created being or whether he was co-eternal with God the Father. And they decided that he was, in fact, co-eternal and not a creation of God but of the same substance as God the Father.

How is Constantine related to this portion of the historical record?

He called the Council of Nicea.

And why did he do that?

He was the emperor of the Roman Empire, and he wanted to unify his empire. He saw Christianity as a religion that could help him bring unity-that if everybody worshipped the same God, then that would help bring a kind of cultural unity. But the problem was, Christians were divided among themselves on this important theological issue and so in order for Christianity to be a unifying force, it had to be unified itself. So he called the council to resolve this problem of who Christ was.

In the novel, what does the character Teabing say that is wrong about this historical record?

Teabing says that the council was called because Constantine wanted to declare Jesus divine, and that's what the council was about, deciding whether Jesus is divine or not. And that he used the council as a way of deciding which books would be included in the New Testament, and they just included the books that called Jesus divine and excluded all the others.

That's wrong on every point. The books of the New Testament, in fact, don't go out of their way to call Jesus divine; and the books that were excluded from the New Testament do call Jesus divine. So it's wrong all around.

What's another big historical inaccuracy in the novel?

There are several gigantic points that have to do with Jesus' marriage to Mary Magdalene. Maybe the first thing to say is that it's absolutely false that as [the character] Robert Langdon says, it would have been highly unusual for Jesus not to be married because Jewish men were always married. That's false.

Tell us more about that, because I have heard that on and off over the years.

Yeah, that's kind of a commonsensical claim that isn't true. We know Jewish men from the first century who remained single and celibate. What's most interesting is that the ones we know about are ones with a worldview that's very similar to the worldview ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels-which is an apocalyptic worldview. We know about Jews from Jesus' time from the Dead Sea Scrolls.

And by the way, Dan Brown indicates some of these lost gospels were included among the Dead Sea Scrolls. That's absolutely false.

That was Nag Hammadi Codex, right?

He mentions Nag Hammadi as well, but he indicates the Dead Sea Scrolls contain some of the earliest records of Jesus, and that's false. The Dead Sea Scrolls don't say anything about Jesus.

What's the difference between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Codex?

There are two completely different collections that have nothing in common with each other. The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947 in Judea, west of the Dead Sea in what was then Jordan, what is now Israel.

The Nag Hammadi Codexes were discovered a year and a half earlier in Egypt about partway down the Nile, not far from Luxor. The Nag Hammadi documents are Christian Gnostic documents; the Dead Sea Scrolls are Jewish documents that have nothing Christian in them. So the Dead Sea Scrolls tell us about a Jewish community living at the same time as Jesus and in about the same place, and what is striking about these Dead Sea Scrolls is that the community that produced them consisted of single, celibate men.

So that means it's totally possible, if not probable, that Jesus was single himself.

Well, Robert Langdon's point that Jewish men were always married is wrong. And the striking thing about these members of the Dead Sea Scroll community-they're called Essenes-the striking thing about the Essenes is that they believed history was soon going to come an end and that God was going to bring in his good kingdom by overthrowing the forces of evil. And that's what Jesus is said to proclaim in the gospels, that the Kingdom of God is soon to arrive and that God will overthrow the forces of evil. So he had a very similar worldview to these Essenes.

The fact that they were celibate and single suggests there's nothing implausible about Jesus being celibate and single. The other person that we know from antiquity who was celibate and single, a Jewish man, was Paul-the Apostle Paul-who indicates in 1 Corinthians that he's both celibate and single and he also was a Jewish apocalypticist.

And yet it's pretty clear that Mary Magdalene is important. Do you think her role is real?

Well, the first thing to say about Mary Magdalene is that she's not talked about very much at all in the New Testament, contrary to what you would think. Her name occurs 13 times, but a lot of those times are in the same story in different Gospels.

She's only mentioned once during Jesus' entire ministry, that's in Luke 8, and she's mentioned along with two other women, Joanna and Susanna. And she's not singled out as anything special there-she's just one of these women who was accompanying Jesus on some of his travels. She doesn't show up otherwise except at the very end at the crucifixion and resurrection scene; she's one of the women who observes the crucifixion, and she's the woman who discovers the empty tomb.

So how important do you think she is?

She's highly important in the sense that she's the one who finds out the tomb is empty. But there's nothing to suggest that she was important in the ministry of Jesus during his life.

What do you make of the Gospel of Mary?

Well, the Gospel of Mary is misportrayed in "The Da Vinci Code." What Dan Brown has his character say is that Jesus entrusted the church to Mary, based on the Gospel of Mary. But in fact, the Gospel of Mary doesn't say that at all. The Gospel of Mary is about Jesus appearing to Mary after the resurrection and giving her a revelation, and there's a debate among the disciples about whether Jesus would actually reveal something this important to a woman.

The debate among Gnostic scholars is whether Mary was supposed to be co-equal with Peter and was axed out of the history?

Yes, that's right.

Do you subscribe to that theory?

I think putting it in those specific terms is probably wrong. But I think what's right is that the Gnostics understood that these revelations could be given to women, and that there wasn't to be a kind of apostolic hierarchy in which you have men who are making all the decisions and were in charge-that everybody had access to the spirit of God. And that the church hierarchy that was beginning to form was, in fact, misguided.

There are a couple of other things I should point out as interesting mistakes in "The Da Vinci Code." One howler occurs when Teabing is trying to convince Sophie Neveu that Jesus' spouse was Mary Magdalene, and proof for this is one place in the Gospel of Philip where Mary is described as his companion. And Teabing points out that the Aramaic word for "companion" actually means spouse. Now, the problem with this is that the Gospel of Philip wasn't written in Aramaic. (Laughs)

Oh, that's a big problem!

It's written in Coptic. And the word that's used there is a Greek word which, in fact, does not mean spouse-it means companion! And there's another passage from the Gospel of Philip that Dan Brown quotes, but he doesn't realize there's a problem with the text-which is, like many manuscripts from antiquity that have been discovered, it has holes in places where it got worn out. So we're missing some of the words. There's a passage Brown quotes which says, "Jesus loved Mary and he frequently kissed her on the-

Lips.

No, there's a hole in the manuscript! People often assume the word is "mouth" but we don't know what the word was. (Laughs)

What do you think of the debate about how important the Gnostic gospels are? Some people say that the Gnostics, like Thomas, should be given as much weight as the Gospel of John because it was written-they say-at the same time.

I think that the Gospel of Thomas was written about 20 years after John; my opinion on this is the majority opinion; almost everybody who studies Thomas thinks of it as later than John with a few notable exceptions, including Elaine Pagels. She's the main one, but most people think Thomas was written in the early second century. And Mary was written some time after that. So I think these gospels are highly important for understanding how people were portraying Jesus, but they're not as useful for establishing what Jesus was really like, as the New Testament Gospels are.

So in a nutshell, what's the fallacy that "The Da Vinci Code" puts forth as it relates to these gospels?

There are several fallacies-but in a nutshell, the fallacy is thinking that these gospels give a more historically accurate view of Jesus than the New Testament gospels. I'm saying this not out of any religious conviction, but strictly on historical grounds-that statement is not true.

What can we say, then, about the central theme of the book, which is the Holy Grail, the meaning of life, is the yin-yang of men and women. How does that actually relate to Christianity? Does it at all?

That's an accurate description of some early Christian groups, including some groups of Gnostics. And it's a valuable point of view that people should consider when they're thinking theologically-but the difficulty I have with it is that it's not the view of Jesus or the earliest Christians. It may be a true view--you know, it may be right-but it simply isn't what Jesus himself thought or what his earliest followers thought.

I think what Dan Brown has done is taken the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, and he's fictionalized it by providing it with a fictional-historical foundation.

But why did people need to do that 2,000 years ago?

I think there have always been moments in history when women were fed up with being subjugated to men, and there have always been movements to understand that women, in fact, aren't subordinate to men but are completely equal to men and that humankind is incomplete without both men and women. And there have been moments in the history of the world when those ideas have had powerful effects on the way people look at the world and the kinds of books they wrote and how they understood things.

And then it goes away for several hundred or thousand years.

Yeah, it gets suppressed by the men (laughs).

Were there other periods when this zeitgeist was popular?

There have been moments. In early Christianity, there were moments with Gnosticism and there have been times throughout the Middle Ages when you have women mystics who appear, who are given equal authority to men-Hildegarde von Bingen for example. I think we're in an unusual moment now because what's happening now really does seem to be more of a movement that's going to be hard to turn back.

So this idea could really change Christianity.

Yes, well, I think it is changing Christianity. I mean, 30 years ago it was very rare to have women ministers in Protestant churches, and now it's far more common. Seminaries have a very high percentage of their students are women. We still haven't made the progress we need to make but it's certainly changing.