Gene Expression

Below GrrlScientist asks why The Da Vinci Code is “bad history.” I believe it is bad history because someone whose work I respect and have enjoyed has pointed out manifold errors, incluing in a book which covered this ground. His name is Bart Ehrman, and he is the head of Relgious Studies at UNC. I’ve read two of his books, Lost Christianities and Misquoting Jesus. Erhman went through a phase of fudamentalist Christianity, but his need to know the New Testament in the original led him to learning Latin and Greek, and a Ph.D. In the process, he became an agnostic.

Here are some errors Ehrman points to in an interview with Beliefnet.

1) Christians did not overwhelmingly believe Jesus Christ was human before the Council of Nicea

2) The Council of Nicea had little to do with what books were included in the New Testament

3) There were celibate Jewish males around the time of Jesus, and if they were celibate they were very likely to have expressed the opinions that Jesus himself expressed (in other words, basic conditional probabilities here, even if Jewish males were unlikely to be celibate at this time, Jewish males who expressed the religious opinions that Jesus reputedly did were far more likely to be celibate than the basal frequency)

4) The Dead Sea Scrolls say nothing about Jesus (though they give us an interesting glance into the minds of radical Jews of the time)

There’s more detail in the interview. Why should we believe Ehrman? Well, if you have read the New Testament closely in various translations you will note that Ehrman’s works tend to ring true. There aren’t obvious attempts to rework the interpretation to fit a particular theology or creed, because Ehrman has none.

That being said, why does it matter that The Da Vinci Code is historically inaccurate? Some readers might view it as fantasy, but the problem is that it is billed as historical fiction (see the preface to the book). 45 million Americans have read this book, that’s 20% of the population. A small minority, on the order of millions, claim to have had their view of the Bible and Christianity altered. This is nothing to sneeze at, if a new religious movement claimed millions in a few years we would take note.

For me, the biggest problem with The Da Vinci Code is that the fundamentalists are right! All the critiques that the fundamentalists make about The Da Vinci Code have a lot of truth in them, and when I’m agreeing with fundamentalists, something is wrong. It puts them on the same side as the majority of Biblical scholars, and that hasn’t happened in a long time. Instead of “refuting” scholarly debunkings of the inerrant or literal character of the Bible, fundamentalists are now drawing from the wellspring of New Testament scholarship to debunk a rival superstition.

Additionally, adding a rival superstition about the Bible (that is, beliefs which are extra-empirical or rational, but based solely on religious traditions) to the discourse muddies the waters. Instead of a clean match between scholarship and inerrantism, you have a three-way dance between scholarship, inerrantism and pseudo-history. And, the more pseduo-history enters the discussion the harder it is to identify the genuine scholars (as opposed to apologists). Also, as noted above, the fundamentalists become more sure and confident of themselves when they find that Ph.D.s with Greek under their belts are backing up “their” talking points.

In The Bible: with sources revealed, Richard E. Friedman notes two things: The Documentary Hypothesis in regards to The Torah is accepted by the vast majority of scholars, and, fundamentalists will always contend there is “controversy,” and “debate” about The Documentary Hypothesis, that it is on the decline. Sound familiar? Friedman’s book highlights the different authors through the text so that the reader can appreciate first hand the substantial and stylistic variation which is laced through the Five Books of Moses.

Biblical scholarship is not rocket science, but does require a lot of education. To really put the pieces together a knowledge of Greek, Latin and Hebrew is needed. Aramaic and other eastern languages are probably also very helpful. A deep working understanding of pre-Classical and Classical history and literature are essential. Finally, a systematic and thorough reading of the text is mandatory.

99.99% of humans have none of these. Even most Christians have rarely read the Bible more than a few times front to back, and then they often focus in on and sample the portions which are most germane to their tradition (.e.g., evangelicals tend to focus on the Gospel of John in the NT, mainline Protestants the Synoptic Gospels). In the end, you have to trust experts. It isn’t like Newtonian physics, you can’t just go outside and drop two balls with different masses and confirm for yourself the invariance of acceleration.

At this point, I think most readers will know where I’m going. BIblical scholarship is a historical science where inference, good faith, the “big picture” matter a lot. You need a lot of background to understand it and see the parts as a whole. If you look at fragmentary evidence then it is easy to dismiss the findings of scholars. Some of the methods of relating texts are very similar to phylogenetics, and colescence and historical contingency are crucial.

The Da Vinci Code is part of a bigger movement in our society to devalue specialized knowledge, it is a popularization of faux expertise. Not only are genuine scholars forced to side with fundamentalists, but many open minded and secular people are deceived as to the reality of the scholarship (because for once, the fundamentalists are right about religion). The small picture is that it is riddled with errors, the big picture is that it is another nail in the coffin of the Enlightenment and the rational and empirical tradition to which we (the public) defer.

Perhaps God wills its.

Update: RPM in the comments:

I was just talking with an art history instructor, and she was complaining about how the Da Vinci Code is making it harder to teach her material because she needs to clear up all the bullshit the students think they know based on phony history books. It would have been easier for her if they came in with a blank slate, rather than all of the bogus stuff circulating in popular culture. The parallels with bad science and anti-science were pretty obvious.

Comments

  1. #1 matoko_tranhumanist
    May 22, 2006

    ha ha! i can just read the reviews!
    i will never have to buy and read those books.

    and the catholic church blacklisting the movie will just make the mistruths and sloppy history all the more believeable.

    is there a biological basis for conspiricy theory?

  2. #2 Roman Werpachowski
    May 22, 2006

    Well said.

  3. #3 Brandon
    May 22, 2006

    Acceleration is only an invariant under the classic Galilean transformation.

  4. #4 Left_Wing_Fox
    May 22, 2006

    Very nice! Thanks for the link to the beliefnet article too, it was a fascinating read. :)

  5. #5 Greco
    May 22, 2006

    The Da Vinci Code is part of a bigger movement in our society to devalue specialized knowledge, it is a popularization of faux expertise.

    Isn’t the whole idea behind conspiracy “theories”, such as the one in Brown’s book, that the evil, arrogant scholars are engaged in a Conspiracy with capital c to hide The Truth (capitalized again) from the common people?
    Does anyone know when the conspiracy “theory” movement became so popular?

  6. #6 RPM
    May 22, 2006

    I was just talking with an art history instructor, and she was complaining about how the Da Vinci Code is making it harder to teach her material because she needs to clear up all the bullshit the students think they know based on phony history books. It would have been easier for her if they came in with a blank slate, rather than all of the bogus stuff circulating in popular culture. The parallels with bad science and anti-science were pretty obvious.

  7. #7 Steve Sailer
    May 22, 2006

    From my upcoming review in The American Conservative:

    In the not-so-shocking climax to “The Da Vinci Code,” we discover that one of the characters is the last living descendent of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

    This “Holy Blood” hooey is superstition of the grossest sort. Consider how genealogy actually works. Go back 80 generations (2000 years), and your family tree has one septillion slots to fill. If Jesus had any living descendents today, He’d have millions of them. Almost the only way there could be just one surviving heir is if the dynasty had relentlessly inbred so incestuously that the latest Magdalenian would have three eyes.

  8. #8 Boknekht
    May 22, 2006

    This book is everywhere. I don’t get it; you see people with a copy of it in every imaginable place. I must have a radically different psychological profile from most of humanity, as i(a). don’t care for religion(b). don’t care for fiction, or fiction mixed with fact.(c). don’t care for stories or storytelling, memiors; all i care about or want is pure fact, data, that is verifiable to the core, & also about interesting speculation about facts that lead to hypotheses or theories. Unfortunately, though, there’s heaps of factual data out there that i can’t make heads or tails of, as i don’t have an academic backround in any area or discipline.

    Why does the book have such wide appeal? To me, religion is only interesting insofar as it helps explain/exhibit human cognitive tendencies, & also as a way of seeing how religious thought varied in different eras & places in recorded history. In other words, scrutinizing religion more from an exterior, more objective pov.

  9. #9 Scottm
    May 23, 2006

    The Da Vinci Code is part of a bigger movement in our society to devalue specialized knowledge, it is a popularization of faux expertise.

    Which can also be said of other popular entertainment such as the “X-files” (i.e. Mulder was a profiler yet spent little time profiling and seemed to know a little about everything. Which was completely unrealistic)

  10. #10 razib
    May 23, 2006

    know a little about everything. Which was completely unrealistic

    really? :)

  11. #11 Jim Rockford
    May 23, 2006

    What accounts for the popularity of the Da Vinci code?

    1. Debasement of traditional religion, ala Derbyshire’s “Voodoo Atheism” or when people cease believing in God they don’t stop believing, they believe in almost anything.

    [The traditional leftist atheist/sceptics of Anatole France and Mark Twain (remember Innocents Abroad) would have reacted in horror to people actually taking Jesus seriously as a real person and "holy man" instead of a historical fiction]

    2. The desire for some magical “King Arthur” to sweep away the unsettling parts of modernity (basically rapid change) and do away with this notion of progress, instead revert the world to a new Golden Age with the world ruled by the Philosopher King.

    This longing for the world to stop and progress to cease, absolute rule by an “enlightened ruler” is as old as Plato and crops up when intellectuals, elites, and opinion makers stop believing in the future. For Europe that dates to 1916 or so; for the US about 1968.

    The change from the New Frontier to … whatever lost Golden Age and (the results from evil conspiracies keeping us from returning to rule by Fidel or Che or the mythical JFK or Jesus’s descendants who should rule us) is telling. Dems and liberal opinion makers went from believing in the idea of progress, human improvement, and reforming human society incrementally by technology and good government to a sappy New Age cosmology thwarted by evil conspiracies at every turn.

    [Odd, since the average person if careful and savvy can always advance when the rules change rapidly.]

  12. #12 Robert Speirs
    May 23, 2006

    Isn’t it odd that a book about the fine details of Christian history should be so popular in our secularized age, when you would think religious history would be totally irrelevant? The only explanation I can imagine is that Western Man realizes that his view of the world depends heavily on the Christian perspective, whether he’s an agnostic or a self-proclaimed “pagan”. 45 million readers sense that what happened to Jesus affected events for two thousand years and, by extension, is essential to the consciousness with which we analyze the world today. Pretty amazing.

  13. #13 Oran Kelley
    May 23, 2006

    I suppose I remain unconvinced that the book or movie really matter. I’m from a working class family. Some of my friends and relatives think the book was great, but none of them seem to think of it as real, any more than they think the Life of Brian is real.

    My own notion about faux-expertise is that it is just the result of poor authorial research and the fact that the public can’t tell the difference anyhow. Blame it on Michael Crichton, who more than anyone probably drove home the attractions that an appearance of expertise has. Expertise has cache. That is probably a good thing from your stated point of view. Regular people, however can’t tell the difference between the appearance of expertise and the real thing. This has been a problem at least since Plato, and probably since Peacocks (are those feathers really a reliable indicator of fitness, or are they a semiotic system–no necessary relationship between signifier and signified and all that–that’s taken on a life of its own?)

    On the enlightenment: I think there are other points of view on what the Enlightenment tradition truly is. Some folks would argue that highly specialized expertise was itself what overthrew the enlightenment ideal, which had nothing to do with public deferral to experts, and everything to do with the idea that everyone could, in principle, participate in learned argument and discussion.

  14. #14 Intellectual Pariah
    May 23, 2006

    Honestly, how much worse is it than the average Hollywood historical epic? In The Charge of the Light Brigade, they transferred the setting from the Crimea to India, during the Indian Mutiny (the villain was an evil maharaja responsible for the Cawnpore Well).

  15. #15 razib
    May 23, 2006

    Honestly, how much worse is it than the average Hollywood historical epic? In The Charge of the Light Brigade, they transferred the setting from the Crimea to India, during the Indian Mutiny (the villain was an evil maharaja responsible for the Cawnpore Well).

    the crimean was is a little more trivial than christianity to most americans, don’t you think?

  16. #16 Intellectual Pariah
    May 23, 2006

    The implication is that history is a screen on to which you can project any fantasy. That’s not trivial. I find it fairly easy to draw parallels between this way of thinking and America’s foreign-policy disasters of the last 50 years.

    Obviously, the Da Vinci Code movie is just out of the can, but there have plenty of revisionist views of Christianity over the last few — some actually plausible, scholarly work. I don’t think they’ve had that much impact on American life. They’re not involved in the “Science vs. Religion” tropes, and while they impinge on some of the “Liberal Theology vs. Old-time Religion” tropes, but not nearly so much as, say, the Sexual Revolution.

  17. #17 Oran Kelley
    May 23, 2006

    The implication is that history is a screen on to which you can project any fantasy.

    We’ve been doing history this way for thousands of years, I don’t see why we should get so worried now.

    But seriously, that comment is predicated on the notion that people take this as history. I think that notion is incorrect.

    Yes, the DaVinci Code starts with a claim to be true, but half the historical romances I’ve read start with a claim that the manuscript was found in someone’s attic.

    So 51 or 151 or 251 years ago, people had a proper appreciation and knowledge of history, or was it even more the playground of everyone with an agenda?

  18. #18 razib
    May 23, 2006

    So 51 or 151 or 251 years ago, people had a proper appreciation and knowledge of history, or was it even more the playground of everyone with an agenda?

    most people were not functionally literate or able to vote 250 years ago. you should get some perspective yourself.

  19. #19 kemibe
    May 23, 2006

    As there’s no independent historical support for the existence of Jesus Christ, let alone his divinity, what difference does it make whether Code is advertised as pure fiction or whether it’s labelled historical fiction? If it were billed as bona fide history in the manner many of the world’s faithful explicitly or implicitly uphold the Bible, you’d have a more meaningful gripe.

    Perhaps you feel that the filmmakers are wrong for sinking to the level of the Church and expending lots of time and money in potentially deceiving a great many people by presenting a series of semicoherent moral tales — or in this case a semicoherent mystery — as a series of events which actually took place. But you’ve done the same. By complaining, you’re playing into the offended zealots’ hands by framing this conflict in the same terms they do, i.e., “Who is ‘more correct’ here and what are the implications?”

    In the broadest terms, the salient points of Christianity, as with all the world’s monothestic religions, are fictional until evidence indicates otherwise; therefore, if someone wants to portray Jesus as married with kids, or as a star power forward, or as a connoisseur of antique European automobiles, all that is at issue is people’s sensibilities, and you above all recognize that these are no excuse for dealing in wishful thinking at the expense of genuine inquiry.

    I could write a book explaining why Darth Vader could not truly have sired Luke Skywalker and call it “historical fiction,” and could include lots of hgenealogies and elements of galactic scholarship to bolster my case. In so doing I’d piss off a lot of fundamentalist Star Wars fans, but so what? I agree that the societal ramifications of such an exercise wouldn’t be the same as a movie that takes on a powerfully deluded and politically connected segment of the population, but from an epistemological standppoint there’s no difference between my scenario and the one you’ve written about.

  20. #20 razib
    May 23, 2006

    kemibe,

    if you want to look smart & witty, go somewhere else. your comment is stupid for one primary reason: you aren’t addressing the falsities in question, but setting up a straw man for a snarky little quip. go shit in someone else’s backyard.

    the non-existence (or existence) of jesus is totally irrelevant to the problems with the book, as i imply above where i list the major issues (the existence, or non-existence, of jesus is not on that list). but perhaps english isn’t your first language? history is not just about births and deaths, it is about the ideas and social environment of various groups. as it happens, dan brown promotes transparently fallacious truisms about ancient christians, and the classical world, which distort the view of many well educated (see above, there are facts i offer up, instead of snarky little faux-witticisms in response to non-existent assertions).

    but from an epistemological standppoint there’s no difference between my scenario and the one you’ve written about.

    yes, let’s talk epistemology the next time we hear of a suicide bomber killing themself in the name of god. explain to them that god doesn’t exist, and here are the philosophical reasons why. there are plenty of things that are false in the world that people believe in, telling them its false is pretty besides the point when they’ve got a bomb in your face.

    in a word, you’re an asshole. hope i don’t see you around anymore :)

  21. #21 razib
    May 23, 2006

    But seriously, that comment is predicated on the notion that people take this as history. I think that notion is incorrect.

    oran, i gave facts at exactly the proportion of people who take this book seriously enough to change their opinions, and that number is in the millions. a small porportion of americans, but a non-trivial number. additionally, i point out that the skew of those who have read the book trends to be upscale. you can dismiss this out of hand, but instead your trick is to withdraw back into generalities and just wave your hands. my predication was very specific, and i offered numbers, it wasn’t a “there is a force in the air.”

  22. #22 Dan Dare
    May 23, 2006

    You know, I’m going a long way back now. But there was a time, when I was a conservative little just-teen, when a book no more respectable than this shocked me out of my complacency and set me down the road of questioning received truths. I never looked back.

    I’m kind of suggesting that to a mind indoctrinated in real superstition, the fake variety – just because it opens the windows in an exciting radical way, is a breath of fresh air that can invigorate. The fact that “authority” has condemned it makes it even more compelling.

    Also: I’d rather deal with the anarchy of pop-pseudoscience than the organized nuttery of Christian ID/Legal challenges to evolution/ban stem cell research crowd. (Not to mention Sharia Law)

    If you can’t persuade the masses to be rational, at least you can divide and rule. One million competing minicults is less of a problem than an organized majority cult imposing “God’s law” on all of us.

    The one thing you can be sure of about da Vinci, is that in a year or two’s time it will be something else that is flavor of the month. This is a blessing if you think about it. Unlike the creationists, say, who will be back in the courts to try again sometime soon. (And again and again, for ever and ever. Amen)

  23. #23 PaleCast
    May 23, 2006

    Oran Kelley said:
    But seriously, that comment is predicated on the notion that people take this as history. I think that notion is incorrect.

    Maybe not everyone believes that everything in the book is historical, but I think enough people do believe enough of it that it is a problem. Take for instance, the idea that there used to be pre-historic goddess worshipping matriarchies, until the evil patriarchy came along. Many people already believed this piece of new age feminist wishful thinking even before the book came along.

    Something else that troubled me which nobody has mentioned so far is the implicit feminist themes in the book. For example, at the end, Robert Langdon gives this sanctimonious speech to his college class about how the males should be less obsessed with sex and more valuing of intimacy and the “sacred feminine,” blah blah blah. This is the common feminist theme that all relationship problems are due to men not being empathetic or willing to “connect” enough, implying that it’s only men, and never women, who need to change.

    This reminds me of some great books called Spreading Misandry and Legalizing Misandry (“misandry” being sexism against men, the counterpart of misogyny) by Nathanson and Young discussing the demonization of men in our culture and the quasi-religious aspects of some branches of feminism.

  24. #24 kemibe
    May 23, 2006

    “your comment is stupid for one primary reason: you aren’t addressing the falsities in question, but setting up a straw man for a snarky little quip. go shit in someone else’s backyard.”

    How convincing. Talk of straw men and shit. Describe again the falsities in question? (I’m well aware of conflicts between what Dan Brown implies and what most Christians believe, but I’m asking you about genuine falsehoods.)

    “the non-existence (or existence) of jesus is totally irrelevant to the problems with the book, as i imply above where i list the major issues (the existence, or non-existence, of jesus is not on that list).”

    Just because you omit something doesn’t mean it’s not germane (you, perhaps fancying yourself an omniscient analyst who leaves no angle unexamined, may disagree). Again, I’m hardly ignorant of the disparities between what Bible scholars have wasted hundreds of thousands of hours studying and what Code presents. I’m curuious as to why you feel that it’s vital to place mythology beyond the realm of poetic license or even flat-out mockery.

    “The Da Vinci Code is part of a bigger movement in our society to devalue specialized knowledge…”

    I see. Do you consider the Bible specialized knowledge? I always thought of it more as revealed “knowledge.”

    “but perhaps english isn’t your first language?”

    No, but English with a capital “E” is, and in this language “themself” is not a pronoun found in any dictionary.

    “history is not just about births and deaths, it is about the ideas and social environment of various groups. as it happens, dan brown promotes transparently fallacious truisms about ancient christians, and the classical world, which distort the view of many well educated (see above, there are facts i offer up, instead of snarky little faux-witticisms in response to non-existent assertions).”

    You agree that Brown’s erroneous claims and those he manipulates or gets wrong are both “superstitions.” I’m having a hard time reconciling this (accurate) stance with your greater gripe about devaluing knowledge, which few confuse with superstition.

    “yes, let’s talk epistemology the next time we hear of a suicide bomber killing themself in the name of god. explain to them that god doesn’t exist, and here are the philosophical reasons why. there are plenty of things that are false in the world that people believe in, telling them its false is pretty besides the point when they’ve got a bomb in your face.”

    Hmmm, what do we call this trick? The “appeal to radicals and nutbags”? Be as dismissive as you like, but how many of those offended by this film are the suicide-bomber type, Razid? How many Bible scholars or even mainstream Catholics with half an eye open are going to change their minds about their faith on account of a film that depicts events they know don’t mesh with what history has taught them? And how many otherwise bored godless mo-fos like me care how Jesus is portrayed? (Ehrman, by the way, is in my Amazon queue x 2 thanks to a prior recommendation.)

    As for those whose ideas about Christianity have been swayed by the movie or the book, guess what — it’s not the job of film producers to make incurious or plain stupid people smart. If people are too lazy to do their own reading and rely on Hollywood for their history lessons, they’re beyond even your expert help.

    Finally, you can screech and holler about Brown all you want, but he’s lining his pockets, and everyone clamoring about what a no-goodnik he is has only given him a huge boost.

    “in a word, you’re an asshole. hope i don’t see you around anymore :)”

    Likewise, but I can see you’re truly an asshole after my own heart! I’ll be seeing you, don’t worry. ;o)

  25. #25 Oran Kelley
    May 24, 2006

    oran, i gave facts at exactly the proportion of people who take this book seriously enough to change their opinions

    Well, Sense and Sensibility changed the way I think, that doesn’t mean I beleive the events actually took place. I think you’ll find a lot of those people whose opinions have changed have rather more complex relationships to the text than taking the premise literally.

    The whole goddess thesis has been influential for a long time (Frazier, Graves, Henry Adams, but these aren’t beach reading). Could it be that it that just finding out about that might have had an opinion-changing effect?

  26. #26 Oran Kelley
    May 24, 2006

    most people were not functionally literate or able to vote 250 years ago. you should get some perspective yourself.

    No need to remind me of the historical conditions of 250 years ago, that used to be my area of specialty. But, to be more than fair, let’s just compare historical knowledge of those who could vote or just the literate.

    I’d be willing to bet that historical knowledge amongst the literate 250 years ago would be considered to be essentially mythological today. And not because of a lack of knowledge, but because the main job of history was to create cultural mythologies. Not to say there was no concern for facts at all, just that facts gave history a very long leash.

    While the modern approaches to history have tended to back up interpretation with more and more factual material, the main job of history for most people is still the STORY part, not the fact part. That’s not a phenomenon that has anything to do with the last 50 years particluarly, and it’s mythological to say different.

  27. #27 borgbege
    May 24, 2006

    The title of this post should read:

    Why the Dumb Da Vinci Code matters to America, You, and ME

    You should not use first person pronoun after a preposition. An easy test to see which pronoun to use is to isolate the pronoun as follows: “Why the …. matters to me” (you wouldn’t use “I” in this case, right?).

  28. #28 NuSapiens
    May 27, 2006

    I’m waiting for a Wiccan to do a big Harry Potter exegesis and point out misrepresentations of Hogwarts etc. I haven’t read the Da Vinci Code and won’t see the movie. The plot just sounds like old re-hashed crank history pablum that’s been floating around for god knows how long – worked into a novel.

    Any religion becomes stupid when it devolves into a personality cult.

    Anyway, history is dead. Modern people don’t care what happened 5 years ago, and the difference between 1,000 and 1,000,000 years is apparently negligible to most people on the street. Someone should write a new book about how Jesus was killed by dinosaurs working for the Anna Nicole Smithinati – it would be par for the course.

  29. #29 PEDRAM
    June 3, 2006

    BAH NO IT’S A PLOT BY THE BAVARIAN ILLUMINATI THEY’RE DISTRACTING US WITH THIS BOOK MEANWHILE AREA 51 IS ONLY PRODUCING MORE ALIENS, SEEK THE TRUTH PEOPLE AHHHH BAHHHH

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