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.