Many critics of The Da Vinci Code have condemned the author's appalling research. The recent copyright case revealed that it was not Dan Brown but his wife Blythe who trawled books and the internet, copied down chunks of text without checking their accuracy, and handed these to her husband with no sources attached. He then, apparently not knowing their origin or their validity, and thus not understanding their context, plugged them wholesale into his novel. Hardly surprising that it's so flawed.
Brown's authority-character Leigh Teabing rather patronisingly tells the heroine Sophie, "The Bible is a product of man, my dear. Not of God. The Bible did not fall magically from the clouds." Who better, then, to challenge this supposed erudition than New Testament scholars?
These two books both examine in some detail how the New Testament was cobbled together - a messier process than even Brown portrays - and how many familiar books including, astonishingly, the Gospel of John, very nearly didn't make it into the canon while now-unfamiliar ones nearly did. Most Christians are unaware that the first list of exactly the books in today's New Testament wasn't written until AD367, and many churches had different lists. Brown's emphasis on Constantine and the Council of Nicaea in 325 is misplaced.
Although "he mixes fact with fancy", says Robert M Price in The Da Vinci Fraud, Dan Brown is doing us a favour by revealing "a dumbed-down version of... the history of Christianity to a wider readership". Many readers have "discovered that they were ready for something beyond what their churches had ... spoon-fed them." This is why the Church is panicking.
Much of his book is a good read, but Price's chapter about the human and divine nature of Christ, as hammered out at Early Church councils, could have been greatly simplified. All he needed to do was demonstrate that Brown was talking rubbish when he said that the Council of Nicaea turned Jesus from man into God.
Unfortunately Price uses the novel as a convenient peg on which to hang his own theories. He draws parallels between the Jesus story and the death-and-resurrection myths of other gods such as Osiris, Adonis and Tammuz. Nothing new there; but Price takes it one step further. Each of these was restored to life by a female partner: Isis, Aphrodite and Ishtar. Who should take this role in the Jesus story? Inevitably it's the Magdalene. Yes, it's theoretically possible that the Jesus story is mythical and that Mary Magdalene is "a historicised goddess", but as Price says of other writers, "possibility is not probability".
While Price ends up chasing a mythological Jesus, Bart D Ehrman explores Jewish apocalypticism: the heady milieu in which Jesus lived, and crucial to understanding him. Here we have a rebuttal of the central idea of the novel, that Jesus was married. Brown states that "the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene is part of the historical record"; in fact there is no record anywhere. Brown says "the social decorum during that time virtually forbade a Jewish man to be unmarried"; not so - that was two or three centuries later. Finally, Ehrman points out, Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher. The apocalyptic Essenes were largely "single, celibate men". Jesus "remained unmarried and celibate". Both books are useful correctives of the Browns' errors. But Ehrman is far more consistent in his scholarship.
David V Barrett's 'The New Believers' is published by CassellReuse content