Not everyone who objects to Brown’s presentation does so, as he claims on his website, because their conservative understanding of Christianity is threatened by the assertion that Jesus may have been married. I am about as far from conservative as one can get, and I really would not have a problem if Jesus was married or had children. But the historical evidence simply does not support such conclusions. The most we can say about Jesus’ marital status is that it cannot be determined with any degree of certainty. The most we can say about whether Jesus had children is that he almost certainly did not have any. But I don’t object to these claims as a Christian. I object to them as a historian.
As I document above, Brown’s book is riddled with errors, misrepresentations, exaggerations, and half-truths. What is Brown’s excuse for the historical sloppiness that permeates his book? Certainly one could defend him by pointing out that The Da Vinci Code is a novel, not a work of non-fiction, and as such its purpose is to entertain and not to teach historical facts. The problem with this defense, though, is that Brown simply does not present his work as being purely fictional. Again and again he suggests, implies, or states plainly that the historical elements of the book are true, and not just possibly true but actually true. One could also point to Brown’s lack of historical training. Clearly, Brown is a professional novelist but an amateur historian, and hence one should not expect his work to have a high degree of historical reliability. Again, though, the problem is that most readers simply do not recognize that Brown is a historical dilettante. All too often they mistake him for a true historian, partly because they lack any real historical training or knowledge themselves, and partly because Brown so often misrepresents the degree of his historical expertise and the extent of his research.
On his website Brown does not cite either his vocation as a novelist or his lack of historical training in his defense. In fact he suggests that he is indeed doing history (not just fiction) and that his historical method is based on a reasonable and widely accepted philosophy of history:
“Since the beginning of recorded time, history has been written by the ‘winners’ (those societies and belief systems that conquered and survived). Despite an obvious bias in this accounting method, we still measure the ‘historical accuracy’ of a given concept by examining how well it concurs with our existing historical record. Many historians now believe (as do I) that in gauging the historical accuracy of a given concept, we should first ask ourselves a far deeper question: How historically accurate is history itself?” (http://www.danbrown.com/novels/davinci_code/faqs.html)
As usual, though, Brown gets things only half-right. It is true that historians today recognize the biased character of historical sources and are more skeptical of the “received” version of events than they have ever been. As a result historians often scour the available evidence for alternative versions of events that may have been ignored or suppressed for political reasons. And frequently historians suggest on the basis of this reevaluation of the evidence that long-accepted historical conclusions need to be revised. As a historian myself, a biblical historian, I believe in the necessity of “revisionist” history, in not simply accepting what we have always been taught as the historical truth. But at the same time, one cannot “revise” history by inventing facts, misrepresenting documents, making wildly exaggerated claims, and manufacturing evidence. “Revisionist” history still must be history; it still must be based on real, not phony, evidence. The problem with Brown’s book is not that it is revisionist history; it is that it is bad revisionist history.
A true cynic might respond to this by saying that all history is ultimately fictional; it all involves a selective and biased reading of the evidence based on the interpreter’s own agenda. In this view, no particular reading of history is any better than another on purely historical grounds. One can only assert that one reading is better than another in that it is more useful to a particular group or helpful for a particular purpose. So, for example, many readers are sympathetic to Brown’s reading of Christian history because it is so “empowering” to women. I do not subscribe to the cynical view of history myself, but I would argue that even on these grounds Brown’s history fails. Not only is it fiction, it is not especially useful fiction.
To take the example of the claim that the novel and its historical claims are “empowering” to women, I should begin by saying that I am very sympathetic with Brown’s apparent desire to “restore” a more robust role for women in Christianity and the feminine aspects of the divine that have indeed been systematically erased in the Christian tradition. It is especially true, in my judgment, that the role of Mary Magdalene (and Jesus’ other female followers) was probably much more important than the canonical gospels allow, and that turning to other sources (such as noncanonical gospels) and utilizing feminist criticism of the gospels is one way to begin rectifying this injustice. Here is a case where good revisionist history would be both true and helpful. But I think it does not serve the cause of either Christian women’s liberation or the “feminine divine” to manufacture evidence, especially when that phony evidence only serves to turn Mary Magdalene into Jesus’ sex partner and wife, and the repository of his seed. Surely if I were going to invent a prominent role for Mary Magdalene (which is essentially what Brown does), I would like to think that I could come up with something more important for her to do than to be from a royal family and bear Jesus’ child. Couldn’t she have been a teacher, a brave public advocate for noble ideals, a respected leader of both men and women? Curiously, there is real historical evidence that Mary Magdalene fulfilled some of these roles, but Brown ignores that in favor of a more domestic and maternal role for her. This is truly unfortunate.
Another unhelpful aspect of Brown’s history is his obsession with monarchy. Not only does this lead him (again) to make a number of false statements and to draw faulty conclusions based on them, but it also runs counter to his apparently progressive agenda. Why does Jesus need to have been a king (or at least a rightful claimant) to have been a savior? Why does Mary Magdalene need to have been of royal descent, and the wife of a man who had royal blood, to be revered? Indeed, if Jesus did in fact have descendants, why would this be noteworthy in any way? Holiness is not in the blood; nor is the ability to rule wisely, to live morally, or to discern the truth. No one is born with any of the most praiseworthy human characteristics. According to the story in the gospel of Luke, Jesus was born in the most humble of circumstances, and yet became the single most influential figure in human history. Brown’s obsession with Jesus’ bloodline makes no sense to me. Even if Sophie was a descendant of Jesus Christ, so what? Would this mean people should follow her and heed her advice? Should we make her queen of the world? This line of speculation leads nowhere, and it is ample testimony to the emptiness at the heart of The Da Vinci Code that it does so.