Book Review

Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code: A Historian Reveals What We Really Know about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Constantine

by Bart D. Ehrman
Oxford University Press
Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code, by Bart D. Ehrman

Dr. Bart D. Ehrman is a respected atheist religious studies scholar in the academic Christian community, and his dedication to unbiased truth is what I enjoy about his writing. That’s why I picked up Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code.

This book is a critique of the historical claims about religious documents presented as truth in The Da Vinci Code, which Dr. Ehrman himself says is an enjoyable work of fiction. Though I haven’t read Dan Brown’s novel and am only familiar with what the movie presents, I intend to read The Da Vinci Code one day. Ehrman does a great job of laying out the claims made in Brown’s book, including many direct quotes from The Da Vinci Code, making it very easy to follow along without having read Brown’s novel.

As an atheist, Dr. Ehrman’s concern is with the words and deeds of the historical Jesus, and he approaches the Bible with an entirely different posture than I do—one of intrigue toward a man who made a very small impression on the non-Jewish world during his own life.

Ehrman’s reasons for writing

One of Ehrman’s reasons for writing this book is to respond to the bold claim at the beginning of The Da Vinci Code: All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.

My concern in this book is not with the artwork, architecture, or secret rituals, but with the documents that Brown describes. The problem is that most of his readers will have no grounds on which to evaluate what he says, for example, about the other Gospels that are not found in the New Testament, or the formation of the canon of scripture, or the role of Constantine in shaping the Christian Bible. And so I have thought it important to set the record straight, insofar as possible, and to engage in critical history so as to separate the historical fact from the literary fiction.

Bart D. Ehrman, Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code: A Historian Reveals What We Really Know about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Constantine

Among the facts to set straight are claims of textual forgery, the Roman emperor Constantine’s role in shaping modern Christianity, and the alleged marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

Sources of our knowledge of the life of Jesus

In addressing possible sources of knowledge of the life of Jesus, Dr. Ehrman notes that we have no writings from Jesus himself, no pagan1 sources, only two brief references to Jesus in one Jewish source (Flavius Josephus), and very few Christian sources—we are more or less restricted to the Gospels of the New Testament in trying to learn what Jesus said and did.

(The Da Vinci Code claims that there were thousands of eyewitness accounts and about eighty gospels written, which Ehrman refutes repeatedly in the book.)

This makes sense when you consider that 85–90% of the ancient world was illiterate, and the wealthy elites who could read and write were not the ones following Jesus during his life. Ehrman says that this also applies to the apostles Peter and John, indicated by Acts 4:13, which refers to them as uneducated and untrained.

(I personally believe that the groundbreaking ministry of Jesus would have been enough motivation for Jesus’ followers to learn to read and write for the sake of recording his life and message. However, it’s believed that the apostle Paul employed at least one scribe to write his letters through dictation, so perhaps Peter, John, and others did the same.)

Criteria for applying credibility to historical sources

Dr. Ehrman notes four major criteria when scholars consider sources for the life of Jesus:

Ehrman explains these methods more fully, and mentions that there are more, with these four being major ones.

Early sources

When it comes to historical documents about Jesus, the earliest sources by and large will provide information that is less likely to have been radically changed than the later sources. The Gospel of Mark is dated the earliest of the four gospels, so it is relied upon more by scholars concerned with the history of Jesus.

There is also a hypothetical document called Q that can be dated earlier than others. Despite The Da Vinci Code implying that Jesus wrote Q himself, Ehrman explains what Q really is:

The Q document is not a source written by Jesus; it is a hypothetical document that scholars believe once contained sayings of Jesus, written about twenty years after his death, and used as a source for their Gospels by Matthew and Luke.

Bart D. Ehrman, Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code: A Historian Reveals What We Really Know about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Constantine

Since Q is a hypothetical document, scholars use it by analyzing passages of text in Matthew and Luke where the words and phrases are identical or close enough to be believed to have the same source.

Multiple independent and consistent sources

Another method of discovering the life of Jesus is comparing multiple sources that independently provide the same information. Ehrman offers an example: Jesus is said to have had brothers in independent sources: Paul, Mark, John, and even Josephus. Conclusion? Jesus probably had brothers.

Cutting against the grain

This method assumes a position that early Christians would have wanted to take regarding Jesus and analyzes it against what is found in the available sources. If the text makes a claim that opposes the perceived belief system of early Christians, Ehrman asserts that the claim can be considered credible, since it would not make sense for it to be fabricated by Christians.

Traditions of this kind, which seem contrary to what Christians would have wanted to say about Jesus, are obviously not traditions that they would have made up.

Bart D. Ehrman, Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code: A Historian Reveals What We Really Know about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Constantine


The final method Ehrman mentions is context. He uses the example of Jesus being a Jewish man who lived in first-century Palestine. If there are stories about what Jesus said and did that cannot be plausibly fit into that context, then it is nigh impossible to think that those stories are historically accurate. Robert Langdon, a character in The Da Vinci Code (played by Tom Hanks in the 2006 movie), uses this method when he suggests that Jesus probably would not have been unmarried as a first-century Jewish man—a major historical claim made in Brown’s novel.

Constantine and Canonization

A major truth that the characters in The Da Vinci Code uncover is that the Roman emperor Constantine is almost solely responsible for the canon of Christian Scripture. The claim is that Emperor Constantine, upon converting to Christianity, wanted to suppress competing texts that revealed the humanity of Jesus, allowing only those writings which declared his divinity.

Dr. Ehrman denies this claim emphatically and repeatedly. First, the canon had already begun to form well before Constantine was born in 272 AD, and it wasn’t closed until after his death in 337 AD. Second, many books of the New Testament confirm the humanity of Jesus. If Constantine’s goal was to erase any mention of Jesus being a man, he failed miserably. Third, there is no historical evidence to suggest that Constantine had anything to do with the formation of the biblical canon. The emperor’s major contribution to Christianity was convening the First Council of Nicaea.

First Council of Nicaea

The emperor convened the First Council of Nicaea, but the objective of the council was not canon formation. The First Council of Nicaea met to settle, among other issues, the Christological dispute regarding the relationship between God the Father and God the Son. Dr. Ehrman notes that Constantine’s role here was likely not even for reasons of piety, but rather to unite the major religious movement in his kingdom.

An apocalyptic saying of Jesus

In Chapter 6, Dr. Ehrman presents an example of an apocalyptic saying of Jesus that’s found in the hypothetical Q document, from Matthew 19 and Luke 22. The New International Version reads like this:

Jesus said to them, Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

Matthew 19:28, NIV

There is a similar saying found in Luke 22:29–30, NIV: And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

Ehrman contends that this saying is likely historically accurate because it satisfies all four criteria for credibility, including cutting against the grain. He claims that since Jesus was addressing his disciples, the twelve thrones were intended to be filled by the twelve apostles, including Judas Iscariot. Is Judas going to be one of the rulers of the future kingdom? Christians obviously would not have thought so. Thus, according to Dr. Ehrman, historians can feel confident that Jesus actually said these words.

Where I believe Dr. Ehrman is mistaken is in assuming that Jesus was only speaking to his twelve apostles, rather than to a larger group of his disciples. We know that Jesus was accompanied by more than just the twelve apostles. In fact, Acts 1:15–26 tells us that there were two men who were with Jesus during his whole ministry: Joseph/Barsabbas/Justus and Matthias, the latter being the one chosen to take the place of Judas as an apostle and witness of Jesus’ resurrection. I believe that Matthias can be assumed to take the place of Judas in every respect throughout the ministry of Jesus, including a seat on a throne to judge the twelve tribes of Israel.

Women in the ministry of Jesus

Another recurring theme in The Da Vinci Code is Christianity’s suppression of the historical role of women in Jesus’ ministry. Brown’s novel makes it clear that the Bible was altered by Emperor Constantine to accomplish several aims—one being to erase the significance of women in the ministry of Jesus.

Ehrman denies that any historical evidence exists to suggest that Constantine had any influence over the canon of Scripture, much less that he altered the history of women in the ministry of Jesus. Again, we can cite Scripture itself, since the four gospels, Paul’s letters, and most of the rest of the New Testament record the activities of women close to Jesus and his own concern for them participating in his ministry, unlike most rabbis of his day. Paul, also, mentions several women in his letters—deacons, co-workers for the gospel, women who shared spiritual gifts, prominent women within their communities, and even Junia, who was called outstanding among the apostles (Romans 16:7, CSB).

Dr. Ehrman also notes the entrance of patriarchy into Christianity in the second century. Prior to that, churches appear to have treated men and women equally, reflecting Paul’s words in his letter to the Galatians: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (3:28, CSB) But this patriarchy was not a creation of Emperor Constantine, nor did he alter Scripture in any way.

Was Jesus married to Mary Magdalene?

One of the major revelations in The Da Vinci Code is that Jesus was married to his disciple Mary Magdalene and fathered a child with her. Dr. Ehrman stresses in his book that there is simply no historical basis for either claim—that Jesus was married or that it was to Mary Magdalene.

One reason given for Jesus’ marital status is how unusual it would have been for a Jewish man to be unmarried in Palestine at the time of Jesus. Wouldn’t the authors of the gospels have had to address the elephant in the room: the singleness of Jesus? Since it’s never mentioned, the assumption is that he was married. Ehrman says it’s not true that an unmarried Jewish man in first-century Palestine would be bizarre, and there would not have been a reason to explain either the singleness or marriage of Jesus. It’s a non-issue.

In fact, according to Ehrman, it would be strange (and unbelievable) if Jesus were married and the gospels never mentioned his wife, which they don’t. The family of Jesus is mentioned multiple times in the New Testament—his mother, father, brothers, sisters, and other relatives—yet his wife is never mentioned. Even the wives of the apostles are mentioned in 1 Corinthians 9:5. The logical conclusion is that Jesus was not married.

Despite the evidence against the claim of Jesus being married, the characters in Dan Brown’s novel assert that non-canonical gospels reveal Jesus’ marriage to his disciple, Mary Magdalene (a.k.a. Mary of Magdala). The claim hinges on a Coptic word found in the Gospel of Philip that translates to companion. The novel asserts that this word meant spouse or lover. Ehrman denies this, stating that the word was used to refer to, well, companions, or friends.

More specifically with reference to Mary Magdalene, if Jesus were actually married to her, why would there be no reference to it? Why is she not singled out as special anywhere in the canonical Gospels?

Bart D. Ehrman, Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code: A Historian Reveals What We Really Know about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Constantine

Mary Magdalene is referenced a few times in the gospels, yet she is never identified as the wife of Jesus. Scholars even agree that she is called Magdalene to differentiate her from other Marys in the New Testament; she was from a town called Magdala, a fishing village on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. It doesn’t make sense to refer to her by her town rather than as the wife of Jesus, unless, of course, she isn’t.


Despite the author’s efforts to redress the historical claims found in Dan Brown’s popular novel, Ehrman readily admits that he enjoyed reading The Da Vinci Code. Throughout this book, he refers pleasantly to the narrative and characters. It’s the history that Ehrman wanted to correct.

Likewise, I enjoyed reading Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code, despite never having read the novel. (As I said before, I plan to one day.) Dr. Bart Ehrman employed direct quotes quite well and frequently enough that I felt as if I understood the gist of the various claims made in The Da Vinci Code. He also laid out his points plainly and understandably for non-historians, noting when evidence simply isn’t sufficient for high confidence in a historical claim.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in a non-religious, expert perspective on biblical texts, religious history, and textual criticism.

  1. Though pagan can sometimes have negative connotations, the word generally refers to adherents of polytheistic religions, which is how Dr. Ehrman defines it in the opening chapter.