Read an Excerpt
C h a p t e r 1
What Can History
Really Tell Us?
Blinding ignorance does mislead us.
O! Wretched mortals, open your eyes!
Leonardo da Vinci
Breathtaking Lincoln Cathedral, towering atop Lindum
Hill in a quaint community two hours by train north of
London, can be seen from twenty miles away. Some say it's among the finest medieval buildings in all of Europe.
Its edifice, parts of which date back to 1072, is awash in spotlights at night, creating a spectacular golden glow.
I pulled open the massive black door and walked inside. The cavernous sanctuary, with its arched ceilings and elegant stained glass, still functions as a church today.
Exploring a long hallway, our footsteps echoing as we went, Garry and I came upon a small room to the right and opened the door, which creaked eerily on its hinges.
Our eyes immediately were captured by an elegant statue along the wall --- a finely carved marble image of a winged and bearded figure bearing a written proclamation. How ancient was it? Fifteenth century? Earlier?
I smiled and picked it up, easily holding it above my head. 'Look!' I exclaimed. 'Styrofoam!'
Sure enough, the statue was a clever fake. Next to it was a monument that purported to date back centuries ---
but it was made of plywood. And the stone wall with beautiful frescos painted on it? The whole thing was drawn on heavy canvas --- including the stones themselves.
Ron Howard had been here.
As director of The Da Vinci Code movie, he had been faced with a challenge. The plot of the book climaxes with a confrontation at London's Westminster Abbey,
but officials there refused to let Howard film his movie inside their historic walls. The reason, they said, is that the novel is filled with 'factual errors' and was 'theologically unsound.'
So Howard went hunting for another ancient building that could pass for the interior of the 940-year-old
Abbey. That brought him to Lincoln Cathedral.
Cathedral officials were critical of Brown's book too,
calling it 'speculative and far-fetched,' and even heretical in places, 'based on ideas put forward rather late in the church's history.' Still, they opted to open their doors for the filming of three of the movie's scenes. 'The book claims that the church has suppressed important facts about
Jesus,' the Cathedral's dean said in a statement. 'The way to counter this accusation is to be open about the facts as we understand them and welcome vigorous debate.'
Once inside, Hollywood did what it does best: create illusions. Phony paintings, crypts, and statues were skill fully designed and constructed. To the casual observer,
they appeared every bit as real as the other historic artifacts in the medieval cathedral. On camera, they would undoubtedly fool viewers.
In a way, this harmless Hollywood trickery is a metaphor for the more insidious illusions that, according to Dan Brown, have fooled students of history for generations. His basic charge in The Da Vinci Code is that people have been misled and deceived by historical accounts about Jesus that have no basis in reality. History,
Brown asserts, is written by the winners, who naturally paint themselves in positive ways while disparaging their defeated foes --- and so we're left with a biased and tainted record that only tells one side of the story.
'Almost everything our fathers taught us about
Christ,' says a character in the novel, 'is false.'
What can we know for sure about history? How can we assess whether an ancient document is trustworthy?
Are there legitimate criteria we can use to test historical claims? And what about some of the eye-popping historical allegations that Brown makes, such as his assertion that the Priory of Sion has been protecting the secrets about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and their descendants for centuries? Or that it was Emperor Constantine, an ersatz Christian,
who deified Jesus, collated the Bible,
and destroyed competing gospels in order to eliminate the real story about Jesus' identity?
I placed a call to Dr. Paul Maier, a well-respected and straight-shooting professor of ancient history, and made an appointment to question him about these issues. It was time to get some answers.
1. What was your overall reaction to The Da Vinci Code?
What are three things you liked most about the book or movie? What did you like least --- and why?
2. Are there any questions, issues, or concerns about historical
Christianity that The Da Vinci Code raises in your mind? If so, what are they specifically?
Gauging Historical Accuracy
'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?'
3. Can historical events be verified? Why or why not?
What do you think determines whether or not a historical event actually occurred?
Dr. Maier, a wiry and feisty professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University, has achieved acclaim as a scholar, teacher, and author of both academic and popular writings. Since earning his doctorate at the University of
Basel in Switzerland in 1957, he has become a recognized expert on ancient Near East history, ancient Greek and
Roman history, and Christianity and the Roman Empire.
He has written more than 250 articles and reviews for professional journals, including the Harvard Theological
Review. His teaching awards include Professor of the Year from the Council for the Advancement and Support of
Maier has written such books as In the Fullness of Time,
which examines secular evidence about Jesus and early
a new translation and commentary on the first-century historian Josephus; and a similar book on
Eusebius, the first church historian. He's also the author of historical novels, including Pontius Pilate and The
Flames of Rome. His thriller A Skeleton in God's Closet became the top national bestseller in religious fiction and led to a sequel, More Than a Skeleton.
Maier has more than just a passing interest in The Da
Vinci Code. Together with Hank Hanegraaff, host of the popular national radio program The Bible Answer Man,
he conducted an in-depth analysis of Brown's novel. From that research, he and Hanegraaff wrote The Da Vinci
Code: Fact or Fiction?, which provides answers to historical issues raised by the book.
When we rendezvoused in California, sitting across from each other in a borrowed room, I opened my copy of The Da Vinci Code and read aloud this quote: 'History is always written by the winners. When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated and the winner writes the history books --- books which glorify their own cause and disparage the conquered foe.'
I looked up at Maier. 'Do you agree with that?' I
asked. 'Is history always written by the winners?'
Maier didn't hesitate. 'No, the whole premise is false,'
he declared. 'I can give you some interesting instances where history was written by the losers. For example,
one of the greatest civil wars in the ancient world was the famous Peloponnesian War. [Its history] was written by Thucydides, who was an Athenian, and the Athenians lost the war. Sparta won. And yet, Thucydides wrote a very objective treatment of what happened in the Peloponnesian
With that quick refutation of one of Brown's major premises, our conversation continued to unfold: