Continued from page 1

This twist, too, is scarcely original; the year 2003 also saw the release of “The Order,” a film about a secretive, sinister, Opus Dei-like Catholic religious order also responsible for much villainy.

Any biblical scholar — or medievalist — could have told you that the purported historical basis for Mr. Brown’s plot is so much hokum.

For starters, although there was indeed a medieval cult of Mary Magdalene centered in Provence, there is no evidence that it existed before the 11th century, when the events leading up to the First Crusade generated a Western European rage for all things connected to the Holy Land, and legends about a voyage by Mary from the Levant to France suddenly sprang up out of nowhere.

As for Jesus’ marrying her or anyone else, the New Testament, other early Christian literature, and even the Gnostic texts that Mr. Brown cites as authoritative do not support a conclusion that Jesus had a wife (contrary to Mr. Brown’s assertion in his novel, celibate holy men were a commonplace of first-century Judaism).

In fact, Mr. Brown (as he freely admits) cribbed most of his supposed historical facts from “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” (1982), by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, three non-scholars with vivid imaginations who also link Mary Magdalene, the Merovingians, the Cathars, the Grail, the Templars, and so forth.

Nonetheless, when “The Da Vinci Code” emerged early last year, people who should have known better praised the novel’s supposed erudition. “Exhilaratingly brainy,” said the New York Times. The Chicago Tribune said that Mr. Brown’s book contained “several doctorates’ worth of fascinating history and learned speculation.” The New York Daily News called Mr. Brown’s research “impeccable.” ABC turned the novel into a documentary special, “Jesus, Mary and Da Vinci.”

Mr. Brown had clearly told the nation’s cultural elite what it wanted to hear: that the traditional Christian Gospels were unreliable; that heretics, not orthodox Christians, were the true followers of Jesus; and that there had once been a feminist Christianity that the male-dominated Christian hierarchy had ruthlessly suppressed.

It was not until late last year, as Mr. Olson and Mrs. Miesel point out, when professional art historians began ridiculing Mr. Brown’s misinformation about Leonardo — starting with the appellation “da Vinci,” which was not his last name as Mr. Brown assumes but merely the name of his hometown — that the novelist began to lose his high standing among intellectuals.

All of this and much more Mr. Olson and Mrs. Miesel explore with a meticulousness verging on the finicky in their fine book, and they (unlike Mr. Brown) buttress their conclusions with the research of a panoply of leading scholars of ancient and medieval Christianity.

Their explanation of why Western Christians identified Mary Magdalene with a reformed prostitute is especially thoughtful; they were not seeking to denigrate Mary but to see in her a powerful icon of repentance, “a model for Christians seeking to leave behind a life of sensuality and luxury, an encouragement to monks and nuns, as well as an exhortation to prostitutes,” they write.

Nor was the Council of Nicaea the first anyone had ever heard of Jesus’ divinity. Mr. Olson and Mrs. Miesel note that Christians (including nearly all heretics) had believed that Jesus was “in the form of God” since earliest days, and Nicaea merely settled — by an overwhelming vote of the bishops — the technical language for expressing the belief that he was both human and divine.

My own quibbles with this book are of the most niggling sort. I wish that the authors had quoted from more primary sources of ancient material: genuine Gnostic texts rather than scholars writing about Gnosticism.

They incorrectly assert that the word “sangreal” could never have meant “royal blood” as well as “Holy Grail” in Old French. The word “real” was a perfectly good Old French word meaning “royal” (as it does in today’s Spanish); Mr. Brown’s error in translation springs from his vast ignorance of the history of the medieval Grail legend, not false etymology.

Otherwise, Mr. Olson and Mrs. Miesel write gracefully, wear their erudition lightly, and have produced a work that is far more readable, intelligent and valuable than the novel it debunks.

That is as it should be. Soon enough the world will forget Dan Brown’s silly work of fiction. The real battle, which Mr. Olson and Mrs. Miesel fight valiantly, is against the intellectual misapprehensions about Christian history that showered critical acclaim on such a fraudulent book as “The Da Vinci Code.”

Story Continues →