Historical Howlers, Funny and Otherwise: Dan Brown’s Backward Understanding of Gnosticism

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Many readers from my generation probably remember the hilarious riposte by Bluto, a character in the movie Animal House: "Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?!" One could not ask for a funnier example of a historical howler than that, and John Belushi's performance made it even more hilarious. But historical howlers are not always funny. Consider, for example, the factual errors strewn throughout Dan Brown's runaway bestseller, The Da Vinci Code.

Revised: 18-Dec-2008

Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?!

Many readers from my generation probably remember the hilarious riposte by Bluto, a character in the movie Animal House: “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?!” One could not ask for a funnier example of a historical howler than that, and John Belushi’s performance made it even more hilarious. But historical howlers are not always funny. Consider, for example, the factual errors strewn throughout Dan Brown’s runaway bestseller, The Da Vinci Code. The howlers and other factual errors in the middle chapters of that book are almost too numerous to count (on p. 234, there are sixteen errors in the space of just three small paragraphs!), and they are so absurd that debunking the book’s virtual history has been compared to shooting fish in a barrel. Unfortunately, probably only a fraction of that novel’s readers are any the wiser, and that is why these howlers are ultimately not funny. They will be even less funny when the movie comes out.[1]

As I use the term, I do not refer to every factual error as a “howler.” When one of Brown’s characters (on p. 234) says that the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the 1950’s, or refers to the writings discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945 as “scrolls” (instead of codices), or refers to what a word found in those writings means in “Aramaic” (instead of Coptic), historians might have more than enough reason to wince, but we probably shouldn’t classify the error as a “howler.” I would also add that those sorts of mistakes do not contribute materially to Brown’s fallacious, revisionist history of Jesus and the early church (which might allow the historian to find some humor at those points). Some of these errors are no worse than, say, a green or yellow tunic in a 1950’s movie based on a Bible story. But when Brown’s character asserts that Gnostic gospels were found in the Dead Sea Scrolls (as he does on p. 234, in the same paragraph as the above claims), or that the divinity of Christ did not become a Christian tenet until the time of Constantine, we are clearly in the realm of the howler. Any writer who makes errors of that magnitude cannot be said to have done his or her research (their claims notwithstanding).

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  • [1] To the credit of Sony Pictures, they have decided to allow Christian responses to The Da Vinci Code to be posted on their website.
  • Jack Poirier

    Jack Poirier

    Jack Poirier is the chair of biblical studies at the newly forming Kingswell Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio (scheduled to open in Fall 2008). Jack earned his doctorate in Ancient Judaism from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, where he wrote a dissertation…
    [Read more about author]

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