Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code: A Historian Reveals What We Really Know About Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Constantine. By Bart Ehrman. Oxford University Press, 207 pages, $20.

As professor and chair of religious studies at UNC-Chapel Hill and the author of several bestselling books on the history of early Christianity, Bart Ehrman has been asked quite a few times: “Have you read The Da Vinci Code?”

Yes, Ehrman has read this massively popular novel. Yes, he considers Dan Brown’s work to be a “fast-paced, intricate, compelling, spellbinding” page-turner. And yes, he recommends the suspense story — a search for the holy grail — to friends.

But is it true what Brown writes on a page titled “FACT,” which appears just before the prologue — that “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate?” Is it true, for example, that the gospels not included in the New Testament report that Jesus married Mary Magdalene?

Not exactly, Ehrman answers. He explains why in Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code. “The basic argument of the novel is that the four Gospels of the New Testament cannot be trusted to provide a historically accurate account of Jesus’ life but that there are in existence other accounts that are reliable,” Ehrman writes. “…The problem is that most readers will have no grounds in which to evaluate what he says.”

According to Ehrman, there are at least ten errors in The Da Vinci Code. Some of the errors include the role of the feminine in early Christianity; the canonization of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; and the role of the Roman Emperor Constantine in (not) commissioning the Bible in the second century. The most sensational claim in Brown’s novel, Ehrman says, concerns the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, which first garnered widespread notoriety with the publication of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, written by several independent researchers in the early 1980s.

For instance, Sir Leigh Teabing — the character in Brown’s novel who provides much of the authority on early Christianity — states Jesus and Mary Magdalene not only married but bore a child. According to Teabing (and Brown), this marriage is acknowledged in several of the eighty or so noncanonical gospels that were excluded from the New Testament by Constantine because these gospels present Jesus as human, as well as divine.

The Gospel of Philip, Teabing says for example, refers to Mary Magdalene as the “companion” of Jesus in the Aramaic language. “As any Aramaic scholar will tell you,” Brown’s character says in The Da Vinci Code, “the word companion, in those days, literally meant spouse.”

The first error, Ehrman says, is that eighty noncanonical gospels do not exist; there are more like several dozen. Second, the Gospel of Philip is not written in Aramaic, but Coptic. Third, none of the early documents, including the canonized and the noncanonized gospels, claim Jesus was married.

Ehrman acknowledges these ancient sources are “riddled with problems.” But if studied judiciously through the lens of critical history, he says, “they yield important information about what Jesus said and did.”

I really enjoyed The Da Vinci Code as a novel,” he adds. “But the people who read a book like this have no way of separating the historical fact from the literary fiction. And so that’s why I wanted to write this book.”

Cherry Crayton was formerly a staff writer for Endeavors.