The Gospel of Thomas: Wisdom of the Twin, Lynn Bauman
*** “Ink-blotting through Thomas”
I give Bauman and the publisher credit for
making the most of what seems to me unpromising material. This book is nicely
designed, reasonably introduced, and attractive. On one page a saying in
paraphrase from the "Gospel" of Thomas is given, then on the facing
page a series of questions, an "academic translation," and some
notes. She doesn't give answers to the questions (though you might guess what
she thinks); you're on your own. What you find will I think depend mostly on
what you expect to find! If you don't mind a lot of white space, and want to
get a discussion going that takes Thomas seriously as a source for spiritual
wisdom, this is your book.
If you're open to critical comment on Thomas, please consider the relevant chapter in my book, Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could. I argue that (1) Scholars who think Thomas is late and a worse source for the life of Jesus than MML & J have had much the better of the argument so far; (2) Thomas is more UNLIKE the canonical Gospels than the Iliad, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Agricola, Journey to the West, or (especially) the Analects of Confucius. (3) In particular, Thomas has left all the great moral teachings of Jesus on the cutting board, and that's a shame. My own feeling is that, if you like this sort of mysticism, the Upanishads and Buddhist sutras are better. But I admit to a prejudice against even ancient writers who say, "Jesus said," when they really mean, "I rather think."
Finally, one criticism of Bauman. It seems to me that the words of the canonical Gospels have become stale to her. I find this extraordinary; can Handel's Messiah be rendered elevator music? For any reader suffering the same affliction, I suggest looking at the Gospels from the point of view of some sensitive non-Westerner, like Lin Yutang, Vishal Mangalwadi, Yuan Zhimin, Sundar Singh, or Giming Shien in Hieromonk Damascene. G. K. Chesterton also brings a rather Zen-like approach to the texts that reawakens the heart to many of their amazing qualities. The analysis of the Gospels in the central third of my Jesus Seminar book may also help.
**** Strange Tales about Jesus, Per Beskow
In this little book, Swedish scholar Per Beskow takes on some of the most influential stories about Jesus of our time: the Book of Mormon, Life of Saint Issa, Aquarian Gospel, Gospel of Barnabas, Gospel of the Holy Twelve, and others. He describes how each was produced, and shows why each is clearly a fraud. He knows more about European tales than American, and skips over stories that fall outside the boundaries of his chosen subject matter. (His approach is mostly historical, so in general he does not deal with channeled revelations.) Also, the book was written about 20 years ago, so of course he gives no mention of more recent strange story-tellers like Elizabeth Claire Prophet, Richard Paton, or Neale Walsch. (Though he hardly needs to.) But within those parameters, his analysis is effective and persuasive. Beskow is fair-minded and dispassionate, and tends to give his subjects the benefit of the doubt when he can. At the same time, he cuts through smoke screens and malarkey with precision and efficiency.
While his approach is mostly historical, at the end of the book Beskow also remarks on the astonishing "freshness, power, and ability to move" of the N.T. Gospels, in comparison to these works. For interesting arguments related to that point, I recommend the second half of Chesterton's Everlasting Man, and essays by Machen (History and Faith) and C. S. Lewis (Fernseed and Elephants).
Also my own new book, Jesus and the Religions of Man. In it, I add the scholarly "historical Jesus" and a few other Hindu and Buddhist figures, to Beskow's list of strange tales. Just as Muslims, Hindus, Mormons, and New Agers recreate Jesus in their images to protect their view of life, so Humanists like Funk and Crossan betray scholarly principles by "projecting" their ideals onto First Century history. I argue that this inability of people of various ideologies to write Gospels that match the original, suggests that the disciples not only would not but could not have made up "their" Jesus.
I bought several copies of Strange Tales from the publisher several years ago, so even though the book is out of print, it may still be available.
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, Craig Blomberg
**** “A Useful and Persuasive Resource”
Craig Blomberg is a
thorough and methodical scholar. For the conservative Christian, Blomberg's
positive approach to the useful insights of Biblical scholarship may be a
revelation, so to speak. For the skeptic, the broad evidence he marshals in
support of the basic historical reliability of the Gospels ought to be
persuasive, or at least demand careful thought. When I do seminars on Da Vinci
Code or Gnostic Gospels or the historicity of the Gospels, I often make this
book available; it is an excellent resource. It may not be as in-depth as his
work on John's Gospel or the Parables, but for readers unstudied in Biblical
criticism, the detail and references to various scholars may make the book a
I can sympathize with the reviewer who credits Blomberg for a good defense of the Resurrection, but thinks he defends the Gospels a bit too much. Still, this is Blomberg's book, and the reliability of the Gospels is the thesis he has chosen to defend -- if he really thinks the Gospels are highly reliable, why shouldn't he give his reasons for thinking so? (Even if some "conservative" scholars do not go as far as him?) Also, the critic's idea of scholarship sounds a bit naive to me. ("You begin with no firmly fixed preconceptions. You collect your evidence, form a hypothesis that explains the evidence, collect more evidence, modify your hypothesis . . . Only after you have arrived at your conclusions in an unbiased fashion, do you then argue for your conclusions.") I have read many works of Biblical scholarship, mostly by skeptics, and cannot imagine what scholar he is thinking of who works this way. Philosopher Raymond Martin called N. T. Wright's historical methods "by far the most sophisticated" in the field, and Wright is realistic enough to understand that every scholar comes to historical study with bias. That alone does not mean an argument need be in any way fallacious.
Finally, the reviewer asks: "The Gospel never claims it was written by John, and authorship by John is not necessary to a finding of historical accuracy. Why, then, defend John's authorship so staunchly?" Perhaps because Blomberg thinks John was in fact the author? And certainly the book implies that he was involved.
Marcus Borg, Meet Jesus Again for the First Time ***
Marcus Borg is the most sensible and sympathetic of the Jesus Seminar scholars I have read. I found many worthwhile insights in this book: the way he links the Gospels and Paul's teaching on grace (though Jesus and Paul also call us to radical moral purity, and Borg sometimes makes meaning slave to etymology), his discussion of meta-narratives, parables, and aphorisms, and the contrast between "conventional wisdom" and "unconventional" wisdom, for example.
But the criteria by which Borg judges whether or not a given teaching really is from Jesus are shaky. Does the "Gospel" of Thomas have anything of value to say about the life of Jesus? I doubt it. Why does Borg assume that only material from the Christian "tradition" before 60 A.D. can be trusted? If I were to write about the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, at a chronological distance equivalent to 93 AD, I could easily find eyewitnesses. Why should it have been so much harder for the Gospel writers in 70 AD?
Borg's chief weakness may be his habit of working alternatives into what look like false dichotomies, or trichotomies: holiness versus compassion, individual versus political virtue, "belief" versus "action" versus "becoming." (Why not all three? "Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength!") Borg's method of exegesis is often to exaggerate one element in Jesus' teaching, then make that a principle by which to exclude other elements.
Borg identifies JS pronouncements with the "scholarly consensus." But many first rank scholars (Wright, Hays, Johnson, Meier, Jenkins, and others) find the JS way of working quite flawed.
Borg writes of "pre-critical" and "post-critical" naiveté; but he shows a great deal of what might be called "unidirectional" naiveté. He explains how, as a young man, he discovered Biblical criticism and lost his faith. He later recovered a faith, which, like John Blofeld's faith in the bodhisattva Guan Yin, seemed to have "nothing to do with belief." The problem is, while he learned to treat the Gospels critically, his seminary professors did not seem to teach him to treat their own ideas the same way. Thus, he makes little mention of another kind of Christian that might be called the "post-critical believer" -- the Christian who has read Borg, Crossan, Pagels, Mack, and more radical critics, and come to the conclusion that their methods and conclusions are badly mistaken -- not on theological, but on historical grounds.
We post-critical believers can only feel marginalized and a bit ghostly, not finding ourselves among Borg's typology of believers.
Borg also attempts to tie the radical compassion of Jesus to his alleged identity as a "spirit person" who experienced mystical unity with God: "There is an intrinsic connection between the boundary-shattering experience of Spirit and the boundary-shattering ethics of compassion."
As a student of world religions, I think not. "All we shamans know that the spirits are happiest when we kill people," one Yamonamo Indian is quoted as saying; and certainly the most active spiritism can coexist with the most brutal denigration of women. East Indian advedic gurus and tantric Buddhists often rigidly oppress their followers, and a rich heritage of mystical science did not prevent India from sinking into a sinkhole of caste and gender oppression. In fact, the true source of reform and breaking down of social boundaries has far more often come from a strict monotheism -- among the Jewish prophets, Chinese sages like Confucius, the anti-slave movements in the Middle Ages and the Modern West, and even in India and Japan.
In the end, as Dr. Borg shares his own story, he seems rather lost to me, following a "Jesus" who is a worthy enough sage, but incapable of inspiring the joyous songs he recalls with tears from his childhood. I feel for him. I think he is quite mistaken about the Gospels. The more I study world religions, the more I am persuaded that Jesus is
the Lord of life, who died for the sins of the world, and rose from the dead. I think an honest assessment of the evidence leaves that as the most realistic assessment. I am tempted to echo Dr. Borg's own words, and say, "Dr. Borg, come home, and meet Jesus again, for the first time."
Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings, Marcus Borg
*** “One Hand Claps”
Marcus Borg may be the most reasonable member of the Jesus
Seminar. His books on the "historical Jesus," while I think deeply
mistaken (as I explain in my book, Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and
Grandma Marshall Could), do demonstrate intelligence, learning, and often
worthwhile insight into one of the traditions he compares in this book. Since
he does not claim to be a Buddha scholar, it might seem reasonable to cut him
some slack. After all, many of the quotes he gives from Jesus and Buddha do sound
similiar. And there is no denying either the charm of Borg's gentle approach,
or of many of the quotes themselves.
However, Borg's approach is amateurish and naive, making his conclusions deeply misleading.
To begin with, Borg stacks the deck. He does not compare Buddha's teachings on the evils of making love to one's wife (in the sutra called "Defeat") with similar passages from Jesus, or Jesus' confrontations with political critics with similar problems encountered by Buddha, because such parallels do not exist. Borg only selects points that enhance his argument. But Borg admits that, so perhaps we can let it slide.
More seriously, really Borg does not compare Jesus and Buddha at all. He compares a whittled-down selection of Jesus sayings, written within a few short years of the Master's life, with a vast library of Buddha material written by all kinds of people over several hundred years. At one point he says, "One might even say that becoming a bodhisattva is the goal of the fully developed Christian life." Never mind that this Mahayana concept only appeared half a millennia after Buddha! Such comparisons are worse than meaningless. If I sifted 150 years of Marxist tradition, I could easily find sayings that parallel passages in the Gospels -- but setting them side by side would not mean that the real Marx taught his disciples to turn the other cheek.
Why does Borg not compare the historical Jesus to the historical Buddha? The real reason, aside from the fact that he is admittedly an "amateur" on Buddha, may be that our earliest sources are too remote from Siddhartha to be sure what he was like. In the Dharmapadda, Buddha appears as a kind, gentle thinker like the present Dalai Lama. In other sutras, he is a hippy who leaves home in search of a better commune. Elsewhere he brags like the vain Bagwan Rajneesh: "I am the Tathagata, the teacher of gods and men, omniscient and endowed with all powers." The various Buddha materials do not come from the same century, let alone the same man. Borg is trying to clap pretty solid historical materials (Jesus in the Gospels) against empty air (sutras that do not in fact come from Buddha at all).
The critic who replies that the ministry of Buddha was longer, so more materials would be available for his life, is just missing the point. After a few centuries of oral tradition and free creation of new sutras, in a culture that did not (like the Jews or Chinese) emphasize historicity, it is hard to figure out from the resulting libaries of material what Buddha actually said, or even was. The same is simply not the case with 1st Century writings by Jewish followers of Jesus, written within the natural life-spans of his first disciples, that show strong internal and external markings of basic historical accuracy. (As even the JS often admits.)
Thirdly, some of the parallels here seem to owe more to similarity of wording than intent. While the Gospel may call a Christian to "hate" his family in the sense of putting God first, Jesus' early disciples do not seem to have left spouse or offspring, as Buddha taught his disciples to do. By "salvation" Buddha means freedom from rebirth, while Jesus means a new birth from Heaven.
What is left of these parallels? Probably "compassion" was important both to Jesus and to Buddha. But from the 1st Century, Christians have not only admitted, but insisted, that moral truth, what C. S. Lewis called the "tao" (following Confucius), is universal. Of course Buddha taught kindness; what else would anyone with a conscience teach? But such a beautiful source of Buddhist compassion as the Dharmapadda contains no hint that Buddha did any miracles. There is little historical evidence that he was a "person of the spirit" in that sense.
Several reviewers say this book is not for scholars. Actually, some of the quotes in it may intrigue anyone. But no one with integrity, scholar or layman, should read too much into such forced parallels.
Marcus Borg ought to know better. His arguments about
"people of the spirit" should rest on serious scholarship. In a sense, though, Borg does truth a service, by showing how far afield one needs to go to find parallels to the Gospel story, and how weak those parallels prove, when tested critically.
Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown
** “Popcorn Poppycock”
The premise of Da Vinci Code shows promise: grisly murders, a secret set to shake the foundations of Christendom, and a series of (sometimes too easy) puzzles -- a "Whereisit" grafted onto a "Whodonit" connected to a "Whatreallyhappened." While Brown has no stylistic or descriptive talent whatsoever (you'd never want to read this book twice, that's the test), he did keep the juices flowing for me one time through. (So long as I pushed the "suspension of disbelief" meter up to its highest setting.) The book's many inanities and historical blunders are hard to overlook, however. Brown doesn't know (what one embarrassed pagan historian pointed out) that fear of witches was a traditional part of European paganism, that this fear was squelched by the Church during the "Dark Ages" and then revived during the Renaissance; that tens of thousands, not "five million" witches were killed; or that these crimes occurred mostly in small towns on the margins of State and Church power, not in the shadow of the Vatican. Ironically, Brown himself exploits the psychological mechanism that launches witch hunts in his choice of villains. I myself am neither Catholic, albino, nor physically handicapped; but I find Brown's inability to rise above such pernicious type-casting unfortunate. And his attempt to get inside the minds of his characters is marvelously shallow. One half expects them to jump out of the book and cry, "Hang on! If I were this stupid, how did I get to be a Harvard professor / Catholic bishop / successful criminal?"
As for Brown's chatter about early Christian history, lost Gospels, Church conspiracies, and the cover-up of Jesus' marriage to Mary Magdelene, which he and some rather breathless reviewers manage to take seriously, I admit I found his historical blundering mildly entertaining. For the record, though, the Dead Sea scrolls do NOT contain any Gospels (one scholar claims to have found a few words from the Gospel of Mark in one cave, but that is disputed). As for the so-called "Gnostic Gospels," Philip Jenkin's Hidden Gospels is a good place to start. Discovery of the Nag Hammadi documents rather proves the wisdom of the early Christians in dumping these bogus 2nd and 3rd Century writings: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John show every sign of historicity
(as well as socially constructive thinking), and these rather spacey New Age works show no more of either than the Da Vinci Code itself.
Still, in a mindless mood, it is possible to enjoy this book.
The Mystical Life of Jesus, Sylvia Brown
* “The Pits”
John tells us that if everything that Jesus did were to be written down,
"I suppose the world itself would not contain it all." And indeed,
acres of cottonwood are ground into new books about the life, teaching, acts,
and meaning of Jesus every year.
A lot of those books are quite good. This one is not. This appears to be a taudry attempt to cash in on the Da Vinci Code phenomena, and rewrite the life of Jesus for ideological and financial gain.
The author has done about the same amount of "research" as Dan Brown, which means she gets almost everything wrong. No, the New Testament didn't "take its present form" at the Council of Nicea -- the main books were widely accepted at least a century and a half before. No, Jesus didn't run off the India when he was a boy -- see Per Beskow's Strange Tales About Jesus, which relates how an adventurer and con man, Nicolas Notovitch, originated this tall tale. No, the "Hinduism" of Jesus' day was not a "passive" religion -- the Bhagavad Gita from roughly this period is an admonition to accept the duty of warfare. There are no "ancient texts of the Far East" that talk about Jesus, until Nestorians and other eastern Christians began to wander in that direction. No, the so-called "Gospel of Judas" does not tell us anything about the historical Jesus, nor does any serious scholar claim it does.
Paul tells us to "test the spirits." Test Francine, and she gets about a D in creative writing (a spirit as an informant to settle all controversies is a good idea, but this ghost lacks personality, build-up, drama, or life of any sort -- it's all "Francine says this" and "Francine tells me that"), and an F in history.
An accurate title for this book would be, "Wild guesses about the most famous man in the world, by a moderately imaginative liar who has skimmed a few friendly text books, and dumps it all inartistically in the mouth of an imaginary 'ghost-writer.'"
As I argue in relation to the so-called "Gnostic Gospels," the real Jesus is so much more interesting.
If you don't want to pick up N. T. Wright, Craig Blomberg, or some other serious scholar who writes about Jesus, pick up Philip Yancey or Thomas Cahill or my own books, and learn more about Jesus from an honest writer who takes the evidence seriously.
There are a lot of great books on many subjects out there. (I'm just reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn's memoir, along with C. S. Lewis' wonderful Till We Have Faces.) Almost anything beats this.
Richard A. Burridge What Are the Gospels? : A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series), Careful and persuasive.
What are the Gospels? Biography? Myth? A unique genre of literature, otherwise unknown to the ancient world? Richard Burridge begins by discusses genre, how it develops and evolves. He offers a dozen or so characteristics by which we can judge the genre of a book. No one item by itself proves that a given book belongs to a certain genre, he argues. Following a few longish sections that establish his methods of analysis, Burridge introduces ten works that belong to the category of Greco-Roman bioi, five from before the time of Christ, five from shortly after. Applying the criteria he mentions earlier to these works, he establishes what an ancient biography was really like. Then he considers the Synoptic Gospels, concluding that they clearly fit into this category. Next he performs the same operation with the Gospel of John, and concludes that it is also an example of ancient biography. I think Burridge proves his case, that the canonical Gospels do belong to the category of ancient bioi, or biography. (Be prepared for a few words of Greek in the text.) But what does that mean to call the Gospels "biography?" Among the examples of Bioi he considers are Tacitus' Agricola, a sober account of a Roman general written by his son in law a few years after his death, and Apollonius of Tyana, a tall tale loosely based on a New Age guru that talks about various breeds of dragon in India, and was written more than a hundred years after the alleged life it portrays. So the simple fact that a work belongs to the category of bioi, does not prove that it is true. Burridge notes however that Apollonius is rather on the fringe of the genre. In some ways, the Gospels are closer to Agricola. Having closely compared these two texts with the Gospels on my own, I came to the conclusion that in terms of historical
reliability, the Gospels are closer to Agricola, and hardly resemble Apollonius of Tyana at all. In fact, in some ways the Gospels seem more historical than Agricola.
But Burridge does not discuss the historicity of the books he reviews directly. Instead, he conducts a somewhat plodding, but careful, convincing, and I think useful argument that helps one better understand literary genre, ancient literature, the Gospels, and how they all fit together.
Thomas Cahill, Desire of the Everlasting Hills: Frank, gabby, open-eyed, and insightful *****
Thomas Cahill is attempting something very difficult here. He is trying to tell the story of the person about whom everyone else has already told the story. He is trying to stand in the cataract of Jesus scholarship and grab out a few choice coins (not rocks), without getting drenched by a spray of technical verbiage. He is trying to write a biography that is chatty and colloquial, but also based on clear reasoning and sound scholarship. He is trying to write in a fair-minded manner about someone everyone either loves or claims to like in a deconstructionist manner that, finally, amounts to something resembling fear.
I have read quite a few similar attempts by non-scholars, or by scholars on Sunday afternoons, to do something like this, and I feel this one comes off pretty well. Probably the closest comparisons might be A. N. Wilson's skeptical Jesus, A Life (inferior), or Philip Yancey's mushy-evangelical The Jesus I Never Knew (not bad).
As you can see from reviews below, Cahill manages to offend a lot of Christians and secularists. Considering all the chances he is taking, both with style and substance, one might call that an accomplishment.
My advice would be to read a chapter before deciding if this is your style, if possible. I almost always found his arguments reasonable and informed, and I have read a lot of these books, on all sides. For me, the fact that he has literary pizzazz, and is not afraid to make a joke, maybe even a pun, does not hurt. This is not a book written by a robot. Cahill treats the text with the respect of relating it to the world of our experience, even if he is sometimes a tad groan-ish in doing so. Furthermore, while not a scholar, Cahill relies on a few fairly reasonable ones -- no, that does not include anyone in the Jesus Seminar, but unfortunately, neither does it include N. T. Wright, in my view the best -- and he brings a fair amount of eclectic background knowledge
to the texts. (I was shocked to find him referring to the Chinese philosopher Yuan Zhiming, for example, who I thought was my secret.)
If some disrespectful comment here on John or another Gospel bothers you, try Craig Blomberg's Historical Reliability of the Gospels. If you are attracted to the subtitle, "The World Before and After Jesus," but find too little about Jesus' impact on history, I might recommend Christianity on Trial, the fascinating works of Vishal Mangalwadi, or the relevant chapter of my own Jesus and the Religions of Man. If you're offended by Cahill because he makes bad jokes, I can't help you there. But I think he is ultimately serious about Jesus, and on that we agree.
The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith’s Invention of Secret Mark, Steven Carlson
**** “The Piltdown Manuscript”
Other reviewers summarize Stephen Carlson's
methodical and, it seems to me too, successful expose of "Secret
Mark." (Which, as he concludes, should be added to "the bibliography
of Morton Smith's published writings.")
A couple additional qualities of this book might be worth noting. First, Carlson writes with almost pure dispassion. His topic is the founding of Christianity, which for most is a highly consequential issue, but he never lets his own views on greater questions, such as who, after all, Jesus was, intrude on the discussion.
Second, if anything, Carlson seems to admire that old rascal, Morton Smith, for pulling a fast one. And though I am a Christian, don't care much for lies, and have had my fill of lies about Jesus, I do see his point. It was a clever ruse, Dr. Smith, with more humor and honest malice (in its way) than the average Jesus Seminar or Elaine Pagels tome, and more interesting in its way than the likes of Dan Brown! Having read Smith's Jesus the Magician, I rather enjoyed his straightforward "suffer no fools, take no prisoners" style of historical exposition. (Though I thought his conclusions there, too, were a lot of nonsense.)
Having said that, scholars who made much of "Secret Mark" have some serious explaining to do. Helmut Koester and John Crossan used it to reconstruct the origin of the Gospel tradition. John Meier said, "To use such a small fragment of dubious origins to rewrite the history of Jesus and the Gospel tradition is to lean on a reed." Now the reed has broken.
"Secret Mark" is not the only reed such scholars lean upon. Koester, Crossan, Pagels, and both Jesus Seminar and "Gnostic Gospel" crowds lean even more heavily on the "Gospel" of Thomas. But as I show in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, Thomas is just as shaky in its own way. Yet uncritical acceptance of the text is rife. (Pagels, it seems, has not even bothered to read refutations of the "early Thomas" hypothesis on which she build her own castles in the air.) The present uproar over the "Judas Gospel" ought also, in its way, to be more embarrassing to the scholarly community than a clever hoax by a loan wolf scholar who likes to howl at the moon. A fascinating piece of detective work.
Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography, Bruce Chilton
* “Chilton knows too much”
"Believing in himself," G. K.
Chesterton once told an editor, "is one of the commonest signs of a
rotter." He added: "that elderly minister with an epic from whom you
were hiding in a back room, he believed in himself." That minister, one
suspects, was Bruce Chilton.
Chilton describes this book as the first "comprehensive, critical biography" of Jesus. He states, without irony, "I do not read from the texts, I read behind them." He does indeed: as C. S. Lewis put it, he claims to see fernseed (invisible facts "behind" the text), yet fails to notice an elephant standing ten feet away in broad daylight (the real "historical Jesus," whom humble readers have known for centuries.)
On the "saddest day" of Jesus' young life (Joseph's death, when Jesus was 12, "possibly" from malaria or tuberculosis), the synagogue closed its doors to him. This experience is "possibly" why "one of the most striking characteristics of Jesus' later teaching was a deep skepticism about religious authority."
Since we have not a word of evidence on the subject, it is indeed "possible" that Joseph died of malaria. He may also have died of bone cancer, small pox, or a tuna thrown from the Red Sea by a fluke tornado. Like the rest of the world, Chilton can have no real idea; he's just rendering shleck sound scholarly by adding the word "possibly." One can also of course speculate about where Jesus' feelings about Pharisees came from. In the pre-Freudian era, one might have started with the OT prophets or actual odious Pharisees in the neighborhood, since there is evidence for both. It is pure quackery to trace reasonable views to imaginary traumas experienced in a childhood about which we know next to zilch. But after Freud, the kind of fact-free speculation that might embarrass a real psychologist, often seduces a second-rate historian into thinking himself a first-rate one, and a novelist, to boot.
Chilton not only "reads behind the texts." He sees visions as well: "Behind these words (Jesus' story of the children in the marketplace) I see a small child, standing apart from other children, wishing to play but not being included." Surely Chilton does not actually believe Jesus' ironic and telling parable is evidence that he was chosen last in the Nazareth junior soccer league twenty years before? It scares me to think how he would reconstruct the childhood of a William Blake. But like John Donne, he has not done, he has more:
"Jesus grew heavier over the years until he left the area in 27 C. E. . . . The emerging paunch only strengthened his voice, however, and his thick beard and thinning hair made for an impression of gravitas."
In our only records, neither beard nor baldness are visible; gravitas somehow subsists. Here, unfortunately, very little can be found.
For those unfamiliar with New Testament scholarship, what Chilton leaves unclear must be stated plainly: there is no evidence whatsoever that such speculations are true. Chilton claims that the Jesus Seminar (of which he was a member) "dared to state in public what academics have been talking about for many decades." What academics say in private about the Jesus Seminar is not always so flattering. But the wild speculations of John Crossan, the diatribes of Robert Funk, and Marcus Borg's amateurish forays into comparative religion, seem almost reasonable by comparison to Rabbi Jesus. And Crossan and Borg can write; here, not even wit makes up for lack of evidence and reason.
I have read many Jesus Seminar books. I even wrote a book, Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could, arguing against the many liberties the seminar took with both fact and reason. Even so, it boggles my mind that anyone who calls himself a scholar would produce something so patently absurd as this book. Of the dozens of lives of Jesus I have read, after a Freke and Gandy effort, this may be the worst. Confucius noted, "To know what you know, and know what you don't know -- this is knowledge." For Chilton, the path to real knowledge should lie in first admitting his own palpable ignorance.
John Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography A Useful Myth, With Footnotes ***
This book comes in an unusual long, narrow shape, as if to emphasize the unorthodox character of Crossan's approach. His argument is well-written and adorned with interesting background details, and even some good insights. But as a whole, I found that argument far more of a stretch than the book itself.
Crossan begins by begging the question. Suppose, he asks, you wanted to go behind the "screen" of "credal interpretation" that are the Gospels for an impartial account of the historical Jesus "as distinct from the confessional Christ?" (Yes. But what if we first ask if the two are distinct, before we ask how they are distinct?) Crossan dismisses academics who come to orthodox conclusions as phony scholars. But if, on that account, you expect a dispassionate and scholarly approach from Crossan, don't hold your breath.
Crossan makes two assumptions in regard to Biblical material. 1) Don't trust materials from after 60 A.D. 2) No argument should stand on the strength of only one independent attestation. With that, unfortunately, a vast amount of non-Jesus seminar history slides into the abyss. The life of Confucius, for example, has only one near source, the Analects. Yet the vast majority of scholars believe, on the grounds of internal evidence of that source, that we have a basically reliable record of Confucius' life and teachings. (For reasons that apply even more strongly in the case of the Gospels.) Furthermore, the Mencius, written more than a hundred years later, is thought to contain accurate information about his life.
Unlike Confucius, Jesus died young, and his followers were no doubt younger, and could easily have lived well past Crossan's arbitrary date. If my grandmother, who wrote poetry to the age of 95, had been the little girl Jesus raised from the dead, she could have written a first-hand account of the incident in 105 A.D. Living here in Nagasaki, Japan, were I to write an account of the nuclear holocaust 55 years later (=80 A.D.), I wouldn't even have to look for eyewitnesses, still in perfect health and with perhaps decades left to live. So it seems to me these two assumptions are fine pieces of nonsense.
Crossan also commits gross fallacies of classification. For example, he says most Galilean peasants were illiterate. Jesus was a peasant; therefore he believes (despite Gospel accounts to the contrary) Jesus was illiterate. Consider what we can do with this method. Mohatma Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln were lawyers. Most lawyers are dishonest. Therefore Lincoln and Gandhi were untruthful. It staggers me to think a respected professor could call such an absurd piece of reasoning "scholarship."
Crossan also liberally employs the age-old method of "reading between the lines" that C.S.Lewis so crushingly rebuked in his classic (and still devastating) essay, Fernseed and Elephants. Josephus and the Apostle John both wrote about John the Baptist. Crossans adds the two accounts, psychoanalyzes the principles, assumes they were lying about whatever facts they relate that fit their theologies, then fills the resulting holes with what he thinks they must have been covering up. Based on no real evidence, and denying what evidence we have, he concludes that John the Baptist was "not talking about Jesus at all" but was an "apocalyptic preacher" announcing the arrival of an "imperial conqueror." "We can almost guess what John must have been doing by reading between the lines." Of course we can, if we are endowed with such powers as John Crossan. We can even deduce "a huge web of apocalyptic expectations, a network of ticking time bombs all over the Jewish homeland" that was the following of the Baptist, whether they leave trace in the historical record or not. Come on, John. At least Joseph Smith had peep stones to work with.
Such are Crossan's usual methods of reasoning. Were I to give all such examples, to paraphrase the apostle John, the World Wide Web itself might not contain all the evidences of Crossan's preternatural powers. I cringe to think what my professors in grad school would have said if I had turned in arguments of the sort Crossan habitually employs.
But in one sense, Crossan deserves his audience. He has created a useful myth with footnotes, a well-written and resourceful Humanist apocrypha that can be hugely useful to those who share his creed.
Revolutionary Biography fits into a long tradition of religious spin doctors who sanitize Jesus for their various constituencies. For those who are interested in that tradition (and it is a very interesting story) my new book Jesus and the Religions of Man discusses the Humanist "historical Jesus" in the larger context of Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Marxist, and Mormon tall tales about Jesus.
A few reviewers below argue that "No one can know what Jesus really said or did." I think, on the contrary, everyone can know. I do not think anyone would have made up the Gospel accounts as we have them. I don't think anyone could have made them up. Not everyone likes the Jesus who appears in them, but then, not everyone liked Jesus in person, either.
Everyone had reason to disbelieve. Books like Crossan's are evidence that the world has come a long way since then in dealing with the problem of Jesus, in terms of scholarly refinement.
John Crossan, William Lane Craig, Will the Real Jesus Stand Up? A Debate between William Lane Craig and John Dominican Crossan Pretty Good, Soar Grapes Aside ****
It is true that Crossan did not substantially engage many of Craig's arguments for the resurrection. Instead, he offered orthodox Christians (who presumably have been sheltered from such ideas) a paradigm shift: "It's metaphorical, the Gospel writers didn't really mean it that way." True, the debate and essays following do create more of an all-star, rather than world series, atmosphere. Yet the book does bring together some real stars, and they do put on a good display, in my opinion, baring on the most important spiritual questions we can ask.
Not all of the complaints below need to be taken seriously. "Buckley was biased. He called Crossan a puff of smoke." Who were you expecting, Barbara Walters? The man calls his show Firing Line: where there's fire, there's bound to be smoke. Crossan is a big scholar; he can take care of himself. "Craig got to go first, and last, too." Life is indeed unfair. Still, what you get here is three top scholars on both sides, each given time to develop their ideas. Not exactly a kangaroo court. "They spoke past each other. Crossan said the Gospels are metaphor, and Craig failed to reply." Not so. Crossan advanced his argument explicitly, and Craig even more explicitly refuted it. Not that it
took much refuting. With the Gospels, it is obvious we're not dealing with Homer or Bunyan: precisely why they continue to cause such a fuss.
Miller wrote an interesting essay on how different an apologetic appears to those "inside" a group as opposed to those "outside." I did not find the particular example he gave, of Islamic apologetics, that strong, for the simple reason that from earliest times Islam has held that conversion "out" was deserving of death. (The day before I first wrote this, I got an e-mail from a friend in Nigeria about a student of his whose uncle tried to knife him for converting to Christianity.) In a closed society, your apologetic doesn't have to carry all the weight of persuasion. (Can you imagine publicly debating the credibility of Muhammed in a Muslim country?) But even in the case of Humanism, it is striking to me that this debate, in which top scholars attacked a core belief of Christianity, was held in a church, and published by a Christian publisher.
It is also striking that, as Blomberg points out, Crossan shows little or not familiarity with "evangelical" scholarship. (Unlike, to his credit, Lowder and his Internet Infidel friends.) Yet the secular media and academic worlds go to the likes of Crossan for expertise, or reassurance, as the case may be. In which direction, then, should the force of Miller's argument about tunnel vision and self-referential apologetics be turned?
In these discussions, comparative religion is usually brought in as an ally by the skeptical side, as here by Borg and Miller. But I think it actually offers powerful arguments for the truth of the Gospel. Those interested in the relationship between Christianity and other religions, and its implications for this discussion, might take a look at my recent book, Jesus and the Religions of Man.
Earl Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? Challenging the Evidence of a Historical Jesus,
* “Twelve Infallible Proofs that the Moon is Square”
Doherty wants us to believe that Jesus never lived. He offers twelve pieces of the puzzle to establish this fact, none of which, however, are both true and relevant, still less fit together to establish his claim. What the whole argument really establishes is how desperate and hopeless skeptical criticism is in dealing with the Gospels.
Doherty's main argument is that the epistles hardly ever speak of Jesus in historical terms. Why not? Because he hadn't been invented yet. Doherty spends chapter after chapter asking why Paul or James didn't mention this or that useful detail from the life
of Christ, calling up rank after rank of melodramatic rhetorical questions like armies to disconcert the ranks of believers.
I find myself singularly un-disconcerted. First of all, Doherty explains away, or ignores, passages that do speak of the historical Jesus. Secondly, even if the epistles never mentioned details from the life of Jesus, so what? There are few details about Jesus' life in Acts, either, even though it is written as a sequel to Luke. This fact alone shows the absurdity of the whole book.
As a student of world religions, the fact that the epistles seldom mention Jesus does not surprise me. I don't expect that from practical polemics. I don't expect Xun Zi to quote Confucius when he wants to make a point, or Lenin to show the workers baby pictures of Marx. Doherty does expect such things. He tells us, "If a Christian writer is urging a certain course of action . . and the founder was known to have taught that very thing, this would almost guarantee" that the writer would mention that. Yet Doherty himself fails to quote or mention any of the positivists and Humanists who taught him this historical "law" -- raising the question of whether he believes it himself.
When Doherty writes of "critical modern scholarship," he is generally referring to the Jesus Seminar. (Like the thief asking the robber for a character reference!) He builds his house of cards on their houses of cards.
The result is, not surprisingly, wobbly. For example, following the Jesus Seminar, he writes in emphatic detail of what the Gospel of "Q" does not contain. "It is a cold, hard fact that none of the elements of the Jerusalem phase of the Gospels appear in Q." But it is an even colder and harder fact that he hasn't got Q, and neither has anyone else. We don't know what was in it, or even if it ever existed. The Jesus Seminar reconstruction he so confidently bases his arguments on, gives one very wild reconstruction, popular in some circles in the U.S., contradicted in Europe in favor of other wild reconstructions. On the subject of Q, and many other things, a few pages of a real scholar, like N. T. Wright, (Jesus and the Victory of God) scatters whole chapters of Doherty to the wind, to await the resurrection of broken toys and silly ideas in the last day.
As for Josephus, fellow skeptic Jeff Lowder is superior, and comes to more reasonable (if still slightly mistaken) conclusions.
The biggest problem with this book is not its many fallacies, however, but the positive and overwhelming evidence to the contrary it ignores.
Doherty claims, "Those who derive their view of Jesus from the Gospels might be startled to realize the highly elevated nature of the Jesus preached by the early Christians." On the contrary, I am always startled by the combination of utter realism and incredible authority of Jesus in the Gospels themselves. As one scholar put it, we could not have invented him if we wanted to. Many have tried, in vain. (See, for example, Per Beskow, Strange Tales About Jesus.) All the epistles do is translate the extraordinary picture the Gospels paint into the metaphysical images of which Doherty admits (when convenient) the people of the day were so fond.
The argument in this book is more hopeless than claiming the earth is flat: more like arguing the moon is square. You don't need a space ship to see the curviture of the moon; just open your window. In the same way, open the Gospels, and open your mind, and no amount of sophism (and there are tons of it here) will allow you to un-see the reality of whom you find there. Unless you try really hard.
Eighty years ago, J. Gresham Machen prophetically noted that materialist dogmas force skeptics into taking absurd positions. Similarly, the Jesus Seminar strains and struggles to find a merely human Jesus in the Gospels. But there isn't one. There is only a supernatural, miracle-working, sin-forgiving Jesus who rises from the dead. And so Crossan and Funk deny the undeniable, and reject accounts of an obviously historical kind that are accepted in all other contexts (for example, the life of Confucius.) Then even more radical skeptics like Doherty, with a weak understanding of how to reason historically, but a few specious arguments, launch out into the void and think they are standing on the moon, when really they are just standing on the flats of their own hard heads.
Cynics, Paul, and the Pauline Churches, F Gera Downing
*** “Interesting Parallels, Unconvincing Arguments”
In this book, Downing argues five points: (1) Paul would have
sounded like a Cynic to people in the 1st Century. (Especially the early Paul
-- later he sluffed off into a more respectable Stoicism.) (2) The similarities
are so strong that Paul must have been aware of them. (3) Cynicism must have
been part of what Paul was about. (Downing is always careful not to go beyond
"part.") (4) Some of Paul's audience (in particular the Corinthians)
seemed to go beyond Paul in their "Cynical" attitudes. (5) Paul probably
found Cynic thought in Christianity already before he converted . . . from
Jesus or his first followers (Downing argues elsewhere).
The book is worth reading, though not at this outrageous price! Downing succeeds in showing that there were parallels between Paul and the Cynics, sometimes stronger than with any other ancient school. Paul may indeed have been aware of some of those parallels. The book is carefully written and systematic.
People are, however, adept at finding patterns, and the field of comparative religion is litered with such parallels. Marcus Borg's Jesus and Buddha is a good example: Borg found all sorts of parallels between the Jesus of the Gospels and early Buddhist teachings -- like Cynicism, a broad category rather than a specified individual. Kenneth Leong's The Zen Sayings of Jesus is an even more striking instance -- no one could claim that Jesus went to China, or the first Zen patriarchs visited Palestine, yet Leong finds lots of interesting parallels.
So Downings' thesis needs more than correlation to prove a historical connection. But he cannot provide even a single reference to Cynicism in the NT. The NT often quotes critics accusing Jesus and Paul of all kinds of things -- but never of that form of doggedness.
Furthermore, many of Downings' arguments seem forced to me. He tends to quote a few verses, give them the required spin, and then bring them up over and over again.
NT Wright responds I think pretty well to what Downing says about Jesus in Jesus and the Victory of God, offering some additional points.
What Downing shows is a resemblance, at certain points, between early Christianity and Cynicism. I wouldn't recommend reading this book alone -- read the Cynics themselves, alongside the letters of Paul, then read this book, and make up your own mind about the relationship. My own view (developed in Jesus and the Religions of Man) is that Jesus came not to do away with any human tradition, but to fulfill the deepest truths within each. I think that might explain the facts Downing brings up better than either his or Wright's take on this relationship.
The Gospel of Judas, Bart Erhman
*** “The Gospel of 30 Shekels”
How should I appraise this little book? On the
one hand, as a scholar of world religions, I rather enjoyed the short story and
the metaphysical gobbledy-gook (sorry, "sophisticated philosophy")
that makes up the text of the "Gospel" itself. This could be the most
readable of the Gnostic writings thus discovered: an amusing little short story
cum airy sermon on the order of the Zhuang Zi. I also found the essays at the
end enlightening, in the sense that they taught me interesting things about
their authors. In addition, Meyer's description of Gnosticism seemed fair and
But at times, hype, dishonesty, and money-grubbing seem to surround Judas like thistles around Sleeping Beauty's castle. Clearly, National Geographic sunk in a big chunk of change, and they want it back. Thus, the NG account dances around the fact, obvious to every honest scholar, that Judas is not on the same level, in terms of historicity, as the canonical Gospels. Only one scholar even hints at this fact in 15 pages, only to be immediately dismissed. If Judas doesn't "challenge our faith," or make us "rethink 'early' Christian history," the danger is it might not sell well, apparently.
Cynicism and relativism seem on display here, too, especially in Ehrman's article. Ehrman assumes Elaine Pagel's standard (but deeply flawed) account of how the orthodox were but "one of the competing groups" in Christianity who "succeeded in overwhelming the others." The "Gnostic Gospels," such as Judas, Philip, Mary, and Thomas, were excluded from the canon by the orthodox, who then "rewrote the history of the engagement," and tossed Judas and friends down the memory hole.
Nonsense. None of the texts these folks call "Gnostic Gospels" fits either the etymological or dictionary definition of a "Gospel." It is only called by that title today, as in the 2nd Century, to up its retail value. The only one of these texts any scholar takes seriously as a source for the life of Jesus is Thomas. And as I show in my book, Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could, Thomas is badly over-rated. The work is late, bares less resemblance to the true Gospels than even the Iliad or Journey to the West, and edits out almost everything in the Gospels that have made them the world-transforming documents they have proven to be, such as the moral teachings of Jesus. (Ethical teaching makes up about 40% of "Q," but only about 3% of Thomas.)
Ehrman does not try to make us think that the Gospel of Judas is a believable historical document. That would land him in Dan Brown territory. He tries instead (like Pagels, Meyers, and the Jesus Seminar) to use the Gnostic writings as a broom with which to sweep the canonical Gospels into the dustbin of relativized history. All "Gospels" are equal, none should be "privileged," one story is as good as another. Pagels says this explicitly in the NG article: "We don't look to the gospels for historical information." But the truth is, serious historians do. She once admitted to me that John Meier and N. T. Wright are "excellent scholars." Well, they unearth copious mountains of historical information from the Gospels. (As well as attacks on the historical legitimacy of Thomas, critiques she admitted she had not even read.) Even fair-minded skeptics, like E. P. Sanders, Marcus Borg, or Ernest Renan, find quite a bit.
Make no mistake, this is an intersting book. But the sort of commentary that has come to the for on Judas and other Gnostic "Gospels" worries me. Do Ehrman, Pagels, and Meyers really think Judas and its Nag Hammadi cousins have anything truthful to say about 1st Century events? Or could it be, as in the 2nd Century, that once again orthodox Christians are the only ones left who care about what really happened?
Timothy Freke, The Jesus Mysteries: Was the Original Jesus a Pagan God?
* “Complete Nonsense”
To put it bluntly, this was one of the silliest books I have ever read. To disentangle the whole web of fallacy, error, and pure nonsense that is Freke and Gandy's argument, would be like putting a bowl of spaghetti back into the package, minus meatballs and sauce. Let me just straighten out a few of many messes:
1. First, the authors call the Nag Hammadi manuscripts a "whole library" of Gospels, and ask, "Why hasn't every Christian rushed out to read these newly discovered words of the Master?" The obvious answer is, those of us who have read some of them, find nothing like the Gospels, or words of Christ at all. Rather, we find weakly disguised didactic fiction. (Very much like the alleged sayings of Confucius in the Daoist anthology called the Zhuang Zi.) As for the Gospels themselves, it is obvious to any experienced and sensible reader that at their core, at least, they are quite unlike Gnostic or any other ancient fiction. In reference to ancient Near Eastern literature, skeptic A. N. Wilson calls them "a unique literary genre." In reference to ancient and medieval fiction, C. S. Lewis ("The best-read man of his generation") wrote of John, "I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths, all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this." In my reading of Eastern religious texts, I find the same. This book is based on the inability of Freke and Gandy to even notice the most obvious qualities of the books they attempt to refute -- the flare for reality in the Gospels.
2. To maintain their skepticism, the authors stack the deck relentlessly. They appear to have read no modern Christian writers at all. When the text reads, "scholars think," check end notes, and you find someone like Pagels or Wells. They've probably never heard of William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, or N. T. Wright. John Crossan is too reactionary to grace the pages of this masterpiece.
Jesus Mysteries is kind of a geological column of arguments against Christianity from bygone eras. No, the Dark Ages were not caused by the victory of Christianity, but by a centuries-long decline in population that early Christianity began to reverse before the barbarians invaded. (See Stark, the Rise of Christianity.) (The author's fantasize that, apart from Christianity, the Mysteries would have encompassed the Roman empire. More likely, I think, we might have wound up with something like the bhakti (devotional) cults of India, amidst a sea of Advetic (or neo-Platonic) philosophy -- and then invasion and lights out.)
The authors' treatment of Augustine is symptomatic. Augustine is universally acknowledged as one of the great thinkers in human history. The translators of the Upanishads quote his insights. Steven Hawking and Paul Davies describe him as the first person to realize that time was created with the universe. Many find in his writings "a depth of psychological insight unsurpassed in the Western world." But to Freke and Gandy, Augustine was just another of the bigots and simpletons of the 4th
Century Orthodox church. Freke and Gandy are like men who go into a mine of diamonds and rubies, and come out with lumps of coal. No, check the end notes, and I find out they never went into the mine at all. They've been panning other peoples' tailings, never read Augustine for themselves. Amazing.
3. Using the methods of Freke and Gandy, I could "prove" that Christianity arose from Vedic Hinduism, Chinese tradition, or Southeast Asian minority cultures like the Jiang, Wa, or Dai, or that Lincoln or Gandhi never lived. (See Jesus and the Religions of Man.)
4. Freke and Gandy sort early Christians into two simple groups, literalists (black hats) and Gnostics (white hats). Paul and Clement go in the Gnostic camp. People may have been reading them for centuries without realizing they rejected the historicity or physical resurrection of Jesus. But Freke and Gandy have a special flare for such breakthroughs, like a magic lantern that cuts through all the scholarship.
5. Finally, Freke and Gandy attack a Christianity they simply don't understand. They take Justin Martyr's argument that similarities between Christianity and paganism were invented by the devil as the definitive Christian solution. They never honestly deal with what I call the "fulfillment model," or the Catholic church calls "semina Verbi," (From Justin Martyr! The one thing of value that I gained from this book, was that it encouraged me to read him for myself. Don't accept anything in this book as true until you've checked original sources -- or at least real scholars!)
Jesus said, "I have come not to do away with the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill." John, Paul, Justin, Clement, Origin, Augustine, Dante, Michaelangelo, G. K. Chesterton, the present Pope, even the Brothers Grimm, all describe Christianity not as a repudiation of the best things in paganism, but as myth and dream become reality. In Lewis' words, "The question was no longer to find the one simply true religion among a thousand religions simply false. It was. . . 'Where have the hints of all Paganism been fulfilled?'"
This is the orthodox Christian paradigm. The authors never substantially engage it, and seldom show they have so much as heard of it.
In relating Christianity to mystery religions, the authors have got hold a bit of the truth. But they are like the blind men who feel the trunk of the elephant and think they have a snake. Mohammed described Jesus as the greatest prophet. Buddhists see him as a Zen teacher or bodhisattva, Marxists as a revolutionary, Jews, a teacher of
wisdom, and Hindus, the Sanatan Sadguru or an avatar like Krishna or Ram. What do you get when you add all the pictures together? Let me recommend three books that consider this question from a broader perspective: The Crown of Hinduism, Eternity in Their Hearts, and my own book, Jesus and the Religions of Man.
The authors say of early Christianity, that it would accomplish things no one "could have imagined at the time." Yet the early Christians did imagine it. When it was still a minor Hebrew sect, they imagined it changing the world.
Isn't it just possible they knew something Freke and Gandy don't?
Robert Funk, Honest to Jesus: Jesus for a New Millennia
Violins, Anyone? **
Robert Funk is a knowledgeable fellow, and some of his points about aphorisms, translation, early texts, and parables are pretty good. I wouldn't give Funk the lowest rating just because I disagree with him; I have reviewed Crossan and Borg more positively. But honestly, I couldn't appraise this book any higher.
For one thing, about half the book is an ill-tempered rant against Christians, Funk's students, and his colleagues. Some is positively maudlin. "I agonize over their slavery as opposed to my freedom. I have a residual hankering to free my fellow human beings from that bondage (of orthodox Christian belief), which can be as abusive as any form of slavery . . . " (Of Raymond Brown and John Meier!) "In their hands, orthodoxy is safe, but critical scholarship is at risk. Faith seems to make them immune from the facts." "I found myself playing the role of an academic John the Baptist."
Funk reminds me a bit of Karl Marx. He has lost his faith, but retains a Messiah complex. He has nothing good to say about anyone -- his former students, Christians, fellow academics -- who deigns to disagree with him. He sees himself as a revolutionary. "Throw off your faith in a God who
answers prayer, in a Christ who conquered death! You have nothing to lose but your chains!" But Marx could at least be poetic. Funk's weaknesses as a writer and a scholar make his exalted view of his role in history hard for me to take seriously.
The scholarly weaknesses are many. For one thing, there is that talk about the "evolution" of the "sayings tradition." By 70
AD, young disciples of Jesus (and mostly would have been young) would only be 50 or 60 years old. What was to stop them from giving direct input? Why must we assume that only second or third hand reports were available by that time? Also, like all the Jesus Seminar material, Honest to Jesus bases its argument on taking the "Gospel" of Thomas seriously. I find I can't do that. Perhaps it would help if Funk answered the powerful arguments against Thomas levied by Meier, Wright, Sanders, and other top-notch scholars. But he opts out, evidently preferring ad hominem attacks to rational debate. Funk does better on parables and aphorisms. Surely, as he says, it is highly unlikely that any early scribe invented the peculiar and remarkable sayings of Jesus. It does not however follow, as Funk assumes, that any "conventional morality" in the Gospels must be a transplant, because Jesus must be unpredictable. A person who only offers exotic teaching is a smart-aleck or a sophist, not a true sage. Great literary critics, like Chesterton, Lin Yutang, or even Thomas Cahill, recognize in the Gospels a higher synthesis of obvious and subtle truths, rather than playing those levels of truth off against one another as Funk does. "Physician, heal thyself."
Here's another problem. Funk praises metaphor, but speaks almost exclusively in clichés. He commends kindness, but then savagely attacks everyone around him. He derides dogmatism, but is himself remarkably dogmatic. The basic message of this book can almost be summed up thus: "Jesus taught wonderful things, but his disciples misunderstood him completely. Fortunately, a crack team of scholarly experts, led by yours truly, has advanced in scientific understanding far beyond their hapless peers, to say nothing of the disciples or ordinary pew proles. We few experts are able to see through Christian lies about Jesus to the truth: Jesus not only rode donkeys, he also voted for them. Repent and be saved." Politics aside (as far as possible, please), why should we care what Funk's deconstructed, human Jesus would want, or "demand?" He does not explain.
And in the end, Funk offers no very strong historical argument for his skepticism, but a lame philosophical prejudice. "In the wake of the Enlightenment . . . we presumably
know better." As he put it in another book, how can people who have "seen the heavens through Galileo's telescope" believe in miracles?
Skeptics are going to have to do better than that. I just read books by NT Wright and Rodney Stark on related topics. That's how to do scholarship! They set their ideas out in clear, dispassionate, and sometimes witty phrases, without undue polemic, fairly explaining opposing positions and why they chose to differ. Crossan and Borg can also be read with pleasure, and a measure of respect. But as with Marx, the combination of flaky theories, self-righteous self-promotion, shrill invective, and stilted prose that I found here, made reading this book a painful chore.
Robert Funk, The Five Gospels: What did Jesus Really Say?
** “Weird Scholarship”
This translation of the Gospels makes use of some good linguistic ideas, and is often fresh and lively. Some of the historical principles from which the fellows operate are reasonable.
Mostly, though, this work is arrogant and silly.
The arrogance is directed first towards those thousands of scholars who do not share JS views, whom they dismiss in insulting and unfair terms, secondly, towards the general public, whom they casually assume to be uninformed, or misinformed, fools (why else would we doubt the JS?), and most of all, towards the authors, editors, and compilers of the canonical Gospels. I do not share their contempt in any case. And I ultimately find the scholarly argument made here not only mistaken, but absurd, for at least five reasons.
First, it is absurd to call Thomas a Gospel. Etymologically, Gospel means "good news;" Thomas introduces no news, good, bad, or indifferent. Historically, Gospel refers to the canonical four. Thomas does not resemble them in any way, other than borrowing some material and the name of a guru. (I listed 45 characteristics that the Gospels shared, and found that Thomas shared only half a dozen or so -- fewer than any other ancient work in my study.) Why, then, call Thomas a Gospel? Other than using the work as a "sharp stick to beat orthodoxy," the term does not fit.
Second, some of the methods adopted here for determining if a saying is accurate
are, as other reviewers have pointed out, clearly fallacious. "Sayings and parables expressed in 'Christian' language are the creation of the evangelists or their Christian predecessors." What would result we adopted that rule for the works of JS writers? We would have to conclude that none of the JS books, this one included, were written by their purported authors! This is not a rule that scholars use in any other case, because it would render all scholarship absurd, as it does here.
"Only sayings and parables that can be traced back to the oral period, 30-50 C.E., can possibly have originated with Jesus." This is silly. My grandmother wrote poetry at age 95. If she were 15 years old in 33 A.D., she could have written a first-hand account of the resurrection in 113 AD! Why is it impossible that first-hand accounts of Jesus' life -- to say nothing of oral tradition -- could have been written 63 years before that date?
Third, the fellows display a naive and ill-informed scientism. "The Christ of creed and dogma, who had been firmly in place in the Middle Ages, can no longer command the assent of those who have seen the heavens through Galileo's telescope." Yet Galileo himself affirmed that creed. Many astronomers (not all Christians) have even found the cosmos they saw through modern telescopes an aid to faith.
Fourthly, the JS editors have a bit of a martyrdom complex. They complain about "inquisitors," "witch hunts" and "public attacks (criticism?) from those who lack academic credentials." But what about "attacks" on their methods and assumptions from leading scholars? (See John Meier, N. T. Wright, and E.P. Sanders, for powerful examples of such criticism.) They seem under the curious assumption that the "scholarly" method of dealing with informed criticism is to accuse one's critics of being in the thralls of "neo-orthodoxy," then treat the substance of the criticism with haughty silence.
Fifth, the scholars find it "difficult to imagine" Jesus claiming to be Messiah, since he also taught humility. But it is possible to be both humble and believe one is called by God to accomplish great things -- Confucius is one example. Thus, for want of imagination, (or psychological reach, perhaps) they throw out a third of the evidence. For unwillingness to consider the supernatural, they throw out another third. And this is the "open-minded," "unbiased," and "dispassionate" way to do scholarship.
I am honestly amazed that so many intelligent scholars can convince themselves that Thomas is a Gospel, and is similar in important ways to the canonical Gospels. It reminds me of C. S. Lewis' comment on a similar blunder by Bultmann, "After a man has said that, why must we attend to anything else he says about any book in the world?" If anyone has an answer to either question, please enlighten me.
Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? The Resurrection Debate, Gary Habermas
*** “Good, though not as a Debate”
True, this "debate" is not a fair fight. The book is
divided into four sections: Habermas vs. Flew, Habermas and two friends vs.
Flew, reflections by Pannenberg, Hartshorne, and Packer (two of whom believe in
the resurrection), and final comments by Habermas. Not only are skeptics
outnumbered 5 to 2, or 7 to 2, depending on how you count, Habermas knows a lot
more about the subject than his opponent.
I came away admiring Flew for his pluck and good-humored way of deporting himself against the odds. He does know something about early Christianity, and makes some good points. But no doubt Habermas shows the better hand. Probably they should have roped in someone like E. P. Sanders to even things out. Crossan's debates with Craig and Wright on the same subject, to both of which Habermas added comments, would seem more even, in terms of scholarly firepower; though frankly, I respect Flew's attitude more.
I appreciated the fact that everyone spoke to the subject, here. In some of these debates (Crossan-Craig for one), the skeptic shows such scorn for the proceedings that you wonder why he came. Flew is always polite, rational, and shows his opponents the respect to really argue. Habermas knows his stuff, as do his two comrades. Having Pannenberg and Packer on board also adds to the interest of the book.
It may be that, as the critic below claims, Habermas exagerates how many scholars accept some of his points. (Though he probably knows more about the scholarly consensus on this subject than anyone.) But "scholarly" theories of the sort this critic recommends do not, I think, much recommend themselves. People usually lasted longer on the cross, so Jesus couldn't have died as soon as the Gospels all say he did? But remember what Jesus went through before crucifixion -- he was probably half dead already. His body would have been thrown into a pauper's grave? Here, too, the critic fallaciously generalizes to deny specific reports. ("Most lawyers are dishonest. Therefore Gandhi and Lincoln must have been crooks. Accounts that say otherwise must have been doctored.") In the first third of my book, Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could, I show how twelve common fallacies, including this one, radically undermine the kind of radical scholarship he seems to recommend. And yet Habermas bases his arguments on conclusions that even scholarship of that sort generally admits. It is a generally impressive display.
All in all, while not ideal as a debate, the Flew-Habermas contest is I think a fairly good introduction to the subject; a genial and thoughtful discussion of probably the most important (and controversial) turning point in human history.
The Gospel of Mary Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle, Karen King
** “A Few Facts, Mostly Spin”
At first, I felt some hope in this book. King admits plainly that
the "Gospel" of Mary "offers no new information about the
historical Jesus." Rather, this text "reflects concerns that make
sense in a Gentile context," in particular, this Jesus tale derives from
Platonic and Stoic thought. Aside from admitting these obvious facts (which
does not always happen when the subject is Gnostic texts), King remains a
careful scholar, and some of the connections she draws are good.
But like so many others, she hypes her text by claiming it changes our understanding of early Christianity. Here her argument becomes not only illogical, but repetitious, agenda driven, and, finally, tiresome.
Let me begin with the quote above. Mary "offers no new information about the historical Jesus." No honest historian would disagree. Yet again and again, King emphasizes how radically Mary, and the Nag Hammadi texts, supposedly change the history and meaning of Christian origins. She calls early Christians who follow the canonical story the "proto-orthodox." Like Pagels, she imagines them weaving all kinds of political webs to create a canon and a creed that exclude works like this one. Even such radical critics as Morton Smith, Robert Funk and John Crossan (not to mention more balanced historians) find tons of historical information about Jesus in the canonical Gospels, while King admits she finds none in Mary. Yet not once does she consider the possibility that early Christians selected the Gospels they did because of this superiority.
Why should a historian berate early Christians for selecting texts that give factual historical information, and rejecting those that don't? I kept waiting for her to consider this question, but she was too busy alleging dark political schemes to even bring it up, let alone answer it.
But evidence that the "proto-orthodox" cared about historical truth is before her eyes. King emphasizes the contrast between Mary, the "model disciple," conduit for Jesus' secret (Gnostic, though she dislikes the term) teachings, and Peter, her "hot-headed" proto-orthodox foil. King goes on and on about how wonderful Mary is -- "It is no accident that the Savior loved her more than the others," a love "based on his sure knowledge" of this "unflinching and steadfast disciple." But tempestuous Peter is no Gnostic invention. The canonical Gospels vividly portray his flaws -- and the leadership Jesus gave him. What this points to is how dramatically different the canonical texts are -- the frank realism with which they depict Jesus, his disciples, the crowds, and his enemies, which has led many skeptics to conclude that the stories they relate are true. But King is enthralled with her simple, black-hat / white-hat text, and never drops a hint that the richly ambiguous canonical texts might, for a historian, offer advantages.
And on it goes. Following Koester, King equates Thomas and Q. (In my book, Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could, I show the two are radically different.) She exagerates the gap between Jesus and the writing of the Gospels. (A period of that might take a witness from youth to middle age.) She overlooks the fact that the four Gospels were already accepted as authoritative (for good reason) early in the 2nd Century.
Pagels has argued that John invented the figure of "doubting Thomas" to undermine the "Thomas tradition." In one of the most absurd passages of this book, King applies the same argument to Mary. "Mary's status is diminished in the Gospel of John in that she at first mistakes him for the gardener, and then when she does recognize his voice, she addresses him as 'Teacher' . . a relatively low standing on the hierarchical scale of Johannine Christological titles . . . The whole scene works to subordinate Mary's authority as a resurrection witness to that of the male disciples . . . "
What hooey. John "disses" all the male disciples much worse than that. Thomas doubts. Peter denies. Judas betrays. All the rest desert. Unlike Mary, John doesn't pretty up his favored disciples for the press. And if he did want to undermine Mary, why did he make her the first witness to the resurrected Jesus?
And why, if the early Christians were so set on misogeny, or indifferent to the facts, do the Gospels they selected show Jesus (as Walter Wink points out) transcending the boundaries of gender roles in every single encounter with women in the canonical Gospels? Such facts should force feminist scholars to admit the Gospel authors (and selectors) were either proto-feminists, or honest enough to present Jesus as he was, including (as Dan Brown put it!) as the original feminist. But it is not King's purpose to affirm orthodoxy, and so she ignores evidence of this sort.
Some parts of this book are well-done. The comparisons with other Gnostic literature and with Greek thought are interesting.
But I am tired of this over-clever deconstructionistic mumbo-jumbo. I rue the day the academy decided history could be done by such methods, as subjective as divination by tortoise shell, as easy (because impossible to disprove) as reading the mind of a person dead two thousand years. If you want a serious reconstruction of early Christian history, avoid American profs entirely, and read N. T. Wright.
Phillip Jenkins, Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost its Way
**** “Good, fair, persuasive”
Hidden Gospels is like a bowl of split pea soup: nourishing, filling, but not what you would order at a fancy French restaurant. This bowl of history soup is just the cure if you have bought into radical Jesus theories. With caution, balance, fine judgment, and scholarly courtesy, (qualities often missing from works of the Jesus Seminar, still less the even more fringe stuff) Jenkins writes an excellent general survey of modern errors in the "search for Jesus." He concludes (rightly, I think) that the Gnostic and other "new gospels" have little if anything to say about Jesus, and that they are inferior to the canonical Gospels, both as historical sources and in terms of social merit. (Actually I think he goes too easy on Thomas, but that is another story.) Probably the greatest contribution of this book is its discussion of the radical Jesus theories as modern myth, and the social forces that create that myth. He discusses not only scholars, such as Crossan, Funk, Mack, Pagels, and King, but also how their ideas "filter down" to the masses through junk novels, television, and movies. (A pity he didn't write this book after The Da Vinci Code and Pagel's new Thomas book; though it is always interesting to see people blunder into a trap publicly laid and waiting.)
Jenkins argues that the Gospels are superior to the Gnostics in terms of historical believability and social value. It is indeed ironic that the very people who blame Christianity for being misogynist, distrustful of the body, and hierarchical, prefer Gnostic writings that (he suggests, and I also suspect) were probably the source of these qualities in later Christianity.
Elaine Pagel's best-selling new book, Beyond Belief, could almost have been written to illustrate Jenkins points. Jenkins reads hundreds of scholars with whom he disagrees, and carefully, politely points out their errors. Pagels, by contrast, could not be
troubled to name a single scholar who dissents from her views, even such respected and careful historians as John Meier, N.T. Wright, or Jenkins himself. Nor do the Jesus Seminar' popular "Five Gospels" or "Complete Gospels" answer their critics. Radical biblical "scholarship" seems to be a hothouse phenomena, flourishing in a highly protected environment. Hidden Gospels is in part an explanation of this odd phenomena. The main defects of this book have to do with Jenkin's methodological conservatism. The book is sometimes repetitive, the style sometimes ponderous. His refutations of Crossan and company are not as witty and fun as, say, N.T. Wright. Also, while Jenkins is wise to appeal to "consensus scholarly views," I wish he would have discussed the Gospels and Gnostic writings directly more than he does. (A fault he shares with Pagels.) Personally, I think the best argument for the Gospels, and against the Gnostics, is the works themselves. I can't see how anyone who has read both sets of documents can confuse them.
Hidden Gospels, despite its stylistic flaws, is a vitally important and high-quality historical study. I hope future skeptical historians, and their publishers, will carefully consider the points Jenkins makes before throwing intellectual cotton candy like "Hidden Gospel of Thomas" or "Complete Gospel" at us, 99% air. The soup is healthier.
The Lost Gospel: The Quest for the Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot, Herbert Krosney
**** “Quest for the (un) Holy Grail”
This is not a book
about Jesus, nor even about Judas. It is about the search for the latest
"discovery" from 2nd Century Gnostic archives -- the "Gospel of
Judas." As such, it is full of interesting tidbits. What appealed to me
most at first skimming was the light the author cast on the human nature of
scholarship, and the personalities involved in Gnostic studies. He is quite
frank, and gives excellent character sketches.
Fortunately, the book avoids most of the hype National Geographic has heaped on their pricy treasure. (Some of it rather dishonest; they dance around the fact, obvious to every honest scholar, that this work has nothing to do with the historical Judas or Jesus.)
Not that this book is wholly free of hype. The Gospel of Judas is "unlike anything that you have read before." Actually both the philosophy and the "Jesus gave secret teachings to a neglected disciple" trope were common in the 2nd Century. You can even find something similar in the Zhuang Zi, making Confucius a Taoist much as Jesus is rendered a Gnostic here. The author also describes Judas as "One of the greatest discoveries in Judeo-Christian archeology." Not to throw too much cold water on what is, I agree, an interesting text. But the world is not going to spin off its orbit for the lightly diverting contrarian literary conceit of a 2nd Century Alexandrian. Still, the scholarly quest, well-told and full of twists and turns, makes this a fascinating read.
Reflections on the Psalms, C. S. Lewis
“Reflections on Life”
The first time I read this book, many years ago, I was bothered by what I took as Lewis' disrespectful approach to the OT. One chapter of the book is called "Cursings," and in it Lewis forthrightly notes his initial impression that "the Jews are much more vindictive and vitriolic than the Pagans." While he finds something of great value (even refreshing) in their honest anger at injustice, (see Rene Girard's The Scapegoat for a fascinating perspective on violence and religion) some passages he still labels "diabolical." In the following chapter, "Death in the Psalms," Lewis frankly admits that most of the psalmists did not appear to know about heaven and hell. And in his chapter on "Scripture," he admits to the presence of "naivite, error, contradiction, even wickedness," in the OT.
I did not like this. Nor did I know enough about nature poetry and paganism, monotheism in other cultures, or Mediterranean cultures, to appreciate all his insights.
What I think I did appreciate, and still do, was the way in which Lewis explains the poetry of the Psalms, the "beauty of the Law," (as in Psalm 119), love of nature, "second meanings" in the Psalms, and most of all, the life-enhancing chapter called "A Word about Praising." John Piper developed this chapter into a whole theology. (See Confessions of a Christian Hedonist.) But the most poetic explanation lies here: "I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise . . . I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same time the most balanced and capacious, minds, praised most, while cranks, misfits and malcontents praised least . . . Praise almost seems to be inner health made audible . . . The Psalmists in telling everyone to praise God are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about."
That chapter is one of the most enlightening and enchanting (in the literal sense) series of marks that have ever been made on paper, I think. Lewis works a powerful counter-spell to the curse of the reductionists, whom he soundly defeats in argument, re-enchanting the world with the glory of God. I see Lewis' idea confirmed every day -- when my children call me to see a funny scene in a cartoon, or a beautiful sea shell on the beach, for example.
What I found on my first reading of this book remains with me, and grows as I learn more of life. I've also come to appreciate Lewis' take on Scripture, though I am not sure he is completely right. Lewis differs from both skeptic and inerracist in that he makes no a priori assumptions, either that there are no mistakes in Scripture, or that God cannot do miracles. This allows him to be frank and take a truly empirical approach. His conclusion is that the Bible is inspired not like the Koran is said to be, written word-for-word in heaven before time began, but as "the same sort of material as any other literature . . . taken into the service of God's word." Those who see only a human literature are like illiterates who see only ink blots on paper, and are unable to see a poem. Lewis also hints that the best pagan philosophy and poetry can be "taken up" into God's revelation in a similar, though less authoritative, manner.
If all that gives you the impression that Lewis covers a lot of territory, with little detailed discussion of most individual psalms, that's true.
Burton Mack, The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins,
** “Shakes My Faith—in Skeptics”
I tried to find a reason to give this book more than one star, really I did. It is
moderately well-written, I told myself. But why must Mack be so pompous? Why the wildly inflated view of himself and other Q critics, and contempt for the common sense of ordinary readers? Some of the background facts about Greco-Roman culture and cynicism were mildly interesting. But why, since Mack wants to make the case that Jesus was a Cynic, do none of his Cynic quotes sound at all like anything in the Gospels?
Mack raised a lot of questions in my mind, but never answered them. For example, if the early Christian church evolved so radically and mutated so dramatically as Mack claims in the first thirty years, (only as long as I have been a Christian!) why didn't the people who had known Jesus (many of whom must have still been very much alive) say something? And why did this only happen in Palestine? Why did Paul and the other apostolic writers all buy the Gospel story about the death of Jesus for our sins, and resurrection from the dead? Why do most scholars reject Mack's argument? (N.T. Wright more recently dispatched of Mack in about eight pages (Jesus and the Victory of God, 35-44), with a thoroughness that would drive "all the king's horses and all the king's men" to despair. But he couldn't have been the first.) What does Mack say to such criticism? On all this and much more, he offers not a peep.
Actually, there is no evidence here Mack has even read any arguments against his position. Instead, he speaks like an oracle from on high. There is no trace of scholarly dialogue in this book, instead what you get is a monologue in an echo chamber. This is, to put it mildly, an odd approach for an allegedly scholarly argument.
As for positive criticisms, where should I begin? With the title? The word "Gospel" means "good news," not "good ideas." Q is not, therefore, a Gospel, and the title is itself a bit of a fraud. More seriously, Mack writes in the book too much as if he held a copy of the hypothetic Q in his hands. But he hasn't got Q. Worse, for Mack's theory, we do have a large and varied number of writings from the early Christian church, written within the lifetimes of the first disciples, that DO speak of the crucifixion and resurrection. All of these agree with the real Gospels that Jesus died on the cross and rose again from the dead.
To argue from the silence of one lone document, and that a document nobody has seen, or was even mentioned by the early church, and attempt by that imagined testimony to overthrow the positive testimony of dozens of documents we do have, has got to set some kind of record for the stretching of logic. It is like accusing someone of murder based on a invisible psychologist's interview of a ghost who refuses to answer questions. Mack is clearly a man of great faith. But why should any honest reader buy this malarkey? I haven't got a clue. Why did Q not contain an account of the passion? Maybe it never existed. Maybe the author forgot to take notes during the crucifixion. Maybe a goat ate the last chapters. The truth is, we don't know. That so many people seem willing and eager to buy into such wild, almost self-parodying speculation (see print reviews, in particular) badly shakes my already weak faith in the desire of skeptics to find truth.
The Gospel of Mary: The Secret Traditions of Mary Magdalene, Companion of Jesus, Marvin Meyer
** “Scholarship Imitates (bad) Art”
The idea of putting
together all the texts for the Mary Magdalene tradition is an interesting one;
if you're really interested in that subject, you might find this book worth
your time and money.
I am, however, losing patience with the misdirection and disingenuity of the growing "Gnostic Gospel" racket. Dan Brown is rightly criticized, as a novelist, for playng fast and loose with history; as a scholar, Meyer ought to care primarily about historical fact, which is more remarkable in this case than the fantasies. But he shows a soft spot for the merely sensational.
Meyer introduces his texts as follows: "This book presents English translations of the earliest and most reliable texts that shed light on this remarkable woman and the literary traditions about her." In fact, only the canonical Gospels (some would add parts of Thomas) have any claim to telling us about the woman; the rest are about the tradition - as Meyer and every serious scholar knows. (Like Karen King, whose parallel book on Mary plays similar, but less blatant linguistic games.) But unlike King, Meyer allows his readers to glide through the entire text of his book without once honestly marking the line between history and legend.
Meyer does draw a line between canonical and extra-canonical works: "Within these texts Mary Magdelene plays a leading role, but often, particularly in the New Testament, the centrality of her role may be obscured by the interests of the authors of the Gospels, who advance the cause of the male disciples (especially the Twelve) and the place of Peter." So it seems the NT texts "obscure" the truth about Mary for political gain, while the latter are more willing to give her a fair shake.
What could it possibly mean to say the Gospels "obscure" a "fact" that would not be invented for decades, or centuries, after they were written? Did they have time machines with which they went forward a century, read the Gnostic texts, and returned to the 1st Century to deconstruct them?
Meyer repeatedly commits such gross anachronism (first among deadly sins for historians). His eye for detecting "spin" is selective: he finds it in the canonical Gospels, but not in the "Gospel" of Mary. But in the Gospels, the followers of Jesus are shown in all their flaws, none more fully than Peter. In Mary, by sharp contrast, the favored disciple is presented (as King put it) as a "model disciple," while Peter, her orthodox foil, is intentionally undermined. So Meyer detects manipulation in texts that describe the "pillars of the church" in all their perversity, pigheadedness, and lack of understanding. But he sees none in later texts that present heroes and villains in bright, shiny white and black hats, nary a flaw in the one, hardly a virtue in the other!
I have no reason to doubt Meyer's competence as a translator, and the texts themselves can be interesting. (Though most are readily available elsewhere.) The "Manichean Psalms of Heracleides" was most interesting to me, partly because I had never read it before, but also because it is a nice poem about Mary at the resurrection of Jesus. Philip, Thomas, Mary, the Dialogue of the Savior and Pistis Sophia are full of metaphysics, but fortunately in small doses. The final essay by De Boer is a lot better than I expected; actually a rather balanced discussion of how both Gnostic and orthodox texts treat women, sometimes with some misogeny, but better than the norm for the times. The reason I expected worse is because earlier, Meyer repeats the ludicrous argument De Boer made elsewhere that the "beloved disciple" was Mary M. John obscured the fact, and then, after 2000 years of misunderstanding, De Boer finally figured out the truth. I am always amazed when a scholar calls the author of a Gospel a liar, then feigns to "read between the lines" of his work and tell us "what really happened." This seems particularly unfair in the case of John, accused by Elaine Pagels of undermining Thomas in a similar way, since in fact John treated male disciples much more roughly than the ladies, and gave us a picture of everyone far more rounded and realistic than any of the Gnostic texts.
All in all, this has the feel of a book Harper & Row hopes for a healthy return on a small investment of capital, time, character, or cottonwood fiber.
The Gospel of Thomas: The Hidden Sayings of Jesus, Marvin Meyer
*** “Ham on Wonder Bread”
Meyers sandwiches the 114 sayings of Thomas (in English and
Coptic), and his commentary on that text, between two essays: his introduction,
and a dozen or so pages from the famous humanist, Harold Bloom.
The middle sections may or may not be worth the price of the book. (I haven't looked over the notes yet.) I find Thomas a bit "hammy," both in the sense that (having read a few Taoist and Buddhist works) Gnostic metaphysics strike me as pretentious, and in the sense that in their lack of historical or moral interest, they are "un-kosher," don't sound like a Jewish prophet. This doesn't sound like Jesus to me; it sounds like an Alexandrian philosopher. But it's worth reading Thomas for his importance in modern Jesus debates.
Surrounding the text one finds two slices of "wonder bread" of doubtful nutritional value.
Meyer properly attempts to put Thomas in context, but offers some dubious arguments in the process. He repeats the standard Jesus Seminar line that Q is very like Thomas. The view that Thomas is an early text is often based on the assumption that both are "sayings Gospels." (A rather oxymoronic concept.) More importantly, as I show in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could, Q is radically different from Thomas. First, even the Jesus Seminar version of Q contains some stories and miracles, which Thomas does not. More fundamentally, while Q contains some of the most profound moral teaching in all literature, Thomas edits almost all of it out. Q is 37-50% moral teaching; Thomas is about 2%, and even that can be pretty anemic. ("Don't lie, and don't do the things you hate.") Odd that a "sayings Gospel" would edit out the Sermon on the Mount! Even odder that Meyer does not notice! Nor do other Jesus Seminar scholars, Elaine Pagels, or Harold Bloom.
In fact, in my analysis of Thomas and the Gospels, I found that Thomas was less like the canonical Gospels than any other ancient writing I surveyed. The convention of calling it a "Gospel" at all is, in my opinion, highly dubious.
Meyer claims that the "absence of allegorical interpretations" in Thomas' version of the parable of the sower "helps confirm that such elements were added later," and therefore Thomas contains material that predates the Gospels. But scholars like Sanders and Jenkins have rebutted this argument. John Meier, N. T. Wright, and Richard Hays also give reason to believe Thomas depends on the canonical Gospels. Meyer is honest enough to admit that some scholars take this view. The problem is (I argue) "early Thomas" scholars get the worst of the debate. In fact, often they simply ignore opposing arguments. (Pagels admitted to me she had not read Meier or Wright's views on Thomas.)
While a good writer, Harold Bloom is in even further over his head. He uncritically accepts the view that Thomas offers an "earlier Jesus." Both Meyer and Bloom repeatedly cite Burton Mack, whose gifts, in my opinion, are more those of a myth-maker than a historian. Bloom also glibly repeats Meyer's error about Thomas being similiar to "Q."
Bloom expresses amazement that the Gospels contain only a few Aramaic sayings of Jesus: "If you believed in the divinity of Jesus, would you not wish to have preserved the actual Aramaic sentences he uttered?" The answer is, first of all, Jesus may have spoken mostly in Greek. But also, Bloom seems to have a less sophisticated and more magical notion of language than the early Christians. In the Christian Scriptures, Jesus is the "Logos," the translation into humanity of the nature of God. By speaking in different languages in Acts, the Holy Spirit in effect blessed all languages, and the act of translation.
Bloom asks, "Is it not an extraordinary scandal that all the crucial texts of Christianity are so suprisingly belated?" He should know better. The earliest extant Buddhist text is from 600 years after the Buddha. The earliest account of the resurrection, by contrast, was written a mere 20 years after the fact, and the first extant text is a mere 90-100 years later. Nor is 40 years (to Mark) so long; I could transcribe 1st hand accounts of the bombing of Nagasaki (where I once lived) tomorrow, from eyewitnesses, 61 years after the fact.
Stephen Mitchell, Jesus: What He Really Said and Did
* “Money for Nothing”
Stephen Mitchell begins by telling how he was conflicted, as a child, between the loving and harsh passages of the Gospels. It was only after years of Zen practice that he finally "got it." He went back and "studied all the scholarship that seemed to me intelligent and open-minded." But it was only during a trip to Israel that things clicked for him, when he met a Bedouin in the Sinai desert who seemed to personify the "Abba" of timeless Middle Eastern tradition, "And a voice inside me said,' Aha!'" and he went home to write this book.
I was wondering, at this point, which scholars would he rely on? How would he define "intelligent" or "open-minded?" What evidence would he offer for his conclusions? It turned out there were a few "facts" in the rest of the book, mostly wrong ones. "Forty years is a long time . . . (Some) stories and reports were made up much later, by disciples of disciples." (But how many of us could not rely on first-hand accounts by ourselves or close relatives to write about events of forty years ago?) "All reputable scholars agree that the stories of Jesus' predictions were added by later disciples." (No, they do not. But even if they did, the evidence does not support that claim.) "The legend of the resurrection would have surprised Jesus. He himself never taught about
a resurrection from the dead, because he wasn't afraid of death." This book is for adolescents; but I have to wonder if even a child could read such a silly and presumptuous bit of mind-reading with a straight face.
But then I had a thought. Was I being had? Could Mitchell be simply cashing in on interest in Jesus? What could be easier than writing a book like this? Scan the Gospels. Read a few (carefully selected) scholars who share your views. Tell a story about yourself to warm up the audience. Quote liberally and freely, so half the book is someone else's words. Use short words to market it to the young and gullible. Leave plenty of white space. End in 150 pages with a few rambling notes, and -- heh, presto! Insta-book. Maybe my suspicions are incorrect. But in any case, this book is not much good. If you're looking for a book about Jesus with a literary tint, and without too many technical details, try Thomas Cahill's Desire of the Everlasting Hills, instead. If you absolutely need a book like that by a skeptic, then even A. N. Wilson, with all his flaws, is far better and more interesting than this. For more serious study, I recommend NT Wright; and he has a couple really good books on Jesus that can be easily be read by teenagers, too.
Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas
** “Well Beyond Belief”
Elaine Pagels is a delightful writer, and one of the more reasonable of the skeptical Bible scholars I have read. Call the latter "damning with faint praise," however.
Here, Pagels compares the Gospel of John, emphasizing faith in Jesus, to the "Gospel" of Thomas, that stresses realizing truth within oneself. She argues John was written to refute Thomas. She reconstructs how and why the former became "orthodox" Christianity, and the latter, banned and forsaken of all but Zen Buddhists. Emphasizing differences between John and the Synoptic Gospels, she traces the rise of "orthodoxy" through Polycarp to Iraneaus and Tertullian, who made Christianity the dogma friendly religion it remained.
I found much of Pagel's creation myth interesting, and her tone personable. (She is willing to admit good qualities in the dogmatism she opposes, for example.) But she
does two things that make it hard for me to take the first part of her story seriously. First, she places John in a faith ghetto, apart not only from the other Gospels, but also the works of Paul, etc. I think that he agrees with the other writers of the New Testament on practically everything. Secondly, she makes the "Gospel" of Thomas the cornerstone of her thesis. This is a wobbly and insecure foundation, however.
The idea that John was written to disprove Thomas is untenable for at least three reasons. First, (as Pagels herself admits here), John shows many marks of familiarity with the time, events, and persons of First Century Palestine, while Thomas (as I think she admits of the Gnostics in general, in the Gnostic Gospels) shows none. It was therefore entirely reasonable for early Christians to accept the obviously historical John and reject the even more obviously unhistorical Thomas: where is the mystery?
Secondly, many Biblical scholars believe, for what seem excellent reasons, that Thomas was written in the Second Century. Oxford scholar Tom Wright suggests that Thomas is not only unhistorical, it is even anti-historical: "Thomas did for the parables in the second century what Julicher, Dodd and Jeremias did in the twentieth, and perhaps for similar reasons, namely, the attempt to get away from their historical and very Jewish specificity." Pagels never mentions discouraging words like this from competing scholars, still less refutes any of the evidence on which they are based. We are supposed to accept her early dating for Thomas on blind faith, it seems. I wish she had been inspired by the Thomas who was full of doubts, rather than the Thomas who is simply doubtful.
Thirdly, John resembles the Synoptic Gospels much, while Thomas resembles them little. I recently went over what the Jesus Seminar calls the "Five Gospels" with a fine-toothed comb, and narrowed it down to four again. First, I listed 45 characteristics of the Synoptic Gospels, 43 of which John strongly shares. I then compared Thomas and other ancient literature, and found that of six documents I compared with the canonical Gospels, Thomas resembled them the LEAST. (And two of the other documents were from China!) I found Thomas flagrantly a-historical, formulaic, lacking in developed, convincing characters, unconnected to space or time, un-Jewish, and platitudinous on occasion. Pagels claims that John, unlike the Synoptics, has no moral teaching. Actually John contains rich moral teaching of the highest caliber: it is Thomas (surprisingly, for a sayings "Gospel") that has none!
In short, I find NO reason to take the "Gospel of Thomas" seriously as a source for the life of Jesus, or to call it a Gospel. John, on the other hand, is intimately related to the Synoptic Gospels in dozens of vital ways, and shows many signs of being a trustworthy account of something that happened. The early Christians chose these Gospels because they knew their work -- better than some modern scholars, it seems to me, who are making absolute fools of themselves by pushing such wares, when they ought to know better.
I rather like Pagels, and I think she is trying to be honest. Some of the points she makes about the psychology of martyrdom and orthodoxy make sense to me. I find more sense in that argument than in Crossan's invention of the "Cross Gospel," Mack's fanciful sociological studies of imagined Q communities, still more the "Jesus Conspiracy" theories of Doherty, Freke or Gandy. But really, isn't it time skeptical historians defined what they mean by "Gospel," instead of using it as a prop to make unlikes sound the same? Isn't it time they argue for their beliefs historically, rather than making casual jumps to skeptical assumptions by saying, "Many of us can no longer believe all that," and thereafter simply ignore evidence that points to "all that?" Until skeptical historians bring their arguments out of the hothouse and face criticism squarely, it is hard for me to see why those arguments should be taken seriously.
Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels
*** ”Buddhists are Christian, too!”
I thought this story fairly balanced and enlightening, and less angry than some politically animated attacks on the early Christians. Pagels generally identifies speculation as such. She gives many quotes, and her scholarship seems pretty reliable. Her main animus seems to be against Tertillian and Ignatius. They must be flattered by the attention -- I hope I'm still being refuted 1800 years from now. All in all, I found this volume well worth a read. But it's an odd book in some ways. First of all, there are, of course, no Gnostic Gospels. Gospel means good news, and as Pagels admits, the Gnostic texts hardly even pretend to relate historical events. They are phony as the wild tales told about Confucius in the Zhuang Zi (and less funny), or the Jesus of Muslim Sufis. They make Jesus sound like Apollonius of Tyana or Sai Baba. There is obviously a market for making Christ a less lonely figure in world religion.
Pagels presents the orthodox and Gnostic faiths as equally legitimate. "Without denying the resurrection," the Gnostics "reject the literal interpretation." What does that mean? "Without denying that I ate all my dinner, I do not claim to have done so literally. Now, can I have desert?"
Pagels wants us to think that the "orthodox" believed in the resurrection because it provided the basis, somehow, for apostolic power. "What we do know as a historical fact is that certain disciples -- notably Peter -- claimed that the resurrection had happened." But actually, the Gospels credit a group of powerless women with seeing Jesus first. All four Gospels, almost every sermon recorded in the Book of Acts by Peter or Paul, and quite a bit of the writings of Paul, focus on the resurrection of Jesus. This claim got many of them killed. Pagel's argument that, since a rag-tag group of esoteric mystics who lived elsewhere a hundred years later doubted those accounts, therefore there was "controversy" on the subject, and early Christians could only have been motivated by desire for power to believe the people who were actually near the event, is exceedingly odd. Pagels justifies her view by downplaying the historicity of the Gospels. She claims that few modern Bible scholars "believe that contemporaries of Jesus actually wrote the New Testament gospels." This is not so. Jesus' contemporaries could easily have lived well past the time at which even many skeptical scholars say the Gospels were written.
"Can we find any actual, historical reasons why these gnostic writings were suppressed?" Pagels asks. Sure, just read the things. "For the first time, the heretics can speak for themselves." Not a moment too soon, from the orthodox perspective. Giving the Gnostics air time is the best way to demonstrate the wisdom of those who excluded them from the canon.
In a comparative study I made of Thomas, the Gospels, and other ancient literature, I found far fewer marks of historical authenticity or similarity to the Gospels in Thomas than any other documents. Of 45 characteristics the Gospels shared, many having to do with historical reliability, Thomas shared only 5; less than almost any other text I studied, even texts from China. Pagels herself notes a few of the differences between the real Gospels and the Gnostics. She admits the Gnostics are late, distant, and a little spacey. So why didn't those darn Christians publish their manuscripts? Must have been a political conspiracy!
Pagels might more reasonably have arranged the facts here into an argument like this. Religions evolve. They sometimes split into competing lineages, exaggerate differences, attack one another, and lose valuable elements from their original formulation. Both 'orthodox' and Gnostic should have listened to Jesus more carefully, since their errors arise from disobedience to the Gospels, their wisdom in following the Gospels. (Something similar happened to Confucianism after Confucius.) 'Orthodox' Christians, however, held on to a belief in historicity and in the genuine words of Jesus, rather than diluting them with shamanistic additions that would have made Christianity indistinguishable from a bhakti cult of Hinduism.
This had useful consequences. For however misogynist or authoritarian some early Christians may have been, it was the Christian church that began developing institutions of pluralistic freedom in the Middle Ages, and ultimately democracy. Similarly, the status of women is highest in the world today precisely in countries with an 'orthodox' Christian heritage. So some part of Jesus' message must ultimately have sifted through.
The Nag Hammadi Library, James Robinson
***** “A Yaltaboath-Send”
Let me say first that I seem to be of the psychic division of
mankind, sometimes the carnal. I seem incapable of perceiving the truth,
beauty, and goodness of these writings. The first Matrix movie remains the most
believable and interesting form of Gnosticism to me. Like Irenaeus, I tend to
think that the best refutation of the Gnostics is to read the things. (I'm
writing a book that goes into more detail, though.)
And so I am grateful for the wonderful job James Robinson and other scholars did in putting this library together. I say that sincerely. Reading Pagels, King, Ehrman, Meyers, the Jesus Seminar crowd, and the Da Vinci Code / "Judas Gospel" folks, I was beginning to worry that radical NT scholarship and caution, even honesty, had parted company for good. But this is well done. Almost all of the introductory essays are good. (Even those by Pagels, who I consider a much overrated scholar.) The Afterward by Richard Smith on the cultural impact of Gnosticism is full of interesting historical tidbits about people like Voltaire, William Blake, and Carl Jung.
As for the texts themselves, I found reading them through from beginning to end a fascinating exercise. This is not because all of them are delightful reads. The "Gospels" of Thomas, Truth, and Mary contain clever ideas and turns of phrase. I enjoyed going through the more metaphysical texts and picking out parallels with Hinduism, Buddhism, Plato's story of the cave, and Islam, which maybe got some of its ideas about Christianity from this direction. Thunder, Perfect Mind is almost as readable as the Dao Dejing. The contrast between the pre-Christian Eugnostos the Blessed and the post-Christian Sophia of Jesus Christ, which the editor places on facing columns, is fascinating -- you can almost see the wheels turning, as Greek philosophers reinvent Jesus in their own image. (As so many people would do, down through the centuries, from Islam to Marxism and post-modern "neo-Gnosticism," as I call Pagel's system.)
But I won't deny I found some of these texts terribly dull. I've been reading world Scriptures for many years, and on the "ether in print" scale, some here run neck-and-neck with the Book of Mormon and the more philosophical works of Karl Marx. At times, I began to think nice thoughts about Mohammed Ali's mother, for burning some of this stuff -- not because it threatens faith in the Creator God, but so I could escape to more lively forms of heresy. At the end of Melchizedek, I scribbled, "Yet another boring rehash of the same old myths, without style, wit, or insight. Fortunately much of the text is eaten by worms or germs, and is illegible." But perhaps you have a taste for long, repititious accounts of infinite abstract emanating aeons, pleroma, and archons. If so, bon appetite.
By the time I came to Sentences of Sextus, a collection of theistic proverbs that seem to have wandered in here by accident, moral platitudes were wonderfully refreshing. Another reviewer speaks of a "great deal of Gnostic ethics" he discovered here. I don't know where he found it. I marked most every sayings that had to do with ethics with a green marker. Less than one percent of the Gnostic material said anything about kindness, caring for poor, forgiving enemies, love, purity, or any other virtue. (Compared to 37-55% of Q, for example.) Nor did I find one single original or well-stated moral suggestion at all; what there was, was half-hearted at best. Sextus was like an oasis not only because a bit of talk about kindness for a change was refreshing, but because in my copy it became green with moral teachings. Another text I enjoyed, partly for the same reason, was the wonderful Christian allegory, Acts of Peter and the 12 Apostles.
Some of the comments below are interesting. One person remarks that these texts "strengthened my faith in God." Would that be the unknowable, indescribable, Brahma-like Eternal Father? Or the Creator God, who is (it seems) the devil?
Several people take the opportunity to take digs at the "simple-minded and one-dimensional books of the so-called Holy Bible," as a former Buddhist priest puts it. For two or three decades, I have devoured the works of the world's great religious and anti-religious traditions. I have high respect for early Taoist and Confucian thinkers, some Buddhist sutras and Vedic literature, and the wisdom of people like Gandhi, Tolstoy and the Dalai Lama. I am delighted by science and great literature. But the more I learn, the more my amazement at the complexity and wisdom of the "so-called Holy Bible" grows. By contrast, these cynical, sarcastic writings, with no interest in nature, morality or historical fact, give me a thirst which the Word of Yaltabaoth best quenches. Read these texts and ask yourself: would a Gnostic Europe have invented science? Why is Jesus so mean? Is there any objective evidence that any of this is true?
Stoicism, John Sellars
***** “Excellent Introduction”
Who were the Stoics? How did they understand philosophy? How did
their ideas of "ethics," "physics" (including what we call
"metaphysics" as well as science), and "logic" (also much
broader than what Mr. Spock engages in) join together into an organic whole?
What role did the sage play in the Stoic system -- if such a creature were even
possible. (Stoic agnosticism on this point was very similiar to that of the
early Confucians about a "sheng ren," BTW.)
Sellars begins by giving an overall answer to these questions. Then he describes the three Stoic categories -- physics, logic, and ethics -- in the following chapters. He finishes the book with a chapter on the "Stoic legacy" -- the influence they have had since their gradual disappearance in the 4th and 5th Centuries. (One surprise: John Calvin was sympathetic to the Stoics in an early writing -- I've read his commentary on Acts 17, in which Paul discusses the Christian faith with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in Athens, and he didn't seem so open-minded there -- perhaps because he was jousting at "Papist" shadows. But Sellars spreads his comments out through the centuries -- this section is very succinct, but interesting.)
I wanted a good general introduction to Stoicism, before reading (as I plan to) more of the primary and secondary material. This book turned out to be great for that purpose. It's simple, fairly straightforward, though Sellars also interacts in a light way with the scholarship, and does an excellent job of "mapping out" key figures and questions. Sellars is objective, seldom intruding his own views on the discussion, but (in general) describing what is understood about the Stoics, and clearly marking out where opinions differ. All in all, an excellent introduction to an interesting school of thinkers.
One of several things that piqued my curiosity, was the dissonance between the tone of Cleanthes' Hymn to Zeus, and the role "God" plays in abstract Stoic philosophy. Sellars doesn't pick up on this, but the contradictions in Stoic philosophy seem as interesting to me as the continuity.
Gospel Truth, Russell Shorto
*** “It Ain’t the”
Russell Shorto writes with a fine touch. As many reviewers note,
while he is an outsider to this field, he has done a lot of reading, and
presents what he has found with literacy, gentleness, and the appearance of
This appearance is false. Shorto is actually preaching to the skeptical choir, and does not deal in substance with contrary arguments. He discusses N. T. Wright, and it is not his fault that only Wright's first book was available when he wrote, but essentially that means he cannot address Wright's weighty historical arguments. But other conservative scholars were available. Most of the scholars Shorto deals with at length inhabit the "skeptical" (Jesus Seminar) end of the spectrum, and he emphasizes that aspect of the work of John Meier and Raymond Brown.
Gospel Truth is based primarily on an extended appeal to authority. Shorto has done little original research (besides some interesting "scene setting" in Palestine), and therefore depends on scholars. While he is not entirely uncritical of his sources, his attempt to balance views seems more show than reality. If the "liberal" Jesus Seminar would agree with the "conservative" John Meier that Jesus did between 8 and 11 miracles, doesn't that show historians have disproven most of the miracles? No, for three reasons. First, the problem with the Jesus Seminar is not that they are "liberal," but that (as I show in my new book, Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could) they work from at least a dozen key untenable assumptions. (Including that REAL miracles can't happen -- those eight must have been psychosomatic.) Of course people who dogmatically assume miracles don't occur, won't find any in the Gospels! As for Meier, he's only "conservative" by comparison with the Jesus Seminar . . . a better word might be "cautious" or "thorough." A really "conservative" scholar (in the sense assumed -- as Chesterton pointed out, it's not really very liberal to rule all miracles out a priori) would be someone like Craig Blomberg, with whom Shorto does not deal in substance.
Shorto juxtaposes Bishop Spong and N. T. Wright, whom he identifies as "a Christian cleric." He makes the point that Wright is the "wrong man" for a dispassionate reading of Jesus. But read both men, and it is clear he has pinned the warning label on the wrong fellow. Spong is shrill, shallow, generally mistaken, and has contributed nothing new, as far as I know. Wright, by contrast, is erudite and informed, charitable, wry, and "far and away the most sophisticated and articulate philosopher of historical methodology" in the field, as philosopher Raymond Martin put it, and even critics admit he has contributed immensely.
If you want an account of the Jesus debate that comes close to achieving what many reviewers, including the official Amazon guy, seem to think Shorto has achieved -- discussing the Jesus debate with real fairness to both sides -- your best bet may be Martin's The Elusive Messiah: A Philosophical Overview of the Quest for the Historical Jesus. Even Martin weights things a bit towards the skeptics in terms of space, but he criticizes both sides fairly, and with a really open mind. Having read orthodox Christian arguments, he is not so foolish as to dismiss the orthodox camp as "crazy, ignorant, red-necked fools," like one reviewer below.
In my opinion, many of the scholars who seem to most interest Shorto have lost the ability to really read the Gospels. In my new book, after describing 12 deadly fallacies committed by the Jesus Seminar, I analyze fifty characteristics that the four Gospels share in common. Then I show that there are no writing in the ancient world like them. Ironically, The "Gospel" of Thomas and Apollonius of Tyana, which many of Shorto's experts think parallel the Gospels, turn out to be even less like the real Gospels than the Analects of Confucius or Journey to the West. While I feel sympathy and some respect for Funk, Crossan, Borg and their crowd, and also for Sanders and Fredriksen, speaking from the empirical data, rather than from theology, I think ultimately the skeptics prove themselves blind as bats to the true reality of the Gospels, and of Jesus. So they say Jesus himself said it would be.
John Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks Scripture
* “Has Skepticism Come to This?”
Mr. Spong is a man with an unusual combination of jobs. During the day he is a bishop in the Anglican church. At night he writes polemics against Christianity. Thus his books satisfy a certain Jeckyl & Hyde or man-bites-dog itch for the abnormal. There are skeptics who write better, and there are Anglicans who write a whole lot better; but Spong appears to have cornered the market for Anglican skeptics at present.
Generally I enjoy reading books written by skeptics and people of other religions who want to disprove Christianity. I usually learn something, and I find the experience enhances my faith. As Churchill said, it is exhilarating to be shot at without effect. From that point of view, the problem with this book is, Spong's argument is so far off, I hardly got the feeling he was shooting at me to begin with. I felt like a bungee jumper forced to jump off a coffee table.
A great deal of Spong's argument is based on very simple philosophical and historical mistakes. For example, it never seems to occur to him that one cannot refute a doctrine by refuting the imagery in which it is (inevitably) couched. This distinction is as true of modern physics as of First Century religion. One does not refute the existence of subatomic particles by poking fun at Styrofoam balls. But that is the level on which Spong lives, moves, and usually maintains his rhetorical being.
A clue to the biggest problem with this book can be found in the index. I could not find a single reference to any intelligent modern Christian. Spong doesn't appear to have the slightest idea what educated Christians think, or why. It is hard for me to take seriously the argument of a man who has not even troubled himself to read what the other side has to say, still less to respond. Skeptics like Spong, Martin, Russell, and Armstrong almost seem too angry to think clearly, or to listen to contrary arguments.
If you're looking for arguments against Christianity, there are books that pack a wallop. Elie Wiesel's Night, for example, The Plague by Camus or Silence by Endo trouble my faith more deeply, (though Camus' caricature of Christianity was almost as
bad as Spongs, and Endo was a Christian). Those books get to the heart of my own doubts, without embarrassing me by so many contrived arguments and so much shoddy reasoning.
If what you're looking for is truth, however, then I suggest you consider the argument for Christianity as presented by intelligent Christians. C.S.Lewis, G.K.Chesterton, Vishal Mangalwadi, Richard Wurmbrand, Gary Habermas, R.C. Sproul, John Polkinghome, Hugh Ross, Don Richardson, would be a good place to start. Lewis' essay Fernseed and Elephants, for example, ravages the whole foundation of Spong's approach to Scripture in four pages. (Spong rather resembles two comic characters in Lewis: the Cockney skeptic in That Hideous Strength, and the hymn-humming clergyman on the bus from hell in The Great Divorce.)
Besides refuting many of Spong's errors, these thinkers present positive evidence for the faith that Spong appears never to have noticed. They show that, in many ways, the case for Christianity has become stronger in the modern era.
John Stott, The Incomparable Jesus
***** “One of the Best”
This is the first book I have read by John Stott, and am impressed. I quickly came to the conclusion that here was an author whose opinion carries weight. No hackneyed collection of classic quotes and tired connect-the-dots reasoning, the book exhibits rich scholarship, broad range, and a wise combination of boldness and caution. He discusses both Jesus as a historical person (and I agree with him that the "historical Jesus" is the "Christ of faith"), and the influence of Jesus on history, through intermediaries not unlike you and I.
Some of the people Stott discusses,(offering mostly positive but I think balanced critiques of Wilberforce and Gandhi, for examples, and a deservedly negative review of the Jesus seminarians) have been written about often enough elsewhere. But Stott makes the story fresh because he thinks for himself, reads a lot, and has a depth of background knowledge such that his evaluation carries weight. Others of whom Stott
writes, Justin Martyr, N.T. Wright, and Toyohiko Kagawa, I agree ought to be better known. Some (St. Benedict) were new to me. Whether famous or forgotten, Stott establishes himself as a trustworthy and wise guide from page one to the end.
Not that he is necessarily right about everything. I disagree with his view of the Crusades. Certainly Stott does not cover everything worth covering. (The Clapham Sect also deeply influenced India, for example. See Farquhar, Crown of Hinduism, and Mangalwadi, Missionary Conspiracy, etc.) This is only one book, and Christ is not only incomparable, but also incomprehensible, in the historical sense: a river of influence whose channels and depths and end no one standing on our side of the bank can fully know. But Stott generally notices what is important in those topics he does discuss. Even his take on that mysterious, strange book of Revelation does not overlook the obvious, as so many do: that in some sense at least, the book is certainly inspired.
Yancey, Wright, and Polkinghorne are also worth reading on the "historical Jesus." There are some good books out there on the influence of Christ on history. But all in all, and combining both, this may be the best of the Jesus books I have read so far. (Apart from my own, Jesus and the Religions of Man, which naturally I also recommend.) I will be looking for more books by this author.
AN Wilson, Jesus, a Life ** “Brilliant Balderdash”
This book suceeds admirably in capturing is primary subject: its author, A. N. Wilson. As for Jesus, try another book.
Wilson frequently adjusts facts to fit his story line. Paul's "as though I were a child abnormally born" processes through his imagination and comes out as a confession that Paul's Gospel "is quite different from the beliefs and practices of Jesus' own friends and family." (Never mind that he said just the opposite.) He discovers that Jesus had a home, after all, and that Peter "made a substantial profit" in his fish business. (Perhaps he found a scribal copy of his W-2 form?)
Wilson shows little feel for the available evidence from First Century Palestine. Paul reports that hundreds have seen the risen Christ. Roman historians do not mention these witnesses, therefore, Wilson deduces, Paul is making it up. By contrast, when real historians speak of the period, they point out that even for central facts about mainstream Jewish religion, they may need to rely on reports that are 150 years after the fact. In such circumstances, making an argument from ignorance ("No confirmation, therefore it must not be true") is like asking why none of the apostles appeared on Oprah.
At times Wilson appears to be competing with Bertrand Russell for who can shock people by saying the silliest bon mot. "One could name dozens of figures who have been of far greater influence on the human race than Jesus," Wilson says. Then he names one dozen, four of whom were deeply committed followers of Jesus, four of whom reacted against Jesus, and all of whom together may or may not have equaled the influence of the Sermon on the Mount.
Wilson plays Sherlock Holmes. "It is a curious number, 500." "The devils didn't go out of the demoniac and into the pigs. No, clearly, his shrieks frightened them," and they all rushed down the hill and plunged into the lake. At times like that, he reminds me a bit of Inspector Cleauseau negotiating his way across the lobby of a Swiss hotel. He doesn't quite know the language, his credentials are mostly bluff, and he asks questions (in a pretentious tone) that are over-clever and under-wise at the same time. But I grant the spectacle is entertaining.
Not that Wilson is a stupid man. Despite himself (as he says of the Gospel writers), on occasion a snatch of eloquence or even good sense peeps through the bluster. He
speaks of "another layer in (John's) endless layers, another ingredient in its inexhaustible richness and fascination as a literary text." "No saying or story of Jesus can be taken to its logical conclusion without being contradicted by some other saying or fact." But then the sun drops behind another cloud of subjectivity and wild imagination. Perhaps his atheism is partly to blame. Trying to find a historically and psychologically explanation for the birth of Christianity that fit the materialistic paradigm was one of the great cottage industries of the 20th Century. Wilson seems to hope that he'll be the lucky one to hit the jackpot.
But he lacks the scholarly tools, or temperament, to make a serious attempt. I read this book just after finishing N. T. Wright's Jesus and the Victory of God, which is a genuine work of scholarship. By contrast, scholars call Wilson's NT works "wrongheaded and muddled" (Luke Johnson) and "silly and pretentious" (Richard B. Hays). Wright is also patronizing, but he has some excuse: he really knows something about 1st Century Israel. The difference is extraordinary. If you want to learn something about history, read Wright. If you want a poetic interpretation of Jesus, this book has its moments, but Chesterton's Everlasting Man is superior.
My first Wilson biography was of C. S. Lewis. An acquaintance of Lewis noted that for all Wilson's literary talent, his portrait of the man was "almost unrecognizable." Both men were Oxford grads, Anglican and atheist as different times, and talented writers whose native language was English. Jesus, of course, was different on all counts. This biography is subjective and mistaken to a corresponding degree -- unless, of course, you read it as an autobiography.
N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God
**** “Is There a Historian in the House? Right Here!”
When I read A. N. Wilson on Jesus, I closed the book and thought, "That's a pretty good book, about Wilson." When I read Crossan, I thought, "Here is the man who should have written the Book of Mormon." Wright first suggested to me the hope that historical criticism might actually have something of value to say about Jesus.
Wright's approach has many virtues. He is intimately familiar with an incredible amount of scholarly literature on the subject, and refers to it in a way that is always thoughtful. He seldom arbitrarily discards evidence merely because it doesn't fit his theory, as many do. His favorite critical device is what he calls the principle of "double similarity, double dissimilarity." He shows that, while most of the synoptic material
makes sense both within the Jewish community, and as the template for the new Christian religion, it also differs from both traditions in ways that strongly suggest the marks of individuality, that neither ordinary Jews nor Christians would have invented for Jesus.
This is a helpful approach, in my opinion, though not so unique as Wright seems to think. Readers with literary or psychological sensitivity have been making similiar, less systematic but sometimes even more insightful, observations for a long time. See, for example, G. K. Chesterton (Everlasting Man), Philip Yancey (The Jesus I Never Knew), M. Scott Peck, Per Beskow (Strange Tales About Jesus) or C. S. Lewis (Fernseeds and Elephants -- an essay Wright scoffs at, but that grows in my estimation the more I read of modern Biblical criticism). I think any reader can discern the unique style of Jesus in the Gospels. To a certain extent, Wright is just approaching the unique character of Jesus' sayings in a more formal, and less intuitive, manner.
As a scholar who studies the (often amazing) ways in which Christianity fulfills Asian cultures, I especially appreciated Wright's deep insights into the relationship between the Jewish tradition and the life of Christ. Wright argues that these elements were not retroactively inserted in the narrative, but most probably derive directly from Jesus. I don't recall that Wright places much emphasis on it, but in a sense, much of the argument here could be summarized by Jesus' statement: "Don't think I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets . . . I have come to fulfill them." I believe that applies to more than Jewish culture, but that is another story.
The greatest drawback of this book is that Wright takes himself and his colleagues too seriously, in my opinion. When Wright says, "All agree that Jesus began his public work in the context of John's baptism," he means, "all we scholars." The fact that billions of other readers usually come to the same conclusion, is, to Wright, irrelevant. The same, when he tells us, "It is apparent that the authors of the synoptic gospels intended to write about Jesus, not just their own churches and theologies," (really!) that "one of the chief gains" of the last 20 years of scholarship has been to link the crucifixion of Jesus to his cleansing of the temple, (my grandma could have told them that) and that when Jesus cursed the fig tree, he was acting out a parable against the Jewish religious rulers. Biblical scholars resemble the emperor's fashion experts, who, after decades of involved debate, and several fads in nudity, make the astonishing discovery that the emperor has no clothes. They pat themselves on their backs and
compliment one another for their brilliance, as the little boy, who first made the observation decades before, rocks in his chair in a retirement home nearby.
Chesterton said, one of the ways to get home is to stay there. Wright allows that Biblical criticism is taking a more circuitous route, (he himself uses the metaphor of the Prodigal Son), and he almost makes me think the view along the way might be worth it. But if he choses to lecture about the layout of the family farm when he returns, he ought to acknowledge that some of his hearers have been on that ground for a while already. Wright seems less kind to his conservative Christian "elder brethren" than to younger (separated) brethren still sowing wild oats in the far country of historical speculation. This attitude troubles me.
After hundreds of pages of argument, Wright rather abruptly asserts that "Jesus did not know he was God," at least not as one knows one "ate an orange an hour ago." He thinks such self-knowledge would be unbecomingly "supernatural." (Though he doesn't quibble with multiplied loaves or the resurrection.) At this point one gets the feeling that Wright's conclusion (or guess) is based less on historical evidence (which, as another reader points out below, ought to include John, Paul, and other Jewish Christians), but on a desire to keep a souvenir from the far country -- perhaps to show other scholars. Or maybe he just doesn't want to sound too conventional -- publish novelties ("discoveries") or off with your academic head. In any case, one wonders if his own dogmatically expressed opinion about Jesus' sub-divine mode of consciousness itself has a supernatural origin. He offers no other sources, in this case.
There seem to be two ways to "see" Jesus. One is the scholar's approach, which is that of blind men touching an elephant -- each connecting with that which communicates, with special vividness, a focused reality. The other method is that of the unwashed masses, who see the whole, though dimly at times, as through a fog. To see Christ as he is, yet without reductionism, has not proven an easy task for anyone. I do not know if it is the holiest, wisest, humblest, or just the most desperate, who come closest. Wright shows that, if a blind man touches the elephant in enough places, and takes scholarly theories for the narrow simplifications that they tend to be, he may begin a fairly recognizable and systematic mapping of the shape before us, which, in the end, may help see the elephant once again. It is a brilliant and insightful work. And, I am beginning to think, one very patient elephant, to put up with modern criticism, and not step on anyone.
The Real Jesus, NT Wright**** “Lemonaide from Lemons”
At first glance, this seems a rather odd book. What is a first-class historian like N. T. Wright doing, refuting the likes of Spong and Thiering? Does one need a bulldozer to squash ants? (Wilson, I personally find more intelligent, and thus perhaps rising to the dignity of being run over.) Yet Wright gives their arguments a fair hearing, then a fair and gentle hanging. But there seems to be method to Wright's mildness. As an alternative to the fumbling and bumbling of his protagonists, he offers a simple and readable description of who he has found the historical Jesus to be. Their errors prove a useful foil for explaining the methods and conclusions of legitimate New Testament scholarship. Wright's critiques of those with whom he disagrees are always a delight -- he shows a sincere appreciation for what is worthwhile, then refutes errors with wit and the gentle precision that comes of great intellectual power matched to thorough knowledge of the subject. The subject here is Jesus, a fox in pursuit of whom academic hounds have banged their heads on many trees. Wright rightly follows him to the cross.
"The Christian doctrine is all about a different kind of God -- a God who was so different to normal expectations that he could, completely appropriately, become human . . . To say that Jesus is in some sense God is of course to make a startling statement about Jesus. It is also to make a stupendous claim about God." I think Wright over-emphasizes the genius of Biblical scholarship. He tends to give the impression that nobody knew anything worth knowing about Jesus, until the question was brought to the attention of modern academics. Having read many "Jesus Seminar" books, I think credentialed scholars like Crossan, Borg, Mack, and Pagels, are often as foolish as Wilson -- and less truly knowledgeable about the historical Jesus than the average Pentecostal grandmother.
Wright also knocks C. S. Lewis for his "odd" criticism of the "quest for Jesus" as "the work of the devil," in the Screwtape Letters. Aside from the unfairness of ignoring the humor in a satire, I think the substance of Lewis' arguments, made more seriously in Fernseed and Elephants, is entirely sound, and makes an excellent critique of many recent historical Jesus reconstructions. I think Wright's historical reconstruction, and
Lewis' literary critique of shoddy skeptical arguments, complement one another nicely.
In sum, I recommend this book both for people who have been bamboozled by the particular works it refutes, and also as an antidote to recent works of a similar nature, like the Da Vinci Code, Jesus Mysteries, The Jesus Puzzle, or perhaps Elaine Pagel's new book, Beyond Belief. I am working on a book that will combine Wright and Lewis' approaches, to answer recent attacks on the Gospels
Word Commentary, Matthew 1-13
***** “Clear and Reasonable”
I bought this
and its companion volume to research "fulfillment theology,"
especially what Matthew meant by saying Jesus has come to "fulfil"
the Law and the Prophets. (5:17) I've written a couple books on the subject
(Jesus and the Religions of Man; How Jesus fulfills the Chinese Culture) and am
now doing a dissertation exploring it in more depth; and this is the commentary
I've found most useful so far. (Allison & Davies are also helpful, as
another reviewer said; their analysis of the Sermon on the Mount is very
interesting; but I found them unreasonably skeptical a lot of the time.)
What I like about this commentary is its clarity and general good sense. Coming from a comparative or history of religions background, rather than New Testament studies, I'm also using these two volumes to teach myself NT Greek, which works pretty well. (Probably more than 70% of new vocabulary is explained, so I only need to look up 20-30%.) Fulfillment is one of Matthew's most pervasive themes, and it's been an exciting adventure to trace it systematically through the Gospel, and see how Matthew applies it implicitly to Gentile cultures at times, with the help of Hagner and other commentators.
***** The Paul Quest: The Renewed Search for the Jew of Tarsus, Ben Witherington
“For duty and pleasure”
I picked up
this book as a resource for the research I'm conducting on how Paul and Matthew
preached to Gentiles (Acts 17, etc). It turned out useful for that --
Witherington's analysis is sharp, informed, and consistently sensible. But what
I appreciated even more, was that he makes study a pleasure, rather than a
One thing I concluded was that Witherington is right, Wright goes a little overboard on the "Jesus and Paul the orthodox Jews" kick. He points out how Paul emphasizes Adam, the first man, rather than Moses, as his prototype for Jesus.
But that's just one detail in the very broad-canvassed, multi-hued portrait Witherington paints of the Energizer Bunny from Tarsus. (Another, while I'm at it -- I loved his analysis of Philemon, Paul's brilliantly gentle but subversive letter to a slave owner.)