Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Reinventing Jesus

There is a popular and insatiable appetite for conspiracy theories. The X-files was a hit series predicated on the notion of an orchestrated government plot to conceal the existence of ETs. Ufology has a genuine following. Suspicions abound over why we “really” went to war with Iraq.

According to secular humanism, the age of faith represents an age of superstition. Science and secular education will banish the shadows of ignorance and replace blind faith with the bright light of reason.

Yet contemporary conspiracy theories have a magnetic attraction for people deeply educated in the canons of secular humanism.

Indeed, secular humanism has, itself, been a halfway house on the way to New Age superstition and postmodern relativism.

Have you ever noticed that the people who are most out of touch with reality are the very people who are educating our children?

Combine this with pervasive Biblical illiteracy, as well as sheer ignorance of early church history, and you have an ideal breeding ground for charlatans who making a living rewriting Bible history and church history.

Into this intellectual bedlam step Ed Komoszewski, Daniel Wallace, and James Sawyer—authors of Reinventing Jesus: What The Da Vinci Code and Other Novel Speculations Don't Tell You (Kregel [May 2006]), to sift and sort and set the record straight.

Liberal scholars posit a long creative oral stage of transmission before the written stage. In part 1, chapter 1, after sketching an argument for the early dating of the Gospels, the authors also turn the liberal contention on its head by explaining how oral tradition would actually have a very conservative effect on the transmission of authentic tradition, for once the life of Christ became common knowledge by word-of-mouth, it would not be possible for a later writer to swap in a very different version of events.

This is additional to the presence of many eyewitnesses still living at the time. They would also have a conservative effect on oral tradition.

What we’re dealing with, then, is not individual historical memory, but collective historical memory.

The authors expand on these points in chapter 2. They point out that even if memory is fallible, it is fallible in small details and not in large events.

I would add a further point. The authors target the Jesus Seminar. Now, many members of this seminar are apostates. And a number of them have written deconversion stories.

In so doing, they are writing many years or decades after the event. Indeed, memoirs and autobiographies are generally written towards the end of life. Yet I, as a middle-aged man, have many very vivid and accurate memories of things that happened to me decades ago.

What the authors say in this chapter is fine as far as it goes. But it’s possible to make a much stronger case for primitive Christian tradition. The culture in which the NT arose was no an illiterate or preliterate culture. Rather, orality and literality were concomitant.

This has been meticulously documented by Alan Millard in Reading & Writing in the Time of Jesus (NYU 2000); “Zechariah Wrote (Luke 1:63),” The New Testament in its First Century Setting (Eerdmans 2004), 46-55.

You can see this in the NT letters. The Apostles were church-planters. When they were on site, they would preach the faith, using the spoken word. When they were away, they would teach the faith, using the written word.

It is therefore somewhat artificial to posit an oral stage of transmission followed by a written stage. While it may have been a few decades before all this material was collated in the canonical gospels, it is quite likely that blocks of written material were circulating from a very early date.

In chapter 3, the authors dissect and dismantle the so-called criteria of authenticity. On the one hand, they point out that the Jesus Seminar is duplicitous in its application of the criteria. On the other hand, they point out that if the same criteria were applied to the Jesus Seminar itself, we would have to issue a color-coded edition of what the members “really” said.

The authors also point out that what determines the application of criteria is not the state of the historical record, but a secular screening device which automatically filters out any saying or story that savors of the supernatural.

This, then, is not a question of historical evidence, but one’s philosophy of history. The members of the Jesus Seminar assume a secular historiography. No attempt is made to seriously justify this presumption. It is taken for granted from start to finish.

In part 2, the authors devote a good deal of attention to the text of the NT. Until rather recently, this was not an issue. And that’s because the text of the NT is extremely well attested, in time and place, by an abundance of Greek MSS, ancient versions, and patristic quotations.

There are many variants, but most of these are trivial, concerning differences in spelling, word order, the addition or subtraction of a name—that sort of thing.

There are only a few cases of deliberate doctrinal revision. It is easy to retrieve the original reading. And due to the redundancy of NT teaching—not to mention the redundancy of the textual evidence—there is nothing revolutionary at stake.

But of late, attempts have been made to cast doubt on the integrity of the NT text. There is nothing new to say, no bombshell discoveries. And when we do unearth new MSS, the effect is to confirm traditional dogma, not over turn it.

So all we have here is a deceptive repacking of what has long been known as if this were a damning revelation. Bart Ehrman is the best-known example. As an apostate, Ehrman has an ax to grind, and his former faith is the grinding stone.

In the course of their discussion, the authors briefly touch on the KJV-only devotees. While the book is primarily concerned with debunking liberal conspiratorial theories of Christian origins, it’s important to keep in mind that conservative Christians are sometimes prey to conspiracy theories as well, such as the rather paranoid notion that textual criticism is a diabolical plot to undermine the faith.

The problem is when Christians look for assurance in the wrong places, such as the King James Bible.

However, the phenomenon of the KJV-only faction is useful in another respect. Tradition always has a following. You cannot change tradition without provoking opposition. We can see this throughout church history, viz., the Old Believers who broke with the Russian Orthodox church over certain liturgical changes, or the Old Catholics who broke with Rome over Vatican I, or Archbishop Lefebvre and his disciples, who broke with Rome over Vatican II.

The point is that you cannot have a “silent revolution” in Christianity. You cannot have the church authorities swap out one tradition for another without that igniting a big controversy. And where there’s a big controversy, there’s a record of the controversy.

Some readers may find part 2 pretty boring. But since most believers lack even an amateur grasp of textual criticism, they are defenseless against the Bart Ehrmans of the world. So the authors are rending the Christian community a great service by covering this ground.

In chapter 8, the authors take on pulp fiction like the Da Vinci Code or Holy Blood, Holy Grail.

Now, it should go without saying that what makes for a page-turner is not necessary what makes for good history. Conspiracy theories have great dramatic potential. It’s the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters. It sells a lot of popcorn. But the popular appeal of escapist fare lies precisely in its exuberant defiance of stubborn realities and mundane probabilities.

For example, Constantine did not invent the deity of Christ. If you study the NT as well as the early church fathers, you can see that this is a well-attested and widely-attested doctrine.

In chapter 9 the authors discuss the canon of Scripture. As they point out, only a handful of books were every in dispute.

Also, the process of canonization was a very visible process, open to public inspection. This didn’t happen in a smoke-filled backroom. This wasn’t stage-managed by an all-powerful church or Emperor. There was no cover-up.

Although the authors focus on the external attestation to the canon, it is worth observing that canon of Scripture is not an arbitrary anthology. Just pick up an average study Bible and run your finger down column after column of cross-references. These books all hang together in interlocking blocks of material.

In chapters 10-11, the authors address the issue of forgeries. Here they expose a fundamental tension between the liberal case against the canon, and the liberal case for pseudepigrapha.

To make a case for pseudonymity, you must contend that the early church was indifferent to authorship.

But when the liberals make a case against the canon, they wag an accusatory finger at the books in dispute. Yet these books were disputed precisely because of doubts which were raised in some quarters regarding their authorship. In that event, the early church was deeply concerned with matters of authorship.

The authors say the canonical gospels were originally anonymous. This is a rather unguarded claim. Since, according to the manuscript evidence, we have no anonymous canonical gospels, but gospels bearing the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, there is no reason to assume that these titles were editorial additions.

By contrast, Hebrews is genuinely anonymous. And the point made by the authors is that if the church was in the habit of freely assigning apostolic authorship to NT documents for apologetic reasons, it would not have left this letter anonymous.

Along similar lines is Revelation. It is not anonymous. But it doesn’t spell out which “John” was its author. By process of elimination, the Apostle John is the obvious candidate, but again, there is, as our writers point out, no effort to deceive the reader or adopt a literary convention of pseudonymity—assuming such a convention ever existed, which our writers rightly challenge.

The authors also score some obvious but overlooked points about apocryphal gospels. These were simply too new and too late in the game to be genuine. That’s why they were rejected.

And from our vantage-point, with our knowledge of Palestinian archeology and Second Temple Judaism, we can validate the early church’s historical verdict.

In addition, if the church were choosing books on the basis of a high Christology, it would have favored Gnostic Gospels and infancy gospels which accentuate the divinity of Christ to the point of excluding his true humanity (Docetism). So there was no Christological agenda driving the formation of the canon.

In part 4, they review the case for the deity of Christ. In chapters 12-13, they run through some of the NT evidence for his true divinity.

Since many Christians get their theology second-hand from hymns and creeds, it’s important to see where this is coming from, and the breadth of the database on which it rests.

In chapter 14, the authors review some of the evidence outside the NT, including evidence from hostile sources (pagan critics).

In chapter 15, the authors review the Council of Nicea, noting the limitations of imperial power and prevarications of imperial policy. Nicene Orthodoxy was not imposed on an unwilling church by imperial fiat.

In part 5, the authors take up the subject of comparative mythology. Pagan parallels are very impressive to the uninitiated.

The trick is to summarize a “parallel” rather than directly quote the primary sources. Another trick is to disregard matters of relative dating and provenance, genre and worldview.

Like a pointillist painting, pagan parallels are best seen at a distance. On closer inspection, they dissolve into a sea of disconnected dots.

In chapter 16, the authors run through a number of fallacies which characterize liberal methodology in the use of comparative mythology: contriving a synthetic mystery religion which is nothing more than a literary construct (the composite fallacy); using Christian terminology to describe pagan practice and faith (the terminological fallacy); assuming that, in the case of a genuine parallel, the Bible must be borrowing from the pagan, rather than vice versa (dependency fallacy); failing to distinguish between the time and place of the NT documents, and subsequent developments (chronological fallacy), as well as failure to interpret superficial similarities in light of opposing worldviews (intentional fallacy).

With special reference to the dependency fallacy, the authors comment on the ad hominem nature of patristic arguments when debating with their pagan opponents.

In chapter 17, the authors defend the virgin birth by running through all of the alleged parallels in pagan literature

They also discuss the Biblical evidence for the virgin birth.

In chapter 18, they deconstruct the old chestnut of the “dying and rising savior-gods” by running through the examples one by one.

Moreover, they point out that Greco-Roman hope in the afterlife was predicated on the immorality of the soul rather than the resurrection of the body.

Furthermore, they also note that while the Jews did believe in the resurrection of the body, this was viewed as a corporate, end-time event. There was no expectation that the Messiah would be put to death and rise from the dead three days later.

The book rounds out with copious notes and a generous bibliography for further reading.

The book suffers somewhat from a fairly positivistic epistemology as well as a voluntaristic concept of Christian faith. And, as noted earlier, it also suffers a bit from over reliance on the paradigm of cultural orality.

But these are rather minor defects. For they are mere deficiencies rather than positive flaws.

When dealing with the liberals, our writers invariably have the better of the argument. And where there’s room for improvement, any revisions would strengthen rather than weaken their overall case. By contrast, their liberal opponents are on the losing end of every transaction.

This book is well-worth purchasing, whether you’re a pastor, professor, seminarian, or layman.

You can learn more about it here: www.reinventingjesus.info.


  1. For example, Constantine did not invent the deity of Christ.

    No, but his presence at the Council of Nicea certainly helped influence the outcome of the debate.

  2. Stevej:

    I hope that is a joke.