Komoszewski et al focus their apologetic against the usual suspects: the Jesus Seminar, The Da Vinci Code, and anti-historical Jesus works such as Tom Harpur’s The Pagan Christ. They see the works of these writers feeding a “radical skepticism” (p. 15) rampant in North America: “The media’s assault on the biblical Jesus, postmodernism’s laissez-faire attitude toward truth, and America’s collective ignorance of Scripture have joined to create a culture of cynicism. In short, society has been conditioned to doubt” (p. 16). Their book seeks to redress this by “build[ing] a positive argument for the historical validity of Christianity” (p. 17). They do so by asking (and answering) a number of questions: did the gospel writers get the story right? were the texts copied faithfully? were the right texts put in the Bible? what did early followers think of Jesus? (i.e., did they think he was divine?), and how do we know the Jesus story was not copied off other religions? As the writers confront these issues they take pains to provide readers with all of the background necessary for them to understand how scholars arrive at their positions, including brief overviews of the Synoptic Problem, text-criticism, etc.
Occasionally the authors do not present this information with requisite care. Regarding the Synoptic Problem, they describe the Griesbach Hypothesis as maintaining that Luke was independent of Matthew (in fact Griesbach supporters believe Luke obtained his double-tradition material from Matthew) and fail to mention the Oxford Hypothesis. Komoszewski et al support the Four/Two Source Hypothesis and place the composition of Mark in the 60s yet also follow James A. T. Robinson’s dating of Luke-Acts before the death of Paul (incidentally, Robinson dates Mark to the 40s) (p. 22-23). The following chapter draws on studies of oral cultures to state that the gospel writers were trained to memorize Jesus’ teachings; therefore, the evangelists transmitted the words and deeds of Jesus correctly. Yet, it is not clear how the authors can support such a theory and at the same time agree with a solution to the Synoptic Problem that claims the gospels have a literary relationship. And, in their discussion of apostolic attribution, they at once agree that the gospels were originally anonymous and that their current attributions are accurate (p. 138). The authors appear to be cherry-picking scholarly hypotheses, adopting any that fit their agenda without giving thought to how they work together to produce a comprehensive and cohesive theory of the composition of the gospels.
One of Komoszewski et al’s apologetic methods is to minimize or obfuscate evidence that runs contrary to an early and wide-spread orthodoxy. When discussing the process of canon formation they state that the church generally agreed at an early date on 22 books of the canon and debated the status of the remaining “fringe” texts up into the fourth century. If anything, they state, some churches argued for a smaller canon, not a larger one. But that is not entirely the case. In Eastern Syria, 3 Corinthians was considered canonical for some time, and even in the West several early writers appealed to Jewish-Christian gospels to support their arguments. No mention is made at all of the popularity of the Diatessaron in the East. Komoszewski et al’s intent here is to refute the claim that a host of non-canonical texts were considered for inclusion in the Bible, and certainly that does not appear to be the case. But it seems the relationship between canonical and noncanonical needs to be looked at afresh. For many Christians the texts and traditions from both categories contributed to their conception of Jesus; indeed, given that the majority of Christians were illiterate, their knowledge of Jesus was influenced by art and iconography as much as by texts, and visual representations of the life of Jesus were resplendent with imagery from noncanonical gospels—even within churches. So, whether or not the canon was officially closed in the fourth century is not as relevant an issue as modern apologists would like it to be.
The CA are addressed explicitly in two chapters entitled “What did the Ancient Church Think of Forgeries?” and “What did the Ancient Forgers think of Christ?” Here Komoszewski et al make a good point that the church was rather cautious about ascribing authorship to the texts they valued (e.g., neither Mark, nor Hebrews, nor Revelation are given explicit apostolic sanction) and they rejected texts they believed were late compositions and/or pseudepigraphical (e.g., the Shepherd of Hermas, Acts of Paul). But I, for one, am not prepared to give the church “the benefit of the doubt” (p. 139) when it comes to authorship. All of this evidence only reinforces my belief that canon selection rested first on a text’s content and secondarily on its date and authorship. Komoszewski et al also create here a false dichotomy: that canonical texts are necessarily genuine and non-canonical texts are necessarily “forgeries.” They do not bring Deutero-Pauline letters into the discussion, nor suspected OT pseudepigrapha like Daniel, nor the possibility that some CA were once anonymous (a possibility particularly for the Gospel of Thomas and certainly the case for the Infancy Gospel of Thomas) and some are not pseudepigraphical at all (e.g., the Apocryphal Acts and the Gospel of Judas are about their respective protagonists not written by them). Again Komoszewski et al are grossly oversimplifying a nuanced issue.
In the chapter “What did the Ancient Forgers think of Christ?” Komoszewski et al describe two groups of texts: infancy gospels and Gnostic gospels. They begin their discussion with a list of the gospel writers’ motivations: “‘to supplement [or]…to supplant the four Gospels received by the Great Church’” (quoting Metzger), for entertainment (adding the comment, “No harm was meant; no deep theological agendas were involved. Likewise, no one took these gospels seriously [or, at least, no one should have!]” p. 153), and to promote “a different Jesus” from the Jesus of the canonical gospels. I concede that the CA writers see themselves as supplementing prior texts—the four gospels and the letters of Paul seemed to have had a universal acceptance—but this same reverence for the earlier texts rules out the motive of “supplanting.” To my mind no non-canonical writer ever aimed to replace or refute a canonical writing, for though they certainly promoted a Jesus different from that of the orthodox writers, they believed he was in continuity with that of the canonical texts. So-called “heretical” and “orthodox” portrayals of Jesus are equally grounded in and dependent upon the early traditions, but neither has a greater claim to accuracy.
Like Komoszewski et al’s discussions of the Synoptic Problem and canon formation, the book’s treatment of select CA texts suffers from errors and oversimplifications. Their description of the infancy gospels is heavily dependant on Oscar Cullmann’s contribution to the 1991 Hennecke-Schneemelcher-Wilson collection; unfortunately, Cullmann’s treatment of the material is outdated and wholly inadequate. Thus Komosewski et al associate the infancy gospels with Gnosticism and the wisdom displayed by the child Jesus in these texts with docetism (p. 154). They state also that the church fathers “condemned them as unworthy descriptions of the real Jesus. They were seen to be hokey and palpably untrue” (p. 157). The problem with this and other statements about the infancy gospels is that they are anachronistic—Jesus’ behaviour in the texts is consistent with other wonder workers from antiquity who curse as well as bless, the maturity he displays reflects the ideal of the puer senex not a docetic Christ, and the earliest commentators on these texts reject them because they contradict John 2:1-11 (which states that the wedding at Cana was Jesus’ first miracle) not because they find the stories “hokey.” Evaluating these texts based on twenty-first rather than first century sensibilities leads the writers to disregard possible theological and Christological motives in their composition and to characterize the prime purpose of the infancy gospels only as “sensationalism and entertainment” (p. 157).
As for Gnostic gospels, Komosewski et al counter well the evidence brought forward by Brown and others for an intimacy between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. But the remainder of their discussion of these texts is intended to denigrate the Gnostics and their literature. They call the Gnostics “a knockoff pseudo-Christian group” (p. 158) who placed apostolic attributions on their texts to “fast track” their acceptance (p. 161). Their texts are criticized for containing bizarre embellishments and for not having “the restraint, the ring of truth, the lack of forced apologetic that the canonical gospels portrayed” (p. 161). The authors seek to show precisely how bizarre the texts can be by excerpting material from the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Peter, the Acts of Paul, and the Acts of John. They conclude: “These fanciful descriptions have nothing to do with biblical Christianity or historical Christianity. They are stories devised to, at best, be bubblegum for the soul and, at worst, as propagandist devices to persuade the church to abandon its orthodox roots. Obviously, fringe Christian groups had their own agenda, which has nothing to do with the biblical narratives” (p. 164).
What is most objectionable about such comments is that they fail to take into account that the noncanonical texts are not all that different from their canonical counterparts. The canonical gospels also contain “bizarre embellishments” of Jesus’ life (is a Jesus who walks on water that much more believable than the Gospel of Peter’s talking cross?) as does the book of Acts (its reports of the fantastic exploits of the apostles are little different from the stories in the Apocryphal Acts). Both canonical and noncanonical texts have agendas. And Paul’s letters, more than any other early Christian literature, seek to persuade their readers to remain loyal to their author’s own particular understanding of “the gospel.”
I understand that Reinventing Jesus is apologetic and that it is intended to reach believers who are struggling with their faith due to what they read in popular books and the media. But is it too much to ask for writers like Komoszewski and friends to research the CA in more depth before they criticize it? Indeed why be so negative about it at all? One can easily combat the claims of Dan Brown and his ilk without denigrating the CA, its authors, and its audiences. Mind you, CA scholars also tend to ignore their critics. This is unfortunate as CA specialists and apologetic writers have much to learn from each other but that will not happen if the two groups refuse to read each others’ works.