Archive for June, 2007

More Anti-CA Apologetic: Reinventing Jesus

Friday, June 22nd, 2007
Though the furor over The Da Vinci Code has died down, books refuting its claims about the Christian Apocrypha continue to be published. One of the most recent of these is Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 2006) by J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace. Like its ilk, Reinventing Jesus is apologetic—i.e., it is aimed specifically at defending Christianity from its critics—and therefore allows evidence to take a back seat to the promotion of orthodoxy. I’ve read enough of these books now that the arguments no longer surprise me. I am frustrated, however, by the authors’ lack of knowledge about the CA texts and the scholarship at which they take aim.

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. 

Réunion annuelle de l’AELAC 2007

Friday, June 8th, 2007
The program for this year’s réunion annuelle de l’AELAC (Association pour l’étude de la littérature apocryphe chrétienne) taking place June 28-30 has been posted on the association’s web site. You can access it HERE.

A New “Critical Translation” of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas

Wednesday, June 6th, 2007
I have added to my Infancy Gospel of Thomas page a critical translation of the gospel. As I state in the introduction to the text, the translation is based primarily on the best of our Greek manuscripts (Cod. Sabaiticus 259 of the eleventh-century) with an eye to the early versions (Syriac, Old Latin, Georgian, and Ethiopic) which, though translations, appear to represent the text in an earlier form than all of the extant Greek manuscripts. Many of the chapters are is accompanied by illuminations from an Ambrosian manuscript (L 58 sup.) of the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew.

Anne Rice’s Christ the Lord to Become a Film

Friday, June 1st, 2007
In Fall 2008 moviegoers will be able to see a film adaptation of Anne Rice’s Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt (read the press release HERE). I read the book soon after its release and made some notes on its use of Christian Apocrypha. This is as good a time as any to share those notes. 

The book tells the story of the Holy Family’s return from Egypt to their hometown of Nazareth. The story is told from Jesus’ perspective, but as an adult reflecting on his childhood. It opens with a seven-year-old Jesus in Alexandria, surrounded by his family, which includes Mary and her brother Cleopas, Joseph and his brothers Alphaeus and Simon, Jesus’ aunts Salome, Esther and Mary, Jesus’ cousins Little Joses, Judas, Little Symeon and Salome, and big brother James, the child of Joseph from a previous marriage (recalling the explanation for the brothers of Jesus given in the Protoevangelium of James).

Joseph and his brothers are employed in Egypt as carpenters. After Joseph completes a project for Philo, the famous teacher meets Jesus, who he calls “the most promising scholar he has ever seen” (p. 14). But things go wrong for the family when Jesus curses a boy, Eleazer, in the marketplace. The miracle echoes Infancy Thomas ch. 4, though in the gospel Jesus is five, not seven, and in Nazareth, not Egypt. Infancy Thomas is employed again when James recalls having seen Jesus make birds from clay on the Sabbath (Infancy Thomas ch. 2-3) and perhaps in the description of Jesus’ and James’ teacher, who teaches the boys Greek (Infancy Thomas 6 and 14). Breaking from the gospel, Rice’s Jesus revives the boy and is confused about the origins of his powers; indeed the curse was accidental in Rice’s book.

As the family journey home, the young Jesus takes up a journey of discovery as he tries to learn the mysteries of his birth and infancy. The family seeks to insulate him from the horrors of the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem, and to keep a low profile to avoid other attempts on the boy’s life. As they head toward Nazareth, the family finds themselves part of several key events in first-century Judean history, including the riot in the Temple instigated by Archelaus, and the rebuilding of Sepphoris after the rebellion of Judas the Galilean. They also encounter some significant figures, many of whom are related to Jesus, including Elizabeth and John the Baptist (who here is revealed to be on his way to join the Essenes), Zebedee (who is married to Mary’s cousin, Mary Alexander), and Caiaphas (an uncle of Jesus).

As Jesus learns more about his origins, he learns also details about Mary’s life, details derived from the Protoevangelium of James. Mary is said to have been born in Sepphoris to her parents Joachim (a scribe) and Anna. Cleopas says of Mary: “A virgin child, a child in the service of the Temple of Jerusalem, to weave the great veil, with the other chosen ones, and then home under our eyes” (p. 46) (PJ ch. 10). As in Prot. Jas. a woman named Salome serves as midwife at Jesus’ birth, though Rice’s Salome is Mary’s sister and there is no gynecological exam (PJ ch. 19-20). And this birth takes place in a cave (PJ 18:1). Prot. Jas. also provides details about John the Baptist’s life. Elizabeth tells the story of the death of Zechariah (PJ ch. 23-24), at which time she and the child hid in the mountains (PJ ch. 22), though these mountains are said to be near the Essenes who helped the two fugitives by providing them with food.

In an appendix (“Author’s Notes”) Rice reveals the inspiration and intentions behind the book. She discusses her Catholic upbringing and long-standing interest in the origins of Christianity. In 2002 she came to a realization: “I wanted to write the life of Jesus Christ. I had known that years ago. But now I was ready. I was ready to do violence to my career. I wanted to write the book in the first person. Nothing else mattered. I consecrated the book to Christ” (p. 309). So Rice went to work on research. She was surprised at the variety: “I had no idea I was entering a field of research where no-one agreed on anything” (p. 310). She began with the skeptics but found that their arguments “lacked coherence,” “were not elegant”, “were full of conjecture”, and “absurd conclusions were reached on the basis of little or no data at all” (p. 313). She cautions that these scholars “detest and despise Jesus Christ” (p. 315) and the reader should beware. She preferred conservative scholars such as Martin Hengel, Richard Bauckham, and N. T. Wright; she also found appealing the arguments of John A. T. Robinson on dating the gospels.

On the use of Christian Apocrypha, Rice says that she sought to write about the Jesus of the Gospels but was fascinated also by the apocrypha. “Ultimately,” she writes, “I chose to embrace this material, to enclose it within the canonical framework as best I could. I felt there was a deep truth in it, and I wanted to preserve that truth as it spoke to me. Of course that is an assumption. But I made it. And perhaps in assuming that Jesus did manifest supernatural powers at an early age I am somehow being true to the Council  of Chalcedon, that Jesus was God and man at all times” (p. 320).

Rice’s book is striking for its use of the CA despite the author’s Catholic background and appeal to conservative scholarship. Likely, neither fellow Catholics nor the scholars she values would think highly of her book. For CA scholars the book illustrates some of the motives behind the creation of the CA. First, Rice felt the need to appeal to the infancy gospels in order to fill gaps left by the canonical texts, a need felt also by the gospels’ authors. And Rice invented some stories of her own. Second, Rice expanded the canonical Jesus story out of piety (a motive often ascribed also to the infancy gospel writers), not to intentionally mislead believers nor to introduce heretical Christology. Rice, like other modern apocrypha creators (Mel Gibson anyone?), seems oblivious to the fact that she has created an apocryphon, i.e., that she has altered and expanded the canonical Jesus story by drawing upon old traditions and creating new ones. Perhaps the infancy gospel writers felt the same. Also Rice’s selectivity with the infancy gospels recalls the practice of copyists of the texts who certainly valued the gospels but transformed them to be less objectionable—for example, earlier forms of Infancy Thomas did not have Jesus revive those he cursed, nor did they have the beneficent miracles of chs. 10, 17 and 18.

Christ the Lord is not a sophisticated, nor a challenging treatment of the Life of Jesus. The film, if and when it is completed, will serve us best as a classroom tool to show contemporary use of apocryphal traditions. It may also stimulate discussion of the CA in popular forums. Until then, we can occupy ourselves with Rice's secondvoluyme in the life of Jesus: Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana, to be released in March 2008.