Not long ago, topics like textual criticism and the extra-biblical Gospels elicited yawns from my seminary students. I went through the obligatory motions of covering these staples of New Testament study, knowing that no matter how hard I tried, questions would be rare and engagement minimal.
All that has changed. Topics like the James ossuary and the Gospel of Judas have hit Times Square, not only pricking the attention of seminary students, but also garnering coverage from journalists and culture-watchers, from CBS News's traditional news team to 360 Degrees's Anderson Cooper.
In the last five years, numerous books on early Christian history have made the bestseller lists. Specials on figures like Jesus and Constantine are produced at a rate that could fill historical cable channels around the clock. And when People magazine weighs in on movies like The Passion of the Christ, you know something new is happening in the world of religion news.
We are seeing a growing public interest in Jesus and the early church. There are two kinds of presentations on these topics: scholarly books and "new find" announcements. Both kinds need our attention because the way this information is released is changing, making it more difficult to tell the difference between fact and fiction. Every Christmas and Easter season, a "blockbuster" story proclaims the need to redefine Christianity. (This Christmas season, the media is touting a book by liberal scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan titled, The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus's Birth.) I tell my students to take their inoculation shots and get ready to engage.
When I started my teaching career, scholars' books were usually fact-checked and peer-reviewed ...