According to surveys and scholars, "historical amnesia" constitutes an American epidemic. More than half of American adults can't remember which president ordered the dropping of the first atomic bomb (20 percent can't even remember if we've used the weapon)! More teenagers can name the Three Stooges than the three branches of the federal government! Evangelicals, an unfortunately sizeable contingent of whom acknowledge no church history between Acts and the inception of their local congregations, are frequently diagnosed as having particularly acute cases. But according to historian Philip Jenkins, the truly critical patients are contemporary biblical scholars who persist in launching quests for the "real" Jesus.
In Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way (Oxford), Jenkins, distinguished professor of history and religious studies at Penn State, exposes Jesus Seminar types as—to put it bluntly—agenda-driven ninnies. Such scholars, fascinated by texts like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and others unearthed at Nag Hammadi in 1945, dig for what they want to find (evidence of alternate and legitimate "Christianities") and then spare no extravagance in touting its importance. With such titles as The Secret Teachings of Jesus: Four Gnostic Gospels and The Complete Jesus, their books promise to erode orthodox Christianity, conveniently replacing it with a kinder, gentler, and much more politically correct version.
Jenkins's problem with this body of work isn't primarily that it contradicts traditional faith, but that it rests on bad scholarship. Revisionist claims about hidden gospels require that such texts be both older and more reliable than the non-hidden sort, but Jenkins argues persuasively that they are not. Nor can the sects (notably gnostics) that produced the hidden gospels be put on equal footing with the nascent Christian church. "Just as the canonical gospels were in existence before their heterodox counterparts," Jenkins writes, "so the orthodox church did precede the heretics, and by a comfortable margin." Of course, nobody would read The Hidden Texts of Comparatively Late Fringe Groups.
The scholars running willy-nilly after wishful theories might be excused if they were merely jumping to conclusions in the wake of shocking new discoveries, but this ground has been broken before. Today's revisionists would know that if they bothered to read anyone else's work. Jenkins points out that nearly all of the "revolutionary" claims made in the past 30 or so years—Jesus didn't think he was God! Matthew, Mark, and Luke shared notes!—are at least 100 years old. The period between 1880 and 1920 was particularly fertile for radical theories, a fact many contemporary scholars stubbornly or stupidly ignore, and most of the theories weren't even new then. Jenkins goes so far as to assert that "the search for alternative Christianities has been a perennial phenomenon within Western culture since the Enlightenment."
Those muddle-headed revisionists of the previous century had their own able critic: Albert Schweitzer. His The Quest of the Historical Jesus, first published in 1906 and reissued in complete form this year by Fortress Press, summed up popular theories (particularly as expressed in the multiple Lives of Jesus then circulating) and found nearly all of them wanting in historical rigor. The theories were not as new as their proponents claimed and not nearly as well grounded. Most damningly, though, the theories blatantly reflected contemporary sensibilities and therefore couldn't possibly describe a first-century figure. Unlike Jenkins, Schweitzer follows these complaints with his own radical theory, but up to that point the two men are on a similar mission.
Biblical scholarship need not be fruitless. For example, a better knowledge of first-century Jewish and Roman culture has definitely enriched Christians' reading of the New Testament. But given the field's typical pattern—bad scholarship, refutation, more bad scholarship, more refutation—it seems pretty obvious that any study of the historical Jesus starts in a deep credibility hole. That's why the foreword to the new Schweitzer edition amuses me so thoroughly. In it Dennis Nineham (no title or affiliation given) argues that making any decision about Christ demands "a knowledge, not only of The Quest of the Historical Jesus but of Schweitzer's work on the early church and of the discussions by Werner and others of the formation of Christian dogma."
Whatever did people do before they had this wonderful knowledge? Apparently, what they're still doing. Nineham laments, "The findings of historians and critical scholars are simply being ignored by the churches and most of their members." Gee, I wonder why.
* More orthodox study of the life of Christ can be found in CH issue 59, The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.
Elesha Coffman is managing editor of Christian History, and can be reached at email@example.com.
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