As long as there have been Christians, they have searched for the “real Jesus.” In the last two centuries, this search has been directed toward discovering the authentic historical personality who supposedly lies behind what are seen as mythical accretions, a quest that has inevitably led to conflict with fundamentalists who resent the application of conventional scholarly criteria to the essential documents of the faith. We seem to have a simple dichotomy between the scholars and critics on the one hand (educated, daring, honest) versus the massed forces of Elmer Gantry on the other. The choice seems straightforward, and it is tempting for educated individuals, whether or not they describe themselves as Christian, to listen respectfully to the opinions of The Scholarly World. In recent years, “educated opinion” on the search for the real Jesus has acquired an institutional basis in the “Jesus Seminar,” that group which asserts that only X percent of the words attributed to Jesus are likely to be historical, and that no serious attention should be paid to the Lord’s Prayer, the Sermon on the Mount, and so on. It is distressing, but how can one argue with the experts? Surely we should not align ourselves with the creationists and the simplest true believers against this impressive band of doctors and chairholders? Now, the Jesus Seminar has launched its boldest venture, which is no less than a presentation of all the gospels, including those rejected by the Church for whatever reasons of bigotry, patriarchalism, or anti-Semitism led them to rely exclusively on the flawed texts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Finally, we have the basis of a “Scholars’ Version,” SV, the first New Testament translation to be undertaken free of the biases and political interests of church and state.
The Complete Gospels is one of several books that in the last few years have made widely available the opinions of progressive opinion in the area of biblical scholarship, books like Burton L. Mack’s The Lost Gospel: The Book ofQ & Christian Origins and The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar. Like these. The Complete Gospels is accessible in an attractive trade paperback, ideal for religious discussion groups; for decades to come, lay opinion will be citing this material as, dare I say, gospel truth.
It all seems too good to be true, and assuredly it is. While the scholarship manifested by the latest “Quest” is daring and occasionally perceptive, the underlying assumptions are quite unsound. These books are in their way sectarian manifestoes as overt as any of the earlier translations which the editors so despise. And in The Complete Gospels, the translations have traveled so far downmarket that the end result is utterly embarrassing.
The latest “Quest for Jesus” owes its origins to the discovery of two major texts and a host of lesser ones. The first key source is unknown to us as a document, but can be reconstructed from any New Testament. In essence, it has been known for over 150 years that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are closely related documents, which can be presented in the form of a connected synopsis. The best solution for the “synoptic problem” is that Mark wrote his gospel, which was used by Matthew and Luke. However, both these latter also had access to another common source, which included such familiar material as the Temptation in the wilderness, the Sermon on the Mount, and a great deal of archaic-looking material about demons and exorcisms. This common source was given the name Q, and the more it was studied, the odder it looked. This was a “gospel” that probably lacked narrative structure, and consisted of a series of statements linked by “Jesus Said. . . . ” “Jesus Said . . . ” The “book” began not with a birth story, but with the preaching of John the Baptist, and it ended with a not-yet-crucified Jesus assuring his apostles that they would sit on twelve thrones and judge the tribes of Israel. There is not the slightest suspicion of doctrines such as the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation, or the Resurrection, and the community which read or recited Q felt no need to refer to the death of Jesus. If this was an authentic voice of early Christianity, it looked like a distinctly Unitarian group, one which attached no significance to the death or atonement of Jesus. All very unsettling.
And then came the Nag Hammadi library. In the 1940’s, an accidental find in Egypt produced an astonishing library of early Christian and Gnostic texts, at least as important for our historical knowledge as the better publicized Dead Sea Scrolls, but which had the good fortune to escape the political conflict and prima donna egos which sabotaged that rival project for decades. Since the late 1970’s, the Nag Hammadi library has been available in good and easily affordable translations, which have been assiduously mined for the “rival traditions” that they appear to present for the early Christian world. The heavy influence of later Gnostic texts gives them what might be termed a Californian air, with copious suggestions of sexual rituals, dance liturgies, astrology, female prophets, and homosexuality. However, the real treasure of the library was the Gospel of Thomas, which in its way seemed to compliment Q. This “Fifth Gospel” comprises Sayings of Jesus, presented in ancient form (“Jesus Said . . . “) and without narrative framework, and there are many substantive parallels to Q. It was soon proposed that Q and Thomas represented an authentic “wing” of early Christianity, even a forgotten core, perhaps the most ancient stratum of all; and its doctrines were distinctly unsupernatural and even un-Christian. They were seriously compared to Zen and Greek doctrines, and the “authentic Jesus” became quite literally a wandering Gynic philosopher, obviously an attractive concept for a late 20th-century academic. This led inevitably to a further perception, that the “Q-Thomas” documents provided a yardstick by which to judge the authenticity and accuracy of other traditions.
So far, much of this intellectual reconstruction is plausible, sensible, and realistic. At this point, however, we meet The Complete Gospels, which offers “everything you need to empower your own search for the historical Jesus” (John Dominic Crossan). This includes new translations of the four canonical gospels, plus Q, the “Gospel of Signs” said to underlie the Gospel of John, and a dozen or so lesser texts—the Gospel of Peter, the Secret Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of the Hebrews, and so on. The lay reader is likely to take all this at face value, believing, that these odd documents are somehow “lost,” “hidden,” “suppressed,” presumably for their seditious feminist, political, or mystical appeal. In reality, this book should be sold with a prominently displayed label stating “Warning: Cranks at Work.” As few nonspecialists are likely to realize, the materials presented here arc far more controversial than the authors hint. At every stage, a systematic policy of dating canonical documents ludicrously late, while claiming early dates for the apocryphal works that vary from the speculative to the hilarious, prevails.
For example, the Gnostic sects of the second and third centuries were tremendously prolific in producing their contorted speculations, most of which bear a distant relationship to the canonical gospels the existence of which they presuppose. Examples of these monstrosities include the “Secret Book of James” and the “Dialogue of the Savior,” both probably written anywhere from 70 years to a century after the last of the four gospels, and lacking even marginal relevance to the “historical Jesus”; yet here they are, with the “Dialogue” unconscionably dated between 50 and 100, before John and Mark. Claiming composition of the late and spurious “Gospel of Mary” as “arguably . . . in the late first or early second century” is impudent nonsense, explicable only in terms of the political need to extol an otherwise worthless tract because it happens to “suggest that women held prominent roles in the early church.” The early and independent character of the Passion narrative in the “Gospel of Peter” is dubious in the extreme, and the case for its possible value weakly argued. Incredibly, the so-called “Secret Gospel of Mark” is included as genuine testimony to the existence of a deviant secret form of the canonical work, preserved clandestinely by sneaky Church fathers. Could a footnote not have noted the widespread suspicion that the whole text is a 20th century forgery, the Piltdown skull of New Testament research? And to take perhaps the most telling example of all, there is no recognition here of the real likelihood that even the text of Thomas that we have from Nag Hammadi may not be nearly as primitive as claimed, but might reflect the heresies of two or three centuries after the time of Jesus. However, in this mirror world, the word “canonical” has implications of “staid, narrow, bigoted,” while Thomas and its ilk have acquired an aura of infallibility.
If the dates are wrong, the sequence of ideas is wrong, and so is any suggestion that the assorted farragoes from Nag Hammadi represent any authentic version of first-century Christianity, as opposed to the countless hybrid forms which the speculative philosophers and heretical sectaries of late antiquity loved to invent. A moderately informed reading of the texts here only reinforces the value of the four real gospels, and, conceivably but not certainly, that of Thomas. The Complete Gospels is near worthless, not because it challenges a canon, but because it canonizes the spurious. It will also poison religious discourse for a generation, by “empowering” every crank to find some sort of scriptural justification for his fantasies, in the belief that the Gospel of Mary is as authoritative a guide to the “real Jesus” as the Synoptics.
But are we truly not “empowered” by having these diverse materials so conveniently bound together in one volume? It is unquestionably useful to have access to such frequently cited texts as Q and the Gospel of Signs, to say nothing of interesting later documents like the “Dialogue of the Savior”; but the overwhelming drawback in handling them lies in the translation. By this, I mean that the texts presented here are translated in such a semiliterate and downright foolish way that they are more or less unusable. I assume the Jesus Seminarians have a perfect command of the Biblical languages, but their control of English is tenuous. If this is the historical Jesus, then He was an ill-educated tenth-grader with a painfully limited vocabulary and a hamfisted turn of speech that often veers toward the bureaucratic.
Examples clamor for quotation, but a few will suffice. “Blessed are you” becomes “Congratulations to you,” as in the Beatitudes (the Congratitudes?). To the demand “Heal me,” Jesus replies with the majestic words, “Okay, you’re healed!”; and to the demon, He utters the imperious exorcism “Shut up and get out of him.” “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” is transmogrified to “Well done, you competent and reliable slave.” Serving God and Mammon? Try “You can’t be enslaved to God and a bank account.” The translations here are at least consistent: but so consistently bad that any sustained reading is impossible. This “fresh, new language” is ostensibly termed the “Scholars Version,” SV, but a more plausible description might be the “Hallmark Version”: HV perhaps.
[The Complete Gospels: Revised and Expanded Edition Edited, by Robert J. Miller (San Francisco: Polebridge Press) 462 pp., $18.00]