TC Verbum No 9 July 2007

By Rob Haskell

Christian Origins and New School Historical Scepticism

Last March the world was subjected to yet another incredible revelation that challenged the foundations of Christianity. In a documentary aired by the Discovery channel, Canadian filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici presented his “discovery” of the family tomb of Jesus, in which he claimed not only to have found the Lord’s ossuary, but also that of his father, mother, brother, son, wife (you guessed it: Mary Magdalene) and disciple.

The theory was a little too incredible and was quickly dismissed by archeologists (Jonathan Reed called it “archeoporn”) and minimized by the Discovery channel. But although it really was a ludicrous presentation, it would be a mistake to just roll our eyes and laugh it off, for it is just the tip of a very large iceberg. Let us not make a Titanic mistake.

Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code unleashed a new kind of historical skepticism on the world that popularized a whole range of criticisms of the orthodox story of Christian origins. Some were quack theories from books like Michael Baigent et al.’s Holy Blood, Holy Grail, but others drew on the work of real scholars such as Elaine Pagels. The net effect of Brown’s thriller was to fertilize the ground for the growth of a new scholarly cottage industry that specializes in reinterpreting Christian origins in the most radical way possible. Darrel Bock calls this the “new school” and according to Craig Evans it makes old school skeptics Robert Funk and James Robinson look overly optimistic. Scholarly adherents like Marvin Meyer (The Gnostic Discoveries), Robert Price (Incredible Shrinking Son of Man) and Bart Ehrman (Misquoting Jesus) are busy putting out a healthy stream of publications, some of which make it to the best seller list.

According to Bock the tenets of this school are that (1) Christian history needs rewriting because of the discovery of new texts, especially the Nag Hammadi Gnostic writings. (2) Early Christianity was a range of expressions, all of which had equal claims to orthodoxy. This then becomes an implied polemic for religious diversity contra contemporary orthodox inflexibility. (3) History is written by the winners, and the winners were the orthodox only because they were the first to rise to political power under Constantine. (4) Numerous alternative texts were suppressed by orthodoxy.

In The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth behind Alternative Christianities, Bock makes the case that orthodoxy triumphed because it was consistent with the message of Jesus and the first Christians. In fact, the alternatives to orthodoxy in the second century were so different from the Jesus tradition of early Christianity that they never had a chance of becoming major influences in Christian communities – politics or no.

Other conservative scholars have also been making waves in these waters. Evans uses his considerable expertise in the area of the historical context of the New Testament to defend the reliability of the gospels in Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels. But he also spends time pondering the personal sources of radical skepticism. Richard Baukham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is more directed to the New Testament academy than to the refuting the “new school,” but his argument is nevertheless a key piece that cuts to the core of the issues: that the gospels themselves bear the marks of eyewitness testimony and that the insertion of an anonymous transmission history is unwarranted. Ben Witherington takes a similar approach in his more popular level What Have They Done with Jesus? where he does a historical survey of the people who were closest to Jesus in the biblical accounts.

These four books were all published last year, so it is encouraging to see that the orthodox view is active, passionate and of substance. If current trends continue it seems possible that in the 21st century, history will take the place of philosophy and science as the primary front on which the battles and skirmishes of apologetics are fought. In any case, it is a happy irony to discover through these criticisms of Christian origins that many people do still think the past matters. That can’t be all bad.

Further Reading:

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