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Title: BOOKSHELF: Can Matthew, Mark, Luke and John Be Trusted?

Author: George Sim Johnston

Source: Wall Street Journal

Date: Monday, April 30, 2001

Re: "Leisure & Arts" - page A16.

Copryight: Used with permission from The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved."

Permission for reprint: 4/30/2001

Contributor: Anonymous

BOOKSHELF: Can Matthew, Mark, Luke and John Be Trusted?

April 30, 2001

By Philip Jenkins
(Oxford, 260 PAGES, $25)
By George Sim Johnston

For years, the media have told a story that lends itself to tabloid headlines: Secret Books of the Bible Found! Church Suppresses Real Gospel! Historical Jesus Never Said Those Things! The news is that naive Christian belief in the Gospels has been exploded by the careful investigations of a new generation of biblical scholars. It makes for great copy in the newsweeklies and on PBS.

Hidden Gospels - by Philip Jenkins In "Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way," (Oxford, 260 pages, $25) Philip Jenkins examines the motives and methodologies of these radical scholars. He finds that their agenda is hardly scientific or objective. They are on a mission. They want to prove that orthodox Christianity is an artifact of early church politics and has nothing to do with what Jesus actually said or did.

Their weapon is the arcane apparatus of textual dating and interpretation. If they can make their case, the whole edifice of Christianity creeds, liturgies, hierarchies comes tumbling down, and we are left with an itinerant first-century sage whose views (to get to the crux of the matter) about, say, sexual behavior would not disturb anyone on "Temptation Island."

To accomplish this, these scholars set out to prove that the four Gospels are late, and largely spurious, creations of church bureaucrats and that more "authentic" sources, notably the so-called Q document and gnostic gospels like Thomas and Philip, give us a truer picture of what Christ is about.

What we have here, in other words, is a fight over the canon not unlike the one going on in English departments. The problem, according to Mr. Jenkins, is that these biblical scholars suffer from a severe case of postmodernism. They are less interested in finding out what is true than in stripping normative texts of their authority. And their scholarship is dubious, involving hidden assumptions, selective use of the evidence and subjective interpretations presented as dispassionate fact.

The story begins with the all-important Q, the hypothetical text that is alleged by some to be the source of the three synoptic Gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke. It may (or may not) have been a primitive collection of sayings of Jesus. Its name comes from Quelle, German for "source." If you want to re-edit Christianity, Q is a marvelously convenient text, because no copy has ever been found. Its existence is pure supposition. (The theory goes that, since the authors of the three synoptic gospels recount many of the same events, they must have worked off a single text.)

In spite of Q's nonexistence, heterodox scholars treat it as the founding document of Christianity and load it with what they think Jesus actually did and said. It turns out that Q is what's left after you have scissored out everything that doesn't sit well with the modern secular mind: miracles, talk of an afterlife even, in some cases, the Lord's Prayer.

The other texts of this deconstructed Christianity are the so-called gnostic gospels, copies of which actually exist. There is no doubt that these books were compiled by gnostic heretics who were in open rebellion against the institutional church in the early centuries. The gnostics were an early version of the New Age movement; for them, Christianity was not meant to move anyone out of his comfort zone. They also happened to be highly elitist and anti-Jewish, but this is passed over. What appeals to radical scholars like Rosemary Radford Reuther is that the gnostics' vaporous writings can be used as a stick for beating the hierarchical church.

Mr. Jenkins points out that the debate over the biblical canon turns heavily on the dating of the four Gospels and the alternative texts. It has always been in the interests of the radicals to show that the composition of the four Gospels occurred long after the deaths of the apostles. If that were true, then a case could be made that these texts were concocted to buttress the claims of a hierarchical church that had betrayed the intentions of its founder. Late datings would also put them on a more even playing field with the gnostic gospels, which were probably not written until at least the middle of the second century.

But mounting evidence points to an earlier composition of the four Gospels than was supposed even by orthodox scholars a few decades ago. Mr. Jenkins writes that all of them "were written within living memory of the time of Jesus and, conceivably, within the lifetimes of his apostles and early followers." In contrast, it is much harder to date the fringe gospels, although indications point to origins at least 50 and more likely 100 years after the canonical texts. Mr. Jenkins asserts that simply on the basis of the historical evidence, the primitive church was right to canonize the four original Gospels and to exclude the questionable would-be gospels, whose object was to radically alter the message of the earlier texts.

Given the solid evidence that orthodox Christianity has relied on the most plausible scriptural canon to begin with, why, it may be asked, do so many scholars want to have it another way? The answer is that most scholars do not, that the rebels who constitute, for example, the Jesus Seminar a group of biblical scholars who famously vote on the authenticity of the sayings and events of Jesus's life represent a small minority of genuine biblical scholarship.

Most bible scholars do their work, publish in appropriate journals and don't jockey for air time. The media, in other words, grossly misrepresent the academic consensus about the gospels, and one of the many services of Mr. Jenkins's fine, carefully argued book is to put discussion about what happened in Palestine 2,000 years ago on more reliable ground.

- Mr. Johnston is a writer living in New York.

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