"Reinventing Jesus": Book Review

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Excerpt As one who spends most of his time investigating the archaeology of the Old Testament, "Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture" is a much appreciated primer on the historical evidence for the New Testament. It also functions as a comprehensive presentation and refutation of the major objections commonly heard in today’s post-modern landscape... Continue reading

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The three authors, J. Komoszewski, M. Sawyer, and D. Wallace­, begin by posing a problem with which ABR readers are well-aware: America today has an abysmal level of biblical knowledge, which makes it easy prey for every new skeptical theory that comes along, from Dan Brown’s popular novels, to the Jesus Seminar, to television and pop culture. The book is explicitly written that the lay skeptic might take a hard look at the true evidence, and that believers would experience a strengthening of their faith. The authors endeavor to build a positive case for the trustworthiness of the biblical text using an historical approach, asserting that “We treat the Bible like any other book to show that it is not like any other book.” That they succeed in their task is made abundantly clear in 262 well-written pages.

The first part, “I Believe in Yesterday,” makes the case that, despite having been written decades after the life and times of Jesus, the record of events in the New Testament is trustworthy. This several decade delay begs the question as to why the writers waited so long. Most scholars hold that the first Gospel published was Mark, sometime prior to the early 60s AD. Luke’s Gospel and the Book of Acts, originally conceived as a single two-part volume, can also be dated with confidence to the same period (both Peter and Paul were reputed to have been executed during the Neronian persecution following the fire in Rome in AD 64, according to the writings of Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio). These dates tlearly show that nearly three decades had passed since the resurrection. On the surface, this may seem like a long wait. But was it really?  

There was undoubtedly a period of oral proclamation that followed Jesus’ death and resurrection. As indicated by numerous passages (Acts 2:47; 6:7; 19:20; James 1:1; 1 Pet 1:1, etc), the church was growing and the gospel message was spreading rapidly. During this formative period, the emphasis was on the preached word of eyewitnesses. We should recall that it was only a few weeks after the crucifixion that the Day of Pentecost took place. As recorded by Luke, members of the Jewish community from around the known world were present on that fateful day, from as far as Parthia and Elam (Persia), Mesopotamia, Cappadocia (Turkey), Egypt, Libya, Crete, and Rome (Acts 2:9). From that point forward, there were no longer effective controls on the content of the Gospel. Moreover, it was not feasible for the Apostles to have conspired to construct a fraudulent Jesus narrative while hundreds of eyewitnesses were alive to dispute it. The subsequent rapid spread of the Gospel across the Mediterranean world makes the conspiracy theory quite untenable.  

Only when the Apostles began to die off and the return of the Lord did not transpire as expected was the need perceived for a written account. The authors correctly highlight the critical role played by Jewish oral culture of that day. Long before the printed word, the centrality of memory in community cannot be overstated. In such an environment, the events and words of Jesus were replayed and recalled hundreds and thousands of times by those who were present with him, beginning during Jesus lifetime and continuing for decades through countless retellings.

It has also been noted that Jesus’ instructions were often uttered in rhythmic fashion, making them easier to recall later and memorize. We also cannot discount the probability that the disciples took down notes to record significant events or lessons. It seems quite likely that the collective memory of the early community of followers faithfully and accurately preserved an oral tradition of the activity and teachings of Jesus. The consequence of these cultural and historical factors leads to the only reasonable conclusion—that the written record forms an authentic eyewitness account of the life and times of the founder of the Christian faith.

Part 2 examines the question of how much the New Testament text was altered or corrupted during the early centuries of transmission. Even if the authors were faithful in recording what they saw and understood, later editorial activity may have changed or embellished the original accounts. The field of textual criticism attempts to recover the original wording of the books of the Bible. Using this methodology over the last two centuries, scholars have been successful in isolating what are known as textual variants. Although quite numerous, the vast majority of such variants are comprised of spelling errors, nonsensical errors, and other miscellaneous corruptions that do not affect the accuracy of translations. This category includes errors that appear in only one manuscript or group of manuscripts such as, for example, the addition of “and drink” after “eat” in Matt 9:11, in which Jesus is reported to have eaten with “many tax-gatherers and sinners.” This minor alteration was evidently added in order to conform to the parallel passage in Luke 5:30.

In the final tally, only about 1 percent of all documented variants are actually considered viable and meaningful. The most significant of these is the conclusion of the Gospel of Mark, in which the best and earliest manuscripts end after verse 16:8. Terminating immediately after the women had fled from Jesus’ empty tomb, frightened by what they had seen; it makes for an abrupt conclusion to the book. Despite the fact that the vast majority of manuscripts add twelve more verses, it leaves open the question of what the original text held. Was it intended to end so abruptly, or was it simply lost in the early copies? Perhaps the additional twelve verses reflect the original version? Whatever proves to be the case, no fundamental truth or doctrine is affected by the omission of the final verses of Mark.

It is now well established that the New Testament is by far the best-attested work of antiquity. New manuscript discoveries have multiplied the source documents upon which our modern translations are based one hundred fold over those used in creating the King James Version of 1611! The earliest of these is the famous John Rylands fragment, which is dated to the first quarter of the 2nd century AD. In all, over 5700 full or partial manuscript fragments of New Testament writings are known. The average surviving texts from other ancient books, such as Livy, Tacitus, Herodotus, and Homer is a mere twenty! Moreover, the biblical documents date much closer to the events which they report. The earliest copies of other works are often separated by a millennium.

The authors spend considerable space reviewing the results of textual criticism in discerning the original words of scripture. The corpus of material used in this endeavor is truly immense. To the thousands of Greek documents can be added over ten thousand Latin manuscripts, as well as ancient versions in Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopic, and Armenian. Not to be overlooked is the witness of the early church fathers, whose commentaries, sermons, and treatises are sufficient alone to reconstruct virtually the whole of the New Testament. In sum, the staggering amount of material and the tiny number of variants demonstrate the remarkable stability and reliability of the New Testament, a fact that popular culture is usually remiss in highlighting!

Another popular myth holds that the “custodians of orthodoxy” revised and edited the New Testament under the auspices of the Emperor Constantine at the Council of Nicaea in the early 4th century. This allowed church authorities to rewrite their material to suit their tenets. Only then did Jesus take on divine status in the many manuscripts that postdate the council. However, this overlooks indisputable evidence from nearly fifty pre-4th century documents that correspond on all counts in their portrayal of Jesus as God. These verses refer explicitly to Jesus as such, in additioin to the dozens of others that imply as much.

Questions surrounding the canon are addressed in Part 3, “Did the Early Church Muzzle the Canon?” The charge has been made that the books included in the New Testament were not finally approved until as late as the 6th century. The word canon derives from the Greek term kanōn, meaning “rule” or “standard.” The earliest known list of accepted books was compiled by Marcion around AD 140. His activities prompted the church to further refine what constituted canon, with the result that 22 of the 27 books of the New Testament were admitted by the end of the 2nd century. By the end of the 4th century all 27 books had been enshrined as scripture.

It is important to take note of the careful process by which the church assessed the authenticity of these books. Three criteria were utilized: apostolicity, orthodoxy, and catholicity. The first concerns authorship of the book in question. Was it written by an apostle or associate of such? Secondly, were its teachings in harmony with others known to be authentic? The third measure determined whether the book was accepted early and by a majority of churches. In other words, did it pass the test of universality? (catholicity)

Another significant aspect of these books is that, rather than being accepted into the canon by a church edict or council, they in effect authenticated themselves. By this definition, the canon consists of a “list of authoritative books” rather than “an authoritative list of books.” They qualified as such on the strength of their intrinsic worth and authority as true witnesses to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. The only books that were disputed were some of the shorter letters, such as 2 and 3 John, Jude, and 2 Peter, for reasons of style, none of which alter the portrait of Christ put forth in the rest.  

Much has been made of other gospel writings, known as apocryphal books (meaning “hidden”). That some of these were suppressed from inclusion in the canon has become standard fare in popular media, such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.  Upon closer inspection, however, such works describe a Jesus that stands in stark contrast to the one that appears in authentic works. These writings tend to dwell on two gaps in the life of Jesus: his childhood and the three days between his death and resurrection. The most famous is the Gospel of Thomas, one of a group of Gnostic texts discovered at Nag Hammadi (Egypt) that date to the 2nd century or later.

Since Gnostic thought held that the material world was evil and the spirit world was good, the portrayal of Jesus found among these documents consists of a collection of non-narrative sayings and teachings. Moreover, their Jesus bears little resemblance to the human messiah of the genuine gospels. He performs fanciful miracles, such as turning his childhood playmates into goats and back into children. The Gnostic Jesus virtually “floats above the earth” and his relationship to women is ascetic, such that they require transformation into men to qualify as his disciples. The Gnostic gospels virtually plead for acceptance by their spurious claims of apostolic authorship. As such the church rightly and roundly rejected them as fraudulent and inconsistent with catholic faith and practice.

Part 4 delves more deeply into the question of whether the divinity of Christ was an early tradition or late superstition, as claimed by Dan Brown and others. Not surprisingly to those who study scripture, the New Testament speaks clearly and unambiguously that Jesus was equal to God. In other words, “the earliest Christology was already the highest Christology.” From the beginning, he was elevated to the highest divine status. The Jewish leaders of the time well understood Jesus’ claims to divinity and reacted with unbridled fury.

In addition to the Gospel presentation of Jesus, the testimony of the remainder of the New Testament bears similar witness. Three passages may well reflect the first discernible doctrinal statements of the early church. Romans 10:9–13 contains a Pauline description of saving faith. It also contains an ascription of the title “Lord” to Jesus himself. Paul’s epistle to the Philippians likewise bears a divine description of Jesus as Lord in what appears to be an early hymn. Another ancient hymn appears in Colossians 1:15–20, in which Christ is equated with the God of creation and ruler over all things seen and unseen. The books of the New Testament are unanimous in their view of Jesus as the true son of God and savior of the world. Collectively they render the notion that his divine status was granted by the Nicene clerics as utterly absurd and unsustainable.

Support for the early high Christology of the church comes from three other extra-biblical sources: secular historians, who were often at odds with the young faith, apostolic fathers of the early centuries like Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch, and the so-called apologists such as Irenaeus (c. 130–200) and Tertullian (c. 160–225). These together form a continuous tradition of a high view of Christ from the apostles to the time of Constantine.

Political leaders like Lucian of Samasota (c. 170) criticized Christians for their worship of Jesus, while the Roman philosopher Celsus (c. 177) scoffed at their worship of the man as God, as well as their belief in his position as the “son of God.” He saw this as a breach of monotheistic faith. Pliny the Younger (c. 112), as governor of Bithynia, condemned Christians for worshipping Jesus and ordered their execution if they failed to renounce their faith. The writings of the early church fathers also testify to their belief that Jesus was both man and God, as did those of the apologists of the 2nd and 3rd centuries. These all demonstrate that the core teaching of the church of Jesus as Lord was essential from the start, and was sustained and consistent for centuries prior to the Nicene Council.

The real issue at Nicaea was not the divinity of Jesus, which had long since been established, but rather the nature of that divinity. The Roman emperor Constantine summoned bishops from across the empire to settle the question of whether Jesus was a divinely created being or coequal with the Father. This became known as the Arian controversy, since Arius, a presbyter from Alexandria, held that Jesus, though of divine nature, was a created being. The adoption of the Greek term homoousios—meaning “one substance”—as part of the Nicene Creed, was a repudiation of the Arian position. It made official the long-held belief that Jesus was of the same substance and equal with the Father, yet distinct in person.

The final section, Part 5, relates to the allegation that Christianity adopted its core tenets from other ancient religions. These theories arose during the 19th century “history of religions” school that sought parallels to the teachings and practices of the church. Where such similarities were found, the unique nature of Christianity came under attack. Such parallels consisted of the virgin birth, God made flesh, and resurrection, among others. Their implications were that Christianity borrowed heavily from so-called mystery religions such as the Isis-Osiris myth, Dionysus, Mithra, and Tammuz. Unfortunately for the critics, this approach has been largely discredited by scholars, even as it lives on in the popular mind.

These fanciful notions were found wanting for several reasons: The pagan religions were often lumped together as though they comprised one common faith, with strong parallels to Christianity. However, these proved to be a creation of the modern imagination, known as the Composite Fallacy.  Secondly, scholars fell into the trap of describing the practices of ancient creeds in explicitly Christian terms, such as the death and “resurrection” of Osiris, even though their meaning in a pagan context was entirely different. This is the Terminological Fallacy. Related to this is the Dependency Fallacy, which equates the similarity of particular concepts, such as the universal human desire for companionship with the divine, as being examples of Christian dependence. Mystery religions also tended to view time as cyclical and related to seasonal harvest cycles rather than as linear and intentional as in Christianity. The reality is that the ancient pagan religions had more in common with one another than they did with the early church. The Christian faith rooted in historical events and correct belief stood in contrast to the mystery cults, with their emphasis on cyclical history and emotional frenzy.

In summary, Reinventing Jesus comprises a rather exhaustive and comprehensive treatment of modern objections to the Gospel, many of which are really not modern at all. However, the historical and theological superficiality of contemporary society makes it fertile soil for every new skeptical theory. Owing to rampant biblical ignorance, many trendy notions that would have once been dismissed now take root in the culture. On the positive side, the case for the historical trustworthiness of the New Testament is actually overwhelming. The authors contend that “the closer you look, the better Jesus looks,” and that an honest appraisal of the evidence and the search for truth will result in a high view of Jesus and the writings of the New Testament. In a postmodern age, we should remain prayerfully hopeful that hearts and minds remain open to the good news of the Gospel and intellectual appeals like Reinventing Jesus.  Komoszewski , Sawyer, and Wallace have rendered exemplary service to the household of faith and have made an compelling defense of the word of truth (1 Pet 3:15).     

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8/19/2013 10:57 AM #

Here are two points that need to be addressed.  First of all I found that describing those who hold to alternative theories of the Synoptic Problem like Farmer and David L. Dungan and his associates - a sort of neo-Greisbachian or rather 2 Gospel theory - Beyond the Q Impasse: Luke's use of Matthew and Two Gospels from One: Mark's Use of Matthew and Luke.  
The description, "a vocal minority" is pejorative and discounts other possible solutions to the Synoptic Problem.  In the light of the fact that the Jesus Seminar has the same presuppositions why are evangelicals buying into a highly questionable assumptions made by those who support the 2 or 4 Sources theories?  
Secondly, why was Edwin Yamauchi's book, Pre-Christian Gnosticism not included in the bibliography?  It is the basis of Ronald Nash's work!  I think it is more technically accurate and detailed than Nash's explanations.  

Richard Chelvan - 8/19/2013 10:57:44 AM

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