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Scholars Are Uncovering a Radically Different Jesus through Ancient Documents Just as Credible as the Four Gospels
The rumor mill was churning. One of my reporters received a tip that police had detained a man running for Illinois governor. The accusation? He'd allegedly abused his wife. If this were true, then the irony would be devastating: One of his responsibilities as the state's chief executive would be to oversee a network of shelters for battered women.
If this politician really had abused his wife, then the voters deserved to know. But before we could responsibly break the story, we needed indisputable confirmation-preferably, a written document-to establish the facts. It would be terrible journalism-not to mention despicable human behavior-to label him an abuser without solid evidence to back up that claim.
The reporters milked their sources. One came up with a timeframe for the incident. Another got the name of the Chicago suburb where the incident allegedly took place in a public parking lot. Still, we didn't have enough. The information was too vague and too unreliable.
Finally, another reporter was able to obtain the key piece of evidence: a police report that described exactly what happened. Because no criminal charges had been filed, privacy laws dictated that all names on the report be blacked out. As the reporter studied the report more carefully, though, she discovered the police had failed to black out the name in one place. Sure enough, it was the candidate's name. Digging deeper in the report yielded the final clue: The suspect had bragged about being the mayor of a certain suburb-the same position held by the candidate. Bingo! A match.
In a dramatic confrontation in the Tribune's conference room, I peppered the candidate with questions about the incident. He steadfastly denied it ever occurred-until I handed him a copy of the police report. Now faced with the indisputable evidence, he finally admitted to the encounter with police. And within 72 hours, he'd withdrawn from the governor's race.
For both journalists and historians, documents can be invaluable in helping confirm what's happened. Even so, detective work still needs to be done in order to establish the authenticity and credibility of any written record. Questions need to be asked: Who wrote it? Was this person in a position to know what happened? Was he or she motivated by prejudice or bias? Has the document been kept safe from tampering? How legible is it? Is it backed by other external facts? And are there competing documents that might be more reliable or that might shed a whole new light on the matter?
When it comes to understanding the historical Jesus, that last question has become particularly important. For centuries scholars investigating what happened in the life of Jesus relied mostly on the New Testament, especially the books of Mark, Matthew, and Luke-which are the oldest of the four books we call "the Gospels"-as well as the Gospel of John.
In modern times, however, archaeological discoveries have yielded a fascinating crop of other documents from ancient Palestine.
A DIFFERENT JESUS
In the years since my initial investigation into Jesus, the focus on what some scholars call "alternative gospels" has greatly intensified. Both academic and popular books have used these sources to offer a different picture of Jesus. In the 1990s, several participants in the Jesus Seminar (a group of highly liberal and skeptical academics) and others, led by religious studies professor Robert J. Miller, published The Complete Gospels, which put the New Testament Gospels side-by-side with 16 other ancient texts.
"Each of these gospel records offers fresh glimpses into the world of Jesus and his followers," says the book. "All of the ... texts in this volume are witnesses to early Jesus traditions. All of them contain traditions independent of the New Testament gospels."
THE JESUS SEMINAR
The left-wing Jesus Seminar captivated the media's attention in the 1990s by using colored beads to vote on what Jesus really said. The group's conclusion: Fewer than one in five sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels actually came from him. In the Lord's Prayer, the Seminar determined that Jesus said only the words "Our Father." There were similar results when the participants considered which deeds of Jesus were authentic.
What made the Jesus Seminar unique was the way it bypassed the usual academic channels and enthusiastically took its conclusions directly to the public, which was ill-equipped to evaluate them. "These scholars have suddenly become concerned-to the point of being almost evangelistic-with shaping public opinion about Jesus with their research," said one New Testament expert.
A major reason to take these alternative gospels seriously is that some scholars claim they were written as early as the first century, which is when Jesus' ministry flourished and the four Gospels of the New Testament were written. If that's the case, then we can assume they contain very early-and perhaps historically reliable-material.
To me, the implication of this research was clear: These other gospels-with such names as the Gospel of Thomas, the Secret Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of Peter, and the Gospel of Mary-were equal to the biblical accounts in terms of their historical significance and spiritual content. In fact, Philip Jenkins, professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University, said, "With so many hidden gospels now brought to light, it is now often claimed that the four Gospels were simply four among many of roughly equal worth, and the alternative texts gave just as valid a picture of Jesus as the texts we have today."
The discovery of these other gospels might not be such a big deal if they gave pretty much the same picture of Jesus that the New Testament gives. But some of them paint a very different portrait of Jesus from the one we find in the Bible, and they throw key theological beliefs into question. To see what I mean, Google "Gospel of Thomas." You can find the entire book-a collection of 114 sayings that are attributed to Jesus-online. What you'll read will have some similarities to the New Testament Gospels, but you'll also find some significant differences. Here are a few examples:
SUBJECT GOSPEL OF THOMAS NEW TESTAMENT
Who Jesus is Someone who imparts The Redeemer who saves secret teachings to the his people from sin disciples who are mature enough to receive it
Salvation Salvation comes through a Salvation comes through special, secret knowledge. faith in Jesus. "And you You have to be worthy to can't take credit for this; it receive that knowledge. is a gift from God" (Ephesians 2:8, NLT).
Fasting, prayer, "If you fast, you will bring "When you fast, comb your and giving sin upon yourselves, and if hair and wash your face" you pray, you will be condemned, (Matthew 6:17, NLT). and if you give to charity, you will harm your "And pray in the Spirit on spirits." (Saying 14) all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests" (Ephesians 6:18).
"If [your gift] is contributing to the needs of others ... give generously" Romans 12:8).
And that's only one small sampling of one document. Take a look at some of the other alternative gospels:
The Gospel of Mary: Contrary to the biblical Gospels, this text has Jesus teaching that "salvation is achieved by seeking the true spiritual nature of humanity within oneself and overcoming the entrapping material nature of the body and the world."
The Secret Gospel of Mark: The most controversial claim in this gospel is that Jesus conducted a secret initiation rite with a young man that, according to one scholar, may have included "physical union."
The Jesus Papers: Directly contradicting what Christianity has taught for two millennia, Jesus explicitly denies that he's the Son of God, clarifying instead that he only embodies God's spirit as anyone can.
The Gospel of Judas: The most sensational claims in this text are that Judas Iscariot was Jesus' greatest disciple, that he alone was able to understand Jesus' most profound teaching, and that the two of them conspired to arrange for Jesus' betrayal.
All of this had profound implications for my personal quest to discover the real Jesus. Was it possible my earlier conclusions about him had been unduly colored by New Testament accounts that were really only one perspective among many?
Clearly, a lot was at stake. I needed to have confidence that the right people used the right reasoning to choose the right documents in the ancient world. I needed to know if there was any historical support for these alternative texts that cast Jesus in a different light. I needed to go wherever the evidence took me.
Knowing there are almost as many opinions as there are experts, I wanted to track down someone with sterling credentials, who would be respected by both conservatives and liberals, and who, most importantly, could back up any insights with solid facts and reasoning.
That meant flying to Nova Scotia and driving to a quaint village to interview a highly regarded historian. After driving more than an hour from my hotel in Halifax, I ended up in a heavily wooded community near Acadia University. I rang the doorbell at the colonial-style home of Craig A. Evans, professor of New Testament at Acadia.
I believed Evans could help me determine whether these alternative gospels are trustworthy and give me some insight into the way Bible scholars sort out the fact from the fiction.
INTERVIEW #1: CRAIG A. EVANS, PHD
Evans and his wife, Ginny, opened their front door and invited me inside. As we settled into chairs at their dining room table, I decided to start with the question of the legitimacy of the "alternative" gospels.
"With all the alternative gospels coming to light, is there any way to determine whether they are reliable?" I asked as I picked up a homemade chocolate-chip cookie from a tray Ginny had set between us on the table.
Evans thought for a moment. "The best way, I think, is to follow the criteria that historians use in determining whether any ancient document is reliable."
1. When was it written? "The first question is: When was it written?" he said, leaning back in his chair. "If the document is about Alexander the Great, was it written during the lifetime of those who knew him? Same with the New Testament. There's a huge difference between a gospel written in AD 60-about 30 years after Jesus' ministry-and another document written in AD 150.
"If the Gospel of Mark was written in the 60s-some 30 to 35 years after Jesus' ministry-then it was written within the lifetimes of lots of people who would have known Jesus and heard him teach. If the gospel writer got it wrong, then people who knew Jesus and his teachings wouldn't accept it. But if a document was written 60, 80, or 100 years later, then that chain is lost. Although it's not impossible that a document written much, much later could contain authentic material, it's a lot more problematic."
2. Where was it written? "A second issue," he said, "involves a geographic connection. For example, a document written in the eastern Mediterranean world 30 years after Jesus' ministry is more promising than one written in Spain or France in the middle of the second century."
3. Does it reflect the culture of the time? "A third issue involves the cultural accuracy of the document, in terms of its allusions to contemporary politics or events. This can expose phony documents that claim to have been written earlier than they really were. When we have a writer in the second or third century who's claiming to be recounting something Jesus did, often he doesn't have the correct details. For example, whoever wrote the so-called Gospel of Peter didn't know Jewish burial traditions, corpse impurity issues, and other matters from Jesus' time. He gets exposed by mistakes he didn't even realize he made."
CHRISTIANITY OR CHRISTIANITIES
At this point, I brought up The Complete Gospels. "Some scholars say these other gospels were written very early," I said. "This backs up their claim that first-century Christianity included a broad range of differing doctrines and practices-all equally legitimate-and it was the more powerful orthodox wing that crushed these other valid Christian movements at the council of Nicea in 325. Is it true that the earliest Christianity was a melting pot of all kinds of different perspectives about Jesus?"
The Council of Nicea
In 325, three hundred or so representatives of the Christian church from all over the Roman Empire met in the city of Nicea (now Isnik, Turkey). The result of that conference was the Nicene Creed, the first formal summary statement of what Christians believe. (You can find the Nicene Creed in several places online, if you're interested.)
The disdain was apparent on Evans' face. "It's not true at all," he insisted. "It sounds good today with our emphasis on political correctness, multiculturalism, and sympathy for marginalized groups. It fits in well with the modern attitude that says diversity is always good, truth is negotiable, and every opinion is equally valid. But the question is, what really did happen in the first century? What's the evidence? What are the facts?"
Bio: Craig Evans
Professor of New Testament, Acadia University, 2002 to present
Professor at Trinity Western University for more than 20 years, where he directed the graduate programs in biblical studies and founded the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute.
Bachelor's degree in history and philosophy from Claremont McKenna College
Master of divinity degree from Western Baptist Seminary
Master's degree and doctorate in biblical studies from Claremont Graduate University (which has produced numerous members of the Jesus Seminar as well)
Has served as a visiting fellow at Princeton Theological Seminary
Author or editor of more than 50 books, including Noncanonical Writings and New Testament Interpretation and Studying the Historical Jesus
Has lectured at Cambridge, Durham, Oxford, Yale, and other universities, as well as the Field Museum in Chicago and the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa
Served as editor-in-chief of the Bulletin for Biblical Research
Member of the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas (SNTS), the Institute for Biblical Research, and the International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies
Chairman of the Society of Biblical Literature's Scripture in Early Judaism and Christianity Section and the SNTS's Gospels and Rabbinic Literature Seminar
Has appeared as an expert on numerous television programs, including Dateline NBC, and on the History Channel and the BBC
Excerpted from The Case for the Real Jesus-Student Edition by Lee Strobel Jane Vogel
Copyright © 2008 by Lee Strobel. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted June 25, 2010
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