Jesus Out of Focus The early church knew what it believed, we’re the confused ones
While visiting relatives in northern Sweden last September, we flew from Stockholm to Luleå. Then we drove Piteå, a small town far from any tourist itinerary (and 160 kilometres from the Arctic Circle). I found Piteå’s one bookstore in the town market, entered out of curiosity — and there it was, a full display, spilling over with Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code in Swedish. Here among the reindeer and lingonberries, Swedes were preparing for their long winter with copies of Da Vinci Koden.
The book has been translated into 43 languages since being published three years ago. Now Hollywood is hoping for similar blockbuster status for its heavily hyped movie starring Tom Hanks, now in theatres.
Though the general public is fascinated with the book’s conjectures, The Da Vinci Code has merely brought into the open a heated discussion among scholars that is at least 50 years old. Among Dan Brown’s more controversial claims are these:
- Jesus had an intimate relationship with Mary Magdalene.
- Jesus and Mary Magdalene were husband and wife.
- Jesus and Mary Magdalene had children.
- Church leaders (some mysterious Catholic order) hid this secret.
- Long-suppressed gospels — such as the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Philip — now are finally telling us the truth.
These claims are not being made only by agnostics and liberals. Recently, in a basic New Testament class at Wheaton College, a student presented me with the 27 February edition of Time. An article described a “long-lost second-century gospel”, the Gospel of Judas, that promised to unveil new secrets about Jesus. Later that same hour, another student asked, “I’ve read that the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of John are similar, so if John is trustworthy, why not Thomas?” Welcome to the new world of New Testament studies.
Since the earliest years of the church, Christian leaders have had to confront rival accounts of Jesus’ life. These were gospels that refashioned Jesus’ life, often giving it a spin palatable to the Hellenistic trends of the day. From about 125 to about 600, people with active religious imaginations wrote numerous gospels. As Origen of Alexandria wrote in his Homily on Luke, “The church has four Gospels, but the heretics have many.”
In some cases, we know about these writings through the refutation of church leaders. Orthodox writers cite the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Gospel of the Nazareans, and the Gospel of the Ebionites, but we have no copies of these texts themselves. In addition, we have always had apocryphal (meaning “hidden”) gospels, which often expanded stories about Jesus’ childhood centuries later. Infancy gospels are attributed, for instance, to both Thomas and James. Fragments of lost gospels have also been found (such as Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 840) that record supposed supplemental sayings of Jesus. But these are so short they can hardly be dated.
In 1945, however, an archive of 57 Christian writings was discovered in central Egypt at Nag Hammadi. Here were gospels we had never seen. Although they were clearly early, they were out of the mainstream of New Testament thought. The Hypostasis of the Archons, the Exegesis of the Soul, the Apocalypse of Adam and the Acts of Peter were among these.
Nag Hammadi’s Gospel of Thomas has 114 sayings from Jesus, unconnected to any narrative. About half appear to be a direct echo of the New Testament. Others are utterly far-fetched.
But this archive raised forcefully a set of questions now confronting every New Testament scholar and church historian.
Were rival “Christianities” competing in the ancient world? Did our Scriptures come to us thanks to the power politics of ecclesiastical leaders during the first centuries?
Today, many books explore these themes. In 1979, Elaine Pagels wrote The Gnostic Gospels, received numerous awards and accolades for her creativity and courage, and promised to help us unpack the formative centuries of Christian belief. Perhaps some Christians did not believe in Jesus’ resurrection or even in one God, she proposed. Perhaps they thought of God as both male and female. And who is to say they were wrong?
In 2003, Pagels returned to her subject with Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. In it, we are told that the earliest form of Christianity was not certain what it believed and that the orthodoxy that emerged simply outmaneuvered its rivals and repressed alternative scriptures. Thomas supposedly represents one such repressed voice.
Of course, to evaluate these claims we must determine the value of these apocryphal gospels. Do they represent legitimate voices suppressed in antiquity? In the last five years, this debate has intensified. Some scholars argue that the canonical boundary that separates our Scriptures from the apocrypha should come down. Others argue that gospels such as Thomas should have equal weight with Matthew. Still others believe that notions such as “orthodoxy” and “canon” are simply arbitrary conventions of the winners.
But they fail to mention that while most of the recently discovered gospels will claim to come from an apostle (such as Mary or Peter), virtually every scholar knows these claims are fictitious. Moreover, these gospels are not easily dated. When someone claims that, say, the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Judas is “late first century” we are merely hearing conjecture.
Furthermore, the early church was well aware of these writings and understood that they offered a view of Christian faith utterly different from the genuine apostolic Gospels. Christians of the time did not see these gospels as rivals. They simply saw them as wrong in every respect: They presented an understanding of creation, humanity, Jesus, and salvation that significantly departed from what Christians had believed from the very beginning.
Which brings us back to Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code. Brown’s astonishing claims about Jesus and Mary are found in two apocryphal gospels, the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Philip. Brown, a skilled author but no scholar, simply picked them up and spun a fictional narrative around them.
Bart D. Ehrman, however, is chair of the religious studies department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ehrman has studied Christianity’s first three centuries carefully since leaving the evangelical fold. In 1996, he wrote The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, in which he claims that not only did the winners “write the history”, but they also shaped the Greek texts making up the New Testament. This year, Ehrman published a popular study of the transmission of the Greek New Testament, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (HarperSanFrancisco).
In Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman retraces the common knowledge that scribes transcribed the Bible for 1500 years until Gutenberg came along. But Ehrman further suggests that not only did the scribes alter the theological message of the texts, but that they also were simply continuing in the tradition of biblical writers such as Matthew and Luke, who shaped Jesus’ message to fit their theological agendas.
What Ehrman fails to tell us is that most of the scribal errors he likes to list are incidental. And when they do have substance, the thousands of Greek manuscripts we possess permit us to reconstruct the original by making minute comparisons of their discrepancies. For instance, the shorter version of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11:2-4 is notorious for its many “variants” (textual discrepancies or anomalies) in Greek manuscripts. However, it quickly becomes evident that scribes were harmonising this prayer with Matthew’s longer version in Matthew 6:9-13.
On other occasions, scribes heard dictation wrong (in Rom. 5:1, “let us have peace” and “we have peace” sound the same in Greek) or they sensed a problem they wanted to solve. Mark 1:2 quotes from both Malachi and Isaiah, but Mark wrote “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet”. Some scribes sought to correct this by amending the text: “As it is written in the prophets.” In most cases, scholars can quickly restore the original. To be sure, some textual problems are hotly contested and solving them is thorny (the story of the woman caught in adultery is a case in point, see John 8), but none of these variants jeopardises a single major teaching of the New Testament.
In 2003 (the same year The Da Vinci Code was published), two more Ehrman books were published. In Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament (Oxford), Ehrman offers an anthology of 47 Christian writings from the centuries following the New Testament era. Some are cited by church fathers (such as the Gospel of the Nazareans). Others come from Nag Hammadi (Acts of Peter). Ehrman divides his book helpfully into sections: non-canonical gospels, acts, epistles, and apocalypses.
Here are easy-to-read translations of books such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and the Secret Gospel of Mark. An introduction summarises each book and suggests a historical setting. This is an outstanding resource for the beginning student of apocryphal literature. The cumulative effect, however, leaves the lasting impression that many early Christians read a lot of things that have been left out of our canon of Scripture. Thus, Ehrman writes: “Jewish Christians in the early centuries of the church were widely thought to have preferred the Gospel of Matthew.” Or “The Gospel of Peter was known and used as scripture in some parts of the Christian church in the second century.”
These sentences carry with them huge historical and theological assumptions. Locating an apocryphal gospel in antiquity certainly suggests that someone was reading it. But it hardly means that this gospel was enjoying widespread support and authority, especially among Christians. Such an argument would be the same as someone who finds an example of eccentric Christian or cultic literature today and then concludes that this is “what Christians read”. It simply goes beyond the evidence.
Ehrman’s more important effort appears in the companion volume, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (Oxford). Here Ehrman says that early Christianity witnessed remarkable theological chaos. Everything was in dispute: monotheism, Jesus’ divinity, creation. Then, Ehrman says, in the second and third centuries, powerful clerics imposed their views on rivals, ending a golden age of diversity and tolerance. The vanquished rivals supposedly were reformed, suppressed, or forgotten. Other religions and other Christian voices, those outside the mainstream, were crushed. And it is only now, Ehrman says, with the discovery of their lost scriptures, that these long-silenced voices are being heard once again.
What drives this interest in lost scriptures today? Ehrman concludes that the broader interest in and heightened appreciation for diverse manifestations of religious experience, belief, and practice today has contributed to a greater fascination with the diverse expressions of Christianity in various periods of its history, perhaps especially in its earliest period. This fascination is not simply a matter of antiquarian interest. There is instead a sense that alternative understandings of Christianity from the past can be cherished yet today, that they can provide insights even now for those of us who are concerned about the world and our place in it.
This remarkable admission unmasks what may be Ehrman’s hidden agenda:
Finding a wild diversity in the early church — or perhaps, undercutting orthodoxy in that church — will do the same for our generation. In an era that shies away from the scandal of certain truth, dismantling religious authority based on an argument from antiquity will be received eagerly.
Karen King at Harvard Divinity School has analysed one such supposedly recovered voice. In The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle (Polebridge Press, 2003), King affirms Mary and other women who are said to have departed from the arbitrary orthodoxy of orthodoxy. It doesn’t surprise me that recently at an O’Hare Airport bookstall, I saw King’s book prominently displayed next to The Da Vinci Code as the latest “must read”.
On top of all this, like-minded scholars now claim that the New Testament itself carries a hidden code revealing alternative voices to orthodoxy. The prevailing theory for Gospel origins suggests that Mark’s was penned first, then Matthew and Luke used Mark independently as they wrote their Gospels. However, Matthew and Luke still have a lot of material in common, sayings of Jesus not found in Mark (such as the Lord’s Prayer and the Beatitudes). Thus, scholars have posited a lost source that may have stood alongside Mark and have called it “Q” (from the German quelle, or “source”). We commonly hear that Matthew used Q and Mark when he wrote.
But, in fact, Q has never been found, and some scholars doubt that it ever existed. Using Matthew and Luke, Q can be reconstructed to build a hypothetical Gospel source. Using this method, we “discover” that Q lacks a narrative of Jesus’ work, shows no interest in His death, and doesn’t record His resurrection. It is a collection of sayings underscoring the wisdom Jesus offered so that we might learn God’s true nature. For a long time, scholars wondered why anyone would bother to form a collection such as this without a narrative or the Cross.
Until we discovered the Gospel of Thomas at Nag Hammadi, that is. Here was a collection of sayings just like the Q hypothesis (although no one thinks that Thomas is Q). By this argument, an early stratum of the synoptic Gospels shows a system of faith not focused on Jesus’ divinity or sacrifice. It is no surprise that a number of scholars argue that the Gospel of Thomas is very early — as early as Mark — and a solid source for understanding Jesus. Is Q another rival (and silenced) voice in the earliest church that succumbed to orthodox power?
Many New Testament scholars would be alarmed at such a statement. The Q hypothesis (and the literary priority of Mark) are regularly criticised. (For instance, if Matthew wrote first, and Luke used Matthew, and Mark abbreviated both, then Q represents the material Mark left behind.) Moreover, since no manuscript evidence for Q has ever been found (you can only “see” it by accepting one hypothesis for the origin of the canonical Gospels), many scholars doubt that any Christian ever had a Gospel now called Q. Scholars who describe a “theology of Q” or a “Q community” do so with slim justification. Even if Q existed, it may simply have been a compilation of material about Jesus, not a comprehensive portrait of him.
What do we make of all this? And how much of this theorising is convincing? Darrell Bock of Dallas Theological Seminary has taken up the challenge. In 2004, he wrote a compelling critique of The Da Vinci Code (Breaking the Da Vinci Code, Nelson), one of the best analyses of Brown’s novel available today.
In August, he is releasing The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities. The echo to Ehrman’s work is obvious: Bock intends to challenge the scholarly trend that now gives voice to the apocryphal Gospels, and to question the theory of unfairly repressed “lost Christianities”.
After he outlines the documents under discussion, Bock surveys the history of gnosticism — a religious movement that valued secret knowledge (gnosis) and disdained the physical world as inferior to the spiritual realm, thus denying the incarnation of Christ. Bock’s survey shows the paucity of evidence for a uniform gnostic movement in the earliest centuries, undercutting the claim from Ehrman and others that gnosticism was a competing “Christianity”.
Bock then examines the theory (widespread among modern scholars) that the terms heresy and orthodoxy are arbitrarily applied to first-century losers and winners. On the contrary, Bock argues, early Christianity did indeed make theological judgments based on sound reasoning, deciding what agreed with revealed truth.
Bock’s most valuable contribution, however, is his assessment of four theological themes that no doubt disqualified these gospels from mainstream thinking:
- God and creation. These gospels uniformly deny a link between God and the world — creation is subject to imperfection and evil, while God is perfect.
- The humanity and divinity of Jesus. The tension between Creator and creation (called dualism) posed a problem for the incarnation. The gnostics said Jesus either had to be divine without human qualities — or he had to be created.
- Redemption of humanity. The same dualistic dilemma now follows the nature of humanity and our salvation. Does God redeem us (and the world) in our totality — or is only the soul saved? These gospels commonly favored only a spiritual redemption.
- Sin and knowledge. Salvation comes not through a physical deed (the Cross) but through knowledge, or enlightenment. In this approach, Jesus shows us the way to enlightenment but does no incarnate or substitutionary work to save us.
These four theological distortions departed from the teachings of the New Testament and are clearly foreign to it. No wonder orthodox teachers said that gnostics had utterly compromised the faith to fit the cultural tendencies of the day. Bock says the hypothesis about rival diversities is exaggerated to the extreme, implausible historically, and neglects how the New Testament Gospels preserve a reliable witness back to Jesus himself.
The Da Vinci Code is of little consequence in itself. But it is raising a host of questions about the origin of our faith (and our Scriptures) that Christians need to master.
This came home to me when I was discussing The Da Vinci Code in a book group recently. Everyone there had a graduate degree, was a professing Christian, and had a professional career. But I was asked: “What are the apocryphal gospels, such as the Gospel of Mary, anyway? Don’t Catholics have them in their Bible?” Another: “What is the New Testament apocrypha, and who decided it wasn’t inspired?” More: “Didn’t Thomas write the Gospel of Thomas? And if so, didn’t he know Jesus?”
Thanks to a blockbuster novel with absurd claims, and a big-budget summer movie, this academic debate has moved from the ivory tower to the public arena. The intellectual battle has been joined. Are we ready?