Chapter OneCHALLENGE #1
"SCHOLARS ARE UNCOVERING A RADICALLY DIFFERENT JESUS IN ANCIENT DOCUMENTS JUST AS CREDIBLE AS THE FOUR GOSPELS"
For nineteen hundred years or so the canonical texts of the New Testament were the sole source of historically reliable knowledge concerning Jesus of Nazareth. In 1945, this circumstance changed. Religion professor Stevan L. Davies
There's a very important historical point here, which is that in the last thirty years we have discovered real Gospels-hundreds of them-that are not the official Gospels, [but] that were part of the discussions in the early church. Commentator Andrew Sullivan
The rumor mill was churning. A political operative called one of my reporters with a tip that a candidate for Illinois governor had recently been detained by police after allegations that he had abused his wife. If this was true, 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.
Since other news media had been alerted as well, I knew we had only a short period of time to nail down the story. I immediately assigned five reporters to pursue various angles of the investigation. We needed indisputable confirmation-preferably, a written document-before we could publish the story.
The reporters milked their sources. One of them came up with a time frame for the incident. Another got the name of the Chicago suburb where it allegedly took place in a public parking lot. Still, we didn't have enough. The information was too vague and uncorroborated.
Finally, another reporter was able to obtain the key piece of evidence: a police report that described exactly what had happened. But there was a snag. Because no criminal charges had been filed, privacy laws dictated that all names on the report be blacked out. At first glance, it looked like there would be no way to link the candidate to the incident.
As the reporter studied the report more carefully, though, she discovered that the police had inadvertently failed to delete one reference to the person involved. Sure enough, it was the candidate's name. Still, his name was rather common. How could we be sure it was really him? 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 gubernatorial candidate. Bingo! A match.
In a dramatic confrontation in the newspaper'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. Faced with the indisputable evidence, he finally admitted the encounter with police. Within seventy-two hours he had withdrawn from the gubernatorial race.
For both journalists and historians, documents can be invaluable in helping confirm what has transpired. Even so, detective work needs to be done to establish the authenticity and credibility of any written record. 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 corroborated by other external facts? And are there competing documents that might be even more reliable or which might shed a whole new light on the matter?
That last question has come to the forefront in the quest to understand the historical Jesus in recent years. For centuries, scholars investigating what happened in the life of Jesus largely relied on the New Testament, especially Mark, Matthew, and Luke-which are the oldest of the four Gospels and are called the "Synoptics" because of their interrelationship-as well as the Gospel of John.
In modern times, however, archaeological discoveries have yielded a fascinating crop of other documents from ancient Palestine. Some of them paint a very different portrait of Jesus than the traditional picture found in the Bible, and they throw key theological beliefs into question. But can they really be trusted?
A DIFFERENT JESUS
In the years since my own investigation into Jesus, the focus on these "alternative gospels," in both academic and popular books, has greatly intensified. In the 1990s, several Jesus Seminar participants and others, led by Robert J. Miller, published The Complete Gospels, which juxtaposed the New Testament gospels with sixteen 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."
To me, the implication 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. Indeed, said Philip Jenkins, professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University, "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 case for these other gospels has been bolstered by some scholars who date a few of them to as early as the first century, which is when Jesus' ministry flourished and the four Gospels of the New Testament were written. That would mean they would contain very early-and therefore perhaps historically reliable-material.
For example, Karen L. King, professor of ecclesiastical history at Harvard Divinity School, said the Gospel of Mary may arguably have been written in the late first century. Contrary to the biblical Gospels, in this text Jesus teaches 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 disciples Peter and Andrew are depicted as "proud and ignorant men," while the gospel "identifies the true apostolic witness" of Mary Magdalene. In other words, she has the same stature as the other apostles of Jesus.
As for the Gospel of Peter, which includes a bizarre passage about a talking cross and the risen Jesus with his head extending beyond the clouds, scholars such as Arthur J. Dewey, associate professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati, date its early stage to the middle of the first century.
Then there's the incendiary Secret Gospel of Mark. Award-winning scholar Morton Smith of Columbia University, author of Jesus the Magician and other books, reported finding two and a half pages of this formerly unknown gospel in a monastery near Jerusalem in 1958. Scott G. Brown, who based his doctoral dissertation on the gospel, asserted in a 2005 book that it was penned by the same author who wrote the Gospel of Mark and was reserved only for those spiritually mature enough to handle it.
The most shocking claim in that gospel is that Jesus conducted a secret initiation rite with a young man that, according to Smith, may have included "physical union." Specifically, the text says that six days after Jesus raised a wealthy young man from the dead, "in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God."
Another explosive text-purportedly written by Jesus himself on papyrus in his own native language of Aramaic-was described by Michael Baigent in his 2006 New York Times bestseller 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 embodied God's spirit. According to Baigent, Jesus added that "everyone who felt similarly filled with the `spirit' was also a `son of God.'"
THE MYSTERY OF THOMAS
The darling of liberal scholarship, however, is the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of 114 "hidden" sayings attributed to Jesus. In its 1993 book The Five Gospels, the Jesus Seminar granted this text equal status to the New Testament. Thomas's first edition, according to The Complete Gospels, was written about AD 50, earlier than any of the biblical Gospels. The Gnostic Bible, edited by Willis Barnstone and Marvin Meyer, agrees with the early dating: "A version of this gospel may have been composed, most likely in Greek, as early as the middle of the first century, or somewhat later."
Elaine Pagels, professor of religion at Princeton University and author of Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, told me that she dates Thomas's composition to AD 80 or 90, which would be before many scholars date the Bible's Gospel of John. "The scholars that I know see John and Thomas sharing a common tradition," she said.
Yet the gospels of John and Thomas come to opposing conclusions concerning pivotal theological issues. "John says that we can experience God only through the divine light embodied in Jesus," Pagels said. "But certain passages in Thomas's gospel draw a quite different conclusion: that the divine light Jesus embodied is shared by humanity, since we are all made in the image of God."
The Thomas gospel describes Jesus not as the biblical redeemer, but as a wisdom figure who imparts secret teachings to the disciples who are mature enough to receive them. That's consistent with the Gnostic belief that salvation comes through knowledge, not through Christ's atonement for sin. "The salvation offered in the Gospel of Thomas is clearly at odds with the salvation (by grace through faith) offered in the New Testament," said Ben Witherington III of Asbury Theological Seminary. In the Gnostic view, he said, "a person has to be worthy to receive Jesus' secret wisdom."
Contrary to the Bible, Jesus is quoted in Saying 14 of Thomas as telling his disciples: "If you fast, you will bring sin upon yourselves, and if you pray, you will be condemned, and if you give to charity, you will harm your spirits." He is quoted in Saying 114 as teaching that "every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of Heaven." The gospel also quotes Jesus in Saying 7 as offering this inscrutable insight: "Blessings on the lion if a human eats it, making the lion human. Foul is the human if a lion eats it, making the lion human."
"The Gospel of Thomas contains teaching venerated by `Thomas Christians,' apparently an early group that ... thrived during the first century," says Pagels. "We now begin to see that what we call Christianity ... actually represents only a small selection of specific sources, chosen from among dozens of others.... Why were these other writings excluded and banned as `heresy'? What made them so dangerous?"
That's a good question. Were these alternative depictions of Jesus censored-even burned-because they dared to deviate from what was becoming the "orthodox" view of him? Was the first century a maelstrom of clashing doctrines and practices-all equally valid-with one dominant viewpoint eventually elbowing its way to prominence and brutally squelching the others?
This is the opinion of some scholars who talk in terms of early "Christianities" rather than Christianity. "With the council of Nicea in 325, the orthodox party solidified its hold on the Christian tradition," says the Jesus Seminar, "and other wings of the Christian movement were choked off."
All of this has profound implications for my personal quest to discover the real Jesus. Is it possible that my earlier conclusions about him have been unduly colored by New Testament accounts that in reality were only one perspective among many? Is the Bible's theology merely the result of one politically connected group repressing other legitimate beliefs?
"We can probably say with some certainty that if some other side had won ... there would have been no doctrine of Christ as both fully divine and human," says agnostic professor Bart Ehrman of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Clearly, a lot is at stake. I need to have confidence that the right people used the right reasoning to choose the right documents in the ancient world. I need to know if there was any historical support for these alternative texts seeing Jesus in a different light. Surely the Jesus that emerges from many of these documents looks radically different from the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Says Jenkins:
The hidden gospels have been used to provide scriptural warrant for sweeping new interpretations of Jesus, for interpreting theological statements in a purely symbolic and psychological sense, and for challenging dogmatic or legal rules on the basis of the believer's subjective moral sense. Generally, the hidden gospels offer wonderful news for liberals, feminists, and radicals within the churches, who challenge what they view as outdated institutions and prejudices.
I needed to go wherever the evidence would take me. Knowing there are almost as many opinions as there are experts, I wanted to track down someone who has sterling credentials, who would be respected by both conservatives and liberals, and who, most importantly, could back up his insights with solid facts and reasoning.
That meant flying to Nova Scotia and driving to a quaint village to interview a highly regarded historian whose professional endorsers range from the orthodox N. T. Wright to such leftwing scholars as Marcus Borg and even Jesus Seminar cofounder John Dominic Crossan, the now-retired DePaul University professor who claims to have discovered a different Jesus among the once-lost texts of antiquity.
After driving more than an hour from my hotel in Halifax, I rang the doorbell at the colonial-style house of Craig A. Evans in a heavily wooded community near Acadia University, where he serves as a professor of New Testament.
INTERVIEW #1: CRAIG A. EVANS, PH.D.
Evans came to Acadia University in 2002 after spending more than twenty years as a professor at Trinity Western University, where he directed the graduate programs in biblical studies and founded the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute. He received his bachelor's degree in history and philosophy from Claremont McKenna College, his master of divinity degree from Western Baptist Seminary, and a master's degree and doctorate in biblical studies from Claremont Graduate University, which also has produced numerous members of the Jesus Seminar. In addition, he also has served as a visiting fellow at Princeton Theological Seminary.
He is a prolific writer known for his scholarly precision as well as his ability to pierce the fog of academia with uncharacteristic clarity. He is the author or editor of more than fifty books, including Non-canonical Writings and New Testament Interpretation; Studying the Historical Jesus; Jesus and His Contemporaries; Eschatology, Messianism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls; Early Christian Interpretation of the Scriptures of Israel; Authenticating the Words of Jesus; The Missing Jesus: Rabbinic Judaism and the New Testament; and Ancient Texts for New Testament Studies. He 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.
For a decade, Evans served as editor-in-chief of the Bulletin for Biblical Research, and he is a member of the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas (SNTS), the Institute for Biblical Research, and the International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies. He has been selected chairman of the Society of Biblical Literature's Scripture in Early Judaism and Christianity Section and the SNTS's Gospels and Rabbinic Literature Seminar.
More recently Evans has been expanding his work into the popular arena. He has appeared as an expert on numerous television programs, including Dateline NBC, the History Channel, and the BBC, and his excellent book Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels, was published for a general audience in 2006.
Evans and his wife of thirty-two years, Ginny, opened their front door and invited me in. He was casually dressed in a short-sleeve striped shirt and dark slacks. His graying hair, parted neatly at the side, and his wire-rim glasses gave him a professorial air, while the tone and cadence of his voice sounded vaguely like commentator George Will. As we settled into chairs at his dining room table, I decided to ask him a series of background questions before we plunged into analyzing the legitimacy of the "alternative" gospels.