Print Article | Email Article | Write To Us

Scavenging the Gospels

Tuesday, May 25, 2010 3:00 AM Comments (13)

Here’s a new piece in which somebody projects some good old-fashioned liberal biblical scholarship on Jesus.  It’s the New Yorker, of course, so we can’t expect much.

It’s a common enough thing in our world.  People are continually manufacturing Latest Real Jesuses to suit the cultural priorities of their age.  Albert Schweitzer, the great Social Gospel Protestant, went on a Quest for the Historical Jesus and discovered that Jesus was basically a Social Gospel Protestant.  Frank Barton wrote The Man Nobody Knows in the 20s, just as the stock market was soaring and Calvin Coolidge was declaring that “The business of America is business.”  Turned out Jesus was the first businessman.  In the 30s, the Nazis discovered that Jesus was actually an Aryan with no relation to the Jews, while the Commies discovered Jesus was the first Marxist.  In the 60s we got Jesus the Hippie with Godspell and in the 70s we got Jesus the Rock God in Jesus Christ Superstar.  In the 80s, Jesus reappeared as a health and wealth preacher in the age of Gordon Gekko.  In the 90s, gay playwright Terence McNally discovered he was gay in Corpus Christi.  By the early Millennium, he was back to being straight and married off to Mary Magdalene by Dan Brown, who overcame a vast Vatican Conspiracy to hide all this.  Any similarities between this scenario and a sex-obsessed, X Files paranoid culture in the grip of a priest scandal is purely coincidental.

This tendency to project our own issues and needs on to Jesus is in full swing in the New Yorker piece linked above.  The rock-bottom faith commitment of the writer (and readers) of the piece is that the last place to look for an accurate portrait of Jesus is in the four gospels.  That’s why he must be “searched” for.  The real Jesus, you see, is hidden behind the phoney trumped-up Jesus of the gospels.  Only a fool would accept them at something like face value.  Truly wise and discerning and critical intellects know that the “real Jesus” must be reconstructed from stray passages that recommend themselves to the keen eye of the critic, who somehow divines that this and that passage is an “authentic” record of the real Jesus, while passages he rejects are interpolations, myths, legends, and so forth.  So, for instance, we are told:

This curious criterion governs historical criticism of Gospel texts: the more improbable or “difficult” an episode or remark is, the likelier it is to be a true record, on the assumption that you would edit out all the weird stuff if you could, and keep it in only because the tradition is so strong that it can’t plausibly be excluded. If Jesus says something nice, then someone is probably saying it for him; if he says something nasty, then probably he really did.


Now, it’s true that we are likely to believe a witness when he says things that are not to the advantage of his case.  So when the evangelists include stories and sayings which are awkward for their case that Jesus is the sinless Son of God (such as Jesus’ baptism, or the fact that he doesn’t know things, or the fact that he can’t heal people sometimes, or the fact that he cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) that does make the case very strong that the evangelists are honest men.

Only, guys like Gopnik and his audience don’t conclude the evangelists are honest men.  Instead, they mysteriously conclude that only these particular passages are honest passages, while the rest of the gospels (written by the same guys who wrote the honest passages)are still completely unreliable works of pious fraud.  That’s abnormal.  When normal people meet honest people willing to say things damning to their own case, we don’t believe them only about those specific things, we believe them about everything they say.  They may be mistaken in their views, but they are not deceptive.  When liberal NT critics meet honest men, they believe them only about things their own anti-supernatural prejudices want to believe.  When they bear witness to the supernatural (like the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection), they find elaborate ways of declaring them liars and fools, by the polysyllabic route of labelling them “mythmakers” or victims of mass hallucination.

How this plays out includes the standard trick of taking various gospel accounts of the same event/saying and pretending that all variations mean the thing never happened, or that it happened but is buried under a thick layer of mythology that makes the original event impossible to discover.  What never occurs to liberal biblical scholars is that you could do exactly the same thing with the assassination of JFK and “prove” that JFK never existed and that the “assassination” of the Kennedy Event is a mythic construct cobbled together by later generations.  Three shots?  Four shots?  From a dozen different directions?  Kennedy said nothing?  Kennedy said, “My God, I’m hit.”?  And what about the Eucharistic significance of a supposed Harvard man announcing a year or two earlier “I am a jelly donut” to the crowds in Berlin?  Why is there a doublet in the ancient records that announces the assassination of another “Kennedy” named “Robert”? at almost the same period of time.  Clearly, we are looking at the convergence of two mythic tales from the Dallas and Los Angeles faith communities which later redactors smoothed into a single narrative.

Nobody believes such rubbish about historical characters from secular history.  But when it comes to Bible characters, our leading lights in liberal biblical scholarship talk as though they are 2000 years smarter than the biblical authors and readers all the time.

So we are informed that Mark was written after the destruction of the Temple and that

“With the Temple gone, White says, it was necessary to persuade people that the grotesque political failure of Jesus’ messianism wasn’t a real failure. Mark invents the idea that Jesus’ secret was not that he was the “Davidic” messiah, the Arthur-like returning king, but that he was someone even bigger: the Son of God, whose return would signify the end of time and the birth of the Kingdom of God.


So the whole notion that Jesus was the Son of God was never heard of before 70 AD, in this reckoning.

The problem, of course, is that Paul is already on record for the previous 20 years saying that Jesus is the Son of God and that he was the Davidic Messiah.  And he’s also on record reporting that he checked all this out with the original twelve apostles and they were fine with it because it’s the same thing they had been preaching since Pentecost.

All this silly sort of analysis is saying, “When Mark records things which we can use to attack the orthodox picture of Jesus, he’s reliable.  When he records things we dislike, he’s a liar making stuff up.”  In short, the constructors of the Latest Real Jesus are scavenging the gospels for spare parts to construct their preferred version of Jesus.

Filed under chattering class follies

About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
  • Get the RSS feed
Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.