Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Review: Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture

I read the 2006 book, Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture.  Its authors are J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace.

How can we be sure that the Gospels are historically accurate, when they were written decades after the life of Jesus, and when scribes could have easily altered the manuscripts?  Was there an orthodox Christian conspiracy to privilege the books that came to be in the New Testament canon, while suppressing other Gospels?  Was the belief that Jesus was God truly an early Christian belief?  And was Christianity a rip-off of mystery religions and paganism?

These are the sorts of questions that this book addresses.  And, for those who are eager to learn more about these issues, the book has generously provided a list of other scholarly books to read.

Did I find reading this book to be worthwhile?  I would say "yes."  In a very general sense, I was already familiar with a number of points that this book made, even before I read the book, due to my exposure to scholarship and to Christian apologetics.  But this book fleshed things out for me a bit and filled in some of the lacunae in my mind, and it did so in a highly readable, engaging manner (though the endnotes are much more technical).  I am not a big fan of Christian apologetics, but, from the perspective of learning more about text criticism and church history, I am glad that I read this book.

In many respects, I am in basic agreement with arguments that this book makes.  I tend to believe that the texts of the New Testament that we have can serve as a fairly reliable indicator of what the original text said.  I think that, overall, the church canonized New Testament books that were from the first century and were widely in use, while a number of alternative Gospels had a later date.  And I accept that there are indications that a high Christology was early within Christianity, and thus I do not agree with Dan Brown's claim that Jesus prior to the Council of Nicaea was largely conceived to be a mere human being (see my post here).

On some issues, I am open to what the book is saying, without being in firm agreement.  I am open to the argument that eyewitness testimony plays a significant role in early Christianity and New Testament writings.  I am open to the book's arguments that early Christianity was probably not a rip-off of mystery religions.  I am also open to accepting at face value that the church fathers were careful in their evaluation of the authorial authenticity of the books that made their way into the New Testament----that the church fathers did not simply attach a prominent name to a writing so it would get acceptance or canonization.  The reason that I am open on these points rather than having a firm conviction is that I believe that I need to read more of the other side.  I'm not talking about reading Dan Brown or some of the sensationalists or conspiracy theorists whom the book seeks to refute.  Rather, I mean Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar in his own right, or John Dominic Crossan.

In terms of criticisms that I have of the book, I have two.  First, I do not think that the book is sensitive enough to the diversity that exists within the New Testament and early Christianity.  For example, the book appeals to the hymn in Philippians 2 to argue that Jesus was considered divine, but it does not seem to interact with v 9, which affirms that Jesus got the name that was above every other name when God exalted Jesus, after Jesus' death; one could argue that, in Philippians 2, Jesus gained the status of LORD when God exalted him after his death, not before that.  Granted, there are New Testament texts that have more of an incarnational model, but my point is that the New Testament may be diverse in terms of its Christology.  The diversity of the New Testament is crucial in evaluating this book, in my opinion, because it shows that the book's methods of seeking to safeguard the notion of the New Testament's historical accuracy are not completely fool-proof.  Even if there were eyewitnesses to Jesus who played a significant role in the early church, and the early church agreed on basic things about Jesus, that does not necessarily preclude the possibility that different interpretations of Jesus' significance could have emerged and become popular in the first century, or that material by and about Jesus could have been shaped according to those interpretations in the composition of New Testament writings.  (The book acknowledges the latter, on some level, but I don't think that it gives it enough weight.)

Second, while I appreciate the book's thoughtful discussion of the relationship between mystery religions and Christianity and believe that it raises valid (even cogent) points regarding this topic, I believe that mystery religions might have influenced Paul, on some level.  The book acknowledges that mystery religions existed as early as the Hellenistic Period, and it says that Roman Mithraism emerged in Tarsus in the first century B.C.E.  It characterizes mystery religions as believing in union with a divine figure to gain salvation or eternal life, as well as a triumph by a god that could entail a return to life or the conquering of enemies.  Why couldn't Paul, who came from Tarsus, have drawn from mystery religions in his conceptualization of the work of Jesus?  Granted, there were differences between Christianity and mystery religions.  (I should note that, on page 323, the book says that Mithraism was different from other mystery religions in that it did not present the god overcoming something tragic.)  But, just because there were differences, that does not mean that Paul could not have drawn from mystery religions in conceptualizing and proclaiming elements of the Gospel.  Paul may have done so to convey to Gentiles that Jesus was the true fulfillment of what mystery religions only promised.

Another point that I would like to make is that the book does not prove that Christianity is true.  It does effectively counter many of the arguments that certain skeptics have made against Christianity, but it does not prove that the Bible is inerrant.  Even if there are many New Testament manuscripts that we can use to arrive at an original reading, the New Testament contains eyewitness testimony to miracles, the canon emerged from a bottom-up rather than a top-down process, and Christianity is not a rip-off of ideas within paganism, that does not mean the Bible is inerrant.  After all, if I'm not mistaken, there is eyewitness testimony to miracles or odd phenomena outside of a Christian context (see here and here, the latter having a brief discussion of collective memory).  The book itself says, "If the evidence for the historicity of Christianity could be interpreted with 100 percent certainty, there would be no need for faith" (page 261).

I think that, tomorrow, I will write some about the book's interaction with text criticism.

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