They Want Their Own Canon
Recently I had the privilege of being on a live, albeit brief, interview over CNN on Christmas Eve. I prepared myself by having carefully reviewed the current spate of articles in Time, U.S. News and World Report, and the like, as well as the many recent books disclosing the "latest findings" of some liberal critics who are ever keen to remake Jesus in their own image. Interestingly enough, although my host did not mention any one of them by name, his questions betrayed the popular mood engendered by these so-called biblical scholars who seem to delight in making a living by debunking the Bible. One of the questions he raised was on the difference between the Christ of faith and the Christ of history. Implicit in that question is the assertion that what evangelical gullibility has made of the Christian faith bears no resemblance to the Jesus of history, the carpenter's son of 2,000 years ago. Time did not permit me to explain that the very question yielded to a false dichotomy foisted upon us by some whose philosophical prejudices outrun their scholarly abilities. Reason alone dictates that the Christ of faith and the Christ of history ought to be the same, else it is not faith but credulity. The real issue is therefore, not as the question appeared but, Wherein can we find the Christ of history? In surveying the literature from a liberal perspective, so incredible are some of the strangely concocted theories to denude Jesus of his divinity that the ends to which some of them go would be laughable if they were not so pathetic and destructive.
There are many responses Christian apologists could make to these bizarre theories because they really are not that difficult to deal with - media hype notwithstanding. The simplest method I know is to place them all side-by-side and witness their fanciful arguments unintentionally refuting one another. Each theory musters "evidences" that, when placed beside the others, gives rise to an abundance of contradictions effectively resulting in mutual negation. Nevertheless, out of academic duty it still merits a response. Let me present just a few of the more popular theories.
The Opiate of the People
One of the most far-fetched ideas came in the 1970s from John Allegro, a University of Manchester scholar. He theorized that Jesus was originally a cipher for a sacred hallucinogenic mushroom around which the Christian cult arose. Allegro was serious.
Conservative New Testament scholar Edwin Yamauchi recounts that Allegro once said to a friend who was becoming interested in the Gospel, "By the time I am through with the Church, there will be no Church left to join.' But alas! Allegro went the way of all flesh (his last book was published posthumously) while the church lives on.
Ironically, one of the greatest New Testament scholars of all time, F.F. Bruce, was also at the University of Manchester. His watershed works provide a brilliant defense for the authority and authenticity of the New Testament documents. I refer to two of his books, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? and The Canon of Scripture.
In the latter he says that the New Testament canon is not just a value judgment but a statement of fact. He says, "Individuals of communities may consider that it is too restricted or too comprehensive; but their opinion does not affect the identity of the canon. The canon is not going to be diminished or decreased because of what they think or say: it is a literary, historical, and theological datum."
Jesus as Mary Magdalene's Husband
About ten years after Allegro's book, another theory captured media attention and fed the skeptics' imagination.
The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail was co-authored by Baigent, Lee, and Lincoln. It dealt with a legendary secret society committed to restoring the Merovingian dynasty in France. This society they ingeniously traced "to the son of Jesus through Mary Magdala. ' Mary, they say, married Jesus, and then brought their son (hence, the "Holy Blood") to Marseille, providing the basis for the later legend of the Holy Grail (Saint Greal = Sang Real, or Royal Blood).
The machinations of wrongheaded writers in this instance more than others strains credulity. If evangelicals based their beliefs on such a contrived body of evidence, they would be considered masters of myth making. (I must add parenthetically that if all the travels of Jesus according to all of the theories were collated, he would have had to have been God to be in so many places at the same time.)
There are others that propose a similar idea that Jesus married Mary Magdala, but each has his or her own and different scenario, embellished at will.
Australian writer Barbara Thiering suggests that Jesus married Mary, had three children, and then divorced her and married Lydia. Thiering formulates her theory, she says, on the Dead Sea Scrolls, asserting that the personage known as the wicked priest in the scroll material was probably the historic Jesus. Unfortunately for Thiering, a foundational flaw in her whole thesis is that this Qumran material is recognized by virtually every scholar, liberal and conservative (Thiering excepted), to predate Christ by two centuries. Interestingly enough, based on these very documents other liberals see the Qumran "Teacher of Righteousness" as the figure that Jesus was made to fit by his followers. The differing conclusions are diametrically opposed.
Jesus and Womanhood
But this is not all. At least two other authors have received major attention. Noted English writer and journalist, A.N. Wilson, not content to impugn C.S. Lewis in his previous work, now takes on the New Testament in his book Jesus. Wilson claims he was once a Christian but now knows better and unabashedly castigates all religious belief. He concludes by saying that Jesus himself would have been utterly appalled at what the New Testament made him out to be. Jesus, says Wilson, had he foreseen this, would wish that he had never been born.
Wilson points his finger at Paul as the villain, for he fabricated the Christ of faith disjointed from history. Jesus in reality, says Wilson, was a Galilean holy man who earnestly wanted to raise the status of women and lower the nationalistic ambitions of men. The Romans, suspicious of those ambitions had him killed. Jesus' brother James, because of his resemblance, was mistaken for Jesus. That is how the Resurrection idea was spawned and perpetrated.
Space restricts the very tempting critique of Wilson's book, but enough to say that the blunders of fact made by him are too numerous to mention. He is not a scholar in this field of study. In the book Who Was Jesus? Oxford Professor N.T. Wright takes Wilson's argument apart piece by piece, showing its academic poverty.
On the same side of prejudice but with different assumptions, the famed Bishop Spong wrote his book, Born of a Woman. He contends that the idea of the virgin birth has led to a destructive view of women for which the Bible must bear the brunt of the blame. He also argues that the wedding at Cana had to be Jesus' own - why else would his mother have been there, playing the role that she did? (The dear bishop neither deals with the text nor has he evidently attended many middle-eastern or far-eastern weddings!)
For Spong, Paul was the decent one, trying hard to maintain the Jewish message. It was the evangelists who fused their own prejudices into Pauline terms, thus subverting the message.
Jesus as Fantasy
Enough of all this, for even the shocking has a way of becoming monotonous and the "scholarly" ridiculous. Where does it all lead us? After I did my initial reading of the most recent farce in the writings of Funk and Hoover in their book, The Five Gospels, I called Professor Donald Carson of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Dr. Carson is one of the finest New Testament scholars of our time.
The basis for the entire thesis of Funk and Hoover's book is a brief text found in the 1940s in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, a fragment that has been called the Gospel of Thomas, written in Coptic sometime around the second century. The authors took this small find in its random thoughts and with that attacked the biblical gospels as a construct of some people trying to make Jesus what he was not. The methodology they employed is an affront to respectable scholarship. One of the ironies of their argument is that the very assumptions they bring to test the authenticity of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John would utterly destroy the validity of this so-called Gospel of Thomas before doing any damage to the gospels.
As Donald Carson succinctly put it, the Gospel of Thomas is neither the gospel nor is it by Thomas. This conclusion is also supported by many scholars, both liberal and conservative. What we have, therefore, gaining the attention in the media is a fringe and radical element. As Don Carson and I concluded our conversation, I wondered aloud at what could be behind such wantonly destructive efforts. Carson said, "They want their own canon."
The Conclusion of the Matter
That line pretty much sums up the whole debate. Indeed, we are living in a time when we want our own canon for everything, from sexuality to birthright - why not our own canon of the Scriptures as well? In this sense, we each in our own way relive the Garden of Eden episode by questioning what God has said and demanding the right to set up a canon of our own.
Every generation will try to do the same, and attempt to bury the Scriptures, only to find the Bible re-emerging with triumphal power. For it has as its centerpiece One who knows the way out of the grave. That historic Christ, revealed in His Word, is worthy of our undying trust.
I might add that when I was approached by a major news network to respond to these writings, I suggested that they schedule a discussion between some of these liberal critics, and Don Carson and myself. The network representatives reported back to me that they had spent an hour trying to persuade one of the best-known authors to agree to even a preliminary dialogue on the program. But the liberal scholar refused, saying he would not go on with an evangelical.
False canons are hard to defend when put beside the genuine. So long as humanity insists on its own canon it is our privilege and responsibility to uphold the true one, for ultimately it is His Word that defines both history and faith, and cautions fallen man that truth has a way of appearing stranger than fiction because we have made fiction to suit ourselves.