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William W. Mountcastle, The Secret Ministry of Jesus: Pioneer Prophet of Interfaith Dialogue. University Press of America, 2008.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price

This book voluntarily bears the stereotype of the undisciplined, fanciful scholarship one has come to expect from Unitarian Universalists, whose theological Prime Directive seems to be “Anything Goes.” The author is one of those with a mind so open it needs to be closed for repairs. Mountcastle seems never to have read a piece of shoddy pseudo-scholarship he did not like: From Baigent, Lincoln, and Leigh’s Holy Blood, Holy Grail, to Notovitch’s Life of Saint Issa, to Elizabeth Claire Prophet’s crazy screeds, to Morton Smith’s Secret Gospel, to The Da Vinci Code, to the old Crucifixion of Jesus by an Eyewitness. He thinks to find genuine data for the life of Jesus in the Koran and the Syriac Acts of Thomas as well as the Bhavishya Mahapurana (a polemical work against non-Hindu faiths written 1200-1400 CE)! One suspects his underlying drive here is to be ecumenical to the max in the choice of sources: a case of “affirmative action scholarship.” Every type of shrill voice is given the same respectful hearing, resulting in a Mulligan Stew historical product. This procedure mirrors his particular angle on the perilous modernization of Jesus: he wants a Jesus who was a “pioneer of interfaith dialogue.” Along the way we discover that Jesus was also big on teaching techniques of nonviolent conflict resolution. Did he also invent the Internet?

Mountcastle argues for the Swoon Theory, a position almost universally derided (though I think with nervous laughter), but not without merit. I believe there are indeed major clues in all four gospels that they all knew an earlier (not the earlier) version of the story in which Jesus escaped death. What actually happened to Jesus I think we shall never know. But Mountcastle and his chorus of quack sources are pretty sure they know. Mountcastle likes the Ahmadiyya legend that Jesus survived crucifixion and made his way to Srinagar and India. With this he combines the Notovitch/Elizabeth Claire Prophet business about Jesus going to India, China, and Tibet, only whereas these worthies place the Oriental journey before John’s baptism, Mountcastle streamlines the legends by transferring the Notovitch journeys till after the crucifixion. Mountcastle takes advantage of dislocation theories of the Gospel of John, positing that the Beloved Disciple (Mary Magdalene, another recent chic theory) originally arranged the material with all the “Where I am going you cannot come” sayings leading up to the post-crucifixion departure for Central Asia, and all the “I am” discourses as part of a second Palestinian ministry where Jesus’ sayings are heavily colored by his recently learned Hinduism and Buddhism. And it was Jesus’ lasting influence among Theravada Buddhists that led to the development of more theistic Mahayana Buddhism. This is doubly ironic since it is Mahayana Buddhism, not Theravada, which so closely parallels the Christian atonement doctrine, which Mountcastle regards as a Pauline distortion of the simpler, ethical preaching of Jesus. It’s even triply ironic, since the effect of Mountcastle’s cherry-picking from far-flung Jesus junk apocrypha (I’m surprised he doesn’t cite the Book of Mormon and have Jesus visit America, too!) is to make Jesus central, not just to Christianity, but to other faiths as well. Shouldn’t this count as a new Jesus-imperialism? Like Karl Rahner making everyone else “Anonymous Christians”?

The only sober (albeit futile) aspect of Mountcastle’s endeavor is the initial section in which he places the actions of Jesus in the tradition of what he calls “prophetic street theatre” (a great choice of words): Isaiah’s nude peregrinations, Jeremiah’s “the yoke’s on me” stunt, Hosea’s honeymoon with a streetwalker, etc. Jesus, he says, was trying the same sort of symbolic charade by, get this, arranging his own arrest, crucifixion, and survival of it. What did he want to communicate by this? He played the role of Israel/Judah in a performance of the Servant Song of Isaiah 52-53, which he took to imply a last-minute escape from death and a subsequent ministry to the nations. And yet Mountcastle says Jesus kept his subterfuge secret, so who would have seen enough of the puzzle pieces to get the total point? Who but Mountcastle himself? He seems, as is typical in such treatments, to be the only one to catch on, so late in the day, to what Jesus was getting at.

I looked nervously at the book’s index, relieved not to find my name listed there. Burton L. Mack, John Dominic Crossan, and Bruce Chilton are not so lucky, I’m afraid.



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