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J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus: What The Da Vinci Code and other Novel Speculations Don’t Tell You. Kregel Publications, 2006.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price


This work is admittedly a primer of in-house, parochial apologetics for conservative evangelicals who have perhaps read The Da Vinci Code or watched a couple of critic vs. apologist debates. The avowed goal is merely to refute contemporary challenges to a traditional Protestant view of Jesus Christ. The utter lack of scholarly seriousness is evident from the sheer fact that the authors lump Dan Brown’s imbecilic Da Vinci Code in with critical works by John Dominic Crossan, the Jesus Seminar (whom they vilify as “a fringe group of scholars,” pure calumny), and others, as if they are equally garden pests to be dispatched with the same apologetical can of Raid so the faithful can settle back peacefully into their dogmatic slumber. The “methodology,” if there can be said to be a methodology of distortion, is, first, to project onto one’s opponents the mirror image of one’s own dogmatic motivations. The result is to characterize their hypotheses as mere tools to argue for heresies the critics just happen to prefer for unknown reasons. And, number two, one approaches the gospel texts altogether deductively, reasoning in a vacuum as to what must or must not have happened to produce them, as though we had no actual evidence, no texts to look at, as if they had all perished in the Alexandrian library fire. The results of critical study of the text (i.e., gained by induction) are pooh-poohed out of hand. Third, one posits some scenario that would make accurate transmission of gospel materials possible and then adopts it as if its convenience for apologetic made it true. We know the end we want to reach (accurate gospels) and we adopt whatever means will get us there. It will be deemed “sound” insofar as it achieves the pre-desired result.

Our trio do not seem to understand the arguments they criticize. For instance, they several times ascribe to Crossan in particular (and to critics in general) the absurd belief that the disciples of Jesus, over a period of thirty or forty years just couldn’t recall what Jesus did, so they let their wild imaginations fill in the gaps. This is to read Crossan through one’s own assumptions, namely that Jesus’ personal associates were in control of a controllable Jesus tradition. We just don’t know that. Nor do we know that their agenda would have been simply that of historical correctness, rather than the motive we see active in the analogous role of the early Islamic tradition-bearers—who fabricated whatever “Prophetic” saying or story they felt would enhance piety.

Oh yes, it is theoretically possible that Gerhardsson and Riesenfeld were correct and that Jesus had rabbinic disciples decades before Yavneh, following the rote memorization practices of Johanon ben Zakkai. But what commends this bare possibility to apologists? Simply that it would make it reasonable to expect fidelity in gospel transmission. But what if a close scrutiny of the gospel texts reveals numerous contradictions not only of wording, but of substance? Then one must seek alternate models by which to understand the fantastic diversity of the material. That is what Funk, Crossan, Bultmann, and the rest have done.

It is not that the rabbinic model of Riesenfeld and Gerhardsson is impossible. But it is circular to suppose it and only then to look at the evidence. Yes, the Jesus tradition might have reached us along carefully controlled channels. But that is just what we do not know going in. It also might have reached us through people whose religious imaginations went wild, inspired, as they imagined, by the Holy Spirit. We will not be able to surmise which is more likely until we look carefully at the text. We can’t just choose the one that seems more amenable to our preferences and then sail along obliviously.

The authors quote their Dallas Seminary colleague/mentor Darrel Bock who slanders critics like the Jesus Seminar Fellows for discounting both the Son of Man sayings and all those in which Jesus reflects: “I came to…” or “The Son of Man came to...” I suppose Bock, anti-Charismatic though he must be, if he teaches at Dallas, has received some kind of telepathic “word of knowledge” informing him of the unscrupulous motives of critics, who, Bock is sure, just hate the thought of a high Christology or that Jesus himself would have inculcated one. By contrast, without the superior illumination of the apologist, I happen to know, from actually reading Bultmann and the rest, that the Son of Man sayings raise suspicions for looking like they were cobbled together by early Christian exegetes from phrases out of Psalm 110:1, Zechariah 12:10, and Daniel 7:13 (see Norman Perrin “The Son of Man in Ancient Judaism and Primitive Christianity: A Suggestion,” in Perrin, A Modern Pilgrimage in New Testament Christology, pp. 23-40). As complex specimens of Christian scriptural midrash, they seem more likely to come from Christian scribes than from Jesus spontaneously speaking of himself. Likewise, the problem with the “came to” sayings, as Bultmann suggested, is their retrospective view, as if already looking back on and theologically interpreting the earthly life of Jesus as a whole, already concluded.

No more do our authors grasp the point of the appeal to the Criterion of Dissimilarity, which sidelines Jesus sayings that sound too close to either contemporary Judaism or the early Church. The apologists believe critics think that proves Jesus didn’t say them. Wouldn’t it make more sense, they ask, to turn it around and argue that a saying that is unique and unparalleled is authentic, rather than charging that one similar to Jewish and Christian sayings is not authentic? Someone is not reading their textbooks very closely. The positive version is exactly the point of the Criterion of Dissimilarity. That is (part of) the rationale for the degrees of certainty denoted by the red and pink beads used by the Jesus Seminar. A red saying is one which the Fellows were convinced must go back to Jesus. A pink one is a saying that might well go back to him, though one might feel a little more secure if, e.g., there weren’t those suspicious parallels. And sayings parallels are suspicious; it is well known how the same saying migrates all over the Mishnah, ascribed here to one rabbi, there to another.

Like Bock, whom they quote to this effect, the authors somehow imagine it is inconsistent for the Jesus Seminar critics to allow one criterion for or against authenticity to over rule others. The (rejected) Son of Man sayings do not parallel sayings attributed to other contemporary figures, so why not declare them red (authentic) by the Criterion of Dissimilarity? I have already explained that just above. But as to the various criteria contradicting each other: they don’t. The point is: none of them is all that certain! A saying might make it past one hurdle but stumble over another. They are all rules of thumb, not mathematical axioms. Ever heard of necessary versus sufficient conditions? In the same way, you might appeal to the Criterion of Multiple Attestation for the authenticity of a saying: it is found in both Mark and Q, for instance. Must one consider it authentic, then? Not if other factors supervene. The item might sound too much like a common rabbinic saying. Or it might contain an anachronism. It is no great surprise for an unfounded rumor or erroneous report to come to a single reporter through more than one channel, through one or more sources who have not copied directly from each other. They can all be wrong, as quite often happens. Lacking multiple attestation, a different suspicion arises: if the saying is genuine, why does it not appear here and there, assuming Jesus really said it and that the various sources are random samplers?

So many suspicions! So many grounds for them! Yes, I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is! Gospel criticism is a tricky business, and just because that fact is distasteful or discouraging to someone, it doesn’t give him the right to pretend otherwise, that things are simple. Because that’s what these authors are doing.

Much of their case for gospel authenticity rests on early gospel dating. They imagine that most scholars date Mark in the early 60s. I don’t know what Sunday School manual they are getting this date from, but one is just misleading one’s readers by saying it. They appeal to John A.T. Robinson’s Redating the New Testament for a pre-70 CE date for all New Testament writings. But Robinson’s point is that Mark 13 makes predictions about the siege of Jerusalem that were not fulfilled. The authors seem to realize for a moment the implications of what Robinson is saying, that Jesus was in error, but then they quickly move on. But wait a second. If Robinson is right, and Mark 13 does not perfectly match the Roman siege of 70 CE, that may be because, as Hermann Detering argues, the Olivet Discourse actually stems from the time of Simon bar-Kochba in 132 CE!

Speaking of Mark 13, they appeal to the Criterion of Embarrassment, namely that certain gospel texts cannot have been made up because they are just too embarrassing. Peter’s denials? Jesus’ baptism as a rite of repentance? His professed ignorance of the exact time of the end? No one would have invented such sayings, surely? How naïve! The baptism “problem” need only stem from an early period when a lower Christology was in vogue and no one thought it odd for Jesus to repent. That doesn’t mean it had to have happened. Only that the story teller, perhaps seeking to provide an etiology for Christian baptism, didn’t realize the seeds he was sowing, the trouble he was making for later Christology. As for Peter’s denials, Alfred Loisy saw that this pathetic story may/must have originated as anti-Petrine slander in the course of the factional polemics that raged across the church (see Galatians 2, where Paul calls Peter both a hypocrite and a Judaizer!). And Jesus admitting he knew less abut the schedule of the Eschaton than Hal Lindsey? If you have a hole to patch, you patch it with whatever lies ready to hand. What looks worse? Jesus setting a deadline (Mark 13:28-31)—and goofing? Or pleading pious ignorance (v. 32)? I should think the former, in which case it is easy to see how the “embarrassment” arose: in order to mitigate a much worse one.

Luke, they say (following Harnack, though they seem to think it is a new theory), must have been written about 60 CE, since its sequel Acts seems to be a defense brief on behalf of Paul before Nero, and it ends indecisively because the verdict (issued in 62 CE) had not been issued at the time of writing. But this ignores both how much of the narrative has nothing to do with Paul and the many clear intimations that the author knows the reader knows Paul is already dead. These include the extensive parallels between the Jesus and Paul Passion narratives: both journey to Jerusalem in the teeth of predictions that they must be arrested there. Both occasion riots in the temple and are apprehended by Roman troops. Both stand trial before the Sanhedrin. Both are slapped there for sassing the High Priest. Both stand trial before at least one Herodian king and a Roman procurator. What do you think is going to happen to Paul? We know, for he has already been telling his friends that they are never to see him again.

Komoszewski, Sawyer, and Wallace spend several chapters, really too many, setting forth a standard primer on textual criticism. This seems to be aimed mainly at Dan Brown and his sources of misinformation, Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, authors of the unreadable Holy Blood, Holy Grail. These people are hacks, but apparently so am I. The authors excoriate me for my suggestion (by no means new or original with me) that Luke 1:34, the only definite reference to a miraculous virginal conception, might be an early interpolation, and that Old Latin manuscript b (fifth century), which lacks the verse, bears witness to this. They accuse me of unconscionable sloppiness, mixing up Old Latin b with the seventh-century manuscript Old Latin , which is a mere fragment not even containing the relevant section of text. I must be an idiot indeed, appealing to such a text as evidence for the absence of a single sentence in a missing section! But as it happens, I was right, as Daniel B. Wallace graciously admitted in an e-mail apologizing for the goof. They still reject my willingness to entertain the possibility that a lone versional witness might preserve the true reading, even though they quote text critical mavens Kurt and Barbara Aland as admitting such a thing theoretically might happen. I tend to go with the late, great John C. O’Neill, whose methods enabled him to sniff out suppressed readings surviving in obscure manuscript sources. In my view, variants attested in Old Syriac and Old Latin manuscripts are especially important since they represent originals copied from much older Greek manuscripts than we have. But my reasons went beyond this. Luke simply cannot have written something so stupid as an engaged woman responding to the announcement, “You will conceive and bear a son” with “How can this be, since I know not a man?” Imagine Gabriel’s reaction. “Have I got the wrong address? Uh, you are engaged, aren’t you?”

Subsequent chapters repeat the usual drill about how the canon of the New Testament fell inevitably into place by divine Providence, how the doctrine of Jesus Christ’s divinity was no fourth-century innovation, etc. There is a survey of apocryphal gospels. (The authors confess puzzlement over any possible source for Dan Brown’s claim that there were over eighty gospels. In fact, it seems to come from the medieval Muslim commentator Abd al-Jabr.) In short, there is much in common between these sections and my own The Da Vinci Fraud. But we part company when it comes to the question of pagan influences on the emergence of the resurrection doctrine. The implications of the dying and rising gods of the Mystery Religions are so devastating that one is really not surprised to read apologists mounting the same old vacuous counter-arguments again and again. There is the tired old “the differences are greater than the similarities” argument, the absurd “pagans borrowed it from the Christians” nonsense, etc. What else can they say? Their back is against the wall. I am tired of refuting this and will direct interested readers to the relevant chapters of my Deconstructing Jesus and Jesus Is Dead.

The chapter of forgeries and how, don’t worry, none of them could have snuck into the canon, rests on at least two common confusions. One is the inexplicable (except that there is no trick apologists will not stoop to) appeal to Papias on the authorship of the gospels. This man’s “traditions” are not only spurious but grotesque and ludicrous. Are we to believe Papias when he “records” that Judas Iscariot used to urinate maggots? Apparently the Elders had told him so. Then there is the old business about Tertullian firing some bishop who admitted he had authored the Acts of Paul out of love for the apostle—but this in no way involved forgery. There was no claim that Paul wrote it! Tertullian disallowed it because it allowed women to teach and baptize. As in virtually all cases of early churchmen declaring some writing a forgery, the decision is based solely on the perceived want of Orthodoxy, not on any genuine historical considerations. And that is the way it remains for apologists today. They are theologically bound to maintain that the canonical New Testament books are by apostles or apostolic sidekicks.

The first few pages of this book contain endorsements from a stellar gallery (or, depending on one’s viewpoint, a rogues’ gallery) of apologists: Josh McDowell, Darrell Bock, Gary Habermas, Mike Licona, J.P. Moreland, and others all praise this book to the skies. I wish I could say I felt like Karl Barth did that morning when he opened the newspaper and saw a statement endorsing German imperialism signed by all his seminary professors! It is disgraceful but not surprising. It is damning and revealing that these men would undersign a book so full of distortions and misunderstandings.


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