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Daniel Spoto, The Hidden Jesus: A New Life. St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price.


Here is yet another stone in the current avalanche of pseudo-historical Jesus books. The irony in most of these recent books is that, while they pose as historical treatments, they are manifestly theological tracts trying to undo the damage being done by the Jesus Seminar and its congeners to the simple faith of the Christian laity. Spoto's book falls victim to the same ambivalence: he is simultaneously concerned to demonstrate how well the gospel Jesus fits into the socio-historical context of the times and to get it through the reader's head that the gospels are soaked in myth and are anything but biographies in the modern sense. To this reviewer the book seems to bubble unstably like a charmed cauldron from which anything may next emerge.

Spoto is himself something of a hybrid, a New Testament Ph.D. and professional biographer of such celebrities as Alfred Hitchcock, Princess Diana, Liz Taylor, James Dean, Laurence Olivier, and Tennessee Williams. One would think Spoto ideally suited to write a Life of Jesus book. After all, he would certainly seem to know the difference between ancient and modern biographies, and perhaps we might expect an appropriate combination of relevant elements of the two. But instead, what we read is essentially apologetics and evangelism. Spoto seems to want to vindicate Catholic Christianity (albeit of a somewhat Loisy-like Modernist stripe) in the eyes of its cultured despisers. The result is both theoretically incoherent and annoyingly cloying.

Writing in the tradition of apologists like N.T. Wright and Luke Timothy Johnson, Spoto stipulates a party-line list of critical positions taken for granted by conservative apologists but in fact highly debatable. He is sure that the canonical gospels stem from a mere twenty to seventy years after the death of Jesus (p. 59), but this is far from certain. I favor a range of seventy to one hundred twenty years after the conventional estimates for the dates of Jesus. But the dates Spoto provides are still ample for allowing a vast flood of legend-mongering and fabrication of sayings. He himself implicitly admits as much, chalking up all the spectacular miracles (virginal conception, water-into-wine, etc.) to the genius of the creative writer-theologians of the gospels ("the inspired invention of new metaphors - not a fabrication of untruth, but an entirely fresh way of telling the truth"-- p. 33).

He continues: "and we have accurate and complete manuscript copies of those writings dating from the third and fourth centuries" (ibid.). This is simply an affirmation of faith! The gap between the hypothetical writing dates and our first copies leaves a tunnel period about which we may only speculate. The manuscript tradition may be accurate, or it may not.

Why are only four gospels included in the New Testament canon? Why none of the gospels penned by Gnostics, Ebionites, Encratites, etc.? "That their [i.e., the canonical four gospels’] faith was not anomalous, that it was emblematic and representative, is demonstrated by the fact that the earliest Christian affirmed these four and rejected others as representative of their faith in Jesus" (p. 62). The earliest Christians? Does he mean Irenaeus in 180 CE? Eusebius in 325 CE? The whole process of consolidation of a canon does not belong in the "earliest" period of Christianity or any religion. Similarly, Spoto gratuitously dispenses with the astonishing parallels between the gospel miracle stories and those of rabbi-magicians like Hanina ben Dosa and Hellenistic wonder-workers like Apollonius of Tyana with the dogmatic assertion that these tales must be copying the gospels.

One gets the feeling that Spoto is carrying on an internal debate of sorts, since what he attacks in pejorative language on some pages he seems to defend in euphemisms on other pages. Like his mentor Raymond E. Brown, Spoto demythologizes much of the gospel narrative as symbolic theology in narrative form. He recognizes that midrash and fiction are techniques of positive creativity and hardly to be shunned by the theological exegete. He reiterates this point almost tiresomely, knowing that conservative readers will need some convincing. But when he senses that the astute reader may be wondering if the gospel story may be fictional to the core, the theological Hyde transforms back into the apologetical Jeckyll: "It is... not a tenable position that these complex, singular and incomprehensible mysteries were concocted by a group of semiliterate first-century Palestinians, or by a quartet of community writers a half-century later. Hoaxes, much less literary frauds, do not change the course of world history" (p. 72). Maybe Spoto thinks they shouldn't, but they do, as much of the pseudepigraphical content of the Bible (e.g., Deuteronomy), not to mention the Book of Mormon, has done just that. But the point is: what is the difference between Spoto's lionized creative gospel writers and these scheming frauds except the color of the language used to describe them? We are shocked to read Spoto's sarcastic put-down of those who argue "Whether or not miracles can or did occur is unimportant... what matters is the significance of the accounts." Spoto scratches his head: "This is a curious approach, for it is hard to understand how something can have significance if it never happened" (p. 110). Curious it may be, but for the life of me, it sounds just like the approach of Spoto himself elsewhere in the book!

Spoto is willing to demythologize the "big" miracles, but he cannot bring himself to cut loose the healings, I suspect, because he needs them to anchor his portrait of Jesus as (like Saturday Night Live's Stuart Smalley) a caring nurturer. He has tried to be a respectable modern up to this point, but then he jumps to post-modernism. Just as Shroud defenders and Creationists must swallow hard and discount Carbon 14 dating, Spoto reminds us that modern physics has cast doubt on the old Newtonian notion of ironclad laws of nature, the longtime nemesis of the miraculous.  It never ceases to amaze me that desperate apologists fail to recognize that, of all people, they can least afford to do away with natural law. Without a fixed framework of natural law, any apparent suspension or violation of such laws becomes a mere freak phenomenon. Such a prodigy can logically no longer function as what the New Testament calls a "sign." A pointer to something beyond the matrix of laws. If natural law is dead, then the resurrection of Jesus is on no higher a level than the Abominable Snowman.

Spoto mocks liberal theologians and critics for replacing Jesus of Nazareth with a bogus Jesus of Nashville (yuk yuk) who is pictured as preaching a gospel of feel-goodism. And yet Spoto himself seems to reduce what he himself calls the transcendent profundities of the gospel to the most pathetic devotional banalities. "That may be the deepest meaning of the kingdom of God - the gradual awareness of every human being of attachment to a loving Creator" (p. 57). That's it? One might have expected something more given the hype on the preceding pages, where he says the New Testament myths strive "to express experiences unprecedented in human history" (p. 21). "One knows that one is redeemed for meaning by 'knowing' the person of Jesus" (p. 30)--and, no doubt, vice-versa.

Spoto's cheer-leading leads him to make misleading and outright false generalizations on behalf of his favorite religion. Was Jesus "announcing a completely new way of considering God" (p. 58)? This is chauvinistic fantasy; virtually all the sayings of Jesus can be paralleled from the rich traditions of Judaism, Cynicism, and Stoicism. Similarly, Spoto assures us that of all the world religions, only Christianity offers the doctrine of a "downward" movement from God to humanity, but how can he be ignorant of the major Hindu teaching of the avatars of Vishnu and Shiva? "Avatar" denotes "divine incarnation" and literally means "descent."

Every serious reader of books like Spoto's must ask if the modern critical reader can simultaneously recognize that the biblical myths are picturesque expressions of faith--and continue to hold that faith? Isn't the jig up? We can see that fundamentalists do indeed express their faith by means of these myths, and they way they do it is by believing those myths. This is why they are so stubborn in the face of arguments like Spoto's that they need not continue to believe them literally. It is important to note Spoto's predicament: he professes to hold the faith of the New Testament writers, but he certainly does not share their presumably naive belief in the stories they told (does Spoto think they expected their ancient readers to demythologize as they read?). If the content of their faith was not identical to the stories they told, what was the faith they were trying to convey so obliquely? Here is where (and why) Spoto becomes so ambiguous and foggy. Was the New Testament gospel about vague theism? A nebulous sense of "belonging" in the universe? His is the dilemma of the very theological liberals and rationalists he pretends to condemn.

One wonders whether Spoto would make the same apologia for the propagandistic falsehoods of Afrocentrism as he does for Christocentrism. I doubt he would. The one case seems clearer than the other, I suspect, because religious faith clouds the lens, as it so often does.



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