February 2, 2010
Moments of Speechlessness
Lately I’ve been experiencing moments of speechlessness. Over the years it’s been a recurring condition for me.
It’s triggered by comments—sometimes from church folk, no less—who mention that, of course, we now know that there were many Gospels—such as the Gospel of Thomas—which were just as early as, if not earlier than, the four Gospels but didn’t make it into the New Testament. Or that the early church soon exchanged following Jesus for beliefs about Christ. Or that the Sermon on the Mount was forsaken for a catechism or a confession. Or that Constantine held absolute sway over the bishops at Nicea and shaped its creed for political ends. And that the shape of our New Testament is the result of one ecclesiastical party suppressing and winning over lesser parties (with Constantine a key player again). And all this was reinforced by the heavy-handed measures of the church during the Middle Ages. And so forth.
These are bright, educated folks parroting these views. They are reading books by Bart Ehrman or Elaine Pagels or Harvey Cox (perhaps washed down with a shot of Dan Brown). It all sounds compelling, this real story behind the conventional story. And these brave new Christians—taking on board the latest from the scholarly front—resolutely forge new paths of spirituality across the shattered landscape of orthodoxy. Some fancy themselves the vanguard of a new reformation in the church, Saving Jesus from the Church. To be sure, I do see indications that many of them mean well and hunger for spiritual nurture and growth. Some are nursing the wounds of growing up fundamentalist. For others, it’s just hard to say.
And meanwhile, the voices of scholars who have labored in texts of Greek and Latin and Coptic and Syriac are singing:
It ain’t necessarily so, It ain’t necessarily so, De things dat yo’ liable to read in yo’ rewritt’n Bible [or “church histories”], It ain’t necessarily so.
Or more pedantically: Sir, you are welcome to your own opinions but not to your own facts. Ma’m excuse me for being so judgmental, but:
No, the Gospel of Thomas does not really have a pre-Johannine pedigree. It’s from the late second century. It might even depend on the Syriac Diatessaron.
No, the NT canon did not emerge suddenly in the fourth century.
No, the Nicene Creed is not a late imposition on apostolic faith, nor is it spun from Greek ideas.
No, Constantine did not hold absolute sway over the Council of Nicaea and did not exercise absolute control over the bishops or invent the repressive idea of heresy.
As usual, the truth does not appear nearly as fascinating as the fabrication. Nor does it carry as much marketing intrigue and publicity punch. But fortunately, there are scholars of extensive training and great ability who are challenging these caricatures of history. For instance, just this morning I was revisiting Craig Evans’s excellent book Fabricating Jesus. (Could you really go on giving Gospel of Thomas a place at the historical-Jesus table after reading Evans’s summary of the counter-evidence?) And last week I briefly revisited Oskar Skarsaune’s In the Shadow of the Temple. (Could you so confidently repeat the clap trap about the imposition of Greek categories on the Nicene Creed after reading Skarsaune?) And only yesterday I was considering how to explain to our marketers and future readers Peter Leithart’s forthcoming book on Constantine. (Will you still be singing the blues over Constantine—and Yodering on about Constantinianism!—after reading Leithart in the fall?)
We are a generation that scrupulously tip toes around stereotypes of our contemporaries on the way to grand caricatures of our ancestors. But if you know better—or even suspect something’s rotten in the state of religious studies—it can sometimes leave you speechless. Momentarily.