My daughters belong to a club that meets at a local bookstore. While they do crafts and discuss the lives of girls in American history, I do what I do best: browse the shelves.
When I visit the religion section lately, I marvel at how secular publishers have found Jesus — Jesus the commodity, that is. The presses are rolling, it seems, with reams of new gospels, bold new looks at the “Jesus of history.”
It’s about fifteen years since I first noticed the trend. That’s when an Episcopalian bishop from New Jersey, John Shelby Spong, went public with his doubts about the virginal conception and the resurrection. Soon afterward, a lapsed Catholic novelist in England suddenly realized that Jesus was not divine. He discovered a different Jesus, who was, rather, a secular humanist — a good chap, conventionally anti-Catholic, who’d surely understand the author’s abandonment of his wife.
Some folks at Catholic colleges, too, would rather publish than perish. So they’re properly embarrassed by Mother Church’s claims to Jesus’ divinity and the inspiration of Scripture. Like teenagers, they just can’t believe Mom would say such things in public — in front of all their friends!
Some of the Jesus volumes are large books that look mighty on one’s shelf and stop the circulation in your legs if you leave them too long on your lap. So they’re best left on the shelf. In the bookstore.
Really, these claims are nothing new. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John faced the same (weak) competition in 170 A.D. Like Elvis biographies in the 1990s, Jesus biographies abounded in the centuries after the Lord’s ascension. Every hack in the East of the empire seemed to be saying (pseudonymously) “I knew the Messiah when.” But few could agree on who the Messiah was.
This created a problem for the Church, because she did know the Messiah when — and she knew that the hacks were making news rather than reporting it. The Apostles, and their successors, were careful to distinguish the Good News from the rest.
And not all of the rest was bad news. Many extrabiblical “gospels” have survived, and we can see that they vary in literary quality and theological orthodoxy. Some of the earliest apocryphal texts do offer more interesting, more substantial reading than certain canonical texts. The apocryphal Epistle of Barnabas seems weightier than the Bible’s Letter of Jude or Third Letter of John.
But who cares? The Church Fathers, who canonized the books of the Bible, were educated men of enormous literary talent and often remarkable critical faculties. They knew that 3 John was little more than a theological postcard. But when they compiled the canon of the Bible, they weren’t judging books merely on literary merits. They included 3 John because they were certain that an Apostle’s authority was at the other end of it. And they didn’t care if Barnabas was a better read; Jude was the real deal.
Today’s evangelists of doubt will say that they, too, are after authenticity. But the criteria vary widely according to the scholar. At one academic meeting a few years back, the profs could reach consensus on the authenticity of just one statement of Jesus: “Abba.” Another session was uneasy with everything but “Little girl, get up.”
Once we start slicing troublesome spots out of the New Testament, it’s awfully hard to stop. It’s all so troublesome.
But if an unauthorized biography of Christ won’t save souls, the publishers hope it’ll at least save their business. And what’s more important? (See Mk 8:36.)