Yesterday, I suggested that The DaVinci Code has been successful, in part, because it affirms people’s distrust in mainstream Christian leaders to tell the truth about Jesus. There is a sense that the “real” Jesus was much different from the Jesus that is depicted by TV preachers, quasi-political organizations, and door-knocking evangelicals. My question was – is there reason to believe that the Jesus has been watered down by modern Christian leaders?
And my answer is – yes, at least in some circumstances. However, the problem is not a result of some insidious ancient editorial process that was engineered by Constantine. The problem is that some of our leaders are ignoring 90% of what the canonical gospels are saying about Jesus. And even those who are completely unschooled in scripture are instinctively understanding this problem.
I’ll get to the specifics of how Jesus has been watered down tomorrow. For now, however, lets start with a couple of points that are widely accepted among biblical scholars, both conservative and liberal:
(1) There are no “gospels” which depict a Jesus who is more human than the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), all of which appear in the pages of the New Testament. If you want to know the historical Jesus, and if you want to read the earliest, most historically reliable accounts of who he was, just pick up your New Testament. In spite of the rather tantalizing suggestions that are made in The DaVinci Code, there is really no better place to go if you want to know what Jesus was really like. You can argue that not even those sources are reliable, if you want, but you won’t find anything else that was written within 100 years of Jesus’ lifetime.
(2) The so-called gnostic gospels (The Gospel of Judas, The Gospel of Peter, The Gospel of Mary Magdaline, etc.) are of very little help in understanding what Jesus was really like. They were written in the second century (about 100 years after the books in the New Testament), likely by intellectual and social elites who wanted to re-cast a vision of Jesus that was less demanding on their wealthy, comfortable worldviews. If you are looking for a Jesus who was championed by the peasants, by the poor, and by the uneducated (and, yes, even by women) – you won’t find him in these gospels.
In short, if you want to read accounts about the life of Jesus by writers who were present (or, at least, in a position to speak with people who were actually present) during his life, then you need to read Matthew, Mark, and Luke. If you want to understand why some people in the second century wanted to re-invent Jesus to make him more “presentable” to the wealthy and the elite, read the gnostic gospels.
Tomorrow: Why Matthew, Mark, and Luke portray a Jesus who is more scandalous and revolutionary than you probably suspect.