Monday, April 24, 2006

Da Vinci Code Absurdity of the Week

A few weeks ago I made a tentative decision to stop writing about the Da Vinci Code because thought I'd run the risk of making this blog too repetititive, and perhaps because I'd come off as too much of a crank. I've changed my mind. Since the movie is still on the way, we have at least another couple of months where the ideas of the book will be as hot as ever (as depressing the thought of that is to me!). I also just started teaching a class on it at our church, so everything is fresh in my mind again. Here's the format I'll try in this and future posts: I'll quote a sentence or two from the book, and then make a few comments on why this quote qualifies as "A Da Vinci Absurdity."

This week's selection comes from one of the many historically revisionist speeches of the character Leigh Teabing. He says,"Constantine commissioned and financed a new Bible, which omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ human traits and embellished those gospels that made him godlike." The hint of truth: Constantine did commision the copying of a few dozen Bibles after the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. The absurdity: the list of Gospels included were only what anyone would have expected -- Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These Gospels were not in dispute as the historically reputable ones by anyone at the Council of Nicea. So, Constantine was not pulling a fast one, nor did he even personally act as the Bible's editor. Also, no evidence whatsoever exists to suggest that these Gospels were "embellished." On top of this, the four canonical Gospels, far from supressing ideas of Christ's humanity, are replete with his humanity. The critique of the Gnostic Gospels was, in fact, that they are the ones that diminish Christ's true human nature by turning him into some kind of phantasm that only appears to have had human flesh. Orthodox Christianity, from the earliest of times, claimed that Christ was fully God and fully human -- and this conclusion came because the four canonical Gospels emphasize both of those things. That Christ was fully human was not something that the early church denied or tried to supress as Dr. Teabing suggests -- in fact, Christ's full humanity is one of the most fundamental articles of faith as even the Nicene Creed itself alludes to.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Is Christian Salvation Other-Worldly or This-Worldly?

(My apologies to anyone who just read a shorter version of this entry that I just posted on JollyBlogger.)
A hot-topic in theology circles these days, especially in light of the rise of the "Emergent Church" movement, is whether or not the kingdom that Jesus Christ came to announce is more about a life-after-death place we go, or an entire overhaul of the present created world. My contribution to the debate: salvation is both of these things.
Despite what we might think about his whole theological project, N.T. Wright nails the biblical theme of salvation as "new creation," proving that the scripture really does underwrite some of the renewed interest in going beyond the language of mere life-after-death. The "heaven" of the book of Revelation is really more like a fabulously renewed earth than a wispy, cloudy, world of disembodied, blissful souls. Yet, (and this is a big "yet"), the fulness of the renewed future creation is only experienced by those who pass into it through a physical death (and dying in Christ no less), and then, a future bodily resurrection and vindication at the judgment seat of Christ (cf. 2 Cor.5). This "new heavens and new earth" is not an inevitable inheritance of anyone who lives on earth today, nor a reality that we can realize through any degree of sanctified efforts at cultural reform. The present world, and all of its history, must draw to a close at the moment of a future cataclysmic judgment, before that new creation will be brought to fruition. Most of us will experience this as a life-after-death reality. Until then, of course, we should get busy making the world more kingdom-like in ways that we can -- to do so proves that we have a theology of creation/re-creation, and not just a theology of the redemption of souls. There is, in fact, no room for the view that we shouldn't bother improving this world since it's all "going to burn."
But there is no ultimate conflict between a life-after-death understanding of salvation and that of a renewed creation. The mistake would be to pick either emphasis and make it its own "camp" from which to judge the other perspective as entirely wrong-headed. No surprise, the biblical view of reality, even heavenly reality, is not so easily summarised by just one metaphor, one image.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Newsweek on Judas

Continuing the theme of giving credit where credit is due in media coverage of the Gospel of Judas, let's pause to considerer these wise (even punchy) words from Newsweek's David Gates:

"Don't be expecting this fragmented manuscript to read like the King James. Small sample: " '[Truly] I say to you, [ ... ] angel [ ... ] power will be able to see that [ ... ] these to whom [ ... ] holy generations [ ... ]' After Jesus said this, he departed." And not a minute too soon. The secret wisdom Jesus confides—when he's not laying out a hierarchy of angels, gods and more gods that makes Hinduism sound minimalist—is a lot like that of the Gnostic Gospels, which posit a strict enmity between flesh and spirit..."

"Robinson, who tried to acquire the manuscript again in 1993, says the Gospel is a sensation—but only to scholars, not the public. His own book, "The Secrets of Judas," hardly oversells the translation. "It tells us nothing about the historical Jesus, nothing about the historical Judas," he told NEWSWEEK. "It only tells what, 100 years later, Gnostics were doing with the story they found in the canonical Gospels. I think purchasers are going to throw the book down in disgust." But right now, people are loving the idea that Jesus and Judas were dear friends who were in it together—it's such a downer to think the guy sinned and felt bad—and the hoopla machine is grinding away. The book. The book about the book. The National Geographic TV show about the book and the book about the book. The audiobook. (Can't wait to hear the passage above.) Last week, the public unveiling of the manuscript. Next year, the illustrated critical edition. Can the lipstick tie-in be far behind?"

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The New York Times and Judas

Accolades to John Wiford and Laurie Goodstein for their balanced treatment in the New York Times of the Gospel of Judas on April 7th. They mention that the real debate is not whether the document is ancient, but over it's relevance (presumably, they mean, to the question of Jesus studies). Those experts who they go on to quote as representatives of the pro-gnostic side of this new debate show how limited the scope of this whole conversation will really be. In other words, the relevance of the discovery is not so much to a possible redrawing of old lines about the historical Jesus, about which all late-dated gnostic Gospels are dubious source texts, but relevance merely to the nature of second and third century beliefs about Jesus in certain sub-sects. One of the champions of gnostic Christianity, Elaine Pagels, is quoted as saying that discoveries of this and other gnostic texts "are exploding the myth of a monolithic religion and demonstrating how diverse — and fascinating — the early Christian movement really was." She's right, though one wonders if anyone ever believed such a myth (though again, the truly "early Christian movement" of pre 70 A.D. shows very little of the diversity that Pagels revels in). The Gospel of Judas will be a fascinating read, but only as it gives insight into a highly marginal (even among Gnostics?) religious community and their imaginings about Jesus and Judas.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Betraying The Gospel of Judas

Today's big story in religion is the unveiling of The Gospel of Judas, a 1,700 year-old Coptic document that purports to record a secret conversation between Jesus and Judas, where Jesus asks Judas to betray him. The text was actually dug up in Egypt in the 1970's, but, somehow, ended up in a New York City bank safe-deposit box until it was recently restored and translated (National Geographic will soon print and sell copies). Is this copy of The Gospel of Judas really as old as 300 A.D.? Yes, probably. Does this mean we have to seriously re-evaluate what really happened on the night that Jesus was betrayed? Well, not exactly. First, it must be conceded that this Gospel was probably written well before 300 A.D. If the idea that Jesus asked Judas to stage a betrayal sounds familiar, it might be because you saw Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ in the late 1980's, which portrays such a scene. We've actually known about this claim for a long time- since 180 A.D., in fact, since that's the rough publication date of a rebuttal of The Gospel of Judas written by a church leader named Irenaeus. So, through Irenaeus, we've actually had second-hand quotes of The Gospel of Judas for a long time. Today's announcement really only qualifies as news because now we have the full text of the work, and not just quotations. So, despite the tone of some of today's headlines, nothing earth-shattering has come to light. Orthdox Christianity dealt with this book and moved on quite a while ago -- just over 1,800 years ago, to be exact.
But the real reason why we don't need to seriously reconsider what the New Testament says about Jesus having been genuinely betrayed by Judas is that The Gospel of Judas is still a very late occuring document compared to especially the synoptic Gospels (Mathhew, Mark, and Luke), which were written about 100 years earlier. Unfortunatley, today's coverage of the story suggests that we should equally weight the Gospel of Judas alongside the New Testament sources, if not give it even greater weight. But on what grounds? That 100 year gap just yawns too wide. More importantly, The Gospel of Judas bears all the marks of full-blown Gnostic Chrisitanity, a melding of various Greek and Near-Eastern religious elements with the Christianity of the New Testament -- and no one has shown evidence that this advanced form of Gnosticism existed until well into the the second century. The fact that Jesus asks to be killed in order to be freed from the prison of bodily existence is classic Gnostic anti-materialism, but this was not a religious perspective that existed in first-century Palestine. The Gospel of Judas presents us with an alternative Jesus alright, but not a Jesus that likely has much to do with the Jesus of Nazareth.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Please Accept This Emotional Appeal

With the Tom Hanks/Ron Howard film on its way in May, we're headed into another season of media attention for the Da Vinci Code and its claims about Jesus and early Christianity. It will be hard to miss interviews with scholars, pseudo-scholars, the man-in-the-street, and maybe even a rare interview with Dan Brown himself. Our course, I'd like to weigh-in on these heady issues myself, using this forum. But tonight I won't. I have a number of (I'd like to think) well-argued, thoughtful responses to Browns' claims that (1) no one believed Jesus was God until after 325 A.D., 2) Constantine commissioned the writing of the New Testament, 3) Jesus was once widely known to have had children with Mary Magdalene; 4) the contents of the Dead Sea Scrolls threaten Christian orthodoxy, and 5) the Gnostic Gospels are better sources of historical information about Jesus than the four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). Yes, I've got a few things to say about all these things -- but so do, and so have, many other scholars. And, frankly, it doesn't take particularly savvy scholarship to answer many of Brown's claims -- rather, it takes an hour-and-a-half at your nearest public library.
So, instead of a scholarly response, I'd like to draw on all of the trust capital I may have earned with you, gentle reader. I'd like to make a direct appeal to any amount of credibility my education warrants, a plea for consideration based on the simple assurance that I am a generally reasonable person. All of these appeals in order to say: please, please, please believe that what the Da Vinci Code says about Jesus Christ and ancient Christianity is just sheer poppycock. Really, just an incredible pile of unwarranted silliness. I'm not making an argument here, I'm making an emotional appeal. Even anti-Christian scholars wouldn't think of trying to publish most of Brown's stuff in a respected journal. The problem with a lot of the media coverage is that, in the name of objectivity, I suppose, Brown's ideas are introduced as some kind of "fresh perspectives" that are "at least worth considering." Even non-committal talk show hosts want to allow that Brown is at least "thoughtfully examining long-held beliefs." But I'm here tonight, writing way past my bedtime, to say, 'No, no, no,' Dan Brown is not "onto something" here, or even "at least asking hard questions." He's not really asking questions at all, he's making deeply, deeply ridiculous claims through the extended monologues of his characters.
People speak of the sin of "heretical" claims, or the mistake of "ahistorical" claims, but what's at issue here is first, simply, "ridiculous" claims. No one believed in Jesus' divinity until after the Council of Nicea in 325? How does one even begin to answer such an outlandish assertion? The first challenge, certainly, would be to even keep a straight face while trying to make reference to the thousands of parchments that pre-date Nicea that would prove such a belief was widespread -- but now I'm actually making an argument. Brown's ideas in The DaVinci Code are not just wrong -- for you can be earnest, well-researched, and still make wrong conclusions. They are not even exactly devious, for that would suggest some kind of clever manipulation of the data. To date, the best word I've come up with is "ridiculous." Please, please, trust me on this one unless you are planning to pick up one of the many published rebuttals. If you are, my favorite is Carl Olson and Sandra Miesel's The DaVinci Hoax. Until then, I hope that while you may never think of me as the single most discerning, brillliant, penetrating thinker you've ever encountered, you'll at least trust me in this: I know cookoo-rookoo when I read it.