Welcome to the Christmas season once again. Whereas for eleven months out of the year our documentary film fare consists of a balanced diet of fringe nutrition advice, adorable nature footage, financial malfeasance, and Pawn Stars reruns, this month is sure to feature a host of secular documentaries on how Jesus is a mishmash pagan construct, the original New Testament text is about as lost as that package you unwisely sent to your mom by DHL, and the divine Jesus is a pseudo-historical political construct designed to uphold the political power of Constantine.
So imagine the reaction when I told my Things Above Us colleagues that I was about to review a book called Reinventing Jesus.
Mind you, the title refers to what the authors allege secular scholars are doing to the actual Jesus, and it’s probably a play on words against Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus. So rest assured, Reinventing Jesus is neither misquoting nor reinventing Jesus.
More specifically, Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture aims “to build a positive argument for the historical validity of Christianity,” and it does so at a reasonably popular level rather than at a high scholarly one. At 350 pages, the work has only so much space to cover many topics, so it’s best to consider this a survey rather than a substantial, comprehensive volume. It’s a superb starting point for Christians who might be struggling with such contemporary skepticism. However, it may also “go over the heads” of many, so the lay reader should be prepared to reread some portions or ask a friend to explain anything he or she finds too difficult.
I should insert a disclaimer before going any further. During my own Th.M. studies, I studied directly under Daniel B. Wallace, one of the book’s authors. That absolutely makes me biased both in terms of my affinity for Dr. Wallace and in terms of my views on New Testament textual criticism. However, I have neither asked nor received any favors in exchange for this review. This also does not mean that I agree with the authors on every viewpoint presented.
The work consists of five parts. Part 1 addresses the nature of eyewitness testimony. Part 2 concerns the transmission of the New Testament text from when it was written to what we have now. Part 3 concerns the canon of the New Testament—why the books of the New Testament are there and why others were rejected. Part 4 concerns the divinity of Jesus—whether Jesus’ followers believed this from the time of His resurrection or invented as late as the fourth century. Finally, part 5 concerns whether core doctrines of Christianity such as the resurrection and the virgin birth are ripoffs from pagan religions.
Eyewitness Testimony and Oral Transmission
Since the events of Jesus’ life were so far separated from the actual writing of the New Testament, decades in fact, how can we be so sure that the New Testament writings are historically accurate?
There is more to be said here according to Komoszewski, et al. First, “there was no need to think about a written gospel” when “the apostles and leaders of the young church were preoccupied with broadcasting the gospel orally.” (27) Moreover, uncontrolled oral transmission is beneficial to accurate transmission. This seems counter-intuitive, but it’s not unlike textual transmission after the New Testament had been written down. When there isn’t a single stream of transmission, an error in one stream can more easily be detected by anyone paying attention to the other streams.
We also fail to account for changes in our cognition since the invention of the printing press: “memorization has been de-emphasized for a long time in education due to the availability of the printed page.” (37) Memory carried much more emphasis prior to Gutenberg.
New Testament Textual Criticism
Part 2 is a long, five-chapter discourse on textual criticism, starting with a chapter on the nature of textual variants. Two chapters explain manuscripts. The next explains text critical method from the perspective of reasoned eclecticism. This being a lay-level survey, more obscure methods like the independent text-types view, rigorous eclecticism, and Byzantine priority do not receive mention, whereas KJV-onlyism and TR-onlyism receive short mention.
Having explained which variants matter and which do not, types and nature of manuscripts, and text-critical method, the final chapter of part 2 explores variants that are both ‘meaningful’ and ‘viable’ in order to explore whether these impact core doctrines of Christianity.
The New Testament Canon
Part three first addresses the books that were accepted into the canon, including the when, the why, and how the church went about dealing with the books that were disputed. Second, the book takes an excellent historical look at how the church dealt with forgeries. Finally, the supposed conspiracy against “lost books” is thoroughly debunked.
Among TAU readers, it’s likely known well enough that books are canonical not based on their inclusion in a list but because of their intrinsic qualities. This quote, however, put it better than I could have:
[T]hat no decree ever announced what books were canonical also tells us implicitly that the canon was a list of authoritative books rather than an authoritative list of books. Those books that belong in the canon belong there because of their intrinsic worth and authenticity as witnesses to Jesus Christ, not because some church council declared them to be authoritative. (132)
By examining the church’s canonization of Mark, Hebrews, Revelation, and 2 Peter, the second chapter in this section goes to great length to show how careful the church was to ensure its canon was legitimate.
The third chapter of this section examines the rejected forgeries to see “what the fuss is about.” (152) If I may draw a parallel, when I’m discussing with an unbeliever about whether our Bible is accurate, inevitably the question arises over whether it’s been “translated and re-translated a bunch of times” or thoughts to that effect. I generally respond with something like, “Which manuscript?” a gentle way of revealing that my friend hasn’t done any serious thought or research. The same could be said about such thoughts about forgeries and the canon. “Which apocryphal works from the time of the early church have you read?” Here’s a particular gem from the Gospel of Thomas I found to be entertaining:
Simon Peter said to them, “Let Mary leave us, because women are not worthy of life.” Jesus said, “Look, I shall lead her to that I will make her male in order that she also may become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.” (162–163)
The authors of Reinventing Jesus argue here that these forgeries were generally one of two motives: “benign entertainment” on the level of fan fiction or “to offer a different Jesus” from the one presented in the Gospels.
In part 4, the authors use four chapters to argue that Nicea was not at all about turning a human Jesus divine. “Rather, the council unpacked the significance of a belief rooted in centuries-old texts.” The first chapter here focuses on the canonical Gospels; the second covers the remainder of the New Testament. The third covers a sampling of non-Christian writers from the time period and some of the ante-Nicene fathers. The fourth chapter exposits the actual history that occurred before, during, and after Nicea. It corrected several misunderstandings that I had about the events.
In the fifth and final section, the authors address the allegations of Christianity stealing doctrines from pagan mystery religions, including a special focus on the virgin birth and Christ’s resurrection. The fallacies on the part of secular scholars are summed into five basic faulty assumptions (which do overlap):
- Parallels between Jesus Christ and pagan deities can be found in any mystery religion.
- Terms used of the Christian message just as naturally fit pagan religions.
- Parallels indicate wholesale dependency.
- Fully developed mystery religions existed before the rise of Christianity.
- The purpose and nature of key events are the same in each of these religions.
Difficulties and Controversies
One can only ask so much of the authors to break down these incredibly deep topics into a lay-readable survey. How difficult can this be? The very first chapter explains Q, which is not a Star Trek character but might be equally mystifying to many readers. This will be a difficult book to read for many, but I think the potential benefits are worth a little temporary confusion.
Some confusion potentially could have been prevented by either re-ordering of subjects, making some extra length in order to introduce terms or concepts not yet explained in full, or promising a fuller explanation to come later. For example, the abbreviation “MSS” is introduced in a graph without explaining what it means, though some digging should reveal what it means in context. The terms “Alexandrian text-type” and “Western text-type” are used to describe versions (manuscripts that contain translations) prior to the portion of the book that explains what they are. At one point, the authors concede, “It is true that ‘many ancient works were deliberately burned by the Christians,’ but these were heretical books.” [emphasis original] (72) I couldn’t help but note in my copy on behalf of a typical layperson or unbeliever, “What exactly is ‘heresy’?” Indeed, this is explained later, but the reader doesn’t know that yet.
For theologically conservative readers, some aspects arising from the historical nature of the book may be troubling. I must emphasize: this is a historical case for the validity of Christianity, not as much a theological one. You will not find a defense of the deductive view of biblical inerrancy here.
Concerning the accuracy of the Bible’s quotations of people, the authors write:
The problem is that the verbatim quotation view doesn’t square completely with the written Gospels. Many scholars point out that ancient historians were not concerned with quoting the very words of a person but were very much concerned with getting the gist of what he had to say. (35)
If this were primarily a theological work, we would probably see some exposition on ipsissima verba (“the very words”) and ipsissima vox (“the very voice”) with respect to the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of the text, but that doesn’t fit the stated purpose of the book.
As for Christmas, the authors convincingly argue that “Attis, Mithras, and the others show evidence of a dependence upon Christianity” (233), but they then concede that Christianity “likely” took over December 25th from mystery religions. “The use of this date was apparently picked to assimilate the cults into the now-dominant religion of the Roman Empire, Christianity.” (233–234) I’ve been seeing this disputed as of late. Given my own lack of research at this point, it’s best that I just leave this here without providing my own uninformed opinion.
Given the historical and scholarly nature of Reinventing Jesus, the reader should not be surprised to find the following condition:
In short, all of the evidence points to the biblical Jesus as the real Jesus.
At the same time, none of this suggests that we have proved the historical veracity of the Christian faith. After all, the events of history cannot be tested repeatedly in a controlled enviroment with consistently identical results. But when evidence that is strong and pervasive can be adduced, past events can be reasonably deemed probable. An ounce of evidence is worth a pound of presumption. But in this case, we have much more than an ounce of evidence! Indeed, probability is very much on the side of the Christian message. (260)
In the final analysis, the truth of Romans 1:18–32 still reigns supreme. The authors lament that “Little attention is given to the scriptural portrait of Christ. However, when a new perspective on him—one that is decidedly out of sync with the Bible—is unveiled, it draws a crowd.” (261) In the next paragraph, they really nail it.
But why isn’t society interested in reinventions of other major religious figures? Why not Muhammed, Buddha, Moses, or Confucius? Why Jesus? In a word, accountability. People in the civilized, Western world usually know something about Jesus and the gospel message, and their interest in him rises whenever a new theory comes along that can ease their consciences. People gravitate towards a tame Jesus—a Jesus who can be controlled, a Jesus who is nonthreatening, a Jesus who values what they value and does not demand anything of them at all. In other words, a Jesus who is not Lord and Savior. (261–262)
Reinventing Jesus is not an epic bomb of Reformed presuppositionalism that screams, “YOU KNOW THE JESUS OF THE BIBLE IS THE REAL JESUS AND YOU’RE JUST DENYING IT BECAUSE YOU’RE A SINNER,” and it doesn’t need to be. For what it aims to do, it does an excellent job. Future editions may aim to make it a bit easier, but the material itself is already extraordinarily difficult for first-time learners.
All that in mind, there exists some significant financial need in the life of author and scholar Ed Komoszewski. A previous GoFundMe effort to help out fizzled out short of its goal. A new one has just been put up, and $40,000 is being requested. From Dan Wallace:
Ed has been deemed disabled by his doctors and the federal government; he’s been unable to earn a regular income since 2015. He has been hospitalized for extensive stays four times in the past three or so years. Debt has accelerated; bills are piling up. Some have gone unpaid and have been turned over to collection agencies. The need is urgent.
I have personally witnessed his humble lifestyle. Your gifts help pay the bills. Some friends help out with specific needs, allowing him to attend a crucial academic conference each year. But he lives a ridiculously frugal life. Not only does he need funds for the medical bills, but the car limps along, the AC unit (NOT a luxury in Texas) has problems working, and his oldest daughter is heading to college in the fall.
Because Ed is a “medical mystery” (as his doctors at Mayo said of him for the past two decades), he has exhausted many traditional therapies for his various conditions. This means he must experiment with non-traditional treatments often recommended by his doctors but not covered by insurance.
Go buy the book. Maybe buy some for your friends as well. And let’s help out our brother Ed get back on solid financial ground.