“Fresh” work on Jesus a rehash of old theories
Paul Barnett talks to Geoff Robson on:
Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, The Jesus Mysteries
(London: Thorsons, 2000).
Q: Why are there many attacks on biblical, historical Christianity and the historical Jesus these days (eg: this book, Jesus Seminar)? What is behind this search for the ‘real Jesus’?
A. This is merely the latest in a sequence of books, newspaper articles and TV programmes claiming ‘at last’ to have recaptured the ‘real Jesus.’ In 1992 Dr Barbara Thiering published Jesus the Man in which Jesus was seen through the lens of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In 1996 Bishop John Spong gave us Liberating the Gospels where Jesus was seen through another set of lenses, those of Jewish allegories known as midrashes. Humanistic versions of Jesus emerged from these books.
Freke and Gandy, however, see Jesus through the eyes of Graeco-Roman mysticism. While their work purports to be fresh and new it merely re-hashes old stew. There is little of substance here that was not taught by the controversial Presbyterian Sydney-based scholar Professor Samuel Angus whose seminal work was published in 1925 and who influenced a generation of clergy, including the late Ted Noffs. Rudolph Bultmann the radical New Testament critic was deeply influenced by this mythical approach.
Without exception Thiering, Spong and Freke/Gandy give us Jesuses very different from the Jesus of the historic creeds. What were the authors’ motives ? In an interview they said the ‘Literalists’ version of Christianity is divisive. The world needs unifying, not dividing, they declared. In effect, then, their agenda is driven by a religious version of political correctness that looks for toleration. It comes as no surprise, then, that their book feels like it’s attempting to overturn traditional Christian beliefs.
Q. How should historians deal with the gospels and the New Testament documents? How do Freke and Gandy deal with them? How well do they understand/place early Christianity in its historical setting? Do the authors show a good understanding of the Bible?
I think Freke and Gandy are more formidable that Thiering or Spong. Thiering’s Qumran-based reconstruction is just too fantastic to be taken seriously and Spong merely rehashes Michael Goulder’s midrash line which R.T. France and others demolished years ago.
Freke and Gandy know their subject well, especially the sections about the ancient mystery religions. They are, however, a little disingenuous. They claim their material is new when it isn’t. They say they are open minded searchers for truth (p. 15) when their aggressive language against traditional Christian belief shows that their minds were well and truly made up before they typed their first sentence.
In brief, the case Freke and Gandy argue is (1) the Christ of the Gospels was a Jewish adaptation of various pagan myths about the dying and rising gods; (2) the second century Gnostics, devoted as they were to mystical Christian experience, were the true though long since forgotten Christians; (3) the ‘Literalists’ of the Roman church persecuted the Gnostics out of existence and destroyed their writings.
It is clear that, like the ancient Gnostics, Freke and Gandy have a mystical mind-set and therefore oppose Christianity as grounded in history. Mystics like myths. They hate the idea that the incarnation of the Son of God and his resurrection could have been a matter of actual flesh and blood and time and place. They are offended by what has been called ‘the scandal of particularity.’ That ‘scandal’ impinges on us in mind, will and conscience since it demands the concrete commitment of faith and repentance. Mystical religion, however, does not disturb the willful autonomy of the individual. It welcomes the possibility that the Gospel might be based on myths.
But is it ?
Q. Are the gospels and other NT documents reliable sources, or is there evidence that they have indeed been added to and altered over time, and the authors assert?
The Freke/Gandy ideas were at their peak back in the 1920’s and 1930’s. At that time A.D. Nock was a leading authority on comparative religions in antiquity. Nock acutely observed that pagan myths like the dying and rising god developed over hundreds of years, but that the Message of the death and resurrection of Christ (as in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5) was being proclaimed within a year of the historical Jesus. In other words, that two-pronged Message is so close to the events it reports that it must be historically based, that it was not myth.
That Message was focused on the Messiah of the Jews who had fulfilled the promises of the Hebrew scriptures. Jesus was a Jew. The apostles were Jews. The first churches were one hundred percent Jewish. As a race the Jews were deeply aware of their history going back to the Creation and to their Sacred Scriptures. As God’s unique people they had fiercely resisted Graeco-Roman religious influence for centuries. Two hundred years earlier Judas ‘Maccabeus’ led his successful revolt against the pagan attempt to impose Greek religious ideas and practice on the Jews in Israel. The various sects like the Essenes and the Pharisees were dedicated to opposing Greek religious ideas and practices. Eventually the Jews fought the terrible war of AD 66-70 to resist pagan attempts to overturn cherished Jewish beliefs. The proposal of Freke and Gandy that Jews would take over pagan myths and make Gospels of them is astonishing.
The Jewish character of the Gospel Message and the radical brevity of the time frame in which it arose following Jesus are the two torpedoes that sink the Freke and Gandy reconstruction.
Q. Is there any biblical or historical evidence that the gospel story is indeed a myth that was adapted to a Jewish setting?
It is a fact of history that the twenty seven books that make up the New Testament were written and in use in the churches by the end of the first century, that is, at latest within sixty years of Jesus. People who had been with Jesus were still around when the Gospels and the Letters were written and circulated. The closeness of the evidence to the historical Jesus is very strong evidence of its truth.
As well, these books were written by about nine different writers; Matthew, Mark, Luke (Gospel and Acts), John (Gospel, Letters, Revelation), Paul, Hebrews writer, James, Peter and Jude. Most of their books were written independently of other books and with distinctive styles and emphases. Yet they all agree in the core tenets that Jesus was the Son of God, that he died for our sins and that he was raised alive from the dead. The closeness in time to Jesus of the evidence and the multiplicity of written witnesses gives first class basis for honest confidence in the Message of the New Testament.
Besides this, these New Testament books were copied for the hundreds of churches that soon arose around the Mediterranean. As a result there are many hundreds of manuscripts of parts or the whole of the New Testament books. These exist in Greek, Latin, Coptic, Syriac and Armenian languages. Furthermore, great slabs of the New Testament begin to be quoted in the writings of the early fathers. These manuscripts and citations confirm to an astonishing degree the integrity of the Bibles we use today. Conspiracy theories and cover up is nonsense.
Historically speaking, the Christ we meet in the New Testament and the Christian faith we find there is the genuine article.
Gnosticism arose in the second and third centuries as a mystical, non-historical departure from the truth of Christ incarnate and risen. And it is this mystical religion for which Freke and Gandy are latter day apostles.
Q. What would you say to people who are troubled, disturbed, made to question, etc. by the content of this book?
People have found this book deeply disturbing. Let me encourage three approaches. First, be convinced of the Jewishness and earliness of the New Testament books. Second, have a reinvigorated appreciation for the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. Gnosticism was also a major problem in early Christianity. The Apostles Creed was formulated from New Testament teaching to rebut Gnosticism. Remember how much emphasis it places on the historical, especially as related to Christ. Third, reflect on your own conversion to Christ, your Christian experience and the grasp of a satisfying world view that makes sense of life. Be reminded that these things depend on the Gospel being rooted in historical reality.
Q. “It seems you need to be a serious historian, not a simple fisherman, to be a Christian these days.” What can we say in response to that ?
We can’t all be trained historians. But every Christian today needs to engage in some form of Christian education, for example, the external courses from Moore College. This will become increasingly important. Gnosticism is alive and well.
Bishop of North Sydney
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