A while back our good friend Nick Norelli asked at what point does a book cease to be recent, and his inquiry generated some thoughtful answers (particularly from Steph Fisher and James Spinti). His interesting question came to mind the other day as I thumbed through a brand new book by one L. Michael White, Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite (New York: HarperOne, 2010), at the Religion section of the local Borders. White’s preface begins as follows:
“Jesus is under fire.” So says a recent book by evangelical [sic] apologists in reaction to most, if not all, forms of New Testament scholarship. At stake, they argue, are the grounds of all Christian belief, the “truth” of the Gospel. So it seems that the battle lines are clear and unmistakable: those who believe versus those who don’t. Those who question historical points in the Christian Gospels or propose a different vision of what Jesus said on a particular occasion or meant on a given topic are summarily lumped together in a vast and godless army, the enemies of Christ and Christianity.
There is much to object to in this one short paragraph (more on that below), but I immediately recognized the “recent book” in question to be Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus, edited by Michael Wilkins and J. P. Moreland, and published by Zondervan in 1995. Am I alone in wanting to know which criteria, exactly, qualify a 15-year-old book as recent? In February of 1995, when Jesus Under Fire was published, I was still a junior in high school!
But this is the least problematic of White’s baffling comments. For a start, the reader can immediately sense that the designation “Evangelical apologists” is here a blanket term of opprobrium, clearly implying that a commitment to the historical reliability of the Gospels (which is what the “apologists” are defending in this case) necessarily betrays a rabid anti-intellectual streak. Indeed, we are given to understand that only a blind ideological opposition “to most, if not all, forms of New Testament scholarship” can account for the acceptance of such an obscurantist view.
These protestations of fundamentalistic opposition to Biblical scholarship are all the more remarkable when one considers that the first four chapters of Jesus Under Fire were written by four New Testament scholars of considerable gifts and superior training: Craig Blomberg, Scot McKnight, Darrell Bock, and Craig Evans. These scholars have all published widely on Jesus and the Gospels, and it is surely a stretch to suggest that they oppose “most, if not all, forms of New Testament scholarship” simply on account of their Evangelical commitments. I doubt that White would deliberately engage in blatant misrepresentation, so I must conclude that this is a case of judging a book by its cover, without regard to its actual contents.
Now it is clear that Jesus Under Fire was written by Evangelical authors with apologetic aims. It is equally clear, however, that the book’s main target is not some apocalyptic “vast and godless army” of “enemies of Christ and Christianity,” but rather the sensationalistic stunts of the Jesus Seminar. (Readers will recall that, a decade and a half ago, the Jesus Seminar attracted wide media attention by regularly cranking out saucy headlines ready for the newswire.) I happen to believe that the authors succeeded in their aim of providing a cogent, popular-level counterargument to the dubious methodology and exaggerated claims of the Seminar from an Evangelical perspective. But, as has been often noted, it was not Evangelicals alone who found the Seminar’s pontifications problematic: again, readers will doubtless recall that perhaps the finest rebuttal of their methodology and claims came from the pen of New Testament scholar extraordinaire Luke Timothy Johnson in his 1996 book The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels. And indeed, White himself dedicates the next two paragraphs of his preface to the sensationalism, media hype, and conspiracy theories that he opposes to “real scholarship.”
Of course, White also opposes “real scholarship” to “conservative apologists.” By this he means the same sort of zealously anti-intellectual verbal dictationists of which he speaks in the first paragraph. But had he paid some attention to the contributions of Blomberg, McKnight, Bock, and Evans in Jesus Under Fire, he would have found scholars committed to the historical reliability of the Gospels with concerns not unlike his own. In fact, in his excellent and memorably titled chapter (“The Words of Jesus in the Gospels: Live, Jive, or Memorex?”), Bock is at pains to discount the same two extremes that White rejects: that of the Jesus Seminar (which treats the Gospels as “jive”) and that of the dictationists (which treats them as a “memorex” tape). Perhaps they disagree considerably as to the historical reliability of the words and deeds recorded in the Gospels, but both seek to do justice to the literary artistry of Gospel composition by avoiding the very same extremes—and therefore, whether White likes it or not, they merely live in different neighborhoods of the of the “live” district.
P.S.: I would be remiss if I failed to point out that the title Scripting Jesus is, to my mind, a thinly veiled marketing gimmick meant to capitalize on Bart Ehrman’s similarly titled (and enormously successful) Misquoting Jesus, also published by HarperOne. Since, as we know, the title of Ehrman’s book was the doing of HarperOne’s marketing department, I think it safe to say that we may lay this bit of chicanery at their feet as well.