Monday, April 24, 2006

Gospel Truth and Poetic License

“More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relative few were chosen for inclusion—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John among then,” the “scholar” Leigh Teabing tells Sophie Neveu in “The Da Vinci Code."

It’s hard to know where Teabing arrives at this number of “eighty” records or “gospels” concerning the life of Jesus of Nazareth. No one can find that many, not even if you include all the documents called “gospels” found near Nag Hammadi in Egypt (a treasure trove of Gnostic texts uncovered in 1945) or the scattering of other documents discovered in other locations. So we’ll just have to leave that to creative fiction.

What we do know about inclusion in the Bible is quite different. The renowned expert on the New Testament, Bruce Metzger (who truly is a scholar) concludes that only four documents survived the test of “canonicity”—what is legitimate as a record of Jesus’ life. (This can be found in his seminal book, “The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance.”) That test indeed includes three criteria:
• Orthodoxy: For example, Did these writings cohere with the Hebrew Scriptures? Many of the alternative gospels disparage Jewish practices and/or attempt to remove Jesus from his Jewish context.
• Apostolicity: Did they reflect teachings of Jesus’ earliest followers? The recently published so-called “Gospel of Judas” (which no one takes to be written by Judas) reflects the Gnostics desire to wed their writings to the name of one of Jesus’ followers, for example. Even if Luke wrote the Third Gospel, his authority derived from his association with Paul.
• Consensus among the churches: Were the writings used throughout the known world? Gnostic writings appear to have been used in only specific localities and within distinct communities.

The early Christian communities in the first four centuries applied this threefold test to the writings about Jesus and determined that only four Gospels—those of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—passed the test according to Metzger.

For Dan Brown to place seventy-some additional texts as potential candidates for the Bible can only be described as driving faster than his poetic license allows.

3 comments:

Paul Sarvis said...

National Geographic Channel recently aired two investigations of The daVinci Code -- a two-hour and a one-hour documentaries by different documentarians, consulting different talking heads.

Both are quite good (the two-hour one is better, IMHO, but there's a lot of great non-duplicating info in the one-hour film); both are fair (articulate sources on both sides), and both conclude that the best-seller is well-written fiction, where even the 'facts' are fictionalized or controversial -- and document the reasons.

Well worth watching for -- although now that Holy Week is over, they probably won't come back soon. And both for sale at the NGC Store, if the Bidwell library budget can afford them.

Cootsona said...

Thanks for your comments.
I haven't seen the National Geographic specials, but they sound recommendable and worth purchasing. Frankly, the putative scholarship behind "The Da Vinci Code" (see the Ehrman comment below) is refuted in any number of books and videos. A person can probably pick a couple and find enough to discredit Dan Brown's alleged "FACTS" (to which he points at the beginning of the book). I would add, however, that having done that, a student's time will be well spent in looking at the works of Elaine Pagels or Bart Ehrman's and their case for the multiformityh of early Christianity. They are true scholoars and need to be taken seriously. I've started a bit on this path with my review of Pagels' "Beyond Belief" below.

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