January-February 1993By David Hartman
The Rev. David Hartman is the Minister of the Harrodsburg Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Harrodsburg, Kentucky.
The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholar's Version. Edited by Robert J. Miller. Polebridge Press. 432 pages. $24.95.
Robert J. Miller is Professor of Religion at Midway College, a small Kentucky school locally fabled for offering a degree in horsemanship. Miller is also the editor of The Complete Gospels (published under the auspices of the Westar Institute), which brings together in one volume the canonical Gospels and such pseudepigrapha as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Secret Book of James, and the Gospel of Mary. What's the point? Miller explained to The Lexington Herald-Leader that generations of clergy have been overly protective of the laity, shielding them from the reality that "there is a lot more going on in the early centuries of the Christian churches than what we see in the four Gospels of the New Testament." Miller is far too harsh. As any lay member of an old-line Protestant denomination can attest, the clergy have not been notably remiss in their efforts to disconcert the faithful. They have simply lacked a handy way to disturb them in this particular fashion. The Complete Gospels fills that gap. This is a New Testament for New Agers.
The Westar Institute first achieved notoriety for sponsoring the Jesus Seminar, which brought together 200 scholars in the early 1980s to determine whether Jesus actually said what the Bible says He said. After much study and debate, and presumably many sociable lunches, they decided that Jesus had not said 80 percent of the things attributed to Him in the Gospels. To systematize their deliberations, they provided a convenient color code. Red meant Jesus probably said it, pink that he might have said it, gray that he likely didn't say it, and black that some redactor told a big one. How they determined the authenticity of any given pericope is uncertain. Perhaps, to be biblically sound, they cast lots. The Gospel of John was almost entirely black, which means that centuries of Christians who have found comfort and hope in the counsel of Jesus ("In my Father's house are many rooms...") have been led astray by one of history's great prevaricators. Who you gonna trust? Softly, tenderly, the scholars of the Westar Institute whisper, "Trust us. We have PhDs."
Preliminary publicity for The Complete Gospels trumpeted that it is a "one-volume library of all the important early Christian gospels! A team of highly qualified gospel specialists, working from the original languages, has produced a translation that avoids pietism, euphemisms, and tired, stilted biblical jargon. Scholars Version is entirely free of ecclesiastical control and represents no religious movement."
For the sake of argument, grant the dubious premise that the Scriptures really are under "ecclesiastical control" (doing so means pretending that people like John Wycliffe, Martin Luther, and Johannes Gutenberg never existed, but what the heck). The fact is, the canon of the New Testament was made by the Church. It consists of those early Christian writings which the ancient Church venerated as sacred Scripture -- equivalent in divine inspiration to the sacred, canonical literature of the Old Testament -- and representative of the true and authoritative apostolic faith. In choosing these 27 works as canonical, Christianity achieved a unity it has been unable to maintain in almost any other sphere. This common canon has survived the schisms of the fifth century, the division between the Greek and Western churches, and even the Reformation and its aftermath. All the churches of Christianity continue to look to it for guidance in matters of faith and order. To say it should be liberated from "ecclesiastical control" is rather like saying that Hamlet and Othello should be liberated from the ham-handed editing of William Shakespeare. This is deconstructionism at its most addled.
Perhaps the key question was originally posed by Jesus to the disciples: "Who do you say that I am?" Hans Küng once asserted that the answer to Jesus' question was to be found in "the original Christian message itself." In reply, Avery Dulles noted, "Where is the original message to be found? What is the privileged moment characterized as 'original'? Is it the preaching of Jesus, as reconstructed by biblical scholars? Is it the earliest testimonies to the risen Christ, the kerygma of the post-Easter community, or the earliest parts of the New Testament? Is Paul sufficiently original to be included?"
Perhaps the scholars of the Westar Institute were trying to ferret out "the original message." But in claiming that 80 percent of the things attributed to Jesus in the New Testament were, in fact, not said by Him, the Jesus Seminar inescapably concluded (despite perfervid denials) that the authors of the Gospels were either liars, complicit in a lie, or invincibly ignorant. But if in the Jesus Seminar the scholars went at the canon with a hacksaw, in The Complete Gospels they want to pile on everything that moves. Perhaps they thought that since the truth is only rarely to be found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, it is of no great moment to equate their credulity with such works as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which depicts a horrid little Jesus murdering a playmate. Of course, the scholars of The Complete Gospels can tut-tut that young Jesus didn't really do that. But then Jesus wasn't really resurrected either, except in some vague philosophical sense. This is relativism on the grand scale -- and the authors don't deny it. In the Introduction they claim that "scholars now find it necessary to turn to the extra-canonical gospels to learn about the development of even the earliest Jesus traditions. These texts disclose to us how Christian communities gathered, arranged, modified, embellished, interpreted and created traditions about the teachings and deeds of Jesus."
The authors are expansive in their definition of the term "Christian communities," applying it to Gnostics and Catholics alike. But Gnostics were Christians only in the most tangential sense, the way Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer are tangentially related to the birth of Jesus. In The Complete Gospels, the canonical Gospel of Matthew is abed with the Gnostic Gospel of Mary. Consider a nugget from this latter: "Then Peter said to him, 'You have been expounding every topic to us; tell us one further thing. What is the sin of the world?' The Savior replied, 'There is no such thing as sin....'"
The Gospel of Mary, like the fragmentary Gospel of Peter, arises out of the Docetic tradition, which makes perfect hash of the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, and the bodily Resurrection, and was soundly repudiated by, among others, the author of the Gospel of John and by Paul. Is it any wonder that the Apostles -- most of whom walked and talked with Jesus -- would recognize Docetism for the malarkey it was, and their successors refuse to incorporate its products into the canon?
What the scholars have done in their translations of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (translations which they modestly assert are "sparkling, intriguing, flavorful, lucid, incisive") also boggles the mind. They candidly admit that they didn't quite know what to do with "a handful of phrases that are central to the gospels, such as the terms traditionally translated 'Son of Man,' 'Kingdom of God,' and 'Lord.' While we insisted on abandoning those misleading and anachronistic renderings, nevertheless it was not easy to arrive at the fresh translations."
I'm sure it wasn't easy, but it's hard to imagine how they could have done worse. What's offered in place of these traditional phrases are "son of Adam," "God's imperial rule," and "Master," all of which are no doubt "sparkling, flavorful, lucid," and so forth. The reader will also look in vain for the word "Christ," likewise deemed "misleading and anachronistic." In its place is "the Anointed One." The modern reader will certainly find that description lucid. Since being anointed meant having oil poured on, one wonders why the scholars didn't go whole hog in their efforts to be idiomatic and call Jesus "the Greasy Guy."
Of course, not all troublesome words can be replaced. Sometimes they simply have to be eliminated. Consider this rendering of John 3:16: "This is how God loved the world: God gave up an only son, so that every one who believes in him will have real life."
What's missing is the third syllable of the rather consequential Greek word monogene translated by Jerome and Wycliffe as "only begotten," and the central issue behind the dispute that led to the Nicene Creed. But "only" merely translates "mono" -- it does not address the meaning of "gene," which in Greek means "like" or "kind." The most complete (albeit cumbersome) translation would be "the only son like himself." In that sense, Jerome was more nearly correct that these modernists are. (Also note that the "eternal life" of John 3:16 is rendered as "real life," which won't mean much to someone on his deathbed.)
Jesus had some rather severe things to say about the consequences of causing little ones to stumble. Fortunately, The Complete Gospels is so lumpen a work, in both design and execution, that the faithful can sail over it like springboks. Of course, those orthodox Christians who have a fiduciary concern for where their offerings go might want to know exactly which church-supported colleges and seminaries hire these people to educate their children. For the record, the list includes Notre Dame, De Paul, Xavier, Marquette, Eden Theological Seminary, and Phillips Graduate Seminary. As a general rule, institutions that rely upon the charity of donors find the threat of diminishing contributions far more gripping than, say, the fear of Hell. But otherwise, the game's not worth the candle. As I said, this is a New Testament for New Agers, who will find its contents at least as useful as crystals, pyramids, and the many autobiographies of Shirley MacLaine.