Monday, September 21, 2009

The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities

By Darrell L. Bock, Nelson Books, 230 pages.

Darrell Bock examines the evidence for alternative Christianities as found in writings from the first Christian centuries that didn't make it into the Bible and that scholars are now using to build alternative theologies for Jesus.

One hobby of post-Christian culture is refuting Christianity from every angle. An ivory tower industry has developed around this, including from scholars who construct romantic histories of para-Christian groups such as the Gnostics. These people adopted some Christian beliefs and practices, but tended to refute the goodness of creation and materiality.

Gnosticism and other old theories are reappearing in New Age dress. Darrell Bock's The Missing Gospels questions these old ways: “New theories are fun. They have the feel of a new product, a new way of looking at things, and a way of grabbing attention. Sometimes that attention is fleeting; sometimes it lasts. New historical theories usually do not make headlines, but they can have an impact like a successful sales campaign. This is especially the case when the new way fits the spirit of the age.”

Bock intertwines his refutation of Gnosticm with a strong and wide-ranging discussion of current biblical and historical theories. He questions the inconsistent methods of modern scholars sympathetic to Gnosticicm in their handling of the relevant ancient sources.

This is of utmost significance to Christians because, as Bock points out, scholars use their theories, based on shaky academic scholarship, to attack the religion's foundations: “The debate about the Gospel of Thomas's date leads to the...subtle claim of what Thomas as a whole represents—a potential early source whose roots coincide with the appearance of the four Gospels. It reflects an alternative Jesus, who only gave wise sayings and was not worshipped.”

Bock does a good job of showing how modern academia works in its war on Christianity. One scholar, Walter Bauer, erred in his two major anti-Christian pillars—that ancient Roman ecclesiastical authorities had forced its orthodoxy on everyone else and that orthodoxy was not very widespread among ancient Christian communities. Yet rather than discount Bauer's work, scholars continue to accept his conclusions.

Bock thus asks the reader, “If the two central Bauerian positions are flawed, why does his overall thesis stand? When does this schizophrenic handling of historical evidence lead to a conclusion that Bauer had it wrong?”

Bock spends the next section of the book examining ancient Christian writings, both those accepted as orthodox and including the New Testament writings, and Gnostic and other para-Christian writings used by scholars to undermine the religion. Each of these chapters has a theme, such as “Jesus: Divine and / or Human?”

Bock concludes that anti-Christian bias and sloppy scholarship account for alternative visions of Christianity. Conversely, the orthodox Christian belief about Jesus “comes very early in the movement, a point that cannot be doubted...Evidence that Jesus taught such things is found especially in the community's earliest innovative worship practices.”

The Missing Gospels comes with handy appendices that highlight the writings of Church fathers as well as the extra-Christian writings that survived the centuries.

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