I like to think of myself as a pretty open-minded person. I’m willing to at least consider any proposition, even if I don’t end up accepting it. I don’t hide from questions, because I do value the truth and believe in an ambitious–albeit humble–pursuit of it. Truth itself fears no questions; nor should I.
So, I’ll admit that I’m quite ready to embrace anyone’s thoughts about Christianity, however antagonistic or confused or favorable in their tone they may be. But thoughts are one thing, and propositions are something else. Propositions demand evaluation, or they aren’t even being heard in the first place.
This is the proposition that the New Testament Gospels have been exposed as late, Christianized documents that present a falsified Jesus that the church wants you to believe in. And that the other Gospels made famous in The Da Vinci Code over a decade ago now reveal to us at last the real, authentic, cool, captivating Jesus that the church has concealed from us. Now at last, so it goes, we’ve got the real Jesus unladen with all the stuff that connects him to Christians and the church and … “organized religion.”
If this proposition is motivated and perpetuated by the comfort and convenience it affords you in being able to so easily dismiss the Christian claims about Jesus, well, I’m breaking it to you: you’re not actually accomplishing that much. Unfortunately, Christians themselves are far too often to blame for the rise of this misperception, but a lot less of the Christian faith stands or falls based on what conclusions someone may draw about the biblical text than what we so often assume.
But, at the same time, people like me aren’t doing that much to demonstrate the truth of the Christian claims about Jesus by holding fast to our historically-reasoned position that the New Testament Gospels are the best sources for material about his life.
What I mean is this: The craziest–and the most important–things that Christians are going to ask you to believe don’t have anything to do with completely inerrant Scriptures or a literal seven-day creation or even that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John actually are our best sources for the life of Jesus and the non-canonical Gospels aren’t.
Rather, they have to do with things like, believing
- that your life is not your own.
- that the creator of all things loves you, and the people you don’t love
- that God himself knows intimately and cares passionately about the meaning, value, joys, and sorrows of human life.
- that God indwells, works in, and works through you and the person totally unlike you.
- that loving your enemy and dying daily and considering the good of other people above your own is your calling.
- and a whole bunch of other crazy–and important–things.
To acknowledge the historical primacy of the New Testament Gospels is not necessarily to agree
- that every single bit of them is historical.
- that they are inspired.
- that they are the Word of God.
- that Jesus died for your sins, is God in flesh, and will return one day.
Rather, to acknowledge the historical primacy of the New Testament Gospels is to agree, as a matter of history, that the four New Testament Gospels are the earliest and the most reliable sources for gaining knowledge about the first-century Jewish man known as Jesus who came from Nazareth.
And by the way, I actually think there stands a decent chance of some genuine sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas, for example, but no historian has offered an adequate argument in support of holding any non-canonical Gospel as earlier or more historically reliable than the New Testament Gospels.
[A little anecdote, as an aside: When I was doing research for an article I wrote about the non-extant Gospel of the Hebrews, I asked a well-known historical Jesus scholar why he had dated this writing as earlier than the New Testament Gospels. His answer? “To be provocative.” Now that he mentions it, provocativeness may explain, at least in part, our culture’s fascination with the secondary Gospels. People like a good conspiracy theory.]
And so, I have little patience, as I said, for the proposition that the Gospels of Thomas, and Mary, and Philip give us the real Jesus because when the conversation gets to this level, we aren’t actually dealing with what its proponents think we’re dealing with.
You don’t get to escape from the question of who Jesus was that easily.
And I don’t get to trap you into believing what I believe about Jesus that easily only because I think the canonical Gospels are the best ones to read if you want to know about Jesus. Even if that actually is true.