Reinventing Jesus, by J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace (Kregel: 2006; 347 pages)
Like the movie Memento, let's start at the end.
Conclusion: I enthusiastically recommend this book. I say that, not because I am vying for J. I. Packer / F. F. Bruce "Pan-Endorser" status, but because Reinventing Jesus informed, educated, and encouraged me, and reinforced my confidence in Scripture. Being me, I'll pick at this and that little bone, but wish to make clear at the outset that I heartily recommend the fish.
What's it about (—to dangle a preposition)? We are all aware of the breathless, breaking-news assaults on the reliability of the New Testament that keep boilerplating themselves about the internet and book-stands. The constant progression of NT scholarship over the past century-plus in confirming its reliability scarcely creates a media ripple. But let someone with personal issues about Jesus rehash a theory, and he's News. Since the mainstream media knows nothing about the Bible except that (1) it's Bad and (2) might make you vote Republican (on which, see reason #1 again), these theories tend to be reported uncritically and bereft of the slightest hint of historical context.
Take the Jesus Seminar (which I parodied here). Now, there is a case of cutting-edge 19th century radical German scholarship. I have the feeling that even Rudolph Bultmann, were he alive, might say, "Whoa—you guys are nuts!" Its "scholars" speak and write as if floating (and bloviating) in a vacuum, as if the last century-plus of archaeology and research never happened. Worse, they write as if their readers are unaware. Worst, they're probably right.
Enter Reinventing Jesus, a recent and eminently helpful volume from Kregel Publications. When I worked in Christian bookstores during the seventies, I mainly saw Kregel as publisher of reprints. For years, however, they have been producing more substantial, serious, contentful contributions. Reinventing Jesus is certainly a showcase piece.
The book wades into not only The Da Vinci Code and related blitherings, but has asides about the Jesus Seminar, Bart Ehrman, and all the periodically-recycled nuttinesses about how the Biblical history of Jesus Christ is really just one repackaged pagan myth or another.
The authors deliver a well-documented, yet eminently-readable broadside response to these dismissive or deconstructive approaches. They deal at length with the historical reliability of the Gospels, the manuscript tradition that undergirds our New Testament, the formation of the New Testament canon, the Biblical portrayal of Jesus, and the NT's alleged indebtedness to pagan myths.
Who's it for (—to dangle another)? First, hear the authors:
This book is not written for scholars but for laypersons—motivated laypersons. While we have tried to capture the essence of arguments and avoid technical jargon, we realize that the material will stretch many of our readers. ...as one automotive manufacturer says, "It's not more than you need. It's just more than you're used to."
That's a fair statement. Anyone who profits from Pyromaniacs should enjoy this book. You do have to be able to read at a certain level (i.e. somewhere above Goodnight Moon, but well below anything by John Owen). Yet the book's style and contents are not too advanced nor technical, and no specialized education is required.
For that matter, the intended audience is not necessarily Christian. While Pyro regulars could read the book and gain from it, anyone could equally give it to his non-Christian friend or coworker. You know that relative who imagines that Ehrman or Dan Brown or any of their ilk has actually said something genuinely damaging about the New Testament? Give it to him or her.
This is all in keeping with the stated design of the book:
...our primary objective is to build a positive argument for the historical validity of Christianity. We contend that a progressive case, built on the following sequence of questions, undermines novel reconstructions of Jesus and underscores the enduring essence of the Christian faith (p. 17)Does it deliver? Stylistically, yes. My copy arrived just before my wife and I left for a few days in the Sierra, and it went with us. In no time, I'd read the first hundred pages, and chatted over some of the highlights with Valerie.
Contentwise, again I'd say the book delivers. While much of the contents were not brand-new for me, the angles and observations often were, and the way of explaining was fresh and memorable. The writers face tough questions head-on, and give substantial answers. Some of the issues they tackle include:
- How could records written decades after the events be accurate?
- What sort of textual basis does the New Testament have?
- Isn't it impossible to get at the original text?
- How much of the text of the NT is in doubt?
- Do textual variations challenge major doctrines?
- Don't Real Scholars have excellent reasons to doubt the Gospels?
- What was the real Jesus like?
- Weren't forgeries common and accepted in the first and second century?
- Isn't Jesus pretty much only a New Testament figure, unnoticed in secular history?
- Did Constantine invent the New Testament canon, and the deity of Christ?
- Did the Council of Nicea almost reject the deity of Christ?
- Aren't there earlier pagan stories just like the birth and resurrection of Christ?
To start with the pettiest, I am really, really bothered by endnotes, and this book has them. I think publishers feel that footnotes scare people away. They must know their trade better than I, but I'd think that people who don't like footnotes can just skip them. Meanwhile, the rest of us are forced to keep two bookmarks, and keep paging back and forth. Very irritating. And I can't believe that the authors love their careful documentation being moved to the back.
But I'd rather endnotes, than no-notes.
And then, this and that make me twitch a bit. Take this assertion: "The Gospels, by any reckoning, were written some decades after Jesus lived" (p. 25). Oh? Yes, I'm fully aware that this is very broadly assumed. I do not however know that it has been proven. (To be clear: the authors argue forcefully for the reliability of the Gospels.)
My more substantial disagreement is philosophical. The authors make statements like these, emphases original:
...our starting-point is not belief in the Bible as divinely inspired or infallible—or anything similar. We believe that when the tools of the historian are applied to the biblical text, it builds its own case for its unique character. Or as one [unnamed] British scholar said, "We treat the Bible like any other book to show that it is not like any other book" (p. 18)
...none of this suggests that we have proved the historical veracity of the Christian faith. After all, the events of history cannot be tested repeatedly in a controlled environment with consistently identical results. But when evidence that is strong and pervasive can be adduced, past events can be reasonably deemed probable. An ounce of evidence is worth a pound of presumption. But in this case, we have much more than an ounce of evidence. Indeed, probability is very much on the side of the Christian message (p. 260)
If the evidence for the historicity of Christianity could be interpreted with 100 percent certainty, there would be no need for faith. And make no mistake: belief in the biblical Christ requires a step of faith. But a step is nowhere near a leap (p. 261)This is indeed classic evidentialism, of the John Warwick Montgomery variety. It's venerable, widely-held, respectable, and what it produces is very useful.
I just don't think it goes far enough. It doesn't quite leave the reader without excuse (Romans 1:20). It doesn't quite demolish the stronghold in which he trusts (Proverbs 21:22). It doesn't quite tear down, pluck up and destroy (Jeremiah 1:10).
This isn't the place for a fullblown theory of apologetics, but I'll very briefly try to lay out what I mean. I mean that the authors could have said that the NT presents itself as more than just a book. They further could have established convincingly that every reader approaches the NT with presuppositions as to that proposition—no exceptions. They could have said that their intention was to show that the position that begins with the acceptance of that proposition both displays inner cohesiveness, and accords with the evidence; whereas the contrary position does neither.
(Talk is cheap; to see me actually try to do something like, check THIS out. Perhaps readers will link to articles which do a better job.)
Now, having said that, I think that the authors admirably provided the tools for doing just that, and this is why I can enthusiastically recommend the book.
Summary: Reinventing Jesus is solid, readable, informative, useful, fresh, up-to-date, clever, and sometimes even funny.
Pyro rating: 4.5 matches out of 5.