Friday, September 01, 2006
Book Review-Darrell Bock, The Missing Gospels
I happened upon this book at Mitchell's Family Books last week, a Christian bookstore chain up here in Ontario and, on a bit of an impulse decision, decided to buy it. Well, given the subject matter, that wasn't a surprise. Even a quick glance at my blog over the last few months would reveal an interest in the 2nd century Fathers and the Gnostic problem which they faced and which we're facing again. What I've been hoping for and not seeing up to now has been a serious attempt to engage the popular use of the Gnostic Gospels. That doesn't mean it hasn't been done, I just haven't seen many books which have done it as well as this one.
What Dr. Bock does is really engage with both the alternative Gospels and the so-called new school which has used these newly found texts to drive a re-interpretation of Christianity in its first two centuries. In this interpretation (begun by Walter Bauer in the 1930s and continued by Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman), it is argued that Christianity in the first and second century AD was much more diverse than traditional, orthodox history has suggested. Indeed, what we know as orthodoxy is, in fact, really a third century phenomenon and the Christianity of the first and second centuries AD was a much more tolerant, human-centred religion than otherwise assumed. This view has become very influential these days and has fueled the explosion of books on alternative gospels.
I'm not going to go into the details of Dr. Bock's argument, but what he does is to take this approach seriously. He give background to the controversy, but, more importantly, he carefully goes through the alternative Gospels, the Bible, the Apostolic Fathers, and Justin Martyr (stopping very purposely before getting to St. Irenaeus, the great villain of the new school) to see just what they say about the nature of God and the Creation, the divinity and humanity of Jesus, human redemption and Jesus' death. His conclusions aren't surprising: the new school is distorting what the alternative gospels are saying and, yes, the new school is right about there being diversity in the early Church, but orthodoxy can be traced back to the period as a dominant force on the Christian scene.
Will this book change the mind of a devoted reader of Pagels or Ehrman? Probably not. The scholars' disputes over the dates of composition of the books of the canonical Bible and the alternative writings are simply too controversial to expect easy agreement on the priority of the orthodox view. Yet, Dr. Bock is very balanced in his approach, conceding what is good in the new school, but also criticizing its for its excesses. That was a pleasant surprise because I was afraid this would be just another ill-informed, knee-jerk polemic which we occasionally see coming out on popular Christian issues.
This book is worth a read for any orthodox Christian (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, evangelical, whatever) because it really does give us a resource to deal with people who get excited with the next fresh Gospel to appear. As we found with the Gospel of Judas controversy at Easter, there are always some who want to take traditional Christianity down a peg or two, preferably during a major holiday season. This book will help educate you on the issues and prepare you for the next 'new gospel' coming to a bookstore near you.