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.

Peace,
Phil

4 comments:

Jim said...

Phil,

You wrote: 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.

Oh, I don't think traditional is an issue here. Any claim of Christianity is enough to draw shots from the "post modern thinkers" if that is not an oxymoron. I can recall attending an early Sunday mass at Grace cathedral in San Francisco and hearing the preacher, a young woman mention that she had "taken shots" from post modernists durring her grad studies because of her faith.

We all are targets of the secularists.

FWIW
jimB

Phil S. said...

Ah, but, Jim, on this issue I'd lump you in traditional Christians, since I'm pretty sure you're as dubious about these new gospels as I am. Now, if that isn't a complement, I don't know what is :)

Seriously, I spent a long time in grad school, I really get the pot shots in academe comment. I outed myself (yes, that is deliberate language) as a Christian fairly early in my academic career and got plenty of pot shots and dubious glances. That's fine because all Christian grad students worth their salt grow a second skin.

Peace,
Phil

Jim said...

lqrfuteb
Well, if considering the current infatuation with the "Gospel of Thomas" a really, really, silly fad makes me a traditionalist, thank you. Thomas is so clearly derivative that the idea that it has some direct relationship to quelle is absurd. Reading Thomas made me wonder what some in the Jesus Seminar put in their pipes.

Over my objection, I think the Bible and pseudo-graphia provide enugh material for a lifetime of study, our Wednesday evening Bible group elected to spend a few weeks reading Thomas.

We do a sort of group lecto divinia. That is we read a section of our chosen book of the Bible, and then we discuss our thoughts, a priori scholarship, and reactions.

With Thomas, the group was unable to keep a straight face as they read. I think the verse that involved making Mary Magdeline a male got the largest and longest laughter. Take that Dan Brown!

Yes, I am a traditionalist in terms of the canon, albeit I am open to the Eastern church's 151st psalm, and considering 3 and 4 Maccabees in the same place as 1 and 2.

But my take on the "gnostic gospels" is that they aren't.

FWIW
jimB

Phil S. said...

Your comment about the reaction of your study group to the Gospel of Thomas is part of the reason why I think that the reaction of some conservatives who want to just forbid people from reading these works is a little wrong-headed. If you actually read them, they're even more bizarre than the canon (which is enough of a problem for many people in the Church today, thank you very much). Thomas is a mild example. Try reading the Secret Gospel of John or the really loopy stuff with all the Ogodads etc. They really are their own refutation.

Yet, I do worry about these works because they really do have the potential to mess up someone who is either rather credulous, or too suspicious of traditional formulations of Christianity or simply too inexperienced to discern what is sound or not. That is why I'm happy about this book because it is useful to give background to interpret these texts or, at least, know what they're on about.

Peace,
Phil