Friday, May 23, 2008

An Interview with Darrell Bock

I recently had the privilege of asking Darrell Bock (NT professor, Dallas Theological Seminary) about his Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture's Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ (co-authored with Daniel B. Wallace).

Central to your book is the claim that there are two competing Jesus stories: Christianity and Jesusanity. Can you explain what you mean by these terms and how these visions differ?

Christianity is the old, well-known, biblical story that Jesus was the Messiah and came to restore a broken relationship with humanity through his work as Son of God. In other words, Jesus’ person is key to Christianity.

Jesusanity is the alternative “cultural Christianity,” where Jesus is a prophet, even a religious great, but his person is not involved in God’s program, only his teaching on how we can know God through ourselves. Thus the person of Jesus and the centrality of him in what God is doing is ignored. This is now a quite widespread claim in many TV documentaries about Jesus, especially on niche historical channels.

What are the questions you seek to address in the book?

  1. Is the New Testament text reliable? (Bart Ehrman)
  2. Does the Gospel of Judas prove alternative Christianities for the first century?
  3. Does the Gospel of Thomas give us a look at the real (and different) Jesus who merely points to God?
  4. Did Paul hijack Christianity from Jesus and James (Tabor’s The Jesus Dynasty)
  5. Did we find Jesus’ tomb at Talpiot in Jerusalem?
  6. Is Jesus’ message fundamentally one about political oppression? (Crossan and Borg, The Last Week of Jesus)
Don’t secret Gnostic gospels, such as Judas, show the existence of early alternative Christianities?

The short answer is, “Yes, but when?” These gospels are from the second century. As such, they are evidence for what was going on then and the pressure to make Christianity more palatable in that period, when the pressure on the faith was intense. What these works do not show is that there was an alternative Gnostic Christianity in the first century. It was beginning to surface by the time of the Johannine epistles, but not before and certainly not early enough to be able to claim equal space with the Christianity represented by James, Peter, Paul (Paul himself notes he is in agreement with them when he writes Galatians in the late 40’s or early 50’s). So claims that these alternatives reach back into the first century or have equal apostolic roots are simply exaggerated.

Doesn’t the Gospel of Thomas radically alter our understanding of the real Jesus?

The short answer is no. Here is why. This gospel is from the early second century, even though it does use some material that is in contact with the same Jesus material the gospels use. If you read this gospel, you see that about 25% is like our four gospels, 25% is close to the four gospels, and 50% of it is unlike the four gospels. It is a hybrid gospel, drawing form a variety of places. This gospel is actually nothing more than an anthology of sayings, 114 of them, that claim to go back to Jesus. Most scholars think only a small portion of them actually do go back to Jesus. So this gospel is so disconnected to the real Jesus that it does not really tell us enough about him to be able to alter our picture of him. Another key feature of this gospel is that many of those who like to appeal to it argue that originally what we was recorded about Jesus was limited to his sayings and that that teaching was only full of wisdom like elements, not material about eschatology and the kingdom. Both of these assumptions are unlikely to be true. We have no real evidence that only sayings were originally passed on, and the tradition of Jesus teaching about God’s program runs too deep through all the tradition layers to have been added later.

A recurring theme in the book is the idea that these Jesusanity scholars often propose either/or options, when in reality it’s a both/and situation. Can you give some examples?

The Son of Man is split into three categories to try to lessen its multiple attestation. Some would have us choose between Jesus as a prophet or as a Messiah. Jesus is either an eschatological figure or one of wisdom. He either taught about the kingdom or himself. All of these are actually both-and, not either-or.

What are some of the reasons so many people seem to find the Jesusanity visions viable?

Simply put, they fit the culture, making Jesus a great religious figure without making him especially unique.

Can you explain to readers what “Lessing’s ditch” is, and why you believe it can be crossed?

It is the alleged great difference between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith (i.e., of the Scripture). I believe the tradition feeding the gospels is solid and means that the portrait we get of Jesus there is a reflection of who he really was.

Can you speak a little bit about the strategy that evangelicals should follow for countering the Jesusanity visions? It seems to me that one great disadvantage is that it’s virtually impossible for the evangelical view to make headlines (“Breaking News! Evangelical Scholars Believe the NT Portrayals of Jesus Are Reliable!”). And on the other side, it seems that people can become persuaded of the Jesusanity perspective—not through persuasion and argumentation per se, but rather from the mere fact that scholars are saying these things and being touted in the mainstream press. So what’s the counteroffensive gameplan in your view?

We need to place Jesus in context by pointing out what the scholars are failing to note. We need to say they are far more reliable than critics often suggest. But we need to do it in a way that does not merely sound like the same-old, same-old, but takes on the critics at the level at which they are used to working. We have enough material to get there in the New Testament.

Books (like the excellent ones you’ve written!) will play a strategic role in convincing people of the reliability of the gospels. But what positive, potential role do you see new media playing (e.g., blogs, websites, DVDs, documentaries, etc.)?

It is important that this media possess as high quality a production and information as is often produced on the other side. Unfortunately we do not invest enough to get there, but we should, because that is where the under 30’s especially are.

With regard to your own writing: are there any new books and/or commentaries that you have in the works?

I am editing a major work on the historical Jesus that is 18 months away. I will be doing a commentary down the road on Matthew for pastors and playing a role in editing the entire series for the NT.