The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities
~Darrell L. Bock
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ISBN/ASIN : 0785289062
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Release data : 09 October, 2007
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Even in early Christian times there were people who differed in their ideas about Jesus. Perhaps other people today, as then, have something worth your listening to. Perhaps those other early Christians who didn't fit orthodox definitions had good and spiritually valid reasons for their concerns, just as traditional Christians have valid reasons for their concerns. Perhaps Bock's arguments, as well-intentioned as they may be, don't speak to all of their conditions or to those of many today who have questions about traditional Christian teachings.
If some scholars today, such as Bart Ehrman, Karen King, and Elaine Pagels, seem to have a "new" message, please bear in mind that it is with respect to ancient texts just recently found. There remains uncertainty about the actual dating of the traditional scripture and the alternatives. The find of the "Gospel of Judas" has led to a reasonable speculation (but by no means certain) that the our dating of original Gospel of Judas may overlap our dating of the Gospel of John. So how new is new?
Ehrman, Kind, Pagels and others did not invent the alternative texts, some of which may not have been known, or well known, to early Church fathers, so it seems unwarranted to not consider respectfully the modern efforts to understand the impact of the ancient alternative texts. And even if the alternative texts were all written later then those that later had a version included in the New Testament, it doesn't appear that the alternatives were written that much later. It also isn't clear that their being later implies they were less valuable. All we know is that the New Testament didn't include them (at all or finally) and why that is so is speculative.
As a guideline for scholarly speculation, one need not go any farther than the words of Walter Bauer, the author of "Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity":
"In our day and age, there is no longer any debate that in terms of a scientific approach to history, the New Testament writings cannot be understood properly if one now looks back on them from the end of the process of canonization as sacred books, and prizes them as constituent parts of the celestial charter of salvation, with all the attendant characteristics."
Has Bock actually rebuked that? Or was he already so committed to a certain "celestial charter of salvation" as to not be able to look at history with the fresh mind that Bauer was asking for? To what extent would Bock's inability, if we accept Bauer's assessment, to properly understand the New Testament writings in terms of a "scientific approach to history" taint Bock's research concluding with his statement that the "new school" lacks "historical grounding". If you do read this book and spot how many hypothesis Bock relies on, you'll wonder how he can conclude so confidently. Do Bauer, Pagels, Ehrman and King seem so certain? Which attitude seems best given all the uncertainties within historical research? Why dismiss the efforts of sincere scholars so harshly as "a historical disservice to understanding a key faith of the West". What scholar today has so many historical facts at his/her disposal as to be able to dispense with hypotheses and their accompanying probabilities? What does Bock know that everyone else doesn't?
For example, perhaps due to not setting aside his beliefs, Bock values the age of texts "as earliest sources", e.g. closer to the life of Jesus. But what if the early traditional texts don't reflect a direct understanding from Jesus? Even if Jesus spoke correctly and wisely the first believers may not have understood, requiring correction by the Gnostics (for example, based on other oral traditions). But I didn't see anywhere in this book in which Bock questioned his absolute evaluation of early as always better. But we know from our own experiences, don't we, that we sometimes make mistakes and others help later by correcting them. Surely we may suspect teachings as special as those of Jesus may not have been readily understood. So it seems Bock did not give the Gnostics the fresh and reasonable consideration that Bauer was requesting.
The Nag Hammadi texts themselves will likely seem strange compared to the New Testament Gospels or the Letters of Paul. They do to me. We didn't grow up with them. One of the more accessible is "The Gospel of Mary" which Karen King's "The Gospel of Mary of Magdala" presents. I suggest you read King's work whether you read this work of Bock or not.
There are also questions as to whether the Letters of Paul reflects gnostic concerns by Paul. These may be issues raised again in modern times but Pagel's research in "The Gnostic Paul" suggests that early gnostic writers saw in Paul one of their kind. It is a challenging read but seems worthwhile even if one only gets a little out of it.
I suggest King's book on Mary and the recent "The Gospel of Judas" edited by Kasser, Meyer, and Wurst and published by the reputable National Geographic Society because these seem among the easiest gnostic gospels to follow. Reading them yourself will also put you in a better position to evaluate Bock's action of questioning as "new" and perhaps a "fad" the efforts to respond to these newly found but ancient texts. You may also then be in a better position to evaluate Bock's speculative arguments for the traditional texts and interpretations that identify themselves as traditional. Labelling something as "new" doesn't make it wrong. Labelling something as "traditional" doesn't make it right. If you are a follower of Jesus, what may matter is what is effective for your understanding of his life and teachings. That may mean being open to all the historical documents that have been survived into our times and evaluating at least some of them for yourself to the extent you can rather than just going by any one (or many) expert opinion.
The gospel truth
Darrell Bock is one of our finest contemporary New Testament scholars. As a conservative evangelical, he is well placed to take on the latest trends and fads of liberal and radical theology. He did this quite well recently in his critique, Breaking the Da Vinci Code (Nelson, 2004)
Here he takes on the hype and hoopla associated with the discovery of various gospels and religious writings, especially those found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. These discoveries have led to claims that many gospels and religious texts have been suppressed or discounted by the church.
In addition, there are now many who have been convinced that there has been some massive cover-up job by the church to suppress these so-called hidden gospels. Both the New Age movement, and Dan Brown, among others, have been making these sorts of claims.
Thus it is often claimed that the Christianity that exists today is not the real thing, and that we need to give credence to these various gospels, and the alternative understandings of Christianity. What are we to make of these claims? Is the traditional understanding of Christianity now obsolete? Does the Bible we now possess need radical altering to take into account, or include, these new discoveries?
In a nutshell, Bock says no. The four canonical gospels, part of the 27 books in the New Testament, are there, and these new gospels are not, for good reason. The early church was aware of these alternative books, and gave them short shrift. And so should we. While they may provide some helpful background understanding to Christianity, and demonstrate the richness and diversity of religious life in the early centuries, these new gospels and alternative Christianities are not to be equated with their orthodox counterparts.
Bock examines in detail the findings of Nag Hammadi. The 52 ancient texts found there date primarily from the second and third centuries, well after the period in which the New Testament was penned. These writings are mainly characterised as Gnostic in nature.
While Gnosticism is a much-debated topic, we know that it entailed beliefs quite at variance with New Testament thought. Its emphasis on hidden or secret knowledge, and its esoteric understandings of salvation are quite at odds with the very public knowledge of man's dilemma and God's solution as offered in the biblical texts.
These various writings, such as the Gospel of Thomas, are carefully contrasted to the canonical gospels by Bock. They are found to differ markedly in genre, in content, and theology. They were rightly rejected by the early Christian church as incompatible with genuine Christian orthodoxy.
And the claim that there were various versions of Christianity circulating in the first few centuries, rivalling the traditional understanding, is also challenged by Bock. Thus he critically examines the thesis of Walter Bauer and its later proponents, such as Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman. While there certainly was diversity amongst the early Christians, these alternative positions were never majority views.
Bock demonstrates how the traditional understanding was the predominant view by looking at key biblical doctrines: God, creation, the nature and work of Christ, sin and salvation. In all of these he demonstrates that not only were the alternative religious teachings and writings widely at variance with these key doctrines, but they were always considered to be heterodox and fringe in nature.
He contrasts the biblical writings and church fathers with the alternative teachings and teachers. While there are some similarities, they are also major differences, and the traditional and alternative views were set apart from each other very early on.
Thus Bock rejects the claims made by the new school that we need to redefine and remake Christianity, in light of these Gnostic texts and teachings.
Given how much hype is being made in various quarters about these so-called missing gospels, a book-length rebuttal has been needed for some time now. This volume fits the bill nicely: it is scholarly enough, yet written for the non-specialist. As such it is a timely and welcome antidote to the new school musings.
Refuting Revived Gnostic Claims for Pseudepigraphal False "Gospels"
I shall not presume to refute, in my own words or by my own limited authority, the many flighty theories and speculations that in this sad 2lst Century are gaining gullible acceptance regarding a revisionist acceptance of ancient heresies of the Gnostic sects that beset early Christianity and which only arose well after the work of the canonical evangelists and other writers of the apostolic era. These tiresome views recycle, of 20th century works, the deficient speculations and historical fatuities of Walter Bauer, expressed in his "Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianities" (1934; more recent ed. by Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1971), on which Elaine Pagels, Dan Brown, and other lightweight opponents of Christianity essentially base their faulty and hostile arguments.
A good discussion of this matter, that stands out from others that criticise the new Gnostic-friendly heretics of our times, about the Gospel of Judas, especially, but also about the "gospels" of Thomas, Mary Magdalene, and other Gnostic writings, is Anthony Valle's article, "Audiatur et altera pars [i.e.] Let the Other Side Also Be Heard: the Gospel of Judas and the Bauer Thesis", in the pages of "The Latin Mass: the Journal of Catholic Culture and Tradition" (vol. 15, no. 5, Advent-Christmastide issue, p. 32-36), which wisely notes (on p. 35) some words from Bock's study, as I also shall do here, generalising Bock's wording a bit in square brackets (and one addition of emphatic capitals to a word):
"So does the discovery of the Gospel of Judas [and of other newly-found Gnostic writings purporting to be gospels] do anything for us historically? Well ... [they do] tell us what [some] Gnostic movement[s] of the second [and third] centur[ies] thought.... All of this aids in understanding [those two] centur[ies], but NOT the first century [of] Christian history. For that one small fragment of historical understanding, we can be grateful. [However, t]he "Gospel of Judas" [among other such Gnostic writings] also corroborates that Irenaeus summarised this [and suchlike] gospel[s] accurately, which means [that] we have known about [these rejected writings] for 1800 years".
So much for their novelty and "new light" that neo-gnostics think that these works shed!
Thank you, Mr. Bock, for your book-length treatment of this matter!