Book Review: Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ – by Darrell L. Bock and Daniel B. Wallace

Bock, Darrell L and Daniel B. Wallace. Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007. 237 pages.

Dethroning

Darrell L. Bock is Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. His postdoctoral work in Luke-Acts and in Jesus’ examination before the Jews has earned him international recognition, and he currently serves as corresponding editor at large for Christianity Today. Daniel B. Wallace, also a Professor of New Testament Studies at DTS, has done postdoctoral work in Greek grammar, syntax and textual criticism. Wallace is founder of an organization that works to ensure the digital preservation of all known Greek New Testament manuscripts.

Summary

Dethroning Jesus differentiates two competing stories about the historical Jesus. Christianity maintains that “Jesus was anointed by God to represent both God and humanity in the restoration of a broken relationship existing between the Creator and his creation” (4). “Jesusanity,” in contrast, calls him a prophet or wise religious teacher—a good example to follow; “the key is that Jesus inspires others, but there is no throne for him” (5). Bock and Wallace investigate the competing merits of each view of Jesus by analyzing and responding to six of Jesusanity’s major public claims.

1. The original New Testament has been corrupted by copyists.

World-class New Testament (NT) scholar Bart Ehrman presents three lines of argument in his 2005 best seller, Misquoting Jesus: 1) our copies of the NT are so late that the message of the originals is uncertain. Bock and Wallace reply that both the dating and number of NT manuscripts are much better than all of the other ancient texts that today’s historians accept as trustworthy. 2) There are many differences (errors) between NT manuscripts. However, ninety-nine percent of these involve wording and spelling differences and do not viably affect the meaning; the remainder do not affect any orthodox doctrine—e.g. “We have peace” vs. “Let us have peace” in Romans 5:1. 3) Orthodox scribes changed the NT text, altering its basic message. While Bock and Wallace grant that there were insertions, such as Mark 16:9-20, John 7:53-8:11, and 1 John 5:7-8, they counter that Evangelical scholars have known about these “for more than a century, yet no theological formulations have been altered” (64). They conclude that Ehrman has a penchant for publicly inflating these issues, making them more sensational than they really are.

2. Secret gnostic gospels, such as Judas show the existence of early alternative Christianities.

For Ehrman, this fact “reverses everything we ever thought about the nature of true Christianity (99); “orthodoxy” was merely the winning alternative among many. Bock and Wallace agree that Judas is authentic ancient Gnostic text: it centres on secret knowledge and dualism, in which the spiritual is good and the physical is bad—and so is the inferior god who created the physical realm. Here Jesus is a secretive, disdainful figure who speaks ill of the disciples except Judas—whom he instructs to hand over “the man that clothes [him]” (96) to be crucified. There is certainly an alternative Christianity here, but Bock and Wallace point out that this is a second-century text while the canonical gospels are from the first century. Moreover, the anti-Jewish nature of Judas would have disqualified it because the early Christians accepted Hebrew teaching: the one true God had created the physical world. They conclude that Ehrman’s claim is a “historically false…misleading and anachronistic attempt to write a revisionist history” (103).

3. The Gospel of Thomas radically alters our understanding of the real Jesus.

In her 2003 book, Beyond Belief, Elaine Pagels expresses her dismay that the Gospel of John rejects any “divine spark” within humanity—it rejects the “good news” of Thomas. Bock and Wallace’ contentions are similar as with Judas: 1) as a collection of 114 alleged sayings of Jesus, Thomas lacks any narrative that may have aided in its dating; it is most likely a second-century text—partly because it appears to borrow heavily from the Synoptic Gospels and 1 Corinthians. 2) Early Christians would have disqualified Thomas for its disdain for apocalyptic prophecy and its elevation of knowledge above faith, among other things. This Jesus performs no miracles, appears to teach panentheism, and says things such as “every female who makes herself male will enter the domain of Heaven” (125). 3) That scholars would treat Thomas as more trustworthy than the Gospel of John bewilders Bock and Wallace because this Jesus is “virtually untouchable by historical investigation” (128): Thomas himself is explicitly affirmed as “the only one with [secret] reliable information about Jesus” (128)—information that is so cryptic that it cannot be openly communicated. The Gospels, far from being non-falsifiable, were written anonymously and “give us earlier material, written in a way that subjects the narrative to historical inquiry. And what these gospels say about Jesus is not said in a corner: it is the memory of Jesus of the earliest Christian communities” (130).  

4. Jesus’ message was actually (only) political and social.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan make this claim in their 2006 book, The Last Week. They make a number of number of arguments with which Bock and Wallace take exception: 1) Jesus’ central message of economic and political reform incited his crucifixion. Bock and Wallace agree that Jesus’ most basic theme was the kingdom of God, but they insist that he presented himself as king-messiah—not merely as prophet-messiah. Bock and Wallace agree that the details of Jesus’ execution attest to this much, but Borg and Crossan insist on an either-or approach: “Jesus [either] speaks against the leadership, or…about himself” (This is Bock and Wallace’ summary–not a quote from Borg and Crossan. 140). Bock and Wallace point out that the church would not have invited persecution by needlessly emphasizing Christ as king-messiah; Hebrew teachings on the Messiah anticipate a “ruling or transcendent figure” (139). It is also curious that Jesus is not recorded as saying much about Rome at all, or even as visiting the Roman cities nearby—if his mission were purely political. 2) Jesus’ death was not understood as being “for sins” until Anselm popularized the idea in AD 1097. This claim is simply false. Paul taught Jesus’ death for our sins as the teaching he had received (1 Corinthians 15:3-5). Here is another either-or: either “one participates with Jesus in the Cross, or one is substituted for by Jesus’ act on the cross” (145)—but the NT actually teaches both. 3) The resurrection is best understood as a parable. A plausible case is made for a mere vision of the risen Christ, but this ignores that many people saw him at once, and that Thomas’ doubt was remedied by physical contact. Bock and Wallace agree with Borg and Crossan that “Jesus is against egoism and injustice and for personal and political transformation…[but they insist that] Jesus is the key to this transformation, not just his teaching” (168).

5. Paul hijacked the Jewish reform movement of Jesus and James, creating one that exalted Jesus and included the Gentiles.

In his 2006 book, The Jesus Dynasty, James Tabor teaches that Christianity began with Jesus and John the Baptist’s teachings, in which “Jesus’s person or work wasn’t a central concern” (180); only later did Paul’s teachings, based on his “visionary experiences of a heavenly Christ” (174), become synonymous with Christianity—a very different movement than that of James. Bock and Wallace praise Tabor for some solid historical work, but his key assumptions are flawed: 1) he has an anti-supernatural bias; Tabor decries the virgin birth “dogma” but substitutes his own dogma that “all human beings [including Jesus] have both a biological mother and father” (175). He suggests that Jesus’ real father was likely a Roman soldier named Pantera since Mark does not mention Joseph (among other things). However, this ignores Mark’s literary emphasis on Jesus as the Son of God (Mark 1:1); to focus on Jesus’ earthly father—apparently dead during the events in Mark—might have undermined this. 2) Bock and Wallace also note that Tabor excessively contrasts Christian texts. It is true that there were differing emphases in early Christianity, but this does not imply different faiths. Bock and Wallace also find this tendency in Ehrman, who accepts report of a “divisive” conflict with Peter in Galatians 2 but not the affirmations of unity in the same letter. Moreover, Paul speaks teaching that he has received: “When Paul saw the exalted Jesus and was converted, he had to have known the church’s teaching in order to understand the experience” (190).

6. Jesus’ tomb has been found; his resurrection and ascension were not physical.

In March 2007, the Discovery Channel aired “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” documentary, with Tabor as the primary historical advisor. It suggested that the names found in a tomb unearthed at Talpiot, Israel, linked it to Jesus: “Jesus, Mary…Mariamne…Matthew, Jose (a variation of Joseph), and Judas, son of Jesus” (196). Bock and Wallace point out “a series of historical, cultural, and sociological problems…[,] ones most historians could readily spot” (198): 1) Either this is Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb, who offered his tomb for Jesus’ burial, or “Jose” is Jesus’ father; the former squares with the gospel accounts, but only the latter supports the documentary’s claim. If the disciples stole the body and put it in this second tomb, as the documentary suggests, then they later knowingly preached a lie to the point of their own martyrdoms. Neither is there any explanation for why Mathew (not related to Jesus) would be in the family tomb, and not Jesus’ other brothers. 2) The documentary argues that Jesus and Mariamne were husband and wife on the basis that their DNA did not match. This simply cannot be proven by a DNA test; one wonders why they did not instead “test Judas, [supposed] son of Jesus, to see if he matched either or both” (206). 3) Bock and Wallace estimate that about 76,000 different Jesuses were alive in the area at the time—1,500 of which could have been the one in this tomb. 4) The documentary depends on the very late, fourth-century Acts of Philip in order to identify Mariamne as Mary Magdalene, but this conflicts with the first-century Gospel of John. Bock and Wallace also decry the documentary’s “naïve handling of the issue of resurrection” (208), which was presented as not being physical in nature—only spiritual. This ignores the Jewish backgrounds of the apostles, specifically of Paul, “a former Pharisee who held to a physical resurrection, as 1 Corinthians 15:1-58 makes clear” (210). Bock and Wallace conclude that when sensations like this come into the public eye, the underwriters should be more scrutinous and the public should let the controversy play out before passing judgment.

Historical investigation leads Bock and Wallace to conclude that Jesusanity misunderstands historical Christianity; it is “unlikely…that the earliest expression of Christianity had a less-than-exalted view of Jesus” (220). But a negative case against Jesusanity alone does not prove Christianity to be true, so they make three positive cases: 1) the early teaching of an exalted Jesus; 2) Paul’s teaching of an exalted Jesus as received from the church; and 3) a link between the root gospel (Mark) and Peter. Thus they end their book, observing that, historically speaking, “the earliest Christianity taught about the spiritual and personal benefits of knowing the exalted Jesus. An enthroned Jesus, not a dethroned one, is most able to lead us into the knowledge of God—and of ourselves” (227).

Critique

Bock and Wallace offer a readable, well-organized, and concise summary and rebuttal of six popular arguments aimed at undermining Christianity’s connection to the historical Jesus. They do so with class by acknowledging the expertise of opposing scholars—even conceding on certain points. Examples of this include agreeing that some passages have been added to the Bible (60-71) and acknowledging that Tabor is likely correct about Jesus having been a follower of John the Baptist before beginning his own ministry (180). They also handle the tension between social and doctrinal concerns quite admirably, given the sensitive nature of the topic.

Some minor concerns include the incongruity of speaking against Jesusanity’s “swallowing up” of the First Great Commandment to love God with all one’s being “by the second…to love one’s neighbour as oneself” (27) while, at the same time, using James’ affirmation of this second commandment as the “royal law” (2:8) as a point against Jesusanity (184); it seems they could have written more to resolve the apparent conflict between (1) denying Jesusanity for its tendency to make the Second Great Commandment the whole show while (2) James seems to do this very thing (on surface). Also, although Bock and Wallace consider the widespread evangelical ignorance of inserted passages as a “bomb waiting to explode” (63), their discussion of Paul and James’ unity (184) may have been a good time to acknowledge and discuss a similar “bomb”: Martin Luther himself considered James to be an “epistle of straw.” But these are minor complaints – the book is aimed at a popular audience, and it is unreasonable to expect them to nail down every possible loose thread.

My primary apprehension with Dethroning Jesus is Bock and Wallace’ apparent contention that Jesusanity is a monolithic movement aimed at dethroning the biblical Jesus. While they are correct that each of these six claims can be used to support Jesusanity, the idea that “Jesusanity” is some sort of driving force behind each of these movements is assumed. If they mean to say that this is the spiritual conspiracy of Satan to present a false Christ, then a brief discussion would have been welcome. But Bock and Wallace claim that “we cannot understand the public discussion about Jesus without understanding that the discussion entails [Christianity and Jesusanity]” (5). Thinking in these terms is a helpful grid for organizing these public claims, but this alone does not prove its reality as a unique movement apart from general sin and spiritual darkness in the world. They may be right, but such is not the case they have made in this book; rather, they seem to have assumed Jesusanity’s existence and interpreted these six claims accordingly. As a result, they may leave the impression that all of these scholars agree with all six claims—but this is surely not the case: if the “Lost Tomb of Jesus” was as bad as they claim, it’s difficult to believe that Borg, Crossan, and Ehrman would take it seriously. If “Jesusanity” is taken to loosely mean “any view that relegates Jesus to a mere teacher” then there is no issue, but Bock and Wallace appear to have taken great pains to establish it as a sociological reality. This runs the risk of having the reader think that there really is some Jesusanity committee somewhere, whose expressed purpose is to spread misinformation about Christ.

Ministry Application

Dethroning Jesus has much to offer in an educational context: its rebuttal of contemporary arguments against the Christian faith in the public square may be useful to both bolster the faith of some and to equip them better to answer questions from outsiders. Apologetics is generally well received by evangelicals, so opposition to this book is unlikely, but there are two related issues to be discussed: 1) a significant portion of evangelicals may be termed “recovering fundamentalists.” For these folks, admitting that certain portions of the NT were added later might as well be heresy; they need to deepen their faith and centre it on Christ rather than on modern ideas about what biblical inerrancy entails, but this book may not be the best way to enter that process: it seems to move on from the issue too soon after raising it. 2) Care must be taken to avoid feeding existing arrogance and triumphalism among evangelicals. Otherwise, those who learn about Thomas’ Jesus being sexist, for example, will simply gain an offensive fact to wave around whenever they speak disdainfully of these other texts. Instead, the goal should be to answer challenges to the Christian faith with “gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience” (1 Pet. 3:15-16).

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