189 of 216 people found the following review helpful
on December 22, 2001
If you want an honest, no-nonsense appraisal of the origins of the New Testament, then this book is for you. Unlike apologetic writers, who state absolute truths up front and then work backwards into a proof, Mack proceeds in a scholarly fashion to reconstruct who wrote the bible and when they actually did it.. This kind of scholarship is particularly difficult, because the earliest scrap of new testament we possess is a small piece of John's Gospel dated 125 CE(the Ryland fragment), and the earliest complete manuscripts are dated towards the end of the second century CE..Additionally, the only extrabiblical references to Christ in the century in which he lived are limited to one-liners from ancient writers and historians such as Tacitus, Josephus, Suetonius and Seneca.
Given this to work with, Mack proceeds with a remarkable bit of detective work to develop a working hypothesis about the true origins of the New testament. Consequently, and in a manner not unlike the methodolgy employed by the Jesus Seminar, he unabashedly (but carefully)incorporates non-canonical works such as the Gospel of Thomas and the hypothesized "Q" document into his analysis, being aware that an over-arching factor in the early church's assessment of the canonical worthiness of any book lay in its conformity to accepted church orthodoxy and doctrine. As a result, modern scholarship is therefore correct in being suspicious of some canonical works and in accepting(provisionally) the inclusion of other non-canonical works in any analysis. Frankly, this is no different than a paleontologist accepting new fossil evidence, even if it invalidates or alters his or her own pet theories.
I have noted that some reviewers have observed that Mack seems to be doing a lot of guessing, with a minimum of backup from other scholarly sources. I wonder if they read the same book I did, because mine contains a very thorough bibliography of both modern and ancient works.. Perhaps they reject Mack's sources because his rather unique use of them is in disagreement with their own preconceived notions of what constitutes credible research and/or biblical truth. No matter, this book is an excellent source for the general reader who appreciates honest scholarship from an uninhibited and acclaimed expert in this field.
94 of 106 people found the following review helpful
on February 8, 2003
If we read the dialogues of Plato the person who is the mouth piece of his thought is a historical character Socrates. It is clear however that Plato is not simply writing down what Socrates has said, but he puts in his mouth ideas that he thinks are correct. Mack thinks that this was a common practice in Greek communities and that a large number of the sayings of philosophers like Diogeneses were constructed after the event to reflect the spirit of his philosophy.
Mack is a biblical expert and has written previous works on the subject including one on the existence of a common source of sayings for two of the Gospels known as Q.
In this book he uses as a tool of exposition the recent finding of the Gospel of Thomas. A manuscript written in Coptic which was found in 1945. Rather than being a Gospel which purported to tell Jesus life, this is a collection of his sayings. Mack believes that all of the Gospels have a similar background. A series of sayings which have been developed by different Christian communities to reflect their teachings over practical and theological issues. The interesting thing about the Gospel according to Thomas is that there are no miracles, there is no crucifixion and no physical resurrection, suggesting that these things became important somewhat later.
He sees the writing of the Gospels as something akin to fiction writing. The authors of the Gospel wrote their stories to illustrate and to explain the doctrinal intricacies of their belief system. In much the same way that an ancient Greek may have developed a saying of Diogeneses to illustrate a point about his philosophy.
Later these stories have become something else and have been seen as literal history. The book is interesting as an exposition of what is common knowledge about the study of the bible. I personally would have preferred more detail about some things such as the means of dating the Gospels. However the book is aimed to be an introduction to a complex field.
27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
There are many books on the New Testament, (e.g., Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus, Galambush's The Reluctant Parting), yet each one of them has its own particular view of what constitutes the New Testament and their own focus. Some examine the gospel stories, some focus on only the canonical gospels, and some focus on Paul. Mack tries to discuss the entire picture, and this is both an advantage and a disadvantage.
Mack's book ostensibly deals with the New Testament, however, he begins with a focus on the Bible in general and stays for there quite some time. For some authors this would be problematic, but Mack is an excellent writer so we tend to go with the flow. He also has lots of interesting ideas and some very unusual interpretations of familiar material. Unfortunately he tends to present his ideas without adequate substantiating evidence or documentation, so that while his ideas are certainly worthy of consideration, they come from a theoretical rather than a hypothetico-deductive methodology which is more likely to yield fruit. This criticism isn't meant to disparage the ideas themselves, only to say that ideas with support are better than ideas alone, no matter how good the ideas may be.
Part 1 consists of 3 chapters. The thesis of Chapter 1 is that "Early Christianity was a creative, if daring, response to the multicultural challenge of the Greco-Roman age (p. 41). This chapter is among the very best descriptions you will ever find of the background forces which shaped early Christianity, and it's worth the price of the book by itself. Chapter 2 goes heavily into Q theory, and it is a core concept for Mack's approach. Chapter 3 deals with fragments from the Christ myth, which Mack sees as separable from the Q teachings.
Part 2 deals with the gospels and the epistles of Paul. Part 3 covers Acts and the other second century contributions of Marcion, Justin Martyr as well as Eusebius and Jerome. The appendix has an excellent chart of the development of and influence upon the various texts, more about Q theory, and a discussion of the pronouncement stories in Mark.
Because his approach is more theoretical than empirical, Mack leaves himself open to some internal inconsistencies. For example, Mack believes that the author of The Gospel of Luke and Acts is the same person, yet he says that "The ambiance of Jesus' teaching in Luke's gospel...contrasts markedly with the sharp edge characteristic of the sermons in Acts (p. 169)" and he recognizes a "much sharper polemic against the Jews in the sermons in Acts (p. 170)." He notes that in contrast to the Gospel of Luke, where the apostles are ordinary men, in Acts "the apostles started to look a lot like Jesus (p. 227)." Yet he is unable to take the next logical step - perhaps Luke and Acts were written by different people.
Another problem I have with this book is its reliance on Q theory. I'm not as convinced as Mack that Q exists, and his assumption of its existence without adequate proof is another example of how his theoretical emphasis weakens the full value of this book.
None of my criticisms should detract from what a marvelous book this is and how well written it is. It certainly should be read by anyone interested in the early Christianity and its historical roots. I'm not sure beginning students will get as much value from the book, but it is written in such a way that they can at least expose themselves to the ideas therein.
150 of 181 people found the following review helpful
Since the Higher Criticism efforts in the late 19th Century, biblical researchers have probed deeply into the origins of Scriptural texts. Contributions from archaeology and other disciplines have added new information on the times and places dealt with in biblical texts. Burton Mack, in a sweeping study of the foundations of the Christian myth, offers an in-depth analysis of the progress of the movement. He also broadens the scope of view by placing its growth in a wider social context. Not a "serious" academic tome, Mack has produced a study for a wide readership. He gives us a better understanding of the roots and development of the book considered so fundamental in many people's lives. With astute insights presented in lively style, he has offered much for reflection.
Wisely side-stepping the historical validity of Jesus, Mack follows the foundation and likely development of the way one man's teachings became a global movement. Whether Jesus actually lived is insignificant beside how stories of his life and ideas were promulgated. Mack carefully depicts the socio-political scenario in which the Jesus story took root. Palestine's population had undergone severe disruptions in recent times. At the time of Jesus, the Jews, either exiled or conquered, had suffered various dislocations, although the worst was yet to come. During the period under Alexander's domination, many Greek ideas permeated Palestine, including various scholastic practices. These, Mack points out, would have strong impact on how the Jesus story was developed and spread. It also increased the toil of scholars struggling to understand who wrote what and when they did it. Students often composed essays in the name of some emminant scholar as a means of demonstrating their comprehension of the material.
From an analysis of text styles, Mack derives the existence of a series of "Jesus movements", several being located in northern Palestine. These "Q" documents are teachings attributed to Jesus, with no biographical description. They could be the ideas of one or more thinkers of the time and locality, but are generally accepted as being from one teacher. The "Q" texts were incorporated into the Mark account, then embellished - the earliest of the Christian "Gospels". Mack notes that unlike the "Q" writings which were closer in time to any actual events, the later "Gospel" authors implied they were witnesses to them. This, of course, along with the many "miracles" related by these writers, was pure fiction, as Mack stresses.
The progressive writings making up the "Gospels" transformed the "Jesus movements" into the "Christ cults". Instead of merely an inspired teacher, Jesus now becomes a divine being. The level of divinity - "from" the deity, "of" the deity, or actually the deity was different according to the author[s] location and proclivities. This disparity is the foundation for the multitude of "heresies" arising in later centuries. The various "Christ cults" were adapted to suit the locality Christians inhabited. In seeking converts, a different approach might be used for Jews than for gentiles, Romans than for Greeks. Making Christianity attractive to its foundations, the Jewish epic, was a particularly daunting task. Calling a man who had no discernible record of godly manifestations a "messiah" outraged Jews. Another tack had to be found. The scheme adopted was the projection of Jesus as the reason for creation. These strategies relied on different writings for authority. Mack traces the changes in outlook with patient skill - it's an immense task. Writers, teachers, historians and philosophers are thoroughly intermixed in creating and modifying the "Holy Book". Unravelling is a challenge to the finest intellect.
The admixture of so many contributions of such varying basis demanded unravelling. It is unlikely there would be a "bible" or even such singular Christianity as there is without the accident of Constantine. His "conversion", incomplete as it was, came with his elevation to Emperor. That immense power led him to quell the continuing internecine dissent among his Christian population by having one scholar, Eusebius, collect and merge the existent writings into one volume. The result was the bible available today. With the stamp of Imperial approval, Mack notes, Christianity was free to follow where Rome led.
One place it led to, of course, is Mack's North American audience. In his conclusion, he urges all who revere this book to look at it realistically. He is scathing in his description of those who "turn the crank 'round and 'round" to justify actions or policies with citations from the book. This "quoting scripture" for selfish purposes has a special role in America, he notes. Using Christian mythology to justify actions in a multicultural world is fallacious and dangerous, he feels [the irony of recent events fulfilling this stance is staggering]. This book is a true resource and will stimulate further research and discussion for years. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on November 23, 2008
The subtitle of this densly written book should be the title. Who Wrote the New Testament is a very densely written book full of interesting speculations on the evolution of early Christianity and the New Testament. The author presumes the reader has at least some knowledge of textual critism before reading this book, for example he discusses how the three edits(?), revisions(?) of the Q document affected the early Christ Cult, without describing the evolution of the document itself or the evidence for the various changes in Q.
I did not find the writing style to be very engaging and often found my brain tuned out as I was reading.
If you've got a strong foundation in the development New Testament Criticism, and you want speculation on the origin of the beliefs that make up Orthodox Christianity, this book may be for you.
If you're looking for a review of where the books of the New Testament came from and why they were included in the Cannon, I sugguest you keep looking.
18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on June 5, 2004
To quote one reveiwer here: "Certainly, as the number of publications emerging from Jesus Seminar draw attack from conservative seminaries, such apparatus will become essential, popular audience or no. Nonetheless, this is an important book; a must-read for any student of the New Testament."
While a few of the author's assertions raised my eyebrows, never the less it is a well thought out piece and a worthy read. As for critics of the dating sequence of the gospels, etc.; well, there is hardly a consensus among scholars on that issue. What is important about this read is the historical backdrop of the Greek and Roman world and the info related concerning the intellectual climate of the time period and how literature was written and devised by scholars of the ancient world ... Mack's knowledge in this area provides elucidating material to say the least.
28 of 35 people found the following review helpful
Prologue (1-18): Myths are generated by the needs of a people, connecting their culture with its universal truths - a process that reconfigures the "worldview" in which one lives. All cultures have developed myths, consisting of their histories, their heroes, and their religions. Because of the great power of these myths, they can survive in a culture for thousands of years. Mack shows in "Who Wrote the New Testament" how the Judeo-Christian myth was created.
Part I (19-98): The multicultural Greco-Roman mileau left behind after the conquests of Alexander the Great. How the clashing of cultures led to a myriad of new belief systems in their infancy stages, the Jesus Movements being among them; how this simple movement (somewhat modeled after the Greek Cynics) tried on many new layers of belief, discarded most along the way, and was eventually forced to consolidate into "orthodox" Christianity when Constantine made the religion legal in 314 CE.
Part II (99-224): Individual discussion of each book of the New Testament (and selected extra-canonical books), the political-socio-cultural phenomena in play when they were written, and who the probable authors were.
Part III (225-292): Why advocates of the Christ myth came to rely on apostolic tradition, why Christianity stole the Old Testament from the Jews, and the politics behind canonization of the New Testament.
Epilogue (293-310): Biblical scholars start out with the best of intentions when approaching the Bible with the idea of critical analysis, however, most of them stop short of applying the same techniques an anthropologist would apply to a religion. After 2,000 years, the Judeo-Christian myth continues to cast a bronze-age mentality over political decisions in 21st century America.
Mack's book does not suffer from the usual lack of critical analysis of the Judeo-Christian myth. From every perspective, he painstakingly explains how the story was changed over and over, year after year, decade after decade, even century after century - as changing cultural and political needs dictated. This is a book to be not just read, but studied. It is a brilliant expose of Christianity as a typical example of myth-making - something many of us who went to church in our youths always suspected, but were afraid to mention. For me, the myth no longer gets a free pass from critical analysis.
28 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on January 5, 2005
I am a general reader and do not have formal training in theologly or ealy Chistianities. As of today, I have read this book twice, and I expect to read it again. This should not be the first book that one reads about the historical Jesus, the writing of the New Testament, or early Christianities. Though it is a short book, and does not utilize technical language, it is very concise and a tremendous amount of information is packed into a small space.
Other reviewers have called this book "radical". That is true only if you believe that it is radical to bring the conceptual tools of the modern university (e.g. history, anthropology, archeology, literature, philosophy, sociology, etc.) to bear on the origins of Christianity. This book is no more radical than other books on the historical Jesus and perhaps those who make hisorical claims without doing the work of history are the real radicals.
That said, there are times when Mack speaks autoritatively and without references or explanatory endnotes. Though one can not doubt his intellectual stature or integrity, I would have found more endnotes helpful. For example, John Meier's three volume work on the historical Jesus contains as many pages of endnotes as it does text. This gives legitimacy to his positions and allows the interested reader to pursue the details of his references and arguements further.
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the how the New Testament evolved, early Christianities, and/or the historical Jesus. It should not be the first book you read in this area and the book deserves to be read, re-read, and studied. It is worth the effort.
49 of 63 people found the following review helpful
on June 9, 1999
Burton Mack starts with the premise that the bible is one of the most powerful and influential books in all of human history but also one of the least understood. Using powerful scholarship, he takes the reader back to the first century Near East and paints a vivid picture of the suspected writers and audiences of the New Testament. The writer of the long winded review above presents a stunning example of the closed minded attitudes which have smothered the bible over the centuries. As a devout Christian, I saw the bible with a fresh perspective through the lens of Mack's scholarship. Any serious reader of Paul, for example, has had to deal with Paul's twisted syntax and inherent contradictions. Mack puts Paul's letters in their proper cultural and temporal context. Paul was an evangelist and was writing to specific audiences with specific biases. This book is not for someone who takes the bible literally but it is a must for those who take the bible seriously.
36 of 46 people found the following review helpful
on February 11, 2004
Most of Mack's book deals with the question of when early Christian documents first appeared, who wrote them (individual or community of origin), (sometimes) why the author wrote the book, and how the person or community of origin understood, thought about, and used the document. This had the potential to be a book of great utility, but Mack states very definitive conclusions about controversial topics, often on the basis of limited evidence. Moreover, he generally fails to inform the reader of the wide range of scholarly opinions on the subjects at issue. These shortcomings detract from the book.
For example, Mack dates the four Canonical Gospels as follows: Mark (~75 CE), Matthew (~85 CE), John (~100 CE), and Luke (~120 CE). Aside from a detailed, and non-controversial, presentation on why Mark was the earliest of the four, Mack provides only a limited basis for understanding either his relative or absolute dating of the other three. Similarly, he fails to mention that most scholars date John as the latest of the four and that a few date Matthew as being later than Luke. He also fails to mention the wide range of dates assigned to each of the four Gospels by various scholars. For example, many Christian scholars date Luke to about 60 CE, whereas secular scholars assign dates of anywhere from 75 to 130. Moreover, most Christian scholars date all four Gospels to 90 CE or earlier, whereas some secular scholars think that all four of them appeared after 90 CE. I think that Mack also concludes far too much, and too strongly, about the communities of origin for the four Gospels.
It gets worse with regard to some non-Canonical books. For example, Mack spends a fair amount of time on "Q", the hypothetical "sayings source" allegedly used by the authors of Matthew and Luke. (The theory here is that Matthew and Luke had two primary sources, Mark and Q.) According to Mack, Q originated around 50 or 55 CE (before any surviving Christian documents aside from some of Paul's letters). He then proceeds to draw very strong conclusions about the contents and organization of Q, about the nature of the community that produced it (e.g., how they thought of Jesus), and about how they used Q. Mack also asserts that Luke was much more faithful to the structure of Q than was Matthew. Wow! To begin with, some reputable scholars, although a minority, think that Q never existed. No fragment of Q has ever been found, and no surviving ancient document makes any reference to it. However, let us assume that Q once existed. If we further assume that: 1) Matthew and Luke each had exactly two written sources, namely Mark and Q, and 2) Matthew and Luke both incorporated all of Q, then it would be possible to conclude that Q consists of material found in both Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark. However, this putative Q material appears in somewhat different order in Matthew and Luke. It is hard to see how one could determine which of the two was more faithful to the structure of Q. It is also hard to see how one could determine whether Q originated before or after Mark. Moreover, suppose that Matthew and Luke each used 90% of Q. In this case, it would be possible for 85% of Q to appear in both Matthew and Luke, 5% to appear only in Matthew, 5% to appear only in Luke, and 5% to be lost. There is some Matthew-only and some Luke-only material. Maybe this consists in part of Q extracts that did not make it into both Matthew and Luke.
One could list numerous other examples of this sort.