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131 of 144 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Look out for the Scholars..." Mark 12:28 (pink), October 3, 2004
This review is from: The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (Paperback)
I have to admit I liked this book a great deal. It was very thought provoking, and that is what I wanted.

As anyone can note from the title, this is an attempt to add a new gospel to the canonic testaments of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Without saying as much, the book seeks to raise the standing of a newly discovered ancient 'book': 'the Gospel of Thomas'. The 1945 discovery of 'Thomas', a previously unknown gospel of about the same antiquity as the canonic gospels, demands a reassessment of the traditional canon. Some might say this reassessment is the job of scholars, and has already been accomplished with a dismissal of Thomas as derivative and heretical. This book presents an extensive argument against this conclusion, and makes it in an accessible manner for the lay reader,

The format of Thomas presents a significant problem. Thomas is not a narrative, but a list of 114 'sayings'. Thomas tells many of the canonic parables, but the Thomas versions are shorter and often bereft of any moral interpretation. 10 or 15 sound very much like 'Jesus', but are entirely missing from the canon. Many of the remaining 50 or so sayings invoke what scholars might call 'Gnostic' philosophy. Thomas fails to mention the resurrection story and includes only one mention of 'the cross.'

Fitting Thomas into any holistic understanding of Jesus will not be easy. In particular, a 'list of sayings' is far harder to trust than a coherent narrative. It is far easier for the man writing a copy to insert their opinions when no 'statement' need continue a thought from the prior paragraph.

Without making integration of Thomas into the canonic literature an overt goal, the 'Jesus seminar' simply sets out to see how much trouble one faces when applying a single standard to the four canonic gospels AND Thomas. The Jesus Seminar concludes Thomas is far more authentic than John.

The '5 Gospels' reports on this process leading to this conclusion. The 'conference' assumes one can deconstruct the 'real' voice of the historical Jesus by cross-referencing all available 'Jesus quotes' in the 5 documents. What we are going to do with the historic Jesus is politely avoided, but the clear assumption is the 'real' is good.

I had no idea how subtle a notion this goal turns out to be. By sticking strictly to the nominal goal: 'hear the historical Jesus speaking', a host of controversies can be sidestepped. The agnostic and atheist can 'hear' the historical Jesus. The same follows for the Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist. All hear people talk through written texts. All can relate to the question, do a historical man's actual words speak through the evangelist (be they an individual or a community) and the host of people who copied the source prior to 'canonical' versions were provided institutional copy producing traditions.

This is also a 'lowest common denominator' strategy. While reading, it struck me this was a very 'safe' Jesus that the seminar could agree upon. The conventionality gets tiresome. It seems the 'safe' Jesus is a witty hippy sort of guy. Here are the 'top 5' (and I paraphrase):
1. Turn the other cheek (92% agreement)
2. If someone asks for your shirts, give him your coat, too (92% agreement)
3. Blessed are the poor (91%)
4. If someone asks you to carry his load for 1 mile, carry it for 2. (90%)
5. Love your enemies (84%)

Everything with the slightest aspect of mystery is dismissed.
1. He didn't use the 1st person pronoun "I", and if he did, it was in exactly the same unimportant way you or I use it. In other words, Jesus never said 'I am the light..." This entirely discounts the Jesus quotes in John.
2. He didn't talk about a cataclysmic end to the world as we know it.
3. He didn't talk about his death and resurrection, or the Solomon's temple being dismantled.
4. If he did say anything after the resurrection, no one wrote it down accurately.

The seminar simply didn't agree on the mysteries, and who should expect them? Given their backgrounds, at least 25% of the seminar were agnostic or atheist.

While reading the scholarly arguments, I wondered if I could authentically quote anything my wife has ever said. I'm sure she said 'I do' at some point, but would be hard pressed to 'quote' a story or piece of wisdom she has shared with me. It isn't for lack of listening! It is almost impossible to remember exactly what anyone said without making a point of writing it down 'in the moment'.

And, if it is written down, the individual units of text are always commonplace. I was often reminded of an old Victor Borge routine. The great pianist would stop playing a wonder Mozart piece and announce he had in his pocket a piece of paper with the first 'note' Mozart ever wrote. After carefully pulling it from his pocket and lovingly discussing it's history, he announces that he also has a scrap of paper with the last 'note' Mozart ever wrote. After retrieving this precious document, he looks at the two and says, 'Interesting, the first note as a 'C' and the last a 'D'. Mozart didn't get very far, did he?'

So there is the problem of trusting that someone got it written down fast enough combined with the fact all sentences are constructed of commonplace words. The two make textual deconstruction of 'original words' a speculative game. Old quotes might be worthless paraphrasing or outright fantasy. Alternatively, old quotes always reflect the commonplace phrases of a community, devoid of individual character. What we find important is the 'whole picture'.

So, nothing is really proven here. The authors carefully avoid the 'whole picture', suggesting everyone work that out on their own. I found it possible to suspend judgment long enough to get through all 5 'critiqued' gospels, but it was a bit of a struggle. I'm glad I kept pushing to get to the end. That 'end' is a reassessment of Thomas, and this volume is by far the best available.
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 29, 2008 10:53:04 AM PDT
Such is the ignorance about this subject that this reviewer probably reflects the view of most readers when he writes:

"The 1945 discovery of 'Thomas', a previously unknown gospel of about the same antiquity as the canonic gospels, demands a reassessment of the traditional canon."

In truth, however, what we now know as "The Gospel of Thomas" has been well-known, even by the general public, for over 100 years - with just two qualifications:

1. Because we didn't have the openiong verse prior to the Nag Hammadi discoverty, the text was treated as being by possibly the most prolific author of all time - "anonymous" - and was referred to as the "Sayings of Jesus"
2. As the previous point implies, the Nag Hammadi document is the first known copy to include all 114 verses AND the introduction.

In other words, whilst the Nag Hammadi document is valuable insofar as it is apparently complete, there is nothing in what we know now that significantly adds to or alters what we knew before.

Secondly, this reviewer also reflects, I suspect, a very widespread illusion, when he claims that "The Gospel of Thomas" is:

"... about the same antiquity as the canonic gospels ..."

Leaving aside the claims of the self-styled "Jesus Seminar" (who are self-unvalidating by virtue of knowingly playing with a stacked deck), it is generally agreed by serious textual critics that "Thomas" actually dates from some time in the SECOND century AD, from somewhere between 120 AD -180 AD. That's AT LEAST 40 years after the last of the canonical gospels is usually dated.

Having said that, there are several sayings in "Thomas" which are pretty much the same as material in the canonical New Testament. On that basis it is quite possible that parts of Thomas were either based on extant canonical texts in the 2nd century, or may even have been written in the second half of the first century. In other words, whilst SOME of the sayings may have been produced at approximately the same time as the canonical gospels, but the rest - especially those that reflect gnostic thinking - date from the time of the rise of gnosticism itself in the 2nd century.

Lastly, I'm afraid that this reviewer, aga\in like many others, has been sucked into the swamp pf ethnocentric thinking that typifies the work of the Jesus Seminar.

The term "ethnocentric" means trying to evaluate another culture purely in terms of your own. Thus the members of the Jesus Seminar judge what could or couldn't have happened in 1st century Palestine purely in terms of what might or might not happen in 20th/21st century urban America. Or as this reviewer, echoing the JS viewpoint, puts it:

"While reading the scholarly arguments, I wondered if I could authentically quote anything my wife has ever said. I'm sure she said 'I do' at some point, but would be hard pressed to 'quote' a story or piece of wisdom she has shared with me. It isn't for lack of listening! It is almost impossible to remember exactly what anyone said without making a point of writing it down 'in the moment'."

And no doubt he is right, BUT ONLY about what HE could do in 21st century America (?), a highly literate context where we seldom bother to memorise ANYTHING of any substance. 1st century Palestine, on the other hand, was HIGHLY ORALLY ORIENTED, with very low literacy levels, by comparison with 21st century America. Remembering stuff was the way most people held whatever information they had. Word-of-mouth was the way most people passed on information. And even the average man in the street was far more skilled in both tasks than most people in the West in the 20th or 21st centuries.

The fact that the members of the Jesus Seminar so blatantly ignore such basic yet crucial information says a lot about the quality of their work as a whole. And this review says a lot about how uncritically some people accept the highly questionable information the Jesus Seminar puts out.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 2, 2008 4:47:26 PM PDT
Since people existing during times when the culture was less literate and more oral had to rely on word of mouth - and sometimes even memorized long lists of geneologies and canonical literature- were they better, worse, or the same at reliably passing along data to the next generation without change?

I don't know the answer to this question for sure, but I have heard it answered both ways, and both with good justification. I don't think I have seen evidence.

DB

Posted on Oct 17, 2011 11:43:29 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 17, 2011 11:54:37 PM PDT
Sam Walters says:
The pictures or constructions that biblical scholars paint of Jesus are largely a product of the methods and assumptions that they employ (which they sometimes do not make clear). Therefore the resulting pictures so built are largely conjectural in nature. That is why there is quite a diverse range of perspectives on Jesus. The reason I say this is because I've never seen Jesus scholars test their methods in a number of other cases - they largely make declarative assertions often with precarious reasons/basis.

Posted on Jul 7, 2012 8:40:02 PM PDT
Lisa Meuche says:
This was by far the most concise summary of the entire book. I, like many, sought
Out this book as a means to better understanding of the gospels, the church and our own biased slants.
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