Dec. 23, 2013 7:24 p.m. ET
One of the wonderful qualities of the New Testament’s four Gospels is that they force you either to embrace or reject them. You can study the Gospels as “literature” if you like, but their logic subverts any attempt to treat them as you would treat other literary texts. “Hamlet” may reach dizzying heights of sublimity and repay a lifetime of study, but it doesn’t ask for radical changes in your thought and behavior and has no power to compel them.
Three centuries of critical New Testament scholarship haven’t changed this. The Quest for the Historical Jesus, an attempt to interpret the canonical Gospel texts without reference to supernatural explanations, began with German scholarship in the 18th century, gradually took hold of universities and divinity schools elsewhere in Europe and America during the 19th century, and exploded in popularity during the latter half of the 20th century. Hundreds, probably thousands, of books purporting to explain the identity and intentions of Jesus of Nazareth have been published since the “quest” began in the 1770s; and yet, despite scholars’ confident pronouncements about how Jesus went from political revolutionary or peaceable philosopher to Eternal Son of God, the Gospels’ claims about him are neither more nor less plausible than they were before.
Skeptical or “critical” New Testament scholarship begins with the assumption that the Gospels’ claims about Jesus’ miracles and divinity must be false. The denial of the supernatural isn’t a conclusion but a prior commitment. Fair enough, but it’s not obvious how these accounts came about if they were fictions. Their authors certainly didn’t believe they were fictions: Again and again they offer precise details, almost as if to encourage their original readers to verify the stories. In Mark 10, for example, Jesus didn’t simply restore sight to a blind man. He restored the sight of ” Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, ” and it happened in Jericho.
Or take the matter of “Markan priority.” If the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) are collections of widely circulated myths about Jesus rather than first- or second-hand accounts, Matthew and Luke must have used the far shorter Mark as the principal source for parallel stories found in all three Synoptic Gospels. But if that’s true—and virtually all critical New Testament scholars hold that view—why do Luke and Matthew frequently use identical phrasing that Mark doesn’t use?
The point here isn’t that the Gospels must be true. It is that the Gospels offer no easy way to explain away their content. They therefore demand one of two choices. Either they relay things that Jesus actually said and did, in which case he really is who the New Testament claims he is, or they are haphazard collections of deliberately fabricated stories about a man who may have said some extraordinary things in first-century Judea but who has no more claim on your attention than Socrates.
Jesus: The Human Face of God
By Jay Parini
(New Harvest, 170 pages, $20)
C.S. Lewis, among others, made a similar argument about Jesus’ self-descriptions: “Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.” And while that argument has often been dismissed on the grounds that it assumes all the Gospels’ quotations of Jesus to be authentic, its logic applies with equal or greater force to the four Gospel texts themselves. Either they are true or they are collections of precious fables. There is no third option. They cannot be somehow factually false but metaphorically true—the human mind rightly rejects that kind of reasoning as highfalutin cant.
This point is powerfully made by Jay Parini’s “Jesus,” although Mr. Parini didn’t intend to make that point at all.
Instead of “demythologizing” Jesus, to use the German scholar Rudolf Bultmann’s term, Mr. Parini sets out to “remythologize” him by reviving the sense of sacredness and “mythos” stripped from the Gospel narratives by prior scholarship. “The work of reading here . . . ,” explains Mr. Parini—a well-regarded critic and biographer—”is one of . . . finding its symbolic contours while not discounting the genuine heft of the literal tale.” Perhaps sensing a lack of clarity, he continues the explanation in an endnote: “I’m not so much contradicting Bultmann’s idea of demythologization as putting the emphasis more firmly on the balance between literal and figurative readings, while stressing the fictive aspect: the shaping spirit of the gospel narratives.”
You’re never quite sure what Mr. Parini thinks. The book is structured along the lines of the Gospels themselves—birth, ministry, triumphal entry into Jerusalem, passion, crucifixion, resurrection—as if Mr. Parini accepts the essential veracity of the story they tell. Frequently he relays supernatural events as if they happened: the transfiguration, the temptations in the desert. But then he falls back on naturalistic explanations of the miracles: “I have no doubt that faith can boost one’s immune system and that its emotional balm has healing effects.” Again, the author frequently relays Jesus’ words as if their authenticity were undisputed, but then calls Herod’s slaughter of male children “mythical” and supposes Jesus’ birthplace was Nazareth rather than Bethlehem, as Matthew and Luke have it.
Mr. Parini is more sure of what he doesn’t believe than what he does believe. What he doesn’t believe, as he says on six or seven occasions, is anything associated with “fundamentalism.” But he seems to have only the loosest grasp of the term’s meaning: The Princeton theologians Benjamin Warfield and Charles Hodge weren’t fundamentalists, as Mr. Parini breezily claims, and fundamentalists themselves wouldn’t insist, as he says they do, that faith in Jesus is mere mental assent to a literal resurrection.
But the real trouble with Mr. Parini’s stance isn’t so much its incoherence as its banality. It’s the same with all attempts to make religion palatable to the learned. Rather than accepting its authority or ditching it altogether, the urge is to weaken its demands and make its doctrines vague or optional. The result is usually an agreeable but boring philosophy that anyone can adopt and no one would die for. “The Way of Jesus . . . ,” Mr. Parini writes, “involves self-denial, a sense of losing oneself in order to find oneself, moving through the inevitable pain of life with good cheer, accepting gracefully the burdens that fall on our shoulders and the tasks that lie before us. This is true discipleship.”
If that’s all Jesus came here to tell us, it’s hard to see what all the fuss was about.