Recent decades have witnessed revisionist portraits of Jesus congenial to the contemporary concerns of the chattering classes rise time and time again, whether Christs compatible with New-Age thinking from the 1970s and ’80s, reconstructions of Jesus as peasant or cynic or revolutionary popularized by members of the Jesus Seminar in the 1990s, or the neo-Gnostic Jesus depicted in Dan Brown’s 2003 Da Vinci Code. These portraits of Jesus are drawn largely from ancient texts outside of the New Testament. Instead of looking to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, revisionist scholars and popular writers find their Christ represented more faithfully in documents such as the hypothetical, non-extant Q (the supposed lost source for Matthew and Luke) and “Gospels” such as Thomas, Judas, and The Infancy Narratives of Thomas, among many others.
Revisionist portraits of Jesus are, fundamentally, a challenge to the Church’s fourfold Gospel canon. Revisionists claim that many “lost Gospels” or “lost scriptures” were suppressed by the Church, especially after Constantine, because they challenged the power of ecclesial and societal patriarchy and hierarchy. Traditional Christianity is on this account the result of a conspiratorial power play. Original Christianity, it is claimed, was a diverse free-for-all which the Constantinian Church quashed until the recent rediscovery of certain repressed “lost Gospels,” which—so the story goes—give us a more true and accurate picture of Jesus.
In response, Christians of orthodox persuasion muster efforts to refute the radical claims made and show how the traditional understanding of Jesus Christ as divine Son of God remains reasonable, and in doing so defend the fundamental reliability of the four canonical Gospels (as do agnostic, learned scholars such as Bart Ehrman). Thus, both revisionists and the orthodox posit a fundamental binary dichotomy: either one draws deeply on non-canonical texts to present an alternative Jesus, or one defends the portrait of Jesus painted by the canonical Gospels.
But what if there is a third way? What if the “lost scriptures” were never really lost but remained powerful influences upon the Christian imaginary throughout the centuries, represented in the Church’s teaching and artistic heritage and, indeed, were woven deeply into medieval culture itself? In his book The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand-Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels, Philip Jenkins summarizes the revisionist position well: “[T]he democratic, egalitarian, and Spirit-filled Jesus movement then atrophied into the repressive, bureaucratic Catholic Church of the Middle Ages. The narrow orthodoxies of a monolithic church replaced the effervescent ‘many Christianities’ of the earliest centuries” (5), a false narrative driven by avaricious publishers (40). Noting elsewhere that this is a development of the “Protestant mythology of the decline and betrayal of the original Christian message…adapted by liberal and progressive Christians” (24), Jenkins finds this narrative false: “So strong is the evidence for the survival and continuity of the ‘lost scriptures’ that it makes us realize just how improbable the familiar historical view actually is. This fact must radically alter our understanding of Christian history, of the definition of orthodoxy, and of the role of Scriptural authority within the faith” (7).
Jenkins thus makes bold claims. His argument is outlined in the following paragraph:
A famous maxim declares lex orandi, lex credendi, or, roughly, “How we pray is how we believe.” Whatever the official creeds and theological statements of a church might say, it is what happens in regular worship that reflects the real belief and doctrine of a religious community. By that standard, any account of the development of Christian doctrine should properly foreground the alternative Gospels. For centuries, these non-canonical texts were admitted onto church premises, approved for liturgical reading, and cites as authoritative by some of the greatest scholars and theologians. They shaped the physical fabric of churches by supplying the legends and stories depicted in stained glass and paintings. They were what ordinary laypeople actually read for instruction and pleasure, and contrary to myth, by the thirteenth century Christian Europe had a sizeable reading public, lay as well as clerical. If these works were not canonical, neither were they excluded or condemned. (12-13)
Jenkins’ stated approach is thus sociological and descriptive; he attempts to show what he has here claimed—that so-called “lost Gospels” or “lost scriptures” remained in circulation in influential ways, regardless of what official Church teaching might be.
The bulk of the book provides examples. Jenkins shows that works thought lost were referred to and thus known in medieval period in both West and East, proving his summary point that “Contrary to myth, the modern-day discovery of ancient alternative works is nothing like as revolutionary as it is sometimes portrayed” (237). Jenkins often describes how commonplaces of Christian mythology (my term, not Jenkins) are found in extracanonical texts; the “Harrowing of Hell” (cf 80ff) has as its “direct source” the Acts of Pilate, while legends regarding the Blessed Virgin Mary that would later become common belief and even dogma, such as the names of her parents and her Perpetual Virginity found in the Protoevangelium of James (late 2nd century; cf 102ff) or other Marian beliefs found in the later Golden Legend (ca 1270; cf 117ff).
While the Church accepted stories and beliefs presented in extrabiblical legends, heretics persisted as well (cf 159ff), treasuring and preserving texts some churchmen tried but failed to suppress. (Jenkins, however, does not explain why established, official Churches would accept the teachings contained in apocryphal texts while hoping to suppress them.) Rather than Constantine it was the leading lights of the Reformation that suppressed heresies and apocryphal texts (cf 218ff), and its iconoclasm eliminated much of the feminine in Christianity that had flourished, Jenkins believes, thanks to the perduring influence of non-canonical texts (223ff). The Counter-Reformation followed suit and where Catholic colonial powers expanded their influence suspect texts (and traditions they bore) were suppressed, as in Goa (230-231).
Problematic descriptions and claims
The book itself displays Jenkins’ erudition, but the heft of its raw contents is undermined by a sort of conceptual boundary slippage that leads to a lack of clarity on crucial questions. Jenkins sometimes seems to distinguish between canonical and apocryphal texts, or orthodox and heterodox Christianity, or sociology and theology—but then will blur the boundaries between them. And so while Jenkins himself is no revisionist or radical, one encounters in his book the same sort of problems regarding the relationship of asserted facts to values that one encounters in revisionist works. Put simply, he doesn’t articulate how his efforts at description relate to his normative, prescriptive claims.
An example: early in the book Jenkins writes, “There is no reason why ‘gospels’ should not continue to be written and read, even today, although that comment says nothing about treating modern day works as authoritative in any sense” (21). Or again: “The canon/apocrypha distinction works well as long as we are dealing with a textual canon that is clear and universally recognized, with only a few outliers to be categorized. The quantity of known alternative texts has expanded enormously in modern times, though, and the more it expands, the harder it is to see clear demarcations between approved and apocryphal writings. Some books that are canonical in one Christian tradition are apocryphal in another” (21).
Perhaps the most problematic instance of slippage concerns the issue of literary genres. For example, Jenkins discusses texts that are something other than Gospels, such as the Golden Legend (compares Gospels to the Screwtape Letters, Pilgrim’s Progress, and In His Steps; cf 43 and 244); he offers no real discussion of what might constitute the genre of “Gospel,” a topic which needs much more discussion in biblical studies than it often receives. The issue of textual genre is important because it bears on two other issues lacking clarity in the book: canon, and the relationship between texts and traditions.
For a book dealing with Christian texts from the Church’s inception to the late thirteenth century, the near total neglect of the canonical process in which the early and medieval Church selected its canonical, scriptural texts is striking. For the formation of the New Testament canon (and the exclusion of many texts from it) has been a longstanding subdiscipline in biblical studies as well as patristics and medieval studies. The book would have been helped immensely had it contained some discussion of the canonical process.
That discussion would require another discussion about the very nature of the Church. Jenkins’ approach is again historical and sociological, so he rightly recognizes that there have been various communions and groups throughout history. “At no point in Christian history,” he opines, “have believers been united into one single united Church” (39) and reminds readers that the Christian world was never “monolithic” (246). But he will sometimes privilege certain communions and use the language of “Orthodox/Catholic” Christianity and “mainstream” churches (cf 15, 34, 242).
What “Christianity”? Which “Church”?
One cannot avoid the normative questions: What counts as authentically Christian, and which Church would be the true Church, if there is one? Revisionists assume heretical groups were just as authentically Christian as the orthodox Catholic Church, but that is a value judgment. Recognizing that fact matters when evaluating the canonical process, for the Church itself used its monotheist, Trinitarian, anti-Gnostic Rule of Faith—which became what we know as the Apostles’ Creed—to sort and sift its scriptures into canon over the centuries.
Which brings us from texts to the issue of notional traditions they present. Jenkins, who is an Episcopalian, writes in a subtly Protestant way about the relationship of texts and the reception of their contents, in which traditions and legends have an original scriptural source. For instance, on page 197 he writes: “Every one of the Qu’ran’s statements is rooted in the Protoevangelium.” Or on pages 198-99 he writes repeatedly of the “influence” of non-canonical texts. But the relationship between traditions—stories, for practical purposes—and texts that inscripturated them is complex. That a certain text such as the Acts of Pilate presents the Harrowing of Hell does not mean it is the source of the Harrowing of Hell, or later appearances of the idea necessarily come from the Acts of Pilate. (Indeed the Harrowing of Hell can be traced back to Ephesians and 1 Peter, and the idea likely precedes those texts.) So too with Marian beliefs about the Virgin’s parents, the Perpetual Virginity, and her being conceived free of original sin. They likely didn’t begin with the Protoevangelium of James and when they’re found later it does not mean the source is the Protoevangelium. Put differently, orthodox belief can be presented by non-canonical texts.
The root problem with the book, then, concerns the implicit equation of fact and value. Jenkins is operating with a subtle theology “from below” in which religious practices and beliefs on the ground determine the nature of a particular religion or community. Thus descriptive history and sociology becomes for him normative theology. One encounters this also in revisionists, who, finding diversity in early Christian history, declare that diversity was an unalloyed good. Consider again his bold thesis: “So strong is the evidence for the survival and continuity of the ‘lost scriptures’ that it makes us realize just how improbable the familiar historical view actually is. This fact must radically alter our understanding of Christian history, of the definition of orthodoxy, and of the role of Scriptural authority within the faith” (7). The fact, he says, of the perdurance of the not-so-lost scriptures must alter our understanding of orthodoxy and Scriptural authority.
Given this root problem concerning the opaque nature of the relationship in the book between sociology or history on one hand and theology on the other, the final chapter’s exploration of what to do with non-canonical texts suffers from imprecision as well. Jenkins suggests that we ought to read such texts because (1) “they represent such a massive portion of the Christian spiritual heritage” and “play a critical role in the artistic and cultural tradition that grew out of this faith” (242-43). They also “help us understand how Christians…makes sense of their faith through storytelling” (245f). Fair enough, and for those reasons many non-canonical texts should be read and studied. Jenkins then insists that the fact that the “process of making and defining scripture took many centuries… does not mean that we should be thinking of expanding the Christian canon…The fact that the canon has been wider and more open in the past does not mean it is infinitely flexible” (249). On what basis, exactly? How flexible might it be?
Jenkins’ answer would be the historical reliability of the canonical Gospels: “Of course, the canonical texts do not attempt to be sober academic history in any modern sense, and they have their theological agendas; but they really do take us directly to the world of Christ and his immediate followers in ways that no other candidate can or ever could. They represent the essential historical core” (250). Many revisionists would disagree, and the early and medieval Church did not use our modern category of historical reliability (invented largely in the nineteenth century!) to determine its canon.
Jenkins closes by skating close to the thin ice of revisionism: “But to exclude a text from the canon obviously does not mean condemning or ignoring it, and we should take full advantage of whatever historical or religious merits it may have. Since the 1970s, many westerners have found real treasures in the Gnostic gospels” (253). Jenkins, again, is no revisionist, and factually it is true that the Gnostic gospels are beloved by many today. But given the Gnostic hatred of creation and especially the female form thanks to its role in pro-creation (cf Thomas 114, in which Jesus says “every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven”), we are forced again to make a value judgement about whether such texts are ultimately good. Do they offer spiritual nourishment, or might they lead souls down a path away from light and truth?
For all those cautions and criticisms, however, the book is worth the time for the discerning reader. It is full of good historical information, introducing texts and traditions taken seriously by the heterodox but of also of historical and theological interest to those faithful to Jesus Christ, to the Church he founded, and to “the ‘Sacred deposit’ of the faith (the depositum fidei), contained in Sacred Scripture and Tradition…” (CCC, 84).
The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand-Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels
by Philip Jenkins
Basic Books: New York, 2015
Hardcover, 336 pages