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Philip Jenkins


How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
In addition to the "canonical" texts of the New Testament there are numerous "apocryphal" writings that contain otherwise unknown sayings of Jesus or descriptions of his activities while alive. Some of these texts have been known for a long time, while others have come to light fairly recently. A notable example was the unearthing of the Nag Hammadi library in Egypt in 1945. Among the 52 mostly Gnostic texts found there was the gospel of Thomas, which is not a narrative of Jesus's life but contains sayings attributed to him.

Many scholars believe that the Gnostic texts, especially the gospel of Thomas, provide an alternative view of the early years of Christianity that is a valuable corrective to the mainstream teaching. Early Christianity, it is suggested, was much more diverse than what emerged later. It is often said that it was the influence of the Emperor Constantine that led to an "official" formulation of Christian belief and to the proscription of alternative views as heretical. Much of value is thought to have been lost at this time.

These ideas have engendered a now widespread view of Christianity which holds that the religion as we know it emerged only because "the orthodox" exerted their baneful authority to stifle dissenting opinions. But is that true? Philip Jenkins thinks not. He argues that the orthodox description of Jesus found in the New Testament goes back to the earliest time and is the most authentic information about him that we have.

To a large extent, the essential question here is dating. If the Gnostic texts are older than the canonical gospels their claim to preserve the secret teaching of Jesus may be justified, but if they were composed later, perhaps at the end of the first century or the beginning of the second, their historical value largely disappears. A good deal of Jenkins's book therefore centres on this question.

If these later dates are correct, then the significance of the Gnostic gospels as historical sources is greatly diminished, and so is the importance of the ideas they describe.
Jenkins, who is an eminent historian in the field of religion, concludes unequivocally that the Gnostic texts are late and therefore can be neglected as historical documents.
Finding out what the Gnostics believed about Jesus might be intellectually interesting or spiritually rewarding, but brings us no closer to the historical roots of Christianity than does exploring the religious beliefs of nineteenth-century Shakers or Mormons. The Gnostic texts no more than confirm what we already knew about the far fringes of early Christian belief.

Another problem with the Gnostic texts is that they are esoteric and decidedly obscure. This obscurity has not prevented them from attracting a lot of popular attention. Books, articles, and television programmes have taken up the idea of "hidden gospels" and have presented their own versions of Christianity based on these.

These modern approaches to Christianity, Jenkins finds, have been largely shaped by New Age ideas and by the increasing tendency of many people today to describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. These people, whom Jenkins calls "seekers", take an eclectic approach to religion, selecting what appeals to them from different traditions but rejecting formalism and dogma. The Celtic church is often held up as having embodied this more flexible view of Christianity before it was replaced by Roman orthodoxy.

The book seems to be aimed primarily at a North American audience, most of whom would no doubt identify themselves as Christian and would have had a good deal of exposure to the kind of ideas that Jenkins is attacking. Elaine Pagels, who has written extensively and sympathetically about Gnosticism, comes in for a fair amount of criticism, and so does the Jesus Seminar (a group whose members have sought to establish a collective view of the historicity of Jesus).

The book is concerned with a fairly restricted subject but it scores well for readability. For a different view of this topic, see Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities.


%T Hidden Gospels
%S How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way
%A Jenkins, Philip
%I Oxford University Press
%C New York
%D 2001
%G ISBN 0195035091
%P 260pp
%K religion
%O notes and references

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