This review appeared in the Jan-Mar 2007 vol. 164 no. 1 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.Subscribe Today
Reinventing JesusKregel Publications, Grand Rapids May 9, 2006
In recent years a number of popular books, movies, and articles have challenged traditional Christian beliefs about Jesus, the Bible, and early church history. The most dramatic example is the enormously popular novel The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown, and the subsequent movie by the same title. Although the book and the movie are fiction, Brown presents what he calls a number of historical “facts” that challenge Christian orthodoxy. He suggests that Jesus was married and had children and that the emperor Constantine was possibly the most significant factor in the formation of the present Bible, the present shape of the church, and its theology. The popularity of this and other works demand that Christians make a credible response.
Reinventing Jesus raises and answers five questions. The first question is, “How do we know that our picture of Jesus is accurate?” This deals with the reliability of the four Gospels and how they came into existence. Included in this chapter is a critique of the Jesus Seminar, which has attempted to determine which sayings and acts Jesus actually said and did. Second, the transmission of the biblical text is addressed by the question, “How do we know that our Bible, which exists only in copies, is accurate?” Evidence for different readings and manuscripts demonstrates that despite some variation in manuscripts, there is no viable reading that challenges any significant doctrine of orthodoxy (the deity of Christ, His resurrection, salvation by faith, etc.). Thus readers can be confident that the New Testament today is essentially the same as the original manuscripts. Third, the authors ask, “How do we know the right books are in the Bible?” Issues such as extrabiblical gospels and forgeries are discussed to provide historical and theological insight into the canon process. When the process of canonization is seen in the light of its historical context, one can be confident that the New Testament contains the authoritative works of the earliest church. Many of the so-called “lost,” “suppressed,” or “hidden” gospels do not measure up to those in the biblical canon. The Gospel of Judas is an excellent example of such a work. Unfortunately media hype and the desire for spectacular headlines often blur the facts about such works.
Fourth, the question, “Was Jesus always divine?” answers the erroneous view that Jesus was not considered divine until the fourth-century Council of Nicea. Evidence from the New Testament itself and from early church (pre-Nicea) writings flatly disproves this notion. Fifth, the uniqueness of Christianity is addressed in the question, “Did Christianity simply copy other religious practices in the Roman Empire?” Alleged parallels of virgin births and raisings from the dead in mythology and other figures such as Osiris, Dionysus, and Alexander the Great, are exposed.
This five-stage process is an effective means of covering the material, for it gives a comprehensive response to many related issues. Only one constructive criticism is worth noting, namely, that the final stage could have been strengthened by additional interaction with Roman religion in its context.
One factor that immediately emerges in this volume is that to answer the critics’ charges often takes little more than common sense or briefly checking into the facts behind asserted claims. For example to suggest that the deity of Christ was a construct of Constantine in the fourth century is ridiculous, since there are New Testament manuscripts in existence which predate Constantine by many decades. Or the charge that the early church suppressed books that describe Jesus in more human terms than divine is easily dismissed when one reads the spectacular stories about Jesus in many of the noncanonical Gospels. Although the canonical Gospels present Jesus as divine, they also present Him in a much more human manner than the noncanonical gospels.
Although this book was written in the midst of The Da Vinci Code controversy, its scope is much broader. It focuses on important foundational principles about Jesus, the Bible, and church history that, when understood, provide a solid grid to answer future claims against these areas. The interest in The Da Vinci Code will fade, but other challenges will emerge. This book will provide a resource for believers who are confronted with media, friends, or associates who have been influenced by various critical arguments. Some discussions in this volume will challenge even seminary students and graduates, but the overall gist of the book can be understood by any serious reader. It is essential for those who have teaching and leadership roles in the church to be able to interact intelligently with the arguments this book addresses. Understanding these issues is essential to answer the challenges that will continually be hurled at the church. Modern-day culture is becoming continually more challenging and even hostile to traditional Christian beliefs. The health of the church partially depends on leaders who can both encourage believers and adequately answer charges against the faith. This book is not the only means to become proficient in these areas, but it is a convenient and comprehensive volume that can help meet this growing need.
—Joseph D. Fantin