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The True Jesus of the Gospels - Part 1

Commentary by Raniero Cantalamessa

VATICAN CITY, MAY 15, 2007 (Zenit) - Here is a translation of the Italian-language commentary by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household, on the book "Inchiesta su Gesů" (An Investigation on Jesus) by Corrado Augias and Mauro Pesce .

Parts 2 and 3 will appear Wednesday and Thursday.

* * *

1. In the path of the cyclone

In the wake of Dan Brown's "Da Vinci Code" cyclone there have appeared, as always happens in these cases, new studies of the figure of Jesus of Nazareth whose intention is to reveal Jesus' true face which until now has been distorted by ecclesiastical orthodoxy. Even those who with their words distance themselves from such an undertaking show themselves to be influenced by it in many respects.

I think the book by Corrado Augias and Mauro Pesce, "Inchiesta su Gesů" (An Investigation of Jesus), published this year by Mondadori, is an example of this.

There are differences, as is natural, between the authors, the first being a journalist and the second a historian. But I do not wish to fall into the same error as this "investigation," which is to take account always and only the differences between the evangelists, and never their convergences. It is this error more than any other which I think compromises this "investigation." I will begin, therefore, with what is common to the two authors, Augias and Pesce.

It can be summed up thus: There existed at the beginning not one but many Christianities. One of these versions of Christianity won out over the others; it established, according to its own point of view, the canon of Scripture and imposed itself as orthodoxy, marginalizing the other versions as heresies and striking them from the record. However, thanks to the new discoveries of texts and a rigorous application of the historical method, today we are able to re-establish the truth and finally present Jesus of Nazareth as what he really was and as he intended to be, that is, as something completely different from that which the various Christian churches have up to now pretended he was.

No one questions the right of people to approach the figure of Christ historically, prescinding from the faith of the Church. Believing and non-believing historical criticism has been doing this with the most sophisticated instruments for at least three centuries now. The question is whether this current investigation of Jesus really gathers -- though it be in a popular form accessible to the general public -- the fruit of the work of these three centuries, or whether it operates from the beginning on the basis of a radical internal agenda and ends with a merely partial reconstruction.

I believe that, unfortunately, it is the latter that is the case. The thread that they have chosen is one which runs through Reimarus, Voltaire, Renan, Brandon and Hengel, and which today is taken up by literary critics and "humanities professors" such as Harold Bloom and Elaine Pagels.

What is completely absent is the contribution of the great Protestant and Catholic biblical exegesis developed after the war, in response to the theses of Rudolf Bultmann, which is much more positive about the possibility of reaching the Jesus of history through the Gospels.

To give one example, in 1998 Raymond Brown -- "the most distinguished of American New Testament scholars, with few competitors worldwide," according to the New York Times -- published a work of 1608 pages on the accounts of the passion and death of Jesus. It has been defined by specialists in the field as "the benchmark by which any future study of the Passion narratives will be measured," but in such a work there is no trace in the chapter dedicated to the motives behind Christ's death sentence, nor does it figure in the final bibliography which lists various English titles.

To the selective use of studies there corresponds an equally selective use of sources. The Gospel narratives are later adaptations when they falsify our authors' thesis, but they are taken to be historical when they are in agreement with it. Even the resurrection of Lazarus, although John's Gospel is the only one to attest to it, is taken into consideration if it can serve to corroborate the thesis of the political motivation of Jesus' arrest (p. 140).

2. But what do the apocrypha say?

But let us deal more directly with the book's basic thesis. Here we touch on the discovery of new texts that are supposed to modify the historical understanding of the origins of Christianity. Essentially these are certain apocryphal gospels found in Egypt in the middle of the last century, above all the Nag Hammadi codices. A subtle operation is performed here: The date of the composition of the canonical Gospels is pushed forward as far as possible while the date of the composition of the apocryphal texts is pushed back as far as possible so that the latter can be regarded as valid alternative sources to the former. But here we run up against a wall that cannot be easily gotten over: No canonical Gospel (not even that of John according to modern criticism) can be dated any later than 100 A.D. and no apocryphal text can be dated before that year. (The most daring suggest, by conjecture, dates of composition around the beginning of the third century or the middle of the second century.)

All the apocrypha draw from or assume the canonical Gospels; none of the canonical Gospels draw from or assume the apocrypha. To take an example very much in vogue today, of the 114 sayings of Christ in the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, 79 have parallels in the Synoptics, 11 are variants of synoptic parables. Only three parables are not attested to elsewhere.

Augias, in the line of Elaine Pagels, thinks he can overcome this chronological gap between the Synoptics and the Gospel of Thomas and the way that he tries to do this tells us something about the "historical rigor" with which these modern "investigations of Jesus" are conducted.

According to the author, in the Gospel of John we witness a clear attempt to discredit the apostle Thomas, a true persecution in his regard, comparable to that against Judas. The proof:
The insistence on Thomas' incredulity! Explanation: The author of the fourth Gospel wants to discredit the doctrines that already in his time were circulating under the name of the apostle Thomas and that come together later in the gospel that bears Thomas' name!

Thus we overcome the chronological gap. But what is forgotten is that John the Evangelist puts on Thomas' lips the most moving of declarations of love for Jesus: "Let us go and die with him" (John 11:16) and the most solemn profession of faith in Jesus: "My Lord and my God!" (John 20:28). Many exegetes say that this profession constitutes the crowning moment of John's entire Gospel. If Thomas is persecuted in the canonical Gospels, what should we say of poor Peter and all that they say about him! Perhaps Peter too was maligned so as to discredit a future apocryphal gospel that would bear his name.

But the important point is not even about the dates, but about the content of the apocryphal gospels. They say the exact opposite of that for which their authority is invoked. Our two authors advance a thesis according to which Jesus completely identifies with Judaism and did not intend to bring about any innovations in its regard. But all the apocryphal gospels profess, some more some less, a violent rupture with the Old Testament, making Jesus the revealer of a different and superior God. The revaluation of Judas in the gospel that goes by his name unfolds in conformity with this logic: With his betrayal, Judas helps Jesus to free himself from the last vestige of God the creator -- the body! In this vision the heroes of the Old Testament become the villains and the villains, like Cain, become the heroes.

Jesus is presented in the book as a man who was elevated to the status of God only by the Church that came after him. The apocryphal gospels, on the contrary, present a Jesus who is true God but not true man; he has only taken on the appearance of a body (Docetism). For them, that which causes problems is not the divinity of Christ but his humanity. Are our authors disposed to follow the apocryphal gospels on this point?

We could make an even longer list of the equivocations in the usage of the apocryphal gospels. Dan Brown uses them to support the idea of a Jesus who exalts the feminine, who does not have problems with sex, and who marries Mary Magdalene. And to prove this Brown has recourse to the Gospel of Thomas, where it is said that if a woman wants to save herself she must cease being a woman and become a man!

The fact is that the apocryphal gospels, especially those that are Gnostic in origin, were not written with the intention of narrating historical facts and sayings of Jesus but as means for conveying a certain vision of God, of themselves and the world of an esoteric and Gnostic nature. Taking these texts as a basis for reconstructing the history of Jesus is like taking "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" as a basis not for understanding the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche but as one for understanding the thought of Zarathustra himself. For this reason, in the past although almost all the apocryphal texts were known, at least from ample citations in other works, no one ever thought of using them as sources for historical information about Jesus. Only our era of mass media, always exasperatedly searching for the commercial scoop, is doing this.

There are other historical sources for Jesus besides the canonical Gospels and it is strange that these are practically left out of this "investigation." The principal of these sources is Paul, who wrote less than thirty years after the death of Jesus and after being a proud opponent of Jesus. His testimony is discussed only in regard to the resurrection and, naturally, only to be discredited. And yet what is there that is essential in the faith and in the "dogmas" of Christianity which is not found attested to (in substance if not in form) in Paul, that is, before it had time to absorb alien elements? Is it possible, for example, to claim that the contrast between Jesus and the Pharisees with their legalistic mentality is non-historical and is a fruit of the later concern not to alarm the Roman authorities when Paul himself acknowledges having been a Pharisee and says that he doggedly persecuted Christians because of this?

[Parts 2 and 3 will be published Wednesday and Thursday.]


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