Largely Fiction: William Edelen's Take on the Four Gospels

Bruce N. Fisk
March 23, 2004

(Click here for a version of Edelen's column: "The Fiction of 'The Passion' Movie")

William Edelen's recent piece, Passion of Fiction on Screen, was not so much a review of Gibson's The Passion of the Christ as it was a full frontal assault on the Gospels and on every pastor or priest out there who takes the historical claims of those Gospels seriously. Edelen's argument, minus the vitriol and bombast, amounts to three points:

1. The Gospels are largely fiction.

2. All reputable biblical scholars agree on #1.

3. Clergy are complicit in a conspiracy of silence and fraud.

Does the academy have a dirty little secret? Are preachers holding back? Let's take things a step at a time. According to Edelen's first point, most of what we read about Jesus didn't happen. Scholars have long struggled to understand the relationship between the Gospels and the past. Are these four accounts objective and factual? Is their history embellished? Fictionalized? Are they simply pious myths? The need to acknowledge the complexity of the question has led many scholars to labels like interpreted history. On the one hand, the historical agenda of the Gospels is fairly clear: the authors present their narratives as trustworthy accounts about things that really happened in the recent past (see Luke 1:1-4; 3:1-2; John 20:30-31). On the other hand, they never pretend to be impartial or objective. Their authors write with an agenda. They want to persuade. They invite faith. They summon readers to worship Israel's God now at work in the Jesus of history. They interpret history, in other words, through the lens of theology. The burning question then becomes: is their interpretation sound and helpful? Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

I would add--and here is where Edelen is not entirely wrong--that the Gospels reflect an ancient, not a modern, notion of responsible historical work. Each author deployed creative license. They felt free, within limits, to summarize or to expand, to combine or to rearrange, to rephrase and even compose words for their characters, including Jesus. Matthew's "Sermon on the Mount," for example, is almost certainly a composite speech, constructed from several sources, cast in the shape of a sermon so that readers would know the sort of things Jesus regularly said. This was, in fact, the only way for an author to capture what was most important about his subject. You might think of the way a painter's portrait tell us things about her subject--real, important things--that would never come through in a photograph. Or perhaps the way a good television docudrama can capture truths about its subject that would never emerge if all we watched were home videos. To reduce the Gospels to "fiction" is to misunderstand and caricature the ancient craft of historiography.

To establish point #2--the claim that all "real" scholars know the Gospels are fiction--Edelen summons four witnesses. His choices are telling. The first, Rudolf Bultmann, who died in 1976 at age 91, taught for 30 years at Marburg University, Germany's first Protestant (i.e., Lutheran) university. Bultmann ranks among the greatest New Testament scholars of all time. Combine the confidence of Mohammed Ali, the finesse of Wayne Gretzky and the strength of Tiger Woods and you'll get the idea. And Edelen is right: Bultmann was a rigorously skeptical historical critic who discounted much the New Testament had to say about the "historical Jesus."

What Edelen fails to mention, however, is that Bultmann was also a devoted churchman who offered up his lectures and sermons (yup, sermons) in the service of his beloved Lutheran church. His interest lay not with the Jesus behind the Gospels (which he thought was largely lost from view) but with the earliest generations of Christians--those whose cherished stories and fond memories of Jesus found their way into the New Testament. Bultmann's historical skepticism about the Gospels, however, has not won the day; not even his own students could tolerate his straight-faced dismissal of so many of the Gospels' historical claims. His influence lives on, to be sure, but only a handful of Bultmannian dinosaurs still roam the land.

Edelen's second witness is Joseph Klausner (1874-1958) whose impressive study on the life of Jesus (published in Hebrew back in 1922) was the first by a Jewish scholar in the 20th century. Was Klausner's scholarship cool, objective and independent? Does he measure up, in other words, to Edelen's ideal of the unfettered academic whose views are trustworthy because they come without bias? As it turns out, Klausner was a passionate Zionist nationalist whose views were just as tainted by ideological commitments as any. Klausner argued (rightly) that Jesus must be understood within 1st century Galilean Judaism. Jesus was a good Jew. (Such a claim may seem obvious today, but was hotly contested in the Germany of the 1920s.) And Klausner believed we know quite a lot about the historical Jesus: "Jesus would never have dreamed of being a prophet or a messiah to the non-Jews," he writes. Whatever the merits of this assertion, one could hardly arrive at such a point without taking the Gospels very seriously as historical documents.

With Edelen's other two witnesses, Robert Funk and John Dominic Crossan, we meet two of Edelen's ideological soul mates. Robert Funk, eminent Greek grammarian and former evangelist (!), has been the entrepreneurial force behind the so-called Jesus Seminar, a controversial cadre of self-selected scholars who met over several years (beginning in 1985) to assess, bit by bit, the authenticity of Jesus stories and sayings. Sounding very much like Edelen, Funk blames the church for keeping "the assured results of historical critical scholarship" from trickling down through clergy ranks to the hungry, benighted masses. Not only does Funk want to liberate Jesus from the Gospels. He also wants to liberate Christians from Christian dogma since, we are told, only a handful of the sayings the Gospels attribute to Jesus are authentic.

Funk's critics--and there are many in the secular academy--would say that he has decided in advance the sort of Jesus he can live with, and then reinterpreted the Gospels to fit. And further, that he is mass-marketing his personal convictions as if they were the "findings" of neutral, bias-free scholarship. Edelen is free to agree with Funk that the New Testament is a window on "early attempts to invent Christianity," but there should be no pretense about scholarly neutrality.

John Crossan ranks easily among the most witty and readable Jesus scholars around. As another member of the Jesus Seminar, Crossan finds lots of "fiction" in the Gospels, though this doesn't prevent him from recovering the "real" Jesus: an itinerant, politically subversive, socially radical, Galilean peasant. Like Funk, Crossan begins with his own reconstructed "hippy" Jesus and then hunts down the supporting evidence. The problem is not that Crossan's work involves a measure of circularity--all historical work is circular to a point--but rather that readers are left with the impression that objective science is in control.

Edelen is right, of course, that many scholars discount the historical credibility of the Gospels, but the situation is not nearly so monolithic, and far more chaotic than Edelen would have us believe. Edelen happily inhabits the skeptical end of the continuum, in the company of Rudolph Bultmann and the Jesus Seminar. But excellent, responsible, far less skeptical Jesus scholarship is being done by others, like E. P. Sanders (Duke), Joseph Fitzmyer (Catholic University), Gerd Theissen (Heidelberg), John P. Meier (Notre Dame), Raymond Brown (d. 1998; Union Seminary, New York), Dale Allison (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary), James Dunn (Durham), Graham Stanton (Cambridge), Martin Hengel (Tübingen) and N. T. Wright (Bishop of Durham).

Some of these scholars teach at church schools. Others do not. But all are engaged in first rate historical Jesus research, taken seriously by scholars across the spectrum, and not one of them would grant Edelen's sweeping dismissal of the historical claims of the Gospels. Edelen's voice needs to be heard, but it would help us all greatly if he would lose the caustic barbs and incautious overstatement. Otherwise readers will be forced to conclude that his columns are "largely fiction."