39 of 45 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
It is not everyday that a Hollywood movie director writes a serious book on the life of Jesus. Odder still is when the filmmaker in question is responsible for a string of edgy, violent, and sexually provocative films like Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, and Showgirls. Many people will have an understandable propensity to prejudge and dismiss Verhoeven's work if they are aware of his film background. But as it turns out, Verhoeven has an impressive command of the New Testament materials. He is well-versed in the theories of academia, and is as qualified as anyone to write an informed interpretation of Jesus. And he brings to the task the refreshing perspective of an observer unconcerned with the career ramifications of his proposals. He writes with an interpretive freedom that few professional scholars dare to risk. And this, in itself, makes his work unique and well worth the time to read.
Verhoeven is a rational pragmatist. He starts with the premise that Jesus was a human being who lived under the same laws of nature we are all familiar with. Accordingly, it is not within Verhoeven's world view to allow the possibility that Jesus walked on water, or raised the dead, or miraculously fed 5,000 with five loaves and two fish. When he encounters stories of the miraculous in the gospels, his instinct is to ask how the stories could have originated, and what historical reality might lie behind them. This line of inquiry invariably leads to speculations that cannot be proven one way or another. But in my view, Verhoeven proposes original solutions to a number of textual problems. Some of his proposals are quite viable. Others might best be described as not entirely implausible. But regardless of where they fall on the credibility spectrum, his speculations are entertaining, intriguing, and worthy of thoughtful consideration.
Among the strengths of Verhoeven's work is his willingness to embrace the Gospel of John as an important historical source. Unfortunately, John is widely rejected by Jesus scholars as a viable historical source due to its presumed late authorship, and its mythologized interpretation of Jesus as an eternal being who descended from heaven. But characterizing John as a late theological work of little historical consequence is far too simplistic. John is a two-layered work at minimum, appearing to be a primitive narrative that was subsequently expanded with overlays of theologically advanced material at the end of the first century. The fact is, if we did not have preconceived notions about the composition dates of the gospels, and simply looked at John and the synoptics side by side, we would conclude that much of the narrative material in John seems to pre-date the synoptic tradition. John often has greater historical credibility than the synoptics when the two traditions disagree.
While Verhoeven does not discuss John's texual evolution, he often taps into the Fourth Gospel to find nuggets of apparent historical fact that have been obliterated by the synoptic writers. Exhibit A in this regard is Verhoeven's embracing of John's account of the direct competition for followers between Jesus and John the Baptist. This competition, which is theologically embarrassing for the church, stands out in bold relief in John, but it has been eliminated completely in the synoptic gospels. Here John records actual history, and the synoptics give a whitewashed version of it. In my view, Verhoeven is often on solid ground in locating reliable historical references in the Gospel of John.
One weakness of Verhoeven's reconstruction is that it relies too extensively on the credibility of Mark. This is common in modern scholarship. Mark is conventionally regarded as the earliest of the four NT gospels. As such it is granted more historical credibility than it deserves. Mark was written in the late 60s, three decades after Jesus' death, during the time of the first Jewish revolt which ultimately led to the destruction of Jerusalem. The author of Mark was determined to make the story of Jesus as politically inoffensive to Roman authorities as possible.
Thus, Mark depicts Jesus as an itinerant exorcist and teacher operating in the rural backcountry of Galilee, unconcerned with politics, rulers, and urban power centers. He intentionally keeps his role as Messiah under wraps, forbidding people to declare it. Mark's Jesus never visits Tiberias, the capital of Galilee at the time of Jesus, and he never sets foot in Jerusalem until the last week of his life. Since the Markan Jesus never bothers himself with the urban centers, and instead concerns himself with the casting out of demons and the teaching of parables in rural Galilee, it is extremely difficult to interpret him as a political rebel of any sort. Mark's caricature of Jesus is carefully crafted to present no offense to the Romans.
The Gospel of John, of course, tells a completely different story--Jesus is seen in Jerusalem on numerous occasions including at least three Passovers. At the very outset of his mission he creates the famous Temple disturbance. He appears to use Galilee as a place of retreat when the political heat from his adversaries is too intense in Judea. John's Jesus never performs an exorcism, never speaks in parables, and he proclaims his Messiahship with abandon. Of the two Gospel accounts, when it comes to Jesus' travel itinerary and activities, John's has the greater sense of historical authenticity. Thus, though Mark is without question earlier than Matthew and Luke, its priority in the synoptic tradition does not ipso facto imbue it with historical validity.
As an example of Verhoeven's unjustified reliance on Mark, he accepts the Markan tradition of the Messianic Secret as valid. In the first half of Mark, Jesus refuses to proclaim himself as the Messiah, or to allow others to acknowledge him as such. Verhoeven seems to accept this as historical fact. The question whether the author of Mark had created this artifact in order to whitewash the political implications of Jesus' claim to Messiahship under Roman rule is not raised. Accordingly, the Jesus that emerges in Verhoeven's reconstruction is one who never imagined himself in a Messianic role until very late in his ministry, and only a radical emotional event caused him to change his mind. Verhoeven explores the possible circumstances that could have led to a change in Jesus' self-perception, but this is piling up speculation upon speculation. Whether there ever was a change in Jesus' perspective on this subject is questionable.
Ultimately, whether Verhoeven is right or wrong on any given issue is beside the point. The fact is, nobody knows for sure. Modern biblical scholars and historians deal exclusively in probabilities, not objective fact, since none of us were there to witness and videotape the events. The value of Verhoeven's work is that he pushes beyond the typical limits of academic probabilities, and formulates new possibilities, many of which are indeed plausible. Having read Verhoeven's book, one will never read the gospels in quite the same way again. And that, by itself, is reason enough to read it.
The Myth of the Lost Gospel
36 of 56 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
The Jesus Seminar is a group of historical Jesus scholars that comes together to discuss and debate the authenticity of the words and deeds attributed to Jesus. Paul Verhoeven, a member of the Seminar but notably not an academic, follows in the footsteps of the general skepticism of the group. They're generally disaffected and anti-establishment, sometimes anti-church, theological liberals. The Jesus that gets formulated in their discourse can be said to have been made in their own image: with the 'dogma' stripped away, Jesus is a challenging radical who lived fast and died young. And as cynically as I am describing the Jesus Seminar, it really is a good group, academically honest and full of interesting interpretations of the socio-political aspects which form the matrix of Jesus' living situation.
Verhoeven both follows and deviates from the general approach of the Seminar. His Jesus is also demystified. But he inserts some really unprofessional snippiness about miracles being impossible, and strips away a lot of the religious aspects of Jesus' ministry because they would've been influenced by later doctrine. Which is of course true, but Verhoeven rather throws the baby out with the bathwater: in his attempt to disentangle the historical Jesus from Christian doctrine later, he inadvertently also removes Jesus' Jewish religiosity. I find this unforgivable - it was odd and such an apparent gap in scholarship for Verhoeven to write about Jesus without writing about Judaism, the Kingdom of God as it would have been conceptualized in Jewish terms, or any messianic expectations. Better scholars who work with "Jesus the Jew" (Sanders, Levine, or Crossan, to begin with) emphasize that Jesus must be read within, rather than against, Judaism. To place Jesus outside of his own religion makes him an unrealistic singularity, akin to later Christian bias, and intimates either ignorance or deliberate disregard for Judaism.
Verhoeven contradicts himself in a few instances. He cannot make up his mind whether Jesus believed that the Twelve would or would not be authorities in Heaven. Even worse, he cannot decide whether Jesus intended to die or not. Many of his points are less grounded in scholarship and more in provocative "What if?"s. Several times he alters the language or structure of a saying or parable, without textual support for his alteration, just to make a point that he feels like making. At least he acknowledges when he does this, that's nice, but it's really not the way that academia works.
He also runs counter to most Jesus scholarship with his heavy dependence on the gospel of John. Generally we don't - John is so different from the Synoptics, much later (probably a good 35-40 years later than Mark, the earliest), with a questionable authorship but probably from a fringe or sectarian Christian community. By the time John is written, Christian theology is in full swing, and the text and stories can be heavily altered to reflect the beliefs of the audience.
Therefore you get things in John like the motif of Jesus escaping death until the 'proper' time, or the time that he so chooses, rather than being at the mercy of Romans. The Last Supper (the institution of the Eucharist) and the scene at the Temple therefore get moved to earlier in the gospel, to minimize the impression that Jesus got snatched up and executed in the middle of the night for causing a scene that was disruptive to both the Romans and the Temple authorities. But Verhoeven prefers John's chronology over the Synoptics - God knows why - that the Temple scene was early. I find this to be Verhoeven's greatest error. Without the Temple scene as the climax that leads directly to Jesus' arrest, there really is no catalyst to the crucifixion - therefore no coherence to it. Now why did Jesus get executed? By Verhoeven's timeline, Jesus caused trouble early in his ministry, went around talking to people, and got crucified in Rome months if not years later because authorities were just sick of him. In historical Jesus scholarship, coherence is one of the key criteria for deciding the authenticity of a saying or action, and Verhoeven's timeline of Jesus' ministry just doesn't work.
Ultimately his 'verdict' of Jesus is disingenuous. He takes away all of the religious aspects of Jesus' ministry, he takes away most of the political and social background, and he leaves us with a few sayings deemed authentic: 'Why are you weeping?' 'Whom are you looking for?' 'Peace be with you.' He intends to sound scathing when he judges that this bare-bones historical Jesus "sounds more like an automaton than a living person."
Here Verhoeven's Jesus Seminar background also shines through. When they voted upon the authenticity of the statements of Jesus, they came up with a figure of 30% undoubtedly authentic material. Most of these were very short and pithy statements - i.e. 'Peace be with you' - since they would have to be remembered over the 30-50 year timespan between Jesus' death and the composition of the gospels. However, this figure is the absolute bare minimum. Rigid adherence to these short statements would be misleading because Jesus didn't go around speaking in witty sound bites. Again, the criterion of coherence - that Jesus was a person and not an automaton - should flesh out historical Jesus studies.
So Verhoeven's unrelenting skepticism undermines his own portrait of the historical Jesus. As he carved away pretty much everything unusual and distinct about Jesus' ministry for fear of contamination by later Christian thought, he's left with a Jesus who is...nothing. I can't even characterize who Verhoeven might think that Jesus was, as he only wrote about who he was not. Skepticism and a critical eye for historicity is absolutely essential for historical Jesus studies - but a mere snarky close reading of the gospels is intellectually unsatisfying. Instead, the other component of honest scholarship is a building up and a definition of who the historical Jesus really was. Verhoeven failed to accomplish this, and as such, his book has neither direction nor any real reason to read it.