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