The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand-Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels
Basic Books, 2015
336 pp., $27.99
Who Do People Say I Am?: Rewriting Gospel in Emerging Christianity
Vernon K. Robbins
269 pp., $25.00
Amy L. B. Peeler
Those Other Gospels
One might assume that Jenkins' book argues for a leveling of the playing field or that he is urging Western Christians to listen to the other stories that believers across the world and throughout the centuries have found important. He is clearly doing the latter, as his closing sentence declares: "Anyone interested in those rediscovered ancient gospels should be told the wonderful news—that a millennium of other writings awaits them, no less rich and provocative in their contents." He is not preaching the former, however—that the canonical and non-canonical gospels are indistinguishable. The "other accounts of Jesus" whose content and history he so winsomely describes throughout the book do not belong in the same category chronologically or historically. The canonical gospels, Jenkins writes, "really do take us directly to the world of Christ and his immediate followers in ways that no other candidate can or ever could."
On the point of differentiation between canonical and other accounts, Robbins' Who Do People Say I Am? Rewriting Gospel in Emerging Christianity is magnanimous to a fault. With warm, conversational, and instructional prose, Robbins presents a case for mutual influence. His goal is clear: "My thesis is that as early Christians used Gospels, those Gospels used them. In other words, influences are very subtle. Once something comes into the domain of our experience, it influences us and we influence it." The book demonstrates mutual interpretation of texts particularly well. Robbins traces extensive connections between Israel's Scriptures and the many gospels, as well as influence among the accounts of Jesus.
The first six chapters present an account of Jesus' identity as found in the canonical gospels, with initial chapters covering the Q material and the "Son of Man" traditions. In these accounts, the identity of Jesus is often compared to previous roles in Israel, of which Jesus is shown to be the fullest and ultimate example. Each of the next six chapters focuses on a non-canonical text with the goal of helping "readers both expand their knowledge of Christian tradition and deepen their understanding of one or more Gospels inside the New Testament." Robbins treats the Gospel of Thomas, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Infancy Gospel of James, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Judas, and the Acts of John. In these texts, Jesus cannot be compared to anything. He is "something different from what anyone has ever expected." Possibly these gospels, very interesting examples indeed, best help Robbins explain concepts in the canonical gospels, but I could not locate his reasoning for the selection of these particular texts and not others.
This book would serve well anyone desiring to know more about the stories of Jesus, inside and outside the Bible. It would be a handy supplement to a course on the Gospels or Jesus, providing context and explanation for some popular (and very foreign) texts. Robbins' socio-rhetorical reading strategies—a methodology he has championed—prompt him to ask illuminating questions of the text: "What exactly did Jesus do that called forth [these] kind of description[s] about him and his activities, and why did he do it?" Robbins asks readers to seriously consider the implications of following a suffering Messiah amid the tensions that led to the Jewish War of 66-70. Elsewhere he suggests that the anointing of Jesus' feet as recounted by Luke might be in preparation for the long journey to Jerusalem, and that Jesus' unique account of Isaiah's prophecy in Luke 4 may be due not to Lucan editing but to Jesus' memorization of the text. Questions of social location and rhetorical strategy allow Robbins to see things in the text that others might have passed over.
Moreover, this book provides a superb vehicle for learning about many alternative accounts of Jesus; Robbins' treatment of the non-canonical accounts is both thorough and gracious. It is a good thing "to keep an open mind," as he suggests, or else the reading of the non-canonicals becomes an exercise in the construction of straw men. Nevertheless, I wonder if programmatic open-mindedness sometimes blurs important distinctions. While it may be true that "many of the things that are strange to us may be very meaningful for some other people as they attempt to understand Jesus," is it the case that "the 'more strange' that Jesus becomes as this book proceeds, the closer we get to the 'innermost nature' of Jesus"? Diversity of accounts? Yes. Multivalence and richness in the life of Jesus? Absolutely. Even the ability to appreciate strangeness in others because of the unfamiliarity of Jesus is a wonderful goal. This text lacks, however, any discussion of the regula fidei, a notion that would help (especially inexperienced readers) understand why a spiritual Jesus who did not actually die on the cross, as depicted in the Acts of John, was ruled by the consensus of the church to be out of bounds.