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
If the life of Jesus were fully recorded, the books would overflow the world. So John the Evangelist says at the close of his gospel (John 21:25). In one sense, this is true of any human life. The recording of each event, each word, each thought would be impossibly voluminous, and surely John means this. But he must also mean something more. For to record the life of the Son of God in the flesh is not simply the writing down of what happens but also the why and the how. To narrate a life is one thing; to narrate the life of God is something else. Therefore, the church doggedly affirmed the need for more than one gospel. The four with their multiple perspectives did a better job of capturing the richness of the Savior's life than did any single one. Yet, even by the evangelists' own testimony, they did not capture the whole, so over time other believers in Jesus contributed to the literature. Recent books by Philip Jenkins and Vernon K. Robbins focus their attention on these other accounts of Jesus.
In The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand-Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels, Jenkins follows the path of his previous work by unearthing aspects of the church that many (especially in the West) have forgotten or ignored. If one desires to learn more from every age and locale where followers of Jesus (broadly construed) existed and wrote about the meaning of his life, this book is an excellent place to start.
Jenkins' historical ax to grind raises its edge against a narrative that has become increasingly popular in recent decades. He articulates it well:
[T]he earliest centuries of the faith (before Constantine) were marked by sprawling diversity and creativity, and many schools of thought contested freely. But the democratic, egalitarian, and Spirit-filled Jesus movement then atrophied into the repressive, bureaucratic, Catholic Church of the Midddle Ages. The narrow orthodoxies of a monolithic church replaced the effervescent "many Christianities" of the earliest centuries … . The medieval church was built on the ashes of burnt books.
Not true, Jenkins counters: "the lost gospels were never lost." Rather, these other stories of Jesus thrived in the art and drama of Europe, and the texts endured and sometimes even became canonical in the Eastern world. His research shows that it was not only the very early church that was diverse. "We should ask when that has not been true. When was the Christian world ever monolithic in such matters? No such historical moment ever existed. Jesuses abound, and always have. So do gospels."
Each chapter begins with a well-told story about an unfamiliar account of Jesus and the people who championed or derided it. Thus Jenkins fleshes out his claims about the diversity of Christianity, at times by era, at others by geography, theme, text, or religious affiliation. One striking evidence of this diversity is the Golden Legend, which provides the beginning story of Jenkins' fourth chapter. An account of Christian history written in Latin around 1270, Legenda Aurea, one of the most popular books in medieval Europe, preserved and passed on alternative gospels. Like the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, a disturbing account of Jesus' life from age 5 to 12, or the Acts of Pilate, which depicts Jesus' Harrowing of Hell, these alternative texts filled gaps in the canonical gospels or tackled theological questions upon which the church had said little. They met a felt need; hence, they were widely and enduringly popular.
Jenkins emphasizes a handful of ideas in The Many Faces of Christ, including the importance of wide geographical and chronological data as well as the dialectic between official decrees and grassroots realities. While his argument is quite convincing, one consistent orienting structure through the chapters—say, moving through different locales or times or themes—would have helped me grasp the bigger story more clearly and kept his chapters from feeling repetitive. In addition, at times I wondered if he stretched his argument a bit far. Did texts like the Gospel of Thomas really contribute to the notion of pantheism in Buddhism? Did the Apocalypse of Peter influence descriptions of hell in Dante? Do the apocrypha help explain the presence of dualism in heretical Eastern European sects? I do not question that the "lost texts" continued to show up in other versions, textual and visual, throughout the Middle Ages across the known world, but we should not underestimate the broader human propensity for non-canonical ideology. Modern Christians need not read the Gospel of Truth to display escapist (Gnostic) tendencies.