The New Testament was formed out of several very disparate communities of faith — as distant from one another as the cities of Damascus, Antioch, and Rome. Their various views of Jesus and the purpose of human life were woven into the at first sight seamless tapestry we can read today. Each book of the New Testament often reflects many sources, deriving from these different communities. Scholars must grapple with them to understand the individual voices of the sources. In their new books, James Robinson, Rodney Stark, and Garry Wills effectively represent these distinct but related lines of inquiry into sources, communities of composition, and the personal experience of individual writers.
James Robinson has made major contributions over the years to the study of a source behind the Gospels of Matthew and of Luke. In a run of about 200 verses, Matthew and Luke present similar material, almost all of it consisting of sayings of Jesus. Scholars have hypothesized since the 18th century that both Gospels relied on a single source, either oral or written. This fascinating, hypothetical material — the sayings of Jesus in a form prior to their inclusion in the Gospels — has been lumbered under the designation "Q,"an abbreviation of the German term Quelle (which means "source").As Mr. Robinson relates in "The Gospel of Jesus" (HarperCollins, 238 pages, $21.95), this shorthand only exacerbates the general reader's apprehension over the high degree of technical expertise involved in Biblical scholarship. Mr. Robinson ably battles that impression, stressing that these sayings represent Jesus's teaching within his own Jewish environment. Some of his claims are hyperbolic — his renaming "Q"the "Gospel of Jesus,"for example. Using the comparison with Jewish sources, and taking the hint from the topics addressed in the sayings, it is more accurate to think of the sayings as Jesus's mishnah — a collection of oral teachings which rabbis of the first century and later crafted during the course of their careers. But despite some oversimplification, Mr. Robinson has written a fine resource for lay readers, which puts "Q" firmly in its historical context.
With equal assurance, Rodney Stark has proven a dab hand at applying his expertise, the sociology of religions, to the study of the New Testament. Working with historical references, as well as with estimates from scholars and archaeologists, he weaves a plausible picture (complete with maps and graphs) of the demographic rise of Christianity through the fourth century."Cities of God" (HarperCollins, 288 pages, $24.95) is a lively book, and refines Mr. Stark's earlier contributions concerning the rate of Christian growth overall and the complexion of individual cities. Because he is interested in relative growth patterns over a long period, his findings may need to be reassessed for particular periods. He does not mention the earthquake in Ephesus in 23 C.E., for example, which obviously would have made for a smaller city during Paul's visit there three decades later as compared with the metropolis that emerged during the second century. It is also worth pointing out that, even taken as global estimates of the size of cities, different (often larger) numbers would result from polling a different group of archaeologists. But this in no way detracts from Mr. Stark's theme, that history needs to be done, if not by the numbers, then with a sense of what sort of numbers were involved.
The power of Mr. Stark's work is that, by deploying his plausible sociology, some frequently repeated truisms look distinctly implausible. Mass conversions and wide-scale martyrdoms seem a much less influential factor in the reforms Constantine made, for example, than the rise of the Christian population to some 15% of the Roman Empire (although I personally would wager that number is nearer to 10% at the beginning of the fourth century).The worship of Eastern deities such as Cybele and Isis, Mr. Stark argues, provided stepping-stones to Christianity as much as the Hellenistic trend in favor of monothesim. He rightly documents Christianity's close association with Judaism all the way through the period. Most controversially, Mr. Stark uses his findings to attack the work of "[Elaine] Pagels and other ‘Ivy League' Gnostics," because he believes the Gnostics were not sincere Christians at all, but heretics accurately described by the early Fathers of the Church. Here his confidence runs ahead of the evidence he cites, but Mr. Stark's vigorous arguments are bound to be discussed for some time to come.
In "What Paul Meant" (Viking, 193 pages, $24.95), Garry Wills directs his attention to the language and rhetoric of Paul, and specifically deals with Paul's religious experience. He begins with Paul as the only person who both experienced and wrote about an appearance of Jesus raised from the dead after the crucifixion. Paul not only identifies those who saw Jesus, but also explains what their experience meant, insisting that it was a transformative, mystical encounter with Jesus' "spiritual body."
Mr. Wills here returns to a theme from his previous book, "What Jesus Meant," (2006) in which he contrasted Jesus's teachings with those of fundamentalists and the modern Vatican. He is less overtly controversial about Paul — his subject providing enough controversy for almost any book — and Mr. Wills mostly succeeds in rescuing the Apostle from his own reputation. In particular, the idea that Paul wanted Jews to stop from keeping the Torah, despite his own repeated insistence that such was not the case, needs to be shelved. Mr. Wills brings us closer to the shelving. One topic about which Mr. Wills does not convince me is Paul's treatment of women: I would be happy to see Paul rescued from his reputation on this front, but it is a point on which I fear Paul earned a reputation that cannot be saved from itself.
Still, Mr. Wills's attempted improvement on Paul's image is good-hearted. Throughout, he contrasts Paul with the sometimes lumbering attempts to make sense of him in the book of Acts, where trying to put him in agreement with leaders such as Peter and James, the brother of Jesus, results in more confusion than clarification. There is an apologetic tenor in Mr. Wills's writing, so that mistakes are sometimes stretched into "poetic creation," and some of Mr. Wills's translations of Paul's Greek are strained, but those are a small price to pay for good writing.
Although Mr. Wills is the only writer of the three under review who is not professionally engaged in the study of the New Testament, his approach seems to be the best balanced, in terms of how the discipline needs to develop. For too long, scholars of sources have worked in isolation from scholars of social context, leaving the linguists to themselves. Mr. Wills understands that the element of religious experience is central to the New Testament and may serve as a focus to draw different approaches together.
As a more integrative approach to the Gospels emerges, two conventional distortions regarding Jesus and his followers need to be guarded against.
First, Jesus's early followers clearly believed that all people were accountable to God, and that God would judge them. The fad of a kinder and gentler, nonjudgmental Jesus, which has distorted scholarship since the 19th century, is still with us, and it sometimes softens the otherwise sharp edges of these studies. The second distortion is even harder for scholars to counter: Because academics have historical interests, they often impute them to ancient texts, even when historical interests are ancillary or simply not there. Those who believed in Jesus in Late Antiquity, both "Catholic" and "Gnostic" Christians, did so because they saw him as the eternal Son of God. History for them was an incidental concern at best. One of the paradoxes of a genuinely historical approach to the New Testament is that the texts show that history was not their primary interest. Paradoxes like this help us appreciate why they attract so much conflicted critical attention.
Mr. Chilton's biographies of Jesus, Paul, and Mary Magdalene are available from Doubleday.