Stacy Oliver of Christian Book Previews spoke with Darrell Bock about his new book, The Missing Gospels.
CBP: Can you share with us how you became a Christian?
Darrell: Sure, it's a very long process. I had several people share with me from the time I was in junior high through early college. I came to the Lord in my freshman and sophmore year in college. After a long process, very much a conscious, deliberate decision process that the Lord took me through. When I became a believer, I immediately started to have a Bible study in our university, I was at the University of Texas, and that grew. I went to seminary and what I'm doing now. Long process -- lots of twists and turns in the story. Perhaps the most interesting one is the night before I left to go to college, my first year was at SMU, I prayed this prayer (it's not theologically correct, but it shows that God can answer prayer), "Lord, I don't know if You exists, but if You do, I really want to enjoy my college years. I don't want a Bible-carrying, Southern Baptist for a roommate." So, I ended up with a Bible-carrying, Southern Baptist for a roommate. God answered the prayer, but not the way I requested. That roommate and I became very close friends, and he was very responsible for leading me to the Lord.
CBP: You wrote a bestseller on The Da Vinci Code, titled Cracking The Da Vinci Code, and now you have a brand new book coming out in August 2006 titled The Missing Gospels. I know you talk about various texts that were found in a Gnostic community. Is there a misunderstanding of what gnosticism is?
Darrell: There absolutely is. Most people don't have a clue what gnosticism is. Gnosticism is a combination of Greek philosophy and Christian symbolism. Gnostic Christians tried to make Christianity more palatable to the Greek culture, and wrote a series of gospels to make a case for this new expression of faith in the second and third centuries. What's happened is that we've dug up lots of these manuscripts, and we have many people, particularly in the university and religious studies context, trying to argue there was no such thing as orthodox Christianity in the first century, but that there was a variety of Christianities out on the street, just like going to a bazaar. "I want my Jesus with french fries, and other people want Him with mayonnaise." No one had an inherent claim to going back and being connected to Jesus.
What I'm doing is taking these claims that suggest that there were all these gospels out there and then in the fourth century someone made a choice, and showing what the nature of this material is, so that people can see for themselves why this material was never absorbed into the church.
CBP: Most of them aren't from that era, are they?
Darrell: Well, they aren't from the first century, they're from the second century, that's right. Most of them are later, and they also have a very different theology. So what I do in the book in the first half is go through the history of how the discussion got where it is. I call this effort to emphasize the Gnostic gospels, "The New School." I talk about the history of where it came from, and talk about how you do history, so you can sort out the discussion. Because what's happened is this effort has now moved outside of the university.
CBP: This is coming from so-called "scholars," but is it really affecting mainstream believers?
Darrell: Absolutely. It was the core storyline about Christian history in The Da Vinci Code. It is in documentaries that are on history channels. If you walk to the Religion section of Barnes & Noble or Borders, and you read the titles of many of the books that are being put forward, most of them have something to do with this to one degree or another. You can literally walk into a bookstore and find dozens of these titles.
There's a great story. I did an interview on the Gnostic gospels with John Ankerberg, and he put together a list for his wife to go to the store and buy to prepare for this. She looked at the list and at the titles she said, "None of these are going to be in the store. You're going to have to order these." And he said, "Just see." She went into the store, and found every title but one. It was right there on the shelf. So someone who goes in and browses, and just wants to know about the history of Christianity, is very likely to pick up this book and won't even be aware.
CBP: Is this whole new way of thinking affecting mostly Catholics that maybe aren't educated in the Bible, or is it people who aren't Christians who have always suspected something wasn't right, or who's buying into this?
Darrell: It's a range. It isn't so much Catholics I think, at least not strong Catholics, just like it wouldn't be strong Protestants. But you have a lot of readers who are curious about spirituality and religion. They're being drawn in. You have a lot of Christians who may be in a church that is not committed so much to teaching the Scripture, they're drawn into this. People who have an interest in history, they're drawn into this. It's a wide variety of people who are being pulled in.
One of the surprising statistics about The Da Vinci Code, was how many people felt like they benefited spiritually by reading the book, and how many people believed what they were reading was the true history of this. I think the other half of the equation is that Christians who care about the message of Christ need to have some way to know how to enter into the dialog and discussion of these materials, because they are circulating; they are very much in the public square.
We've had four books in the non-fiction side of the New York Times Bestseller list, and the topic that they're taking is an element of this discussion. That's in a half-year. I can't remember when that's happened before.
CBP: There's an interest in the general populace, because they think there's some conspiracy going on, which makes it more fascinating?
Darrell: I think there are a wide variety of reasons why people are being pulled into it. Some because of the conspiracy thing and the critique of the church. Other people because they don't know very much about the history, so they pick up something that says it will tell them something about the history, so they're drawn in that way.
I often say that most people's knowledge of church history goes like this: You've got Jesus, the apostles, the books of the New Testament first century, walk down the chronological line, wave at Augustine, wave at Luther and Calvin, and then there's Billy Graham. And that's it. There are a lot of gaps in 2,000 years. So someone comes in and writes, and says, "I'm going to tell you about this period." And they tell you they're doing careful work, and they have scholarly credentials, and so boom, there you are.
CBP: And the repetition of these different bestsellers lends credibility to each other.
Darrell: Exactly. It's both where it's coming from, and how the public's responding to it. Both lend credibility to it. So when I read The Da Vinci Code, and I recognized that this was going on, I knew that I would have to write another book. In fact, it's going to now end up being a series of books. I've got one now that I'm working on for next year that's related to Jesus. The working title right now is, Dethroning Jesus: How Contemporary Cultures Are Domesticating Jesus and Why.
CBP: Unfortunately, I see a lot of that coming out of the Protestant church.
Darrell: Exactly right. Well, there are really two Jesus stories out there. It's helping people to sort that out, and to know how to talk about it. There's some stuff that's being said that is actually historically accurate. So you've got to sort out what's accurate from what isn't. That's another part of the equation. Really we're trying to do a service to the church, for people who are serious of knowing about the roots of their faith on the one hand. I'm also writing for our kids who are entering college, who decide they want to take a religious studies course. They don't know what they're walking into.
CBP: You talk about how there's this concept of competing ideologies. How do you approach people who say that's the way it was the first century, and it just that today's Christianity was stronger and won out the others? How do we know that's not true?
Darrell: Well, it's a good question. The mantra is that history's written by the winners, so now that we have the material from the losers we can balance it out and revise the history. There actually is some balance that comes from having this material. We get to hear the various other sides and perspectives directly, as opposed to someone who's critiquing. That's always better. That's going to historically help you.
But sometimes the winners win for a reason, and it's simply more than fortunate circumstances or their exercise of power. It's important to understand that with the church, until the fourth century when Constantine converted and recognized Christianity, it had no power. No secular power. It was a persecuted church. It was struggling to survive. These people believed what they believed because they believed it was true. And that was about all they had going for them. Even though oftentimes history is written by the winners, sometimes the winners deserve to win. And that's part of what knowing history is. What the history shows you is why it is the church turned out the way it did. When you compare these materials to each other, my belief is that the reader is intelligent enough that if you lay it out for them so they can see it, side by side, they're capable of making a judgment about what's going on.
But what's happened with this material is that it's presented by itself, it's presented without much context. You don't see the contrast. History is portrayed in a certain way, and thus the material is given more credibility than it deserves. Nothing illustrates that more than all the hype over the Gospel of Judas a couple of months ago. That was all over the place. And anytime one of those finds like that happens, that will be what happens.
CBP: Specifically, how do we know the book of Judas is not a divinely inspired book?
Darrell: My simple answer is, "All you've got to do is read it." Having said that, it has a very different theology. One of the interesting things is something that everyone recognizes, no matter what their theological stripe, is that Christianity emerged out of Judaism. Christianity received the Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament, and viewed that as sacred writings, as authoritative writing. In those texts, we have a God who creates a creation that is good from the very beginning. In the gospel of Judas, the top god doesn't create. What he does is create underling gods who create, and that initial creation is evil.
CBP: And that's throughout the Gnostic teachings?
Darrell: Exactly right. So, what you've got at the very spaceline, at the start of the story, is you've a completely divergent starting point. That's the first clue that tells you that this material would never have been recognized by people who came out of the earliest Christian movement as being authentic. So it's not just that you have underling gods who are creating, it's that what they create is flawed. Contrast that with one God who creates, and what He creates is good. It changes the story about what man needs.
In Gnosticism, what man needs is to realize the divine spark that god has placed within him, to reconnect to god. But that connection doesn't have any mediation going on between it, nothing to do with sin.
In the Christian and Jewish perspective, the picture is of a broken relationship that's the fault of the creation, vis a vi the Creator. It's not the fault inherently in creation. So that relationship needs to be restored. Well, you don't have that in Gnosticism.
So it's two very different stories, and I think if you see that and see how it's put together, not to mention the whole structure of underling gods that you've got operating. All you have to do is sit down and read it.
CBP: And you give two chapters to God and creation in your book, because it is a very significant point of theirs. So then, how do they relegate Jesus, given that they don't have a need for restoration?
Darrell: Jesus becomes a great teacher, he's still a transcendent figure sent from beyond. But he is simply a great teacher to lead us into knowledge. That's why it's called Gnosticism. The word Gnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis, which means knowledge, so it takes us into knowledge. So Jesus points us basically to the right way, but he himself doesn't do anything in provision for that way, other than to point us down the right road. He's basically a sign post when we get to the curb, and says, "Go that way."
CBP: Have you read much in the Emergent church movement?
Darrell: I have.
CBP: Gnosticism isn't just in the university's ivory tower, this is coming out of the Protestant church as well.
Darrell: What's interesting, and what I think is going on with some of this, is that actually what some people have as a part of Jesus' message is a part of Jesus' message. But it's one thing to say, "This is a part of Jesus' message," it's another thing to say, "This is the message." There are things that Jesus calls us to do and to be that do enhance the creation as a result of being responsive to God. That is part of the large picture of the calling. But that's not the calling.
This is one of the tricky aspects of this. This is part of what makes it hard, is that someone will take some of this material, or they'll take material that touches on these themes in the Bible and they'll say, "Look here, it's in the Bible." They'll be right, but they'll elevate it to a level that is more than it needs to be. My guess is that with Brian McLaren, that that is part of what is going on. He's saying to the church that there's a part of the message of Jesus that we're not paying as much attention to as we ought to. Now, I don't like the contrast. I don't like "His message is this, not that." But there is that element of the message of Jesus that is there. There are elements about how God calls us to be responsible stewards that is a part of what we're supposed to be. That's what makes it tricky. It isn't a matter of saying, "It's all wrong." It's a matter of sorting it out.
CBP: And that's hard. You become leery of that. Am I moving over too much to this side? Or that side? So you tend to cling to something..
Darrell: And sometimes you just react to it instinctively, and that reaction is "No." So there's a discernment process that's a part of it. It gets posed as an "either/or," and even sometimes the writers present it as an "either/or," and oftentimes what you have is a "both/and." And then you have to prioritize how the both/and work together.
CBP: How do you explain the four gospels that we have in the Bible today, and how can we know that those are the appropriate gospels?
Darrell: Basically, we got the four gospels in the way that we have because there became a concern, an understandable concern, that as the apostles were dropping off the scene, we would lose direct contact with those who had been with Him. What had been communicated at that time orally, was now put in writing. The reason we have four gospels, is that these four gospels were recognized by the church very early on that these were the best testimonies about who Jesus was, because of their source. All four gospels are either written by apostles or by people very, very close to them. That was the standard in the canon and that's what was recognized.
So from a historical point of view, that's what commended the gospels. Justin Martyr in the middle of the second century called the gospels the "apostolic memoirs." It was their rootage with people who knew Jesus that made them important. So it was important to move from an oral situation, where it was being passed on verbally through the church, which was the normal way ancients communicated. You've got to remember, we're before a printing press, books, and not to mention MP3s and digital and all that. In fact, I even say it this way, "You've got to remember that when we're in the first century, there's no such thing as a Bible church. Because there's no New Testament part of the church to be a Bible." There's an Old Testament, but it's not the Bible that we think of.
There was nothing in the Bible that tells you what Jesus did, so how do you teach theology in a period when you can't go to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. What's going on? Well, they were passing it on orally. They were summarizing the key teachings of Jesus in short summaries. They were singing about it in hymns. They had rites in which they talked about what Jesus' life symbolized, like the Lord's Supper and baptism. And that's how they taught theology until these books came along. Of course, originally they had the apostles who were communicating with the churches. So you have that initially.
But as the apostles start to drop off the scene, engage in missionary activity, etc., they move from oral to written. Then it takes about a century before we start to see the gospels in a major way come together and begin to be seen as a functioning unit. In other words, a given area might have a particular gospel, but they may not be aware of all four gospels. Actually, if we trace the writings of the second century, we can see what materials they're using. By about 180 A.D., you've got the four gospels clearly established in the Christian community as the sources for Jesus. That's because of their apostolic roots.
How do you make a case for inspiration? The way you do that is that this material is being written by people who walked with Jesus and talked with people who walked with Jesus. That's a very, very important level of connection. We're not talking about someone a century removed, who has an experience with Jesus and puts that experience down in paper and projects it back a century. Which is what's happening in the Gnostic materials.
CBP: And it's attributed to someone who isn't actually the writer.
Darrell: That's exactly right.
CBP: How did Irenaeus fit into this? Didn't he put together a list of the canon early on?
Darrell: Actually, no. What Irenaeus did is he wrote a work called Against Heresies. What he did was to explain to the church why there could only be four gospels, what truth was, and what heresy was. You see, up until the point when the gospels started to function and began to get a functioning New Testament, which as I said is really starting in the second century, the church would talk about the "rule of faith" or the apostolic tradition. There's a wonderful passage in Clement that talks about God sending Christ, and Christ sending the apostles, and we know about Christ through the apostles. So it's this line of authoritative tradition which has now been encapsulated in our gospels. That's what's being talked about.
And Irenaeus said there can only be four, only intended to be four, because what's happening at the end of the second century is that all these new gospels are starting to pop up and making a claim. So then the church has got the problem of how to tell people the real deal from the not-real deal. The actual lists of New Testament start to be constructed in the latter part of the second century, the Muratorian Canon is the first, again A.D. 180, lists only the four gospels. But really we don't get a list that has the twenty-seven books that we have until the fourth century with Athanasius in 367 A.D. That process took that long. But that process did not involve the gospels as much as it involved other books in the New Testament.