Even in these post-Christian times, it is still a well-known fact that there are four gospels - that is, four attempts to encapsulate the core Christian message in a narrative account of Jesus' life and ministry, his death and resurrection. Yet, even by the end of the 2nd century, this "fact" was not at all obvious to everyone. For some, four was too many: there could surely be only one truly authentic gospel of Jesus. For others, four was too few: no arbitrary limit should be imposed on the telling and retelling of Jesus' story. The fourfold canonical gospel represents a midpoint between attempts to reduce this story to singularity or to open it up to endless proliferation.
In suitably updated form, the debate continues to this day. Geza Vermes seeks to identify a singular gospel of Jesus in those sayings attributed to Jesus that can be safely regarded as authentic. The four gospels as they stand are full of secondary material, but once that is removed, a singular image of a "historical Jesus" can be created out of the residue.
In contrast, Bart Ehrman wants to add to the four canonical gospels rather than subtract from them. There were in circulation gospels attributed to Peter, Thomas, James and many others. These were frowned on by church authorities but were enduringly popular in some Christian circles. They tell us next to nothing about Jesus as a figure of history, yet they are (arguably) none the worse for that. While Vermes seeks the apparent solidity of a single "real" Jesus, Ehrman is fascinated by the multiplicity of the early images of Jesus and unconcerned about their relation to any original.
Take the "Gospel of Thomas". In this text, known primarily from a Coptic translation discovered in 1946, Jesus becomes a mystagogue who descends from a previously unknown divine world to enable his followers to escape the degradation of fleshly existence. Sayings familiar from the canonical gospels are to be found here, but they have an unfamiliar twist. According to the second of the series of 114 sayings, Jesus said: "Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled.
When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over the All." If we fail to understand this evocative saying, it is because we are not among the spiritual elite for whom it was intended; we are the children of a lesser deity than the One revealed in Jesus. The image of Jesus projected by this text makes excellent sense in the world of 2nd-century gnostic Christianity, but its links with the Galilean rabbi are tenuous.
Does that matter? Ehrman suggests it does not. The image need not be judged by external reality - it is its own reality.
Another of the non-canonical gospels discussed in Ehrman's book is the "Secret Gospel of Mark". This was discovered in 1958 by the American scholar Morton Smith, who found excerpts from an extended version of the "Gospel of Mark" embedded in a previously unknown letter of Clement of Alexandria (late 2nd century). As cited by Clement, one of the excerpts tells of a young man whom Jesus raises from the dead, who falls in love with Jesus and spends the night with him, "wearing a linen cloth over his naked body". Clement labours to reassure his orthodox Christian correspondent that all this was entirely proper and, in particular that the words "naked man with named man" are a heretical interpolation into the text. With or without the interpolation, this "Secret Gospel of Mark" is explosive stuff, as Smith did not hesitate to point out.
Ehrman gives an informative and entertaining account of the discovery of this text, and the subsequent scholarly debate about its significance. He also makes it clear that, in all likelihood, Smith was not the discoverer but rather the author of both the "Secret Gospel" and the letter in which it is embedded. While some scholars continue to take the "Secret Gospel" seriously, the emerging conviction is that the whole thing was an elaborate and brilliant hoax. What is striking is that Ehrman can treat the whole issue with complete equanimity. If scholars or anyone else wishes to fabricate images of Jesus, then good luck to them. Where the aim is to rehabilitate the concept of the "forgery", a modern forgery can be at least as interesting as an ancient one.
Vermes does not tell us what he thinks of the "Secret Gospel of Mark", but everywhere operates on the old-fashioned assumption that forgeries and falsifications need to be unmasked and that historical truth matters. There is an "authentic gospel of Jesus", and it is to be found in sayings ascribed to Jesus whose authenticity modern scholars believe themselves able to confirm. Vermes, who identifies himself as a Jew and not as a Christian, has devoted much of his scholarly career to the quest for an authentically Jewish Jesus. If a convincing rabbinic parallel can be found for a saying or parable ascribed to Jesus, then Vermes is likely to regard the saying or parable as authentic. If not, it will probably be ascribed to the early church, which rapidly developed an agenda quite different from Jesus' own.
For example, Luke attributes to Jesus a parable in which a guest unexpectedly arrives at midnight, evidently expecting an evening meal.
There is no food in the house, so the host visits his neighbour, whom he eventually rouses and who duly hands over the three loaves that have been requested. The parable seeks to inculcate persistence in prayer. Vermes points to a parallel teaching in the "Mishnah" ( c . 200AD), where it is said: "Even though you importune God, he does what you wish in the same way as a father does whatever his persistent son asks him." For Vermes, the (admittedly later) parallel makes it possible to trace the parable back to Jesus himself. A Jewish parallel serves as a certificate of authenticity.
So what kind of Jesus emerges from all the critical sifting? Negatively, Vermes' Jesus confines his ministry to Jews, mistakenly believes that God's reign on earth will be definitively established in his own generation, and does not anticipate his own suffering and death, let alone an ensuing resurrection. Positively, this Jesus emphasises the role of faith or trust in the religious life. He believes in the efficacy of prayer and in the divine fatherhood, he establishes a new community on familial lines, he practises healing and exorcism, and he speaks a poetic language characterised by rhetorical exaggeration. Jesus was the product of an age of feverish eschatological expectation, and his "religious genius" came to expression within the thought-forms of an ideology that announced the imminence of a world-transforming divine action that would break the grip of evil and oppression, liberating the elect people to fulfil their true destiny.
Vermes' "authentic gospel of Jesus" and Ehrman's "lost Christianities" represent very different scholarly projects, but they have at least one thing in common. Both claim to recover a historical reality suppressed and distorted by a "proto-orthodox" early Christianity: the reality of the authentically Jewish religion of Jesus, or of later images of Jesus deemed to be heretical. For both scholars, this proto-orthodoxy made strident truth claims that are intellectually untenable and ethically objectionable; and this is of a piece with much of what passes for Christianity to this day. It is, then, the task of historical scholarship to seek to recover realities that fell victim to the growing power of the ecclesiastical monolith. At this point, Vermes and Ehrman are operating with the same scholarly self-image. The question is whether their negative construction of a proto-orthodox "other" is convincing.
It is less straightforward than Vermes thinks to detach Jesus from Christianity and to reclaim him for Judaism. Vermes is largely dependent on Christian sources in his reconstruction of the religion of Jesus. In most cases, it cannot be said that he produces startlingly new readings of this familiar material, such as to produce shock and consternation among practising Christians. Indeed, some of his readings are more than a little bland. It is also an anachronism to suppose that, at the dawn of the common era, "Judaism" and "Christianity" can themselves be so easily distinguished. Early Christianity was one of a number of competing claims to represent the authentic Jewish heritage, and it did not cease to be that when it entered the world of the Gentiles. A Jewish Jesus is not necessarily antipathetical to a Christian one.
The proto-orthodoxy of the 2nd century represents, among other things, a sustained attempt to preserve the Jewish roots of Christian faith. The most significant of Ehrman's "lost Christianities" were rejected largely because they themselves had rejected a Jewish understanding of God as creator of the material world and an interpretation of Jesus shaped by Jewish scripture. Thus the "Gospel of Thomas" speaks disparagingly of the "24 prophets" (that is, authors of Jewish scripture) who "spoke in Israel" and who are simply "dead", in contrast to Jesus, "the One living in your presence". Equally dead is the entire material world, including the human body - the product of the inferior Jewish deity attested in the opening chapter of Genesis. Ehrman complains at length of the "intolerance" of the proto-orthodox rejection of such views. It never seems to occur to him that issues of genuine existential significance might be at stake here - for both sides. Ironically, it is our contemporary intolerances that blind us to such a possibility.
Francis Watson is professor of New Testament exegesis, Aberdeen University.
The Authentic Gospel of Jesus
Author - Geza Vermes
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Pages - 446
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 7139 9567 X