Jesus: Lost Forever in the Gospel Fog

A review of David Chumney’s new book, Jesus Eclipsed
Christians are the huddled, persecuted masses, yearning to breathe free—or so they would have us believe. After all, in the last few years a lot of folks have been ganging up on them. Gay people who want wedding cakes come to mind, but, more seriously, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins scorched Christianity with their bestselling atheist books—and these turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg. And then, of all things, a few scholars grabbed headlines with the suggestion that Jesus might not even have existed; they have published substantial works to make their case that a real Jesus is, well, iffy. Yes or no? Well, are you ready for some homework?

The debate on the historicity of Jesus is not about to go away, and we now welcome a recent book on the topic by David Chumney, Jesus Eclipsed: How Searching the Scriptures Got in the Way of Recounting the Facts (April 2017). Christian apologists who fear that this is yet another book championing Mythicism may draw some comfort from Chumney’s title, Jesus Eclipsed. No, Chumney argues, Jesus cannot be scrapped, but he is in fact obscured by the very documents that Christians regard as the holiest texts imaginable.

Chumney points out that, in his many years as a Presbyterian pastor—and even after abandoning the faith—he had never really challenged the consensus among NT scholars that Jesus was a real person. And he still cannot go over to the Mythicist side, but he says that the discussion must be pursued because “appeals to authority are not the same thing as evidence.”

I wish that a million copies of this book could be scatted in a few thousand pews. If Christians are wondering why there’s all the scholarly fuss about Jesus (though damn few do), Chumney offers a guided tour of the issues and problems. Jesus Eclipsed is highly readable and should be an eye-opener to the untutored: the author explains why the gospels themselves are part of the problem in holding onto Jesus. Chumney admits that he is addressing “fellow freethinkers”—but with the hope that his book will catch the attention of “progressive Christians who are willing to engage in critical study of biblical texts about Jesus…”

In his chapter, “On the Shoulders of Giants” he recounts past scholarship that shows how weak the gospels are: as soon as the methods of historical criticism were brought to bear on the New Testament, the case for the historical Jesus began to erode. Naturally the church balked and ignored this bad news; there probably has been no Sunday School or catechism class on the planet in which the critical study of Jesus has been part of the syllabus—at least without apologetic spin.

After all, ministers and priests are paid propagandists; Jesus is up there in stained glass; congregations stand while the gospels are being read. The idealized, worshipped Jesus is all that matters. Chumney points out the irony:

“Those who know only what the church has told them about Jesus may be shocked to discover that an institution that has assimilated Copernicus and Darwin continues to stumble over Strauss.” Who? Most Christians might assume that Strauss was the guy who wrote waltzes. No, wrong Strauss.

Chumney provides a handy introduction to the German scholar David Strauss (1808-1874), who wrecked his career for writing critically about Jesus. Nonetheless he created a platform for later scholars to build on. Strauss didn’t claim that Jesus never existed—that wasn’t his agenda at all—rather he wanted Bible scholars to use their heads and common sense—and the tools of the historian—as they studied the gospels to figure out what really happened.

One of the most important lessons Christians could learn—for reading the gospels smartly—is that there a huge difference between possible and probable; in his Chapter 2 Chumney uses several specific gospel episodes to illustrate that “it’s possible” doesn’t count for much in establishing historicity. For example, the story of Jesus reading aloud in a synagogue, is Luke 4:16-21, has more going against it than for it. There are several factors that render it suspect. Chumney explains why it is “on shaky ground.”

In his Chapter 3 Chumney presents a survey of non-Christian sources that have commonly been have been asked to bear the heavy burden of proving that Jesus really did exist. He is more optimistic on this issue than the mythicist scholars, but the picture is bleak, even so: “Is there credible historical evidence in early non-Christian sources that Jesus of Nazareth actually existed? Yes, there is, but precious little.”

The vexing problem of the apostle Paul’s silence about Jesus is the topic of Chapter 4. Scholars have been stumped by this for a long time, and Chumney points out that Paul’s writings reflect theology that developed after Jesus was dead and gone. Paul’s silence may not be proof positive that Jesus was a fictional character, but Paul seems totally unaware of the Jesus stories and teachings that ended up in the gospels. So much for the oral tradition that was supposed to have been floating around. The fanatical apostle was far more interested in theology than history.

Chumney also points to one of the Pauline texts that is a hurdle for Mythicists, namely Galatians 1:19: “ …but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother.” Did Paul mean the actual brother of Jesus? If he really did clap eyes on this Jesus sibling, why didn’t he pump him for information about Jesus? Probably because Paul’s bloated Christology was all that mattered, or as Chumney states it more charitably: “…there is ample evidence, even in our earliest sources, that any memories of the historical Jesus were invariably distorted by theological beliefs. Consequently, what those sources tell us has more to do with the myth than the man.”

Those laypeople who are curious enough to read the gospels—really read them—notice goofs and errors, and Chumney’s Chapter 5 sheds light on these: “Traditions with little if any historical value appear on every page.” He discusses factual mistakes, anachronisms, contradictions, and miracles (“not the stuff of history”) that can be defended only with special pleading. He sees Jesus as a figure who really did live in first century Palestine, but “the countless stories associating him with the miraculous or the supernatural have no claim to historical reliability; in every case they are pious fiction.” Laypeople should take this message to heart. Many of those stained glass panels can be removed.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to taking the gospels as history is the technique of story creation that Chumney describes in Chapter 6. Once the idea had taken hold that the Old Testament could be scoured and mined for Jesus information, history was the loser: “…a significant number of stories about Jesus owe their existence not to the memory of an actual event but to the artful repackaging of some earlier scriptural tradition.” Hence the subtitle of the book: How Searching the Scriptures Got in the Way of Recounting the Facts. One of the brilliant sections of this chapter is Chumney’s exposé of Mark’s bad habits; very effectively he repeats, “What is Mark’s source?” and he shows the Old Testament texts that Mark cobbled together. “But why,” Chumney asks, “did Mark rely so heavily on such material? He did so, critics have concluded, because that is all he had.”

For the folks who cherish the stories of Jesus’ baptism and his heroic Cleansing of the Temple, Chumney’s chapter 7 is a true gem; these stories become case studies for illustrating how gospel episodes could be created by blending tiny scraps of historical memory (maybe) with Old Testament texts and subsequent church theology. I recommend paying careful attention especially to Chumney’s analysis of the Temple Cleansing story, leading to his conclusion: “Do we have reason to believe that Jesus created a disturbance in the courts of the temple? No, we do not. Experts agree that the story as Mark tells it is totally implausible.”

In Chapter 8, Chumney offers his readers more detail about the impact of Old Testament texts in shaping the theology of Paul and the four gospel writers. It has been so commonly assumed that “oral tradition” lies behind the Jesus stories, but it’s not that simple: “The Gospels likely tell us as much about what the evangelists discovered from searching the Scriptures as about what they learned from researching the facts.”

Chumney’s summary is a much-appreciated call for further study of the Jesus question—but one that avoids the mistakes that have undermined the field, mistakes committed by those who try to rescue Jesus and those who see only a mythical figure. But, honestly, so much of the error in this field has been committed by the scholars who belong to the community of faith. As a good start for a new beginning, Chumney suggests: “Let us…find four agnostic experts with the appropriate credentials and provide them with a year-long sabbatical…the consensus document that this group would hammer out would focus on the surviving evidence and would limit any necessary inferences to what the group deemed probable.” Agnostic…surviving evidence…probable. Now, about those millions of copies of Chumney’s book in thousands of pews. We could select a hundred random Christians and pose the question, “What is your opinion of the turmoil in Jesus studies for the last few decades?” It’s a good bet that 99 of them would have no clue what that means; they do not realize that New Testament studies have been in upheaval, as scholars try to extract the “true” bits and pieces about Jesus in the gospels—with so little success. Chumney’s footnotes and bibliography are the tools for laypeople to bypass pastors, priests and oceans of devotional literature, to dip their toes in the waters of authentic Jesus studies. “I have repudiated the doctrines of the Christian faith,” Chumney states at the beginning of the book, “but I have not forgotten what I discovered over the years about the Bible, particularly the Gospels.” From his perspective now, outside the Christian faith, he invites the reader to look at the gospels shrewdly and skeptically—and begin the adventure of discovering that the real Jesus—whoever he might have been—is lost in the gospel fog.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published last year by Tellectual Press.