Friday, January 6, 2017

The 2016-17 Horizons Bible Study "Who is Jesus? - a continuing review- according to the non-Canonical Gospels

We have come to those last three lessons in the Presbyterian Women’ Bible study, “Who is Jesus?: What a Difference a Lens Makes,” where the author bypasses the biblical text. Using non-canonical texts, the perspectives of Islam and Judaism and lastly contemporary culture, Judy Yates Siker looks at non-scriptural answers to the question “who is Jesus?” With this review I will focus on the questions that Siker fails to address. Why were the fanciful, too often gnostic and docetic, texts used by Siker rejected by the early church? And why must we, as Christians, also reject the non-canonical texts?

Yes, Siker does explain some of the differences between the non-canonical texts and the biblical texts but she fails to warn her readers that the non-canonical ones are damaging to the faith of the church. Most of them were written after the biblical texts were written and were rejected by the early church and the church universal through all ages.  They were rejected because they redefine the person of Jesus, the redemption of the saints and the God of the Hebrew Bible.

Siker’s reasons for turning to texts outside of the Bible are twofold. In her view concerning the three final lessons, she insists that the question, who is Jesus, for this study, is not “Who is Jesus according to our New Testament.” Siker writes:

 “I believe the question is broader than this, and I think we owe it to ourselves, as world citizens, to have a broader understanding of how this significant figure, Jesus, is seen and understood beyond the bounds of the New Testament.”

Concerning the ancient non-canonical texts featured in lesson seven, Siker writes:

“These writings are significant because they show us something of the diversity of early Christianity. As Christians today, we have a variety of views of Jesus and we certainly do not all agree on how we would answer the question “Who is Jesus?” It is important to realize that the earliest generations of Christians were dealing with similar questions, and were trying to determine just who Jesus had been and what was the most appropriate way to talk and teach about him. As we continue our efforts to understand and answer the question for ourselves, it can be interesting, enlightening, and valuable to know that even those among his earliest followers found the work of God in Christ to be expressed in various ways. It remains our task today to explore these ways and to engage the Gospel message of and about Jesus anew.”

So first, in answer to Siker’s statements, we are not only citizens of this world, we are citizens of heaven and we owe nothing to ourselves and everything to our Lord. If we study the texts she covers it must be to better answer those who have fallen into deceptive teaching.

Secondly, this is the PW’s Bible Study. To teach a biblical study exploring the person of Jesus and asking who he is one must understand that the New Testament is the Christian’s authoritative source in answering the question.  Also as a Christian one should connect the Word of the New Testament with the Word of the Old Testament. (And yes, I am speaking here of the eternal Son or as the NASB puts it in John 1:18, “The only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father.”)

Thirdly, studying the non-canonical texts can be beneficial, not because they are diverse forms of Christianity, but because they are heretical forms of Christianity that continually reappear and are a threat to the holiness and goodness of Christ’s church.

Looking at the Infancy Gospels Siker references, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Infancy Gospel of James. Within both the reader finds a fanciful child and a fanciful Mary. And the Infancy Gospel of Thomas entails more mythology then Siker tells. Biblical scholar Richard J. Bauckham writes:

“… Jesus makes sparrows out of clay and brings them to life … He heals the injured, raises the dead, curses his enemies so that they die, proves superior in knowledge to all his schoolteachers. …” (Italics mine)[1]

The distraction is away from the fact that the eternal Son took on human flesh and became like humanity but without sin. Jesus’ miracles in his adulthood were laced with the humility of the compassionate Savior who did not and does not curse the repentant sinner. “A bruised reed he will not break and a dimly burning wick he will not extinguish …” (Isaiah 42: 3a)

Siker also features the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Thomas.

The Gospel of Peter which now only consists of small fragments is considered docetic by Siker and by other scholars. It carries within the text the possible idea that bodies are evil and that Jesus was not really human.  One scholar, Richard Bauckham, suggest that it may not have been docetic but rather had some misleading texts that were used by some heretical teachers. Using the early church historian Eusebius Bauckham writes:

“At the end of the second century Bishop Serapion of Antioch heard of a dispute over its use in the church of Rhossus. When he discovered it was being used to support docetic heresy and that a few passages in it were suspect from this point of view, he disallowed its use.”[2]

The Gospel of Thomas, which simply consists of supposed sayings of Jesus, has some sayings which align with biblical phrases and some which are clearly gnostic. While Elaine Pagels in her book, The Gnostic Gospels, seems to regard it as totally gnostic and uses those sayings which are gnostic, biblical scholar F.F. Bruce in his book, The Books and the Parchments, in an appendix writes:

“Some of these [sayings] could conceivably be genuine; at least they are sufficiently in keeping with the Lord’s character and teaching to deserve serious consideration. But the company they keep makes them suspect, for some of the sayings ascribed to him in this work are self-evidently spurious, and reflect the Gnostic outlook of the community to whose library this particular copy [the Coptic translation] of the work belonged.”

The important point here is that either “gospel” carries within it the seeds of heresy that can destroy the witness of true biblical faith. There is a failure to acknowledge the goodness of creation as well as the fall. Salvation in the Gospel of Thomas, turns out to be self-knowledge. And both gospels are aligned with other false gospels that totally obliterate the good news of God’s gift of salvation through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Siker, in the beginning of this lesson, attempts, in laying ground for the use of the non-canonical texts, to relativize the canonicity of the New Testament. She gives a slight history of that canonization using the Muratorian Canon, Athanasius’ list in an Easter letter in 367 AD, and the Council of Trent’s affirmation of the 27 books of the New Testament in 1546.  Contradicting Siker’s historical view of the canonization of the New Testament and her understanding of what canonization of the New Testament meant, F.F. Bruce writes:

“What is particularly important to notice is that the New Testament canon was not demarcated by the arbitrary degree of any Church Council. When at last a church council—the Synod of Hippo in A.D. 393—listed the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, it did not confer upon them any authority which they did not already possess, but simply recorded their previously established canonicity.  As Dr. Foakes-Jackson puts it: ‘The Church assuredly did not make the New Testament; the two grew up together.”[3]

It is in the holy Scriptures that we find the answer to the question “Who is Jesus.”

[1] Richard J. Bauckham, “Gospels (Apocryphal),” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels: A compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, I Howard Marshall, Editors, (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press 1992).
[2] Ibid.
[3][3] F.F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments: How We Got Our English Bible, revise and updated, (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell 1984) 103-104.

No comments: