According to surveys and scholars, "historical amnesia" constitutes an American epidemic. More than half of American adults can't remember which president ordered the dropping of the first atomic bomb (20 percent can't even remember if we've used the weapon). More teenagers can name the Three Stooges than the three branches of the federal government. Evangelicals, an unfortunately sizeable contingent of whom acknowledge no church history between Acts and the inception of their local congregations, are frequently diagnosed as having particularly acute cases. But according to historian Philip Jenkins, the truly critical patients are contemporary biblical scholars who persist in launching quests for the "real" Jesus.

In Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way (Oxford), Jenkins, distinguished professor of history and religious studies at Penn State, exposes Jesus Seminar types as—to put it bluntly—agenda-driven ninnies. Such scholars, fascinated by texts like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and others unearthed at Nag Hammadi in 1945, dig for what they want to find (evidence of alternate and legitimate "Christianities") and then spare no extravagance in touting its importance. With such titles as The Secret Teachings of Jesus: Four Gnostic Gospels and The Complete Jesus, their books promise to erode orthodox Christianity, conveniently replacing it with a kinder, gentler, and much more politically correct version.

Jenkins's problem with this body of work isn't primarily that it contradicts traditional faith, but that it rests on bad scholarship. Revisionist claims about hidden gospels require that such texts be both older and more reliable than the non-hidden sort, but Jenkins argues persuasively that they are not. Nor can the sects (notably gnostics) that produced the hidden gospels be put on equal footing with the nascent Christian church. "Just as the canonical gospels were in existence before their heterodox counterparts," Jenkins writes, "so the orthodox church did precede the heretics, and by a comfortable margin." Of course, nobody would read The Hidden Texts of Comparatively Late Fringe Groups.

The scholars running willy-nilly after wishful theories might be excused if they were merely jumping to conclusions in the wake of shocking new discoveries, but this ground has been broken before. Today's revisionists would know that if they bothered to read anyone else's work. Jenkins points out that nearly all of the "revolutionary" claims made in the past 30 or so years—Jesus didn't think he was God! Matthew, Mark, and Luke shared notes!—are at least 100 years old. The period between 1880 and 1920 was particularly fertile for radical theories, a fact many contemporary scholars stubbornly or stupidly ignore, and most of the theories weren't even new then. Jenkins goes so far as to assert that "the search for alternative Christianities has been a perennial phenomenon within Western culture since the Enlightenment."

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Those muddle-headed revisionists of the previous century had their own able critic: Albert Schweitzer. His The Quest of the Historical Jesus, first published in 1906 and reissued in complete form this year by Fortress Press, summed up popular theories (particularly as expressed in the multiple Lives of Jesus then circulating) and found nearly all of them wanting in historical rigor. The theories were not as new as their proponents claimed and not nearly as well grounded. Most damningly, though, the theories blatantly reflected contemporary sensibilities and therefore couldn't possibly describe a first-century figure. Unlike Jenkins, Schweitzer follows these complaints with his own radical theory, but up to that point the two men are on a similar mission.

Biblical scholarship need not be fruitless. For example, a better knowledge of first-century Jewish and Roman culture has definitely enriched Christians' reading of the New Testament. But given the field's typical pattern—bad scholarship, refutation, more bad scholarship, more refutation—it seems pretty obvious that any study of the historical Jesus starts in a deep credibility hole. That's why the foreword to the new Schweitzer edition amuses me so thoroughly. In it Dennis Nineham (no title or affiliation given) argues that making any decision about Christ demands "a knowledge, not only of The Quest of the Historical Jesus but of Schweitzer's work on the early church and of the discussions by Werner and others of the formation of Christian dogma."

Whatever did people do before they had this wonderful knowledge? Apparently, what they're still doing. Nineham laments, "The findings of historians and critical scholars are simply being ignored by the churches and most of their members." Gee, I wonder why.

Elesha Coffman is managing editor of Christian History magazine.

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Related Elsewhere

More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.

Christian History examined the life and times of Jesus (from an orthodox perspective) in its 59th issue, interviewing scholar N.T. Wright on the various quests for historicity.

In 1999, Books & Culture asked six scholars to explain why they study the origins of Christianity—and why it matters

An excellent collection of Web resources on the 'historical' Jesus is available from The Text This Week.

Other recent Christianity Today articles on the historical Jesus include:

No More Hollow Jesus | In focusing so intently on Jesus the man, Peter Jennings' report missed the big picture. (July 3, 2000)

Jennings on Jesus | ABC anchorman Peter Jennings discusses what moved him as he filmed a special on the life of Christ. (June 26, 2000)

Rightly Dividing Biblical History | A journalist makes a case for Scripture's reliability. (May 30, 2000)

Liberator of the West | Aside from stumbling over John, Thomas Cahill's assessment of the historical Jesus is surprisingly sane. (Apr. 3, 2000)

The New Theologians | N. T. Wright is making scholarship a tool for the church. (Feb. 8, 1999)

The Jesus I'd Prefer to Know | Searching for the historical Jesus and finding oneself instead. (Dec. 7, 1998)

Doubting Thomas's Gospel (June 15, 1998)

Reconstructing Jesus | The rewards of N. T. Wright's historical recovery of Jesus are great—but he raises more questions than he answers. (Apr. 27, 1998)

Grave Matters | Take away the Resurrection and the center of Christianity collapses. (Apr. 6, 1998)

Where Have They Laid My Lord? | A pilgrim's tale of two tombs. (Mar. 3, 1997)

Who Killed Jesus? | After centuries of censure, Jews have been relieved of general responsibility for the death of Jesus. Now who gets the blame? (Apr. 9, 1990)

Christian History Corner appears every Friday at Previous Christian History Corners include:

Ghosts of the Temple | Soon after Jerusalem fell, the Roman Colosseum went up. Coincidence? (July 6, 2001)

Endangered History | The National Trust's list of imperiled places gives unnoticed gems a chance to shine. (June 29, 2001)

The Communion Test | How a "Humble Inquiry" into the nature of the church cost Jonathan Edwards his job. (June 22, 2001)

Visiting the Other Side | The Israelites spent time on both sides of the Jordan. Now tourists can, too. (June 8, 2001)

Beyond Pearl Harbor | How God caught up with the man who led Japan's surprise attack. (June 1, 2001)

Rivers of Life | In Africa, survival depends on open waterways. Missionary explorer David Livingstone believed that salvation did, too. (May 25, 2001)

Intro to the Inklings | C.S. Lewis's intellect was stimulated at one of the most fascinating extracurricular clubs ever. (May 18, 2001)

How Not to Read Dante | You probably missed the point of The Divine Comedy in high school. (May 11, 2001)

If My People Will Pray | The U.S. National Day of Prayer Turns 50, but its origins are much older. (May 4, 2001)

Mutiny and Redemption | The rarely told story of new life after the destruction of the H.M.S. Bounty. (Apr. 27, 2001)

Book Notes | New and noteworthy releases on church history that deserve recognition. (Apr. 20, 2001)

A Primer on Paul | The History Channel uses Holy Saturday not to discuss Jesus, but the apostle who spread his message. (Apr. 12, 2001)
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