Sunday 13 May 2012

Biblical fan-fiction — not to be taken as gospel

In the same vein as Craig L. Blomberg in the previous chapter, Charles L. Quarles asks "What Should We Think About the Gospel of Peter?" (chapter 49 — the penultimate — of Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God).

We should, apparently, think that the Gospel of Peter is a knock-off of Matthew (plus part of Revelation). Quarles summarises the Gospel, then proceeds to dismiss it as fanciful embellishment of accepted canon. He mentions a theory propounded by the Jesus Seminar's John Dominic Crossan:
John Dominic Crossan, co-founder of the Jesus Seminar, which is an organization residing on the theological left, has claimed that the Gospel of Peter was the product of a complex evolution. The earliest layer of the Gospel was a hypothetical source called the “Cross Gospel.” Crossan argued that this early layer served as the only written source for the narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. After the production of the NT Gospels, a later editor inserted material from the four Gospels into the Cross Gospel. An even later editor noticed tensions between the original and newer material in this patchwork gospel and polished up the document.

Although Crossan’s theory has convinced few in the scholarly community, one scholar recently claimed “one can expect that all future research on Gos. Pet. will need to begin with a serious consideration of Crossan’s work” (Paul A. Mirecki, “Gospel of Peter,” ABD 5:278-81, esp. 280). If true, Crossan’s theory would have a devastating effect on confidence in the historical reliability of the accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection in the four Gospels. According to Crossan’s theory, the sole source for the accounts of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection in the four Gospels was a document that was already so laced with legend as to be wholly unreliable even before it reached the hands of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The four Gospels would be unreliable adaptations of an unreliable tradition replete with talking floating crosses and a super-sized Jesus whose head bumped the heavens when he walked out of the tomb!
Such amazing (dare one say "miraculous"?) occurrences would surely be out of place in a "Gospel" — so therefore they didn't happen. Quarles goes on to claim that the Gospel of Peter must be something written much later, based on the original(s) but including invented and incredible extra details — a biblical version of fan-fiction. As far as it agrees with canon, it's true — where it differs, it's false. This doesn't seem to be a very rigorous examination of the evidence, such as it is; the veracity of the Gospel of Peter is assessed on the basis of whether or not it confirms what is already believed — a classic case of confirmation bias.

How much of this is of any consequence? At this stage, with only one more chapter to go, it makes no difference. I've already raised my concern at the editors' decision to place The Question of the Bible at the end of their book; these final chapters do nothing to allay that concern.