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The Jesus of Hellenistic History : THE ILLEGITIMACY OF JESUS A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the Infancy Narratives by Jane Schaberg (Harper & Row: $21.95; 255 pp.) : THE CROSS THAT SPOKE The Origins of the Passion Narrative by John Dominic Crossan (Harper & Row: $24.95; 320 pp.) : A MYTH OF INNOCENCE Mark and Christian Origins by Burton L. Mack (Fortress: $29.95; 432 pp.) : MANY THINGS IN PARABLES Extravagant Stories of New Community by Frederick Houk Borsch (Fortress: $12.95; 167 pp., paper)

April 03, 1988|John Dart | Dart, who covers religion news for The Times, is author of "The Jesus of Heresy and History," to be published late this year

It may be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the average churchgoer to enter into the realm of historical-literary biblical studies.

The territory is quite unfamiliar. Important critical research findings seem to stop short of the church doors--in a society that otherwise prides itself on ready access to information.

But even the person in the pew aware of the scholarly pursuit of the historical Jesus might regard the first three authors above as preposterous revisionists:

Jane Schaberg says that the Nativity accounts in Matthew and Luke really tried to explain away a tradition about the illegitimate birth of Jesus and did not intend to describe a miraculous virginal conception, despite the unanimous understanding of the latter by the early churches.

John Dominic Crossan argues that the apocryphal Gospel of Peter, discovered in 1886 and previously dismissed as a 2nd-Century rewrite of the 1st-Century Gospels, was instead an early resource for all four New Testament Gospels in their stories of Jesus' trial, crucifixion and resurrection.

Burton L. Mack says the pioneering Gospel of Mark is more a work of fiction than ever before suspected, including the stories of Judas the betrayer and the Last Supper. Mack said Mark marvelously combined into one dramatic, apocalyptic story the images from "the Christ cult" and various Jesus movements whose social situations determined how they celebrated their founder-teacher. The historical Jesus was more likely a Cynic philosopher than, for instance, a Jewish reformer, Mack says.

Though certainly provocative, all three theories are plausible in their strongest points when placed in the context of recent studies.

These authors primarily attempt here to "peel back" the layers of religious imagination and literary invention (an honorable practice in that era) rather than concentrate on the more elusive core, the historical Jesus. There was a 40-year interval between Jesus' death and the post-AD 70 appearance of the Gospel of Mark, a work that shaped all subsequent Christian ideas about "the life of Jesus."

Each book is a significant achievement. But, by way of warning, the range of arguments and sources called upon by Schaberg, Crossan and Mack may prove daunting to the untrained reader.

It will take efforts such as "Many Things in Parables," by the bishop-elect of the Los Angeles Episcopal Diocese, to hope that parishioners can be drawn to the scholarly frontiers. Frederick Houk Borsch was dean of the chapel and professor of religion at Princeton University when he was elected a bishop in January.

Borsch bridges the scholar-layman gap by describing legitimate ambiguities in parable interpretation, citing versions in a valuable apocryphal source (the Gospel of Thomas) and suggesting that each Gospel alters the parables a bit.

"There is a marked tendency by the evangelists to add detail of an allegorizing character or otherwise to interpret the parables in a manner useful for fitting the narratives into their views of God's plan in history," Borsch says.

He does not say directly whether these stories were told by Jesus himself. But, in fact, Borsch's choices of 18 parables have nearly all been rated "red" (authentic) and "pink" (probably authentic, or something very similar) in the unprecedented balloting process used by the Jesus Seminar, a group of 125 biblical scholars (40-50 frequently participating), evaluating all sayings attributed to Jesus.

Providing a measure of consensus for mainstream churches and scholars alike, the seminar's Polebridge Press in Sonoma will publish its results on 33 Jesus parables this fall and climax its work in 1990 by publishing "Five Gospels" (including Thomas) with Jesus' likeliest authentic words printed in red and pink.

Seminar members, which include Mack and Crossan, also have agreed in voting that Jesus did not preach an apocalyptic message; nor speak of the coming Son of Man; nor see himself as the Messiah, or Christ. Members were divided on whether he regarded himself as a prophet.

Every saying associated with the Passion and Resurrection was regarded inauthentic, the product of early church reflections on the meaning of Jesus' death. The Jewish trial was deemed a fabrication, and members found little was historically reliable other than Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem under Pontius Pilate at Passover.

That context aids in assessing the book by Mack, professor of New Testament studies at the School of Theology at Claremont and the Claremont Graduate School.

Mack twits colleagues who still feel that the belief in Jesus' resurrection or certain Jesus teachings electrified the Jesus followers into a dynamic movement. The Claremont scholar said that sense of drama comes from the Gospel of Mark, not from historical reminiscence.

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