remarks on the gospel according to judas

By Fr. Paul Mankowski, S.J. (articles ) | Mar 21, 2007

A week ago, we Jesuits of the Pontifical Biblical Institute were informed in the course of a regular community meeting that our main lecture hall would be in use on March 20 at the request of a former faculty member (Salesian Father Frank Moloney) for the public launch of a novel he had co-authored with Jeffrey Archer. The Rector apologized in advance for any inconvenience caused by the event itself and for any ructions provoked by attendant publicity.

That publicity -- both before and after the event -- gave rise to lurid headlines ("Pope Gives Blessing to Gospel of Jeffrey Archer") and to nonsense of other kinds as well. Here's the lede from the Times of London:

Jesus never turned water into wine, He did not walk on the water and He never calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee, according to a new 'Gospel' published today with Vatican approval and co-authored by Jeffrey Archer.

The following points are offered in correction of errors of fact, emphasis, or interpretation given in the English-speaking media:

  • The Pope did not "bless" the Archer-Moloney novel.
  • The Pontifical Biblical Institute provided the bottled water at the speaker's rostrum for the Archer-Moloney press conference. Its scholars had nothing whatever to do with the book's content.
  • The Archer-Moloney novel was not "published with Vatican approval."
  • No biblical scholar, including my former colleague Fr. Frank Moloney, believes Fr. Frank Moloney to be "the world's greatest living biblical scholar."
  • Fr. Moloney is not "one of the Pope's top theological advisers."
  • The International Theological Commission, of which Fr. Moloney was a member, enjoys the same level of teaching authority as the Philatelic Office of the Holy See -- that's to say: zero.
  • The teaching of the dogmatic constitution Dei Verbum §11 has not been abrogated.

In crudely commercial terms, the authors' choice of Rome as a launch-site and their promiscuous use of the words "Vatican" and "Pontifical" in their promotional efforts was a shrewd move. Hype apart, though, the notion that biblical scholarship or Church teaching has been advanced by the novel is unwarranted.

Father Moloney's insistence that certain miracles of Jesus recorded in the Gospels never really took place is a stance not compatible with Catholic orthodoxy (see Dei Verbum §19), though many heterodox scholars hold similar views. Nor are his judgments doubtful on purely fideistic grounds. The methodology he invokes to reject such miracles is the flimsiest of all critical tools for adjudicating claims of historicity, for the reason that there is almost never a way such a claim can be falsified. It's a game that almost anyone can play because almost no one can find a way to lose.

Take Moloney's assurance that Jesus didn't turn water into wine at Cana. The Gospel of John (2:11) says this was the first semeion that Jesus performed. But semeion is a Greek word meaning, "the kind of thing invisible to historians using a form-critical or source-critical method." In terms of epistemic cash value, Moloney's claim is vacuous. You report that there are no black swans on your radar scope? Fine. I believe you. But that tells me nothing about the existence or non-existence of black swans, because they're not the kind of thing a radar set is designed to detect.

I am not suggesting that source criticism or form criticism are not valuable tools in biblical studies or that the scholars that employ them cannot be first-rate critics. But the connections they make are connections that obtain between texts, and they are useless for telling us whether something reported in a given text really happened or not. What results in fact is that scholars with an axe to grind insinuate their philosophical premises into the critical hat while our eyes are elsewhere and -- presto! -- pull out historical/existential conclusions to dangle before us. It's the kind of magic act that rewards the rhetorical skill and (most of all) the pedagogic self-confidence of the performer.

There's an amusing example of the stunt in this video of an interview with Jeffery Archer conducted by a Times journalist named Ruth Gledhill. Archer recounts to Gledhill how Moloney bowled him over by his insistence that Jesus "never did" walk on water, etc. Archer never suggests there was a reasoned chain of argument, he merely mentions Moloney's knowledge of the ancient languages and admits to despair about knowing when the Gospel accounts are true: "You have to be as clever as Frank," he says, "to know when they are and when they aren't."

That admission is tantamount to saying that truth is irrelevant to the Bible, since only a fraction of Christians could ever be so endowed as to make the critical distinctions. But I'm not convinced the situation is as bad as all that. Someone with reason to know once remarked that many things revealed to mere children are hidden from the clever. In the same interview, Archer relates Moloney's dissatisfaction with the King James translation (!) of the line "God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform" -- whence it's radiantly clear that neither the priest nor the novelist is aware that the verse belongs not to the Bible but to a famous hymn by William Cowper (1774). Can I do you an Aramaic Vorlage for that, milord?

So we can all exhale a bit. This too shall pass. In fact, it's curious that writers of a certain age often develop an itch to detonate the Gospel by re-writing it. Norman Mailer tried it ten years ago with a flop called The Gospel According to the Son. A.N. Wilson and Gore Vidal took a whack at it in turn (my evaluation here). And now Archer and Moloney have their moment in the sun.

My advice: save your money for the forthcoming Cowper.

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  • Posted by: - Mar. 22, 2007 11:20 PM ET USA

    Fr. Mankowski's analysis is right on target. Fr. Pierre Benoit raises a probability question: Is it credible that the converts accpeted so novel a faith, which demanded so much of them, on the strength of mere gossip-sessions, at which ....preachers invented sayings and actions which Jesus never uttered and never preformed merely to suit themselves? William Albright reminds us that the accidental literary form does not disprove data therein unless independent reasons exist to reject that data.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 22, 2007 1:49 PM ET USA

    The timing is so wonderful, Benedict's own book on Jesus is about to become available, this antidote to the truth has arrived, and with quite the splash...

  • Posted by: - Mar. 22, 2007 9:52 AM ET USA

    It shows very bad judgement on the part of the Jesuits of the Institute to play host to the launching of a book by an author who is famous for his unorthodox and heretical veiws. Members of a think tank like the Institute should know better. Hosting this event at that place has obvious ramifications and inteligent people should know that. Perhaps it was not an "innocent" mistake. Perhaps it show some bias on the part of the Institute's leadership.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 22, 2007 3:32 AM ET USA

    At the very least, it was imprudent for the Biblicum to allow the diarrhetic into the house. A mere child could have forseen the result.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 22, 2007 12:05 AM ET USA

    maybe the biblicum is opening a barnes & noble on site? and the event is a fancy name for book signing. is barack obama the next author to appear? i hope the author shares his residuals with them.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 21, 2007 3:26 PM ET USA

    my sentiments exactly patriarch. I am reluctantly coming to the conclusion that many bishops and perhaps even some popes do not really care how many leave the Church. I heard a priest tell that at visit of several US bishops one asked JPII if it were true that the invincibly ignorant Catholics do not go to hell. He is said to have answered, "only priests who teach invincible ignorance go to hell." Evidently, they did not ask him any other questions.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 21, 2007 1:42 PM ET USA

    Either the rector is extremely naive or thought he was doing a friend a favor - either way this was a mistake. Unfortunate!!

  • Posted by: - Mar. 21, 2007 12:45 PM ET USA

    Is Paul Mankowski the spokesman of the Pontifical Biblical Institute? Why the Rector himself does not come out with an explanation for why he decided to authorize the use of the main lecture hall of the PBI for the public launch of such a novel? And now the PBI accuses the media of errors of fact, emphasis or interpretation! All the media reaction could be plainly and obviously antecipated by any intelligent analyst. Time for change at the decision making echelon of the PBI.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 21, 2007 12:33 PM ET USA

    The only thing missing (as always) is the apology from the media, the writers and rector, who allowed this bundle of joy to be delivered at the feet of our church. These errant clerics need to be silenced.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 21, 2007 12:19 PM ET USA

    I like you, Fr. Mankowski! This morning I meditated on the relationship between Jesus Christ and Judas Iscariot. Why did Our Lord select among His disciples one who would betray Him? Besides the obvious fulfillment of Scripture, I believe Jesus picked Judas to prepare His future followers for bad bishops and priests. I have no doubt Judas was one of many (cf. Mark 14:5) who wanted the spices and perfumes used to anoint Jesus sold and the money used "for the common good."

  • Posted by: - Mar. 21, 2007 11:55 AM ET USA

    But it's Lent and didn't we just have an earth-shaking event of cosmic proportions regarding the discovery of the Jesus' family tomb complete with his wife and son and assorted relatives. Wasn't that event supposed to make the sun stop in its tracks? And now through the minds of Archer and Moloney we are taken back to those thrilling days of yesteryear when Our Lord was really Clayton Moore in disguise.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 21, 2007 11:33 AM ET USA

    That's just great. The publicity attaching this teaching to the pope and the Church goes out to the world at full volume, scandalizing many, undoubtedly causing some to leave the Church, others never to consider entering, while the disclaimer shows up on a blog for well-read Catholics. The guy responsible for this ought to be busted down to a tiny parish in Uzbekistan. He ought to be slapped with a slap heard round the world.