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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