FINDING JESUS: Faith. Fact. Forgery.: Six Holy Objects That Tell the Remarkable Story of the Gospels. By David Gibson and Michael McKinley. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2014. 242 pages.
There remains a continuing fascination with searches for the historical Jesus. They might be textual or they may be archaeological. They can even be rather esoteric. Everyone seems to want a piece of Jesus, for in having a piece of him there is the opportunity to define him. In recent years the Jesus Seminar sought to ferret out fact from fiction in the Gospels. Not surprisingly the Gospel of John didn’t emerge as a reliable source. One way of searching for Jesus is to explore the canonical texts. But in recent years the parameters of allowable sources has expanded considerably. Once forgotten or suppressed texts, many of them Gnostic in origin have been consulted as a means of expanding the possibilities. With all the sources available, how do we know what is fact and what is fiction? What must we take by faith? The Christian tradition, as a religion, has always had a stake in the witness of history. Jesus is not a mythical figure. He was a flesh and blood human being who lived in Roman occupied Galilee. What must be taken by faith is the confession that this man of Galilee is also Son of God.
The question that is ever before us is this: “Who is Jesus?” The authors of the book Finding Jesus, David Gibson and Michael McKinley, a book written as a companion to the CNN series of the same title, open their book with the statement that the question of Jesus “must be posed in the present tense because, for believers, Jesus is God and exists in the here and now every bit as much as he ever did” (p. 1). But not only are believers engaged, so are agnostics and skeptics. Persons from every religious and ideological position seem to want a stake in Jesus.
Gibson, a journalist and film maker, who is well known for his coverage of religious topics, including the Roman Catholic Church, partners with Michael McKinley, who is an author and film-maker. The two were the co-creators and contributing producers of the Finding Jesus series. This is then their story of how religious artifacts, from a scrap of papyrus to the Shroud of Turin excite the mind and the spirit.
The series and the book focus on six artifacts that are tied to the Jesus story. For many these artifacts or sacred relics are held dear by believers. They serve as a connection to the Jesus story. They offer a tangible witness to the Jesus story. The question raised by the series and book is simply this: should we take them as factual/historical objects or as forgeries, or at least in some cases received by faith as what could be but cannot be proven. It should be noted that the authors are aware of the ongoing searches for the historical Jesus and find some of them to be questionable—including that of the Jesus Seminar. As for those who question whether Jesus is a historical personage, they turn to none other than agnostic/atheist scholar Bart Ehrman for a retort. Ehrman may no longer be a believer in Jesus the Son of God, but he does insist that Jesus did exist in history.
The authors focus their attention on six objects: The bones of John the Baptist, the James Ossuary, the Gospel of Mary (Magdalene), the Gospel of Judas, the True Cross, and the Shroud and Sudurium (the cloth placed over the face of Jesus as he was taken from the cross). Some of these relics/artifacts will be well known to readers of the book (especially the shroud), while some of the relics might not (the bones of John the Baptist for instance). Some of the artifacts have been on display in churches throughout the centuries, in part because it was believed by many that churches, especially cathedrals needed some tangible connection the Jesus story. Thus pieces of the bones of John or pieces of the cross proliferated across Europe during the medieval period. Other artifacts have been discovered more recently, often buried in a cave or created by enterprising dealers in artifacts. A good example of this would be the James Ossuary, which seemed to be inscribed with three intriguing names: James, his father Joseph, and his brother Jesus. Could this be the burial box of the early church leader who many believe to have been the brother of Jesus? It’s not exactly the bones of Jesus (and if you’re a believer would you expect to find the bones of Jesus?), but this would be the next best thing. The two “gospels,” that of Mary and Judas, have intriguing stories, but are they genuine? It appears that they have Gnostic provenance, but do they go back to the first century? Both the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Judas were hailed as alternative histories, which offered proof of a greater role for women (Mary) and reclaimed Judas (or did it?). As for the True Cross, which Constantine’s mother, Helena, supposedly discovered in Jerusalem, so many pieces have spread across the land that it would have been a mighty large cross!
The authors write that these six objects, which they examine, showing both arguments for and against, are “objects have the capacity to take us out of ourselves, to transport us to a time and place not our own as we hope to discover something about Jesus that is not filtered through the distorting lens of time and our own desires” (p. 8). They are a “place where science and religion can come together, not as foes but as pilgrims on a shared journey—wherever it leads” (p. 9). The authors write this story as pilgrims themselves. They’re open to new insights, but aren’t taken in by obvious forgeries. They’re not religious skeptics, at least Gibson is not. They raise questions and draw in experts ranging from evangelical Ben Witherington to agnostic Bart Ehrman, with Mark Goodacrce and Candida Moss (among others) somewhere in between. They also bring in more culturally relevant commentators such as Jesuit James Martin.
I need to acknowledge that I have watched one episode of the series (the episode concerning the Shroud), so my experience with the series is rooted in reading the book and not watching the series on CNN. Thus, I’m not in a position to judge the series, except to say that it appears to be more mainstream than many explorations of the Jesus story. As for the book, this is pretty mainstream as well. If you’re interested in a Dan Brown retelling of the story, this won’t be your cup of tea. But if you live between Witherington and Ehrman, then you will find it an intriguing read.
Being that the authors are journalists and filmmakers, this is well-written and very readable. One needn’t be a scholar to understand what they are trying to get across, but if you are you should be relatively comfortable with how they present the material. The purpose of the book and the series is simple. They seek to pursue the question of what is the truth about Jesus. The relics offer a pathway, or a starting point for the discussion, but they do not resolve the questions. In ending the book, they quote Fr. James Martin, whose gut feeling is that the Shroud is authentic, but they quote him as saying: “it is a relic that produces more questions than answers . . . I don’t think we’ll ever get to the heart of the mystery of the Shroud of Turin” (p. 234). What is true of the shroud, that it produces more questions than answers, is true of most relics. In fact, the Gospels themselves produce more questions than we have answers for, but the search goes on, and this is a good companion for that journey.