Russell Shorto's "Gospel Truth"

Ever since Bob Woodward and the Nixon administration, it seems that journalists have this idea that having freedom of the press behind them somehow makes them experts in reporting whatever they set their mind to. Russell Shorto is decidedly not an expert in issues surrounding the historical Jesus and Christianity, but even so, he ends up doing a fair job of delineating some of them.

Shorto maintains something of a bias in favor of the Jesus Seminar and “liberal” theology, although this in itself is neither surprising nor particularly disturbing (apparently, covering the Seminar was part of his “beat”), other than the fact that he simplistically pictures all opposition to the Seminar as coming from conservative sources: The protests of moderates like Richard Hays and Luke T. Johnson are not even reported. I would surmise that much of Shorto’s internal bias comes simply of not knowing what moderate and conservative scholarship has to offer, rather than from a conscious bias. (From his description of William Lane Craig, for example, one would never suspect that Craig has tremendous academic credentials; he is described merely as “an evangelical theologian who has made a mini-career out of vilifying the Jesus Seminar” - and not one of his books is listed in Shorto’s bibliography.)

As the book progresses, Shorto offers a potpourri of ideas from the leftward branch of Christendom, often accepting questionable ideas and authors uncritically (i.e., the hellenization of Galilee, John Shelby Spong’s “midrash” view of the Gospels). The outdated notions of the virgin birth and water-to-wine miracles being stolen from pagan beliefs is present and accounted for. Overall the content of the material is rather unimpressive, and what one would expect from a non-specialist.

Several incredible mistakes mar the overall work: We are told, for example, that Paul “nowhere” refers to bodily resurrection (Shorto offers the incorrect interpretation of “spiritual body“ = non-substantiative body, which we have discussed elsewhere); David Koresh is described as being on the “far radical fringe of Christianity” (we should actually not even use the word “Christian” to describe him); it is said that the Testimonium Flavium is Josephus’ “one mention of Jesus” (the lesser reference including Jesus’ brother James having apparently been forgotten); and Shorto rather misunderstands the usage of critical history techniques by Catholic scholars Meier and Brown.

To be fair, however, Shorto does dispense with some of the other wilder theories in currency, including Wells’ Christ-myth, and Mack’s “Q community” theory is properly described as “a Christian equivalent of the lost city of Atlantis.”

Overall, it appears that Shorto has attempted to take on a much-too-broad subject, and as a result has covered very little of it to any satisfactory depth.