22 APRIL 2000, Page 21


Matthew d'Ancona on the howls he provoked

from theologians by claiming that the gospels are a reliable historical source

`ANCIENT writers sometimes meant what they said, and occasionally even knew what they were talking about.' Thus wrote the distinguished classical scholar of late antiq- uity, George Kennedy, mocking the per- verse instinct of his academic colleagues to detect myths, distortion and outright fabri- cation — rather than history — in every ancient text.

I now know exactly how he felt. After four years of research in Europe and the Holy Land, I have just published a study of the history of the True Cross, co-authored with the German historian and New Testa- ment scholar Carsten Peter Thiede. Our first book argued that the gospels were written well before AD 70, within the life- time of those who had witnessed Christ's ministry. In our new book we trace a his- torical thread which stretches from the Crucifixion to the present day, and argue that fragments of the True Cross may have survived, and been venerated, from the first Good Friday onwards. Our investigations are based on detailed analysis of manuscripts and archaeological evidence, much of it new or neglected, and — most controversially — a fragment of wood stored in a church in Rome, bearing the mocking inscription which is said to have been nailed above the head of the crucified Christ. The so-called Titulus Cru- cis — Title of the Cross — has long been assumed to be a risible mediaeval forgery. We contend that the fragment is definitely not a clumsy, latter-day fraud, and may well be of 1st-century Palestinian origin. When we started our work together six years ago, it seemed reasonable to antici- pate some controversy. But — to quote the gospel according to Monty Python — we certainly didn't expect the Spanish Inquisi- tion. What is astonishing is the sheer fury which claims such as these inspire in some quarters. Around the world, our first book was well received by believers and non- believers alike. But many theologians and New Testament scholars clearly found it offensive, as a matter of principle, that we should dare to suggest that the gospels were useful historical sources. In the past two weeks, The Quest for the True Cross has been serialised in the Sunday Telegraph. One schoolmaster, responding to our claims, fulminated that they were based on 'pseudo-archaeology' (whatever that is); another letter-writer implored me to go to Rome, 'take a hammer and smash this "relic" to smithereens'.

Even in our secular age — perhaps espe- cially in it — the passions which these questions arouse remain intense. The extent to which Christian civilisation con- tinues to grip our imagination is clear from the runaway (and fully deserved) success of the National Gallery's exhibition of Christian imagery and heritage, Seeing Sal- vation. Already, more than 180,000 people have been to see it, in excess of 5,000 a day at weekends. Its curator, Neil MacGregor, told me recently that the exhibition's suc- cess seemed to reflect a thirst, universal but quite separate from faith, to explore the Christian origins of our culture, the building-blocks beneath our feet; and I am sure he is right.

One does not have to believe the doctri- nal claims made in the gospels, or the faith in the miraculous which they express, to conclude that these books describe a series of (evidently astonishing) events, recorded by people breathless with history, over- come by the impulse to recount a quite exceptional occurrence. The writers of the four gospels saw the numinous, the divine and the supernatural at work all the time in their daily lives; the 'open door' to Heaven described in Revelation was `I want to have my egg frozen for convenience.' always ajar. And it is this empirical reality, as they saw it — Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection — that they wished to record and hand down to posterity. We do not have to believe everything they said to accept that they believed they had seen it.

Yet to say as much is to court the charge of fundamentalism, credulity, or bovine conservatism. To suggest that the principal events described in the gospels probably took place in some shape or form is to ask for trouble. In America, the charge has been led by Bishop John Shelby Spong who has said that Biblical literalism is 'mind- less', that it appeals to 'deeply insecure and fearful people' and that right-thinking Christians have a mission to rescue the Bible from the 'Babylonian captivity of the fundamentalists'.

Don't mention the gospels, in other words. In the scholarly world, an elite no less powerful than the faddish literary theo- rists who conquered English faculties in the 1960s has launched a similar attack. Its own sacred congregation is the 'Jesus Seminar', a loose-knit group, of 100 scholars, which first met at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California, to establish, by a complex voting procedure, which of the many sayings attributed to Christ reflect His authentic voice. Its members vote with a range of National Lottery-style coloured balls to decide how trustworthy the gospels are, and by their reckoning fewer than a quarter of the sayings recorded in the New Testament are worth a shekel. The rest, apparently, is embellishment, hearsay and sheer dross.

The origins of this bizarre approach are twofold. First, there is the post-Enlighten- ment suspicion of anything which might be seen to validate religious belief, however inadvertently. Second, there is the desire of New Testament scholars to control the interpretation of everything they touch. If the gospels are essentially worthless as his- torical sources, then the theorist becomes our only guide to the life of Jesus. It follows that almost anything can be — and has been — said about him. You can say (as serious scholars have said) that Jesus was a Bud- dhist, a Greek philosopher, a proto-feminist or a Marxist revolutionary; you might even get a professional chair if you do.

These days, in fact, the really radical thing to say is that Jesus was more or less what he seemed: a Jewish religious leader, with a clear sense of mission, whose activi- ties are recorded with reasonable, if vary- ing, accuracy by gospels written within decades of his death. It sounds so simple, and yet it could not be more provocative. What an irony, in the year of Christ's mil- lennium, that this should be the new heresy.

Matthew d'Ancona is deputy editor of the Sunday Telegraph. His book, co-authored with Carsten Peter Thiede, The Quest for the True Cross, is published by Weidenfekl and Nicolson.