The Nazarene Gospel
To the Editor:
As a non-Jewish historian who has been privileged to “plow with the heifer” of a learned Talmudist, Joshua Podro, I am delighted with Gerson D. Cohen’s negative praise of The Nazarene Gospel Restored—our answer to an even more difficult riddle than Samson’s. Mr. Cohen writes in the November Commentary that the events recorded in our reconstruction of the original oral tradition of the Jerusalem Church “are all quite possible.” But why does he add: “There simply is not the slightest shred of evidence to make the Graves-Podro reconstruction a whit more likely than a host of other possible solutions”?
Granted, it is impossible to prove scientifically what this oral tradition was; but can he name a single other solution than ours that makes coherent sense without involving almost as many historical solecisms as the Gospels themselves?
He likens our meticulous argument to a great detective story, the solution of which is just a little too good. But in this context he should recall Sherlock Holmes’s apothegm, to the effect that when all other possible theories fail to fit the facts, the remaining one, however improbable, must be correct. Fortunately, our views have become less fantastic, in the light of the Judean Caves discoveries described in the same issue; but I realize that it is almost as difficult for a Jew as for a Christian to accept them. The Christian because he has been conditioned to hold the logically untenable belief that you wicked Jews crucified your God; the Jew because he prefers not to discuss, or even think about, a subject that caused his ancestors such misery and that is still likely to give him undeserved embarrassment in all countries throughout the world but Israel.
However, the book has now been out for nearly two years in England and the United States, and not a single scholar, either Jew or Christian, has yet been able to put his finger on any historical flaw in the argument. Many have tried. The most persistent was an anonymous ecclesiast in London’s leading literary journal who (among other things) refused to accept the meaning of a Hebrew word defined by a celebrated Jewish lexicographer, on the ground that his works had not yet been translated into English; and accused us of “unethically camouflaging” the text of Galatians 4:14. A Jewish lawyer got a retraction from the editor before our libel case reached the High Court; it appears that the reviewer had overlooked a well-known papyrus discovered in 1936, on which we based our argument, and which was over a hundred years older than his uncials and cursives!
Paul’s being a Greek on both sides, and not (as he claimed) a Benjaminite, should not be regarded by Mr. Cohen as an invention of Joshua Podro and myself. It was the view held by the Ebionites, Jesus’ original Jewish followers (not “Christians”), and of course condemned by the Early Fathers as heretical.
I expect Commentary to dissociate itself from the views expressed in this letter, but should be grateful for its publication.
Palma de Mallorca
Mr. Cohen writes:
Mr. Graves is quite right that any attempt at solving the historical problems of the Gospels of necessity involves conjecture, emendation, and a considerable degree of uncertainty. However, the line which separates the artist from the scholar is a delicate, tenuous one, probably one of taste. My own tastes, and, I submit, those of most historians, will incline to the more temperate speculations of men like Arthur Darby Nock or Yehezkel Kaufman. The latter’s chapters on Christianity in his monumental Gola we-Nekhar I have found respectful to the sources, while as stimulating as Mr. Graves’s solution and far more satisfying intellectually.
I fail to see how the Dead Sea Scrolls buttress Mr. Graves’s restoration of the New Testament narrative, that is, of the life of Jesus and his disciples. Mr. Graves’s contention that Jesus’ teachings echo one school of authentic Jewish thought is not new with him, nor did I take any exception to it. I merely maintained that his attempt to footnote his imaginative reconstruction of the events—virgin birth to resurrection—may be brilliant, but not necessarily cogent. Please note that I did not say that Mr. Graves invented Paul’s heathen ancestry. I was simply suggesting that Mr. Graves rather promiscuously embraces any material that fits his case. To be sure, this is not an historical “flaw,” if by “flaw” he means poor dates or misquotations; but uninhibited eclecticism still is not history as most people in the Western world have hitherto treated that subject.