Thomas Sheehan has two topics. One is the development of historical criticism of the Bible, especially the New Testament and especially among Roman Catholic scholars in recent years. The other is the interpretation of the person and message of Jesus. The interpretation he advances is not implied by the results of historical criticism—implication is after all a very strong concept—but it seems to him a plausible account of what the person and message mean after criticism has done its purgative job.

What he tells us about the work of the critics is on the whole fair, though it tends to be interwoven with conclusions that are his own, not those of the critics; and perhaps his appreciations are more positive than is warranted. There can be large changes in a fairly short time in the views entertained by scholars. One has only to think of the change in recent years in estimates of the historical value of the Fourth Gospel. Some scholars would now think that as a guide to the chronology of Jesus’ public ministry and as a guide to Palestinian places and institutions it is better than the Synoptic Gospels, certainly better than Luke, the most historical sounding of the Synoptic Gospels. Again, there have been and are great differences over which gospel texts come nearest to reflecting the actual words of Jesus. Some have thought Matthew 16:17–19 (“…you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…”) has a claim to be regarded as close to the actual words of Jesus, whereas for others it represents the infusion of later theological developments, and is indeed a prime example of such infusion. Again, recent work on the dating of the gospels suggests that the critical consensus on the matter may need revision, that the gospels may on the whole be earlier than they have been thought to be.

But about the general drift of scholarly opinion there is not much doubt among critics. Most of the New Testament documents as we have them represent, no matter what primitive material they may embody, the thought and interpretation not of contemporary hearers and eyewitnesses but those of Christian communities thirty or forty years, or more, after the Crucifixion. Among the Pauline letters some, notably 1 Corinthians, are earlier than any of the gospels, but these too represent positions later than those of contemporaries of the gospel events. This is not to say that the gospels and the Pauline letters are without historical value. But they are so drenched in devotional and theological developments that came about after the Crucifixion that their historical content has to be dug for.

Of course, most scholars think that in their main outlines if not in all their details the teaching and career of Jesus are rendered reliably by the Synoptics. But once it becomes clear that the New Testament is the product of a faith that precedes it—after all, there were no gospels in the primitive Church, and there was no absolutely reliable New Testament canon for centuries—some hard questions arise for Christians, both Catholic and Protestant. (The Orthodox so far have scarcely been touched by these developments.) There are Christological questions about the person and role of Jesus himself. There is the question about the meaning of the discordant Ressurrection narratives. There is the question how far the intentions of Jesus and his disciples included the foundation of a Church, especially the kind of Church that begins to show itself by the middle of the second century, one with the rudiments of an episcopal and hierarchical structure.

Sheehan has a special interest in Catholic Scripture scholars. He is able to show that there are now no substantial differences in methods of examination and conclusions between those Catholic scholars (for instance) grouped around the great Jerome Biblical Commentary and the best Protestant scholars. Indeed, it may be said that in principle the conclusions of the historical study of the New Testament are less embarrassing to Catholicism, considered as a system, than to Protestantism. Catholics have always held that tradition is primary and that the Scriptures only have life and meaning as they are interpreted within the community of believers; whereas Protestantism has always tended toward bibliolatry and has often treated Scripture as though it were the object of faith, or as though the relation between Scripture and the solitary believer could be fruitful independently of ecclesiastical tradition.

In fact, the open practice of the critical study of the New Testament by Catholic scholars dates from the pontificate of Pius XII and has only been secure—if it is in fact secure—since the Second Vatican Council. (One of the big underlying issues during the council was how the study of Scripture was to be pursued in the Roman universities.) Now the most “advanced” scholars are appointed to such bodies as the Pontifical Biblical Commission, and there can be little doubt that the critical study of the New Testament is a permanent feature of Catholic intellectual life.


Most of these Catholic scholars are men of strict orthodoxy and find no conflict, though often some tension, between what they establish as scholars and what they believe as Catholics. But there are two groups of Catholics who see in the results of criticism a deadly blow to faith as it has traditionally been received: conservatives, or ultraconservatives, who believe that there is an incompatibility between Catholic belief and what are held—falsely, the conservatives think—to be the secure results of criticism; and radicals, who believe the same thing, but welcome the demythologizing of traditional Catholicism. Sheehan is among these latter, though, as we shall see, he may not think his interpretations of the consequences of criticism consonant with Catholicism, or any kind of Christianity, in even the most stretched senses of these words. As we shall see, he finds in the New Testament when the scholars have done their work a record of a pervasive mistake within the kerygma, the apostolic preaching, a mistake about what Jesus was saying to his generation, a mistake that is the responsibility—and the failure—of Peter and the other apostles.

To that extent Sheehan is more radical than the most radical of Protestants. He thinks Christianity as a religion was from its beginning, after the death of Jesus, based upon a mistaken premise. What he thinks the lesson of Jesus’ preaching would have been had this mistake not been made he tries to tell us, though I shall explain later why I find what he writes on this matter very obscure. Meanwhile, we note that he argues that Christianity is wrong in its

insistence that the ultimate meaning of human seeking is bound up with Jesus. And the only way out of that problem is to surrender Jesus: to leave him dead and to see that the meaning of Jesus is that Jesus himself no longer matters.

This makes it plain that Sheehan cannot be understood as a radical Catholic, though he is primarily concerned with Catholicism as the most impressive version of the Christian mistake; and he seems to have some hope that he will be able, by the force of his argument, to win over Christians and others to his position.

One thing I should like to protest about at this point is his running together, many times, of the names of such Scripture scholars as Raymond Brown and Joseph Fitzmyer with the names of such theologians as Hans Küng and Edward Schillebeeckx. These latter are theologians who use the results of Scripture scholarship for their theological purposes. The position of Küng and Schillebeeckx in relation to the Scripture scholars is exactly that of Sheehan himself. What they offer are interpretations. They don’t add anything to the testimony of the professional students of Scripture. To group them within the same list is to confer on them an authority they don’t have, at least in this field.

When Sheehan has taken us through the familiar story of the moves of scholars from “source criticism” to “form criticism” and then to “redaction criticism,” we find that he ends in a much less skeptical position—skeptical, that is, in relation to the possibility of getting behind the written gospels to the Jesus of history—than we might have expected. He finds that critical analysis gives us much reliable information about the preaching of Jesus and about the earliest stages in the formation of the apostolic tradition. He keeps reminding us, and he does this so often that one wonders at his insistence on it, that we have no access to the inner life of Jesus, no materials for a psychobiography. We have only such words and actions as those recorded in the gospels.

I think there may be a philosophical confusion here. What do we have in the case of anyone but words and actions? We are in just the same position in relation to any historical figure. Even one who tells us about his inner states is not accepted as giving a truthful account unless we have an opportunity to test his statements by other criteria. That Jesus was angry when he drove the money changers out of the Temple with a whip is a legitimate inference. But Sheehan does at times offer conjectures, as in the following case where it seems to me his conjecture goes far beyond any available evidence. Speaking of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, he says of him that he was “we may imagine…pierced to the heart. He repented and was baptized.” He tells us that “the best evidence” shows that the encounter with John the Baptist was a moment of spiritual awakening for Jesus and that the authors of the Synoptic Gospels are therefore right in dating his public ministry from the baptism in the Jordan, as well as from the removal of John the Baptist from the public scene after his arrest by Herod. Luke so much wishes to emphasize the intimate connection between the two ministries that he shows the two men as cousins and tells us that John recognized the mission of Jesus, and its priority, when they were both in the womb.


Both John and Jesus use the language of apocalyptic and both speak of the coming of God’s kingdom in the immediate future, and call for repentance, a repentance that is sure to receive forgiveness, as a preparation for this. The peculiar feature of the teaching of Jesus is that he maintains that the kingdom has already come. He is concerned not with the far-off (or impending, for that matter) divine event but with what Sheehan calls “the present-future.” The complete realization of the kingdom is still to come. But it is already realized wherever the love of justice and of one’s neighbor does it work.

John’s call to personal responsibility captured the religious core of eschatology by freeing Yahweh from the role of cosmic avenger of Israel and making him the Lord of those who repent. Likewise his insistence on inner conversion recovered the heart of the Law by liberating it from narrow and burdensome legalism. John’s message, in short, reasserted the living kernel of Jewish faith—doing God’s will by being just and merciful—and freed it from the elaborate but dead husks in which it was trapped.

Sheehan then draws a contrast between John and Jesus:

Jesus’ preaching was as riveting as John’s, but different in tone and substance. Whereas John had emphasized the woes of impending judgment, Jesus preached the joy of God’s immediate and liberating presence. A dirge had given way to a lyric.

Sheehan adds that an important difference between the two figures is that whereas John the Baptist is an ascetic, clothed in the skins of wild beasts and living on the fruits of the desert, Jesus is notorious for his pleasure in eating and drinking with a great variety of people, Pharisees and public sinners, and seems to preach the kingdom under the image of a feast or banquet.

One of the things that gets in the way of a full grasp of the person and message of Jesus is the heresy of Docetism, something which Sheehan believes is the characteristic “deviation” of Catholics (Karl Rahner also pointed this out). Docetism is the heresy that maintains that Jesus was human in appearance, not in fact. If this is the heresy one tends toward, one will be disinclined to puzzle out the sayings that make up the preaching of Jesus and find it hard to share in his confidence in the present-future. One will be more inclined to think of the future as an absolute gift of a divinized Jesus. Sheehan, if we are to speak of orthodoxy and heresy, professes the opposite heresy: that the divinity attributed to Jesus is merely the imaginative picture that his disciples attached to his memory after his death. This, Sheehan argues, is the mistaken step in argument for which the disciples, and especially Simon Peter, must take responsibility.

What, then, according to Sheehan, is the central feature of Jesus’ preaching? From what sound truth did the apostolic generation fall away?

He argues that the message of Jesus is that Yahweh, the Father, has become incarnate in his people, “that God, as God, had identified himself without remainder with his people.” The Church, even in the apostolic generation, mistakenly applied what was true of the Father and of his people to the person of Jesus; whereas the Father “had poured himself out, had disappeared into mankind and could be found nowhere else but there…the doctrine of the kingdom meant that henceforth and forever God was present only in and as one’s neighbor.” This kingdom which for the believer is both present and future is all the same, Sheehan thinks, something that has always been a part of the human condition.

The presence of God among men which Jesus preached was not something new, not a gift that God had saved up for the end of time. Jesus merely proclaimed what had always been the case. He invited people to awaken to what God had already done from the very beginning of time…. The “arrival” of the present-future was not God’s return to the world after a long absence but the believer’s reawakening to the fact that God had always and only [sic] been there.

All Jesus did was to bring to light in a fresh way what had always been the case but what had been forgotten or obscured by religion. His role was simply to end religion—that temporary governess who had turned into a tyrant—and restore the sense of the immediacy of God.

Sheehan admits that it is very extraordinary that the small band of Jesus’ disciples should, so soon after the Crucifixion, have continued to feel a pastoral vocation in relation to Israel. Plainly this has to do with whatever events or experiences lie behind the Resurrection stories. Sheehan believes, I think on a priori grounds, that what ordinary believers have often taken to be the truth about the Resurrection of Jesus is impossible. The stories are legends. But there is underneath the legendary an experience of a profound sort. This was first had by Simon Peter and then communicated by him to the other disciples.

In those dark days after Jesus’ death, Simon had an insight, a “revelatory experience” that he took as a message from God’s eschatological future…. Simon hastened to share his experience with Jesus’ closest followers…. [He] told them his Easter experience: In his despair, when he felt like a drowning man pulled to the bottom of the sea, the Father’s forgiveness…had swept him up again and undone his doubts. Simon “saw”—God revealed it to him in an ecstatic vision—that the Father had taken his prophet into the eschatological future and had appointed him the Son of Man. Jesus was soon to return in glory to usher in God’s kingdom!

This “Easter experience” of Peter’s accounts for the revived vitality of what Sheehan calls “the Jesus-movement.” The experience is not unmediated. It is accompanied by Peter’s interpretation, which constitutes it as an experience of a certain kind, and contains within it that deviation from the original preaching which turned the Jesus-movement into a new religion, what in the end becomes Christianity. This meant that the early disciples very quickly began to identify the kingdom with the person of Jesus; and then with great speed Jesus becomes identified with the Son of Man who is to come in the future to inaugurate God’s reign and, later, with the divine Logos, the Word of God who is with God, and is God, as is set out in the prologue to the Fourth Gospel and in the Letter to the Hebrews. Sheehan doesn’t for a moment consider that this could have been a legitimate theological development from the original data. “Simon put his hopes on Jesus rather than on what Jesus was about.” Thus Simon’s “experience” turns out to be “the end of Jesus and the beginning of Christianity.”

Sheehan ends the exposition of his argument (I have of course missed some of the steps, though not, I hope, anything essential) with a remarkable piece of rhetoric that owes, perhaps, more to recent German philosophy than to the New Testament:

From its Easter foundations upward, Christianity is caught in a hermeneutical circle—in fact, Christianity is that circle—and you are either inside or outside…. At the very best you can declare—that is, interpret—yourself as being in one place or the other.

. . .

One last look, then, at the empty tomb—the real tomb of history, not the one of the Christian legend. As we peer into that emptiness, the absence of the living Jesus and even of his dead body allows us to identify a unique form of seeking: the desire for that which can never be had. This unique kind of seeking is the experience that makes human beings different from any other kind of entity, and we see it exemplified in the women who actually found the tomb empty on the first Easter Sunday. Such seeking is not something we occasionally get caught up in; rather, it is what makes us human, constitutes us as the futile passion, the unfulfilled and presumably unfulfillable desire that we are….

This fundamental desire, this seeking that constitutes human nature is correlative to what I shall call “absolute absence.” Others might call this absence “the absurd,” that which is absolutely deaf (surdus) to our desire to render it present in any way. Absolute absence would seem to annul any search for itself—because it annuls itself: It does not and cannot exist. But the amazing thing is that the desire for it refuses to be quenched. This absolute absence, even though it does not exist in itself, continues to live a parasitic life within our futile desire for it…. We remain, fundamentally, an act of questioning to which there is not answer.

. . .

This historical fact of the complete absence of Jesus does have religious significance: It means the end of religion.… [Jesus’] mission had been to undo religion and its God and to put radical mercy, the living of the present-future, in its place.

. . .

The crisis in Christianity is about its origins, its founding story, but…the [true] crisis is that at last Christianity is discovering what it always was about: not God or Christ or Jesus of Nazareth, but the endless, unresolvable mystery inscribed at the heart of being human.

These dark sayings carry with them a certain poetic charge. I do not think I know what they mean; at least, I feel incapable of expounding Sheehan’s meaning except in the terms he himself uses. I am sure these passages are in his judgment the most important, or among the most important, in his book.

The interesting question for readers of Sheehan’s lively and often passionate book is how far all this—or all of it one can grasp—is plausible and hangs together; and what kind of sense it makes. I won’t raise the question about its truth, in part because I suspect Sheehan wishes to make a detour around this question. Early in the book he writes concerning the rise of historical consciousness that “the notions that truth is concrete and incarnate rather than abstract, that it develops in history rather than being eternally given, and that each stage of its development reflects changing human needs and aspirations—these were some of the presuppositions underlying the historical-critical method.” The only thing I can dig out of this is that truth is of particulars, not universals. Perhaps that is what is intended by the opposition between “concrete and incarnate” and “abstract,” though “incarnate” seems difficult to gloss.

As we have seen, Sheehan’s central position is that in the preaching of Jesus it is asserted, or perhaps implied, that Yahweh, the Father, is already incarnate without remainder in his people, that the reign of God shows itself in relations between human beings, that is, in justice and charity, and that it follows from this that religion is over. Now it isn’t claimed that this is more than the interpretation of data that are in themselves uncertain. But my difficulty with the general thesis is that I don’t know what the data are upon which Sheehan relies. None of the well-known sayings that give us the special flavor of the gospels—that the Sabbath is made for man, that what is evil in man comes from within, that the penitent sinner is closer to the kingdom than the strict observer of the law, that Moses permitted divorce because of the hardness of hearts but that “in the beginning” it wasn’t so, that whores and tax gatherers go into the kingdom before respectable people, that God cares for the sparrows and therefore cares much more for the human family—carry with them even the lightest implication that the Father is incarnate “without remainder” in his people.

On the contrary. It seems an impossible exegesis of some of the passages Sheehan takes as representing the preaching of Jesus. For example, the passage he cites from Matthew 6:26: “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” Here God is the God of creation who cares for his creatures; and although he may be understood under the tender image of “father,” he is equally the hidden God who, as in the constant Jewish and Christian tradition, lies beyond all possibility of plain discourse.

Again, it seems impossible to combine the idea of the incarnation of God “without remainder” with that petitionary prayer to which Jesus, in all the accounts, attached such importance, the prayer, for instance, set out in the petitions of the “Our Father.” Again, there is no trace of a desire in Jesus to make love of God and love of neighbor synonymous. They are held to be inseparable; but this is a quite different idea, for there is no trace of a suggestion that the command to love one’s neighbor swallows up the command to love God. It is impossible to read such an authoritative work as David Daube’s The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism1 without being convinced that the New Testament is on the question of the divine nature and attributes continuous with traditional Judaism. Sheehan recognizes that Jesus is portrayed as a pious Jew who reverences the Law and who, in opposing legalism, appeals to the authority of Moses and the prophets.

I have already drawn attention to what we are told about Simon Peter’s “Easter experience”: “Simon ‘saw’—God revealed it to him in an ecstatic vision—that the Father had taken his prophet into the eschatological future.” From this experience the legendary stories, as Sheehan takes them to be, of the Resurrection derive. First, there is no text, no primitive record, no known fragment, to which we can appeal to justify this view. It is a kind of transcendental deduction on Sheehan’s part. He believes that this is what must have happened; and he understands the important texts (e.g., “the Lord appeared unto Simon”) in the light of this a priori view. He argues, for example, that “appearance” isn’t tied to visual or tactual experience, and he argues this in connection with the crucial passage—crucial because it is earlier than any of the gospels—in 1 Corinthians 15:3–8. He passes rather easily over Paul’s claim that after the Crucifixion Jesus appeared to Peter and then to the other apostles and then “to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.” Simply as exegesis, whatever one thinks about the truth of Paul’s claim, Sheehan’s interpretation is surely implausible. He does not choose to argue, as he might well have done, that Peter’s supposed vision is one of a variety of religious experiences common in other religions. But he doesn’t discuss religious phenomena in general. Despite the deflationary conclusions he draws from the New Testament texts, it is as though for him these texts are of supreme importance, the only documents with which he has to make a final reckoning.

Sheehan’s general view would come together and make sense if his premises were very different. One could, proceeding from Feuerbachian premises, argue that such and such is the only sense the New Testament discourses could have, since the divine and purported relations with the divine, as in prayer, represent man’s alienation from his own nature. But I don’t think Sheehan wants to take this position. He wants, despite all, to attach himself to the family of theological discourse. But in doing that he has made a colossal difficulty for himself. His thesis commits him not only to holding that the immediate friends and followers of Jesus all made a fundamental mistake in the categories in which they talked about the preaching of Jesus, but that they all made the same mistake and that no one dissented in such a way as to leave a trace in the historical record; and that no one in the history of Christianity, from the first century to the present, ever suspected that this fundamental mistake had been made.

Here again, just what is the content of the nonreligion that in Sheehan’s view Jesus preached and Simon Peter and the other disciples subsequently refused to preach? That God is incarnate “without remainder” in his people, that the kingdom consists in practicing justice and love, and that Jesus himself, that commanding, fascinating, and often mysterious figure, is unnecessary to the health of the movement he began and his disciples aborted. G.E. Moore is said to have remarked on occasion: “I don’t know what’s true in this matter, but I do know that’s not true.” Many seekers after the truth of the New Testament will, I suspect, echo Moore when they rise from the reading of Sheehan’s provoking—I mean this as a compliment—book.2

This Issue

December 4, 1986