By C. Stephen Evans
Can the New Jesus Save Us?, Part 2
HOW OBJECTIVE ARE HISTORICAL BIBLICAL SCHOLARS?
Some of the more orthodox biblical scholars recognize the above point. Catholics such as John Meier, for example, stress that faith convictions are not limited to the conclusions of historical scholarship. However, the way Meier makes this point highlights another pervasive, yet dubious, assumption on the part of many New Testament scholars. This is the idea that historical scholars, in contrast to members of religious communities rooted in faith, are committed to an ideal of objectivity. This is nicely symbolized by Meier's idea of the "unpapal conclave" and expressed in E. P. Sanders's portrayal of the biblical scholar who roots his conclusions in "evidence on which everyone can agree."
A dilemma arises at this point for someone like Meier who wishes to separate the conclusions of historical inquiry from the convictions of faith. Are the convictions of faith reliable or not? If they are, why should not the historian who is interested in truth employ them? If they are not, then why should the believer who cares about truth rely on faith?
The way out of this dilemma lies in questioning the dubious picture of the completely objective historian that lies behind it. The critical historian is not, after all, a person devoid of faith. Historical critics understand that their scholarly activity came into being at a particular time and place and therefore presupposes a cultural framework. Jon Levenson, a scholar of the Hebrew Bible who is himself a historical critic, has argued that even while recognizing this cultural framework, the members of this community, like every other, have tended to absolutize their cultural assumptions, their "faith." In practice, this has often meant that, among historical critics, the assumptions of the Enlightenment provide the lens for looking at the world.
It would be arrogant and foolish for the layperson to ignore or dismiss the work of the historical scholar. However, it is by no means too much for the layperson to ask the historical scholar, who is so keen on understanding human life in its cultural context, to have a sense of the relativity of historical scholarship itself. Once the "relativizer has been relativized," it will no longer be possible for the tribe of historical scholars to take a superior and arrogant attitude toward the members of religious communities, as if such communities were the only ones with biases.
There are good reasons why Christian scholars may wish to participate in academic "games" where the rules prevent them from appealing to some of what they know as Christians. Apologetic argument may require that one employ only assumptions that the intended audience will accept, and it is certainly interesting to see what may be known about Jesus without the testimony of the church or the saving work of the Spirit. Christian scholars must not, however, allow themselves to be hoodwinked into believing that this type of conversation is the only avenue to the truth, or that the results of such a game are the only convictions that deserve the honorific title "knowledge."
WHERE DO THE SCHOLARS DISAGREE?
What I am calling the relativity of historical criticism can be clearly seen when one examines the assumptions that are disputed among the scholars themselves. It hardly seems an accident that the conclusions of biblical scholars who are fairly orthodox in their theology tend to be historically conservative-to-moderate in tone. (I have in mind here scholars such as Howard Marshall, F. F. Bruce, Robert Stein, James D. G. Dunn, N. T. Wright, and Catholics such as Raymond Brown and John Meier.) Scholars who are less committed to orthodoxy or positively opposed to historic Christian faith, such as Mack and Crossan, often produce portraits of Jesus that are quite remote from church teachings. The latter type of scholar often speaks disparagingly of the former, implying that the more traditional scholar is less than fully committed to "calling them as they see them" and "letting the chips fall where they may." From my layperson's perspective, it seems evident that the prior commitments of people like Mack may be pervasive in shaping the way they interpret the evidence.
That Mack does have an ideological ax to grind becomes evident in "The Lost Gospel." He there explains that it is crucial to cultural progress to undermine the historical claims of traditional Christian faith: "The Christian gospel, focusing as it does on crucifixion as the guarantee for apocalyptic salvation, has somehow given its blessing to patterns of personal and political behavior that often have had disastrous consequences." Christianity is at least partly responsible for such evils as colonial imperialism, the slave trade, and the Indian wars. It is only when we recognize that the founding Christian narrative is a mythical creation that we will be free to criticize it and perhaps to devise better, more socially progressive myths. There is much that could be said about Mack's claims; my point here is that he should not pretend that he and other members of the Jesus Seminar approach the historical evidence with no ideological commitments.
Significantly, disagreement seems to be the rule among scholars engaged in the third quest, and the disagreements cut across theological lines. For example, some see Jesus as an apocalyptic preacher; others see Jesus as a proclaimer of "realized eschatology," stressing the current reality of the kingdom of God. Some hold that the teachings of Jesus cannot be reconstructed, but that his actions can be known with some accuracy; others say the teachings of Jesus are all that can be known. Jesus is seen as essentially apolitical; Jesus is seen as consciously challenging the oppression of the poor in the Roman empire. The Gospel of John is historically worthless; John's gospel is in many ways more historically informative than the Synoptics.
Such disagreements not only reveal differing assumptions, they demonstrate the highly uncertain character of most critical biblical scholarship. This can be nicely illustrated by examining two scholars who are perhaps equally unorthodox in their theological convictions, Michael Goulder and Burton Mack. We have already seen how Mack, relying on Q, produces a picture of Jesus as a wandering Cynic sage. Goulder, in his recent work "St. Paul versus St. Peter: A Tale of Two Missions," reads the New Testament as containing the records of a war between the Petrine and Pauline missions in the early church. These two camps warred long and hard over the proper attitude of a follower of Jesus toward the Jewish law, with the looser Pauline camp eventually winning and freeing Christians from circumcision and Jewish dietary laws. From Goulder's point of view, the Petrine camp was certainly closer to the perspective of the historical Jesus.
Now in the Gospels Jesus is represented as saying rather different things about the Law. Sometimes, as in Matthew 5, he appears to stress the validity of the Law: "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them, but to fulfill them. For truly I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law, until all is accomplished." At other times, Jesus seems to take a looser line on such issues as Sabbath keeping and food regulations, claiming "the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath" and that it is not the food that comes into a person that makes him impure but the words that come out of his mouth (Mark 2:27; 7:15).
How do Goulder and Mack treat such passages? Both are committed to "historical-critical" investigation; both are determined to throw off the "shackles of church dogma." Nevertheless, they reach completely contradictory judgments in this case. For Mack, passages that manifest a cavalier attitude to the Law probably stem from that wandering Cynic sage who loved to thumb his nose at convention. Passages that represent Jesus as affirming the Law are a creation of the later church, intent on domesticating the hippielike free spirit of Jesus. For Goulder, the Matthean passage where Jesus upholds the Law certainly represents the kind of attitude a pious Jew such as Jesus would have held. The Markan passages where Jesus takes a freer line are the creations of a Pauline partisan anxious to justify a laxer attitude. Whatever else one may want to say about this dispute, it seems apparent that neither party can argue that the historical-critical approach has led to objective certainty about the matter.
Although critical scholars often stress the uncertain character of historical scholarship, I do not think it is easy for the unwary reader to keep in mind how uncertain and speculative their conclusions often are. Burton Mack again provides an excellent example. His claim that the most reliable historical portrait of Jesus comes from the hypothetical document Q depends on the following chain of probabilities (and doubtless more than these):
- The probability that Mark was the first of the synoptic Gospels. If those who argue for the primacy of Matthew are correct, then there is no need to postulate Q at all.
- The probability that Matthew and Luke both drew on a common written source. Even if Matthew and Luke drew on Mark and other sources, it is possible the other sources were oral traditions.
- The probability that this written source can be accurately reconstructed. Since we know Q only from what Luke and Matthew supposedly took from it, it is difficult to know what the actual document, if it existed, contained.
- The probability that this source was an important document for a community. Even if Q existed and can be reconstructed, it is not certain that this document actually functioned as a gospel for a religious community.
- The probability that this hypothetical community, if it existed, regarded Q as containing all that is religiously important about Jesus. The claim that Q does not contain any information about the death and resurrection of Jesus, even if true, does not imply that the community may not have known about and valued this knowledge.
Such probabilities as the above are "chained" or "linked" probabilities. The final probability of the whole is obtained by multiplying the probability of each link in the chain, each of which obviously must be less than 1.0 (following the usual convention of assigning probabilities on a scale from 0 to 1). Multiplied fractions get small very quickly; for example, .7 times .7 times .7 is only .343. My mathematical skills are not formidable, but it is clear that even if the probability of each link in the chain is estimated to be relatively high (and in some cases, such an estimate can only be described as dubious), the probability of the whole theory is low indeed.
In fact, Mack's theory is even more improbable than the above implies. For when one examines Q, one finds Jesus to be an apocalyptic preacher quite unlike a Cynic sage. What is one to do? Mack's solution is to postulate different "levels" of tradition in Q and consign the apocalyptic pronouncements to a later stage, created by the community. But there is no independent evidence for the existence of early and late versions of Q, nor any objective basis for recognizing some parts as earlier than others.
It would be interesting to take some actual contemporary documents that have undergone multiple revisions, perhaps involving multiple authors with different viewpoints, to see if it would be possible for a reader with no external knowledge about the process to determine the "layers" of the composition. As someone who has been part of such a process, I think that this would be practically impossible, even for a reader who had detailed knowledge about the authors involved. It is hard to see how this could be done at all for an ancient document where the supposed authors and communities are known only from the text being studied. When Mack begins to postulate these layers of composition in order to save his theory, it should be painfully obvious that Q is no longer functioning as evidence for his portrait of Jesus, but rather is itself being interpreted in light of the portrait.
What do these disagreements and the resulting uncertainties imply? They do not imply that the scholars involved in the disputes are never justified in holding their views. Indeed, if we reject Enlightenment epistemologies, some of the disputed views may even amount to knowledge. My own discipline of philosophy provides a close analogy. Disagreements in philosophy are pervasive, but this does not imply that no philosopher has good grounds for philosophical beliefs or ever knows any philosophical claim to be true.
What is implied by the disagreements in both cases is that the views of scholars on disputed questions cannot provide a strong basis for laypeople to form beliefs. Anyone acquainted with the history of philosophy knows that little rational weight adheres to the fact that a large number of philosophers at a particular time hold a certain view. In the fifties, the majority of philosophers in England and America probably thought some positivist form of the verifiability theory of meaning was correct, but today such a view is almost abandoned. Similarly, it seems to me that the views of a group of New Testament scholars, even if they constitute a majority, carry little authority for outsiders if respected scholars equally conversant with the facts continue to disagree with that majority.
If the layperson had to rely solely on historical scholarship as the means of forming historical beliefs about Jesus, then agnosticism might be the most reasonable policy, at least with respect to some important issues. However, I have already argued that the Christian should not accept the idea that historical scholarship is the only source of knowledge about Jesus. Christian believers take themselves to have good grounds for their beliefs about Jesus. Although historical evidence will almost certainly be a part of these grounds, the total story will also include either the testimony of the church or the testimony of the Spirit (or both). One might say that the ultimate ground of faith in Jesus for an individual is the total circumstances of his or her life in which the truth of the gospel has become evident.
Thankfully, the work of the Jesus Seminar has stimulated a flurry of orthodox, critical responses, including such works as "Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus," edited by Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland; "The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth," by Ben Witherington III; and "Cynic Sage or Son of God? Recovering the Real Jesus in an Age of Revisionist Replies," by Gregory A. Boyd. Such contributions clearly reveal the dubious assumptions and shaky reasoning behind much of the current quest. As a layperson, it is vital for me to know that scholars conversant with ancient languages and texts see the historical evidence as consistent with historic Christian faith.
However, it is equally vital to realize that Christ's church does not stand or fall with the changing fashions of a contemporary academic field. My Christian beliefs are not primarily grounded in historical scholarship but in the testimony of Christ's church and the work of Christ's Spirit, as they witness to the truth of God's revelation. Do my convictions continue to be reasonable when challenged by historical scholarship? In this situation, the uncertainties of critical historical scholarship undermine any pretension that the field has a sure authority for the layperson. They leave the original ground for Christian belief undefeated.
Christians can certainly learn from this quest, and they can be grateful for the believing scholars among the questers. Christians should not, however, think that their own pilgrimage from death to life requires a detour down this particular scholarly trail.
BOOKS DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY
Raymond Brown, "The Death of the Messiah: From Gethsemane to the Grave: A Commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels" (Doubleday, 2 vols., 1,608 pp.; $75, 1994).
Gregory A. Boyd, "Cynic Sage or Son of God? Recovering the Real Jesus in an Age of Revisionist Replies" (BridgePoint/Victor, 416 pp.; $15.99, paper, 1995).
John Dominic Crossan, "The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant" (HarperSanFrancisco, 544 pp.; $16, paper, 1993 [first published 1991]).
Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar, "The Five Gospels" (Macmillan, 553 pp.; $30, 1993).
Michael Goulder, "St. Paul versus St. Peter: A Tale of Two Missions" (Westminster John Knox, 196 pp.; $15.99, paper, 1995).
Jon D. Levenson, "The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism: Jews and Christians in Biblical Studies" (Westminster John Knox, 258 pp.; $14.99, paper, 1993).
Burton L. Mack, "The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins" (HarperSanFrancisco, 228 pp.; $12, paper, 1994 [first published 1993]).
John P. Meier, "A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus" (Doubleday, 2 vols.: Vol. 1, 484 pp., $28, 1991; vol. 2, 1,118 pp., $35, 1994).
E. P. Sanders, "Jesus and Judaism" (Fortress, 448 pp.; $20, paper, 1985).
Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland, editors, "Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus" (Zondervan, 243 pp.; $16.99, 1995).
Ben Witherington III, "The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth" (InterVarsity, 250 pp.; $18.99, 1995).
N. T. Wright, "The New Testament and the People of God" (Fortress, 535 pp.; $17, paper, 1992).
Copyright (c) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./BOOKS AND CULTURE Review