Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Rethinking What You Thought You Knew (or at least what you were taught)

Every once in a while a book will come along which will change the way you think--or, at the very least, it will challenge the orthodoxy of that which you were taught during the education you received.

Perhaps it is a blessing (or a curse) that in the past three or four years, several books have done this very thing to me:

Timothy Keller's The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism
Dallas Willard's compilation of several Veritas Lectures titled A Place for Truth: Leading Thinkers Explore Life's Hardest Questions
C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity

These titles gave me some much needed tools to wrestle with my faith in a manner that was not given to me by the liberal education that I received in theology and philosophy.  For once, I was able to wrestle with my faith from an orthodox perspective, and this wrestling helped me deal with the major points I found lacking in my previous theological education.

Currently, I am reading another book which promises to do the same thing in the area of biblical scholarship that the above books did in theology/philosophy.

The book is by Richard Bauckham, a Scottish scholar, and it is titled Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony.  Thus far, (I am approximately 1/4 of the way through a 500 page tome) it is turning everything I learned in college and seminary upside down.

Revisiting the Past

During my college and seminary years, the third Quest for the Historical Jesus was well under way.  Some of you might remember the famous or infamous Jesus Seminar from the mid to late 90's.  I remember it well as it was another culmination of a particular way of doing biblical studies introduced to me by Dr. Norm Beck at Texas Lutheran University.  I'll never forget the distinction he made between the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith.

How does one go about making such a distinction?

Well, first one must approach the Gospel stories in the New Testament with  certain assumptions:

The Gospels originated in communities of faith who wrote down the stories of Jesus years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.  These stories were first passed down as oral traditions, and over time, they became embellished.  Certain things were added to the stories to make Jesus seem more powerful and attractive.  There are kernels of history still included in the Gospel narratives, but these must be weeded out from the faith statements/embellishments added by the various communities in which the Gospel stories originated.

How can one go about distinguishing the Jesus of History from the Christ of Faith?  Good question.  Certain scholars have come up with numerous sets of criteria to accomplish this task.  These vary of course from scholar to scholar and from methodology to methodology.  The Jesus Seminar was quite ingenious in that they had a vote by color scheme to decide what was "authentically Jesus" and what was embellishment.  Such methodologies could be applied in the following manner, and I will use two of the most important events surrounding Jesus: the crucifixion and the resurrection.

The crucifixion of Jesus is found in all four canonical gospels.  It is also attested to by extra-biblical sources.  The crucifixion would also be considered an embarrassment to the early Christian community as their leader was executed as a public criminal.  To include this in the works despite the embarrassment means there is a very high likelihood that the event actually took place.  Ergo-the crucifixion is definitely something that happened in the life of the Jesus of History.

The resurrection cannot be attested to by science or reason.  Extra-biblical sources comment that Jesus' followers say He rose from the dead, but there are no other witnesses other than those followers.  Such comments are not objective and are not historically verifiable.  Ergo, the resurrection is an event which is faith based and belongs to the Christ of Faith.

Now, this type of hair splitting can be rather concerning to many Christians.  There is a sense of "this is what really happened" versus "this is what was made up" lurking very near.  But, professors are usually not willing to totally destroy someone's faith.  They quickly point out the difference between reason and faith and that faith isn't something reason can confirm or deny.  There is no danger from entering into this process.

However, there are more than a few issues with this process:

1. Even though professors (and others) try to comfort believers by pointing out the difference between faith and reason and saying there is nothing to worry about; a good chunk of folks set faith and reason at war with one another.  There is a tendency to elevate one particular type of knowledge above the other, and this has led to all sorts of issues for the Church and for society.

2. When dealing with the Jesus of History--if you actually think you can whittle down to it--one must be able to make the Jesus of History as powerful as the Christ of Faith.  If the Christ of Faith developed later as an embellishment of oral history, then there must have been something quite powerful about the Jesus of History to initiate a movement based upon Him and His teachings.  Have Jesus of History scholars had to do their own embellishment to make the Jesus of History as appealing as the Jesus which appears in the Gospels?  Not sure on that one.

3. There is an oddly peculiar thing that happens in this quest for the Jesus of History.  Whenever a scholar "reconstructs" Jesus, then that Jesus seems to share many of the same passions, inclinations, and concerns as that particular biblical scholar.  So, one must ask whether or not the scholar is truly objective or is simply trying to make Jesus into a mirror image of his or her own beliefs?

Revisiting the Basic Assumptions

Bauckham makes such problems irrelevant. 


He challenges the basic assumptions of such biblical scholarship.

Bauckham begins by building a case that the Gospel narratives were NOT based upon oral histories and traditions that developed over time and were embellished.  (That's an important statement.  Read it again.)  Rather, Bauckham builds his case that each Gospel narrative was written based upon the eyewitness testimony of individuals who both saw and heard Jesus in person.  Each Gospel writer uses different eyewitnesses with at least one primary one, and three of the Gospels actually give indications as to who the primary eyewitness(es) was.

Mark's primary eyewitness was Peter.
Luke's primary eyewitnesses were several women who were disciples.
John was written by an eyewitness--the Beloved Disciple.

As I mentioned earlier, I am only 1/4 of the way through the book, but Bauckham's arguments are thoroughly researched, grounded, and documented.  There are multiple footnotes on just about every page.  He is very, very thorough.


If indeed Bauckham is correct in his challenge of the basic assumptions of the formation of the Gospel narratives, then we have just entered into a whole new world of understanding the stories about Jesus.  These are not the stories of legend, but the recollections of people who were there.

Now, one can say that these folks are making all the stuff up.  It's a reasonable thing to say.  However, these are multiple witnesses recounting many of the same stories without too much difference.  In fact, knowing the way our brains work and the details they remember, it might even be safe to say that the differences we encounter in many of the biblical stories are there because these eyewitnesses remember certain details over others--much like eyewitnesses who testify to a jury differ in their details.  In no way does it discount the truth of the events!

Furthermore, the dualism of distinguishing between the Jesus of History versus the Christ of Faith is no more.  The Jesus of History IS the Christ of Faith  (basically, this was the same thing Luke Timothy Johnson said during the whole Jesus Seminar hullabaloo; however, Bauckham is much, much more thorough).  The Gospels are stories based upon individual testimony and not compilations put together by particular communities.  And, if Bauckham is correct about the Gospel of John, we have at least one narrative written by a person who witnessed the life of Jesus, His death, His resurrection, and His appearances after the resurrection.

Fascinating, exciting stuff!!!  Stuff that makes you rethink everything you thought you knew or at least what you were taught.

No comments: