Prayer and Study of Torah

Daily Prayers were accompanied by the reciting of the Shema. While the Qumran community prayed three times a day, most Jews appear to have prayed twice a day.  These prayers were either at the time of the morning and evening sacrifice or at dawn and sundown at whatever location the person happened to be at (they did not have to go to the synagogue to pray.) Home was the primary place of worship for the Jew.  In addition to memorized prayers, individuals presented petitions to God for their own health and happiness.

The Synagogue at Gamla

The Synagogue at Gamla

The Eighteen Benedictions represent prayers used in public worship, although it is impossible to know for sure if they date to the pre-70 period. These prayers emphasize the attributes of God (his justice and mercy), his uniqueness, his willingness to forgive and to heal the sick as well as his control of the harvest. Sanders is doubtful first century Jews did any prayers (or hymns) in unison, but this cannot be certain since there is no evidence either way.

How often the average Jew studied the scripture is unclear.  This may refer to simply going to the synagogue and heard the scripture read (especially for the non-educated who would not be able to read.)  In addition, scrolls were expensive, only the incredibly wealthy would be able to own a scroll to study.

The Synagogue is of critical importance to the Jews of the first century.  While we do not know when the synagogue was first used, we do know of synagogues dating to the first century (in the town of Gamla and one in Masada and the Herodian, likely built by Zealots long after Herod’s time.) Often synagogues were built over the site of an older building, accounting for the lack of first century archaeological remains. The synagogue at Tiberias was large enough to hold a crowd gathered to discuss the impending war (Life 277, 280, 290-303). We know from the Bible that both Jesus and Paul taught in synagogues regularly.

Philo describes the synagogue meeting which took place on Sabbath: a priest or elder would read from the scripture and comment on the text while people listened, then anyone who was moved to comment would do so.  Usually they simply sat in silence and listened. Essenes were taught in the law every day, but more often on the Sabbath. The synagogue as designed with benches around the perimeter to encourage participation by all in attendance, as demonstrated in Mark 1:14-15, 6:1-5.

I am not sure Jesus challenges this institution of Second Temple Judaism. He is often described as participating in Synagogue discussions may have been asked on occasion to address the group as a teacher.  But it is possible Jesus does subvert the normal practice of gathering to study Scripture at a Synagogue in other ways, but teaching on hillsides or other locations.

The Cutural Context of the Gospels: The Temple

E. P. Sanders once said “Judaism was more a way of life than a doctrinal system” (Judaism: Practice and Belief, 3). Sanders describes practical details of daily Jewish life as well as the fundamental teachings of Judaism most the Jews of the first century were in agreement. But Second Temple period Judaism sometimes differed about how to live out the Jewish life in their present circumstance. These hotly debated questions centered concerned both internal affairs, such as who controls the national institutions, such as Temple and sacrifice or who interprets and administers the Law. But there was a range of views on external affairs such as cooperation with the Romans. Could a faithful Jewish person cooperate with Rome and not violate the law? Is rebellion against Rome possible?

Over the next series of posts I want to discuss this cultural landscape forming the background of the Gospels. Beginning with the Temple, I will briefly outline some of the more important institutions and practices found in first century Judaism, with an eye to showing how Jesus in some ways is consistent with these beliefs and institutions, but also how he challenged them in his ministry.

Jewish TempleWhile the synagogue was a place for prayer and study of scripture, the Temple was a place for sacrifice. Just as sacrifice of animals is always a part of religion in the ancient world, it played an important part of the practice of religion in Jerusalem. Judaism differed from other pagan religious ceremonies in some very important ways. For example, unlike Greco-Roman religions, there is only one place in the world where and acceptable sacrifice can be made, the Temple at Jerusalem. A Roman could offer a sacrifice anywhere, at any time, even when there was no temple or priest to officiate.

Judaism was different from other ancient religions because it brought everything under the heading of “Divine Law” (50). The Greco-Roman world had religion and philosophy; religion dealt with the gods and philosophy dealt with ethical and practical issues. Judaism combined these two elements since there was nothing in life except one’s duty to God. Any daily practice could be tied somehow to one’s religious devotion (Josephus, Apion 2.170-173).

The Temple was therefore central to the life of the common Jew. “At the heart of Jewish national life, for better or worse, stood the Temple” (N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 224). The impression from reading the more extreme views of the Essenes or from Jesus’ sharp critique of the Temple in the New Testament is that the Temple was viewed negatively in the first century. Despite politically ambitious High Priests and possible corruption in the first century, most Jews supported the Temple through offerings willingly given. Diaspora Jews even supported the Temple through the half-shekel “Temple Tax,” a practice the Romans required to be continued after the revolts, although the money was diverted to Rome (War 7.218; Dio Cassius, 66.7).

In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus is not impressed with worship in the Temple. He only visits the Temple in his final week (although John describes him visiting Jerusalem more often). He famously declares the Temple to be a “den of robbers” and disrupts commerce in the Temple courts (Matt 21:12-13). He mourns for Jerusalem (Matt 23:37-39) and declares the Temple will soon be destroyed (Matt 24:1-2).

How shocking would this be for his disciples to hear? To what extent is Jesus attacking the heart of Jewish worship?

What About the “Actions of Jesus”?

What would historical Jesus studies look like if we started with the things Jesus did first, rather than the words of Jesus? Frequently Historical Jesus studies begin with the words rather than the activities of Jesus. Sayings judged as authentic are then used to decide which things Jesus might have actually done.

In his monograph on the relationship of Jesus and Judaism, E. P. Sanders suggested that this method is backwards.  Rather than beginning with the sayings of Jesus, Sanders created a list of activities which we can be certain Jesus did. He then used this list to evaluate the words of Jesus.  For Sanders, Jesus’ activity in the Temple becomes the starting point for his study, but any certain activity might be chosen. We know without a doubt Jesus was crucified by the Romans. What might he have taught in order to attract the attention of the Romans? I doubt the Romans went around crucifying people for loving their neighbors. But if someone was implying they were some sort of an “heir of David” and hinting they might be about to restore the kingdom to Israel, perhaps the Romans would respond by arresting and executing the person for challenging the peace of Rome.

jesus-at-supperAnother example is Jesus’ table fellowship with sinners. There is little doubt that Jesus among scholars Jesus ate with sinners. This practice was nothing like that of the Pharisee or Qumran community. Neither group would have eaten with people outside of their group, let alone “sinners” who had contact with Gentiles. If there is anything certain about Jesus’ ministry it is that he ate and drank with sinners. Even some of the followers of John the Baptist questioned Jesus on his eating habits! N. T. Wright, for example, considers the fact that Jesus welcomed “sinners” into table fellowship a “fixed point” for historical Jesus studies (Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 267).

This reputation was so well-known that Jesus is described as a “glutton and drunkard” and a friend of “tax–collectors and sinners” (Matt 11:19 / Luke 7:34). This description of Jesus is undoubtedly authentic since it is unlikely such a description would be created by a later Christian community. If you are creating legends to prove Jesus is God, you do not create stories about him eating drinking with prostitutes. Likewise, if you were creating stories to encourage holy living, perhaps you might describe Jesus as a “friend of sinners who have already repented.”

If we know with certainty Jesus ate with sinners, then sayings about welcoming sinners are consistent with those actions. The parable of the Great Banquet in Luke 14 replaces the invited guests with the poor and crippled, as does the Wedding Banquet parable in Matt 22. The often challenged sayings in Mark 2:13-22 may very well be authentic because it is related to Jesus’ practice of feasting rather than fasting.

What other challenged sayings of Jesus that would be less problematic if we started with what Jesus did?

The Words of Jesus and Skepticism

AuthenticityOne of the commonly cited reasons for suspending judgment on the words of Jesus is that studies seeking to authenticate the words of Jesus tend to be concerned only with methods for authenticating the words and less interested in what is actually said in the Gospels. These types of studies fall into three categories. Some reject virtually everything the gospels report as words of Jesus.  The classic example of this historical skepticism is R. Bultmann, who famously said that we can know little more than the fact that Jesus lived and died. His “Jesus of History” and “Christ of Faith” dichotomy is not particularly helpful and yields very little in the way of historical insight. Others accept the words of Jesus as presented in the gospels with no attempt to sort out the voice of the Gospel writer from the voice of Jesus. This is problematic for the simple reason that we do not have the words of Jesus at all. He taught in Aramaic, we read the remembrance of those words recorded in Greek many years after they were first spoken.

Most scholars who work in the field of Historical Jesus research attempt to find a place between these two extremes.  This approach to the words of Jesus would use the tools of the scholarship to weigh sayings of Jesus less skeptically than the first group, but also less naively than the second. While it is obvious that we do not have the actual words of Jesus, we have access to the “voice of Jesus” as reported by the evangelists. In this view, various criteria of authenticity are favored over others, producing differing results. As is typically the case for middle positions, the skeptics find this approach to be inadequate (or worse, faith–based) and the conservative finds them too restrictive (or worse, liberal).

This is not to say that I am skeptical of the sayings of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. On the contrary, I am convinced that the Synoptic Gospels accurately record the “voice of Jesus.” The work of N. T. Wright, for example, attempts to read Jesus within the story of the Jewish people and treats the words of Jesus within that narrative world.  Similarly, J. D. G. Dunn argues that the synoptic traditions were shaped by an oral tradition repeatedly performed by disciples interested in what Jesus actually said or did.

Is it even necessary to argue for the authenticity of the Words of Jesus? What (if anything) is the benefit of using the criteria of authenticity when we study Jesus?

 

Bibliography: Excerpted from Jesus the Bridegroom (Eugene, Ore.: Pickwick, 2013).

The Words of Jesus and the Criteria of Authenticity

jesus-say-bulletin-graphic-01Mark Strauss does an excellent job describing and assessing the so-called “criteria of authenticity” used to evaluate the sayings of Jesus (Four Portraits, 359-62).  I have expanded this list a bit using volume 1 of John Meier’s The Marginal Jew.  The use of criteria for determining the authenticity of Jesus’ sayings are part of an inductive argument which can only lead to the likelihood that a given saying goes back to Jesus.  If multiple criterion imply that a saying is authentic, that increases confidence in that saying.

  • Dissimilarity (Discontinuity in Meier, 1: 171-174, also known as originality, or dual irreducibility). If a saying is unlike anything found in Judaism or the early church, then it is more likely to be correct.   But there is a serious problem here:  How can a historical Jesus be divorced from Judaism, the religion of the Hebrew Bible and the first century Palestine in which he ministered? Why Jesus reflect a culture different from Judaism if he was a Jew?
  • Multiple Attestation. This assumes at least a two source hypothesis,  If a saying is in Mark and Q, then it is more likely to be authentic.  If a saying appears in Mark, Q, and Gospel of Thomas, etc, this “triple attestation” that is more likely to be original.  On the surface, this seems reasonable although it assumes several things about source criticism.  However, it is not applied consistently by some scholars. For example, Mark 10:45 appears in multiple layers of tradition (as defined by the Jesus Seminar), et the saying is dismissed as a creation of the church.
  • Coherence (Meier, 1:176-177, also known as conformity, or consistency). The criterion of coherence states that whatever statements of Jesus that are supported generally by the other criteria are more likely to be authentic. This assumes that one has been able to isolate some authentic material using the other criteria and have established a database for dealing with other sayings.  This is not unlike the Jewish method of judging a prophet – the Torah was the database by which prophetic books were evaluated.  If they contradicted the Torah, they could not be authentic.
  • Embarrassment (Meier, Marginal Jew 1:168-171, also known as contradiction). The pericope is not the sort of thing that the early church would have gone out of their way to create. If one were imagining a community of believers creating stories about Jesus, it follows that they would suppress stories that were embarrassing or difficult to fit into the developing Christology of the church.  Meier uses the example of the baptism.  Jesus (the sinless son of God) presents himself to John the Baptist, a sinful mortal, in order to be baptized, even though John’s baptism was announced as for repentance and the forgiveness of sins.  Mark 1:4-11 has Jesus simply presenting himself for baptism, Matthew 3:13-17 has Jesus explain to John why baptism is necessary, Luke 3:19-22 places the arrest of John before the baptism story (as a flashback) so that the reader does not immediately connect John with the actual baptism.  By the time John writes, there is no actual baptism, only the witness of the Spirit to the identity of Jesus.
  • Rejection and Execution (Meier, 1:177). This element is quite different than the others.  It assumes that Jesus was in fact arrested by the Jews and tried for something, and executed by the Romans.  What might he have taught and done that would have led to that level of punishment?  If he was a teacher of parables and short witty aphorisms, then he is unlikely to get himself crucified.
  • Semitic Flavor. Strauss includes although it was not really one of the Jesus Seminar’s original criteria. If a saying or action of Jesus has a “pronounced Jewish or Palestinian flavor, it is more likely to be authentic” (361). His example is the use of the Aramaic word abba in Mark 14:36. The assumption is that Jesus spoke as a Palestinian Jew and (presumably) later writers would be unfamiliar with a Semitic context. This criterion may not be helpful if the writer is Jewish; Matthew could create Jewish things for Jesus to say, for example.
  • Divergent Traditions. Occasionally authors preserve traditions which do not serve their purposes. In Matt 10:5-6 Jesus tells his disciples to not go to the Gentiles, yet in Matt 28:16-20 he tells them to go to all the nations. As Strauss points out, this criterion is difficult to use since we may not understand the purpose of the Gospel writer. In the example given, it is possible the situation during Jesus’ ministry was different than after the resurrection.

In the end, do these tests achieve anything? It has become standard among conservative to state that the use of the Criteria tells us very little about Jesus and then dismiss them out of hand.  But I like how Blomberg concludes his discussion of the criteria: these arguments build on faith evidence with does actually exist (Jesus and the Gospels, 221).

I would unpack this statement in two directions.  If one already has faith that the Gospels accurately record Jesus’ words, then the criteria of authenticity provide evidence in favor of that faith.  We can be assured that we have accurate accounts of the sorts of things Jesus actually said.  On the other hand, if one assumes Jesus did not say certain things (Son of Man, eschatology, etc.), then the criteria will prove that assumption, Jesus could not have said the things the Gospels claim.

In the end, these tests are still matters of faith, and pretending that they are objective is a sham.

What is Redaction Criticism?

“…it is now generally recognized that the Evangelists were not merely ‘scissors and paste men.’ On the contrary, the ‘scissors’ were manipulated by a theological had and the ‘paste’ was impregnated with a particular theology.” Robert Stein, Robert Stein, Gospels and Tradition: Studies on Redaction Criticism of the Synoptic Gospels (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1991), 22.

While Redaction Criticism describes the original Sitz im Leben (life setting) of a saying in the life of Jesus, it is more concerned with the life-setting of the Gospel writer. Redaction criticism reads the gospels in two different directions. Assuming that Matthew and Luke used Mark, why does Matthew present a pericope in one way, Luke in another?  What is Matthew’s unique theological point of view? A redaction critic reads horizontally, comparing two or three identical stories or sayings in order to examine the differences between the gospel writers. They also read vertically within the one Gospel in order to discover that writer’s themes and theological priorities. Rather than focus on the community that “created” the stories, Redaction critics recognize that authors created the gospels as we read them from sources.

Cut and Paste Bible

Redaction Criticism makes some assumptions that may compromise the whole system. First,  Redaction Criticism must assume literary dependence, virtually always Markan Priority, the existence of Q, etc.  If these assumptions are false, then questions like “how did Matthew use Mark” are meaningless.

Second, since the assumption of Markan priority is a given in Redaction criticism, the question of Mark’s sources is almost impossible to answer. It is impossible to “do redaction criticism” on Mark, since we do not have enough data to examine.

Third, and most problematic, Redaction Criticism spends more time explaining parallels and non-parallels, and less time explaining what the text actually says. A commentary on Matthew that only seeks to explain Matthew’s redactional method may not be particularly interesting to someone wanting to know what Jesus said!

A simple yet controversial example is the Sermon on the Mount.  Most scholars now agree that the material in Matthew 5-7 comes from a sayings source (Q), and that Matthew created the “sermon” by thematically linking the teachings of Jesus, beginning with “he began to teach” and ending with “they were all amazed.”

A redaction critic might say that the Sermon on the Mount itself never really took place a historical event. An evangelical version of Redaction criticism might say Jesus’ words are authentic and Jesus often taught like this, but setting is contrived by Matthew. The Gospel writer has created a section of the teaching of Jesus (in contrast to the next two chapters, the miracles of Jesus, which end in a similar pronouncement). The other of the five discourses in Matthew (chap. 10, 13, 18, 24-25) were “constructed” in a similar way. Jesus really said these things but in various other contexts and not necessarily on a single occasion as present by the Editor Matthew.

The value in redaction criticism is in the horizontal reading – If Matthew used Mark, why did he re-state the text in the way that he did?  Why did Luke move the event / saying to another location in the life of Jesus?  The value of the themes and motifs that the writers work is enormous, giving a real insight into the meaning of a given text. Or is it possible any “real insight” into the Gospel writer’s method is imaginary, based on the reader’s presuppositions?

Did Disciples of Jesus Keep Notebooks?

One of the assumptions of Form Criticism is that the disciples did not write anything down during Jesus’ lifetime or even in the earliest years of the church. The teaching and activities of Jesus were passed along as oral tradition through teaching and preaching. The more radical / early Form Critics imagined that no one cared to write anything down because they believed Jesus would return so soon there was no time for writing books. The assumption is, Jesus wrote nothing and neither did his disciples. In fact, the disciples are often described as illiterate peasants who could not have written down his words even if they wanted to! Bart Ehrman makes this point in his Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet as well has his recent How Jesus Became God. Jesus lower-class peasant followers “spoke Aramaic rather than Greek. If they did have any facility in Greek, it would have been for simply for rough communication at best…Peter and John are explicitly said in the New Testament to be ‘illiterate’” (Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet, 45).

Coffee and MoleskineMichael Bird challenges the assumption that none of Jesus’s early followers would be interested or capable of writing his words down in order to help the recall his teachings later. I his recent The Gospel of the Lord (Eerdmans, 2014) Bird takes serious the possibility the disciples kept notebooks even in the lifetime of Jesus. Like Bird himself confesses, I am skeptical about the claim any of the disciples were literate enough to have written down key teachings of Jesus, let alone take notes in the contemporary academic sense. There is little evidence the disciples were “scribal literate” (to use Chris Keith’s phrase) and no physical evidence for such notebooks exists. While 2 Tim 4:13 could be read as a reference to such a notebook, it is not certain and some will object 2 Timothy is apocryphal and late.

Nevertheless, there is some evidence for listeners taking notes in order to “capture the gist of speeches” (Craig Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, 148). He cites a number of ancient sources that indicate some took basic notes for the purpose of guarding one’s memory. Cicero describes Cato as wanting to “read the note-books of Aristotle” over his holiday as a way of refreshing his memory (Cicero, Fin. 3.3.10). Notebooks are not necessary neat collections of texts, some teachings of the stories were “left in the form of note-books. This distinction occasionally gives them an appearance of inconsistency” (Cicero, Fin. 5.5.12). Bird offers several other Jewish and Christian examples in addition to the Roman texts cited by Keener. The practice of testimonia, or thematic collections of scripture was used in the early Church. Justin knew of twenty-six topically arranged collections of sayings of Jesus (Dial Tryph. 15-17, Bird, 47)

These examples are more appropriate for the Gospels, since the disciples were “more like Qumran” than trained scholars in the Hellenistic world described by Cicero! Bird concludes that it is “highly probably that notebooks were used by Jesus’ own disciples and by later adherents in the early church” as a memory aide (Bird, 48). I think Bird needs to contend with the objection that even if later (post-Resurrection) followers kept notebooks, Jesus’ own disciples were by in large illiterate. I think this might be done for a few, perhaps even Peter, James and John. They were not the lowest strata of a peasant society because they appear to have owned boats and had hired men working for them. If they were followers of John the Baptist from the very beginning, perhaps they had been given some synagogue training over and above what a “lowly peasant” normally receives.

If this is the case, then jotting notes about the words of Jesus to use in later teaching and preaching is not too-farfetched. I doubt they had their hipster moleskines, anything written would have been to aide memory. The upshot of all this is that the source of the Oral Tradition sought by Form Criticism is the disciple of Jesus who listened carefully and remembered, and perhaps wrote a few notes as well.

 

What is Source Criticism?

Source Criticism and Form Criticism both attempt to get behind the text of the gospels in order to understand how the written Gospels were formed. As the name implies, Source Criticism seeks to identify the sources the Gospel writers used when they wrote their gospels. For the most part, the Synoptic Gospels are treated separate from John, since Source Criticism is easier to do when studying the Synoptic Gospels since they are so similar in content and order.

Source Criticism is necessary because of what has become known as the “Synoptic Problem.” There are many parallel passages between Matthew, Mark and Luke. Sometimes the wording is identical, sometimes it is very similar, but there are some examples of very different wording.

Lack of SourceThe baptism of Jesus is an example of a problem passage where one of the gospel writers appears to have changed the one of the others.  In Mark 1:10 and Luke 3:22 the voice from Heaven addresses Jesus saying “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”  But in Matthew 3:17 the voice addresses John the Baptist (or the crowd) saying “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”  Clearly this is a singular event, only occurring one time in Jesus ministry.  How are we to account for this apparent change by Matthew?

Another difficult passage is Matthew 19:17, Mark 10:18 and Luke 18:19. Each of these parallels describer the same event.  In Mark and Luke, a rich young ruler comes to Jesus says “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  In Matthew, the “Good Teacher” is simply “Teacher” and the question is “What good thing must I do to get eternal life?” One of the two writers reports the question in a different form although they do not change the essential point of the question. Perhaps Matthew’s motivation is to avoid the potentially awkward problem of Jesus not wanting to be called “good.”

One possibility is Matthew wrote his gospel first, Luke used Matthew to write his gospel, then Mark wrote last, reducing the two longer gospels by removing some of the longer sermons found in Matthew and Luke (the Sermon on the Mount, for example). Alternatively, Mark could have written first, Matthew used Mark’s general outline and supplemented it with long sermons by Jesus. Luke then used Matthew as his main source, supplementing it with his own material.

A second possibility is Mark wrote first, and Matthew and Luke wrote more or less at the same time, using Mark’s Gospel as an outline. They supplemented Mark’s Gospel with sayings of Jesus drawn from another source. This would account for the general outline of Mark present in both Matthew and Luke as well as the common body of Jesus sayings in Matthew and Luke. Scholars called this “sayings source” Q, short for the German word Quelle, source. (I will have a bit more on this source in the next post). This two-source hypothesis is sometimes supplemented with two additional sources, the material unique to Matthew (M) and Luke (L), such as the Birth Narratives.

A third (less likely) possibility is complete independence. The Gospel writers did not know each other and collected similar material. There only appears to have been some literary dependence because the material all comes from the same common source.

Any one of these solutions (or the bewildering number of variations on them) are at least possible and there is no “liberal or conservative” answer here. What is a problem for some beginning Gospels students is the point of the exercise. What does it really matter if we read Matthew or Mark as the earliest Gospel? Does it really matter if Matthew used Mark and Q to write his Gospel? Sometimes Source Criticism seems like a pointless exercise.

I would suggest that Source Criticism is important because it establishes continuity between oral teachings of Jesus and the written Gospels. If there was some sort of a sayings source, it stands between Jesus’ original words and the gospel of Matthew. Source Criticism also reduces the possibility of early Christians simply creating words to put in Jesus’ mouth. Source criticism also helps illuminate the theological interests of the Gospel writer.

Is there anything to fear from probing into the origins of the Gospels using the methods of Source Criticism? Or maybe a better question, is there anything to gain from Source Criticism?

Biblical Criticism?

Huck and JimPeople often misunderstand what the word “criticism” means when applied to the Bible “Biblical Criticism” sounds like “I am going to criticize the Bible.” Biblical criticism must have been invented by the Devil (or at least German liberals) in order to destroy the foundations of our faith. But this is not the case at all! “Critical study” refers to the close analysis any text, as opposed to a surface reading.

For example, when I read a novel like Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, I usually just enjoy it as a story. But I have a collection of essays on Mark Twain that study the book from various historical and literary perspectives. (There are many of these studies, go search Amazon!) These essays are written by scholars who are reading the book more deeply and attempting to study it on a “critical level.”

  • In the case of Mark Twain, scholars often explore his view of racism in the late nineteenth century, but there could be books written on the history, geography, or culture of Twain’s books.
  • Perhaps there are some early, unpublished notes from Twain outlining the story of Huck Finn which shed light on how the novel came together. Someone might have alternate printings of the original story, questioning what the original wording Mark Twain intended.
  • There could be articles written on earlier versions of Huckleberry Finn, comparing the character in Tom Sawyer to the later versions in Tom Sawyer Abroad and Tom Sawyer, Detective.
  • Someone might specialize in exploring the sources Twain used to when he wrote the story of Huck Finn (newspaper stories about escaped slaves or life on the Mississippi river).
  • Books could be written on the “archaeology” of Huck Finn, illustrating what homes and businesses looked like in the mid-1800s.
  • A literary critic might explore how Twain wrote the story on a structural level, or explore the implied author versus the implied reader.
  • A feminist critic explorea Mark Twain’s view of women (here is an example on Academia.edu)
  • A post-colonialist critic might explore what the novel says about oppressed people in the American South. (Here is an example on Scribd.)
  • There could even be anti-imperial readings of Huck Finn exploring Mark Twain’s view of the American government. There are many Marxist approaches to the story of Huck Finn.

I will admit the world of Mark Twain scholarship is not as broad as biblical scholarship, and rarely are people enraged at critical readings of Huck Finn as Christians sometimes react to “critical readings of the New Testament.” But I am amazed that many of the “critical readings” of the New Testament can applied to virtually any literature. My point is simply that the Bible can be explored from many different angles and with a variety of agendas. Some of these are quite profitable and shed a great deal of light; others are not particularly interesting (to me).

“Biblical criticism” therefore refers to this kind of study of the Bible. It is possible to apply historical methods of study to the Bible in order to explore the origins of the Gospels. It is possible to apply literary methods to the Gospels to explore how the writers told the story of Jesus. It is possible explore the sources the writers used and how they adapted them to their own theological purposes. Various sociological and political methods can be used to understand first century Galilee better and therefore to understand Jesus’ own ministry among the people of that region.

This sort of study is not a devotional reading, nor is it a church Bible study. In fact, biblical criticism is not even the kind of study your pastor does when preparing a sermon, although a pastor should take advantage of tools of scholarship using critical methods. I think it is extremely important we not only understand these approaches, but also see how they can contribute to our reading of a story far more important than Huckleberry Finn.

Over the next few posts I will define some of the more common forms of biblical criticism popular in the history of Gospels study. In each case, the goal of scholars engaged in this kind of work is to get at what the Gospels are about. For the most part these scholars did not desire to destroy God’s Word, but to explore it at the deepest levels possible.

Evangelical Faith and Historical Criticism

Evangelical FaithJust yesterday I received a new book edited by Christopher M. Hays and Christopher B. Ansberry, The Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2013). The book is a collection of essays on somewhat controversial topics raised by biblical scholars who attempt to study the Bible as a historical document and covers some of the same ground as my list few posts. This is just a quick overview of the book although I plan a full review soon. I have only read the chapter on Historical Jesus studies since I am covering that topic right now.

The book is concerned with evangelical scholarship and the findings of historical criticism and argues that a conservative interpreter of the Bible can be both “critical” and “evangelical.” Two clarifications are necessary before reading this book, however. By critical (or “historical criticism” in the title), this book means contemporary scholarship rather than nineteenth century Protestant liberalism. Those two are not always the same. The authors of the essays in this collection are discussing the current state of critical scholarship rather than examples of older Historical Criticism. By evangelical, this book means orthodox Protestants who believe the Bible has authority in matters of faith and practice. Evangelicals are those who understand the Gospel as something that reconciles people to God through the atoning death of Jesus. What is missing in the definition as given on pages 17-18 is a direct reference to inerrancy as defined by the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy. Nor does “evangelical” refer to political conservatism. It is unfortunate that the label “evangelical” has been co-opted by the media to describe American political conservatives from Fred Phelps to George W. Bush.

After an introduction by Hays, there are four chapters covering Old Testament issues (historical Adam, The Exodus, Deuteronomic Covenant, and Prophecy). The sixth chapter on pseudepigraphy and canon is mainly concerned with the idea of an author and the problem of some Pauline letters, James, 2 Peter and the traditional authors of the Gospels. Chapter 8 treats the problem of Paul in his letters versus Paul in Acts. Ansberry and Hays offer some concluding comments on doing “faithful criticism.” These are all current issues in conservative scholarship and most have generated a fairly substantial secondary literature. Google “historical Adam” for example, or read some of the reviews of Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. I cannot recommend using the word “myth” in some institutions; even talking about Q is enough to cause problems in some academic circles. For the most part, these are not just controversial: they are raging bitter debates among conservatives, the sorts of issues that can get you fired from a conservative church or seminary.

Every chapter in the book is interesting and worthy of in-depth discussion, but I want to focus my attention on the seventh chapter, which is devoted to studying the Historical Jesus. I asked in the previous post whether an evangelical can use the tools of historical criticism without accepting all the philosophical foundations lurking in the background of these methods. Michael J. Daling and Christopher Hays contribute the chapter on Jesus studies in the book and begin with the simple observation that Historical Jesus studies are among the most productive in biblical scholarship. There are dozens of monographs and essay collections published each year making significant contributions to the study of Jesus and the Gospels and many more less significant contributions. Daling and Hays therefore summarize four particular areas that seem to be perennial points of interest for scholars working in and around the Gospels, although three of their points are all related to miracles.

First, what did Jesus claim about himself? For much of the last 100 years, scholars have read Jesus’ self-designation “son of man” either as eschatological (usually citing Dan 7:14) or as meaning “human” (non-eschatological). If it is eschatological, is Jesus claiming to be a messiah, and if he is, what exactly does “messiah” mean to a first century Jewish audience? Since we are reading the words of Jesus as reported by his later followers, some scholars dismiss Jesus as an eschatological teacher. He was not trying to “establish the kingdom of God” nor did he see himself as fulfilling prophecy in any way.  His later followers thought that about him, but Jesus did not think he was a messiah. On the other hand, it is at least possible Jesus had some messianic self-awareness. Even the most skeptical of scholars will accept as fact that Jesus gathered followers, and that he designated twelve of them as his “apostles.” Almost everyone agrees Jesus taught something about the “kingdom of God,” although there is a great deal of ink spilt on defining what the kingdom was. What would a Jewish audience in Galilee think of a Jewish teacher who gathered twelve disciples and taught about the kingdom of God? It is at least possible (if not likely) they would have heard echoes of the Hebrew Bible and the twelve tribes of Israel. I would include Jesus’ description of his ministry in terms of a wedding celebration another echo of messianic ideas from the Hebrew Bible, and there are many others as well.

Second, Daling and Hays list miracles as a major problem for historical studies of Jesus based on the assumption miracles do not occur. I plan on returning to this issue later, but for now let me observe this is a major dividing point between an evangelical biblical scholar and a non-evangelical since most evangelicals do not dismiss the possibility of miracles occurring before reading the text of the Gospels. This is true for the two “big miracles” Daling and Hays discuss, the virgin birth and the resurrection. For many Christians, these are non-negotiable miracles involving Jesus, so to deny the virgin birth is tantamount to denying the faith! Since we are reading reports of miracles by devoted followers of Jesus, many scholars dismiss them as legend-making. However, if we understand miracles in the context of a messianic Jesus, then healing and resurrection are part of the eschatological landscape. A messiah that does not do miracles is more suspicious, at least from a Second Temple Period perspective. Since the virgin birth became a kind of litmus test to detect liberalism in the early twentieth century, few conservative scholars would openly question why Jesus is presented as “born of a virgin” in Matthew and Luke.

I can certainly recommend The Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism for readers who want to read more deeply on these controversial topics. The essays are excellent examples of faithful Christians interacting with the tools and methods of historical criticism, asking questions of the text and struggling with issues on an academic level. In most cases, they are open to the possibility that a faithful Christian can hold views that are “less than conservative.”