Tuesday, April 07, 2009
Bart Interrupted— A detailed Analysis of ‘Jesus Interrupted’ Part One
Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted, (San Francisco: Harper One, 2009), xii +292 pages. Part One ( the first 60 pages)
Bart Ehrman is both a gifted writer and a gifted lecturer. Perhaps his best gift is the ability to distill difficult and complex material down to a level that undergraduates and ordinary lay folk can understand. It is thus understandable that his popular level books on the New Testament and cognate subjects have been well and widely read, and in age disposed to ‘dis’ the Bible anyway, which is to say, in a generally Biblically illiterate age, Bart’s work has been seen as confirming suspicions already long held by the skeptical or those prone to be skeptical about the Bible and Christianity.
One of the problems however with some of Bart’s popular work, including this book, is that it does not follow the age old adage— “before you boil down, you need to have first boiled it up”. By this I mean Bart Ehrman, so far as I can see, and I would be glad to be proved wrong about this fact, has never done the necessary laboring in the scholarly vineyard to be in a position to write a book like Jesus, Interrupted from a position of long study and knowledge of New Testament Studies. He has never written a scholarly monograph on NT theology or exegesis. He has never written a scholarly commentary on any New Testament book whatsoever! His area of expertise is in textual criticism, and he has certainly written works like The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, which have been variously reviewed, not to mention severely critiqued by other textual critics such as Gordon D. Fee, and his own mentor Bruce Metzger (whom I also did some study with). He is thus, in the guild of the Society of Biblical Literature a specialist in text criticism, but even in this realm he does not represent what might be called a majority view on such matters.
It is not sufficient to reply that Bart is writing for a popular audience and thus we would not expect much scholarly discussion even in the footnotes. Even in a work of this sort, we would expect some good up to date bibliography for those disposed to do further study, not merely copious cross-references to one’s other popular level books. Contrast for example, my last Harper book What Have They Done with Jesus? The impression is left, even if untrue, that Ehrman’s actual knowledge of and interaction with NT historians, exegetes, and theologians has been and is superficial and this has led to overly tendentious and superficial analysis. Again, I would be glad to be proved wrong about this, but it would certainly appear I am not. This book could have been written by an intelligent skeptical person who had no more than a seminary level acquaintance and expertise in the field of NT studies itself. And I do not say this lightly, for this book manifests problems in all areas, if one critiques it on the basis of NT scholarship of the last thirty or so years. There are methodological problems, historical problems, exegetical problems, theological problems, and epistemological problems with this book, to mention but a few areas.
My grandmother used to say, “if you can’t say anything nice about a person, then don’t say anything at all.” So let me start the more detailed part of this discussion by saying something positive— I believe Bart Ehrman is an honest person, who really has been a truth seeker when it comes to the Bible and Christianity. His preface to this latest volume reflects that, and I applaud his honesty and forthrightness, while at the same time pointing out that I was a person who went through the same process of deep study and inquiry whilst in college and seminary and came to very different conclusions than Bart, and it wasn’t because I checked my brain at the door or ceased being a critical thinker on these subjects along the way. Bart and I are different in that I did not come out of a fundamentalist past at all, but we do share not only UNC and Bruce Metzger in common, we also both did English literature degrees in college, which explains to some degree the ability to write and the tendency to do it frequently.
Let me start then with a general criticism about Bart’s entire approach. He begins in his first chapter by bemoaning the fact that the general populus including the church, has been left in the dark about what “scholars have been saying” for lo these many years (over a hundred actually) about the Bible. He puts it this way “the perspectives that I present in the following chapters are not my own idiosyncratic views of the Bible. They are the views that have held sway for many, many years among the majority of serious critical scholars teaching in universities and seminaries of North America and Europe”(p.2).
Now it is always a danger to over generalize when we are dealing with as important a matter as the ‘truth about the Bible’. And frankly it is simply untrue to say that most scholars or the majority of Bible scholars or the majority of serious critical scholars would agree with Bart Ehrman in his conclusions about this or that NT matter. NT scholarship is a many splintered thing, and Ehrman’s position certainly does not represent a majority view, or the critical consensus about such matters. At best, one has to say yes and no repeatedly to what Bart takes as the critical consensus about such matters. Bart Ehrman, like the more radical members of the Jesus Seminar (e.g. Robert Funk cf. Robert Price) represents a minority position which has indeed been very vocal in proselytizing for their point of view. So this book should have come with a caveat emptor— “Buyer Beware: Hyperbolic claims about what most or the majority of critical scholars of the NT think will be frequent in this tome”. The appeal to authority or expertise in any case does not really settle much. The issue is—what is the evidence and why should we draw this or that conclusion? The other issue is— why mislead the general public about what “the majority of serious critical scholars” have been saying? Perhaps an end run has been done from the outset— you define a small circle of scholars as the serious ones, the critical ones, the real scholarly thinkers, the real historians, and then having defined your own group narrowly enough, you then say—“the majority of such people think…” Evangelicals are sometimes just as guilty of this ploy as others, but in any case, it does not help when one misrepresents the actual state of play of things among scholars to the general public.
Bart reminds us early on that the method of studying the Bible taught in most mainline seminaries is “the historical critical method”. It is also, in fact perhaps the main method of teaching the Bible in evangelical seminaries today as well. And two of the major things one is taught, quite correctly in the study of this method are: 1) ancient historical texts must be studied in their original historical contexts to be properly understood; and 2) modern post-Enlightenment historiography is at odds with the historiography of most ancients, particularly when it comes to the issue of God’s involvement in human history.
There is a further corollary—in order to understand the Gospels or Acts, or Paul’s letters, or Revelation, one needs to understand the features and characteristics of such ancient literature—in short their respective genres. The Gospels are written like ancient biographies, not modern ones, or in the case of Luke-Acts like an ancient work of Hellenistic (and Septuagintal) historiography. Unless one knows the conventions and limitations that apply to such literature, one is in no position at all to evaluate whether there are “inconsistencies” “errors” or other problematic features of such literature. Error can only be assessed on the basis of what an author is attempting to do and what literary conventions he is following. Let us take an example Bart uses from p. 7 of his book—the fact that in John the cleansing of the temple comes early in the Gospel account, whereas in the Synoptics it is found in the Passion narrative. He is right of course that some modern conservative Christians have attempted to reconcile these differences by suggesting Jesus did the deed twice— once at the beginning and once at the end of the ministry. The problem is, that this conclusion is just as anachronistic (and genre ignoring) as the conclusion that the Gospels contradict each other on this point. What do I mean?
If you actually bother to read ancient biographies (see e.g. Tacitus’s Life of Agricola, or Plutarch’s famous parallel lives) you will discover that the ancients were not pedants when it comes to the issue of strict chronology as we are today. The ancient biographical or historiographical work operated with the freedom to arrange there material in several different ways, including topically, geographically, chronologically, to mention but three. Yes they had a secondary interest in chronology in broad strokes, but only a secondary interest in that.
If one studies the Fourth Gospel in detail and closely in the Greek, comparing it to other ancient biographies what one learns is that it is a highly schematized and edited product, and the sign narratives are arranged theologically not primarily chronologically. And whilst this might cause a modern person some consternation, it is not a reason to say that John contradicts the Synoptics on this Temple cleansing matter. The Fourth Gospel begins by showing that Jesus replaces the institutions of Judaism with himself—a theological message (he is the Passover lamb, he is the Temple where God’s presence dwells etc.). The Synoptic writers are likely presenting a more chronologically apt picture of when this event actually happened. But strict chronology was not the major purpose of the Fourth Evangelist, we should not fault him for not giving us information we might want to have, or for focusing on the theological import of the event, rather than its timing. Such was the freedom, within limits, of ancient biographies and histories. I must disagree with the conclusion then when Bart says “Historically speaking, then, the accounts are not reconcilable.” (p. 7). False. This is only so if one insists on a flat modern anachronistic reading of the text which pays no attention to what the authors are attempting.
The Gospel of John probably tells us nothing about this chronological issue, the Synoptics probably do, and judged on their own terms and on the basis of their ancient genre, one cannot draw the conclusion Bart does. Period. And unfortunately, this is a mistake Bart makes over, and over again, judging ancient texts on the basis of modern presuppositions about history writing, and what counts as truth or error. In fact, it is not entirely erroneous to say that Bart reads the Bible with the same sort of flat literalistic hermeneutic that he would have used before he did his scholarly study of the text. And I find this passing strange.
Let’s take his next pet example— the three denials of Christ by Peter, and the cock crows. I quite agree with his critique of those who come up with six denials of Christ by Peter. No Gospel says that, any more than any Gospel mentions two cleansing of the Temple. Bart points to the difference between Matthew and Mark, the latter saying Peter will deny Christ before the cock crows twice, whilst in Matthew it says ‘before the cock crows”. He then asks— “which is it?” The assumption is: 1) these Gospel writers were trying to be very precise; and 2) these two options are mutually contradictory; and 3) we should ask these sorts of detail questions of ancient historical documents because we have a right to assume that modern historical ways of analyzing this material will help us to get to the bottom of such matters and find the historical truth.
In the first place let’s consider point 2). In fact, if Peter denied Christ three times before the cock crowed at all, then he certainly denied Christ three times before the cock crowed twice!!! But suppose the Gospels writer were not much concerned to give us precise information about the intricate relationship and intercalation between denials and cock crows. Suppose, in terms of historical information they just wanted to make clear that there were three denials and there were cock crows? Of course this is maddening to those who think that we must have precision on such matters, but in fact if an author wants to be general let him be general, and if he wants to be more specific, let him be more specific. Mark may simply have wanted to be more general in his account. And since I think, with most scholars that the First Evangelist is using Mark’s account, he probably knew far more about the Markan intent than we do, and decided to be more specific. He edits his Markan account according to his own presentation of things. I could go through Bart’s examples one by one explaining how insufficient attention has been paid by him to the ancient conventions of such genre of literature, but I agree with him that over-harmonizing on the basis of modern anachronistic considerations is wrong, just as wrong as claiming there are obvious contradictions based on a modern literalist reading of the same texts. And herein lies a very fundamental problem with the ex-fundamentalist readings of Bart Ehrman.
The Gospels are not, and never were intended to be inspected as if they were ancient photographs of Jesus taken with a high resolution, all seeing lens. On the contrary these documents are much more like portraits, and portraits always are selective, tendentious, perspectival. Let me illustrate this point.
One of my favorite Impressionist painters is Claude Monet, and I really love his series of painting done of Rouen Cathedral. These paintings were done in the late 1890s and they depict the front face of the Cathedral from slightly different angles of incidence, and in different lighting. But in each case it is recognizably the same cathedral with the same basic shape, from the same basic frame of reference. Let us suppose for a minute then that the Gospels are like these paintings. Now it would be totally pedantic to have an argument that went as follows: “In this painting Monet depicts the color of the front façade of the cathedral as being gray, but in this picture he paints it as being a yellowish shade, and in this picture a pinkish shade.” Which is it? Surely one must be right and the other depictions wrong.” Of course the proper response to this silly discourse is that they are all right, because they attempt to depict the appearance of the building at different times of day from slightly different angles. And no art critic in their right mind would think of suggesting that one painting was in error compared to the other. My point is simple. The Gospels are not works of modern biography or historiography and they should not be evaluated by such canons.
Nor for that matter are we much helped by evaluating the Gospel traditions on the basis of the canons of modern German form criticism which is grounded in notions about the passing on of oral traditions which simply do not apply to the first century A.D. and in the Jewish setting of the Gospels and Acts (on this point see Richard Bauckham’s fine study Jesus and the Eyewitnesses). Various of Bart’s comments presuppose that most NT exegetes and historians assume that the Bultmannian conclusions about oral history and oral tradition are correct. This is certainly not true now in the way it might have been said to be true specifically in mainline schools in the 70s. On the contrary, there is now a lively discussion about oral history that makes clear that the notion that there was likely a long gap between the events and their being written down, or between eyewitness testimony and their being written down is probably false.
Equally pedantic and unhelpful is Bart’s analysis of Genesis 1 and 2(pp. 9-10), which are generally agreed to be two different ways of telling the story of creation, one more general, and one more focused on the creation of humankind. Besides the fact that Genesis 1 falls into the category of poetry or poetic prose and should not be analyzed on the basis of it being some sort of scientific account of creation, it is frankly not fair game to compare and contrast these two chapters as if they were attempting to say the same thing in the same way writing like modern historians. They are not. Ancient narratological conventions come into play (see now Bill Arnold’s fine commentary on Genesis in the Cambridge series I edit). And now we begin to see why Biblically illiterate folk who are skeptical about the Bible are drawn to the Ehrman analysis. It appears to take the text at face value, and evaluate it by comparison and contrast, without taking into consideration at all issues of literary context or conventions. In other words, it approaches the matter as if one could simply read the English translation of the text without any knowledge of ancient writing conventions and come to important conclusions about historical truth and error. But in fact, this is not only not proper, in most cases it is not possible. The real truth seeker knows that a text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you would like it to mean.
Let’s take another example— Bart’s treatment on pp. 10-11 of Psalm 137. In the first place this is a song, and so should not be treated like a theological or ethical treatise. In the second place, what this song is a revelation of is what is on the heart of the psalmist. In the psalms, human beings speak to, pray to, implore their God in various ways. It is a very truthful and accurate reflection of various things on and in the human heart, including the desire for vengeance. What the psalms are generally not is a revelation of what is in God’s heart or character. But Bart seems oblivious to this point which is commonly enough recognized by commentators on the Psalms. More in depth study of the psalms could have led to the avoidance of this sort of error.
Let’s take now an example from the second chapter (pp. 24ff). Here Bart is comparing and contrasting the relationship between the events that lead up to Jesus’ death as told in Mark and as told in John, and trying to synch that up with the Jewish liturgical calendar in regard to the celebration of Passover, and the Day of Preparation.
A few historical remarks are in order. 1) despite what Bart says, no Gospel suggests Jesus was crucified on Passover, which is to say between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday on April 7 A.D. 30 (or less possibly in A.D. 33); 2) the meal described in John 13 is definitely not the same meal as that described in Mark 14 and the other Synoptics. John 13 is very clear about this— John 13.1 reads literally “But before the festival of the Passover…” The text does not say how long before. This could easily be a meal at the beginning of the week when the feast of Passover transpired, rather than near its end. And nothing whatsoever is said in John’s story about sharing the Passover elements. This is a striking difference from the accounts in the Synoptics, and I would say the differences are great enough that we must take them to indicate we are dealing with different stories here. 3) Most scholars who have written commentaries on the Synoptics do indeed think that Jesus celebrated his last supper with his disciples on Thursday night, which is to say, on the beginning of the Day of Preparation rather than on Passover day. There was precedent for this in early Judaism in some cases, and some scholars have even argued that Jesus was following the Galilean rather than the Judean liturgical calendar, which is certainly possible and believable. Whether this is so or not, it is notable that there is no mention at all about Jesus and his disciples eating lamb….in any of the accounts. This has led some to conclude, wrongly in my judgment, that even the Thursday night meal was not a Passover meal. 4) one of the major issues in determining when Jesus actually died is the question of which clock an Evangelist is running on— is it the Roman way of keeping time, or a Jewish and Oriental one? Which hour is the third, sixth and ninth hours, according to the respective Evangelists? Mark’s seems to be based on the Roman way of time keeping, but this may not be the case in John. In any case, all the Gospels in fact are in agreement that Jesus died before sundown on Friday, which is to say, before Passover actually begun, which is to say on the Day of Preparation. 5) in A.D. 30 the day of preparation for the Sabbath was in fact the day of preparation for Passover. It was one and the same day. Therefore, Mk. 15.42 does not in any way disagree with John when it says that Jesus died on the day of Preparation. Correct— and this was Friday before sundown when both Passover and Sabbath began that year. John did not need to change a historical datum to make a theological point that Jesus was the Passover lamb. The point is inherent in a theological interpretation of the actual day Jesus died. In this case, Bart is busily finding contradictions in the text which are a chimera. They are not really in evidence.
Bart carries on in much the same vein in his analysis of the birth narratives. What is of concern to us is not where he sees differences in Matthew and Luke’s accounts, but rather where he finds what he deems to be actual discrepancies. The first of these is that Bart claims that what Luke says in Lk.2.1-3 is clearly historically in error (pp. 34-35). What however does the Greek text of Lk.2.2 actually say— “this registration happened first/prior to the governing of Syria by Quirinius.” The issue here is the function of the word prote. What it seems to indicate is that the census in question took place prior to when Quirinius was governor of Syria. There was indeed a famous and indeed notorious census which led to the rebellion of Judas the Galilean in A.D. 6, and so Luke would be distinguishing that census from the earlier one when Mary and Joseph were enrolled. Bart also deems the notion of such enrollments as historically improbable, at least in the way Luke tells the story. There are however very clear examples from the province of Egypt of such census taking done for the purpose of taxation. And in fact, the evidence suggests a link with one’s ancestral home. I see no reason why the Romans would do it any differently with the province of Judea. Furthermore, when Augustus decide to go for the full blown Empire deal, he needed much more money for many more troops and armaments.
While Luke may be using rhetorical hyperbole when he says all the oikomene was being enrolled, a rhetorical usage common in Hellenistic historiography influenced by rhetoric, what Luke is referring to is the inhabited Roman empire, outside of Rome itself. In other words, his audience would likely have understood the reference quite easily and naturally. Bart also takes exception to the story of the wise men following the star. He says nothing of the fact that ancients often thought stars were living beings, the heavenly hosts, and it is more than likely that what Matthew is describing is the leading of the heavenly host or angels, of these persons to the birth place. Here again however some latitude must be allowed for ancient story tellers to present their narrative in ways that their audience would understand. While Matthew’s account does not tell us that Nazareth was Mary and Joseph’s hometown, his account is compatible with this fact, which Luke does tell us. The absence of an explanation does not a discrepancy make nor should it lead one to conclude the author thought something different, especially when Matthew tells us that eventually the holy family did go to Nazareth, and why would they pick that wide place in the road out of the blue if they had no prior associations with it? No good reason. The scripture fulfillment text in Matthew is a midrashic attempt to explain the fact that Nazareth was their home. It did not generate such an idea.
Lastly, Bart wants to argue that both Matthew and Luke made up the notion of a trip to Bethlehem independently of one another based on Micah’s prophecy, in order to indicate Jesus’ messianic origins, rather than suggesting he was born in a one horse town in Galilee. The problem with this is that Bethlehem itself was also a one horse town in Jesus’ day, and among other things, the slaughter of the innocents is perfectly in character with Herod’s paranoia as described in Josephus. It was hardly necessary for a messianic figure to come from Bethlehem unless one wanted to insist he was a descendant of David, but as we know from Qumran, there were other Jewish traditions that did not associate messiah with the Davidic line. In regard to the oft parodied story of the slaughter of the innocents, we are only talking about a handful of infants at most in such a tiny village anyway, perhaps 6-8. There is nothing improbable about a birth in Bethlehem at all or a slaughter of a few infants. Jesus was called Jesus of Nazareth because he grew up there from infancy.
Differences there are indeed in the accounts of the birth of Jesus in Matthew and Luke. And they are not explained by denying their existence, or resorting to false harmonizing tactics and exegetical gymnastics. We are not however talking about direct contradictions at all here. These narratives are quite compatible in all their essential details, and it is remarkable that two such independent accounts would in fact emphasize the same crucial points— a virginal conception and a birth in Bethlehem. This did not happen because they were both creative exegetes. It happened because they both relied on historical sources of information about these events. Ehrman’s conclusion that “there are historical implausibilities and discrepancies that can scarcely be reconciled” (p. 34) is saying far more than he knows or the evidence suggests. Had Luke said Jesus was born in Nazareth and Matthew said no he was born in Bethlehem, then we would have a contradiction. But we find nothing like a contradiction in these two accounts—differences do not necessarily equal discrepancies much less equal disagreements. One has to come up with much better examples than this if one wants to claim the accounts can’t be explained or reconciled.
It is the task of a historian, which Bart Ehrman says he is, to get his facts straight. When he takes on the differences in the genealogies there are a few crucial facts he either ignores or is ignorant of. The first of these crucial points is that in Jewish law, if a man adopted a son, that son was entitled to be considered a descendant of his adoptive father, including being a descendant of his step-father’s ancestors. The genealogies in both Matthew and Luke are strange in part precisely because of this legal issue, and more to the point they are strange because both writers want to include the notion of the virginal conception in their accounts, indeed Matthew includes it right in his geneaology, and this may be the only known genealogy where the wife is included in the husband’s geneaology like this!
Bart is right about various of the differences in these genealogies. But he does not correctly explain some of the reasons for the differences. In the first place ancient royal genealogies often were prone to leaving the skeletons out of the list, and so offering an edited version of the ancestry. Something like this is happening in Matthew who wants to suggest Jesus is the seventh son of a seventh son of David, namely the perfect descendant of David. In other words, the form of the genealogy reflects not just historical but also theological interests. The same can be said for Luke’s genealogy and his concern to show that Jesus is not merely son of David son of Abraham, but also son of Adam, and more crucially, son of God. The issues here are not purely historical and it is a form of reductionism to treat them in a purely historical manner. But they were not intended to answer purely historical questions. One needs to read them in light of the conventions of such ancient genealogies, not in the light of modern historical conventions.
Scholars have long debated why these two genealogies differ, and Bart may be right that they both are genealogies connected to Joseph, rather than Luke’s being connected to Mary’s family. But even if this is true, one of them could offer some part of Joseph’s paternal ancestry and the other some part of Joseph’s maternal ancestry. We honestly cannot say. What we can say is there is no basis for the confidence that Bart shows that we have clear contradictions here. More would need to be known about ancient genealogy composition to come to that conclusion. We could carry on with this sort of dialogue with Bart’s list of complaints but we have already dealt with what he takes to be some of the more famous parade examples of clear contradictions. Some of his other examples are much weaker, and can be explained on the basis of the differing editorial tendencies different Gospel writers had, or in Luke’s Acts accounts on the basis of what were the conventions of rhetorical history writing in the first place. About such things Bart says little or nothing, because he seeks to read the text on the basis of modern historiographical conventions, a signal mistake. Ancient texts must be evaluated on their own terms and without demanding of them a precision they never were intended to have.
It is interesting that as the book moves along, Bart stresses here (and later in this study) that he does not think that historical critical study of the Bible should necessarily or will necessarily lead to a loss of Christian faith. I quite agree with this. In fact, I would say in my case that it is precisely the historical, contextual study of the Bible that has strengthened my faith in its truth telling on various subjects of import, not the least of which is the need for and possibility of human salvation. I also quite agree with Bart that teaching students to think and do critical thinking about life and the Bible is a good thing. On these two conclusions we would simply agree. What is interesting is that the more I studied the Bible the less I was prone to accuse the Bible of obvious historical errors and stupid mistakes, including theological errors about a matter as profound as human suffering and evil. To the contrary, I found the Bible rich, complex, varied, and helpful and truthful in dealing with precisely such life and death matters. It would be appropriate then to ask—why exactly did studying the Bible in the same way at seminary and during doctoral work lead Bart Ehrman and myself to such different conclusions? In my case, my faith in the Bible was strengthened, but the opposite seems to have been the case with Bart. “This is a mystery and it calls for profound reflection”. Some of this clearly has to do with presuppositions. Let’s take a theological one that seems to be at the root of some of the differences.
Bart seems to assume that a God who is both almighty and a God of love, would not allow the hideous amount of suffering that goes on in this world. Now this is by no means an uncommon objection to Biblical revelation, but what it seems to assume is a particular sort or deterministic or even extreme Calvinistic view of God, God’s sovereignty, and human life. I can see how extreme suffering and evil is a major problem for such a view of God. It would seem to make God the author of suffering and evil, or at least an uncaring deity in too many cases. Suppose however that God has not pre-determined all things? Suppose God chose to create us in his image with a measure of freedom of choice, the power of contrary choice? Suppose God relates to us relationally and not on the basis of divine decrees? Suppose the vast majority of suffering in the world is a result of human misbehavior or stupidity or sin? Suppose in addition that God does repeatedly intervene in human history to aid and rescue us, without taking away our ability to make viable choices that have moral consequences? It seems to me that part of the issue here is that Bart and I have very different views of the Biblical God and how God actually operates.
Here’s another quandary and quagmire. It appears to me that Bart and I disagree profoundly about the import of textual variants. As Bruce Metzger who taught us both once said— we know what about 92% of the NT said in its original manuscripts with a rather high degree of certainty. As for the other 8%, very little of theological or ethical consequence is at stake. For example, the Trinity is not at stake if 1 John 5 did not mention it. The deity of Christ is not at stake just because some NT documents do not mention it directly, and some unscrupulous scribes added some clarity to this matter in other manuscripts in ways that distorted some NT manuscripts.
We also disagree rather strongly on the degree of flux in belief and in the handling of NT documents early on. It is simply not true to say that many of the primary Christian doctrines were not affirmed widely until centuries after the time of Christ. It is also not true that any such doctrines hang on only late copies of this or that NT book. When it comes to the issue of textual variants, the development of the textual tradition, and the theological import of such variants, Bart simply over-reads the evidence, or as the British say, over-eggs the pudding.
Now I think I understand why he does this. He rightly gets peeved with those fundamentalists who want to stick their heads in the sand and say, there are no such issues or problems even in the least. But an over-reaction is just that— an over-reaction. Throughout this book, the real boogeyman that Bart is trying to refute is fundamentalists who hold to a certain wooden and very literal view of inerrancy which hardly takes ancient historical considerations into account at all. I would actually have as many problems with the same people as I have with Bart’s views.
He also does not do justice to a reading of these texts in light of ancient genre, conventions, purposes, history writing and the like, but for very different reasons. The reasons seem to include that he is a ardent convert from fundamentalism to a very narrow and all too modern form of historical critical analysis of these texts– a form that starts with an inherent skepticism about the supernatural among other things, and assumes that critical thinking equals the ability to doubt this, that or the other ancient datum. I call this justification by doubt. It is no more a valid starting point for evaluating the NT than blind fideism is. Indeed, I would argue that to actually understand an ancient author you must start by giving them the benefit of the doubt and hear them out, doing one’s best to enter creatively into their own world and thought processes before understanding can come to pass. To approach the text with a hermeneutic of suspicion is to poison the well of inquiry before one even samples the water in the old well.
Bart and I furthermore disagree on the issue of pseudonymity in the canon. It is one thing to say there are anonymous documents in the NT, which there are. Hebrews would be a good example. It is another thing to say that there are pseudonymous documents in the NT, forgeries. I and many other critical scholars think this is not so, but Bart is right that many scholars think otherwise. My point is simply this— there is a healthy debate about that issue amongst scholars. It is not a “well assured result of the historical critical method” on analyzing the NT. I have pointed out at length in my Letters and Homilies of the NT, series the problems that pseudonymity raised in the first century A.D. for both Greek and Latin writers, never mind writers of documents supposed to convey God’s truth. The Gospels as we have them are formally anonymous in terms of their internal evidence, though the Fourth Gospel tells is that the Beloved Disciple (not specifically identified) is the source of the material in that Gospel. We can discuss the merits of the attributes later appended to these Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke, John), but in my view the testimony of Papias is important, and makes evident these attributions already existed in the first century, and in some cases during the time when there were still eyewitnesses. They cannot be dismissed with a wave of a hand, but at the same time one needs to ask— what were the conventions when it came to appending names to composite documents? This deserves more discussion. In the second part of this post, we will pick up the discussion with Chapter Three. Stay tuned.