Wednesday, April 08, 2009
Bart Interrupted--- A detailed Analysis of 'Jesus Interrupted' Part Two
Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted, (San Francisco: Harper One, 2009), xii +212 pages. Part Two ( pp. 61-75).
In his first rate analysis of Edward Gibbon’s classic 18th century study, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a work which set the pattern or paradigm for modern historiography with its basic skepticism or agnosticism about all things non-empirical, Jaroslav Pelikan in his The Excellent Empire brings to light some of the fundamental problems with Gibbon’s way of approaching history, which leads to flaws in his analysis of Constantine and the decline of the Roman Empire. It will be worthwhile to listen to a few things that Pelikan points out.
Gibbon in explaining why he treated ‘ecclesiastical history’ in the very same manner he treated all history writing says the following “The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in a long residence upon the earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.” (cited by Pelikan p.36).
It is indeed the job of the historian to analyze history as it was, not as we might like it to be. And it is fair to say that the NT does not shy away from displaying its own dirty laundry. Luke, in Acts is perfectly candid about various of the problems the early church had (see e.g. the story of Ananias and Sapphira), and Paul in his letters is constantly recounting the troubles he had with his churches. These writers were not people likely to guild the lily or make things up out of whole cloth, unless you believe that people are regularly prepared to be martyred for things they know are lies.
The earliest Christians writers were, almost without exception, educated Jews, who passed on early Christian traditions in a thoroughly Jewish manner and had a high regard for the truth of things. As much as we might enjoy today a Dan Brown novel suggesting gigantic conspiracies and cover-ups as an explanation for early Christian history, these sort of explanations do not do justice to the actual historical data that we have, whether we are discussing the data within the NT itself, or the story of the copying of its manuscripts and its later ecumenical councils and canon. And justice is what must be done with historical data, otherwise what is written is a travesty or a tragedy or both.
Evelyn Waugh, the novelist once commented on why Gibbon’s history made such an impact on subsequent treatments of the same subject of ancient Rome and early Christianity. He stressed that it was Gibbon’s style, his eloquence, memorable phrases, wry sense of humor, clarity that led to his work having the impact it did—“that is what style does—it has the Egyptian secret of the embalmers”. A person who has that gift of communication but is skeptical about the content he is writing about “might make it his business to write down the martyrs and excuse the persecutors.” (Pelikan, p. 40). In other words, he might well be guilty of revisionist history writing, something we’ve seen a lot of in recent years with the rising tide of Gnostic gospel discussions.
There are then three dangers we learn of when reading and critically analyzing Gibbon’s classic work: 1) history writing that either dismisses or is dismissive of the role of God in human history, claiming that that is not a part of the historian’s task, even if there is considerable evidence to the contrary, and 2) because of its skeptical bent, history writing that is prone to revisionism of a sort that distorts rather than dissects and correctly analyzes what happened back then and back there; 3) history writing that conveys 1) and 2) in a clear and eloquent and understandable fashion such that the clarity of the explanation makes it appear that the conclusions are obvious and should go without challenge. This of course is the power of good rhetoric—it persuades without necessarily providing the detailed evidence and analysis necessary to prove one’s point.
It is of course true that any historian knows that one is dealing with probabilities and possibilities. But it serves no good purpose to rule out some possibilities in advance of actually doing the historical analysis. In other words, it is narrow-minded rather than open-minded to start with a skepticism about the role of the divine in human history, and write one’s history guided by that skepticism. That, as it turns out, is bad historiography, not good critical historiography.
On the other hand, it is equally a mistake to do historical analysis in a gullible manner, ascribing all manner of things to the divine, when a sufficient human cause can be detected and described. Writing the story of early Christian history should neither be an exercise that could be called ‘Gullible’s Travels’ nor an exercise that could be called ‘the Skeptic’s Revisionist Speculations’.
There needs to be an openness to all the data as we have it, and a willingness to give the ancient writers the benefit of the doubt in the same way one would do with an admired contemporary colleague or friend in one’s field. Without sufficient native sympathy for the material or its author, the tendency to bend or distort is considerable, and the results unfortunate. The acid of skepticism has a corrosive effect. It leads one to find contradictions and faults at every turn, even when they aren’t there. It leads to atomizing and vivisecting a group of texts in a manner that prevents one from seeing the whole and its interconnectivity because one has divided it into so many discrete parts.
This methodology leads to result rather like the familiar parable of the five blind me all feeling different parts of the elephant. The first says “an elephant is like a horn” for he felt the tusk of the elephant. The second says “an elephant is like a rope” for he felt the tail of the elephant. The third says “the elephant is like a hose” for he felt the trunk of the elephant. The fourth says “the elephant is like a giant leaf” for he felt the ear of the elephant. The fifth said “you’re all wrong, the elephant is like a wrinkled old man” for he felt the knee of the elephant. One needs to see the parts in relationship to the whole in order to be able to assess the whole. The point is, while there is some truth in what each person said in this case, without a vision of the whole, one cannot properly analyze the significance of the parts and the differences in data and interpretation.
As we turn to Ehrman’s chapter entitled “A Mass of Variant Views” let is start with a statement on p. 63--- “Paul wrote letters..he did not think he was writing the Bible….Only later did someone put these letters together and consider them inspired.” Here we are dealing with a half truth appended to which is a false conclusion. It is quite right to say Paul did not think he was writing canonical books. He did however think that both his oral proclamation and his writing were inspired by God’s Spirit, and he says so repeatedly in these letters. The notion of inspiration is not something that came later and after the fact. Indeed, Paul was convinced from the outset that his preaching was the living word of God, and his writings likewise inspired. I have dealt with this subject at length in my book The Living Word of God, but what will have to suffice here is a simple quotation from one of Paul’s earliest undisputed letters, 1 Thessalonians--- 1 Thess. 2.13 reads as follows: “And we also thank God continually because when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.”
Early Christianity, from Pentecost on (see Acts 2), was a pneumatic movement, a movement of prophets and Spirit inspired teachers and preachers and apostles. It was a movement profoundly convinced that it had a new and late word from God that the world needed to hear. The leaders of this movement believed not only that the OT was inspired by God and so God-breathed (see 2 Tim. 3.16), they believed that their own words and writings were likewise inspired by God. This is precisely why in a text like 1 Cor. 7, Paul can quote the very words of Jesus on divorce, and then put his own words right beside them as equally authoritative and inspired and true. Now of course a secular historian can be skeptical about whether what Paul says is true or not, but what is absolutely not historically true is the notion that only later someone put these documents together and considered them inspired. That would be a false analysis of the historical data.
Bart pleads in this chapter that each Biblical author be allowed to speak for himself. I quite agree with this up to a point, But these Biblical authors did not think they were operating in a social vacuum. They believed they were part of a movement, and they relied on traditions, oral and written, from those who had come before or were their contemporaries. Bart’s modern and individualistic approach to each Gospel ignores the collective nature not merely of ancient culture, but also the tight-knit nature of the early sectarian split off movement from Judaism, called Christianity.
So when Bart says of Mark “he certainly did not think that his book should be interpreted in light of what some other Christian would write thirty years later in a different country and a different context” (p. 64), he is in fact going against the historical evidence we have which suggests the earliest Christian leaders knew each other, and sought, despite difficulties, to consult with one another, and work together. They wrote their documents as tools for evangelism and discipleship with one eye on their source material and one eye on their audience. Consider for example the preface to Luke’s Gospel, Lk. 1.1-4---
“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to write an account of the things that have happened among us [notice the ‘us’], just as they were handed down to us by those who were from the beginning eyewitnesses and servants of the Word (notice the sense of inspired speaking and writing), I too, having carefully investigated everything from the beginning, decided to write an orderly account for you noble Theophilus, so that you might know the certainty of the things you have been taught”
This is the spirit, and character of the way Luke approaches his source material, recognizing he is dealing with historical sources, and many have come before him compiling the eyewitness data. Considering how similar Luke’s Gospel is to Mark’s and Matthew’s in terms of the big picture, it is hard to doubt that Mark had a similar approach to sacred tradition and the writing of his Gospel. This is what we would expect from early Jews who had a reverence for their sacred traditions oral and written.
Let us mention a point of congruence with Bart’s analysis. Bart is right that the modern synthetic approach to the Gospels, which blends all the accounts together in one’s mental blender leads to distortions or neglect of the particular perspectives this or that Evangelist is highlighting. I quite agree with this point.
Each Gospel portrait of Jesus should be allowed to have its own flavor and character. The question is whether these four portraits are compatible, or whether they provide us with such divergent views of Jesus that we need to speak of one portrait contradicting or correcting the other. Bart thinks we do need to speak in that way, and I disagree.
And again the problem is Bart is atomistically analyzing these accounts as if they were meant to be photographs, not portraits and interpretive works of art. So for example Bart rightly points out that the portrait of the death of Jesus in Mark is stark and dark. Jesus says nothing on the cross except “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”. We are dealing with theological history writing here. Not theology written up as history, but theological interpretation of a history that itself is inherently theological, involving the divine.
Does this account somehow contradict, say the Lukan account where Jesus speaks to his fellow crucifixion victims? Well no, it does not. Why not? Two reasons. None of the Gospel writers is pretending to present an exhaustive account of what happened. And all of the Gospel writers are writing from a particular angle of incidence, a particular point of view. They have their own themes and theses they wish to highlight and like other ancient biographers and historians they assume a certain amount of literary license and freedom in editing and arranging their material. In other words, they are not pretending to be neutral or ‘objective’ in the modern sense of those words. They are committed believers. The question then becomes do their ‘points of view’ and faith commitments lead to a distortion of the historical evidence, or to the contrary do they lead to a profound and sympathetic understanding and interpretation of the evidence? I would suggest the latter.
One of the key assumptions guiding the comparison of the Markan and Lukan crucifixion accounts is revealed by Bart on p. 68—he assumes that the Gospel writers are portraying Jesus at the exact same moment on the cross, or that each of them are portraying the whole crucifixion experience. Frankly, neither of these assumptions are warranted. In each Gospel, only a precious few verses is devoted to what happened and what was said when Jesus was on the cross. But in fact these same accounts also tell us that Jesus was on the cross for three or more hours!
It is a classic error to mistake the part for the whole, or to assume that two different angled interpretations are meant to represent the same instance. Neither of these assumptions are warranted. Luke gives us more of what Jesus said on the cross, Mark, considerably less. It is perfectly possible that Jesus went through a gamut of emotions on the cross, moving from God-forsakenness to acceptance, to forgiving others etc. Any one who has done some counseling and pastoral work with the dying knows that a dying person does indeed often go through a variety of responses to his demise, even in a short period of time. None of these sort of dynamics are taken into account in Bart’s analysis. The Gospel writers are not suggesting Jesus was “all these things at once”. They are presenting different portions or aspects of the crucifixion experience, and nothing more.
If Bart had wanted to discuss the degree of freedom exercised with historical source materials, he would have done better in comparing the differing words of the centurion at the cross. Did he say “Surely this is the Son of God” (or perhaps ‘a son of the gods’), or did he say “Surely this was a righteous man” as in Luke? Conservative Christians most definitely need to come to grips with these sorts of real differences in the account, and avoid explaining them by explaining them away.
I take it that Luke’s modification of his source is intended to convey the same thing as Mark’s original—namely that Jesus was a righteous person who died a noble death and did not deserve to be crucified, unlike the bandit who was busy cursing his fate. The phrase ‘son of God’ on the lips of an actual centurion was a way of saying that someone had ‘pietas’, piety, righteousness, and probably did not deserve his fate. Crucifixion was considered the most shameful way to die, and the centurion is suggesting that Jesus did not deserve to be shamed in this way. His noble character was reflected in the way he died. In other words Luke, with his concern to show to Theophilus that Jesus’ crucifixion was a travesty of Roman justice (and that Christianity was not at odds with Roman jurisprudence) has rephrased the original words of the centurion in a way that makes plain Jesus’ pietas and righteousness. These two ways of presenting the centurion’s utterance are compatible once one realizes that the centurion is probably not a Christian before his time, nor is he doing a Christian theological analysis of Christ on the cross.
The art of historical analysis involves a judicious assessment not only of differences in an account (and an explanation for those differences can be offered), but a judicious assessment of the important similarities in the accounts. Only so is a balanced assessment possible. Bart, in reacting to the homogenizing tendencies of conservative Christians dramatically over emphasizes, and over interprets the differences in the accounts. The end result is not a fair assessment of either the Gospels as individual iterations of the story of the crucifixion, nor does it lead to a detailed enough assessment of the history behind the Gospel accounts. It is for example, not enough to say—they all agree Jesus died on the cross. No, in fact they all agree he died as a ‘king of the Jews’ on the cross as the titulus says, and that is already a theological matter, not merely a political or historical one. My point is this--- you cannot nicely separate or parse out the history from the theology, precisely because the history is inherently theological in character, and is not merely theological interpreted by the Evangelists.
He goes on to point out what he deems irreconcilable difference between the Easter morning stories about the visit by the women to the tomb. For example he points out that Mark says the women saw “a man” at the tomb, whereas the other accounts say that one or more angels were seen. He takes the reference to “a man” to be a contradiction to the references to angels.
This conclusion I find very odd, since he ought to know that with regularity in the OT and in Intertestamental literature, angels are called and described as men (see e.g. Dan. 9.21; 10.5; 12.6-7). This sort of descriptor is particularly common in Jewish apocalyptic texts like Daniel and like Mark’s Gospel itself. And again, one has to ask the question—when Matthew or Luke read the Markan account, are we really to suppose that they thought they were significantly changing the account by calling those figures angels? I doubt it. Again we are dealing with a wooden sort of literalism on Bart’s part that does not take into account the larger context of such ‘angelic’ material in early Judaism.
With regularity in this book, Bart continues to ask the question--- why have pastors trained in seminary in the historical critical method regularly deprived their congregations of such information as he presents in this book? He suggest perhaps a failure of nerve or a “when in doubt chicken out approach”. I cannot speak for all such pastors, but since I do a myriad of church events all over the country every year in United Methodist and other sorts of churches which have pastors trained in such things, I must say the reason they are not telling their congregations the sort of things Bart is saying in Jesus, Interrupted is precisely because for the most part they do not believe in his radical interpretation of the data. Even those who are very keen on the historical critical method, would not agree with many things Bart says in this book.
No, there is not a conspiracy to suppress the actual truth about the NT in the contemporary church. Rather, there is an exercising of good and balanced judgment to allow the more radical interpretations of the data to go in one ear and out the other, because it is not true to the character of the data as a whole. In fact, I cannot tell you how many pastors who have gone to more liberal seminaries have told me this very thing. They don’t intend to convey conclusions they either disagree with, or have serious doubts about. Good for them. This does not make them cowards or uncritical thinkers.
One of Bart’s larger points is that there are theological incompatibilities between the Gospel accounts. The virginal conception and the incarnation ideas are not reconcilable, and anyway no Gospel, or other NT sources seeks to reconcile them, in Bart’s view. He insists (p. 74): “for the writers of the Gospels, the idea of the virgin birth and the idea of an incarnation were very different indeed.” Really?
The idea of a virginal conception has to do with how Jesus came into this world, by what means, and the answer is by means of a miracle that took place in Mary’s womb without the involvement of a man. This idea says nothing for or against the idea of a pre-existent son of God, and that in any case is not its purpose. John 1 on the other hand does speak of a pre-existent logos, one later called only begotten son of God in this same chapter, who “took on flesh and tabernacled amongst us”. Aha! The account of the incarnation does indeed speak about taking on flesh. This is indeed what the virginal conception story is about—explaining the human and also divine origins of Jesus.
Should we assume that a situation existed where a particular group of Christians knew only the Gospel stories told in one particular Gospel? This is how Bart dogmatically puts it--- “If your only Gospel was Mark--- and in the early church for some Christians it was the only Gospel—you would have no idea that Jesus’ birth was unusual in any way”. (p. 74). Really? Now when a writer makes a dramatic claim like this it is always appropriate to ask- “How do you know this, and if you don’t have evidence to support the idea, why would you assume it is so?”
First of all, the evidence we have suggests that this assumption is simply false. Remember again the preface to Luke’s Gospel. He knows of many other such accounts. He also knows of eyewitnesses and early preachers of the word and he has consulted him. I doubt it is in any way a wise thing to assume that Mark was writing to a group of Christians hermetically sealed off from the other Christians in the Roman Empire and without access to other Christian documents and traditions. Secondly, the very solution to the Synoptic problem that both Bart and I agree is likely, namely that Matthew and Luke used Mark, in itself gives the lie to the assumption that this Christian community only had this one Gospel, and that one only had that one, and so on. This is a myth, not good historical analysis.
But even leaving the Gospel out of account for a moment. Is it really true that only the Gospel of John tells us about a pre-existent one who takes on flesh and dwells amongst us? Well no. In fact we find this idea in some of our earliest Christian documents--- Paul’s letters. Compare for example 1 Cor. 8.4-6 to Phil. 2.5-11. Already in the 50s and 60s Christian writers believed that there was a divine pre-existent son of God who came to earth and took on human form.
It is of course true that Paul does not directly mention ‘the virginal conception’, but what he says is not only compatible with the idea (see Gal 4.4—God sent his son, born of woman, born under the law. Notice Paul does not say, born of a good Jewish man with proper paternity), Rom. 8.3 suggest knows of the virginal conception idea for he says that God sent his son “in the likeness of sinful flesh”. Now what is the point of the word ‘likeness’ in this verse? I would suggest Paul is saying that Jesus really had flesh but it was not tainted with human fallenness the way all other human flesh was (see Rom. 5.12-21). In other words, Paul already knows about the idea of Jesus being conceived in a pure and sinless manner. The attempt to treat the NT writers as if they were ignorant or ignored or were polemicizing against one another or lived in splendid isolation from one another does not work.
The early Christian movement was a tiny sectarian movement dedicated to world evangelism, and working together towards that end. Paul knew Peter and James and John, and others. He knew Mark and Luke and Apollos and others. He is the bridge figure between the various local Christian communities, and as he tells us in Galatians, he even went to Jerusalem to present his own Gospel to the pillar apostles so they would all be in theological accord about the message--- and indeed they were, if by ‘they’ we mean those who ended up writing the NT and apostolic documents.
In fact all of the NT documents can be traced back to apostolic sources or were written by apostles—all of them can be traced to about 9-10 persons who were eyewitnesses or apostles or both. These persons include the Beloved Disciple, Mark, Luke, John of Patmos, Paul, probably Apollos, Peter, James and Jude. 2 Peter is a later composite document made up of material from Peter, Jude, and with a knowledge of the Pauline corpus, but you will notice it does not appear to draw on non- apostolic source material. The claims that we do not know who wrote these books, or that some of them are forged are greatly exaggerated claims, that many historians like myself do not find convincing or compelling on the basis of the actual historical evidence itself.
We have no documents in the NT by the Judaizers, or by the super-apostles Paul combated. We have no documents in the NT then by Paul’s opponents, or James’ opponents or the like. Were there such people in early Christian communities--- yes there were, and their legacy was not preserved except indirectly because it did not comport with the message of the apostles, about which Peter, James, John, and Paul all shook hands on.
The attempt to present the NT writers as examples of dueling banjos does not pass muster when one really analyzes early Christianity in its first century period. There was not the sort of radical diversity amongst these earliest Jewish Christians, unlike some of what we find when the church became largely dominated by Gentiles in the second and succeeding centuries, and major heretics arose like Marcion and the Gnostics.
The attempt to trace radical diversity back into the NT period is doomed to failure, because it is not grounded in a fair historical reading of the original source documents. Equally unfair and historically inaccurate is the notion that high Christology or Trinitarian orthodoxy was something only cooked up in centuries subsequent to the NT era, particularly in the 4th and 5th centuries. To the contrary, we already see a proto-orthodox theology in the NT itself in Paul, in John, in Hebrews, in Revelation. Christ is already view as deity by Paul and other NT writers, and already in various places we hear about Father, Son and Spirit all being called God in the NT. That this high Christology and Trinitarian theology is further developed after the NT era is beyond dispute. But those developments were founded on and grounded in the orthodoxy that already existed in the apostolic era.
Let me be clear. If you do not like these Christian ideas, that is fine. But what you cannot do is say that the earliest Christians did not believe things like the deity of Christ or the virginal conceptions. The attempt to make 4th century Christians the inventors of high Christology imposes a myth of origins on Christianity that amounts to a rewriting of history in a false way. Distaste for this or that theological idea should not be allowed to lead to a truly biased and unhelpful interpretation of the historical facts about what the earliest Christian believed. The transcript of their faith is found in the NT itself, a collection of apostolic and sub-apostolic documents. One is free to disagree with their theological perspectives, but one is not free to say they didn’t hold such views or to suggest that there were widely divergent and contradictory beliefs about such subjects amongst early orthodox Christians. This is simply not true. More soon.