A Return of Authentic and Faithful Biblical Scholarship

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Bible Scholar and Skeptic Bart Ehrman argues that the Gospels have been altered so much that they cannot be viewed as history,  Ehrman explains, “The authors too were human beings with needs, beliefs, worldview, opinions, loves, hates, longings, desires, situations, problems—surely all these affected what they wrote…” (Ramage, Jesus, Interpreted, 104). One of the pieces of evidence he brings up is the removal of language from Mark’s Gospel during the Passion narrative of Luke’s Gospel in the scene of Christ saying “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (Ibid). In Luke’s account, he removes Mark’s reference to Christ being distraught and Ehrman claims that Luke has altered the tradition. I find this to be a bit of stretch and most of Ehrman’s views follow in the same suit. The strength of Ehrman’s argument is that on the face value it’s convincing, yes there are discrepancies in the Gospels’ witness testimony; however, when taking the time–which most will not–most of these claims by Ehrman melt away with any basic research on Ehrman’s critique.

What is great is theologian Michael Bird’s response to Ehrman on the topic, “Approaches like Ehrman’s, which begin casting doubt on the historical value of the Gospels for reconstructing the life of Jesus, but then proceed to formulate a hypothesis about the historical Jesus anyway, are essentially creating a vacuum and then filling it with scholarly fiction.” (Ibid, 105.)

Why is this important? I had a discussion with a member of the LCMS like @armourofchrist who writes here. The gentleman was telling me that when he first took a New Testament class in college the professor asked, “Who wrote the Gospels?” The gentleman said he gave the Confirmation Catechism response, “The Gospels are the Word of God.” The professor, well that is certainly the opinion of some people, but not of most scholars. As more and more people enter the Universities, the importance of Biblical scholarship is the importance of being able to hand on the faith to the next generation.

In my debates with skeptics, what is interesting is the asking for evidence and then dictating what can be used as evidence. In many respects, this is what Ehrman is doing here. However, in that discussion, I think Christians can be their own worse enemies by conceding field position–using a football term–to create credibility to secular scholars, the result I’ve observed is the weakening of the faith then used by skeptics. In some sense, the LCMS gentleman should be able to state that point in class. It’s a point of Divine Revelation, faith, and a different type of knowledge. Nonetheless, there’s good historical evidence that gets one close enough to edge to take the Kierkegaard leap of faith.

Catholic Biblical scholar Matthew Ramage writes, “For example, Ehrman thinks it blatantly obvious that the words of Jesus presented in the Gospels are often not his actual words. So too has the PBC (Pontifical Biblical Commission) stated post Vatican II, “In many cases, in fact, we do not have the ipissima verb of the prophet (inspired by God), unless in the words of his disciples…The PBC answers, “We must, therefore, bear in mind that the gospels are not merely chronicles of the events in the life of Jesus, since the evangelist also intend to express in narrative form the theological significance of those events.” (Ramage, Jesus, Interpreted, 147.)

Now, there’s a crack in the door and for what purpose? The question must be asked,  Is this convincing for new converts to the faith? The argument that Holy Scripture is inerrant in matters “for the sake of salvation” isn’t the traditional orthodox position and it isn’t convincing to skeptics. I’ve used the argument and although it can’t be refuted because I’ve moved the argument strictly into the spiritual which in someways is nothing more than fideism.

As such, I think I have finally figured out my hesitancy with the idea of merely having the substance of Jesus’ words proposition—I’m a pre-modern scholar in the sense we need to go back to the gospels and assume they mean what they say in a historical sense unless completely refuted by contradictory evidence. I agree with Pope Benedict that current scholarship is too bias filled by 19th and 20th century hyper-skeptical approaches; however, I peel off from agreement with Benedict XVI when it comes to an emphasis on “interpretive history.” I would merely state there just needs to be a proper understanding of historiography.

Honestly, there are two points of contention that I’d stress here; a failure to understand historicism in its proper sense (not a modernist notion), which would argue that the particular way the evangelist wrote is a cultural representation of the chronicles of the events in the life of Jesus, as the writers would include theology in those accounts with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The second point is that there is tension from Magisterial teaching with Pope Benedict XVI and PBC’s modern stance on Biblical scholarship, I would argue from authoritative magisterial language found from Pope Pius XII’s Humani Generis–which I would argue is one of the last great pronouncements of orthodox Catholic faith by a Pope in modern times. It is interesting though that Ramage records Benedict viewing this text in a negative light as earlier in his book he quotes Benedict saying, “anti-Modernistic neurosis which had again and again crippled the Church since the turn of the century.” (Ibid, 25)… “This same anxiety persisted until its last reverberation in the encyclical Humani Genesis of Pius XII.” (ibid, 26)

I have been taken aback by this comment made by Pope Benedict XVI that I’ve read in Ramage’s book because Humani Generis at its heart is a defense of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. I’d argue that when Ehrman challenges the notion of a developed Christology of grieving disciples, it’s documents like Humani Generis that lays the foundation for a firm assent to faith. Furthermore, in some respects, Pius XII’s document is in agreement with the pronouncements made by the PBC.

The key paragraphs that I always point toward in Humani Generis are (37), (38), (39):

37. When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.[12]

38. Just as in the biological and anthropological sciences, so also in the historical sciences there are those who boldly transgress the limits and safeguards established by the Church. In a particular way must be deplored a certain too free interpretation of the historical books of the Old Testament. Those who favor this system, in order to defend their cause, wrongly refer to the Letter which was sent not long ago to the Archbishop of Paris by the Pontifical Commission on Biblical Studies.[13] This letter, in fact, clearly points out that the first eleven chapters of Genesis, although properly speaking not conforming to the historical method used by the best Greek and Latin writers or by competent authors of our time, do nevertheless pertain to history in a true sense, which however must be further studied and determined by exegetes; the same chapters, (the Letter points out), in simple and metaphorical language, adapted to the mentality of a people but little cultured, both state the principal truths which are fundamental for our salvation, and also give a popular description of the origin of the human race and the chosen people. If, however, the ancient sacred writers have taken anything from popular narrations (and this may be conceded), it must never be forgotten that they did so with the help of divine inspiration, through which they were rendered immune from any error in selecting and evaluating those documents.

39. Therefore, whatever of the popular narrations have been inserted into the Sacred Scriptures must in no way be considered on a par with myths or other such things, which are more the product of an extravagant imagination than of that striving for truth and simplicity which in the Sacred Books, also of the Old Testament, is so apparent that our ancient sacred writers must be admitted to be clearly superior to the ancient profane writers. (Pius XII, Humani Generis)

First and foremost, while Pope Pius XII agrees that the first 11 chapters of Genesis are not history written in manner to which we are accustomed, it is history nonetheless, and review what I’ve put in bold in paragraph 37 in Pius’ particular language, it’s magisterial; therefore, to be abrogated it would have to have a pronouncement higher than level, which is Papal Authority, which requires the assent of the faithful. It seems that the PBC could not overturn that language, it would need to be abrogated by Ex Cathedra, Ecumenical Council, or Bishops together with the Pope.

So, naturally, Pius’ teaching is a defense of the Incarnation. It’s a defense of the doctrine of Original Sin passed to us through our first parents. If we do not have a common ancestor then we could not inherit original sin as codified and termed by St. Augustine. Why is this important? It’s important because our disobedience of God is the purpose of the coming of the second person of the Holy Trinity, as defended by St. Athanasius in On the Incarnation.

Dr. Ramage explains there are certainly non-negotiables in his book; but, I think it begs the question for how long? I’d argue than many modern theologians, both Protestant and Catholic, are trending toward, if you pressed them, that Jesus did not rise bodily from the dead, but rather, ‘rose in the hearts and spirits of his followers’. Benedict explains the goal of liberal exegesis, “ was to bring Christianity back into harmony with modern reason.” (Ramage, 148.) Ramage quotes Dale Allision, “they too are works of literature, Why should we fret much over how much history is in them?” (Ramage, 133). I’d argue because it’s a slippery slope with a trajectory set to giving more ground to those who oppose the faith. If the Gospels are works of literature then they are no more so then any book that records history. Also, there needs to caution with a separation of the historical from the philosophical, one cannot argue that the question is purely to be answered by the philosophical as history cannot be separated from Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” The telos of historian and philosopher is working to the end of that question.

N.T. Wright and Michael Bird write in their newly released tome on the New Testament, “Mark’s gospel marries the early church’s gospel preaching with the Jesus-tradition, placing them into a literature genre best described, from one viewpoint at least, as a Hellenistic biography akin to other biographies of figures like Socrates and Julius Caesar.” ( N.T. Wright and Michael Bird, The New Testament in its World, 554).

In my opinion, the gospels and the historic books of the Old Testament need to be treated as history written by those of their particular culture and guided by the Holy Spirit. In many respects, Pope Benedict agrees that parts should be treated as history unless directly contradicted, so at times, I feel as though I am also reading two different Pope Benedict’s, so perhaps, there’s been a shift in his own thought later in life.

In many respects, especially when it comes to the historic understanding, Christian Biblical scholars need to wrestle more with these initial contradictions. If the skeptic can apply a science of the gaps explanation that we’ll soon simply understand a matter we at the moment do not then the same linear argument works for history and archaeology.

In the field of Biblical Archaeology, which is telling in itself that is such a sub-field, there have been 53 people confirmed to have existed that are mentioned in the Old Testament that have been verified from Archaeological evidence. It cannot be stressed more that what is considered to be Ancient Near-East mythology is not written in this fashion–nor is the advent of modern historical fiction with the earliest of evidence from China in the 14th century record historic figures as such;therefore, Biblical scholarship needs to be addressed in a manner which begets the intent by the text author.

12 thoughts on “A Return of Authentic and Faithful Biblical Scholarship

  1. Nicholas

    I like Michael Bird; I find him very engaging. Have you read any fo the Lost World series by John Walton et al? I recently read “The Lost World of the Flood”.

    Personally, I think Genesis is best treated as theological history in a manner similar (but not identical) to how we would treat Kings or Judges or Joshua, etc. That being said, we have to read the Book of Nature in conjunction with the Bible – and that is why as time went on, I could no longer subscribe to the kind of creationism espoused by people like Ken Ham.

    To do so creates a terrible disjunction: on the one hand we have a given reading of Scripture; on the other, physical evidence that points – on a natural reading – away from that reading. The result – since God is sovereign – is an image of a God trying to deceive us. This is bad theology and it is no wonder that ordinary people with common sense reject it.

    In the end, much as I liked the certainty that fundamentalism gave me, I walked away. I accepted that – as of the current state of play – evolution was the best paradigm, the best fit for the available evidence (though not necessarily Darwinism or neo-Darwinism – I prefer other models). But I do not believe that Adam and Eve were products of evolution necessarily – I am happy to believe that they were direct creations.

    The creation of Adam, I believe, is best understood within the motif of election found in the Bible (and so beloved of St Paul). Adam and Eve are called to the purpose represented by the Garden/Sanctuary. That purpose goes awry and is resumed with Noah > Abraham > Isaac > Jacob > and so on to the Messiah. The genealogies of the Gospels are conscious references to the genealogies of Genesis because both are about telling the story of the divine salvation plan (which works through election).

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    1. I don’t think you can lump Joshua, Kings, and Judges together into theological history—at least not the same as Genesis. I think the authorship is distinct in those particular texts. Joshua fits into Near East propaganda history, which is very common in ancient histories. Furthermore, I’ve read a convincing argument in favor of Mosaic authorship, so I’m not ruling that out.

      I’m still wrestling with Judges. Judges I think is the most similar to Genesis to be honest—if you want to make that comparison. It plays on motifs, in fact, Samson plays on the strong man notion. However, some of the text in the Samson narrative is too descriptive to fall into that myth motif and is unusual. Judges is a very interesting text.

      1 Samuel to Kings to Chronicles, I thinks falls very well into the category of ancient histories.

      And I’m not familiar with the Lost World Series.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Nicholas

        I don’t have a problem with Mosaic authorship of Genesis, but I don’t think he composed it from scratch in the way that a novelist writes fiction. I think he gathered the traditions of his people (maybe of others that he had contact with, such as Egyptians) and it would have been edited after his death. Genesis, therefore, reflects really the culmination of oral (and potentially some written) traditions. In that regard, I think Genesis is likely to have a compositional history analogous to the Iliad: one Homer, but a repository of preceding material worked by the master into a unitary text (though the Iliad is not as unitary as Genesis).

        For me theological history is a broader genre; I don’t have a problem assigning different books to subgenres that reflect particular purposes and compositional backgrounds, but they all are written with theological aims linked in various ways to the salvation story. Genesis begins at the cosmological scale and drills down to Israel as a preparation for the Exodus narrative; Joshua shows God fulfilling the Exodus promise of entering the promised land, which is part of the re-establishment of sacred space motify – recapturing the world for YHWH, as it were; Judges shows the inability of the people to keep the Law and the chaos that ensues: it prepares for the coming of the King, which will ultimately be preparatory for the Messiah motif.

        I would recommend you read The Lost World series, because it is thought provoking and will give you some useful bibliographies, if nothing else. I don’t necessarily agree with all the conclusions, but the framework is good and solidly defensive of inerrancy.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. In my mind, I don’t even register theological history as you explained it, so as to categorize it. I’ve said in passing several times, in my opinion, this is simply how these peoples viewed the world and wouldn’t have been possible for them to write in a different style.

        I recently read through Joshua and Judges. And Joshua fits so well in Ancient propaganda. I think some people take propaganda in the negative sense, but what I mean is is that Joshua is showing the uniqueness of Israel. And it could be historical variously, I’m not ruling that out.

        It’s nice to see you have such an in depth analysis of Judges. I think it basically said, “don’t marry outside the tribe.” But the early part of it, of course, shows many different judges and peoples not keeping the law.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Nicholas

        Indeed. As you say, propaganda is appropriate for Joshua, this is how John Walton categorises it in The Lost World of the Flood – but I believe he’s quoting other scholars rather than claiming any originality. He uses this to explain the depiction of the Flood as global when it actually wasn’t – same technique of deliberate hyperbole to make a point as used in Joshua – the text of Joshua though is probably more honest than a number of pagan hyperbolic propaganda accounts.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. In my opinion, I think the writers of a global flood meant just that even if there’s no evidence of such a flood. Any evidence of a large regional flood would suffice, which there is, as this would cover the known world. I remember one of my history classes was a combo class with the geology department that studied the geological record with ancient histories. There is good evidence for a Near-East flood which is good catalyst why it exists in the cultural memory. I’ve come across fundamentalist that will say this challenges the inerrancy of the narrative, I feel it’s the exact opposite—this is a positive in the geological record because something happened.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Nicholas

        Indeed. I think the best candidate for Noah’s Flood is the flooding of the Persian Gulf c. 13,000 years ago. This fits well with what we know of the rise of civilisation, the clues in the text, and the genetic profile of the peoples of the Near East, southern Europe, and northern Africa.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. I remember an interesting theory about a large flood caused by a hurricane like storm in The Mediterranean. I found this to be compelling at the time, but sadly I don’t remember much more the details.

        Liked by 1 person

      7. Nicholas

        I get that sometimes, where I wish much later on I’d kept notes about certain things that crossed my path.

        What I think has been the benefit of taking this approach is: (1) I don’t feel at odds with science any more, which means I can genuinely enjoy it without having to be constantly scanning for anti-Gospel notes (excepting stuff pertaining to abortion, etc); (2) I can see the Bible as actual history (albeit differently written from how we or Thucydides might do), which in turn makes the people into actual people whose lives we can begin to understand and perhaps even empathise with. The figures of the Bible turn from the cutouts of Sunday school books into people whose words come alive.

        Liked by 1 person

      8. One of the great points that I’ve heard from Bible scholars is that we view the Bible in contrast to Archaeology only because we had it first. Had we not discovered it until recent times, academics would be amazed of what details it would provide the archaeological record.

        Liked by 1 person

      9. Nicholas

        Yes – and of course when the cuneiform tablets were discovered and so on, the war was already on as the 19th century had seen the nasty side of the Enlightenment re-assert itself.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Hebron—A Tale of Biblical Scholarship and Archaeology – On the Pilgrim Road

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