7. New Testament

Parenthesis

I hesitate to discuss the New Testament, even after protracted immersion. In part, it simply hurt to read about. It’s an embattled set of texts, and sieges often end poorly.

The second hesitation is that, while much ink has been spilt over the various issues confronting it, it appears to ultimately comprise something of a side-track to the more global problem. It’s an irresistible shortcut question: what about Jesus? Yet that is a diversion to the antecedent question: what about Israel?

The issues surrounding our views of Jesus presuppose a framework: Israel’s worldview structure provides the central questions, and Christianity heralds Jesus as the answer. The structure of this towering edifice has serious foundational problems, and such upper-floor issues may well be irrelevant.

As a consequence, this section is in some measure parenthetical.

Over the Hedge

I crossed the fenceline, so to speak, in pursuing readings on the New Testament. After the eye opening experience of learning about the Old Testament, I had a distinct suspicion that the The Case for Christ and other such books were unlikely to give me the full picture. I deliberately pursued authors to give me the other side: Bart Ehrman, Marcus Borg, Robert Price, John Dominic Crossan, etc.

I noted that Bart Ehrman was something of a lightning rod for controversy. A former evangelical believer himself and a New Testament scholar, he is the author of a number of popular-level books on theology. The success of his books makes him a significant target to be countered, and there are entire websites and books written by evangelicals opposing him.  I examined his positions and his opposers at length. I reviewed every Ehrman debate available online, reviewed every entry on TheEhrmanProject website, etc. It was an interesting case study in scholarly disagreement.

I was disappointed, again, to see the posturing and slant presented by the evangelical side of the argument. Ehrman and his positions are treated as flimsy, easily answered, extreme, and simply the dismissible views of the liberal elite. An impatience and condescension seems apparent in a number of postings. However, none of these characterizations seems accurate on deeper inspection. Instead, his positions appear to be exactly as he claims – the views about the New Testament that are widely taught at mainline seminaries across the US and Europe. In debates, his arguments prove not to be flimsy or disposed of easily at all. And he does not come from the liberal vein: he started as a dedicated Moody & Wheaton evangelical.

Now, Ehrman is not any particular hero of mine – he is but one of many resources that I’ve pursued during this research, and I have appreciated his work during this study. However, I find that he is a good case study in the posturing war over credibility and dismissal. The ESV Study Bible certainly skews the portrait of the Pentateuch. The Case for Christ does the same for the New Testament. Finkelstein has been painted as a radical minimalist within the archaeology world, facts notwithstanding. And Ehrman is maligned for a great many reasons. The spin from this side of the fence disappoints me, especially when it aims to end investigation and obscure information with an attitude of dismissal. The other side of the fence has some very real content, and there is a reason that they have grown over time to be the majority in the scholarly world.

That said, I have continued to do a tremendous amount of reading from this side of the fenceline as well, weighing everything as well as possible [14, 15, 33, 34, 35, 42, 43, 50, 52, 53]. On this background, and recalling the lessons already driven home regarding the Old, I believe the most accurate information indicates that the New Testament faces the following serious problems…

Second Thoughts

Bad as the preceding Old Testament situation may appear to be, the disappointment was rammed fully home when I approached the New. There was no abrupt about-face in the poor textual practices, no reform arriving just in time to save the early Church writings from similar quality issues.

The interpretive methods which the Second Temple Jewish scholars routinely applied to their scriptures left much to be desired. The collapse of the kingdom of Judah and subsequent Babylonian captivity seemed in many ways to have disconfirmed the scriptural prophecies and promises, leaving the people of Israel in a state of crisis [14, 52]. Meanwhile, the influences of Hellenism fully permeated the Jewish scholarly culture during the Second Temple period, which began a few hundred years before Jesus and continued until the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD [53]. To cope with the crisis of disconfirmation, and equipped with a Hellenistic toolbelt, Jewish scholars worked to both (1) assemble their canonical texts and (2) to find new ways to read old passages that might help to make sense of what had happened [14, 52]. It was common to springboard from various passages with new thoughts which were not actually contained in the originals – i.e., to infuse them with new theological content that the original author did not intend. Again, I recommend reading Peter Enns for concise discussion of the topic [14]:

This can be counterintuitive for modern readers: it is the very act of altering the past to address present circumstances that ensures its continuation as the active and abiding Word of God, not a relic of a bygone era.

~ Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam

The methods of Second Temple interpretation clicked a tumbler into place. I finally received an answer to why Paul seemed to see things in the Old Testament texts that were not actually there. Though I had consistently blamed my own lack of knowledge for such perceptions, as it happens I had not been wrong. Paul, trained Pharisee that he was, did infuse content into some texts that was not previously there, sometimes reversing the meaning of the original text altogether [14]. (Here I must recommend reading Enns’ discussion of Galatians 3:16 and 29, dealing with Paul’s redefinition of Abraham’s seed. His description in this area is lucid, accessible, and helps to explain longstanding disconnects in the fundamentalist’s textual assertions of non-contradiction.)

We are to take comfort that this was normal practice for the day; Paul was doing nothing unusual. That is,  all Jewish scholars believed such handling of the text to be acceptable, and it was a broadly practiced method. For me, this assurance had somewhat the opposite effect intended. The climate of the day seems to have sanctioned the bending and reallocation of scriptures for other-than-intended purposes.

This is clearly evident regarding both Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53, with which the Church absconded, reinterpreting them as Messianic owing to their resemblance of Jesus’ life [12]. It should be of consequence that no other sect of Judaism had ever acknowledged messianic content in those passages preceding the early Jesus followers. By definition, that means that they did not function in any prophetic sense: they did not give the Jewish people a specific prediction by which they would know the true Messiah. The gospel writers crafted their stories to strike the chords of those passages, having deemed them as messianic “predictions” ex post facto. But a straight reading indicates (1) that a good deal of the content could be applied to many different figures from history, (2) that there still remain specific points which are still not reflected in Jesus’ life, and (3) that they still lack unambiguous messianic content. Hence the lack of messianic recognition before (and after) Jesus’ life. But there was no arguing the Christian annexation, which marched forward, Jewish protests notwithstanding. These oppositions, doomed as they were, could not counter the force of the standing practice which made in-reading of absent content culturally acceptable.

Church traditions have referred to such innovation as progressive revelation in the light of Christ’s coming, but in truth there was nothing overtly Christian in the founding of the method, which long ante-dated Jesus’ life [14, 53]. In any case, it becomes unclear what the gain actually was in such a proposition, since time has undercut claims that the Old Testament was prophetically authored in the first place.

Ascription Saga

Who wrote the New Testament? Though clearly not as ambiguous as in the Old Testament, ascription issues continue to hamstring claims that the New Testament canon formation was gotten right [4, 12]. Nominally one third of the books are regarded as being incorrectly ascribed by the majority of New Testament scholars, while another third suffer a more even degree of wrangling, and a final third appear to enjoy universal acceptance as being correct [4, 12].

After due consideration of the different sides of the discussion, I have come to concede that the gospels were in all likelihood not written by either apostolic nor eyewitness hands. They do appear to come from later authors living outside Palestine [4, 12, 13, 43]. Ehrman sums the widely held seminary view of the traditional Gospel attributions [12]:

None of these attributions goes back to the authors themselves. And none of the Gospels was written by a follower of Jesus, all of whom were lower-class Aramaic speakers from Galilee, not highly educated Greek-speaking Christians of a later generation… This has been well known among scholars for the greater part of the past century, and it is taught widely in mainline seminaries and divinity schools throughout the country.

~ Bart Erhman, Jesus Interrupted

Most disturbing, however, is that the majority of scholars considers 2 Peter to be somewhat worse than incorrectly ascribed. It is considered a forgery by and large, since it claims to have Petrine authorship but is consistently dated far too late, around 130-150 AD [4, 12].

This type of canonical error becomes easier to explain against the backdrop of widespread Christian forgeries in circulation under Peter’s name by the time of canon formation [12]. Selection of authentic materials meant fishing them from a tangle of illegitimate documents.

It is worth pointing out that we have an extraordinary number of books from early Christianity that claim to be written by Peter that were not written by him—for example, a Gospel of Peter, a letter of Peter to James, several “Acts” of Peter, and three different apocalypses of Peter. Forging books in Peter’s name was a virtual cottage industry.

~ Bart Ehrman, Jesus Interrupted [12]

I have wondered why the early Christian communities demonstrated this penchant for misrepresentation, which is a side question but legitimate in its own right. Nonetheless, the assemblers perhaps did as well as possible at trying to sort the available materials. Yet in the end at least some forged material appears to have gotten through the vetting process [4, 12].

The final salting comes with the revelation that the Athanasian list of books we know as the New Testament was actually never actually ratified by the patristic Fathers, instead finding widespread, gradual and passive common acceptance [12]. This anticlimax ended the meandering path by which our New Testament was formed, punctuating by ellipsis a process that had witnessed the evolution and extinction of various antecedent collections.

Tallying the final New Testament canon, I have been led to concede unfortunate similarities with the Old Testament problems. Ascription problems exist. Documents of dubious character  appear to have been included. The final collection includes an odd collection of texts: Gospels and Acts (understandably), plus a great many personal and collective letters, which a certain distant reconsideration will recognize as somewhat odd. Perhaps these letters became cherished relics of great leaders before eventually transmuting into sacred and divine; no matter. Viewing these texts as scripture does not appear to have been reflected by the original authors and recipients, but it seems to have come sometime later (both NT references to the contrary being contained in apparent forgeries). And the slow morphing process of canon formation again strikes eerily similar chords as the nebulous and long-lasted assemblage of the Jewish bible [11, 14].

Historicity

Perhaps one of the hardest points to accept has been the evident historical problems of the Gospels themselves, and just how difficult it is to know what Jesus actually said and did. Though the Gospels contain a substantial amount of good historical information, they carry widely acknowledged historical deficiencies [4, 12, 13, 43, 50]. They do in fact contradict one another on both minutia and on core content. They do contain non-historical information which is countermanded by external sources. And they do show signs of having been tampered with in places, indicating that scriptural guardians were not above inserting their own commentary into the original texts.

More troubling, cross comparison of the Gospels makes it apparent that they also contain at least some percentage of legendary material which developed over time [4, 12, 43]. Perhaps the culturally-conditioned impulse to find texts in support of personal sectarian views may have helped fuel story development about Jesus. To cite but one example: the virgin birth appears to fall into such a category, going unmentioned as it does by both the earliest epistles (Paul’s) and the earliest gospel (Mark) [12, 13]. Likewise, the same can be observed regarding Jesus’ origins in Bethlehem. Later gospels by Matthew and Luke add the material about a virgin birth in Bethlehem, in clear reference to prophetic fulfillment.

Other events that could arguably have accrued over time include the divine conception, the incarnation, post-resurrection sightings, the ascension, the resurrection of Lazarus, etc. [4, 12] Each is distressingly absent from early documents, yet present in the later. The critical question: can content of such importance be considered discretionary, open to the whim of Mark or Matthew to either include or not? Are such central events and identity markers ancillary? More pointedly: does Mark in particular stand rather derelict by his omission of every point mentioned above? Were there nothing but Mark to go by, a situation likely to have been true for some early believers, one could not have known about the virgin birth, divine conception, incarnation, post-resurrection sitings, great commission, ascension, etc. Indeed, even the abbreviated Jesus of the Apostles Creed cannot be found in Mark’s telling. Perhaps he did not agree with those claims, or perhaps he did not know about them.

Likely the better explanation is that the Gospels display a growth of legendary material over time. That Jesus was a figure about which exaggeration could arise is beyond debate. That the stories were in oral circulation for some 3 to 6 decades before the writing of our Gospels stands acknowledged. Indeed, this blackout period is very difficult to explain on the part of eyewitness authors, given (1) the gravity of the message, (2) the absence of firsthand writings from Jesus himself, and (3) the demands of posterity. But finally, and perhaps most critically, the fact that the records of Jesus were penned by a culture with a track record for tall-tale-telling hammers a mournful bell.

Trans-Culture

To this must be added that the anti-Roman political climate may well have colored the overall Jesus portrait. The terminology of Roman Imperial theology (ca. 31 BCE), normally reserved for Caesar, was co-opted and applied to Jesus as a counter-cultural statement by Jews chafing under foreign control: Son of God, Lord, savior of the world, peace on earth, gospel/good news, divine conception (via Apollo), etc [4].

Roman imperial theology is the oppositional context for much of early Christian language about Jesus. The gospels, Paul’s letters, and the other New Testament writings use the language of imperial theology, but apply it to Jesus.

~ Marcus Borg, Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written

Terminology confusion was also at work during the interim between Jesus’ life and when the gospels were written: the Jews and Greeks had two different definitions for the same term, son of god: the former would have heard this term as king, while the latter understood it to mean god-man [12]. Oral transmission of stories about Jesus would certainly have conflated these meanings as soon as Gentiles became involved.

And though the Jewish expectations were not for a suffering nor an incarnate messiah [12, 52, 53], the Greek and Roman mythologies had long included (1) gods who died and rose, (2) gods who suffered, and (3) demigods conceived by women that had been impregnated by a god [*]. The thematic elements were all long in play before the first century. It may be the greatest story ever told, and it should be: it strikes the chords of the ample tales which preceded it.

The interactions of these ideas are extraordinarily complex, but what eventually came to be recorded in the gospels appears to have spent 30-60 years passing through this trans-cultural mill first.

A Glass Dimly

I consider that I may never have actually believed in Jesus. Perhaps no one for 19 centuries has. There is something in the way: he did not leave us any writings of his own. To be clear, we first believe the New Testament writers and the traditions of the church. Through that filter and conduit, we believe in Jesus. Before we can believe in Jesus, we have to believe the authors of the gospels. And very oddly, even they did not tell us who they were. So as bad as it is, the whole belief filter actually moves yet another step back: we believe the followers of an even later generation; who tell us who they think wrote the gospels; who then tell us what Jesus said and did. We routinely short circuit this rather mangled trail by simply saying that we “believe in Jesus”.

But to be entirely thorough, there is yet another layer. I recognize now that what I actually believed in was the Jesus of church tradition. This Jesus is more robust than any of the four Gospel descriptions, amalgamated as the church portrait is from the sum, and enhanced by centuries of Christological debate. The Nicene portrait is more robust than the portraits of the synoptics, and it includes points from the synoptics missing from the later-written John. Development was occurring. And I now fully appreciate the complexities facing the Quest for the Historical Jesus [12, 13, 43, 50].

Fatal to the final portrait is that the amalgamated view of Jesus depends heavily on which texts are accepted or rejected as authentic, and it is not clear that the vetting was either executed well or gotten right [4, 12]. If the late-written John were excluded, for example, we would not have a Jesus who uttered any of the famous “I am” statements, nor raised Lazarus, nor been the eternal Word. The divine identity may never have defined orthodoxy. And John has been noted from the second century to be something quite different (Origen) [*], and its age makes it quite suspect. Or consider if one of the extra-canonical gospels had been included. Or perhaps the earliest gospel of Mark is the most accurate; perhaps the added content of Matthew and Luke was a side effect of cultural development and was not historically accurate (they certainly differ with one another). Anonymous texts with poor pedigrees present complications.

So working assumptions about which texts were authentic became presuppositions, and authentic texts became ensconced in the absoluteness of divine scripture. Stamped and approved as they all were, divergent gospel renderings were combined into the church’s meta-portrait [12, 13, 43]. None could be wrong, so the sum of all must be right. The Jesus portrait depends on our textual stamping, and the working assumptions of the patristic fathers, who simply did not bat a thousand on textual selection. Indeed, the ascriptions of all four Gospels remain heavily disputed, being written relatively late, in the wrong language, and with a literary capability beyond the purported authors [4, 12, 43]. Nevertheless, an edifice of Christology quavers upon them.

Distillation

En toto, the New Testament leaves the reader haggling over percentages. What percent of the content was legendary development? What percent is authentic, having actually been written by the traditionally ascribed authors? What percent is psuedepigrapha? What percent of Jesus’ sayings were his actual teachings? What percent of the prophetic fulfillments were either (1) Second Temple in-readings or (2) legends developed to fulfill them? The New Testament requires distillation to extract the non-legendary Jesus of history; hence, the Quest [13, 43, 50].

I believe that the Quest is unfortunately justified: the traditional view, simplified and idealistic as it was, does not approximate reality. It may be simple and easy to take the Gospels at face value and sum a meta-portrait from their portrayals, but I think that such an approach folds under the scrutiny I have reviewed. Like the Old Testament, there is good historical content in the New Testament, yet it is found intermixed with legendary additions. This mixed bag results from a now too-familiar cause: many of the texts are not what we thought. They were not written by who we thought, when we thought, or why we thought. And the doctrinal structure we know was built on the critical but simplistic working assumptions of the patristic fathers regarding what material was and was not authentic. The debate will continue in perpetuity over the percentages.

Parenthesis Closure

Fascinating and discouraging though the foray into New Testament disputes has been for me, I believe it is of somewhat secondary importance to the global dilemma. The central observation of relevance is that, as with the Old Testament, the New cannot be claimed as being of unimpeachable reliability. It seems to manifest similar issues as the Old with regard to historicity, owing to similar issues with ascription, oral propagation, tardiness of writing and less-than rigorous scholarly methods. The general game does not appear to have changed.

Next: [8] Review of Sources >>

4/9/2013

© Copyright 2013

Comments

  1. I consider that I may never have actually believed in Jesus. Perhaps no one for 19 centuries has. There is something in the way: he did not leave us any writings of his own. To be clear, we first believe the New Testament writers and the traditions of the church. Through that filter and conduit, we believe in Jesus. Before we can believe in Jesus, we have to believe the authors of the gospels. And very oddly, even they did not tell us who they were. So as bad as it is, the whole belief filter actually moves yet another step back: we believe the followers of an even later generation; who tell us who they think wrote the gospels; who then tell us what Jesus said and did. We routinely short circuit this rather mangled trail by simply saying that we “believe in Jesus”.

    Absolutely! My family and friends accused me of questioning God when I first began talking to them about these things, though I kept trying to impress upon them that it was not God I was questioning, but men’s claims about God.

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  2. Typos: the first two instances of “its” should be “it’s”.

    Feel free to delete this comment after fixing.

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  3. I reviewed every Ehrman debate available online, reviewed every entry on TheEhrmanProject website, etc.

    For anyone’s reference: I noticed that The Ehrman Project website has been pretty broken for a while. You can access some of the content here: The Ehrman Project via the Web Archive. The videos are broken there (for me, anyway), but there are transcripts, and I’m guessing it’s the same videos available at their YouTube channel.

    I watched a few of their videos. Without yet having researched the issues fully, it seems to me that they raise some questions worth pursuing, but overall, I was less than impressed.

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