by Tim Widowfield
Some like it in the pot, nine days old
Over the past several weeks, real life got in the way of blogging. I’ll spare you the boring details, but suffice it to say writing Java and Ruby all day turns my brain into so much porridge.
Speaking of porridge, that reminds me of a story. Back in the late ’70s when I was attending language school at the Presidio of Monterey, I asked one of my instructors:
“Gospozha Kartsova, what does English sound like to a native Russian speaker?”
“It sounds like someone eating oatmeal.”
Through a lens, darkly
Humans in any culture tend to see things from their own perspective. Those of us in the English-speaking world perceive the world through an Anglo-American lens. Our news sources are based in the English-speaking world, produced by people who were raised and educated in the UK, the Commonwealth, or the US. It rarely crosses our minds that to someone in another culture, all of our self-righteous babbling might sound “like someone eating oatmeal.”
While I could easily take this thought-train down a geopolitical track, what concerns me at the moment is recent Biblical scholarship in the English-speaking world. For the past century and a half, when radically new methods for understanding the Bible emerged, they almost always arose first on the European continent, chiefly among German intellectuals.
Conversely, Anglo-American scholars have, for the most part, provided a traditional, conservative counterbalance. For the purposes of our discussion, it doesn’t matter which side is wrong or right; the point here is that in the English-speaking world, students as well as interested laymen have typically witnessed the rise of new methodologies through a porridge-smeared lens.
Learning Marxism from von Mises
Referring to English and American scholars simply as a countervailing force glosses over the open hostility frequently demonstrated by conservatives who viewed scholars like Bultmann as a threat to Christianity. And sadly, many of today’s Anglo-American scholars learned at the feet of these petulant pedagogues. They gained their understanding of form criticism and redaction criticism not from reading Bultmann, Dibelius, Marxsen et al., but by learning the accepted critique. They learned to debunk it before they could thunk it.
Formgeschichte, as originally envisioned, is certainly not without its shortcomings. Almost no one today agrees with Bultmann’s belief that the evolution of basic forms follows rigid rules so that we can confidently discover the original, authentic traditions. But it seems today’s scholars have forgotten the reason form criticism arose in the first place.
Reading Bart Ehrman, you might think form criticism is just another tool in the NT scholar’s kit — just a way to explain how authentic sayings are recalled in the oral tradition eventually to become written down in the gospels. He writes:
These form critics were principally interested in knowing what happened while the stories about Jesus were being transmitted orally. Their assumption was that after Jesus’s life, when Christian missionaries founded churches throughout the Mediterranean, stories about Jesus were told and retold in various kinds of situations that Christians found themselves in. These scholars were called ”form” critics because they wanted to know how different kinds of stories came to assume the shape or form they have. (Did Jesus Exist? p. 67, Nook Edition)
Those pesky skeptics
Eddy and Boyd have a more hostile take on the origins of form criticism. They acknowledge that it has “unquestionably aided our understanding of the Gospels” (The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition [Kindle Location 4168]), but they find fault with its assumptions. What bothers them the most, of course, is the so-called unwarranted hyper-skepticism of its practitioners.
Why did form criticism appear? They write:
Under the pressure of a new round of skepticism directed at the Gospel of Mark, source criticism seemed to have run its course as a tool by which to recover the historical Jesus. With the rise of form criticism in the early twentieth century, it seemed that a new tool for exploring even earlier Jesus tradition-oral tradition-was now available. (Kindle Locations 4159-4161)
Of course, among conservative Anglo-American scholars, “skepticism” is a dirty word, often modified with the adjective “unwarranted,” or decorated with the pejorative prefix “hyper.” We would do well to remember that skepticism is the hallmark of the Enlightenment, and recall the words of the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, who wrote:
The skeptic does not mean him who doubts, but him who investigates or researches, as opposed to him who asserts and thinks that he has found.
In other words, skepticism is merely the proper scientific approach to solving problems. We admit what we don’t know and withhold judgment while we investigate. But for conservative scholars, there is no in-between state when it comes to belief. They presume that skepticism means preconceived rejection — a prejudice that causes skeptics to assume everything is false until proven true.
If this straw man argument were true, we could understand Boyd and Eddy’s indictment of skepticism as a kind of disease or congenital defect. They mockingly write:
Of course, Bultmann and the other early form critics had inherited the skepticism of those like Wilhelm Wrede, Johannes Weiss, and Albert Schweitzer with respect to the Markan narrative framework. (Kindle Locations 10039-10040)
Hey, they mentioned Wrede! (Disparagingly, of course, only in passing, and relegated to the footnotes, but at least they didn’t forget him entirely.) Not surprisingly, like most apologists they call William Wrede “Wilhelm.” If they had bothered to read Wrede, they’d not only know how to spell his first name, but they’d also know that the “new round of skepticism” with respect to the gospel of Mark started with The Messianic Secret.
Eddy and Boyd mistakenly focus on Wrede’s skepticism, because it suits their purposes. However, they should welcome Wrede’s questioning of his contemporaries’ preconceptions. All through The Jesus Legend the authors hammer away at critical scholars’ preconceptions and unwarranted assumptions. Surely they can’t be ignorant of Wrede’s shattering of the core presumption of source criticism (at least as it was understood at the end of the 19th century) — namely, the belief that once the “pure” text of Mark was revealed, we would possess the authentic words and deeds of Jesus.
One of Wrede’s notable contributions to critical scholarship was his insight that Mark did not mechanically transcribe the oral tradition, but obviously added his own theological imprint. This insight severely rattled critical scholars for decades. It meant that for all the knowledge we could gain from source criticism, we could at best determine antiquity, not authenticity. For all intents and purposes, HJ scholarship was at a stalemate. The quest was in dry dock.
It’s worse than you think
Contrary to the apologists’ accusations, form and redaction critics approached the text with skepticism not because of unfounded, unwarranted preconceptions, but because of carefully documented analysis that spanned many years. In fact, Dibelius and Bultmann had no doubt that some traditions preserved in the New Testament were authentic. The thorny problem is how to identify them. Viewed from this perspective, the development and study of form criticism was an act of optimism, not “hyper-skepticism.”
Norman Perrin clearly explained the problem in Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus. The early church showed little restraint in changing or adding to the tradition as they found it. We should not be surprised at the gospel authors’ creativity — for them, there was no difference between the historical Jesus and the risen Christ. This unique circumstance makes the NT different from any other ancient text. We cannot overstate that matter.
. . . there is every indication that the centre of gravity for primitive Christianity was not a transmitted body of words and works, but Jesus Christ, past, present and to come.
This last point reaches the heart of the matter, for the most characteristic feature of the gospel tradition, especially in contrast with Jewish rabbinical tradition, is the remarkable freedom which the transmitters of that tradition exercise in regard to it. The almost cavalier manner in which the sayings are modified, interpreted and rewritten in the service of the theology of the particular evangelist or editor is quite without parallel in Judaism, and is only possible in Christianity because of the basic Christian conviction that the Jesus who spoke is the Jesus who speaks, i.e. because of the absolute identification of earthly Jesus of Nazareth and risen Lord of the evangelist’s or editor’s Christian experience. The strength of the form-critical approach to the gospels is that it does justice to this basic and fundamental aspect of earliest Christianity . . . (Perrin, p. 31, emphasis mine)
Perrin encapsulates the nearly insurmountable problem of identifying authentic “words and works” with devastating clarity and accuracy. Any saying within any pericope could just as easily be adapted tradition from contemporary Judaism or received prophecy from the risen Lord (i.e., the invention of the early church) as authentic material from the historical Jesus. How can we know?
Regular Vridar readers will no doubt recall the many occasions on which defenders of conservative, Anglo-American scholarship have taken us to task for, in effect, our insistence on holding NT studies to the same historical standards as the rest of ancient history. But here we have one of the greatest Biblical scholars of the twentieth century telling us that “normal” standards won’t cut it. In fact, the tools we use in studying historical Judaism will not help us, because of the unique problems explained above. Perrin concludes:
If we use a methodology derived from a study of rabbinic Judaism, we shall fail. Rabbinic Judaism has a respect for the text and content of that which was being passed on, and in this respect is absolutely different from the freely creative nature of the synoptic tradition. If we work with only source and literary criticism, we shall fail. (p. 53, emphasis mine)
Unique circumstances require unique tools. Hence, Perrin calls for a blend of Formgeschichte, Redaktionsgeschichte, Redaktionstheologie, and Traditionsgeschichte to isolate teachings of Jesus that (so far as we can tell) did not come from Judaism nor from the early church. You will no doubt recognize this approach as the double dissimilarity criterion, which as we know is not without its detractors. However, in Perrin’s defense, he has at least acknowledged and described the severity of the problem and provided a possible way out of the stalemate.
Crisis? What crisis?
So far as I can tell, most of today’s historical Jesus scholars do not address Perrin’s critique of source and literary criticism. It’s quite possible that’s simply a result of my ignorance. Perhaps I just missed the part where they debunked Perrin. To tell you the truth, though, I was not aware of Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus until quite recently, thanks to Ed Jones. Ed had persuaded me to read Betz’s works on the Sermon on the Mount. Curiously, Betz, after poring over a chunk of the SM for several pages, declared that there was no way to tell whether it was from Jesus or from the early church, citing Perrin’s criteria. An intriguing footnote led me to Perrin’s out-of-print book.
Today’s NT scholars might be unfamiliar with Perrin’s critique because the book isn’t easy to find and is infrequently cited. However, what Perrin is presenting with respect to the failure of source and literary criticism is simply a condensation of what the form and redaction critics had been saying for decades, starting with Wrede.
Oh, wait. They don’t read Wrede, do they? Well, who can fault them for not reading those pesky German skeptics? And why should they read Perrin when there’s so much more stuff on the shelf that already confirms their own biases? Why take a fresh look at things when life is so comfortable wearing oatmeal-smudged glasses?