Category Archives: Byron & Lohr: I (Still) Believe


2015-10-17

Another Biblical Scholar Explains His Interest in Historical Jesus Studies

by Neil Godfrey
James D. G.JimmyDunn FBA (born 21 October 1939) is a British New Testament scholar who was for many years the Lightfoot Professor of Divinity in the Department of Theology at the University of Durham, now Emeritus Lightfoot Professor. He has worked broadly within the Protestant tradition. — Wikipedia (12th October 2015)

Other scholars in this series: Dale AllisonRichard BauckhamScot McKnight. To appreciate the coverage of Dunn’s works see a selected list in Wikipedia.

James D.G. Dunn’s view of the historical Jesus was one of five sought for an exchange of views in The Historical Jesus: Five Views, edited by James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy. The others were Robert M. Price, John Dominic Crossan, Luke Timothy Johnson and Darrel L. Bock. Dunn’s earliest forays into the historical Jesus were in response to a controversial 1984 London Weekend Television series Jesus: The Evidence in which doubts were raised against the traditional Christian narrative and even the existence of Jesus. The idea that controversial views should be aired publicly without being simultaneously framed in the condemnation and scorn they find among conventional Christian scholars was too much for Dunn and other critics. Dunn himself reveals his own poor view of the intelligence of the general public in an overwhelmingly Christian nation led by mainstream clergy when he wrote in his preface to his response to the program, The Evidence for Jesus (1985)

From what they saw and heard, viewers who lacked training in biblical studies or theology were unable to distinguish be­tween the weightier and the less weighty opinions. They were given too little advice as to whether what was projected was accepted by the majority of scholars in this field or only by a lone voice resisting the larger consensus. Of course, scholarship does not and should not pro­ceed by majority vote! One scholar in a hundred may be right, and the remaining ninety-nine wrong. But when lay people are being exposed to the claims of scholarship, they at least have a right to know how well these claims have been received by other scholars.

evidenceIn fact there was ample follow up to the original TV program to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind about where mainstream biblical scholars stood. As another scholar, Howard Clark Kee, explains in his Foreword to Dunn’s book,

British television offered a follow-up series in an attempt to give more moderate biblical scholars a chance to present their side of the case and to respond to the radicals. As a result the controversy was, if anything, extended and enlarged. Coming in conjunction with the heated debate that arose when a theologian with controversial views on the virgin birth and resurrection was consecrated a Bishop of the Church of England, thoughtful people—in and out of the churches— raised serious questions: Is the traditional faith of the church obsolete? Is the church not being honest with the public? Have such recent discoveries as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Gnostic library in Egypt discredited the Gospel picture of Jesus as we have known it? Is the evidence not being candidly presented and discussed?

In other words, the public was well and truly aware that most scholars did not accept views that radically questioned Christian origins. But what was under threat was public confidence in the intellectual integrity of the bulk of those theologians. Damage control was called for and James Dunn stepped in to do his part to bolster the confidence of the devout.

Fortunately, there were scholarly and churchly leaders across Great Britain who raised serious and responsible challenges to these radical conclusions. Among the latter was James D. G. Dunn, Professor of Divinity at the University of Durham in northern England, an active churchman and a prolific writer. Professor Dunn is personally interested in the daily life and faith aspects of Christianity as well as in its intellectual dimensions. It was appropriate, therefore, that the Durham Council of Churches should ask him to give a series of lectures to an interchurch audience on the same topic, “Jesus: The Evidence” . . . . (Kee, writing in the Foreword about the origin of the book)

Or in Dunn’s own words:

One of the attractive features of Durham was an active Council of Churches, which Meta and I helped to revive . . . as Churches Together in Durham. Initial involvement was a sequence of lectures in response to a London Weekend Television series entitled Jesus: the Evidence (1984), a series which had proved to be very unbalanced.  The puzzlement and distress caused by the series prompted me to offer a four-lecture response, better rooted in the New Testament evidence and more truly reflected of the range of scholarly opinion. These were published as as The Evidence for Jesus. . . .  

(2015-09-01). I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.   —  (my own bolding and formatting in all quotations)

So Dunn assures readers from reading the gospel narratives themselves that beneath the theological elaboration is indeed “historically reliable” and genuine “historical information” that “clearly” derived from oral traditions going back to the earliest eyewitnesses of Jesus himself. Even the evidence for the resurrection, the “fact” of the empty tomb and the transformation of the disciples after claiming to have witnessed the resurrected Jesus, must leave any well meaning jury with the conclusion that the gospel stories are “attempts to say something which goes beyond human description” and that “there must have been powerful and compelling factors which resulted in the first Christian confession, ‘ God has raised Jesus from the dead’!” (p. 76) read more »


2015-10-04

Another Biblical Scholar (Richard Bauckham) on Historical Jesus Studies

by Neil Godfrey
Richard J. Bauckham, FBA, FRSE (born 22 September 1946) is an English scholar in theology, historical theology and New Testament studies, specialising in New Testament Christology and the Gospel of John. He is a senior scholar at Ridley Hall, Cambridge. — Wikipedia (4th Oct 2015).

eyewitnesses

Richard Bauckham is probably best known to the wider public for his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony in which he argues that the gospel narratives about Jesus were derived from reports of eyewitnesses. Is it reasonable to ask if Bauckham’s thesis was the product of disinterested historical inquiry?

Anyone who has read the first chapter of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses will know that my overall concern in the book was to help Christians recover the confidence that the Jesus they find in the Gospels (rather than in some dubiously reconstructed history behind the Gospels) is the real Jesus. 

(2015-09-01). I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship (p. 27). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Does this entitle us to be suspicious that the arguments might have been tendentious?

I did not think this prejudiced the purely historical argument that followed because I am accustomed to making sure that my historical arguments stand up as historical arguments.

I have covered in depth what his “historical arguments” look like in a detailed series of chapter by chapter posts now available in the archives. One of the more bizarre of Bauckham’s “historical arguments” is to compare the gospel narratives of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus with testimony of another “unique” event, the Holocaust of the 1940s. To approach the testimony of survivors/eyewitnesses with a hermeneutic of “radical suspicion” is “epistemological suicide”. Normative approaches of critical analysis of the evidence, of testing the evidence, are set aside in preference for a choice between either believing or rejecting the testimony, for either cynically rejecting the “astonishing testimony” of something unspeakably unique or charitably trusting the words of a privileged eyewitness report. Ad hoc rationalisations dominate: if passages such as the crucifixion narratives are replete with biblical (Old Testament) allusions it is because the eyewitnesses were overawed by their memories of the events; yet if passages such as the resurrection narratives contain no biblical allusions it is because the eyewitnesses were even more overawed by their memories of something that “defied reality”.

What about Bauckham’s personal faith interest? Does that shape his work in any way?

Maybe (but how could I ever know?) I would still love God if I came to the conclusion that there was no shred of real history in the New Testament. But, to say the least, I would find it more difficult to believe in God if I did not believe that God became incarnate as the man Jesus, who died and rose bodily from death and is alive eternally with God. (Here I differ profoundly from people who find it easier to believe in God than in the incarnation and the resurrection.) This gives my love of God an indispensable stake in the historical credibility of the Gospels. For as long as I have thought about it, it has always been clear to me that, for Christian faith to be true, the Jesus Christians find in the Gospels must be the real Jesus . . . 

(2015-09-01). I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship (p. 24). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Does this mean that Bauckham invariably knows that he expects to find his faith confirmed in all of his studies? He does at least permit himself to change his mind on a number of issues so no-one can say he does not courageously follow wherever the evidence leads . . . Coincidentally the three changes of mind that he admits to having arisen out of his studies have all been in the direction of establishing the “truth” of a more conservative and traditional view of his faith: read more »


2015-10-03

We are not historians; we are Christians — (“I know what you mean, but don’t say it like that!”)

by Neil Godfrey
Scot McKnight is an American New Testament scholar, historian of early Christianity, theologian, speaker, author and blogger who has written widely on the historical Jesus, early Christianity, the emerging church and missional church movements, spiritual formation and Christian living. He is currently Professor of New Testament at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, IL. McKnight is an ordained Anglican with anabaptist leanings, and has also written frequently on issues in modern anabaptism. — Wikipedia (4th Oct 2015)

believeI cited Scot McKnight in my first serious attempt to point out the differences in the ways biblical scholars approach their study of Jesus and Christian origins from the ways other historians handled sources and investigated other historical persons and events. In Jesus and His Death McKnight quite rightly notes the general ignorance among his theologian/biblical studies peers of the methods followed by other historians and their debates over the very nature of their craft. He notes that the reliance upon criteria of authenticity (“criteriology”) is both unique to historical Jesus studies and fallacious. In another early post I quoted McKnight’s view that historical Jesus scholars are in fact fooling themselves when they claim their reconstructions of Jesus are derived solely from the evidence:

While each may make the claim that they are simply after the facts and simply trying to figure out what Jesus was really like—and while most don’t quite say this, most do think this is what they are doing— nearly every one of them presents what they would like the church, or others with faith, to think about Jesus. Clear examples of this can be found in the studies of Marcus Borg, N.T. Wright, E.P. Sanders, and B.D. Chilton—in fact, we would not be far short of the mark if we claimed that this pertains to each scholar—always and forever. And each claims that his or her presentation of Jesus is rooted in the evidence, and only in the evidence. (Jesus and His Death, p. 36)

McKnight has elaborated on some of his views about historical Jesus scholarship and the nature of biblical source material in a new publication,  I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship.

The Bible is God’s true and living word

McKnight does not hide his view that his historical studies are investigations into “God’s true and living word”. Don’t call him an inerrantist, though. Rather, each book in the Bible adds to the previous one, “sometimes agreeing, sometimes even disagreeing, but often expanding and adjusting and renewing — the previous texts. God’s inspiration then is at work in a history and a community as expressed by an author for a given moment.”

It was not until many years later that I read Michael Fishbane’s Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel when he gave me the best words for what is happening in the Bible and not least in the Synoptics. There is an inner dialogue at work and once one begins to see the dialogue one sees the Bible for what it really is. It is not one self-contained text added to the previous but one text interacting with — sometimes agreeing, sometimes even disagreeing, but often expanding and adjusting and renewing — the previous texts. God’s inspiration then is at work in a history and a community as expressed by an author for a given moment. This experience of underlining the Synoptics one word and one line after another led me to think that words like “inerrancy” are inadequate descriptions of what is going in the Bible. I have for a long time preferred the word “true” or “truth.” The Bible is God’s true and living Word is far more in line with the realities of the Bible itself than the political terms that have arisen among evangelicals in the twentieth century.

(2015-09-01). I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship (pp. 167-168). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

So when Scot McKnight was criticizing the scholarly methods used by his peers to investigate Jesus he was not calling for them to turn their backs on fallacious “criteriology” and turn towards the methods of other professional historians (such a turn would have meant a revision in even the very questions they asked as historians) but he was, rather, declaring that historical inquiry was not capable of uncovering very much of relevance for the Church.

As a Gospels specialist I entered into the historical Jesus debates, first with an invitation from Craig Evans and Bruce Chilton to sketch the teachings of Jesus in the context of his mission to Israel (A New Vision for Israel) but then even more intensively in a book called Jesus and His Death (Baylor University Press). Two things happened to me — at the deepest level of my being — through that decade of study. First, I became convinced the historical method used in historical Jesus studies yields limited conclusions. My “aha” moment was sitting at my desk realizing I can prove that Jesus died but I can never prove that he died for my sins; I can prove that Jesus asserted that he would be raised from the dead but I can never prove he rose for my justification. . . .

Interesting that the two details that McKnight singles out as subject to unequivocal “proof” are the two points central to the Christian faith itself. He follows by affirming the importance of traditional Church belief over the findings of historical studies. . . read more »