2010-12-16

How the Faithful Destroy Biblical Stories to Stay Faithful (or the Ecumenical Method of Biblical Historiography)

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by Neil Godfrey

Some call it “harmonization of the Gospels”, but it might also be described as a unique brand of theological historical method. That is, something that theological students do and call “history” so they can sound more like historians (a relatively relevant profession) instead of mere students of theology (a decidedly irrelevant one).

Here’s how it works.

One gospel describes a scene in order to illustrate a certain doctrinal teaching.

Another gospel, with a different doctrinal interest, describes a contrary scene to reflect another doctrine.

The historian (sorry, the theology student) enters and says: Ah, here the historical evidence appears to be contradictory. (Only “appears” contradictory, mind you. Aspiring theologians know that whatever can be seen is not of faith, and it is faith that is all important.)

So the (irrelevant) “theologian” who thinks he/she is a (relatively relevant) “historian” draws on their ecumenical leanings and finds a way to unify the two contradictory (oops, “apparently” contradictory) narratives.

This process is not a mere intellectual conceit. It is a necessary activity for those who need something consistent to believe in.

Here’s a case study to illustrate. It is from Tom Powers’ discussion of the ‘Alexander son of Simon’ ossuary.

‘Simon of Cyrene’ in the Bible. ‘What else can we learn from the gospel text about Simon of Cyrene, his family, and his fleeting role in the drama of Jesus’ passion? First, the three synoptic gospels do not actually say that Jesus ever took up his own cross at all, but rather that a “Simon of Cyrene” was compelled to carry the cross “as they went out” (Mt. 27:32) or “as they led Him away” (Lk. 23:26). John, on the other hand, simply tells us that Jesus “went out bearing his own cross” (Jn. 19:17), and does not mention the incident with Simon at all. Our traditional conception of the story, then, attempts to harmonize these two gospel strands: Jesus, having been scourged and thus already near death, stumbles and falls under the burden of his cross, and only then is Simon pressed into service by the Romans.

Now it takes little imagination to see the first story of Simon (Simon Peter’s namesake) carrying the cross of Jesus as

  • a dig at Peter who was earlier personally directly admonished to “take up his cross and follow” Jesus, but who deserted Jesus instead;
  • a dramatization of the lesson for all Christians, that all followers of Christ must take up their cross to be a true Christian.

The Gospel of John, however, omits Simon’s role completely, and explicitly has Jesus carry his own cross. This is all part of the message throughout the fourth gospel that portrays Jesus as divine and without succumbing to normal human frailties. When at the well outside Samaria he explains to his disciples that he has no need of food since his food is to do the will of God (4:34). On the cross he does not suffer (he certainly does not scream as in the other gospels) but calmly says with divine dignity “It is finished/completed” at his point of death. The very idea of Jesus needing a human to help him out in his saving work is outrageous. Jesus therefore carries his own cross.

The two scenarios are not the result of different eyewitness reports of a car-crash. They are the result of using the scene to illustrate different theological messages. I think most theologians and would-be theologians surely know this.

But this theological observation is subsumed beneath the need for basing one’s faith on something more than “the Bible says”. The Bible says (“apparently”) contradictory things. So what is needed is faith in something quite different from what the Bible says anywhere. What is needed is faith in an imaginary fabrication stitched together from contradictory passages in the Bible to create a story neither the Synoptic authors nor John told.

Two biblical stories that were crafted to illustrate different theological messages must be destroyed in order to create a different (NONbiblical) story in which to place one’s faith.

One more thing

If the evidence appealed to does not support what the believer desires, the believer is entitled to fudge the evidence to pretend it fits. (I know. I was a believer once, so I know how it works. The line of reasoning in this Tom Powers article is all very familiar.)

Here is a caption for an illustration in the same article:

This drawing of the inscription on the lid of the Simon ossuary supports the identification of this ossuary as that of Simon of Cyrene’s son. The first line spells “of Alexander” in Greek; the second line, in smaller Hebrew characters, reads “Alexander QRNYT.” The meaning of qrnyt is unclear, but it is possible the engraver made a slight error, and meant instead to write qrnyh—Hebrew for “Cyrenian.”

So the decisive word is “unclear”. But no matter. It is “possible” that the one who engraved this was himself mistaken. It is “possible” that he meant to write what the believer wants to see. Therefore the first sentence can be written: “This drawing of the inscription . . . supports the identification of this ossuary as that of Simon of Cyrene’s son.”

Maurice Casey, incidentally, notes that “doubt about the word ‘Cyrenian’ is mitigated by adjacent ossuaries, which have names more characteristic of Jews from Cyrene than from Jerusalem.” (p. 126). Casey would have done unwary readers a better service had he also thought to mention that of most of the (hitherto non-Palestinian) names on the ossuaries in this area only some are said to have been common in Cyrenia. (See page 3 of the linked article.) It may one day be verified that the inscription really does refer to Cyrene, but until that day theologians who present themselves as historians would be more publicly responsible if they explained the evidence against as well as for their arguments.

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Neil Godfrey

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  • 2010-12-16 23:58:53 GMT+0000 - 23:58 | Permalink

    Thoroughly enjoyed this, Neil.

  • 2010-12-17 01:34:08 GMT+0000 - 01:34 | Permalink

    Even as a believer I was struck by the differences in the four Passion narratives. Consider the Synoptics. We can read along side by side, and for long stretches the stories — the order, and sometimes the exact words — coincide. But once we get to Jerusalem for the final days, each evangelist has a different story to tell. They don’t agree as to the wording on the Titulus. Luke has Jesus go visit Herod for judgment. Of course, John changes the day of crucifixion.

    Was Jesus mostly silent before Pilate, or did he engage in a philosophical debate? When paraded before the people, was Jesus wearing a red robe or a purple robe?

    But yes, as you said, the mind of the believer manages to smash all the contradictions together into a delicious, holy gumbo.

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