The opening chapter of Is This Not the Carpenter? is “A (Very, Very) Short History of Minimalism: From the Chronicler to the Present” by Jim West of the unaccredited Quartz Hill School of Theology (West has said he believes accreditation is “a scheme and a scam”) that is a “ministry” arm of the Quartz Hill Community Church.
When I first read Jim West’s article online in 2010 (before it was edited as part of Is This Not the Carpenter?) I was very surprised indeed. I responded with a blog post, The Refreshing Honesty of Jim West. Here is a section of his article/chapter that I quoted then:
Most “histories” of Ancient Israel and Earliest Christianity are simply examples of circular reasoning. Many historians use the Bible as a historical source; they reconstruct a history which is often nothing more than a recapitulation of the biblical telling; and the Bible is affirmed as historical because of the history so constructed. Similarly, the life of Jesus, for instance, is gleaned from a reading of the Gospels. Said reconstruction is named a ‘history of Jesus’ life.” That “history of Jesus’ life” is then utilized to prove historically the life of Jesus as described in the Gospels. One need only pick up John Bright’s “History of Israel” or Joseph Ratzinger’s “Jesus” to see circularity in action. True, ancillary materials are added to these histories (on the very rare occasions that they are available) – but these only reinforce the circularly circumscribed reconstruction.
As I mentioned in my initial response, Jim West has distorted the meaning of “minimalism” to sustain the conceit throughout his article/chapter. Minimalism is not, primarily, a denial of the value of texts for historical information. They certainly are valuable as historical sources. The question is what the “hard evidence” of archaeological finds and external controls can inform us about the nature and value of the texts as historical sources. Are their narratives true accounts of what happened or are they creative literature that is best explained as the ideology (or theology) of a people, time and place that can only be pinpointed with the aid of other sources external to those narratives?
Jim West’s point is that the authors of our biblical texts were not interested in historical reconstruction or recording. To illustrate, he points to the author of 1 Chronicles changing 2 Samuel’s account of God (Yahweh) causing David to take a census of Israel into Satan being David’s motivator. The author, we thus can see, was doing theology, not history.
Similarly, the evangelists were not interested in historicity. Whether Christ’s famous sermon was delivered on the mountain (Matthew) or on the plain (Luke) mattered not. It was only the theological message of the words that mattered. Luke imitates the style of the Septuagint (Greek language Jewish scriptures) to create the impression of the story of Jesus being a continuation of the stories of God working among his people as in the sacred records. When it came to historical details such as the facts of the supposed census at the time of the birth of Jesus Luke was all at sea. John placed the cleansing of the temple at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry while the Synoptics placed it towards the end: it mattered not to any of them when it took place, only that it could be used to convey a theological message.
Paul, too, with his “Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more” (2 Cor. 5:16), is said by West to have no interest in the historical details of Jesus.
For Jim West, this is apparently the way it should be:
Time would fail us to consider Augustine and Jerome, Origen and Cyril, Clement and Aquinas, Luther and Zwingli and Calvin… men of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and lived in caves (and in Luther’s case, taverns); they were scorned, mocked, beaten, and abused, and yet they never sought refuge in a false historicism. They and other exegetes up until quite recently (the 18th century essentially) understood that theology is the substance of things biblical and the evidence of things free from needing historical underpinning. The tyranny of the circularly arrived-at Sitz im Leben had no power over them.
Postmodern interpreters and post-postmoderners who use the Bible to ask and answer the questions about “what, when, and how” are asking the wrong questions altogether. . . .
For this reason we can only rationally conclude that maximalists, then, are the true distorters of Scripture. They are perverters of the meaning, purpose, and intent of sacred writ as evidenced by their rejection of the methodological approach of the very authors of Scripture themselves.
[T]he purpose of the Bible is not to offer 21st century historians fodder for their reconstructive mills; it is to speak theologically to ancient (and I would also say, modern) communities of faith.
Does any of this undermine the historicity of Jesus? Jim answers resoundingly:
μὴ γένοιτο! (i.e. No way! Absolutely not! Hell no! Never! Heaven forbid!)
He follows this with the usual code language employed by scholars who straddle both sides of the fence between scholarship and faith:
Something happened. We just aren’t in a position to say what. Not historically.
I know the double-speak too well. It was par for the course in a church to which I myself once belonged. Being a scholar to the scholars, sounding for all the world like a rationalist (though the above “until the 18th century” remark is a nudge to tell us the Enlightenment is really of the Devil) who would never gaffe about the resurrection and miracles of Jesus, but of course beneath the wolf’s clothing is a very committed, true-believing double-horned ram.
What Jim West argues about the nature of the biblical texts is true. They were not written to function as sources of historical data in our understanding of that process. There is no denying that theology, not history, is the medium of discourse throughout the Bible. To read this literature for historical information in its narrative content is to slide quickly into circularity. What we read in the biblical narratives can only be confirmed by the biblical narratives themselves.
But minimalism is by no means a faith that the texts speak Truth in theological jargon. Minimalism finds history in the real world that is subject to rational inquiry and discernible evidence — not in a faith protected by the literary tropes.
Would it not have been more appropriate, more scholarly, to have found the same points being made by one who is as genuinely committed to rationalist (by 18th century standards) inquiry? What concord hath Christ the Rationalist with Belial the True Believer? Why would truly critical scholars want anything to do with scholars who draw the line where critical scholarship encroaches upon their faith? Strange bedfellows indeed.
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