Blogging Again: Some Thoughts on Methodology

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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.

Oatmeal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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)

Wilhelm who?

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?

Unfair treatment?

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?

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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0 thoughts on “Blogging Again: Some Thoughts on Methodology”

  1. Amen. You should see the continuity of quote from garbage studies purported as science. I would easily maintain that 95% of “studies” from the publish or perish set make it to the internet as “science”.

    Clearly nobody needs a naturopath nor acupuncturist in any scientific debate.

    But its a good point to reflect on in the community. What point does evidence cut off at?


  2. Tim, Thank you for your reference to the Sermon on the Mount. The most significant development I have encountered in my experience here at Vridar. I am much concerned to comment. As you know I am presently banned from commenting. Until I receive some assurance that my comment will be accepted given it meete the muster of rules of comment, I await..

  3. “Curiously, Betz, after poring over a chunk of the SM (Matt. 6:1-18 a Cultic Didache) for several pages, declared that there was no way to tell whether it was from Jesus or from the early church.” Some clarification, should this seem to raise some question authenticity: (P91) “Undoubtedly, many sayings of the SM go back in one form or another to the historical Jesus. But there are also sayings, and even entire compositions ( like Matt. 6:1-18), for which there are no synoptic parallels , and whose derivation from Jesus cannot be established. Moreover, many sayings in the SM clearly give the impression that they were written in retrospect on Jesus and his ministry, and thus were composed by the redactor himself. It is implied, of course, in sayings such as these == which derive from the redactor – that they are based upon the teaching of Jesus, that is they are meant to give expression to Jesus’ teaching. Thus while the composition of the SM as a whole does derive from the historical Jesus, it represents the redactor’s intention to summarize that which was typical and of decisive importance for the master.”

    1. I think it’s important to distinguish between two basic questions of historicity as it pertains to HJ studies. (I will be talking more about this subject soon.)

      1. The basic historicity of Jesus. Did he exist? What are the items of evidence that support his existence?

      2. Our knowledge about the historical Jesus. How do we assess the evidence of the NT and assess whether a saying or deed is authentic?

      Betz never concerns himself with the first question. He is by no means unique. NT scholars rarely, if ever, address the first question. The basic historicity of Jesus is assumed; what they’re primarily interested in is how much we can know about him.

      Betz agrees with the form-critical methods of Perrin, specifically: isolating double-dissimilar teachings (e.g., “Son of Man,” “Kingdom of God,” etc.) as probable authentic traditions. These traditions appear not to have come from rabbinic Judaism or from the early church. That’s all right as far as it goes. And don’t get me wrong — I think this analysis is really interesting, and I have great respect for Perrin and Betz; however, in the end there are some nagging, unresolved problems with this approach. I hope to expand on these issues in upcoming posts.

      1. A basic psychological maxim controlling NT studies (over against our predilection of developing “eyes that cannot see”).
        If you begin with Paul, you will misunderstand Jesus. If you begin with Jesus, you will understand Paul differently.
        Over against the overwhelming counterweight of Christianity derived from the writings of the NT, one can hardly avoid beginning with Paul, which means beginning with Christianity derived from the writings of the NT. This forces a follow-up post on understanding the how and the why of the “Jesus Puzzle”.

        1. Tim: “What are the items of evidence that suppport his (Jesus’) existence?”

          From within the Guilds of NT Studies the question of Jesus; existence is never raised because of the given of the Authority of NT Scripture which is based on the norm of apostolic witness to Jesus. The sufficient evidence for knowledge of Jesus in the original and originating witness of the faith and witness of the apostles, those who were his companions. The evidence shows that the key disciples, having fled to their native Galilee, within weeks at high risk, returned to Jesusalem purposing to again take up the sayings of their Master. This began the Jerusalem Jesus Movement. OurI primary source we now identify to be the Sermon on the Mount (Matt: 5:3-27), not the Gospels.

          This is because of the fateful mistake of histtory making it necessary to reconstruct a new history of Jesus traditions.

          1. This is nonsensical question-begging. You can’t say that the evidence for the existence of Jesus is an anonymous story about disciples of Jesus who said Jesus did this and that and expect to be taken seriously.

            Who told this story? We don’t know, but “tradition” says it came from the disciples of Jesus. And from where does that “tradition” originate?

            The story says the followers of Jesus “fled” from Jerusalem to Galilee but, “within weeks at high risk, returned to Jerusalem” to talk about Jesus again. But from where does this story originate? Not from Luke, who said the disciples never left Jerusalem. Nor from John, who said there was no “fleeing” involved at all — merely a wearisome acceptance that the story had come to an end. Nor from Matthew, who breathes not a word of any flight from Jerusalem. Matthew’s gospel even says that only “some” of the disciples believed they saw and heard a resurrected Jesus.

            No, this story about the disciples supposedly fleeing Jerusalem after Jesus had been crucified (though the Gospels plainly tell us that the authorities who crucified Jesus had no interest in his disciples!) is nowhere to be found in our ancient sources. It is entirely a rationalization of modern scholars who are desperately groping for an explanation for the Christian religion that includes a place for an “historical Jesus”.

            Ed, and all who think this way, understand that this is just a story. It’s not real history. Convince me otherwise with real evidence (not just “stories”).

            And what’s all this nonsense about the “Sermon on the Mount and NOT the Gospels” not being primary sources for this Jesus. That’s nonsense, too. The Sermon on the Mount is found nowhere at all except in The Gospels! So if some parts of the Sermon on the Mount are a source for “the historical Jesus”, then so are parts of the Gospels! That’s where we find the “Sermon on the Mount”.

          2. Ed wrote: “Our primary source we now identify to be the Sermon on the Mount (Matt: 5:3-27), not the Gospels.”

            I’ll respond more fully to your comments later, but on this particular matter I must take issue. The more you analyze the SM the more you can see that it is a composite, literary work with many layers, formed over along period of time. Hence, by definition, it cannot be a primary source. You continually tell me that Paul got it wrong, but at least we have what many would argue is a primary source of early Christianity: Paul’s letters, a firsthand account of an early Christian’s view from the first century.

            The reason so many scholars say you have to read Paul first is that the epistles predate the gospels. We have no criteria — worse, we have no external controls — that can tell us one branch of Christianity was right and the rest were wrong.

            1. So I seem to be hit with two “whammies” at once. First off I am forced to take some consolation in some preliminary facts: You both are “outsiders”, making it reasonable to assume that you could hardly be adequately informed in the basic specialized knowledge of the discipline “in the areas of philology, form and redaction criticism, literary criticism, history of religions, and New Testament theology necessarily applies.” (Betz). Thus I am forced to again make reference to my 11. Comment to Only Scholars Can Know Jesus Existed: Blogosphere’s “unprecedented ‘lay’ element of scholarship in the field – the absence of peer pressure – has meant in the study of Christian origins that it is undergoing a quantum leap in the hands of a much wider consistency than traditional academia.” As nonsensical as for an imagined critic of Quantum and Relativity Physics having say only a high school math level.
              Further, a quote from Eric Zuesses’s Christ’s Ventriloquist: “what’s known today as Christianity started with Paul, and was then developed by his followers, who wrote the canonical Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. The religion of the New Testament actually has nothing to do with the person of the historical Jesus: The NT was written and assembled to fulfill Paul’s Roman agenda, not Jesus’ Jewish one. This is shown to explain the entire Christian myth.”
              I am quite pleased to reply, first to Tim, since he has in hand Betz’s Essays on the Sermon on the Mount, which Betz names as the alternative to the writings of the New Testament. I can’t point to bones or DNA dated documents as evidence, however I think I can responsibly report the present understanding of our top scholars of the Guild of NT Studies. I am distracted by my ill wife and of course age limitations but I promise as prompt a response as I am able – soon.

              1. I hope your wife is feeling better soon.

                Yes, I am an outsider and not a professional scholar. But I’m not content to be told what the truth is even if it’s by “top scholars” from “the guild.” Fortunately, this isn’t rocket science nor is it quantum physics; instead it’s a branch of history. Fortunately, I have a degree in history, and I’ve read more than the average high school student. Way, way more.

                So I hope you’ll forgive me if I keep on plugging away.

  4. Interestingly enough I have read both Mises and Marx and not in that order!

    Regarding the historicity question which other historical characters are assumed to have existed? As far as I know other characters such as Socrates are assumed to have existed even when the historical evidence is minimal. I suppose what I want to find out is if there are any major characters in history where their existence is debated?

    1. Muhammed. I don’t know if Buddha’s existence is “debated” or if it’s simply that whether he existed or not bothers very many all that much. King David. Rama in India. Figures of faith and ideology.

  5. http://christianorigins.co.uk/2012/10/07/authenticity-criteria/

    An interesting article by Helen Bond, explaining that ‘What the conference showed was that all the standard criteria have their flaws, and that a heavy-handed (and lazy) reliance on them can be misguided. They can give historical reconstruction the air of a pseudo-science, when in reality it is anything but ‘scientific’. I found the discussion of embarrassment particularly interesting – for example, I’d always simply assumed that early Christians were embarassed about Jesus’ baptism by John from the start, but I now realise that they may have had good reasons for wanting to stress the connections with the popular preacher initially, and perhaps only felt awkward about baptism ‘for the remission of sins’ later.’

    Well, we all knew already that James McGrath was a pseudo-scientist 🙂

    1. This article by Helen Bond offers a depressing insight into the shallowness of so much one reads in biblical studies. Criteria are still okay so long as one uses them sparingly as one of the many “tools in the toolbox”. What sort of rationale is that? It sounds like criteria thus become like Dr Who’s sonic screwdriver — only called upon to get one out of those spots for which there is no other credible plot-device. That is, they remain what they have always been — nothing more than a fabrication to hold together model that has nothing more than assumption as its foundation.

      And how can Helen Bond say she has always assumed the evangelists were embarrassed by the baptism of Jesus when the fallacies of this assumption have been published in the literature for decades now? Does it require a conference for scholars to actually think seriously about the long-standing criticisms of their assumptions?

      McGrath a pseudo-scientist? Perish the thought. He’s a Creationist through and through like probably most of his liberal Christian companions. Real evolutionists like Jerry Coyne, for example, have made it clear that an understanding of evolution can allow for no compromise with an idea that God somehow guided it at critical points, or had angels enter key genes at critical times to guide their mutations or stood up on the heavenly balcony tossing meteors into the earth to guide the environmental conditions to produce the right results. As far as real evolutionists are concerned, the McGraths are creationists in denial and without a fundamental understanding of evolutionary theory, period.

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