2013-03-18

How to Think and Write Like an NT Scholar: Part 1

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by Tim Widowfield

This post inaugurates what I hope will be a long-running, informative (albeit tongue-in-cheek) series. In it, we’ll attempt to shine some light on the inner workings of the New Testament scholar’s brain.

There is no reason to doubt . . .

New Testament scholars fall back on stock phrases when they’re pushing a weak argument, presenting poor evidence, or stating an opinion as fact. Ironically, the stock phrases they pull out of the old filing cabinet usually have the opposite effect from what they intended. That is, they draw attention to the problem.

He’s not in this stove!

We might call this the Oz Distraction Disorder (ODD), as in: “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” It could be an act of desperation, or perhaps it’s a subconscious thing. Maybe they want us to figure it out, much as Bugs Bunny purposely drew attention to the bank robbers he’d stashed in the gas stove.

One of the most common ODD phrases is: “There is no reason to doubt . . .” (TINRTD) Whenever you see this phrase, you should be on the lookout — the author is probably about to describe something you ought to doubt. We’re apparently supposed to shut off the skeptical parts of our brains when we hear this magic formula, triggering a kind of post-hypnotic suggestion.

Here are some fine examples.

Lukan parables that “must be” authentic

Klyne Snodgrass, in his book, Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, writes:

With Jülicher and most others there is no reason to doubt that these two parables are genuine words of Jesus. (p. 385, emphasis added)

Snodgrass pulls the TINRTD card when considering the authenticity of Luke’s parables of the Tower Builder and the Warrior King. Snodgrass snorts:

Apart from the efforts of the Jesus Seminar and a few others, the question of authenticity would not arise(p. 384, emphasis added)

Now that’s an odd thing to say. One would expect that the question of authenticity always arises. We know that the canonical gospels contain stories created out of whole cloth, so aren’t we obliged at least to ask the question? Snodgrass continues:

Why anyone would want to pick on these two small parables is not obvious. (p. 384)

How dare the Jesus Seminar “pick on” those defenseless parables? Those cads! Actually, I think they weren’t singling out these particular parables. But let’s go along with this peculiar conceit and ask why they might question the parables’ authenticity.

Two reasons are given as a basis for rejecting them: [1] such thinking is not distinctive of Jesus, but is derived from a fund of proverbial wisdom, and [2] the parables have a high degree of Lukan vocabulary. (p. 384-385)

Well, I hate to pick on poor, vulnerable parables, but I can see their point. It is difficult to justify a designation of “authentic,” when they aren’t multiply attested, they resemble common wisdom sayings, and they look as if Luke could have written them himself. What’s Snodgrass’s beef?

First, he reminds us that they might look as if they are commonsense wisdom sayings, and they might actually be commonsense wisdom sayings, but there’s no proof they were copied from any known pool of sayings. And then he takes a swipe at double dissimilarity.

The supposition that we can accept from Jesus only what is distinctive of him is a holdover from the abuses of the criterion of dissimilarity and leaves a very small amount of material as authentic. (p. 385, emphasis added)

Here we see the real reason they don’t like that criterion; it doesn’t yield enough material for them to play with. That sounds suspiciously like throwing away your tape measure because you don’t like how fat you’re getting. What does he mean by “abuses”? My guess is he means “applying it too strictly” or being “too skeptical.” Today’s NT scholars are results-oriented, dammit! And the dissimilarity criterion just doesn’t cut it.

Snodgrass falls back on the plausibility criterion instead because it’s a test that yields more stuff. We can imagine Jesus saying things like this, right? It’s way, way harder to imagine him not saying them. Snodgrass insists:

It would be amazing if Jesus did not offer common sense wisdom as part of his teaching. (p. 385)

See? The parables fit with what we expect. You’d be crazy not to accept their authenticity.

And what about the Lukan vocabulary? Snodgrass assures us:

. . . Lukan shaping certainly is no proof of Lukan creation. (p. 385)

So to recap:

  • Just because sayings sound like something Luke wrote, that doesn’t mean Luke created them.
  • Just because sayings sound like common wisdom teachings of the time, that doesn’t mean they were borrowed.
  • However, because sayings sound like the sort of wisdom expressions we want Jesus to say, that means Jesus must have said them.

Snodgrass finishes by telling us “there is no reason to doubt” their authenticity. Case closed.

Jesus “probably” predicted the destruction of the temple

In his gargantuan tome, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Craig Keener writes:

Others before 70 CE also predicted the Temple’s destruction, and there is no reason to doubt that Jesus did so. (p. 290, emphasis added)

Keener partly relies on the plausibility criterion, which is a sophisticated way of say, “What?! It could happen!” He writes:

Jesus’ prophecy against the Temple is plausible in his milieu . . . (p. 290)

Now I ask you, if this were not a sophisticated argument, then how do you account for the word “milieu“?

However, Keener doesn’t rely solely on plausibility to establish probability. He uses all sorts of criteria to prove his point that the cleansing (or “disruption”) of the Temple and the prophecy of its demise are authentic.

  • Embarrassment. Later writers seem uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus predicted the end of the Temple, attributing the charge to false witnesses at the Sanhedrin trial. You will, of course, recognize this as the “nobody-would-ever-invent” argument.
  • Multiple Attestation. Keener asserts that Mark and John are separate “streams of tradition,” which proves the story’s antiquity. For those of us who think John used Mark, this criterion falls flat.
  • Explanatory Power. It explains why Jesus was arrested and executed. (It does not, however, explain why his followers were left to roam the streets.)
  • Coherence. Keener says that the “action” in the Temple coheres with his prophecy against the Temple. Similarly, the Emerald City coheres well with the Yellow Brick Road — it’s difficult to explain one without the other.
  • Authority. He quotes E.P. Sanders who regards the Temple controversy as an “almost indisputable” historical fact. Are you gonna dispute that?

Keener writes:

Some scholars doubt that Jesus could have overturned tables without incurring intervention from the guards in the Fortress Antonia. This skepticism would ring true had Jesus led a full-scale riot, but given the enormity [sic] of the outer court and loudness of the crowds thronging it, a small-scale act by a single person might have escaped the attention of the Roman guards, at least in time for their intervention. (p. 291)

First, I wish writers would stop using the word “enormity” to mean “bigness.” I know some people don’t see a problem with it, but since the primary meaning is “heinous” or “atrocious” it seems to me a poor choice when a word like “vastness” would fit so much better.

Second, in order for Keener’s “small-scale act by a single person” to be true, we have to discount what the gospels actually say.

Then they came to Jerusalem. And He entered the temple and began to drive out those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves; and He would not permit anyone to carry merchandise through the temple. Mark 11:15-16, NASB

And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all [πάντας] those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves. Matt. 21:12, NASB

Jesus entered the temple and began to drive out [literally, “cast out” (ἐκβάλλειν), the same verb used in exorcisms] those who were selling . . . Luke 19:45 NASB

And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all [πάντας] out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables . . . John 2:15, NASB

These accounts do not sound like small-scale incidents. They imply that Jesus emptied the Temple. Keener, Sanders, et al. must rewrite the gospels in order to make them appear more plausible. They must force them to look like real history.

But they ignore a far simpler explanation: Mark invented the story for theological reasons, and the rest copied him. John, as always, rewrote the story according to his own peculiar tastes. Mark had no idea how vast the Temple grounds actually were; he pictured (as did his readers) a much smaller courtyard — something like a pagan temple. You could argue that Luke may have doubted the scale of the cleansing, but he is clearly copying Mark; he isn’t consulting some phantom “Lukan source.”

It is not legitimate to rework the pericopae to make them conform to a modern standard of plausibility. The only excuse for doing so is if we had exhausted all other avenues — but that’s clearly not the case.

The evangelists, writing after the destruction of the temple, needed the Son of God to have said something about the temple — It was mismanaged. It was corrupt. It would be destroyed and rebuilt. Having Jesus say nothing about the Temple that had been destroyed would have been an embarrassment. (Hey, look at me! I’m using the embarrassment criterion.)

This simple explanation differs from Keener’s on several key points:

  1. We focus on what the writers are actually saying. We take them at face value. What is Mark trying to tell us? 
  2. We don’t automatically assume that the original context is the time of Jesus. The stories as recounted in the New Testament could not have happened. But what did they mean for contemporary readers? What ideas were Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John trying to convey?
  3. We don’t hold to a presupposed historical narrative that underlies the story. It is not legitimate to rework the pericopae to make them conform to a modern standard of plausibility. The only excuse for doing so is if we had exhausted all other avenues — but that’s clearly not the case.
  4. We are impressed by the event’s multiple attestation (which we would argue is not independent), but not because we have leaped to the conclusion that it proves authenticity. Rather, it proves the evangelists all thought the story was important for theological reasons.

Keener is so intent on finding the historical Jesus behind the stories that he cannot see anything else. His rewritten, plausible, non-gospel story gives him an insight in the mind of his savior. He writes:

It is therefore probable that Jesus intended his act in the Temple symbolically in some sense, as many scholars recognize. (p. 292)

So in the end, Keener rejects the literal stories in favor of a reconstructed, imaginary one that suits his own needs, and he imagines he has found psychological reasons for the “real Jesus” doing something other that what the gospels say he did.

The historicity of the baptism

In Jesus Remembered, James D. G. Dunn imagines a cork of authenticity bobbing in a sea of myth. In a section named “But What Actually Happened?” he writes:

In one degree or other, most specialists who have studied the passage have followed the line marked out by Strauss: here we have a classic example of the ‘historical myth’. That is to say, there is no reason to doubt that Jesus was actually baptized by John; but the account of the heaven(s) being opened, the Spirit descending as a dove, and the heavenly voice, are all evidence of mythical elaboration. (p. 374, emphasis added)

The evidence that Mark is writing a myth is reinterpreted as “mythical elaboration” upon an event that we should not doubt. The sky cracked open? That’s a myth. God’s voice boomed through the crack? That’s a myth. But “there is no reason doubt” a perfectly serviceable story.

Clearly, Paul Bunyan cannot have been eight feet tall. And no serious Bunyan scholar thinks he dug the grand canyon. But “there is no reason to doubt” . . . But wait. Aren’t these mythical features the very reasons why we should doubt the stories?

A potpourri of credulity

N.T. Wright in Jesus and the Victory of God — Volume 2 (bold emphasis added):

These passages, taken together, clearly stand behind the warnings of Mark 13. Granted our whole argument thus far, there is no reason to doubt that they were used in this way by Jesus himself.

Wright, N.T. (1997-01-15). Jesus and the Victory of God: Volume 2 (Christian Origins and the Question of God) (Kindle Locations 10954-10955). Augsburg Fortress. Kindle Edition. 

As we have already stressed, Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper are to be seen in close conjunction with his earlier actions in the Temple, including, as here, his quasi-royal entry. There is no reason to doubt that he intended, in speaking of the final cup of the meal in terms of his own death, to allude to this theme of covenant renewal.

Wright, N.T. (1997-01-15). Jesus and the Victory of God: Volume 2 (Christian Origins and the Question of God) (Kindle Locations 11967-11970). Augsburg Fortress. Kindle Edition.

James D. G. Dunn in Jesus and the Spirit:

Whatever the ‘facts’ were, Jesus evidently believed that he had cured cases of blindness, lameness and deafness – indeed there is no reason to doubt that he believed lepers had been cured under his ministry and dead restored to life. . . (p. 60, emphasis added)

K. G. Kuhn in The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. 6:

The depiction of Paul’s missionary work in Acts is always in exact agreement with the current situation. Since it is so true to life, there is no reason to doubt its historicity. (p. 744, emphasis added)

Conclusion

I’m not arguing that every time an NT scholar invokes TINRTD it means he or she is about to pull the wool over your eyes. Sometimes we come upon data in the body of evidence from which we can determine mostly indisputable facts. For example, there is no reason to doubt that the author of Matthew’s gospel preferred to say “the kingdom of heaven” where Mark had written “the kingdom of God.”

Problems arise, however, when scholars interpret data to conform to their (sometimes unacknowledged) preconceptions. They can see only one way of interpreting the data and reject any doubts about the authenticity of their facts.

Maybe there really is no man behind the curtain. Perhaps Rocky and Mugsy aren’t hiding in the stove. But don’t you think we ought to look first?

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is an RV Park host 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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14 Comments

  • Blood
    2013-03-18 01:59:11 GMT+0000 - 01:59 | Permalink

    “In one degree or other, most specialists who have studied the passage have followed the line marked out by Strauss: here we have a classic example of the ‘historical myth’. That is to say, there is no reason to doubt that Jesus was actually baptized by John; but the account of the heaven(s) being opened, the Spirit descending as a dove, and the heavenly voice, are all evidence of mythical elaboration. (p. 374, emphasis added)”

    Dunn, like all Bible students, has missed the key insight of Strauss: removing the mythical from a story doesn’t leave you with a historical core. It instead gives the entire story no reason whatsoever to be told, or preserved.

    “It might be thought, for example, that though the appearance of an angel, and his announcement to Mary that she should be the Mother of the Messiah, must certainly be regarded as unhistorical, still, that Mary should have indulged this hope before the birth of the child, is not in itself incredible. But what should have excited this hope in Mary’s mind?

    “It is at once apparent that that which is credible in itself is nevertheless unhistorical when it is so intimately connected with what is incredible that, if you discard the latter, you at the same time remove any basis on which the former rests.”

    — David Friedrich Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, Fourth Ed., Elliot trans. (1840)

    • 2013-03-18 02:31:31 GMT+0000 - 02:31 | Permalink

      Thanks for that. On the “They-don’t-read” list Strauss is probably number one.

  • vinnyjh57
    2013-03-18 04:03:00 GMT+0000 - 04:03 | Permalink

    There is no reason to doubt other than the fact that the story is found in a collection of supernatural tales of uncertain authorship written for purposes of religious propaganda decades after the events they purport to describe based on unknown sources which are removed an indeterminate number of times in the oral tradition from anyone who actually might have any first hand knowledge. Or am I being hyper-skeptical?

    • 2013-03-18 04:23:40 GMT+0000 - 04:23 | Permalink

      Vinny: “Or am I being hyper-skeptical?”

      But “why would anybody make it up?” ™

  • John Bebbington
    2013-03-18 04:57:07 GMT+0000 - 04:57 | Permalink

    I dunno. I’ll ask Joey Smith, Ronny Hubbard and Moey Hamed

  • 2013-03-18 08:53:32 GMT+0000 - 08:53 | Permalink

    The problem is obviously that at the beginning Christians knew that this was all just a mishmash of wisdom saying and legend, and didn’t care because wisdom was the point of religion. But then came the notion that the point of religion is to be saved from a default damnation to hell (i.e. original sin) and so religion became a notion of “believe this story is historical or burn in hell as you were born damned to do” instead of, “live wisely or you might end up in hell.” What everyone forgets is there is no original sin in the synoptics…hell is a threat that is not even absolute: If you call your brother a fool you are in DANGER of hell, not absolutely unquestionably damned to it. The notion of an unquestionable default damnation comes from Paul, who of course never mentions hell and intends a default damnation to dying and staying dead. Its the harmonization of the gospels with Paul that produces modern Christianity. Christianity based just on the synoptics would not even be recognizable to us as “Christianity”: it would be a wisdom religion rather than a credal religion.

  • 2013-03-18 09:27:46 GMT+0000 - 09:27 | Permalink

    “It hasn’t helped that those who are interested in the development of historical research in this region have avoided the implications of the mythical and literary overtones that are a constant of all of the Bible’s stories. They have chosen rather a rhetoric that supports the assumption of historicity. For example, even when speaking of stories filled with literary fantasy, they speak of a ‘biblical record’ and of the Bible’s ‘account of the past’. The rhetoric of archaeology avoids the useful scepticism that historians usually have ready at hand whenever iron is reported to float on water.” (Thompson, “Our Mythic Past”, p.38)

    “It is a fundamental error of method to ask first after an historical David or Solomon, as biblical archaeologists and historians have often done. We need first to attend to the David and Solomon we know: the protagonists of Bible story and legend. The Bible does not hesitate to tell these stories as tall tales.” (p.45)

    “That the stories of the gospels are about a historical person is a difficult assumption. To what extent does the figure of Jesus — like the figures of Abraham, Moses and Job — fulfill a function in a narrative discourse about something else? Is Jesus rather — like so many other great figures on ancient literature — the bearer of a writer’s parable? The question does not refer to our knowledge of a historical person. It asks about the meaning and function of biblical texts.” (p.9)

    To give paraphrase another comment of Thompson’s, if you remove the miraculous from a bible story, you don’t end up with history, you only end up with a broken story.

  • Otishpote
    2013-03-19 04:03:48 GMT+0000 - 04:03 | Permalink

    There is no reason to doubt that this will be an awesome series of posts! Great job, Tim.

  • 2013-05-04 18:55:13 GMT+0000 - 18:55 | Permalink

    I know I wasn’t going to check anything here, at least for a while, but my email account, jdlittrell5@yahoo.com, has now been hacked for the second time in about four days, therefore I can’t access it any more. This hacking began immediately after I posted on J. Quinton’s link–a far left site–where I posted that list of Muslim attacks and violence in the U.S. which Neil and others here didn’t like. At first, I had to change my password and now I have lost my Yahoo email account entirely, which nothing like this has ever happened before. I have another yahoo account, however, called yourekiddingme5@ yahoo.com in case anyone ever wants to email me or contact me about anything.

    • 2013-05-04 19:11:55 GMT+0000 - 19:11 | Permalink

      Perhaps you might do us the kindness of warning us which site it was that you believe was the conduit for the hacking. J. Quinton has linked to several sites and I am responsible for any content that appears here.

      You appear to have been able to send your email from the same account as usual so I am not clear what your problem is.

  • 2013-05-04 19:28:42 GMT+0000 - 19:28 | Permalink

    loonwatch.com

  • 2013-05-04 19:38:15 GMT+0000 - 19:38 | Permalink
    • 2013-05-04 20:50:00 GMT+0000 - 20:50 | Permalink

      I take it you don’t like the font and color scheme on the site?

    • 2013-05-04 21:19:49 GMT+0000 - 21:19 | Permalink

      It seems you have no trouble navigating that site for new articles. (Others who have linked to that site (Quinton and Sly) have not posted this link before. If I thought a site was responsible for hacking my email I would never return to it. But you don’t seem to mind other readers of this blog being at risk.

      But I do agree with Tim. Orange and grey is simply a terrible combination, and the satirical logo is absolutely hideous.

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