Who’s “Rejecting Critical Inquiry”?

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by Tim Widowfield

Dr. McGrath has taken me to task for my last post on “Getting to the Root of the Criteria Problem.” Actually, he’s unhappy about several things. You can tell he’s upset, because he calls me a canard-repeatin’ mythicist. That’s like a Tea Party guy calling you an atheist-Muslim or a communist-Nazi. It’s so bad.

I think I’d rather be called a Jesus minimalist or a Jesus agnostic. But in any case, the issue at hand wasn’t the existence of Jesus but the state of the evidence and what you can and cannot justifiably claim based on that evidence.  Look, I’m willing to entertain the idea that Matthew was embarrassed by what Mark wrote. I don’t think he was, but if you want to argue that, go ahead. But you can’t leap from the theory that Matthew was embarrassed by Mark to the “fact” that the early Church was embarrassed by a historical event.

I gather he didn’t like my crack about quote-fishers either. He thinks I’m doing “some dubious things with Jan Vansina’s work in the realm of oral tradition and history.”  McGrath writes:

The last point is somewhat new and so worth commenting on further. Widowfield suggests that Vansina’s adoption of something like the criterion of embarrassment is radically different than its use by historians working with texts, because in recitations of oral traditions, the embarrassment of the reciter might be seen in their speech and behavior. Historians can respond to this by pointing out that texts too can indicate an author’s discomfort with material, indicating that it did not originate with them. Moreover, historians prefer to have texts that allow us to actually hear testimony from the past, to having a live reciter of oral tradition, our inability to see whether an ancient author’s brow creased when writing certain things notwithstanding.

First, for clarification, by “historian” I’m pretty sure he’s talking about the theologians and doctors of divinity who write books on the historical Jesus. Jan Vansina, who earned his doctorate in history back in 1957, did in fact write about something that sounds like the criterion of embarrassment. A quote-fisher like McGrath could easily have mistaken it for just the sort of thing that John Meier was talking about in volume 1 of A Marginal Jew.

Are they radically different? Yes, radically and categorically. Here’s why.

  1. The stories Vansina was describing were part of the community’s private tradition. That is, the stories were kept within the families of the chiefs and tribal elders, and not made available to the general public. They would not have fit in with the purpose of public tradition.
  2. Vansina had studied the storytellers’ cultures, so he knew what they found shameful or embarrassing. Note that he learned these cultural attitudes from the people themselves, not by comparing story against story.
  3. Since Vansina was listening to real oral tradition and not reading written documents that are assumed to have grown out of oral tradition, he was able to view firsthand how the storyteller and his audiences reacted. Why a historian (or even a theologian) should “prefer to have texts that allow us to actually hear testimony from the past” (say what?) is unclear. Nor is it clear to me that we can presume that the gospels are in fact testimony of actual events from the past. They might be testimony of earlier traditions, but asserting anything beyond that is unwarranted conjecture.
  4. Finally, the embarrassing traditions Vansina wrote about were always embarrassing. That is to say, the events they portrayed were shameful to the community when they occurred, and they remain shameful even today. He didn’t have to posit a historical trajectory of “Chiefology” in which early storytellers were not embarrassed, followed by later ones who were slightly discomfited, with much later ones being mortified.

If a storyteller told him that one of the chief’s ancestors participated in a shameful event, Vansina considered it reliable testimony.  He wrote (Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology):

In Burundi, it is admitted that a battle was lost and a king killed, etc. Here, too, the events described are diametrically counter to the purposes the tales are meant to fulfil, and a certain amount of embarrassment is noticeable whenever events of this kind are recalled. One may take it that traditions such as these can be relied upon, and fortunately they are to be met with, it would appear, in a large number of societies. (p. 83, emphasis mine)

As I wrote in an earlier post, NT scholars must infer embarrassment by comparing writings by later evangelists or later church fathers to earlier writings by, say, Mark. Vansina observed embarrassment by the storytellers who mentioned events that reflected badly on their ancestors.

However, just to be clear, even if we grant the inference that later evangelists were embarrassed by Mark it can only prove that Mark precedes the others; it cannot prove that his story is historically authentic. Why? Because the gospel of Mark is just as theologically driven as the other three canonical gospels.

Consider, for example, the story of Jesus walking on water, which is found in three gospels — Mark 6:45-52, Matt. 14:22-33, John 6:15-21. First, notice that the narrative in all three gospels follows the same path: The Feeding of the Five Thousand, Jesus Retreats to a Mountain, Jesus Walks on Water. If we were talking about any other set of documents other than the New Testament, we would say that John and Matthew used Mark here. But since historical Jesus scholars need John to be independent, they’ll tell you that John is actually using some pre-existing oral or written tradition.

If John changed Mark, how did he do it and why? We note that Jesus did not pray when he went up the mountain. The noun prayer — προσευχή (proseuché) — and the verb to pray — προσεύχομαι (proseuchomai) — do not occur in John’s gospel. Later, when the disciples saw Jesus walking on water, John tells us they were frightened, but omits the part about Jesus being mistaken for a ghost. Finally, where Mark ended with another dig at the boys for not understanding “the loaves,” John says instead they were happy to take him into the boat.

If Matthew changed Mark, how did he do it, and why? The most noticeable change is the added story of Peter jumping out of the boat to imitate Jesus, only to start sinking. But perhaps the most important theological change is the last verse in the story, in which the disciples worship Jesus and confess that he is the Son of God.

Can we say that Matthew was embarrassed about the treatment of the disciples in Mark?  Perhaps. I would rather say simply that Matthew thought Mark was wrong.  Can we argue the idea that the disciples thought Jesus was a ghost embarrassed John? Maybe. Is it possible that Luke found it so embarrassing that he omitted the whole thing?  Who can say?

However, no matter what the reasons they had for changing or omitting Mark’s story, one thing we cannot say is that they were “stuck with” (to use Meier’s term) the story of Jesus walking on water. If anything, we should probably ask ourselves if what we’re dealing with is less a miracle story than a parable. I think Matthew, especially, viewed the story as a parable, and it was certainly used that way in Christianity from the very start. If you’ve attended church at all, the odds are pretty good that you’ve heard a sermon based on Matthew’s version of the story.

We would be hopelessly naive to assume that Mark’s story is the “closest to authentic history,” simply because it’s the earliest. Let’s face reality. People cannot walk on water. This event did not happen. What we have, then, is fiction edited by successive authors.  All three of them had theological axes to grind. All three of them used allegorical stories to convey the message of the gospel. And if you think the story of the baptism is different from the story of Jesus walking on water, you are not paying attention.

Understanding that gospel stories are heavily edited or embellished by the evangelists, and that they might actually be parables intended to teach rather than biographical episodes, history, or even micro-history (to use Bauckham’s pet phrase) is not the end of critical inquiry, but rather the beginning.

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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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9 thoughts on “Who’s “Rejecting Critical Inquiry”?”

    1. Careful now — you’re dangerously close to “discarding critical methods.” And that could lead to “across-the-board” agnosticism. Or at the very least, independent thought.

  1. When Matthew edits Mark citing the wrong prophet, it’s because Matthew knows Mark is wrong. When Matthew edits Mark quoting Jesus giving Roman law on women divorcing as Jewish law, Matthew knows Mark is wrong. When Matthew omits the naked boy in Gethesmane, how would Matthew know? That is a prime candidate for the mortification factor.

    1. Was he mortified because he was “embarrassed” by the story itself? Or did he perhaps recognize the allegory of the young man shedding his clothes (body/flesh?) as it related to the young man at the tomb? In other words, did he know something about Mark’s theological reason for inventing the fleeing fellow and disagree with it?

  2. I recently received my copy of Anthony Le Donne’s The historiographical Jesus: memory, typology, and the Son of David and was struck by something he writes on the first page of his preface:

    I am well aware that most academic works are not read in their entirety by researchers.

    Now that is something that a few of us amateurs have come to reluctantly grasp in our exchanges with some of these “readers” (are readers of lots of scholarly books really “researchers” or more accurately “readers of the literature”? — Researchers I know, even in history, do more than just read other academic works — but not so in biblical studies, it seems.) The problems with some of us amateurs is that we are keen enough to want to engage with and learn as much as we can of the views of some of the scholars, and to understand as fully as possible the reasons for their arguments, etc. So we do darn well tend to read whole books.

    So it is dismaying when we do attempt to engage seriously with some academics to find that they do not really understand or know what they are supposed to understand and know and teach others. We know McGrath, for example, does not understand the Documentary Hypothesis so he says flat wrong things about it in public; he does not understand or even know the simple straightforward arguments of Jan Vansina so he claims his selected quotations from his work argue for far more than Vansina remotely suggests; and he has no idea of the fundamentals by historians who talk about historical methods (e.g. Prevenier and Howell) and co. He certainly could not even accurately repeat Doherty’s argument even after skimming a few chapters of his book.

    It is apparent that some professors are so darned busy that they simply don’t have time to read whole books. They skim. They find the quote they want and leave the rest. I imagine they skim lots of book reviews in order to know what to think about what others write.

    And when some smart-alec amateur challenges such a professor by pulling out a more thorough knowledge of what’s actually published in the field, well . . . . we know the consequences. . . . .

  3. Matthew: you are wrong about your treatment of disciples.

    Mark: but I have in mind the midrash from x, y and z and you know it.

    Matthew: yes I know, but you are wrong the same. Perhaps I have edited ur-Mark (Roger Parvus thesis) and yet I have little confidence in my canonical Mark.

    Mark: and if I’m genuine from begin to end, withouth no interpolation?

    Matthew: Or perhaps the our church is on the way to sell our stories as True History and then the disciples must to do a better show, contra the too much independence of Paul, heralding (in spite of himself !) future subversion in the doctrine by routinely ”dangerous” personal revelations and scorn of Torah.

    Mark: but then you are very late! My readers are all mythicists! Are you from II century CE?

    Matthew: I dont’know when I was written.


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