Bowling with Bumpers or How Not to Do Critical Scholarship

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by Tim Widowfield

Note: I wrote this post back in February of 2012. I just never got around to adding a nice conclusion and finishing it. I offer it up now as a way to kick-start my blogging habit again.

Failure-proofing the world

I suck at bowling. I’ve tried. Heaven knows I’ve tried. I even bought a pair of bowling shoes, had a ball drilled to fit my hand, the works. Didn’t matter. I still stink.

Watching the ball go (Photo credit: whatnot)

But hang on — help is on the way. There’s a surefire method for keeping your ball (if not your mind) out of the gutter. They call it “Bumper Bowling.” Just toss the ball down the lane and you’re at least assured of knocking down the seven or the ten pin.

In our “losing-is-too-hard” culture, which simply delays the age at which children learn that the world is a lonely, cold, hard place, we don’t want anyone to suffer the pain of failure, so we reward any effort. No more tears at the bowling alley. Any errant ball is gently kept on its course to the pins thanks to a set of railings, or in some cases, a gaudy pair of inflatable tubes.

Of course, my problem isn’t landing in the channel, it’s missing the easy spares. So while the bumpers keep the very young, the weak, and the infirm from getting skunked, it won’t assure them of a decent score. Unless, that is, they start handing out strikes for knocking down eight or nine pins. “Close enough, Tyler! High five, Brianna!”

The Gospel of John as a beautiful, clumsy child

Pity poor John. If you wanted to explain Christianity to someone who knew nothing about it, wouldn’t the Gospel of John be the first thing you’d show him or her? It’s just so “right.” Jesus knows who he is from the very start. His disciples immediately know he’s the Messiah, even before they become disciples. “Peter, come quick! We have found the Messiah!”

And then there’s all that wonderful stuff in the discourses. “I go to prepare a place for you. In my father’s house there are many mansions.” That’s unforgettable. It’s sweet, poetic, and comforting.

But when it comes to historicity, the Gospel of John is the beautiful child who can’t throw, can’t catch, and runs like an eggbeater. From the very start, commentators on John’s gospel said it was a “spiritual gospel.” That’s like when your grandma cocks her head to one side and says, “Oh, bless his heart. He tries so hard.”

Critical scholars of the 19th and early 20th century who were interested in historical criticism set John aside as being too late to be reliable, demonstrating too high a christology, and having practically no use with respect to authentic historical material. It was theology historicized.

British scholars tried to rescue John in the mid-1900s. Who can forget C.H. Dodd’s valiant attempts to prove that John is a witness to an early, independent tradition? It does seem that this undue trust in John as a witness is a peculiarly British enterprise, doesn’t it? I still think Robin Lane Fox‘s otherwise brilliant The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible was marred by his insistence that the Beloved Disciple passages went back to a real, live, on-the-spot historical witness of the historical Jesus.

Uncritical critical scholarship

But no amount of John-coddling can prepare you for Craig L. Blomberg‘s relentlessly apologetic The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel. In Blomberg’s failure-proofed world, there are no mistakes, there is no out-of-bounds, and no matter how many pins you knock down, it’s always a strike.

And while it’s possible to chalk it all up to his conservative perspective, let’s be clear here. He’s often using fairly well-established criteria from the NT scholarship toolbox. So in his own peculiar way, he’s providing a clue as to what’s wrong with the critieriology or criteriolotry of modern scholarship.

The mere appearance of science

By the way, while we’re on the subject of criteria, in Mark Goodacre’s latest podcast [note: 22 February 2012] he frankly looks at the problem of applying criteria selectively after the fact:

. . . I think that there can then be problems when one tries to make historical Jesus criteria like multiple attestation, like the criterion of embarrassment, do too much. When you take them beyond the introductory student level, into mainstream work on the historical Jesus — because after all, historians don’t work with a great big tool bag of criteria. Historians don’t, you know, hold up a tradition and say, “OK, let’s kind of dig into the bag and see if we can find a criterion that satisfies this tradition.” 

I just don’t think that’s how historians work a lot of the time. History’s much more complex than that. It’s more nuanced; it’s more detailed. We’re looking at things in all sorts of different ways. And so I think we have to be a little bit careful about the way that we react to these kinds of criteria. They can be terribly wooden. They can be excuses often not to think very clearly.

And worst of all, sometimes what historians of the New Testament — sometimes what historical Jesus scholars do — is they’ll take a tradition they rather like the look of subjectively and then they’ll find some criteria that they can use to make it sound like it’s more plausibly historical. So the criteria are often applied after the fact, rather than before the fact. So there’s sort of the appearance of science, the appearance of a sort of scientific validity to what they’re doing. It’s often just an appearance.

This is the kind of honest discussion I wish we’d see more of in NT scholarship. But we’re not going to get anything like that from Dr. Blomberg.

Because, you know, why not?

For Blomberg any story and any saying just might go back to the historical Jesus. As an example of his “methodology” I’ve been trying to narrow it down to a good case. I’ve chosen the Raising of Lazarus, which I hope will serve to demonstrate what I’m talking about.

Blomberg entitles this section (p. 164) “The Resurrection of Lazarus.” I would prefer “raising” to “resurrection,” since Lazarus is (as far as we know) going to have to die again. Blomberg acknowledges that fact by calling the miracle “an account to reawakening to mortal life [emphasis mine].” It’s a good-news/bad-news sort of thing. “Yes, you’ve been resurrected, but there’s a downside, Lazarus. Maybe you ought to sit down for this.”

Paralleled but independent

Lazarus Catacomb
Lazarus Catacomb (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Blomberg immediately reminds us that stories of the dead being raised to life can be found in the Synoptics. For him the stories of Jairus’ daughter and the son of the widow of Nain give us general attestation to stories of Jesus raising people from the dead. Champions of Johannine independence love this kind of “evidence.” It shows parallelism without dependence. Of course, one big difference here in John is how long he’s been in the tomb. Lazarus isn’t freshly dead, but four-days dead. So, as Martha so eloquently put it, “Lord, by this time he stinketh.”

But if the other evangelists have time to tell us about those other resuscitation stories, shouldn’t we be somewhat surprised that they didn’t mention this one? Not at all, says Craig. It simply “does not fit into their outlines.” In modern parlance, it ended up on the cutting room floor. For conservative scholars like Blomberg, all the evangelists were aware of all the oral tradition. They carefully picked and chose from that tradition to fit the story they wanted to tell. So we have to imagine the author of John thinking, “Well, I’d love to add in the Sermon on the Mount, but there just isn’t space for it.”

Do you believe in miracles?

The fact, then, that Lazarus’ reanimation is not multiply attested in the gospels is no big deal. But wait. This is a miracle story — how can we establish the historicity of a supernatural event? Isn’t this a problem for Blomberg? Don’t be silly. It’s your problem, not his. Blomberg can’t help you if you have a closed mind about miracles. He writes:

Of course, if one comes to these texts already convinced that resurrections under no circumstances, no amount of evidence will persuade one of historicity. (p. 165)

Don’t you hate it when people have closed minds like that? As I told my wife recently, “If you refuse to believe in alien abductions, then I don’t see any further point in explaining why I’m late.”

The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel is a good example of a recent group of works that aspire to serious scholarship while “keeping an open mind” about the possibility of supernatural reasons for events that occur in human history. More than that, they argue that a miracle is sometimes the best explanation. For example, in Eddy and Boyd’s The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition, the authors dismiss stodgy old methodological naturalism and recommend instead the “Open Historical Critical Method,” writing:

[W]e submit that what is needed is a historical-critical methodology that is committed to looking for natural explanations for all events but is also, as a matter of principle, open to the possibility that evidence may at times require us to entertain the possibility that an event cannot be plausibly explained exclusively in naturalistic terms. This open historical-critical method would be “critical” in that it always looks for “natural” cause-and-effect relationships to explain events, always applies standard critical criteria to the evaluation of ancient texts and artifacts, and always prefers plausible natural explanations for historical phenomena over ad hoc appeals to the supernatural. But at the same time it would be “open” in that it would not reject appeals to the supernatural on an a priori basis. This is the methodology we will attempt to employ throughout this work.

In our estimation, this methodology is not less critical than the naturalistic historical-critical method; rather, it is more critical. For, as we will argue more fully below, this method requires that Western scholars be critical of their commitments to their own culturally conditioned naturalistic presuppositions.

Boyd, Gregory A.; Eddy, Paul Rhodes (2007-08-01). The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition (pp. 52-53). Baker Books. Kindle Edition.

We cannot help but imagine the bold new vistas of interpretation that will follow from this new method when studying ancient history. Perhaps Athena really did engage in battle outside the gates of Troy. After all, I wouldn’t want to be accused of having a closed mind. O, what amazing times we live in. I have to wonder, though, are we living in a post-Enlightenment age, or are we on the cusp of an anti-Enlightenment dystopia?

Whence Lazarus?

Back to Blomberg. Does the fact that the name Lazarus appears in Luke’s rich-man-poor-man parable mean anything? Paul-Louis Couchoud‘s thoughts on the subject are, I think, quite enlightening. The closer we look, the more we see tension between John and the Synoptics. In the Lazarus stories, we have the sharp contrast between John’s final sign — a fantastic miracle that encourages people to believe — and a Lucan parable in which father Abraham scolds the rich man in hell. He refuses to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn the rich man’s brothers, saying: “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.” In “Jesus Barabbas,” [warning: PDF] Couchoud and Robert Stahl write:

If one compares that to the Johannic report, the sense of this section becomes completely clear. For John the miracle alone creates the faith, not the prophets. For Luke, on the contrary, the faith rests on Moses and the prophets. Luke voluntarily deprives himself of the greatest miracle of Jesus, in order not to weaken the argument which he wants to draw from the prophets and all the Old Testament. (p. 24)

But Blomberg dismisses any connection at all between the two stories with a wave of the hand. If the evidence suits him, then any speculation, any tenuous connection at all is fair game — even the intervention of supernatural forces. However, in this case it does not suit him, so he says the name of Lazarus “was far too common for speculation to get us anywhere.”


We must take no notice that in the Lucan story Abraham tells the rich man that the raising of Lazarus would be futile, while John seems determined to prove the opposite. “Thanks, but no thanks,” says Blomberg. That’s an apologetic minefield he’s unwilling to cross.

Again we see the selective and idiosyncratic use of evidence and reason in NT studies. General attestation of similar events in the Synoptics can establish the authenticity of somewhat similar events in John. But when other, more apparent links do not serve their purpose, conservative scholars brush them aside. What we have in the end is the appearance of scholarship without the hard work, consistency, and honesty that real scholarship demands.


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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 “Bowling with Bumpers or How Not to Do Critical Scholarship”

    1. The evidence is unclear. I think that John knew Mark quite well, but there are interesting arguments on both sides of the Lucan issue. Who came first? Who is denying whom?

    2. From a theological standpoint John’s Gospel is almost a point by point refutation of Matthew’s gospel. Here is just one of dozens of examples:

      John the Baptist is declared Elijah come by Jesus again in Matthew 11:14. But in John 1:21 that notion is flat rejected by John himself.

      It’s seems improbable that this and several other theologically contradicted points of Matthew made in John came in a vacuum. John was aware of the theological arguments made by the supporters of Matthew and wrote his counter. A similar relationship between Matthew and the Marcionite Gospel can be shown. But few ever consider the concept that the gospels would have been written to oppose a prior written Gospel as a corrective against a different faction.

      Mark is the one Gospel I have difficulty explaining in terms of theological debate between factions. That suggests to me a different motivation for its authorship, or isolation from the debates.

      1. John the Baptist is declared Elijah come by Jesus again in Matthew 11:14. But in John 1:21 that notion is flat rejected by John himself.

        Might John have been rejecting Mark’s implications that John the Baptist represented Elijah and Matthew 11:14 had Jesus overruling John?

        Mark is the one Gospel I have difficulty explaining in terms of theological debate between factions. That suggests to me a different motivation for its authorship, or isolation from the debates.

        I think Mark started the debates. We see great omissions in Luke and John. Luke 9:18 jumps from Mark 6:46 to Mark 8:27 in mid-sentence. John 6 follows Mark 6:30 with the Feeding of the 5000, the Walking on Water, and the trip to Gennasaret. In John 6:30, the crowd in Gennasaret asks Jesus for a sign, the same question the Pharisees ask in Mark 8:11-12. Luke doesn’t seem to be aware that there is a jump as if he received his copy of Mark with chapter 7 missing. John seems to know there is something missing and tries to fill it with the Bread of Life narrative, probably taken from the Eucharist in Mark. So it looks like early Christians may have objected to something in Mark 7 so much that the chapter and anything else on the page(s) got tossed. Luke may have received an expurgated copy of Mark while John may have done the expurgation himself.

        1. Read Thomas Thompson’s book the Messiah Myth, to understand the implications of John’s being Elijah or not. They go to the very heart of the Marcionite vs. Porto-Orthodox dispputes

      2. I’m waiting for Roger Parvus’s next installment that I understand will be targeting the Gospel of Mark and indicating elements that may not have been in the original — such as the baptism of Jesus, apparently. I’d like to hear his arguments before I go any further with my own thoughts.

  1. Is there reason to believe that all of the gospel writers were familiar with Paul’s letters? If Luke also wrote Acts, he was certainly familiar with them, and probably a disciple of Paul? But aren’t there discrepancies between Acts and Paul’s accounts?

    1. An answer to your question deserves a few posts. In short, the evidence we have from the early “Church Father” writings is that Paul was a major and well-known figure even if many opposed his teachings. He was certainly a focus of controversy. The evidence we have for the first appearance of the gospels (mid second century) is in this context. We don’t know who “Luke” was. It may be that the name was plucked from 2 Tim 4.11 and creatively applied to Luke-Acts some time in the later second century. On the Acts Seminar view of the relationship between Paul’s letters and Acts see http://vridar.org/2013/11/24/pauls-letters-as-sources-for-acts-acts-seminar-report/.

      We also have the little question of whether or not Paul’s letter as we know them were written by a single individual or even in the mid first century. There are several indicators that the author of Acts was not a companion of Paul.

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