Friday, 30 March 2018

Replying to the Evangelical Biblical Scholar

The following was a reply I made to an Evangelical Christian New Testament scholar, minister and blogger. Its fairly self-explanatory and covers the subject of the trustworthiness of the gospels in particular.

In reply to another correspondent you say: “The main question to ask is: if the NT writers are not trustworthy, then how do we know what Jesus is like so that we have something against which we can measure the trustworthiness or otherwise of the gospel writers who tell us about him?”
I have a problem with this because the simple, objective fact is that the NT writers, more especially the gospel writers with whom Jesus’ reputation, character and personality lie almost whole and entire, ARE NOT trustworthy. Some examples off the top of my head: Did Jesus’ parents already come from the Bethlehem area and only subsequently move to Galilee (Matthew) or were they from Galilee and went to Bethlehem due to some census otherwise unattested in general, public history (Luke)? Which day was Jesus crucified on, the one the synoptics say it was or the different day John says it was? Did Jesus tell parables (the synoptics) or make long speeches (John)? Did the risen Jesus appear to 500 people at once in public (1 Corinthians) and, if so, why does no other source, Christian or otherwise, nor any of the 500 of whom Paul says some are still alive, make mention of it when it would be irrefutable proof no one could deny of the resurrection? Did Jesus say “Blessed are the poor” (Luke) or “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew) – which are different things? Did tombs open and the dead walk about Jerusalem (Matthew) and, if so, how did Mark, Luke and John miss it (not to mention the Romans and the Jewish culture in general)? Why, in the gospels, do we find that, when we read them in parallel, accounts of the seeming same events have been moved around and presented in different orders thus suggesting that strict, historical chronology was not their abiding concern? (This also suggests the narrative frameworks are entirely fictional, of course.) Did Jesus cleanse the Temple twice, as a reading of the synoptics and John would suggest, or only once? Does this issue of chronology make the stories of the gospels essentially free-floating material subject to a writer’s whim? (One might almost say fictions not histories.) Where was Jesus buried and from where did he rise? This would be the most portentous religious site in world history if the Christian story were true and yet it seems to me we do not know precisely where this site was. How could the Christian witnesses have forgotten if the gospel narratives are true in a world where people revere statues that they claim are weeping? The New Testament attests to a Jewish church led by James the brother of Jesus, would he not know, would this miraculous site not be remembered? (This is to leave aside the incompatible and contradictory post-resurrection accounts which cannot reasonably be harmonized however hard you try or however apologetic you become.)
In short, if your argument be that the Christian bible (I note that Judaism interprets differently to Christians in general), a priori, MUST be trustworthy (true) otherwise you find yourself on sandy ground (to quote the parable), then I submit that you are very much in the sand. It is my belief that you will struggle in vain to find all your readerly presuppositions about the text in the bible itself. And this is always the issue. The bible doesn’t tell you how to read it and the many, many ways it has been read and interpreted over the centuries, in Jewish and Christian places, is a record of ways many of which I’m sure you would find inadmissible. Certain Jewish interpreters find that in the Torah is the whole of creation. People such as yourself insist the whole bible must point to Jesus. Matthew says Jesus is the fulfillment of Torah. John says Jesus is superior to it, even to being “I AM”.
So to come to my own biblical interest, Jesus, you ask how we can know about him. Well if you want history I suggest that you can’t know much about him aside from the use of a dogmatic and unprovable insistence that the New Testament is true which not even all the Christian biblical scholars believe anymore. (And, no, I don’t believe Jesus was an evangelical either. How unhistorical!) There are no independent records confirming its story even if you believe all its books are telling the same story (and Christian interpreters love a good bit of harmonization – but only when it suits!). The non-Christian evidence for Jesus is amazingly small and amounts to a few statements. So we are left to agree with the believers – or not. Is this any kind of basis for saying we know things about Jesus? Would we accept as evidence about any other historical character, on sight and without a great deal of skepticism, the testimony of avowed worshippers and swallow it whole? Should we believe the gospels are true, even where they contradict themselves, just because someone sincerely wrote them? Might we not as well believe that Odysseus blinded a Cyclops and Heracles killed a Hydra? To me that just seems like saying “I am invested in this so I’m going to justify it no matter what.” That may convince saps in pews but it seems to me to be rather better characterized as nigh on self-deception because it feels better in its effects than a proper critical approach.
If Jesus existed he is a public, historical figure who should be judged by public, historical means. You are free to cherish your own private fantasies about his meaning in your own time, of course, but let’s not be in any doubt that that is what they are. If you want to cast gospel writers in some holy aura of trustworthiness that’s a scheme of your making rather than a demonstration from their writing.
Yours in a spirit of honest inquiry.

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