Much of the negativity toward biblical criticism is our first reaction to the word 'criticism'. In ordinary talk, that word has a negative meaning, akin to that of your nasty aunt or some TV pundit. This image is made worse by using methods based on suspicion, as if there's something sinister about the Bible, as if its authors might really be just God's public relations marketeers trying to spin the information in favor of their Boss. But 'criticism' in the scholarly sense is good. It means that what's in the Bible is examined, tested, and added up rather than just simply taken at the level of face value and the easy answer. The use of suspicion in biblical criticism can be good too, in that it brings into the mix the unbeliever's ultimate question whenever they see a Biblical passage: are they putting me on? Are they pushing an agenda by writing this? And there's at least a little bit of unbeliever in all of us. For the Spirit to answer these questions through the Bible, they must first be asked.
Yet I have some very deep problems with many of the things said in the bible-critical world, including by some of the best-known figures in the 'quest for the historical Jesus'. Just as the unbeliever might suspect there's a hidden agenda in what the Biblical authors wrote, we too come to the Bible with our own agendas. Only, as the true know-it-all modern humans we are, we're more captive to them. For most of the questers, before they even begin, they assume that the miracles and the claim to be one with God are a fiction (or even worse, a 'symbolic truth') created by the early church. They build a Jesus that fits their own picture of what they think he should be, or what they think the human race needs him to be. Then, they cut out as 'inauthentic' anything that doesn't fit the picture.
For instance, the Gospels say Jesus identified himself as being 'one with the Father'. This is presumed by many Questers to be just the church's hindsight. Yet even politics by itself would not have forced so rapid a demise. Some element of blasphemy would have been needed to get all the key figures to support the charges. The traditional response to hearing someone blaspheme in public was to tear one's own clothes in anger and demand the blasphemer's execution. And that is exactly what the Gospels report.
Another example is that some of the Jesus Questers think that Jesus had no well-defined inner circle, that this was just projecting the leadership of the early church back into Jesus' time. Yet, it's fairly clear from Acts and Paul that 'the Twelve' didn't operate long as a group in the early church, and that other forefront leaders quickly emerged -- such as Paul, Apollos, Timothy, Phoebe, Barnabas, Jesus' brother James, and the deacon Philip. This is echoed by tradition, which has the former disciples soon leaving Jerusalem, fanning out to spread the Gospel in far-flung places, dying martyr's deaths there. While the tradition's stories themselves are heavily flavored with legend, we must pay attention to the fact that all the traditions report the apostles separating and traveling. This means that as an organized body of leaders, 'the Twelve' was past history long before the Gospels were written. So what stake would the gospel writers have in forcing it into the beginning of the church? Having small bands of disciples was the typical way a great holy man would teach - or more precisely, mentor - back then. These disciples would then bear the 'school of thought' which would be the holy man's legacy to future generations, raising up a new set of leading followers in new places. It makes sense that Jesus would have done it that way, too. And that is exactly what the Gospels report.
The way to do history is from the evidence outward, not from the method inward, and then figure out a method or framework that best describes what actually happened.
A lot of people are angry about what even the best of the Questers say about Jesus. The Questers openly say what Bible students have known for two millenia, and what Jesus himself knew from studying the Law and the Prophets. We have a lot of ideas that we think are Scriptural but are not, and we just gloss over a lot of things in Scripture because we think we know what it means. The 'quest for Jesus' has reminded us of a lot of stuff we've shoved out of our neat traditions. For instance, Jesus was from a working-class artisan family (a carpenter), not one of the very poor or the rich. His homelessness was part of his itinerance - his chosen task of going from place to place preaching and teaching - and not due to poverty or security needs. Galileans, like the disciples, weren't the rubes from the sticks that Jerusalemites (and later Christian preachers) loved to call them; they marketed their goods in many nations.
Jesus felt pressured by crowds, initially snarled at a woman who sought healing, turned his mother away when she questioned his sanity, let his anger show in the Temple, and let a friend die so he could show his authority over death. These things are not nice, but they are in the direct evidence, openly stated in the Gospels. But say that to the faithful, and you get anger. They don't want to come to grips with a human God or a divine Man, even if they confess this fact every week when they recite the creed, and sing praises of it every Christmas. You can't discover the good news about why it happened if you don't acknowledge that it happened. Biblical criticism reminds us of this hard truth.
I seek spiritual honesty, but it's hard to find.
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The great religions have great stories. Great stories tell great truths which help us deal with life. And we love to tell the story. But Christianity (like Islam and Judaism) is not about the great stories themselves. It is about the real-life main character behind the stories, a real-life One whom you can come to know through that story. That same real-life being is the One who made the great Truths true and Reality real. Today's thinking presumes the opposite : the story is what counts, and the primary character can be no more real than Harry Potter or Homer Simpson. That's the premise behind virtual reality : the new technology lets you become your own story-teller (with the help of your software-deity, of course). Sounds good, except that you're not the author of reality, just a writer of fiction. God will not be relegated to the same level as Hercules (who never crushed a real army) or Pecos Bill (who didn't dig the Rio Grande) or Jessica Fletcher (who never solved a single real murder case or for that matter never wrote an actual novel about solving murder cases). God is the real author and the main character, and God wrote us. I don't really have much of a choice about trusting God with the story line, since the other choices are figments of far lesser authors.
You might read some articles on postmodernism that refer to "narrative" and "meta-narrative". "Narrative" refers to the stories as they are told. Through stories, events and/or facts take on a context, and thus meaning. You can think of "meta-narrative" as a story line that give a central meaning and impact to many meaningful stories - it holds them all together. The Bible has a meta-narrative running through it, about God rescuing creation from the horrible results of its wandering ways. It is a story of love and betrayal, and of the ultimate sacrifice. But the Bible's meta-narrative isn't owned by the Bible. It is the Bible's story line because it is Life's central story line -- all of our lives, whether or not we are aware of it, whether or not we hate it or love it with a passion, or don't care at all. You are in it, every day in every way, just by being. That's why the Bible's story line is so utterly inescapably important. It is where the much-fabled "meaning of life" is found -- the meaning of your life, the meaning of all life.
One of my readers asked "aren't all metanarratives just a well-disguised power game - a mere useful explanation, not the real cause of what happens?" As much as you live by a Christian metanarrative, you live in a way that specifically renounces, rejects, and proposes an alternative to, power games. The power gamesmen will try to use anything for power games, and faith is no different. But there is a real Someone causing this metanarrative. Someone who doesn't take well to manipulative humans. God can, and does, bite back. In the power game, God ultimately holds the winning hand, which means if you're playing against him, you don't.
rise to higher depths
There are a lot of books and articles being written about 'other Gospels'. The two most often mentioned are 'Q' and the Gospel of Thomas.
Q was not a written gospel in the sense we now have. It was a very early written source (or set of sources) about incidents in Jesus's life that was used by the authors of Matthew and Luke for some of what they wrote. ('Q' stands for German 'Quelle', which in English means 'source'.) The Q source no longer exists, and is not mentioned in any ancient writings. We know of it only by the strong common wordings of most of the non-Mark material found in Matt and Luke. The Q source(s) may not have been authorized by any particular apostle, but were generally seen accurate. So the authors of Matthew and Luke used it, and then tried in their own way to convey what the sayings and incidents meant.
Ever since bible scholars figured out that there must have been such a source, there have been those who have been trying to reconstruct it. But there's really no way of accurately doing so. We know the parts that Matthew or Luke used, but have no clue as to what they did not use. When the gospel authors used Q, they used it in their own way to make their own case, just like I use many others' materials in preparing this Web site but I write it up my own way. So what ends up happening is that these scholars either create a gussied-up harmony of Matt/Luke minus Mark, or expand on the Q stuff by leaning on their own imaginations or other similar sources outside the Bible.
That's where the Gospel of Thomas comes in. Thomas was a work known by the ancients, that was kept and probably compiled by a faction within the North African or Syrian Gnostic community, and rediscovered in 1945 at the text library of Nag Hammadi, Egypt. It uses Matt, Mark, and Luke as sources, probably also John (though as a counter-source in some ways), and maybe Q and other unknown collections of sayings. Many accounts of Jesus' life, and many of his teachings, may not at first have been written down. They were passed along by people telling each other by word of mouth -- which was the main way such things were done back then. (Indeed, the apostle John says there's a lot more to be told. The Gospel authors selected only what they saw as the most important.) It's likely there were other collections of sayings like Q and Thomas. The Gospel of Thomas was written long after Matthew or Luke, say, around 130 AD, and isn't mentioned by anyone for decades after that.
Because it is several generations later than the Gospels, from an era long after anyone alive at Jesus' time had died, Thomas would generally be seen as a tertiary (third-order) source, not to be relied upon for accuracy except as backup for primary or secondary sources, if text critics weren't so desperately looking for material to use. It's not even clear how Thomas' ancient users used it. Even more importantly, instead of giving us differing angles on the same Jesus who had the same agenda (as the Gospels do), Thomas gives us a different-acting Jesus with a very different agenda which resembles that of groups that didn't exist until well after Jesus died. For instance, from the very first saying the Gospel of Thomas emphasizes that the inner, hidden knowledge of self is what saves you. It does not call Jesus Lord, nor does it speak of loving one's neighbor or enemy, nor does it speak of forgiveness or Jesus' death or resurrection. It differs from Gnostics (less so Syrians) in being un-dualist, with the material and spiritual realms being unified by way of Jesus and the knowledge of self.
Thomas is not really a gospel, just a collection of sayings that portrays Jesus in a way that doesn't add up and makes him rather pointless for us today in the 21st Century. There could well be a passage or two somewhere in it that Jesus actually said that we don't otherwise have; that would be true of other collections of Jesus' sayings from that time too, if we had any. Yet the viewpoint of the work as a whole strikes a badly discordant chord, so I think Thomas is not gainful for use by anyone who is not involved in scholarly pursuits. Even scholars doing biblical criticism must remember to take it for what it really is and not exaggerate its importance.
more on the Bible as Scripture
climb out of this dig
A site user asked me this question :
> How do you draw the line between "sensible
> use of higher biblical-critical principles and the sort of
> radical stupidity exhibited by the Jesus seminar?<
The place to draw the line is at what one is using a tool for. One of the crucial things wrong with the use of Bible-critical methods by many theological writers today is that it is wrong in its purpose.
The Jesus Seminar spends its time trying to figure out what Jesus did or didn't say, so they can construct some sort of a picture of Jesus that is supposedly stripped of the deceptive fenegeling of first-century Christians. This effort starts by assuming that what the early church reported Jesus to be is not who Jesus was. I for one think the assumption works havoc on the method. Those who wrote the Gospels, whether they were actual Apostles or not (remember, Luke doesn't claim such status for himself), are the ones who are in the best position to describe to us Jesus' purpose and character, much more than His precisely-preserved words could ever do. They report on a Jesus who made them who they were, not a 'them' that made Jesus into what they wanted. If you forget that, then the techniques of biblical criticism will just lead you away from the truth of the matter.
The Seminar is on a wild goose chase. Or, given the use of the Wild Goose as a symbol for the Spirit by the early Celtic Christians, maybe they're running away from the wild goose chasing them. They will find a bare-bones "historical Jesus" when biblical-critical methods are used with their a priori presumptions, but they still won't find the real Jesus. Whatever is found in Scripture is there for us to follow, not nitpick about or play judgement games on. The critical tools are there to be used for getting beneath the surface of a passage of Scripture, to get at the scope and the range of what Jesus (or the prophets, historians, poets, and such) said and did. This may be found in the forms of literature they use to convey God's message. There may be some cultural or ethnic or socio-economic or gender blinders which have to be removed from them or us before we can see the message. We need to understand what was happening back in first-century Palestine before we can climb deeper into the passage. And yes, we have to deal with what the writers drew on, their own personal vision, and how the text got passed to us. Each of these things are done every day in unsystematic ways by rank-and-file bible students everywhere. Us more-educated types just make a system out of it so we can have more control over the method. With that comes a problem: control over method is control over results. This is the core problem to which biblical criticism is too often blind.
When believers use analytical tools, they use them to dig deeper into the text to know better what God is saying so they can follow God better. In that sense, the most important matter is not who actually wrote the words, just that the words are inspired by God like no others. When a commentator or seminary prof uses the methods, it's more often than not to acquire dispassionate knowledge, supposedly for others to use. "Dispassionate" learning may be useful for some situations, but it defeats the whole purpose of Scripture. The Bible is anything but dispassionate. It was told and written to ignite you!
The Documentary Hypothesis is the theory that the first Five Books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) were not written by a single author, but were assembled and edited from other works and different authors. It is a proposal from the realm of biblical criticism; specifically, literary criticism.
Ancient Jewish and Christian tradition says that Moses wrote the first Five Books, but the tradition was clearly mistaken, even by the face value content of the writings themselves. Moses was a subject not an author, and he surely did not write about his own death in Deuteronomy 34:5. Though there were many Bible scholars over the centuries who thought there were several authors, the first to devise a useful source theory for it was Julius Wellhausen, in 1877. He used the scientific methods which were being used on other literary works on the Bible to determine how it was written. The Bible is literature, and can be looked at in literary ways. Various forms of Wellhausen's theory quickly became accepted by most Bible scholars. The main version of the theory holds that there are four main sources for the books : J (characterized by using YHWH as God's name), E (characterized by the use of Elohim as God's name), D (the source for King Josiah's Deuteronomistic religious reformers), and P (the final editors of the work, after the Exile to Babylon, who added material of Priestly rules). This process also includes Samuel, Kings, Joshua, and Judges. The Priestly (P) writers are by far the most distinct, least poetic, and most ideological of the sources, and use a less ancient form of Hebrew. Their work was the easiest for scholars to identify, due to its unity with the concerns of 1 and 2 Chronicles.
The documentary hypothesis makes a lot of sense, and answers a lot of questions. But there's one problem: there are no J, E, or P manuscripts, nor any ancient reports which even hint that those particular documents ever existed. Most of those who hold the theory do not really expect to ever find separate J and E documents, since they represent written collections of what was passed along for many generations mainly by way of oral storytelling (J in Judah, E in the Northern Kingdom). J and E are markers for the main forms taken by the same story. D's core document was Deuteronomy itself, giving a different angle on the founding events of the Jewish people. Its way of thinking (and writing) is found throughout the first Five Books as well as in Joshua through Kings. In those works, P wrote as an editor in the Pentateuch. Also, other written documents were used: Wars Of the Lord (Numbers 21:14-15), Jashar (in both Joshua and Samuel), various books of records and prophets (in Kings), and documents from official records which were more bureaucratic than religious. These, plus other sources we don't know about, would have included outside resources used by P and which may have been used in common by J, E, and D. The only way we can know about J, E, or P-as-an-editor is by way of literary analysis, which always leaves wide open the possibility that some or most of the supposed 'separate sources' are more the figments of method than facets of reality. Also, some leading versions of the hypothesis give these Bible books more primary written sources than any other ancient writings, which is unlikely given the careful way Jewish scribes/caretakers treated most of their stories, writings, and records. The ancient editors were not doing a slice-and-splice operation, but were instead carefully gathering and telling a nation's historic dealings with the one true God. They were holding their nation's reborn identity in their hands.
The similarities between J and E, both in language and form, are often more striking than the differences. That should be no surprise, since both stories come from around the time the Kingdoms split, when the common religious and cultural bonds were still strong and their common histories were still fresh. J and E tell many of the same stories from a slightly different angle, but more subtly than how the Gospels tell about Jesus' life from different viewpoints. And D raises a chicken-and-egg question: did Judah's Deuteronomist reformers create Deuteronomy (so the main theory), or did the rediscovery of a Deuteronomy written under a previous king trigger the Deuteronomistic reforms (as described in 2 Kings 22:8)? And as the Biblical figure after the exile who was in the best position to gather these many sources and put them together, what was Ezra's role, if any?
The sounder versions of the documentary hypothesis see the oral histories taking shape during the days of the Judges (starting at about 1150 BC), with J jelling in Rehoboam's reign (910 BC); E in Jeroboam's Northern reign (910 BC); Deuteronomy late in Hezekiah's reign (700 BC), but lost or forgotten until Josiah's (621 BC), with Josiah-type reformers finishing Kings from exile (550s BC). Ezra and his Priestly colleagues bundled the histories together and adding worship material after the return from exile (400s BC) in order to aid the rediscovery of their national identity, which they defined as a community of faith. But any dating of these eras is rough, and there are many variants of the hypothesis, enough to make it more of a family of theories. The Hebrew Scriptures were some 800-1000 years and hundreds of people in the making. Each of those people was a human being, with the errors (and perhaps the blindnesses) of any other human authors. The Spirit was working with each author, editor, scribe and caretaker at each step along the way so the truth would come out.
What must be kept in mind is that very little of what the
Documentary Hypothesis talks about has direct bearing on what the Lord of the Bible is saying to you. It helps a bit in figuring out what the
original authors and their peoples may have been up to, and why the stories were passed along in the form they are, but not much more. The Hypothesis is a literary criticism, but the Bible is not there just for your literary enjoyment, it serves a much larger purpose. The lessons God is
trying to teach you are the same whether it was written by 4
authors over the course of 800 years or 400 authors over the course
of 8 years. Your task is to read it and sort it out for yourself as
to where God is leading you. This is done by paying close attention to the same Holy Spirit that led, prodded, and loved the people written about in it and the people who wrote about them. The Documentary Hypothesis is a scientific look at the Jewish histories for literary reasons, which may or may not be of any use to you and those around you. And due to the lack of actual manuscripts and outside reports of the Palestine area from those eras, the Hypothesis is well-reasoned theory, and gets revised as new facts come in.
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(This is not at all to be confused with the Hypothesis of Documentaries, which states that eventually the nature, history, showbiz, and educational cable TV channels will have made a documentary for each historical person or incident, in order to satisfy their constant need for fresh programming. Some hypothesize further that they will eventually make a documentary or biography about most of the people alive today, probably including you. Even if you're a couch potato and total bore.)
Are you wondering or studying other things about the Bible? Try these pages :
There's also a PDF booklet of all the pages on scripture, including all of the word definitions found here on spirithome.com.
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|ver.: 09 August 2012
Bible criticism and the historical Jesus. Copyright © 2001-2012 by Robert Longman.