Many of the readers of this blog may already be familiar with this image. The painting is Simon Marmion’s St. Luke Painting the Virgin and Child, and Markus Bockmuehl uses this image on the cover of his important work Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study. Those who are familiar with Bockmuehl’s book will remember that he spends much of his introduction considering New Testament studies in the light of this image. Bockmuehl explains:
“In serious study of the Gospels, of greater importance than any archaeological or critical dexterity is an appreciation that a similar correlation frequently pertains between the empirical phenomena and the narrative gospel accounts of Jesus Christ. The student or scholar writing, say, about Jesus of Nazareth will in a sense find herself, like Simon Marmion, painting the biblical author painting Christ.
Two images of Virgin and Child appear on Marmion’s canvas, plain for all to see. It is significant that there are two and that the implied observer understands both the difference and the relationship between them. The temptation equally of the naïve and the doctrinaire, and one popularly associated with fundamentalism, is to assume that the two images must appear identical, or as nearly identical so as makes no difference. Another temptation, which more commonly affects those prepared to perceive and exploit the differences between the two images, is to declare one of them vitally important and the other largely irrelevant. On the spectrum of faith and unbelief, viewers inclined to skepticism would strip away all but the ‘real’ empirical appearance of Mary of Nazareth while those of a more ecclesial or fideistic bent may find all that ‘really’ matters is the icon of the Mother of God.
The fact is that, for all their differences, the two images make sense only in relation to each other and only because they both denote the same reality. They perform different functions, but each interprets and validates the other. In a sense, each is the other. Exegesis fails to do justice to both if it denies either their difference or their sameness” (pp. 19-20).
Because this book and especially Bockmuehl’s reflection on Marmion’s work have significantly influenced my own thinking, it seemed an appropriate way to begin my blogging at Near Emmaus. Together they well represent one of my central convictions about New Testament studies and exegesis: study of the New Testament must always involve history, literary criticism, and theology, and all three must be done almost simultaneously. Let me develop this a bit more. Perhaps it is basic, but I at least need to be reminded of this from time to time.
First, study of the New Testament must always involve history because the New Testament makes historical claims, and so to history we must go. History is inescapable. Second, it must also always involve literary criticism because the history and theology of the New Testament are always mediated to us through texts. We have no other way of accessing them. Third, it must also always involve theology because this is the essential subject matter of the New Testament. It’s authors are consistently making claims of ultimate significance and almost always relating these claims back to historical events. Lastly, for any reading appropriate to the subjection matter of the New Testament history, theology and literary criticism must be done almost simultaneously, or at least never in a straight line. That is to say that the arrow connecting history, theology, and literary criticism never moves exclusively in one direction, as if we begin with history, then move on to the texts, and then to theology, or vice versa. Perhaps even worse is the notion that we begin with texts with one arrow moving towards history and another towards theology and never the twain shall meet. The arrows never move in a straight line from one subject matter to the next. The connection is circular. Our reading of texts informs our historical judgments and our theology. Our theology informs our historical judgments and our reading of texts. Our history informs our readings of texts and our theology judgments. This is both the glory (because of what it promises: the truth about the most important events in human history) and the curse (because of the variety of expertise it requires) of New Testament studies.
And now these three remain: history, literary criticism and theology. But the greatest of these is …. Well, if you think you have the answer, let me know in the comments or on twitter.
I like Bockmuehl’s analogy here. Though I enjoy reading works on the historical Jesus, it is inevitable that the author comes across as painting a picture that looks a little like Matthew, a little like Luke, maybe some Mark, John, or Paul, and then there are intentional, highlighted differences in the presentation, but it is a new painting nevertheless. I think this is part of Scot McKnight’s complaint. He wonders if historical Jesus studies that minimize the value of the Gospels or try too hard to get “behind” the Gospels paint a competing picture. Many confessional scholars who affirm the value of the Gospels may be painting a painting of a painting that doesn’t necessarily compete with the Gospels, but not all reconstructions of Jesus are free of this critique.
I agree fully that the process must be circular… thus I’m not biting on “the greatest is….” :). I don’t think those factors go together. Frankly I don’t know if I’m “confessional” or not (and technically not a “scholar” in the professional sense, but think I’ve earned a valid place on the “playground”). If confessional means basic agreement and comfort with the major historical creeds without serious re-interpretation of their apparent meaning at the time, I’m not. Anyway, some people who know the Process approach and main categories may be consider me/us confessional and some may not.
I mainly want to emphasize two things. The first may be (or not?) contra to McKnight’s point: The main thing in the literary leg of the 3-legged stool is that I don’t think, even after nearly 2000 years and uncountable books, etc., that we have adequately grasped just WHAT the Gospel/Acts genre were (Acts somewhat different but contiguous). Even Acts I don’t see as a serious attempt at a “history book” as we generally think of one; definitely not the Gospels. But I’d quickly add that we have only snippets of history from the period. The main works, by Josephus, are perhaps as biased and factually questionable as is Acts (Luke and he had related agendas). However, Jos. gives so much data, some of which CAN be cross-checked a bit, that we do get the sense of a thorough and probably generally reliable accounting.
That brings me to the 2nd point: Since historical claims ARE involved, and there is a LOT of overlap in both style and sometimes in content between canonical NT Gospels and non-canonical ones and other lit, such as The Didache, epistles, etc., I don’t see confessional scholars, in general, paying adequate attention to the non-canonical books, at least some of which may well be from the 1st century, basically contemporary with canonical ones, or only slightly after them. They have been way too much either ignored or readily cast into a non-authoritative and/or heretical category.
Based on thousands (literally!) of sermons heard and general apologetics readings (which I am relatively current with, a bit, from conservative standpoints, and USED to be very up on and draw from in my Evangelical decades), the summary about all this which is generally communicated is a way over-simplified, misleading one:
The Holy Spirit led the early Church clearly to the knowledge and acceptance of authors/books which were revealed by God and they report accurate eye-witness testimony re. Jesus’ life, death, resurrection. The non-canonical books are significantly different… obviously fanciful (as many indeed are, but then so seem to be parts of the Gospels, so just how clear is the distinction?) and heretical. They are expressions of sinful, willful perversions of or reactions to the truth of “The Gospel”.
I once (ca. 3 yrs ago?) heard Richard Bauckham speak to seminarians at Westminster in CA on the apocryphal NT, and his treatment was maybe not quite that simplistic, but close; and frankly, it’s been hard for him to win me back to giving him a good hearing, tho I’m trying (not yet spent a lot of time in his books, tho conserv’s seem to tout him a lot.) NOW:
I know that is not how many (maybe most?) confessional SCHOLARS and some pastors speak about or consider non-canonical early books (ca. 50-125 or 150) but SOMETHING is awry…. If they handle them significantly differently and see at least important historical and comparative value in them and important input on the nature of very early Christianity; if they see the canonization process more realistically, etc., they are not getting that across, via pastors or other means, to most of Christian laity…. and it is a major problem, in my long-considered opinion.
It could be that many confessional scholars following the reformational cry “ad fontes!” surpass non-canonical gospels because it is believed that these gospels do not represent our earliest sources for the Jesus tradition (an opinion I would share). This doesn’t mean that these gospels aren’t important (I have posted notes on a few of these gospels on this blog), but that these gospels aren’t of primary importance, and most Churches do not have the capacity to focus upon things which are not of primary importance. Even canonical books such as Leviticus, Numbers, 1 and 2 Peter, and Jude are ignored by many scholars and pastors because these books, at least in this point in time, lack the type of content that demands the attention of people who may not have much attention to give.
In other words, it may not be merely a “canonical v. non-canonical” thing, but a perceived chronological priority: the canonical Gospels and the Pauline Epistles receiving the most attention because most people affirm these documents as the earliest sources of the Jesus movement.
My ignorance: Is “ad fontes” anything like “add fonts”, which might be fitting today!? Actually, I do not know that “cry”. And YOU are a clear exception in featuring non-canonical works, taking them as important at some level. And I get your point, also… as to what to “preach” and pay attention to. I guess my issue is more indirect and I think IS a critical one to the NT scholars who feed into various leadership levels and sometimes even directly to laity or “the public”.
It is about the genre (lit. criticism) issue: Do not the early non-canonical works give substantial clues and help in “getting” the genre of the NT as well? Esp., if they are reasonably dated either before 70 (only possibly Gospel of Thomas and probably “Q”, to my knowledge, are likely this early) or between 70 and about 120? Maybe that should be extended a bit out a couple decades, I don’t have expertise to have a well-informed opinion. But I do think it is fairly clear that the Gospel writers likely did NOT entirely invent the Gospel genre with nothing similar before or contemporary. Studies/comparisions of Acts with other “histories” show that Luke was largely using conventions of his day. Esp. since he was a Gospel writer also, I don’t think it’s a stretch to presume he and the 3 other canonical Evangelists were doing similarly with gospel-writing.
My other “beef” is that criteria used by those who gradually sorted out authoritative from non-authoritative toward an eventual canon is waaay oversimplified and distorted in conserv. circles, while the same folks protest often about misconceptions on the “other side” (of which there are many, also… again a problem of the 2 camps in action/reaction to each other, often). And more open scholars such as you, Brian, seem unable (or maybe unwilling in some cases also?) to get across broadly that the picture is not nearly so clear-cut and easy to fit with the orthodox or almost “official” understanding of Apostolic authority, H.S. clear guidance to a canon, etc. And, again, this ties back to why I feel Luke, mainly in Acts, is so pivotal and that his slanting of things was crucial and both intentional by him but also taken much further than he may have intended by the proto-orthodox and orthodox later… then mostly unchallenged on down to us.
And with such a long tradition (until ca. mid 1700s, as just the beginning of challenge), it has been hard to get people to take a serious 2nd look, including conserv. scholars, in my understanding (again, present co. excepted).
Oh… I remembered a related point re. using cross-checks and comparisons to evaluate the historical accuracy of points: The way many scholars seem to slide right over or past the serious differences between Paul’s accounts and wording and attitudes in several places and those of Acts. It is not just “hermeneutics of suspicion” which sometimes leads one to see problems, just close, careful comparison of details AND the larger picture of postures, theological statments, emphases, etc., esp. betw. Paul and Luke, but also James and Paul, Petrine epistles and Pastorals and Paul, etc.
It’s inevitable that a historical Jesus study will, in some sense, compete with the canonical paintings. I don’t see this as a problem, but maybe that’s just me. In very practical terms, our own preconceived notions of Jesus likewise compete (in our own brains) with the canonical paintings and strongly influence our interpretation of the Gospels (I’m dropping the analogy). There is always a construction of Jesus in our brains, and that construction is independent of the Gospels, although hopefully based upon them to a greater rather than a lesser extent. Historical Jesus studies, as well as reading the Gospels, help refocus and reorient that construction in the light of history.
Thanks for the reply. There are few issues here I want to address. First, I’ll admit that I’ve grown a bit tired of the question of the genre of the Gospels. Genre can tell us a lot about a work, but it’s certainly not the be-all end-all of the question of historicity. The Gospels are certainly not histories or biographies in any modern sense, but they are written by a community of people who believe strongly that their covenant God has acted within history. The central events in the life of Jesus, like the events of the Exodus before them, were considered acts of God in history. It is possible that they were wrong in this opinion, but that this was their opinion is almost undeniable.
Second, you are right to insist that confessional scholars pay more attention to non-canonical books. I am assuming you mean both the Apostolic Fathers and the New Testament Apocrypha. You are also right to question some confessional scholars notion of the canon. I for one am willing, for academic purposes, to jettison the notion of the New Testament. I would prefer to speak of Early Christian Writings of the 1st Century. Some of the Apostolic Fathers would be in (Didache and 1 Clement) and perhaps some of the NT would be out. Nevertheless the gain and loss by making this move is actually rather insubstantial. The non-canonical books that cause particular problems for confessional theology, like the Apocrypha Gospels, would all be out. None of them date between 70 and 120 C.E. The fact of that matter is, like it or not, our earliest evidence about Jesus, Paul, and the early church is essentially the same documents that we call the New Testament.
I agree that it is inevitable. You are correct that we are going to paint our own picture whether or not we are reading the canonical Gospels alone, or supplementing our reading with historical-critical studies, or supplementing our historical-critical studies with the Gospels.
Brian, I appreciate the thots, both agreement and challenge. Agreements first: You are refreshing as to the canon. I’m still thinking through the likely implications of this if nearly all confessional scholars made this move. I think it would be major, including on core theology, eventually if not quickly. I won’t go into all the logic, and I’m not that sure what all it might mean.
I realize you don’t think it would change a whole lot. I think I follow how you mean that, and might agree in one sense, but I think the loss of “authoritative” (or “inspired/revealed”) vs non-authoritative works for the currently accepted “canonical” period would be a MAJOR change and thus not likely to be undertaken or accepted in the first place. (Often we think we are working inductively–based on many data points–when we actually are being deductive and defending what we take as already “proven” DESPITE the data–happens in all branches of humanities, politics, science, etc., and that includes religion/theology. And once a ways into a given paradigm, it is very tough to throw it out… (I’ll ref. again, Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” as the base text for this among SCIENTISTS who are supposedly the most EAGER to prove themselves wrong–it’s a declared and used part of the method).
As to particulars briefly, isn’t the Gospel of Thomas a key work, IF (big if, I know) it could be clearly dated as early as canonical Gospels, that would be a fairly big deal in its effects on a number of things? (My cursory reading some time ago re. dating of Thomas I recall indicating it has some indicators of being that early and no definitive indication that it is 2nd century.) Related to that, have you encountered or read “Resurrection Reconsidered” by Gregory J. Riley? Related, not directly to dating G. of T. but on the point that G. of John indicates extensively that it is heavily in reaction to the Thomas “group” or “movement”. Not sure if Riley speculates the exact purpose — whether to squash, to appear superior, or what.
I’ll wrap up for now by just reiterating that even if one works only within current canon as to “authoritative” books, there is a lot being resisted or ignored, seems to me, by orthodox folks (at all levels) in terms of making sense out of comparison’s of Paul with Luke (Acts), and other internal comparison issues. It may not still be so among “confessional” scholars, but from what I cited earlier of personal experience and occasional checking in, the constant attempt is to harmonize, and almost any way possible, rather than deal honestly and deeply with the specifics of conflict points (not silly “contradictions” which I actually give fair latitude for) AND their implications for “authoritative” core theology, or whether there even IS such a thing.
The Gospel of Thomas is being placed in the second century by many scholars recently. Mark Goodacre’s (Duke University) Thomas and the Gospels: The Case for Thomas’ Familiarity with the Synoptics (http://www.amazon.com/Composition-Gospel-Thomas-Influences-Testament/dp/1107009049/ref=la_B001HPT7P6_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1361556794&sr=1-4) argues for Thomas’ dependency on the Synoptics. Similarly, Simon Gathercole’s The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas: Original Language and Influence (http://www.amazon.com/Composition-Gospel-Thomas-Influences-Testament/dp/1107009049/ref=la_B001HPT7P6_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1361556794&sr=1-4) does something similar. There was a session at the 2012 SBL Annual Meeting discussing these two books. There was some resistance, but overall many scholars were quite receptive, including the person who was moderating the session, who is a classicist (i.e., not a NT scholar) who seems to have agreed with their overall conclusion. Nicholas Perrin’s Thomas and Tatian: The Relationship between the Gospel of Thomas and the Diatessaron (http://www.amazon.com/Thomas-Tatian-Relationship-Diatessaron-Academia/dp/9004127100/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1361556978&sr=1-4&keywords=nicholas+perrin+thomas) argues that Thomas is dependent on the Diatessaron, but I hear that this thesis isn’t widely accepted. I am sure that there are newer books being published that defend the idea that Thomas is early, like the hypothetical Q, because it is a “sayings document,” but these books aren’t getting as much attention for whatever reason.
I am no expert of Thomas, but I think the hypothesis that John is responding to Thomas is fading away. I haven’t seen it advocated much.
Howard, The person who replied to you about the canon was me, Michael. I’m not concerned about getting credit where credit it due, but I don’t want Brian to be faulted with my own, perhaps somewhat lax, view about the role of the canon in scholarship. And just to add onto Brian’s last comment, most scholars now recognize that Thomas is a significantly later “gospel” than the canonical Gospels. I find Perrin’s argument very compelling (but I was also his TA), and he pushes the date back even further than many. I consider Thomas of almost no value for considering the historical Jesus, and I don’t make that claim for confessional reasons. I’ll say again what I said in my last comment, the best and earliest evidence we have for Jesus, Paul, and the early church are essentially those documents that we now call the New Testament.
Thanks Michael (and can you write a phonetic spelling of how your pronounce your last name? i like to be able to “hear” it… I’ve gone for years thinking one pronunciation for a scholar only to discover it was something else. Thanks). Yeah, I zipped right past name AND picture as to who was replying, sorry. (And congrats re. Anna I presume you are holding in profile pic… how old now? My first child was really a special experience and privilege… and so was the 2nd but not felt as strongly in some ways.)
First, overall response to both you and Brian (Brian you over the last several weeks or more now): I appreciate the interaction and my getting to “look over your shoulders” into studies I’d enjoy but don’t have time to do (or prioritize to do, tho it would still be limited). I told Brian earlier that I’ve not before found a change to get in-depth interaction with scholars or “student/scholars” (as ALL are) of basic orthodox orientation (I guess “confessional” may fit – I need to know better how that term is being used and/or defined… as I said, I’m not sure if I fit it as a clearly Progressive/Process guy). I have at least 2-3 motives/interests re. this but no time to elaborate at the moment, other than to say that spirituality (or religion and psychology in the human experience) is my main interest and within that “healthy” and growing religion/spirituality.
So historical and textual NT & Xian origins studies are both a part of that and a sort of “hobby” in its own right for me, but clearly not my specialization. But both biblical and historical theology I’m pretty up on, at least relative to most pastors and laity. (I’ve only “landed” in Process after a very long time with orthodox/evangelical perspectives — birth to age 45 — and a good look at all the other major systems.)
Anyway, I appreciate the latest thots from you both re. canon, Thomas/John, etc. I may get to do a little looking re. that, but no promises. I have ongoing q’s to maybe learn more on eventually re. just what is going on in the Gospels re. the obvious (I think now) “competition” or “one upping” among apostles/disciples… and IF G. of T. is 2nd century, what may have happened to further evidence of his potential impact and/or follower group(s)? Is it just that he quickly set off to the east (as far as India?)? I’m not sure that is adequate. And did he have a significantly different interpretation of Jesus, or application of his understanding? You can either comment or skip over these… not burning q’s.
I know I was thinking of some other issues or thots to share but this will suffice for now…. Oh except (wrong place, but): Brian, I don’t know if it’s my Chrome browser or what, but quite a few of your Greek letters, in the latest Is. post, anyway, and I think earlier, are coming thru as squares… I can’t perceive that it is any particular letter… seems relatively random. I don’t know if there is anything you can change on your end, or what I might need to on mine…. BTW, I read basically no Hebrew (despite 8 sem. units I think) and only remember snatches of Greek (which I had 2.5 years of) but I do like to ID the words at least.
Oops… just noticed after posting what might be confusing in my 2nd paragr. above, 4th line: “change” should be “chance”.
The font is fine on my browser. It should be the SBL Greek font if you are wanting to download it to your computer.
Thanks… wasn’t aware of downloading a font… where do I go, and is it self-explanatory as to applying it?
The files and instructions can be found here: http://www.sbl-site.org/educational/biblicalfonts.aspx
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