Monday, April 13, 2009

An Interruption of Ben's Interruption of Bart (Try Saying That Five Times Fast)

Over the weekend, I came across the second portion of Ben Witherington's ongoing review and critique of Bart Ehrman's Jesus, Interrupted. I'm looking forward to reading his responses in their entirety; he provides a number of clarifications and rejoinders, and has clearly engaged the book in a thoughtful way. I was particularly struck by a few comments:
There are then three dangers we learn of when reading and critically analyzing Gibbon’s classic work [The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire]: 1) history writing that either dismisses or is dismissive of the role of God in human history, claiming that that is not a part of the historian’s task, even if there is considerable evidence to the contrary, and 2) because of its skeptical bent, history writing that is prone to revisionism of a sort that distorts rather than dissects and correctly analyzes what happened back then and back there; 3) history writing that conveys 1) and 2) in a clear and eloquent and understandable fashion such that the clarity of the explanation makes it appear that the conclusions are obvious and should go without challenge. This of course is the power of good rhetoric—it persuades without necessarily providing the detailed evidence and analysis necessary to prove one’s point.

I suspect that an overwhelming majority of historians, particularly those who operate beyond the pale of religious studies, would view the first of these dangers with utter incredulity. Supernatural elements such as miraculous events or the actions of the divine exist beyond the capabilities of reasoned, scientific inquiry and are therefore not detectable or demonstrable according to most definitions of critical scholarship. The writings of the New Testament themselves do not constitute "significant evidence to the contrary" on this point, as their critically accessible strata reveal the convictions and assumptions of their authors and recipients. (I have not been convinced by arguments such as those of Richard Bauckham that the gospels should be classified according to a more reliable genre of written materials and therefore regarded as intrinsically superior to other ancient documents with similar contents or features.) As Bultmann and so many others have rightly argued, historical research reveals the relative certainty of the nascent Christian community concerning events such as the resurrection of Jesus, but it is incapable of verifying the event itself without radically redefining the nature and practice of the discipline. Simply put, we cannot conclusively demonstrate, by means of the prevalent historiographical approaches which have evolved since the Enlightenment, that the resurrection occurred; we can only demonstrate that early Christians were certain that it had. To adapt John Meier's useful terminology, this is the point where the historical and the metahistorical come together--where research ends and faith begins.

It is of course true that Paul does not directly mention ‘the virginal conception’, but what he says is not only compatible with the idea (see Gal 4.4—God sent his son, born of woman, born under the law. Notice Paul does not say, born of a good Jewish man with proper paternity), Rom. 8.3 suggest knows of the virginal conception idea for he says that God sent his son “in the likeness of sinful flesh”. Now what is the point of the word ‘likeness’ in this verse? I would suggest Paul is saying that Jesus really had flesh but it was not tainted with human fallenness the way all other human flesh was (see Rom. 5.12-21). In other words, Paul already knows about the idea of Jesus being conceived in a pure and sinless manner. The attempt to treat the NT writers as if they were ignorant or ignored or were polemicizing against one another or lived in splendid isolation from one another does not work.

I think this is an interesting bit of exegesis, and I'm not especially inclined to disagree with it (at least, not without doing some additional reading on my own!). However, I'm curious how Paul's reference to the designation of Christ as "Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead (Rom. 1:1; italics added) might affect this conclusion. If Paul has some notion of virginal conception, why not reference it here?

In fact all of the NT documents can be traced back to apostolic sources or were written by apostles—all of them can be traced to about 9-10 persons who were eyewitnesses or apostles or both. These persons include the Beloved Disciple, Mark, Luke, John of Patmos, Paul, probably Apollos, Peter, James and Jude. 2 Peter is a later composite document made up of material from Peter, Jude, and with a knowledge of the Pauline corpus, but you will notice it does not appear to draw on non-apostolic source material. The claims that we do not know who wrote these books, or that some of them are forged are greatly exaggerated claims, that many historians like myself do not find convincing or compelling on the basis of the actual historical evidence itself.

Again, I suppose this depends upon the definitions of the terms "historical evidence" and "apostolic." The various writings of the New Testament were all eventually associated with apostolic or immediately sub-apostolic authors and traditions. Some of these were widely accepted; others were not. Eusebius of Caesarea reports that many ancient commentators considered James to be spurious, a judgment shared by many contemporary scholars. I assume that Ben's reference to Apollos amongst this list presumes that he is the author of Hebrews, a supposition for which no firm evidence exists (a number of possibilities have been proposed throughout the centuries; one recollects Origen's famous conclusion that regarding the letter's actual author, "Only God knows"). If the author of the Book of Revelation is writing at the end of the first century (as many scholars assume) and is an otherwise unknown prophetic figure (as many exegetes, both ancient and modern, have suggested), is it appropriate to identify him and his work as "apostolic"? Similarly, what of 2 Peter, which is often dated to the second century? If one accepts the traditional attributions of the later church, then the New Testament corpus can indeed be definitively linked to a handful of key figures from the inception of the movement. Many scholars, however, have not seen sufficient internal and external evidence to do so.

Check out all of Ben's musings in their entirety... they're extremely stimulating! I'm hoping to get back to them at some point.

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