Friday, April 27, 2007

Why the Quest for the Historical Jesus Fails or "On Using the Wrong Tool"

Judy Redman, who is here from Australia writing a portion of her dissertation on the Kingdom parables in the Gospel of Thomas, dug out an old article from 1972 written by M.D. Hooker ("On Using the Wrong Tool," Theology 75: 570-581) and passed it on to me because she thought I might like it. Wow. Judy was right! This article reads like my course on Jesus and the Gospels.

If you wonder what is wrong with biblical methods, this article is a nice salute, but one that doesn't appear to have been heeded by too many scholars. Like these 2 paragraphs (page 581), which appears to me almost prophetic :
Neither must he (the biblical scholar) use them (tools like form criticism) negatively - to blackball a saying. The critic who tries with his knife to carve away the thick layers of the Church's theology and give us the bare skeleton of the Jesus of history will no doubt shudder at my unscientific analogy, but it seems to me that all his criteria can only give us results like those which appear in the tables of the magazine Which?. The more blobs in the column, the more confidence one may have in that particular product, and the better buy it is. So with our gospel sayings. The saying which is found in all the Synoptic strata, which has no known parallel outside the gospels, which is Aramaic in structure, will perhaps rate more blobs than one which has none of these features. But I am not suggesting that we should assume that those which score so many blobs as authentic, and those at the bottom of the table are not. We are moving here only from the more to the less probable.

For in the end, the answers which the New Testament scholar gives are not the result of applying objective tests and using precision tools; they are very largely the result of his own presuppositions and prejudices...Too many hypotheses have been regarded as proved, and have become accepted as dogmas. Of course one must have working hypotheses; but it should never be forgotten that these are only hypotheses, and that they must constantly be re-examined. Perhaps every NT scholar should have before him on his desk, as he writes, as a constant reminder of the dangers of dogmatism, the words of R.H. Lightfoot: "We do not know."
There is more in her article that I will post on (hopefully over the weekend), but I leave you with this comment, one that I always make to my students at the end of the Jesus and the Gospels course. Whatever else we might think we can do, creating a red-letter edition is not one of them. Given the oral and scribal environments of creation and transmission, given the origin of all of our materials in the Christian communities, and given the charismatic nature of early Christianity, the quest for the authentic or original words of Jesus is bound to end in failure. The number of white marbles or pink marbles or black marbles in the bag is not going to make it so.

Update 4-30-07: some discussion on other blogs
Judy Redman

2 comments: said...

But we may get nearer to the authentic history. The Gospel of Judas contains a clear hint that Judas died the death of a false prophet by stoning, implying that his death was not by suicide. The verdict and execution was that of a Jewish court.

Known to be fond of money, I suggest that it was Annas (Ananias) the high priest who handed Judas over to the chief priests. Thus Annas was among the plotters of Mat.26:3,4. The anointing at Bethany (26:6-13) is an obvious interpolation. Thus Mat.26:14,15 is still in the palace of the high priest Caiaphus, and it is Annas, Caiaphus's father-in-law, who says "What are you willing to give me if I hand him (Judas) over to you?" And it was Annas who watched for an opportunity to 'hand him over'(26:16).


John Shuck said...

OK, fair enough. We can't get to the guy. But we can uncover the layers, can we not? I mean, what color of marble would we give to the story of Jesus walking on water? Is that a different color than say Jesus was a Jew executed by the Romans? While my friends at the Jesus Seminar may not have uncovered the "real guy" they did remove some later layers. Wouldn't that be fair?

I look forward to your future posts on this topic.