An Aside: Ben Witherington on Ancient Historiography

In response to Bart Ehrman’s latest book (which I haven’t read yet):

Bart reminds us early on that the method of studying the Bible taught in most mainline seminaries is “the historical critical method”. It is also, in fact perhaps the main method of teaching the Bible in evangelical seminaries today as well. And two of the major things one is taught, quite correctly in the study of this method are: 1) ancient historical texts must be studied in their original historical contexts to be properly understood; and 2) modern post-Enlightenment historiography is at odds with the historiography of most ancients, particularly when it comes to the issue of God’s involvement in human history.

There is a further corollary—in order to understand the Gospels or Acts, or Paul’s letters, or Revelation, one needs to understand the features and characteristics of such ancient literature—in short their respective genres. The Gospels are written like ancient biographies, not modern ones, or in the case of Luke-Acts like an ancient work of Hellenistic (and Septuagintal) historiography. Unless one knows the conventions and limitations that apply to such literature, one is in no position at all to evaluate whether there are “inconsistencies” “errors” or other problematic features of such literature. Error can only be assessed on the basis of what an author is attempting to do and what literary conventions he is following. Let us take an example Bart uses from p. 7 of his book—the fact that in John the cleansing of the temple comes early in the Gospel account, whereas in the Synoptics it is found in the Passion narrative. He is right of course that some modern conservative Christians have attempted to reconcile these differences by suggesting Jesus did the deed twice— once at the beginning and once at the end of the ministry. The problem is, that this conclusion is just as anachronistic (and genre ignoring) as the conclusion that the Gospels contradict each other on this point. What do I mean?

If you actually bother to read ancient biographies (see e.g. Tacitus’s Life of Agricola, or Plutarch’s famous parallel lives) you will discover that the ancients were not pedants when it comes to the issue of strict chronology as we are today. The ancient biographical or historiographical work operated with the freedom to arrange there material in several different ways, including topically, geographically, chronologically, to mention but three. Yes they had a secondary interest in chronology in broad strokes, but only a secondary interest in that.
If one studies the Fourth Gospel in detail and closely in the Greek, comparing it to other ancient biographies what one learns is that it is a highly schematized and edited product, and the sign narratives are arranged theologically not primarily chronologically. And whilst this might cause a modern person some consternation, it is not a reason to say that John contradicts the Synoptics on this Temple cleansing matter. The Fourth Gospel begins by showing that Jesus replaces the institutions of Judaism with himself—a theological message (he is the Passover lamb, he is the Temple where God’s presence dwells etc.). The Synoptic writers are likely presenting a more chronologically apt picture of when this event actually happened. But strict chronology was not the major purpose of the Fourth Evangelist, we should not fault him for not giving us information we might want to have, or for focusing on the theological import of the event, rather than its timing. Such was the freedom, within limits, of ancient biographies and histories. I must disagree with the conclusion then when Bart says “Historically speaking, then, the accounts are not reconcilable.” (p. 7). False. This is only so if one insists on a flat modern anachronistic reading of the text which pays no attention to what the authors are attempting.

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