Category Archives: Books

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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Believing in the Bible

Just ran across this column from Bart Ehrman at the Washington Post site.  Excerpts:

The idea that to be a Christian you have to “believe in the Bible” (meaning, believe that it is in some sense infallible) is a modern invention. Church historians have traced the view, rather precisely, to the Niagara Conference on the Bible, in the 1870s, held over a number of years to foster belief in the Bible in opposition to liberal theologians who were accepting the results of historical scholarship. In 1878 the conference summarized the true faith in a series of fourteen statements. The very first one — to be believed above all else — was not belief in God, or in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was belief in the Bible….

To make faith in the Bible the most important tenet of Christianity was a radical shift in thinking — away, for example, from traditional statements of faith such as the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed, which say not a word about belief in the Bible….

Here are the historical realities. Christianity existed before the Bible came into being: no one decided that our twenty-seven books of the New Testament should be “the” Christian Scripture until three hundred years after the death of the apostles. Since that time Christianity has existed in places where there were no Bibles to be found, where no one could read the Bible, where no one correctly understood the Bible. Yet it has existed. Christianity does not stand or fall with the Bible.

And so, biblical scholarship will not destroy Christianity. It might de-convert people away from a modern form of fundamentalist belief. But that might be a very good thing indeed.

I think Ehrman is being a little coy.  If you read the introduction to Misquoting Jesus, you get a brief version of Ehrman’s faith journey, which basically boils down to “I was a conservative, Bible-believing Christian for a while, and because of that I got deep into Biblical scholarship, and what I learned about the Bible turned me agnostic.”  I don’t think he’s lying here–he certainly knows that there are a lot of Christians who take a liberal or post-liberal stance toward the scriptures but are still guided by a deep faith in Jesus.  I’m one of them.  But I think if Ehrman were really pressed on this point, he would admit that while there are people who accept Biblical criticism while retaining Christian faith, he himself doesn’t find that position tenable.

I don’t want to pick on Ehrman too much.  I’m pretty appreciative of his books, which essentially take the basic Biblical information you’ll learn in a mainline seminary and make it accessible to a mass audience.  We ought to be discussing the difficulties with the Bible in church more, and it really isn’t Ehrman’s fault that some people learn this information and drift away from faith.  (As per this post, I think it’s the fault of the kinds of churches who essentially make their congregants choose between believing in inerrancy or becoming an atheist.)  But he ought to be a more honest about the reality that his books certainly will provoke a faith crisis in a fair number of his readers, if not an outright rejection of Christianity.

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A Testament of Devotion: Holy Obedience, Part V

Simplicity

As with humility, Kelly cuts past a facile understanding of simplicity to describe the true virtue that lies underneath those outward signs that we sometimes label ‘simplicity.’

I have in mind something deeper than the simplification of our external programs, our absurdly crowded calendars of appointments through with so many pantingly and frantically gasp.  These do become simplified in holy obedience, and the poise and preace we have been missing can really be found.  But there is a deeper, an internal simplification of the whole of one’s personality, stilled, tranquil, in childlike trust listening ever to Eternity’s whisper, walking with a smile into the dark. [p. 45]

And

We are called beyond strain, to peace and power and joy and love and thorough abandonment of self.  We are called to put our hand trustingly in His hand and walk the holy way, in no anxiety assuredly resting in him. [p. 46]

Intentionally clearing our calendar is a good practice, and so is turning off the TV, shunning materialistic excesses, and spending time quietly with God.  But none of those things are ‘simplicity’ per se.  Simplicity is the calmness of the soul that comes from deeply accepting that God is on his throne, his love is boundless, and his plans will be brought to fruition in the end.  I may partner with him in his creative and restorative work, and I may sometimes struggle vigorously for the kingdom’s sake.  But no outcome rests on my shoulders.  All rests on God.  So I can rest in him.  This is the last, and lasting, fruit of holy obedience.

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A Testament of Devotion: Holy Obedience, Part IV

Entrance into Suffering

The Cross as dogma is painless speculation; the Cross as lived suffering is anguish and glory.  Yet God, out of the pattern of His own heart, has planted the Cross along the road of holy obedience. [p. 43]

Kelly is writing in the late 1930’s or perhaps 1940, and he refers several times in this section to the great suffering in Europe.  Even though he didn’t live to see America’s entrance into the war, or to know the worst horrors of the holocaust or the atomic bomb, he still had a deep sense of the suffering of the planet.

[W]e shrink from suffering and can easily call all suffering an evil thing.  Yet we live in an epoch of tragic sorrows, when man is adding to the crueler forces of nature such blasphemous horrors as drag soul as well as body into hell.  And holy obedience must walk in this world, not aloof and preoccupied, but stained with sorrow’s travail. [p. 40]

This isn’t just because joining with people in sorrow is the right or Christian thing to do, but because there is a truth we see in suffering that we can miss in times of comfort.  Comfortable times can entice us to live in the illusion that human cleverness or good will can give us the peace and security we need–and we can drift away from God, seeing no need for him since we are doing so well for ourselves.  Tribulation reminds us of the truth.  Thus Kelly writes:

An awful solemnity is upon the earth, for the last vestige of earthly security is gone.  It has always been gone, and religion has always said so, but we haven’t believed it. [p. 41]

I’ve read a thousand times in the Bible that I shouldn’t trust in my money and possessions for security.  Jesus said those things were all temporary, that only treasure in heaven lasts.  But when the economy tanks and my IRA plummets, I have a unique opportunity to re-discover that Jesus was right, and to search my soul to see if I am willing to trust Him fully for my security, or whether I’ll keep scrambling for the shiny things I can gather up around me.

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A Testament of Devotion: Holy Obedience, Part III

Humility and Holiness

Now Kelly writes that there are many fruits of holy obedience, but “two are so closely linked together that they can scarcely be treated seperately.  The are the passion for personal holiness and a sense of utter humility.” [p. 34-35]

Kelly gets humility exactly right, I think.  It isn’t “self-disgust at our shabby lives”–it’s such a deep awareness of God that you fully realize only what He is doing counts.  Humility doesn’t come through thinking of myself a certain way, it comes from not really thinking about myself at all.

The God-blinded soul sees naught of self, naught of personal degradation or personal eminence, but only the Holy Will working impersonally through him… [p. 36]

If I try to progress in humility by thinking about myself in a certain way, I’ve entered a self-defeating process.  Humility comes when I’m not grasping for humility itself, but grasping for God.

Kelly goes on to say that there is a humility in God Himself–that it makes sense to say “Be humble, therefore, as God is humble.”  I’m not quite sure what he means by this, unless it is that God himself isn’t really focused on his own status or glory, rather his focus is on love for his creation.  This is my understanding of the hymn in Philippians 2:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.

In other words, it is because of the fact that Jesus shares the nature of God–not in spite of it!–that he was willing to leave power and privilege to become a servant.  The humility of Christ is not some abberation in the Trinity, but truly reflects the character of God.

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A Testament of Devotion: Holy Obedience, Part II

Gateways into Holy Obedience

Kelly writes of two gateways into the wholly (and holy) obedient life.  Some come into such obedience through mystical experience.

It is an overwhelming experience to fall into the hands of the living God, to be invaded to the depths of one’s being by his presence, to be, without warning, wholly uprooted from all earthborn securities and assurances, and to be blown by a tempest of unbelievable power which leaves one’s old proud self utterly, utterly defenseless, until one cries, “All Thy waves and thy billows are gone over me” (Ps. 42:7).  Then is the soul swept into a loving Center of ineffable sweetness, where calm and unspeakable peace and ravishing joy steal over one….There stand the saints of the ages, their hearts open to view, and lo, their hearts are our heart and their hearts are the heart of the Eternal One.  In awful solemnity the Holy One is over all and in all, exquisitely loving, infinitely patient, tenderly smiling.  Marks of glory are upon all things, and the marks are cruciform and blood-stained.  And one sighs, like the convinced Thomas of old, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).  Dare one lift one’s eyes and look?  Nay, whither can one look and not see Him? [p. 30]

Something tells me that this isn’t going to be my gateway into obedience.  An experience of God half that intense would be twice as gripping as anything I’ve ever known.  But Kelly doesn’t expect this kind of ecstatic experience to endure, or to happen for many people.

Do not mistake me.  Our interest just now is in the life of complete obedience to God, not in some amazing revelations of His glory graciously granted only to some.  Yet the amazing experiences of the mystics leave a permanent residue, a God-subdued, God-possessed will. [p. 32]

It seems like all the genuine mystics understand that (1) very few people are going to have visions of this magnitude, (2) the people who do recieve them have them as an act of grace, not a reward for personal merit, (3) such visions are temporary and rare–perhaps happening briefly once, and never again, (4) they are an aid to Christian holiness, but not essential.  Devoted Christian living can happen without such moments.

I appreciate this characteristic humility from the great mystics, and more than that, appreciate their sense of priority.  It’s encouraging to a complete non-mystic like me that Kelly thinks I can also have a life of holy obedience, even without the celestial visions.  But that means traveling through a different gateway.

…most people must follow…the active way, wherein we must struggle and, like Jacob of old, wrestle with the angel until morning dawns, the active way wherein the will must be subjected bit by bit, piecemeal and progressively, to the divine Will. [p. 32]

The first step is to is to cultivate a

flaming vision of the wonder of such a life, a vision which comes occasionally to us all, through biographies of the saints…through a life lived before our eyes, through a haunting verses of the Psalms…through meditation upon the amazing life and death of Jesus….[p. 32]

This is precisely why I’ve begun to develop an interest in the lives of the saints, and why I think most of the Protestant world made a mistake in rejecting the notion of identifying those among us who have lived exemplary lives worth of study and emulation.  Teresa of Avila, Francis of Assisi, Augustine, Patrick, Clare, Aidan–my spiritual life would be significantly impoverished without their examples.  I could also make a long list of the lives “lived before my eyes” who have made a difference.  As Paul wrote, we should “take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you.” (Philippians 3:17)

Once you have a vision of what the wholly obedient life looks like, the second step is to start living in a way that is congruent with your vision–even if you are starting in very small ways.

Use what little obedience you are capable of, even if it be like the grain of a mustard seed. [p.33]

Step three:

If you slip and stumble and forget God for an hour, and assert your old proud self, and rely on your clever wisdom, don’t spend too much time in anguished regrets or self-accusations, but begin again, just where you are. [p. 34]

Again I shout Amen!  We all slip and fall.  No one’s path is perfect, and “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

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