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Hi Professor Ben,
You mention in your video that the Gnostic Christians were not interested in the “historical Jesus.” By this are you implying that some of the early Christians (e.g. the communities behidn the canonical gospels) were, in fact, interested in the historical Jesus? If so, this seems a strange assumption, given that they are also interested in the proclaimed Jesus, or at least the historical Jesus through the lens of their post-Easter experience of Jesus (hence, not really the historical Jesus anymore). If you are not claiming this, then it seems odd to single out Gnostic Christians in particular as not being concerned with the historical Jesus, even if their tendency was towards a more spiritualized and docetic Christology. Interest in the historical Jesus seems more of a modern interest, using the tools of historiography to reconstruct with probably the life and person of Jesus.
I look forward to your reply.
You aught to do this more often, video stamps out fires faster than a rhino. I was also thinking that if the sentence was written that way, what exactly could the writer have followed it with ‘My wife, if I ever took one would have to be really good at cooking and cleaning, because being a full time teacher of the circumcision often leave me utterly exhausted.’ Thanks, Ben, I’ll be sure to pass this on to my connections on the Internet.
Of course the earliest Jewish Christians who are responsible for at least three of our canonical Gospels were interested in the historical Jesus, otherwise we wouldn’t have the sort of Gospels that we have. It’s an enormous mistake to assume that somehow those who were eyewitnesses of his ministry suddenly forgot what he was like after Easter. To the contrary they tell stories about him in the Gospels that do not reflect the later interests of missionaries like Paul who focused on Gentiles. For example, you will look hard and find almost nothing when it comes to Son of Man material, or exorcism material, or arguments about Corban, or arguments about ritual impurity outside the Gospels. Why? For the very good reason that the Gospels are not retrojections of later theology and interests. Jesus is the one who called himself the Son of Man. Paul never mentions that title at all, and I could go on. What is interesting is that Paul does quote a few stories from the life of Jesus (see e.g. the last supper story in 1 Cor. 11), so he knows and values these traditions. The Gnostics would never have written the kind of Gospels we have in the canon, and they didn’t. Unlike them, the writers of the NT had a profound interest in both the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, since they saw them as one and the same person. BW3
Yes, I agree with you about the Jesus of history. I think that Paul can actually be very useful in this regard because of the early date of some of his letters. I mean he is certainly not entertaining Gnostic ideas (is that in Colossians where he speaks about ‘forbidding to marry….’) and also a passage in Galatians where he talks to the Galatians as if they were one’s who had the picture of Jesus crucified as clearly portrayed before them in Paul’s doctrine, thereby leads me to conclude that Paul most certainly had more than a vague image of what Jesus’ death had been like. I mean he’s at Stephen’s stoning (?) , if he’s so directly engaged in the lives of people who knew Jesus, he’s bound to have more than is revealed in his letters, after all his letters are very specific to issues and he’s very single-minded about the way he addresses those and not drifting the way many Internet discussions do. (mine included.)
Now, I’ve go my son watching your video too. He’s heard about you, but not see you. Thanks for speaking out in times of confusion and ignorance.
Thanks Dr. Ben for your thought provoking, intelligent, commentary, and the easy going manner in which it’s always delivered. The world in general and the Christian community in particular, could use a lot more of this kind of teaching—how about a syndicated television show, with guests like N.T. Wright. I know I’d watch it! A small dose of compelling and godly scholarship everyday could go a long way towards dispelling centuries of questionable theology. It would also provide a necessary counter balance to the ongoing atrocity of too much “Christian” broadcasting. I’m half kidding of course, but, only half
Even assuming authenticity, with the cutoff fragment, we really have to wonder what the statement was intended to portray from a literary view.
As a matter of fact, Paul has very little interest in the “historical Jesus.” He gives next to no biographical details about Jesus. He is more interested in the post-Easter Jesus and what that means for Christian salvation.
Disappointingly, it appears that BW3 has an incredibly uncritical view of the gospels which are layered documents: historical memory and testimony through the filter of contemporary concerns and theology of the early church. Historical reconstruction is a task that we can engage in using the gospels as sources. But to suggest that these sources are themselves an accurate reconstruction of the historical Jesus is problematic.
Dr Rangi Tamaki
Well Rangi I’m afraid you’re wrong about that, so don’t play the pejorative ‘uncritical’ card. Go read my commentaries and you will see otherwise. It is no surprise at all that Paul mentions the life of Jesus so little in letters to people who were already Christians. But in fact there are numerous parallels between what he does teach, for example about eschatology, and what Jesus taught. See my Jesus, Paul and the End of the World. The Gospels are not the product of umpteen revisions. Yes of course Matthew and Luke use Mark and Q and some special material, but that is hardly a surprise. As Luke makes clear in Lk. 1.1-4 he consulted eyewitnesses. He is operating as a historian. He himself is not an eyewitness, but he is in contact with them. Clearly, you have not read widely enough. BW3
Please, Dr Witherington, I in no way meant “uncritical” pejoratively. Rather, your approach is the opposite to a critical approach to the gospels. Your answer seems not to engage with my points raised about (e.g. speaking of earlier sources like Mark and Q is still a world away from historical reconstruction, as these documents are also shaped by theology and contemporary concerns).
P.S. I have read your commentaries. Most enjoyable.
Dr Rangi Tamaki
But Rangi why exactly would we need to do much historical reconstruction when the persons who wrote these Gospels were either there, or in touch with the people who were there. They are not layered documents reflecting some huge time gap between the events and when they were recorded anyway. Of course they are shaped by theological interests but I don’t see a lot of evidence that they were shaped by the ‘contemporary concerns’ of say the church of the last third of the first century A.D. Were that the case, we would expect these Gospels to look far more like Paul’s letters addressing the Gentiles, but, they just don’t. And in regard to theological shaping, since we do not have independent access to Jesus except through the NT documents, and especially through the Gospels themselves and the preaching in Acts, why exactly would we assume that the writers were not simply amplifying and developing the perspectives of Jesus himself? I can see no good reason to think they weren’t or couldn’t be doing that. They were trying to apply the teachings of Jesus to later in the century. They weren’t trying to invent the teachings of Jesus. You might want to read Richard Bauckham’s fine book— Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. I think he is largely right, and the old form critical models no longer work as applied to the Gospels. BW3
Dear Dr Witherington,
In answer to your first question regarding why we need historical reconstruction. This is true irrespective of whether or not the gospel authors were eyewitnesses or close to eyewitnesses. You seem to make the category mistake of assuming the gospels are historical reconstructions, when in fact they are proclamations of the life of Jesus through the lens of the post-Easter experience. E.g. if I was an eyewitness and then wrote a poem based on my experience of the event, this does not mean my poem is an historical reconstruction. The gospels are a different genre altogether. This is a basic error and something I correct with my first year students.
Secondly, your argument about the gospels not reflecting the contemporary concerns of the church is counter-intuitive. The reason why we are able to date them to the last third of the first century A.D. is precisely because they reflect these concerns. E.g. the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 A.D., or the growing divisions between Rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity after this destruction.
With regard to your final question. The process of amplification of Jesus’ teaching that you mention is exactly my point: it is amplified and developed through the post-Easter experience. This is not the same as “inventing the teaching of Jesus.” Nor is it the same as presenting an account of the historical Jesus. The gospels do neither of these things.
P.S. I have read Bauckham’s book, and although it makes an interesting case, I find it difficult to get past the apologetic tone beneath the mask of disinterested objectivity.
Dr Rangi Tamaki
Rangi where exactly would you find any reference to the Fall of Jerusalem in say, the Gospel of John? I see no evidence of this. Perhaps you have seen John A.T. Robinson’s Redating the NT. It’s a point he makes again and again. Now I have to say, I don’t agree with his case that everything including the Gospels were written before 70, but he is right that you are hard pressed to find allusions to that in the NT, apart from say in Mark 13. Secondly we do not know what the struggles were between Judaism and its offshoot Christianity between A.D. 65-95. We have no independent testimony to that anywhere, since Acts ends about A.D. 62. Mirror reading is not critical scholarship, by which I mean reading into the Gospels later concerns. That’s making assumptions about history of the period A.D. 65-95, and then trying to find indirect hints about them in the Gospels. See Jerry Sumney’s fine book about the huge problems with mirror reading (though his focus is on Paul). Finally, you seem to think that religious experience clouds one’s historical judgment. It can just as well clarify one’s understanding of things that went before. The Gospels are not chronicles of people’s religious experience of Jesus post Easter. That dog simply won’t hunt. Nobody seems to have ‘experienced’ Jesus as Son of Man post-Easter. We have no hint of that in the NT epistolary literature anywhere. I would also urge you to take seriously that what the Gospel genre is, is either ancient biography,. or in the case of Luke-Acts, ancient historiograohy. They are not chronicles of peoples religious imaginings about Jesus. BW3
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