When Reviews Go Strange

When Reviews Go Strange July 13, 2019

When I read the excellent reviews offered by the Wall Street Journal, I always enjoy pieces by the versatile, well-informed, and wide-ranging Barton Swaim. I say that before disagreeing with him in a major way on his most recent offering, a highly critical reading of John Barton’s important new book A History of the Bible.

While acknowledging much that is positive about the book, Swaim launches a basic attack on the historical critical method that it exemplifies. His complaint is that if we follow these principles as consistently and logically as John Barton does, we are basically left with nothing. That critical approach is in a sense an exercise in nihilism. Might that description fit such efforts in some cases? Certainly. But they don’t apply to Barton.

Let me offer Exhibit A in John Barton’s defense. Here is Swaim:

Historical-critical theories on the New Testament are a little more amenable to empirical corroboration. The dominant paradigm on the origins of the Gospels, for example, holds that the Synoptic accounts were second-century compilations of rumors and exaggerated tales about Jesus, written and edited long after anybody had any firm information about the man and his deeds. But the Gospels, as Richard Bauckham cogently demonstrated in his 2006 book “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses,” simply aren’t written that way. The Gospel-writers frequently use names, dates, specific locations and odd details, as if to invite readers to verify their claims. Mr. Bauckham’s book shook the field of New Testament studies when it appeared. Mr. Barton, scandalously in my view, doesn’t mention the book or list it in his lengthy bibliography.

You might want to read that again, as it is so off the wall.

Let me begin with Swaim’s “dominant paradigm” sentence, which is simply incorrect at every stage, almost in every word. Please find me a competent scholar on the Synoptics who dates them in the second century. A near universal consensus gives the original date of Mark as around 70-75, and Matthew and Luke in the next twenty years or so, before the mid-90s. And do remember the sheer size of the field we are talking about, which is inconceivably vast.

If there is debate in the field, it is between people like me who hold to the genuine “dominant paradigm” theory of dating (ie 70-90 or so) versus those who favor earlier dates, pre-70. None of those periods counts as second century. Clearly, that goes far beyond a mere chronological quibble. The standard dating for the Synoptics means that they were written at a time when authors or editors had access to direct personal, family, and communal traditions going back to the 30s, which would not be the case if they were second century.

Almost as solid a consensus holds that the Synoptics draw on direct and extensive sources of strictly contemporary information for the events of Jesus’s era. A sizable and respectable group of scholars believes that Mark is drawing on some contact with Peter himself. It is precisely because the apostolic generation is dying out that Mark seemingly determined to collect what could be found of their experiences and stories. By the start of the second century, quotations from all the Synoptics are appearing in Christian writings.

I seriously have no idea where Swaim, who is as I say a smart and curious writer, found that utterly weird “dominant paradigm” sentence, which describes something more like a Da Vinci Code approach than any accurate reflection of Biblical scholarship. The views he portrays are absolutely, categorically, not dominant, or even fringe respectable. Where on earth is he getting this?

I won’t say much about Bauckham here, as he will be the subject of another blog in in the near future. Suffice it to say that I deeply admire all his writings, and that book in particular. But as summarized by Swaim, the account of Eyewitnesses is so generic as to be misleading. It is awfully easy to find ancient writings that “frequently use names, dates, specific locations and odd details, as if to invite readers to verify their claims,” and which turn out to be forged, wrong, or misleading. And while Bauckham’s book was well and respectfully received, it was nothing like the bombshell in the playground of the Biblical scholars that Swaim implies. They read it, admired its intelligence and critical acumen, and absorbed its arguments where appropriate. The contrast that Swaim suggests between Bauckham and the bulk of “historical critical” scholars does not exist.

Personally, I would have tended to include Bauckham’s book in the bibliography of a book like this, but the range of possible works from which to choose is, again, enormous.

I have no problems with critical reviews of any book, but they should not make statements that are flat wrong. Why did the Journal let this one through?






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