The Absurdity of “Higher Criticism” of the Gospels as Illustrated in a Novel
Before anything else, let me say that I do not reject all “biblical criticism.” In fact, in one sense, “criticism” simply means “scholarly study” of something. “Literary criticism” is the scholarly study of literature. In other words, the very mention of “critical study of Scripture” is signifies nothing bad. There are various types and approaches to biblical criticism; not all of them are negative or destructive of the authority of the Bible. Even some strict inerrantists practice certain types of biblical criticism. I once had a colleague who believed in biblical inerrancy and was warmly embraced by conservative evangelicals, published in The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society and a member in good standing of the ETS, who practiced and wrote about “redaction criticism”—a type of higher biblical criticism that examines the theological motives of the gospel writers.
When I talk here, in this instance, about the “absurdity of ‘higher criticism’ of the gospels” I am talking about that type of higher criticism commonly practiced in secular universities, liberal scholarly societies and groups such as the “Jesus Seminar.” I was exposed to this type of negative biblical criticism in my own Ph.D. studies in a secular university. One of my New Testament professors studied under Norman Perrin at the University of Chicago. His approach was similar to what I critique here. My other New Testament professor there was much less negative toward the historical reliability of the gospels, but the course I took under him was in Paul’s epistles, so I did not have the privilege of being exposed by him to a more modest and positive approach to higher criticism (except through his writings which I sought out and read). Both of them were highly regarded, well-known New Testament scholars.
I recently finished reading a novel about a murder mystery in the Vatican surrounding the Shroud of Turin. It’s pure fiction, but the author has the protagonist, an Eastern rite Catholic priest living in the Vatican, deliver soliloquies about the gospels. Clearly, the author of the novel has studied higher criticism of the gospels and, one can safely assume, he embraces its methods and conclusions. Parts of the novel seem designed to lecture readers about the historical unreliability of the gospels—especially the Gospel of John. The book is The Fifth Gospel and its author is Ian Caldwell. I know little about him other than that he has written at least one other mystery novel with religious, or at least esoteric, themes.
You may wonder why I read such a book. Well, I like murder mysteries and especially ones involving churches, clerics, monasteries, etc. Many do. Some of the best do! One of my favorite murder mysteries is The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. I read the book before seeing the movie and thought both were excellent. The story is set in a medieval monastery and includes many historical allusions and themes of philosophy and theology. While not specifically based in fact, it is well researched historically and one can discern in it motifs about nominalism versus realism, for example.
So, when I came across The Fifth Gospel and read about it I decided it was worth my time. It is a good story that caught and kept my attention and I found it to be a fascinating insight into life inside the Vatican and Catholic-Orthodox relations, etc. I often found myself diverting from the story to research on the internet to verify and expand upon ecclesiastical descriptions. The author clearly knows much about Vatican City, its buildings and grounds, rituals and laws, etc. Canon law is central to the story and I trust that it is described correctly.
The story is really about the “Shroud of Turin” and much of what is said about it is fictional and even fanciful. A secular researcher is murdered because…well, to avoid giving away the ending, I’ll just say it has to do with a discovery he “made” (in the story, not in reality) about the Shroud. The “fifth gospel” of the book’s title is the “Diatessaron”—second century church father Tatian’s seamless amalgamation of the four gospels into one gospel that was ultimately rejected by the church. Or maybe the “fifth gospel” is the Shroud itself. It’s difficult to decide. Anyway, the story weaves together a fictional murder mystery with ecclesiology, theology and higher gospel criticism.
A major part of the story is the claim, made as settled fact, that the Gospel of John is “symbolical” rather than historical. The protagonist of the story is a teacher of the gospels at a Vatican school for children of church employees. He is a married priest with a son—a possibility because he belongs to the Greek Catholic Church and a cause of some tension between him and Western Catholic Vatican clerics. He teaches his teenage students and whomever will listen (including the murdered man before he is killed) the “facts” about the gospels—that they are often historically false and that especially John is not about the “historical Jesus” but about the “Christ of faith.” The outcome of the whole story revolves around the “fact” that John’s gospel is theological rather than historical. The protagonist frequently talks about the “rules” of gospel study and one of them seems to be that if John differs from the synoptic gospels on a particular point about Jesus, what he writes is invented. Another “rule” seems to be that if John includes an element in a story about Jesus that portrays Jesus as the fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy, it is not to be considered historical but symbolic.
This way of describing the gospels and Christian scholarship annoyed me much. These things tend to stick in my mind and even become a bit obsessive. I strongly object to novelists using their stories to promote highly controversial theological ideas as “settled fact.” (That is why I avoid Dan Brown’s novels in which the deity of Christ and the Trinity are portrayed as ideas foreign to original Christianity and invented and imposed by Constantine and bishops under his control.) When I finished Caldwell’s book I vowed to blog about it, but I didn’t know exactly how best to go about refuting his theme about John.
Now I realize some people will accuse me (or at least suspect me) of “magical thinking,” but I tend to believe in God’s providential guidance and provision in these matters. (I blogged once before about seemingly serendipitously finding a much needed book I did not even know existed when perusing the shelves of a used bookstore. The book was exactly what I needed when writing one of my books. My book would not have come together as well as it did without that book to which my eyes seemed directed out of thousands of books on the used bookstore’s shelves.) Today I finished reading a rather obscure book by an Oxford don named W. H. V. Reade. The book is The Christian Challenge to Philosophy (SPCK, 1958). The book is not at all about gospel criticism or higher criticism of the Bible, but, in the ultimate chapter, to illustrate a point about diversity of reports supporting facticity of events, Reade devotes two pages to the issue of the Gospel of John. He completely devastates the denial of that gospel’s historicity based on its differences from the synoptic gospels. He concludes that discussion this way:
Whatever, then, may be the exact truth about the date and authorship of the Fourth Gospel, its acceptance by the Church…as an authentic portrait was at least justified by a critical principle far superior to the crude assumption that contemporary witnesses are bound to agree. They are bound, on the contrary, to differ, and there is no reason whatever why words and acts of Jesus, unnoticed or forgotten by one member of the inner circle, should not have been regarded by another as supremely important. (p. 185)
Backing up a bit, earlier in the discussion, he wrote:
By no sound principle of criticism are we obliged to infer from the actual quality of the Fourth Gospel that its material cannot have been drawn from S. John. All we need assume is that one disciple—the one “whom Jesus loved”—had deeper insight than the others into his master’s mind, and that when, in later life, he came to meditate more carefully on words and deeds originally, perhaps, only half understood, he was enabled…to offer an interpretation, or fashion a picture, that is in some respects unique. (ibid)
This from a respected Oxford don, not from some fundamentalist or conservative evangelical apologist. (Not that there’s anything wrong with fundamentalist or conservative evangelical apologists!)
The fact of the matter is that the skeptical approach to John’s gospel and other portions of the New Testament portrayed as “settled fact” by Caldwell and other critics is most definitely not settled fact except among a small coterie of naturalistically-minded scholars who use critical principles on the Bible that would not be used on any other ancient literature and that violate common sense.
Earlier I mentioned one of my New Testament professors during my Ph.D. studies at a secular university. He was a visiting professor on sabbatical from his own European university where he had just finished serving a term as president of the university. His name was Etienne Trocmé. He was an expert in redaction criticism of the gospels and Paul’s (and other) epistles but was strongly opposed to the negative methods of many biblical scholars. Nobody could rightly label him a fundamentalist!
While I enjoyed reading Caldwell’s novel and would recommend it to anyone looking for a good church-based murder mystery, I strongly take exception to its portrayal of the Gospel of John as purely symbolic as opposed to historical-factual and of the alleged settled rules and conclusions of biblical scholarship.