This is part of a series I’ve entitled “Jesus: the Living God,” which explores Jesus from Biblical, theological, and apologetic levels. View other posts in the series here.
For now, let us focus on the “tools for the task” (Wright, 29 and following). What kind of historical, textual means are used to talk about Jesus? I’ll be outlining views made by N.T. Wright in his The New Testament and the People of God, (hereafter NTPG) and Blomberg in The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. First, I should outline my presuppositions. I believe that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, whose salvation is freely available to all who believe by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). There is no other name by which we are saved (Acts 4:12). I believe that the Bible is the Holy, Inerrant Word of God. It is infallible in its teachings.
Wright argues for a “critical realist” view of history. This view describes a “process of ‘knowing’ that acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower… while also fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiralling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known” (Wright, 35 emphasis his). This acknowledges that observers have their own point of views, that they have their own interpretations, and that metaphysical beliefs will influence interpretation of data (36). This is vitally important throughout not just Wright’s body of works, but any historical (or other field) study–one’s presuppositions will influence how one interprets the same data.
Wright argues that one primary function of worldviews is to tell “stories” (38). This doesn’t mean these stories are fiction, rather, Wright is arguing that these stories form the basis of a worldview as well as the ways the worldview will interact with other views (38-40). In the context of the New Testament, “They [first-century Jews] never expressed a worldview in which the god in question was uninterested in, or uninvolved with, the created world in general, or the historical fortunes of his people in particular” (41). It is this worldview that, upon reading more of Wright, I think Wright not only acknowledges but agrees with. God is not uninterested or uninvolved, rather, the opposite is true–God is intimately involved and interested in His creation and creatures.
Wright emphasizes the “impossibility of ‘Mere History'” that is wholly divorced from any worldview (82). This doesn’t mean there are no facts… rather, it means there is no such thing as an uninterpreted fact (88). These interpretations are generally used in conjunction with historical hypotheses. Thus, it is important to note what composes a good historical hypothesis:
1) The historical hypothesis must include the data. One cannot, for example, simply drop the eschatology which was clearly part of Jesus’ teachings as well as the rest of the New Testament, in order to make one’s hypothesis easier to produce. The data must all be included (99).
2) “It must construct a basically simple and coherent overall picture” (100).
3) The hypothesis must show that it is useful in related areas, it must explain other problems (100).
It is important to realize that a simply enormous amount of material has been produced on Jesus and the Gospels, not to mention the rest of the New Testament. Thus, I will turn to Craig Blomberg’s work, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (hereafter HRG) to analyze some of the ways this study has been done. The tools for our task (to borrow Wright’s terminology) should utilize the best available evidence from New Testament scholarship, while discerning everything in light of the truth of Scripture.
Craig Blomberg wonderfully summarizes the various methods of historical criticism and analyzes them for usefulness in HRG. Note that I’m not endorsing historical criticism, rather, I’m endorsing taking what is useful from historical criticism and use it as part of the toolbox. In my summing up, I’m leaving out much of Blomberg’s task of pointing out flaws in these criticisms (which is not only in-depth, but also illuminating), but rather emphasizing his ways to use them in the presuppositions that I’ve outlined above.
1) Form Criticism- Form criticism emphasizes the genre of the work being viewed (Blomberg, 50). It also discusses how a text was transmitted or brought into being. Christians can find this useful as it can be readily implemented in the “historical grammatical” type of reading of Scriptures. The background of the text is indeed important, as well as realizing the genre involved (i.e. the historical telling of what Jesus did, as opposed to His parables, which are not literal history).
2) Redaction Criticism- Redaction criticism views the writers of the Gospels as “editors” of the New Testament, “selecting, arranging, and rewording their sources to highlight particular theological and stylistic emphases” (Blomberg, 67). Christians can utilize this not to break down the reality of the Gospels, but rather they can use it as they realize there are indeed differences in the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospels (i.e. Mark’s suffering servant and Matthew’s son of David), not as contradictions, but as parts to a whole picture of Christ as suffering servant, son of David, compassionate teacher, and Word Incarnate (74).
3) Midrash- Midrash criticism of the Gospels focus on the “relationship of the Gospels to various [Hebrew Scripture] passages to which they may refer” (75). Clearly, this has uses for the Christian. How did the writers of the Gospels utilize Hebrew Scriptures to make their arguments or draw their conclusions about who Jesus was and what He did? This is vitally important to Christological study–who did Jesus say He was, based on the passages He cites, and who did others say He was?
4) Literary Criticism- this discipline is broken down into three types, though the most useful type for the Christian is the “narrative criticism” which analyzes characters, symbolism, figures of speech, etc. within the Gospels (87).
I’ve left out much of Blomberg’s analysis in order to simply sift off what we can use from these various methods, in light of the presuppositions I’ve outlined above. There is much more that could be said about either of these fantastic works (NTPG or HRG), and there is much more that could be said about the “tools for the task”, but for now, these are our tools, and I shall soon move into some of the historicity of Jesus.
Blomberg, Craig L. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. InterVarsity Press. 2007.
Wright, N.T. The New Testament and the People of God. Fortress. 1992.
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