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Can We Trust the New Testament? by J. A. T. Robinson

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  • Can We Trust the New Testament? by J. A. T. Robinson

    In 1977 John A. T. Robinson wrote a tiny little paperback book titled Can We Trust the New Testament?, the original price of which was $2.46; the used copy I have has a price tag for $3.00 pasted on the front cover. I obtained this copy from Amazon.com for $0.01 plus $3.99 shipping. As best I can ascertain, the book has not been published, printed, or reprinted since 1977, when it went to market in the U.S.A. as a printing by Eerdmans that was copyrighted by A. W. Mowbray, and published by A. R. Mowbray & Co Ltd., The Alden Press, Osney Mead, Oxford OX2 OEG ― without any sanction whatsoever against any use of it, or against any reproduction of the contents. I checked Eerdmans' website and found that they do not list the ISBN number (ISBN o-8028-1682-7) as one of their publications. In fact, the exact title has been used by a number of other authors and publishers in recent years.; if one does a Google search (as distinct from an Amazon search), this little book by Robinson does not come up, whereas others with the same title do. So, I propose to present excerpts from Robinson's little 1977 out-of-print-book. That the book is based on the Greek text of the NT will become apparent in due course ― lest anyone question why I am presenting this in the Biblical Languages 301 forum.
    INTRODUCTION

    Can we trust the New Testament? It's an odd question when you come to think of it. Its not a question that a Hindu would ask of the Bhagavad-Gita or a Muslim of the Koran or even a Jew of the Old Testament. Or if they did they would mean, Can you trust it as a guide to life, as the way to walk in? And this is a perfectly valid Christian question too. In fact a number of times in the so-called Pastoral Epistles (the brief letters written by Paul or in his name to Timothy and Titus) we have a phrase which means exactly this. 'Here are words you may trust' (New English Bible); in the Authorized or King James Version (AV): 'This is a faithful saying'). For the Christian message is offered as a faith and a way of life which you can trust. Indeed the primary purpose of the Gospels is succinctly put by St John when he says that he has written 'that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name' (John 20.31). But of this 'word of life' the same man says, 'We have heard it: we have seen it with our own eyes; we looked upon it, and felt it with our hands' (1 John 1.1). And there lies the difference. For 'the way, the truth, and the life' for the writers of the New Testament is not a timeless prescription for good living, but a person born at a moment of history. And trusting the New Testament is trusting it for a portrait of that person.

    To be continued...

  • #2
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    I always appreciate your excellent work!
    "Neighbor, how long has it been since you’ve had a big, thick, steaming bowl of Wolf Brand Chili?”

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    • #3
      Originally posted by Cow Poke View Post
      Subscribing

      I always appreciate your excellent work!
      That is a very encouraging comment; thanks!

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      • #4
        Can We Trust the New Testament?

        Continued from the OP.
        INTRODUCTION

        A portrait, not a photograph. And a portrait not of a dead man, but the one who was for its writers now and forever the human face of God. Yet if that portrait turned out to bear no relation to the sitter behind it, to the historical individual they claimed to have seen and heard and handled, then they would on their own confession be found liars. You cannot 'trust the New Testament' without trusting the claim at its very heart that it is not just an imaginary picture but a faithful portrait―full of faith, to be sure, but also true to fact.

        To be continued...

        Comment


        • #5
          Can We Trust the New Testament?

          Continued from the last post above↑
          INTRODUCTION

          Now you cannot test that claim without being prepared to go to history, and therefore to the methods of historical inquiry and verification. And these methods are neutral to the faith: they cannot be guaranteed to reinforce it. There is always the risk that the results of the investigation may turn out negative. And at best none of the answers in any historical inquiry will be more than extremely probable: even the existence of Napoleon or Julius Caesar is not a matter of absolute certainty. Many religious people have therefore feared and distrusted these methods. They have thought to settle questions of history―whether, for instance, Jesus said or did this or that―not by the historical evidence, but by assertions of faith. In this they have shown themselves to be obscurantists―and left the tools of historical investigation to the faithless. The Church owes a great debt to its scholars over the past two hundred years who have refused to do this. They have been prepared to accept the risks. In the process 'the critics', as they have come to be called, have often appeared to the faithful to be doubtful allies―if not downright traitors. Indeed there is a fatal ambiguity in the phrase 'biblical criticism', since it appears to mean being critical of the Bible, and therefore destructive. In fact it means using one's critical faculties on the Bible like any other book―and its results can be entirely positive, confirming rather than undermining.

          To be continued...

          Comment


          • #6
            Can We Trust the New Testament?

            Continued from the last post above↑
            INTRODUCTION

            But it is too early to worry about results. This book is an invitation to trust, to go hand in hand with the scholar of the New Testament, to see what he is up to and watch him as he goes about his work. And the first thing to recognize is that no scholar comes to his work without his presuppositions. He does not start with a blank mind but with one formed by all the influences, beliefs, and convictions that have made him what he is. In this he is just like the rest of us. Hence it is not surprising that in this and in every other field of knowledge experts differ, and differ widely. This is bewildering to the layman, whose reaction is not to know whom to trust and therefore to trust no one. In fact such is the confusion of voices in this field that many have lost the confidence that there is any agreed truth to arrive at. So they either give up believing anything or become reinforced in their judgment that they know what they believe and the less they let 'the critics' near the better. Both of these reactions I hope to show are fundamentally faithless and unjustified.

            To be continued...

            Comment


            • #7
              Can We Trust the New Testament?

              Continued from the last post above↑
              INTRODUCTION

              In a book like this I could have followed one of two methods. I could have surveyed the conflicting opinions, said what everyone else believes and kept my own judgement out of it (though it would no really have been out of it). Or I could, as I have done, present one man's view, while trying at the same time to be fair to those from whom I would differ and warning the reader where there would be general agreement and where there would not. Since therefore my own presuppositions will not be suppressed, I had better state where I stand.

              To be continued...

              Comment


              • #8
                Can We Trust the New Testament?

                Continued from the last post above↑
                INTRODUCTION

                This is somewhat against the stream of what I suppose would be called current critical orthodoxy in the field of New Testament scholarship. I would be more conservative―on some issues much more conservative―than most of my colleagues who are prepared to use the same methods. Since this may surprise many of my readers, who may regard me by reputation as a dangerous radical, let me try to describe, as I see it, the lie of the field.

                To be continued...

                Comment


                • #9
                  Can We Trust the New Testament?

                  Continued from the last post above↑
                  INTRODUCTION

                  Confining myself for the moment to the English scene―the Continental and the American reflect greater extremes―I observe two poles of thought between which there is constant interaction. One of these tends to be fairly radical―and skeptical―about what may be accepted as historically trustworthy in the New Testament, though with it can go quite a strong traditionalism in doctrinal belief and churchmanship. The most extreme example I have met of this―he was an American―was a professor who accepted nothing in the birth narratives of the Gospels as remotely historical but combined this with the "highest" possible belief in the virgin birth, the immaculate conception, and anything else you liked to mention. It seemed to me schizophrenic, but not to him. In a less extreme manner it is obviously possible to have honest doubts about much in the historical tradition and yet to retain a lively and orthodox Christian faith. I remember once a theological college principle saying what a comfort the radical German New Testament scholar Bultmann was to him. For whenever he was being driven back and back and thought he had nothing left on which to base his faith, he looked behind him and there was Bultmann, and he hadn't gone over the precipice yet! A man in this position may be able to 'get by' on a good deal less about the Jesus of history than most people would think they needed in order to remain Christian. And in the pastoral ministry this can lead to a fairly sophisticated scepticism at the scholarly level combined with quite traditional preaching and liturgical practice at the popular level. For there are things that may be true for the cognoscenti―but the faithful must not be needlessly disturbed. This has been a feature especially of much liberal catholicism, both Roman Catholic and Anglican.

                  To be continued...

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Can We Trust the New Testament?

                    Continued from the last post above↑
                    INTRODUCTION

                    Now this is not a position in which I find myself, and I do not think I could hold it for long if I did. On purely critical grounds I am far from convinced of the trustworthiness of the historical tradition. This is simply the way the evidence seem to me to point. But then I want to go on to ask some fairly radical questions about how we can make our own and use that tradition and its language today. For instance, on the virgin birth or the resurrection, though I want above all to discriminate about how much fact is involved and how much interpretation, I would come to relatively conservative conclusions, particularly on the resurrection (I will say were I stand later.) But that does not mean that we may not need to rethink pretty drastically how we can make the New Testament tradition meaningful today. For instance, what does it really mean to say that Jesus is 'the son of God' or 'pre-existent' in a world like ours where those sort of categories are alien, as they weren't in the first century, to the way in which ordinary people think or talk? Just to go on repeating them as they stand may convey nothing―or something subtly different.

                    To be continued...

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Can We Trust the New Testament?

                      Continued from the last post above↑
                      INTRODUCTION

                      The corollary of this position is that I do not want to protect ordinary people from what the scholars are saying, but precisely to expose them. I want to put them in the picture, so that when they come, as they must, to work out for themselves what they can believe today they must do it as far as possible with the benefit of the best knowledge available. For the best knowledge I do not believe to be shattering to faith―even if it is at first disturbing to ignorance. For the results of what has gone through the finest critical sieve that has ever been applied to any literature I find encouraging. Of course there is much that does not survive―and everything must be allowed to be put in question if it is to be truly tested. But I want to share these results, and to try to bridge the dangerous gap that has grown up between the professor and the pulpit and the pew. The faults have by no means all been with one party, but ignorance breeds mistrust. It is that mistrust at all levels that I should like to hope that this book may do a little to dissipate.

                      That is the end of Robinson's INTRODUCTION.

                      To be continued with a chapter titled "FOUR ATTITUDES"...

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Can We Trust the New Testament?

                        Can We Trust the New Testament? by John A. T. Robinson
                        Chapter 1

                        FOUR ATTITUDES

                        In the confusion of voices on what can be believed about the New Testament, four positions may be discerned. These are what might be called the cynicism of the foolish, the fundamentalism of the fearful, the scepticism of the wise, and the conservatism of the committed. Each is a caricature and therefore as far as possible I shall not mention names as it would be unfair to label individuals with any one attitude. In any case, within the compass of a short popular book one cannot be fair to the position often of considerable scholars from whose views on a particular subject one may dissent. What I am describing are tendencies that to some extent cut across all of us, but which yet are powerful in pulling us apart―and, I believe, in distorting the truth.


                        To be continued by a 5-paragraph section titled "THE CYNICISM OF THE FOOLISH"...

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Can We Trust the New Testament?

                          THE CYNICISM OF THE FOOLISH

                          Fools step in where angels fear to tread―and it is only in this sense that I am speaking of them as fools. Often indeed they are highly intelligent and learned men in their own subjects. But the field of Christian origins is, it seems, a free for all. Anyone may have a go and get his book published. And the more 'controversial' you are and the better-known your name and qualifications―it matters not what in―the more, naturally, you will be listened to.

                          To be continued...

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            Can We Trust the New Testament?

                            Continued from the last post above↑

                            THE CYNICISM OF THE FOOLISH

                            A year or two back I was invited to discuss on television two recent books on the New Testament. Both were by professors. One was a popular book of profound simplicity and maturity, distilling the reading and teaching of a lifetime, written by on of the greatest English-speaking New Testament scholars of this generation. It paraded no learning, cited no authorities, trailed no footnotes. The other was by a professor in a completely different field. He had obviously done his homework and he buttressed his arguments with extensive references and quotations. The trouble was that his chief source had evidently been an encyclopedia published some seventy years earlier, which even in its day could hardly be said to represent a particularly balanced judgement and which no student would now dream of consulting as an authority. I confess that I did not read his book through, which was quite substantial, but I thought I would test it by checking his views on a half-dozen leading English New Testament scholars on the subject. Not one was even mentioned in the index or in his bibliography of nearly three hundred titles.

                            To be continued...

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Can We Trust the New Testament?

                              Continued from the last post above↑

                              THE CYNICISM OF THE FOOLISH

                              I mention this not to criticize him (to be fair, he has since followed up with a much better researched though equally unbalanced volume). I should doubtless have made much the same gaffs had I been so bold, or so foolish, to write in his field. Nor did it altogether surprise me that my TV interviewer was far more impressed by the parade of learning in the second book, and with its, to him, novel and shattering thesis that Jesus never existed or was to all intents and purposes the creation of the early Christians. What did shake me, however, was that it carried a promotional puff from a professor of modern history, with a world-wide reputation, commending its 'exact historical method and wide and up-to-date knowledge'. And this professional historian then went on to review the other book in a national weekly, where he accused its author of 'textual fundamentalism modified by convenience'. He spoke of the 'gulfs of oblivious mythopaeic time' which separate the New Testament writings from the events they claim to record and made the astonishing statement that 'no Gospel text can be traced even indirectly back beyond the fourth century AD'. 'The plain fact is,' he said, 'that we know nothing about the historical Christ. If we believe that he existed, it is not because the Gospels tell us so. The Gospels, after all, tell us a lot of palpable rubbish.'

                              To be continued...

                              Comment

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