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This is where we come to delve into the biblical text. Theology is not our foremost thought, but we realize it is something that will be dealt with in nearly every conversation. Feel free to use the original languages to make your point (meaning Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic). This is an exegetical discussion area, so please limit topics to purely biblical ones.

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

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  • John Reece
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    Can We Trust the New Testament?

    Continued from the last post above↑

    THE FUNDAMENTALISM OF THE FEARFUL

    The point is that neither possibility can be ruled out in advance. If one then asks, Well, how do we know what Jesus said and what is to be put down to the early Church?, the only way to assess the probabilities (we shall never get certainty) is to go to the evidence, as the archaeologist would go the strata in his dig or the picture-restorer to the layers of superimposed paint, and patiently reconstruct what is likely to be most original. We shall later be having a closer look at this process and the methods available. But for now it is enough to recognize that Jesus may indeed have been reinterpreted or misunderstood by his friends. So what? Unless we are free to admit this is a possibility and then to sift and sort out where and how it happened, we shall not be able to meet those who say that we can know nothing―or even that there is nothing underneath at all.

    To be continued...

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?

    Continued from the last post above↑

    THE FUNDAMENTALISM OF THE FEARFUL

    Or take another point where the fundamentalist is on the horns of a dilemma―Jesus's reported predictions about the end of the world coming in his generation. Now, if he said this, and his words are to be interpreted literally, then clearly he was wrong―and the possibility of this would be accepted by the mainstream of Catholic and Protestant scholars today. Once more it would mean he thought and spoke in the categories of that form of contemporary Jewish thinking, which we call apocalyptic, that did believe that God would intervene and bring things to a head very shortly. On the other hand, it is possible―I would think probable―that his words have been adapted and interpreted to fit such ways of thinking in the early Church. In this case, our Bibles do not contain what Jesus said or meant.

    To be continued...

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?

    Continued from the last post above↑

    THE FUNDAMENTALISM OF THE FEARFUL

    Literalist fundamentalism of this narrow sort has in my experience, at any rate in the student world where it was once very strong, almost, though not entirely, disappeared. Like the Roman Catholics, whose Pontifical Biblical Commission has effectively gone into reverse (without, of course, actually saying so), the Conservative Evangelicals have changed more than most of them would admit. There are still indeed blinkers and blockages and some fairly powerful hang-ups. It is still difficult, for instance, for them even to be open to the possibility that Jesus might have been mistaken on anything. A stock example of this is the authorship of Psalm 110. In a typically rabbinic argument in Mark 12.35-7 Jesus cites the first verse of this psalm, 'the Lord said to my Lord'. The point he makes depends on 'David himself' having said it―for how, he argues, can the Messiah be David's son if he himself calls him 'Lord'? Yet it is probable (or at least possible) that this psalm comes not from David's time but from hundreds of years later. But the ascription to David simply shows Jesus to be a true Jew of the first century. If he had any other view of the authorship of the psalms, or the motion of the planets, or the cause of epilepsy, he would not have been. It is entirely compatible with Christian belief that he could (by our standards) have been mistaken on this and other factual matters and still be the Word of God to that generation―and to ours.

    To be continued...

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?

    Continued from the last post above↑

    THE FUNDAMENTALISM OF THE FEARFUL

    I recall a student contemporary of mine telling me the point at which he was forced to give up such a verbal inspirationist view of the Bible. If every word, every syllable, every letter was inspired, then in the Hebrew of the Old Testament you must obviously believe that the vowel pointings were authenticated in the same way. Otherwise the consonants by themselves could obviously, as in English, be made to form very different words, yielding sometimes an entirely different sense. For example, in Isa. 49:17 the AV reads 'thy children', the RSV (Revised Standard Version) 'your builders': it simply depends on which vowel you supply. But the vowel-pointings were not written in any ancient Hebrew manuscripts; they were supplied in the reading of it and passed on by oral tradition. They were finally codified in an 'official' text by Jewish scribes in the ninth and tenth centuries AD, and it is this text that is translated in the AV. A good and careful job they did, though variations in any modern version of the Old Testament will frequently depend on judgements about how a word should be 'pointed', i.e., what vowels should be inserted between the consonants. (This does not apply to the New Testament as the vowels in Greek, as in English, were always written.) The dilemma in which my friend found himself was that if the text of the Old Testament was inspired by God 'just as it left him', then he must had inspired those mediaeval Jewish rabbis with the same inerrant judgements―or the entire exercise would have been frustrated: one would never know what he 'really' said. But this meant attributing to them an infallibility which he would not have dreamt of attributing ot the Fathers of the Christian Church. The contradiction was too great, and he was compelled to abandon the assumption on which it rested. Yet so far from everything collapsing, he came through like so many like him to a much more widely and deeply based Christian conviction, whose strength is far less brittle and includes the freedom to sift and test everything

    To be continued...

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?

    Continued from the last post above↑

    THE FUNDAMENTALISM OF THE FEARFUL

    Fundamentalism, as an 'ism', is an astonishingly modern phenomenon―dating from since the first world war (the word occurs only in the Supplement of the Oxford English Dictionary, being first recorded in 1923!). Though the conservative attitude it buttresses is of course as old as the hills, it came in as an 'ism' as a reaction of fear to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century biblical criticism―and there was plenty in the wilder extremes to which that swung to induce if not justify the fear. But the answer to bad criticism was, as the great English biblical scholars like Lightfoot, Westcott, and Hort saw, better criticism, not none. The defensive response was however to close the hatches, and both the Roman Catholics and sections of the Protestant Churches tended to seek refuge in a verbal inspirationalism which depended on the all or nothing mentality we have mentioned. If every syllable in the Bible represented the direct dictation of the Holy Ghost, there would be no place in it for error of any kind. Once admit the slightest possibility that anything might not be literally true or the actual words of our Lord, and where would you stop? Indeed, unless you had some other criteria, where would you stop? You might wind up with nothing left to believe. This fear has always been one of the strengths―and of course weaknesses―of the fundamentalist position. I have often said that the fundamentalist and the radical share the same concern―to go to the foundations or roots. But it is not accidental that the one uses an inorganic and the other an organic metaphor. Digging around foundations can have a very different effect from digging around roots: dislodge one stone and the entire building may collapse.

    To be continued...

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?

    Continued from the last post above↑



    THE CYNICISM OF THE FOOLISH

    This attitude is but the other side of the penny of the view that if you can't believe everything you can't believe anything―that if Alfred and the cakes isn't factual, then every historical statement is likely to be as true or false as any other. This is not a response we should adopt anywhere else. It is in fact part to the backlash to the second attitude we must go on to consider, which has again been stronger and more persistent here than in any other field.

    That ends the section titled 'THE CYNICISM OF THE FOOLISH'; the next post will begin the section titled 'THE FUNDAMENTALISM OF THE FEARFUL'.

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?

    Continued from the last post above↑

    THE CYNICISM OF THE FOOLISH

    This might be ignored as the lapse of an individual who should have known better, were it not part of a widespread tendency to accept in the area of Christian origins judgements and constructions that anywhere else would be laughed out of court. There has been a whole series of titles such as The Nazarene Gospel Restored, The Passover Plot, The Sacred Mushroom, presented to the public by reputable publishers as serious historical contributions. It is hardly surprising that confidence has been eroded in our capacity now to say anything objective at all. When a sympathetic scientist writing on popular Christianity can say that preference for another view of Jesus over that of The Sacred Mushroom is 'only speculation on my part', he is saying that the sort of controls that he would apply anywhere in his field just do not exist here. This represents the abdication of the scientific method, not its conclusion.

    To be continued...

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  • John Reece
    replied
    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...

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  • John Reece
    replied
    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...

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  • John Reece
    replied
    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...

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  • John Reece
    replied
    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"...

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  • John Reece
    replied
    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"...

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  • John Reece
    replied
    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...

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  • John Reece
    replied
    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...

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  • John Reece
    replied
    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...

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