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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
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?
    Chapter 6: WHO IS THIS MAN?


    WHERE IS HE FROM?

    The centre of interest of the new 'book of Genesis' (the opening phrase of Matthew in the Greek) is not gynecology, any more than that of the old one is geology. To search it for answers to such questions or to take the stories at that level is to misread them. The descriptive details are often provided by the Old Testament. There is obviously, for instance, a close parallel between the Magnificat in Luke 1.46-50 and the Song of Hannah in 1 Sam. 2.1-10. Matthew in particular is concerned to show how everything is a fulfillment of what God has been up to from the beginning, bearing throughout the watermark of his signature. (This is brought out strongly in the popular book by the Roman Catholic Hubert J. Richards, The First Christmas―though he tends perhaps to see it everywhere.) Whatever the underlying history (and there is no reason to suppose that there is not quite a lot of history, particularly in Luke), it is overlaid and interpreted by stories with all the legendary and mythical beauty of folk-tales―whose point is not to distract from the history nor again to be taken simply as history, but to draw out the divine signature of history. Once we forget this and start asking prosaic or scientific How? questions rather than meaningful Why? questions (whether of the opening chapters of the Old Testament or the New), then not only do we miss the point for ourselves: we put stumbling blocks in the way of other people. By asking them to credit the entire infancy narrative (stopping stars and all) literally as history we are in danger of discrediting it. For that is not what it was 'written up' to be. I have no doubt, as I said, that there is history behind it, and as a New Testament scholar I am interested in digging into this (even into the possible relevance of comets for determining the date of Jesus's birth). But that is not the point. Doubtless there is some history behind the story of the Flood, but to send expeditions looking for arks on Ararat is not the way to bring home the real truth of that story. So too the marvelous stories of the annunciation and the virgin birth, the wise men and the shepherds the massacre of the innocents and the flight into Egypt, may indeed reflect fact. But to take it all, with the fundamentalists, as prose rather than poetry is to confound everything, and these days, to put off a large number of intelligent people.

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?
    Chapter 6: WHO IS THIS MAN?


    WHERE IS HE FROM?

    Matthew and Luke do it by telling the story of Jesus's ancestry and birth. But this is not done with the interest that a biographer might have in what made his hero genetically and culturally the sort of person he was, or because it is a beautiful story in its own right. Almost all the things in it―the symbolism, the scriptural overtones and quotations, even the place-names―are there to answer the theological question: Who is this man? In fact Matthew concentrates on drawing out the significance of the first of Mark's titles, 'Jesus Christ', Luke on that of the second, 'the Son of God'. How, Matthew asks with an eye to Jewish objections and slanders, can Jesus be the Messiah of Israel, when, apparently, he comes of an irregular union (thus breaking a fundamental requirement of the Law) or from Nazareth and not Bethlehem (where as David's son the Messiah should be born)? So in the first two paragraphs he proceeds to give the Christian answer to these questions. Despite the irregular union Jesus's birth is the work of the Spirit of God, for God has used irregular unions before to further the Messianic line (this is the point of the four women in Matthew's genealogy). Again, despite Nazareth being his home-town. Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem, and was, by Joseph giving him his name, engrafted into David's line. Similarly, Luke shows in two ways how Jesus is 'Son of God'. The divine initiative in his annunciation and conception reveals him to be the son, not simply of his human parents (which Mary and Joseph are called), but of God. Secondly, Luke's genealogy goes back further than Matthew's, to declare him not only son of David and son of Abraham but 'son of Adam, son of God'.

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?
    Chapter 6: WHO IS THIS MAN?


    From the opening chapter of the New Testament onwards this is the question that is constantly being posed. In fact the 'prologues' to all the Gospels in their different ways represent answers to it. It is a deeply theological question, and even the simplest and shortest of all of them, that of Mark, packs an enormous amount in one verse: 'The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God' (1.1). The others are all elaborations of this in different directions.

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?
    Chapter 5: JOHN'S PICTURE OF JESUS


    THE TRUTH OF THE PICTURE

    For I would end where I began to pleading against the isolation of John in the treatment of the evidence. So, rather than close this chapter by trying to sum up John's picture of Jesus on its own, I should like it to lead into two other chapters that will look at what the New Testament as a whole, and not even the four Gospels alone, give us by way of an answer to perhaps the two most fundamental questions it raises―'Who is this man?' and 'What came of him?' They are also questions for how far and in what way we ourselves can trust the New Testament as a truthful record.

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?
    Chapter 5: JOHN'S PICTURE OF JESUS


    THE TRUTH OF THE PICTURE

    It is characteristic of John that he should make possible the greatest awareness not only of the spiritual but of the political dimension of Jesus's life and death. For not only in this crisis but supremely in the story of the trial he interprets more profoundly than anyone else, what it really did, and what it did not, mean for Jesus to be 'the King of the Jews'. Nowhere, as we shall see later, are the strands of the religious and the political charges against Jesus so intertwined, and also so carefully distinguished, as in John. One of the critical points in the interpretation of the New Testament today is the sifting of the claim, made by both Christians and non-Christians, that Jesus was a 'revolutionary', mixed up with Zealot aspirations to bring the Kingdom of God by force. Indeed it is interesting that 'the quest for the historical Jesus', to use the title of Albert Schweitzer's famous book (which was called in the original German 'From Reimarus to Wrede'), began with the attempt by a certain H. S. Reimarus in the eighteenth century to present Jesus in this way as 'the political Christ' (to use the title of a recent book by Alan Richardson, much to be recommended on this subject). It was due to this simplistic reading of the evidence that Christians and others were driven to the bar of history, where alone it could be tested―by better scholarship. That John should be vital evidence in that case shows how, if we use (and again do not abuse) his testimony, it can take us, along side the others, to the Jesus of history who remains an integral part of the Christ of faith.

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?
    Chapter 5: JOHN'S PICTURE OF JESUS


    THE TRUTH OF THE PICTURE

    For behind this wilderness gathering was not only whatever physically this miracle of sharing involved, not only the mystical and sacramental truth which the Church came to see in it, but a highly charged political moment. For it very nearly turned into a paramilitary desert rising, leading to a messianic march on Jerusalem to overthrow the Romans. Josephus the Jewish historian records a number of such attempts, including that mentioned in Acts 21.38 of 'the Egyptian who started a revolt some time ago and led a force of four thousand terrorists into the wilds'. Doubtless many of the disciples too would have been glad to back this sort of liberation movement. Jesus evidently could not trust them: and shortly afterwards he found it necessary to test the terms of their loyally to him (Mark 8.27-33; cf John 6.66-71)―for reasons that the Synoptists never explain.

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?
    Chapter 5: JOHN'S PICTURE OF JESUS


    THE TRUTH OF THE PICTURE

    The last quotation ('Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood shall live for ever') is taken from his sixth chapter, which on any count must be one of the most theological of all. In it he expounds the teaching of Jesus as the bread of life and it is on this rather than on an institution narrative at the last supper that he bases his profound interpretation of the Eucharist. We appear to be worlds away from 'the Jesus of history'. Yet this chapter begins (6.1-15) with a story that has many marks of very good historical tradition. It is the one miracle story―the feeding of the five thousand―reproduced in all four Gospels, and John's account is at points so close to the others as to provide one of the stronger arguments for literary dependence. Yet it is John alone who allows us to glimpse a dimension of this incident that is entirely obscured in the Synoptic accounts. Had we been looking for it we might have noticed in Mark's story the almost manic excitement of the crowds as they rush after Jesus in the desert (Mark 6.33). Or again we might have observed the significance of the fact that they are all males (6.44)―as they are also in Luke and John: Matthew's addition 'besides women and children', both here and in the duplicate story of the four thousand, seems to be a typical expansion of his to heighten the miraculous. Again there is the very curious ending when Jesus 'forces' the disciples to go off in a boat before he dismisses the crowd and withdraws to the hills (6.45f). But these things are suddenly lit up by the clue which John alone supplies: 'Jesus, aware that they meant to come and seize him to proclaim him king, withdrew again to the hills by himself' (John 6.15).

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?
    Chapter 5: JOHN'S PICTURE OF JESUS


    THE TRUTH OF THE PICTURE

    If we are not to misinterpret and therefore to mistrust John, it is vital to see what he is doing. So perhaps it may be helpful to end with a sample dip into his Gospel to illustrate the importance, and the profundity, of this.

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?
    Chapter 5: JOHN'S PICTURE OF JESUS


    THE TRUTH OF THE PICTURE

    The claim of the evangelist is indeed that 'his witness is true' and the context in which it is made shows that this is not just 'spiritual' truth unrelated to physical fact. For in recording the death of Jesus he says: 'One of the soldiers stabbed his side with a lance, and at once there was a flow of blood and water. This is vouched for by an eye witness, whose evidence is to be trusted. He knows that he speaks the truth, so that you too may believe' (19.34f). It is the truth of the history of which he speaks―yet the purpose of his recording it is primarily in the interest of faith (that you may 'believe'), not of fact for its own sake. Moreover, water and blood have profound spiritual significance for this writer, as his reflection on these themes in the first Epistle makes clear (1 John 5.6-8). In fact John is at his most theological when he is most historical, and most historical when he is most theological. His purpose is to show the Word made flesh (1.14)―and the one is of equal importance with the other. His method is, as it were, to project two colour transparencies at once, one over the other. It is possible, like the Jews, to see only the one, as the eyes see (7.24), at the natural level (8.15), and so to miss or to misunderstand everything. Or it is possible to see only the other, as many Christian interpreters have done, and to regard the flesh as unreal, a transparent sham. (This is evidently an early reaction, as the writer has come back to it in the Epistles and to insist, as in 2 John 7, that to deny the flesh of Jesus is nothing less than Antichrist.) But to see the 'glory' in the flesh is to know the truth that sets one free. And the verity of this is what John is interested in―not verisimilitude for its own sake. Judge the Jesus of this Gospel purely at the level of psychological analysis, and you will probably conclude, with the Jews, that he is a megalomaniac. For, in every sense, 'no man ever spoke like this man' (7:46). No sane person goes around saying 'Before Abraham was I am' (8.56) or 'Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood shall live forever' (6.56-8). These are theological interpretations, not literal utterances. Yet at the deepest level of faith they may indeed be the truth about the eternal Word of life, made flesh in this supremely individual and uniquely normal man of history.

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?
    Chapter 5: JOHN'S PICTURE OF JESUS


    BACK TO SOURCE

    Now if we admit this we are very close to source indeed―within the innermost circle of the Twelve―and this has of course been the contention of those like Lightfoot and Westcott who argued strongly for the traditional authorship. But lest the conservative-minded should at this point jump to the conclusion that this means that we possess the equivalent of a video-tape, it is important to emphasize at once that this means nothing of the sort. In fact to assume that this is the sort of truth the Gospel is giving us is to show a crass misunderstanding of its own claim.

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?
    Chapter 5: JOHN'S PICTURE OF JESUS


    BACK TO SOURCE

    The association of the Gospel with John the son of Zebedee is too strong simply to dismiss, but most scholars have found it impossible to see him as more than the source, or a source, of its tradition. It is also fairly widely (though by no means universally) accepted that 'the disciple whom Jesus loved' is intended to represent the apostle John (otherwise an unaccountable absentee from the Gospel, like his brother James), even if the claim of the Gospel itself is not accepted that 'it is in fact he who wrote it' (21.24). More important ultimately than who actually penned it is whether the tradition it represents does go back to source and whether the evangelist stood within that tradition rather than outside it (as even Dodd thought). I believe that the answer to both these questions should be, Yes. Having got that far, fairly cogent reasons have to be advanced that the author should not be John the son of Zebedee. One of the most powerful is that 'an ignorant Galilean fisherman' could not have written it. This objection begins to look less convincing with the evidence that his religious vocabulary is not necessarily so Hellenistic or so late, nor is his Greek style as cultured even as those of 1 Peter or James. Moreover, Zebedee with his two sons and hired servants, is much more comparable with the father in the parable of the prodigal son, who was similarly placed and evidently a man of some limited substance, than an illiterate peasant. Indeed, if we are looking for a candidate who fits the requirements, we should have to go a long way to find another who knew both Galilee and southern Palestine intimately, was a leader in the apostolic mission in Jerusalem and Samaria (Acts 3―4; 8.14-25) and, as Paul tells us on the highest authority in Gal. 2.9, was one of those who from Jerusalem undertook to 'go to the Jews'. To duplicate such characters, above all to invent a shadow who is a spiritual genius and theological giant, is scarcely a scientific procedure if there is any alternative. Against the stream of critical opinion, therefore, I am compelled to say that I have come to find apostolic authorship, within the context of an ongoing missionary community, the hypothesis which presents the least difficulties.

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?
    Chapter 5: JOHN'S PICTURE OF JESUS


    BACK TO SOURCE

    If this is anything like its history (and the 'we' of the Johannine community is never far away to show it was much more than the work of one man, however dominant), then this Gospel tradition was coming to fruition simultaneously with the others―and doubtless in fertilization with them (hence some of the verbal parallels that have suggested literary dependence). It represents a tradition that basically took shape like the others in the 40s and 50s, though I believe its final stages reflect slightly later developments and events―hence the truth too in the report that it was written last. But though it is in many ways the maturest of the Gospels, it can also take us just as far back―if not further―to source. And at this point we cannot finally escape the question of authorship.

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?
    Chapter 5: JOHN'S PICTURE OF JESUS


    BACK TO SOURCE

    But the tradition that makes it up shows every sign of having taken shape in debate and controversy with Jews in the heart of Palestine. All the arguments are Jewish arguments and there is not even as in Matthew (let alone Luke) a hint of questions that arise from Gentiles pressing in upon the wings: there is not a non-Jew in the Gospel, except Pilate and his soldiers ('Am I a Jew?', he asks in scorn). Christ is indeed the saviour of the whole world. John's Gospel is the least exclusivist or nationalistic. But his object seems to be to present this universalistic gospel as the true fulfilment of Judaism: Jesus is the Christ, the King of the Jews, is the the real manna, vine and shepherd of Israel. The problems arising from the terms on which Gentiles can enter and live in the Church do not seem to come within his purview. The children of God scattered abroad are still thought of in Jewish categories (7.35; 11.52). The 'Greeks' who come up to the festival and ask to see Jesus (12.20f) are evidently Greek-speaking Jews. And this could well reflect the kind of missionary encounter centred in on Jerusalem out of which the tradition of the Gospel was hammered. Indeed, I believe it probable that it took shape, in Greek, out of dialogue with the Greek-speaking Jews of Jerusalem (of whom Nicodemus with his Greek name is a representative sample) even before it was carried to Asia Minor―though the first language of its author was almost certainly Aramaic.

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?
    Chapter 5: JOHN'S PICTURE OF JESUS


    BACK TO SOURCE

    But so far we have been dealing with the epilogue, which must be considered with the prologue, and this in turn has to be viewed alongside the Johannine Epistles. For they share the same concern to insist that Jesus Christ had really come in the flesh (John 1.14; 1 John 4.2; 2 John 7), and indeed the prologue to the first Epistle (1 John 1.1-4) reads almost like a preliminary sketch for that of the Gospel. The Epistles reflect the same danger to the Church from the sort of 'Gnosticising' Judaism that we meet, also in the Ephesian area, in Colossians, 1 Timothy and the letters to the churches in Rev. 1―3, and (probably also from Asia Minor) in Jude and 2 Peter; and there appears no reason why they should not come from the same period, round about the early 60's. They are written to recall the faithful to fundamentals from which they are in danger of being shaken by distortions of the message that they had had from 'the beginning'. It is clear that there has since been time for a good deal of water to have passed under the bridges and both heresy and schism have assumed menacing proportions. The message to which the readers are being recalled is clearly that enshrined in the Johannine tradition―and, allowing for the lapse of time and the change in perspective, I see no decisive grounds for not thinking the author of the Epistles and Gospels to be the same man. Since his purpose in writing the Gospel was evangelistic (John 20:31), it makes sense to assume that it was originally composed and used for this purpose. If so, then, in some form or other, it will go well back into the 50's, at any rate in Asia Minor.

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?
    Chapter 5: JOHN'S PICTURE OF JESUS


    BACK TO SOURCE

    If then we reopen the question of dating of this Gospel as of the others, what pointers are there to anything more precise? Working backwards, we may note what is almost certainly a reference in 21.18f to the death of Peter, which early tradition says was by crucifixion: 'You will stretch out your arms and a stranger will bind you fast.... He said this to indicate the manner of death by which Peter was to glorify God'. Peter met his death in all probability in the persecution of 65. Thereafter John was the last survivor of the 'pillars' of the apostolic Church mentioned in Gal. 2.9. James the Lord's brother had been killed by the Jews in 62, Peter and Paul had perished under Nero. It would not be surprising (and indeed it is amply confirmed by the book of Revelation if it comes from this date) if this quickened the expectation that the end must surely now come about soon (cf. Rev. 22.20). A word of Jesus interpreted to mean that 'the beloved disciple' would live to see it was evidently being used in support―not because he was so old but because it was so imminent. It seems much more likely that this misleading interpretation should need to be corrected soon after Peter's death, with which it was associated, than some thirty years later. A date of writing therefore of 65+, still prior to the Jewish rebellion (of which there is no foreboding in the Jew's obsequious dealings with Pilate) and the fall of Jerusalem, would fit well for the final version of St John's Gospel.

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