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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?
    Chapter 4: THE GENERATION GAP


    We have now looked at some of the processes which the tradition about Jesus went through and how scholars detect these and can to some extent play the tape back. But how extended was the tape? In principle it does not matter, but in practice it makes a considerable difference to our confidence in filling the gap between the event and the records. What of those 'gulfs of oblivious mythopaeic time' in which anything could have happened and no one would have been any the wiser? Or, to change the analogy, the interval between the ministry of Jesus and the first written record of it has been described as a tunnel period. Is there any means of checking that the train that went through the tunnel is recognizably the same train that came out? If there was no one around when the records came to be written who had been present at the events or had even heard their parents or grandparents talk about them, then obviously our controls are very much less direct. In fact trust in the New Testament documents for telling us anything about Jesus or the Apostolic Church has varied in inverse proportion to the distance from them at which the documents have been dated.


    To be continued...

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?

    Continuation of Chapter 3: THE TOOLS OF DISCRIMINATION

    THE TOOLS IN USE

    What emerges? We may be pretty sure that we have here a story that comes from Jesus's own lips and carries the same point he made. Yet in all sorts of small ways (from which I have merely selected) we can see how it was expanded and adapted to the Church's later use. The precision-tools which scholars have devised and refined enable us to discriminate with reasonable confidence and objectivity. Taken with a host of other examples, they can help us break down and then build up. Disagreements there will be, because the presuppositions of those using the tools make a great deal of difference to the results. But that is a reason for getting together and pressing on, not for giving up. Technical difficulties too there are here, as in every other field of study. But that is not an argument for the layman to throw in the sponge: it is a challenge both to communication and to application. There is no reason why at a popular level it should be more beyond him than most do-it-yourself activities―or, say, the serious appreciation of music. And we do not regard music critics as threats, or as remote academics whose language it is not worth trying to learn. If even at second hand we can follow them, our understanding and perception will be enriched.


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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?

    Continuation of Chapter 3: THE TOOLS OF DISCRIMINATION

    THE TOOLS IN USE

    Finally, in all the Synoptic Gospels, though not again in Thomas, the parable is fused with an appeal to Scripture: 'Have you not read this scripture: "The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner"?' This is no part of the story proper, which ends with the son's rejection, not with his vindication. It may have been brought in to give the story a 'Christian' ending, with a veiled reference to the resurrection. Yet it has been pointed out that there is a concealed pun in the Hebrew between son (ben) and stone (eben)―and this challenging use of Scripture (in contrast) with its confirmatory use by the evangelists to fulfill prophecies) is characteristic of Jesus. Moreover, the 'stone' saying forms the next, though separate, saying in the Gospel of Thomas―whose order does not elsewhere follow our Gospels. So there could well be a link that goes back to Jesus or early tradition, though the version underlying the Synoptists may have fused it with the parable.


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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?

    Continuation of Chapter 3: THE TOOLS OF DISCRIMINATION

    THE TOOLS IN USE

    The climax of the story in the Synoptists is that the vineyard is taken away and given to others, and Matthew once more makes quite explicit by his allegoration that the reference is to the Gentiles: 'The Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation that yields the proper fruit'. Thomas has no such point―only the stock warning with which he rounds off many of his parables: 'He that has ears, let him hear'. It is probable that, as so often, the application of the parable is secondary in all the versions. Jesus usually seems to have left his hearers to draw their to draw their own conclusion.


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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?

    Continuation of Chapter 3: THE TOOLS OF DISCRIMINATION

    THE TOOLS IN USE

    In what follows in the story, the fate meted out to the son, Mark has 'So they seized him and killed him and flung him out of the vineyard'. Matthew and Luke both have these events in reverse order: he is flung out of the vineyard and then killed. A minor point perhaps, yet it is to be noted that this corresponds more exactly with what happened to Jesus, who was led away to be crucified outside the city. The change may therefore reflect later Christian tradition, though it is to be observed that it is not Matthew and Luke who make this point in their passion narratives but John (19.17)―and the Epistle to the Hebrews (13.12). So it is precarious to read too much theological motivation into what the evangelists are doing.


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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?

    Continuation of Chapter 3: THE TOOLS OF DISCRIMINATION

    THE TOOLS IN USE

    It is more surprising and significant therefore that at the next and most critical point, the sending of the son, which is the climax of the story, Matthew has the least allegorized version. He―and again Thomas―simply have: 'Afterward he sent his son to them'. Mark has: 'He had still one other, a beloved son; finally he sent him to them'. This carries just those marks of development that we might expect in the Christian tradition―the stress on uniqueness and finality and the epithet 'beloved', which is used of Jesus by the divine voice in the accounts of his baptism and transfiguration. They are descriptions not of the son in the story (they add nothing to it) but of the Son in the Christian reflection. Nevertheless, the fact that he is a son and not just another servant is integral to the story in all its versions. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Jesus was referring by this analogy from human life to himself and his relationship to God. This claim is not created by the Church. What the Church does is to expound and expand it. And the version that does this most explicitly is Mark's―who used to be thought the least theological! It is significant that Matthew, with Thomas, looks at this point to be nearest the source―though at other points, perhaps at most other points, he seems the furthest away. It suggests, as I said earlier that the hypothesis of a simple overall priority will not fit the facts.


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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?

    Continuation of Chapter 3: THE TOOLS OF DISCRIMINATION

    THE TOOLS IN USE

    But before him in the story others are sent, and there is a good deal of minor variation in the number of servants sent and in the treatment accorded to them. In his book The Parables of the Kingdom C. H. Dodd suggested that the oldest, and simplest version was the typical triad of the folk-tale, of two servants followed by a son, who alone gets killed. He lived to see his suggestion vindicated by the Gospel of Thomas, which has precisely this. The rest of the detail is expansion and elaboration to bring the story more closely into line with the long list of Old Testament prophets and their fates (who are clearly those whom the servants are meant to represent). This is most obviously the case in Matthew's version, where the individual servants have been replaced by two waves, the second more numerous than the first, corresponding to the former and the latter prophets. This is a typical example of the process of allegorization (making each of the details of the parable symbolic), which is especially characteristic of Matthew (compare, for instance, Matt. 13.37-43 and 49f.).


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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?

    Continuation of Chapter 3: THE TOOLS OF DISCRIMINATION

    THE TOOLS IN USE

    Now the very fact for the Christians telling it the story is still about the history of Israel and is a warning addressed by Jesus to the Jewish leaders (as they themselves well recognized) is significant. For the form of this story (of a man going away, delegating responsibility and requiring the fruits of it on his return) is repeated in several of Jesus's parables―of the servant entrusted with supervision (Matt. 24.45-51; Luke 12.42-6), the ten virgins (Matt. 25.1-13). the talents or pounds (Matt. 25.14-30; Luke 19.12-27), the door keeper (Mark 13.33-7; Luke 12.35-8). In every other case it applied, not to the old Israel but to the Church, to warn it to be ready for the return of Christ. So if the Church made up this story we should expect its point to be the same. We may therefore have good confidence that it goes back to Jesus, and (unlike the others) is in its original setting. Nor in the Synoptic Gospels (in contrast with the Gospel of Thomas) has its context been lost by its becoming part of a collection of parables, such as we find, for the Church's teaching purposes, in Mark 4 and Matt. 13. In Mark and Luke it stands by itself (though Matthew has put other parables round it) towards the close of Jesus's ministry as a final and most explicit challenge to the Jewish leaders to accept him as the one whom God was sending to them.


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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?

    Continuation of Chapter 3: THE TOOLS OF DISCRIMINATION

    THE TOOLS IN USE

    In the introduction to the parable ('A man planted a vineyard and let it out to tenants') Mark and Matthew have the words 'and set a hedge around it and dug a pit for the wine press, and built a tower', but Luke and Thomas do not. They are details that are irrelevant to the rest of the story and are derived from and are clearly intended to echo the similar parable in Isa 5.1-7. Since the details at one point depend on the Septuagint translation rather than the original Hebrew, it is improbable that they go back to the story as Jesus told it. They are evidently added to reinforce the point to the reader that 'the vineyard of the Lord's host' stands, as in Isaiah, for 'the house of Israel' and to stress the loving care of God for it.


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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?

    Continuation of Chapter 3: THE TOOLS OF DISCRIMINATION

    THE TOOLS IN USE

    Since its text is not so readily available, I will give it in full:
    He said, A good man had a vineyard. He gave it to husbandmen that they might work it and he receive its fruit at their hand. He sent his servant, that the husbandmen might give him the fruit of the vineyard. They seized his servant, they beat him, and all but killed him. The servant came and told his master. His master said: Perhaps they did not know him. He sent another servant; the husbandmen beat the other also. Then the master sent his son. He said: Perhaps they will reverence my son. Those husbandmen, since they knew that he was the heir of the vineyard, seized him and killed him. He that has ears, let him hear.

    Clearly this is the same story as in our Gospels, and by comparing all four versions we may see the kind of things that happen to a story on the way. Let us simply draw attention to some of the more significant.


    To be continued...

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?

    Continuation of Chapter 3: THE TOOLS OF DISCRIMINATION

    THE TOOLS IN USE

    I have chosen this passage also because there is now an interesting 'fourth column' available in yet another version. This is the Gospel of Thomas, an apocryphal gospel whose text only turned up in a major discovery made in Egypt about the same time as that of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Palestine. This was of a whole library of Gnostic books. The Gnostics were heretical Christians from the second and third centuries AD whom we previously knew only through the 'refutations' of the orthodox. They believed in salvation by knowledge ('gnosis') brought from the supernatural world and communicated to a spiritual élite. One of the effects of this discovery has been to throw doubt on the claims of some scholars that the central New Testament message of a heavenly Redeemer was itself derived from Gnostic myths. It is becoming clear (or at any rate clearer) that these myths are speculative and mystical versions, and perversions of the Christian preaching. They also show something else, well illustrated by this particular sample from the Gospel of Thomas, which in fact reveals remarkably little sign of Gnostic coloring. This is that translations of the teaching of Jesus were preserved alongside our canonical Gospels for a long time. For this 'Gospel' (though it is really just a collection of sayings) dates from at least a hundred years from his death and yet appears to go back to a tradition independent of our Synoptic Gospels and to be at some points more primitive. (The question of its dependence or independence is a delicate judgement, and not all scholars would agree, but this I think is where the evidence is pointing.)


    To be continued...

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?

    Continuation of Chapter 3: THE TOOLS OF DISCRIMINATION

    THE TOOLS IN USE

    I choose a passage which is in each of the first three Gospels, where clearly there is literary dependence of some sort, and which can therefore illustrate all the types of criticism that I have been describing. To follow the comparisons the reader will have to look at all three versions together, and for this an invaluable tool is a 'synopsis' of the Gospels which sets them out (or at any rate the first three) in parallel columns. There are various editions of these, but the easiest and simplest for the English reader is one called Gospel Parallels, based on the text of the RSV. So if you have this or can get hold of it, turn to the parable of the 'wicked husbandman' (p. 142). If not, have open together or put markers in your Bible at: Matt. 21.33-46; Mark 12.1-12; and Luke 20.9-19).


    To be continued...

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?

    Continuation of Chapter 3: THE TOOLS OF DISCRIMINATION

    THE TOOLS IN USE

    By now it might be thought that the words and acts of Jesus must be pretty well unrecoverable: all we can speak about with any confidence is the Christ of the Church's faith and preaching. And this has been the conclusion of many. I believe it is a false conclusion. I shall be spelling this out in relation to some of the big New Testament questions in the chapters that follow (especially chapters 6 and 7). But it might perhaps be helpful to sum up this one by taking a specific passage and demonstrating what I have called these tools of discrimination in actual use. I hope it will show how they can yield judgements which are not just picking and choosing what we like. They can help us to discern with some objectivity what is likely to go back to Jesus and what is not. This does not, of course, mean that others would not come to contrary assessments. But at least it is not simply a matter of arguing about tastes.


    To be continued...

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?

    Continuation of Chapter 3: THE TOOLS OF DISCRIMINATION

    REDACTION CRITICISM

    Since we have illustrated the other two kinds of criticism from the Synoptic Gospels, let us turn for an example of this last to the Gospel of John. For John is above all the evangelist who has set his stamp upon everything he writes. It has been said of him that he seems to be saying to us 'la tradition c'est moi!', Yet this Gospel as redaction criticism sees it is not the product of one old man reflecting upon the memories of his youth. He is an editor using sources and traditions which have come down to him, but shaping and adapting them to the needs and questions of the community. Thus, it is envisioned by a recent writer, John's church (whoever he was) is going through a crisis: members of it have been publicly banned from the local Jewish synagogue for confessing Jesus as the Christ. So, drawing upon traditions from a 'book of signs', he writes up the story that we have in John 9, which describes how Jesus encouraged a blind man who had suffered a similar fate. The 'history' in the story is the history of the group at the end of the first century or whenever it was, not of Jesus' time; but the message is what he, Jesus, is saying to the church.

    Again in the first flush it seems to me that greatly inflated claims have been made for this method. It has tended in the direction of seeing the Gospels as all theology and no history (except in the secondary sense just mentioned). It can also be very subjective and hypothetical. You have to begin by supposing your local community thrown out of the synagogue (needless to say there is no actual evidence of this). The rest is reading back or reading in; and the significances found often reflect the ingenuity of the scholar as much as anything inescapably present in the material. Yet again the perspective can yield valuable insights. We are able to see the way in which a powerful personality like St Paul's imposes itself on all he writes. We should not dream of interpreting a particular passage except through 'his' mind. So too there is a Markan message and a Lukan theology which colors even what they take over from others. Everything they write has to be viewed through that glass of vision.


    To be continued...

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?

    Continuation of Chapter 3: THE TOOLS OF DISCRIMINATION

    REDACTION CRITICISM

    So, since the second World War, there has been a further tendency, to focus on what has come to be known, perhaps equally unfortunately, as 'redaction' criticism (if only because to the layman it sounds like 'reduction'!). Once again we owe the phrase to the Germans―abetted this time by the Americans. It comes from the word 'redactor' (to be distinguished in these nuclear days from 'reactor'), meaning editor. This approach recognizes that the Gospel writers were considerable molders of the tradition in their own right―though there has been a tendency to turn them into 'theologians' theologians' with depths and subtleties of patterns they might have been hard presses to recognize! Yet they were not thinking up things in the isolation of their studies. For they too were spokesmen of Church communities.


    To be continued...

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