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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?
    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).

    Comment


    • 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.

      Comment


      • 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.

        Comment


        • 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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          • 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.

            Comment


            • 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'.

              Comment


              • 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.

                Comment


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


                  WHERE IS HE FROM?

                  The point of these two prologues, told in picture form, is in fact the same as that of the last, St John's, told in another form of poetry―namely that the life of Jesus, and indeed the life of Christians as children of God, is not to be explained simply in terms of 'human stock or the fleshly desire of a human father' (John 1.13)―though of course that level of interpretation is valid in its own place. Who this man is can ultimately be grasped only by going beyond the processes of nature and history altogether. His explanation or origin, says John, lies in the principle or 'word' behind it all. For he is the self-expression of that divine activity that all along has been coming into its own, first in nature, then in a people, and finally now fully embodied in a person. And so perfect a reflection of it is he that the analogy that comes to John's mind is that which we use when we say of a boy that he is the spit-image of his father―or in the Hebrew metaphor, the 'glory (or reflection) as of a father's only son' (John 1.14). In the Greek at this point, unlike the English version, there are no articles or capitals: it is a simile from human relationships). So John speaks of Jesus as the Word who 'is God what God is' (1.1) as 'God's only Son' or even (and here, as I said earlier, is where the latest papyrus discovery could finally have tilted the balance in favour of the most difficult reading) 'the only one (who is) himself God' (1.18). Yet his opening chapter also goes on to rehearse those more traditionally Jewish titles which the other Gospels give him: 'God's Chosen One' (1.34, the reading adopted in the NEB text); 'the Messiah', or Christ (1.41); 'the Son of God, the king of Israel' (1.49).

                  Comment


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


                    WHERE IS HE FROM?

                    Now all these are titles which occur on the lips of others. In the prologues it is the Church speaking, filling out its answers to the question, Who is this man?, and preparing the reader to understand the story that follows. These were the categories, 'a Saviour, who is Christ, the Lord' (Luke 2.11), in which the Church preached Jesus from the earliest days (Acts 2.36), and subsequently they expanded their understanding of him in such terms as the pre-existent 'image' or 'son' of God (see, for instance, Rom. 1.3f; 2 Cor. 4.4f; Phil. 2.5-11; Col. 1:15-20). But what relation does all this exalted language bear to anything that Jesus may have taught or claimed for himself?

                    Comment


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


                      WHERE IS HE FROM?

                      This is a relevant question for a Church that deliberately undertook to write Gospels―a form of literature with no exact precedent or parallel elsewhere. Had the first Christians simply confined themselves (as did the Qumran community) to documents setting out their message or reinforcing their teaching, then the question of what relation if any that bore to what Jesus said or did would be secondary and perhaps irrelevant. But for the gospel they preached about him they appealed with open eyes to the gospel he preached when he came into Galilee proclaiming, 'The time has come; the kingdom of God is upon you' (Mark 1.15). And they proceeded to tell the story of what he taught and did and suffered and of how he was vindicated out of death. The second part of that story we shall look at in the next chapter, but what of the first?

                      Does it matter what Jesus thought of himself or what he said and did? Does it matter whether the church got him right or wrong? Evidently the early Christians thought so, but have we any means of knowing or testing, or are we simply confined to their witness?

                      Comment


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


                        THE MESSAGE OF JESUS

                        The obvious thing would have been for them to have made Jesus merely the mouthpiece of their preaching―to put back on to his lips, and claim his sanction for, everything that they said about him. But this, unexpectedly, is what we do not find. Let me illustrate.

                        As we have just seen, their summary of Jesus's proclamation was in terms of the imminent coming of 'the kingdom of God'. Now this is a phrase that is remarkably rare in pre-Christian Judaism, though of course it has its background in the whole Old Testament teaching of God as King. It does not for instance feature in the Dead Sea scrolls. Yet it was constantly on the lips of Jesus. So many of his teaching parables start: 'The kingdom of God is like this'. It was the explanation too which he gave of his actions: 'If it is by the finger of God that I drive out devils, then be sure that the kingdom of God has already come upon you (Luke 11.20). 'Thy kingdom come' was the heart also of the prayer he gave his disciples (Matt. 6.10), and to the very last day of his life he was talking to them about it and looking forward to its breaking: 'I tell you this: never again shall I drink from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God' (Mark 14.25). One would naturally therefore expect it to feature prominently in the Church's message. Yet it does not once appear in the early speeches of Acts, which, though clearly written up by Luke, show many signs in their phraseology of being preaching summaries that go back far behind him. Nor, remarkably, does it occur more than a handful of times in the writings of Paul or John. Evidently it formed a very subordinate part of the first Christians' preaching and teaching. They spoke not so much of the Kingdom as of the Church (a word that by contrast only occurs twice on Jesus' lips and each time in the Gospel of Matthew alone with his strong interest in the Christian community and its problems); and rather than the breakthrough of the reign of God they preached 'Jesus and the resurrection' (Acts 17.18). This does not in the least mean that there was no connection or continuity between the two. Indeed their message was that what Jesus said God would do, this indeed he had done. The one announcement was proclaimed as fulfilled in the other, the further side of that mighty act of God which had inaugurated the new age and set the last things in motion. What is significant, however, is that they came to use a subtly different vocabulary for it. They did not for the most part take up Jesus's words or in recording them put their phrases back on to his lips. There seems to have been a reverence for the remembered speech and acts of Jesus which provided an inbuilt resistance to the temptation to make him merely their mouthpiece or puppet.

                        Comment


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


                          THE MESSAGE OF JESUS

                          The same resistance [see last sentence in last post -JR] is observable when we turn not to what he said about God but what he said about himself. Here the temptation would have been still stronger to make him claim precisely what they claimed of him. But again there is a remarkable difference. As we have seen, they proclaimed him as 'Lord' and 'Christ'―so much so that within a few years (and the process is virtually complete in the writings of Paul) 'Christ' become no longer a title, 'the Messiah' (as it still is in the Gospel of John―another mark of it primitiveness), but a proper name. But in the Gospels, though the titles 'Lord' and 'Christ' are used of Jesus by others, they are rare, and virtually never occur on his own lips. (Where they do, scholars are almost unanimous in thinking that they are not Jesus' own words―e.g., in Mark 9.41, 'If anyone gives you a cup of water to drink because you are Christ's,' a term which is not in any of the other parallel forms of this saying.) On the contrary, Jesus is evidently uncomfortable with the designation 'Messiah', because it could so quickly slide into the political claim to be 'king'. In Mark's version, so far from acclaiming Peter for saying 'You are the Christ' (as in Matt. 16.17-19, verses which scholars have convincingly argued to be authentic but misplaced), Jesus rebukes him and shuts him up, turning at once to speak of 'the Son of Man' who must suffer and die (Mark 8.30-3).

                          Comment


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


                            THE MESSAGE OF JESUS

                            Now this last title is the most mysterious of all. It occurs once on the lips of the dying Stephen in Acts 7.56, but never in the Church's preaching or teaching, either in Acts or the Epistles (though it could lie behind Paul's teaching about Christ as the new or heavenly Man). Yet in the Gospels it occurs scores of times―but always and only on the lips of Jesus (and again this applies equally to the Fourth Gospel, except when in 12.34 the crowds ask, as well they might, Who is this 'Son of Man' you are always talking about?). Even at the end of the first chapter of St John, when all the other titles have been used of him, this is the first and only one used by him (1.51). There is no clear indication that while the early Christian may have made little or nothing of it, they still remembered and preserved Jesus's own distinctive vocabulary. What he himself meant by 'the Son of Man' is one of the most disputed issues of New Testament interpretation. I suspect it was used by him partly because it was a parable in itself: it did not carry an easily understood or misunderstood meaning. But it challenged faith and loyalty to one who (like the figure of a son of man in Dan. 7.13-22, a human being representing 'the saints of the Most High' or true people of God) could come to vindication and receive the kingdom only through and out of humiliation and suffering.
                            Last edited by John Reece; 06-17-2015, 08:41 AM.

                            Comment


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


                              THE MESSAGE OF JESUS

                              The early Christians, of course, saw Jesus as the Son of Man who was now vindicated to the throne of God as he said he would be. There is reason to think that they subsequently reapplied his words about 'coming on the clouds' (which at his trial in Mark 14.62 fit admirably with their original reference in Daniel to a coming to God in victory out of oppression) to their own expectation (placed on his lips in Mark 13.26) of a coming from God to round off everything. This is all part of the complex question of how far titles of glory (like predictions of resurrection) can be used as reliable evidence of how Jesus himself thought and spoke before the event. The latest assumption is to suspect that these may indeed be heightened and read back in the telling―despite the reverence of which we spoke for the remembered words of Jesus. Or let us say that 'remembering' was not for the early Christians just a neutral exercise in recalling facts. It was as Jesus's words 'Do this in remembrance of me' indicate, or the promise, according to John, that the Holy Spirit would bring everything to the disciples' 'remembrance', a recalling of the past in such a way that did not leave it in the dead past but recreated it as present experience at a deeper level. The sayings and actions of the historical Jesus 'spoke' to them as words and deeds of the living Christ in and through the Church. Yet, as John also insists, the Holy Spirit would not speak 'of himself', inventing and creating out of nothing: he would take the sayings of Jesus and show them in a new and living light.

                              Comment


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


                                THE MESSAGE OF JESUS

                                This is the process that above all we see at work in a new and living light in the Fourth Gospel itself. It is seeing and showing everything 'from the end'―not inventing or creating, but holding everything up for the true light to shine through it, so that in the flesh we can see the 'glory'. John's Gospel is not unhistorical but history really entered into. As Browning made him say in A Death in a Desert, which William Temple called 'the most penetrating interpretation of St John that exists in the English language', 'What first were guessed as points, I now knew stars'. And this process is not unique to the Fourth Gospel: it is occurring in all the Gospels, though usually not so consciously or profoundly. We may trace it in regard to the question, Who is this man?, by showing in greater detail how the titles of glory used by the Church to account for Christ's person, though in their present form the product of its reflection, are the 'stars' that show the 'points'. They draw out and light up what was implicit in the work and words of Jesus and what in his life-time was expressed more in terms of verbs than nouns, in things he did rather than in claims that he made for himself.

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