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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 8: TRUSTFUL FAITH

    The conclusion of the matter may be put quite simply. A Christian has nothing to fear but the truth. For it alone could show that this movement is not of God (Acts 5.38ff.). But he also has nothing to fear in the truth. For to him the truth is Christ (John 14.6). It is large―larger than the world―and shall prevail. It is also a living, and a growing, reality. And therefore he is free, or should be free, to follow the truth wherever it leads. He has no advance information or inbuilt assurance precisely where it will lead. I know that I have been led through the study of the New Testament to conclusions, both negative and positive, that I did not expect. For instance, just what underlies the birth narratives, what were the relations between the movements of John the Baptist and Jesus, how and in what way did Jesus' own understanding of his role become modified by events, how did he think of the future, did he expect to return, what is most likely to have happened at his trial and resurrection, what is the relative priority for the portrait of Jesus of our different sources, especially of the Fourth Gospel, what pattern and time-scale of early church development emerges from the dating of our documents?―on these and many other things my own mind has changed and will doubtless continue to change. And my picture will not be quite the same as anyone else's―more radical at some points and more conservative at others. There is nothing fixed or final: our knowledge and our questions are constantly expanding and shifting. And who knows what new evidence may not suddenly be dug up? Yet out of all this my trust in the primary documents of the Christian faith has been strengthened rather than shaken. The scholarship does not give me the faith; but it increases my confidence that my faith is not misplaced. Yet it provides no copper-bottomed guarantee. For the Christian walks always in this life by trust, and not by sight. And he is content to close his Te Deum, his most confident affirmation of faith, with the prayer of vulnerability: 'O Lord, in thee have I trusted: let me never be confounded.'



    finis

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?
    Chapter 8: TRUSTFUL FAITH

    Finally, 'the conservatism of the committed' is an attitude that I do not wish to knock. It exhibits that self-rectifying balance and solidarity which has enabled English scholarship, as well as English religion, to weather the extremes of Continental radicalism and Transatlantic fashion. I believe too that more often than not it has been proved right―even if for wrong or muddled reasons. Yet it is not on the whole a trustful faith. It is suspicious of the wise and heavily biased towards those who come up with 'reassuring' answers―such as mine on the early dating of the New Testament or the apostolic authorship of the Fourth Gospel! In Kierkegaard's analogy, the attitude of truth is like swimming with one foot on the bottom―rather than trusting yourself over 70,000 fathoms. For those who cannot swim it is certainly better than that of fundamentalism―which keeps both feet on the bottom. But a Church that cannot swim is in spiritual peril. For it is not free to obey its Lord's command to launch out into the deep. And if too many of its members, let alone of its instructors, are in that condition, it will not be able to survive, let alone give a lead, in the modern world. This applies of course to much more than the New Testament. But if it cannot exhibit a trustful and critical faith in relation to that―the character of its salvation―it will be fatally weakened at source.


    Next: the ultimate paragraph...

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?
    Chapter 8: TRUSTFUL FAITH

    With 'the scepticism of the wise' we come to the first of two attitudes with which I have considerable sympathy. It is open and it is often combined with real faithfulness and genuine devotion to Christ. My criticism would be that it is needlessly distrustful. In his New Testament Theology Jeremias formulates the following 'principle of method': 'In the synoptic tradition it is the inauthenticity and not the authenticity of the sayings of Jesus that must be demonstrated.' With every proper respect for the differences of aim, I would ask why this principle needs to be qualified with the words 'in the synoptic tradition'. As authenticity is understood in John (which is certainly not literalistically), I believe that it is just as applicable to his material. From a sustained study of the evidence I am not persuaded that one must assume that the early Church is not to be trusted on the sayings, or the deeds, of Jesus until proved otherwise. We have means of checking and discriminating and by those tests we can discern and discount the influences at work. To a good extent we can see where 'points' become 'stars', and why and how. Scepticism, or suspension of belief, has its place, and constant reminder that in the last analysis on any historical question one is dealing with degrees of probability is a healthy contribution. Yet the scepticism of the wise―I will not call it 'the treason of the clerks'―has had its part in creating the unhealthy gap between the professor and the parson, the study and the pew. More understanding―and more love―on both sides is needed. And that again is achieved by sympathetic and accepting openness―not by dismissive reviews and sniping articles.


    Next: the penultimate paragraph...

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?
    Chapter 8: TRUSTFUL FAITH

    On the other hand, 'the fundamentalism of the fearful' will not admit the right of this method [see last paragraph] to the freedom in which alone it can function. It may 'use' it within a limited field for its own ends, and it does not hesitate to claim it 'results' when it suits them. But the ends are not open―and any results are thereby discredited. Its faith is not a trustful one. It is blinkered, and for this reason insecure. The revival of fundamentalism in our day, though psychologically understandable when all is shifting, is ultimately, I believe, a liability to the truth it claims to defend. The truth cannot be defended by such means. And the personal truth, above all, of which the gospel speaks is not to be comprehended or safeguarded by the infallibility of either a book or a pope. Yet the fear which feeds this attitude can only be cast out by love―and by the discovery that there is no need for it. This is happening―it has happened dramatically in the field of Roman Catholic scholarship―and in my experience the first step in the cure for such defensiveness is not to threaten it. But in the long run, as the many signs of first-class research coming from the camp are beginning to show, the only answer is better and more faithful scholarship. Then the laager of fear will be found unnecessary.


    Next: the antepenultimate post...

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?
    Chapter 8: TRUSTFUL FAITH

    'The cynicism of the foolish' believes that because the New Testament record is full of faith in one sense it cannot be faithful in the other. It is indeed full of faith, throbbing with the Church's conviction about Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, Lord of the living and the dead. But an integral part of the Christ of faith is the Jesus of history. For it is faith in the Word made flesh. We have seen reason to believe that the first Christians had a reverence for the remembered words and deeds of Jesus which refused to allow them to make of him simply the mouthpiece of their own message. If they had been shown to have falsified, they would have been the first to admit with Paul that they were 'lying witnesses' or with St. John that 'the truth is not in us'. And where we are able to check them against non-Christian sources or the contemporary background of Roman or Jewish society there is good reason to conclude that the Gospels and Acts are not fictional records, far removed from fidelity to fact. To despair of knowing anything or of having any objective criteria is faithlessness to the very scientific and historical method to which such critics would trust every other field. I believe we must meet and challenge them on their own ground.

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?
    Chapter 8: TRUSTFUL FAITH

    Can we trust the New Testament? I firmly believe we can. But trust it for what? For a faith-ful record, in both senses of that phrase. And what, as I see it, that involves may be summarized again with the responses of the four attitudes from which we began..

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?
    Chapter 7: WHAT CAME OF HIM?

    THE RESURRECTION

    If the resurrection story has a foot in public history (and to abandon that claim is to abandon something that has been central to the entire Christian tradition), then it must be open and vulnerable to the historian's scrutiny. Never let us suppose that we need not bother with his questions or that we are impervious to them. This is part of the risk of a religion of the Word made flesh―in Winston Churchill's phrase its 'soft under-belly'. And though the historian can neither give nor directly take away the faith, he can indirectly render the credibility-gap so wide that in fact men cease believing. My trust in the New Testament takes that risk. That is why as a New Testament scholar I am convinced that it is important to be a good historian as well as a man of faith―and not to confuse the two by giving answers of faith where historical evidence alone is relevant. For if Jesus could really be shown to be the sort of man who went into hiding rather than face death, or just another nationalist or freedom-fighter with a crime-sheet of violence, or the leader of a movement which rested in the last analysis on fraud, then I think of other candidates in reply to Peter's question, 'Lord, to whom else shall we go? (John 6.68). The answers that history can give will never take us all the way―and at best they can never be more than probable. Exactly what happened at the tomb, or anywhere else, we shall never know. All that we can ask―and must inquire―for faith, for the response of Thomas, 'My Lord and my God!', is that the credibility gap be not too wide. And that assurance I am persuaded―or I would not remain a Christian―is what the history, after all the sifting of the best and most rigorous scholarship can sustain.

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?
    Chapter 7: WHAT CAME OF HIM?

    THE RESURRECTION

    Yet the resurrection is also claimed by the New Testament writers to be an event in history―as real as the crucifixion―and if the history is discredited the faith cannot but be eroded. There are indeed those who would be content to say that something happened but only to the disciples: the rest is the language of symbolism and picture-story to describe the spiritual transformation that for them turned the cross from defeat into victory. Now clearly there is such a function in the language they used, as in the language they used in telling the stories of the birth of Jesus or his ascension. In fact most thinking Christians would now agree that (whatever its historical basis) the ascension story is primarily to be seen as a symbolic representation of the spiritual truth the Christ is not only alive but Lord: it describes his ascendency from now on, not a moment in time or a movement in space. But here the language employed―of angels and clouds and going up in glory―is stock symbolism (derived largely from the Old Testament) whose significance everyone at the time would have understood. There is indeed some of this also in the resurrection stories, particularly in the introduction, and multiplication, of angelic figures, whose recognized literary function, as at the birth of Jesus, is to interpret events of otherwise such doubtful interpretation as acts of God. But I am not persuaded that it is so easy to explain away the other language, of spices and stones and sweatbands. This was never part of a stock of symbolic imagery and would not have been taken for such.

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?
    Chapter 7: WHAT CAME OF HIM?

    THE RESURRECTION

    The evidence for the resurrection is indeed strongest where it looks weakest and weakest where it looks strongest. The empty tomb, even if it could be certified empty and the shroud produced (and I regard the famous Shroud of Turin as by no means to be dismissed out of hand), would finally prove nothing: the body still could have been removed from it. The appearances have about them a large element of subjectivity and at best add up to a reasonably well-attested case of temporary survival: They certainly do not of themselves spell resurrection. The ongoing spiritual experience―this looks the most intangible fact of all. Yet without it the other two would not have been interpreted as they were and the Christian Church would not have been born, let alone survived. And this is the most incontrovertible historical fact of all. The historian in trying to compass the phenomenon is left at most with the linen garments in his hands, the tracks of a phantom across his pages, the external institution of the Christian Church. The inner reality escapes him, and it must, because, if it is true at all, it is a reality that belongs not to the level of flesh but of spirit. That Jesus lives, now, is a conviction that cannot finally be substantiated by any evidence from the past―only from the present.

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?
    Chapter 7: WHAT CAME OF HIM?

    THE RESURRECTION

    3. It was this third strand in the evidence that was really decisive for the early Church. For belief in the resurrection was not confined to those who had seen the appearances, let alone those who had viewed the tomb. It was founded not on other people's tall stories but on a corporate spiritual awareness of Christ no longer as a dead memory, however vivid, but as a vivifying presence. When Paul spoke to his converts, who like himself had never met Jesus, of knowing him and the fellowship of his sufferings and the power of his resurrection (Phil. 3.10), it was this fact of 'the new being' 'in Christ' to which he made his appeal. The appearances he appealed to for credentials of his own apostleship (1 Cor. 15.8-11), the empty tomb never.

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?
    Chapter 7: WHAT CAME OF HIM?

    THE RESURRECTION

    Yes if the 'appearances' belong, as in some sense they must, to the realm of paranormal psychology, or extraordinary perception, then that there should be wide differences in the experiencing and in the reporting of them is scarcely an objection. In fact the divergences in the stories both of the tomb and of the visions are precisely the kind that one would expect in any authentic as opposed to concocted accounts. If the visions were veridical psychic phenomena, that is, genuine communications with the spirit-world, then the degree of materialization and their location are neither here nor there: these will depend on the experiencing subject. The association of such phenomena especially with the period immediately following death, and with those who knew the dead man best, is certainly not incredible, however (still in these enlightened days) inexplicable. What is significantly different however is what they were taken to mean. This was not the temporary survival of a loved one (whether in the mind of the beholder or in some kind of etheric body) but resurrection; and by resurrection, not resuscitation (as in the case of Jairus's daughter or Lazarus) only to die again, but the abiding presence of a life-giving power, signaling a new world-order and the beginning of the End. And for that conviction the appearances may have been necessary triggers, but they were not and are not sufficient explanation.

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?
    Chapter 7: WHAT CAME OF HIM?

    THE RESURRECTION

    Yet Paul's detailed list differs considerably from those in the Gospel accounts, which in themselves diverge in regard both to the location of the appearances (Jerusalem or Galilee or both―Paul mentions no places) and to the degree of 'materialization'. Above all, Paul appears to regard the rest of the appearances as belonging to the same class as his own on the Damascus road―a vision of the glorified Christ very different from that of a seemingly reconstituted quasi-physical body that could eat fish or pass through doors. That for Paul the resurrection body of Christians did not mean this is about as clear as it can be from his subsequent discussion in 1 Cor. 15―and what happened to Christ is seen as the first installment or typical sample of what will happen to us. The one thing he can say for certain is that our resurrection body will not depend in any way on this body of flesh and bones―for 'on the day' it will make no difference at all whether, like the living, we have one or, like the dead, we do not. Any kind of continuity or reconstitution is (not of course impossible but) irrelevant.

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?
    Chapter 7: WHAT CAME OF HIM?


    THE RESURRECTION
    So we move to the second set of evidence.

    2. What produced the faith―or at least turned the disciples around in their own tracks (quite literally in the Emmaus story) was not the tomb but the appearances. It is indeed very difficult to dismiss these and and still find a credible explanation for the utter volte face that produced the Christian Church. Mere wish-fulfillment as an explanation (against all the evidence that they were wishing anything of the kind) is itself the last refuge of those who do not wish to believe. Again, to say that the whole Christian movement rested on deception and yet survived without anyone exposing it from within or without is surely to stretch credulity. That something happened that was not purely hallucinatory (the equivalent of seeing pink rats) seems certain; and it is supported by the earliest possible witness―Paul's attestation of what was handed on to him within a few years of the crucifixion, which, as he says, could have been confirmed or confounded by many still living.

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?
    Chapter 7: WHAT CAME OF HIM?


    THE RESURRECTION
    The evidence would suggest that while the finding of the grave empty was not invented by the early Church it neither created belief nor was created by it. It was simply part of what was indelibly remembered to have been discovered that morning. Why it was empty admits to no certain explanation, natural or supernatural. There are indeed some which can surely be ruled out as so improbable as to be incredible. In that class I would put deliberate fraud by the disciples (the best explanation, according to Matt. 28.12-15, that could be suggested by the Jews); or the theory that the women went to the wrong tomb and no one bothered to check (especially in the light of the women's careful observation in Mark 15.47); or that Jesus never really died but revived in the cool of the sepulcher (an old chestnut, raked up by D. H. Lawrence and many others. For even if he didn't die then, what happened to him? That he could just have lain low and disappeared passes belief); or that his corpse as that of a convict was simply dissolved in a lime-pit (the burial of Jesus is one of the best attested facts about him, being recorded in 1 Corinthians, all four Gospels, and Acts). But the first and most obvious thought, namely, of foul play ('They') have 'taken him away'; John 20.2) cannot be so easily dismissed. In a situation or rival nationalist groups, still only too familiar in Palestine, extremist fanatics could have remedied the Governor's unusual decision to release the body by removing the corpse under cover of night to one of the criminal graves. We shall never know for certain, and even the evidence of the grave-clothes in John 20.6f is compatible with their being left strewn around and bundled together. The fact that the body was not produced will never prove that it could not have been produced, any more than the absence of Hitler's corpse to this day proves that he rose from the dead. And in truth nothing depends on what happened to the old body. It may indeed have been subject to some molecular transformation unimaginable to us, but we can never be sure. Its disappearance, which at first produced doubt and dismay, was subsequently seen as a sign of what God had done. But the resurrection is not the shell of the cocoon but the butterfly. The bones of Jesus could yet be lying around Palestine and the resurrection still be true. For belief in it does not depend on―let alone consist of the fact that they do not. The empty grave cannot of itself be decisive either way.

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  • John Reece
    replied
    Can We Trust the New Testament?
    Chapter 7: WHAT CAME OF HIM?


    THE RESURRECTION
    There is a school of New Testament scholars who argue that the empty tomb story is a subsequent creation of the Church's faith because this is what in Jewish hope 'resurrection' must have implied: believing on other grounds, the early Christians necessarily depicted it thus. But in fact it would have meant nothing of the sort. It would have meant a rising of the dead at the last day for final judgement―which is what the term 'the resurrection', in contrast with temporary resuscitation always continues to mean in the Gospels (e.g., in Mark 12.23, 'at the resurrection, when they come back to life, whose wife will she be?'). And the classic Old Testament image for this coming back to life was the breathing of life into dead bones (Ezekiel 37.1-14). That there would be a grave empty in the middle of history with no bones in it at all was not what anyone expected. Moreover, if the story of the empty tomb had really been invented to convince doubters, the Church would surely have made a better job of it. Except in the Fourth Gospel, it rested entirely on the testimony of the women (which in Jewish law was not binding and whose visions do not even rate inclusion in the Pauline list), and it did not involve the Apostles. In Mark (as far at any rate as the original text goes) the women did not tell them. In Luke they told them, but they disbelieved the report. In Matthew the women told them on Jesus's own instruction to leave for Galilee, and this they did without taking any action about the tomb. You do not develop―or even include― stories merely to throw away their point. On the contrary, I would again agree with Dodd's assessment in The Founder of Christianity:
    It looks as if they [the evangelists] had on their hands a solid piece of tradition, which they were bound to respect because it came down to them from the first witnesses, though it did not add much cogency to the message they wished to convey, and they hardly knew what use to make of it.

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