Jesus Under Fire
Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland (eds.)
Reviewed by Roy W. Hoover
JHC 3/2 (Fall, 1996), 310-315.
Responses to The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? A New Translation and Commentary by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover and the Jesus Seminar (Polebridge, 1993) have been numerous and varied, but only a few of them have been written by New Testament scholars who claim to know the truth about the historical Jesus better than do the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar. One of the most recent of these is Jesus Under Fire. In it ten New Testament scholars have joined forces to deal with “the furor” about the historical Jesus that has appeared in the public media in recent years. At the forefront of the endeavor that has attracted such troubling public notice is the Jesus Seminar (p. 2). The contributors to this volume, eight of whom hold teaching positions at an evangelical Christian seminary or college, believe that the work of the Jesus Seminar is not a search for the historical Jesus, but an attack on him. Whereas the scholars of the Jesus Seminar have gone to the extreme of “denying the accuracy of the biblical portrait of Jesus found in the New Testament,” the volume’s editors say, “others have contended that the Jesus found in the Bible and declared in the creeds of the church is the true Jesus of history” (p. 5), the view shared, presumably, by the contributors to this volume. Their aim in publishing the volume is to demonstrate that “the claims of radical New Testament critics like the fellows of the Jesus Seminar are false and not reasonable to believe in light of the best evidence available” (p. 7). I will confine my remarks on this attempt to mount a broadside rebuttal to the work of the Jesus Seminar mostly to the chapter entitled, “The Words of Jesus in the Gospels,” since it most directly responds to the report of the Seminar in The Five Gospels.
The author of the chapter on the words of Jesus is Darrell L. Bock, Professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, an independent Baptist institution. Of basic importance for the argument advanced by Professor Bock is the distinction he makes between “the ipsissma verba (‘his very words’) and the ipsissima vox (‘his very voice’)” (p. 77), a distinction derived from Joachim Jeremias, in the report of Jesus’ teaching found in the Gospels. By Jesus’ “voice” Bock means both a summary of what Jesus taught and its subsequent interpretation by those who believed in him. So understood, Jesus’ “voice” is more important than a verbatim quotation of his words, in Bock’s view, because in his “voice” we hear what he really meant, not merely what he actually said. Jesus’ “voice” develops out of his words, to be sure; but it is not simply identical with them. Bock puts his point this way: “Sometimes events and sayings are understood better after reflection than when they first took place.” In such instances the meaning of a saying or teaching can often be better expressed in a retrospective summary than in a direct quotation, “because the events that follow it reveal its full import” (p. 81). We all know that the full truth of history is the meaning it comes to have in restrospect, Bock says; and what is true about history as we experience it is also true about the historical Jesus: it is in the retrospective view of him that we read in the Gospels that we learn the truth about him.
The difference between Professor Bock’s conception of what the search for the historical Jesus is about and that of most critical scholars, including the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar, is apparent in his definition of Jesus’ “voice.” It would be more historically accurate to call what Bock calls the “voice” of Jesus, the “voice” of the early church. It is in the early church’s formulations of their faith that Bock finds the full meaning of what Jesus taught, not in a recovery of what Jesus said on his own. That Jesus meant “more” than he actually said is what his followers grasped after Easter, and this “more” is what Bock takes to be Jesus’ authentic “voice.” Historically viewed, what Bock claims is Jesus’ “voice” is actually early Christian interpretatlon.
When members of the Jesus Seminar refer to Jesus’ “voice,” they refer to the characteristic stance and style of Jesus’ teaching before Easter, not to the retrospective theological meaning conferred upon Jesus’ life and teaching by his followers after Easter. Bock’s definition of Jesus’ “voice” refers to the early history of Christian thought, rather than to a search for the historical Jesus. His paramount interest, it seems clear, is Jesus’ life’s meaning, not his life history. Jesus does not speak for himself in Bock’s treatment of his teaching; the Gospel authors speak for him. They are the ones who most adequately know what Jesus meant.
When Bock chooses sayings material to illustrate how his approach works in the study of the Gospels, in order to demonstrate the validity of his conception of history and his method of inquiry, the difference between his approach and that in The Five Gospels is similarly unmistakable. Bock’s choices of sayings materials are all confessional: what the voice from heaven said at Jesus’ baptism, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mk 1:11; also Mt 3:17, Lk 3:22); Peter’s answer to Jesus’ question about who he really is, “You are the Christ” (Mk 8:27-30; also Mt 16:13-20, Lk 9:18-21); and Jesus’ response to the high priest’s question during his trial about whether or not he was the messiah, “I am… and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mk 14:61-62; also Mt 26:63-64, Lk 22: 67-69).
These are the sayings that matter, in Bock’s view; even though parables and aphorisms constitute about seventy percent of the content of sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, according to one recently published estimate, not one of them is mentioned in this discussion of his words. In The Five Gospels the first two of the sayings Bock chooses to support his claims are not color-coded at all by the Jesus Seminar, since they are not sayings attributed to Jesus; the third is colored black, because the Seminar regarded it as almost certainly the creation of the Gospel authors, not a saying of the historical Jesus. It seems likely, on the other hand, that Professor Bock would have colored each of his three choices red, since they express what he believes is the truth about the historical Jesus.
It is evident from his conception of how the Gospels work as accounts of Jesus’ life and work, summarized above, and from his selection of these three confessional statements as evidence that supports his conception, that Professor Bock’s aim (and that of his colleagues who have contributed to the volume) is to defend the Gospel portraits of Jesus, not to search for Jesus of Nazareth as a figure of history. In other words, what interests Professor Bock and his colleauges is not the historical figure of Jesus as he was before the Gospels were written, but the messiah and savior who is portrayed in them. What, in their view, the Jesus Seminar denies—”the biblical portrait of Jesus found in the New Testament” (p. 3)—they want to defend. Their intention, in other words, is to defend the reliability of the Gospels as authoritative scriptures, not examine them as sources in which one may find historical evidence.
Professor Bock’s discussion of the criteria of authenticity ignores the fresh and nuanced presentation of these in the introduction to The Five Gospels as “rules of evidence,” and resorts to older definitions of three criteria—dissimilarity, multiple attestation, and coherence. He claims that the Seminar both misconstrues these, as he defiines them, and fails to use them consistently. Professor Bock’s discussion of the criteria of historical authenticity seems to me to be untouched by historical consciousness. Son of Man christology together with the idea of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for sin and a ransom for many is the ruling criterion of authenticity for him. Historical matters are merely aids to the vindication of this messianic and redemptive meaning. With history thus safely subordinated to theology, it is easy for Professor Bock to see these theological themes as authentic elements of the teaching of the Jesus of history, and easy also for him to see flaws in the Jesus Seminar’s methodology and assessments .
Bock’s discussion of the criteria of authenticity shows that what really is at issue between him (and his colleagues) and the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar is not likely to be clarified by a debate about criteria. At bottom, what distinguishes the scholars of the Jesus Seminar from the scholars who have contributed to Jesus Under Fire is not so much different judgments about the criteria of authenticity (or “rules of evidence”), as a different conception of the meaning of authenticity. That is, what distinguishes the two books is the difference, as Van A. Harvey characterized it thirty years ago, between a devotion to the ethic of religious belief and the authority of tradition, on the one hand, and a commitment to the ethic of critical judgment and historical knowledge, on the other. Within these ethical universes both the role of the historian and the nature of historical evidence are understood differently. The former was for centuries the traditional view, according to which “the historian’s task is one of compiling and synthesizing the testimony of so-called authorities or eyewitnesses. Formerly, the function of the historian was regarded essentially as an editorial and harmonizing one. It rested on the assumption that the historian has an obligation to believe another person’s report when that person claims to have knowledge of an observed event. The historian is regarded as the believer and the person believed is the authority” (The Historian and the Believer, p. 40).
This traditional view of historical evidence and of the historian’s task is continued in the work of the contributors to Jesus Under Fire. Their aim is to come to the defense of the reliability and historicity of the portrait of Jesus in the Gospels. As the editors of the volume put it, “The authors of this volume are serious scholars deeply committed to the truthfulness and rationality of historic, biblical Christianity and the spiritual implications that follow from such a commitment” (p.14). Here is devotion to the ethic of religious belief and to the authority of tradition in full voice.
A scholar who is committed to the ethic of critical judgment and historical knowledge, on the other hand, sees the persons whose testimony provides us with the evidence on which we depend for knowledge of the past not as authorities whose word is simply to be trusted, but as historical creatures whose perceptions and judgments inevitably reflect both the conceptuality and culture of their time and their own position, interests, and beliefs as participants in that world. From this perspective, asHarveyputs it, it is the responsibility of the historian to assess the inferences and judgments made in his sources, “to establish not only their meaning but their truth. He cannot avoid either task, for to assume that the reports mean what the ordinary reader takes them to mean overlooks the historically conditioned nature of thought. To leave them uncriticised is simply to attribute to the witness a capacity for critical judgment the historian himself lacks or is too timid to exercise.
“In so far then as history aspires to be knowledge, in contrast to belief, the historian must give reasons for what he asserts. As soon as the reasons are forthcoming one ceases to rely on mere authority or testimony…. If the historian permits his authorities to stand uncriticized, he abdicates his role as critical historian. He is no longer a seeker of knowledge but a mediator of past belief; not a thinker but a transmitter of tradition” (Harvey, p. 42). From the perspective of a scholar who is committed to the ethic of critical judgment and historical knowledge, Professor Bock’s discussion of the authentic words of Jesus is the work of a scholar who has abdicated his role as critical historian in order to mediate a traditional form of belief. What we see in his treatment of Jesus’ sayings is not reason in search of historical truth, but reason claiming historical support for religious belief.
The devotion to the ethic of belief that Professor Bock exhibits in his chapter on the words of Jesus is clearly and forcefully stated by the editors of Jesus Under Fire in their introduction to the volume: “Any religious belief worthy of the name should be accepted because we take the belief to be true and do so by the best exercise of our mental faculties we can muster. Applied to Christianity, we want to know if Jesus was really like what the New Testament says he was like. Did he say the things attributed to him in the New Testament? Was he really the only begotten Son of God? Did he actually perform miracles and actually raise people from the dead in real space-time history? Are there good reasons for thinking any of these things is true? If the answer to these questions is yes, then Jesus Christ has the right to require of us an unqualified allegiance to him. If the answer is no, then Christianity as a total worldview should not be believed or propagated” (p.7).
In light of this prefatory statement of the issue, it should come as no surprise to find that the criticism of the Jesus Seminar and The Five Gospels offered in Jesus Under Fire shows us not a scholarship in command of a better knowledge of the historical Jesus, but a scholarship that is unwilling, perhaps unable, even to raise the question of the historical Jesus. This volume does show us that what is a matter of principle to those who are committed to the ethic of critical judgment and historical knowledge can be, and often is, an offense to those who are devoted to the ethic of belief and the authority of tradition. Viewed theologically rather than ethically, this might be said to be the difference between seeing revelation as history and seeing history as allegedly revelatory.