Friday, September 29, 2017

Script or history?

On Jonathan McLatchie's Facebook wall, Mike Licona posted a response to Lydia McGrew. Here's the "meat" of his response:

I agree with all Johannine scholars that Johannine adaptation is present in his Gospel. However, scholars differ on the degree of adaptation that is present. I wouldn't go as far as Craig A. Evans for whom I have the highest regard. To be honest, I do not know how much John adapted certain traditions. But some is obviously present to anyone who spends a significant amount of time studying the Gospels. Are the "'I am' without predicate" statements in John part of his adapting things Jesus implicitly said and presenting them in a manner in which Jesus says them explicitly? In other words, are we reading the ipsissima vox (his voice) of Jesus here rather than the ipsissima verba (his very words). I don't know. In my single reply to Bethel, I provided reasons why many, perhaps even a majority of Johannine scholars say they are Johannine adaptations. I have argued elsewhere that historical data strongly suggests Jesus believed He was deity. So, if Jesus made implicit claims to deity and John recasts those claims in a manner that has Jesus making them in an explicit sense, then that's what John did and we need to be comfortable with that. Otherwise, we take issue with the way God gave us the Gospels. What Lydia needs to do is spend years in the text, learn how to read the Gospels in their cultural setting and in their original language rather than having an anachronistic view of demanding their authors to write how she believes they should have. That's what having a high view of Scripture entails.

This raises a number of issues. The fundamental question at issue is whether the Johannine narrator wrote a script which he put on the lips of Jesus. 

1. Licona appeals to the generic notion of NT "scholarship", but that's hardly monolithic. NT scholars vary in their philosophical presuppositions. Some operate with methodological atheism. NT scholars vary in their skill set. Some are strong on linguistics and historical background while others are into hermeneutics and mechanically apply whatever represents the current fad in Bible criticism. Some NT scholars are intellectually gifted individuals who buck consensus while others are second-rate thinkers who simply copycat what they were taught in grad school.  

2. There's a sense in which Licona's claim true, because he cast his statement in hypothetical (if>then) terms, but whether the hypothetical is true is the very issue in dispute. 

3. It's also true that critics typically impose artificial standards of accuracy onto Scripture. Ehrman does that all the time. The problem, though, is how Licona defines "reading the Gospels in the cultural setting". He's been using Plutarch as his benchmark. But one issue is whether the implied reader for Plutarch is comparable to the implied reader for the Gospels. Is Plutarch's primary aim to inform his audience or to entertain his patrons? What's the genre of his bioi? History or historical fiction? How much artistic license does he allow himself? That's a question that Plutarch scholars examine. Cf. Barbara Scardigli (ed.), Essays on Plutarch's Lives. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995). Why assume Gospel writers had the same aims and methods as Plutarch? 

4. Then there's the underlying question of whether the Gospel writers even have literary exemplars, and assuming they have, their proper identification. Take the popular classification of the Gospels as Greco-Roman bioi. 

To begin with, should we mash the Gospels together in that regard, or consider them individually? On the face of it, Mark and John don't seem to be modeled on any literary exemplars. Mark is written in the style you'd expect if traditional authorship is correct: a breathless, unfiltered, literarily crude biography by a young man captivated by Jesus the exorcist and wonder-worker. Likewise, John reads like a dictated oral history.

Matthew and Luke have more literary culture, but are quite different from each other, despite the overlapping material. The literary culture of Matthew is very Jewish. Assuming he has literary models, why presume those are Greco-Roman bioi rather than OT historical narratives? The OT is rich in biography. Luke is the best candidate for Greco-Roman bioi, yet he, too, is immersed in the OT. 

5. In his book (Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?), Licona says almost all Johannine scholars acknowledge that the author often adapted his "source material" (115) or "traditions about Jesus" (166).

Notice a hidden assumption that's driving scholarly consensus. The implication is that whoever wrote John's Gospel had no direct knowledge of the historical Jesus. Instead, he relied on secondhand sources. To say the narrator adapted dominical "traditions" or "source material" would be a curious way of to characterize someone who's an eyewitness. A writer who is the source of what he narrates. It makes little sense to say the narrator adapted dominical "traditions" or "source material" if, in fact, he's reporting events which he himself saw and heard. Rather, that makes more sense on the assumption that the Johannine narrator relies on written or oral sources. And, of course, that's what many "scholars" believe. But once you make assumption explicit, it needs to be defended. Why should that be the operating assumption? 

That, however, illustrates the problems with generalizing about Johannine scholars, and it likewise illustrates the need to identify critical presuppositions that drive the analysis.

Once you deny that the Johanne narrator was an eyewitness, then of necessity, that eliminates certain possible explanations and points to alternative possibilities. So that's not a neutral assumption. 

1 comment:

  1. I wrote an article a couple of years ago that is of some relevance to this.