Tag Archives: oral tradition

Biblical literalism and liberalism

Having started to read Marcus Borg’s ‘Jesus: Uncovering the life, teachings and relevance of a religious revolutionary’ I began to write a review as I normally do. The trouble was, I got quite frustrated because it was getting rather long when I was only a quarter of the way through the book. Yet it was more that I wanted to respond to Borg than to merely review the book. So here, and hopefully in another post, I hope to explore some of the thoughts that have been triggered by his provocative writing. 

In this post, I want to look at Borg’s dichotomy of ways of reading the bible, the gospels in particular. Borg presents us with 2 ways of reading, the ‘earlier paradigm’ and the ‘emergent’, though he instantly notes that the ‘earlier paradigm’ is not at all earlier. It is essentially a fundamentalist viewpoint, or at least as Borg portrays it. In such a view, the bible is not a library of books, it is a single book, inerrant and which trumps any and all facts and truth, even if the evidence for these goes against a prima facie reading; biblical literalism, if you will.

Set against this is Borg’s own view, which he considers more enlightened. This view focuses solely on the metaphorical meaning of the gospels. In this view, you can take or leave whatever aspects of the gospels you please. If the wedding at Cana doesn’t suit you, just dismiss its historicity, call it a metaphor and then look at the consequences and meaning of an event that never happened.

What annoys me is the gross caricature of each and that I know many who could not be described as either. It is fair to say that I have come across a few who I would say are metaphor-phobic. Taking 2 Tim 3:16 to apply to the 66 books of the bible, they do subscribe to both sola scriptura and biblical inerrancy, a combination which leads to such viewpoints as young earth creationism, affirmation of the virgin birth as a core tenet of faith, belief in the rapture and a worrying interpretation of the book of Revelation. Though I would not go so far to say that belief in any one of these necessarily entails belief in any of the others.

As well as such metaphor-phobes I have also met some metaphor-philes, albeit fewer in number. Having looked at the more conservative end of the scale with some alarm, they are quick to run away as far away as possible. In this mindset, everything in the bible is a metaphor. Not only is the poetry of Genesis 1 recognised for what it is, but Abraham becomes a figure of legend, Moses becomes mythical and David is turned into an amalgamation of a variety of rulers. But again, my approach is that scepticism about one does not logically cast additional doubt on any of the others.

I don’t think it would do an injustice to Borg to characterise his view as that of a metaphor-phile. In his approach to Jesus he wishes to distinguish between the ‘Jesus of history’ and the ‘Jesus of faith’. The latter is referred to in reference to the metaphor-phobic worldview, where the Jesus of faith was born of a virgin, performed miracles of various kinds, spoke with Moses and Elijah during the transfiguration, was crucified and resurrected. To the metaphpor-phile, this view must be countered, so in order to assert their ‘Jesus of history’, such aspects of the gospels must, a priori, be rejected.

While the concept of ‘fully God, fully man’ seems to be superficially acknowledged by Borg, he claims that to accept the possibility that Jesus performed miracles is to be docetic. After all, he argues, how can one claim Jesus is ‘fully man’ if he can turn water into wine? With large sections of the gospels thus expunged, the ‘Jesus of history’ that we are left with is a teacher of aphorisms who gained a following which became a church which then invented a narrative around which the teachings of this mystic itinerant preacher were weaved.

Crucial to Borg’s methodology, which seems to be almost identical to that of the Jesus Seminar, the group to which Borg belonged and contributed during much of the time that the Seminar met. This methodology maintains an assumption that the early church misunderstood Jesus. Then, if any features of the gospels are found to coincide with early church history they are dismissed as later additions to the gospels. Of what remains, there must be multiple attestation. There’s a catch, however. Any material in Matthew or Luke which is also attested by Mark is assumed to have been copied from Mark and so cannot count as having been multiply attested. The material which is common to Matthew and Luke, but not to Mark, is assumed to have come from a single source, known as Q. The Q hypothesis is quite a good one, but it is one which I admit I am agnostic about. With such a set of assumptions, one wonders if anything could pass the multiple attestation test. Thankfully, Borg doesn’t actually stick to his own criteria, so his book (the review of which I hope to finish and post shortly) is not without merit.

Anyway, that’s enough of an outline for now. This is a place for the crystallisation of thoughts and I shall attempt to get them down on pen & paper (as I usually write my posts thus, before typing up, editing and proofreading).

Borg’s characterisation of the ‘earlier paradigm’ and the ‘emergent’, which I refer to as ‘metaphor-phobic’ and metaphor-philic’ is not one that I can agree with. To my way of thinking, to adopt a critical attitude does not mean a wholesale rejection of anything that may be hard to believe. In some ways, the rejection of gospel as history is itself an uncritical point of view, as it is as easy and lazy a way of thinking as the fundamentalism which such a view seeks to oppose.

Every claim must be assessed on its merits, the evidence supporting or countering it and the reasonableness of the consequences that follow. When considering the bible as history, we don’t have all the evidence we might like. To some, this means none of it can be accepted. To my way of thinking, we have to deal with the evidence we have. This means that our beliefs are provisional and uncertain but not unreasonable. Assurance is not the same as certainty. Doubt is not the same as disbelief. Holding assurance in one hand and doubt in the other is how I maintain balance.

An example – the virgin birth

By way of illustration, I will expand a little on claim in the gospels mentioned above and which I have touched on before without being too explicit. I do not affirm that the virgin birth as a core tenet of my faith. Neither, though, do I deny it outright. It is a topic about which I am agnostic, but which I do not think is of vital importance. Let me explain why.

To start with, there is the well known incident of the Septuagint mistranslating ‘young woman’ as ‘virgin’ in Isaiah 7:14 – with a possible supposition that this was an addition Matthew and Luke made to their accounts. To me, though, the question has to be ‘who was the eyewitness?’

It seems most likely to me that the Christmas narrative was not a fanciful work of fiction added to the oral history of Jesus’ life, but was rather a product of the same oral history. But it must have originated from someone who was there and remembered it, but who was also part of the early christian community. The person who best fits this description is Mary herself. Have a read of Luke 1 and ask yourself through whose eyes we are predominantly looking.

Jesus’ later ministry had many witnesses, most notably the disciples. They could correct each other’s recollections, a point well made by Kenneth Bailey in his seminal paper, Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels. The fact that there were fewer witnesses to the events of the nativity means that we must regard them as more questionable as the later gospels. When I did some reading on this a little while ago, it was interesting that FF Bruce, Craig Blomberg and Richard Bauckham all overlooked the nativity. Bruce and Blomberg are both more conservative in their approach than I am, and even they are wary of attesting the virgin birth. For me, there are just too many unanswered questions to be able to affirm it. Moreover, I don’t believe the evidence exists that could settle the question one way or another.

The next question then seems to be, ‘what might we miss out on if we no longer affirm the virgin birth?’ i.e. is there any hole in our theology which would warp the gospel? I’ve thought this through and cannot find any. To me, why the nativity is important because of the theology of incarnation, Jesus being wholly God and wholly man at the same time, hard though that is to comprehend. The scientist in me cannot help but wonder what a DNA test on Jesus would have revealed. Just as I affirm that God created the universe but am not a creationist, so I find no significant issue with regarding Jesus’ divinity without boldly stating that he was born of a virgin. The ‘how’ is less important. In this respect, I do side somewhat with Borg. To me, the core aspects of the gospel are unaffected: the proclamation of God as king, the identification of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, the atonement for sins through the sacrifice of the crucifixion and the victory over death as the vindication of all the above through the resurrection. It is these things and their ramifications that I would rather spend time thinking about and discussing.


The Jesus of the faith that I hold to with a light grip is the Jesus of my best, though flawed, understanding of history. To be a christian is not to be the holder of all knowledge and understanding, but to be a disciple, grasping at the coattails of those of who have gone before us whilst treading out our own path. But to portray this as a solo activity is misleading. To be a christian is entails being part of a community in the form of church, though I shall spare you from my further thoughts on ecclesiology. I hope I’ve given you some food for thought. Let me know if you agree or disagree.

Testimony & Epistemology

After recently reading Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham, some thoughts crystallised in my mind that had been floating around for a bit. This post is my attempt to articulate those thoughts.

Epistemology is a subject in which I have a steadily growing interest. I have just started reading Karl Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery, though it’s a bit of a beast of a book, so don’t expect to see the review much before October. I may come back and revise this post after I have finished that.

As alluded to in my review of Bauckham’s book, the willingness to accept eyewitness testimony (hereafter, to be simply referred to as testimony) does not immediately imply a hermeneutic of credulity. There is a word for those who would accept without critique what they are told as testimony: gullible. Now, in spite of how often I have heard that accusation levelled at all christians, it simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny; if it were true then everyone who has ever professed faith must be intellectually retarded, but a brief look around the world today, and in history reveals this to be untrue. Of course, that is not to say that every christian has reached their faith by careful reasoning and the examination of the available evidence; indeed I have met many who prefer to not think about the challenges posed to the claims of christianity, but these are the minority. There is also then the adage that if you have met a christian who doesn’t seem to have any doubts, then you just don’t know them well enough.

When I read or talk to critics of the bible, there is a phrase I often hear is “there’s no evidence for….” At which point a look of puzzlement usually smothers my face. The reason for this is that the person I am speaking to has completely disregarded the fact that we have the collection of books known as the bible, which is evidence. I think a far more honest term would be “there’s no corroborative evidence for…” which is a very different statement.

I have heard it said that christianity is the religion of the historian. I am increasingly coming round to this point of view as most of the strongest arguments come from history, rather than science, philosophy or sociology. That is not to say that these don’t have important things to say about christianity (and vice versa), rather I just don’t find them as convincing as I do for the historical basis for the person, death and resurrection of Jesus. Where certain ideas taken as cherished by christians have had to be thrown out of the window because of subsequent research, there do not appear to be any scholars who have credibly formed and tested hypotheses for the origins of christianity on an historical basis; there may be plenty of supposition, but very little evidence to support this. If anyone knows of a suitable riposte, please let me know as I would love to read it/them.

As I have said before, my worldview is that the set of things for which there is evidence is smaller than the set of things which are true. That is to say, there may be many truths for which there is no evidence. Of course, this then raises the question, “How do we know it’s true?” which is perfectly valid and deserves serious consideration. I still don’t have a definitive answer for that.

One of the key differences between history and science is the ability to generate evidence. Science can devise experiments in order to gather new evidence from well-designed experiments in order to confirm or deny an hypothesis. History, on the other hand, has to build the most reasonable explanation, based on the evidence available. Of course, you can always do archaeological excavations, or search through ancient libraries, but you can’t always find what you want. To go back to Bauckham, much of his book was based on the testimony of Papias, but we have no surviving manuscripts of his; only some quotes from Eusebius a couple of centuries afterwards.

To give a somewhat trivial example, I could tell you what I had for dinner last night. It happened to be a chicken curry. I can testify that that is true, and I know it to be so. However, I ate alone, with the blinds shut, so there are no other eyewitnesses, as far as I know. So how might one determine whether or not my testimony is true? Well, one could go through my bins and examine the contents thereof to find evidence of the ingredients of a chicken curry. This would certainly not constitute proof as there would be no way to pin the ingredients down to a specific date (it could have been the night before) or to ascertain that the ingredients were used together, as opposed to being used in the cooking of two separate meals.

An alternative approach may be to pump my stomach and examine the contents. Now this is a pretty extreme measure, but if you really wanted to find out, then this may be an option; albeit one that I would resist with what little physical strength I have! Also, this method would only work for the last couple of meals. If my question had been posed about what I ate on the 10th of February this year (or last year) then the answer would be quite unknowable; although in this case, I couldn’t testify myself, as I don’t have that good a memory.

Of course, we could try to falsify the proposition, yet what are the falsification criteria? Perhaps I was seen elsewhere, eating something different; but in the absence of other eyewitnesses, this cannot be a possibility. It is not clear to me that there are, given what the circumstances outlined above, any criteria upon which can be based any level of falsifiability. To draw the analogy to a close, before it gets over-strained, the fact that I ate a chicken curry is, for all practical purposes, unfalsifiable. However, this does not impact on the truth of the assertion. So it is with testimony. There may be many potential ways in which a testimony may be falsified (e.g. by direct contradiction with another testimony – although we need to be careful about the possibility of two different views of the same thing appearing radically different, or contradiction with other corroborative evidence, etc.). However, as noted above, the historian cannot generate additional evidence. He or she may search for it, but it may simply be the case that what they are searching for has been lost.

So then, if testimony is all we have, what can we say about it? Bauckham’s approach was to give them the benefit of the doubt. In this, I would somewhat agree with him, but with a word of warning. If a witness is shown to be untrustworthy in related key areas, then extra doubt may of course be cast on their testimony. I would think it unwise to reject them outright because of this.

There has been a recent example, when such a rejection has taken place. That is, in the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK). The case was dependent on an eyewitness, but the case was ultimately thrown out because of a lack of corroborative evidence and aspersions made against the eyewitness. For my part, I do not hold an opinion as to the guilt or innocence of DSK. I merely include this paragraph to get you thinking at how relevant, and thorny, the issue still is today. It is not a problem restricted to historical theology, and one which I think we will continue to wrestle with for many years to come.

Book Review: Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony by Richard Bauckham

I’d not really come across Richard Bauckham much before and this was the first book of his I had read. He was heavily referenced with some favour by Tom Wright in The Resurrection Of The Son Of God, and a five minute search reveals that Bauckham is an emeritus professor at Edinburgh (though currently on placement to Cambridge), where Wright now has a nominal post, though I understand this is merely to let him write his prodigious amount of books.

There is no great lengthy introduction to this work, and Bauckham dives straight into his proposition, giving us a quick glance at the conclusions he will reach (I would graciously assume that the book was researched and the conclusions reached prior to the writing of the introduction). The title kind of says it all, although Bauckham does not think that the 4 gospels were all first-hand eyewitness accounts. Rather, his assertion is that they faithfully record the eyewitness testimony of others.

The depth and breadth of Bauckham’s reading and understanding can hardly be doubted, and this is a work of immense scholarship. The downside is that in being rigorous, it gets extremely dry in places. It took me an awfully long time to get through this, not least because I kept dropping off during my daily commute, though that may have had something to do with the workload I have had of late.

I did get the impression that at times he made a little too much of some very scant evidence, though that is not to undermine his whole argument. For those who would contest his viewpoint that the gospels were based on eyewitness testimony and were not either invented or significantly distorted through oral traditions, Bauckham’s work would need to be very carefully dissected; something I am not knowledgeable enough to do.

The book’s first main contention is that those who were name-checked in the gospels were present because they were witnesses. I found this quite an unusual proposition and not entirely convincing. From here, Bauckham looked at the frequency of names in the society at the time, and concluded that the names we find are fairly typical of what we might expect, though I was unsure of what this was meant to prove. That said, it did contain some extremely interesting points about individuals known by two different names (I immediately thought of Saul/Paul, though Bauckham, oddly, didn’t mention this) as the disparity between lists of names is an objection I often find cited against the gospels.

One writer on whom he hangs a lot of his argument is Papias, who I think is very seldom known in modern Christian circles (at least the ones I move in). This demonstrates for me quite well how historians have to deal with the evidence they have available, as opposed to scientists who can devise experiments in order gather evidence. For those of you who don’t know, there are no known surviving works of Papias. So how can Bauckham rely on his writings, if we don’t know what they are? Well, it’s because he is quoted by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History. The quotes amount to just a few hundred words, much shorter than the length of this review!

One of the most interesting chapters concerns the proposition that Mark’s gospel (widely regarded as the first to be written) was based predominantly on the testimony of Simon/Peter. The main piece of evidence in favour of this is some Greek grammar, where a third person perspective is used quite awkwardly, when a first person perspective would read more naturally. Unfortunately, my Greek grammar is not good enough to be able to form a suitable critique on this, though there is a lot more to it than the crude outline I have given.

After his detailed look at Mark, Bauckham then moves on to look at the way the testimonies of the original eyewitnesses would have been passed on. He takes a sceptical view of the form critics, most notably Rudolph Bultmann. He also takes a look at the more modern, moderate style of form criticism, more widely accepted, as put forward by Kenneth Bailey in his highly influential work, Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels; a copy of which you can find, for free, here.

In Bauckham’s analysis he draws out a very important point which is often ignored by critics who dismiss gospel tradition as “Chinese whispers” in that the gospel stories were not passed down through many generations, with each generation adding new material in an uncontrolled way. Rather, we are talking about 1-2 generations, where many of the original eyewitnesses were still alive and could be consulted if there were any doubt on the details.

From here, he takes a slightly different direction and looks at psychology. I suspect that this may be Bauckham’s weak area, unless he is a true polymath. He looks at whether or not eyewitness memory can be reliable at all. He cites a couple of examples both for against the proposition, before looking at the characteristics of what distinguishes true memory from false memory and examining the gospel evidence to determine which we find there.

His last piece of analysis is to look at the gospel of John in more detail and to examine the view (which Bauckham supports) that is the testimony of the unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved.” Much of the discussion regards the identity of “the disciple whom Jesus loved” and whether this was John the Elder or John the son Zebedee. However, given the earlier discussion on the frequency of names, John was the 5th most common name, so the discussion, though interesting, does not really progress the argument much.

The concluding chapter of the book is one of the most thought-provoking and I intend to write a much fuller post on this chapter alone. As mentioned at the top, there is very little by way of introduction. It is only now, at the end that I realise why; the introduction is at the end! In this chapter, Bauckham sketches his epistemology and his reasoning behind why he considers the testimonies he has reviewed to be of value to the historian and the theologian (as well those for whom the two disciplines are intimately entwined). He adopts a possibly controversial approach by drawing parallels, albeit with significant caveats, to the testimonies of Holocaust survivors. Much of the best available evidence we have for the details of the Holocaust has come from the witness of those who were present at the time, and similarly the best available evidence for the details of the life, death & resurrection of Jesus comes from the witness of those who were present at the time. I can understand that some may see this as poor form, citing an event so emotionally charged and volatile, which his critics may pounce on, though I think Bauckham does not overstep the boundary into disrespect or emotional blackmail. In this chapter, Bauckham is extremely critical of those who would undertake an historic review of the gospels with a default position of rejection. So, it might be reasonably said that the author is advocating a hermeneutic of credulity, though this would be to misunderstand him, as he does explicitly state that witness testimony should be reviewed critically.

There is one interesting omission, which I felt was not dealt with properly, and that was the relation of gospel writers (OK, Matthew & Luke) to the nativity. In his chapter “Eyewitness from the beginning” Bauckham is clear that this refers to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when he was around 30 (according to John). There is no space given to the discussion of the possible eyewitnesses to the birth of Jesus, his early life, or the family tree (however problematic that is!).

So what shall I say in conclusion? Well, it’s not the faint-hearted. It does get quite tedious at times and Bauckham’s writing style is not the most lively I have read. Nonetheless, it is a book worthy of very serious consideration, with many important questions asked and challenges raised to those who would not accept the gospels as being grounded in the contemporary eyewitness testimony.