Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism (Skinner)

Hays.AnsberryLast summer I was on a plane to England and I found myself with seven hours to spare. (Between teaching, writing, and family responsibilities, when does that EVER happen?) So I reached into my bag to look over the books I had brought along for the trip. The one that struck me as most interesting at that moment was Christopher M. Hays’ and Christopher B. Ansberry’s book, Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013). I had picked up the book at the 2013 SBL meeting in Baltimore, but hadn’t yet had a chance to read through it. I have been meaning to post about this volume since the summer but have just now gotten around to it. This book has already been reviewed in numerous places on the web, both positively (see here, here, here) and less positively (see the somewhat shortsighted review offered here). Thus, I don’t intend to provide a review here, though I would like to offer an endorsement. In fact, when I was in the book stall at this year’s SBL meeting in San Diego, I stopped a friend and said, “You need to buy this book. While you and I have moved beyond these conversations years ago, our students have not.”

Here’s the Table of Contents:

1. Towards a Faithful Criticism, Christopher M. Hays
2. Adam and the Fall, Christopher M. Hays and Stephen Lane Herring
3. The Exodus: Fact, Fiction or Both?, Christopher B. Ansberry
4. No Covenant before the Exile? The Deuteronomic Torah and Israel’s Covenant Theology, Christopher B. Ansberry and Jerry Hwang
5. Problems with Prophecy Amber Warhurst, Seth B. Tarrer and Christopher M. Hays
6. Pseudepigraphy and the Canon, Christopher B. Ansberry, Casey A. Strine, Edward W. Klink III and David Lincicum
7. The Historical Jesus, Michael J. Daling and Christopher M. Hays
8. The Paul of Acts and the Paul of the Epistles, Aaron J. Kuecker and Kelly D. Liebengood
9. Faithful Criticism and a Critical Faith, Christopher B. Ansberry and Christopher M. Hays

One of the things I most appreciated about the book was its balance between eloquence and substance. In recent years I have seen a whole new crop of young scholars with the ability to address substantive academic issues in compelling and interesting ways with the result that these “academic” books are actually fun to read (see e.g., Timothy Michael Law, Chris Keith, Anthony LeDonne, Chris Tilling). At the end of the day, some will feel that the contributors have perhaps not gone far enough in their conclusions. I am of the opinion that this is an ideal resource for seminarians (and potentially advanced undergraduates) who hold the Bible to be authoritative but don’t wish to jettison all intellectual honesty when studying the Scriptures critically. I have long abandoned using the term “evangelical” when self-identifying because of the negative connotations so often attached to the word, especially here in the United States. Perhaps the highest praise I can give this book is that it handles important subject matter in a way that makes me think there *might* be–sometime in the distant future–a context in which it would be okay to begin calling myself an “evangelical” once again. Then again, maybe not…..but as long as scholars like this are shaping and advancing the conversation, I’d be open to the idea.

Michael Licona, the Differences Between the Gospels, and Asking the Right Questions (Skinner)

Mike-LiconaOver at Greg Monette’s blog there’s an interesting interview with Michael Licona in which he attempts to answer the question, “Why do the Gospels contain differences?” I describe the interview as “interesting” because of the inherent tension (one might say borderline “contradiction”) that seems to attend Licona’s discussion of this question. Licona wants an alternative to the “harmonization” approach so common within his evangelical tradition–a sign to me initially that he is interested in an intellectually honest approach to the gospels. He writes:

Harmonizing the Gospels is a common practice and certainly a legitimate means for reconciling differences. However, we should look for another solution when harmonization efforts begin subjecting the Gospel texts to hermeneutical waterboarding until they tell us what we want to hear.

By discussing the relationship of the gospels to Greco-Roman biography, Licona makes a move that shows his interest in situating the gospels in their socio-historical setting. His nod to Burridge’s widely accepted theory also seems to indicate once again that he is interested in an intellectually honest approach to the gospels. This research has apparently led him to an in-depth study of the bioi produced by Plutarch, which has taught him much about the various literary techniques used in Greco-Roman biographies. He writes:

Thus far, I’ve identified around 45 stories that appear two or more times in these nine biographies. Differences abound in them. At present, I’m engaged in identifying the differences and especially looking for recurrences of the same type of differences. It’s from these one gets the impression Plutarch has altered the details intentionally. I then propose explanations (or compositional devices) for the alterations that appear to account well for the differences in many, if not most, of the contexts in which the differences occur. Finally, I’m revisiting the more than 60 pages of differences I’ve noted in the Gospels to see if the compositional devices I’ve posited for Plutarch may have been likewise employed by the Gospel authors.

I have to admit that, to this point, Licona’s research sounds compelling and I wonder about what could potentially be gleaned from this. However, after this point in the interview, Licona appears to abandon the sort of intellectual honesty attending his earlier answers by insisting on the relative historical reliability of these texts. He writes:

 I’m hoping my present research will lead us toward reading the Gospels closer to how their authors intended. If my observations are correct, evangelicals should not be too quick to harmonize the differing Gospel accounts, and critics should not view the differences as a reason to regard the Gospels as historically unreliable accounts of Jesus.

This is where Licona tips his hand as it relates to his agenda (which appears to be demonstrate that the Gospels are reliable and that Christianity is true). As I see it, this approach is guided by a desire to demonstrate that the Gospels are historically reliable, which, to my mind is not necessarily “closer to how their authors intended.” What we know is that the evangelists intended their messages to be heard and embraced. The gospels are not sober history but religious propaganda written to engender belief in the audience (cf. e.g., Luke 1:3-4; John 20:31). The introduction of the concept of historical reliability imposes an external set of modern assumptions on these ancient texts, which is ironic given Licona’s earlier concern to situate the gospels in their literary and historical environment. A further irony is that Licona seems to have been researching Greco-Roman biographies as a way of shedding light on the Gospels, but he has been studying this ancient genre against the backdrop of modern assumptions about historicity and reliability. Licona’s ultimate agenda emerges with greater clarity toward the end of the interview. He comments:

Christianity is true because Jesus rose from the dead. And Jesus’s resurrection can be historically established without even appealing to the Gospels. Moreover, if Jesus rose from the dead, Christianity was true prior to the penning of the New Testament literature. So, even if the Gospels contained historical errors, that would not at all suggest the Christian faith is false. Let me put it simply: If Jesus rose from the dead, Christianity is true, even if it were to turn out that some events reported in the Bible are not.

I look forward to reading the fruit of Licona’s research once it is published. Still, I fear that his approach (and those who adopt it) will confuse historical-critical scholarship on the NT and Christian apologetics–two areas that have very very different aims. Let’s let the gospels be Greco-Roman biographies without insisting that they meet any modern criteria for “historicity” or “historical reliability.”

Narrative Criticism of the Gospels: Does Anybody Outside of North America Really Care? (Skinner)

I am presently editing a book on Markan character studies, and for that book I have just completed a lengthy survey of scholarship from Wrede (1903) up to the work of the performance critics (2013). The early portions of my survey (up to redaction criticism) included a fair amount of material in French and German as well as publications in English from scholars working in Europe. However, by the time I reached the rise of narrative critical theory in the 1980s, there was a dramatic change. At the end of my essay I note:

In the early portions of our review, references to literature produced by European scholars—both on the continent and in the United Kingdom—were ubiquitous. By contrast, our coverage of literary methods in Markan scholarship has shown the relative scarcity of such works arising from within the European academy. This observation is true not only with respect to character studies, but seemingly with the entire narrative-critical enterprise. It appears that scholars working in North America, particularly in the United States, and those working in Europe are not only asking different questions about the text but also working both from different methodologies and bibliographies.[1] Apart from the work of Susan Miller (Scotland), Ole Davidsen (Denmark), Geert van Oyen (Belgium), Camille Focant (Belgium) and Stephen D. Moore (an Irish scholar who teaches in the United States) one is hard-pressed to identify much significant research in this area undertaken by European scholars or by those teaching in a European context. Taking this observation a step further, with the exception of several fine contributions from a handful of Australian scholars,[2] most recent narratalogical works, including those related to characterization, have been generated almost exclusively by scholars working in North America or by North American students studying abroad. While the growth of narrative-critical studies has largely taken place within an American context, one can hardly doubt whether enough time has passed or enough quality material has been published to demonstrate sufficiently the value of this approach. We are therefore left wondering: Why is there such a chasm between a European academy focused largely on historical concerns and the more methodologically diverse North American scene? What is it about narrative criticism, character studies, and the panoply of methods that has captured the North American scholarly imagination while leaving the European academy virtually untouched? Most importantly, is there a way to bridge this gulf between the North American and European scenes?

I have asked around but I haven’t really gotten a good answer as to why such a gap persists. Since all of my education took place here in the United States, I am not really in a position to offer any substantive insights about this state of affairs. However, I would love to hear what you think about all of this, especially if you have studied in Europe or are currently teaching in a post outside of North America. Why does such a gap persist?


[1] On this observation I have gleaned some helpful insights from Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, both in personal correspondence and in two different essays: the first is her review of van Iersel’s reader-response commentary on Mark (Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, ‘Review of Bas M. F. Van Iersel, Mark: A Reader-Response Commentary [Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998]’ in Bib 81 [2000], pp. 285-90), and the second a review of the 2011 English translation of Camille Focant’s commentary on Mark delivered at the SBL Annual Meeting in Chicago, Illinois (19 November 2012). In these essays she notes how both scholars—one Dutch and the other French—demonstrate a relative lack of awareness of and/or concern for narrative-critical issues and recent publications in the US, even though these two scholars are trying to move in that direction.

[2] See Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of Mark: A Narrative Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003), idem, Mark: Storyteller, Interpreter, Evangelist (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004). Other Australian scholars have published significant narratological and/or narrative-oriented research on the Gospel of John, including Dorothy A. Lee (Symbolic Narratives of the Fourth Gospel: The Interplay of Form and Meaning [JSNTSup, 95; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1994]; and Flesh and Glory: Symbol, Gender and Theology in the Gospel of John [New York: Crossroad, 2002]), Mary Coloe (God Dwells with Us: Temple Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel [Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2001]), and Ruth Sheridan (Retelling Scripture: The Jews and the Scriptural Citations in John 1:19-12:15 [BIS, 110; Leiden: Brill, 2012]).