Conclusion and Reflection
Many current critics will argue that the Gospels are obstacles to understanding the historical Jesus, but I believe they are the means. I think what plagues many modern scholars is a distrust of the past itself, an almost disdain for people of the past. We live in an “enlightened” age in which we seem to almost study all the horrible things in the past—colonialism, slavery, sexism, war, ignorance, oppression—as if looking for little happy things that stand out because they are like the values we have today. In this way I think most current historians and textual scholars dismiss the Scriptures. As Bauckham quotes Coady,
“The independent thinker is not someone who works everything out for herself, even in principle, but one who exercises a controlling intelligence over the input she receives from the normal sources of information whether their basis be individual or communal.”
If historians want to be skeptical of history, they must also admit that history is all they have. Our Western culture is one of initial suspicion. But it’s also a selective suspicion. We can only doubt some testimony because we have believed other testimony. The only way to cross-examine living history is to speak to the living witnesses. Those witnesses are long gone, but their words were recorded before their deaths and permanently set in writing.
Contemporary Bible scholars who are skeptical of the testimony of scripture are those who, Bauckham argues, do not have enough experience as historians. To demand that an external source verify every single thing in the Gospels is to deny that they treat themselves as historical documents, and that the early Christian community treated them as reliable. They are archived memories. They also include accounts of the miraculous. A materialist would claim these Gospels have some explaining to do. I say that material scholars hare some explaining to do, given the nature of how these Gospels came to be.
As with the Holocaust survivors, the testimony of the “survivors” is the only testimony we have of the crucifixion, resurrection, and events surrounding it. An unhealthy skepticism applied to Holocaust testimony exists, and those who have such suspicion we know to call ignorant and dangerous. Why would we apply such suspicion to the Gospels, regardless of their passing the scrutiny of honest historical inquiry?
Well, what about all the miracles? What about the whole “God” thing? I am going to echo Bauckham here:
“There is no adequate way of telling the story without reference to God, for the uniqueness of what God does in history is what makes it the unique and particular history it is.” The witnesses know the meaning, just as survivors of the Holocaust know the meaning of what transpired there.
“The ongoing process of remembering interpretation ponders and works to yield its fullest meaning.”
The Gospels are a unique story, the most unique in the world. But one of the reasons I will always be drawn back to them even in my own skepticism is the way they treat themselves like true history, and how their integrity stands up so well as history. I see a very harmonious teaching and retelling passed around and recorded as if in stone. I fully believe it.
Our friend did not leave the study with a burst of faith in scripture, but they were nonetheless impressed with both the scholarship in the book we studied and the facts about the history of Christianity they did not know before. Our skeptic friend still had questions, about this subject and others. They were well studied, and did not want to place faith in something they had accumulated so much doubt in. We went on the search for another book, and perhaps we will share it another day.
Thanks for doing this series. Great conclusion!
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There is definitely an under appreciated and dismissed skepticism with regards to oral history. However like you mentioned it all dates to the enlightenment era of an over reliance on empirical evidence. For probably the overwhelming majority of history academics still either knowingly or unknowingly fall into that von Rankean paradigm. Over reliance on “social structures” such as liberal nationalism, secular authority, local language are right at the heart of of modernity/modernization theory why we are still so far from studying Global History, and perhaps why we still subjugate the histories of Africa, Islam, Asia etc.