Intro To Modern Biblical Scholarship

This is an outline and hand-outs form a course I taught in a parish. I borrow heavily from the ideas of the late Fr. Raymond Brown and still living Fr. John Meier.

Wednesday, February 04, 2004


1. The Real Jesus = The actual bodily person who lived in Israel in the first century.

2. The Jesus of History = The real Jesus as he is imagined through historical methods.

3. The Historical Jesus = The Jesus known through documentary evidence and agreed upon by secular and religious alike.

4. The New Testament Christ of faith = The Jesus proclaimed in the New Testament. The nonbeliever does not accept these statements as accurate portrayals of the real Jesus. The Christology of the New Testament can be subdivided further:

• High Christology: Statement about Christ that imply he is God, the unique Son of God, the Word of God, the Savior, the exalted one, etc….
• Low Christology: Statements about Christ that imply he is merely an extraordinary man: Rabbi/Rabboni, Teacher, the suffering servant, a prophet, a righteous man, etc…
• Ambiguous terms: Messiah/Christ, Lord, The Son of Man (see Daniel 7), Son of God (without the term ‘monogenesis’), etc…

5. The Christ of faith in the Church = Subsequent theological reflection on Jesus in history.

• Nowhere in the New Testament does it literally say that Jesus is “true God from true God, one in being with the Father”, as the Nicene Creed proclaims. The question non-believers ask is whether such a notion is implied strongly enough for Nicea to be correct.
• Popular piety augments or distorts our notion of Christ. Was Jesus the “Pantocrater” (Divine Emperor) envisioned by Constantine? Was he the starry-eyed hippie portrayed in Zeferelli’s Jesus of Nazareth? Was Jesus white, or a man of color? Did he have a beard? Was he gay?

High level understanding of differing schools of Biblical scholarship (30,000 ft view):

1. Secular atheist and agnostic = The Bible is fabricated myth, and Jesus likely never existed. Paul was likely a repressed homosexual raised in a strict Jewish household in Greek speaking provinces. Paul synthesized Greek myth with Jewish apocalyptic thought and invented the Christ myth as a means of dealing with his feelings of unworthiness. His gospel was real to him, but not rooted in reality. Paul’s gospel appealed to some Jews, but found greater popularity among Gentiles accustomed to mythic expressions of religious thought and cultic worship. Later New Testament writing was fabricated in an apologetic attempt to root Paul’s new theology in a history that never really occurred.

• Strengths: The atheist and agnostic correctly emphasize that Paul’s writing are the earliest writings of Christianity. Paul’s interpretation of the crucifixion and resurrection events would color all later theological reflection on the story of Jesus. There are parallels between Christianity and pre-existing eastern mystery cults.
• Weaknesses: The atheist often overemphasizes a method called the argument from silence. This argument asserts that where nothing is said, nothing happened. For example, since Paul does not describe the physical resurrected Christ, he did not see Christ physically. Since Josephus does not tell the story of Jesus, even from a secular perspective, Jesus did not exist. Another weakness is an over-emphasis on the parallels between early Christianity and eastern pagan religions to the exclusion of recognizing real parallels between early Christianity and first century Judaism. The Judaic background to the New Testament statements about Christ is far more prevalent and significant than the pagan parallels.

2. Non-scholarly Liberalism = The Bible embellished true history with myth, distorting the true message of Jesus. This approach often starts with a preconceived notion of Jesus, and then ransacks historical documents to prove its point. The non-scholarly liberal rejects the New Testament witness altogether, unless it is consistent with her or his world-view. Sometimes, the non-scholarly liberal refuses to engage the Biblical text at all, believing them to be a corruption. Many non-scholarly liberals look for another gospel in Gnostic texts, speculation about the Q source, Egyptian or Eastern mystery religions, the dead-sea scrolls, the New Age, and so forth. Non-scholarly liberals view Jesus as everything from merely a great human teacher, to another Buddha or yogic guru, a visitor from outer-space, or a cosmic demi-god.

• Strengths: The non-scholarly liberal often challenges us to imagine Christ in new ways that can actually help us transcend our own cultural biases. Furthermore, the non-scholarly liberal is often well versed in history and mystical religious systems that can shed light on important truths that are overlooked in popular piety and devotion.
• Weaknesses: Because the non-scholarly liberal starts with a pre-conceived notion of Christ, the evidence is often twisted to make a point based on weak argumentation. Parallels between Christianity and other religions are often overstated (as with the atheist). Logic is downplayed, and heresy is given undue credence.

3. Scholarly Liberalism = The Bible embellished history with myth based on meaningful but non-supernatural events. There is no continuity between the real Jesus and the Christ of faith presented in the New Testament. At the same time, the language of the New Testament can be analyzed to trace a historical development in the believing community from the historical Jesus to the Christ of faith. Depending on the scholar, the real Jesus was a rabbi, a cynic, a political rabble-rouser, or a prophet, but not the Son of God, the Word of God, or a spiritual Messiah and Lord. After his tragic death, the disciples used mythic language to describe Jesus’ meaning to them. Scholarly liberals believe that a fresh encounter with the historical Jesus can be reinterpreted for our times. Scholarly liberalism seeks to liberate Jesus from cultic worship.

• Strengths: The scholarly liberal can often build a strong Biblical picture of the historical Jesus that challenges misconceptions of popular piety. Heresies such as gnosticism, docetism, dualism, albigensianism, and excessive mysticism are shattered by the scholarly liberal approach. Fundamentalism and uncritical traditionalist fanaticism also fall before the challenge of the scholarly liberal.
• Weakenesses: The scholarly liberal uses a method of distinguishing between the high and low Christologies of the New Testament, and then assumes that the low Christology is the earliest traditions about Jesus. What emerges from such a method is a demythologized Jesus. However, like the non-scholarly liberal, the scholarly liberal often starts with certain biases that cannot be proven. For example, in denying every element of the supernatural, can we really make sense of the New Testament witness? Even if we do not believe miracles happen, we know people claiming to be faith healers exist, and it seems probable Jesus was a person who acted as or claimed to be a faith healer. Regardless of what actually happened in Christ, it seems obvious that the early church believed that he was the risen Lord of the universe. Can we really separate high Christology so sharply from low Christology?

4. Scholarly Conservatism = There is continuity and consistency between meaningful historical events and the later development of the language of faith. The authors of the New Testament used creative narrative to make a proclamation of faith in a transcendent experience. the text is written to and for an already believing community. The story was crafted to address issues specific to the community. In this sense, the texts are not histories or biographies in the modern sense of the word. There was no attempt to record every detail accurately. Indeed, by our standards, there were deliberate fabrications to make a point within the historical context of the faith community hearing the gospel the first time. At the same time, the real Jesus did and said things that lead the author to craft the story in the particular fashion employed. They recorded what they believed he would say if he were there, based on what he had said and did. While not recording Jesus exact words and deeds, the texts tell the real truth about Jesus, and were crafted to lead to an encounter with the Risen Lord. The real Jesus lies behind the text. Events in the life of the real Jesus led the believing community naturally to the conclusions that he is the Son of God, the Messiah, and the pre-existing Word of God.

• Strengths: This approach allows a person of faith to answer the questions of scholarly liberals and atheist in an intellectually responsible fashion. It also allows the Bible scholar to lead us to an encounter with the historical Jesus that makes sense of the Christ of faith. This approach is approved more or less by the Pope and bishops, as well as by many Protestant and Eastern Orthodox scholars.
• Weaknesses: There are two weaknesses. To the non-believer, the accusation is that this approach simply justifies historic Christianity without adding anything new to our understanding of the historic Jesus. Scholarly conservatives counter that the evidence for their convictions is overwhelming. To the believer, the approach seems to muddy the waters of apologetic theology by admitting the possibility of fabrication in the creation of the New Testament texts. Scholarly conservatives counter that if this is the way the texts were formed, we must develop an apologetic based on reality, rather than what we wish were true. A final criticism of this approach is simply that it is too intellectual for the average believer. Scholarly conservatives usually concede this point, and allow a distinction between the spiritual reading of the text in the context of worship, and the scholarly study of the Bible within academia.

5. Non-scholarly Conservatism = The Bible is literal history. The real Jesus and the Christ of faith are identical. Jesus actually claimed to be the divine Messiah in unquestionable terms and performed indisputable miracles to prove his claim. Given this approach to Scripture, Jesus was a lunatic, a liar, or the Son of God and Savior of the world.

• Strengths: This approach is popular with Catholic laity, as well as Evangelical Protestantism. There are Protestants scholars who lean heavily to towards this approach, as well as Catholic theologians at a doctoral level who hold no advanced degrees in Scriptural studies per se. It is simple to understand, and can be used to justify the faith claims of historic Christianity.
• Weaknesses: This approach is fundamentalist, and can lead to contradictions on the one hand, and proof texting on the other. The scholarly liberal and the atheist will pose questions to the non-scholarly conservative that cannot possibly be answered with intellectual honesty and responsibility. For example, Luke says the Risen Christ appears to the Twelve Jerusalem by Monday morning, and commands them not to leave the city till he ascends to heaven. Yet, Mark has the Risen Christ tell the women to instruct the disciples to go to Galilee to greet him. There is 60 miles between, and the Twelve could not have made it to Galillee and back by Monday. One othe Gospels is wrong on the facts. Efforts to reconcile these types of contradictions often involve tortured mental gymnastics. Holding onto this view tightly makes fools of Christianity.

6. Bultmannian Existentialism = Bultman was almost agnostic about the issue of whether the real Jesus and the Christ of faith are the same. He did accept the methods of the scholarly liberals, but saw no challenge to faith if there are no supernatural events behind the New Testament proclamation. Nor did Bultman see the need to discard the high Christology of the New Testament in light of liberal scholarly research. Bultman argued that the real Jesus offered his disciples an existential challenge in his proclamation of the kingdom of God. The New Testament has a functional equivalent to this same existential challenge, whether Jesus intended it or not.

Methods of Interpretation:

Textual Criticism = Do we have a faithful rendering of the original text?

Classical Criticism: What is the literal, allegorical, typological, and moral meaning of the text?

Source Criticism = Where did the author receive his information?

Historical Criticism = What were the historical circumstances effecting the author? What is the history behind the text?

Redaction Criticism = How was the text edited?

Literary Criticism = What genre of literature is the text? What was the intent of the author?

Rhetorical Criticism = What did the text say to the original reader?

Canonical Criticism = Why was the text accepted in the canon?

Feminist Criticism = What does the male authored text say about women and for women?

Liberation Theology = How do the marginalized read the text?

Spiritual Reading = Visualize yourself in the story. What does the text say to you?

Action Criticism = What is the theatrical impact of the action in the story?

Homiletics = How does the text interpret daily life of the living Church in the context of Eucharistic worship? (God’s story, the preacher’s story, and our story)

How are documents dated?

Did anyone in 1315 A.D. quote William Shakespear? External quoting of a Biblical texts reveals the text was written before the person who quoted it.

Think of the word “gay”. Did it mean the same thing in 1890 that it means today? The word usage of the New Testament texts is very consistent with first century Palestinian Jewish usage.

Could anyone write of nuclear fushion in 1776? The events described in the New Testament help us date it, such the reign of Pontius Pilate.

If someone wrote against communist ideas, did he live before or after Karl Marx? The Biblical authors address issues that were important to a certain time period.

Look at your grandmother’s old photographs. Are there physical properties of the photo that give away the age? What about the clothing style, hairstyle, etc… Physical properties of manuscripts can reveal their age.

How do we know that our texts are accurate?

We have over 2,000 manuscripts, in several different languages (Greek, Latin, Coptic, Syriac, and Aramaic). While there are many minor variances, we can deduce from the wealth of evidence that we have faithfully preserved the original meaning of the text. For example, if 100 people copy one page of a document by hand, and half the people make mistakes, they will not make the exact same mistake in all 100 copies. Thus, with each variant, we can typically look at what the majority of texts say.

Estimated Timeline:

Jesus Life:
1. Jesus was likely born around 8-4 B.C.
2. John the Baptist gains a following in the late teens. Herod is a half-Jew appointed king by the Romans, and charged by corruption by John. The Essenes live in semi-monastic communities awaiting a Messiah. The Pharisees rise to prominence in the north in Galilee, and await a cleansing of the temple. The Sadducees gain prominence in the south, control the temple, and ally themselves with Roman power. The Samaritans are mixed race with Babylonians and lie between Galilee and Jerusalem. Many Jews have lost faith.
3. Public Ministry of Jesus begins around 23 or 24 A.D.
4. Crucifixion occurs around 27 A.D. According to gospels, Jesus was in conflict with Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes. However, Jesus’ theology is pharisaic, and the description of conflict in New Testament may be a later interpolation after the destruction of the temple.
The Pre-New Testament Church
5. Oral Period of transmission of faith. It was not uncommon for disciples of a Rabbi to have memorized the Rabbi’s words. Perhaps three traditions arose: Jesus’ aphorisms and parables (memorized teachings), stories about Jesus (miracles, crucifixion, early creedal formulas), and a primitive Aramaic gospel. The church seems to have been radically egalitarian, pluralistic, and believed that ongoing prophetic utterances came from Christ/God. Women are called apostles, deacons, ‘elders’ and prophets. The Twelve seem to achieve a legendary status in the community. Conversion of Saul takes place somewhere between 30 A.D. and 50 A.D. depending on how we weigh the evidence. The Old Testament is the only written Scripture of the Church.
6. Possible composition of a list of Jesus sayings: hypothetical Quelle source, possibly Gospel of Thomas if we accept early origin, but many scholars place dating of Thomas at 150 A.D. Greek speaking Jewish Christians outside of Palestine are using the Septuagint version of the Old Testament.
7. Around 48 A.D. tensions begin to mount between Gentile and Jewish Christians. The “Ebionites” or “Nazarenes” form around 54 A.D. and may have been allied with James and the Judaizers, as well as essene converts. Judaizers believe that Gentile converts must be circumcised and adhere to Mosaic dietary law. Some Judaizers and Ebionites are vegetarian and opposed to slavery. They will survive into the fifth century.
The First Writings
8. Paul writes I and II Thessalonians around 50 A.D. (23 years after the crucifixion).
9. Paul writes Galatians, Philemon, and Philippians between 51 and 53 A.D.
10. Paul writes I and II Corinthians around 54-56 A.D.
11. Paul writes Letter to the Romans around 58 A.D.
12. Mark’s gospel written between 50 and 80 A.D. Most scholars think 70 A.D. There are good arguments for earlier dates. The gospel draws on independent sources from Paul, and presents a different message. It is written to a Roman audience by a Palestinian Jew using Greek as a second language. Ancient legend has it that Mark is Peter’s secretary.
13. Nero begins persecution of Christians in Rome in 64 A.D. Paul is martyred around this time. Peter is martyred soon after between 64 and 67. Both were martyred in Rome.
14. I and II Peter, if written by Peter were composed before 67 A.D. If written by a secretary, they may have been published between 70 and 90 A.D. Because they seem to address Gentiles, and Peter was known to have weak relations with the Gentiles, it is believed these letters were published after Peter’s death by a secretary.
15. The Roman war against the Jews begins in 65 A.D. Leading to destruction of the temple around 70 A.D. Jews and Christians are dispersed from Jerusalem. This begins the period of intense effort to consolidate written sources.
16. The Letter of Jude was written sometime between 50 and 80 AD, or even the early second century. Scholars seem to go to extremes on this letters dating. The arguments for early dating are actually made by atheist, who see the letter as evidence that myth arose before the creation of a historical narrative about Jesus. The argument for later dating is based on the letters references to apostles as people who have passed.
17. Around 70 A.D., the letter of James is published. The author seems to disagree with Paul’s theology of salvation by faith, or wishes to clarify it at the very least. The author of James was likely associated with the Jerusalem Church and close to the Ebionites.
18. The gospels of Matthew and Luke likely borrow from Mark and Quelle. Some scholars argue Luke was written prior to Paul’s death, since Acts does not record his martyrdom. If this is true, Mark and Luke were both written before 64 A.D. However, other evidence points to all canonical gospels being written after the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. based on internal references to the destruction of the temple. The majority consensus places Matthew and Luke (including Acts) around 80 or 90 A.D. (53 years after the crucifixion). It is generally believed that Matthew is slightly older than Luke because of less developed theology. Yet, it is also possible they simply did not know each other, and wrote in different locations around the same time. Matthew is a Greek speaking Jew, probably writing to a Jewish Christian community in Syria. He makes the clearest reference to the Trinity in the New Testament, but some sceptics believe that this is a later addition. Luke is a Greek speaking Gentile, who may have been briefly associated with Paul. Luke writes to a global audience, and waters down Jesus’ particular Jewishness.
19. Colossians, Ephesians, Titus, and I and II Timothy are published after Paul’s death, and seem to differ in style from the authentic Pauline corpus. Some scholars argue that these texts are Pauline texts reflecting a Paul’s thought at a later age. Others argue they were written by a Pauline secretary. Still others argue that they were written by someone claiming to write in the spirit of Paul. Dating is disputed at anywhere from 65 A.D. to 125 A.D. These letters contain troublesome passages about slavery and women, though they also mention women deacons and possibly women priests (the word presbyteras is used of elder women in the same passages Rome uses to justify ordination of presbyteros by laying on of hands).
20. Sometime between 65 and 90 A.D., Hebrews is written by an anonymous author. Only in the third century does this letter begin to be attributed to Paul, but the literary style and theology cannot be written by the same author of the authentic Pauline corpus.
21. Gnostic Christianity begins sometime in the 60’s A.D.
22. Docetism arises sometime in the 60’s A.D.
23. John’s gospel is written around 90 A.D. (63 years after the crucifixion). According to ancient legend, the member of the Twelve named John was exiled to the Greek island of Patmos, and lived to a very old age. Saint Papias writes in the second century that he personally knew Saint Polycarp, who knew John the Apostle. In the same passage, Papias references another John, called the Elder. According to Papias, the gospel was written by John, but the grammar in Papias is not clear which John (the Elder or the Apostle). Some scholars have argued that the text was possibly written by a disciple of John the Baptist who converted to Christ. In this view, the gospel received it’s name from the Baptist’s community. The gospel is written by someone extremely familiar with the physical landscape of Jerusalem before the destruction of the temple. The author interweaves Jewish thought and Old Testament allusions carefully into the text, implying Jewish authorship. At the same time, the author writes in lofty Greek, uses philosophical allusions familiar to Philo the Jew and Greek secular philosophers and Greek Gnostic religions. Is the author Jewish or Greek? The author seems to imply throughout that he is the beloved disciple of the Lord. Yet, there are clear signs of editing by someone else, even in our oldest manuscripts. Most scholars see John’s gospel as intended as “an insiders gospel”. The theology is well developed, and forms the basis for the Trinitarian formulas at Nicea. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, many scholars were convinced that John’s gospel contained too lofty theology to originate in the first century. However, a fragment has been found that cannot be dated later than 117 A.D., and archeological finds in the twentieth century indicate that author knew Jerusalem too well for anyone who was not alive prior to 70 A.D. Scholars are cautiously coming to the conclusion that the text was written by a school of disciples who may have truly known John the apostle first hand.
24. Two references to Christians are found in Josephus. Modern scholars admit that both were tampered with by later Christian editors.
25. The Didache composed between 90 and 110 A.D. seems to be the Eucharistic prayers without the actual words of consecration.
26. The Book of Revelations is written between 90 and 110 A.D. The style is Jewish apocalyptic, with frequent quotations form the Old Testament. There was heavy dispute whether this book would be accepted in the Canon of Scripture.
27. The Council of Jamnia (a Jewish Council) around 100 A.D. determines the canon of the Old Testament based on the Hebrew texts in use in Palestine. Seven writings of the Greek Septuagint version are excluded, as well as the essene writings and apocalyptic books such as Enoch. However, the New Testament authors had quoted from the Septuagint some 313 times, and also quoted from 1 Enoch. Though Jamnia was a Jewish council, its conclusions would influence Protestant Christians 1,400 years later to reject the Catholic use of II Maccabees in support of purgatory.
28. I, II, and III John are written around 100 to 110 A.D.
29. Ignatius of Antioch writes letters implying belief in the Trinity, Eucharist, and ministerial hierarchy of deacon, priest, and bishop around 115 A.D.
30. Sporadic persecution of Christians throughout the Empire intensifies. Tacitus makes reference to two Christian deaconesses whom he put to death around 117 A.D.
31. The Shepherd of Hermes becomes a Christian classic that many considered inspired in the early Church.
32. If we accept late dating of deutero-Pauline letters, they are completed by 125 A.D.
Post-New Testament gospels
33. If we deny early authorship of Gospel of Thomas in first century, it was written sometime in second. Oldest manuscripts date to fifth century and have been tampered. However, the style seems to reveal a primitive origin.
34. Gospel of Mary Magdelene written around 100 A.D.
35. The Secret Book of James written between 100-150 A.D.
36. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas written between 100 and 200 A.D.
37. The Infancy Gospel of James written around 150 A.D.
38. The Gospel of Barnabas, Letters of Barnabas written in late second century.
39. The Acts of Peter, Paul and Thelca, and Acts of Thomas written in second or early third century.
40. Revelations of James, Thomas, and Peter written in late second or early third century.

posted by Jcecil3  # 2:57 PM


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