Thursday, January 21, 2010

Craig Keener and the Historical Foundation for the Passion Narratives

I'm still making my way through Craig Keener's impressive volume on The Historical Jesus of the Gospels.  I'm currently reading about Jesus' arrest and execution and he is addressing the problem of the genre and historical reliability of the passion narratives.  I want to let you read two paragraphs where he summarizes the evidence for the historical reliability of the pre-Markan passion narrative.  His leans heavily on Gerd Theissen's book The Gospels in Context: Social and Political History in the Synoptic Tradition in these paragraphs. I've read this same sort of argument before but Keener summarizes it so well I thought I would share it.  Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
"Theissen argues for the most part (and sufficiently) persuasively that the pre-Markan passion narrative as a whole was in use by A. D. 40 in Jerusalem and Judea.  Thus, for example, Mark preserves names (such as the sons that identify the second Mary and Simon) that serve no recognizable function in his own narrative--but that may well have been recognizable to those who transmitted his early Jerusalem source (Mk 15:21, 40).  Place names like Nazareth, Magdala, and Arimathea would mean nothing to audiences outside Palestine.  (Regarding Mary Magdalene, who would invent an origin in Magdala?  A Magdala appears often enough in later rabbinic sources, but it was not known by this name outside Palestine.)"
"Although one normally identifies local persons through their father's name, most persons in the passion narrative (which identifies more people 'than elsewhere in the synoptic tradition') are identified by their place of origin instead.  This practice makes the most sense in the church's first generation in Jerusalem, when (and where) its leading figures were people from elsewhere.  Mark presumes his audience's prior knowledge of Pilate and (more significantly) Barabbas and other insurrectionists, despite Pilate's confrontation with a wide array of revolutionaries.  Finally, some central characters in the account remain anonymous, probably to protect living persons who could face criminal charges in Jerusalem, fitting other ancient examples of protective anonymity.  Taken together, these arguments seem persuasive." 
But that's not all. 
"Another line of evidence also supports the substantial reliability of the picture of Jesus’ execution found in the passion narrative: it fits what we know of the period in question. Thus Craig Evans compares Josephus’ account of Joshua ben Hananiah, who similarly entered the Temple area during a festival. Like Jesus, he spoke of doom for Jerusalem, the sanctuary and the people, even referring (again like Jesus) to the context of Jeremiah’s prophecy of judgment against the Temple. The Jewish leaders arrested and beat Joshua and handed him over to the Roman governor, who interrogated him. He refused to answer the governor, was scourged, and—in this case unlike Jesus (though cf. Mk 15:9)—released. The different outcome is not difficult to account for: unlike Joshua, Jesus of Nazareth was not viewed as insane and already had a band of followers, plus a growing reputation that could support messianic claims. Joshua ben Hananiah could be simply punished in an attempt to deter his continued antisocial behavior; Jesus of Nazareth had to be executed." (Keener is referencing an essay by Craig Evans called "What Did Jesus Do?" in Jesus Under Fire edited by Michael Wilkins and J. P. Moreland.  Oh, you may be wondering, like I did, whether there could be a literary relationship between Josephus and the Markan passion narrative since there are so many parallels between them.  Evans provides a couple of reasons why he thinks there wasn't one.  See his essay p.114n30.)   
I believe, with Keener, this presents a fairly strong case for the reliability of the pre-Markan passion narrative. 


Valerie Gross said...

I have a question for you, one that has been rattling around inside my thoughts and in my conversations for some time now and that your post brings right to front:
What bearing does the historical accuracy of the Gospels have on their spiritual power? If we are talking about our souls, and our experience of Our Divine Creator, and if we accept the indeniable spiritual truth of the Passion, what is the value of journalistic accuracy? I would be so interested in your answer. thanks.

Andrew said...

Wow. Great question, Valerie, and one that I've heard others ask, and that I've asked on occasion.

Louis, I'd like to hear your answer to that too!

Louis said...

Valerie, you ask a great question. I want to be careful how I answer so I’m not misunderstood.

First let me clarify that we’re not looking for “journalistic accuracy” since that would impose a modern day notion on ancient historiography. We are, however, seeking a certain level of reliability when we look at the historicity of certain events in the Bible. We want to know if the events recounted really occurred or are they just myths.

Some theologians see no value in the historical events and will freely admit they pose nothing for our faith. Paul Tillich once wrote that it was “a disastrous distortion of the meaning of faith to identify it with the belief in the historical validity of the Biblical stories.” (Dynamics of Faith, p. 87) Carl Henry describes the thought of New Testament scholar Rudolph Bultmann like this: “the Gospels are not historical accounts but simply forms used to present a message that propels us to existential decision.” Furthermore, “Nothing historically factual is relevant except that he lived and was crucified, and even this historical requirement flows not by any logical necessity from an existential stance but issues rather from Bultmann’s desire to avoid the total collapse of what is historical into simply a Redeemer-myth.” (God, Revelation and Authority, vol. 2 p. 285)

I would agree with William Lane Craig that our faith is not based on evidence as such but on the testimony of the Holy Spirit. But God has chosen to reveal himself through Scripture and that includes the events recorded. If the events never happened then what’s to stop us from just calling it “just a story.” Robert Price says “The tendency of history, disappointing as it is to us at a certain stage, telling us it is time to put away childish things, is that the more a narrative resembles myth and epic, or fiction, the more likely it is. The more brimming with archetypes and artifice the story is, the more probable that it is ‘just’ a story. And as we grow more mature, we stop saying things like ‘just a story.’ (The Historical Jesus: Five Views p. 182) This is precisely what Bultmann was trying to avoid. He wanted to shield the saving principle of Christianity from any kind of historical criticism. But once the Scriptures are effectively dismissed how do you determine anything at all about Christianity? Let’s take for example the passion narrative. If the events are not true then what does it mean to talk about the “spiritual truth” of the Passion? If that “spiritual” truth is not grounded in the historical event of Jesus’ death then any truth derived from it is little more than the equivalent to the morals of Aesop’s Fables.

When Christian apologists or theologians defend the historicity of a passage it isn’t meant to shore it up so that it will have more spiritual power. They are providing reasons why the passage can be trusted in what it says happened. The importance of the historicity of these events stems from the writers of the New Testament themselves. Over and over again they appeal to the truth of what they saw and heard. Carl Henry wrote that “The Christian must either believe that the great redemptive events belong to the realm of history or forfeit his faith.” (ibid. p. 289) This is a terribly short answer to a profound question and I’m glad you asked it. I hope this helps somewhat. I’m happy to follow up if you have further questions and or need clarification on anything I said here.

Andrew said...

Louis, thanks for this thoughtful response. This sentiment is helpful for me when I ask the same questions Valerie did:

"When Christian apologists or theologians defend the historicity of a passage it isn’t meant to shore it up so that it will have more spiritual power. They are providing reasons why the passage can be trusted in what it says happened."

Sometimes that seems counter-intuitive to "faith". After all if we have faith, why do we need anymore reasons? But others may need the reasons, and Faith is not an opposite to Reason (though many try to position them that way).

Thanks, Louis.

What do you think, Valerie?