Monday, November 08, 2010

Deliberating the general historicity of all the gospel accounts, in particular, John's gospel vis-a-vis the synoptic tradition

I am writing an essay on the gospel of John chapter 18 for a paper for hermeneutics class. While reading through the passages, I felt that I need to talk about the historicity issues. While reading J. Martin C. Scott's commentary, I noticed that he was rather confident in separating the theological from the historical portion in the gospel.

Here is what I wrote:

Look at these two sentences by Scott: “[On John 18.6] This is less a historical report than a theological comment by the Fourth Evangelist on Jesus’ authority…” and “There being no obvious theological interest in reporting the story in this way, it may well be that the [Fourth Gospel] retains a historical reminiscence independent of the Synoptic tradition." (J. Martin C. Scott, “ John” in Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, ed. James D. G. Dunn and John W. Rogerson [USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003], 1203, 1204.)

I think that we can neither, strictly speaking, tag one part of John’s gospel as historical without theological reference, while other parts as mere theological statement without historicity even with the aid of the three synoptic gospels.

The usual scholarly practice in comparing John’s account with the synoptic tradition in order to investigate the historicity of the former is an overly optimistic attempt. Such stunts are employed with the assumption that one is more historical than the other. Yet the adjudication to favour the historicity of one rather than the other is often lacking in substance.
However, this is not to disregard altogether the historical question of these texts. Attempts capably initiated by scholars like Richard Bauckham and Richard Burridge are utterly valid. My problem lies not with the general historicity of the data contained in all four gospels, but in the confidence to adjudicate one datum as (more) historical than another when we have contradictory accounts, like Jesus’ visitation to the Jerusalem temple (John 2 vis-à-vis Mark 11). We do not know whether Jesus went into the temple at the beginning or near the end of his life. But what we can be certain of is that he did caused commotion at the temple at one point of his life.

After writing my thoughts above, I found out that James Dunn thinks the same:

"[I]t is the recognition that Jesus can be perceived only through the impact he made on his first disciples (that is, their faith) which is the key to a historical recognition (and reassessment) of that impact."
(James Dunn, Jesus Remembered [USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003], 132. Emphasis original.)

Michael Bird shared a quote from Gerhard Kittel, which dated all the way back to 1930, that argued similarly:

"The Jesus of History is valueless and unintelligible unless He be experienced and confessed by faith as the living Christ. But, if we would be true to the New Testament, we must at once reverse this judgement. The Christ of faith has no existence, is mere noise and smoke, apart from the reality of Jesus of History. These two are utterly inseparable in the New Testament. They cannot even be thought of apart … Anyone who attempts first to separate the two and then to describe only one of them, has nothing in common with the New Testament."
(Gerhard Kittel, G. K. A. Bell and A. Deissman [eds], Mysterium Christi [London, 1930], 49.)

Since this is not unknown to scholars since the 1930s, it just amazed me that there were scholars who didn't take notice or pay much attention at this vital point. Unless we get this clear, all that we say about the historicity of the gospels' data is simply ignoring the nature of the text. If scholars in the past heed this point consistently, the market would be spared from so many fictitious books that question the historicity of the gospels. Or, that's precisely why this point is ignored: produce more books to be sold in the market. And not so much over genuine scholarly contribution?

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