Jesus among Friends and Enemies by Matthew D. Jensen on 441–2. Overall, it’s a positive and helpful review, for which I’m grateful. I want to draw attention to something he says at the end of his criticisms, though, because they’re very pertinent to some other discussions we’ve had on this blog.
Each chapter in that book breaks into an initial historical section on what we know about a character outside the Gospel texts and then a narrative section on how the Gospels present the character. In reference to this layout, Jensen says, “This very method devalues the Gospels as historical sources and gives the appearance that appealing to the NT documents is not objective. This devaluing of the historical reliability of the Gospels in turn can result in the appearance that the Gospel events did not happen but are narrated for literary purposes. To be fair, these two tensions have to be felt so that the book’s argument as a whole can work. However, I did not feel that they were clearly resolved in the conclusion.”
Of course, as editor, I respectfully disagree that the layout of the book devalues the Gospels as historical sources. The layout of the book serves a pedagogical aim that the Introduction clearly sets out. And, as the author of the final chapter, I underscore that the main thrust of that chapter is about how the Gospels have become more prominent as historical sources in historical Jesus research on methodological grounds.
My real concern, though, is the type of slippery-slope thinking at work in these criticisms, a thinking that was all too frequent among my and Anthony’s detractors at our former employer. Jensen’s criticisms focus not on what the layout sets out to accomplish (giving students an appreciation of the broader historical record and an appreciation of the intricacy of the Gospel narratives) and whether it does so, but rather “the appearance” that the method might give (from one perspective) and what this appearance “can” “in turn result in,” which happens to be another “appearance,” this time one that doubts the historical reliability of the Gospels. All of a sudden in the space of two sentences, we’ve gotten from the book’s layout to the position that, apparently, nothing in the Gospels that carries a literary purpose is historical—a position that no single contributor to the book would affirm. And we’ve gotten here not from actual arguments and statements, but rather impressions, and impressions that lead to impressions. Ultimately, he finds dissatisfaction in the book’s failure to resolve an issue that it never set out to resolve (the historical reliability of the Gospels). I suppose this is all worth mentioning because, at the end of this trek through Jensen’s impressions, we are back at the Modernist-Fundamentalist debates that divorced “history” from “literary purposes.” Reconciling those two things has been hard-fought historiographical ground, which some of us (Anthony and I included) would not want to give up.