Baker Academic

Sunday, November 4, 2012

In Defense of Revisionist History (Part II)—Le Donne

Part I is here—and I found the comments for that post particularly helpful.

All history is revisionist to some extent. Sometimes we revise our histories because we stumble onto better data. Sometimes we do it because we learn to understand human behavior better. There are plenty of reasons to revise previously well-regarded histories. I’m fairly confident that this is what Matthew was doing with Mark. Matthew’s Jesus just makes more sense in conversation with first-century Judean synagogue culture (at least this is what Matthew seems to think). This is not to call Mark better or worse. Matthew’s revision of Mark just shows us how historical memory works.

I am well aware (perhaps more than most) that talking about genre issues in the Bible can make many Christians uncomfortable. But look, it is an important topic and one worth a bit of give and take. Unless we can work our way to a more sophisticated understanding of these issues, we’re doomed to repeat our heresy trials about dinosaur bones, big fish, and how many women were present at the empty tomb. Far too many of us were taught to think of the Gospels as supernaturally accurate courtroom transcripts. This notion lurks behind much of the hostile insistence that the Gospels are historical. Don’t get me wrong, the Gospels are historical; I just don’t take my cues from von Ranke (or Lonergan for that matter) when I make this claim.

So, taking the advice of Prof. Dr. Keith, let me say this as plainly as I can: the Gospels are not supernaturally accurate courtroom transcripts. They are a different genre altogether.

If you think that they are supernaturally accurate, you’ll have to go elsewhere because I get supernaturally bored by examples of contradictions in the Gospels. Folks who spend their time trying to catalog and reconcile these contradictions eventually become (what James Crossley calls) apologists for atheism.

But the real problem isn’t with the apologists. The real problem is that when normal folks (Christians and otherwise) say the word “historical” they import some really unhelpful connotative baggage. While they wouldn’t use the phrase “supernaturally accurate courtroom transcripts”, many people’s notions of “historical accuracy” are not far from this. Accuracy just isn’t a good way to think about memory; reliability might be better, but the apologists still hold this word hostage.

For many (most?) people, when they say “the Gospels are historical” they mean that the Evangelists represent what the FBI would have caught on tape if the Upper Room was wiretapped.   People, even if Dick Cheney traveled back in time to wiretap the Upper Room, it would still be just one more bit of historical memory set into relationship with sociological, theological, archaeological, and mythological evidence.  It would just be another piece of data… and a dubious piece at that because time travel is difficult and Dick Cheney is science fiction.  Doing history is not the simple act of accumulating data.  We caught the JFK assassination on tape; the tape only represents data, not history.  There are multiple histories, some more plausible than others.

Here we arrive at the heart of the problem: the Gospels present us with data to be considered; the Gospels do not do the work of the historian on behalf of the historian.  This is why we have to know what we’re looking at when we read the Gospels.  They are ancient biographies and ancient biographies do not function like courtroom transcripts.  So then, what is the best modern analogue for the ancient biography?

In my last post on this topic, Thomas wrote:
I think a helpful (though not wholly adequate) contemporary genre analogy to the gospels would be historical film. The film makers/script writers combine several motifs of history, worldview, and artistic craft into the final product - often unconsciously.
I like this suggestion a whole lot. Perhaps historical Jesus scholars ought to get together with filmmakers/scriptwriters to learn a bit more about this process.  A similar impetus stands behind the last thirty years of interest in ancient media culture by biblical scholars (if you’re interested, start here).  But perhaps the filmmaker angle would help the general public get their minds around the whole genre thing.  Would it be heretical to say that I think that the Gospels are more like historical films and less like historical documentaries?  Because if it is, I won’t say it.

Part III is here.


  1. People will never stop debating what the gospels *are* and how much they might tell us.

    What intrigues me about doing History with the Gospels is not "What do we know?" But "What can we do with that?"

    Dale Allison's new method, for instance, is a big positive to me. Although technically reductive, or perhaps technically 'minimalist', in the final analysis his project proves to be wholly constructive. Instead of subtracting from our confidence (about particular areas of focus) it adds. Instead of tearing down the Jesus *of* the Gospels, it builds up a Jesus "from" the Gospels. (And really, actually from the Gospels. Not from twisting the Gospels or distorting their emphasis.) Although Dale's Jesus does not and cannot replace the Gospel's Jesus (and I don't suspect he would want to do so either) the constructed Jesus provides a nice circumspection *on* this Jesus *of* the Gospels.

    I would like to see more of that kind of thing, please. These endless "How much is reliable?" conversations always come to a push.

    1. Thanks Bill, much more and will be said about Allison's new project. The extent to which it is "new" depends on how much one sees the influence of CH Dodd's program. Regardless, it is a significant step forward for Jesus research. I sincerely hope that it is appreciated for its own merit and isn't lumped in with "memory" studies more generally (I've seen this broad-brush sort of move in a footnote recently to my dismay). Your point about "build from" the Gospels instead of "tearing down" is an extremely important observation. -I don't see his program as contributing to a new "no quest" as some have suggested.

  2. Oh, forgive me - to answer your question! No, it's not heretical. It's intriguing, although I wouldn't go too far with the 'film vs doco' analogy (but all analogies break down quickly, natch).

    Much more importantly, I think I like what you're trying to say. The upcoming Lincoln film is going to show us something of Lincoln in a 'portrait-like' way. A Lincoln doco would be more analytical, as a "proper history" should be. Both have a role to play.

    For my part, I think the Gospels are more like portraits than docos, but (like historical films) they do embed solid historical data in the midst of their narratives. Teasing out data from narrative is challenging but helpful, and I don't think analyzing some threads of the tapestry in a more stringent way causes any damage at all to the contribution of the whole.

    But which threads give hard data and which do not? As I commented earlier, we can't ever really be sure.

  3. They obviously use techniques to influence their audiences. Matthew is so obviously written to Jews about Jews and their attitudes/traditions/relationship with Yahweh and long predicted judgment.

    Mark wasn't.

    I think the main differences are in the target audiences myself. Some of the differences such as 1 angel or 2 angels or was it men are explainable to me anyway.

    Were the eyewitnesses looking in the tomb, coming from the side of it, do angels in OT texts look like men at times(yes) or angels(yes). Both answers make good logic to different eyewitnesses. The fact some of them died for their faith after seeing Christ alive again makes such differences meaningless to me.

  4. You should be so lucky to take your cues from Lonergan. Hopefully I'll see you at AAR/SBL.

  5. Thanks for this, Anthony. I think it's helpful. But Dick Cheney in the Upper Room is not a thought I cherish.