Baker Academic

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Thatcher and Horsley on "Taking the Gospels Whole”—Chris Keith

In their new book, John, Jesus & the Renewal of Israel (Eerdmans, 2013) and in a chapter called "Taking the Gospels Whole," Tom Thatcher and Richard Horsley have made a point similar to the point made by Jens Schroeter, which I discussed in an earlier blog post.  In noting how previous Jesus research has focused intensively upon isolated saying and traditions about Jesus, divorced from their narrative contexts in the Gospels, Thatcher and Horsley note how more recent approaches have challenged this method:

"This new research procceeded more or less separately in several interrelated areas--including studies of orality and literacy, textual criticism, and social memory--while the new narrative criticism of the Gospels took its inspiration from modern literary criticism and its assumptions about modern prose fiction.  It is now becoming evident, however, that the implications of these various explorations reinforce one another in challenging what had become standard assumptions and procedures in interpretation of the Gospels and investigation of the historical Jesus" (57).

The first point they make after this is that there really could not have been such thing as an "original" version of a saying in light of the dynamics of oral tradition; or at least that there's no way for us to establish what it would have been.  Their second point is then where they line up with Schroeter's point, though not by directly interracting with him:

"The focus on individual sayings ignores the communication process that would have been necessary for Jesus to become an important historical figure in the first place. . . .  People cannot communicate in isolated individual sayings--no one speaks only in 'one-liners.'
Jesus must have communicated and interacted with other people who resonated with his speech and action in the contexts of their own lives.  Like fragments of pottery in museum cases, the isolated individual sayings of Jesus may be precious artifacts to the scholars who sort them out and categorize them, but since they cannot have been units of meaningful communication between Jesus and other people, they are not by themselves historical sources for Jesus.  And these tiny fragments cannot, by themselves, convey 'meaning' in a sense that would assist in interpretation of the larger Gospels in which they appear" (59 - 60, emphasis original).

So far I'm really enjoying this book.  I am, however, a Thatcherite!


  1. I have had the book sitting on my shelf since SBL last November but haven't gotten around to it yet. This post makes me want to move it to the top of the reading pile!

  2. There are certainly things to disagree with, but there's also lots to like.

  3. It sounds a little like the point I tried to make in a comment sometime earlier. All four gospel accounts present us with the same basic personality of Jesus. The individual acts, sayings, and even vocabulary may differ, but the same personality is still there behind the texts.

    1. I don't think that's quite what they mean, Bilbo.

    2. Perhaps not, but when they write, "Jesus must have communicated and interacted with other people who resonated with his speech and action in the contexts of their own lives," they seem to be saying that the sayings and acts of Jesus that we have recorded in the Gospels are there because they fit in with the personality of Jesus that people were familiar with. If I might compare it with a modern personality, we have many "Yogiisms" that Yogi Berra never said. But they have become associated with him because they resonate with the kind of thing that Yogi was likely to say. We know Yogi's personality, so when we hear a supposed "Yogiism" we say, "Yes, Yogi might have said that." Likewise, I think people knew Jesus so well, that when someone claimed to quote him, they could say, "Yes, that sounds like something Jesus might have said." Or when someone claimed that Jesus performed a certain action, people could say, "Yes, that sounds like the sort of thing Jesus would have done, and the way he would have done it." So we end up with four Gospels that may differ in particulars about Jesus, but the same personality lies behind all of them.

  4. That half-smile by Tom Thatcher is perfect. He's the Mona Lisa of NT studies.