Baker Academic

Friday, August 12, 2016

Jesus and the Last Supper: More Thoughts

Over at Crux Sola, Christopher Skinner is doing a serial review of Jesus and the Last Supper. He has invited me to respond to the review, so below are some further thoughts:

In Skinner's first part of his serial review, he omitted all of my arguments against historical plausibility (see Jesus and the Last Supper, pp. 45-46) and incorrectly said that I "state" an "intention" to “err on the side of historicity.” I appreciate that he was willing to go back and correct the omission from the original post. However, in his third installment, he still seems to be omitting what I say and critiquing things I did not say.

1. For example, Skinner claims that I “never” provide “any sort of statement about what the gospels are (in terms of genre)” or “how they function as historical (or even quasi-historical) documents.” This is demonstrably false. On page 46, I expressly state: “the four Gospels should not be treated as stenographs of Jesus’ teachings but as ancient Greco-Roman biographies.” Then I spend several pages discussing the implications of this for what I mean by historical plausibility (pp. 46-50). Why ignore this and then critique me for “never” giving any statement about genre?

2. He also claims that the list of “new Moses” parallels he quotes at length (from pp. 54-55) are texts that I “deem historically plausible.” This is also incorrect. In fact, in the very next line—which Skinner strangely omits—I deliberately left the question of their historical plausibility open: “Whether or not one accepts the historicity of each one of these episodes…” (p. 55). In reality, I made no judgments about historical value of any of these passages. I simply listed them to show what evidence has led other scholars, such as Dale Allison, to conclude that Jesus saw himself as a new Moses. Why leave out this line?

3. Skinner states that I appear to “reject” the classic “Three Stage” model of gospel formation. I almost laughed out loud when I read this, since I regularly teach Vatican II’s three-stage model of gospel development in Dei Verbum 19 to my graduate students. Though somewhat overly simplistic, this model helps show that the gospel authors selected some things from tradition, reduced some things to a synthesis, explained some things in view of the contemporary situation of their churches, etc. As a result, Skinner is right: the gospels are certainly not “raw, unadorned, historical ‘reporting’.” But I never said they were, nor did I treat them as such. Those are his words, not mine. I said they were ancient Greco-Roman biographies. And I explicitly stated that “the ipsissima verba” are “incontrovertibly not what the Gospel authors... ever intended to provide us" (p. 46). So why focus a critique on positions I did not actually espouse? Why set up a straw man?

4. Finally, there is Skinner's concern over treating the gospels “as though they are records of what actually happened." (Update: in my original post, I misquoted Skinner and used the word 'contain' records rather than 'are' records. I've edited this post to more accurately reflect his point.) As I understand it, the entire quest is predicated on the assumption that at least some of what is recorded in the gospels and other sources "actually happened."
 Didn't the crucifixion of Jesus actually happen? Aren't Lucian’s Life of Demonax and Josephus’ Life of himself records of things that “actually happened’? I for one think they are. To be sure, that is not to say the gospels or any other ancient biographies are "uninterpreted" accounts--there are no such things. Nevertheless, it is the task of the historian to try to the best of his or her ability to evaluate the historical plausibility or implausibility of a given teaching or action attributed to Jesus in the gospels. And this can't be done simply by appealing to global statements about "the gospels" as a whole, as Skinner seems wont to do. Each saying or action attributed to Jesus has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. That is how I proceed in Jesus and the Last Supper. The question is: if a scholar accepts the historical plausibility of some episodes and rejects the historical plausibility of others, the question is: What are the reasons for doing so? 

To his credit, Prof. Skinner say that he doesn't “want to be guilty of putting words” in my “mouth” or “characterizing my work unfairly.” I appreciate that. But so far, when it comes to several of his main criticisms, that is exactly what he seems to be doing. I hope that in the future he will reserve more of his critiques for arguments that I actually make and positions I actually take.

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