Saturday, January 15, 2011

New Testament Study: "Great logic there, huh?"

For the past few months I have been watching on YouTube a lecture series which constitutes the Yale University Religious Studies course “Introduction to New Testament History and Literature.” The instructor is Dale Martin, Woolsey Professor of Religious Studies. Martin’s course examines the New Testament as text—written in the first century C.E. and providing evidence of the diversity of early Christianity and a reflection of the religious, social, and political environment of that time.

Around Christmastime friends who know of my interest in Christianity and who are devout Christians themselves loaned me a set of DVDs entitled Christianity: The First Three Centuries, From Christ to Constantine (How could a tiny sect ever conquer the world?). This lecture series is billed as “An Eight Session DVD Series by Dr. Paul L. Maier, Professor and Best-Selling Author.” Maier is Russell H. Seibert Professor of Ancient History at Western Michigan University. The DVD series is produced by Tobias Communications, an organization which appears to be mainly concerned with promoting Maier’s books and DVDs; there is no affiliation with WMU.

I am struck by the difference in the approach to the question of the historicity of the New Testament taken by these two historians. Martin is lecturing to undergraduate students at a prestigious university, so while he is a self-confessed Episcopalian, he is constrained by his environment to assume a critical-historical approach to the subject matter. Maier appears to be lecturing to adults in a non-academic setting, so he does not find himself under the same constraints as Martin. Yet both are distinguished historians, and one can thus reasonably assume that it is at least partly their prestige as scholars that has attracted a willing audience for their lectures.

While Martin’s course focuses on the New Testament and Maier’s series is a history of early Christianity as interpreted and told primarily by the early ecclesiastical historian Eusebius, each is clearly early church history.

In his opening lecture, Martin carefully explains to students the nature and purpose of the course. First he tells them what the course is not: an examination of the New Testament as Scripture, providing deeper insights into the theological message of the Bible and thus strengthening the faith of the participants. In contrast, some of the first words of Maier’s introductory lecture are, “And it all began from God’s ultimate revelation in one person, Jesus Christ.”

Lecture 13 of the Yale series is “The Historical Jesus.” In this lecture Professor Martin explains the difficulty of using the New Testament texts as historically reliable documents. He has introduced this problem in an earlier lecture, in which he demonstrates that the accounts of the life and ministry of Paul in Acts and in Galatians are completely different. In this lecture he gives another example: the birth narrative, which only appears in Matthew and Luke, the two versions being so different as to be utterly irreconcilable, leading scholars to conclude that nothing is known about the birth of Jesus.

In Lecture 13, Martin also talks about the New Testament accounts of the trial of Jesus. Modern biblical scholars have concluded that there is no evidence that any such trial ever occurred. He cites the following reasons for this conclusion:

  • The Romans did not need trials to crucify Jews; a Jew could be summarily executed if he was suspected of acting against the Empire
  • The New Testament versions of the trials are very different. In Mark’s account, for example, Jesus says almost nothing in his trial; in John’s version, he speaks a great deal
  • Records were not kept for trials at that time
  • In all four gospel accounts, the apostles had fled before the trial took place. In any case, had they not fled they still would not have been allowed to be present for any trial or hearing as they were lowly fishermen and peasants

Session 2 of Maier’s series, “Jesus of Nazareth: What else do we know?” also deals with the question of the historicity of the trial of Jesus. Maier offers as one item of evidence for the trial a riot in which Jews angry over the use of the temple treasury to finance a Roman water project for Jerusalem were attacked by Roman troops: “So Pilate has had a record of run-ins with the Jews that were pretty serious.” He then tells us about a coin minted by Pilate upon which appears a shepherd’s crook—not the crosier of the Good Shepherd but rather “the utensil used by the Roman augur” who predicted the future by examining the condition of the liver of a sheep that had been sacrificed (“Great logic there, huh?”).

Maier goes on:

And so this helps set the stage for Good Friday and the trial of Jesus. Pilate is under pressure; he’s had two or three run-ins with the Jews already. And so this is fresh detail that tremendously informs our knowledge of the politics behind the crucifixion and what’s going on on that day that changed the world, namely Good Friday. And yet you can’t believe how many critics doubt the historicity of the trial of Jesus, and I don’t know why they doubt it. You know we have the judge’s [i.e. Pilate’s] name on stone; we have his coinage; we have the evidence of his projects in Jerusalem according to [Flavius] Josephus. And then what about the prosecutor himself? He was the high priest of the Sanhedrin, you’ll recall: Joseph Caiaphas. And we get additional detail of Caiaphas from Josephus, from the rabbinical traditions, from Eusebius, and even from archaeology”—the discovery of Joseph Caiaphas’s ossuary. “The hard evidence [for the truth of biblical stories] is all over the place.

So here we have two approaches to historicity by two distinguished historians. The first is, at least in part, an attempt to determine the historical reliability of the biblical texts through careful exegesis and modern historical methodology. There appear to be no assumptions made and no attempt to “defend the faith.” The second is simply an exercise in Christian apologetics.

I have no problem with either approach. In both cases, the audience for the lectures is made up of adults who are capable of thinking critically and who are free to believe or disbelieve the information offered by the lecturer and to accept or dismiss the “evidence” provided.

I am curious, however, as to whether the people who attend Professor Maier’s lectures and buy his books and DVDs are aware beforehand of the obvious weakness of the evidential foundation of his claims for the historicity of the New Testament. If we are people of faith, is our faith so weak that we need to construct bogus “proof” for the factuality of our story in order to defend it from real or imagined enemies?

And what of Professor Maier? How can a historian who is trained in Western critical scholarship and who is a faculty member of a publicly accredited American university make such a mockery of his profession in what he would have us believe is a sacred cause?

Perhaps he has been listening to the wise words of another good Christian, Joel Osteen, who said “God wants us to prosper financially, to have plenty of money, to fulfill the destiny He has laid out for us.”

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