Monday, March 9, 2009

McDowell's Trilemma Argument - Part 6

Josh McDowell's Trilemma includes the following key claim:

Jesus claimed to be God.
(the first sentence of section 2A, on p. 104 of EDV).

Most of the evidence McDowell gives in support of this claim comes from the Gospel of John. Therefore, the strength of McDowell's argument depends on whether the following assumption is correct:

(ROJ) The Fourth Gospel is a reliable source of the words and teachings of Jesus.

In previous posts, we have seen that the leading scholars of the New Quest for the historical Jesus rejected ROJ: Gunther Bornkamm, Joachim Jeremias, James Robinson, and Norman Perrin.


We have also seen that some of the leading scholars of the Third Quest for the historical Jesus also reject ROJ: E.P Sanders, Geza Vermes, Ben Meyer, and Marcus Borg. I know of at least three other prominent Third Quest Jesus scholars who reject ROJ: John Meier, Gerd Theissen, and James Dunn.

In the first volume of John Meier's magisterial series of books on the historical Jesus, he states that,

...the rewriting of narratives for symbolic purposes and the reformulation of sayings for theological programs reach their high point in John. (A Marginal Jew, Volume 1, p. 45)

In a footnote, Meier focuses specifically on the words of Jesus in John:

[The sayings tradition of the Fourth Gospel]...has undergone massive reformulation from the Johannine perspective. (A Marginal Jew, Volume 1, p.53, footnote 22).

If the sayings of Jesus in John have "undergone massive reformulation" and if this reformulation was done "for theological programs", then it is clear that the Fourth Gospel is not a reliable source for the words and teachings of Jesus. So, Meier would reject ROJ.

In The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, Gerd Theissen states his views on John:

The Gospel of John clearly presents the Jesus of the Gospels who is most stylized on the basis of theological premises. ... Nevertheless, the Gospel of John, which is independent of the Synoptics, is not worthless. (p.36)

Theissen goes on to list five examples where John diverges from the Synoptics and yet "hands down data...[that] can go back to old traditions." None of the examples relates to words or teachings of Jesus. They are all about events or circumstances: (1) first disciples of Jesus were former disciples of John the Baptist, (2) Peter, Andrew, Philip were from Bethsaida, (3) plausible political motivations for Jesus' execution, (4) a hearing of the Sanhedrin is reported, rather than a Jewish trial of Jesus, (5) Jesus dies before Passover.

In a Chapter on The Evaluation of Sources, Theissen has a section entitled, "The unhistorical Johannine picture of Christ". In that section he argues that, "The historical value of the Synoptics is clearly to be rated higher than that of the Gospel of John." (The Historical Jesus, p.97). Theissen allows two qualifications to the claim that John gives an unhistorical picture of Jesus:

The Gospel of John also has a series of sayings of Jesus with a Synoptic stamp. (The Historical Jesus, p.97)

The Gospel of John could have preserved historically accurate information in its narrative sections, where the specifically Johannine stylization of the picture of Jesus has not been at work. (The Historical Jesus, p.97)

These qualifications are not enough to raise the Fouth Gospel to the point of being a reliable source of the words and teachings of Jesus.

The fact that John has a few sayings that line up with the Synoptic gospels says nothing about the reliability of the long theological discourses attributed to Jesus in John, and certainly does not provide support for the historicity of the "I am" statements in John. The fact that a few narrative elements in John "could have preserved historically accurate information" is irrelevant to the issue of the reliability of John concerning the words and teachings of Jesus.

Given Theissen's view that John is "the most stylized on the basis of theological premises" and his view that John generally presents an "unhistorical picture" of Jesus, and given that Theissen does not make a qualification to his skepticism in relation to the long theological discourses of Jesus found in John, it seems fairly clear that Theissen would reject ROJ.

In his scholarly tome, Jesus Remembered (Christianity in the Making, Volume 1), James Dunn shows a strong preference towards the Synoptics over John for determining the truth about the historical Jesus:

...few scholars would regard John as a source for information regarding Jesus' life and ministry in any degree comparable to the Synoptics. (p.165-166)

Among other factors, Dunn relates his skepticism about the Gospel of John to how it portrays the teachings of Jesus:

Probably most important of all, in the Synoptics Jesus' principal theme is the kingdom of God and he rarely speaks of himself, whereas in John the kingdom hardly features and the discourses are largeley vehicles for expressing Jesus' self-consciousness and self-proclamation. Had the striking 'I am' self-assertions of John been remembered as spoken by Jesus, how could any Evangelist have ignored them so completely as the Synoptics do? On the whole then, the position is unchanged: John's Gospel cannot be regarded as a source for the life and teaching of Jesus of the same order as the Synoptics. (Jesus Remembered, p.166)

In other words, the strong self-assertion claims of Jesus in John are themselves evidence that lead to skepticism about the reliability of John.

Dunn, unlike the scholars of the Jesus Seminar, is a conservative Jesus scholar, and yet his rejection of ROJ can be seen in his own response to the Trilemma:

...scholars have almost always found themselves pushed to the conclusion that John's Gospel reflects much more the early churches' understanding of Jesus than of Jesus own self-understanding. ... Again evangelical or apologetic assertions regarding the claims of Christ will often quote the claims made by Jesus himself (in the Gospel of John) with the alternatives posed 'Mad, bad or God,' without allowing that there may be a further alternative (viz. Christian claims about Jesus rather than Jesus' claims about himself). (The Evidence for Jesus,1985, p.31-32)

Dunn rejects the Trilemma argument because he rejects the assumption upon which it is based. Since the Gospel of John is an unreliable source for the words and teachings of Jesus, we cannot build a solid argument on the basis of words that are attributed to Jesus only by the Fourth Gospel.

Many leading Jesus scholars of the 20th Century have rejected ROJ:

Gunther Bornkamm
• Joachim Jeremias
• James Robinson
• Norman Perrin.
• E.P. Sanders
• Geza Vermes
• Ben Meyer
• Marcus Borg
• John Meier
• Gerd Theissen
• James Dunn.

Thus, as I stated earlier, the skepticism of Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar concerning the Gospel of John is in keeping with mainstream Jesus scholarship. If anyone is out of step with mainstream Jesus scholarship, it is Evangelical Christian apologists who put forward the Trilemma argument and make heavy use of the Gospel of John in support of the premise that Jesus claimed to be God.

There are a couple of replies to my objection that I will consider in future posts:

(1) McDowell and others provide evidence from the Synoptic Gospels, and not just from John.
(2) In recent decades, N.T. scholars have been taking a more positive view of the historical reliability of the Gospel of John.

4 comments:

Matthew said...

If I recall correctly, some conservative scholars argued for an eyewitness-community in the early church. Bauckham or something like that.

Do you have posts dealing with divine claims in Mark, in case you argue for Markan priority?

Matthew said...

I just skimmed some more posts and it seems to me the way you read the gospels is extremely close to the way a muslim apologist does.

Bradley Bowen said...

Responses to Matthew...

I have no doubt that some conservative scholars argue for the reliability or partial reliability of the Gospel of John. My point is that most of the leading Jesus scholars have concluded that John is NOT a reliable source of the words and teachings of Jesus.

It might be the case that most of the leading Jesus scholars are wrong on this point, but you have a very tough row to hoe, if that is the angle you want to take on the Trilemma. Personally, I try to avoid taking a position that goes against the majority or concensus view of experts in a specific field, unless I have clear and strong reasons for taking an opposing view.

I will deal with evidence from Mark in future posts.

How do muslim apologists read the gospels? I take it this is a bad thing, a mistaken approach in your opinion. Please explain why.

Anonymous said...

The Gospel of John is historically reliable and does not conflict with the synoptic protrait of Jesus; but both traditionalists and non-traditionalists have misinterpreted this "spiritual gospel" by wrongly presuming that it asserts that Jesus is God. Get the correct picture viewpoint of it in my new book, The Restitution of Jesus Christ. Twenty-five years in the making, it may be the most formidable, well-researched, biblically in-depth book to ever challenge the church dogma that Jesus is God while affirming all other major church teachings about Jesus.

Servetus the Evangelical (pseudonym)