Thursday, February 26, 2009

McDowell's Trilemma Argument - Part 5

Josh McDowell's use of evidence from the Gospel of John is based on an assumption about the reliability of John:

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

If ROJ is incorrect, then most of McDowell's evidence for the main premise of the Trilemma is worthless, and the main premise would be left with very little support.

In my previous post on this topic, we saw that Gunther Bornkamm and Joachim Jeremias, two leading Jesus scholars in the new quest for the historical Jesus, both reject ROJ. James Robinson and Norman Perrin are two more prominent Jesus scholars who were part of the new quest, and they too reject ROJ.

In an introduction to the New Testament, Norman Perrin makes this comment when comparing the Synoptics to John:

Outside of the synoptic gospels the New Testament offers little resource for arriving at historical knowledge of Jesus. The gospel of John is so much the end product of intensive meditation and reflection, and so absorbed with the interpretation of Christ as the descending-ascending redeemer, that no way has yet been found of deriving historical information about Jesus from it. (The New Testament, an Introduction: Proclamation and Parenesis, Myth and History by Norman Perrin and Dennis C. Duling, 2nd ed., 1982, p. 410)

James Robinson also views the Fourth Gospel as being historically unreliable:

Indeed, the Gospel of John is the latest of the four, from the last decade of the first century, and reflects more of the church's gospel about Jesus than it does the gospel of Jesus himself. It is the most important gospel for the history of theology, but the least important for the quest of the historical Jesus.
(The Gospel of Jesus by James M. Robinson, 2005, p.4)

So, four key scholars of the new quest for the historical Jesus agree that ROJ is wrong.

What about the scholars of the more recent third quest for the historical Jesus? We have already seen that E.P. Sanders, a leading Jesus scholar of the third quest, rejects ROJ, but do other prominent third-quest scholars agree with him?

Geza Vermes, Ben Meyer, Marcus Borg, and John Meier are all prominent Jesus scholars who are part of the third quest movement, and each of these scholars rejects ROJ, as we shall see. Vermes asserts the unreliability of the Fourth Gospel in his book The Changing Faces of Jesus (American edition published by Viking Compass, 2001):

...the so-called Gospel of John is something special and reflects not the authentic message of Jesus or even the thinking about him of his immediate followers but the highly evolved theology of a Christian writer who lived three generations after Jesus and completed his Gospel in the opening years of the second century A.D. (p.8)

Next there are the texts [in the Fourth Gospel], a mass of them, in which the evangelist makes Jesus speak of himself. The words which Jesus utters are mostly of John's own creation. The difference between the ideas of John's Jesus and the Jesus of the first three Gospels is particularly striking; they are indeed irreconcilable. (p.26)

Vermes asserts that the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of John do not come from the historical Jesus.

The article on "Jesus Christ" in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, one of the best Bible reference works in the English language, was written by the third-quest Jesus scholar Ben Meyer. In this article, Meyer gives his view of the reliability of Gospel of John:

Moreover, though the Johannine gospel tells the story of Jesus in distinctive fashion and affirms this story to be charged with historic truth, the key to the discourses of Jesus, to individual narrative units, and to the total sequence of events is not memory but sustained religious reflection of a high order. What the gospel affirms is not so much the actuality of remembered words and acts as it is the historic truth of Johannine theological themes. When applied to a work of this character, the standard indices to historicity turn out to yield relatively little.
(The Anchor Bible Dictionary, edited by David Noel Freedman, New York: Doubleday, 1997, 1992.)

Clearly, Meyer views John as an unreliable source of the words of the historical Jesus, so he would reject ROJ. Meyer's skepticism about John appears to be more qualified than that of Norma Perrin (new quest scholar) and Geza Vermes (third quest scholar), because he allows that there are historical facts that can be discovered from study of the Fourth Gospel:

Nevertheless, on numerous matters ... the Fourth Gospel clearly seems to have retained significant historical data unavailable in the Synoptic tradition.

But the ability of scholars to find bits and pieces of historical truth in John does not make this Gospel a reliable source of the words and teachings of Jesus.

Marcus Borg is another leading Jesus scholar who is part of the third quest for the historical Jesus. Borg contrasts John with Mark (and the other Synoptic Gospels) in an essay he contributed to the book Jesus at 2000:

One of the greatest differences [between John and the Synoptic Gospels] is Jesus' self-proclamation. In John, Jesus speaks frequently of his own extraordinary status. In the great "I am" statements (found only in John), Jesus speaks of himself in the most exalted language. These include:

"I am the light of the world" (8.12, 9.5).
"I am the bread of life" (6.35).
"I am the resurrection and the life" (11.25).
"I am the way, the truth and the life" (14.6).

Also in John, Jesus speaks of himself as one with God and as the revelation of God: "I and the Father are one" (10.30), "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father" (14.9), and "No one comes to God except through me" (14.6).

In Mark, there is none of this. Jesus never refers to himself with any of these exalted images and phrases.
(Jesus at 2000 edited by Marcus Borg, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997, page 131.)

In the same essay, Marcus defends his view that the Gospel of John is unreliable in much the same way as E.P. Sanders does:

That is, Jesus' exalted status is not part of Jesus' public teaching in Mark. It is not part of his message. The contrast to John is stark, where Jesus regularly proclaims his identity.

There are other sharp differences between the synoptics (as represented by Mark) and John. In the synoptics, Jesus performs many exorcisms; in John, none. In the synoptics, Jesus most commonly teaches by using short sayings (called aphorisms by scholars) and memorable short stories (the parables); in John, Jesus often teaches in long, complex discourses. In Mark, Jesus drives the money changers out of the temple in Jerusalem in the final week of his life (indeed, it is the cause of his arrest); in John, Jesus does so at the very beginning of his public activity (at the end of Chapter 2). In John, Jesus' message is to a large extent about himself; in Mark, Jesus' message is not about himself but about the Kingdom of God.

Cumulatively, these differences have persuaded scholars that a foundational choice must be made: The historical Jesus was either more like the Jesus of the synoptics or more like the Jesus of John. The differences are so great that the synoptic and Johannine portraits of Jesus cannot be harmonized into a single whole. For mainline scholars, the choice is the synoptics.
(Jesus at 2000, p. 132)

Like Sanders, the contrasts between John and the Synoptic Gospels are focused mainly on the form and content of the teachings of Jesus. Thus, Borg like Sanders would clearly reject ROJ.

There is an article specifically on "The Teaching of Jesus Christ" in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, and that article was authored by Marcus Borg. He is more to the point in his comments on John in that article:

First, within the NT the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are the primary sources. John’s gospel is not seen as a historical account of Jesus’ message. Rather, John portrays what Jesus had become in the lives of post-Easter Christians; Jesus as a figure of history did not speak as he does in John’s gospel.

In the next post on this topic, I will cover the views of some more prominent Jesus scholars (John Meier, Raymond Brown, and James Dunn).

Saturday, February 21, 2009

McDowell's Trilemma Argument - Part 4

In Chapter 6 of Evidence that Demands a Verdict (EDV), Josh McDowell quotes or refers to thirty-two different passages from the Gospel of John in an effort to support the basic premise of his trilemma: Jesus claimed to be God.

In my last post on this topic, I set aside seven passages from John because they contained no words of Jesus. Of the remaining twenty-five passages, sixteen were set aside because the words attributed to Jesus in those passages clearly don't amount to a claim to be God. That leaves us with just nine passages that deserve a closer look:

(17) John 5:19-27: Jesus repeatedly refers to "the Son" in relation to "the Father".
(18) John 8:19: "If you knew me, you would know my Father also."
(19) John 8:58: "...before Abraham was, I am."
(20) John 9:35-39: Jesus said to him, "...the one speaking with you is he [the Son of Man]." He [a man who had been healed of blindness by Jesus] said, "Lord, I believe." And he worshipped him.
(21) John 10:30-33: "The Father and I are one."
(22) John 10:33-38: "... can you say that the one whom the Father has... sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, 'I am God's Son'?"
(23) John 14:9: "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father."
(24) John 17:1&5: "... Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed."
(25) John 20:27-29: Thomas answered him [Jesus], "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

These passages are the best evidence that Josh McDowell has provided, at least in terms of relevance. Out of the dozens of passages where Jesus speaks in the four Gospels, it is in these nine passages from the Gospel of John, that Jesus comes closest to claiming to be God.

It is important to note, however, that no where in the Gospels do we hear Jesus say the clear and simple words, "I am God." Furthermore, in no Gospel passage does Jesus state, "I am the creator of the universe." We also don't find any place where Jesus straightforwardly asserts, "I am the supreme being." or "I am the deity." Nor does any Gospel have Jesus utter the words, "I am the one and only all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly good person." We don't read Jesus saying, "I am the infinite and eternal source of all being." The Gospels never have Jesus state, "I am the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." If Jesus had said all of these things, there would be no doubt that he had claimed to be God. If Jesus had said just one of these things, that would have made it fairly clear that he was claiming to be God. But the Gospels do not attribute any such clear and definite claims to Jesus.

Before we start trying to figure out whether any of the above nine passages from John contain an implied claim to deity by Jesus, there is a more fundamental problem to consider: Did Jesus actually say the words that the Gospel of John attributes to him? McDowell's evidence from the Gospel of John is based on an assumption about the reliability of John:

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

If ROJ is incorrect, then most of McDowell's evidence for the main premise of the Trilemma is worthless, and the main premise would be left with very little support.

Is ROJ correct? It is completely false, according to the fellows of the Jesus Seminar, a group of New Testament scholars who have been working together for many years to separate truth from fiction about the historical Jesus:

The first step is to understand the diminished role the Gospel of John plays in the search for the Jesus of history. ... The fellows of the Seminar were unable to find a single saying [attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of John] they could with certainty trace back to the historical Jesus. ... The words attributed to Jesus in the Fourth Gospel are the creation of the evangelist for the most part... (The Five Gosepels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, by Robert Funk, Roy Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar, HaperCollins Paperback, 1997, p.10)

The Jesus Seminar gives ROJ, two big thumbs down. But Evangelical Christians have been told to be wary of the Jesus Seminar, and many would dismiss the Seminar as being composed of very liberal and overly skeptical scholars who have an axe to grind against traditional Christianity. The Jesus Seminar is thought to be out-of-step with solid mainstream scholarship about Jesus.

I won't try to assess the general credibility of the Jesus Seminar here, but it is clear to me that on this particular point, it is Evangelical Christian thinkers and apologists who are out of step with solid mainstream scholarship about Jesus. The Seminar's views on the Gospel of John are very close to the views of many leading Jesus scholars, as I will now show.

Let's take a step back for a moment and consider the brief but helpful summary of modern Jesus scholarship given in the New Catholic Encyclopedia:

...the so-called Quest for the Historical Jesus, an ongoing scholarly movement that has unfolded in three distinct phases.

The first phase, commonly referred to as the "old quest," began in the late eighteenth century with the German deist H.S. Reimarus and ran until 1906, the year in which A. Schweitzer published a magisterial summary and critique of the movement. After a hiatus of almost half a century, a "new quest" took its impetus from a programmatic lecture delivered in 1953 by E. Kasemaan. Three years later G. Bornkamm's Jesus of Nazareth provided the basis of a consensus that would hold sway until 1985. In that year E.P. Sanders' Jesus and Judaism offered the sort of retrospective critique that Schweitzer had provided for the "old quest," and the same year saw the organization of a group known as the Jesus Seminar under the leadership of R. Funk and J.D. Crossan. A "third quest" has emerged in which such figures as J.P. Meier, N.T. Wright, and M. Borg play a prominent role. (New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd edition, Volume 7, "Jesus Christ (In Theology)", subsection on "The Historical Jesus" by William Loewe, p. 837, Published by Gale, San Francisco, California, copyright 2003 by The Catholic University of America).

In the twentieth century we have seen the new quest from 1953 to 1985, which was represented by the Jesus scholar Gunther Bornkamm. From 1985 to the present day, the third quest has dominated, led by E.P. Sanders, and carried out by a number of other Jesus scholars (Meier, Wright, Borg, and others). How did the scholars of the new quest view the Gospel of John? How do the scholars of the third quest view the Gospel of John? Do these scholars accept ROJ?

I have checked into the thinking of the leading scholars in both the new quest and the third quest and have not found any leading Jesus scholar who would accept ROJ. Most are fairly clear that the Gospel of John is an unreliable source of information, especially concerning the words and teachings of Jesus.

A good place to start when looking for the views of leading experts in a field is with the Encyclopaedia Britannica. In this case, you can find out the views of both Bornkamm (a prominent representative of the new quest) and Sanders (a leader of the third quest) by consulting Britannica, depending on the year the encyclopedia was published.

I have an older set of Britannica encyclopedias (from1988) and the article on Jesus in it is by Gunther Bornkamm. Here is what he has to say about the Gospel of John:

The most important sources for the life of Jesus are the Synoptic (parallel view of sources) Gospels: Mark, Matthew, and Luke. The Gospel according to John, the Fourth Gospel, assumes a special position.... Because a theological conception has been incorporated in the account to such an extent, this Gospel cannot be directly used as a historical source.
(The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol. 22, 15th Edition, 1988, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, Ill., "Jesus: The Christ and Christology" by Gunther Bornkamm)

In more recent editions of Britannica, the article on Jesus is authored by E.P. Sanders. Sanders also views the Gospel of John as an unreliable source, especially concerning the words and teachings of Jesus:

... the Gospels...are not of equal value in reconstructing his [Jesus'] life and teaching. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke agree so closely with one another that they can be studied together in parallel columns in a work called a synopsis and are hence called the Synoptic Gospels. John, however, is so different that it cannot be reconciled with the Synoptics except in very general ways.... In all four Gospels, Jesus performs miracles, especially healings, but, while excorcisms are prevalent in the Synoptics, there are none in John. The greatest differences, though, appear in the methods and content of Jesus' teaching. In the Synoptic Gospels, he speaks about the kingdom of God in short aphorisms and parables, making use of similes and figures of speech, many drawn from agricultural and village life. He seldom refers to himself, and when asked for a "sign" to prove his authority, he refuses (Mark 8:11-12). In John, on the other hand, Jesus employs long metaphorical discourses, in which he himself is the main subject. His miracles are described as "signs" that support the authenticity of his claims.

Scholars have unanimously chosen the Synoptic Gospels' version of Jesus' teaching. (Encyclopaedia Britannica 2007 Deluxe Edition, "Jesus Christ" by E.P. Sanders)

So Bornkamm, a prominent Jesus scholar in the new quest movement, and Sanders, the leading Jesus scholar of the third quest movement, both agree that the Gospel of John is an unreliable source of information about the words and teachings of Jesus. Both Bornkamm and Sanders would clearly reject ROJ.

Another leading Jesus scholar who was part of the new quest (1953-1985) is Joachim Jeremias. We find Jeremias' view of the Gospel of John in the opening pages of his book New Testament Theology:

...not only have we to reckon with the fact that sayings of Jesus were altered in the period before they were written down, but in addition we have to consider the possibility that new sayings came into being. The seven letters of Christ to the seven churches in Asia Minor (Rev. 2-3) and other sayings of the exalted Lord handed down in the first person (e.g. Rev. 1.17-20;16.15; 22:12 ff) allow the conclusion that early Christian prophets addressed congregations in words of encouragement, admonition, censure and promise, using the name of Christ in the first person. Prophetic sayings of this kind found their way into the tradition about Jesus and became fused with the words that he had spoken during his lifetime. The discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of John provide an example of this development; to a considerable degree they are homilies on sayings of Jesus composed in the first person. (New Testament Theology, by Joachim Jeremias, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, New York, 1971, p. 1 &2).

In the first century, the words and teachings of Christian prophets and preachers (who were believed by fellow Christians to be inspired by God) were treated as being the words and teachings of Jesus and became mixed up with the words and teachings of the historical Jesus. The discourses attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of John were probably derived from sermons about Jesus by early Christian prophets and preachers. The Jesus scholar Jeremias would definitely reject ROJ.

In the next installment of this series, I will show that a number of leading third-quest Jesus scholars agree with Sanders about the unreliability of the Gospel of John.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

McDowell's Trilemma Argument - Part 3

Josh McDowell's Trilemma argument is presented in Chapter 7 of Evidence that Demands a Verdict (EDV). McDowell's argument is based on the following premise:

Jesus claimed to be God.

(the first sentence of section 2A, on p. 104 of EDV).

This premise is supported in Chapter 6 of EDV. McDowell quotes or references many passages from the New Testament, especially from the four Gospels, to support this claim. But most of the passages come from a single source: the Gospel of John. McDowell quotes or refers to at least thirty-two different passages from this Gospel (in Chapter 6 of EDV).

McDowell uses a "shotgun" approach, demonstrating a clear preference for quantity of evidence over quality of evidence. But we can quickly narrow down the evidence from the Fourth Gospel to a much smaller number of significant passages. Seven of the thirty-two passages include no words from Jesus, so those passages cannot be used as direct evidence about what "Jesus claimed" :

John 1:3, 3:35, 4:42, 12:34, 12:41, 19:7, and 20:30-31.

Only about one-third of the remaining 25 passages from the Gospel of John are worthy of serious consideration as evidence for the premise that Jesus claimed to be God. Here are the passages that fail the sniff test:

(1) John 4:26: Jesus claims to be the messiah. "Messiah" does not mean "God". McDowell is reaching for straws here.
(2) John 5:17-18: Jesus refers to God as "My Father". Jesus also refers to God as "your Father" without implying that his disciples are God (Matthew 5:16, Mark 11:25, Luke 6:36, John 20:17). Try again, McDowell.
(3) John 5:21: "the Son gives life to whomever he wishes" i.e. "raises the dead" on judgment day. Assuming that Jesus is referring to himself here as "the Son," this does seem a bit egotistical, but nothing prevents an all-powerful God from giving an ordinary human being such power and authority. Another one bites the dust.
(4) John 5:23-24: We are to "honor the Son," as we "honor the Father". But "honor" does not mean "worship". If God granted an ordinary human a high position of power and authority in heaven, then one might well want to give honor to that person, just as we would give honor to a powerful earthly ruler. There is a biblical command to "Honor your father and mother", so does that mean my mom is God? No sale here.
(5) John 5:27: "the Son" has been given "authority to execute judgment". See responses to passages (3) and (4). Evidence that demands nothing.
(6) John 6:26-27: Jesus can provide "eternal life". Yes, by giving his disciples teachings that contain divine wisdom revealed by God to Jesus. This is just a claim to be an inspired prophet, not a claim to be God himself. Keep moving: nothing to see here.
(7) John 6:35: "I am the Bread of Life." This is a metaphor pointing to the same idea stated more clearly in passages (3) and (6). Re-statement in different words does not make this passage any less irrelevant than the others.
(8) John 8:12: "I am the light of the world." All prophets claim to bring us divine wisdom and enlightenment. Duh.
(9) John 8:24-28: Jesus says "you will die in your sins unless you believe I am he." [in the Greek: "I am"]. The specific title Jesus mentions in this passage is "the Son of Man" (verse 28). "The Son of Man" basically means "the messiah" in this context. So, the requirement for salvation appears to be that we must believe Jesus to be the messiah. See my comments on passage (1). McDowell points to the use of the phrase "I am" here, as a reference to God's use of that phase in the Old Testament (Exodus 3:14), but another passage (John 8:58) has a clearer reference to this Old Testament phrase. So this less clear passage can be set aside.
(10) John 10:9: "I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved...." Another unclear metaphor. The basic idea appears to be that Jesus can provide eternal life to his followers. See my comments on passages (3) and (6).
(11) John 10:11: "I am the Good Shepherd". Yet another unclear metaphor. This one seems to be pointing to the idea that Jesus is an inspired prophet and can provide us with truth and guidance leading to eternal life. Nothing new here.
(12) John 11:25: "I am the resurrection and the life." See my comments on passages (3) and (6). Yawn.
(13) John 14:1: "Believe in God, believe also in me." This is just plain vague. What specifically is this belief in Jesus supposed to involve? He does not say that we must believe him to be the second person of the holy trinity. The belief intended here might well be belief in Jesus as an inspired prophet or a religious teacher who can show us the path to eternal life. Unbelievable.
(14) John 14:6: "I am the way, the truth, and the life." An unclear re-statement of ideas stated more straightforwardly in passages (3) and (6). Are we there yet?
(15) John 14:13: "... so that the Father may be glorified in the Son." I will deal with the language "the Father" and "the Son" later (in relation to passages from John chapter 5). The idea of God being glorified in Jesus or by Jesus' life does not imply that Jesus is himself God. Christian believers are to glorify God in their bodies and by their lives (1 Cor. 6:20 & 2 Cor. 9:13).
(16) John 15:4-8: "I am the vine, you are the branches." Another lousy metaphor, open to reasonable interpretation along the lines of passages (3) and (6). The last sniff-test failure (Thank you, Jesus!).

In the next installment, I will start examining the nine passages from the Gospel of John that pass the sniff test, the passages that are worthy of closer examination.