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.