Wednesday, March 18, 2009

McDowell's Trilemma Argument - Part 7

Josh McDowell's Trilemma includes the following key claim:

Jesus claimed to be God.
(the first sentence of section 2A, on page 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.

I have previously shown that most of the leading Jesus scholars of the New Quest and also of the Third Quest reject this assumption.

Other leading Jesus scholars, besides those previously mentioned, also reject ROJ, including:

Reginald Fuller
Raymond Brown
Jurgen Becker
John Riches
Christopher Tuckett
Dale Allison
Graham Stanton
James Charlesworth

The evangelists, in their use of sources and oral traditions, shaped them according to their theological interests; this editorial work is known as redaction. Thus, the synoptic Gospels contain material that developed in three stages: authentic words and memories of Jesus himself (stage I), materials shaped and transmitted in oral tradition (stage II), and the evangelists' redaction (stage III), the gospel of John, however, is very different. It contains some stage I and stage II materials independent of the synoptics that can be used sometimes to confirm or supplement the synoptic evidence in reconstructing the career and teaching of Jesus. But the Fourth Gospel contains much more material belonging to stage III. ( "Jesus Christ" by Reginald Fuller, from The Oxford Companion to the Bible, edited by Bruce Metzger and Michael Coogan, Oxford University Press: New York, New York, 1993, p. 356)

Jesus does not claim overtly to be Son of God in any unique sense. Passages in which he appears to do so belong to stage II or III of the tradition. ("Jesus Christ" by Reginald Fuller, The Oxford Companion to the Bible, p. 360)


To what extent can we attribute such clear Son-of-God christology [in the Fourth Gospel] to the ministry of Jesus? ... although the words of the Johannine Jesus may be rooted in the words of Jesus of the ministry, they are suffused with the glory of the risen Jesus. Morover, ... John's christology gained clarity through hindsight as the Johannine community was challenged by the synagogue. Therefore use of John to determine scientifically how Jesus spoke of himself during his lifetime is very difficult. (An Introduction to New Testament Christology by Raymond Brown, Paulist Press: New York, New York, 1994, p.88).


The Fourth Gospel also occupies a special position. While it offers some help with a few biographical-historical questions, because of its christological stance it contributes nothing to an understanding of the message of Jesus. The image of a Jesus who claims to be sent by the Father differs in type and content so much from the Synoptics that we are forced to choose between presenting Jesus in synoptic terms or offereing a Johannine Jesus. Faced with that alternative we must go with the Synoptics, for the Johannine christology, which leaves its mark on every detail of the Fourth Gospel, most certainly represents a late form of Primitive Christian theology. All of which is to say that our Christian sources, for all practical purposes, are limited to Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
(Jesus of Nazareth by Jurgen Becker, English translation by James Crouch, Walter de Gruyter & Co., New York, New York, 1998, p.9)

While there are sayings of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of John and in the noncanonical gospels, as well as possible echoes of such sayings in the Pauline correspondence, it is clear that the main source of authentic sayings of Jesus is the Synoptic tradition which underlies the Synoptic Gospels. Little of the extracanonical material is likely to go back to Jesus, and where it does, it is frequently dependent on the Synoptic Gospels; the utterances of Jesus in the Gospel of John are so different from those of the Synoptic Gospels, both as to form and content, that they must be adjusted to be, largely the work of the early Church. ("The Actual Words of Jesus" by John Riches, from The Anchor Bible Dictionary, edited by David Noel Freedman, New York: Doubleday, 1997, 1992.)


It is widely believed today that John's Gospel is primarily a testimony to the beliefs and experiences of that Gospel's author (or his community) and provides at best a very indirect witness to the historical Jesus. For the most part this seems a justified conclusion. The reasons for such a view are manifold and certainly one cannot easily accept the historical reliability of both John and the Synoptics together. ("Sources and Methods" by Christopher Tuckett in The Cambridge Companion to Jesus, edited by Markus Bockmuehl, Cambridge University Press, 2001, p.125-126)

For the most part, John's Gospel offers us a profound reflection on the Jesus tradition from a particular author in a particular context. Nevertheless, the historical reliability of the gospel (in the sense of providing reliable information about the historical Jesus) may be rather limited. ("Sources and Methods" by Christopher Tuckett in The Cambridge Companion to Jesus, p.127)


What is the correct interpretation of Crossan's result? Seemingly implicit in his method is the presumption that most of the traditions attested singly may have been created by the particular community that handed them on, and so they were not widely known. Perhaps this presumption is correct. Who among us would assign to Jesus sayings singly attested in sources as late as John or the Dialogue of the Savior? We assume they were created by the author of John or of the Dialogue or by their communities or by those communities' special tradition. (Jesus of Nazareth by Dale Allison, Fortress Press 1998, p.25-26)

Since most of the words and teachings attributed to Jesus and nearly all of the extraordinary self-assertion claims attributed to Jesus by the Gospel of John are only found in that Gospel, this skeptical remark implies that John is an unreliable source for the words and teachings of Jesus.


Today it is generally agreed that neither Matthew nor John was written by an apostle. And Mark and Luke may not have been associates of the apostles. (The Gospels and Jesus by Graham Stanton, Oxford University Press, 1989, p.135)

Historical study, however, underlined the gap between the way Jesus spoke about himself in the fourth gospel and in the synoptic gospels. In the fourth gospel Jesus speaks regularly and in exalted language about himself and his relationship to God. In the synoptic gospels he does so rarely and then often rather reluctantly. (The Gospels and Jesus by Graham Stanton, p.220)

In this chapter we have seen just how difficult it is to separate the claims Jesus made about himself from their later development in the early church. Jesus spoke about his own role reluctantly. (The Gospels and Jesus by Graham Stanton, p.233)

Since the Gospel of John portrays Jesus as constantly making claims about himself in exalted language and speaking about his own role, Stanton is clearly assuming that the Gospel of John provides a distorted and unreliable account of the words and teachings of Jesus.

I suggest the following as a 'working hypothesis'. Once we have taken account of four factors, we may accept that the traditions of the actions and teachings of Jesus preserved in the synoptic gospels are authentic. These are the four important provisos: (i) the evangelists have introduced modifications to the traditions; (ii) and they are largely responsible for their present contexts; (iii) some traditions can be shown to stem from the post-Easter period rather than the lifetime of Jesus; (iv) since certainty nearly always eludes us, we have to concede that some traditions are more probably authentic than others. (The Gospels and Jesus by Graham Stanton, p.163)

Notice that Stanton's proposed method for determining the authentic actions and teachings of Jesus focuses on study of the synoptic gospels and ignores the Gospel of John. This also assumes that the Fourth Gospel is an unreliable source of information about the historical Jesus.


Two insights have now become apparent. First, the Evangelists sometimes significantly and deliberately edited Jesus' sayings. Second, we have learned that it is imperative to distinguish between the Evangelists' theology and Jesus' thought. (The Historical Jesus by James Charlesworth, Abingdon Press, 2008, p.15)

...the Evangelists certainly did take incredible liberties in shaping the Jesus tradition; and that means we need to be ever cognizant of the best scientific method for separating what the Evangelists received and what they added. (The Historical Jesus by James Charlesworth, p.20)

We [New Testament experts] do not know who wrote Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. (The Historical Jesus by James Charlesworth, p.39)

In Chapter 3, Charlesworth asks a key question:

Was Jesus' teaching defined by the Rule of God (Mark; Matt.; Luke) that was offered in challenging parables or by "I am" proclamations (John)? (The Historical Jesus by James Charlesworth, p.41)

It is clear from other passages that Charlesworth accepts the view of Jesus' teachings put forward in the Synoptic Gospels and doubts or rejects the view of Jesus' teachings in the Fourth Gospel.

Does that mean that the Synoptics (Matt.; Mark; Luke) present somewhat accurately Jesus' fundamental message? The answer, as we shall see (chap. 8), is probably yes. (The Historical Jesus by James Charlesworth, p.42)

It has become clear to the leading scholars that Jesus thought his primary mission was to declare the coming Kingdom of God or, better, God's Rule. (The Historical Jesus by James Charlesworth, p.97)

Jesus' proclamation that God's Rule was imminent is characteristically expressed in parables. (The Historical Jesus by James Charlesworth, p.101)

In Parables as Poetic Fictions, C.W. Hedrick accurately summarizes the state of present research: "New Testament scholarship has, in the main, been quite positive about two aspects of the Jesus tradition: it affirms that the proclamation of the kingdom of God is an essential feature of the message of Jesus and that Jesus announced his message in parabolic stories" (p.7) (The Historical Jesus by James Charlesworth, p.103)

What questions are peculiarly shrouded in the mists of history? Here are some: Jesus was probably intimate with Mary Magdalene; but we cannot define what intimacy means in this instance, and we possess no data that allows us to decide if he had been married to her. We may also catch only a glimpse of what Jesus thought about himself; that is true for two reasons: his followers--especially the Fourth Evangelist--often shaped the passages in which we might discern such self-understanding. Likewise, Jesus was more interested in speaking about God and God's Rule than about proclaiming who he was. (The Historical Jesus by James Charlesworth, p.xviii)