Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Review: Bird, Jesus and the Origin of the Gentile Mission (Part 2)

Bird begins his book by laying out the problem he sets out to address, giving a brief overview of the state of the question, and his methodology. I will tell you a little about what he has to say and then I will give you my own comments on the matter. Let’s begin with the problem.

The Problem
While the early Church included Gentiles in its evangelistic mission, the Gospels present Jesus as primarily focused on Israel. Consider the following passages.

Matthew 10:5-6: “These twelve Jesus sent out, charging them, "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

Matthew 15:24: [Jesus said]: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."

How does one reconcile such passages with the later practice of the early Christians of Gentile inclusion?

Indeed, Bird carefully lays out six reasons why the early effort to bring Gentiles into the Church is surprising:
1. Jesus was Jewish
2. As mentioned above, the Gospels describe Jesus as restricting his ministry to Israel
3. The Gospels never report Jesus making disciples in Gentile districts, and there are only a few references to Jesus even having contact with Gentiles (and these are often deemed inauthentic)
4. All of the early leaders of the Christian movement were Jews
5. The movement began in Palestine, not in the Diaspora
6. There was considerable debate about the inclusion of Gentiles later on

Bird’s Solution
After laying out the problem Bird lays out his proposed solution: “Jesus’ intention was to renew and restore Israel, so that a restored Israel would extend God’s salvation to the world. Since this restoration was already being realized in Jesus’ ministry” (3).

I think Bird’s answer to the puzzle is brilliant. What he in effect shows is that a careful analysis reveals that certain strands of Jewish eschatological hopes linked the restoration of Israel with Gentile inclusion. I will save a careful overview for the post on chapter 2, where Bird lays out his case more carefully―suffice it to say, if the Gospels are any indication about the prevalence of Isaianic eschatological traditions in Jesus’ teaching, one could hardly expect Jesus to not expect an eventual inclusion of the Gentiles.

In a survey of the history of the work done in this area Bird demonstrates that scholars have often made the mistake of assuming Jesus must have either been a radical universalist or particularist. Jeremias is one notable exception. Discussing his contribution, Bird explains that any attempt to reduce Jesus’ message to either of these two extremes “evaporates once Jesus is understood as operating within the story of Jewish eschatological hopes.” However, Bird goes on to explain to discuss some very significant questions raised by Jeremias’ work, describing issues that must be addressed further.

One important point Bird makes is that while he operated primarily within Israelite boundaries, given the state of affairs in the first century, Jesus could hardly avoid the issue. “Given that most of the Jewish populace was either living in Gentile lands or subjugated under Gentile hands, it would be strange if Jesus offered no answer to the ‘Gentile question’” (20). Rabbinic traditions reveal that their role and fate was debated within Jewish circles. It is hard to imagine Jesus simply being aloof when it came to the controversy.

Bird goes on to lay out his method at the end of chapter one. Since this is an issue that I have been working on quite a bit myself I found this section especially interesting. He begins by addressing what “historical Jesus” means. He writes,

“The ‘historical Jesus’ is not a positivistic or objective history of Jesus, but it comprises a fallible portrait of Jesus that emerges from dialogue with the textual history of early Christianity and in partnership with other readers of this history” (23).
Next, he explains a key problem: the primary purpose of the Gospels was to “convey the meaning and significance of Jesus for readers in the Graeco-Roman world, and not to write a life of Jesus which can cater to the interests of post-Enlightenment historiography” (23).

Yet, Bird is quick to point out that this should not lead us to conclude with the radical form critics that the Gospels were mere theological tracts devoid of contact with the historical Jesus. He writes, “the continued use of the name ‘Jesus’ and the absence (with a few exceptions) of the titles ‘Christ’ and ‘Son of God’ as terms of address for Jesus in the Gospels underscore the continued awareness of the pre-Easter history of Jesus.”

Going on, Bird cites the work of James D. G. Dunn: “What we actually have in the earliest retellings of what is now the Synoptic tradition . . . are the memories of the first disciples―not Jesus himself, but the remembered Jesus” [Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 130-31]. Here’s Bird’s description of what the Gospels are: “The Gospels are the interpretation and application of the memory for Jesus in the Graeco-Roman world” (24).

The problem then is separating the “history” from the “interpretation”. The problem is intensified by the fact of interdependence among the Gospel sources―i.e., which elements are attributable to Jesus and which are merely Mark’s? Bird writes, “The danger is that one maps the contours of the Marcan Jesus’ view of the Gentiles, and then attempts to pass this off as the perspective of the historical Jesus” (25).

Bird then states: “The primary way of off-setting this problem in Jesus scholarship is by employing the so-called criteria of authenticity” (25). Bird opts for multiple-attestation, embarrassment, historical plausibility, coherence and Palestinian context. However, Bird is quick to point out the problems of the criteria. He rightly comments that there is no agreed consensus on what they are or how they should be used. Likewise, he explains that calling them criteria of “authenticity” is problematic since their use can hardly prove anything is “authentic” or “inauthentic”. Moreover, an “inauthentic” saying or deed may indeed reflect the actual authentic attitude or teaching of Jesus. The best we can hope for is likelihood: “…an ‘authentic’ saying or event is one which we have good reason to believe is close to something that Jesus said―as close as we could hope for” (25).

Bird’s words here are telling? Why continue to speak of “authenticity” despite the limitations of the criteria? “With these caveats in mind, I shall continue to use the language of ‘authenticity’ for the reason that it is simply part of the grammar of historical Jesus research” (25).

Have we really come to the point where we have to continue to use virtually meaningless language simply because without it work would not be considered be other scholars in the field? It seems we have. For me, this assertion by Bird is almost as groundbreaking as the rest of the work in the book.

This book only confirmed the increasing sense I have that the use of the “criteria” of authenticity has nearly reached an impasse.

Elsewhere I have posted my own brief critique of the criteria—though my own thought has evolved quite a bit on the topic, I remain highly skeptical of their usefulness. In particular, I have been reading scholars such as Porter, Theissen and Winter who have leveled especially devastating critiques of the criteria.

The true problem however lies at a deeper level. Most scholars recognize that the criteria arose out of source-critical and form-critical assumptions about the Gospels. For one thing, form-critics viewed the Gospels through the lens of folkloric literature, concluding that the Gospels were actually the result of a long process of “traditioning.” According to form-critical "dogma", the teachings of Christ had been fashioned and shaped over a long period of time so that the Gospels ended up reflecting the communal traditioning process much more than Jesus’ teaching itself. Moreover, the early transmission process involved the creative invention of certain elements which because part of the Jesus tradition. The Gospels thus stand at the end of a long "traditioning" process through which the historical "core" of Jesus' identity and teaching was supplemented, adapted and according to some, even recast.

Yet, this view of the Gospels has increasingly come under fire of late. In fact, the recent SBL session on Richard Bauckham's new book, Jesus and the Eyewitness (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2006) has underscored this point. Whatever one thinks about his conclusions, the recent work done by Bauckham has seriously undermined the old form-critical theories. The Gospels were written within the living memory of the eye-witnesses who saw Jesus. In fact, Bauckham marshalls powerful support from patristic sources that the early Christians resisted such creative tendencies in the transmission of the Jesus tradition.

Bauckham highlights the work of Papias, a writer who knew those who had been in contact with some of the disciples of Jesus himself recounts his insistence upon hearing the actual commandments of Jesus.

“I shall not hesitate also to put into properly ordered form for you [singular] everything I learned carefully in the past from the elders and noted down well, for the truth of which I vouch. For unlike most people I did not enjoy those who have a great deal to say, but those who teach the truth. Nor did I enjoy those who recall someone else’s commandments, but those who remember the commandments given by the Lord to the faith and proceeding from the truth itself. And if by chance anyone who had been in attendance on the elders should come my way, I inquired about the words of the elder―[that is,] what [according to the elders] Andrew or Peter said, or Philip, or Thomas or James, or John or Matthew or any of the Lord’s disciples, and whatever Aristion and the elder John the Lord’s disciples, were saying. For I did not think that information from books would profit me as much as information from a living and surviving voice (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.39.3-4).
Bauckham goes on to draw on other studies--in particular, that done by Samuel Byrskog--who have also drawn our attention to the fact that eye-witness testimony was a key part of ancient historiography. Luke, in particular, makes a point to mention his dependence on them in the introduction of his Gospel:

“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, 2 just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, 3 it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent The-ophilus, 4 that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed” (Luke 1:1-4).
And while Luke is the only one who mentions the use of eye-witnesses in his text, it is important to note that the Gospels themselves are linked with eye-witnesses via their titles. Matthew and John were understood by the early Church as being the apostles (pace Bauckham); Mark was believed to have recorded Peter's eye-witness testimony. While these titles are assumed to be later additions by most scholars today, Martin Hengel has made a persuasive case for their authenticity (cf. The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ [trans. lohn Bowden; London: SCM, 2000]). For one thing the universal attribution of the Gospels from the earliest times to these four figures--there is not a single case of one of them being associated with someone else!--is indeed difficult to explain.

It is also hard to imagine why Matthew, Mark and Luke would have been chosen as pseudonymous authors. Matthew had been a tax collector! Mark and Luke were not even apostles! If the titles are later additions one would have to assume that the early Church chose an odd set of names to authentic these works. Indeed, later pseudonymous works were written under the names of Peter, Philip and other more likely candidates.

Of course, it could be (and has been!) argued that Luke’s reference to eye-witnesses (what the ancients referred to as “autopsy”) was only included for rhetorical effect and does not reflect Luke’s actual practice. Yet, given the recent work being done, it doesn't seem that we have any more certainty of that than the alternative! It would seem that simply approaching the Gospels in the manner of the form-critics is not any more "critical" than "pre-critical" assumptions based on Christian tradition. Or must "critical" scholarship avoid "critiquing" the "critical" assumptions of old?

What might also refer here to the work done by Berger Gerhardsson who has looked at the transmission of the Jesus tradition in light of the memorization and oral transmission of Rabbinic teaching (cf. The Reliability of the Gospel Tradition [Peabody: Hendrickson]. I neglected to read this until Brant recently pointed out to me that Gerhardson has made a very significant convert to his view: Jacob Neusner. Neusner originally opposed Gerhardson--now, however, it would seem that one of the world's foremost rabbinic scholars is convinced by Gerhardsson! Again, this hardly ever gets mentioned--and without good cause.

Moreover, beyond the form-critical assumptions of the past, source-critical assumptions are being challenged. Mark Goodacre has leveled an extremely powerful critique against Q. (Even Kloppenborg had to mention his influence during his paper at the Bauckham session at SBL this month). "Q-skepticism" is making serious inroads--especially among younger scholars who have less published and therefore less invested in the theory. Bird even writes in a footnote:

"In this study I will assume the four-source theory with Marcan priority and the existence of a hypothetical document called 'Q'. I confess, however, that although I continue to affirm the existence of Q I postulate its existence with far greater reserve than when I first started this study, due to several works, including Mark Goodacre, The Case Against Q: Studies in Markan Priority and the Synoptic Problem (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press 2002), and Mark Goodacre and Nicholas Perin (eds), Questioning Q: A Multidimensional Critique (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005)" (23 n 138).
Drawing portraits of the historical Jesus based on the traditional criteria of authenticity (especially of multiple attestation) would seem to be risky business.

Furthermore, in my opinion, historical Jesus research has also largely ignored the work being done in another very important related field: genre studies. While all historical Jesus scholars construct their arguments using the Gospels as sources, few even mention the critical question of the genre of the Gospels. I owe this critique to my friend Brant Pitre, who turned me on to the discussion. (I would have never have known the importance of this debate from simply reading historical Jesus scholars--how ironic is that?!) Reading authors such as Richard Burridge and Samuel Byrskog I have come to see how such work has made tremendous contributions to our understanding of the most important sources of the life of Jesus. Indeed, Burridge’s work has been extremely well-received by the academic community.

What has Burridge argued? That contrary to the assumptions made by form critical analysts of New Testament the genre of the Gospels is not sui generis. In fact, comparing the Gospels with other ancient works (e.g., Plutarch, Seutonius, Lucian) it becomes strikingly apparent that they fit well within the genre of Graeco-Roman biography (bios).

The Gospels therefore are NOT written to simply reflect the theology of the early Church―they are meant to convey to us about what Jesus taught.

It has generally recognized that the “criteria” arose out of the form-critical theories about the formulation of the Gospels. Now, however, those assumptions are coming under increasing scrutiny and being viewed with growing suspicion. How can we build portraits of Jesus on such theories. "Assured results"? I think not!

Having said that, it seems that building a historical Jesus on the old form-critical assumptions may be akin to building a house on shifting sand.

But, I digress.

I should say, I don't mean any of this as a criticism of Bird's work--the implications of what I'm suggesting here is beyond the scope of his study.


Katherine O'Brien-Johnston said...

Regarding inclusion of the Gentiles into the Church...

Does he speak of the promise in Genesis - to all the children of Eve and Adam?

Also, does he address the great commission in Matthew - or the covenant with Abraham?

All of these, as I am sure you know, point to the inclusion of the whole world into the Church, passing through the Chosen People (Jews) to all the people???


Matthew D. Montonini said...

Hello, Michael.

Great stuff. I had the great fortune to proofread this book! Mike Bird is a great scholar and a good friend.

Blessings to your blog!

Celucien L. Joseph said...


Great posts! I haven't read the book yet but I hope to do so.