Christians and Biblical Scholarship

It matters how you understand God

No, I don’t mean how (if at all) you think God communicates with human beings. Rather, I mean that how you understand God to work in the world has a significant effect on how you do Biblical Studies. I am about to try to articulate coherently something that’s been wandering around in the back of my mind for a while, so I hope it makes sense. And perhaps I should warn you at this stage that the example I use in this post deals with material that some people might find upsetting because of their own personal experience.

A few days ago, a friend of mine sent me a copy of the updated edition of her book about how she coped with her grief at the tragic death of her 21 year old son. It’s now ten years since he died and the new section talks, amongst other things, about her communication with other Christians who have found the book helpful.

She writes very well but the way she copes with the family tragedy requires a view of how God works in the world that I just don’t share. She sees her son’s death as the result of being hit by a car whilst on a family holiday in Canada as part of God’s sovereign plan for his life. In other words, her world/faith view says that God has a quite detailed plan for each person and that this plan includes taking her son up to heaven after a relatively short life.

It works for her and for many other Christians, but not for me (and others like me), because I cannot see how you can insert human free will into this kind of understanding. I see God as offering a more general game plan for human beings as a whole and allowing us to choose how closely we follow it. I see something like stepping out in front of a car because you were looking the wrong way in a country where the traffic drives on the other side of the road as human error, not part of a divine plan. Where God comes in is in helping us to deal with the effects of human action, not in determining the human action. I don’t plan to go into detail about this issue because this is not a blog on Christian theology and I have no intention of debating the rights and wrongs of particular theological perspectives here, nor of trying to suggest that someone else’s experience of God is wrong.

What, though, does this have to do with Biblical Studies?  Well, it seems to me that how Christians view and analyse biblical texts depends on what they think about how God acts in human history. It depends on whether they think that Jesus came to earth with a detailed plan of action or with general guidelines that enabled him to function in the situations in which he found himself, and on how much they think that God is involved in the events of everyday life.

If Jesus had a detailed plan of action, and God is involved in the minutiae of everyday life, then the areas that are open for discussion in the biblical texts are fairly limited. Which of the multitude of early manuscripts available to us represent the best witness to the original text is certainly one. Arising from this, what constitutes the received text is another. Other than that, the focus must be on translation and interpretation. Research on the effects of oral transmission, eyewitness testimony and memory is meaningless because God’s intervention has ensured that what was transmitted and remembered is accurate. Understanding the copying process and the errors arising from it would help to evaluate the manuscript tradition, but because God is in control, the possible thought processes or belief systesm of redactors is irrelevant.

If Jesus had guidelines and God intervenes to provide support when things go wrong rather than to affect what happens, much more is up for grabs. There is worth in tracing back the processes of redaction, oral transmission etc because it helps to explain how the text came into being and what it might originally have said. It is possible to suggest that what happened during Jesus’ encounter with the Cananite/Syrophonecian woman was that Jesus became aware that his ministry was not just to the Jews, something he had not understood until then, that he wasn’t just being rude and offensive to test whether she, as an outsider, had enough faith to be worthy of becoming an insider. It is possible to ask “Did God really say that, or is this an adjustment that’s been made later to fit a particular understanding of what was happening at the time?”

The fundamental issue for biblical interpretation by Christians is, I suppose, how we understand the notion that Scripture is “inspired by God”. People who prefer to speak about this as “God-breathed” and understand that it therefore has a guarantee of accuracy are going to read the first part of my forthcoming JBL article on pyschological research on eyewitness testimony and memory and say “yes, but what does that have to do with the Bible?” and disregard my conclusions. Those who think that it means more that God nudged people to write down in their own words how they experienced God in action in their lives are going to find it quite interesting, even if they don’t agree with my conclusions.

Those in one group are not going to be convinced by the arguments of those in the other about meaning and interpretation unless they change their fundamental understanding of how God works. This is not to say that we should keep saying what we believe because there are some people who hear the arguments from the other perspective and say “Ah, finally this makes sense … now, how do you get to that point?” For the majority, however, the answer to the question “But can’t you see that this makes more sense” is “no, no, I can’t because it doesn’t” and trying to convince them with logic at the level of the current point in question is a waste of everyone’s time. I don’t know about yours, but my time is too precious to waste on this kind of venture.

4 thoughts on “Christians and Biblical Scholarship

  1. What research have you done on oral transmission? On tracing back the transmissions of the oral traditions?

    Would newly converted Christians , infants in Christ, have lapped up stories about the deeds and teachings of their Lord and Saviour?

    1 Corinthians 3
    Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready.

    Would Christian converts have lapped up the oral traditions about Jesus, because those traditions were ‘milk’, and not the solid food for which they were not yet ready?

    Or were the oral traditions about the deeds and teachings of Jesus the solid food that Christian converts got when they were ready for it?

    How can we determine when Christian converts were told about the deeds and teachings of Jesus? Was it before or after they got their ‘milk’?

  2. Interesting questions, Steven. I’ve done quite a bit of reading in the area of oral transmission and a huge amount in memory and eyewitness testimony, but I have a 10,000 word paper coming out in Journal of Biblical Literature which summarises what how I see the latter being applied in biblical studies – too big for a blog post. 🙂

    IMHO, the oral traditions about Jesus would have contained both “milk” and “meat” because some of Jesus’ teachings were basic and others more complex, although, of course most have a number of different levels of application. It’s important to remember that although some people could read and write during the period when Christianity began, the majority couldn’t. Society in general behaved as though it were an oral rather than a literate one and most believers would have received their teachings orally.

  3. Most believers would have received their teachings orally.

    I’m sure that is true.

    Paul writes ‘Now, brothers, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.’

    Perhaps some of the oral traditions about Jesus were going beyond what had been written in the Old Testament?

    I agree that many of the oral traditions about the deeds of Jesus were held back , because they were deemed too complex for the new converts who were to be given milk at first.

    I just wonder how this ‘omerta’ was maintained.

  4. Perhaps Paul saved the more complex of Jesus teachings – the meat – for his works which dealed with more systematic theology, such as Romans.

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