Beyond Reasonable Doubt
See my series reviewing
In Chapter 2. James McGrath moves his conservative readers to more uncomfortable grounds — historical textual criticism. To illustrate the difference between the various methods of studying the Bible, he offers a simple instructive diagram which I have taken liberty to significantly embellished below.
This historical approach should obviously worry both fundamentalists and some open-minded non-fundies. For as the book continues, James McGrath will start suggesting methods for cutting through rhetorical styles and the Bible authors’ agendas to wonder about the actual historical Jesus.
Thus, this book is probably a wonderful introduction to conservative Christians who stumble into Dr. MrGrath’s class. But as my crafted cartoon to the left illustrates, these young minds will have good reason to worry. For if their Christian’s faith rests solely in their Bible, they will walk away from this book with their foundations greatly shakened.
The Synoptic Problem
Later in the chapter McGrath leads the reader through a very good introduction to the “synoptic problem” — how to figure out the relationship between the first three Gospels. The synoptic problem has several proposed solutions of which McGrath seems to buy-into the Markan Priority solution. This wiki article explains the controversy.
To the right I again elaborated one of McGrath’s helpful diagrams. The red triangles are the synoptic (Gr: “together-seen”) gospels. The tan circles are these gospels’ unknown sources. McGrath is obviously keeping his explanations simple intentionally. He is kindly writing a basic introduction to familiarize students with scholarly approaches to the Bible in contrast to devotional approaches with which they are probably most familiar with. The goal of the historic approach is to see how much we can know about the historical Jesus — the actual Jesus. And McGrath shows us how finding the actual Jesus is incredibly difficult since:
- The gospel writers were not disciples (as many imagine) and they were not even eye witnesses.
- Each writer had agendas they used to write their stories
- We don’t have the sources used by the writers
- We can’t easily tell what stories are actual vs mythical.
I intentionally included the “Mythical” influences in my diagram in honor of all the recent controversial postings on “Mythicism” on McGrath’s site: Exploring our Matrix. But remember, while this book so far appears to be offering devastating critical insight to the naive bible-believing Christian, McGrath is himself a Christian and does not feel these insights are damaging to his faith. He sees a substantial Jesus still emerging from his critical inspection and begs the readers, both conservative Christians and Atheists, to “give Jesus a fair trial”.
So that you don’t feel you are leaving this review without learning something. Here are few tid-bits from this fun chapter:
- The earliest gospel manuscripts don’t include titles. The authors were anonymous.
- Herod is reported having executed John the Baptist for his wife. However, Mark (6:16-29) has Herod sympathetic to John, while Matthew (14:1-2) has Herod wanting him killed.
- Matthew’s gospel shows the writer’s need to explain, clarify, organize and Jew-ify.
- Mark’s Greek is “unpolished”.