Approaching the Bible

Chapter 2:
Beyond Reasonable Doubt

See my series reviewing
The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith
by James F. McGrath

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.
Biblical Study Approaches

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.

Synoptic ProblemTo 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”.

Interesting Tid-Bits

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”.
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13 Comments

Filed under Philosophy & Religion

13 responses to “Approaching the Bible

  1. Anders Branderud

    This article uses the term “historical Jesus”. The persons using that contra-historical oxymoron (demonstrated by the eminent late Oxford historian, James Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue) exposes dependancy upon 4th-century, gentile, Hellenist sources.

    […blah, blah, blah … . This comment was long, generic, proselytizing, irrelevant spam in violation of my comment policy. The rest was deleted.]

  2. He criticize the solely confessional approach as having the tendency to create a Jesus onto which we project “our own ideals, our own points of view, and to make him in our own image”.

    Albert Schweitzer said the same thing about Historical Jesus scholars who were using historical-critical method to create a Jesus after one’s own image.

  3. Boz

    Why is the synoptic problem a problem?

    What’s wrong with saying:

    “They are possibly related in this way, or maybe that way, but we will never know for sure” ?

  4. FYI Readers:
    Free on-line The Quest for the Historical Jesus” by Albert Schweitzer (wiki).

  5. For if their Christian’s faith rests solely in their Bible, they will walk away from this book with their foundations greatly shakened.

    And per your last post, their faith must rest to some degree, even if not solely ,in the bible, right?

    He sees a substantial Jesus still emerging from his critical inspection

    This is where my liberal Christians friends seem to be. They find enough historical accuracy in the gospels to at least get to the point o neutrality, or warrented agnosticism towards what the evidence actually points to. Then based on how they feel, the answers to life questions they find in the bible, their desire to live a certain way with a certain hope, they make the leap of faith to choose to live that way, as though it were true, or perhaps trusting that it is true. Does that sound like where the book is going?

  6. Sabio Lantz

    I am not sure where McGrath is going or how far he will go. Hopefully I we will find out.

  7. “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. ”

    This seems to assume the two Jesus’ are different, and yet if the common atheist is to be believed, Jesus does not exist anywhere other than in the Bible, which I would assume makes proving who the historical Jesus (really) was, difficult. And is the reader to believe that McGrath lacks an agenda-or that any writer does?

    “But remember, while this book so far appears to be offering devastating critical insight to the naive bible-believing Christian”

    And the lack of consensus as to which books were written first, or whether the author is the same as him for whom it is named is a (devastating) controversy? What am I missing?

    Let’s say I held to the Augustinian theory. How am I devastated at this point?

  8. @ Mark
    (1) As the recent Mythicist debate on several atheist and Christian sites show, probably most atheists feel there was some actual historical Christian. However, there are arguments against an actual Jesus, as you say. But I would not call those who hold that view the “common atheists”.
    (2) Many atheists, me included, agree with much of Dr. McGrath’s approach and feel the Christian’s canon can reveal something of the actual Jesus.
    (3) McGrath, as my cartoon illustrates, shows us how a great deal of the New Testment is factually contrived. That would be devastating to many who hold a literal view of their scripture. And most hold a more literal view than they admit, I feel.

  9. Boz

    sabio said: “[McGrath and myself] feel [that] the Christian’s canon can reveal something of the actual Jesus.”

    Does McGrath take into account the non-canon, apocryphal writings on jesus, specifically the dozen(?) other gospels (judas, magdalene, thomas, etc?)

    given his approach of not treating any particular book as sacred/divine, I can think of no reason to focus only on the four gospels in our current new testament, while ignoring non-biblical writing.

  10. Hey Boz,
    I am not sure how much McGrath works with non-canon texts but since he studies 2nd temple Judaism, I imagine he is actually pretty versed in many other texts. You can search on his site.

  11. i love reading the Jesus Seminar with Spong, Borg, and Crossan. I’m currently reading for my Christology class Crossan’s Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography.

    McGrath follows down the same road and i LOVE hearing facts, tid bits, socio-historic settings, and cultural anthropology. Synoptic problem wasn’t a shock for me in seminary as it was for many of my classmates. Jesuits have been talking about this for a long, long time. great stuff, sounds like a good book. thanks again for your review.

  12. bataille9

    Sabio,

    I’ve been meaning to mention: the top graphic is fantastic! Keep up the great illustrations!

  13. Thanx, Bataille9. I put a lot of time in that to try and capture the idea. I am glad you understood it.

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