Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Historical-Critical Method and the New Testament

I want to discuss, briefly, the historical-critical method. This is the scholarly model of research that has been dominant both in seminaries and in universities for the past several decades, and it has a long history reaching back to probably Desiderius Erasmus, though certainly to the German "higher criticism" of the Tubingen School.

What differentiates higher criticism from lower criticism? At its heart, higher criticism approaches a text (any text) with the viewpoint that it makes sense, or at least made sense originally. The higher criticism method seeks to examine the historical context of the text, to attempt to determine who actually wrote it, when, where, and how, and to compare it to other texts from the same time period. It assumes (and this is what draws the ire of many religious adherents) that each text has a human author with a particular agenda. One thing that you have to get used to is the usage of the word "agenda" in academia. It's a fairly neutral term most of the time - everyone has an agenda when writing a text, otherwise they wouldn't bother writing it in the first place. This is somewhat synonymous with "intent," but there are subtle shades of differences. The method of higher criticism wants to view each text as a separate authorial piece and examine its sources (i.e., where it gets its information from); the text's redaction (how it was edited and why); and form history (what type of literature are you examining? A war hymn? A prayer? An incantation? What are these forms histories within a community?). Essentially, the best way to examine a text is to examine its context and how it influenced the text.

Lower criticism, on the other hand, views the text itself as the best method to interpret the text. Thus, if a passage is unclear, one should search (almost) only the text itself for clearer passages which may illuminate the difficulty. Lower criticism is concerned with discovering what a text originally said before any scribal or redaction errors crept in. Thus, for example, from lower criticism we may come to understand that Matthew's quotation that the Messiah would be born of a "virgin" is an authorial error of translation - the original word in Isaiah was "young woman." From a higher criticism standpoint we would understand that the author of Matthew was working with a Greek copy of the Hebrew book of Isaiah, where the word for young woman is mistranslated as virgin (Hebrew has a word for virgin, and we have to assume that if Isaiah meant "virgin," that's what would be in the text). Likewise, we would understand that Isaiah's prophecy of a man born of a young woman to be named Immanuel who would save the kingdom was a prophecy about his own time, spoken directly to his king to give him a sign for victory - a "prophecy" that was supposed to be fulfilled in the same book. Now, this isn't to say that Christians can't reappropriate a prophecy and interpret it as meaning something other than the author of Isaiah meant it to mean, but, it gives one pause sometimes when you begin to closely examine scriptures.

Now, as for the historical-critical method, it's an outgrowth of the higher criticism school, but it certainly includes the textual criticism of "lower criticism." Here, a scholar is concerned in part with the historical information presented in a text - that is, are these stories factually accurate. There are several criteria that help us determine whether or not a story is likely to be historically/factually accurate, but for right now I want to concern myself with a brief analysis of some of the stories in the New Testament.

First off, there is a huge difference between the devotional reading of scriptures and the critical reading of scriptures. The devotional reading tends to view the text as at least divinely inspired and offering significant meaning and instruction in one's life. Devotional reading tends to be "vertical," that is to say, when you read a text for devotion, you read one book at a time, all the way through. Or, alternatively, you pick and choose passages from books about the same event to create a syncretic story. The problem with this approach is that when you read straight through one book and then move on the text, you are likely to skip over inconsistencies or contradictions and mentally adjust to make them all fit together. Most religious adherents would be familiar with this by example - if I ask you to relate to me the story of the birth of Jesus, many people will relate a story along the lines of - "An angel came to Mary, told her she would conceive God's son. Mary and Joseph went down to Bethlehem from Nazareth to participate in a census declared by Caesar Augustus. He was born in a manger, shepherds and wise men came to witness his birth. Then the family returned to Nazareth." It's an interesting story, and there are probably some divergence there - some people may remember the story of Jesus being circumcised on the eighth day. Others may recall the flight to Egypt. But here's the primary problem - the story is a confabulation of the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. The tale, as told, is not present in either of them, but is a mixture of them both and, because of this, loses a lot of the meaning of each independent story.

This is an important lesson from historical criticism - you approach a text with the idea that the author was writing what they considered a definitive work. The author of any of the Gospels did not know that their books would be compiled into a single edition. The author of Matthew did not know that his story would be put alongside the story of the author of Luke. Each had their own ideas about what these stories meant and how to best convey them. Each emphasized or changed, or even made up, certain details to push their own agenda, quite independently of thinking they were writing books for a "Bible" that would only come centuries later. This is a point I will take up a bit later, but it's very important to realize - you have to take each book as its own text, with its own interests. This method reads "horizontally" - that is, you take each text that relates a similar tale, or talks about the same topic, and then line them up. Make a list of the important events and the order in which they go, or the important ideas, and then compare them.

So, two items I want to examine after the jump are from the New Testament - first, the birth of Jesus, and last, the death of Jesus.

So what are the circumstances of Jesus' birth? Well, first off, we have to recognize that only two Gospels even mention it - Matthew and Luke. In Mark and John, Jesus appears on the scene as a full-grown adult. Now, this actually may give us some insight into what exactly each author is trying to tell us.

First, a brief history lesson. As far as the Gospels go, Mark was likely the first written, somewhere between C.E. 50-70, depending on who you're talking to. Mark is a very fast-paced gospel and primarily is concerned with the last week of Jesus' life. Jesus teaches almost entirely in parables in this Gospel, as in the Synoptic Gospels as a whole, and has a very interesting take on the Passion narrative. Matthew and Luke came later, perhaps up to C.E. 110. We fix these dates on a couple of things - when the Gospel begins to be mentioned by churches and church leaders, and from a form of textual criticism - Matthew and Luke relate almost every story in Mark, but contain some of their own separate ones. Likewise, they both quote Mark exactly in several places, suggesting that Mark already existed for the authors of Matthew and Luke. John was the last Gospel written, probably towards C.E. 100, but maybe afterward, and is certainly the most divergent of all the Gospels. We'll get to that in a moment.

Back to the birth narratives. In Matthew and Luke, we have genealogies of Jesus through Joseph (though Luke makes explicit that this was merely "so it was thought). This bit never made terribly much sense to be, that in order to fulfill the prophecies that the Messiah would come from the House of David, Jesus had to be born to the wife of a man from the House of David, but not actually be his son, but be thought to be his son...regardless.

What is interesting is that these genealogies are different. Not only do they not line up in terms of names until King David, they differ in number as well. Matthew wants to make an important numerological point - every 14 generations something important happens (7 is the divine number in Judaism, so 14 is doubly divine). Abraham -> David -> Jesus. Well, okay, maybe. But, if you count Matthew's generations the same way, Jesus is actually the 13th generation after David. Beyond that point, however, Matthew and Luke have different end points for their genealogies, and this is the first hint that they are driving at two different goals. Matthew ends with Abraham, the father of the Jewish people. Luke ends with Adam, the father of all humans. You can begin to see a divergence of emphasis and intent merely through these genealogies. Now, the question for the historian is, can both of these genealogies be correct, as well as the authors statements about them? Well, probably not. They clearly don't agree in name or number, and Matthew is insistent on the "14 Generations" idea.

Okay, so maybe the genealogies don't mix that well, but what about the birth narrative itself? Let's take a look.

Matthew states that Mary and Joseph were pledged to be married, but she was found to be with child before they had come together. Joseph, apparently being a nice dude, wanted to quietly divorce her, but an angel appeared to him and told him she had conceived of the Holy Spirit, and to name the child Jesus (a later form of Joshua, which, in Hebrew, meant "Leader"). This, as Matthew is fond of reminding us, was in accordance with prophecy (Isaiah) so that the "virgin" would give birth to a child and he would be called Immanuel (here is another little bit that interests me - you see, in Hebrew, the idiom for giving someone a name was "call his name," or "to call." So, really, as in Isaiah, to call him Immanuel probably was to name the child Immanuel...just a bit of trivia). So, he took Mary home with him and did not have union with her until she had given birth. Where did this take place? Well, it says that Joseph took her home with him, and the next chapter tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Later it says that the Magi came to the house where the child was. Clearly, for Matthew's purposes, Jesus was born in Bethlehem because his parents lived there in a house.

What does Luke say? Well, Luke begins by informing us that a census was declared by Caesar Augustus for all the Roman world, while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Well, historically, that indeed does match up. It happened in about C.E. 6. Okay. But wait...the census occurred after the banishment of Herod Archelaus and the imposition of Roman rule in Judea. This may not sound like a big deal, but remember that story from Matthew about Herod the Great ordering the murder of all male children aged two and younger, and how it forced Mary and Joseph to flee with Jesus to Egypt? Yeah, Herod the Great died between B.C.E. 5 and 4, about a decade before the census took place. Matthew is explicit that Jesus was born during Herod the Great's rule, but Luke is likewise explicit that he was born nearly a decade later. Another interesting problem. They can't both be right. At least one has to be historically incorrect.

Anyway, Luke goes on to say that the census required every man to register in the town of his ancestor's birth. Now, this is just silly on its face - imagine, Joseph, who according to Luke is living in Nazareth at the time, must return to the city of an ancestor many centuries back to be counted. Now, first of all, imagine someone told you that you had to return to the city of your ancestors for a census, someone say, even just four hundred years back. How many would know it? Granted, Judaism has a strong patriarchy, and it may be that many people know their ancestry that well, but also consider this: if you're taking a census to count population distribution and income, why would you leave the area in which you actually live and work?

Alright, so, Joseph and a pregnant Mary go from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea and can't find an open inn, so they have to stay in a manger, where Mary gives birth to Jesus.

Here we come to another discrepancy - who came to witness the birth of Jesus? According to Matthew, it was the Magi, or wise men, from the east, who were following a "star". They tipped Herod the Great off to the whole "Messiah" thing, who tried to get them to report back to him on the location of this child. The wise men go to see Jesus and offer him gifts fit for a king, and then leave by another route to escape Herod, who then becomes enraged and orders the murder of all the boys in Bethlehem and the vicinity around the age of two or younger. Joseph has another dream and the family escapes to Egypt to wait out Herod's reign. This, of course, is in fulfillment of prophecy, so that "my Son" can be "called out of Egypt," as a parallel to the Exodus account. Now, originally Joseph was planning on returning to Bethlehem, where he lived, but when they found out that Archelaus was in power, they instead fled to Galilee and settled in Nazareth, again, to fulfill prophecy.

Luke has an entirely different story. It wasn't wise men who came to see Jesus, proclaiming him to be a king. Instead, it was shepherds, who praised him. There is no mention of Magi in this book. Likewise, there are additional narratives not found in Matthew. For one, it tells the story of Jesus being taken to the Temple in Jerusalem to be circumcised, where he is met by Simeon, a wise man who had prayed to see the Messiah before he died. Jesus is blessed by Simeon, and is likewise praised by a prophetess, Anna, who was also at the Temple (an important note - Luke puts much more emphasis on women than the other gospel writers - it is Mary who has dreams and visions of angels, not Joseph). After performing the "duties before the Lord," the family returns to Nazareth. There is no death order for babies, there is no flight to Egypt, there is no attempt to return to Bethlehem only to turn around and go to Nazareth instead. Luke also narrates that the family returned to Jerusalem every year for the Passover Feast, and thus records a story of the twelve year old Jesus teaching the elders in the Temple.

Both of these authors had a historical problem. Jesus was obviously from Nazareth, and yet, the Messiah was supposed to be born in Bethlehem. Both tried to solve it in very different ways. For Matthew, Jesus was born in Bethlehem because his family lived there, and only later settled in Nazareth. For Luke, Jesus was from Nazareth because his family lived there but was born in Bethlehem because Mary and Joseph traveled there for a census. Likewise, the birth of Jesus is attended by two very different sets of people in the two books, and for very different reasons. Matthew is very concerned about the fulfillment of prophecy and making Jesus the Jewish Messiah - he has to be worshiped and honored as a king. Luke wants Jesus as the savior of all of mankind, and thus he traces his lineage back to Adam and has lowly shepherds witness his birth. These are very different agendas and they led to different stories which, on the historical front, are impossible to reconcile with one another without doing a lot of violence to the books themselves and creating a new gospel which says something different from both Matthew and Luke.

Alright, so, on to the opposite end - the death of Jesus.

All of the gospels record something about the death by crucifixion of Jesus. But each has a different perspective about it. Let's begin with Mark. In Mark, Jesus clears the Temple after entering Jerusalem, which begins the plot to kill him. He then goes on to teach several parables and other mysteries. After the Last Supper, Jesus goes to Gethsemane to pray and is arrested. He is taken before the Sanhedrin where many people are brought in to testify against him, but he remains silent until admitting that he is the Son of Man. The Sanhedrin hands Jesus over to Pilate early in the morning. Jesus admits that he is the King of the Jews, but otherwise answers nothing. Pilate releases Barabbas, who was a member of the insurrectionists. He hands Jesus over to the soldiers, who flog him and mock him. Simon of Cyrene is forced to carry the cross. Jesus is crucified on the third hour of the day of Passover with two robbers, who hurl insults on him, and is mocked by passerbys and the Jewish people. At the sixth hour a great darkness comes over the land. At the ninth hour, Jesus calls out in a loud voice "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" and dies. At this moment, the curtain of the Temple is torn in two and the centurion at the cross says "Surely this man was the Son of God!" Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the Younger and of Joses, and Salome, and many other women are present.

In Mark, we get a picture of Jesus almost in shock - he is silent before his accusers until the end, and likewise, Jesus the deserted - Peter denies knowing him, no one stands up for him, and in the end, you have the moving cry of "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" before he dies. There is no triumphant end on the cross, merely a sentiment of desertion and death. The curtain of the Temple is ripped at the moment of Jesus' death, probably signifying the breaking of the old covenant and the establishment of a new - there is no separation between God and his people now. Likewise, the centurion, reversing the previous two episodes of mocking, recognizes Jesus as the Son of God (note, this is a formal title and can be applied to many people, as could Messiah).

In Matthew and Luke we have a bit of a different story. Let's look first at Matthew, then Luke.

In Matthew, Jesus clears out the temple, teaches several parables, has the Last Supper on Passover (as in Mark), goes to Gethsemane to pray, is arrested, and brought before the Sanhedrin. He is mocked and accused, and he only admits to being the Son of Man. Then he is beaten for blasphemy. Jesus is taken before Pilate, again refuses to answer, and Pilate releases Barabbas, after the Jews call for the blood of Jesus to be on their hands. Pilate hands Jesus over to the soldiers, who flog him and mock him and take him to be crucified. Simon of Cyrene is made to carry the cross. The robbers, the elders, and the passerbys all mock him. From the sixth hour to the ninth hour a darkness comes over the land. At the ninth hour, Jesus cries out "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me," and dies. At the moment of his death, the Temple curtain splits in two and many graves broke open. Holy people who had died rose out of the graves and appeared to many people in the city. The centurion remarks "Surely he is the Son of God," and many women were watching in the distance, including Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee's sons.

This account is mostly similar, save for the earthquake and the saintly zombies bit. But, again, this is the synoptic account, we expect it to be mostly similar. Let's check out Luke as well.

In Luke, Jesus cleans out the temple, takes on some challenges to his authority, teaches parables, including telling them that "this generation will not pass away before all these things have happened," (and I don't see how you could get much more explicit than that), and has the Last Supper on Passover. Jesus goes out to the Mount of Olives "as usual," and prays. He is arrested and taken to the house of the high priest. The guards mock him and beat him. He is taken before the elders and the teachers of the law. He states that they would not believe him if he told them, and then admits to being the Son of Man. They formally indict him for blasphemy. They take Jesus before Pilate and accuse him of speaking against taxes and of being King. Pilate asks, and Jesus affirms that he is the King of the Jews. Pilate learns that Jesus is from Galilee and so sends him before Herod, who has jurisdiction over that district. Herod is pleased to see him and asks for some miracles to be performed. Jesus is silent. Then the soldiers and Herod begin to mock him and send him back to Pilate. Pilate says he sees no basis to kill Jesus, so he will punish him and release him. The elders demand that Pilate kill Jesus and release Barabbas. They take Jesus away to be crucified. Simon of Cyrene is made to carry the cross. Jesus asks that people not mourn for him, and instead mourn for themselves. They crucify Jesus on the placed called the Skull, and he asks God to forgive them, for they know not what they do. Two criminals are crucified with him, one who hurls insults on him, the other argues that Jesus has done nothing wrong. Jesus tells that one that he will be with him in paradise on the same day. From the sixth hour to the ninth hour a darkness came over the land. Then the curtain of the Temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." Then he dies. The centurion at the cross says "Surely this was a righteous man." The women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance.

Clearly there are differences here. Jesus responds to some of his accusers, and he is taken first to the high priest, then before the elders, then to Pilate, then to Herod, and then back to Pilate. Both Pilate and Herod find him innocent. Jesus on the way to the crucifixion is calm and collected, telling others to mourn for themselves. There is no feeling of being forsaken on the cross, instead, he commends his spirit into God's hands. The temple curtain is not torn after the death, but before, giving further emphasis to the entire point behind Luke's narrative - Jesus was innocent. The Temple curtain here probably represents a rejection by God of the decision, or perhaps the people. The centurion does not recognize Jesus as the Son of Man, but, more importantly for Luke, as a truly innocent man.

Lastly, we come to John, where the most significant differences lie. To begin with, Jesus clears out the Temple at the beginning of his ministry, not at the end. There are several trips to Jerusalem. The last one being the triumphal entry. Jesus predicts his death and before the Passover Feast washes his disciples' feet. Jesus gives several long discourses (typically of John, Jesus does not teach in short parables or aphorisms, but instead extended speeches. Also, unlike the synoptic Gospels, in John, Jesus does not speak primarily about the Kingdom of God, but instead about himself - the origin of all the "I am" statements). Jesus then prays for himself, his disciples, and all believers, before being arrested. He is taken before Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. The high priest questions Jesus, who responds very openly. He is struck and bound and then sent to Caiaphas the high priest and then to Pilate in the morning. This is all before the Passover Feast, which would occur the coming night. Pilate argues that Jesus should be judged according to the Jew's own laws, they respond that they have no right to execute him. Pilate questions Jesus, who gives several theological replies, including, importantly, that "My Kingdom is not of this world....But now my kingdom is from another place." Pilate releases Barabbas. Jesus is flogged and mocked. Pilate again brings Jesus out and says that he has no basis to kill him, but the Jews demand it. Pilate tries to release him, but the Jews increasingly demand his death. John is very clear - it was the day of Preparation of Passover Week. Carrying his own cross, Jesus is led to Golgotha, and is crucified with two others. Near the cross stood Jesus' mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When he saw them there, he said to his mother "Dear woman, here is your son," and to the disciple, "here is your mother." Later, knowing that all was completed, and to fulfill Scripture, Jesus said "I am thirsty" and was given a sponge soaked in wine vinegar. Jesus then said "It is finished," bowed his head, and gave up his spirit.

This account is incredibly different from the others. But, of course, this also reflects John's theological views. You see, for Mark, there is some evidence to say that Jesus was the "adopted" Son of God. There is no birth narrative to tell us this, and the first mention of that term is when Jesus is Baptized, when God recognizes him as his son. For Mark, and for the other synoptic Gospels, Jesus was indeed a very special person, come to proclaim the Kingdom of God, which would occur after a great cataclysmic change. This cataclysm, however, would merely divide earthly kingdoms. Paradise, the Kingdom of God, would occur on earth. It was not a heavenly kingdom to which we would ascend, but a paradise on earth. Likewise, Jesus may be God's son, but it is equally clear that he is a man, separate from God, perhaps adopted by God, perhaps born of some supernatural conception by a virgin. However, Jesus' mission was to be the early indicator of the first appearance of the Kingdom of God on earth - he performs miracles to show its early manifestations, but is killed, perhaps as the sacrifice for the sins of many. Matthew and Luke hold fairly similar views, and Luke at least makes explicit that the Kingdom is coming soon, or has already begun to appear.

The situation is a bit different for the author of John. John begins his narrative by describing the Logos and God. The Word. The Word was with God, the Word was God (this does not necessarily imply identity...perhaps more on that later), and the Word became flesh. In John's narrative, Jesus was pre-existent. The story is of an incarnation, not of an immaculate conception of a human. Jesus, for John, is clearly divine. Perhaps not God himself, but at least co-existent with God since the beginning. Likewise, in John, Jesus continues to proclaim his divinity and special status. Also, a major problem for the author of John is the amount of time that passed between the death of Jesus and the writing of his book. Most, if not all, of the people who had followed Jesus originally were dead. How to deal with that troubling promise that "this generation will not pass away" then? Well, John rotates the divide between this world and the Kingdom of God. Instead of being a new earthly paradise, John proclaims a heavenly paradise - an eternal life not on this world, but in heaven. Likewise, John is quite explicit on the fact that Jesus was crucified on the day of Preparation for the Passover Feast, when the lambs were slaughtered, not on Passover day. This is probably because of John's identification of Jesus with the sacrificial lamb. So, which is it? Did Jesus die on the Preparation day or the Feast day? They can't both be right.

This is but a brief entry into the kind of modern methodology that scholars of ancient texts and scriptures use, but even for so small a topic list, it provides some very interesting discrepancies between some of our supposedly best known stories and reinforces the idea that we have to let each author speak for themselves. To attempt to just mash these stories together and say they reconcile with one another really ruins the power of each one and makes one lose sight of what the author wanted to emphasize or bring to the attention of the reader. We lose the original intent and intended audience of the text when we argue that they all have to agree with one another.

So, what does this mean for believers? Not being one myself, I can say that personally I am not troubled by this kind of analysis and find it interesting to explore the meanings that ancient authors wanted to convey. For the believer who insists that their scripture is the inerrant, literal word of their god...well, this methodology, and history in general, is probably quite troublesome. For the believer who doesn't require his scriptures to be inerrant or literal, it may not pose that much of a problem. Many people ask why they were never told about these kinds of things before, but, I dunno...I suppose you could still find a lot of meaning and value in a text, regardless of its historical veracity.

If you've got a minute, tell me what you think.

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