Saturday, October 31, 2009

Tom Wright's voyage into the mind of Jesus

The Challenge of Jesus by N. T. Wright (SPCK, 2000)

The eschatological debate between liberal and conservative scholars is so deeply entrenched, so polarised, so emotionally charged that any reconciliation seems unlikely - at least this side of the Second Coming! But what would happen if a theologian with impeccable academic credentials consciously set out to transcend these factions? The chances are, of course, that such an author would get shot at from both sides, even as both sides tried to claim him as an albeit wayward member of their own camp. And that rather sums up the career of N. T. ("Tom") Wright, formerly Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey, now promoted to Bishop of Durham.

Aside from his work as bishop, Wright is best known for his lengthy multi-volume work-in-progress on the historical Jesus and his connections with the early church entitled "Christian Origins and the Question of God". In the shorter book reviewed here, "The Challenge of Jesus", Wright produced a fascinating introductory overview of his thesis that will appeal to the non-specialist reader without underselling the author's status as one of the leading British theologians of his generation.

Wright's starting point is the familiar and widely accepted truth that we must understand how Jesus and his contemporaries understood his teaching and his actions before we can apply them to our own setting. But Wright goes a stage further, claiming that even with a sound understanding of this principle, the way the Church has traditionally acted out its mission does not do justice to the uniqueness and particularity of Jesus' works. Individual emulation of Jesus' actions and the lifestyle application of popular interpretations of his teaching, however culturally adjusted, are inadequate. In short we are not just people (plural) but the People (singular) of God, and Wright's conclusion is no less than that the Church must be to the World what Jesus was to Israel.

That may not sound anything like as exciting or challenging at first sight as it will be once you have digested Wright's closely argued and beautifully polished prose. He shows with unerring skill, both as historian and Bible interpreter, how Jesus subverted traditional Jewish symbolism and messianic expectations to supplant the Temple with his own person and position his own death as the central historical event in a new Exodus. In doing so, Wright brings together tools that will be familiar to both liberals and conservatives, and he is remarkably successful in making two important connections: Firstly, the author shows in politically and psychologically credible terms the connection between Jesus' actions and his death sentence. Secondly and even more strikingly, he demonstrates in a historically and spiritually authentic way the connection between the Jesus who walked and talked and the Christ of the Church's kerygmatic literature. The value of these achievements in a book that concurrently stresses the historic centrality of the physical death and resurrection (for which read literal re-embodiment) of Jesus Christ cannot be over-stated.

That is not to say that the book is without flaws, the most serious of which is Wright's inadequate handling of the Atonement. Nowhere in the book's climactic chapter, 'The Challenge of Easter' does the author come close to explaining how Jesus' death can be the means of salvation or even transference of guilt. In fairness to the author, it is clear from passing comments elsewhere in the book that he vehemently disowns the Liberal view that Calvary was no more than an example to the infant church of the cross-bearing path it would have to follow. Nevertheless, he does not elaborate this conviction in the parts of the book where it matters most, and readers could be excused for inferring from the chapter under discussion that Jesus' painful death was little more than an inconvenient bridge he had to cross to get to his glorious resurrection.

The under-emphasis of substitutionary atonement is just the most serious of several flaws, including a rather too guarded analysis by the author of exactly what he means when he speaks of Christ's divinity, and in a lesser work these might have been fatal. But it really is too much to expect that any one book but the Bible itself can do justice to every strand of Christian truth. The key strength of Wright's book is that it provides in one concise and highly readable paperback a broader-based homage to the historical truth of the New Testament than anything else I can bring to mind. Moreover Wright is not just a theoretician, and in the last two chapters of the book he applies his exegesis, developing with ruthless logic the ethical challenge of an inaugurated but unfinished eschatalogical Kingdom of God. The challenge to our preconceptions, prejudices and comfort zones is deeply unsettling and yet fundamentally uplifting.

In summary, almost every one with an opinion of his or her own will find something in Wright's thesis to disagree with, but most readers of whatever persuasion should find his work challenging and rewarding. This concise introduction to the larger project is engagingly written and full of fresh and striking insights that will stimulate both the heart and the brain. I would recommend it to anyone who seriously wants to get to the heart of what Jesus and his contemporaries will have understood by the "Kingdom of God".

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Soul of America Laid Bare

The Penguin History of the United States of America
by Hugh Brogan (2nd edition, Penguin, 2001)

One of the things America is fairly good at is history. Of course, it is hard to find a historical building in the USA that has an original brick or yard of weatherboard left in place, but what is remarkable and alien to the Brisitsh mind-set is the way they most Americans embrace and connect with their history. Certainly, also, their understanding of great events of the past is often a bit one-sided, given two to three generations of Hollywood conditioning. After all most history gets written by the winners, which means that the losers are all too often made to look like natural losers or bad guys or both. Nevertheless, most modern Americans get the point of their War of Independence, their appallingly bloody Civil War, the dreadful legacy of slavery (only ended in 1863), and so on. And contrary to how it may look, they grasp the main points of world history as well - at least the rather numerous parts of it in which American casualties have been involved.

Things are not as open here in Britain. Believe it or not, most of us have only a tenuous grasp of our own history, let alone anybody else's. Of course in one sense Britain is obsessed with history, but it is not the history of ordinary people like you and me. Medieval aristocracy and castles may have a superficial romantic appeal, and as academic subjects they are characterised by exemplary discipline and honesty, but to 95% of the UK population they are Other People's History. Other than on the fantasy level, there is no personal involvement or commitment or even continuity. It's a recipe for apathy, bigotry, and a general lack of self-understanding.

If this is Britain's attitude to her own history, what then will be its attitude to the history of that Great Embarrassment, the lost Atlantic empire? This was the original British Empire, whose loss triggered the desperate thirst for a replacement which was eventually slaked by the establishment of a second and decidedly less glamorous and comfortable British Empire in India. The answer is that our collective memory has drawn a kindly veil over it (and also, incidentally, over the indirect but nonetheless devastating diplomatic and military defeat by the French that it represented. Of course America is not totally absent from the school syllabus; students variously learn about the settlement of the West, Martin Luther King, the Cuban Missile Crisis, even the Korean and Viet Name wars. But in reality America is the Bermuda Triangle of British history, the great silent factor, the missing key to understanding every era of Britain's past since the late 16th century. Little wonder then that Britain understands so little of itself (and for the record, I do write as a Briton), when one of the key factors that would give coherent sense to these four centuries is a no-go area, a field ring-fenced against popular awareness through systematic neglect by educationalists and popular publishing houses.

Hugh Brogan's engrossing historical overview of America's past, from pre-history through to about 1990, has the best chance imaginable of changing this ingrained habit of thought. Brogan's academic credentials are impeccable, and yet unlike many academics he writes with grace, wit and considerable passion. While rarely short-changing the reader on hard facts, he never lets facts obscure the thread of the story, and that is all-important, because unless we see how one thing leads to another we will have nothing to contemplate but a bunch of meaningless facts. From the British viewpoint this is invaluable, because Brogan shows how Britain itself has been shaped by its transatlantic engagements at every key stage since the dawn of its own modern nationhood.

And far more importantly (for this is primarily a history of America, rather than of Anglo-American relations), Brogan has done for the United States what only a warmly sympathetic outsider can do for any country. It needs both commitment and detachment in equal parts to sketch out the key events of a nation's history (and explain their meaning) free from the agenda that everyone has when they have grown up in a country and lived its internal political and economic tensions first hand. He has no bias, no wish to perpetuate the socially divisive myths that the older generations have grown up with, and yet equally no wish to tear down the essential beauties of the American dream. Few American historians have totally avoided one tendency or the other, because American historians are by definition protagonists in the still unfolding American story. In contrast, Brogan is socially, politically and economically uninvolved, but he is nevertheless caring and deeply attached to his subject, and he is not afraid to say what he thinks.

Thus whether you are British or American or neither, this book is the ideal starting point for an honest investigation of America's fascinating past - and an indispensable key to understanding its stormy present.

The Shaking of the Foundations (Tillich)

"The Shaking of the Foundations" by Paul Tillich (SCM Press, 1957)

It is sad that this slender compilation of Paul Tillich's preaching is out of print, but fortunately second-hand copies are readily available via the internet. For what we have here is not another volume of Tillich's dry and dated academic theology, but fine devotional writing that should challenge and inpire Christians of every and any persuasion.

I came to this book with my evangelical and theologically conservative barriers firmly in place, expecting it to be just one more example of the vague liberal wash typical of mid-20th century theology. And indeed, Tillich does as usual understress the unique atoning work of Christ and the reality of his resurrection and second coming.

However, to be fair to Tillich his sins are those of omission rather than commission. In other words, he says little in this book that a more conservative theologian could reasonably take exception to, for the simple reason that he is not writing analytically about divisive theological issues. Rather, these chapters are the transcripts of sermons delivered to a real congregation of diverse individuals, and consist of preaching designed to unite his listeners in celebrating the blessed experience of salvation.

In summary, what we have here is a collection of profound and relevant insights from a man who, however controversial some of his theories may have been, was not just another supercilious academic theologian. Indeed, he was one of the two or three greatest thinkers of his time, and a man who combined considerable literary gifts with the priestly and prophetic charismata of a true spirit-filled Christian. In particular, this book includes the world-famous sermon, "You Are Accepted", which justifies the price all by itself.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Why I Believe Women Should Be Allowed To Preach

In publicly taking issue with my own parish leadership on the question of whether a woman should be allowed to preach, it seems to me totally in keeping with the Evangelical tradition that our God-given conscience should inform the way we understand the nature of the Bible we submit to as the Word of God. The central question in my mind is this: Is the Bible (as Muslims say of the Qur’an) a recitation of God’s permanent rules for all mankind? Or is it a record of the way God’s word has been spoken into different communities over time, and the way they have interpreted and responded to that living revelation? Are we required to resolve the cultural, theological and ethical tensions between different parts of the Bible into a coherent and permanent rule book? Or do we have different lessons to learn from the way different biblical communities responded to their awareness of God's presence in their midst? Have we, in other words, a duty to “put on the mind of Christ” (St. Paul) in the power of the Spirit, and allow ourselves to be guided through the maze of ideas in the Bible with open minds as to where it will lead us?

I am acutely aware that it is possible to find verses of Scripture that can be quoted in support of different positions on any number of issues. And I suspect that it is at largely a consequence of our socialisation as Christians – the exegetical [5] peer group with which we identify – which verses we choose as well as the way we apply them to present-day issues. At a leadership level, my own church family has become strongly aligned to the Sydney school of thought via our relationships with key figures and the purchase of training materials; the hard-line views of Archbishop Jensen on female ordination and the present divisive controversy over homosexuality is well known. However, our parish is much more diverse at grass-roots level, with a few Anglo-Catholics, a lot of middle-church Anglicans, a sizeable Charismatic contingent, an increasingly assured group of Justice and Peace activists, and many who (like me) disown labels but might be misleadingly tagged by others as "Pre" or "Post" Evangelical. I try not to take sides but to value each of these persuasions as an authentic tradition in its own right, and have high hopes for what they can each contribute to our experience and outreach. Thus on one hand I respect and sympathise with those within my own church and across the wider Anglican Communion who wish to draw a line in the sand against the dogmatic preaching of liberal theology and moral permissiveness, and I have no great expectation of changing their minds on the issue of women in ministry. But by the same token, I feel it is right to speak my own mind on the issue and more important still to speak out on behalf of those women who feel caught in a Catch-22 situation, i.e. disqualified from speaking out against their disqualification from speaking out. 

So what do I believe? And why, as a Bible-based Christian, do I feel justified in (as some may perceive it) relativising Paul’s instructions to Timothy? As an enthusiastic Trinitarian, I firmly believe that only Christ in Person can be regarded as the perfect and eternal Word of God. In common with Barth [9] and others I am happy to call the Bible the Word of God by extension, but in a more figurative or restricted sense than when I apply the title to Jesus himself. Unlike the Liberal wing of the church, I have unlimited confidence (allowing for translation difficulties) in the way the Bible writers have captured the words and actions of Jesus, including the Resurrection and the other miraculous events they describe.  However, we only have to reflect on the inadequacy of human language to express our own personal experiences of meeting with Christ and being filled with his Spirit to question what it actually means to call the Bible the Word of God.

I believe it is that ineffable experience of contact with the divine that the first disciples of Christ and the Old Testament prophets before them relied on the Holy Spirit to communicate to others. And an essential factor in their ability to communicate the depth of those encounters lay in the brutal honesty with which they put their own responses on record, warts and all: Thomas’ doubts, the ambition of James and John, Peter’s arrogance and denial, the persecutions of Saul before his conversion, and so on. Whatever else the Bible is, it is no less than an authentic and honest human record seen through the eyes of people who were men of their time.  And without making the deadly liberal mistake of contextualising the timeless challenge out of Scripture or denying the flawless unity of God’s self-revelation throughout salvation history, I am convinced that all theological structures biblical or otherwise are shaped by cultural context. The timeless revelation of God’s purpose and means of salvation is gloriously ever-present in Scripture, but we need the most profound engagement with the contemporary frame of reference for any Bible passage or other theological writing if we are to infer lessons for our own situation.

This in my view applies just as much to the earliest events in the Bible chronology to which the Apostle Paul refers (such as Genesis 3, the story of the Fall, which is so often used to depict womankind as institutionally gullible) as it does to the experiences of the first Christians. More so in the case of Genesis, in fact, where we have to see through the eyes of two distinct cultures widely separated in time, space and worldview from us and from one another, viz. the pre-literary world in which the oral narratives developed and the much later generation in which they acquired their polished literary form. That is not for a moment to deny that the story of the Fall contains the truth of humanity’s predicament in relation to God and the world. Nor is it to deny that the Apostle Paul’s commonly alleged aversion to the idea of women speaking in church puts a substantial burden of proof on those who are in favour of female preaching. However, it does allow those of us who share such a conviction to get a foot in the hermeneutical [14] door, because it means that these verses cannot be presented as cut-and-dried proof of the case against. Indeed, I believe that we are forced in any debate as emotionally charged and potentially divisive as the present one to stand back from using as ammunition isolated verses whose original Sitz-im-Leben[15] could be so mis-matched as to result in mis-application, and instead to focus on what Dick Lucas sometimes referred to as the “melodic line” of scripture (as opposed presumably to the individual notes on the stave).

And it seems to me that, over against the scattering of individual verses (many of which are textually or contextually challenging) commonly used to support the subordination of women to men, we have a whole host of rational arguments (many of them based directly on scripture) in favour of a more permissive approach. I mention some of these in no particular order:

  • One of the most common themes throughout Paul’s body of writing is the call for unity-in-diversity. As with the ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ brethren in Rome [16] and the leadership cliques in Corinth [17], Paul urges everyone involved to seek unity, and only in the case of obvious immorality or soteriological [18] deficiency does he tend to take sides. This could be an argument for seeking a consensus view.
  • Paul goes to great lengths to show that social divisions are meaningless. The context in Galatians is very specific, and I have gone to great lengths above to stress the importance of sensitivity to context, but Gal 3:28 ('There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus') is a great rallying cry. 
  • A mere 150 years ago, educated white people in were conscientiously quoting verses from Genesis[20] and Paul[21] in support of slavery. Many of the same verses were used by the Dutch Reformed Church in our own lifetime in support of apartheid. It is now almost unanimously held that this was eisegetic[22]. Many Evangelicals believe that a time will come when we look back on male/female divisions in the same spirit.
  • The only part of Paul's appeal to Genesis 3 that bears directly on the appropriateness of women preaching is the prickly pear of their putative gullibility. In a spirit of commitment to Bible truth, I utterly reject this as a valid and permanent judgement on the female mentality. Without doubt, in its original context, it contains a strand of symbolic truth. However, I do not believe that applying it to female ministry is one jot more valid than using the story of Canaan looking on Noah’s nakedness in support of racially-based slavery or segregation. [23]
  • I remember a former member of the leadership team at my home church explaining a theory of proclamation in relation to preaching from the pulpit that even then seemed to me to turn preaching into a sacrament as supernatural as Catholic beliefs about the Eucharist. And it seems to me from my job of teaching about world faiths that one recurring way in which male hierarchies respond to the sanctity of whatever it is that they regard as most holy (perhaps because at a deep subliminal level they associate women with unholy temptation) is to exclude women from it: the biblical Holy of Holies, Orthodox monasteries, the public prayers in traditional synagogues and mosques, the altar...and the pulpit. I personally tend to believe it is tantamount to social oppression to draw demarcation lines in this way. Regarding the pulpit, preaching is clearly an indispensable part of the assembly, as are prayer, praise and the Eucharist. I do not believe that preaching has a special sacramental dimension, or even if it did have such a dimension that women should be excluded, any more than I believe they should be excluded from celebrating the Eucharist.
  • I think I remember the venerable Dick Lucas[25] describing a rule in St. Helen’s church council meetings that nobody was allowed to preface their opinions with “I think God wants . . .” or even “I’ve prayed, and I think . . .”   These are unquestionably blackmail phrases that attempt wittingly or unwittingly to close down all further discussion. I accept the reality of modern prophecy as a gift of the Spirit but have a very restrictive view of how and when it should be used. It is meant to build up and unify the church and can never be used authentically as artillery where there is a difference in conscience between members of the worshipping community. However, the natural follow-on question is whether preaching – which many Christians have trouble distinguishing from prophecy – should be allowed to exercise the same knock-down function in a debate. The argument against women preaching tends to assume that preaching itself represents the exercise of unquestioned spiritual and moral authority. In contrast, I believe the most effective preaching is that which provides a real challenge and real hope to virtually the whole congregation, which proclaims the person and work of Christ, which questions the metaphysical and ethical assumptions that people bring into church from the outside world.
  • I believe the linguistic evidence in 1 Tim 2:12 points firmly to three conclusions: (a) we are already doing in our parish what Paul seems to forbid, (b) that it is arbitrary to apply such a prohibition to preaching, and (c) that in a normal parish setting a woman preaching or even exercising leadership would not constitute the specific offence that Paul has in mind when he refers to women having “authority over” men.
(a)   Logically and structurally, the most categorical imperative in the verse is not “I do not permit …” but “[women] should be silent”. This clearly seems to be Paul’s attitude; he clarifies it elsewhere by stipulating that if women have a question they should ask their husbands at home. Along with the society in which we live, we have clearly as the Church moved on from his cultural viewpoint.

(b)   For “teach”, Paul does not use the Greek word kerusso (“proclaim”, the concept most closely connected with the Evangelical mode of preaching) but didasko – a most generic word for teaching or instruction (connected to the English word “didactic”) which would logically encompass any form of instruction including Junior Church, home groups, and all-age teaching slots. [26] 

(c)    The normal Greek to exercise authority in the sense of power and influence over others is exousiazo, but Paul chooses to use authenteo. The KJV and several modern translations are faithful to the implications of this word which include to dominate or to usurp the rightful authority of another. This suggests that what Paul has in mind is undermining the rightful authority of a leader. It seems obvious to me that a woman preaching under the authority of a male incumbent is not doing what Paul forbids here. [27]  

  • Finally, my incumbent's explanation as to why woman preachers so often seem to be blessed in their ministry (in short, because God is so merciful even when we are so disobedient) was for me and many others the most unsatisfactory part of his presentation. In truth, just as sheep intuitively recognise their shepherd in Christ’s own analogy, worshippers intuitively know when the Spirit of God is moving through someone’s ministry not grudgingly – as if God were mercifully making the best of a bad situation – but joyfully and affirmingly. I believe that my incumbent uncharacteristically detracted from God’s glory by acknowledging so grudgingly the important and inconvenient truth of that vibrant sense of divine presence and blessing with which the Holy Spirit has vindicated so many women’s preaching. I was “converted” from opposition to female clergy by exactly such an experience, and I recognised (as the Jewish apostles had to, when Gentiles were first brought into the infant Church), “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
In conclusion, to summarise my various arguments:

(a)   Exclusively male leadership is a long-standing tradition in large parts of the church, but can only be justified by an appeal to the authority of tradition (which is indeed the main rationale for practice in some parts of the Church, e.g. Catholicism), not by an appeal to the authority of Scripture.

(b)   The application of proof texts whose applicability to the matter in hand is itself the subject of controversy (even among Evangelicals) is not an appropriate way to settle a conscientious disagreement among committed Bible-based Christians.

(c)    The applicability of the specific texts on which my parish's present policy is based is too controversial to convince everyone affected – even within a community as scripturally-informed as ours – that our policy is just.

(d)   To the extent that 1 Tim 2:12 can be applied to our situation, careful textual analysis suggests that it cannot be used to support the present policy in our parish, viz. that it is permissible for women to do what they are currently doing as long as they do not preach. On the contrary, it suggests that the Church has already moved far on from the Apostle’s position on this specific issue, and does not justify making an exception of the preaching ministry.

(e)   The story of Adam, Eve and the serpent (Genesis 3) can only be made relevant to the issue of women preaching in one way: via the untenable and offensive argument that it proves women to be constitutionally more susceptible to deceit than men. In consequence I personally do not see that this passage can legitimately be applied to the eligibility of women to preach, especially since we have (as noted above) already moved in the modern church beyond the stance Paul uses it to reinforce (1 Tim 2:14). However, to the extent that Genesis 3 does bear on the respective vices of men and women, many would say that Adam shows no more moral fibre than Eve: Whereas Eve admits, “The serpent tricked me,” Adam tries to shift the blame onto Eve and God himself: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” 

(f)     There are several indirect arguments – some biblical and some ethical – for the more relaxed policy that prevails in most of the Church of England and much of the wider Anglican Communion.

(g)   In consequence of these factors, while no one should be pressured into changing his or her mind, there is a case to be made for compromise in the cause of unity.

(h)   This in turn would require us to do something scary and democratic. We would have to grapple with the issue with open minds. We might need to involve home group studies, perhaps a Lent course, perhaps discussions with other church leaders on both sides of the debate, perhaps even one or two visiting lady speakers (whether or not these were officially treated as sermons. Above all, we would need to commit ourselves to long-term prayer for clarification of God’s will, which on this particular subject I do not believe has been carved in stone for eternity.

[1] John Stott: Arguably the leading British evangelist and evangelical author of the 20th century. His view, put simply,  is that women may preach as long as they do so under male authority.
[2] Episcopacy or incumbency: the position of bishop or vicar respectively.
[5] Exegetical: To do with expounding Scripture.
[9] Karl Barth: Arguably the greatest theologian of the 20th century.
[14] Hermeneutical: To do with the interpretation of ideas and their application to real life situations.
[15] Sitz-im-Leben: Theologians’ jargon for the literary genre of a piece of scripture, the purpose its author intended it to fulfil, and the perceptions of his original audience.
[16] Romans 14-15.
[17] 1 Corinthians 3
[18] Soteriological: To do with salvation.
[20] E.g. Genesis 9:24-27 (The offending youngest son, Canaan, being conveniently equated for this purpose with Black Africans, African-Americans or slaves generally according to preference).
[21] E.g. Ephesians 6:5 – “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ.”
[22] Eisegesis is reading one’s own preoccupations into Scripture, as opposed to exegesis which is drawing true meaning out of Scripture.
[23] Genesis 9, as referred to above.
[25] Dick Lucas: Influential conservative-evangelical preacher, former Rector of St. Helen’s Bishopsgate and leading light in the Proclamation Trust.
[26] Incidentally, the two phrases “to teach” and “to have authority over men” are distinct. In other words, there is no evidence in the text to suggest that “men” is a shared direct object of the two verbs translated “to teach” and “to have authority over”. It is thus illogical to draw the conclusion that it is OK for women to teach women and children, as long as they do not try to teach men.
[27] It might even be a fair implication (although I am not trying to pursue this point here) that a woman who is recognised by the church as a parish incumbent is not usurping anyone’s authority but simply exercising her own).

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The New Testament (Ehrman)

The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings
by Bart D. Ehrman (OUP)

This book is quite well written and closely argued, but as an introduction to the subject matter it fails on at least one important level: Unlike, say, John Drane's "Introduction to the New Testament", it does not introduce us to a representative sample of scholarly thought. Instead it mainly argues the case for Ehrman's own position, and in the process it takes for granted certain assumptions that are more widely contested than he seems willing to admit. In other words, there is a tendency to cite opinions that other equally reputable scholars would contest as though they were established fact.

Another difficulty with using this book as an introduction to the subject is that Ehrman does not give the reader enough assistance in investigating his influences and antecedents. Thus he makes some quite radical assertions (e.g. challenging the traditional view that the oral traditions of pre-literate societies tend to be transmitted reliably) without the conventional footnotes quoting authorities and sources. Apart from some general further reading suggestions at the end of chapters, Ehrman's assertions along the lines that "recent research has shown" or "it is now accepted" have to be taken on his say-so alone.

Actually, Ehrman's antecedents are fairly obvious to anyone who has read theology - he continues the tradition of 19th century liberals like Wrede (and their 20th century disciples like Bultmann) who drew a sharp distinction between (i) the Jesus of history and (ii) the Christ of the Church's faith, and assumes that the Bible can only inform us about the latter. And yet the impressive work of N.T. (Tom) Wright, founder of the so-called "Third Quest for the Historical Jesus" raises at very least the possibility (and for many people the near-certainty) that the supposed dichotomy between Jesus and the Christ results from a flaw in post-Enlightenment intellectual methodologies (the very flaw against which post-modernity is a dangerous over-reaction).

A further problem is that Ehrman goes a stage beyond Reimarus, Wrede and so on in his assumptions that first century Christian thought was at least as heterodox as we know second century thought to have been, that the ascendancy of the orthodox "brand" of Christianity was simply by a process of natural selection, and that generations of "proto-orthodox" NT redactors constantly and consciously changed and added to the texts as they went along - their intention being to filter out any ideas that seemed to challenge their prejudices and to provide ammunition in the fight against "heresy". This position is not systematically spelled out in the book under review (for that, see one of Ehrman's other books, "The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture"), but it needs stating here because these a prioris inform his whole approach to the subject.

This is more radical than it may sound, because it would imply that the four canonical Gospels are not necessarily any more authoritative as insights into the historical Jesus than the Gnostic and other apocryphal writings of the second century such as the "Gospel of Thomas". In fact, the very starting point for Ehrman's main discourse is the non-uniqueness of the traditionally-supposed key points of Jesus' life: He begins by recounting the miraculous birth, life, death and resurrection of a man the readers is allowed to assume is Jesus, but then (surprise!) turns out to be Appollonius of Tyana, a mythical miracle worker whose exploits are chronicled in the "histories" of Philostratus.

Ehrman's book has many good points. Its discussion of Markan priority is the most lucid I have read, and its assessment of the historical background to each of the biblical Gospels is also outstanding. My problems with the book arise from its shuttered perspective. In the context of a more open discussion, the author could have argued his own opinions just as coherently and with less danger of giving the inexperienced student a one-sided view of the issues.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Longest Journey . . .

. . . starts with a single step.

Platitudes like this will thankfully be rare as this blog lengthens, but we have to start somewhere.

Look out for music, book, movie and software reviews alongside philosophical and moral discussions, punctuated with current affairs and the occasional slice of humour.

Areopagus holds honours degrees in Modern Languages and Religious Education, and is a Lay Reader in the Church of England. He worked as a financial analyst in the City of London for a quarter-century before taking early retirement and training as a teacher. He is now the Head of Philosophy and Religious Education at a rural comprehensive in southern England.

Don't let these superficially impressive credentials fool you into thinking that he always knows what he is talking about.