Who Was Jesus? Prices and offers may vary in store. While I believe Baur and company have misused and even abused the tools of historical-criticism, this much is true: due to both the form and content of the NT writings, an expositor of God's Word cannot avoid engaging in a certain amount of Biblical criticism and exegesis, if he is to properly expound and apply the message of the NT for our own age. It is a task the true Biblical expositor cannot avoid. If the expositor would understand the original author's own purpose and application in the text, and then apply that same text to our own situation, he must engage in critical analysis of the NT text.
But we should make use of these analytic tools constructively, rather than destructively. This leads us on to mark out a distinction between destructive and constructive criticism of the New Testament. What, someone may ask, is the difference between the two types of NT criticism? Answer: It is the difference existing between the presuppositions of their respective methodologies. Destructive criticism begins with the assumption that nothing is valid until proved true, which a priori rules out the possibility of treating such a basic Christian event as the resurrection of Jesus as historical.
Constructive criticism takes the opposite view and regards as valid the claims of the NT until they can be proved false. That this view is more justifiable than the former is evident from its more realistic approach to early traditions regarding the NT.
Critique of New Testament Reliability and "Bias" in NT Development
Destructive criticism has no alternative but to ignore early traditions, since these are regarded as biased toward a non-historical approach. But constructive criticism sifts traditional opinions in order to reject only those that can be proved unreliable. This means that many early Christian comments on the NT text that corroborate the self-claims of the NT text outweigh the speculative opinions of those who begin with a negative approach.
Contrary to common opinion, they do not of necessity lead to the negative speculations one finds in the publications of the Jesus Seminar. First we need to have clear in our minds the inherent limitations of the methods of NT criticism before criticizing its misuse by the Jesus Seminar. We must recognize from the outset that the most the historical-critical method can accomplish is to establish a good probability as to whether or not a certain saying or action reported of Jesus did actually originate with him, and whether or not a given interpretation of Jesus has some historical basis.
This is necessarily a minimalist approach and does not result in the sort of full-orbed picture of Jesus with which an orthodox Christian believer is familiar and fully comfortable. What this methodology cannot do is prove beyond a shadow of doubt that Jesus did not say or do this or that. All historians dealing with ancient subjects necessarily work in the realm of probabilities and not certainties.
New Testament scholars can no more prove Jesus did or did not do or say something than Roman historians can prove that Nero did or did not have some responsibility for the great fire of Rome in the 60s of the first century. They can only hope to show good probability one way or another. Furthermore, just because one cannot establish the authenticity of some particular saying or event with the historical-critical method does not mean that it absolutely did not happen or was not said.
In various cases the fault may lie 1 in the limitations of the methodology itself, 2 in the paucity of the evidence at hand or 3 in the bias or limited skills of the one handling the data. As long as we keep these limitations in mind, they will safeguard us against gullible acceptance of the claims being made by radical scholars of the Jesus Seminar about the true identity of Jesus of Nazareth.
And if used as a rule of thumb, it will certainly help us to determine whether or not the Jesus Seminar is misusing the historical -critical method by stretching it beyond its legitimate boundaries. Now, on to our critique of the Jesus Seminar and its faulty methodology. It was Canon Harvey, an Anglican churchman and NT scholar, who said, "If you tear up the only evidence you have, you can say anything you like.
Truer words were never spoken. Consider the notorious Jesus Seminar and its efforts to discredit the orthodox view of Jesus and his Messianic mission. These neo-liberal scholars have systematically shredded the NT evidence in their meat-grinder of skeptical criticism. Then, after effectively voiding the NT witness, they offer their own alternative, and often conflicting, views of Jesus' life, words, and deeds.
And while cheerfully demolishing the NT, these radical scholars boast that they alone properly and consistently use the historical -critical method. In reality they make a rather limited and negatively-weighed use of its tools of evaluation, without making clear what weight should be given to what tool.
First, they use the criterion of suspicion, which states that the records of Jesus' life, words, and deeds, as found in the canonical Gospels and Epistles, are to be regarded as inauthentic unless they can be proven to be authentic. Behind this attitude [of the Jesus Seminar] lies the basic assumption that the early church recreated Jesus in the image it preferred, inventing many sayings and placing them on Jesus' lips Many critical scholars, both Christian-and Jewish, and some of no religious affiliation at all, would simply reject this negative bias as neither historical nor scholarly.
The Arguments for Reliability
Too often scholars fail to be critical of their own motives and theological biases. Too often they assume they know better than the early Christians who preserved and collected the sayings of Jesus and composed the Gospels, what Jesus was or was not likely to have said.
This assumption is founded on hubris. One cannot help but wonder at the failure of these so-called NT scholars to take seriously the evidence for the "quality controls" in the Apostolic Church that prevented it from recreating Jesus in its preferred image and attributing sayings to Him which were its own, later creations. The nature of this evidence is twofold. First of all, the preservation and faithful communication of historically reliable accounts of Jesus' life and ministry were fundamental to the Apostolic Church's task of effectively convincing prospective converts to accept the Gospel faith.
Criticism of the Bible
For who would seriously consider responding to their message that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, and not be curious about the historical facts that validated this message? In order to answer the inevitable questions that would arise about Jesus' true identity, the content of his teaching, and the purpose of his death and resurrection, those engaged in the task of evangelizing and discipling new converts had to know enough of the "true Jesus story" to answer these questions.
Dunn comments: Whatever we think of Jesus, it is hardly open to question that he made a profound impact on his immediate followers. We need not become involved in complex christological questions in order to recognize Jesus as the founder of a new religious movement. In terms of human nature as we know it today, it would have been very unusual indeed if the followers of such a leader had not been concerned to preserve memories of the exploits and utterances which first drew them to him and sustained their loyalty to him There were two factors operative in the case of Jesus The first is the degree to which Jesus himself features as part of the earliest Christian proclamation.
Jesus was not remembered merely as one who had provided a system of teaching or a philosophy or a spirituality, which could be preserved or practiced without reference to the original teacher. It is true that the focus of the evangelistic preaching centered very strongly on the end events of his life on earth death and resurrection.
Nevertheless, it would be surprising indeed if the disciples had not looked to Jesus' own earlier ministry and pattern of teaching and lifestyle to provide some kind of guide-lines for their own life of faith. The second is the fact that Christianity from the beginning was an evangelistic faith. It did not withdraw into the desert as a closed sect where all the members would know the facts of its founding and where there would be no need to record them. From the first it sought to gain converts, and very soon converts from further afield than Palestine, including Gentiles.
Human curiosity being what it is, most of these converts would almost certainly have wanted to hear more about the Jesus in whom they had believed. Secondly, it was the responsibility of Christian pastor-teachers, who were among the leaders of the newly established Christian communities, to faithfully preserve and pass on these authoritative accounts of Jesus' life and ministry.
For it was these accounts of Jesus' life, words, and deeds which formed the basis for the Apostolic Church's unique identity and mission. Dunn again comments: It is clear that in the earliest Christian communities an important role was filled by teachers and tradition. Luke characterizes the earliest Jerusalem church from Pentecost onwards as devoting themselves to "the teaching of the apostles" Acts And the importance of teachers is strongly attested elsewhere. In the earliest church at Antioch the two most important ministries were prophets and teachers Acts In 1Corinthians Paul takes it for granted that teachers are next in importance in the life of the church to apostles and prophets.
And in one of the earliest documents of the New Testament it is already assumed that the teacher must spend so much time on his task that he will have to depend for support on those he teaches Gal. The task of a teacher, almost by definition, would have been to preserve and instruct in the matters regarded as important by the community. It is in very large measure a conserving function. In the case of Christian congregations, the teaching in question would not simply have been about the Torah.