Thursday, February 18, 2016

Seeing the forest

In the on-going thread on the reliability of the gospels, I wrote something about New Testament studies that I think should be highlighted elsewhere. (To be honest, I've written a lot of such things in that thread, but this is the one I'm grabbing right now to put into an independent post.)

I think a big part of the problem is that New Testament studies as it is often taught has a classic problem of being unable to see the forest for the trees. It focuses on supposed "Difficulties." Two problems with this are a) that the supposed difficulties are often exaggerated or even, properly speaking, not difficulties at all, and b) that they are not set in the context of the many confirmations of the gospels (and Acts, even more so), even on matters of detail.

The student thus comes away with the notion that Difficulties, which is to say "problems that call into question the ordinary-sense reliability of the gospels" are the rule rather than the exception, that they are typical and that confirmations are atypical. The student/scholar thus comes to have the uneasy feeling that he must redefine reliability, come up with some fancy literary theory, or "do" something else, in order to "deal with" these supposed many, many difficulties, because the difficulties allegedly make it just impossible for a Real Scholar to take the gospels to be reliable in an unhyphenated, un-asterisked sense.

I think this is a distortion.

In contrast, I want to recommend the attitude shown in a particular case by the late Colin Hemer concerning Luke, the author of both Luke and Acts. Hemer is discussing a crux in Acts concerning the allusion to Theudas by Gamaliel. He says something to the effect that, even if we cannot with confidence identify what "Theudas" Gamaliel is talking about, given all the other reason we have to trust the author of Acts as a careful historian, we should not be hasty to attribute an error to him at this point just because we don't know who this Theudas was. (I'm paraphrasing, of course.)

Mention the reliability of Luke to nine seminary-educated people out of ten, even conservatives, and like clockwork you'll immediately hear, with great solemnity, about the difficulty placing the census in Luke 2 in relation to secular history and the difficulty placing Paul's journeys, recounted in Galatians, with confidence into the events in the book of Acts!

One gets the distinct impression that such students and scholars have been led to believe that the prima facie case is that Luke is an unreliable author. But this is astonishingly incorrect. On the contrary, there are so many places where we can minutely connect the epistles with Acts and confirm Luke's connection to secular history in detail, that it is the "difficulties" that are the outliers. So strongly is this the case that, as with the case of Theudas discussed by Hemer, the difficulty in being sure exactly how the census in Luke 2 fits into secular history is a place where we are fully justified in concluding that, while it is possible that Luke made a rare error (especially rare for him), one historical explanation or another, consistent with what Luke says, is very likely correct even if we don't know which one.

Look, ma, no literary theory required.

1 comment:

Mia said...

Very astute post, Lydia, and backed up in principle through research on how people process, thank you! If students spend a disproportionate amount of time or energy on what is classified as a negative, or potential negative, they will, over time, develop an overall corresponding negative feeling bias toward the subject. If I can recall correctly, I believe the optimal ratio between positive experience/information and potential negative experience/information is 5.6 to 1. Bible students, and especially our little ones, need to repeatedly hear all of the wonderful evidence we have for the Bible at a ratio that accurately reflects the real picture.