Friday, October 20, 2006

READING THE BIBLE CRITICALLY

"Precritical" reading of the Bible refers to what most Christians do: read the Bible with forgiving eyes as if the insights of Biblical criticism are irrelevant.

Robert Funk, leader of the Jesus Seminar, describes the tortuous efforts of a televangelist to reconcile the two wildly different accounts of the demise of the disciple Judas which one can find in any Bible (you pick the version!).

"After the rise of biblical criticism, pietists tended to harmonize the differences and discrepancies by inventing explanations to account for them. Recently, a televangelist explained to his listeners that the bible does not contradict itself. As an example, he chose the death of Judas Iscariot. According to Matthew (27:3), Judas rejected the thirty pieces of silver and hanged himself. In Acts (1:18–19), Judas bought a field with his silver coins and later swelled up and burst open so that his bowels gushed out.

"The televangelist took the view that hanging and evisceration are two accounts of the same event: Judas hanged himself, then swelled up as he dangled in the air; since Jews were forbidden to touch a dead body, someone had to cut the rope, at which point he dropped to the ground and burst open, his bowels pouring out on the ground.

"The evangelist did not explain the contradiction involved in Judas both returning the coins and buying a field with them. In television land, the defense of the bible as an infallible source of history goes on unabated, as though historical criticism were the invention of the devil."

The work of the Jesus Seminar has been refocused on distinguishing the historical Jesus and his persona and concerns from those who later were sucessful in erecting a large and elaborate super-structure which became the Christian church. As Funk notes, "Jesus was not a Christian."

"The renewed quest is an attempt to reinstate the original aim of the quest, which was to distinguish the aims of Jesus from the aims of the followers. Put more broadly, the renewed quest is designed to distinguish the words and deeds of Jesus from others attributed to him as his reputation grew in the faith community. After all, the two lie side by side in the gospels.

"The renewal of the original aim comes to expression in two major ways. First, the renewed quest is focussed on the vision of Jesus as formulated in his words and deeds rather than on the expressions of faith in him formulated by the early community. To borrow Bultmann's phrase, the renewed quest is focussed on Jesus' proclamation rather than on him as proclaimer. It is a radical shift in point of view or perspective. Jesus points to the kingdom; his disciples point to him.

"The second aspect of the aim follows from the first. A basic rule of evidence is to look for words and deeds in the gospels that represent his outlook rather than that of the evangelists. Jesus was not a Christian. However, the gospels are Christian through and through. The residual fragments left behind in their memories of him are the only clues we have to his own point of view."


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