The reliable Bible: Craig Blomberg’s ‘Aha’ moment

0e370477_header-craig-blomberg-blogIn response to my previous post on what we do when the Bible is ‘wrong’, and Peter Enn’s series of ‘aha’ moments, Craig Blomberg has offered an account of his own ‘aha’ moment when, from a liberal Lutheran upbringing, he came to realise that the Bible was more reliable than he has been led to believe.

Craig is Distinguished Professor of the New Testament at Denver Seminary in Colorado where he has been since 1986. He has written numerous books, many of which focus on the question of the historical reliability of the New Testament, most recently Can We Still Believe the Bible?: An Evangelical Engagement With Contemporary Questions. Michael Bird comments:

He gives thoughtful and nuanced answers to questions often raised by critics and skeptics…Blomberg gives very helpful and thoughtful reflection hot topics like Genesis 1 and creation, whether Job and Jonah are “historical,” two or three Isaiahs, the dating of Daniel, Matthew as Midrash, and Pseudonymity and NT Epistles.

I found his The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel particularly helpful when teaching undergraduate and graduate classes on John’s gospel. Here is his story:

The year was 1968. It was a turbulent time, with growing protests against the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and riots outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. For me, those events were largely curiosities to watch on the news; after all I was only in eighth grade. But eighth grade was the year for confirmation classes in the old Lutheran Church in America in which I was raised. Our pastor was young, relatively fresh from seminary, and trying hard to be relevant and interesting to a group of nine boys and three girls who seemed to have little interest in Luther’s shorter catechism. So we played and discussed the latest Simon and Garfunkel album, or something from the Beatles, discussed the merits of conscientious objection to the war and occasionally tucked in a little of Luther.

What little we discussed of the Bible came largely from the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. But one evening we looked at a page or two from a Synopsis of the Gospels. They contained the four accounts of Jesus being anointed by a woman. Three of them, Matthew, Mark and John, are all set during the last week of Jesus’ life near Jerusalem. The one in Luke (Luke 7:36-50) occurs in a totally different context, with different characters, involving an unnamed woman with sinful reputation rather than Mary of Bethany, and an entirely different follow-up conversation making entirely different points. But our pastor used the lesson to illustrate how dramatically contradictory Gospel parallels could be.

That was just the tip of the iceberg. We had to understand that the Bible was full of factual errors; it was a collection of entirely human books written by religious people. Luther, we were taught, did not believe that the Bible was the word of God (I later learned that was wrong). The word of God was what came to parishioners when the pastor preached to the congregation, and it might or might not be facilitated by the Bible. Christianity was to be believed by faith; if we could give evidences for our faith then we would walk by sight and not by faith and the heart of our religion would be destroyed. But religion was immune from critical investigation. What we believed was one thing; what actually happened in history was something else. The two did not necessarily have to intersect.

By the time I went to a top-notch undergraduate college of the LCA, Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, in the mid-1970s, I learned to associate names with the collection of views I had been taught: Lessing, Kierkegaard, Bultmann, especially Bultmann. We had to purchase a Synopsis for a class on the Gospels and the burden of the course was to point out how utterly contradictory the four accounts all were. The only two methods that were legitimate to use were form and redaction criticism. Form criticism showed how distorted the oral tradition made the original simple teaching of Jesus, a self-styled rabbi and prophet but nothing more. Redaction criticism showed how the four evangelists all made up most of what the Gospels contain and superimposed it on top of the already distorted oral tradition. Somewhere deeply buried in the midst of all of this was a small core of historically reliable information that scholars were constantly seeking in something called the quest for the historical Jesus. The portraits that emerged were wildly divergent, one from another, but they all agreed on one thing: the church for most of its history got it terribly wrong and Jesus was not divine.

51copvbAdSLI remembered asking my pastor back in confirmation class, given that almost all of the details differed between Luke’s anointing of Jesus and the accounts in the other three Gospels, why Luke couldn’t have been narrating a separate event altogether. It was clear that my question caught him off guard and that he hadn’t thought about a credible answer, so he blustered something to the effect of, “Well, the details are just too similar!” I asked the same question of my college New Testament professor, a man who had studied under Krister Stendahl at Harvard, and he was equally surprised. He actually gave it some careful thought, however, and said that the references to alabaster jars of spikenard that the accounts shared involved such specific detail that no matter how much of the rest of the stories varied it was impossible that such an incident could have happened that way twice. Another professor generalized and told our entire class that it was utterly impossible to be an evangelical and maintain our intellectual credibility.

It would be only years later that I would learn that spikenard was a very common form of perfume used in the ancient Mediterranean world, and that Pliny himself had commented that alabaster was the best container in which to keep it. I realized then that two accounts of Jesus being anointed by different women with perfume in this kind of container were little more coincidental than two different accounts today of prima donnas being given flowers by adoring fans wearing gold jewelry.

But to this day I have never seen a single scholar out of the hundreds (literally) that I have read on these passages, except within evangelical circles, ever even acknowledge this fact much less interact with it!

My experience at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, studying with D. A. Carson in the late 1970s, and at the University of Aberdeen in the early 1980s with I. H. Marshall, was phenomenal. These were not merely academically enriching but spiritually exciting times. On topic after topic, the skepticism of my previous pastors and professors was shown to be groundless. Already as an undergrad reading Marshall’s Luke: Historian and Theologian, when I discovered it buried in my college library’s basement, introduced to me the notion that something could be both redactional and historical. What a novel and liberating thought! That was probably my biggest “aha” moment!

Many things have changed a lot since the 1970s and 1980s. Evangelical scholarship has flourished to an extent none of us dared to imagine. The academy has had to pay attention to us if only because of our sheer numbers. But the Jesus Seminar and the Acts Seminar didn’t. They were able to ignore us, at least in their published works, as much as any Bultmannian of a previous generation. And most state universities in this country still refuse to hire evangelicals to positions in New Testament study, even when those evangelicals have demonstrated themselves far more willing to represent all sides fairly in a debate than their liberal counterparts.

This is some of why I have very little patience for those in the world of evangelicalism in its broadest sense who would campaign for us to embrace liberal biblical scholarship as if it were the only intellectually credible approach to take. Been there, done that! The churches that bought into that myth, with rare exceptions, have died, are dying or are populated only by old people who have remained faithful to the church despite all of the liberal theology since the 1960s. As for my confirmation class—well, I know of only 1 or 2 who still go to church anywhere.

41Z7DGxCNGLOf course, I don’t want old-line fundamentalism either, as anyone who reads the closing sections of each of my chapters in Can We Still Believe the Bible? will know or who observes how Norman Geisler has libeled me repeatedly in the blogworld. I am so glad I was not raised in it or I might have had a pilgrimage more akin to Bart Ehrman’s. I hope I never have to choose between being like Kenton Sparks who seems out to bash traditional evangelicals or Norm Geisler who is unashamedly out to bash fellow inerrantists simply because we disagree with his particular definition of inerrancy. I have seen the destruction that both wreak and the faith of many people that gets destroyed. There are much, much better constructive, middle ways that need to be embraced. I am grateful that God has led me throughout my adult life to numerous such places.

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26 thoughts on “The reliable Bible: Craig Blomberg’s ‘Aha’ moment”

  1. Most interesting would be knowing how Craig Blomberg came to believe in biblical inerrancy in the first place, coming as he does from a mainline protestant background.

  2. So on the basis that one seeming biblical contradiction may actually be two separate events, an opinion that runs contrary to traditional interpretations, which in all other cases must be given primacy (except, of course, when they contradict what you want to believe), this man has decided the Bible is a reliable document?

    As far as “aha” moments go, it’s not very impressive, is it? The “aha” moment isn’t related to a sudden comprehension of some cryptic biblical secret. Rather it’s all about realising just how malleable the text really is. If it doesn’t say what you want it to say, reinterpret it so it fits the narrative you’ve constructed for yourself.

    I find the sort of evangelical who engages in this kind of revisionist self-indulgence and then criticizes gay Christians for doing the same, morally reprehensible. It’s hypocrisy of biblical proportions.

    As far as I can see the Bible speaks of one scent splashing incident only, described in different and contradictory ways. Christians have to deal with those contradictions and face the lack of consistency head on. The same goes for gay Christians who want to make out that Jesus loves their relationships when every biblical reference to them is condemnatory.

    Changing the script to fit your own personal agenda makes a mockery of the whole concept of religion. Either there’s one revealed truth or there isn’t and if there is and your own personal interpretation of it disagrees with the witness of generations, then you must be wrong. Unless you’re God’s new prophet, of course.

    • Why d’you consider revelation to be essential to religion, Etienne?

      Liberal theologians have long emphasized a ground-up approach over a top-down one. Instead of religion being focused on God revealing his truths from on-high, its focused on humanity’s voyage of discovery, of how concepts of the numinous and the sacred have shaped our understanding, both of ourselves, and of the universe. It looks at how god-talk has developed, and what we can and cannot know.

      Biblical inerrancy and other systematic approaches to revelation and authority have far more to do with upholding religious power in the face of discoveries that challenge its monopoly. Listing fundamentals has always been the shadow-side of modernity.

      • James, how do you think Jesus understood the Scriptures of his day? What did *he think they were? I think if you investigate the Gospels, you will discover his view is actually the foundation of the one you critique (‘upholding religious power’) by casting aspersions on motives. Jesus had many disputes with the Pharisees – the ‘religious power of his day’ – but not over the nature of the Scriptures as ‘the Word of God’.
        The evangelical view of Scripture is nothing other than historic catholic orthodoxy, as any study of historical doctrine will show.

        • Whatever Jesus’ view of scripture, it’s no more binding than his belief that the world as we know it was about to end, or his adherence to the law of Moses. Starting a new religion is far more radical than departing from Jesus’ hermeneutic! (As is adding to the Jewish canon.)

          As for historic catholic orthodoxy, its core was the Catholic Church’s magisterium, from which Protestantism of all shades has long departed.

          • Well, I am bound by Jesus’ teaching, and I don’t accept that he taught an imminent eschaton nor that following the Law of Moses was required for his followers (I think Paul has correctly interpreted him). Jesus ‘didn’t start a new religion’ either. The list of Jesus’ “mistakes” is a long one, according to Bultmann, but I’m not persuaded.
            It is much harder – but ultimately more satisfying – to work through these difficulties, rather than just cutting the Gordian knots.
            The core of ‘historic catholic orthoodoxy’ has nothing to do with the RC magisterium; its understanding of the inspiration and truthfulness of Scripture long predates the Papacy.

      • Without revelation, religion is just personal opinion. But personal opinion is not religion. It’s a belief system of sorts, but as it takes its ultimate source from you, and as you’re a limited and fallible human being, your beliefs must also be limited and fallible. And what good is a limited and fallible God?

        Unless religion comes from outside the human experience in the form of revealed truth, it’s ultimately unconvincing. You have one set of beliefs and your neighbour may may another contradictory set of beliefs. Who’s right? And what if your beliefs differ from the beliefs of previous generations? Are you right and were they wrong merely by virtue of time and the sense of pride you feel in belonging to a richer, more educated generation?

        Do you know more about God than your ancestors did? In which case, why follow the teachings of someone who lived two thousand years ago when people were all benighted and ignorant and knew less than you do? Surely if all it takes to know the mind of God is time and smarts, you must know infinitely more about him than your grandfather did. So why don’t you agree with your neighbour about what that knowledge actually is? Or are there multiple truths out there, and multiple Gods?

        Religion without revealed truth quickly degenerates into a relativist mass of competing ideas and philosophies, which is what we’re witnessing in liberal Christianity today. I’d go so far as to say that abandoning the concept of revealed truth is the first step on the road that eventually leads to atheism.

        • “I’d go so far as to say that abandoning the concept of revealed truth is the first step on the road that eventually leads to atheism.”

          That’s pretty much the conclusion that J. H. Newman came to, in his critique of liberal Protestantism, which prioritised individual reason over authority. He figured it would end up in atheism, as theology is reconfigured as anthropology. I can follow him in this, though not across the Tiber. Liberalism is a constantly morphing entity of what is presently believable.

        • Etienne, you presuppose that religion must be concerned with being “right,” that faith is inherently propositional. Why? Art and literature aren’t. Sure, they explore the human condition, and take sides, but no-one would claim that a novel or a painting ought to be treated like peer-reviewed research.

          Even adopting your framework, our subjectivity’s inescapable. Of necessity, revelation claims are filtered through us. Their tangible source is just as fallible as the next person. Far from averting a mass of competing ideas, claims of infallibility fuel it, with the added danger that everyone’s convinced that they possess the unchallengeable truth.

          Revelation claims combine certainty in a belief that, by its nature, cannot be independently verified. No wonder they lead to such horrific levels of conflict!

          • Can you explain what you mean by ‘revelation’, James? I understand ‘revelation’ to mean ‘communication’ (or ‘speaking’).

            So the question is: ‘Who is saying what to whom (and how)?’

            Some very diverse and sometimes loose definition of ‘revelation’ are out there, competing with each other.

            Christian orthodoxy understands its revelation to be communicated now by the Bible. Of course it can be misconstrued; but there is no reason to despair that meaning can never be established. The core meaning is pretty much agreed upon.

          • Brian, I take “revelation” to mean what you do: God communicating his will to humanity.

            We disagree, I think, on what Christian orthodoxy understands revelation to mean: the ecumenical councils that defined it would’ve been baffled by the notion that scripture could be separated from the church that canonized it.

          • “Revelation claims combine certainty in a belief that, by its nature, cannot be independently verified.”

            Verification would be a simple enough matter if the God of which this revealed truth speaks would actually reveal himself and start performing a few miracles. But failing that, you’re right, revealed truth is as subjective as anything else.

            It only becomes objective if you make a conscious decision to believe that it is so. All religious faith flows from this one decision. I would argue that if you don’t make that decision, your beliefs can’t be defined as religion.

    • That’s a bit odd Etienne. Craig is describing how he was inducted into an ideological position that took as non-negotiable that the NT was contradictory—and found that the position presented did not stand up to scrutiny.

      ‘As far as I can see the Bible speaks of one scent splashing incident only, described in different and contradictory ways.’ Craig here explains why he finds that position is mistaken, and asks sensible questions about it. It is not about ‘changing the script’ but about putting critical scholarship under the same scrutiny that critical scholarship claims to ask of the bible.

      • It’s about one man disputing a wide consensus of opinion.

        His attempt to explain Biblical contradictions away is not convincing because it’s clearly motivated by him desperately not wanting those contradictions to exist. So in order to make faith easier for him, he whitewashes the contradictions away by saying things like “there must have been two scent splashing incidents then”. He doesn’t face them head on and attempt to deal with them. He just dismisses them by adding new narrative of his own invention to the existing texts.

        Is that what you call convincing biblical scholarship? I call it downright revisionism.

          • Galileo was working with facts and he had solid evidential proof to back them up.

            What is Blomberg working with? How can he ever hope to prove beyond reasonable doubt two scent splashing incidents rather than just one?

            Give him a time machine and an unfalsifiable video recorder and he might just about manage it. Otherwise it’s just an opinion, and one that was formed against a background of “the Bible must be right so let’s set out to prove it is”.

            Hardly a Galilean attitude, wouldn’t you agree?

  3. “… the ecumenical councils that defined it would’ve been baffled by the notion that scripture could be separated from the church that canonized it.”

    Canonising a collection of writings is not the same as conferring authority on them; rather it is a matter of *recognising an inherent authority in them. This evident at least from the First Letter of Clement.

    • Agreed that recognizing authority is distinct from instilling it, but closing the canon is, by itself, an authoritative statement; as is condemning and excommunicating Christians for “heresy,” by definition wrong-belief. Yes, scripture had authority, but as a component of the church’s wider teaching authority.

      Viewing the Bible as an independent source of authority is, inescapably, a reformation issue, and the reformation came long after orthodoxy first emerged in the decades after Jesus.

      • It is often said that responding to Marcion’s “canon” was the impulse toward clarity about authority – and the Canon. The same thing happened in polemics against Gnostics. Anyone who reads Augustine or the Cappadocian Fathers knows that they constantly appeal to Scripture for their authoritative basis. Gregory Naianzen’s defence of the divinity of the Holy Spirit is not based on ‘church authority’ as such but on a closely-wrought argument quoting Scripture 700 times.

  4. The view that Luke is describing a different incident than Matthew, Mark and John is the view that dominated church history until the nineteenth century. It also finds many advocates today among scholars. It is one comparatively recent tradition–the liberal wing of biblical criticism–that has often, though not always, rejected it. This does not make it wrong, nor does it make the traditional view wrong. Let’s analyze the views on their own merits rather than misrepresenting how many people support either one and then thinking that somehow justifies one’s position. I don’t sense that those who have criticized my views in this blog thread have made any serious attempt to understand them and certainly not to represent them accurately.

  5. What I find fascinating is how much scholarly work has changed since the authors childhood. Accusing him of rewriting history or standing against the wall of ‘liberal’ or skeptic scholars is just plain wrong. In fact in the last few decades we have made more progress in reconciling the historical Jesus with the one described in the scriptures, than we could have ever hoped for. In fact the heart of Christianity doesn’t rely on pure faith/hope anymore, since we can make a strong case for the resurrection based on historical evidences, unimaginable in the time of Bultmann. If any analysis of the scriptures and its language and description has strengthened its case and we can refute the purely critical view. Books have been written by historians about the gospels similarities to roman-Greek biographies. We can go with confidence in the future


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