In 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.
I 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.
Of 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.
If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?