Visions of Daniel
A New Way of Reading the New Testament
Practically everything we know about Jesus is found in the New Testament. There are no other significant sources. The New Testament has been with us since the end of the first century, and the texts have not changed. Why, then, has our understanding of Jesus changed? Why, after so many centuries, are scholars claiming radically new insight into the life and meaning of Jesus Christ?
The present chapter addresses this question. Certainly the full answer is complex. Many strands of human concern weave together to form the fabric of any significant movement in history. Yet one strand in particular is of concern here. If the sources on Jesus have not changed, the way of reading them certainly has. There is the difference, and this chapter highlights that difference. These considerations are not strictly a part of the study of Jesus. They are a preliminary to it. But this preliminary is of utmost importance. No one can understand the recent revolution in thinking about Jesus without some understanding of the revolution in reading the Bible. For this reason this chapter will present a brief introduction to the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation used by contemporary scholars.
The Emergence of Historical-Mindedness
Something has happened to our understanding of Jesus. But more broadly than this, something has happened to our world as a whole. A new awareness has emerged, namely, historical-mindedness.
Since the nineteenth century, a new approach to historical studies has taken hold. Critical scholarship arose. Formerly historians read their historical sources as clear testimony about what had happened. They took their documents at face value. But the critical method of historical scholarship took a different approach. Historians began asking questions of the sources, pitting them against one another, wondering why they said what they said. Historians began to question the sources rather than accepting reverently whatever they said. The conclusions were striking.
Two examples will clarify the point. Throughout the Middle Ages the pope claimed political sovereignty over huge territories in Italy and beyond. In fact, only in 1870 did the Vatican surrender control over the last of the Papal States. This political claim was based on an ancient document, the Donation of Constantine. According to this document, the Roman Emperor Constantine conferred on Pope Sylvester I (314-335 A.D.) and his successors primacy over Antioch, Constantinople, Alexandria, and Jerusalem-the four patriarchal sees in the East-as well as dominion over all of Italy and the provinces in the Western Empire. Though questioned at times, this document was generally considered to be authentic and the pope's reign over the Papal States legitimate. However, in 1440 Lorenzo Valla, an Italian humanist and priest, argued conclusively that the Donation of Constantine was a forgery. Valla mounted a whole series of arguments. He showed that the state of affairs described in the Donation did not square with what was otherwise known about the history of that time. And he did a linguistic analysis to confirm his argument: the barbarity of the document's Latin and the mistakes in its terminology show that it could not have been written in the fourth century. Historians today have been able to date the so-called Donation of Constantine as an eighth or ninth century fabrication. Valla's critical study of that historical document shed new light on medieval history. Things were not what they had seemed to be. On the basis of the same historical document but read differently, a different understanding of the facts emerged. Valla's work anticipated the now prevalent historical-critical method.
Or again, at the turn of the first century, Ignatius of Antioch was being taken to Rome to be martyred. On the way he wrote a number of letters-epistles-to various Christian communities. Among other things, the letters emphasize the important role of the bishop in the Christian community. Ignatius insists that in each community only one is bishop, that the bishop has authority over the community in all things pertaining to the faith, and that the bishop speaks for God. Christians owe obedience and respect to their bishop. Now, these letters used to be taken as clear evidence about the structure of a diocese from the earliest times: the hierarchy is three-tiered; a monarchical bishop, presbyters (priests), and deacons are set above the laity. For this is exactly what these very early Christian letters prescribe. But critical historians began to wonder why Ignatius was so insistent on the monarchical bishop and the reverence due him. They began to ask questions of the sources. Why was Ignatius' exhortation so forceful? Why were the Christian communities resisting this hierarchical system? Could it be that, in fact, the system Ignatius proposed was not everywhere accepted, that it was an innovation? If so, Ignatius's insistence was intended, not to confirm a system already long established, but to bolster one being newly proposed. Whereas before councils of elders led the churches, now in each church one elder was to have authority over all. Renewed scrutiny of those letters and of other contemporary sources confirmed that this latter explanation fit the evidence better than the former. What was really going on was not what was previously supposed. Today historians agree that the three-tiered hierarchy was not established by the apostles but was a later development in the history of the Church. Ignatius himself played a critical role in that development. The accepted conclusion is now the reverse of what used to be held.
Notice how a different reading of the same documents leads to different conclusions. This "different reading" is called historical-critical method. As a widely accepted and refined technique, it is barely a century and a half old. Its implications are far-reaching. The above examples make this point obvious. Generally, we tend to read into the past what we know from the present. Then everything appears firm, stable, unchanging. We believe--ndeed, we have been taught with religious conviction-that "it has always been this way." In fact, however, things have changed. Critical history shows that things were not always as they are. Despite the insistence of Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes 1:9), there are new things under the sun. The very emergence of contemporary historical-mindedness is one of them. The simultaneous and related emergence of a developmental worldview in Darwin's theory of evolution is another, and the emergence of a pervasive psychological awareness in Freud's psychoanalytic theory is a third. These nineteenth-century novelties have shaken and broken our older, static understanding of the human world. We now readily understand things in terms of history, development, movement, change. Historical-mindedness has taken hold.
The Further Impact of Historical-Mindedness
The same kind of critical scholarship that was applied across centuries in the study of history could also be applied across cultures in the study of anthropology. Cross-cultural studies were the result, and the very notion of culture changed. Formerly, the notion was normative. There was one culture, Western European. All else was-if not barbarian, as the Greeks would have held, then-primitive, undeveloped, uncultured. Now the notion has become descriptive. "Culture" refers to any set of meanings and values that structure any society. There are many cultures. They are all valid in their own right, and they are all different! Not all peoples are alike.
Again, the conclusion is the same. There are discontinuities within the human race, just as there are discontinuities within history. Humanity is not homogeneous, and history is not an unbroken line. To speak about eternal verities or even about universal human nature becomes problematic.
A major philosophical issue surfaces. Lurking behind the conclusions of critical history and companion to its development is the specter of relativism. Is there such a thing as truth? Can we really know reality? Are we all locked into our own culture and era, irreparably biased? Is one position as good as another? How could one ever assess the difference? Are all "truths" and "values" relative? Such fundamental questions had clearly emerged by the end of the last century. They have filtered down to a popular level in our own day. They show themselves in familiar slogans: "You do your thing, I'll do rnine." "If it feels good, do it." "Do your own thing." This issue will be treated in detail in Chapter Two, and it will resurface periodically throughout this book. It colors discussion about Jesus or anything else--specially when truth-claims are involved. Here I only want to draw attention to the issue. Note that such relativist thinking is a pervasive influence in the contemporary world, and recognize its connection with the emergence of historical-mindedness.
Historical-Critical Study of the New Testament
For the study of Jesus, the immediate impact of critical scholarship came when the new historical methods were applied to the New Testament. Even a cursory comparison of the gospels shows provocative differences among them. Most obviously, the style and structure of John differ from those of the other three gospels. Scholars refer to Matthew, Mark, and Luke as the synoptic gospels-from the Greek syn + optikos : common view or viewed together-because they parallel each other so closely. John focuses on only certain aspects of Jesus' activity and presents long, meditative discourses. John reads like poetry, and even John's Jesus speaks in elusive and deepening circles. In contrast, the Jesus of the synoptics speaks in brief, pithy sayings and in short parables. Obviously the gospel of John is in a different class compared to the other three gospels. John appears to be an extended reflection on Jesus, while the synoptics appear to be a more straightforward history of Jesus' career. Or so it seems on first sight.
However, comparison of the synoptic gospels with one another reveals other discrepancies. Mark is short and terse. Matthew and Luke are more elaborate. Yet even these two show provocative differences. In Matthew the word of Jesus' birth comes to Joseph; in Luke, to Mary. Matthew's account of the Lord's Prayer has seven petitions; Luke's, only five. Matthew has eight beatitudes; Luke has four beatitudes and four woes. The account of Jesus' resurrection differs in all three synoptics. An interesting exercise is to compare those accounts while asking these questions: How many angels were there? Where were they located? In what position? To whom did they speak?
Formerly, people suggested ways to reconcile these differences in the gospel accounts. The presupposition was that the gospels give an eyewitness, newspaper-like report of Jesus' life. Any discrepancies in the reports were glossed over. Differences were explained away. They were not considered important. The various accounts were weaved together into one continuous story.
But critical scholars began to take the discrepancies seriously. They asked why the differences are there. They asked questions of the texts: Why does Matthew say it this way and Luke that way? What difference in the overall message does it make? The resulting understanding of the gospels is remarkable.
Aspects of New Testament Criticism
It is almost impossible to exaggerate the importance of this new way of reading the New Testament. A review of the major aspects of critical biblical method will highlight the issue.
The first task for biblical scholars was to determine the correct text of the Bible. History has bequeathed us many manuscript copies or fragments of copies of Bible books. Not all read alike. Copied by hand and derived from different parts of the ancient Christian world, the various manuscripts differ in part from one another. Scholars had to study and compare these various manuscripts and determine which were original and authentic, and which were alterations. Today all scholars, Catholic and Protestant alike, recognize the same authentic New Testament Greek text. Where minor "variant readings" still allow some differences in interpretation, the lines of difference do not fall along denominational lines.
Another task was to understand better the language used in the New Testament. The New Testament is written in Greek. However, it had long been recognized that the Greek of the New Testament is not the Greek of Homer and other classical Greek authors. It was supposed that the Greek of the Bible was "God's language." For that reason it differed from classical Greek! Recent archeological finds-like the Dead Sea Scrolls, first discovered in 1947-included copies of Old Testament writings as well as non-biblical texts prior to and contemporary with the New Testament period. Here was a rich source for new insight into the New Testament era and its everyday language and culture. The language of the New Testament is now known to be nothing other than the common Greek language spoken around the beginning of the Christian era. It is called koine Greek: common Greek.
Such recent archeological discoveries furnish a new context for reading the New Testament texts. When nothing except the New Testament texts themselves were available, they could easily be read as if they "dropped down from heaven." There was nothing with which to compare them. When other texts of the same era are available, the New Testament texts can be read in their own contemporary context. Obviously, the intended meaning of any spoken or written statement can be determined only within the statement's context. Take a statement out of context and it might be made to mean anything. Accurate interpretation becomes impossible. Then one tends to read the text as if it were written yesterday. One takes the words and phrases to mean what we would mean by them, forgetting that they were spoken in a different culture, in a different age, in a different language.
Consider this statement still familiar to many people: "You're out in left field." What would someone who does not know American culture make of such a statement? Yet it means the same thing as the seventies expression, "You're a real space cadet!" In the eighties someone might simply say, "You just don't compute." Even within our own experience, different generations make the same point by saying different things. Without a familiarity with the culture in which the statement arises, it is impossible to determine its meaning. No wonder, then, that for centuries interpretation of the Scriptures was open to easy error. No wonder, too, that recent archeological discoveries bring new certainty to contemporary interpretation of the New Testament.
Another step toward new understanding of the gospels was to determine the relationships among them. This task is called source criticism . Today it is generally agreed that Mark is the oldest of the synoptic gospels, written about 65 CE. Matthew and Luke were both written about 80 CE, and John was written sometime between 90 and 100 CE. As suggested above, John is in a category of its own. On the other hand, Matthew and Luke tend to follow Mark in much of their account. Besides, Matthew and Luke also seem to rely on another common source, denoted by scholars as Q-frorn the German Quelle , which means "source." In addition, both seem also to have independent sources of their own-denoted as M and L. Determination of the relationships among the gospels represents a remarkable new understanding of the gospel texts. They have a history. They have a cultural context. They all have concerns of their own. They were not simply dictated by God to an entranced evangelist. In turn, this new understanding offers a new possibility for interpreting the gospels in themselves and for explaining the differences among them.
A further stage in the critical understanding of the gospels was to distinguish the different literary genres or literary forms incorporated into the same text. This task is called form criticism .
We are very familiar with various literary forms in our own culture. A novel is not a documentary. An editorial is not a news story. A spoof is not an analytical commentary. How one assesses any piece of writing depends on what kind of writing it is. In our everyday reading we take this realization for granted. Yet only with the discovery of literature which was contemporary with the Bible did scholars realize the diversity of literary forms included in the Bible. And by the early twentieth century, scholars were realizing that the gospels themselves are composites of many different types of writing.
In the gospels, there are sayings , rather short and straightforward teachings. Matthew's "Sermon on the Mount" is really a collection of various sayings of Jesus, strung together sometimes because of similarity of theme, sometimes because of mere repetition of words. Sometimes sayings are placed side by side seemingly at random, as in this case: "You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye. Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under foot and turn to attack you. Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you" (Mt. 7:5-7). Parables are another literary form in the gospels, clearly different from sayings. Parables are provocative teachings that make their point by unexpected and ironic twists in a story. Jesus' comparisons about the Reign of God-it's like a fishnet, a mustard seed, a hidden treasure-and his extended story of the Prodigal Son are familiar parables. Pronouncements are a still different literary form. They are the punchlines often attached to a story: "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Mk. 12:17); "The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath" (Mk. 2:27). Then, there is the narrative with which the evangelist ties other pieces together. For example, Matthew concludes the Sermon on the Mount with his own commentary: "And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes" (7:28-29).
This determination of different literary forms gives further insight into the actual formation of the gospels. The evangelists did not write the gospels as completely original pieces. And the pre-existing elements that went into the gospels had histories of their own. Oral traditions played a major role in the formation of the gospels. Then, how the different evangelists use the inherited pieces reveals something about each evangelist's own intent. Furthermore, the analysis of literary forms has implications for understanding Jesus himself. For example, it is no longer tenable to think that in one sitting Jesus delivered extended discourses like the "Sermon on the Mount."
A final stage in the development of historical-critical interpretation of the New Testament was to determine the particular themes proper to each of the gospels. This task is called redaction criticism . Its concern is how the evangelists redacted-or edited-the final drafts of the gospels. Comparison of the gospels with one another and study of each in itself reveal the intended theme of each evangelist. For example, in Jesus' teaching on prayer, both Matthew and Luke are following Q. But whereas Matthew writes, "How much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him" (7:11), Luke writes, "How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him" (11:13). Why this slight difference? Does the gospel of Luke perhaps seek to emphasize the role of the Holy Spirit as a particular concern? Study of the remainder of Luke shows that this is, indeed, the case. Or again, Matthew has Jesus ascend to the Father from Galilee. In Luke Jesus ascends from Jerusalem in Judea. This discrepancy might appear serious for someone seeking historical accuracy as we define it. But further study of Luke and Acts of the Apostles-both written by the same author-reveals that Luke portrays Jerusalem as the center of salvation and all history. The gospel of Luke ends in Jerusalem, and Acts begins there. To Jerusalem Jesus' life ineluctably leads, and from it the message of Christ spreads to all the world. So it appears that the focus on Jerusalem is a literary device for Luke. These considerations lead us to conclude that the evangelists were more concerned to convey their theological messages than to document geographical or chronological details about Jesus' life. They wrote to share their Christian faith and not to present a biography of Jesus nor to write history as we understand it.
Thus, each of the gospels presents its message with a particular focus, and the picture of Jesus is different in each. For Mark Jesus is the Son of Man who must suffer and die. Fidelity to God entails as much. Those who are faithful to Jesus will share the same fate. For Matthew Jesus is the authoritative, ethical teacher, founder of the New Israel, the Church. For Luke Jesus is the perfect gentleman, filled with the Holy Spirit and gifted in preaching. In addition, Luke emphasizes joy, compassion, prayer, and the role of women in Christian life. Finally, John presents a lofty, theological picture of Jesus come from glory, returning to glory, and filled with glory even during his life on earth.
The Quest of the Historical Jesus
This brief review of contemporary historical-critical method in New Testament interpretation raises an important question: Can we know what Jesus himself was like? It must now be obvious that the gospels do not give us a biography of Jesus as we would like. Rather, they present an interpretation about Jesus, and the interpetation is somewhat different in each of the gospels. Yet the gospels are our only source of information about Jesus. So we are left wondering what Jesus himself was really like.
The problem can be expressed in another way. Contemporary scholars speak about Jesus himself as the historical Jesus . This is the Jesus that any historian could know-a man born sometime around the beginning of the Christian era, an itinerant preacher, crucified in Palestine during the time of Pontius Pilate. But Christians affirm much more about this man. They believe that Jesus was the Son of God, that he was born of a virgin, that he rose from the dead, and that he was the Savior of the world. Scholars refer to this Jesus as the Christ of faith . Now, what the gospels present is the Christ of faith. But what we want to know is the historical Jesus. Limited as we are to the gospels for a source of information, can we know the historical Jesus?
This question first arose in the late eighteenth century. A review of the history of this question will focus this introduction to biblical criticism on the topic of this book, Jesus. The source of this question was a book by Hermann Samuel Reimarus. Between 1774 and 1778, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing published excerpts from that book. Reimarus had suggested there was a difference between the aim of Jesus and the aim of the disciples. Jesus, he said, intended to be a political Messiah but was foiled and died on the cross. The disciples decided to use Jesus as the focus of a new religion and so fabricated the resurrection story. Of course, this suggestion was offensive and was violently rejected. Still, it had an important impact. It surfaced the harsh awareness that the gospels do not present a simple picture of the historical Jesus. Thus, for the first time it raised the question that concerns us here. And it demonstrated the need for hard historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth.
Many people accepted the challenge that Reimarus raised and attempted to write a life of Jesus. These lives differed considerably as each successive scholar presumed to find a new angle on the historical Jesus. This era is known as the Old Quest of the Historical Jesus. The Old Quest rested on the naive presupposition that as historical sources Mark and Q were so primitive as to be free from theological interpretation. It was thought that, on the basis of these sources, one could actually write a biography of Jesus.
The Old Quest came to an end at the beginning of the twentieth century. For a number of reasons biblical scholars despaired of ever writing Jesus' life. In 1901 William Wrede's The Messianic Secret in the Gospels struck a first blow to nineteenth-century optimism. Wrede showed that even the gospel of Mark is a theological interpretation of Jesus' life and work. Wrede argued that the "messianic secret"-evidenced in Jesus' repeated injunction that the disciples not tell anyone that he was the Christ-was a literary device created by Mark and not traceable to Jesus himself. According to Wrede, Jesus had not claimed to be the Messiah. The disciples recognized him as the Christ only after the resurrection. Then Mark used the messianic secret to explain why, if Jesus was Christ, his disciples and the other Jews had not known him as such during his lifetime. In any case, Wrede showed that Mark's gospel, too, is a highly theologized interpretation of Jesus' life and work and not a pure source of information on the historical Jesus.
Albert Schweitzer, Nobel Peace Prize winner, renowned musician, and medical missionary in Africa, was also a theologian. When his book appeared in 1906, Von Reimarus zu Wrede -translated into English as The Quest of the Historical Jesus -struck the death blow to the Old Quest. As the German title suggests, From Reimarus to Wrede , this book recounts the attempts to write a life of Jesus, beginning with Reirnarus's milestone piece and working through the nineteenth century up to Wrede's book. The implication of Schweitzer's long and tedious work was unavoidable: despite a century of effort, there was no consensus whatsoever on the historical Jesus. In fact, all the lives of Jesus to date were different. As Schweitzer suggested, the authors looked into the well of history and saw their own faces reflected back at them. That is, they projected their own lives and experiences into Jesus-much as believers still tend to do-making Jesus the ideal model for whatever happened to be the current social, political, or psychological trend. Besides, Schweitzer also uncovered a fundamental aspect of Jesus' teaching that all the previous lives of Jesus missed: Jesus' concern for the eschatological, that is, for the coming of God's reign at the end of time. According to Schweitzer's exaggerated opinion, Jesus was obsessed with the end of the world; and, discouraged with attempts to bring on God's Reign, in a last desperate move, Jesus went up to Jerusalem to get himself killed. In any case, the implication was obvious: if so central a part of Jesus' teaching had been overlooked, could anyone ever really know the historical Jesus on the basis of the gospels? The accepted answer was "No," and a new era began. The Quest of the Historical Jesus was called off, and attempts to write Jesus' biography were abandoned.
Another factor worth noting had added to the abandonment of the Old Quest. It was during these same early years of the twentieth century that form criticism was being developed. As noted above, this approach to the gospels moved behind the inherited text and attempted to discern various pre-existing segments that the evangelists weaved together to produce the final drafts of the gospels. As scholars began to realize how complex the process was that formed the gospels, they lost hope in the possibility of discovering the historical Jesus beneath the Christ of faith presented in the gospels.
For about half a century the Quest of the Historical Jesus was called off. A new figure in biblical scholarship, Rudolf Bultmann, dominated the field. Bultmann insisted that not only can we not know the historical Jesus but also that it is not important to know him. One major influence on Bultmann's thinking was his Lutheranism, which emphasized the importance of preaching the Word and insisted on justification by faith alone. A second influence was the existentialist philosophy of Martin Heidegger, which calls humans to appreciate their responsibility for themselves and their world and to decide for authentic being. So influenced, and faced with the seeming impossibility of knowing the historical Jesus, Bultmann argued that knowledge of the historical Jesus is not central to Christianity. Rather, the message about Jesus that is preached and heard-the kerygma-is central. The Christian message confronts us with an existential challenge to conversion. Conversion is what matters. So, for example, whether or not Jesus rose from the dead is not worth debating. What is important is to choose to live in faith and hope because of the resurrection message. The kerygma is the heart of Christianity, not the historical facts about Jesus. To argue otherwise, Bultmann supposed, would be to make faith dependent on historical scholarship-as if having the historical facts would make faith unnecessary!
In view of the issues prevalent in his times, Bultmann's position is understandable. And for those times it became a major force in preserving the influence of Christianity. Moreover, it fostered an appreciation for the existential significance of the Christian message. But by the same token, that position downplayed the importance of the historical ground of Christianity. Christianity claims to be a historical religion, not just a set of inspiring ideas, a philosophy of life. If what Christians believe about Jesus did not really happen, can they go on believing and preaching it? In Chapter Two I will answer with a definitive No! The notions that God became human and that a man overcame death may be reassuring; they may even inspire to heroism. But if they are not true, should one honestly base one's life on them? If Christian belief about the Christ of faith cannot be grounded in the historical Jesus, can Christians continue to hold their beliefs as true-unless they change the meaning of that word or are dishonest? These questions present an urgent challenge to contemporary Christianity. Although before 1774 these questions had not arisen, today they cannot be avoided. The questions are real, and, once raised, they will not disappear.
By 1963 these considerations and further developments in biblical criticism brought another swing of the pendulum. Ernst Kasemann, a disciple of Bultmann, called for a New Quest of the Historical Jesus. Christianity could not simply ignore its historical basis. And refined techniques of historical research now made it possible to isolate some gospel material as Jesus' own. No one would ever again think it possible to write an actual biography of Jesus. Still, it might be possible to discover enough information about the historical Jesus to ground basic Christian beliefs about him. In any case, the effort to do so must be renewed.
The results of that effort appear later in this book. Scholars today are generally agreed that, if we cannot know much about Jesus himself, we can at least know something. Chapter Five will summarize current historical information about Jesus and argue that what we know about Jesus is sufficient to ground Christian beliefs about him. The Quest of the Historical Jesus has a happy ending, though what is found in the end is only a fraction of what scholars had hoped to find at the beginning. But through it all, this much has become clear. The picture the gospels present is not that of the historical Jesus. So what we can now legitimately say about Jesus is quite different from what we used to say.
Validity of the New Method
The results of historical-critical interpretation stand in stark contrast to what we used to read from the gospels. Accordingly, some might think that such an approach, new in the history of Christianity, is a betrayal of our tradition. This, of course, is the position which Fundamentalist groups hold. They insist on reading the Bible "literally," just as it sounds to the sincere ear of today's man or woman on the street. They reject a questioning, scientific reading of the divine texts as irreverent. But as a result, they advocate an unthinking religion, exposing people to the control of any preacher whose message is attractive. They risk exchanging the saving Word of God for the spontaneous opinion of some human being (cf. Mk. 7:1-13). For no one can read or preach the Scriptures-or anything else!-without employing some process of interpretation. The markings on a page are not words and, so, are not meaningful unless they pass through someone's mind. And that passing through entails interpretation. To appeal to a supposedly "literal" reading and so to refuse to consider how one ought to interpret the Scriptures is naive and ultimately irresponsible.
If historical-critical interpretation of the gospels is new, it is not without reason. In fact, today we know more about the New Testament, its language, and its historical context than ever before. Our present dictionaries of New Testament Greek are the most complete and accurate in human history. We are farther from the New Testament period than, say, St. Jerome, who translated the Bible into the Vulgate Latin edition at the end of the fourth century. Nonetheless, our knowledge of Hebrew and Greek and the biblical world far surpasses that of Jerome or any others. If the implications of contemporary scholarship are revolutionary-and, indeed, they are-they are also well-grounded.
Christian scholars across denominational lines now accept historical-critical interpretation of the Scriptures as standard. Protestant scholars initially developed the method. Recently, even the official Roman Catholic Church has approved it. This fact alone stands as persuasive testimony about the validity of this method. Typically, before allowing it, the Catholic Church waited until the method was significantly refined and its conclusions could be safely reconciled with traditional beliefs. In the meantime many Catholic pioneers in biblical criticism were censured for the conclusions they derived by using historical-critical method. Finally in 1943, Pope Pius XII published Divino Afflante Spiritu , an encyclical letter that supported critical study of the Scriptures. In 1964, the Pontifical Biblical Commission published its "Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels." This document outlines three stages in the writing of the gospels: One, the actual words and deeds of Jesus himself; Two, the early disciples' preaching about Jesus, including their increased understanding and interpretation about Jesus; and Three, the evangelists' active work of writing the actual gospels. In its Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation , article 19, in 1965 the Second Vatican Council summarized this understanding of the history of the gospel formation as follows:
Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy maintained and continues to maintain, that the four Gospels just named, whose historicity she unhesitatingly affirms, faithfully hand on what Jesus, the Son of God, while he lived among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation, until the day when he was taken up (cf. Acts 1:1-2). For, after the ascension of the Lord, the apostles handed on to their hearers what he had said and done, but with fuller understanding which they, instructed by the glorious events of Christ and enlightened by the Spirit of truth, now enjoyed. The sacred authors, in writing the four Gospels, selected certain of the many elements which had been handed on, either orally or already in written form, others they synthesized or explained with an eye to the situation of the churches, the while sustaining the form of preaching, but always in such a fashion that they have told us the honest truth about Jesus. Whether they relied on their own memory and recollections or on the testimony of those who "from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word," their purpose in writing was that we might know the "truth" concerning the things of which we have been informed (cf. Lk. 1:2-04).
This official Roman Catholic statement stands as a summary account of the common prevailing Christian understanding of the formation of the gospels. This understanding is at the root of the historical-critical method of interpretation.
It is now clear that gospel is a particular literary form in itself. The gospels are not historical accounts in the sense that we understand history. They are not biographies of Jesus. Rather, true to history in their own way, the gospels are documents of faith. They record what the early Church believed about Jesus, and they encourage others to believe the same. John 20:31 states this understadning plainly: "these things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name."
The present understanding rules out any simplistic, literalistic, Fundamentalist reading of the Bible. It warns us not to confuse Stage Three with Stage One as if Stage Two never happened and Stage Three itself were not a creative process. The gospels do not give us picture-perfect, transcribed tape-recorded accounts of Jesus. Therefore, it will not be so easy as we had thought to learn from the gospels what Jesus himself was actually like. And when we do finally uncover the real Jesus, he may not appear as we have been led to imagine. The picture of Jesus that emerges from historical-critical study of the gospels is considerably different from the traditional pious accounts based on the literal reading of the gospels.
This, then, is what happened to our understanding of Jesus. Contemporary methods in scripture interpretation have revolutionized our knowledge about him. Now he appears much more human than we ever imagined. In fact, he appears so much like us that some people have begun to question traditional teaching about his divinity. Or, in any case, it has become much more difficult to hold together what the New Testament says with what later church teaching says. The tension between the two is showing itself in the debates and rifts appearing in the whole of the Christian Church. The old questions are being seen from a new perspective, so new answers are emerging. And new questions are transposing or disqualifying old questions, and the result is much uncertainty. The crisis is real. Simple decree, regardless of its source, will not resolve it. The questions are real; they must be answered. No facile dogmatic solution will suffice. Something has happened to our understanding of Jesus. A primary cause of that happening was the application of the historical-critical method to the New Testament texts.