October 27, 2009

Bock and Blomberg give me Historical headaches

Confession: it was Darrell Bock's Jesus according to scripture that inspired my Colonel Jessup rant, two months ago. I just figure I may as well say so now, before I go ahead and harpoon Craig Blomberg. "With love" of course.

Blomberg's 416 page scholarly work, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (1987, 2007), offers many strong reasons for upholding the... um... well, whatever he means by his title. The Gospels, he says, are historically reliable. Really. He says. So why, then, can he see no reliable way to reconstruct History based on those Gospels. His answer? Chronology. (p.169)
Apart from the beginnings and endings of both his life and public ministry, the Gospels simply do not provide enough information about the time and place of the incidents recorded to enable them to be fitted together with confidence into one and only one chronologically precise harmony.
First, note the phrasing of the goal: fitting together the incidents. All of them? Who says we need to harmonize every word? Second, note the qualifiers: one and only one; precise harmony. Um. That is not how we describe the process of historiography. When I flip through books like this, I get headaches. Like the last time, which his next line evokes.
Modern redaction criticism, moreover, can usually supply a plausible rationale for why a given Evangelist chose to change the order of his sources.
Suddenly, this champion of the faith is upholding a "plausible rationale" for an enormous skeptical assumption. Why? Brother Blomberg continues:
But if one applies the principle of assuming a chronological connection between two portions of the Synoptics only when the text explicitly presents one, then the apparent contradictions of sequence vanish.
I see. So you're saying it's better to select our assumptions based on what provides more succinct apologetics for inerrancy instead of considering alternatives that might, in fact, prove to be more historical?
[Luke] brings forward the account of the sermon in Nazareth (Mark 6:1-6; Luke 4:16-30) as a keynote summary of Jesus' teaching and rejection in order to introduce his activity in Galilee. On the other hand, Luke places the account of the call of Peter, John and James later in his narrative and combines it with his distinctive story of the miraculous catch of fish (Luke 5:1-11; cf. Mark 1:16-20), perhaps to avoid giving the impression Mark's sequence might create: that these disciples' decision to join Jesus was more spontaneous and unmotivated than it actually was...
A footnote "suggests" and "speculates" alternative rationales. We're stacking up an awful lot of assumptions here, but it's all for a good cause. Remember, Blomberg is writing this book to defend the Gospel writers' historicity accuracy editorial redaction. Apparently.

Not one sentence considers the very real, very plausible chance that Luke's accounts here are different because the events were quite different. Not one paragraph attempts to consider this alternative assumption. What follows instead? More contradiction defeating, of course. TWO PAGES follow on whether Bartimaeus was east or west of Jericho when Jesus healed him. Wow. Once again, Blomberg reveals where his focus is. Of course, the chapter is called "Contradictions among the Synoptics". Chronology, to Blomberg, is a "contradiction".

About Bartimaeus, that problem is NOT a contradiction in narrative sequence. Luke's placement of the Jericho episode follows Mark's placement precisely. It's the details within their accounts of his time in Jericho that change slightly. Whatever might explain that apparent discrepancy, it is not a chronological problem. It does not belong as a follow up to the issues it so abruptly cut off, which - by the way - receive no other attention in the entire book.

The fact is, if we posit two Nazareth homecomings and two fishermen callings, the event sequence of the Gospels takes on incredible coherence. We don't need to harmonize every word of the Gospels, but the harmonized sequence of their events deserve to be held up to possible dates. To be technical, Blomberg, without dates, you aren't attacking chronology yet. You're attacking event sequence. What's worse, you're attacking the Gospels.

Not one word appears anywhere in the book asking questions about a historical Nazareth homecoming or a historical fishermen calling. Not one word "suggests" or "speculates" on whether Luke's "redactions" are pure fiction or whether Luke has incorporated facts which Matthew and Mark have left out. Luke says the Nazarenes tried to kill Jesus. Mark says the twelve went to Nazareth with him. Did the twelve step aside, or were they trampled? Blomberg doesn't care. For some reason, the historicity of the event (or events) is/are completely irrelevant. What, then, is "Historical Reliability"?

Evangelical scholars, you give me physical headaches. You strain out all semblance of error, very often in laudable ways. But in denying Luke's sequence and asserting no faith in chronology, you swallow historical skepticism. Apparently, you are just as much afraid that we might "add to" as "take away from" the Story of what actually happened. You've come up with ways to keep the Gospels Theologically Reliable, but not Historically.

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