September 10, 2011

Hoehner's Chronological Aspects

I wrote this post two years ago, in late July 2009.  I should probably rewrite it, but I'll let it stand as is, with this necessary explanation.  At the time, biblioblogger Nick Norelli had challenged me with the big meme of that summer, which was to post about five Biblical Studies books that one wanted to like, or should have agreed with, but couldn't quite get fully behind.  I blogged separate posts on my chosen books, One, Two, Three and Four, in that same month.  This post was to be my fifth, but for reasons that will soon become obvious, I couldn't bring myself to post it at that time.  Now, perhaps it's been long enough.  We shall see.

Two years late, unaltered and for the first time... here it is:


It has scarcely been six months since we lost Dr. Harold Hoehner. Longtime blog readers know how much I value his work and how upset I was at his unexpected passing, even (especially) considering I never met the man. I kick myself even harder for that now, because after confessing to one of his students recently the main reason I never contacted him (I realized my main purpose was wanting to argue with him about what I considered to be flaws in his Chronological Aspects), I was told "Actually, he would have really enjoyed that." Yes, I had gathered as much from the many tributes I read after his death. So I will always regret never meeting him, unless perhaps it was somehow for the best.

As I said, it has not been long since his passing, but when I was recently challenged to write about "Biblical Studies" books I cheered for but felt some reservations about, I decided it could actually be the best time to go ahead and blog my critique of Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, by the great Dr. Hoehner. Hopefully, furthering that important conversation will be taken as another way of also furthering his memory. So here goes everything...

Chronological Aspects remains one of my most cherished academic books, because of its uniqueness and because of the same thorough scholarship poured into Hoehner's Herod Antipas. The footnotes alone are tremendous. I could quote the entire preface right here, cheering loudly. His treatment of the major points and their issues is comprehensive and arguably definitive. I have long since worn out the glue in the spine. (Making this the one book of my "5" that I actually did read every word of, and that several times over.) But... yes, I have a few problems with this book, and they are not minor.

Hoehner's arguments are arranged chronologically, on dating the birth, baptism, duration of ministry, and crucifixion of Jesus - in that order - but my gripe is not with the presentation. A proper argument should proceed by skipping forward and backward through time as necessary.  Since Hoehner didn't do this, it was not always clear how each chapter depended on points previously (or yet to be) made. Dates for the (1) commencement, (2) duration and (3) consummation of Jesus' ministry are supported by seemingly independent arguments, when in fact, solid conclusions on any two of these points should automatically render the third set of arguments unnecessary. Instead, Hoehner admits (p.37) to his views on all three of these points early on and then argues each separately, as if none are dependent on each other. Of course the strongest arguments are those for dating the crucifixion year, which therefore ought to predominate the overall work, and yet it comes last.

This automatically makes his earlier arguments suspect. The chapter on duration, for example, consists mainly of objections to Johnston Cheney's 4 year view followed by arguments supporting the 3 year view. The fact that 30 and 33 AD have been presupposed as the boundaries of that duration is only mentioned in the chapter summary, and never acknowledged during the arguments. However, IMHO, a carefull reading of Hoehner's presentation shows that the 3 and 4 year arguments come off as equally inconclusive and I'm sorry to say his assertion that only one had "suppositions" was simply unfair.

Unfortunately, the biggest problem is that for all Hoehner's laudable and high view of the "grammatical-historical interpretation of the New Testament", an overall reading of the book suggests his primary mental orientation was not to reconstruct chronology but to defend the integrity of scripture on chronological points. That is also laudable, but the particular apologetic efforts Hoehner used to reconcile John 2:20 and Luke 3:1-3 & 3:23 with other historical data are the real reason - combined with 33 AD - why he HAD to argue for a three year ministry.

A holistic view of his arguments shows which ones really depend on certain others. The defense of scripture was more important than building a historically based chronology, leaving a work that I believe - for all its great qualities - was less than perfectly faithful to either. Academically, it would have been more accurate to say this much: Luke 3:1-3 cannot mean 26 AD, so 30 AD is out. Therefore, 33 AD is in. The 3 or 4 year views each have their challenges, and we could easily date Christ's baptism to 28 or 29 AD. For all our investigations, we may or may not know the best way to "break the tie".

In the end, nothing in Hoehner's book, other than his [somewhat contrived] interpretaion on John 2:20 (as compared with Josephus) gives an entirely unflexible resistance to 28 AD and the 4 year view. The argument for John 2:20 therefore becomes the central governing point, de facto, of the book's major argument, which is hardly fair.

The fact that we have no idea how long the prep work lasted (after Herod announced the Temple project in 20 BC) means we don't know what year construction actually began. Our ignorance of that prep time means John 2:20 is inconclusive - unless we wish to guess whether prep work began in 18 or 17 BC - for settling this one year difference in question.

Therefore, the de facto "tie breaker" of all Hoehner's arguments is actually irrelevant. Therefore, Cheney and the implications of his view deserve much greater attention. We desperately need a new tiebreaker. (Personally, I think it may be the death of Sejanus - which must fall either just before or after the death of John the Baptist - because the 4 year view (the 'after' view) better explains the timing of Jesus' final movements into Judea.)

Despite my strong critique, finding these flaws only increases the value of Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, imho. The book remains a wonderfully comprehensive treatment of the key points, and Hoehner was certainly able to process more scholarship on the topic than I'll ever be able to review in my entire life. I'm a layman, like Cheney. I deal with the major points. So this book is a major influence in my life as much for its flaws as for its strengths. If I didn't care so greatly for it's subject matter, for which Hoehner obviously felt a great deal of passion as well, I would never spend so much of my life trying to improve on what it attempted to accomplish... nor could I ever have hoped to, probably.

As Samuel Johnson said in the preface to his first English Dictionary, "I have only failed at that which no human powers have hitherto completed." In that regard, Hoehner is even more a giant, in my estimation. What other book like his has ever gone to print? None so comprehensive, as far as I can tell, and certainly none since Chronological Aspects. To call it required reading in the field should be putting it lightly. I say again, I will always treasure my old, worn out copy.

I heard a rumor last May from someone who corresponded with him that Harold Hoehner had mentioned a desire to revise his book, if not also (?) his chronology. On the hopeful prospect of this, I began trying to make my arguments stronger and more worthy of his valuable time. Time, alas, we did not have.

If anyone reading this, today or in the future, was working with him on such a project, or had been hoping to, I would very much love to argue with you about it. In my experience, arguing is the sport of friends. Since I hear Dr. Hoehner liked arguing as well, and if you were his friends, I would look especially forward to meeting you. Perhaps soon... or at least soon enough, hopefully.

Thank you, Lord, for Harold Hoehner and his Giant work. From his shoulders, give us eyes to see farther. Amen.

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