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Is there A Place for Historical Criticism?

  • Robert M. Price (a1)


Modern historical criticism of the gospels and Christian origins began in the seventeenth century largely as an attempt to debunk the Christian religion as a pious fraud. The gospels were seen as bits of priestcraft and humbug of a piece with the apocryphal Donation of Constantine. In the few centuries since Reimarus and his critical kin, historical criticism has been embraced and assimilated by many Christian scholars who have seen in it the logical extension of the grammatico-historical method of the Reformers. The new views of New Testament exegesis and of early Christian history are important and well known. Many New Testament scholars would now hold with Schweitzer and Bultmann that Jesus was a preacher of the imminent end of the world. He may have secretly considered himself to be the Messiah, or he may have simply sought to pave the way for another, the apocalyptic Son of Man. After his execution, his disciples' experiences of his resurrection forced on them a conclusion already implicit in his teachings and personal piety: that Jesus was indeed, or had become, the Messiah, and was in fact God's Son. They expected he would soon return as the Son of Man he had predicted.



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1 McDowell, Josh, More Evidence That Demands a Verdict ([n.p.] Campus Crusade for Christ Inter-national, 1975), p. 205.

2 Montgomery, John Warwick, History and Christianity (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 1974), p. 37.

3 McNeile, A. H. and Williams, C. S. C., An Introduction to the Study of the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960), p. 54.

4 Scholem, Gershom, Sabbatai Sevi, the Mystical Messiah (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), pp. 252, 265.

5 Ibid. pp. 390, 535, 375.

6 Ibid. p. 605.

7 Scholem, Gershom, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Schocken Books, 1973), pp. 82, 99.

8 Lanternari, Vittorio, The Religions of the Oppressed, A Study of Modern Messianic Cults (New York: The New American Library, 1965), pp. 25–6ff.; see also Oosthuizen, G. C., Post-Christianity in Africa (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1968), p. 40; see also Martin, Marie-Louise, Kimbangu, An African Prophet and his Church (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), p. 40.

9 Sanders, Ed, The Family (New York: Avon Books, 1972), p. 133.

10 Montgomery, John Warwick, History and Christianity, p. 32.

11 Ibid. p. 37.

12 Yamauchi, Edwin M., Jesus, Zoroaster, Socrates, Buddha, Mohammed (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1974), p. 9.

13 Smith, Wilbur, Have You Considered Him (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1972), p. 6.

14 Yamauchi, Edwin M., Jesus, Zoroaster, Socrates, Buddha, Muhammed, p. 10.

15 Bruce, F. F., The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972), p. 45.

16 Scholem, Gershom, Sabbatai Sevi, The Mystical Messiah, p. 252. By invoking this parallel, have I just negated my own argument above, that the apostles would never have tried to curb the spread of miracle-tales? I do not think so, because the apologists envision the apostles of Jesus safeguarding a sort of canonical list of true miracle stories, and fending off any ‘counterfeits’ as if they had foreseen precisely the situation of the modern apologists and were trying to make things easier for them. What Nathan of Gaza did is quite parallel in effect but hardly in intent to the hypothetical efforts of the apostles. What he was doing was to explain why there were no miracles. Similarly, the Koran contains several rationalizations by Muhammad as to why, though a genuine prophet, he did no miracles. So if we were to grant that Jesus' apostles might have made similar disclaimers about miracles attributed to Jesus, it would be even more embarrassing for the apologists, since such efforts, we have just seen, are made when no miracles have been performed. My principal point was merely that such efforts at denial, in a known case, proved to be unsuccessful.

17 Bruce, F. F., The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, p. 46.

18 Scholem, Gershom, Sabbatai Sevi, The Mystical Messiah, p. 612.

19 Ibid. p. 215.

20 Ibid. p. 411.

21 Shaked, Haim, The Life of the Sudanese Mahdi (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1978), pp. 60–1.

22 Bruce, F. F., The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, p. 46.

23 Bruce, F. F., Paul and Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1974), p. 70.

24 Howard, I. Marshall, I Believe in the Historical Jesus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977), p. 195; see also John Warwick Montgomery, History and Christianity, pp. 37–8.

25 Taylor, Vincent, The Formation of the Gospel Tradition (London: Macmillan, 1957), p. 41.

26 Smith, Robert D., Comparative Miracles (St Louis, Missouri: B. Herder Book Company, 1965), pp. 131–2.

27 Ladd, George Eldon, The New Testament and Criticism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), pp. 153, 163.

28 Anderson, J. N. D., The Evidence for the Resurrection (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1974), p. 9.

29 I am quite aware of the harmonization offered here. As a matter of fact this harmonization is taken so much for granted that conservatives do not realize that it is a harmonization. It so controls their reading of the texts that they never seem even to see the problem. Not noticing the ‘spirit’ vs. ‘flesh’ problem, they just assume that the ‘spiritual body’ in I Corinthians 15 refers to Jesus' ‘ability to walk through walls’ and his inability to be recognized at first glance as allegedly reported in the gospels. However, I am afraid this harmonization rests on too superficial a reading of the gospel accounts. The sudden appearances and disappearances of the risen Jesus have little necessarily to do with any changed quality of his body. Rather, what seems to be in view is spatial teleportation. The same thing happens elsewhere in Hellenistic religious biography, such as in Philostratus' Life of Apollonius of Tyana, where the philosopher Apollonius suddenly vanishes from the courtroom of the Emperor Domitian only to reappear elsewhere among his friends. His companions are startled, but Apollonius laughingly reassures them that despite his mode of travel, he is a flesh-and-blood mortal like themselves. In fact Luke himself, who makes the most of Jesus' teleportation, gives another example of it in Acts. There Philip (who certainly has no risen ‘spiritual body’) is supernaturally caught up after he baptizes the Ethiopian, reappearing near Azotus (8:39–40).

As for Jesus' inability to be recognized, Luke attributes this not to any quality of the risen Jesus, but to an interference with the faculties of the witnesses. Luke 24:16 says, ‘They were kept from recognizing him’, in practically the same terms as Luke uses elsewhere, in one of the passion predictions: ‘It was hidden from them, so that they did not grasp it’ (9:45). Traditionalists who use this argument are probably subconsciously influenced most by the spurious passage Mark 16:12: ‘Afterward Jesus appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking in the country.’ Even if this text were originally part of Mark, the context indicates that for some reason Jesus' appearance on this one occasion was different from that of the other resurrection encounters where he was recognizable.

30 Anderson, J. N. D., The Evidence for the Resurrection, p. 9.

31 Montgomery, John Warwick, Where is History Going? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1972), p. 82.

32 Green, Michael (ed.), The Truth of God Incarnate (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977), p. 36.

33 Anderson, J. N. D., The Evidence for the Resurrection, p. 11.

34 The inability of anyone to find a single one of his bones had convinced his companions that Hercules had indeed been taken to Mt Olympus. Men assumed that Aristaeus had gone into heaven because he was no more to be seen. Aeneas was known to have joined the gods when after a battle his body was nowhere to be found. Romulus ascended from another battlefield as evidenced by the fact that no one could find so much as a fragment of his body or his clothes. One might include here the Old Testament stories of Enoch and Elijah (both of whom were the objects of considerable speculation in Jesus' milieu). Both were taken up to be with God, the result of which was that no trace of either could be found. (Genesis 5:24; II Kings 2:16–18; cf. Deuteronomy 34:5–6).

In more recent (i.e. non-mythical) times, the philosopher Empedocles disappeared after an evening meal with his friends and could not be found, and together with a voice from heaven, this proved he must have ascended. Another philosopher, Apollonius of Tyana, a contemporary of Jesus, was said by later legend to have heeded the summons of heavenly voices to ‘go upwards from earth’; his friends searched the temple from which he had disappeared but could find no remains. Is it surprising that Christians would eventually circulate a story wherein mourning friends came to Jesus' tomb only to find no trace of his body and to be told by an angel that he had been ‘raised’?

Stories of the physical reappearance of Jesus to comfort or command his followers would also fit into this pattern. Ovid records this appearance of Romulus, after he had ascended from the battlefield.

‘Proculus Julius was coming from the Alba Longa; the moon was shining, he was not using a torch. Suddenly the hedges on the left shook and moved. He shrank back and his hair stood on end. Beautiful and more than human and clothed in a sacred robe, Romulus was seen, standing in the middle of the road. He said, “Stop the (Romans) from their mourning; do not let them violate my divinity with their tears; order the pious crowd to bring incense and worship the new [god] Quirinius” … He gave the order and he vanished into the upper world from before Julius' eyes.’ (Dungan, David L. and Cartlidge, David R., Sourcebook of Texts for the Comparative Study of the Gospels (Missoula, Montana: Scholars Press, 1974), p. 155.)

In another text strikingly reminiscent of the gospel accounts, Philostratus tells the story of a doubting pupil of the departed Apollonius of Tyana.

‘This young boy would never agree to the immortality of the soul, “I, my friends, am completing the tenth month of praying to Apollonius to reveal to me the nature of the soul. But he is completely dead so as never to respond to my begging, nor will I believe he is not dead.” Such were the things he said then, but on the fifth day after that they were busy with these things and he suddenly fell into a deep sleep right where he had been talking… he, as if insane, suddenly leaped to his feet … and cried out, “I believe you!” When those present asked him what was wrong, he said “Do you not see Apollonius the sage, how he stands here among us, listening to the argument and singing wonderful verses concerning the soul?… he came to discuss with me alone concerning the things which I would not believe.”’ (Dungan, and Cartlidge, , Sourcebook of Texts, pp. 295–6.)

35 Yamauchi, Edwin M., ‘Easter – Myth, Hallucination, or History?’, Christianity Today, 31 03 1974, p. 16.

36 Anderson, J. N. D., The Evidence for the Resurrection, p. 10.

37 Ibid. p. 19.

38 Stott, John R. W., Basic Christianity (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1978), p. 52.

39 Dungan, David and Cartlidge, David, Sourcebook of Texts for the Comparative Study of the Gospels, p. 157.

40 Pinnock, Clark H., Set Forth Your Case (Chicago: Moody Press, 1973), p. 97.

41 Lewis, C. S., Miracles (New York: Macmillan, 1974), p. 153.

42 At the ancient healing shrine of Epidauros, there survive numerous testimonial inscriptions, left there for advertisement purposes. One tells of a man whose fingers were crippled. He came to the healing temple, but ‘he disbelieved in the healings and he sneered at the inscriptions’. Yet in his mercy, the healing god Asklepios restored his hand, despite the man's unbelief. Similarly, the one-eyed Ambrosia of Athens came to the shrine with doubts in her mind: ‘as she walked around the temple of healings, she mocked some things as incredible and impossible, that the lame and blind could be healed at only seeing a dream’. Yet Asklepios takes pity and heals her anyway. Another suppliant who actually has an empty eye-socket goes to the shrine for help. This time it is the bystanders who mock – surely this is too great a task even for Asklepios. None the less the man is given a completely new eye! In Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana, the hero pinpoints the cause of a plague in Ephesus as a demon. We are told that Apollonius points out an old blind beggar and directs the crowd to stone him to death. Understandably, the crowd is sceptical. But Apollonius knows best. He prevails, and the old man is revealed as a ‘devil in disguise’; beneath the heap of stones is found no human corpse, but rather that of a huge dog. Another example occurs in a legend about rabbi Hanina ben Dosa, who lived in the first century A.D. Some friends are on their way to his house to ask him to pray for the recovery of a sick boy. But as they arrive, the rabbi meets them with the announcement that the fever has left the boy. They are surprised and a bit sceptical, since they have not even made their request. They retort, ‘What? Are you a prophet?’ But Hanina is right – it turns out that the fever left the boy ‘in that moment’.

Dungan, David L. and Cartlidge, David R., Sourcebook of Texts for the Comparative Study of the Gospels, pp. 51–2, 278–9, 61.

43 Lewis, C. S., Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1974), p. 57.


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