Gundry on Ehrman: Misquoting Jesus?

A recent review by Robert Gundry of Bart Ehrman’s controversial bestseller, Misquoting Jesus, has appeared in the recent issue of Books & Culture. Gundry’s review is solid in many ways. He argues cogently and sympathetically with Ehrman, showing why this book should not be controversial but also why it should not be taken as seriously as Ehrman and/or his publishers think it should be.

Gundry critiques Ehrman precisely as I would (and have): Ehrman has “hardened” the categories of humanity and divinity so that the Bible is either the book of God’s Word to us or the Bible is the book of merely human words. While Gundry does not elaborate on this problem as much as he could, I believe we have here a summarized account of the debate between inerrantists and liberals. At the end of his review, Gundry essentially states that if forced to chose between the two, he would have to pick the latter—and I wholeheartedly agree. My sympathies, as with Gundry, are with Ehrman. And yet Gundry rightly perceives that Ehrman is really the victim of a false dichotomy, and I say “victim” because he came to faith in a tradition that made this dichotomy central to its faith. I can only hope that Ehrman sees beyond this dichotomy and sees Christian faith as a belief that embraces the human and the divine together.

(Interestingly, this divide, this “hardening of the categories,” is relevant to Christology before bibliology. The debate between conservatives and liberals has generally been, and continues to be, between a Docetic Christ on the one hand and a mere man on the other. I can only suspect that Ehrman felt forced to choose the latter in this case as well, given that a supernatural, mythic Christ was the only other option. Sadly, this too remains a problem that plagues evangelical America.)

What is perhaps most fascinating about this review is a statement by Gundry. He agrees with Ehrman that John 7:53-8:11 (the woman caught in adultery) should be removed from our Bibles, because the manuscript evidence for this passage is sketchy at best. But then he makes a remarkable statement: “Regardless of one’s opinion concerning historical value, denying canonicity doesn't equate with denying historicity.” In other words, while the story does not have sufficient support to earn canonical status, such a judgment does not mean we must view it was non-historical. This is true, of course, but entirely backwards. For Gundry, apparently, what is first to go is canonical status, and what is last to go is historicity. A story may be denied a place in the canon, but it may still have its place in history. We should rather say just the opposite. Canonicity is more basic and fundamental than history. A story may be denied its place in history, but it can keep its place in the canon. This is because the gospel narratives are proclamations, not scientific accounts of what physically occurred. The kerygma, not facts, is primary.

Now I say all this because I believe that the story of the woman caught in adultery is perfectly acceptable for the canon, though we should probably doubt its historicity. Most likely there was never any such encounter, but that does not mean the story is not true. And herein lies the rub: truth is not determined by history or by textual support but by its coherence within the gospel proclamation of Jesus as the Christ of God. The question we must ask John 7:53-8:11 is not, “Where is your textual support? What is the historical grounding of this passage?” but rather, “Is the Jesus portrayed here in conflict with the Jesus in the rest of John? or with the Jesus of the Synoptics? Is the Jesus portrayed here in harmony with the gospel kerygma that the early church proclaimed in light of the resurrection?” The answer to these questions, I believe, is that this particular story is indeed in harmony with the rest of the gospel narratives.

Gundry nails the problem with Ehrman’s account of Scripture. But he also falls into a trap of thinking that canonicity is more rigorous than historicity. This is only the case if we mean that canonicity depends upon the careful, rigorous analysis of how this text corresponds with other undisputed texts (but historicitiy depends upon similar kinds of analysis). We should rather view canonicity as the more encompassing of the two categories. Historicity (in the modern sense) ought to be a smaller, tighter category than that of canonicity, because with canonicity we are speaking about the gospel, and the gospel encompasses and embraces that which transcends the historical. The gospel is about more than “what really happened.” The gospel says, “This is true.”

Comments

WTM said…
Thoughtful post, David. But, you know me - I have an insatiable drive toward nit-picking. :-) In any case, this is really really insignificant, but it's a point that I would like to make. You wrote:

"he question we must ask John 7:53-8:11 is not, “Where is your textual support? What is the historical grounding of this passage?” but rather, “Is the Jesus portrayed here in conflict with the Jesus in the rest of John? or with the Jesus of the Synoptics? Is the Jesus portrayed here in harmony with the gospel kerygma that the early church proclaimed in light of the resurrection?”

I would want to argue that, while you are right to set aside the questions that you do set aside, the question's that you replace them with are equally improper, even though they may be more salutary. The reason I say this is that you are still giving priority judgments that can be made in the present. Although you don't want to make decisions based on textual evidence or historicity, you are happy to make them based on 'your' understanding of the inner coherence of the passage in question with the broader canonical contexts in which it is found. In both cases, the modern critic is making a judgment as to the 'truth' or 'value' of part of the canon. This is not something that I am terribly excited about.

So, I propose this question: "Is the passage in question found within the text at a date early enough to pre-date the Council of Nicaea?"
bcongdon said…
Cutting to the chase...
Would you be willing to accept the statement of a person who says the resurrection did not "really happen" as long as it is "true"?
--Brad
byron said…
Yes, I too agreed with your analysis of Ehrman, though was then puzzled about your logic re Pericope Adulteræ. Isn't this to simply reintroduce Jesus of history vs Christ of faith?
D.W. Congdon said…
Brad,

Good question. Let's unpack this. First, every so-called "liberal" I know who does not view the resurrection as an actual historical event would never say that the resurrection "did not really happen." This is an important point. Those who deny the historicality of the resurrection still say that the resurrection happened and is an actual event. But they are simply redefining what the word "resurrection" means. If you wish to criticize their position, you will have to substantiate your argument about what the term "resurrection" means. You think it means X, they think it means Y. Why is X a better definition for "resurrection" than Y? -- this is your argument.

Now if you are asking whether I think someone who denies the historicality of the resurrection can be a Christian, I would answer in the affirmative. Yes, I do believe that Rudolf Bultmann, Paul Tillich, and Marcus Borg are indeed Christians; they are "saved," though who is saved and who isn't is not up to us and our judgments about beliefs but entirely up to God. I say this because I think we need to be open to the fact that someone who has never even heard of the resurrection can still be saved by God.

But if you are asking whether or not I agree with these people, the answer is no, I do not. I agree with Karl Barth, that the resurrection is indeed an historical event in which Jesus was raised in the flesh. Now even though I say that, I also agree with Karl Barth that the resurrection is not an historical event; the resurrection is not an event alongside other events. The resurrection does not stand beside other physical realities, because the resurrection is the in-breaking of God's reality in the midst of our reality. The incarnation was this in-breaking in veiled form. The resurrection is the clear, unveiled in-breaking of God into the world. Such an event is not on par with even the most awe-inspiring historical event; it is the Event through which all history derives its identity and being. The resurrection is sui generis, totally unique and unlike anything else. For that matter, it is on a totally different level than even the crucifixion. If the crucifixion can be analyzed by data and science, the resurrection surpasses all such attempts; it eludes our human attempts at examination, at objectification. The resurrection is not an object beside other objects; in its light, we are the object and God is the subject.

All I am saying is that conservative scholars' attempts to "prove" the validity of the resurrection (cf. Josh McDowell) are entirely wrong-headed, because they undermine the sheer Godness of that moment.

As T.S. Eliot could say, though here in reference to the incarnation it still applies,

"A moment not out of time, but in time, in what we call history: transecting, bisecting the world of time, a moment in time but not like a moment of time,

A moment in time but time was made through that moment: for without the meaning there is no time, and that moment of time gave the meaning."

Finally, the "truth" of the resurrection, as I see it, is wrapped up in its historical-bodily nature. I accuse those who dehistoricize the resurrection not of denying the faith or the Bible, but of being Gnostic, of substituting an immaterial resurrection for a material one. And our God is a God who embraces the material, the bodily, and the worldly.
D.W. Congdon said…
Byron,

To some extent, such distinctions are unavoidable. We will never have the "actual Jesus," and the "Jesus of history" is a reductionist Jesus who is not really our concern, because the truth of Christianity is not accessible to the tools of scientific historical research. I suggest that we replace all ideas of the "historical Jesus" (which have their important, though subordinate, place) with the "Christ of creedal faith." This is what Christianity rests upon. A Jesus of history need not be God; but such a confession post-Nicea is bedrock.
D.W. Congdon said…
Travis,

I agree with you, as I usually do on such nitpicky matters. Nevertheless, the creeds are not self-evident, nor are they "timeless" in the sense that they require absolute adherence. The creeds are authoritative, to be sure, but as soon as we interpret them, it becomes a matter of our present position in relation to them and the Bible. That said, your proposed question is a good one. I suppose we could call this an ecclesial-historical judgment, which is appropriated by us as the ecclesial community of faith in our present situation.
Douglas_Coombs said…
"We should rather view canonicity as the more encompassing of the two categories. Historicity (in the modern sense) ought to be a smaller, tighter category than that of canonicity, because with canonicity we are speaking about the gospel, and the gospel encompasses and embraces that which transcends the historical. The gospel is about more than “what really happened.” The gospel says, “This is true.”"

While there are nitpicky things I could go into about when historicity is important, I think we would agree overall and realizing that this is a blog and not a book my conclusion is a hearty "Well said!!!!!"

Have a jolly good day.