In response to my essay, Hmm — The Apostles’ Teaching Didn’t Seem to Include a Divine Jesus, Dr. Todd Granger, a frequent commenter and fellow blogger, took the time to write a detailed post. I was going to respond on his blog, but the response got so long that I thought it’d be better to post it here.
Thanks for a thoughtful post, Todd. I'm grateful for your having taken the time to read, and respond to, my own essay. I also appreciate the personal kind words. Let me address some of your points below.
Your post spends a lot of time on the views of Paul. But my purpose was not to review what Paul thought. Paul was a latecomer who apparently never knew Jesus during his lifetime.
What I wanted to explore was something else. I wanted to focus on the apostles who actually knew and followed and loved Jesus during his lifetime. What did those men actually say and do during the early days of their post-crucifixion ministries? In particular, at that time, did they think Jesus was God incarnate?
Another Reason to Explore What the Early Apostles Actually Taught
In writing this response, I realize that there’s another reason to explore what the original apostles taught in the early days. Their early teachings would seem to be quite relevant to the question of what teachings they might have received from Jesus himself. If we knew that, it could give us another, indirect view of Jesus’s teachings, which we could try to piece together with the Gospels.
On the subject of what the apostles actually taught, the Book of Acts is far from perfect. Like the Gospels, it was written decades after the fact. But it seems to be the best evidence the church has to offer.
A Priori Mindsets
I have to dispute your claim that I'm supposedly "committed to an historical reading of the text that a priori rules out such possibilities as God incarnate as a man and that questions the trustworthiness of the canonical texts." I’ve got a fairly long paper trail, on this blog and in comments on others. I would hope my writing shows that my only a priori commitment is to the truth, whatever the truth turns out to be, paraphrasing the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor.
A Litigator’s Outlook
You’re right, however, that I have serious questions about the trustworthiness of the canonical texts, including Acts. Those questions arise from years of professional experience as a litigator, and in particular, a technology litigator. I claim that this experience is relevant to the task of analyzing Scripture.
Litigators and biblical scholars both analyze accounts of past events. Litigators' work is regularly judged in the harsh light of adversarial proceedings, with opposing counsel seeking to undermine everything they say and do. If litigators do their work badly, they learn about it promptly. There are real-world consequences waiting, both for their clients and for them personally. This, I can assure you, tends to sharpen and intensify one's focus. I wonder how many biblical scholars have ever ventured professionally into that kind of environment.
Plastic Memory and Story Mutation
Anglican biblical scholars have long used tradition and reason as tools in the analysis of Scripture. There's no a priori reason not to include related traditions from other walks of life in the toolbox. One deeply-ingrained analytical tradition in the legal world – and for good reason – is the hearsay rule.
Humanity long ago recognized that both memory and storytelling are fallible. Memory often conforms to preconceived notions. It’s also plastic: it can change, to varying degrees and for various reasons, especially with the passage of time. Stories can subtly mutate in the retelling, even when the retellers have the best of intentions. Story mutation is a particular danger when a storyteller has an argument to win or an axe to grind. This was recognized as far back as the Hebrew Scriptures, which prohibited putting someone to death except on the testimony of not just one, but two witnesses (Num. 35.30, Deut. 17.6-7, Deut. 19.15).
N.T. Wright claims that things were different in New Testament times. He says that "informal controlled oral tradition" was sufficient to counterbalance these problems. It seems to me that Wright goes badly wrong here, embracing a fantasy because it supports the conclusions he wants to reach. Moreover, a key source Wright cites, one Kenneth Bailey, has been accused of misrepresenting some of his own source material on just this point. I discussed this briefly in a responsive comment last night on my original essay.
Inconsistencies in the Texts
My professional questions about the canonical texts are amplified by obvious inconsistencies in the texts themselves. For example:
- According to the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly told his disciples that he would be killed and later raised back to life. So why then were they so despondent at his death, and so shocked and fearful when they encountered him, instead of joyously awaiting his return?
- According to Matthew, Jesus supposedly commanded his disciples to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So why then does Acts uniformly report that the apostles baptized in the name of Jesus alone?
- According to the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly predicted his return from heaven at the imminent end of history. So why then didn't it happen — and hasn’t happened yet, nearly 2,000 years later?
Clearly, something is amiss here.
Traditionalists often excoriate people who call attention to these questions. They think we should all simply shut up and accept the church's teaching. But their repetition of their mantras doesn't make them true. So far as I know, no traditionalist has ever persuasively addressed the merits of the questions themselves.
The Origins of Paul's Views
While I think you missed the mark in focusing so intensely on Paul, I was still pleased to see your citation of 2 Peter 3.16. That verse remarks that Paul's letters "contain some things that are hard to understand." This indicates that Paul came up with some of his ideas all by himself.
But wait – we know that already, don't we, because Paul openly boasts about it in Galatians 1.11-12:
I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.
Um, yeah. This, from the man who never met Jesus during the latter’s lifetime, but who flipped from being a furious persecutor of Jesus’s followers, to being a fiery, even obsessive, advocate of his own particular views about the man.
And it's not as if Paul's views were uniformly greeted with hosannas by the folks who actually had known the living Jesus. On the contrary, much of the Jerusalem church regarded Paul as an intermeddler, so much so that he had to insist on the validity of his own claim to apostleship (1 Cor. 9.1–2; see also Acts, passim, James 2, and Galatians 2).
So can someone please explain why we should give Paul’s “revelation” any more credence than those of, say, Muhammad, or Joseph Smith? How about Jim Jones, or David Koresh, or Marshall Applewhite?
Paul's Leadership, Peter's Views
Let's assume arguendo that 2 Peter is authentic. Its comment in 3.16-17, along with other scriptural evidence, hints at an interesting possibility.
We know from the Gospels and from Acts that Peter was not always the most dominant personality in the world. Before Pentecost, he often wavered, even though in the clutch he found the strength to come through. After Pentecost he apparently flip-flopped whether Gentiles had to observe the Law (see Gal. 2).
Paul, on the other hand, was a firebrand, a dynamo. There seems to have been no trace of the wallflower to him. His epistles suggest him as a candidate for a rhythmic epithet I heard from my dad years ago about a co-worker: Often mistaken, but never in doubt.
It's plausible to me that over time, Paul's dynamic leadership may have gradually shaped and molded Peter's own beliefs.
Can I prove this? No. Is it per se unreasonable? No.
So is it correct? We'll probably never know.
Anyway, Todd, thanks again for paying me the compliment of responding to my essay in such depth.