Wednesday, 6 August 2014

The "aha" moment - Biblical Scholars Tell Their Stories. Part 12: Megan DeFranza

Part 12 in Peter Enns' series of articles from Christian scholars from a fundamentalist background comes from Megan DeFranza, adjunct professor of Theology at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, who like many other people from conservative backgrounds who deepened their study of the Bible to get closer to Jesus found that things did not work out quite as she thought they would.
She writes:
I studied those words of Jesus and as I did, I discovered that these words didn’t always match up with each other. Matthew’s record didn’t follow the exact working as Mark, Mark didn’t always match up with Luke, and John… Well, I soon learned that John had very different priorities. 
First, I was told not to worry; that Jesus probably preached the same sermon at different times and in different places (cf. Matthew 5-7 and Luke 6, 12-14). Few of us say it exactly the same every time—even when we preach from notes. Still, in other places, the details just didn’t match up. 
It didn’t seem plausible that two Centurions from Capernaum asked Jesus to heal their slaves and made a point about Jesus’ authority by indicating that he need not set foot under the roof to perform the miracle. In Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10 they speak the same words but in Matthew he comes in person while in Luke a messenger is sent instead.
The main point did not seem to be at issue but the details… Well, let’s just say they didn’t match up as perfectly as I had expected. 
Add to this the growing scholarly consensus that Jesus’ primary ministry was not in Greek. This shouldn’t have surprised me. After all, he confessed that his mission was to preach to the “lost sheep of Israel,” to the Jews not the Gentiles (Mt. 15:24). Jews and Gentiles spoke Greek when in the marketplace but when among their own they probably spoke their own language—Aramaic. 
We can hear Jesus speaking his first language at some of his most intimate moments. In the Garden, he prays “Abba” (Mk. 14:36). From the cross, he cries out “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? (Mt. 27:46), not in the Hebrew original of Psalm 22 but in Aramaic… a translation. 
So much for getting back to the original words of Jesus! These seemed more distant to me than ever.

Evangelicals put a lot of stock in the original languages so you may understand my disappointment. I went on to study not only Greek but also Hebrew and eventually even a little Aramaic. What I now find ironic is that God does not seem to share this evangelical obsession for a perfect record in the original.
Neither did the ancient world. As I've noted before, the Bible emerged from an oral culture, one in which preserving the essence of the message was far more important than getting every detail right. When you have more than one oral tradition of the life of Jesus, and these are eventually codified, it's hardly surprising that such variation in detail will exist. I can do no better than to quote John Walton and D.B. Sandy:
It’s especially important to recognize that a modern view of historiography must not be the standard by which we judge ancient practices of writing history. Again quoting Bock, “To have accurate summaries of Jesus’ teaching is just as historical as to have his actual words; they are just two different perspectives to give us the same thing. All that is required is that the summaries be trustworthy.” 
The evidence then suggests that the gospel message preserved the essential essence of things Jesus and the disciples said and did. If there are variations in the written Gospels, it’s likely there were similar variations in the oral texts. It’s safe to conclude that a precision of wording was not expected either in the oral transmission or in the written records. “There is more to history than precise chronological sequence or always relating the exact same detail or reporting something in the same words.” 
Another way to think of the core concept is to recognize that the Gospels preserve the ipsissima vox of Jesus’ words and actions, not the ipsissima verba. It’s a contrast between the exact voice (vox) and the precise wording (verba). In other words, we may not have the exact words of Jesus, but we do have the essential word. The Gospels can be trusted as reliable representations of the words and deeds of Jesus. [1]
Fundamentalists who impose on scripture modern standards of historiography, a mindset grounded in a written culture which knows little or nothing of the oral world of the Bible, and a view of inspiration which is guaranteed to create discrepancy where none existed are causing considerable damage to Christianity in the process.


1. Walton, J.H and Sandy, D.B,. The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority. (2013: InterVarsity Press)