Breathtaking! The “scholars” vs the Gospels

I have been listening to some old podcasts of “Sunday Nights with John Cleary” from the ABC. Today I listened to this one from August last year, a panel discussion on heaven and hell and the afterlife (“Heaven. Who needs it?”) which Cleary conducted with Rev Dorothy McRae-McMahon (Uniting Church Minister), Rabbi Jeffrey B.Kamins (Rabbi, Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra), Dr Paul O’Shea (Senior Religious Education Coordinator, St Patrick’s College Strathfield) and Rev Jim Minchin (Anglican priest, Rector of Christchurch St Kilda).

Predictably, the traditional views of the afterlife got fairly short shrift from Cleary and the panel, but I don’t want to argue about that at this point. (Nb. if you want to argue about that, may I recommend that you come along to my Anima Education course in Term four on “The Last Things”). What fairly took my breath away was the following exchange, occasioned by one “Craig from Beauty Point in Tassie”, and the response from Rev. McRae-McMahon.

Cleary: To Craig, in Beauty Point in Tassie: Hullo, Craig, how are ya?

Craig: Yeah, good thanks.

Cleary: What would you like to say?

Craig: Well, I just thought from a Christian perspective it’s important to, um, reflect on what Jesus actually said. And, um, in just two verses in Luke, err, Chapter 12, 4 and 5, he says: “I tell you my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.” So, it seems to me, it’s pretty obvious that what Jesus believed about heaven and hell, and, um –

Cleary: Is it important, though, in this life?

Craig: Well, Jesus is telling people there that are alive at the time, so, I suspect so, yes.

Cleary: Hmm. Okay, well what do you think he means by it? Dorothy?

McRae-McMahon: Um, I would want to say that even 80 years ago when my father trained for the ministry, he was taught, as I was taught, that the scholars, the scholars, if they’ve looked at those passages, and there are numbers of them about weeping and gnashing of teeth and things like that, the scholars are fairly solidly unified in believing that, in believing that those passages are not in fact the words of Jesus. They are the words of the early Church, who were beginning to form up these sort of views, um, for whatever reason, they might be the same sort of reasons that we do that now, by the way, but that those words don’t fit with the style of teaching and preaching of Jesus himself. Um, Jesus obviously did say things as in Matthew 25, where he pointed out, you know, some real situations about the choices that we need to make if we are to enter eternal life now and onwards, but he wasn’t prone to talk about those sort of views of hell…

Splutter! Cough! What? By what standard can the Rev. McRae-McMahon claim that the text of the Gospels “don’t fit with the style of teaching and preaching of Jesus himself”? Does she have some secret insight? Does she have some other source for the “teaching and preaching of Jesus himself” other than the Gospels themselves? And what if, for the sake of the arguement, these “fairly solid” scholars (whoever they may be and whatever their authority may be) are right? What difference does that make? Are we to judge the authority of the words of the Gospels on the basis of whether they were historically said by Jesus or not?

I don’t think so. My copy of the scriptures, like yours, has two covers. And everything in them between those two covers (barring of course, the introduction, preface, contents page, indexes, footnotes, publication information, ISBN and other editorial niceties) are in the Canon of Scripture recognised by the Church, and therefore AUTHORITATIVE.

And as for the “fairly solid” opinion of the “scholars”, the Anglican priest on the panel was obviously not one of them, for he immediately came in with this:

Minchin (Anglican priest, Rector of Christchurch St Kilda): But I think you can say, and I don’t have the same view of that text in Luke that Dorothy expressed, I think its quite authentically part of the tradition going back to Jesus himself.

Thank goodness that on the website where you can download this podcast, they also give the links to the Catholic Catechism on the subject of the afterlife. For ecumenical reasons, I might add that the ABC could have given links to just about any traditional Christian statement of faith, and it would have served the same purpose.

Advertisements

9 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

9 responses to “Breathtaking! The “scholars” vs the Gospels

  1. Lance Eccles

    “Does she have some other source for the “teaching and preaching of Jesus himself” other than the Gospels themselves?”

    Well, I think she does: herself.

    Like so many, she reinvents Jesus in her own image. It makes him so cuddly and comfortable.

  2. syd

    I seem to remember reading of a group of scholars some years ago who’d used a particular method employed by modern historical scholarship and combed through the New Testament. They’d concluded that there were only about three or four of the statements of Our Lord which were reliable and nearly everything else did not stand up to modern historical scrutiny. As believers, we should not just dismiss such claims. Dorothy M-M and John Cleary delight in the unorthodox, but they are well informed. I’d like to know more about this myself, and feel confident that whatever challenges it presents can be met. You’re not likely to hear that on Cleary’s program though. Was it ‘The Jesus Project’ ? Others may know more.

    • I am very keen on biblical scholarship myself, but we need to recognise and identify the questionable assumptions upon which such judgements about the original “authenticity” or “authorship” of passages in scripture are made.

    • Peregrinus

      Hi Syd

      What you’re remembering is the “Jesus Seminar”; a project involving about a hundred and fifty scriptural scholars who voted on the authenticity of the sayings and acts of Jesus, as recorded in scripture.

      The outcome wasn’t quite as negative as you suggest. Each passage of scripture recording a saying of Jesus could be graded red (Jesus said this, or something very like it), pink (Jesus probably said something like this), grey (Jesus didn’t say this, but it contains his ideas) or black (Jesus didn’t say this; it comes from later admirers or a different tradition).

      About ninety passages, not three or four, were graded either red or pink. Still, this represents only about a fifth of the sayings of Jesus recorded in scripture. But that’s not quite as bad as it sounds. Very often, for example, a parable attributed to Jesus is judged to be authentic, but whatever Jesus is recorded as saying by way of introduction to the parable is not; this is seen as a literary device used by the evangelist to stitch the authentic parable into his narrative at this point. Likewise, when Jesus is presented as explaining a parable afterwards to his slightly thick disciples, the authenticity of this is doubted even thought the parable itself is accepted as genuine.

      Still, there is a fair chunk of the sayings of Jesus that are rejected, including some of the most familiar, and most theologically significant (“I am the way, the truth and the life”). And, given this, it’s important to make the point that the Jesus Seminar is not mainstream scripture scholarship. Some of the people involved have impressive academic credentials, but I think the weight of academic opinion is critical of the Jesus Seminar, and its methods and assumptions, rather than supportive of it.

  3. Peregrinus

    You rightly identify two different questions here, David.

    1. Is it historically true that Jesus said these words? (McCrae-McMahon seems to suggest “probably not”.)

    2. If he didn’t say them, what difference – if any – does that make?

    The scriptures are authoritative, but the authority they wield is not the authority to give a definitive statement of historical fact. (It’s not necessarily the case that God actually set the rainbow in the sky after the Great Flood.) Thus to suggest that Jesus did not, or may not, actually have said something attributed to him in the Gospels is not necessarily to question the authority of scripture.

    In fairness to McCrae-McMahon, she is responding to Craig from Beauty Point who comments about what “Jesus actually said”. Also in fairness to her, Craig actually misquotes Mt 10. So a starting point about how to read scripture is not a wholly unreasonable one for McCrae-McMahon. Sadly, she never gets to complete her point (at least in the extract you quote). If Jesus didn’t actually say what Craig says he said, what then? That, to me, is much the more interesting question, and the one which requires us to confront the question, if the authority of scripture does not relate to matters of history, what does it relate to?

    We tend to read the gospels through a lens formed by two millennia of Christian tradition. Rightly so, I should say, but it can occasionally cause problems, particularly where “hell” is mentioned. The idea of hell has acquired an awful lot of baggage over two thousand years that it just didn’t have when Jesus taught in Palestine, or a little later when the gospels were written. It was a novel concept in Judaism at the time – so much so that they didn’t have a word for it, and had to either borrow the Greek word Hades, or use Gehenna, which was the name of an actual, and very unpleasant, place just outside Jerusalem. (It’s a public park now, apparently.) And, I gather, it was still a fairly fluid concept. McCrae-McMahon’s little discourse might have been an introduction to a discussion of what the early church understood by “hell” when this gospel was written, and received, and in due course canonised.

  4. “Thus to suggest that Jesus did not, or may not, actually have said something attributed to him in the Gospels is not necessarily to question the authority of scripture.”

    But in fairness to Craig and to our Lord, she did seem to say “Jesus didn’t actually say those words” as a way of dismissing any sort of authority in what those words actually said.

    “Craig actually misquotes Mt 10.”

    Actually, as Craig himself says, he is quoting the parallel passage from Luke 12, not the Matthew 10 version. So he isn’t “misquoting” at all.

    “McCrae-McMahon’s little discourse might have been an introduction to a discussion of what the early church understood by “hell” when this gospel was written, and received, and in due course canonised.”

    Yes, exactly. Whatever the origin of the statement – and I think it is a “breathtaking” presumption of anyone 2000 years later to say “Jesus didn’t really say that” – the point is why does the bible say so much about “hell”/”gehenna”/”hades” etc. if it wasn’t important? What is our justification for suggesting that modern man has somehow outgrown the doctrine of hell and damnation?

    • Peregrinus

      Actually, as Craig himself says, he is quoting the parallel passage from Luke 12, not the Matthew 10 version.

      Oh, so he does. I guess this just goes to show that scripture isn’t the only thing we should read carefully.

      . . . the point is why does the bible say so much about “hell”/”gehenna”/”hades” etc. if it wasn’t important? What is our justification for suggesting that modern man has somehow outgrown the doctrine of hell and damnation?

      Look, I struggle to be charitable in my reading of what McCrae-McMahon said. As I say, she never gets to complete her point. It could have been the start of an assessment of the significance of this passage regardless of whether Jesus said it or not. But, I agree, it could equally have been the start of an argument that, as Jesus (probably} didn’t say it, therefore we can – even should – ignore it, which is the way I think you are inclined to read it. And I’m afraid you’re probably right.

  5. syd

    Hello Peregrinus,
    Thank you very much for the informaion about the Jesus Seminar. Most interesting.