By Garrett Best
Bird, Michael. The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014).
In this series of blog posts, I’d like to use Bird’s book as a starting point for talking about the origins of the Jesus tradition and the Fourfold Gospel. In this post, I’d like to ask the question: Can a Christian with a high view of Scripture engage in studying the Gospels with the tools of critical scholarship? This is the topic of Bird’s excursus at the end of chapter 2 (pgs. 67-73). This was one of my favorite sections of the book. I wish he would write an entire book on just this question!
I had never heard of textual criticism, redaction criticism, source criticism, narrative criticism, or any of the other criticisms before going to college. I didn’t think there was anything in the Gospels even worth any “criticism”. I still remember the moment in the textual criticism section of my advanced Greek class at Freed Hardeman University when I was presented with the evidence that showed the story of the Woman Caught in Adultery in John 7:53-8:11 was most likely not original to John’s Gospel, but was added by later scribes. I panicked. “How could I be sure about anything anymore?” I lamented.
There are two common reactions to higher criticism of the Gospel. Bird lays them both out and then rejects them both equally (Bird, 67-68). The first is the response by skeptics and many scholars that emphasizes higher criticism and is devoid of faith. These scholars present the material in the Gospels as nothing more than mythical folklore. They have a bias against anything pre-modern, supernatural, or religious, and they don’t believe the Gospels present us with anything that actually occurred in history. The second approach is an attempt to be faithful to God. It is the belief that true faithfulness demands that the Bible should not be subjected to the same critical methodologies that other works of literature are subjected. This response comes from those “ardent Bible-believers who want to treat the Bible as if it fell down from heaven in 1611, written in ye aulde English, bound in pristine leather, with words of Jesus in red, Scofield’s notes, and charts of the end times.” (Bird, 68) Bird calls both of these approaches uninformed, dogmatic, dull, and unimaginative. He wants to offer another way.
He then lays out his own approach which he terms “believing criticism”. (Bird, 68) “This approach treats Scripture as the inspired and veracious Word of God, but contends that we do Scripture the greatest service when we commit ourselves to studying it in light of the context and processes through which God gave it to us.” (Bird, 68) Since God used the words of human authors written and preserved through human processes, this means that we can engage the Scriptures by examining the humanity of the process God chose.
Affirming that the Gospels are historically reliable does not assume that the Gospels should be judged according to the standards of modern historiography. (Bird, 69) While the Gospel writers certainly believed the events they write about occurred and that Jesus was a real man who lived in history, that does not mean they are presenting unadulterated history. This is not a problem when we realize there is no such thing as unbiased historiography. A history textbook on the Revolutionary War might look different if written in Britain versus America. All history is interpreted history. The only way to get pure history is to have video footage of the actual historical events with no commentary or interpretation. Even then, I imagine people would still see different things in different ways on the same video footage. All modern historiography is an act of interpretation. The Gospel accounts are rooted in the testimony of eyewitnesses. Although they are stories rooted in history, they are not merely historical reports. (Bird, 69) The Gospel writers do not pretend to be unbiased reporters. They are unashamedly confessional and theologically oriented. (Bird, 69) So, although there really was a man named Jesus who lived in history, the story of Jesus is told by those who found his life, teaching, death, and resurrection as theologically significant. You cannot separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith. They are one and the same figure. “This means that we are actually liberated to read the Gospels as they were intended to be read: as historically referential theological testimonies to Jesus as the exalted Lord.” (Bird, 70)
Bird concludes this wonderful, but all-too-brief excursus by giving three ways we should approach the text with “believing criticism”:
- Hermeneutic of Trust– “We trust Jesus, and he evidently trusts the Scriptures that point to him. God’s Word is attested by God’s Son and this Word is further validated by the inner witness of the Holy Spirit that it is always true and trustworthy.” (Bird, 72) This does not mean that we do not approach the Scriptures with questions or doubts. It means we approach the text with questions, trusting in God to carry us through and give us the assurance we need to have a robust faith.
- Get Dirty in the Mud and Muck of History– Jesus wasn’t and couldn’t have been born just anywhere. He was the “son of Abraham” and the “son of David” (Matt. 1:1). He was the fulfillment of all God’s promises to Israel. “So whether we like it or not, we are obligated to study Jesus in his historical context.” (Bird, 72) This means that we are obligated to study and know about the history of Israel and to know their Scriptures. It means that we have to know something about the socio-political, archaeological, and cultural studies related to Israel. Since God chose to send His son into first century Palestine situated within the Greco-Roman world, we must study that time period to fully understand God’s self revelation. “It requires immersing ourselves in as much of the primary literature of the first century as we can get our hands on- Jewish, Greek, and Roman- so that we can walk, talk, hear, and smell the world of Jesus.” (Bird, 72)
- Read the Gospels for Today– “We have to explore the impact that the Gospels intended to make on their implied audiences and how the four Gospels as a whole intend to shape the believing communities who read them now.” (Bird, 72) We miss the mark if we study the Gospels but are not transformed into the image of the Son of God, Jesus.
Bird concludes with this powerful thought: “When it comes to reading the Gospels as a church community, we are not just mining for nuggets of devotional wisdom. Rather, we are striving to let the story of Jesus gradually shape our lives, enrich our worship, inspire us to mission, draw our community together, and impact our ministries, so that the evangelical vision of Jesus given to us in the Gospels becomes an evangelical project to make the story of Jesus known in all the world.” (Bird, 73)