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The Cooley Center Articles: Deconstructing Jesus

The Cooley Center Articles: Deconstructing Jesus

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Many modern scholars are concerned with exploring who the "real" Jesus was. Dr. Rollin Grams writes about these efforts and their place in our modern context.
Many modern scholars are concerned with exploring who the "real" Jesus was. Dr. Rollin Grams writes about these efforts and their place in our modern context.

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Published by: Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary on Apr 07, 2011
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Deconstructing Jesus: From Modernity to Postmodernity to Faith
1
 
Rollin G. Grams
April, 2011Director of the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early ChristianityAssociate Professor of New TestamentThese are exciting days in Jesus studies. Much is being written on the historical Jesus,and significant challenges to old paradigms in New Testament Christology are beingpresented. The labours of sensible scholarship are not going to be found on the shelvesof your local large bookshop, since they do not sell as well as whatever claims to exposeconspiracies, reveal secrets, and unsettle orthodoxy. But solid scholarship is doing morethan just exposing the latest hype for what it is: New Testament scholars are still makinginteresting contributions through the exegetical task of theology.A part of what we are seeing in the field involves a new set of assumptions. Modernistmethods of Biblical scholarship, along with its ‘consensuses’ and ‘assured results’, arehappily under scrutiny. But Postmodernity can take several forms. Positively, enquiryfrom a position of belief rather than doubt is now seen as inevitable if not evenencouraged. Negatively, a deconstructive Postmodernity—in many ways a‘MostModernity’—has simply ratcheted up the level of doubt to higher levels of scepticism and turned from trusting methods of enquiry to playing with methods of enquiry in order to arrive at alternative constructions of truth.
2
 This deconstructive version of Postmodernity takes us into a world of scholarshippresented as the exposure of conspiracies, secrets, and scandals. To be sure, challengesto orthodox teaching about Jesus were also the order of the day in the Modern period.According to Albert Schweitzer, it began with Herman Reimarus’ posthumouslypublished work 
Apology or Defence of the Rational Worshippers of God 
in 1778.
3
For Reimarus, Jesus was a pious Jew calling people to repentance in preparation for theKingdom of God. He became increasingly fanatical, however, and tried to force God'shand in Jerusalem, only to die on the cross believing that God had forsaken Him. Hisdisciples, who had forgotten how to work and so wished to keep a good thing going,decided to steal Jesus’ body and claim that He had risen from the dead and would returnto establish His Kingdom. Here is a major conspiracy on the part of Jesus’ disciples, but,thanks to Reimarus, secrets are now revealed, and they are scandalous for Christian faith.
1
 
This article is an expanded version of ‘Deconstructing Jesus: Separating Fact from Fiction,’ in
Contact 
 (December, 2009). Online:http://www.scribd.com/doc/23980972/Gordon-Conwell-Contact-Magazine-Winter-09.
2
Cf. Rollin G. Grams,
Rival Versions of Theological Enquiry
(Prague: International Baptist TheologicalSeminary, 2005).
3
Albert Schweitzer,
The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of its Progress from Reimarus toWrede
(Engl. ed., A. & C. Black, Ltd., 1910).
 
 2Deconstructive Postmodernism still touts the same alternatives to the resurrection thatModernity presented, whether a fabricated story or the belief that Jesus avoided death andlived out his days. There are some differences, however. Authors, publishers, andbookshops have learned how to make money by peddling conspiracy, secrecy, andscandal. Take, for example, the annual publications of Bart Ehrman:
Lost Christianities:The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew
(Oxford Univ. Press, 2005);
Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament 
(Oxford Univ. Press,2005);
The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: a New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed 
(OxfordUniv. Press, 2006);
Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why
(HarperOne, 2007);
God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer 
(HarperOne, 2008);
Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them)
(HarperOne, 2009).These works are not, moreover, aimed at Christians trained for ministry at anacademically solid seminary, who have really engaged the issues of textual criticism,Gnostic writings, the historical development of orthodox Christianity, and critical issuesof Scripture since their own seminary days. Ehrman rather seems intent on disturbing hisundergraduate students, deconstructing their faith, and leaving them with nothing. TheAthenian elders had Socrates drink hemlock for this, but in our day disturbing the youthis a lucrative and laudable exercise for some university professors.Consider just how one deconstructs Jesus in a Postmodern age.
4
 
Plurality
First, argue that, because orthodox Christianity was from the start only one amongseveral perspectives on Jesus, it is not a more credible perspective. Or, more boldly,argue that if a document is independent from the canonical Gospels, it must be earlier.Neither of these ways of reasoning is in the least logical. It is, of course, quite true thatfrom the very beginning there were any number of responses to Jesus. One way to readMark’s Gospel is to list the variety of responses to Jesus during His public ministry. Theidea that the first century initially had a single, solid, orthodox view of Jesus and onlyafterwards developed views reaching further and further away in heretical directions isclearly false. Views of Jesus in the first century were not like a tree trunk that onlypushed out branches at a later date. Yet the correct picture of how things developed willnot be the opposite--an upside down tree, with branches in all directions at the beginningand then a particular branch emerging from the mix that would be called ‘orthodoxy’.Rather, there was a ‘normative Christianity’ from the beginning that stood out among theother views of Jesus.
5
Five lines of argument are worth considering.
4
In addition to several works cited elsewhere in this article, see also Ben Witherington, III,
What HaveThey done With Jesus? Beyond Strange Theories and Bad History—Why we Can Trust the Bible
(NewYork: HarperOne, 2006); Darrell Bock and Daniel Wallace,
Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’sQuest to Unseat the Biblical Christ 
(Thomas Nelson, 2007).
5
Arland J. Hultgren,
The Rise of Normative Christianity
(Wipf & Stock Pub., 2004).
 
 3(1) When Tertullian (
Prescriptions Against Heresies
) gave thought to heresies in the latesecond century, he was able to say that churches known to have apostolic foundationswere not heretical. Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus at the end of the 2
nd
century, was easilyable to establish the history of bishops for the church he oversaw (Eusebius,
H.E.
5.24.2-7).(2) Our canonical Gospels present the testimony of eyewitnesses, as Richard Bauckhamably argues.
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 (3) Over against the view that Jesus did not see himself as the coming Messiah, N. T.Wright and others have convincingly argued that Jesus intended to bring about therestoration of Israel from exile in fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy.
7
The narrativeof Israel and its Old Testament grounding only affirms orthodox Christology over againstthe Gnostic misdirections of the second century.(4) When we look carefully at the means of preserving the tradition about Jesus, we seethat Form Criticism’s assumption of a long period of communities developing thetradition for a variety of purposes apart from eyewitnesses and Redaction Criticism’sassumption that these free floating stories about or sayings of Jesus (pericopae) wereeventually edited by late first century authors creates a false perspective on how closelytied the Gospels were to the events of Jesus’ life. As James Dunn has argued, thetradition was preserved with due care for accuracy.
8
Consider the important role of teachers in the community, the likely memorization of sayings of Jesus, the role of eyewitnesses in the community, the community’s valuing accurate memories of Jesus, theimportance of apostolic custodians of the Church’s tradition, the assumption by NewTestament authors of epistles that the churches knew traditions about Jesus,
9
the Gospels’historical interests in their choice of the genre of biography,
10
the tendency to check prophecy with tradition, a concern over ‘false prophets’, and the control that acommunity exercised on the right telling of a story by any story teller. Dunn concludeshis argument for the historical veracity of the Gospels’ tradition with the followingstatement:
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 … the differences introduced by the Evangelists, whether as oral diversity or literary editing, are consistently in the character of abbreviation and omission,
6
Richard Bauckham,
Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony
(Grand Rapids,MI: Eerdmans, 2006).
7
N. T. Wright,
Jesus and the Victory of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God 
, Vol. 2 (AugsburgFortress, 1997).
8
James D. G. Dunn,
Jesus Remembered, Christianity in the Making, Vol. 1
(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,2003).
9
Paul, Peter, and James alike do not quote but allude to Jesus’ life and sayings. See the list of allusions toJesus’ teaching in Paul, Peter, and James in Dunn,
Jesus Remembered,
footnotes 48 and 49 on p. 182.
10
For a thorough discussion of ancient biography and the Gospels’ genre, emphasising historicity, see theintroduction in Craig Keener,
The Gospel of John—A Commentary
, Vol. 1 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson,2004).
11
Dunn,
Jesus Remembered 
, p. 224.

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