Friday, December 09, 2005

Getting It Backwards

Just the other day I was listening to the Diane Rehm Show on my local public radio station, WOUB FM. The guest that day was Bart Ehrman, the chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at one of my many almae matres, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Among other things, he discussed his study of the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament--a subject that is near and dear to my own heart, having studied much the same thing when I was a graduate student there in Classics.

He mentioned that when he began his studies he was something of a Bible-believin' Christian, for whom the factual accuracy, in particular, of the Scriptural texts was very important. As he studied the Greek manuscripts, however, he found out what many of us already knew: virtually no two of them are alike, and none of them is older than about the second or third century. (There are some papyrus scraps that are earlier, but no significant texts until quite late.) From his studies he drew an interesting inference: what we have in the New Testament does not capture the real, historical Jesus. This may have been the beginning of his falling-away from the Bible-based faith to which he once subscribed. Whether he is now a Christian of any sort is, I suppose, not something about which the rest of us can legitimately speculate.

There are so many scholars who fall into this category that it's not really worth commenting on when one discovers yet another, but this particular case does illustrate something that seems to me to be rather interesting: the direction of the inference from textual "integrity" to doctrinal surety is backwards. This is what happens when you start off from a sola scriptura point of view, after all: you put all your eggs into the textual basket, and when that basket turns out to be made of very loosely woven straw, everything falls apart all at once, and all of your eggs are broken. If you think of the New Testament texts in the proper way, however, as documents of the teaching Church, then this will not happen, because the authority for what you believe derives not from the putative authority of these texts alone, but from the authority that these texts have by virtue of having been produced by the real source of authority, the Magisterium.

Having been raised an atheist, I was never particularly tempted by the fundamentalist approach to Scriptural texts. By the time I began graduate school in classics, I was beginning to get interested in religion, but I was still a long way from thinking of the texts of Scripture as the sole source of authority in the religion. For me, the possibility that certain texts in the New Testament might be difficult to reconcile with each other was never a stumbling block to accepting the fundamental message of the Church. It doesn't strike me as any different from the texts of Plato: if it weren't for the dialogues of Plato, a single play of Aristophanes, a couple of texts from Xenophon, and a few other sources, we would have no reason to believe that there was ever such a person as Socrates. The dialogues of Plato, in particular, suggest that Socrates is just a name that Plato invented, and it would not be all that difficult to come away thinking that "Socrates" was just a placeholder in antiquity for some paradigmatic wisdom figure. But I don't know of any scholars who suggest any such thing: they all agree that Socrates was a real, historical figure, and they even agree that he was a philosopher who engaged in most of the activities that Plato and Xenophon describe him as engaging in.

But of course, few deny that Jesus was a real person, or that he was a teacher of some kind. What they dispute is the content of his teaching and, of course, the (historical) veracity of his "miracles". Folks also argue about the teachings of Socrates--many believe that most of what Plato wrote about Socrates reflects his own, rather than Socrates', philosophical views, or that they don't reflect anybody's views in particular, they're just views being put forward for discussion. There is, indeed, a danger in taking any ancient text too literally, or assuming too much about what its intentions and audience are. The more one knows about ancient texts, the less troubled one is going to be by textual problems in the New Testament.

If you're a fundamentalist, it's possible that, for you, the whole basket will unweave itself, and you will lose your faith (unless you're one of those weirdos who bend over backwards trying to show how everything comes out right in the end--arguing, for example, that the accounts of the Last Supper in John really can be harmonized with those in the Synoptics, if we just understand these words this way, those words this other way, etc.). If you're a Catholic, however, you will find that the doctrinal consistency of the Magisterium trumps these worries. Since the Magisterium produced the New Testament texts, but produced them within different cultures, different times and places, for different audiences, one is not surprised to find different emphases, different accounts, and different sorts of elaborations on the same, unified and consistent theme. You really can gain a world of expertise in textual exegesis and not lose your immortal soul.


djr said...

I'm fairly sure that a vast majority of the problems I have with the prospect of becoming a Christian derive from my experience in a fundamentalist high school, while most or all of the attractions I see in it derive from my experience in a Catholic elementary school and my experience in the Church.

That said, I do wonder about something:

...the authority for what you believe derives not from the putative authority of these texts alone, but from the authority that these texts have by virtue of having been produced by the real source of authority, the Magisterium.

The question is, I guess, how we determine that the Magisterium has this putative authority, if not from its harmony with the message of the Gospels?

I take the point that fundamentalists are at much greater risk than Catholics when it comes to the 'historicity' of the Gospels, but it still seems to me that any believer needs to have confidence in the veracity of the basic elements of the story, the ones that show up in the creed. Of course, one need not demand that the historic veracity of the event rely entirely on the reliability of the texts qua texts. But surely it would raise some problems if it seemed that central elements of the Gospels were inserted at a date well beyond the reliable memory of anyone who would have witnessed the events.

The danger, it seems to me, is that the justification will become circular, so that the Magisterium is justified by the texts, which are in turn justified by the Magisterium, which may have been responsible for inserting into the texts the elements that seem to support it, and so on. I'm not very clear about why claims about the authority of the Magisterium are any more well-founded than claims about the independent historical veracity of the Gospels.

The authority of text and of the institution of the Church are the two biggest obstacles I slam into whenever I think about the possibility of returning to the Church. Returning has begun to seem more appealing as I've discovered an affinity for the works of Catholic philosophers, but so far I'm still just dealing with the problems of the philosophy, as you know; the theological problems are something else entirely, and at least right now, I can't envision any way of reconciling them.

Vitae Scrutator said...

In my own opinion, at least (which may not be exactly congruent with the opinion[s] of this or that "officially trained" theologian), there will never be a problem of circularity. I don't worry about the Gospel texts circling around what the Magisterium teaches any more than I worry about contemporary science proving Genesis wrong. For me, it's just a non-starter.

The Creeds tell us what to believe by virtue of the Church's teaching charism, and the Gospels are supposed to reflect that, not vice-versa, in my view. So if someone were to suggest that the test needs to be a two-way test, I would say that the danger is not one of circularity but of heresy.

The Gospels, in my view, represent various stages in the development of doctrine as revealed to a wide variety of communities. So there are at least two levels at which differences in accounts are going to be observable: there will be differences due to the particular community being addressed, and there will be differences that are due to the various stages of doctrinal development that are represented.

For example, the Church teaches that God is Three in One, and this teaching has been very elaborately worked out over the centuries. It is fair to say that what Saint Anselm says about that teaching in his De processu Spiritus Sancti is about as full a treatment as one is going to get, and yet there is nothing even remotely like it anywhere in the New Testament. Does that mean that it is not consistent with the New Testament? Of course not, but of there, as you probably know, plenty of fundamentalist Protestants who reject the authority of someone like Anselm precisely because what he has to say is not contained in the NT in those ipsissima verba.

Now, if someone were to come along--someone, say, like John Shelby Spong, or someone like him--and start to teach things such as the Resurrection never happened, things that are clearly out of line with what the New Testament says, then that person, even if he were a Bishop, could be proven wrong using the New Testament, of course, but the test would not be merely a test based on the NT. In a case like that, the NT is just saying what the whole Magisterium says, and the fact that it is the NT itself that I appeal to, rather than, say, St. Anselm, is purely accidental. In other words, we can use either the New Testament or some other Magisterial text to test doctrinal development precisely because the teachings of the Magisterium are never logically orthogonal over time. The difficulty, it seems to me, arises only when we begin to think of the New Testament texts as somehow not a part of the Magisterium, that is, when we draw a false dichotomy between those texts and the other Magisterial texts.

Having said all that, I suppose that the problem you're facing right now goes much deeper, since to believe any of this would require a submission to the authority of the Church that you may not be prepared to make. I have to admit that it's not always easy for me to make it, either. Because if it isn't true that Christ performed miracles; if it isn't true that he rose from the dead; and I mean literally true; then the whole religion is just a bunch of bull. And it is difficult to believe those factual claims, even on the basis of alleged eyewitness testimony, since we all know that even very sincere, honest, and God-fearing people can think that they are eyewitnesses to things that are not as they appear to be.

So there does, in the end, have to be a "leap of faith", as they say--a leap, by the way, which the Church teaches is actually a supernatural event, since it can be accomplished only with divine help (grace). I can answer certain kinds of questions--why I myself believe this or that, or what this or that teaching means to me or why I think this or that argument fails or succeeds; but obviously I can't do what only God can do--give the divine aid needed for that leap. I believe he does give it to everyone, though--it's just a matter of finding the means to respond to it. That is largely something that each individual must learn to do on his or her own, but I do think that it is the job of the Church to help folks to do it, and I think of that as one very good reason to do my best to answer the questions--at least the ones I know how to answer!

Homily for Requiem Mass of Michael Carson, 20 November 2021

  Readings OT: Wisdom 3:1-6, 9 [2, short form] Ps: 25 [2] NT: Romans 8:31b-35, 37-39 [6] Alleluia verse: John 6:39 [...