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Appeal to Authority

By:  Erick Nelson
Last Updated:  January 4, 2002

The proponents of the MG Theory are not typically concerned primarily with establishing it on rigorous terms, they are concerned with enlightening the public regarding the results of work already done.  In short, they believe, in a very general way, that Historical Criticism has already provided the foundation necessary to move forward.  And, as I try to briefly describe below, it is this mantra - "Historical Criticism"  - that is invoked as the warrant for the entire theory.

Historical Criticism

Yet the history of Historical Criticism has been anything but such a smooth path.  This area has been, in fact, one of the most turbulent areas of study in the last century.  It has been, and continues to be, highly charged with controversy. 

In the earlier days of this discipline, one of the pioneers was Rudolph Bultmann.  Bultmann was quite clear that he makes the foundational assumption, based on a prior philosophical commitment, that miracles cannot occur.  He thus classifies such accounts as myth, and seeks to peel them away to find an existentialist core meaning of the gospels.  This approach has been rightly criticized for circular reasoning.  Bultmann ignored that which he didn't want to believe, looked for that which he wanted to find, and thus - not surprisingly - found it!

Now, it is clearly risky to deny the foundational premise of a system while keeping its conclusions.  (This has been called the "castle in the sky" fallacy.)  But scholars such as Borg, who seem to be much more lenient about extraordinary events such as healings, etc., continue to accept these conclusions, and even build their own cases on them.

To make matters worse, the scholars themselves speak with "many voices" about what's known for sure, what's in dispute, and what can't be known.

Yin and Yang

Consider my own case.  I am aware of the theologians and N.T. scholars, of the early twentieth century, both "liberal" and "conservative."  I have known people who swore that the demythologizing programs of Form Criticism and Redaction Criticism were the last word in scholarship, that the "old views" had been simply proven to be false. 

And now, Spong says that a better name for "liberal" would be "open" or "realist."  Spong, Borg, and Crossan certainly come across as saying "This is the way it is.  Period.  Live with it."  I will offer some quotes, below, which support this impression.

Yet, in earlier days, I was able to personally meet with and talk to F.F. Bruce (no mean scholar), Donald Guthrie (who's voluminous Introduction to the New Testament stands as a well-reasoned and -researched work).  I also studied under, and worked with John Warwick Montgomery, who is not a New Testament scholar but is a world-class thinker who holds more earned degrees than I care to type.  Now, these guys - along with books and articles by R.T. France, John A.T. Robinson (a famous liberal), Edwin Yamauchi, and many others -  assured me that the results of this kind of scholarship were flawed, actually in many areas flat-out wrong.

And now, current scholars such as Mark Allan Powell (also quoted below), caution me that the MG scholars are not speaking from the "assured results of modern scholarship", that in many cases they do not represent the consensus of New Testament scholarship at all.  And in some cases (e.g. Spong's reliance upon Michael Goulder) they take up the banner of a fringe opinion.

Appeal to Authority

Now, which is it?!  I have to say, as an outsider, that this is a very peculiar state of affairs.  The only conclusion I can reach is that if Historical Criticism does indeed prove the MG Theory is true, it itself stands in need of such proof.  And when, for instance, I asked Dr. Borg for specific books to read that specifically prove the MG theory by appeal to internal and external evidence, he replied that he didn't know of any such books.  In order to examine this such, then, I presumably need to read the entire corpus of works on Historical Criticism and pick out these arguments for myself.

Thus, this appears to me to be simply an Appeal to Authority - ironically, the very thing the MG scholars criticize their opponents for.

Historical Criticism

Bishop John Shelby Spong is clear in the introductions to his books that he is trying to present the results of rigorous scholarship to the public in an understandable way.  Certainly, he thinks that current scholars are still adding to the compendium of knowledge, but he believes that modern scholars have laid the big issues to rest.

Marcus Borg explicitly attributes the analysis of the meaning of the first century texts to a disciple called "Historical Criticism."  This is variously called "Higher Criticism" and several corresponding German names.  He lists the components as:

Borg says:

By "historical approach", I mean all the methods that are relevant to discerning the ancient historical meanings of the biblical texts.  The chief concern of the historical approach is the past-tense question, "What did this text mean in the ancient historical setting in which it was written?"  (RBA p 37-38)

What It Is  The historical approach includes the traditional methods of source criticism, form criticism, radaction criticism, and cononical criticism.  It also includes more recent interdisciplinary methods of historical study.
    The focus of a historical approach is twofold:  the historical meaning of a text in its historical context.  (RBA p 39)

. . . historical criticism treats only the ancient meaning of the text. . . "What did this text mean in and for the ancient community that produced it?"  (RBA p 40)

Critical thinking in the form of historical criticism sees the story of the virginal conception of Jesus as a continuation of the theme of special births from the Hebrew Bible.  It is aware that the story of the special star and the wisemen bringing gifts is not history but rather is almost certainly Matthew's literary creation based on Isaiah 60.  It knows that Jesus was most likely born in Nazareth and not Bethlehem, and so forth.  (RBA p 51)

This is why the MG scholars do not carefully present all the evidence for their view.  They believe it has already been established in another forum.

Modern New Testament Criticism and Seminaries

To put it mildly, the views taught in many (not all) seminaries are distinctly at odds with traditional Christianity, and have been for decades.  In the sixties and seventies, many ministers wrestled with the tension between the simple faith of their parishioners and the more sophisticated views they themselves had come to hold as a result of their training.  Even today, the results of commonly-accepted scholarship are presumably so obscure  to the average "person in the pew" that Robert Funk organized the "Jesus Seminar" to bring such views to public attention.

Borg - Taught in Seminaries

One who at first lost his faith, and then adapted, was Marcus Borg.  He gives the best thumb-nail sketch of this seminary experience I know of.

"There [at seminary] I learned that the image of Jesus from my childhood -- the popular image of Jesus as the divine savior who knew himself to be the Son of God and who offered up his life for the sins of the world -- was not historically true. That, I learned, was not what the historical Jesus was like.

The basis for this mind-boggling realization was the understanding of the gospels that has developed over the last two hundred years of biblical scholarship. I learned that the gospels are neither divine documents nor straightforward historical records. . . . Nor are they eyewitness accounts written by people who had accompanied Jesus and simply sought to report what they had seen and heard.

Rather, I learned, the gospels represent the developing traditions of the early Christian movement. Written in the last third of the first century, they contain the accumulated traditions of early Christian communities and were put into their present forms by second- (or even third-) generation authors. Through careful comparative study of the gospels, one can see these authors at work, modifying and adding to the traditions they received. ...

It is not so much that memories grew dim, or that the oral tradition was unreliable. Rather, two primary factors were at work. First, the traditions about Jesus were adapted and applied to the changing circumstances of the early Christian movement. Jesus himself spoke in a Palestinian Jewish milieu. The gospels were written in and for communities that had begun to move beyond Palestine and into the larger Mediterranean world, and the gospel writers adapted the materials about Jesus to these new settings. Second, the movement's beliefs about Jesus grew during those decades. We can see that growth by arranging the gospel material chronologically, from earlier to later writings.. . .

The gospels are the products of communities experiencing these developments. As such, they contain not only the movement's memories of the historical Jesus, but those memories added to and modified by the growing beliefs and changing circumstances of the movement. Thus the gospels are the church's memories of the historical Jesus transformed by the community's experience and reflection in the decades after Easter. They therefore tell us what these early Christian communities had come to believe about Jesus by the last third of the first century. They are not, first and foremost, reports of the ministry itself.

This understanding of the gospels is the basis for the well-known scholarly distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith . . . namely, what Jesus became in the faith of the early Christian communities in the decades after his death." (Borg, Meeting J, p8-10)

Borg, as a first-year seminarian, was authoritatively told that after two hundred years of rigorous scholarship, certain things had been firmly established:

As Marcus Borg has so clearly described, these seminary students are told that Jesus simply never claimed to be more than a mere man, that many of the gospel stories simply never happened, that many of Jesus' sayings were never said by him, and that his body certainly never came back to life on Easter.

Powell:  Thinking, Not Propaganda    

Dr. Mark Allan Powell, Professor at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus Ohio and currently head of the Historical Jesus section of the Society of Biblical Literature, sent me this response to the above in an attempt to round out the picture.  He stresses that the proper role of the teacher at seminary is not to indoctrinate but to introduce ideas for critical review.

Regarding Borg's four points: 

  1. Jesus simply never claimed to be more than a mere man
  2. many of the Gospel stories simply never happened
  3. many of Jesus’ sayings were never said by him
  4. his body certainly never came back to life on Easter

he says: 

"I want to add some important caveats about seminary education, however, and I hope that I do not come off as too defensive in doing so (being a seminary professor myself). The theological professors who I know do not present these points as “assured results” or even as “commonly accepted scholarship.” Any professor who did so (and, unfortunately, there probably are some who do) would be regarded as irresponsible by his or her peers. The issue, rather, is to present such points as “matters of debate,” and to challenge students to engage in theological discourse regarding them.  

Two examples: 1)  I do not personally agree with any of the four points, but I regularly present all four of them to my students as views that are held by some highly respected scholars (like Borg) who also identify themselves as Christians. I want my students to consider whether such views could possibly be correct, and how it is that a professing Christian can hold them. 2) Marcus Borg holds all four views to be correct and I’m sure he argues for them, but I know for a fact that he also tells his students that there are highly respected scholars who disagree with him (in fact, he uses one of my books as a required text, just as I use one of his). The point in every case is for people in an academic program to engage a diversity of opinion and to formulate responses to it.

There is, of course, a world of difference between a professor requiring students to understand a particular argument and requiring students to agree with that position. To my thinking, it is completely appropriate for a professor to expect theology students to be able to articulate why some prominent theologians believe such things as the items on Borg’s list. It would be irresponsible for the professor to require students to subscribe to those views, or to fail to inform the students of arguments that have been raised contrary to the position the professor favors. 

The Roots of Historical Criticism

Dr. Powell also provided a nice synopsis of the Bultmannian roots of modern-day criticism.  (I divided his statements up into smaller paragraphs.)  He says:

"Mythology: Rudolf Bultmann proposed in the 1940's that the New Testament Gospels sometimes make use of “mythological language.” His views remain controversial but many modern scholars accept the basic premise--the real debate (again) concerns when and where such language is used. 

I find it helpful to note that Christians still use what Bultmann called “mythological language” today. For instance, when Christians confess in the Apostles Creed that Christ is “seated at the right hand of the Father”--or when an evangelical Christians says “Jesus lives in my heart.” They are using language that is not literally accurate from a scientific perspective (“mythological” is not so much the opposite of “literal” as it is the opposite of “scientific”). If astronauts go into space they will not find Jesus sitting there, or if a doctor cuts open a heart, she will not find a little Jesus inside of it. 

But what language in the NT is mythological? Bultmann thought that pretty much everything that defies scientific explanation (including all of the miracles and the resurrection of Jesus) should be classed as “mythological.” By calling such material “mythological,” furthermore, he meant to infer that the events did not actually happen in history (thus, “mythological” also becomes the opposite of “historical”).

Today, most scholars would grant that certain stories in the New Testament may be mythological--the prime example is the temptation of Jesus by Satan recorded in Matthew 4:1-11. If someone had been there with a camcorder, what would they have been able to capture on film? Many--not all--scholars assume that the events reported in Matthew 4:1-11 took place in Jesus’ mind, such that a camcorder would only show Jesus meditating and praying–the story of Jesus conversing with the devil and the two of them traveling to the pinnacle of the temple, etc. offers a “mythological description” of Jesus’ internal struggle with tempting thoughts. Of course, not everyone agrees. But be that as it may, most scholars would be reticent to describe the miracle accounts as “myths”--even scholars who think the miracles did not actually occur.

The stories could be exaggerations or outright falsehoods, but (unlike the temptation account) the miracles are reported in the same style and with the same language as other historical events. It seems obvious to most scholars (contra Bultmann) that the biblical writers were not simply trying to convey “existential truths” (Bultmann’s favorite term) but wanted us to believe that these events literally happened."


It appears from the above that there is not really a rock-solid consensus about the proper results of Historical Criticism.  What one person considers settled, another considers up in the air, and another considers to already be an outmoded view.

It is clear to me that a simple appeal to "Historical Criticism" does not magically sweep the issue away.  We need to see the reasons why we should believe the MG Theory.  We should not simply be subjected to this Appeal to Authority.