Friday, 17 July 2015

More Lives of Jesus 10: Paul Barnett

There is a stunning amount of scholarship and pseudo-scholarship about Jesus in circulation, and the flow doesn't show any sign of letting up.  I guess with 2.4 billion people around the world identifying as Christian in some way, there's no shortage of interest in the subject.

Unlike the spate of recent writings on the subject, the sources of evidence are strictly finite.  There are documents - the writings of Jesus' first followers, plus scattered (generally brief) references in non-Christian contemporaries like Tacitus, Josephus or Celsus.  There is a wide range of contextual information from historians and archaeologists which can throw light on the meaning of these documents and against which they can be checked.

Yet out of this evidence, or out of the silences between the evidence, authors have produced a huge variety of pictures of Jesus - divine being, freedom fighter, charismatic prophet, cynic philosopher, even (as we shall see) a wholly imaginary person.  You can't help but think that these differences arise much more from what people bring to the evidence than from what they take from it.  As Albert Schweitzer wrote, "there is no historical task which so reveals a man's true self as the writing of a Life of Jesus".

So, Paul Barnett.  Barnett is a prominent Australian New Testament historian.  He has served as Anglican Bishop of North Sydney and taught at More College, the Sydney Anglican seminary.  Sydney is renowned worldwide as a bastion of evangelical Anglicanism, and Barnett is one of its senior leaders and teachers.  Of the writers I have reviewed so far he most resembles John Dickson, another Sydney Anglican.  However while Dickson writes simply, for a wide audience, Barnett is more scholarly and "difficult" - at least sometimes.

He has written a number of historical books about Jesus and first century Christianity, and I've just read two of them.  The first is called Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity: A History of New Testament Times, published in 1999.

Barnett's aim is to summarise and interpret the evidence he finds in the various early sources, with the New Testament as the primary source and other sources referred to to amplify, illuminate or complement this message.  Unlike more skeptical scholars, Barnett has a very 'high' view of the reliability of the New Testament books as historical documents.  He accepts the traditional authorship of the books, even those such as the pastoral epistles which most scholars at least regard as doubtful, and when there is debate about the date of composition he invariably opts for the earliest date.

He also has a good deal of faith in the factual accuracy of the authors and in particular the gospels.  His view is that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are examples of the Greek/Roman genre of biography.  This is not the same as modern biography, but is intended to provide a portrait of a prominent person, drawing on incidents from their life to illustrate their achievements and their character.  It would have been nice to know more about this but he doesn't expand on the basic point.  What kind of factual accuracy was expected of Roman biographers?  I'm no expert, but having read Plutarch my sense is that the stories about a person need not be strictly factual, provided they illustrate the character the biographer seeks to portray.  This is not history in the modern sense, but it is expected to provide a reasonably faithful (if often stylised) portrait of an historical person.

Barnett's method, and his view of the accuracy of his documents, leads him pretty naturally to a traditional view of Jesus and of the church.  He sees Jesus' miracles as factual events, his claim to be the Son of God as intended literally, his resurrection as an actual bodily return to life recorded by eyewitnesses, his ascension as something genuinely witnessed by the apostles.  There is no distinction here between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith - the documents of faith are also documents of history and traditional Christian belief, for Barnett, is the most natural and logical interpretation of the historical data.

However, Barnett is not quite an inerrantist.  For instance, at one point he discusses Luke's description of Joseph and Mary travelling to Bethlehem to take part in the census of Quirinius.  The problem is that this census took place in the year 12 CE, when Jesus would have already been at least 16 years old.  He does try out an explanation based on a convoluted reading of the original Greek and the idea of a series of censuses, but in the end he seems relaxed about the idea that Luke (or his source) may simply have made a mistake.

What's much more interesting is the way he takes the story on past Jesus' ascension to the birth and expansion of the early church.  There is a period of between 15 and 20 years between the incidents of Jesus' life and the writing of the earliest New Testament documents.  Barnett identifies the earliest of these as Paul's letter to the Galatians, written somewhere around 49 CE.  What was happening in these years?

Barnett ingeniously traces a sequence of events by bringing together Luke's account in the book of Acts and references in the various writings of Paul, Peter, James and John.  This allows him to do two things.

The first is to trace the development of early oral traditions about Jesus and the Christian faith.  Where the gospels bring together oral traditions relating to Jesus' life and teachings, Paul's writings incorporate a number of early statements of belief which Barnett suggests he learned from his first teachers and memorised in the manner of Jewish rabbinical instruction.  For instance, he interprets Paul's recital of the witnesses to the Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 as an early statement of belief, perhaps learned from Paul's first Christian teachers in Damascus.  This allows Barnett to trace belief in the Resurrection and in other doctrines like Jesus' divinity (expressed in the piece of oral teaching recorded in Philippians 2) to very early in the history of the church.

The second is to reconstruct the history of the first Christians.  He suggests that from their origin as a united group in Jerusalem the church developed a number of different subgroups.  Within the first couple of years there were already distinctions in the Jerusalem church between Aramaic-speaking and Greek-speaking Jewish Christians.  By the time the books of the New Testament were being written there were at least four distinct blocs within the church.

A more traditionally Jewish bloc focused around the Jerusalem church under the leadership of James, and was responsible for both James' epistle and the gospel of Matthew.  A group based in the Hellenistic Jewish diaspora in Palestine and further afield, looking to Peter is its main leader, was responsible for Mark's gospel and the epistles of Peter.  A third group looked to the leadership of John, who originally worked in partnership with Peter but later separated geographically and developed the distinctive theology of the Johannine writings - the gospel and epistles of John and the Book of Revelation.  Finally, a predominantly Gentile bloc was based in the churches founded by Paul and his assistants, and responsible for Paul's epistles as well as the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts.

In Barnett's view these groups were not necessarily at war and there were not firm barriers between them.  For instance, Peter speaks approvingly of Paul, while both Matthew and Luke borrow heavily from Mark.  Still, there were serious tensions between them.  This is shown clearly in Paul's critique of both James and Peter in Galatians, and less clearly in facts like Paul's decision not to visit Rome once he realised that Peter had beaten him to it, and the unexplained supplanting of Peter by James as leader of the Jerusalem church.  The result for Barnett is a core of agreement, expressed in the creedal statements, alongside significant differences in emphasis and different ways of expressing their faith.  From its earliest days, Christianity has incorporated debate and difference.  Why should it be different now?

It's a shame that Barnett didn't live out this spirit of diversity by engaging with the scholars who interpret the same data differently.  Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity barely mentions this scholarship - where it does it is in quick asides and variant views are briefly entertained and quickly dismissed.

However my second sample of his writings is, in a sense, more forthcoming.  It's a short book, written for a popular audience, called Gospel Truth: Answering the New Atheist attacks on the Gospels, published in 2012.  The title is self-explanatory - this is a work of apologetics aimed a refuting various claims made by atheist writers by deploying the scholarship displayed in his earlier work.

In Barnett's sights are the most prominent atheist boosters of the 21st century - Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins.  One of the tactics all of these writers employ is the idea that modern bible scholarship has "shown" or "proved" that the claims of traditional Christianity are unfounded.  Typical is his quote from Hitchens' God is Not Great saying that there is "no firm evidence whatsoever that Jesus was a 'character in history'" and that there is "little or no evidence for the life of Jesus".

I can understand Barnett's concern as a pastor and retired bishop to refute high profile attacks on his faith.  However, for a scholar like Barnett it is like shooting fish in a barrel.  If this Gang of Four share one thing other than their strident atheism it is the depth of their ignorance of the religions they critique.  Instead of making a serious study of the subject, they tend to leap on a half-understood fact or argument and work it for all it is worth.  Hence, Hitchens has read a book (The Jesus Myth by GA Wells, apparently) that suggests that Jesus is entirely mythical and since this suits his purposes he quotes it as fact.

Barnett duly runs rings around his putative (and absent) opponents, showing that there is indeed strong evidence for not only Jesus' existence but for many of the facts of his life as recorded in the gospels, reiterating his high view of their accuracy as works of history.  He uses this knowledge, and this confidence, as a stepping off point to do a little evangelism of his own.

Barnett's scholarship is certainly impressive, his grasp of detail is forensic.  Nonetheless, you can say the same of Geza Vermes or John Dominic Crossan, not to mention Albert Schweitzer, and each of them reach very different conclusions from their examination of much the same evidence.  Are these differences resolvable, or are they just part of the wonderful diversity of ways of seeing which has been with the church from its very beginning?
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