Matthew Henry John Bartlett

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Friday 18 February, 02005

by Matthew Bartlett @ 8:21 am

On Wrightsaid, Rance D recently quoted his friend Peter thusly:

I am no historian of Jesus. I see a diminishing value in the endeavor. So there is where I might be parting company from Rance. I am a biblical studies person whose goal is to understand what biblical texts are communicating. One of the major principles of narrative exegesis is to interpret words, not events. That’s significant in view of the discussion on inerrancy also taking place on this “network.” I believe the Bible’s words are inspired, not its events. So why do so many people spend their time retelling events through their own ideological lenses so that, lo and behold, the Bible story says what they started out to make it say in the first place?
   I think questions analyzing what Jesus DID or what Jesus SAID in history are misplaced. How and why something happened are historians’ issues. Bible interpreters should not address them as though that’s what the Bible is doing. Rather, the only question we as Bible interpreters can answer with any sense of certainty is “Why are we being told this?” The only reliable data we have are the words of the Bible themselves. Bible interpreters should not aim to be historians in their interpretations. They should aim to be literary analysts. In the process some of our whys and hows will be answered, but most important, we will be learning what the writings’ words are trying to convey.
   That does not mean they should discount the historical credibility of the Bible’s stories. Neither should they ignore relevant historical backgrounds. It does mean they should exegete Bible passages so as to derive the messages the stories are designed to convey with their words.
   What does this have to do with Pharisees? With regard to Gospels, we should spend less time talking about Pharisees and Sadducees in history and more time talking about what role they play in the Gospel writers’ portraits of Jesus. In view of that, we should recognize that immediately, no matter which Gospel, they are antagonists. Why? Each Gospel shows in some way that they were jealous of the authority that they perceived Jesus stealing from them. Neither Pharisaism nor Sadducaism are directly under attack per se (though Jesus in all 3 synoptics does take a swipe at Sadducean denial of bodily resurrection, a denial corroborated by outside contemporary sources as well). Rather, their resistance to Jesus as God’s Messiah is. When we see Pharisees, as characters, appealing to their understanding of the law in their various confrontations with Jesus, we should be most interested in their resistance to Jesus and how it is met.
   That falls more in line with the literary purposes of Gospel as Greco-Roman “life” (i.e. biography). To try to see Jesus attacking Pharisaism as legalistic is to read into the text an idea foreign both to the words of the text and the world it is describing.
   Also, by the way, Paul never repents from being a Pharisee. In his letters he voices ho problems with Pharisaism. Paul does show repentence from being a persecutor of the church. He does say that being a Pharisee is nothing worth bragging about compared to knowing Christ.

4 responses to “”

  1. Aaron says:

    I thought this was an appalling piece. It’s nonsense to suggest that the “reasons we are being told this” have nothing to do with what *actually happened*, or, to put it perhaps more charitably, can be understood without reference to what actually happened. The Jesus of history, of which we are informed by the scriptures, is the Jesus of *history*, not of some mere ‘intention’ or, even worse, vain fancy, on the part of the various biblical writers.

    And the difference, I suggest, between ‘intention’ and ‘vain fancy’ is not one that Peter will be able to maintain, for so long as he refuses to integrate questions of history with the intentionality of the text.

    The authors wrote precisely because God had *done* something in history. Now, their view of the significance of that will inform what and how they wrote – which is why, indeed, we should be concerned to establish what they were trying to communicate.

    But to write, as I believe Peter has, in has a way as to force a choice between history one the one hand and the text (or, the intention carried in the text) on the other is the *worst* way to defend good interpretation.

    Not only that, but such a view is utterly false *historically* (o, the irony!) – as in, it completely forgets how the text itself was originally received. For, the texts were written to people *immersed* in the very history and events from which they spring, and by which they are informed. To suggest to the original readers, as Peter would require – having laid down universal text-reading principles – that they set aside all they know about the context, background, detail, and events of 1st century Israel, in order to read the gospels and letters of the apostles ‘faithfully’, would no doubt get you the most peculiar looks. Deservedly.

    In my humble opinion!

  2. dennisb says:

    I thought you guys reconned N.T. as the font of all perception & wisdom !

  3. dennisb says:

    mum says “I thought you were illiterate for Lent”!

  4. *Insert sarcastic, witty yet suitably respectful replies to parents here*

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