Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Some Brief Thoughts Regarding Liberal Scholarship, Redaction Criticism, and Islam (Part 1)
03/26/2012 - James WhiteBetween 1985 and 1989 I studied through Fuller Theological Seminary. While some of my professors were conservative, most were far to my left, and the reading assignments exposed me to the full range of form and redaction criticism that is the "given" in today's realm of Christian scholarship. I can tell you, without hesitation, that the vast majority of those who embrace form and redaction criticism in all of its flavors and kinds do so out of tradition, not out of having examined the case set forth in defense of these methods. In fact, very, very few of those who glibly repeat the party line have ever even given thought to any other viewpoint. Anyone who thinks there is a fair, open dialogue in "the academy" over these topics is simply misinformed. To "get ahead" in Christian scholarship you must---not should, MUST---toe the line when it comes to the acceptance of form and redaction criticism, along with its underlying presuppositions, presuppositions that are almost never explained, let alone debated, today.
My study at Fuller (and at times, I truly wondered why the Lord had closed all other doors and put me in that context, but, now I know) forced me to consider deeply why I could not in good conscience embrace the "status quo" of modern NT scholarship. My apologetic work pushed me to examine the presuppositions, the starting points, of the scholars I was reading, and I found, over and over again, the same kind of bald anti-supernaturalism at work, even amongst those who did not openly espouse such a view in their "religious life." That is, I found many schizophrenics who would stand in a pulpit on Sunday and still say "this is the Word of the Lord" while on Monday they would stand before a classroom of ministerial students and assure them that Paul contradicted Paul, Moses may not have actually existed, and that we have little more than a theoretical basis for knowing what Jesus actually said. This kind of double-mindedness was epidemic in Christian theology then. It is still quite prevalent, but in the past decade more and more have shed the religious trappings and are seeking to be consistent, not even bothering with the religious garb any longer.
During seminary I would challenge (respectfully, my professors will affirm) various assertions as they were made. When I heard men saying the gospels were quite late, post AD 70, for example, I would ask why they would date them so late (and, as a result, deny the eyewitness authorship of, say, Matthew). Most would simply say that such and such a scholar does, and they follow that person, but when I would press for a fuller answer, the worldview issue would come to the fore. Well, we would date them late because…of theories. Theories about how documents develop (in the natural world). Theories about how the early church developed (based upon, again, how such things happen in the natural world). And of course the big reason was…they had to have been written after AD 70 because, well, they couldn't have been written before otherwise they would contain…prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem! And we all know prophecy doesn't really exist, so there! For the vast majority of seminary graduates, the late dating of the gospels is just a given. Why they are dated so late was rarely discussed, and even more rare would be an open and upfront acknowledgment of the role of presuppositions (and the predominance of a naturalistic worldview in scholarship, yes, even in Christian scholarship, which has been deeply infected with a Lordship crippling desire to be admired in the eyes of secular scholarship) in the creation of the "scholarly consensus." I only learned later in seminary and after graduation how confident scholarship had been in the past in giving even later dates, German scholarship, for example, having dated John as late as AD 175, only to have those dates thrown to the wind by manuscript discoveries. In brief, I learned that simply "going with the flow" when it comes to the "consensus of scholarship," especially in a day when humanism and naturalistic materialism has become the religious dogma of the society, and of higher education, is not an option for the faithful follower of the teachings of Jesus the Messiah.
In my recent debate with Shabir Ally, this matter came up frequently, as I knew it would. Anyone listening to my opening statement who has a knowledge of the apologetic approach of Shabir Ally knows that I made my presentation specifically with the context I would be speaking in in mind. I firmly believe that Shabir did not respond to my presentation to any depth at all, for he gave the same presentation he has given many times before, and even in his rebuttal he did not engage the heart of the argument I made. I don't believe he did so because, with all due respect to Imam Ally, indeed, Dr. Ally, I do not believe he possesses either a full and accurate knowledge of the Trinity itself (his arguments show this) nor a sound or accurate knowledge of the field of New Testament studies as it bears upon the difference between approaching the text as a supernaturalist or doing so from another perspective. So while the weight of my presentation may have been lost on him as a result, that does not change the relevance of the argument I made.
Time does not allow me to go as fully as I would like into the subject, but I would like to touch upon a few items for the benefit of my readers. One of the issues that came up was a question I asked Shabir in our first debate at Biola in 2006. For years Shabir Ally had been making a presentation wherein he presents the "snowball" argument. It is a basic anti-gospel argument based upon a rather simplistic viewpoint of the origination of the gospels. Assuming a particular schema for dating the gospels, Shabir assumes that Matthew and Luke both possessed the text of Mark, and were editing the text to suit their own purposes. I would ask him how that would work, for, of course, if they possessed Mark, so did others, and, if they changed Mark's wording, wouldn't that cause obvious problems when they sought to make their resultant literary works available to the very same community? But that issue aside, Shabir thinks there is an over-riding impetus on the part of both Matthew and Luke to "grow" Jesus, assuming, of course, an evolution in the development of Christology (another assumption that is just accepted, never proven). So, Matthew and Luke are looking for ways to "improve" on Jesus---which puts them in the category of deceivers, really, at the very least from an Islamic viewpoint, but again, we will leave that aside for the moment.
For years Shabir would present the following two texts as one of his examples of where Matthew was "growing" Jesus:
"Therefore, be on the alert-- for you do not know when the master of the house is coming, whether in the evening, at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning-- (Mark 13:35)
"Therefore be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming. (Matthew 24:42)
Shabir would tell his audiences that here is an example of how Mark has a "lower" term for Jesus, "master," while Matthew has "elevated" Jesus by calling him "Lord." You can find these presentations still all over the Internet, on YouTube, etc. During our debate I pointed out to him that in fact Mark uses the same Greek term Matthew did, as a comparison of the Greek text demonstrates:
γρηγορεῖτε οὖν· οὐκ οἴδατε γὰρ πότε ὁ κύριος τῆς οἰκίας ἔρχεται, ἢ ὀψὲ ἢ μεσονύκτιον ἢ ἀλεκτοροφωνίας ἢ πρωΐ,
Γρηγορεῖτε οὖν, ὅτι οὐκ οἴδατε ποίᾳ ἡμέρᾳ ὁ κύριος ὑμῶν ἔρχεται.
Now, on the simple fact of his presentation and its error, there can be no doubt. But after the debate Shabir attempted to argue that "master of the house" is still different than Matthew's "Lord." Of course, Shabir did not know that Mark used the Greek term κύριος (kurios) when he was making his presentations before 2006, but he does now. But still, in our debate in Toronto, he argued that in fact this is still an example supportive of his thesis, no matter what his understanding had been before, for "lord of the house" is still different from "Lord." He likewise cited a scholar who, writing on the "synoptic problem," likewise mentions this "change."
Now, I mention this information for the purpose of illustration. If you assume simplistic literary dependence (that is, Matthew was sitting there with a copy of Mark, seeking to change Mark's version, improve on it, add to it, alter it, fit it to his own understandings), then you are forced to attempt to peer into Matthew's mind and see how his version (which, you might have noted, is much shorter than Mark's as a whole) is meant to be an improvement of Mark's words. But the reality is, there is no "snowball" in "changing" Mark's longer text to Matthew's shorter text. All Matthew has done has been to abbreviate the discussion, just as Matthew does in the majority of instances when he and Mark are discussing the same topic. There is no evolution, there is no "snowball." You can theorize all you want, but it is just as easy to theorize that Mark was written after Matthew and he is filling out Matthew's all too brief description! Theories work that way.
But let's talk about how this text could be seen in a very different fashion. Let's admit something: We do not know when any of the gospels were written. They have no date stamps on them. If we examine the internal material of the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) without naturalistic biases, we would have to conclude they were written between 35 and about 65 AD (i.e., after the crucifixion but prior to the opening of hostilities leading to the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in AD 70). As Richard Bauckham has pointed out (and his role in our debate was most interesting, and again illustrated that I really do not believe Dr. Ally understands my point on this matter), the eyewitnesses to the events of the gospel continued in the church for many decades, forming a very important core element of the continuation of the gospel message. Let's look at the above text in a way that, I would assert, would be consistent with a supernaturalist worldview, consistent with the author's worldview, and, likewise, consistent with the worldview promoted by the Qur'an and belief in its teachings.
The gospel story began to be proclaimed by the eyewitnesses and the first generation of believers immediately after Pentecost. It spread like wildfire, turning the world upside down. It spread both by zeal as well as by persecution. The oral tradition of the church was the context out of which the gospels themselves were written. The gospel writers were fully aware of that tradition. They were not seeking to supplant it, but to organize it and preserve it in yet another form. This oral tradition, something shared by the entire community, is the source out of which they drew their narrative. While Luke specifically makes mention of written sources, he does so in the context of research and verification, not in the context of bare, simplistic editing and redaction. If we assume that Matthew and Mark are not liars, that they are not dishonest men, and that they are seeking to communicate a message faithfully, drawing from the tradition known to them, we conclude, upon examination of numerous texts such as the above, that 1) Mark has an over-riding intention to communicate to a primarily non-Jewish audience the acts of Jesus that demonstrate that He was the Son of Man, a powerful prophet who claimed the very authority of God on earth, and who, at His crucifixion, identified himself with that divine being seen in Daniel 7. Mark gives fuller accounts of almost every incident in the life of Jesus than Matthew does, but, he does not narrate Jesus' teaching (making his gospel the shortest and fastest moving). 2) Matthew is following the same tradition as Mark, but he is writing for a different audience, and hence includes a tremendous amount of Jesus' teachings. But, since he had a size limitation in mind just as the others, when it comes to the actions of Jesus over against the narration of His teachings, he tends to be more brief, telescoping narratives that he shares in common from the oral tradition, abbreviating and summarizing.
With this in mind, we look at the above text and find that it is not at all surprising, but in fact fits perfectly into the understanding just presented. That is, Matthew has given the brief version of the line, speaking merely of the need to be ready, for you never know when the Lord will return. But Mark gives the fuller version, both drawing from the same oral tradition and content. There is no need to even theorize about Matthew's reasons for messing with Mark, since, he didn't! He was simply summarizing the same material Mark gives in a fuller version. There is no basis for asserting any dishonesty on anyone's part; no reason for finding evidences of redaction or change. Instead, we can see that both are giving us perfectly proper renditions of the same incident and the same words, one in fuller form than the other, both seeking to communicate the same concept, though to two different audiences.
The irony is, of course, that this is exactly the kind of viewpoint Shabir Ally would require us to adopt in examining parallel passages in the Qur'an. Well, at least to the extent that he would ask us to allow for the possibility first and foremost that the text is harmonious with itself, and that there is no reason to assert deception, dishonesty, or redaction. He would not have the same kind of historical situation to appeal to as far as a persecuted church, eyewitnesses, etc., though he would undoubtedly make reference to the companions of Muhammad, etc. But he would resist the impulse to default to the naturalistic approach and naturalistic conclusions. He would not wish us to begin with the assumption of error and inconsistency on the part of the Qur'an, yet his entire argument against the gospels does just that. When he defaults to Brown or others like him, who themselves operate solely in the realm of redaction and simply dismiss as out dated and irrelevant the need to harmonize (not on a surface level, but on a much deeper level that is consistent with meaningful historical inquiry), he is doing the very thing he cannot allow to be done when it comes to the Qur'an. And this is the continued inconsistency of Shabir Ally, an inconsistency that he has imbibed from those who have come before him.