New Testament Interpretation in the Real World

New Testament Interpretation in the Real World

by Lydia McGrew
September, 2017

New Testament scholars are particularly prone to ivory tower disease. A symptom of this disease is that one interprets one’s subject matter texts (in this case, the books of the New Testament) without any reference to the ways in which people behave in the real world. This leads to a preference for convoluted redactive, literary theories over far more probable theories such as, “This author had additional information” or “This author remembered the wording at this point slightly differently from the other author,” or “This author was not attempting to give an explicit chronology but was just relating events that happened at around the same time,” and so forth. Recently I have been realizing that some Roman historians have ivory tower disease as well–a subject on which I will have a lot more to say in later posts.

Ivory tower disease leads to a lot of silly statements, and for some reason John the Evangelist comes in for many of the worst of these. For example, here is the influential classicist (who also does New Testament studies) Richard Burridge throwing John under the bus as an accurate reporter and doing so by way of dubious generalizations about ancient people and the concept of truth:

We must not transfer these modern concepts to ancient texts without considering their understandings of truth and myth, lies and fiction. To modern minds, ‘myth’ means something untrue, a ‘fairy-story’; in the ancient world, myth was the medium whereby profound truth, more truly true than mere facts could ever be, was communicated. The opposite of truth is not fiction, but lies and deception; yet even history can be used to deceive, while stories can bring truth. This issue of truth and fiction in the ancient world is too complex to cover in detail here. However, the most important point to remember is that the ancients were more interested in the moral worth and philosophical value of statements than their logical status, in truth more than facts….Unfortunately, the debate between so-called ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ about authenticity is often conducted in twenty-first-century terms. As one student asked me, ‘Why does John keep fabricating material about Jesus despite his expressed concern for the “truth”?’ However, the negative connotation of ‘fabrication’ is modern. Four Gospels, One Jesus? A Symbolic Reading, pp. 169-170

I say, without qualification, that this is all nonsense and that we have no evidence whatsoever that John thought this way. Richard Burridge may think this way, but we have abundant evidence that John the Evangelist had no such weaselly, semi-post-modern notions to the effect that garden-variety facts are dispensable in the service of higher truth. Yet one runs across these sorts of mealy-mouthed, sweeping generalizations about “ancient people,” the Gospel authors, and often John in particular, far too often.

I’m also struck by how pernicious this is. What this quotation tells us is that Richard Burridge is out there teaching his students that John “keeps fabricating material about Jesus” but that this is okay because he didn’t have our modern hangups. He’s also trying to inoculate his students against a straightforward interpretation of John’s earnest affirmations that he’s speaking the truth. Which, quite frankly, is outrageous.

Burridge’s previous chapter in this book is about John, and I want to go back to that chapter and just pick one example that is all too typical of the difficulty scholars seem to have with the real world. When describing the Last Supper as told in John, Burridge says this:

Two other figures at the Last Supper attract our attention. Peter was brought to Jesus by his brother, rather than being called directly, and Jesus renames him immediately, rather than after his confession (cp. 1:42 with Matt. 16.18). (p. 157)

In case you aren’t following that, Burridge is insinuating that these are instances where John, without any actual warrant in those pesky, non-fictional facts, changed things up a bit in order to, I dunno, make some higher-level point. Whatever that might be.

The first fictional alteration is supposed to be that Peter is called first directly by Jesus in the synoptics (e.g., Mark 1:16ff) but that, supposedly in contrast, Peter is brought to Jesus by his brother Andrew first in John 1:40-42. The second is supposed to be that Jesus gives Simon Bar-Jonah the nickname “Peter” for the first time (!) in Matthew 16:18 after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, but does so for the first time when he first meets him upon their introduction by Andrew in John 1:42.

As to the first of these, I won’t go on at length. Hint: Despite all the Sunday school stories you heard and what they implied or stated, the synoptics never say that Jesus had never met Peter and Andrew prior to the famous “Follow me” scene. Indeed, their readiness to follow him may be well explained by the fact that they had already known him for some time through the early Judean ministry recorded in John.

It’s the second I want to say more about. I was inspired by it to feel that Richard Burridge, though for all I know he may be a very nice guy, doesn’t seem to have ever known anyone with a nickname, given anyone a nickname, or lived with anyone who has a nickname. Has he never had a child with a nickname? A good friend?

Why in the world, in the name of the real world, would Burridge assume that Jesus’ statement in Matthew 16:18 is the first timethat Jesus has mentioned this nickname to Simon the son of Jonah? Here is the passage:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. Matthew 16:13-18

I’m quite happy to acknowledge the obvious fact that this is much later in Jesus’ ministry than the instance in John 1:42, which occurs when Jesus is in Judea apparently after having been baptized by John and (most probably) after his temptation in the wilderness, before his first Galilean ministry. Here is how that passage goes:

One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter). (John 1:40-42)

This is, quite plausibly, the first time that Jesus dubbed Simon Bar-Jonah with the nickname “Cephas” and/or “Peter.”

But there is not the remotest indication in Matthew 16 that that was the first time Jesus gave such a nickname to Simon. As a matter of fact, Matthew calls him “Peter” repeatedly earlier in that Gospel! It isn’t impossible that Matthew would have called him that at points in the narrative voice even before the dubbing actually took place, but it is surely some indication, and a much stronger indication than Burridge’s unargued assumption that Matthew 16:18 is, according to Matthew, the first time Jesus gave him that name!

There is clearly some sort of pun on the word “rock” going on in the Matthew passage, and Protestants and Catholics regularly duke it out over what the “rock” was upon which Jesus would build his church. Whatever one concludes about that, it’s undeniable that Jesus is making a play of some sort on the nickname “Petros” and the word “rock.” Which leads me again to ask: Has Burridge never had a dear friend with a nickname? Has he no idea how natural it is, in a happy company of friends or in a close-knit family, to bring up the nickname repeatedly, to use it, to make elaborate puns with it, to make jokes about it, even to drag it in quite unnecessarily?

Certainly there is something quite deliberate about Jesus’ words to Peter here, something rather formal. He does indeed start out with his original name–Simon bar-Jonah–and then says, “You are Peter.” Fine and dandy. But why take that to mean that this is the first, original dubbing? This is the kind of thing people say. Mothers and fathers, in particular, love giving their children their full, formal names and then making a transition to a nickname. “Simon bar-Jonah, you’re the (small) Rock, and upon this (big) Rock I will build my church.” Etc. We can argue all day about what Jesus meant, but there is nothing in his formally using “Simon bar-Jonah” and then bringing in “Petros” and telling Peter pointedly that that is his name that requires us to think that this was the first dubbing with “Peter.” And evidence to the contrary: The narrative in Matthew and, y’know, John. Because John’s narrative is evidence that the initial dubbing took place earlier, and if one is not befuddled by Ivory Tower Syndrome one makes the natural move of quite easily bringing together the two narratives and concluding that Jesus first dubbed Simon bar-Jonah as “Peter” early on, upon their first meeting, and that he brought the nickname back up in a deliberate fashion upon the occasion of Peter’s solemn affirmation that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the living God. One gets confused about this only if one is looking under every rock (pun intended) for lame excuses to conclude that John, not being burdened with our modern notions of factual accuracy, made up an earlier dubbing for vague literary or theological reasons. Or, if one happens to feel like throwing Matthew under the bus that day, that Matthew made up a later dubbing. Or heck, maybe they both made up both scenes and we have no idea when or whether Simon bar-Jonah was dubbed “Peter.” Because after all, “the negative connotation of ‘fabrication’ is modern.”

This is just one tiny sample of what you will encounter all day long if you read much New Testament scholarship. And this is a pretty good example of how poor the arguments are. So next time someone, using his “expert credentials,” tells you all about those ancient guys and their higher views of truth and how that freed them from attempting boring old factual accuracy, bear this example in mind, and question the meme.

Burridge, by the way, is having quite a bump of influence among evangelicals right now. I suggest that this sort of thing should make us seriously question his hermeneutical and historical judgement. Having an imagination infused with common sense, based on everyday knowledge of the real world, should be a prerequisite for being a highly respected expert on what the disciples and Jesus did and said…in the real world.

Originally posted on What’s Wrong With the World.

Lydia McGrew

Lydia McGrew

Dr. Lydia McGrew is a widely published analytic philosopher specializing in formal epistemology, probability theory, and philosophy of religion. She is the co-author, with her husband Tim McGrew, of the article on the resurrection of Jesus in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (2009). Her articles have appeared in many professional philosophical journals, and she is the author of the entry on historical inquiry and theism in the Routledge Companion to Theism (2012). Her recent book, Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts, revives a largely forgotten apologetic argument for the reliability of the Gospels, Acts, and the Pauline epistles. Without using any technical terminology, Lydia brings to bear her training in the evaluation of evidence and argues that this internal evidence strongly supports the eyewitness nature of these books of the Bible.

More posts by Lydia.

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