Anyone who has taken a “New Testament 101” class in college will have been stunned and somewhat unsettled to discover that the Bible is, ahem, untrue.
Having been taught all the stories about Jesus in Sunday School, first Holy Communion and Confirmation class, religious young people assumed all those tales of the Son of God being born of a Virgin, doing miracles and rising from the dead were… well… gospel truth.
Then when they went to college, they discovered Bible scholars weren’t so sure. In fact, their New Testament professors were downright adamant that the Bible stories were scarcely true at all. They were mere theological illustrations, fables, fabrications and pious fiction.
The field of New Testament scholarship has been dominated since the beginning of the twentieth century by academics who dissected the New Testament texts with the tools of literary and historical criticism. Their work grew out of the Enlightenment assumptions that the miraculous was impossible.
So, Hermann Reimarus (1694-1798) rejected miracles and thought the Bible authors were frauds. David Strauss (1808-1874) rejected miracles as mythological, and these writers laid the foundation for the great granddaddy of modern New Testament scholars, the Lutheran theologian Rudolph Bultmann.
Following the quest for the historical Jesus of Ernest Renan (1823-1892) and Albert Schweitzer (1875 – 1965), Bultmann (1884-1976) not only questioned the historicity of the gospel accounts, but decided that we “could know virtually nothing about the historical Jesus.”
Throughout the twentieth century it became virtually unanimous within academic circles to perceive the New Testament as a hodge-podge of pseudonymous, late inventions of the early church rather than eyewitness accounts written by Jesus’ disciples or those close to them.
Theories about the authorship, date and method of composition of the gospels and epistles of the New Testament were as varied as the academics who invented them. Fantastic theories were devised one after the other about how the New Testament was infected with pagan religious ideas, mythical notions, Gnostic philosophy and outright fabrications to puff the carpenter from Nazareth into the God-man worshipped by Christian orthodoxy.
Along with the fantastic notions about the origins of the New Testament, most every scholar felt obliged to come up with a fresh understanding of who Jesus “really was.”
Jesus was the revolutionary zealot, the wonder working wandering preacher, the simple Jewish rabbi, the proto Marxist friend of the workers, the mystic prophet, the ascetic monk, the suffering martyr or the rebel with a cause.
Each portrait of Jesus invariably reflected the author’s own obsessions and personality so that, as John Dominic Crossan observed, “It is easy to do autobiography and think you are doing theology.”
The radical, revisionist scholarship reached it’s high point with the so called “Jesus Seminar” in the 1980s and 1990s. Led by Robert Funk, John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, the Jesus Seminar scholars tried once again to determine which parts of the gospels might be historical.
In a shelf of popular and scholarly books Borg, Crossan and later Bart Ehrman wrote in a patronizing style about how Jesus was really rather a wonderful person who taught beautiful things we should all believe even though “all those stories in the New Testament are fairy tales.”
Happily, a new generation of scholars—many of them Catholic—are at last coming at the subject of New Testament scholarship with some humility and common sense.
The turning point in the scholarship has been the increased understanding of the relevance of the first century Jewish context of the New Testament. As scholars and archeologists have uncovered an increasing amount of information about first century Jewish culture, beliefs and writings, they have come to understand more deeply the meaning and historicity of the gospels.
Put simply, a deeper understanding of first century Judaism has illuminated the New Testament, not only revealing new depths of meaning, but also affirming its early date and historical authenticity.
Brant Pitre is Professor of Sacred Scripture at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. With a Master’s from Vanderbilt and a PhD from Notre Dame, Pitre is the author of Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, Jesus the Bridegroom and his latest, The Case for Jesus—Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ.
Along with colleagues Michael Barber, John Bergsma and John Kincaid, Pitre is working in the field of New Testament scholarship and first century Judaism, and coming up with results that are at once respectably scholarly while also grounded in common sense, factual research and sincere belief.
Active on the speaker’s and recording circuit, this group of young teacher scholars also publishes The Sacred Page —a readable website that provides regular comment on Scripture for the use of homilists and students.
Dr. Scott Hahn, a convert Presbyterian minister, is Professor of Sacred Scripture at Franciscan University in Steubenville. A popular conference speaker, author and teacher, Hahn’s audio talks have been circulated worldwide. He is the author of over fifteen books and is the president and co-founder of St Paul Center for Biblical Theology.
Hahn has pioneered a synthesis of covenant theology from his Presbyterian background, showing how the themes of covenant are woven into a Catholic understanding of the New Testament and Catholic sacramental theology. The recipient of many honors, he was recently appointed McEssy Distinguished Visiting Professorship in Biblical Theology at Mundelein Seminary in Chicago.
Other notable Catholic apologists and scholars who are correcting the destructive and cynical trends in New Testament scholarship are Robert J. Hutchinson whose recent Searching for Jesus chronicles the latest archeological and documentary evidence for the life of Christ, and a convert from Evangelicalism, Carl E. Olson, whose book Did Jesus Really Rise From the Dead debunks Bart Ehrman’s skepticism and lays out in question and answer form both the arguments against the resurrection of Jesus Christ and those in favor.
These are just a few of the new wave of New Testament scholars who are undermining the old liberal certainties of uncertainty.
Put simply, the skepticism of Bultmann, Borg, Crossan and Ehrman is out of date. New discoveries have pushed scholarship beyond their fanciful theories and dubious conclusions. The new wave of New Testament scholars readily accept the positive findings of a century’s worth of research, but in the spirit of true scholarship, they have also learned how to be critical of the critics.