Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The historical reality of Jesus Christ

For Easter I am delving into the the Acts of the Apostles. I am doing this by means of reading two books: Jaroslav Pelikan's theological commentary on Acts, published as part of the excellent Brazos series of theological (as opposed to exegetical) commentaries, and the late German New Testament scholar, Martin Hengel's Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity.

Hengel, a Lutheran who died in 2009, left a legacy of truly important New Testament and early Church scholarship. He had no patience for the pointless speculation that often flies under the flag New Testament scholarship. His work has the kind of scholarly precision that speculators and generators of fanciful tales that pass for source criticism would rather avoid. 

He taught primarily at the University of Tübingen, but also the University of Erlangen. The story of his quest to be a full-time scholar is quite an interesting one. You can read a short biography here

Along with Peter Stuhlmacher, Otfried Hofius and Hartmut Gese, Hengel formed what was sometimes called "the second Tübingen school," the first, or original "school" being that of the hyper-liberal scholars, who rejected much of what is orthodox Christianity on the basis of their often rather dubious exegetical methodologies. Central to those belonging to this so-called second school was a "biblical theology in which Jesus as the Messiah of Israel and Son of God who gave his life as an atonement for the sins of the world..."

Hengel's work was mentioned by Pope Emeritus Benedict in his letter to Piergiorgio Odifreddi, a mathematics professor at the University of Turin, author, and outspoken atheist- something of an Italian Dawkins: "I recommend especially the four volumes which Martin Hengel (an exegete of the Protestant Theological Faculty of Tübingen) published together with Maria Schwemer: it is an excellent example of historical precision and of the broadest historical knowledge."

The Morning of the Resurrection, by Edward Burne-Jones, 1882


Hengel's book on Acts is an edited edition of a seminar he led in Tübingen in the mid-1970s, parts of which he delivered as lectures elsewhere later. In the first chapter, entitled "Sources of the History of Earliest Christianity," Hengel wrote about the essential harmony of the Gospels, even as he insisted that the author of John's Gospel was aware of Mark's work but used it critically. The main point I want to draw from this chapter is a point well-known to those who are very familiar with basic Gospel studies. I pass it along because Hengel made this point so well and, of course, because it is Easter:
Finally, the dominant goal of all four evangelists is the account of Jesus' arrest, condemnation and execution on the cross in Jerusalem and the subsequent Easter events, the discovery of the empty tomb or the appearance of the risen Christ" (20)
A bit later in the opening chapter, Hengel takes aim at something that, inexplicably, seems to be a working assumption among many New Testament scholars: "The idea cherished by form critics for decades, of individual traditions completely detached and in 'free circulation' as isolated units, is just as unrealistic as the attempt to write a life of Jesus" (25). This follows on the heels of Hengel's insistence that, even if we reduce what we know about Jesus of Nazareth to what is credible, we probably know more about Him than we do about virtually anyone else in antiquity. By asserting that it would be "unrealistic" to "attempt to write a life of Jesus," he was referring back to his response to the silly observation, usually employed to assert outrageous things about Jesus, that it is not possible to write a biography of Jesus that "could stand up to the demands of modern historiography" (24).

Like any scholar, Hengel's work is not above reproach or immune from criticism, but, in the view of many, his work is a corrective, bringing a healthy, well-reasoned, and historical rigor to New Testament studies.

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