Mike Bird has noted over his blog that
Start with the Gospels as they are, engage them on the level that we have them, get into their story, figure out what they are doing, admire the artistry and theological sophistication, and then afterwards begin looking at things like genre and sources. Along similar lines, Chris Keith has recently argued that the historical task is not to cast aside the interpretive layer of the Gospels so that one can thereby scrounge through their underlying traditions in the hope of finding a pure and unadulterated image of Jesus in some textual relic. Rather, as Chris Keith says, “the first step in the critical reconstruction of the past that gave rise to the Gospels should be toward the interpretations of the Gospels in an effort to understand and explain them, not away from them, as was the case for form criticism and its outgrowth …” (Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity, 39-40). Hmm. They got me thinking!
Maybe its my inquisitive nature, but I’m committed to explaining how the Gospels came into being as a prerequisite to accounting for what they are doing and why they were written. Though in many ways, such questions must be approached simultaneously, since one cannot study the sources of the Gospels unless one first knows the Gospels themselves.
I, like Dr. Bird, have a tendency to want to explain everything. So, when I teach about the gospels, I want to explain source theories, genre theories, composition theories, etc. But, this does not do justice to the documents as we have received them. The need to explain all that fun stuff can have two functions:
- It is super fun for a professor and a small majority of students who can piece that data together into a coherent whole.
- It distracts us from the meaning of the documents (and for Christians, from Jesus himself).
It is not that these theories are not important, they clearly are. It is just that scholarship has atomized the gospels in so many ways so that we can isolate little proton sized morsels of Jesus data and fuse them into a new, synthetic element of Jesus studies material. The problem with this approach is that we miss the gospels for the traditions (or the forest for the trees). I would submit that to understand the ‘Jesus traditions’ (for those who are not Biblical studies majors, the Jesus traditions are the oral traditions about Jesus that eventually ended up in our New Testaments), we must understand the document which contain them. James Dunn, for instance, has argued that “The only Jesus available to us…is Jesus as he was seen and heard by those who first formulated the traditions we have… (Dunn, New Perspective on Jesus, 31).” Dunn’s argument could go one step further though. The only Jesus traditions we have are those which are not only contained in the gospels, but which are interpreted by the gospels. To know the Jesus traditions, one must know the gospels, thus to do historical Jesus work is to do exegesis of the gospels.