Unification Theology

by Young Oon Kim

Findings Of Modern Biblical Scholarship

The Biblical proof-text interpretation of the life of Jesus described above collapsed like a house of cards as soon as 19th century scholars began to examine the Scriptures historically. It is surprising how recently Christians began the quest for the historical Jesus. In 1819 Schleiermacher gave the very first series of university lectures on the life of Jesus, 8 and in 1835 Strauss published his epoch-making critical study of the Gospels. From that time on, theologians have been forced to reexamine and redefine their understanding of the Man from Nazareth.

During the Enlightenment, apologists like Bishop Butler had tried to prove the uniqueness of Jesus on the basis of his miracles and the way he was supposed to fulfill Old Testament prophecies. 9 The argument for prophecy was discredited when scholars began to interpret Jewish sacred literature historically. The prophets were writing about their own times and their message was directed to their contemporaries. For example, Isaiah was not predicting the virgin birth but was telling his hearers that an important change would take place in their own day because a certain young women would give birth to a child very soon (7:14). 10 Or to cite another illustration, the prophet Jonah's being swallowed by a fish was designed to make him obey the mission God had given him and not to predict the resurrection of Jesus. Similarly, the Suffering Servant poems (Is. 53 et al) were not messianic prophecies about Jesus but an ancient interpretation of the mission of the Israelite nation in history, as Jewish writers have long maintained. 11

Next, when the historians began studying the New Testament, they learned that the Gospels were not eye witness reports of Jesus' life. First to be given up was the notion that the Fourth Gospel was written by the apostle John. Then it was generally agreed that Mark and a collection of sayings of Jesus (called Q) were used by Matthew and Luke in composing their Gospels. In other words, the evangelists were not writing "memoirs" of what they had personally seen. They were editors of earlier traditions circulating in the Christian communities from forty to sixty years after Jesus' death. 12 Therefore, to understand the New Testament one should see how the various writings reflect the development of the Christian faith. The Gospels depict the doctrinal, ethical and ecclesiastical changes which took place when the message of Jesus was altered to meet the needs of Hellenistic Jewish Christians and later Gentile churches. Behind the New Testament are four different levels of Christian life and thought: the apocalyptic Judaism of Jesus and his disciples, the Jewish Christianity of people like James, the Hellenistic Judaism of Paul, and the Gentile Christianity of a later generation illustrated by the Johannine literature. 13

Literary and historical "Source criticism" of the Gospels prepared the way for "Form criticism," pioneered by Bultmann and Martin Dibelius. 14 Form criticism provides a method by which scholars can understand the oral traditions which are older than our written records. Since the early Christians expected the imminent return of their Lord, they had no interest in writing lives of Jesus or histories of the Acts of the apostles. However, in their preaching and teaching, Christians would quote a saying of Jesus or tell an incident from his life to prove a point. It was also necessary to relate the Passion story which explained why Christians celebrated a communion meal and also answered critics who charged that their Lord was nothing but a criminal rejected by his people. The oral tradition then consisted of a variety of disconnected sayings and incidents as well as the Passion narrative in a somewhat fixed form.

The Gospel writers, particularly Mark, brought these oral traditions together. Why had a written record become necessary? Because the terrible Roman-Jewish war ending in 70 A. D. had scattered the Jewish Christian community which preserved the oral tradition; 15 because the first and second generations of Christians were dying off; 16 and because the prolonged delay of the Parousia forced Christians to reinterpret Jesus' life and teaching from a non-eschatological perspective. 17

Mark, Luke, Matthew (and to a lesser degree, John) were compilers and editors of the oral traditions. Each shaped the tradition to meet the specific needs of his readers. 18 Many scholars would say that Mark preserved the traditions of the Christian community at Rome, Matthew collected those treasured in the Syrian church, Luke wrote a Gospel for Gentile Christians, and John prepared a defense of the Christian message for mystical semi-Gnostic believers in Ephesus or perhaps Alexandria. 19 But if each evangelist shaped the tradition for specific dogmatic and liturgical purposes, it becomes necessary to examine these editorial aims and how they affected their portrait of Jesus. In recent years, "Redaction criticism" has studied the creative theological 20 revisions carried out by the Gospel editors.

Source criticism, Form criticism and Redaction criticism have radically transformed our understanding of the Gospels and demolished forever the traditional method of explaining Jesus' life. No longer can one assume that simply because something is in the New Testament it goes back to the historical Jesus. First we have to remove accretions which disguise and distort the facts about his life and teachings. With this in mind, we now turn to contemporary findings in the quest for the Jesus of history.

8 E Schleiermacher, Life of Jesus (1975 ed.), p. XI.

9 Joseph Butler (d. 1752), Anglican dean of St. Paul's Cathedral and bishop of Durham, author of the very popular Analogy of Religion (1736), an attack on Deism.

10 H. D .A. Major of Oxford stated that the Isaiah Scripture proof text for the virgin birth, like other Old Testament prophecies used by Matthew, has no value as testimony to historic fact (Mission and Message of Jesus, 1938, pp. 232-233).

11 For various modern interpretations of the Servant poems, see G. Fohrer, Introduction to the Old Testament (1968), pp. 378-381. For important Jewish opinions, cf. M. Buber, The Prophetic Faith (1960), pp. 217-235 and H. M. Orlinsky, Interpreting the Prophetic Tradition (1969), pp. 227-273.

12 For details, see A.M. Perry, "Growth of the Gospels: The Interpreters Bible (1951), vol. 7, pp. 60-74.

13 Cf. R. Bultmann, Primitive Christianity in its Contemporary Setting (1967) and N. Perrin, "Theological History of New Testament Christianity," The New Testament, An Introduction (1974), pp. 39-61.

14 E. V. McKnight, What Is Form Criticism? (1969); M. Dibelius, From Tradition to Gospel (1934); R. Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition (1963).

15 W. Marxsen thinks that Mark's Gospel was written soon after the beginning of the Jewish revolt against Rome (circa 64 A. D.) in order to point out the imminence of the Last Days (Mark the Evangelist, 1969). S. G. E Brandon, however, believes Mark was written shortly after 70 A. D. (The Fall of Jerusalem and the Christian Church, 1951). They agree that this rebellion caused the creation of our first Gospel.

16 R. M. Grant believes that the martyrdom of several apostles-Peter, Paul and James-between 62-64 A. D. and the natural death of most first generation Christians led to gospel-writing (Historical Introduction to New Testament, 1972, p. 108).

17 Cf. M. Wemer, Formation of Christian Dogma (1957).

18 See N. Perrin, What is Redaction Criticism? (1969).

19 M. Enslin believes Matthew was probably written in Antioch (The Literature of the Christian Movement, 1956, p. 402). Jerome reported that Luke's Gospel originated in Greece. Second-century traditions associated John with Ephesus, but a few modern scholars believe that the Fourth Gospel resembles Alexandrine mysticism.

20 Leading Redaction critics are R. H. Lightfoot, W. Marxsen, H. Conzelmann, G. Bornkarnm and N. Perrin.

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