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How reliable are the criteria for historical authenticity employed by historical Jesus scholars, and what questions has historical research raised for Christian scholars like James D. G. Dunn, Robert Gundry, and Michael Licona? Not to mention Barbara Brown Taylor's questioning of her vocation...

Historical authenticity employed by Jesus scholars

Reliability of criteria remain a focus of debate among historical Jesus researchers:

Christians Whose Historical Study of the Gospels led Them to Ponder a Greater, Rather than a Lesser, Number of Questions

James D. G. Dunn — Christian and widely acknowledged top-ranked historical Jesus scholar, argues that The Gospel of Johnʼs narrative is not reliable, nor the claims it makes for Jesusʼ quasi-divine status. (In his earlier work, Evidence for Jesus, Dunn didnʼt imagine that Jesus spoke even one word reported in the fourth Gospel.) Dunn admits there is little to support the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, and little evidence that Jesus supported a mission to the gentiles, and no evidence that Jesus saw himself as any kind of messiah (the term does not even appear in Q), nor is there much left of the “Son of Man,” except for a few uncertain eschatological allusions. Dunn argues that Jesus did not claim any title for himself. Jesus may have believed that he was going to die, but he did not believe he was dying to redeem the sins of the world. “If Jesus hoped for resurrection it was presumably to share in the general and final resurrection of the dead.” There is astonishingly little support for what Jesusʼ last words were. There is a certain squirming as Dunn admits that Jesus believed in an imminent eschatological climax that, of course, did not happen. “Putting it bluntly, Jesus was proved wrong by the course of events.” Then he goes on for four pages trying to argue that we shouldnʼt be too concerned about this. Dunnʼs account of the resurrection notes all of the weaknesses of the tradition: The link of Jesusʼ resurrection to a falsely imminent general resurrection, confusion as to what sort of Jesus the witnesses were seeing, a persistent theme of failure of the witnesses to recognize Jesus (in Matthew 28:17 the disciples are seeing him in Galilee yet “some doubted,” not just Thomas), confusion as to where they were seeing Jesus (in Jerusalem and Galilee? on earth or in heaven?). Which is not to say that Dunn does not affirm the resurrection — he does, but since he admits so many weaknesses and doubts concerning the written accounts he seems to prefer a visionary explanation.

Two Evangelical Christian biblical scholars, Robert Gundry and Michael Licona, have challenged their more conservative peers by questioning the historicity of parts of the Gospel of Matthew:

Robert Gundry argues that the birth narratives about Jesus in Matthew were pious fictions. Google this search string: Robert Gundry Evangelical Theological Society Gospel Matthew

Michael Licona argues that the “many raised saints story” in Matthew might be a pious fiction. He also argues against the historicity of some of the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of John. Google this search string: “Michael Licona inerrancy raise saints.” Or this search string: “Michael Licona inerrancy Gospel John”

Famed Evangelical Ministerʼs questions…

Ten years ago Baylor University published a list of the worldʼs “most effective” English-speaking preachers and only one of the top twelve was a woman: Barbara Brown Taylor.

After having had volumes of her sermons published and spoken round the country and overseas, she surprised her growing number of admirers by resigning from her church and accepting a teaching “chair of religion” at a local liberal arts college. Taylor isnʼt the first to leave parish work in search of a second career as a professor. Religion departments are full of clerics and/or former clerics, but few compose memoirs as honestly and masterfully as she, that walk the reader through the conscious and subconscious hopes and fears of all the years of “church life.” Not that Taylor betrays parishionerʼs confidences; her writing, rather, covers interior ground.

Taylorʼs book is titled, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith (Harper, May 2006). Below are some excerpts:

By now I expected to be a seasoned parish minister, wearing black clergy shirts grown gray from frequent washing. I expected to love the children who hung on my legs after Sunday morning services until they grew up and had children of their own. I even expected to be buried wearing the same red vestments in which I was ordained… Today those vestments are hanging in the sacristy of an Anglican church in Kenya, my church pension is frozen, and I am as likely to spend Sunday mornings with friendly Quakers, Presbyterians, or Congregationalists as I am with the Episcopalians who remain my closest kin. Sometimes I even keep the Sabbath with a cup of steaming Assam tea on my front porch, watching towhees vie for the highest perch in the poplar tree while God watches me.

These days I earn my living teaching school, not leading worship, and while I still dream of opening a small restaurant in Clarkesville or volunteering at an eye clinic in Nepal, there is no guarantee that I will not run off with the circus before I am through. This is not the life I planned, or the life I recommend to others. But it is the life that has turned out to be mine, and the central revelation in it for me — that the call to serve God is first and last the call to be fully human — seems important enough to witness to on paper. This book is my attempt to do that…

If my other books have been whole milk books, this is my single malt scotch book, which is the main thing I want to speak with you about tonight. After twenty years of telling the public truth — the truth I believed was both true for all and good for all, or at least all within the sound of my voice — my first attempt at telling the private truth — the truth that may only be true or good for me — well, that was quite a stretch.

Clergy spend a lot of time talking about what is right, in case you hadnʼt noticed. For once, I thought I would concentrate on what was true—just for me, from my limited point of view on planet Earth — in hopes that might be helpful to someone else trying to do the same thing… Making the move from sermon to memoir has been one of the more strenuous passages in my life, and it also makes the reviews a whole lot scarier to read. A couple of weeks ago I received one via e-mail with “Review of You” in the subject line. Just for the record, my mother confirms that everything in the book is true…

A preacher who wants to keep his or her job would do well to avoid trying to say anything true about sex, money, politics, war, or existential despair in church. It is also not a good idea to question established readings of scripture or tradition… While I knew plenty of clergy willing to complain about the high expectations and long hours, few of us spoke openly about the toxic effects of being identified as the holiest person in a congregation. Whether this honor was conferred by those who recognized our gifts for ministry or was simply extended by them as a professional courtesy, it was equally hard on the honorees. Those of us who believed our own press developed larger-than-life swaggers and embarrassing patterns of speech, while those who did not suffered lower back pain and frequent bouts of sleeplessness. Either way, we were deformed… We were not God, but we spent so much tending the God-place in peopleʼs lives that it was easy to understand why someone might get us confused…

In 1997, after fifteen years of full time parish ministry, I left my little church in the north Georgia foothills of the Appalachians to become a college teacher. My soul was sunburned, for one thing. I thought there was a chance I had lost my vocation, for another, although I continued to preach and to teach preaching in between my undergraduate classes on everything from the religions of the world to the life and letters of Paul… The teaching was and is wonderful. I get to work with nineteen and twenty year olds — an age group I saw very little of in church.

I get to ask the questions instead of providing the answers, which is a great freedom and relief. I also get to give grades, which clergy only do in their secret fantasies. (I am sorry, Mr. Smith, but your efforts have been so minimal that I am afraid you have flunked Lent.) I am still a Master of Divinity — isnʼt that an interesting name for a theological degree? — but more importantly to me now, I am a member of the Department of Humanities, whose truth-telling has taken a decidedly private turn… My last book came out six years ago — a long time, for a wordy person. When people asked me what the hold up was, I told them I had lost my long time editor at Cowley Publications, which was true, but I had also lost my voice — or my voice was changing, anyway, and I did not yet trust it enough to put anything in print. I was no longer a parish priest.

Many of my old certainties about life and faith had slipped from my hands… I learned to prize holy ignorance more highly than religious certainty… I empty the bag of my old convictions on the kitchen table to decide what I will keep. [Ultimately what Taylor keeps may not satisfy conservative or even orthodox Christians as it has more to do with faith (as a verb) than with beliefs. — Evelyn Bence]

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