Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Scholarly Arrogance: D.F. Strauss and F.C. Baur

As I read the first volume of William Baird's History of New Testament Research, I was struck by the arrogance of many of the scholars. Two shining examples are D.F. Strauss (1808-1874) and F.C. Baur (1792-1860). These two scholars, whose impact on the study of the NT cannot be underestimated, are the prime examples of the influence of German idealism (as first espoused by Hegel) on the study of the NT. I think a quote from each will indicate both their commitment to history and their arrogance with regard to their ability to discern said history.

Whether the unification of the divine and the human nature actually took place in Christ can be decided only by historians, not philosophers. (Strauss, In Defense of My Life of Jesus, 18).

Whether the person of Jesus of Nazareth really possesses the attributes which belong to the established concept of the Redeemer is in fact a purely historical question, which can be answered only through an historical investigation of the literary sources of the Gospel stories. (Baur, cited in Baird, History, 1:260)

There are, in my opinion, at least two problems with these quotes:
  1. Both expect quite a bit out of historical investigation. How can trying to ascertain provable facts (as defined by nineteenth century standards) prove one way or another a proposition about Jesus that is beyond the limitations of Strauss' and Baur's sort of historical investigation, namely, the divinity of Jesus? By searching only for a particular set of data and excising the rest, Strauss and Baur succeeded in severing the Christ of faith from the Jesus of history.
  2. Both Strauss and Baur have a presupposition that they take with them to the texts about Jesus -- that the supernatural is not possible. So is it any surprise that the texts of the NT are stripped bare of almost all of their meaning by these scholars since these very texts are filled with the supernatural on virtually every page? Perhaps they would have been better served by being open to the possibility of something beyond the scope of human understanding!


Pat McCullough said...

Hmmm... "arrogance" sounds a little harsh to me. Considering that it is the nature of the modern scholarly enterprise to believe that one can "get at" the "right answer" through a scientific process such as historical-critical work, perhaps something like "certitude" would be less polemical. The feeling that I get from the quotes you mention is less a superiority and disdain that would be implied from "arrogance" and more of a certainty of and trust in the historical method. We could say that it is misguided certainty, of course. But to call it arrogance seems to heighten the polemic.

J. Matthew Barnes said...

Me...heighten polemics? Never! :)

I guess my point is that overestimating one's abilities to reconstruct accurate history from a paucity of sources that don't generally contain the kind of data that leads to accurate history is pretty arrogant...and that overestimating the value of any particular interpretive method is arrogant (though I am certainly guilty of this too!).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "arrogant" like this: "Making or implying unwarrantable claims to dignity, authority, or knowledge; aggressively conceited or haughty, presumptuous, overbearing." The first part of the definition is what I had in mind; not the second!

Your comment, as usual, is perceptive Pat. Thanks!

Pat McCullough said...

That's a good qualification, your application of the dictionary definition. "Paucity of sources" sure is right! It's good to just remember that the whole New Testament is only 27 books and most of them are pretty darn small. Something that we all know but perhaps don't think about too much. It's crazy that we can make a living off them, to put it crassly.

J. Matthew Barnes said...

No kidding. Isn't it amazing that such a small corpus of literature has completely changed the world (hopefully for the better!)?

Anonymous said...

Eusebius (HE, book 2, chapter 23) and Jerome (LOIM, chapter 2) both quote the same section from earlier historian Hegesippus, to the effect that James was not only legalistic, but held the office of the Jewish High Priest. It doesn't get any more legalistic than a Jewish High Priest, whose function requires performance of animal sacrifices to atone for sins. Yeah, James performing animal sacrifices after Jesus died sure does make him appear to disagree with Paul, eh? Maybe the earliest form of Christianity wasn't as opposed to the continuing divine significance of temple worship and ceremonies as Paul said it was?

Epiphanius (Panarion 29:4:2-4 and78:13:5 specified that James held the high priesthood.

That's plenty of evidence that James was a legalist, at minimum, which then makes him the most likely leader of the legalist faction, the Judaizers, and therefore diametrically opposed to Paul's gospel.

These bits of Christian history pass the test of multiple attestation as well as the criteria of embarassment. The only embarassing things Paul admitted, were things that could be used to defend his views. His history as a persecutor of Christians is not "embarassing", it helps beef up his new position as apostle who now preaches the faith he once tried to destroy. Excellent dramatic effect, wouldn't you say?

As such, the only reason for conservative Christians to continue insisting that James and Paul agreed on the gospel, is nothing more than their prior committment to biblical inerrancy at all costs. I have debated this issue extensively with fundamentalists, and nobody is able to explain certain biblical passages which I take as evidence of Baur's hypothesis.

Did you ever ask yourself why Paul never quoted Jesus even once in his efforts to explain the gospel of salvation?

Wouldn't you be just a bit surprised if you reviewed 10 years of video sermons by Billy Graham, and he never once quoted Jesus on the subject of salvation? You'd obviously think something's not adding up, amen?

In Galatians 2:12-13, not only does Paul say legalists came from James, not only did they motivate Peter to cease his allegedly Christ-like associations with Gentiles, but "even Barnabas", Paul's right-hand man in the Gentile ministry, was motivated by these Judaizers to begin acting more legalistically. Those who cite Peter's stupidity to escape the argument, have nowhere to run with Paul's admission that his own Barnabas acted likewise.

If paul is telling the truth, then Barnabas, who must have known of Paul's position and arguments personally, must therefore must have been presented with very good counter-arguments backed by very high authority, in order to join Peter in this great change of attitude. If the Judaizer gospel is so "obviously false" as you believe, how do you explain somebody so intimately involved in the work of Paul's ministry, becoming convinced that the legalistic viewpoint was the truth?Bad Luck? Bad Memory? Maybe Barnabas caught a cold that day and just wasn't himself while James's men were in town? This ought to be good.

Acts 21:18 ff, James's converts remain "zealous for the Law" after recieving Jesus as their Savior. Would they continue their zealotry for the Law, if the gospel James gave them, had said Christ is the end of the law for righteousness, as Paul's did (Romans 10:4)? Not likely.

Acts 10, Peter needs a divine vision in order to know that salvation goes to the Gentiles. How could he need such a major shove after having lived with and learned from Jesus for three years? Maybe Jesus never taught that Gentiles can have salvation just as abundantly as Jews? The stupid idiot Peter of the gospels is transformed into a fearless wonder-working inspired preacher in Acts 2-5, so you cannot simply cite Peter's idiocy as if this remained an accurate description of him after Jesus ascended. The Peter who gives in to the legalists demands in Galatians 2, is the Peter who has already experienced Pentecost and thus underwent a major transformation by the Spirit from idiot to inspired, as Acts 5 shows.

Acts 11, some disciples of the apostles criticize Peter for having fellowshipped with Gentiles. What gospel did THEY convert to? The one where Jesus fully supports fellowship between Jews and Gentiles? Not likely. Might this be a subtle indicator that the original gospel of Jesus wasn't quite as friendly to Gentiles as it appears today?

Acts 15, James thinks the Judaizers deserve to be given a fair hearing to defend their spite of the fact that Paul is sure such people are cursed due to theological aberration (Galatians 1:8-9). Could it be that Jesus' own brother James, did not think Paul's case against the Judaizers was as solid as modern fundamentalists think it is? If James and Paul agreed on the gospel, if they both agreed that the Judaizers are obvious heretics, why is James bothering to let "obvious heretics" have an official theological say-so in one of the most doctrinally decisive councils? HOW CAN JAMES HAVE FELT THE JUDAIZERS DESERVED ANYTHING MORE THAN THE CURSING AND SCORN WHICH PAUL HEAPED ON THEM?

Why should the council in Acts 15 have even been necessary in the first place? What...did Jesus fail to make clear, before he died and resurrected, what Gentiles need to do to get saved? Could it be that the Gentile ministry was never promoted, because Jesus never intended such to be promoted? The fact that Paul comes along and expands the gospel to the world, doesn't suddenly mean that's what Jesus intended. Paul may have taken the gospel further than Jesus intended. Indeed, that seems to be the case, since he admits in Galations 2, that the original apostles chose to stick around Jerusalem. Why would they choose to do this, if Jesus commissioned THEM to go outside of Jerusalem, as it seems he did in Matthew 28:19?

When I first read Acts 15 and the debate there, I wondered whether I'd also find apostles holding councils to debate whether Jesus claimed to be the messiah. Sorry, something ain't adding up, the salvation of Gentiles should have been just as obvious to the apostles as trees, the need to debate the matter and give "obvious heretics" a fair hearing, when Paul has already expressed confidence that they deserve nothing more than cursing, opens the door wide to the possibility that the Acts-author is attempting to spin church history only as much as is necessary to make it favor Paul. The conservative explanation for these things makes little sense.

Do you know how to detect which parts of an ancient religious history are more likely true and which parts are more likely false?

Do you approach the bible with a set of historical criteria or rules, which you then apply so you can determine which statements are more likley true and which are more likely false? Or do rules of historiography have no significance for Paulists?

I latch onto those bits of New Testament data that support my hypothesis, and reject as lies the other stuff that goes against it, because the parts that support me satisfy the criteria of embarassment (the author admitting something which could be used against him or his views), because an ancient historian is more likely to fibb in the interest of DEFENDING his views, not fibb in a way that would detract from his views. You call it 'cherry picking'. I call it "the rule of historicity known as the criteria of embarassment".

Baur wasn't wrong, there's all kinds of biblical and patristic evidence to show that James was a legalist, and therefore most likely the leader of those Judaizers who sought to undermine Paul's gospel. Which means when Paul cursed the legalists in Galatians 1:6-9, he must have been cursing James too. Paul's later statement that James gave him the right hand of fellowship (Galatians 2) contradicts other data about James which passes tests of historical reliability such as criteria of multiple attestation (Eusebius, Hegesippus, Jerome, Epiphanius) and criteria of embarassment (Paul's statements that raise doubts about his divine claims)

I'll debate anybody, anytime, in any internet forum of their choosing, on the subject of Baur's hypothesis. If you are so sure that Baur was refuted, are you confident enough to sustain that position in a debate? For electrifying conversation, email me sometime at