The Second Principle of Historical Hermeneutics

Professor Tabor has recently posted on the Jesus Dynasty blog a discussion of my blog from February 3rd on the assumed reliability and accuracy of the New Testament documents for historical study. I enjoyed reading his comments and was particularly pleased that he highlighted the main point of my posting, to get us thinking about the assumptions that we have made about the literature in the New Testament as compared to that outside.

Professor Tabor writes
"I think many might think her statements are too extreme, and that surely the material in the N.T. is of infinitely more value historically than a slightly “whacko” book like Thomas (a description of one of my students on an exam last semester). But this would be to miss her very valuable point. A critical reading and historical examination of the kinds of non-canonical texts she mentions, and others as well, in fact offer us the chance to construct a much fuller portrait of the movement that John, Jesus, and James inaugurated. If Acts and Eusebius are not “the story,” as I have recently written, then we have a lot of hard work before us."

I couldn't agree more. As Professor Tabor has said, Acts and Eusebius are not "the story." Indeed, we have a lot of hard (but fun!) work ahead of us.

So I want to push us further as we think about an uncompromising historical hermeneutic. In addition to not privileging the canonical texts and the canonical story they relate (the First Principle of an Historical Hermeneutic),
in all our texts we must distinguish between history and theological interpretation of events, between fact and fiction. This is the second principle of historical hermeneutics.

If a scholar argues that he or she can prove from the texts that Jesus actually rose from the dead or performed miracles or was born from a virgin, we need to think twice. Is this fact or is this theology wanting to be history? If we have any questions about these types of issues, simply change the god, or change the man. In other words, if a scholar of Abraham Lincoln were to write that good old Abe rose from the dead because a letter from a soldier reported that he saw Lincoln rise from the dead, well, what would we think? What we would think if Buddhist scholars told us that the Buddha was born from a virgin, and this was historically true? Why when it comes to Jesus are we willing to suspend what we know to be true about our world? As soon as we do this, we become apologists and theologians. We leave history behind.

If we don't keep this point always in mind, our personal theology will creep into our historical reconstructions.
Marcus Borg's book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally (2001), is one that I have found useful in my Introduction to the New Testament course because it takes seriously the historical method and its results, while providing Christians with a metaphorical way to interpret scriptures that does not compromise the results of the historical method. Almost. In Borg's discussion of miracles (he prefers the word "spectacular") - whether a particular historical event lies behind stories that "go beyond what we commonly think to be possible" - is he really applying an uncompromising historical method? Or is there slippage?

Borg writes:

"I think that Jesus really did perform paranormal healings and that they cannot simply be explained in psychosomatic terms. I am even willing to consider that spectacular phenomena such as levitation perhaps happen. But do virgin births, multiplying loaves and fish, and changing water into wine ever happen anywhere? If I became persuaded that they do, then I would entertain the possibility that the stories about Jesus reporting such events also contain history remembered. But what I cannot do as a historian is to say that Jesus could do such things even though nobody else has ever been able to" (page 47).

Are stories like Jesus' resurrection story useful to a historian? Absolutely. What it tells me is that some of Jesus' followers had visions of Jesus after his death, a psychological phenomenon not unusual. I had vivid dreams, what I would call "visions," of my mother after she died, all suggesting that she was really alive but hidden away by the doctors. It took a couple of years for this to subside. In the ancient Jewish culture, visions of the dead could be interpreted in a couple of ways. The person has seen the deceased "spirit" or "ghost," an interpretation that some of Jesus' followers made of their visions of Jesus according to Luke 24:37. Or the person has witnessed someone's resurrected body, the theological interpretation that became the standard interpretation in the memory of the community. This interpretation was so important that it launched a series of christological questions and formulations, and ultimately led to Jesus becoming God. But how that happened is the subject of another post.