And his disciples answered him, From whence can a man satisfy these men with bread here in the wilderness? And he asked them How many loaves have ye? And they said, Seven.
You all know that one of my chief objects in preaching is to build up your confidence in the Holy Scriptures and in particular to develop your trust in the New Testament accounts of our Lord’s earthly life and ministry. I hope that you personally, individually, will be clear in your own mind concerning the historical trustworthiness of the New Testament narratives; and for that very reason you will understand the existential meaningfulness of those narratives and therefore that your attachment and love for them will blossom. I hope that as a community we will grow in our reliance upon these texts as trustworthy on matters of worship, doctrine, and life. All this depends upon the historical dependability of the New Testament accounts. If these texts are not historically reliable, then it is not worth our time and labor to understand and appropriate them.
Over the last few months I have introduced you to some ideas, some approaches, and some concepts that can help you understand the New Testament texts. I have spoken of the importance of knowing who the “intended audience” of a particular text may be. The intended audience or the identified reader is the audience for whom and to whom the text was written in the first place. The Gospels, for example, were not written for the Philosophical academy gathered at Mars’ Hill in Athens, though those philosophers could benefit from the Gospels. Neither were the Epistles written for some Department of Cultural Studies at the Universtiy – the New Testament texts were written to the small Christian parishes scattered about the world at a time when most of them were only a few years old.
I have also spoken about the importance of context in understanding a text of Scripture: the cultural context, the geographic context, the political context, the religious context, and last but not least, the textual context itself. Today, I want to introduce another very important category for understanding the New Testament, and that is the concept of eyewitness testimony.
The academy lives by narratives that it generates and then promotes and encourages by awarding money, scholarships, jobs – all glory, laud, and honor – to those students who do the best work of telling the academy’s story about this, that, or the other. The academy’s self-generated story has gravitas because it is of the academy. No one within the academy likes to think that the academy’s own narratives are prejudicial, or generated by marketing, or merely stylish or self-serving – but they are. And Biblical Studies is very much a case on point. One of the most cherished narratives in the past that continues to influence biblical studies is the darling myth of Form Criticism.
Form Criticism was an early twentieth-century academic movement that has been enormously influential in biblical studies all over the world. The basic assumption of form criticism is that the narrative tradition about Jesus in the New Testament actually passed through a very long process of oral tradition in the early Church. It took four or five generations before the oral tradition finally evolved into the written Gospels. Over those years as the churches orally transmitted the Jesus narrative, it was edited and even augmented with freshly created narratives depending upon what the practitioners of form criticism called the churches’ “situation in life” – and importantly, all that was accomplished anonymously. And so, as I have said, generations after the earthly life and ministry of Jesus, these stories were finally recorded in the form of Gospels – the Gospels we possess today. This presupposition, which is actually a narrative itself, led to academic suspicion and skepticism concerning the content of the Gospels. Rudolph Bultmann declared the received wisdom of the academy when he wrote: “I do indeed think that we can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either, are moreover fragmentary and often legendary; and other sources about Jesus do not exist.” Well there you have it.
The Gospel for this Seventh Sunday after Trinity is a good case in point. From the point-of-view of the form critics the feeding of the multitude shows various strains of inconsistent traditions. The account appears in all four Gospels and in two separate, and they say, conflicting accounts appear in Mark and Matthew. There we have two anonymous traditions that grew up to solve specific, immediate problems in the church. There need be no historical truth; two version of one myth grew and both ended up in the written account. Who’s to say how this myth got started? What we know is that over three or four or five generations the stories developed widely and anonymously and both of them ended up in Mark and Matthew.
But here is the obvious problem with form-criticism: if it is true that these stories took off and grew anonymously in the Christian community, then that means that all of Jesus’ disciples who were with him, all the eye-witnesses, must have ascended to heaven right after he did since if they had been around, let us say when Mark was written, they could have said, “Hey! Wait a minute! It didn’t happen that way. We were there.” Or for that matter any curious Christian could have sought out one of the eyewitnesses and asked a simple question: “Is that document people are calling Mark’s Gospel correct or not?” And guess what? That is exactly what happened in at one case we know of and that would be Luke.
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account…
The very point that Luke is making in his preamble to his Gospel is that he followed the best practices of the historians of his day: he interviewed those who were with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry; men and women who were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word. And this is my point: within twenty to thirty years after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written. Peter and Paul were both executed in the mid-sixties in Rome and they were the famous, well known disciples. John the Presbyter lived on into his 90s in Asia. What is my point? My point is that there was no anonymous Gospel tradition floating through the Christian community getting edited and tweaked until it was finally written down in the Gospels. All three of the synoptic Gospels were written at a time when living eyewitnesses were ministering in the Church. These eyewitnesses constituted a personal, living link back to Jesus’ earthly ministry right when these Gospels were being written. Far from being an anonymous tradition from anonymous communities, the Gospels that we have today are personal links, personal memories from those who knew Jesus best.
And that of course goes against another darling academic myth and that is the myth of the “disinterested search for the truth.” Someone once said that he would “follow the truth wherever it may lead?” I do not for a moment believe in that mythical creature sometimes called the “disinterested inquirer for truth.” Not in the academy or anywhere else for that matter.
And when it comes to Jesus and all his work and all his remarkable, bizarre claims about himself, I do not want anyone who is claiming to be disinterested. Pilate claimed to be disinterested. From his disinterested inquiry he could find no wrong with Jesus, but the best he could do was to quote a philosopher: “What is truth?” I don’t want the so-called disinterested, objective observer.
But I can tell you exactly what I do want: I want an insider. I want an insider with inside information. I want someone who was so close to Jesus that he or she said morning and evening prayer with him everyday; so intimately involved with his life and work that she cooked his meals and washed his clothes; so much a part of his everyday life that after the crowd was gone they could ask him questions, they could relax with him and they could memorize his sermons.
I want eyewitnesses who said, “One time he feed 4,000 and another time he feed 5,000.” Eyewitnesses who were so close to Jesus that after his ascension they did not try to get their story straight because they were not making up a story. They were presenting eyewitness testimony. Have you ever asked yourself this: once the disciples saw him feed 4,000 people with a few loaves and fishes, when they faced a food shortage a little later on with 5,000 people, why did they not seem to know how to bring this information to Jesus a second time? Had they slipped up? Had they been caught unprepared? Let’s face it; they do not come off as God’s best and brightest. But they don’t have to. They were simply bearing witness to all that Jesus said and did. I want eyewitnesses who were so close to Jesus that they did not edit out their own embarrassing comments and foibles and deficiencies – maybe because they had such deep respect for the truth. Or maybe it was because there were other eyewitnesses around and they could not get away with covering up their personal failures. Both of those motivations were probably at work. But that is a distraction from their reason for putting an eyewitness testimony out there for all to see in the first place. The essential reason is that a man or a woman who is presenting an eyewitness testimony is asking you to trust their testimony. They are not asking you to be uncritical. They are not asking you not to ask questions. But they are asking you to trust their real-life, historical experience of all that Jesus said and accomplished. And part of the collective memory of these eyewitnesses was that on more than one occasion they witnessed the Word of God made flesh so moved by his very own human compassion for other people that he miraculously fed them in front of God and everybody.