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Review of “Jesus and Christian Origins” by Ben Wiebe

An odd but recurring thought came to me while reading the essays in Jesus and Christian Origins:  Directions Toward a New Paradigm (ed. Ben Wiebe; Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2019). Somewhere and at some time in the past I wrestled with a series of articles that had many similar themes. What was this book? While working through the present volume under review suddenly a remembrance struck me and I began to make some connections. Striding over to a shelf in my library containing works on New Testament Theology (I couldn’t think of anywhere else to find the book I was after) I discovered the earlier volume I was thinking about. Sure enough it had many parallels in tone and content with what I am now reading.[1] This earlier volume (1990) was a set of exciting articles that centered on what we could say confidently about the nature and status of early Christianity in the first century of our era. In a similar fashion this present volume, a generation later, regularly touches on many of the same themes. How do we assess where we are in this project and the validity of what we at present claim to know about this topic?

With the two volumes before me several things now seem to fall into place. The 1990 volume was the combined work of former students of Ben Meyer – a longtime New Testament Professor at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario. In the judgment of many, including myself, Meyer wrote the most significant volume on Jesus in the late twentieth century.[2] Meyer, as with many other Canadian scholars, was entranced by the work of Bernard Lonergan – especially his thought on theological hermeneutics. Use of the term ‘horizon’ has been around for a while in theological work. But Meyer took the concept from Lonergan and made special use of it in new Testament studies. For Meyer it is a key frame that accents and highlights a field of vision to define the world in which we live and find meaning. With respect to Jesus, Meyer perceived his horizon to be the eschatological world of the world of Judaism in which he was raised and which provided much of the central focus for his mission. For Meyer, this is where Christianity started and if one wishes to understand what it was and became one must go back to this frame repeatedly. Of course, as the life of the New Covenant community inaugurated by Jesus developed, other horizons (some in the New Testament era) came into view. Those who followed Jesus from the beginning had to contend with these changes; but Meyer urged that we should never lose sight of Jesus’ original field of vision. This was the firm ground on which the founders of Christianity operated.

Ben Wiebe (essayist in the 1990 collection and editor of the present volume under review) is, no doubt, aware of these connections. Meyer died in 1995.  Indeed this paradigm that Meyer so carefully set out is still valuable for those who seek to put in place an understandable  pictorial map of the main contours of the development of earliest Christianity. I have to conclude that somewhere Meyer’s work was in the back of Wiebe’s mind as he set out the project for this collection of essays. It is noticeable that Wiebe includes in the volume an essay titled, “Ben F. Meyer and The Gospels for All Christians.”[3] The latter title connects with an important contribution coming from Richard Bauckham shortly after Meyer’s death and which argues for viewing, like Meyer, the emergence of early Christianity as a coherent basically unified development. Seen from this  perspective the essays in this volume constitute a collection very much in keeping with Meyer’s original perception of the development of early Christianity.

The Essays in Jesus and Christian Origins

The essays in this volume represent special features of the development of early Christianity (primarily the Gospels) that focus on the special interests of these contemporary authors.

The opening essay by Martin Mosse constitutes a defense of an early dating of the Gospels. The author has a special fondness for historians trained in the Greco-Roman classical tradition who have turned their attention to the New Testament. Thus names like Eduard Meyer, George Edmundson, Earl Ellis and Sherwin-White are evoked regularly. In comparison with the material that historians of the classical era dealt with the New Testament writers are said to appear especially trustworthy – often unlike the Greek historians – because they lived so close to the events that they recorded. Here (and elsewhere in other essays) I was surprised to see the work of J. A. T. Robinson’s Redating the New Testament hauled out of the closet again to validate a number of the conclusions on early dating.

My own essay on the continuing value of Birger Gerhardsson’s work follows.  This is set in contrast with much of the skeptical work of the value of the earliest oral transmission of the Jesus Tradition by the majority of scholars of the last one hundred years. Special attention is given to the emergence of an influential new discipline titled ‘Social Memory.’ I conclude that this discipline can have value in assessing how the Jesus Tradition developed but if not watched closely can quickly cross over into skepticism.

The next two essays focus on the emergence of the actual Four Gospels themselves. John Harrison steps away from the twentieth century model of ‘Form-History’ transmission of Jesus’ sayings and deeds and asks a key question that I believe is central in all of this. “What about the value of the controlled memory of key figures who were around Jesus in different ways and settings from the beginning?” Don’t they have the last word? Surely they must have an important place in determining what is the Jesus Tradition and how it got to be inserted in the Gospels? Here Harrison can (and does) point to the work of Bauckham who goes in an opposite direction to the F. C. Baur thesis. This is especially true with respect to another one of Bauckham’s works titled Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony.

In the other key work in this area we come to Mark Matson’s essay on the Gospel of John. His title “Reviving the Priority of John” gives us a good hint that he is reacting against a common presupposition. He will have nothing to do with the view of many that John functions as a later “secondary” literary-theological overlay of the Jesus of the Synoptics. Matson’s attack on this position is lengthy and persistent. At times I felt he was pouring out into the essay the whole lifetime of his research on this topic collected in his word processor. I learned a lot including that there may be good reasons to revisit J. Louis Martyn’s famous “two level reading of John” to which I plead guilty of commending in some of my own writing.

Nevertheless, the essay left me with some tension about the value of Wiebe’s project on what he calls the New Paradigm. Matson’s argument that John stands his ground in every way with the Synoptics can appear to be more an assertion than a provable point. How can we deal with its major differences with the Synoptics? Is this merely a different horizon? Or are we closer to F. C. Baur? I was surprised that Bauckham’s extensive work on John was not introduced to see if it could help us out in this critical area for the New Paradigm. If Ben Wiebe is looking for a second edition this area would certainly be a place to go and clarify.

Aside from a brief summary and closing reflection by the editor the three final essays of the collection sit very easily within Wiebe’s New Paradigm. Nicholas Perrin walks the reader through the second century noting how the Four Gospels came to be accepted as scripture. Specialists in the field will take notice of Perrin’s discussion of Epistula Apostolorum and 2 Clement. I did observe that recent attempts to revive Marcion as a key figure in the second century canonization process are notably absent.

The important essay on the linkage between the work of Ben Meyer and Richard Bauckham has already been noted. Perrin’s essay on the declining influence of Walter Bauer rounds out the collection. The latter observation is somewhat fascinating because of the prominence given to it in the 1990 volume already noted. It is a reminder that new paradigms frequently emerge; sometimes they also go. If what Wiebe views as the New Paradigm survives it will need to be sustained by careful conservative scholarship undergirding the position that the New Testament presents earliest Christianity as basically a coherent construct.

Conclusion

I strongly commend this set of essays as worthy of notice by busy ministers and church leaders. It engages other positions fairly so that younger students who may encounter them can construct thoughtful responses that should be profitable in making responses to these more venturesome proposals.

The editor of the volume speaks about a New Paradigm that may be developing in Gospel Studies. If it is, I assert that one could do a lot worse than take the late twentieth century model of Ben Meyer’s work on the centrality of several key horizons that emerged in New Testament Christianity and ponder carefully their lasting legacy. A good bit of appreciation for that legacy can be seen in this collection of essays.

 

[1] David J. Hawkin and Tom Robinson (eds.), Self-Definition and Self-Discovery in Early Christianity: A Study in Changing Horizons (Essays in appreciation of Ben F. Meyer from former students): Studies in the Bible and Early Christianity (Lewiston/Queenston: Edwin Mellon Press, 1990).

[2] Ben F. Meyer, The Aims of Jesus (London: SCM Press, 1979).

[3] Jonathan Bernier, “Ben F. Meyer and The Gospels for All Christian,” Jesus and Christian Origins, 201-223. Cf. Ben Wiebe, Jesus and Christian Origins, XVIII. Here what we call Early Christianity is not a thing pieced together by variegated remembrances of Jesus. F. C. Baur supposedly championed the view that the earliest Christian communities emerged in competition with one another (Paul versus James or John vis-à-vis the Synoptics); but rather early Christianity is a community unified by the confession of ‘Jesus as the Christ.’ It occasionally states things in different ways as the believers encounter different horizons but essentially early Christianity can be construed as a unified edifice.

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