Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Lord/Liar/Lunatic -- or something else? Lewis's Trilemma and the Historical Jesus

A friend of mine emailed me because he had some questions on C.S. Lewis's trilemma. For those who don't know, the trilemma that Lewis presents is that it is absolutely bogus to called Jesus a "great moral teacher". Because of Jesus's claims to be God, he must be either (a) correct (which would make him Lord), (b) intentionally incorrect (then he would be a Liar), or (c) unintentionally incorrect (a Lunatic). He had been challenged on this, but wasn't quite sure what the issues were, and what invalidated the trilemma. Anyway, this is what I wrote to him, almost verbatim, and hopefully it will help clarify the issues for some of you, as well as provide an introduction to "historical Jesus" studies.

The criticisms of the Lewis' trilemma all boil down to one question - did Jesus actually say what the gospels say that he did? That is the escape from the Trilemma - that Jesus didn't say the things that the gospels report him saying. So the trilemma becomes a quadrilemma:

1) Lord
2) Liar
3) Lunatic
4) You (and/or the gospels) are misrepresenting what Jesus actually said

A popular idea in Biblical scholarship today is the idea that much of what Jesus "said" in the gospels is actually put in his mouth by his followers that came afterward that totally misunderstood what he was about or that created a story about him that matched their own theological desires.

Many conservative scholars have noted the absurdity of this idea -- that Jesus' immediate followers knew less about what Jesus was about than a group of scholars 2,000 years later who were raised in a completely different language and culture :)

The Jesus Seminar, in particular, has been the origin of a lot of this commentary in recent years. My New Testament professor was one of the founding members of the Jesus Seminar, so I've had to interact with it quite a bit. On the surface, they say that they are simply trying to bring traditional historical scholarship to bear on the life of Jesus, but the fact is that no historical document on earth goes through the same amount of skepticism that the Jesus Seminar applies to the Bible. And, surprise!, the results match exactly the theology of the founder of the Jesus Seminar (Robert Funk). Below is a basic summary of how historical Jesus research operates. Now a lot of what is below is not specific to the Jesus Seminar, and is in fact used in a lot of Biblical scholarship that is unrelated to the Seminar, in both conservative and liberal circles.

The Jesus Seminar (and many others) uses the following textual assumptions:
1) Following Jesus' death, the stories about Jesus were told orally by his original disciples
2) Essentially the next generation of followers started writing down these stories as short fragments, often times a simple one- sentence saying. A hypothetical document known as Q was one of these original sources that is believed to lay at the base of Matthew and Luke. Matthew and Luke were also believed to have relied heavily on Mark.
3) The gospel authors, took these short fragments and wove them into the works that we know as the gospels. Since they were only working with short fragments, the larger narrative is largely an invention of the author. The gospel authors incorporated existing written sources, oral material they have heard, and their own imaginations in composing the gospels.
4) In addition, the Jesus Seminar (and some others) view the "Gospel of Thomas" as being on par with the other gospels from a reliability standpoint.

Now, don't be too incredulous at this point, there actually is some evidence for some degrees of these positions. And, in fact, some degree of many of these positions are not in conflict with Biblical Christianity. This does not make them true or false, but it is good to know.

Based on these assumptions, there are some higher-level ideas:

1) If two documents use the exact same wording of something, then it is likely that they derived from the same written source.
2) If two documents use the same source, and have the same situation or saying written in different ways, then those changes reflect the theological perspectives of the authors.
3) If two documents have the same saying, with different wordings, and are not based on the same source, then that indicates that the saying is "multiply attested" -- that is, we are truly dealing with two independent sources.

Now, based on the above, it is believed that if a saying is "multiply attested", then that is strong evidence that the saying is real rather than an invention. Think about it this way -- if one person saw an event, and three people heard that one person talking about it, then the fact that you hear about it from three people doesn't make it more likely to be real -- it still has only one person behind it. On the other hand, if three different people witnessed an event, then that has a lot more weight for belief than three people repeating the claims of a single person. Therefore, events and sayings of Jesus which are truly multiply attested by the criteria above have a higher likelihood of being true. Now the Jesus Seminar goes further, and says that things which are not multiply attested are likely _not_ to have been said by Jesus. In addition, they have a number of other rules which are _highly_ questionable:

* They view as suspect anything that the gospels have Jesus saying or doing that matched with Christian thought of the early Church
* They view as suspect anything that the gospels have Jesus saying or doing which would have been important to the situation of the early Church (they view that as evidence that the later Church put the words in Jesus' mouth in order to provide authority for what they wanted to do in their present situation).
* There are several others, but they are not nearly as widely used, or considered to the same regard.

Now, even if you agree with the assumptions above, the results you get are highly variable - to the point that you can make the evidence say all sorts of things. For instance, I did my paper on Matthew 15:1-20 (which is paralleled in Mark 7, which is usually considered more original in these sorts of studies). I've attached it if you're interested [I don't have a place to upload this at the moment, but will try to stick it on the web soon], but before reading you should know that it was done based on the assumptions of the class, which I don't necessarily hold.

Anyway, some hold that the "original" oral story is Mark 7 verses 1,2,5,15. If you stitch these together, it says

"Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, 'Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?' 'There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.'"

This makes a nice, small, passage that could be handed down orally very easily, and so some think that this was the original, and everything else was tacked on from either other sources or made up to fit the story. On the other hand, I argued that Mark 7:8 was the most original part of the story, since it was a direct confrontation of the Pharisees to answer their question (which is the most in keeping with all sources of Jesus' life), and from that was able to tie in the whole story from 7:5-7:13 as being one piece in the tradition (7:1-4 doesn't really deal with Jesus - it is simply Mark giving some background on the story). I also argue that this is likely a true Jesus story because while this particular story isn't attested to elsewhere (under this paradigm Matthew is believed to simply be following Mark), the fact that they don't wash hands and it causes controversy is corroborated by Luke 11:37-41.

If I remeber correctly, the Jesus Seminar threw out this entire passage. I don't remember why.

So, as you can see, even if you assume that their rules of evidence and assumptions about the text are correct, there are an uncountable number of different configurations you might suppose was "originally Jesus", each having decent argumentation in favor of it.

Okay, so what does all of this have to do with the Lord/Liar/Lunatic? The Jesus Seminar and other historical Jesus research spearheaded the idea that Jesus did not view himself in any sort of elevated manner, and thus renders the Trilemma invalid, since Jesus never made any of those high claims of himself. However, a lot of scholarship today has been going back to the idea that Jesus saw himself as a Messiah figure (note that Messiah just means "savior" -- David was considered a Messiah as well). The Jesus Seminar has been in large part rejected because it was indeed both extreme in its cutting of the Bible, and extremely prejudiced towards the religious view of its founder. This doesn't mean that now all scholars would agree that Jesus thought of himself as divine, but it does mean that the overall consensus is coming back to the idea that he saw himself in some sort of apocalyptic fashion. So, while it is still true that there is a fourth option, it is still does not quite put Jesus into the "moral teacher" category. It perhaps allows for Jesus to be a "moral teacher with an apocalyptic vision of himself".

If you want a good book that covers both a traditional and "Jesus Seminar-ish" view of Jesus from two excellent scholars, I would check out the book "The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions" by Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright. Borg is straight from the Jesus Seminar, and N.T. Wright is considered by many the modern C.S. Lewis. The two conservative scholars at the forefront of historical Jesus research are N.T. Wright and Scot McKnight, and anything by either of them is sure to be good material. Scot McKnight also has a blog, jesuscreed.org.


At 8/16/2007 8:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having read The Five Gospels, I have to agree. It very much looks like results of the Jesus Seminar are in line with the opinions of Robert W. Funk. However, I have other issues with the Jesus Seminar and its criteria. Mark Goodacre has a page on his website speaking against Q (http://ntgateway.com/Q/). Being a skeptic in a number of ways, I have to stand with Goodacre on this point: Q remains hypothetical, and it is much more likely that Luke borrowed from both Mark and Matthew than it is that the Q document is a source. The Jesus Seminar, however, seems to take the existence of the Q document as, pardon the pun, gospel.

Anyway, I appreciate this piece. This is a very good summation and discussion of Lewis' trilemma, and I thank you for writing it.


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