The late French film director Jean Renoir summarized his artistic creed as follows: "Man is a creature of habit. The artist's task is to break with habits." But are all habits bad? When the artist's critique of conventional practice becomes gratuitous, we call it iconoclasm.

Iconoclasm exists in biblical research, too. In "Jesus the Sage: The Pilgrimage of Wisdom," Ben Witherington III lodges a protest against it. He notes the guild's "ever present urge to say something new without reflecting on whether it is true." He has new insights to offer himself - but wishes to ground them securely in something more substantial than the present cultural mood.

Witherington's book joins Meier's as testimony to the value of rigorous academic biblical study. Arguing from a quite different set of data than Meier does, Witherington refutes recent claims by Crossan, F. G. Downing, and Burton Mack that Jesus closely resembled a Cynic philosopher. Yet, as the title of his book suggests, Witherington is not averse to the idea that Jesus should be seen, in the end, as a sage. A major purpose of his book is "to show that one crucial dimension, perhaps the most comprehensive dimension of Jesus' teaching, is the Wisdom dimension." Accordingly, "the best overall categorization of the man is that he was a sage."

Some of the strengths of Meier's study are present in Witherington's, too. There is breadth and depth of coverage of an important topic, for example, as well as helpful sifting of overly imaginative reconstructions of the gospel data. Witherington provides useful reflection on language theory and (following E. D. Hirsch) mounts a cautious defense of the validity of objective standards of interpretation: " 'Blessed are the peacemakers' cannot be construed to mean 'Blessed are the warmongers.' " He offers reasonable strictures regarding today's popular literary-critical emphases in gospel studies: "Literary criticism that seeks to short circuit historical inquiry will in the end not do justice to either the text being studied or the one who originally wrote it."

Witherington makes his case by sweeping across the whole biblical canon to show the nature and place of wisdom literature in both Old and New Testament thought. Nor does he neglect the crucial intertestamental period. He particularizes his study when he reaches the New Testament era to show how the so-called Christological hymns (Phil. 2:6-11, Col. 1:15-20, 1 Tim. 3:16) and related passages are solidly moored in wisdom reflection.

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Herein lies the major contribution that Witherington makes. Much modern study of Jesus is rigorously, and to a point, justifiably, synchronic in nature. That is, the gospel texts are investigated against the backdrop of literary evidences thought to originate in the same era as the Gospels. Examples would include Josephus, rabbinic literature, and the Dead Sea scrolls.

Witherington, however, calls for diachronic sensitivity as well. While a synchronic view stresses literature contemporaneous with the canonical Gospels, a diachronic view looks back through history at thought modes - such as the biblical wisdom tradition - that meander down the centuries, finally bubbling up in various pools of New Testament thinking. Witherington thinks this has happened as Old Testament works such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, preserved in Judaism and appropriated by intertestamental sources such as the Wisdom of Solomon and Ben Sira, affected the outlooks of virtually all the New Testament writers. To describe the process succinctly: Jesus, part of a Jewish community steered by wisdom traditions, interpreted himself in an unprecedented way as the personification of biblical wisdom. Then "the early church took this seed, planted it and raised a vast harvest of Wisdom Christologies. … "

To a greater degree than Meier, perhaps, Witherington makes a constructive proposal in the midst of the current Jesus debates. (In fairness to Meier, we should note that the third volume of his trilogy might prove to be more constructive, less rigidly analytical, than the first two.) Witherington forges plausible suggestions regarding the possible origins of the New Testament's "high" Christology. His theory is that the very earliest "Jesus tradition, if not Jesus himself, drew on the riches found specifically in the wisdom of Ben Sira," which, in turn (like most New Testament writers), drew on the Old Testament. Unlike many of his academic peers, Witherington thinks such Christology could have "originated very early and on Palestinian soil." This is significant, since the earlier that "high" Christology is placed on a time-line of early church expansion, the more justified it is to trace this Christology to Jesus and his earliest followers rather than to later, and possibly fanciful, religious speculation generations after Jesus' death. On Witherington's time-line, Jesus' divinity is upheld in Palestinian Jewish Christianity no later than "within the first twenty years after Jesus' death."

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So much for the stereotype that scholarly reconstructions of New Testament evidence for Jesus must run counter to traditional Christian belief. Yet someone skeptical of current Jesus research might be leery of the whole enterprise for a different reason. Are not both Meier and Witherington working within the confines of a critical consensus based on Markan priority and a hypothetical Q document? In this view, virtually unheard of until the nineteenth century but now the dominant scholarly paradigm, Mark was the earliest gospel written. The composers of Matthew and Luke then made use of Mark as the basis of their own gospels. They also used a second (hypothetical) document or collection of sayings, dubbed Q (for the German word Quelle, meaning "source"). As scholars reconstruct it, Q contains no passion narrative and no resurrection. In the end, are not all the experts who accept these theories really birds of a feather, showing differences of degree but not of kind in how they handle the New Testament?

A third recent example of Jesus research challenges - no, explodes - that stereotype, too.


Why was a whole nation glued to the TV during the Gulf War and again following the Los Angeles riots in the wake of the sentencing of the police who beat Rodney King? Reasons are numerous and varied, but one thing is certain: many were lured by the terrible fascination of open, gloves-off conflict.

Intense conflict, even of a clean-hitting and constructive kind, is precisely what nonspecialists find lacking in current debates about Jesus. These debates seem, in the end, literally just academic. Scholars rise, scholars fall, books come, books go, but the basic vocabulary and methods and authorities (Q, form criticism, historical Jesus, redactor, Markan tradition, L, M, Schmidt, Dibelius, Bultmann, etc.) remain unchanged. In fact, for all the insights they offer, neither Meier nor Witherington does anything to question this basic paradigm. They rather both affirm it.

Enter William R. Farmer's "The Gospel of Jesus: The Pastoral Relevance of the Synoptic Problem." Suddenly, as the truck commercial says, the rules have changed.

Farmer lays the matter squarely on the line. Is Jesus' death and resurrection a necessary part of the New Testament message? At the end of Jesus research, Farmer asks, "Do we end up with a credible story of Jesus that is adequate to account for the faith of those who bear his name, or do we end up with the teaching of some Mediterranean philosopher who has no idea of what must be done to turn the world upside down and to set the human family on a different path?"

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Farmer, emeritus professor at Southern Methodist University and research scholar at the University of Dallas, is a household name to academic specialists. For decades he has spoken and published widely, arguing that Matthew, not Mark, was written first. Like some desert prophet, he has patiently but forcefully taken his colleagues to task for overreliance on the theory of Markan priority and the accompanying view that a Q document, and perhaps a Q community, are really the most authentic witnesses to the earliest form of the gospel message.

The implications of the mainline view, which Farmer rejects, are enormous. He finds them coming to mature fruition today in the claims of Koester, Crossan, John Robinson, and others in the Jesus Seminar. With the help of the second-century Gospel of Thomas, which in their view reflects first-century traditions and stands alongside Q as an independent witness, these scholars "represent Jesus as one whose disciples had no interest in any redemptive consequence of his death and no interest in his resurrection." This would imply that the preaching of Christ's cross and resurrection, far from being the church's sacred trust, was really never more than a distorted interpretation of the real Jesus and his message.

Farmer demurs. He first explains his view of gospel origins, which he calls the Two-Gospel Hypothesis. By "Two-Gospel," Farmer means Matthew and Luke. He contrasts it to the view that has dominated discussion since its inception in Germany in the nineteenth century, the Two-Source Hypothesis. He next devotes a large section to the question: What difference does one theory or the other make for worship, theology, and ethics? He finds profound differences, indeed. With a good bit of irony, he lists 15 hypothetical groups who would find the Two-Source Hypothesis "useful." Among them: "Those who wish to claim that Jesus never taught his disciples to pray the Lord's Prayer." "Those who separate Jesus from Paul by arguing that Paul's teaching of justification by faith has no point of contact with the teaching of Jesus." "Those who think it is appropriate to dismantle the church's canon." "Those who would assert that there is no evidence that Isaiah 53 was of any importance for Jesus."

Farmer offers insights on why the theory of Markan priority attained the monopoly status it has come to enjoy. He finds ample reasons in the social history of nineteenth-century Germany. By the 1930s, this history had taken an awful turn: "A 'critically correct' civil religion, pushed by university-trained German-Christian theologians like Emanuel Hirsch, gloried in the idea of Markan priority with its understanding of Christian theology based on the Two-Source Hypothesis. … " Here, as elsewhere, Farmer does not deny that Markan priority can be presented in a favorable light. And he does not charge all Two-Source proponents with the worst failures of some who have, he thinks, taken the theory too far. But he does show convincingly that at times the theory has been used to support dubious theological views with disastrous ethical consequences. This is not itself ground for rejecting the theory - over the centuries the church has erred grievously without appeal to Q - but the evidence Farmer marshals merits careful review.

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The appeal of Farmer's book lies not just in the weight of its arguments. It lies also in the level at which he makes his case. With the very gospel of Jesus Christ itself at stake in Jesus research, "the time has come for pastors and interested lay people, including students, to begin participating in the dialogue."

Did you ever wish for just one concise, plain book that would explain the roots of the current Jesus debate and clarify the confusing terms and relationships summed up in that ominous-sounding term "the synoptic problem"? Farmer's book is not the only one that attempts this, but it may now be among the best. He hopes that "with this book in hand it is now possible for any discerning nonspecialist to enter the discussion."

Farmer may be a little too optimistic here, as the discussion must ultimately always come down to the close analysis of Greek texts, which nonspecialists cannot read. Yet, in a broad sense, he is correct: his book furnishes a framework for readers without special training to think for themselves about matters that have long been served up as "assured results" - to the detriment of both scholarship and the church. As Meier observes, "assured results have a way of becoming unsure again."

But what about Farmer's own "assured results"? Do they not mark just another round in an endless debate? Two facts should be remembered. First, Farmer's conclusions, while coherent within contemporary critical discussion, really hark back to the ancient church and, in particular, Augustine, who learned much from still earlier sources. They are not the "assured results" of fleeting theory but the well-grounded consensus of centuries of church scholarship and practice. Farmer's conclusions are essentially the Christian convictions that Enlightenment criticism threw overboard when it embarked on the first "quest for the historical Jesus" in the eighteenth century. And Farmer shows that they can be supported by rigorous argument today.

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Second, Farmer's conclusions leave us free to affirm a historical, and heavenly, Savior of New Testament proportions - not some shrunken "historical Jesus." Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. This affirmation is not a stage in an endless debate but the beginning of eternal life. What would it be like if biblical scholars, our society's opinion-shapers on religious matters from their podiums in universities and mainline seminaries, were to uphold the apostolic faith instead of employing their critical weaponry only to call it into question? Just stating the question sounds preposterous. But Farmer's treatment of the issues enables me to imagine streaks of light in the east after what may be fairly termed criticism's long day's journey into night on the historical Jesus question.


Even if Farmer is wrong about the solution to the current synoptics studies confusion, I suspect he is right that something has gone woefully awry in the premises and methods that underlie the debate. This serious glitch is what causes many to be cynical about the whole academic discussion currently under way. Such cynicism is understandable but unfortunate. I have tried to show why, by arguing that despite the inadequacies and problems of Jesus research, recent scholarly studies of Jesus merit our respect and will repay, often richly, our careful reflection.

The "quest for the historical Jesus" only seems to be a treadmill. Individuals and communities of faith who deliberately ignore or deride it can hurt themselves by doing so and certainly curtail their witness. For the Jesus of today's unchurched - and, unfortunately, many "churched" too - often bears resemblance to a "historical" Jesus picked up from the popular press or a college religious-studies class. Effective communication requires knowing the audience as well as the message. Gospel strength emerges from understanding of error as well as truth; error, repented and corrected, may be the most potent truth of all.

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