Can We Trust The New Testament? John A T Robinson
Why do a blog on this little 1977 paperback? A mix of personal and intellectual reasons. First, I knew John Robinson when he was Dean of Trinity College Cambridge and I was a student there from 1974 to 77. He was of course the controversial Dean who had written Honest to God as Bishop of Woolwich a few years before. In this earlier work he had slated several Christian doctrines which he considered no longer tenable in the Twentieth Century, most famously the Virgin Birth and bodily resurrection. He championed very liberal German scholars who rejected any historical basis for the Gospels on Humean grounds: stories of miracles could not by definition be historical and therefore must be much later fantasies created long after the facts about Jesus had been forgotten, in order to boost the credibility of their founding figure. But it was OK, because we could follow Rudolf Bultmann in dividing the unknowable Jesus of History from the Christ of Faith. The fact that according to 1 John this division forms the basis of all heresy was overlooked: “Who is the Antichrist but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ?” Bultmann leaves Christians free to create Jesus in their own image and make it all up as they go along – any claims to truth in some factual sense are reduced to tatters. Academic theology lapped it up: PhDs flourish in this suddenly expanded field in a way they cannot when it is asserted that Jesus is substantially revealed to us in the Gospels.
All this got very wide coverage in the popular press. It most certainly fed the growing disillusionment with Christianity in the UK: “If their own bishops don’t believe all this stuff, then why should we?” Further developments flowed from it: a roughly contemporary Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, announced that the bodily resurrection of Jesus meant nothing more than “a conjuring trick with bones.” A book called The Myth of God Incarnate appeared. A movement arose called The Sea of Faith, whose adherents seemed mostly to be clergy who didn’t believe in God any more. Churches of course emptied at an accelerating rate: why should anyone go through the motions of a faith which its own leaders renounced? An acquaintance went to Emmanuel College Cambridge where Don Cupitt was Dean of Chapel, responding to Cupitt’s stripped out faith by abandoning his own. And I asked myself, “Maybe it is honest to God to confess that there are aspects of Christianity you reject – but then isn’t it dishonest to hang on to your pay packet as a Bishop?”
Robinson was undoubtedly a central figure in this disaster for the Church and the Gospel and ought to bear responsibility. There was a good intention of sorts behind his stance: it was clearly hoped that if a few relatively unimportant doctrines were stumbling blocks to the faith of a great many ordinary Brits, why not jettison them and watch the lost sheep come flocking back in? However this begs the question, “What are the central and unalterable tenets without which our faith ceases to be Christianity and is turned into something else?”
Things have improved a bit since Bishop Robinson’s day: following the exodus of so many unbelievers, the churches are much smaller but are more likely to be committed to their cause by choice rather than inertia. This is actually a healthy, pruning process: as half hearted, ill-informed churchgoing is stripped out, the quality of discipleship in those who remain is increased and this gives potential for growth. Nonetheless it seems clear that the effect of Robinson’s public statements was to lower rather than boost the credibility of the Gospel in the UK.
I remember Bishop Robinson as an austere figure about the College, not greatly given to smiling, and able to leave much of the day to day contact with students to a pair of chaplains while he pursued his theological interests. He was however given to surprising members of the Christian Union by showing that he often knew the Bible better than they did. For example he put on a Lent course called “He being dead yet speaketh,” and went round asking CICCU people where the verse comes from (Hebrews 11 if you want to look it up.) I rather think he enjoyed confounding people’s expectations: he’d enjoyed being the enfant terrible of the Church of England with his disturbing views – did he enjoy ruffling the feathers of the liberal establishment as well, by teasing them that he was more conservative than they thought? I think this teasing quality is there in the tone of Can We Trust the New Testament, a delight in renouncing the role of master heretic that had been widely ascribed to him. Perhaps the same spirit underlay his later book The Priority of John (1984) which undermined the liberal case that John was a very late spiritualising addition to the canon. Together these titles seem to indicate that the direction of travel was back to a more conservative faith.
What fun to reminisce! But there are still important questions. Where has the debate got to in the fifty odd years since those days when the issues used to get an airing in public, at least occasionally? Robinson’s book is too short to be a comprehensive analysis of the theology of the New Testament in his day, but it does make for a very useful summary of the state of play, together with trenchant observations on some of its key features. So let’s see whether his definition of the field still stacks up today.
He begins by summarising the various views of those who are uncomfortable with biblical scholarship and makes clear his absolute commitment to the academic freedom to question everything. The third chapter, The Tools of Discrimination , briefly sets out the main critical methods which scholars apply to the New Testament:
• Textual criticism - which of the various texts that have come down to us are the most reliable?
• Source criticism – who wrote this and what sources did they draw on?
• Form criticism – what literary processes have shaped the composition?
• Redaction criticism – who pulled the document together into its final shape and what were they trying to achieve? You must try to imagine what might have been the needs and expectations of the people for whom the Gospels were written.
Robinson doubts some aspects of form criticism: “some of these critics…” have been “unwarrantably sceptical about the historical value of the tradition;” and even (the Gospel writers) “have been relegated to scissors-and-paste men.” However he is most scathing about redaction criticism: “Greatly inflated claims have been made for this method!” One of the most damaging outcomes has been the atomisation of the text into often minute subsections, called pericopes, each assigned a different authorship and history. With this operational method it is no longer possible to see broad themes in the Gospels. Any wider vision they may wish to impart is frittered away into fragments.
Bishop Robinson’s response to his own titular question is strongly that we can indeed trust the New Testament. He is very good on the sheer weight of documentary evidence, very many times more abundant than any other document dating from before printing was invented, and for the dates of the surviving manuscripts – because everything had to be copied out by hand over and over again – being very much nearer to the original date of writing than those available for any other literature. There are literally thousands! Yes there are some copying errors when some NT manuscripts are compared to others of the same portion of Scripture, and one or two occasions when explanatory notes were added to the text by well meaning later scribes, for example in Mark chapter 16, which somehow ended up being included as part of the Gospel in later versions. However Robinson points out that there are very few such variations and none of them make any difference at all to Christian teaching or to the events of Jesus’ life.
And Robinson adds the important point that more and more fragments of NT manuscripts keep turning up. Since the 19th century heyday of German scholars like Harnack and Levi-Strauss, the very late dates of composition they worked with have had to be abandoned because fragments of writings keep surfacing which are demonstrated to be of earlier date. Who knows when even earlier copies may surface? A great example is a fragment of Matthew’s Gospel dated to 85CE which was the subject of Carsten Peter Thiede’s The Jesus Papyrus, published in 1996. The response of those who held to established views? The exact correlation of the Greek letters in the fragment with a section of Matthew must be a coincidence! This is the triumph of received opinion over hard evidence.
In all this discussion Robinson takes a donnish delight in his own contributions to the New English Bible as part of the translation team. He seems genuinely to expect the readers of his supposedly popular title to be familiar with the footnotes, especially the ones he personally drafted, and to enjoy sifting through them. Ah, those ivory towers!
For Robinson then, “Can we trust the New Testament?” seems to mean, “is the text of the NT reliable?” and his conclusion is essentially, “Yes it is.” However that is the limit up to which he considers the NT as a whole to be reliable. He doesn’t follow through by saying that therefore the NT is also a reliable guide to what happened historically, nor that it is reliable in relation to present faith, theology or conduct. If the Gospels were written much earlier than the liberal scholars had thought, the time required for their supposed mythologising process to take place is denied them and their whole argument is shown to be flawed. We are brought into the context which Professor Richard Bauckham explores so vividly in his excellent Jesus – the Eyewitnesses, that there were still people about who remembered what happened. I personally believe that all the evidence shows that the Gospels were written by the time of the catastrophic destruction of the state of Israel by the Roman army in 70CE – that’s within 40 years of the crucifixion…
The other major problem with Can we trust the New Testament is that it almost entirely concerns the Gospels. These had been the focus of the quest for the historical Jesus as the foundation for the liberal consensus of that time. But what about the other 23 books? Robinson offers one trenchant comment on Hebrews, pointing out the very many references to the Temple, its worship and its symbolism, without a single hint that it has been destroyed by the Romans – and this in spite of its constant recurrence to the theme that the Temple in Jerusalem was merely a passing shadow of the lasting spiritual reality now brought about by Christ. This can only mean that Hebrews was composed prior to the destruction of 70CE.
A survey of the other books of the New Testament provides a very interesting background for Gospel studies. It is generally acknowledged that many of the epistles pre-date the writing of the Gospels: yet they present a high Christology, like that in Hebrews, in which Jesus Christ is portrayed as Saviour, Redeemer and Lord through his cross and resurrection. The aforesaid liberal consensus does not sit at all well with this background. Far from Jesus needing a bit of a boost from a good write up by fourth or fifth generation Christians, he was already acknowledged as the name above all names from earliest days. No artificially inflated stories were necessary.
I am now going to throw in a few other reasons why we can trust the New Testament, not because they are in Robinson but because they should be and I am frustrated at their absence.
• As others have pointed out, the grey figure who said and did little that was remarkable, as proposed by the pursuers of the quest for the historical Jesus and their ilk, could not possibly have launched the Christian movement. It is very hard to see how his humiliating death could have failed to overthrow such a person’s following and terminate his influence, apart from a subsequent resurrection.
• If the Gospels are an official history, why do they give Peter and the other apostles such a bad press? Remember that these are supposed to be people charged with passing the message on to ensuing generations. Yet they are portrayed as often foolish, wavering, unbelieving, wrong-headed – just like us in fact. One of the great testimonies to the truth of the Gospels is their warts and all presentation of the early Christian leaders.
• John the Baptist is a key figure in all four Gospels and in Acts, getting more coverage than any character except Jesus Himself. A broad range of incidents and sayings are included in this coverage, showing a multiple attestation to John. In spite of this breadth, a consistent message is always concurrent: John is the messenger of repentance from sin, preparing the way for Jesus who will baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire. Here we clearly have a polemic. The evangelists aim to establish that Jesus, not John, is the Messiah and that to follow John means acknowledging Jesus, as John himself is shown to do. The existence of this polemic establishes that John’s disciples were still a significant presence in the world of the Gospel writers. This in turn connects to the dating of the Gospels, since they must have been written while John still had followers. But how long did John’s influence persist? As his mission seems to have been primarily to Jewish people it seems improbable that it can have lasted beyond the end of the Jewish state in 70CE, and indeed after Josephus we find no references to John in the record, in contrast to the various commentators who mention Jesus. We also find clear blue water between the canonical and the apocryphal Gospels, the latter hardly bothering with John at all and showing no interest in the polemical concerns of the former. The apocryphal gospels therefore clearly date from after the waning away of John’s following. They are not playing in the same park as the canonical Gospels. I would love to research this if I can find an academic prepared to supervise me!
• As C S Lewis points out somewhere, if the Gospels are fiction, they anticipate the techniques of realistic prose narrative, as we find it in say the rise of the eighteenth century novel, by many hundreds of years. It surprises me how little theologians who base their criticism of the Gospels on literary grounds show any awareness of actual literary form and composition. Composition by patchwork as they often propose is vanishingly rare.
• Still thinking in literary terms, I am convinced that the person of Jesus as described in the Gospels is not fictional. Just as there is nobody else remotely like Him in history, He is also without parallel in fiction. I studied literature at Trinity and I certainly never found anyone to compare with Him in the great works of Western civilisation. His powerful and beautiful combination of compassion, challenge, simplicity, profundity, authority, gentleness, penetration, practicality and spirituality are utterly unique. Our literary heroes have to have weaknesses or we don’t believe in them. These weaknesses are often the obverse of their strengths, so that a charismatic leader often lacks humility and vice versa, or a practical person is impatient of contemplation and vice versa. How did the Son of Man manage to have all the strengths of human character without the corresponding flaws? Yet I am utterly convinced by Him and long to follow Him and become more like Him…
I’m going to conclude with two examples in which Robinson, having asserted that we can trust the text of the New Testament, refuses to trust in its teaching. The first is the virgin birth. Part of the context for Robinson was probably the Lady Chatterley trial of 1960. He had spoken in defence of D H Lawrence’s novel at the trial on the grounds that the work had artistic merit and this justified its publication and readership. Lawrence in some of the purpler passages of his books mythologises sex as holy and meaning-laden. I therefore think that Robinson may have felt that the virgin birth demeans sex through God’s non-participation in the usual means of human procreation, almost as if the morally responsible thing for God to do would be to engage directly with human sexuality. The whole area has become much more convoluted since then and all kinds of interesting variations would now need to be involved to keep it inclusive! Anyway Mary wouldn’t have existed without a mother and a father, or their mothers and fathers, so sex is never far away…
The second example is the bodily resurrection of Jesus. It is odd that Robinson rejects the virgin birth in order to champion the body but then abandons the body when it comes to God’s long term purposes in the resurrection. In Can we trust the New Testament he is satisfied with the survival of the human spirit as the intention of the many passages in the Gospels and epistles that feature the risen Christ. For Robinson the point of the resurrection narratives is that they offer proof that something of us survives death. However the Lord came to do very much more than simply survive: He came to conquer! The point of those embarrassingly physical (for Robinson) testimonies to the resurrection is that Jesus takes back everything that death has robbed us of and sets in train a movement of redemption for the whole universe in which it too will be set free from its bondage to decay for a life no longer subject to the power of death. All sorts of peoples, religions and mythologies have believed in some sort of afterlife. A currently popular version seems to be that you become a star or a robin... The resurrection is totally different, a power from God breaking into the cosmos and revolutionising it. That’s what the apostles got so excited about! To miss this while surveying the reliability of the New Testament is to miss its entire point.
While it is a positive that Robinson affirms the undoubted reliability of the text of the New Testament it is sad to see so little trust in its central message. Perhaps Robinson was on a trajectory which would ultimately lead him back into the fold of believers, as a contemporary who was a postgraduate at Trinity and later one of my tutors at Oak Hill used to think. The evidence of Can we trust the New Testament however is that at the time of writing it Robinson was still a long way from the goal of that journey.