Earlier this year I wrote in this posting about New Testament scholars who were beginning to use the often-ignored Gospel of John to do research on the historical Jesus.
This stuff intrigues me, partly because I've always been told that John is the least historical of the gospels, it being more like a theological treatment of Jesus' life and ministry rather than history.
Recently I had an e-mail from one of the scholars leading this let's-use-John charge, Paul N. Anderson of George Fox University in Newberg, Ore., where he has been professor of biblical and Quaker studies since 1989. He updated me not just on his own work this summer as a visiting scholar in Germany but also gave me information about some of the Gospel of John work focusing on Jesus and history to be discussed next month in Atlanta at the annual gathering of the Society of Biblical Literature.
Anderson's own paper to be presented then will be called "The Dialogical Autonomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Theologically Engaged Jesus Tradition and Implications for Jesus Studies." Which may help explain why more people in the pews don't know much about what biblical scholars are up to. The areas of study sound as if they were created by ivory tower scholars who score points for obscure titles.
By the way, the first two sentences of the abstract of Anderson's upcoming talk say (and quite clearly, too): "For nearly two centuries and spanning the first three quests for Jesus, one judgment has remained largely constant among critical scholars: the quest for the Jesus of Nazareth ought to be conducted untainted by the Fourth Gospel’s potentially distortive influence. While reasons for excluding John from Jesus studies are understandable, they bear new sets of critical problems making such an operation finally unsatisfactory."
Even though scholarly language can seem impenetrable, this kind of work is both serious and necessary. And it's not secret. Anyone who cares about biblical studies can find out about it. What's lacking are large collections of people who can translate what the scholars are doing for ordinary Christians who don't have seminary degrees. Oh, sometimes well-read pastors can work some of the new scholarship into sermons or adult education classes. But in my view there simply isn't enough effort by the scholars themselves to make their work accessible (Anderson being an exception).
If biblical interpretation intrigues you, you might want to check into this site, where scholars write about what they're learning. Or you might ask you pastor how he or she stays up to speed on this work (maybe you'll discover he or she doesn't).
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PHELPS' DAY IN COURT
I will have much more to say here on Friday about the Fred Phelps case that was heard before the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday, but let's be clear: When I tell you that I think Phelps should win this case as a way of protecting the free speech rights we all enjoy that doesn't mean I agree with Phelps' bizarre, twisted, malignant theology. Indeed, the man and his followers represent to me almost everything that can go wrong when Christianity is pretzled into personal ideology. Except for the fact that Phelps isn't physically violent, he is to Christianity what Osama bin Laden is to Islam.
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THE BOOK CORNER
Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You've Been Taught about God's Wrath and Judgment, by Sharon L. Baker. The author, who now teaches theology at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, grew up with a traditional, almost fundamentalistic, view of hell -- a fiery pit in which bad people who never accepted Jesus Christ as savior would endure eternal punishment. But she began later in life to struggle with how to reconcile this dismal view of afterlife possibilities with the idea that God is love and wants to redeem the whole creation. Eventually she studied theology deeply enough to begin to create an alternative view of hell that is different from what she thought. Early in the book she tells readers to "be assured that I have no intention of doing away with hell. I can't I have too high a respect for the authority of the Bible as God's Word. And we do find references to fiery judgment and eternal punishment in the Bible. . .So I am very concerned about remaining faithful to Scripture, but I'm even more concerns about remaining faithful to the God of love, who desires the salvation of all people. . ." Here you will travel with Baker as she makes the journey from an emphasis on punishment to an emphasis on love and reconciliation -- the result of which may be to raze hell for you, too.
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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column, "An ethical base for politics must come from us all," now is online. To read it, click here.