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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

In the first post of this series I sketched the main contours of the school of Dutch Radical Criticism, which challenges the authenticity of all the Pauline epistles as witnesses to the earliest form of Christianity. Dutch radical scholars usually argue that the epistles were written sometime in the 2nd Century in the context of ongoing disputes between anti-nomian and more legalistic branches of the Christ cult (this does not of course exhaust the options by any means; there are just about as many solutions offered to the Pauline problem as there are Dutch Radicals; in addition some scholars take a middle ground, where the Pauline epistles may contain an authentic core of Pauline writing but they have been overlaid and interpolated many times so that redactional layers should be discernible, just like with the Synoptic gospels).

Mainstream scholars by and large are unaware of this school these days, which has only a handful of supporters. The most articulate and erudite is undoubtedly Hermann Detering, whose work I will be interacting with extensively in the future. But around the turn of the century, Dutch Radical Criticism was the center of the most important conversations in New Testament studies. One of the first mainstream scholars to take the school seriously was Albert Schweitzer. He is known primarily for his seminal survey of Jesus studies from Reimarus to Wrede, The Quest of the Historical Jesus. But after that he wrote a similar book on Pauline studies, Paul and His Interpreters, and he devoted a whole chapter to the work of the Dutch radicals. Schweitzer applied his razor-sharp intellect and unflagging intellectual integrity to an objective, thorough examination of the their views, so his conclusions are worth pondering.

According to Schweitzer, the roots of the Dutch Radical movement were found in the work of F.C. Baur. Baur famously declared only four Pauline epistles to be authentic (Galations, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans). Certainly most conservative or moderate scholars thought that he had gone way too far in his radical skepticism. Others, however, thought that he had not gone far enough: "Once the rights of such a [radical] criticism are admitted, nothing can prevent it from working itself out to its limit, and seeking to explain all the Epistles as products of a school which went under Paul's name." (p.118) In Baur's wake a number of critical examinations of the Pauline epistles were published, starting with Bruno Bauer and his theory that Christianity was really the invention of an alliance between Roman authority and Jewish religion, and moving on to the writings of Allard Pierson, A.D. Loman, Rudolf Steck, W.C. Van Manen and others. They pointed to both external and internal difficulties with the mainstream paradigm of Pauline studies (namely that we have some letters directly from Paul and some which were written by his school after his death, all before or around the end of the 1st Century). The usual culprits are named: the discrepancy between the portrayal of Paul in the Acts of the Apostles (which has no knowledge of Paul as letter-writer, and portrays a conciliatory view of the tension between Paul and Peter) and in his letters (which are more fragmentary with respect to the chronology of his life, and show much more inconsistency in his views on a variety of subjects, such as the Law and salvation), the lack of external attestation before Clement, Ignatius (whose letters the Dutch Critics thought inauthentic) and Marcion, etc. Another common argument for a late dating of the Pauline epistles which finds some echoes in the work of Earl Doherty is the time scale involved. In the view of the radical critics, the letters of Paul represent an intense Hellenization of Christian ideas which (according to the mainstream view) was supposed to have been the work of a single person (Paul) over about 20 years of ministry. They argued that this was impossible: "Could a Christology of this [Hellenistic] kind come into being a few years only after the death of the historical Jesus? Is an intense anti-Judaism in primitive Christian times intelligible? Can Greek, Gnostical ideas be assumed to have existed in the first generation?" (p.131) Thus it was more likely that Paul's letters come from a later stage in the development of Christian thought, around the middle of the 2nd Century.

So according to the Dutch Radicals, the mainstream paradigm of Pauline studies faces too many difficulties to continue to be accepted. But what paradigm should be put in its place? We have already noted that there are as many different solutions as there are scholars. One of the more interesting hypotheses, put forward by Steck and Van Manen, was that the Acts of the Apostles was prior to the epistles, since its story of Paul is simpler and more internally consistent. The Pauline epistles were written in the 2nd Century as weapons in a bizarre ideological warfare between the catholicizing and Judaizing tendencies in early Christianity, in which both sides projected their current conflict onto the historical apostle to the Gentiles to give them legitimacy. There is disagreement over why Paul was chosen to represent this conflict. After all, if we reject the mainstream view of Paul as the single most important Christian missionary of the 1st Century, it becomes hard to see why he would have carried enough subsequent weight to authorize an entire epistolary corpus.

From this summary of their views Schweitzer moves on to assess their arguments. Although he praises the Dutch Radicals for having the intellectual honesty to take Baur's skeptical arguments to their logical conclusions and for being very insightful close readers of the texts (He says of Steck and Loman: "This is the element of greatness in [their writings], that they did not forget the duty of asking questions, when it had fallen out of fashion among other theologians." (p.138)), overall he finds their views to be untenable. As regards external attestation, "the position is not so favorable to [the Dutch Radicals] as Loman wished to represent it." 1 Clement attests quite clearly to some Pauline letters and is to be dated no later than the beginning of the 2nd Century. If the Ignatian letters are genuine, "the attestation of the Pauline Epistles is in much better shape than was formerly supposed." Furthermore, "that Acts says nothing about the literary activity of the Apostle has at most the value of an argumentum e silentio." (p.135)

As regards to the internal arguments and the attempt to derive a redaction history of the Pauline letters on the basis of alleged inconsistencies, "the development which culminates in the antinomianism of the Epistle to the Galatians cannot be proved from the texts; the evidence is read into them by the exercise of great ingenuity." (p.136)

But Schweitzer thought that the main weakness in the views of both the Dutch Radicals and the mainstream theologians who challenged them was the unquestioned assumption that Paul's theology represented a Hellenization of Christianity. As we have seen, this forces the question of how such revolutionary developments could have happened in such a short time frame (as the mainstream paradigm suggests) under the influence of only one man? "How is it conceivable that a man of the primitive Christian period could, in consequence of a purely practical controversy regarding the observance or non-observance of the law by Gentile believers, go on, as Baur and his successors represent-to reject the law on principle? How could it be possible that, at that time, doctrine should take a frankly Gnostic shape, and in deliberate contempt of the tradition of the historical Jesus, should, under the yes of the men who had been His companions, appeal only to revelation?" (pp.137-138) Schweitzer argues that accepting those assumptions logically compels a scholar to raise the question of 'space and time' and argue that more time was necessary for such radical shifts to take place:

"The more the theologians who derive from Baur emphasise the Greek element in Paulinism the more helpless they are against the [radical] critics. For it is after all merely a matter of clearness and courage of thought whether they venture to raise the question about space and time. The moment they take this step they are lost. Nevermore can they find the way which leads back through the green pastures of sound common-sense theology, but are condemned to wander about with the revolutionaries in the wilderness of flat unreason. Wearied with problems, they come at last, like Steck and Van Manen, to a condition of mind in which the wildest hypothesis appeals to them more than rational knowledge..." (p.137)

So according to Schweitzer, the real roots of the Dutch Radical views were not primarily exegetical but rather presuppositional. Indeed many leading Pauline scholars have flatly rejected the above assumptions. Dunn, Wright, Sanders and others have all argued for viewing Paul as a solidly Jewish thinker with much more continuity with the historical Jesus than has often been assumed (see also David Wenham and Paul Barnett). These scholars generally do not find traces of gnosticism in Paul's thought either. Once these assumptions are rejected, the mainstream view becomes more plausible.

Of course Schweitzer had his own axe to grind with regard to Pauline studies: he was pushing his solution of 'thorough-going eschatology' in the face of both the radical critics and the mainstream theologians. But his criticism and insights are very valuable as we move forward in examining the arguments of the Dutch Radical critics, and a sobering reminder that, in New Testament studies as in other fields, there is rarely anything new under the sun.

5 comments:

'Another common argument for a late dating of the Pauline epistles which finds some echoes in the work of Earl Doherty is the time scale involved'

When does Doherty date Corinthians, Galatians and Romans?

I was referring not to his dating of the epistles but the development of the 'historical Jesus legend'. Doherty has stated his incredulity at the idea that the disciples could have formed such an exalted idea about a historical figure so soon after his death. Therefore, he insists that it must have taken a long time, and went the other way around (i.e. from exalted mythical figure to historical person).

Even if the Dutch guys were right, which I doubt, it would still leave Christianity with far more of a historical basis than almost any other religion.

I go for a Schweitzer light sort of view. I accept that Pastorals are shaped by Pauline circle guys in late first or early second century. I accept the non pastorals as authentically Pauline.

What do you think of Richard Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett? Do you find the way they think and reason to be offensive???

One can argue for the authenticity of the pauline corpus if one wishes, but one may not appeal to attestation in 1stClement or in the Ignatian epistles to do so, I'm afraid. Schweitzer was simply wrong about their level of familiarity with Paul. I engage your series of posts on this in more detail at my own blog.

peace

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