Reviewing ‘Is this not the Carpenter?” – Round 1

My goal is to not disparage this entire book as one might hope. I do think that given the breadth of scholars involved, it deserves some measure of attention. Now that it is in paperback form, it is more acce$$ible to the average reader than the previous hardcover incarnation.

I am not going to review every essay, but after having read through many of them, there are a few I want to call attention too. This first one is also the first essay in the book and it is written by none other than Dr. Jim West. Titled truthfully as A (Very, Very) Short Introduction to Minimalism, West takes us on what he considers the biblical norm for reading Scripture not as history but as a theological treatise.

I must agree with West that an “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.’ Indeed, we are not really absent of evidence when it comes to the historical Jesus, although we are absent the evidence some have set as the high bar they now require. Further, I agree that the biblical norm was not a desire to replicate historical facts simply in a proto-David McCullough form but the biblical writers sought to provide what is anachronistically called theology.  West declares, “It was not ‘history’ that mattered, but ‘theology.’

He goes on to list the issues with the Synoptics — how Luke truncated Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. He doesn’t mention, because maybe he doesn’t agree, that Matthew could have easily made this up wholesale in the first place. He likewise mentions Paul’s focus only on the theological implications of Jesus rather than painstakingly scoping out and detailing the life of Jesus, as many 18th, 19th, and 20th century liberal theologians have done. I wonder why West does not mention Paul’s use of allegory for the story of Abraham as a sure sign of the lack of historical concern. In the end, he declares ‘minimalism is not a new phenomenon.’ He is correct, if we define minimalism as a concern for uninterpreted history (a distinctively new phenomenon) superseded by the theological truths of the community.

My concern here is that West seems willing to forgo historical criticism about the context of construction, surrendering any historical claims (for instance, Jesus was killed at the order of Pilate) as examinable. While West is no post-modern follower of Kristeva, his approach seems to me to amount to nearly the same. It is not about the author, but about the interpretation by the later reader. My fear is, if we remove the author and thus world of the author from our examination before interpretation, what good is the interpretation?

West has some solid points, and is first and foremost a theologian in this regard. This is not a terrible thing as some may suspect. His intentions are not motivated by a desire to protect some document imposed with inerrancy, but to maintain what Christian Tradition has generally maintained — the theological underpinning of Scripture. Of course, those who deny the authenticity of the Historical Jesus may see this and agree with West as for some of them, Jesus is no less a theological construct than Moses or David.

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