An Open Letter

Dear New Testament scholar Frank Maloney,

I saw you on the Today show this morning, promoting a new book that you collaborated on. The book is entitled The Gospel According to Judas, and my understanding is that it questions a number of traditional beliefs about Jesus and the events of his life (just in time for Easter, of course!). I’m not surprised that another book like this is coming out; I am, however, a little surprised that you, a Roman Catholic, are so enthusiastic about it. But that is neither here nor there.

The reason I am writing is to take issue with what seems to be an underlying presupposition in your approach to the Gospels. During the interview today, you made two specific claims about events in the Gospels that indicate to me something of the direction you take in your hermeneutic. You said that Jesus never actually walked on water; the accounts that claim this were written not to report a real event but simply to affirm that Jesus is divine. You also claimed that Judas never received thirty pieces of silver for the betrayal of Jesus. You based this claim on the fact that only Matthew mentions the thirty pieces of silver and that he connects them to an Old Testament prophecy in order to show that God’s purpose is coming to pass, but as a historical event this never happened.

Based on these two examples, I infer that you operate with this hermeneutical presupposition:

If an account in the Gospels can be shown to have a significant theological purpose, then its historicity is doubtful.

Why else would you have made the claims mentioned above unless you believed this? From what I could gather from your short presentation this morning, it sounds like you try to keep theology separate from history. If the Gospel writers were writing one, then they probably weren’t writing the other at the same time.

I have heard these kinds of claims many times (normally from liberal Protestants). I want you to know that I believe your presupposition is a false one, that theology and history actually do go together in Scripture, and that the Gospel writers wrote true history with a theological purpose. I believe that if you jettison the history in order to grasp the theology, you actually end up with neither, because the Christian faith is rooted in actual, historical events. Just because post-Enlightenment thinkers find it hard to swallow the historical value of a well-crafted story doesn’t mean people in the first century (including the Gospel writers) were afflicted with the same deficiency of faith. I happen to believe (in continuity with 2,000 years of Christian tradition) that there exists a sovereign, personal God who rules over history, and that he is quite capable of making theological points through historical events. I would have taken it for granted yesterday that a high-profile Roman Catholic like yourself would share that belief, but after today I am not so sure anymore.

Here is what I don’t understand: how can a theological point that is presented in the framework of a historical event still be made if we reject the truth of the historical event? Apparently, you approach a Gospel narrative and say something like this: “Here, John is telling me through the account of Jesus walking on water that Jesus is divine, that he rules over nature and the forces of chaos. Excellent point, John. Of course, Jesus didn’t really walk on water, but I do accept the theological point.” But then, why do you accept the theological point if the historical event didn’t happen? If Jesus really is divine, then why couldn’t he have walked on water? And if he didn’t walk on water, then what is John really saying? It sounds to me like you want John to be saying this: “Jesus is such an inspiring figure that he makes me want to communicate something about him in an imaginary way.” But if his walking on water is imaginary, what does that make of his divinity? Is that imaginary too?

You seem to be drawn to the idea of Jesus that the Gospel writers, with their fertile theological imaginations, conjured up. I am drawn to the actual person of Jesus, the one who really did perform miracles and walk on water and get betrayed for thirty pieces of silver. I don’t give a rip about a Jesus of Matthew’s imagination, faintly connected to an actual historical person. I want to know the Jesus who really lived and died for my salvation. And I believe I do know him because the Holy Spirit inspired Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to write down true historical accounts (yes, shaped by their own theological points, but still historical) of his life, death, and resurrection.

I respect you as an accomplished New Testament scholar. I am thankful for your work and that of many others who help people like me understand the New Testament. But I often find that New Testament scholars who share some of your presuppositions tend to be good exegetes but terrible theologians. And that is why I am thankful for men like Don Carson and Tom Schreiner, New Testament specialists who approach their task from a solid theological perspective. They understand that history and theology belong together in the biblical writings, and for this reason, their writings are a breath of fresh air in a discipline that has long been dominated by those who share your post-Enlightenment presuppositions. You say that your debunking of traditional Christian beliefs about the historicity of the Gospels has nothing to do with undermining faith, but I wonder if millions of Christians around the world who hear the Scripture read in public worship every Sunday would be as happy about your conclusions. I know that I am not. Your approach to Scripture seems to me to be an attempt to accomodate it to the post-Enlightenment world. But the Word of God cannot be molded according to the ideas of man. Please stop domesticating the gospel.

Yours truly,
Aaron O’Kelley

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2 Responses to “An Open Letter”

  1. Cogito Says:

    “If an account in the Gospels can be shown to have a significant theological purpose, then its historicity is doubtful.”

    This is a pretty big leap. It is not a stretch to think that Matthew, the author of the “Jewish” gospel, was the only one to mention this…and tie it in with OT prophesy. It’s just really not.

    The question boils down what you mean by a “historically accurate”. I think that Matthew’s gospel is very accurate when you think to the purpose of the author.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Dear Aaron,
    I agree with your criticism. I feel like much of modern NT studies deal with speculations based on…to say the least questionable assumptions. I have found C.S. Lewis article on Biblical Criticism to be an especially interesting reflection on this practice. I suspect you have seen this article as it is in many of his edited collections. If you have not it is well worth a look.

    I do think it is plausible or at least worth considering the way in which the NT and for that matter OT writers tell history with an eye to theology. They are not after all using the same assumptions we might make about recording history. However with that said, much of the modern studies seems to me to make pretty untenable assumptions.

    blessings,
    luke s

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