Is the Bible optional?

I’ve commented before on how mystifying it is to me that so many Christians, including Evangelicals, who are active in the science-faith discussion downplay the importance of the Bible to Christian faith. Probably it arises ultimately from the Liberal separation of the “Christ of Faith” from actual history, so that one is supposed to relate only to the risen Jesus. “The book” then becomes seen as an object of idolatry, the bare “letter” that quenches “the Spirit”. This attitude, in turn, originated in the doubts cast on the reliability of the biblical accounts by two centuries of critical scholarship – there’s really no point in taking the Bible seriously as an informant of faith when the real Christ , at least as far as one is dealing with faith two thousand years on.

I used one aspect of critical theology, the Synoptic Problem, as an introductory example in a previous post. That rekindled my interest enough to buy the book by Richard Bauckham, a significant New Testament scholar, to which I referred there. Bauckham’s project in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is to demolish the pretensions of, in particular, the form criticism that has dominated New Testament scholarship for a century, by demonstrating its deeply flawed assumptions and methodology, before building a solid case for the indespensible importance of eyewitness reporting to all four of the gospel records (and of course, to the early Church). It’s a five hundred page book, so I won’t try to do justice to the arguments here.

But one small section towards the end, in his discussion on John’s gospel, struck me as a significant blow to the assumptions made by the form critics and, through them, to so many Christians now. He shows how a number of scholars have built the case that one overarching theme of John is the motif of a cosmic trial of the truth, derived (by John) from Isaiah 40-55. This in itself is an indicator of how immersed in Old Testament scripture the New Testament writers were (it’s a commonplace that there are over 400 quotations from the Old Testament in the New, together with countless allusions, covering a majority of the canonical books, but with less than a handful of citations from sub-canonical books and other intertestamental documents).

Bauckham develops the idea further, by reference to John’s deliberate use of “law court” terminology in terms of the concept of “testimony”. John specifically names seven sources of “testimony” to Jesus prior to, and during, his time on earth, and two sources of testimony following his resurrection. Anyone familiar with John is aware of his concern for “sacred” numerology from, for example, the seven signs that form the backbone of the gospel. If the same author also wrote Revelation (opinion is divided) then as we know the whole thing is steeped in sacred numerical symbolism.

The number seven, then, is an indication of perfection, so seven “testimonies” is an indicator of an overwhelming case for the messiahship of Jesus. The number two is the number of witnesses in Hebrew law needed to provide adequate testimony (cf the “two witnesses” in Revelation 11). So John is saying that the testimony to Jesus in his lifetime was definitive, and the testimony after his death adequate to make the case.

At this point I should list John’s sources of testimony. In order of appearance the seven are John the Baptist (1.7 etc), Jesus himself (3.1 etc), the Samaritan woman (4.39), God the Father (5.32), Jesus’s works or signs (5.36), the Scriptures (5.39) and the crowd who testify to the raising of Lazarus (12.17).

The witnesses in the phase that is future to the gospel are the Spirit (Paraclete) (15.26) and the disciples (15.27). It is significant that both of these witnesses refer back to the witness of Jesus during his earthly life. All the witnesses, then, testify to the historical event of Jesus’s life. More than that, as Bauckham points out, to John the “cast iron” testimonies of the first seven witnesses are only accessible through the witness that “the beloved disciple” (representing the disciples’ witness) makes to them. In other words, the case for Jesus as the Logos of God depends, for all subsequent generations, on the fact that John has recorded their testimony accurately in his written gospel, together with the fact that the indwelling Spirit points the believer to them.

The only room here for ideas that Christ may be found personally, or through the community of the Church, or through apostolic succession, or through rational investigation is the extent to which these have access to the eyewitness testimony of the written gospel. I find that a compelling argument for the importance the writer of John attached to what he wrote. And Bauckham, as I’ve not had space to show, builds a good case for the eyewitness authorship of John, as well as of the other gospel sources. (For those interested his contention is that the author was, throughout, the “beloved disciple”, whom he identifies with John the Elder, finally resident in Ephesus, rather than John the son of Zebedee.)

As far as I can see there’s more, too, in this line of argument to endorse the importance of Scripture to that first generation of Christians taught by Jesus himself. It’s notable how many of John’s sources of testimony themselves have links to the Old Testament Scriptures. John the Baptist identifies his own ministry in terms of fulfilment of Isaiah 40 (1.23). The Samaritan woman’s conversation with Jesus revolves around the centrality of God’s revelation to the Jews. The Scriptures themselves testify to him (reason enough for Christians to respect that witness). The Spirit is the same as that promised in the Old Testament. If reliance on the Book is “bibliolatry”, then it goes back to the very roots of Christianity.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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