In this week’s mailbag I deal with an interesting question about how knowing about a topic is not the same as understanding the scholarship on it.  The question begins by quoting something I said on the blog a while back



Quoting me: “That’s because serious scholarship is itself hard. It’s not an easy read. It’s not like reading your favorite novel.”  Can you recall the first book of serious scholarship that you had to read? Did you think, “Gosh. Maybe this course of study ain’t for me”?!



Oh boy do I remember that!   It happened my first semester in graduate school at Princeton Theological Seminary.  I arrived on campus there pretty confident in my understanding of the Bible and most things connected with it.  I had already spent three very intense years doing a diploma in Bible-Theology at Moody Bible Institute and two years at Wheaton College, among other things learning Greek and taking courses on the translation and interpretation of New Testament texts in Greek.  I thought my training at Princeton Seminary would probably be more of the same.

Yikes.  I was completely wrong about *that*….

My first semester at Princeton I took a course on the exegesis (= interpretation) of the Greek text of the Gospel Luke, with a 30-something Yale-PhD professor named David Adams.  I was taken aback from the outset.  This was a study of Luke unlike anything I had experienced.

It did not start off with the assurance that the book contained the inspired Word of God, beautifully connected with the other three divine Gospels which, to be taken altogether as a harmonious whole as a four-fold witness to the divine Jesus.  Just the opposite.  Luke was being portrayed as standing in *contrast* to what can be found in the other Gospels, and differences were not meant to be harmonized but to be allowed to stand and tell us what was distinctive of Luke’s own message.  WHAT?  Didn’t Prof. Adams realize that all differences could be reconciled and revealed the richness of the four-fold witness to Christ?  What’s wrong with him?  Can’t he *read*?

One of the key texts for the class was a book that we were told was a classic in the field, but which I had never heard of, written by a German scholar whom I also had never heard of, but was told was one of the premier authorities in the field.  The scholar was Hans Conzelmann and the book was called The Theology of St. Luke.  Prof. Adams told us that this was not the most recent cutting edge scholarship, since it was a book published in mid-century (in German, under the title Die Mitte der Zeit); but it set the trend that scholarship had followed for the next thirty years.  We had to read and write a review of the book for the class.

I tried really hard to read and understand the book.  But it was so completely unlike anything I had ever read before that I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.  It was as if I was trying to read Swahili.   The assumptions Conzelmann had, the claims he made, the conclusions he reached made no sense to me.  Literally, they seemed like non-sense.

Of course I had known before this that each of the Gospels had its own message, its own way of portraying the wonderful divine story of Christ’s incarnation and life, death, and resurrection.  But these were simply different ways of viewing the ultimate Gospel message, completely reconcileable; the way to read the Gospels, I had always learned, was as a harmonious whole, taking the entire message as the revelation from God about the life of Christ.

But Conzelmann was picking the Gospels apart, claiming that the differences were not reconcilable and in fact their inrreconcilable nature was the key to understanding their accounts.  Specifically, since Luke had used Mark as a source for his stories, wherever he differed from Mark he intentionally had changed the text in order to make his own (different, contradictory) point.  This was not a claim Conzelmann made in the abstract, to be considered in theoretical terms.  And it’s not a point he tried to prove.  Instead, he *assumed* it without even coming out to state it (that’s the part I found so confusing).  His detailed analysis of Luke was built on that assumption.

When put into practice, the assumption led to a mode of analysis Conzelmann called “redaction criticism.”  Behind the method was the view that Luke’s alteration sof Mark revealed his own distinctive theological message.   For Conzelmann, that message was historically situated:  Luke was living in a laer time from Mark and was ultimately obsessed with the question of the delay of the parousia – the fact that Jesus’ imminent return from heaven, expected a had any day by Mark, had not happened, and required an “explanation.”  Luke had an explanation.

In the view of Luke, unlike Mark, God had never planned for the end of the age to come right away after Jesus’ death.  Instead, for Luke, all history was divided into phases.  The first phase was all the time of the history of Israel up to John the Baptist.  Then came the time of Jesus and the establishment of the church after his day.  Only then would come the end.  Luke was living in the middle of time – the time when the message of Christ was to go out into the world.  Only when that happened would God’s plan be fulfilled and the end come.

When I read this book I thought it was nonsense – even though, as I constantly realized, I simply didn’t “get it.”  I couldn’t get it. Couldn’t make sense of it. Luke’s Gospel is about living in the middle of time???  Of course not.  Luke’s Gospel is about the glorious message of Christ’s death and resurrection for the salvation of the world.  What does TIME have to do with it?  Why should slight changes here and there from Mark’s Gospel be considered the key to understanding Luke?  These are easily reconciled.  And focusing on such tiny details is overlooking the MAJOR points Luke constantly makes about the miraculous life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Conzelmann was straining at gnats and swallowing camels.

I tried my level best to understand what he was saying, but since his assumptions of the text were so different from mine, they literally made no sense.  It was a very difficult assignment for me to do.  I did my best on it, but I simply didn’t even have the vocabulary to critique such a bizarre attempt to interpret Luke.   I got through, but my thought was, “There’s no way I want to spend my life doing that kind of work!”

At the same time, I wanted to understand it, to make sense of it – if nothing else so I could critique it more adequately.   And so I was bound and determined to pursue this new kind of line of inquiry, not because I found it attractive but because I found it dangerous.  Frankly it took me over two years just to figure it out and make sense of it.

And the thing is, once I made sense of it, it did make sense.  I finally came to understood it.  And to see the logic of it.  The compelling logic of it.

By the time I graduated with my degree three years later, I had started to “get” it.  And, of course, I’ve never looked back.


If you don’t belong to the blog yet, you can join and get full-length posts five times a week, rather than only on occasion.  So why not join?  The blog raises money for charity — every penny you pay goes to help those in need.  There’s no downside, and a lot of up!