Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A (mildly ) humorous paragraph from John A.T. Robinson on Biblical scholarship



John A.T. Robinson closes his book Redating the New Testament with the following paragraph which he had found in an obscure journal some years ago. He didn't intend this note to be taken too seriously, but it made a point that his book also makes. (Robinson argues--on the basis of how little mention is made in the New Testament of the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70--that all important New Testaament materials, including the Gospel of John, must date from before A.D. 70.) Robinson's position is not the one held by most scholars today. But on to the quote:

There is a world--I do not say a world in which all scholars live but one at any rate into which all of them sometimes stray, and which some of them seem permanently to inhabit--which is not the world in which I live. In my world, if The Times and The Telegraph both tell one story in somewhat different terms, nobody concludes that one of them must have copied the other, nor that the variations in the story have some esoteric significance. But in that world of which I am speaking this would be taken for granted. There, no story is ever derived from facts but always from somebody else's version of the same story. . . . In my world, almost every book, except some of them produced by Government departments, is written by one author. In that world almost every book is produced by a committee, and some of them by a whole series of committees. In my world, if I read that Mr. Churchill, in 1935, said that Europe was heading for a disastrous war, I applaud his foresight. In that world, no prophecy, however vaugely worded, is ever made except after the event. In my world we say, "The First World War took place in 1914-1918." In that world they say, "The world-war narrative took shape in the third decade of the twentieth century." In my world men and women live for a considerable time--seventy, eightly, even a hundred years--and they are equipped with a thing called memory. In that world (it would appear) they come into being, write a book and forthwith perish, all in a flash, and it is noted of them with astonishment that they "perserve traces of primitive tradition" about things which happened well within their own adult lifetimes (356).

Robinson's book was originally publsihed in the mid-1980s, and has recnetly (2000) been reprinted. It's an interesting book to read, because of the originial argument he makes and his natural wit. In defense of the quote, it does seem that quite a bit of what passes for New Testament scholarship these days is similar to science fiction--a drop of scientific truth and a gallon or two of fantasy.

Best wishes,

Mason Smith

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