Yesterday, I reviewed a recent book by Nicholas Perrin entitled Lost In Transmission?: What We Can Know About the Words of Jesus. Nick is Associate Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. I am delighted to publish this interview with Nick on the subject of his book.
Trevin Wax: What prompted you to write a book about the transmission of the Gospel accounts for the layperson?
Nick Perrin: Thomas Nelson approached me to do this project because they felt there was room for yet something else to be done in response to Bart Ehrman’s book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. Because I am not a text critic by speciality I was initially inclined to turn the proposal down. But as I thought about it, and thought about what Ehrman was actually up to, I thought, Well, maybe there is something I can do here.
The book turns out not to be so much a blow by blow (here’s what you say about the Western text at this point, but here’s what I say — snooze); rather, I think someone needs to bring up the broader, epistemological issues and presuppositions that drive Ehrman’s reasoning. So often, the way we evangelicals go about thinking about the Bible feeds right into Ehrman’s epistemological Kool-Aid.
Trevin Wax: When confronted with claims from people like Bart Ehrman about changes in manuscript evidence, you say that the instinctive default mode of conservative Christians is to ignore the whole matter and hope that this unsettling talk about changes to the manuscript tradition goes away. Why is it that evangelicals tend to go this way?
Nick Perrin: By and large, Christians have taught themselves not to think historically or use their historical imagination. We are more interested in giving each other ‘the right answers’, but what we need to do is become better thinkers.
History can be messy business and there is a lot we don’t know. (I think Christians are afraid of that proposition, although — again if they are thinking about their faith rightly — they shouldn’t be.) In response to new intellectual challenges we need more Christians trained to think analytically and less Christians who claim to have it all sorted.
Trevin Wax: You write that “rules for doing Jesus scholarship don’t just materalize out of think air: someone – someone who wants to win the game – makes the rules.” What are some of the “rules” today in historical Jesus studies and where did they come from?
Nick Perrin: Historical Jesus studies today are at a bit of a crossroads, where certain scholars cling to certain methodological procedures which other scholars are finding more and more questionable. (The criterion of dissimilarity is a great example of this.)
My point in the book is to disabuse readers of the notion that Jesus scholars are scientists wearing white lab coats. Like everyone else, they want certain things to be true about Jesus and equally want certain others not to be true of him. I’m included in this (I really hope that I am right in believing that Jesus is both Messiah and Lord.) Will this shape my scholarship? Absolutely. How can it not? We should be okay with that.
Trevin Wax: You write that the Gospel accounts are indeed interpretive, and yet you also believe we can trust their historicity. Why do you reject Ehrman’s assumption that sees interpretation and observation as mutually exclusive?
Nick Perrin: For a long time now Gospels scholarship has been laboring under the false alternative of theology versus history. In other words, if, say, Luke is doing theology and interpreting Jesus theologically, then he cannot, it is said, have much interest in history. Indeed, we must expect he fudges the ‘facts’ as he sees fit.
This kind of false antithesis is in some ways a legacy of the modernist distinction between fact and value; in some ways, it is a failure, when Christians fall prey to this, to grasp the incarnation, where theology and fact merge.
Trevin Wax: How do you deal with the apparent contradictions in the Gospel accounts?
Nick Perrin: I think the first thing to say about apparent contradictions is that there is no ‘one size fits all’ rule. You have to work through the synopsis case by case, make decisions about what the evangelists are trying to do, make decisions about lines of influence, and make decisions as to whether, say, Luke and Matthew, are actually reporting the same events, or two different events that have a lot in common, etc.
In my book, I raise a few tricky inconsistencies, and ask readers to consider at least every once in a while to say, “I don’t know.” Better a humble “I don’t know” than a contrived and far-fetched resolution.
Trevin Wax: It is interesting that in many conservative corners of the Church, the Jewishness of Jesus has been downplayed, just as it has in the skeptical wing of the academy. Why is the Jewishness of Jesus so important for us to understand the Gospels rightly?
Nick Perrin: For years the Jewishness of Jesus as been conveniently ignored and this has really given us a very skewed picture of who Jesus was. Historical figures never operate in a vacuum; there is always a context to be considered. By denying Jesus’ Jewishness, you are ripping him right out of his context: you are bound to have some real distortions.
Getting Jesus-out-of-context is tempting because it positions you to conform Jesus to your ideology (liberal, conservative, whatever). But Jesus is his own ideology.
Trevin Wax: You write about the temptations that accompany the acquisition of knowledge. “When you know something other people don’t know, you feel powerful.” How can seminary students and pastors avoid this temptation to use knowledge in the wrong way?
Nick Perrin: It is often tempting for recent seminary grads, especially young and bookish grads who were — rightly — excited about all they had just learned, to go over the top when they land in a church. By this I mean that they come to see their job as being a kind of seminary prof to their congregants. Generally speaking, this is not what people are looking for. They are looking to be shepherded, not for an informal MDiv.
I think what really makes learning exciting is not getting all the answers, but getting a fresh set of questions. On my intellectual and spiritual journey, I am in a much better place when I am long on questions and short on answers, rather than vice versa.