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The Historical Jesus: Scholars Debate

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Published on Jan 22, 2011

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Gary Habermas, Robert Price

Gary Habermas is the closest thing to a New Testament critic one will ever find teaching in the hallowed, but far from hollow, halls of Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. Exceedingly well read, Professor Habermas is the epitome of what James Barr called the "maximal conservative" approach to New Testament scholarship. The maximal conservative proposes to examine an issue in a neutral scholarly way but always comes out defending the traditional view, often explicitly appealing to the (inappropriate) rationale: "innocent until proven guilty," as if the orthodox view of any matter must claim the benefit of the doubt. That is to say, he poses as an objective researcher into open questions regarding the early Christian literature and history, but his conclusions are determined in advance by a dogmatic agenda. As a member of the Liberty University faculty, Dr. Habermas is honor-bound to believe in the absolute inerrancy of the Bible, the dogma that the Bible is free from all historical errors, and even that its authors never expressed differences of opinion on religious matters. The inerrantist believes either that the text of the Bible was verbally dictated by the Almighty (whether or not the human penman knew it at the time) or that at least the result was the same as if God had dictated it, even if "all" he did was to oversee the writing process providentially. Someone with a view like this adopts the posture of the biblical critic not because he or she believes it will shed new light on ancient texts but rather in order to defend traditional, orthodox readings of the text from "heretical" new research that threatens by its very nature to render such readings obsolete, depriving orthodox dogma of its seeming proof texts. The unstated goal is to beat the genuine critic at his own game so as to defend the party line. That is the business Gary Habermas is in. That is the approach of the many books he has written. They are all exercises in apologetics, the scholastic defense of the faith. The position is an ironic one, since such attempts to clamp the lid on the open Bible are just the sort of bold, open-ended investigation that led to the Protestant Reformation and the Biblical Theology Movement.Gary Habermas, Robert Price.
Scholars like John Dominic Crossan, a professor emeritus of religious studies at DePaul University and former co-chair of the Jesus Seminar, can read volumes into a simple signpost in the Biblical town of Ephesus. "There's a gate to the market that Paul would have walked under," Crossan relates. "On top, it says Caesar is the son of God. When Paul applies that name to Jesus, it's not just a nice title. It's the title of Caesar. That is known as high treason."
Perhaps the most revealing Biblical site excavated in recent years has been Sepphoris, five miles from Nazareth, which has been under excavation since 1985. Although not mentioned in the Bible by name, Strange believes it was the "city on a hill" Jesus had in mind in Matthew 5:14. It was razed by the Romans right around the time of Jesus' birth, and reconstructed afterward, and it's not unreasonable to think Jesus himself might have worked there. But more important than the chance of finding Jesus' tool belt is what it tells us about his milieu. "Jesus has a lot to say about the rich, and most of it is not good," says Strange. "This is where he would have encountered the rich, not in Nazareth." Archeologists have excavated three villas with interior courtyards, richly frescoed walls and luxury goods similar to those found anywhere in the Roman Empire--but unmistakably the homes of Jews, with ritual baths and inhabitants who obeyed Jewish dietary laws. (At least until the fourth century, when Christianity became the official religion and pig bones make a sudden appearance in the garbage.) "It gives us an entirely new way of thinking about the social context of Jesus' life," says L. Michael White, a religious-studies professor at the University of Texas at Austin. "He is not just a poor peasant from a remote village; he's living close to a large, multilingual urban center, heavily influenced by Roman culture."

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