I've been asked to present a few of the questions that I found troubling as an evangelical xian, and which ultimately contributed to a loss of faith in that form of xianity. This post represents one such question. I'll present the issue as I perceived it at the time, outline the possible responses as I saw them, and then describe my response. Feel free to jump in at any point.
This question has to do with the language used in the 3rd chapter of the Gospel of John, and the extent to which we can rely upon the account as factually accurate.
John 3 details Jesus's meeting with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin. The linchpin of this narrative is a play on words. When Jesus tells Nicodemus in verse 3 that he must be born of the Spirit, Nicodemus understands him to mean that he must physically be born again. The Greek word used in the passage ("anothen"
can mean either, and the point is that Nicodemus initially misunderstands Jesus. This gives Jesus the opportunity to do some 'splainin'. There's a parallel story in John 4, which also turns on a Greek pun. This is the story of Samaritan woman at the well, who confuses Jesus's description of "living water" with "running water."
The problem in both stories is that while the Gospel of John is written in smoove Greek, Jesus, Nicodemus, and the Samaritan woman would probably all have been speaking Aramaic. In Aramaic the words for "born again" and "born from above" are nothing alike, and there would consequently be no play on words in the original conversation in John 3.
In other words, it appears likely that the incident didn't happen in the way described.
This is hardly a new observation for biblical scholars; the question for me as an evangelical believer was what do I
do with this problem? Here are the options I saw:
1. Find an explanation that accounts for the historical problem without sacrificing the tenet of basic factual accuracy.
In this case, it's been noted that Nazareth, where Jesus is said to have grown up, is a scant three miles from Sepphoris, a burgeoning trade town at the time Jesus would have been growing up. Jesus would very possibly had the opportunity to learn Greek growing up there, as it continued to be the lingua franca of the Roman Empire. It's also been noted that the word used to describe Joseph has been traditionally translated as "carpenter," but in fact would more rightly be translated as "laborer," and some have gone so far as to say "architect." That is, Joseph might have done anything in the construction line, and thus might have been even middle class. It's not beyond the realm of possibility, then, that Joseph worked in Sepphoris from time to time, or even regularly, as jobs were available. If Jesus was in the family business, he very well might have been involved in activities that required him to learn Greek in order to help out in the family business.
2. Consider the proximity of these two stories and their parallel narrative structure a signal that they are primarily literary vehicles for theological expression.
This would be more in keeping with a typical Greco-Roman biography, wherein stories are told about the main character in order to portray some aspect of his or her character. This requires letting go of the tenet of biblical inerrancy as it is conceived of by evangelicals; it does allow the believer to continue to believe in the overall truth-value of the story, and of the Bible as a whole.
3. Discount the truth-value of the stories on the basis of factual inaccuracy.
They couldn't have happened as described, which means somebody fudged some of it. That makes them suspect, and not to be relied upon. If the intent of the storytelling/embellishment is to portray the life of Jesus reliably to 1st-century believers, it has exactly the opposite effect for 20th-century evangelical believers, for whom fact and truth are usually inextricable from one another. This option results in the implosion of the concept of biblical inerrancy, as the believer must hold the Bible to factual accuracy, but is faced with apparently direct evidence to the contrary in the Bible itself. The believer's theological insistence on inerrancy comes into direct conflict with his or her perception of factual problems.
4. Decide not to think too hard about it,
knowing that better informed people have done so and that they continue to assure believers of the reliability of the Bible. This is usually the position taken up by the everyday believer, for whom such questions of historicity matter far less than their personal faith as they practice it.
So what did I do, and why?
Because I'm literate, curious, and something of a snob, I discounted #4. I figured that if God gave me a brain, I should use it.
#1 was my first recourse, and there's a tremendous amount of energy expended by xians on similar efforts. Much of it centers proving that what is written could
in fact have happened. Unfortunately, apologetics tends to stop short of making solid cases for what probably
happened. I think theological presumption gets in the way of making such a qualified statement. The casual evangelical approach as I experienced it is first to assume that the Bible is free of any error, and then to show how it could
be factually correct in individual cases. If the event/detail can be shown to have the possibility of being correct, then it is given the benefit of the doubt for theological reasons.
The historian, on the other hand, grants the Bible no special exemption when considering its reliability. After a while, continuous responses from my fellow xians along the lines of "it could have happened like this" began to lose their persuasiveness in the face of secular explanations along the lines of "here's what probably happened based on our best guess." It's difficult not to be impacted eventually by the sheer number of apparent problems in the Bible, and at some point I had to ask, "Why do I keep performing mental/logical gymnastics in order to show the possibility
of the story? What is my motive? What convinces me of its probability
, outside of my personal theological convictions? How did I come to form those convictions?" The answer was that I believed in the inerrancy of the Bible because it was part of the xian tradition I received from my friends and family. It was an a priori
assumption, and making it forced me to try to reconcile the factual problems.
Could Jesus have known Greek? Sure. Is it probable? Maybe.
But is it the most likely explanation? That is, is it more probable
than the idea that the author crafted strikingly parallel stories using double-entendre and set them apposite one another for increased literary and theological effect? My answer was eventually a pained "no."
#2 is a comforting option, in that it allows faith to remain intact, and perhaps even be deepened by an appreciation of the literary figures in the books of the Bible. Unfortunately, it begs the question as to why do we believe what we do in the first place. Why did xians start believing what they did? If the basis for original belief is shown to be unreliable, shouldn't the basic question of belief be revisited?
That left me in the uncomfortable position of not wanting to go with #3, but not seeing much else for it.
What would you do?