Thursday, November 5, 2009

Pascal's Principle applied to a Gospel problem

"There is enough light for those who desire only to see, and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition." (Pensees, XI.430). Take gospel criticism as a case of this principle. There will be sufficient reason to believe an account (transmission, plausibility etc), while others will prefer to view it sceptically. The believer and the sceptic may both build a case. The raising of Lazarus may serve as an example. The absence of this account in the Synoptics has been construed as evidence that the fourth gospel author or tradition has made up this account.  The Synoptic Gospels, it is argued, would surely have included such an event in their account of the climactic final week of the Lord's ministry. So is there a sufficient, plausible explanation of this difference without assuming unreliability in John?
I think, first, that the sceptical approach that sees Jn 11 as a creation faces its own implausibility challenge. On the accepted dating of this Gospel's publication in the late decades of the first century, an invented story would run the obvious risk of discrediting the book. Even if the events were decades in the past, the people involved in that family and context would know that Lazarus was not actually raised by Jesus. I find it incredible to think that scholars could imagine the gospel writer getting away with this invention. In families today, most descendants have some knowledge of what happened to their grandfather, even great-grandfather. A tall story about a real person would discredit the church and its message - and give ammunition to its enemies.
A simpler explanation is at hand, with the clue found in Jn 11:10-11. Lazarus's return to life through Jesus' prayer made him a powerful witness for Jesus, a fact that placed him in danger of being killed by the opponents of Jesus. When the Synoptic gospels were published, Lazarus may still have been alive and in continuing danger through his fame. But by the time of the fourth gospel, Lazarus was probably dead, and his story could be told in public.
You see here how the two mind-sets differ in how they construe the evidence. The believer credits the narrative with a presumption of reliability, and can see plausible reasons for apparent problems of relating it to other Gospels. The sceptical reader presumes unreliability and finds an alternative possible explanation.


dvm said...

Hi Ralph

Thanks for the chiasmus. I like it.

Thanks also for your forgiveness on posting pictures on facebook. Hope you enjoy WA.


Ralph Bowles said...

Glad you liked it Andrew (dvm). I shall look out for more chiasmoi (?) for you.
W.A. was good, except the pollen gave me a constant headache, I think!