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What Does Rabbi Gamaliel have To Do with New Testament Interpretation?

September 9, 2012

The following article was initially created as a response to a post by Rachel Held Evans on her blog.  Her post was a brief overview and response to a recent book by Evangelical scholar, Peter Enns.  The book is entitled   “Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament.”  (It should be noted for other styles of Christians and non-Christians with other angles of interest that I find interest in Dr. Enns’ work for a particular reason: He has had his run-ins with more traditional or literalist Evangelicals, so represents a sort of progressive “branch” of the generally conservative wing of Protestantism commonly labeled Evangelicalism.)

However as my comments will indicate I have not so far, in limited exposure to Enns’ writing directly, been impressed that he is making any serious revision of the theological and authority bases of traditional Protestantism.  But at the least, he is asking good questions and modeling the importance of seeking better theological consistency and attention to the diversity within the Bible. 

One further note of introduction: I don’t see how a “problem of the Old Testament” can exist for Christians without a similar “problem of the New Testament.”  Indeed, there are new concepts introduced in the New Testament and additions to the developing story of Israel that became core to Christianity.   But many of the same questions of historicity, claims to inspiration & authority, and unity of theology apply to both Testaments though in different forms and time frames. 

With that, I will now share what I wrote in response to Evans’ article about “Inspiration and Incarnation” by Peter Enns….

I don’t have time to read Enns or Wright at any length, unfortunately, so this article is instructive.  Things you quote seem to indicate a more honest, in-depth and at least partially “responsible” approach to Scripture and its construction by Enns than by most Evangelical/orthodox Christians.

However, what is apparently his bottom line strikes me as still circular reasoning, though more sophisticated than typical Evangelical reasoning.  Now…

 Admitting what Enns does about NT authors seems to open the door, as it SHOULD, to studious Christians looking carefully at Christian origins questions and pursuits (a large body of lit exists)…. Just one pertinent example (and a major one):

 Exactly why and how did the vast majority of Jews, especially Judean/Galilean Jews, NOT see Jesus as the culmination of where their story was going? The predominant answer of Christians has basically been, “They were stiff-necked and rejecting of God’s prophets (i.e., of Jesus) just as they had historically (or ‘always’) been.” 

 This presumption grows partly out of statements to this effect in the Gospels (polemically made).  It is then solidified into concrete-with-rebar by modern readers creating unjustified pictures of what it “must have been” like to be exposed to the Jesus phenomenon in the Jerusalem area in the last part of Jesus’ ministry, super-brief as it was, and soon after his later-storied resurrection.  A couple major problems:

 1. We don’t KNOW much at all, historically speaking, about the actual “Passion Week” events, trial and crucifixion, and what was actually witnessed by Jesus’ disciples in the 2-3 days and a bit beyond, following the crucifixion.  (I don’t know if Enns and/or N.T. Wright own to this major issue re. the impossibility of making any reliable historical sense out of the seriously mixed-up and sometimes flatly contradictory NT accounts of resurrection appearances and events of the 40 days leading to the ascension.)

 2. If typical Evangelical presumptions are on the right track about wide-spread Jewish awareness of Jesus’ supposed claims and the “signs” support of his messianic status (this part seems to hold up historically but was far from unique to him) and prediction of his resurrection, then we have a major problem which is illustrated well, but not exclusively, in Acts 5. (There is a similar, less developed statement and account in 4:13-18, with the same issue between the lines elsewhere extensively.) 

 Take a look again at Luke’s story-telling from the beginning of Acts, leading to the Acts 5: 33-41 Gamaliel account.  What is most note-worthy is what Luke OMITS…. Something one would definitely expect to be reported if his own (Gospel of Luke) and the other Gospel accounts even came close to representing what actually happened around the crucifixion and resurrection. Without here summarizing the setting, Gamaliel (“respected by all the people”) intervened on behalf of the Apostles.  He advocated giving them a break — letting the further development of their movement authenticate it — or not — as from God. 

 Read his appeal and his reasoning.  What is missing? (Incidentally, it is almost as blatantly missing even in the “witness” Luke has Peter giving repeatedly by this point in the narrative.)  Remember, this is all contiguous with the claimed mass conversion of over 3000 people just 50 days after the crucifixion (the Day of Pentecost).

 O.k., here: Strangely missing is any mention whatever by this very wise, open and fair-minded, influential Jewish leader of an alleged series of astonishing events surrounding the arrest, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus — things that clearly would have had the entire tightly-packed crowd of around one million locals and pilgrims at Passover in Jerusalem buzzing at fever pitch. (If this doesn’t make sense or ring true to you, re-read the accounts in all four Gospels, being sure not to miss details in Matthew 27.)

 If even a portion of the earth-shattering (literally) events given as evidence of Jesus’ Messiah credentials and/or divinity and the reality of his resurrection had happened barely months before, why would even Peter fail to appeal to them? (He basically stuck with “of which we are witnesses” as to the resurrection.) And why would Gamaliel be reported, by the clearly evangelistic Luke, as leaving out the real supposed basis for it being clear that Jesus was the promised Messiah — the astounding signs and miracles that would have made it obvious that God was trying to get SOME message across?

Gamaliel was trying to give the Apostles’ message a further chance by giving it time to see if God was behind it! Huh? God WASN’T behind all the earlier more-than-astounding miracles and the “empty tomb” (also never mentioned, even the claim of it, by Gamaliel and never really supported by even Peter)? 

So in a round-about way, Gamaliel, as quoted by Luke, is giving us a powerful clue about what kind of literature the Gospels are — a unique mix of a few core historical events with lots of theological overlay, all blended with a good dose of the kinds of stories of miraculous signs that we know were common and sometimes persuasive in that day.  And not surprisingly…. They still are today!


Luke is considered by some to be an accurate historian.  It appears he did take care in proper dating and geographical citations and such.  And he was a careful story-crafter.  Exactly why he constructs the Gamaliel argument the way he does, I can’t be sure.  But it may indicate something we have lost touch with: He knew his own stories of miracles in both Luke and Acts (the latter more those of the Apostles) would serve to support his theological and church-supporting aims without any need for careful consistency. 

The presence of glaring inconsistency or fabrication undercuts his trustworthiness or veracity for many modern readers, and perhaps for some ancient ones as well (of course, few ancients had access to “books”, nor could have read them)….  None-the-less, the book of Acts worked very well in its day and long after as the story that connected the Jesus of the Gospels with the quite different Christ of Paul and that more mystically oriented emerging branch of early Christianity.   

It was Paul’s version that eventually came to predominate although Christianity still struggles with the awkward mix of at least two visions of Jesus and the Kingdom of God as presented in the New Testament and somewhat reconciled in Acts.

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