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It probably comes as a surprise to the average believer that even the individual books of the Bible often went through a long series of development. To the naïve believer, the idea that a letter with its original body from the Apostle Paul may have been modified by a later disciple of Paul or even a congregation which had never met Paul, but felt it necessary to clarify an idea or expand a theme is likely to cast doubt upon the “authority” of the Bible. My personal take on this attitude is that it is unacceptable because it makes the truth found in the Bible subordinate to our historical assumptions about authorship. It would, in my crude example, make the Holy Spirit dependent upon Paul rather than vice-versa. To the more rationalistic believer, the idea that a portion of a gospel may have near-direction quotations from Jesus as well as church-derived interpolations of what Jesus said means that the biblical scholar must sift through the text to find those original sayings and afford them greater value than the work as a whole.Norman Perrin, former student of Joachim Jeremias and trained in a liberal Baptist tradition, would fit in the second category. His Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus is designed to clarify and affirm a methodology for determining the authentic (I prefer “core” as in an onion enveloping a core, but all of it still being an onion—the saying may be authentic and the next layers derived, but it may still be an organic truth) Jesus tradition from the ecclesiastical add-ons. Although I benefited from reading Perrin’s work, I have to differ from his take in a couple of ways that are, at least, important for me. First, I believe it is possible to see the complex layers of tradition in biblical books as part of the ongoing revelation of God. While I believe it is useful to look at what we can carefully affirm for the historical Jesus (a very small portion of the biblical writings would serve as acceptable historiography in the usual, modern sense) and the historic Christ (the understanding of Christ that grew and was expressed in the post-Resurrection Church—what some scholars call the “faith-image”), parsing one facet as authentic and another as interpolation or extrapolation may undermine the authority of the latter. Who is to say, however, that the extrapolation from the “authentic” saying is not also “inspired.” I may be overreacting here because of my high concept of biblical truth, but even if I am not, Perrin’s approach may not be particularly helpful to the average believer who doesn’t have time to bring all the relevant methodologies and considerations to bear (see particularly Perrin’s summary of the issues and usefulness on pp. 246-247).Suffice it to say that Perrin and I approach the New Testament differently. Yet, I gleaned significant benefit from reading this work. First, there was a somewhat interesting reversal in methodology from my work in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible and Perrin’s work in the New Testament. It hadn’t registered to me that while the existence of Aramaic terms and formulations of phrases in the Old Testament indicated that the texts or manuscripts were “later” in development, the opposite is true in the New Testament because Aramaic terms and phrases indicate “earlier” literary/historical influences (p. 37). I also liked Perrin’s cautionary concern when he suggested, “Any historian tends to see the past in terms which are most real to him personally, …” (p. 50). As a result, part of his concern in seeking what he considers “authentic” in Jesus’ teaching is to throw off both those subjective assumptions of the early Church as well as our own subjective approaches.To do so, Perrin offers a three-fold methodology to get at what he calls “authentic” and I call the “core:” 1) dissimilarity, the early form is different from emphases we would expect in Judaism or the early church (p. 39); 2) coherence, the developed form seems consistent in being derived from the dissimilar statement (p. 43); and 3)multiple attestation, the dissimilar statement is preserved in several sources behind the synoptic gospels (p. 45). To demonstrate these, Perrin divides the parables into seven different categories: 1) emphasis on joy and divine activity, 2) express the challenge inherent in the divine activity, 3) establishing the necessity for immediate, urgent decision for God, 4) warning against preconceived ideas about pleasing God, 5) depicting the necessary aspects of responding to God’s challenge, 6) stressing confidence in God in spite of experience, and 7) expressing confidence in God’s future (p. 83). Frankly, I like what Perrin does with the parables in demonstrating his methodology, although I disagree with his overreaction to the allegorizing of parables by the early church fathers and much of the evangelical tradition.Perrin, like Joachim Jeremias, believes: “The secret in interpreting a parable, then, is to find the analogous situation and so come to understand the point of the comparison.” (p. 84) While this is a fabulous starting point, I still believe that it is an inadequate understanding of language, literature, and symbolism. Perrin doesn’t like the idea of seeing the parable of the two sons (Matthew 21) as pointing to the self-righteous Jewish community as the hypocritical son, but he ignores the fact that such an interpretation fits perfectly as it has been sculpted into the context of the gospels and the church’s situation (p. 119). Because it is perceived as interpretive, Perrin isn’t interested in it as authentic. I can’t go that far.One aspect in which I can readily resonate with Perrin is his idea of the Kingdom of God as being expressed in deeds (p. 55) and how study of the parables shows Jesus’ interest in the individualization of the Kingdom of God (p. 67). Hence, the definition would be that the Kingdom is God acting decisively in the life of an individual (p. 74).The main aspect in which we agree is with regard to the importance of faith. When Perrin studies Hellenistic and Jewish apocryphal exorcism/healing stories, he notes that these stories do not have the “thy faith has made thee whole” aspects of Jesus’ encounters (p. 134). This opens the discussion to a rapid fire discussion in which I pulled several favorite quotations: “Faith means to recognize the concrete situation for what it is and to respond in the only appropriate manner to its challenge.” (p. 140); “The appropriate response to the challenge is trust; trust in God, but trust in God in the concrete situation and in the particular instance… (p. 141); and “To the Jews trust must of necessity issue in obedience, faith becoming faithfulness, and so here we must understand the response of faith as including both trust and obedience, absolute trust and complete obedience.” (p. 141).Two insights from Perrin made reading the entire book worthwhile for me. The first was his contention that, in the New Testament, passive tenses often refer to the activity of God (p. 145). That seems right from my experience and I like it as a general principle. The second was about Jesus’ teaching on “time.” He wrote, “Time, in the teaching of Jesus, is something which God fills and fulfills, and it is something which man experiences, rather than something which moves from past to future.” (p. 206) In other words, Perrin contends that Jesus’ teaching about time is more concerned with kairos or opportunity and potential for action than chronos or chronological time.All in all, this was an interesting book for me to read. I tend to read more books like this on the Old Testament, but had I been working on a New Testament degree rather than an Old Testament degree in my graduate school days, I would have encountered this book long ago. This book is primarily for those who want a challenging perspective on the New Testament. I’m not sure it will be helpful for everyone, but it was useful for me.
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