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Craig L. Blomberg, Contagious Holiness: Jesus’ Meals with Sinners. New Studies in Biblical Theology 19. InterVarsity Press, 2005.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price.


Though the series to which this volume belongs usurps the title of the venerable SCM Press series Studies in Biblical Theology, it represents a tragic retreat from the fearless and innovative scholarship that marked its predecessor. As editor D. A. Carson says right up front, the books in the series “are written within the framework of confessional evangelicalism” (p. 9). As the bland and preachy themes of the other volumes in the series make plain, what we are dealing with here is in-house sectarian, parochial exegesis, abandoning the dangerous public forum of ideas, retreating into a “safe” and comfortable community of like-believing interpreters, all inerrantists who use the term “criticism” as a self-esteem-building euphemism for what they are really doing, apologetics aimed at edifying tender evangelical readers. It is especially ironic for Blomberg to be lionizing Jesus and his supposed fellowship with sinners when the whole point of the book is to help insulate conservative seminarians within the safety of the pre-critical flock, away from non-kosher ideas of genuine critics.

Blomberg’s main goal seems to be to refute E.P. Sander’s (admittedly peculiar) thesis that Jesus welcomed sinners, not caring whether they repented, as well as Dennis C. Smith’s claim that Jesus’ meals as depicted in the gospels must be understood as Greek symposia transplanted onto Jewish soil thanks to pandemic Hellenization. To Smith’s symposium business Blomberg returns again and again like a refrain, though it is difficult to see why it is that important.

But by far most of the book (as Jacob Neusner would say, the shank of the book) is a completely pointless side-trip into every conceivable reference to meals and eating in the Old Testament, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Apocrypha, and the Pseudepigrapha, plus Classical Greek and Roman references. The pregnant mountain thus scaled brings forth a mouse of a contrast: as we already knew, Jesus seems not to have superstitiously avoided people on the basis of likely ritual impurity or even if they were Gentiles. Yes, yes, Dr. Blomberg is a learned fellow, all right. It’s not that he is trying to impress anybody. Anyone who is even mildly acquainted with him knows better than that. But he is reinforcing the evangelical notion of what New Testament scholarship is: a command of ancient data and being conversant with the views of commentators. It is an essentially uncreative enterprise of guarding the store to prevent “shrinkage” of merchandise, lest real critics erode the stock-in-trade of Orthodox Protestant preaching by whittling away the reliability of the Bible.

It is written plainly on every page that Blomberg has forgotten the genuine critical axioms of Bultmann and the form- and redaction- critics, whose methods he facilely assures his readers are passé (“The form-critical analyses assume a fallacious and now-outmoded kind of historical research,” p. 22). This is like a chiropractor informing a patient that no one bothers with “mainstream” medicine anymore.

So completely does Blomberg (like the mutually sustaining circle of intra-Evangelical commentators he quotes) mean “apologetics” when he says “criticism” that he deems blatant harmonization to be a “critical” axiom: “demonstrating that a theme is crucial to a Gospel writer’s literary purposes bears no relation to the probability of its historical authenticity” (p. 22). “But the two passages [the two fish stories in Luke 5 and John 21] scarcely need to be pitted against one another. Each is intelligible in its own context” (p. 126). As to the lampoons of John’s fasting and Jesus’ conviviality, we need not choose between them, for as R. Stein says, “Both are valid expressions of different aspects of God’s kingdom, and if either is totally ignored, an unbalanced portrayal will result” ( p. 118). How nice.

Blomberg and his ilk bear the same relation to overt, admitted apologists as today’s “Intelligent Design” advocates do to yesterday’s Flood Geology partisans. They seek respectability by trying to associate their efforts with an earlier generation’s scientific consensus. In Blomberg’s case, he wants to go back in time to the conservative critics of an earlier generation, like T.W. Manson and Vincent Taylor. Thus they often repaired to “epicyclical” devices to explain variant versions of a saying or story. If there are two stories or sayings that sound significantly alike but have equally important differences, what should we infer? It seems the least assumption-ridden suggestion would be that oral tradition has produced mutant, word-of-mouth versions, or that the evangelists have simply rewritten material they thought they could improve. But either solution disturbs apologists, so they like to say evangelist A was following one tradition, evangelist B the other another. Or that Matthew was using one “source” with one version, while Luke used another, with another version. For Blomberg and company, “oral tradition” itself becomes an additional, purely accurate “source” alongside already-written ones. “The Lukan parallel (Luke 9:10-17) diverges from Mark a little more than Matthew did. Even where the two texts contain similar information, there is less verbal parallelism, suggesting greater influence of the oral tradition on Luke’s form” (p. 107). Matthew (in Matt. 15:32-39) “also rearranges the sequence of a few details, so that one wonders if oral tradition has influenced his structure” (p. 111).

This approach implies what Blomberg eventually admits: Jesus said or did it twice, and each version is a literal, accurate report. “This much variation in wording and sequence, even granted the verbal parallelism that remains, suggests the possibility of two separate teachings of Jesus on two distinct occasions” (p. 115). It seems never to occur to Blomberg and his colleagues that the very source analysis they adopt, (Markan Priority, Q, etc.) was made necessary only by the recognition that pure oral transmission could never yield the degree of verbal similarity we find when we compare the gospels. Apologists everywhere take for granted that a tradition is a transcript, so different versions must be different, accurate reports of different events/speeches. Blomberg doesn’t need Q; he appeals to it only because real critics do and he wants to try to beat them at their own game. If we were playing his game, there would be no talk of gospel sources at all.

Blomberg will not even admit that Mark has used two versions of the same miracle story, the multiplication of bread and fish: “The feeding of the four thousand is often viewed as a doublet of the multiplication of the loaves for the five thousand. From Mark’s perspective, however, the two incidents are clearly distinct, inasmuch as Mark 8:1 indicates that ‘another large crowd gathered’. The Greek uses the adverb palin (‘again’). The dialogue in 8:14-21 will also refer back to both episodes as separate” (p. 109). Of course anyone can see that Mark means to narrate two separate, similar miracles. The question, of which Blomberg seems to be entirely oblivious, is whether Mark is perhaps making virtue of necessity, being stuck with two versions of the same story, like the Genesis redactor who was faced with three variant versions (12:10-20; 20:1-18; 26:1-17) of the patriarch (Abram/Abraham/Isaac) lying to the king (Pharaoh/Abimelech) about his wife (Sarai/Sarah/Rebecca). Just as the Genesis redactor decided to use all three versions of the same story by separating them and arbitrarily positing that one took place during another famine (26:1), so has Mark obviously used both versions, like a pious scribe who does not dare exclude any textual accretion lest he omit some words of God. It does not occur to Blomberg to recognize a redactional seam. There can be none, for he is an inerrantist: if the details of Paul’s conversion stories do not match, he must have been converted three times.

Blomberg treats us to a similar harmonizing spectacle when he gets to Luke 7:36-50, the Lukan version of the Bethany anointing, or rather, as he thinks, Luke’s account of a different anointing, as if Jesus had to expect this sort of attention from female fans as often as Elvis had them ripping his clothes off. “The striking similarities, most notably the use of an alabaster jar of perfume, could suggest that the two divergent accounts have influenced one another in some small ways, but there are no compelling reasons for not treating Luke 7:36-50 as primarily a separate incident” (p. 131). “Luke clearly believes it to be a separate incident” (Ibid.). Unless Blomberg is gifted as a mind-reader or a necromancer, the assertion is grossly circular. How do we know Luke believed he was (merely) reporting a separate incident? We “know” it only if we are persuaded of the inerrancy of scripture, whereby any assertion in the text must be taken literally. Otherwise we might have to wonder if Luke is exercising literary license and wholly rewriting Mark’s story. But we wouldn’t want that, because then we might have to recognize that Luke and Matthew have rewritten Mark’s Easter story, too, and in rather drastic fashion. And then we could not pretend the gospel Easter stories are “evidence that demands a verdict.”

How do we know that the saying “Many will come from east and west to recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8:11-12) refers to Gentiles? Well, Jesus says it to recognize the faith of a Gentile, so that’s that, right? Again, inerrantism. Does it not even occur to Blomberg that the saying circulated independently, only to have been “framed” by the story of the Centurion? It may well have first referred to Diaspora Jews. Blomberg’s “argument” that it doesn’t mean that amounts to no more than a fundamentalist assertion, with stopped-up ears, “No, it happened just like the Bible says!”

Against Dennis Smith, Blomberg decrees that “the very literary-critical approach to which Smith… appeals has demonstrated that one cannot strip unhistorical layers from a historical core of Gospel pericopae, as once was thought” (p. 22). Blomberg doesn’t get it. As Frank Kermode pointed out long ago, the more literary a passage appears, the less likely it is to be historical. And as D.F. Strauss (who knew what criticism was) said long before that, once one recognizes the tendency of a pericope, the reason it is told, and one sees its artificiality, no reason remains for trying to salvage historical remains (as, e.g., Gerd Lüdemann still does in his Acts commentary). For instance, Blomberg is happy to recognize that the evangelists mean to cast Jesus as a new Moses and a new Elijah, even that the depiction of the audience as seated in groups of fifty and a hundred is meant to recall the arrangements of the Israelites in the wilderness (p. 104). Doesn’t he see what that means? The whole scene is a midrashic fiction. Or do we imagine Jesus as Schonfield’s scheming messiah, choreographing the whole scene to make a point to future gospel readers?

The most damning objection to there having been two distinct bread miracles is the impossible obtuseness of the disciples who, having seen such a miracle once, could not conceivably be stumped at how to feed the crowd when the exact same circumstance arose again. But Blomberg has an “answer”: “the point may be that they think Jesus is asking them to replicate the earlier miracle” (p. 109). This is worthy of Gleason Archer and his encyclopedia of apparent Bible contradictions.

But the most comical cases of Blomberg’s “criticism” amounting to apologetics of the most contrived sort concern the spectacular character of the miracles. The fact of their enormity phases him not in the least. “The distinction in the locations of the two feeding miracles, combined with the obscurity of the geographical references, supports the conviction that both were separate events in which Jesus was actually involved” (p. 110). You mean, these throat-clearing attempts to make the stories seem to be those of different events outweigh the likelihood that both versions are merely rewrites of the Elisha story in 2 Kings 4:42-44, where that prophet does the same thing? What would William of Ockham say? Is it more likely that a man magically increased the mass of some fish and barley rolls one day (or two days)? Or is it more likely that the teller of such a tale has merely copied it from a well-known prototype? A stubborn refusal to countenance the possibility of genuine miracles (which Blomberg ascribes to historical critics) has nothing to do with such a judgment. Just because God can do anything doesn’t mean he in fact did everything every ancient (or even every biblical) writer says he did. Unless, of course, there is good prior reason to believe in biblical inerrancy. That is the issue. Blomberg and his coreligionists do not just want us to admit miracles might happen; what they want is for us to believe in biblical inerrancy as they do. When they say this or that consideration vindicates a miracle story as “likely,” they do not mean this is why they have come to accept it with more or less provisional confidence. No, they already believe it as a point of doctrinal duty. They are just engaging in apologetics to defend what they already believe.

If anyone needed more evidence, look at Blomberg’s treatment of the water-into-wine miracle (John 2:1-11). “The miracle thus admirably satisfies the criterion of coherence with teaching generally recognized to be authentic elsewhere” (p. 122). Was Blomberg absent on the day they explained that such criteria are relevant only to sayings? To make “coherence” with a teaching theme the deciding factor whether a man magically changed one chemical substance into another is just perverse. It is not coherence but analogy that is the relevant criterion here: is this miracle, so similar to that of Dionysus and so unparalleled in all creditable history, to be judged more probably a myth like the Dionysus version, or as a credible historical report? Again, even the pious believer in miracles (if piety even requires such) can, even must, decide: no, insofar as we can judge, not having been there, it is surely more likely to be a fiction, a legend, told for theological reasons. “The clearest redactional or theological overlay in the passage comes at the end, when John describes this miracle as the first of Jesus’ signs (semeia) -  the standard expression in the Fourth Gospel for Jesus’ mighty deeds – but the historicity of the core miracle itself is unaffected by this label” (p. 123). Oh dear.

The Emmaus story strikingly parallels the story (attested for the fourth century BCE) of Asclepius in disguise, catching up with two crestfallen believers who sought his healing in the holy shrine at Epidauros but left disappointed. Coaxing out the reason for their glumness, he reveals himself, performing the healing on the spot. When we read a very similar story about the Risen Jesus, what are we to conclude? I suppose an omnipotent deity could rise from the dead. No dogmatic bias to the contrary can allow me to disqualify the Emmaus tale as an historical report. But neither can I discount the possibility that poor Sostrata may have actually been healed by the power of a very real Asclepius, son of Apollo. What business have I, as a historian, “presupposing” that Asclepius did not exist and perform miracles? But if we feel pretty safe in classifying the one story as a legend (and the earlier one at that), why do we not assess the other as likely to be a holy legend, too? That is the way the historian reasons. But this is the way the covert apologist for biblical inerrancy reasons: “The generally restrained nature of the narrative… particularly surrounding the meal, and the ambiguity created by Jesus’ immediate disappearance after the disciples recognized him, all support authenticity. A purely legendary story would disclose Christ far more clearly and fill in the obvious gaps Luke has left in his narrative (as in fact the apocryphal Gospel accounts regularly do)” (p. 160). There is no ambiguity. There are no gaps. There could be no clearer revelation of the Risen Christ. And the restrained character of the narrative is simply the mark of better writing, not necessarily of reporting. And just because there may be even grosser legends, wilder fictions, does not mean more subtle ones are to be judged historical.

Very little of Contagious Holiness is spent demonstrating that Jesus probably did seek the company of sinners so as to influence them for good. But then the book is not really about that. As with all such monographs by Evangelical scholars, the book is a mass of historical apologetics.

Copyright©2009 by Robert M Price
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