“Known knowns, known unknowns,” and the New Testament


The good folks over at the Babylon Bee, a Christian satirical site, posted a gem of a fake article today called “Historical-Critical Scholar Doubts Authorship Of Paper He Wrote,” which comically captures some of the dubious certainties that sometimes come out of the New Testament studies combine.

The article quotes the fictitious Dr. Gunther Burg of Yale questioning the authenticity of an article he himself had written.

For those of us of a certain age who went to seminary during the years in which the Post-Bultmannians had taken apart the bicycle, handed us the parts, and charged us to go out and ride it, such satire rings true.

There was a a Rumsfeldian quality to the lens we were asked to employ as we faced down a Biblical text. Donald Rumsfeld, you may recall, was not a Biblical scholar, but rather the US Secretary of Defense during the Second Iraq War. His best known quote is this torturous construction:

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.

If the participants in the war room at the time had been invited to identify the various knowns, unknowns, etc. by the use of black, white, or gray marbles in a vote, they would have resembled nothing so much as the Jesus Seminar, a self-appointed group of New Testament scholars who so vote on the alleged authenticity of the words of Jesus.

To my mind the very best send-up of the sometimes over-confidence of New Testament scholarship came from the estimable Richard Bauckham, a world-class NT scholar himself and my advisor during my 1995 St Andrews sabbatical. In a satirical lecture he employs some of the more dubious research methods of NT scholarship to analyze the Winnie The Pooh stories of AA Milne.

His lecture is called “Reconstructing the Pooh Community” and it is a tour-de-force.  Bauckham’s “research” into the Pooh books unearths the existence of several communities that helped shape the final text. Here’s a sample:

The very distinctive nature of the Pooh community can be further appreciated when we compare it with other children’s literature of the period, such as the Noddy books or the Narnia books (though it may be debatable whether these were already written at the time when the traditions of the Pooh community were taking shape). Words and concepts very familiar from other children’s literature never appear in the Pooh books: the word school, e.g., is completely absent, as is the word toys, even though the books are ostensibly about precisely toys. Conversely, the Pooh books have their own special vocabulary and imagery: e.g. the image of honey, which is extremely rare in other children’s literature (not at all to be found in the Narnia books, e.g., according to the computer-generated analysis by Delaware and Babcock), constantly recurs in the literature of the Pooh community, which clearly must have used the image of honey as one of the key buildingblocks in their imaginative construction of the world.

You can find the lecture in its entirety on his website here.

In fairness, I have learned from some wonderful NT scholars, not only to know about the “pieces and parts” but to also appreciate the message of the final text and to discern in it the Word of God in the words of its human authors.

Some of these scholars I had the privilege to study under, such as Krister Stendhal, Bill Robinson, Burt Throckmorton, Tom Wright and Richard Bauckham. Others, such as the great Brevard Childs, I knew only through their writings.

They combined extraordinary learnedness with genuine humility. They knew, as the wise do, that when approaching the mystery of God as revealed in Scripture, much remains mysterious. Or as Donald Rumsfeld would say, “There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

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