Higher Critical Review

Carsten Peter Thiede 
Rekindling the Word: In Search of Gospel.
Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1995. 224 pp. $25.00 (pbk)

Reviewed by Daryl D. Schmidt
JHC 3/2 (Fall, 1996), 315-318.

Thiede collects and presents in English nineteen pieces he previously published in the past decade. Many of these were originally in German or French and some in sources not easily accessible, so most of this material is available here for the first time to English readers. The chapters are grouped in two sections: "The New Testament: Reappraising the Evidence" and "Qumran: The Search for Meaning." The grandiose book title and section headings fail to divulge Thiede's actual agenda: assigning a first-century date to four small scraps of Greek papyri.

Three of the scraps were the basis for the incredibly misleading news reports in 1995, which Thiede has since expanded into an entire book, Eyewitness to Jesus: Amazing New Manuscript Evidence About the Origin of the Gospels (Doubleday, 1996). What's so amazing is that there is no evidence here whatsoever. The only scholarly article Thiede has ever written on the subject is included here as chapter two. Its original appearance in January 1995, in a hard-to-find technical journal, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, was heralded in front page Christmas Eve headlines in the London Times, "Oxford papyrus 'is eyewitness record of the life of Christ.'"

The reader can now discover how that original article makes no claims of the sort. Thiede argues only that the three pieces of Matthew that make up the Magdalen Papyrus (P64), usually dated "ca. 200," share similarities with handwriting from earlier papyri and thus should be redated between 70 and 100 C.E. This would make them slightly earlier than any other fragment of the New Testament, but would not qualify them as pieces of an "eyewitness" account. That claim was based entirely on the media hype Thiede generated through a journalist accomplice.

In contrast to his relatively cautious academic paper, Thiede uses as the leadoff chapter a more speculative public lecture he delivered at the same time. Freed from scholarly constraints, he does not hesitate to draw startling theological implications. Without any additional arguments, he now moves the Magdalen Papyrus back before 70 C.E. to "the lifetime of disciples, apostles, contemporaries" of Jesus. This allows him to picture the Magdalen Papyrus as a direct copy of the original scroll written by the apostle Matthew.

The primary reason this matters so to Thiede is that the Magdalen Papyrus uses a "sacred name" abbreviation when Jesus is called kyrios, "lord" or "master." Early Christian manuscripts abbreviated nomin sacra ("sacred names") used for Jesus, God, and Spirit, as well as a dozen other associated nouns, such as Father, Son, Heaven, David, Israel and Jerusalem. Thiede contends that the very act of using such an abbreviation was a visual way for Christians to show that "Jesus was Lord and God" (14). On this basis alone rests the sensational claim repeated in the news media that Thiede had discovered evidence that Jesus was considered divine by his own disciples. There is of course no such evidence.

Typical of Thiede's disingenuousness, the actual evidence argues against Thiede's presumption. The context of the abbreviation here in Mt 26:22 is someone calling Jesus Kyrie, which can mean merely "Sir" or "master," rather than "Lord." In the other earliest surviving New Testament papyri, this word gets abbreviated regardless of what it means, including when it is addressed to Philip in Jn 12:21 and when Jesus uses it in parables about masters and slaves. Likewise the name Jesus gets abbreviated even when it refers to Joshua (Heb 4:8) and to Justus (Col 4:11). Such mundane uses of the "sacred name" abbreviations would totally surprise the naive reader who might well assume that Thiede was telling the whole truth.

The fourth piece of Greek papyrus that preoccupies Thiede is a tiny fragment from Qumran Cave 7. He has become the chief champion of an earlier proposal that this actually belongs to the gospel of Mark. Section Two of this book, as well as the longest chapter in the first section, is devoted to assorted articles that both debunk other proposed identifications, such as Jer 7:3b-5, and argue for the plausibility of Mk 6:52-53. The Qumran fragment has fewer than a dozen complete letters and the only complete word is kai ("and"). In order to make it match Mk 6, Thiede has to justify a spelling variation, an entire missing phrase, and special reconstructions of broken off letters.

Thiede's forte is creating scenarios that answer critics' objections to his astonishing suggestions. How would the gospel of Mark end up in a Qumran cave? As Jewish Christians fled Jerusalem for Pella in 62 or 66 C.E., they dropped their scrolls off for the Essenes to deposit in the caves. Thiede further speculates that when they returned to Jerusalem a decade after the war they built the first synagogal church on Mount Zion on "the rubble of their former living quarters" (89).

The remaining pieces that fill the book are an odd assortment. But they share one common feature with the rest of Thiede's work: a strong aversion to any use of higher criticism. The epitome is probably "St. Peter: A New Approach to Biography." A more apt sub-title would be: "Reviving Hagiography." Thiede's "new approach" is a total harmonization of everything associated with the name "Peter" and "Cephas" in early Christian tradition, from "rock words" in the Old Testament to his relics buried below St. Peter's Basilica. Thiede confidently assures the reader at the end that the Vatican bones appear to be from the period of Peter and "archaeological and church historical evidence reliably prove the tomb's location on the southern slope of the Vatican hill" (73).

The outlet for such uncritical pious propaganda is itself surprising. It was one of Thiede's contributions to Das Grosse Bibellexikon, a new German edition of an old Illustrated Bible Dictionary first produced by InterVarsity Press in 1962. In a companion piece Thiede describes the role of "shorthand writing" in the composition of the New Testament. The distinctive long speeches in Matthew are evidence that "Matthew/Levy the customs official" may well have "taken down in shorthand words spoken by Jesus" (81).

In the introduction Thiede defends his approach with language that leaves the critical reader incredulous. The "outlandish but bestselling theories" of people such as John Dominic Crossan create a greater need "to take the sources seriously, to bid good-bye to presuppositions...and vested interests." Using the "often amazing amount of first-hand evidence" and "the growing awareness of circumstantial evidence," Thiede seeks to "do justice to idiosyncrasies" in the biblical texts. To illustrate this approach, he cites the Bethesda pool in John 5:2: "Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Bethesda, which has five porticoes." Since archaeologists have found such a pool and shown that the Romans destroyed it in 70 C.E., and the author's statement is in the present tense, "it follows logically and conclusively that this text was written before AD 70" (xii).

Such is the logical and conclusive reasoning of Thiede. He does not even raise the question of possible pre-70 traditions that may be preserved in a story such as John 5. And of course he also never addresses all the internal evidence that convinces even cautious scholars that John was written near the end of the first century. Thiede's eye is only looking for anything in any New Testament text that can be used to argue that it must have been written in its present form before 70, and by the apostle whose name is attached to that text.

It is a commentary about our times that such theories sound outlandish to an ever smaller audience and all the more quickly lead to bestselling books. It seems to matter even less that Thiede has never held an academic post (he directs his own institute) and that his claims have been dismissed as utterly groundless by reputable scholars. The good news is that the need for honest historical criticism is greater than ever.


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Darrell J. Doughty
Institute for Higher Critical Studies
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