(An edited version of a posting on the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association discussion list, April 2, 1996)
Once upon a time there were some Shakespeare scholars who decided to work at the historical milieu of Shakespeare and the sources he used. They set themselves the task of reconstructing the influences that impinged on his thinking, and all the messy ways he tailored the sources he used in the writing of his plays. At first some people who didn't know much about Denmark and the place of Jews in Italy were excited as they got new insights into the meaning of Hamlet and the Merchant of Venice.
But then some of these scholars wanted to reconstruct the plays. The Merchant of Venice should be re-written to cut out anti-semitisms, and the plot must be reconstructed to reflect the historical situation in Venice at that time. They were surprised at the fierce reaction of those who loved Shakespeare as is. One tiresome gadfly pointed out that analysing the manure does not explain the roses.
Happily another group of Shakespeare scholars set themselves to soak themselves in the final text of the plays, grasp the artistry of what makes each scene so powerful, and communicate that with excitement to their students. Others reconstructed the text of the plays to be performed as they were first enjoyed in the Globe theater. And others put on the plays with the actors in modern dress.
At first the historians felt threatened that nobody would want to bother with their scholarly work. They would be downsized. But exactly the opposite occured. The more people enjoyed the power of the plays the more demand there was for the historical studies that reconstructed Shakespeare's life and times. Why else would anyone bother with Elizabethan England?
The historians finally had to admit that no amount of historical studies can explain the artistry and power of the final result. They also had to admit that with exactly the same kind of historical imput, and a lack of inspiration, thousands of hack playwriters have achieved nothing of value.
an explanation of the manure and roses
Jesus often had to explain the meaning of his parables to the disciples (Mark 4:10, 33). "Roses from Manure" is a story about scholars who keep offering us theories about the messy origins of the New Testament Gospels. But no amount of historical studies can ever explain the power and artistry of Shakespeare's plays. And no amount of historical studies can ever explain the infinitely greater power and artistry of the Gospels.
The way out of the present confusion in New Testament studies must begin with the fact that the four canonical Gospels have been read, and are still being read by millions of men women and children in every language of the world.
Historical critics tell us that final authors of the canonical text of Matthew and John were faceless individuals that no history ever noticed. Mark was a loser and Luke was a doctor who didn't practice much medicine. These assumed writers were mere collectors of traditions floating around the early churches. But any English scholar like C.S. Lewis would find that assumption totally implausible. Works of great artistry do not come from random rag picking.
At that point most ordinary Christians make the mind boggling assumption that God was the ultimate author of the Gospels. God the Father arranged that no life of his Son should be written for 30 years. He did not want us to know his height, whether he had a beard, or the colour of his eyes. By the time of Nero's persecution (say about AD 64) Jesus' life and parables had been preached in hundreds of churches. So the final content of the Gospels reflected exactly what was preached again and again by preachers of the good news. The writers certainly had no idea that what they wrote would find its way into the Bible. And we can imagine they would be astonished to see how well they succeeded.
The final artistry was to arrange for that material to be collected lovingly and set in order by people who looked for wisdom from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. God chose to have four books from different points of view. Together the four Gospels give a picture of Jesus which churches of all denominations all over the world still use every week. And as millions of Christians read these books in a thousand different languages they are touched, astonished, and transformed again and again by the power of the Holy Spirit. As in nature, God has his own way of growing roses from manure, and that is what New Testament scholars need to explain.