Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The biblical audience?

Over on Metalepsis a good friend of mine posted the following (a number of days ago, it must be said; I apologise if this is somewhat untimely):
Most North American Christians assume that they have a right, if not an obligation, to read the Bible. I challenge that assumption. No Task is more important than for the Church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America. Let us no longer give the Bible to children when they enter the third grade or whenever their assumed rise to Christian maturity is marked, such as eight-grade comencements. Let us rather tell them and their parents that they are possessed by habits far too corrupt for them to be encouraged to read the Bible on their own.
After quickly looking through the extended dialogue between Bryan and TheBlueRaja, maybe I misunderstood Bryan's post (the discussion is largely one of epistemology). But it still raises an important question: for whom was the Bible written/is the Bible intended?

Let me quickly admit that I agree that the Bible is a 'dangerous' text and that the Christian (Catholic and Protestant) world must largely admit responsibility for the uses to which it has put its foundational text. But this isn't the sum total of what it means for the Bible to be 'dangerous'; this same quality (perhaps 'aggressive' is a better word) is behind the good that has been done, historically, as a result of the claims and expectations that the biblical traditions make on people's lives.

In the end, however, I felt it necessary to publicly declare my utter opposition to the sentiment above. (This seems to be a constant feature of interaction between Bryan and myself.) In the words of someone up to whom I look (it's quite hard not to end a phrase with a preposition, ain't it?!), 'God is a demagogue', in the second sense given on the Merriam-Webster Dictionary website. We (academic, largely Western and highly privileged individuals who primarily worry about where we'll eat rather than when) are not the people for whom the gospel was primarily intended. And I question whether we have the right to prevent others from accessing the Bible 'on their own'.

Actually, it seems to me that many of the problems beguiling the church throughout Christian history are related to the tendency of the privileged (scribal/priestly/scholarly, etc.) to take the Bible out of the hands of the demos. Perhaps we are the ones who have something to learn from the child with the Bible in his hands; perhaps we are the ones who are dogged by 'habits far too corrupt' for us to lay claim to the traditions of the church.

[Postscript: None of this is to suggest that American/Western Christianity is 'unelite', or that American/Western Christianity is not in need of its prophets to sound the call of repentance and reform. But I humbly suggest that our role, as academics, is to empower the church to a ministry of restoration, reconciliation, and involvement, rather than cut off the church from its source of tradition, identity, and purpose.]

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Re: First blog blood and an attempt to slow the haemorrhaging

On Earliest Christian History James has responded to my earlier posts re: the concept and use of authenticity in gospels and Jesus research. James responds to two posts that actually make very different points, so I will try to distinguish them below.

First, I question whether 'authenticity' is useful at all for helping us organise and analyse the Jesus tradition, primarily because the two don't actually look/sound that different. Inasmuch as a post-Easter perspective has affected/transformed the tradition, it has effected a transformation of the significance/meaning of the tradition rather than created that tradition ex nihilo. Actually, the 'rather than' of the previous sentence is too strong; the resurrection may have exerted a creative influence, but it did so even as it exerted a hermeneutical one. But the question, I think, is whether we can positively (or even probably, or even usefully, for that matter) distinguish between newly interpreted and newly created traditions. (The interesting discussion in the Jesus seminar [not Seminar] at the BNTC re: the Son of Man/son of man between Maurice Casey and Andy Angel is an example of the difficulty we have in this regard.)

I suppose, briefly, that this is my point re: the resurrection and, say, Jesus' teaching on the kingdom. James asks:
Why must the example of the resurrection be decided on different grounds to the teaching on the kingdom? Either Jesus preached on the future kingdom or he did not. Either Jesus' dead body went the way of normal human beings or it did not. In theory (and I would say in practice) it must be the case that either Jesus' bones were there somewhere in some tomb on the fourth, fifth, six etc. days or Jesus was bodily raised.
There is no philosophical discussion about whether or not Jesus could have proclaimed a present kingdom, an imminent one, a future one, or any combination of the three. But this is precisely the first step in addressing the authenticity/historicity of the resurrection: Could the historical Jesus have experienced bodily resurrection? I think the difference is obvious; I apologise if it isn't. (NB: James asks, 'Why is that so different from the analysis of any other miraculous event?' First, Jesus' teaching about the kingdom or a future coming Son of Man isn't miraculous. Second, I've yet to hear anyone seriously suggest that death was a psychosomatic condition that Jesus could 'heal' or 'be healed of' [unlike healing the blind or the lame], though some of the old resuscitation theories tend toward this.)

As this is getting long, let me get to the second point re: authenticity and the problem regarding the rhetoric of critical inquiry. James asks:
If the so-called 'uncritical' scholar has carefully evaluated the entire gospel tradition and finds most of it authentic would this no be a little unlikely? Would the same degree of openness towards authenticity be extened to non-Christian traditions? Statistically, surely, at least some degree of the gospel material must tell us things that are nothing like what happened in the historic ministry, esp. given that Jewish and pagan traditions have lots of creative storytelling elements?
Obviously, James is right. Only faith in the text (as inspired or whatever) could foster the belief from the outset that nothing in the gospels gives us an inaccurate or misleading image of Jesus. But does this automatically lead to credulous/uncritical gospel scholarship? I have my doubts. It seems to me that a number of scholars have faith in the text and yet are able to evaluate it critically, often to the effect that their understanding of both the text and their faith is developed in the process of critical inquiry (Wright is explicit on this point). But when analysis from a faith-perspective becomes uncritical (i.e., when it cannot draw the conclusions to which it has been leading), then this, surely, is the point at which it must be assailed as 'uncritical'. The point: I think critical scholarship would be well served by shifting its focus to the process of biblical historiography rather than its product. If I cannot rattle off '10 things about the Gospels I don’t believe' (this is Michael Bird's phrase), this neither adds to nor detracts from the value of my research as critical. (I must say at this point that my friendship with a number of scholars from different perspectives, especially James, suggests that the shift in focus for which I'm calling isn't necessarily a radical shift.)

But all of this must be qualified, finally (and this was my original point), by recognising that the meaning of the designations 'authentic' and 'inauthentic' requires its own discussion. Much could be said here, but I find the longish paragraph at the end of Michael Bird's post (cf. the link above) makes this point sufficiently well.

Oh yeah . . . one last point. It seems to me that questions such as, 'Would the same degree of openness towards authenticity be extened to non-Christian traditions?', aren't very helpful. On the one hand, Evangelical scholars are said to be credulous because they suppose the gospels (or at least the synoptics) are reliable sources for the historical Jesus, but on the other they are criticised for not being credulous enough (for refusing to accept all the sources as reliable). I understand James' point (and, as he is fond of pointing out, our disagreement here is rather minor) and agree that why some of us prefer the canonical or synoptic gospels as historical sources should be a subject for analysis. But a preference for certain sources can be the result of critical reflection (granted that, nevertheless, it frequently isn't).

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Thinking authentically (follow up)

Over on Hermeneutica Edmund Fearon just posted on the criteria of authenticity, which is of course similar to my previous post. I think it's really interesting to think about the early Christians' (and particularly the evangelists') use of the criteria. Obviously, it is doubtful that, say, Matthew examined the traditions at his disposal, asking, 'Is this dissimilar?' or 'Is this multiply attested?' But, as Edmund suggests, first-century Christians may (must?) have been in a better position to verify traditions about Jesus' sayings and deeds than we are.

But I think this impinges on another issue: the rhetoric of critical historiography in Jesus research. It seems, in some circles at least, that being a critical (= good) historian of Jesus requires us to judge some traditions about Jesus 'inauthentic'. Not that there is one tradition that must be considered inauthentic, but that a good scholar will think at least one tradition to give false information about Jesus. Anyone who doesn't is 'credulous' or 'uncritical' (= bad). But this seems, to me, as weak a position as the fundamentalist one that requires that we automatically, and beforehand, adjudge every tradition authentic.

Rather, it must surely be better (and more scholarly) to reserve judgement until after analysis. Relatedly, that analysis must not be solely focussed on the Jesus tradition, but also upon our own status as historians. What it means, in other words, for us to find a tradition authentic or inauthentic says something about both the tradition in question and the status of critical historical inquiry in the twenty-first century, and this latter aspect of our work too easily escapes attention.

In the end I suspect I'm preaching to the choir. Most of us are at least somewhat aware of the complexity of the issues concerning reconstructing Jesus and of the difficult issues invovled in doing history today. But, if only for my benefit, it would be good to name the subtle pressure to be 'critical' (= unbelieving), and in so doing to start coming out from beneath it. But I hope this only helps me to be a more sensitive, careful, even 'critical' (= questioning) student of the early Christians and their traditions.

Thinking authentically

In my SBL FORUM essay I try to question what it means when Jesus scholars identify some unit of tradition 'authentic' or 'inauthentic'. James Crossley has responded positively to my essay (cf. here), though he has also expressed concern that 'it seems to me that everything is historically valid in some degree or other'. He asks, 'There are plenty of historical examples where memories are deliberately or accidentally false (historically speaking) so couldn't the same thing being going on somewhere in earliest Christianity'? I think this has the potential to be a very interesting conversation.

In essence, the answer is, 'Yes', but I think James is missing the point (either that, or I am). My critique of the concept of authenticity is not an attempt to prejudge the entire Jesus tradition 'authentic', thereby sneaking in 'authenticity' by the back door. Rather, it seems to me that past and present interact in such a way that so-called 'inauthentic' memories, as well as 'authentic' ones, experience the same kinds of pressures, and it is through these that we can know something about 'the historical Jesus'. In more traditional terms, it may be true that early Christian theologising about Jesus generated traditions about him, but that theologising itself was constrained about what was already known about him. But then how does this affect our understanding of authenticity?

The whole point of authenticity/inauthenticity, as far as I am able to discern it, is to discriminate between those traditional units that accurately report the sayings or actions of the real Jesus from those that originated later, with his followers. Theoretically, we can so discriminate because 'inauthentic' Jesus tradition reflects the theology of early Christians, whereas 'authentic' tradition reflects Jesus' own theology (or, more often, at least does not reflect that of early Christianity). The problem is obvious: 'authenticity' only works if we posit a yawning chasm between the beliefs of Jesus and those of his followers. The more narrow that chasm, the less effective the concept 'authentic', and if, per chance, Jesus' followers actually continued to believe the things he taught before his death, then we are hardly in any position to discriminate between our traditions. As I've said elsewhere (cf. my paper, in .pdf format, here [p. 3]), 'we find ourselves in the somewhat awkward position that our categories "authentic" and "unauthentic" are indiscernible and, therefore, useless.

Here James would say that, for example, either Jesus was raised from the dead or he wasn't, so authenticity remains an analytically useful category. Yes, of course. And my point is not that authenticity is completely useless. But it seems to me that the example of the resurrection, especially, must be decided on other (e.g., philosophical) grounds. Unlike, for example, the question of whether Jesus thought of the kingdom as present or imminent, the question of the historicity of the resurrection is unlikely to be answered by textual analysis and determination of 'authenticity'. If Jesus wasn't raised from the dead, then of course every tradition that says he was or relates what he said or did after his resurrection is inauthentic (but not, ipso facto, those in which Jesus predicts the resurrection). But certainly it isn't very convincing to argue - with whatever level of sophistication - that Jesus' followers believed he had been raised from the dead, so that traditions saying he was have been generated by their theology and not a historical event (the resurrection).

This seems to me to be just the beginning of a discussion, but this post is already getting too long. More later?

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Maiden Post

Welcome to my blog. I'll occasionally post thoughts pertaining to my own research (social memory theory, healings/exorcisms traditions in the synoptics, and historical Jesus research), current events/cultural phenomena, and the various discussions in other blogs I frequent. Feel free to leave comments as you feel inclined.

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