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).

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