Friday, October 21, 2005

The NT as 'Christian' texts?

Mike Bird has asked recently raised a question re: the referent of 'Israel of God' in Gal. 6.16. This question is important not just for theology but also for historical reconstruction. Over the last couple of weeks I've been thinking about the effects of the predominant classification of the NT texts as 'Christian' texts, and I was curious what other bibliobloggers thought about this issue.

The affirmation that the NT texts are 'Christian' has impacted NT studies in subtle but important ways. Relatively mildly, this affirmation has affected, for example, Dibelius's judgement on the Epistle of James, which he took to be a Jewish work that was later 'Christianised' by the addition of [KURIOU] IHSOU CHRISTOU at 1.1 and 2.1. More sinisterly, it allowed for anti-Judaic and anti-Semitic generalisations in which Judaism was a religion of law and external practices and Christianity was a religion of grace and internal transformation.

In the course of reading George W. E. Nickelsburg's Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins, which is shaping up to be a fantastic book, this question has become particularly urgent. On the one hand, Nickelsburg deconstructs the distinction between Judaism and Christianity at a number of points, such as:
This review of Jewish texts (cf. pp. 44-51) sensitizes us to elements in the New Testament that are often overlooked. Such a comparison indicates more similarity and continuity than the traditional paradigm has allowed. (p. 51)
The New Testament, too, portrays the God who saves in different ways and circumstances and employs a number of terms (often metaphors) for "salvation," which vary according to the complex of ideas in which they fit. The rich, explicit variety in postbiblical Jewish texts, and the important transformations of biblical traditions that they attest, help us understand better the variety in early Christian thought and the similarities and differences between it and the traditions on which it draws. (p. 61)
On the other hand, the title of Nickelsburg's book, and especially the subtitle ('Diversity, Continuity, and Transformation; my italics), reinforces the sense that there is a qualitative difference between Christianity and Judaism (as do some of his comments, e.g., at p. 36). Certainly by the end of the first century or in the second century (e.g., in the writings of Ignatius, or even in the Pastorals) such a distinction (hence, 'Transformation') is appropriate, but my question (and it is a genuine one; I don't have the answer) is: Is there a meaningful difference between Judaism and Christianity throughout most of the first century CE, reflected especially in the writings of Paul and even in the synoptic gospels? If not, wouldn't the subtitle 'Diversity and Continuity' have been sufficient?

Nickelsburg makes a number of other helpful observations which suggest that, in many quarters, at least, Christianity comprised another perspective within the diverse groupings of communities and theologies that were Greco-Roman Judaism. Even the high estimate of Jesus current in 'early Christian' circles, or the judgement of new texts like Mark or 1 Corinthians as authoritative (even approaching scriptural), do not represent 'breaks' with Judaism (e.g., p. 28). Neither does the relative marginalisation of the Torah, though this is a complex issue for both Jewish and early Christian studies (cf. Nickelsburg's comments re: 1 Enoch, p. 46f.). And neither does the inclusion of gentiles into the covenantal community, though, as before, 'early Christian' attitudes toward gentiles were not monolithic (cf. p. 76-79). And so on.

At any rate, here's the point. I suspect that most of us accept that a hard-and-fast division between Judaism and Christianity does violence to our sources. But, if you're interested, I'd be curious about comments from the blogging community re: how a reappraisal of the NT texts as Jewish texts affects specific exegetical, theological, and/or historical conclusions about the NT itself or about the early Christianity/ies that produced these texts. By way of example, I offer one here. The Lukan Jesus announces to the synagogue in Nazareth:
'But truly I say to you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the sky was closed up for three years and six months, as a terrible famine was wrought upon all the land. And yet to none of them was Elijah sent, but to the widow in Zarephath of Sidon. And there were many lepers in Israel for Elisha the prophet, yet none of them was cleansed, but Naaman the Syrian.' (4.25-27)
Though some have seen Lukan theology at work here, and especially inasmuch as this represents a critique of Israel qua Israel and legitimises the so-called 'mission to the gentiles', this need not necessarily be the case. Certainly this passage serves Luke's theology. But it also makes sense as a critique of Israel made from within Israel. For one thing, its critique is not only made in terms of Israelite tradition but stems from that tradition in the first place. Also, within the gospel itself, Jesus is not made to turn his attention away from Israel on the basis of this passage. Though some passages (e.g., Luke 17.12-19) pick up this theme, Luke does not relate the story of the Syrophoenician woman's daughter, and 7.11-17 explicitly links the Elijah tradition with the exclamation, 'A great prophet has arisen among us, and God has visited his people' [TON LAON AUTOU]. If Jesus, in the Nazareth synagogue or in any other Jewish context, said anything like Luke 4.25-27, it is less likely to have been in anticipation of a 'gentile mission' as it was an expression of the thoroughly Jewish conclusion that, when God acted to restore/vindicate his people, some (= unrighteous) Jews would fare less well than the righteous among the nations (cf., e.g., 1 Enoch 10.21; among others; without the optimistic perspective on the gentiles, cf. 1QS 8.12-16; among others; cf. also Nickelsburg, p. 76-77). If this is on the mark, Jesus as a Jew comes into slightly crisper focus (hopefully), and our understanding of Luke's theological perspective may also find itself in need of some revision.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

. . . and that's no over-exaggeration!

Welcome to my first-ever personal rant. Now, those of you familiar with my on-going debate with Prince Humperdinck will undoubtedly say, 'Surely not. Your whole blog is one long rant!' Perhaps. But this is my first personal rant.

I tire of people using the phrase 'over-exaggeration', and especially the implication that precisely over-exaggeration is bad. 'Oh sure', you might say, 'exaggerate all you want; we all do that. But whoa . . . you better not over-exaggerate! That's just wrong!' The Merriam-Webster website includes the element 'over' (as in 'overstate' and 'overemphasise') in its definition of 'exaggerate'. So does 'over-exaggerate' mean 'to over-overstate'? Now I know that is hardly the canon of English usage that, say, the OED is, but that's precisely the point! If Merriam-Webster knows better, then so should we.

If the blogging community should so decide that over-exaggeration is a legitimate and identifiable phenomenon, then I will humbly submit to your collective wisdom. In that case, though, it must be said that I will continue in my earnest efforts to only ever under-exaggerate. And if you know what I mean, please e-mail and let me know.

[Note from Verily Verily's legal department: The above comments were in no way meant to disparage the Merriam-Webster dictionary, its website, or any of the intelligent women and men responsible for either. Indeed, it is the policy of Verily Verily's editorial board to consult whenever a spelling or semantic issue arises, and we find their thesaurus to be useful, practical, helpful, functional, and so on. Actually, it is our suspicion that none of the staff would utter the abominable phrase in normal conversation, which makes them okay in my . . . we mean, in our book.]

Monday, October 03, 2005

My last 'last words' on authenticity

Okay, so I actually have other thoughts about authenticity and historical Jesus research apart from which the internet is somewhat less than complete, but I promise not to continue harping on this subject for too much longer. To be fair, I have a feeling this is actually another issue, perhaps of somewhat broader interest.

Nearly a week ago Eddie mused about ' What Does it Mean to "Be Critical" in Studying the Historical Jesus'? If I understand his post rightly, his basic thrust is that historical Jesus research ought to attend to two different tasks: (a) assessing the general relationship between the primary sources (i.e., the gospels) and the actual flow of events that is 'history', and (b) on the strength of that relationship, analysing whatever individual traditions we are interested in. Also, if I read him right, scholars should set themselves to these two tasks in this order. I think this is a basic 'hermeneutical circle' problem, in that I would doubt that we can perform either task apart from some tentative conclusions about the other. My stance on the reliability of the gospels undergirds my treatment of any part of them, and my treatment of individual gospel units affirms or subverts my stance vis-à-vis the gospels as wholes. But it also seems to me that the concept of the reliability of a source (as a whole) is a slippery thing to quantify. Per my perspective on authenticity in general, I find 'burden-of-proof' comments that those for or against the general trustworthiness of the gospels have to argue their point difficult to agree with because they allow us to rest upon our presuppositions. I think Sanders had it right: the burden of proof falls on anyone who wants to prove anything, and this applies both to those who generally trust the gospels and those who generally doubt them.

But I think Eddie is right that, too often, the results of our analyses of individual gospel units is prevented from informing our views of the gospels as wholes. A similar point is made by Stan Porter, who writes
. . . genre theory is often neglected or misunderstood by Jesus scholars. The level of discussion of much historical Jesus research is in terms of individual pericopes. These form the basic units for comparison among Gospels and analysis in relation to extra-canonical sources. However, this level of analysis assumes the form-critical agenda, but fails to consider the Gospels in terms of the kinds of family resemblances that are relevant to biographies or, to use the terms of genre theory, in terms of intrinsic generic characteristics. This is not to deny that biographies have individual units, such as stories, sayings, and speeches, but that these are not the basic units of analysis. When the larger patterns are considered, the Gospels are seen to reflect biographical literature in most if not all essential features. ('Reading the Gospels and the Quest for the Historical Jesus', Reading the Gospels Today, 42)

My point doesn't concern genre criticism per se, but rather that the quality of the gospels' biographical testimony in its parts ought to affect our stance toward them as wholes.

To illustrate, I have argued elsewhere (no link available, sorry) that the Markan aside at 7.19b ('Thus he cleansed/declared clean all foods') is an important indicator of the evangelist's ability to distinguish Jesus in his own historical and theological context from his significance for the evangelist's circumstances. In a nutshell, Mark is able to state baldly that Jesus did make all foods acceptable for consumption, but he does so without putting a statement to that effect into Jesus' mouth. In other words, Mark doesn't write 'Jesus said, "All foods are clean"', but he does understand it to be the legitimate/inevitable outcome of what Jesus did say.

(Note: James Crossley argues for a different reading of Mark 7.19b altogether, largely on the basis of his early dating of Mark. While I remain sceptical of James' reading [viz., that Jesus said it was okay to eat all kosher foods irrespective of the condition of one's hands] it is still possible that later readers of Mark [interestingly, apparently not Matthew] may have read Mark 7.19b as making it okay to eat pork, or perhaps even meat sacrificed to idols [cf. 1 Cor. 8-10]. If James is right, then all this is, of course, speculative. But he isn't right, so this isn't speculative.)

The point, then, is that if Mark is able at this instance to make Jesus' story relevant to his circumstances without rewriting Jesus, then this ought to affect the way we approach Mark's gospel as a whole. If Mark demonstrably avoids retrojecting what he wants Jesus to have said into his mouth, at least in this instance, then we should avoid the cavalier assumption that Mark retrojected his own circumstances onto Jesus' life without better argumentation. This is particularly the case with respect to Sanders' (and many others') view that the conflict stories, especially, reflect the early Christian communities' conflict with post-70 Judaism as the latter went about reconstituting itself after the destruction of Jerusalem. The significance of Jesus' conflict with his contemporaries was certainly apprehended from the point of view of later (emerging) Christianity, but I suspect the evangelists are hardly responsible for making up the theme as a whole. We should still be on the lookout for how the tradition appears to have developed in the Markan narrative, but we should also be just that much more confident that Mark was, in fact, interested in Jesus for his own sake.

My last words on 'authenticity'

I apologise for having dropped off the bloggosphere for so long; my wife and I have moved and no longer have internet access at home. That means that I can only blog from work, when I ought to be . . . well, working.

At any rate, over on Earliest Christian History Prince Humperdinck has responded to my concerns (again) about 'authenticity' (cf. 'More on "authenticity" and Rafael is soft'). Just so that I don't have to actually defend a position I haven't argued for, let me first of all admit that James knows more about arguments about the resurrection than I do, so I defer to him. I'm using it as an example and have not done the research necessary to argue intelligently with him. (I should admit, though, that I do disagree with his conclusion [viz., that it didn't happen], if you were wondering.) But it still seems to me, despite his claim to be focussing on 'Did the resurrection happen?' rather than 'Could it have happened?', that the question of historicity re: the resurrection (or the stroll atop the Sea of Galilee, or the 'All-You-Can-Eat-As-Long-As-It's-Less-Than-Two-Fish-And-Some- Toast' episode) is fundamentally different than, say, Jesus' kingdom preaching. I suspect 'Did it happen' is intimately bound up with 'Could it happen', but I await James' JSHJ article to see if he grants the latter and argues against the former, or if the fate of the former is doomed precisely because it is so closely linked to the latter.

About the 'Son of Man/son of man' example, James writes:
If Jesus used a standard Aramaic idiom and it meant just man and was sort of tranlated in a similar way into Greek and had no reference to Daniel is that as useful for understanding the historical Jesus as a saying which (say) the early church found when reading Dan 7 and linked it to the second coming. Let's just assume that's right for the sake of these question: would both be of equal usefulness in reconstructing the life of Jesus? Or would one be of greater use?
Here the problem, innocently enough, is the phrase, 'Let's just assume that's right for the sake of these question[s]'. Both times I've heard James argue this point, this phrase is the crucial one of the argument. But let's not assume it, simply because it is the point we're trying to decide. Of course if we could assume one way or the other that Jesus said 'son of man' but not 'Son of Man' (or some other option regarding this problem), then some traditions would be authentic and others would not. But how, on the basis of the text, can we determine authenticity rather than just assume it? Even Maurice Casey's careful argument, at least as far as I can understand it (and this should not be overestimated!), tends to assume Jesus didn't speak of the Son of Man, that he did speak of 'son of man', and that his later followers found 'Son of Man' a useful and meaningful christological title. This makes good sense, of course, but it seems to me that we haven't made the necessary argumentation that Jesus himself didn't find 'Son of Man' a useful and meaningful way of referring either to himself or to another eschatological figure.

In the end, though, all of this is caught up (once again) in the problems I was originally trying to raise in my SBL FORUM essay about 'authenticity' in general and its use as an analytical category in historical Jesus research. James, as usual, has a keen sense of what is ultimately at stake:
To broaden things out beyong the debate between me and Rafael, there has been a lot of debate on the blogs about authenticity and I think one good way to put things to the test is to steal a tactic from Jim West here (there are certain parallels with the Hebrew Bible/OT debate on the blogs) and ask the open questions: did Jesus really on water or not? Did he multiply the loaves or not? Did he turn water into wine or not?
Again, I think these three questions (and others just like them) are bound up with theological and philosophical arguments that are antecedent to the historical discussion that both James and I would prefer to have. I must admit that my knee-jerk reaction to James' questions is, 'No', but that's because of my socialisation into a philosophical milieu where such things don't happen and reports of such things happening are immediately suspect. That's not to say that my philosophical perspective is wrong, exactly. But if I ignore the question of could and immediately focus on did then I'm assuming my philosophical perspective is right. In other words, if I affirm Jesus really did turn water into wine (and man do I hope that he did; how nifty would that be?!), I suspect the [probably appropriate] suspicion that I'm being too credulous is based on the commonly held belief that water doesn't turn into wine (at least, not this conveniently). But in a purely historical discussion, can such a thing be taken for granted? If we're making historical judgements (and not philosophical/theological ones), shouldn't our discussion assume such a thing is possible and then argue that, despite this, Jesus didn't do it? But this is precisely the type of historical discussion that doesn't happen (and of course it doesn't; it's silly - and impossible - to insist that historiography proceed without philosophical presuppositions). But now it appears - to me, at least - that historiography is less about determining precisely what did and what did not happen as making reports about what happened meaningful to people (us) from a different philosophical perspective.

But let's pretend this isn't true, and that James' questions are pertinent. I presume he selected these three issues (walking on water, multiplying bread, transmogrifying water into wine) precisely because of the philosophical problems associated with affirming their 'authenticity'. If this is the case, how helpful is it, for thinking about the Jesus tradition en toto, to say that these things of course didn't happen. Am I any closer to determining, without assuming for the sake of argument, that Jesus didn't speak of himself as the Son of Man, or speak of his death as 'a ransom given for many', or hand over to Peter a new set of keys? So even at its most helpful, the concept of authenticity doesn't take me very far. But I think, as historians and, at least in some cases, as theologians, we should be able to be okay with this.

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