Monday, October 03, 2005

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.

1 comment:

eddie said...

"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."

This is an interesting thought... hmmm

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