Sunday, May 31, 2009

a[nother] new Bible

A comment on one of Michael Bird's posts on Euangelion announced the publication of this Bible. Can anyone make the argument that this is a good idea, from the standpoint of seeking to understand the Bible? Or is the point, rather, to foster a particular understanding of America? And if the latter, are you actually reading the Bible if you read this Bible?

remembering Jesus' death

In the ninth installment of her series, "Creating Jesus," April DeConick asks, "Why did Jesus die?," though her post doesn't actually address that question. Rather, DeConick asks what answers Jesus' early followers provided for that question. Her answer focuses on two themes which are readily attested in the gospels: Jesus was a [the?] rejected prophet (like Moses), and Jesus was the faithful martyr whose death atoned for the sins of the people. Her discussion of the martyrology current in the first century CE may be a little anachronistic; I say may be because I'm not qualified to argue that it is. She relies on ideas that find their source in the Maccabean literature, but the development of those ideas is notoriously complex. I can only point to Daniel Boyarin's very interesting book, Dying for God, which argues in very close detail that Jewish and Christian martyrological ideas influenced and informed one another in the three or four centuries after Jesus and the destruction of Jerusalem's Temple.

I don't have very much to add to DeConick's ideas. For example, I have always marveled at the scholarship that can make very strong disjunctions between Jesus' parable of the tenants and the citation from Psa. 118 that builds upon it precisely because the parallel in the Gospel of Thomas follows this same parable with this same citation from Psa. 118! DeConick recognizes this connection, too, and rightly notes that, if the parable and the Psalm weren't connected in Jesus' telling, this connection happened very early on.

I would, however, like to call special attention to one of DeConick's arguments. Too often we read the gospels as if they were legal documents, carefully parsing each word and making precise distinctions on the basis of what is and what is not explicitly said. But the language of the gospels is not coldly descriptive. Rather, it is richly evocative, metonymic language that summons a whole world of ideas and images. DeConick writes,
We must take caution to keep in mind that the development of christology was not a linear, philosophically reasoned, completely coherent process. The first Christians were not deliberately creating a divine Jesus. The process is extremely complex, it involved intense personal and interpersonal negotiations. It was responsive to certain questions that they were trying to resolve. It is organic and dynamic.

For me this means that when they were wondering about a question, and they had an idea about an answer, the idea didn't come to them as a single notion upon which they built another single notion. Rather they got an idea, and that idea brought with it an entire set of images and traditions and scriptures that were already associated with that idea.

In some ways I think this calls into question the "first death then exegesis" analysis in which DeConick engaged in an earlier post. But nevermind. She's exactly right here. As certain connections were made between the disciples' experiences of Jesus' life and death and life again, those connections burst into the Christian imagination (which was always already a Jewish imagination) already embedded in established patterns of discourse. Jesus' death could be interpreted so compellingly in the light cast by the Hebrew biblical traditions not because Bartholomew said, "Hey, I was just reading Psalm 22 . . .," and then sometime later Judas (not Iscariot) said, "Guys, check out what I was just reading in Isaiah 53 . . ." Rather, the earliest Christians were able to understand and make sense of Jesus' death as part of the pattern of the history of God's people, a pattern in which Psa. 22, Isa. 53, and many other traditions functioned.

Despite the relative failure of the church's proclamation of Jesus among first-century Jews, the fact that they were somewhat successful in convincing not just themselves but also other Jews suggests that this pattern already characterized (some?) Jews' understanding of their scriptural traditions prior to the church's proclamation of the gospel. Justin Martyr, a hundred years after Jesus, will have exactly this problem with a Jew named Trypho: The Jews have forsaken their previous understandings of the Law and the Prophets in order to obscure the messianic potentials on which the Christians were capitalizing in their preaching. And while I wouldn't historicize Justin's polemical maneuvering as if he were merely describing Jewish exegetical practices prior to their efforts to mask the relationship between the Bible and Jesus, I would suggest that Justin and Trypho reveal the discursive aspects of reading Jesus in Hebrew biblical traditions and the effort it would take to make (or not make) intertextual connections.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Goode Family (on ABC)

This is hilarious. Wrong, but hilarious.

(And I'll see some of you in Memphis!)

fossils and facts

I'm taking a (brief) break from commenting on April DeConick's series, "Creating Jesus," and want to comment briefly on Mark Goodacre's comments on knowing the historical Jesus. Like DeConick, Goodacre works with an awareness of the ways in which modern readers—scholarly and lay, I would add!—put Jesus together when we read the gospels and work out our reconstructions. Goodacre, in his post, "Historical Jesus Missing Pieces Addendum" (see the original post here), invokes the spectre of paleontologists fitting together fossilized dinosaur bones (and the sometimes humorous results) to understand how we, too, "put together" the bits and pieces available to us to understand Jesus.

I cannot stress enough how much I think the general approach taken by Goodacre and DeConick needs to be appreciated and incorporated into our own thinking about Jesus within the church. Neither scholar is necessarily saying that we can't really know about Jesus (to be sure, there are some who say this), but both caution us to remember that what we do know and what we think we know are only parts of the picture. There are so many things about Jesus we cannot know, ranging from minor details (what did he prefer to eat, did he have a lisp, and so on) to more important information (what provoked him to "go public," how did his understanding of God develop, and so on).

What's worse, the things the gospels do tell us about Jesus are often affected by the things we don't know, which adds an element of contingency to all of our talk about Jesus. Goodacre, in fact, uses the slightly different but related image of a puzzle to ask, What if key pieces are missing? As Goodacre has sensed, this is an important question that may have catastrophic consequences on all of our scholarship. In my own work I have asked exactly the same question with respect to understanding the gospels, suggesting that our knowledge of how the texts "worked" in their first-century contexts is hugely hampered by our inability to observe them at work. That is, for all the talk about the many written sources about Jesus potentially floating around in the earliest centuries of Christianity (for example, in The DaVinci Code, or even in Luke 1.1–4!), we simply don't have any access whatsoever to the way normal Christians spoke about Jesus and the way our textual remains related to that way of speaking. And I can't help but suspect that this is a "key piece" indeed.

But for those of us more accustomed to accepting the canonical gospels for their testimony about Jesus, the question of missing pieces can be reframed slightly. There are indeed many things we would like to know about Jesus, things about which the gospels are simply silent. But the gospel writers did convey what they considered were the key pieces. For many people this simply won't be good enough, and I can certainly understand and sympathize with this. But for those people who hold to some view of the texts as "inspired" (however we understand that term), the biblical portrayal(s) of Jesus will, in the end, be sufficient. But I think I'll stop now before I begin to channel the shade of Martin Kähler!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

bias in the field

I'm currently writing a lecture on source criticism, which has forced me to reread some material on the subject. I've read quite a bit of Mark Goodacre's very significant work in this area, both in traditional print formats as well as his considerable collection of online resources. A constant refrain in Markan (Goodacre, that is) discourse on source criticism concerns the bias in the field to privilege the Griesbach and Two-Source hypotheses and then to argue the superiority of the latter (largely on the basis of the strength of Markan [the evangelist] priority). Where, asks Goodacre, is the thorough and even-handed discussion of the Farrer-Goulder perspective?

I'm certainly no proponent of any of the literary solutions to the synoptic problem. As I argue in Structuring Early Christian Memory, as well as in an article I'm writing for JBL, there are very problematic assumptions underlying the confidence with which NT scholars have employed literary paradigms to pursue source-critical agenda. Even so, as I read Stein's article on the Synoptic Problem in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, I'm amazed that the Farrer hypothesis isn't even mentioned in the listing of the "most common explanations involving interdependence" (786). Apparently the demonstration of Matthean and Lukan independence on p. 790 suffices to dismiss Farrer (and Goulder and Goodacre) without even mentioning them!

Again, I'm no disciple of the Farrer-Goulder-Goodacre school. But Goodacre's discussions of the Synoptic Problem (admittedly, most of his writings are post-1992) are extremely careful and well-argued. The fact that the institution of source critical inquiry apparently doesn't (or didn't) mind ignoring a major challenge to its dominant narrative suggests, at least to me, that that narrative and its influence over gospels scholarship is susceptible to serious, even catastrophic, blind spots.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

digital scholarship

Yesterday's ran an article on assessing digital scholarship for purposes of tenure. While the article isn't directly relevant to my professional situation, it's an interesting discussion about the media assumptions and prejudices that inform very many aspects of scholarly discussion. In the 1970s and 80s similar discussions raged regarding the value of oral versus traditional historiography, and Christian origins research has likewise been heavily impacted (and is being heavily impacted) by media criticism. As a scholar who wrestles with evaluating how much time I spend online and the value of things like blogging, these are issues that directly impact both my research and teaching responsibilities. Others, too, seem to be wrestling with exactly this issue (for example, Mark [and here], Jim, and Stephen).

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Liberty is wrong

Today's has a story about Liberty University, which has "withdrawn recognition from its Democratic club," primarily, it sounds like, because of the Democratic Party's stance on abortion and gay marriage. [Liberty has an op-ed response to media coverage of the issue here; I didn't notice any significant discrepancy between Liberty's own account of the events and the piece from InsiderHigherEd.]

Political issues are notoriously complicated, not least moral political issues such as abortion and gay marriage. I often get the impression online and in the media that there is no basis on which a person can legitimately be opposed to gay marriage. Just the belief that marriage ought to be between one man and one woman is labelled "controversial" (for example, the seemingly endless and never-newsworthy saga of Carrie Prejean) even when serious efforts are made to balance one's commitment to traditional values with a belief that all persons deserve respect. Personally, as one with an admittedly conservative political perspective, I am no longer surprised by the vitriol and condemnation that both sides' extremities hurl at one another. But it does amaze me that hatred from one side is covered in the press and hatred from the other is largely ignored. (For example, has this received any national coverage [warning: video contains explicit language] amidst all the declarations of Prejean's affirmation of a traditional view of marriage as "controversial"?)

The political problems facing American society today aren't rooted in either political party, and neither are the solutions. I support Republican candidates more often than I do Democratic ones, but that's like saying I prefer broccoli to kale. I do, but I can't stand either. Liberty University has foolishly given support to the notion that the Republican Party is rooted in traditional Christian values and that evangelical Christians can only support Republican causes in today's political climate. That's a mistake, and traditional Christian moral visions for our society will only suffer and be corrupted and distorted by too close an alignment with either political party.

I don't think any student group—including the Democratic student group—has a right to Liberty's name or their money. And no one, as far as I can tell, is terribly upset that Liberty doesn't have a sanctioned Communist student group [I'm assuming here; if they do please let me know!]. But the prudent course, I would have thought, would have been to officially treat the Republican and Democratic student groups identically, even if faculty and administrators personally feel more closely aligned with the former. The problem, in the end, isn't the treatment of either Republican or Democratic student groups; the problem is the identification of and confusion between biblical and political agenda.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Carousels . . . yea

So we used our season passes to Dollywood today for the first time this year. My daughter always likes to ride the carousel, and usually I'm the one to take her on it. Today her mother took her, so I got to stand by the railing and people-watch. As the attendant dutifully made sure everyone was strapped onto their "animal" and no one was riding side-saddle (apparently this is a very bad thing to do), I noticed that the people on the carousel fell into one of two groups: Some were excited and waited anxiously for the music to start and the horses to start their up-and-down orbit. Others, perhaps about a third of them, however, looked like they were waiting in line to be waterboarded.

Just an observation . . .

Friday, May 22, 2009

John and Revelation: more thoughts from Carter

This is just something I want to remind myself to think about later, but—as always—I would also be interested in comments from the gallery. I'm in the middle of Warren Carter's argument that John's gospel employs a "rhetoric of distance" in critique of the Christian community in Ephesus (and anywhere else, for that matter) that has grown too comfortable with Rome and Roman imperialism. This is dramatically different, I think, then the standard approach to reading John, in which the audience is typically read as experiencing persecution, whether from the synagogue or from Rome. Not so, says Carter; John targets Christians who have learned to participate in civic and imperial life despite their devotion to Jesus.

In his discussion of the gospel's genre, he draws some links between John and Revelation. Now, as I pointed out earlier, Carter suggests that Revelation, too, is written to over-accommodated Christians in Asia, so the similarities between these two texts perhaps isn't very surprising. And I'm still interested in this reading of Revelation. But as I think about it now it seems to me that persecution at least has something to do with Revelation, even if "persecution" doesn't aptly describe the entire generative context of that book. Inasmuch, then, as persecution is even partly a motivating factor in Revelation's composition, do thematic, generic, and theological links between Revelation and John suggest that persecution similarly explains some, if not all, of the gospel's features?

Jesus in absentia

Installment no. 8 in her series, "Creating Jesus," focuses on issues of "Rereading and Remembering," and I have to confess that these areas are the heart of my own methodological interests. Here we get to issues that (a) are typically overlooked in historical Jesus and Christian origins research, and (b) make DeConick's work very interesting for me. I'm glad she's taken the time look up out of the well-worn rut trod by most historians of Jesus to point out some interesting sights that are easily missed. As always, my comments here are appreciative and, hopefully, constructive.

I'm going to skip over her discussion regarding resurrection bodies and the various conceptions thereof in second Temple speculation. I'm not at all sure Paul's discourse in 1 Cor. 15 opposes the concept of bodily resurrection, though he certainly argues for qualitative differences between "what is sown" and "what is raised." But our definitions of the relevant terms are also an issue here; for instance, I note that DeConick acknowledges that Paul argues for an "embodied" view of resurrection, and she's exactly right. Oh . . . and I note the curious statement at the end of her first paragraph: "[The early Christians] understood the visions of his spirit not as a ghost (as a non-Jew might have framed it) but as a resurrected body (as a Jew would have framed the afterlife)." But as I pointed out in my previous post, problems plague this ethnic division (Jew/non-Jew) of perceptions of the no-longer-dead.

Unfortunately, our first stop involves what I perceive to be a serious flaw in DeConick's argument, a flaw that she's inherited from more traditional perspectives on the subject. DeConick writes,
Now these two impulses resulted in two activities. First, they reread their bible, the Jewish scripture in order to figure out what the suffering and death of their Messiah meant, and they talked to each other, "remembering" what they could of Jesus' teachings whether public or private and began to write it down.

Scientists have long been aware that observing a thing necessarily alters it, so that the act of observation itself distorts the thing we're trying to understand. Dissecting a frog might give us greater insight into the layout and function of its internal parts, but we destroy the frog in the meantime and interrupt the processes that enable those parts to be the frog. A similar problem attends historical analyses of the early Christians' response to Jesus death. I agree with DeConick that Jesus' followers turned to the Jewish scripture[s] to "figure out what the suffering and death of their Messiah meant," but our view of these processes is distorted if we take a sequential view of this process, "first Jesus' death, then examination of scripture to interpret Jesus' death."

Jesus and his followers lived in a traditional world framed by Jewish biblical traditions, and those traditions, as frames, oriented them (and their contemporaries) within their world and gave it meaning. Much like certain verbal utterances invoke standard (and larger) images in our own culture (in certain contexts the word commando recalls Joey standing in Monica's apartment with all of Chandler's clothes on at once, or Hasta la vista . . . baby recalls Arnold Schwarzeneggar in a leather jacket and a bad case of red-eye), allusions to and invocations of Jewish biblical traditions were, in some cases, part of the original perception of Jesus' ministry and death in the first place! Certainly there was also later reflection (John's gospel is explicit in this regard; e.g., John 2.22). But we get a distorted picture if we envisage Jesus' followers, nearly in shock by the sheer incomprehensibility and brutality of Jesus' death, desperately leafing through the pages of their Bible looking for anything that could help them interpret their experiences and happily stumbling upon what we now call Psa. 22 or Isa. 53. DeConick, of course, is well aware of and largely avoids the problems with this simplistic scenario, unlike many other historians. But she still assumes a "first Jesus' death, then turn to scripture" schema that never really existed.

I also think we need to nuance our understanding of the transformative effects of Jesus' death on the early Christians' interpretation of the scriptures. DeConick writes,
So after Jesus' death, the first Christians turned to scripture and began to read it with new questions and a new perspective - that is they were trying to understand why the Messiah suffered and why he died as a criminal. They took passages that traditionally had nothing to do with messianic prophecy and made them such, which the other Jews loudly protested.

Yes, this did happen. Especially in Luke-Acts we see that the early Christians were involved in re-evaluating the significance of the traditional stories. But modern historians and exegetes presume too much when we classify some scriptures as messianic and others as not messianic and then impose that classification on the ancient evidence. Unless we take a very technical (and overly restrictive) view of "messianic scriptures" as only those which explicitly refer to an "anointed one," messianic is a label that applies to how traditions were appropriated rather than an inherent property of the tradition itself. Certainly there were debates about how biblical traditions should be understood, and as these debates took shape between Jesus' followers and other Jews, many of them concerned the messianic interpretation the Christians imposed on them. But there was also a move away from messianic understandings of some scriptures on the part of some non-Christian Jews (as Justin Martyr attests). And there were other factors, too; Daniel Boyarin (Border Lines; University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004) has argued that rabbinic Judaism expelled Logos/Memra theology from within Judaism in response to Christian appropriation of that theology for its own purposes.

Finally, DeConick offers a historical possibility for understanding the origin of the sayings genre. I have one very minor quibble and a major complaint. First, the quibble: DeConick says, "We know they [sayings source books] existed because we have Thomas," but I would like some clarification about how far we can generalize Thomas's genre. So we have Thomas; how much support does that fact give to the supposition that sayings sources were common (and how common?) in early Christianity? But my major complaint is this: Even if "sayings source books" were a dime a dozen, I would like us to make sure to avoid two excesses of traditional Jesus scholarship. First, the emphasis on Jesus' sayings is methodologically problematic and rooted in assumptions regarding the ipsissima verba Jesu ("the very words of Jesus") that are no longer sustainable. Second, we should not assume (and I'm not sure DeConick does) that written sources (a) provided a stability to the Jesus tradition that the oral tradition lacked, or (b) eased any anxiety the early Christians may have felt regarding the authenticity of their traditions. The traditions of Jesus' sayings and his actions were vouchsafed by the communities preserving, actualizing, transmitting, celebrating, recounting, and proclaiming those traditions; the church wouldn't begin to turn to written sources as guarantees of their traditions for some time, and not in the same way we turn to their texts until the Enlightenment.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

whence the empty tomb?

At last we get to April DeConick's answer to the question, What about the empty tomb? I almost decided not to comment on this one, mostly because (a) I disagree strongly with her argument here, and (b) I have not done the necessary research regarding the empty tomb traditions to adequately answer her points. But not addressing this question, which lies at the heart of Christian claims about Jesus, would be weak. So instead I will structure this post as questions raised by her comments rather than rebuttals proving her wrong. Each question will be preceded by a quote from her post (linked above).
I hope that you noticed that I did not locate the empty tomb stories as an impulse for christology. Rather I view them as a reaction to christology already in the making.

Here I have two questions. First, Is the echo of Dunn's 1980 book, Christology in the Making, intentional? And if so, is Dunn's view of the empty tomb traditions informative of DeConick's view? I'm just trying to get a handle on where I should begin here. But second, If the empty tomb traditions are effects of early Christian christology (or, perhaps better, christologizing) rather than some of its causes, how do we explain the development of a christology that could imagine an empty tomb? To be fair, much of DeConick's post, I think, tries to answer this question, but I don't think she ever actually explains why stories of an empty tomb should be necessary (or simply useful) for those who claimed to have visions of Jesus after his execution.
The narratives and the letters of Paul suggest that the visions of Jesus were not originally connected to the empty tomb stories. The claim to visions of Jesus were not the same as the claim to the empty tomb. The two are merged in the gospel narratives. . . . [We also] have the confession of the eleven in Jerusalem that Jesus had appeared to Simon, a vision that has nothing to do with the empty tomb at all. We also have Paul's report that Jesus first appeared to Peter (nicknamed "Rocky"), an appearance that has nothing to do with the empty tomb narrative.

Here DeConick claims to find evidence of the merging of reports of postmortem visions of Jesus with stories of an empty tomb in both the gospels and the letters of Paul. But I question both of these claims. First, If Luke's gospel, for example, clearly refers to the empty tomb, then is it really legitimate to refer to the Lukan account of the eleven's report that Simon had seen Jesus as having "nothing to do with the empty tomb at all"? Perhaps we could say that, apart from the Lukan narrative, this account could be read apart from traditions of the empty tomb. But clearly Luke has ordered the eleven's report of Simon's sighting in a context in which the empty tomb is another important reference point. If we're going to read one part of Luke apart from the context of another part of Luke, don't we need to provide some evidence and/or justification for assuming that report was both earlier than and independent of stories of the empty tomb? Second, If we admit that Paul doesn't refer to stories of Jesus' empty tomb, does that necessarily mean that Paul didn't know those stories? Do we really think we know everything Paul knew?

In fact, I wonder if these two points, which serve as the foundation of DeConick's argument, could be pressed to serve the exact opposite point. Luke, written much later than Paul's letters (according to standard datings for the NT documents) clearly understands appearances of the risen Jesus in the context of stories of the empty tomb (if Jesus appeared to Peter then he wasn't lying in his tomb). So Paul's references to appearances of the risen Jesus may likewise assume that somewhere a tomb has more vacancy than it should. Now, this argument is, admittedly, very weak; but its weaknesses, I think, apply also to DeConick's argument. Both, that is, impose themselves on the data they're trying to explain. But I think we can confidently say that Paul's report of Jesus' appearance to Peter is compatible with (even if not evidence for) awareness of stories of the empty tomb.
I maintain that Jesus' physical dead body was not raised. This is not what happened, although this is one of the interpretations of what happened that was put into place by some of the early followers. And at that it isn't even the earliest interpretation! The earliest interpretation appears in the Gospel of Luke, "they supposed that they saw a spirit" (Luke 24:37). Now the Lukan author is going to make an argument against this interpretation, but this argument is later than the original holdings of the disciples. It is a corrective to an earlier tradition that Peter and Mary had visions of Jesus as a spirit (or ghost?!) after his death.

DeConick is right that the raising of Jesus' physical body wasn't the first interpretation of postmortem sightings/visions of Jesus, and she's right to refer to Luke 24.37 in this regard. But again this raises for me two questions. First, Can we really refer to Luke's report of the disciples' impression of seeing a spirit/ghost [πνεῦμα; pneuma] as a tradition? The Lukan account certainly frames the disciples' impression of seeing a spirit as mistaken, and their mistaken impression is quickly corrected [24.39–40]. Perhaps Luke is countering an earlier tradition here, but what evidence can we offer to support that way of reading Luke? Why is DeConick's reading better than, say, Luke admitting that the disciples at first thought they were only seeing visions but very quickly realized (or were informed of) their error? If Luke is polemicizing against some earlier tradition of Jesus' purely visionary appearances, why admit the disciples' first response was to suppose they had seen a spirit in the first place? Second, If the disciples really did think they encountered the risen Jesus in more spiritual terms and only later came to argue for a bodily resurrection complete with an empty tomb, what motivated this later development? In other words, what failure of a spiritual perspective of resurrection do we suppose (some? most?) early Christians perceived and sought to rebut with stories of an empty tomb? A purely spiritual resurrection is a problem for many Christians today precisely because of the stories of the empty tomb and the very emphatic claims to bodily resurrection in, among other places, Luke 24.39–40. But if these are later traditions, what created the problems that generated these stories and these emphatic claims?

Rather, couldn't the disciples' response in Luke 24.37 suggest that "physical, bodily resurrection" was not an easy narratival option for those trying to figure out how to tell Jesus' story (i.e., "creating Jesus")? And if bodily resurrection wasn't likely the first response to Jesus' post-crucifixion appearances, how do we account for it as a later, and eventually dominant, response to those appearances?
If I had lived in a society that understood dreams to be messages from God, visions to be interpreted, I might have understood my own dreams of my mother as a religious experience, rather than as one of the ways that my own psyche was trying to deal with and accept her death. Given what the gospel narratives tell us, the visions of Peter and Mary (and others?) were interpreted as religious experiences. The simple explanation that they saw Jesus' spirit appears to have not been enough of an explanation. It wasn't simply a ghost. They move to locate their visions of the deceased Jesus within their Jewish belief system, to align them with Judaism's teachings about what happens to a person after death. This is how and why the visions of Jesus' spirit begin to be perceived as visions of Jesus resurrected.

I read this paragraph as DeConick's answer to the questions I raised immediately above. But this really isn't much of an answer. I detect two responses. First, she says, "The simple explanation that they saw Jesus' spirit appears to have not been enough of an explanation" (my emphasis), but this just underscores the questions I've raised. Why wasn't it enough? What was the perceived problem with a spiritual rather than corporeal understanding of Jesus' continuing life? I think her second response tries to address this: "They move to locate their visions of the deceased Jesus within their Jewish belief system" (my emphasis). I agree completely that Jewish beliefs regarding resurrection, for those Jews who affirmed it, generally assumed bodily resurrection, despite the admitted variety of second Temple-era thinking regarding life after death. But do we really want to suggest that the disciples' first impression—that they saw a πνεῦμα—was outside their Jewish belief system?! The disciples, as Jews and within one possible Jewish perspective, first assumed a noncorporeal resurrection. So again, What problem with this assumption, if not the experience of Jesus' resurrected body (per Luke 24.39–40), motivated its revision toward the accounts of bodily resurrection with which we're all familiar?

We could, of course, claim that Luke was a gentile author (which I don't believe, but for the sake of argument), and as such he is responsible for claiming the disciples first thought they perceived Jesus spiritually rather than physically. In this way we would protect the notion that the spiritualized, non-physical perception of resurrection is non-Jewish (it came from the gentile author of Luke). But then this undermines, I think, DeConick's earlier argument that the earliest apprehensions of Jesus were spiritual rather than physical and that the gospels themselves moved the tradition toward corporeal resurrection.

So what have we achieved here? Admittedly, not very much. I certainly haven't proven Jesus' bodily resurrection from the dead. But I have pointed out, hopefully, weaknesses in DeConick's explanation for New Testament traditions regarding his bodily resurrection and the empty tomb. In other words, if you're already predisposed to accept that Jesus rose from the dead, I've hopefully provided you some basis for continuing in that belief. But if you were already likely to prefer naturalistic explanations for the traditions of Jesus' resurrection, then all I've done is raise questions that I think still need some thinking through. That doesn't mean there aren't still questions that more traditional perspectives also have to address. And in all of this, let me admit plainly that it is far easier to do what I'm doing—raising questions that have yet to be addressed—than to do what DeConick has done—offering answers and explanations. I would hope we could continue to have respectful and honest dialogue about these potentially divisive topics, especially since that potential for polemic and vitriol is significant on both sides.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Mary, Martha, and the Good Samaritan?

Yesterday I heard a short talk on the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10.38–42. I've spoken briefly about this passage myself, so this isn't an unfamiliar story for me. I have to admit, however, that I had never read this story in its textual context. In fact, I find it a little discomfiting that the immediately preceding story, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, is actually one of my favorite stories to speak on, and yet I had never considered its effect on its literary neighbor! And this despite my criticism of those who read Luke's account of this parable apart from the discussion in 10.25–28, of which the Good Samaritan is the answer.

So the question I have, and which I would love to get some response on, is this: How do the stories of (a) the Good Samaritan and (b) Mary and Martha inform and balance each other? How can Jesus, according to Luke, go immediately from telling a story in which the failure of those serving God in the Temple serves as the foil for the Samaritan's service to a stranger to a story in which Mary's failure to serve Jesus and her other guests is praised, even above the service of her sister, Martha?

As a potential spoiler, the speaker yesterday morning likened both stories to the two commandments of Luke 10.27: Love the Lord, and, Love your neighbor. The Parable of the Good Samaritan is, in this light, commentary on the second commandment, while the story of Martha and Mary is commentary on the first. I like this reading, except that at least as it was presented yesterday it depended on the parallel text in Matthew's gospel, especially the reference to "the first and greatest" and "the second" commandments. I don't think Luke had Matthew 22 in mind. So how, within the dynamics simply of Luke's gospel, do these two traditions inform one another?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Jacob Neusner v. Jesus [of] Nazareth

I came across this very interesting article today, courtesy of PaleoJudaica. I hadn't realized Neusner wrote a book entitled, Jews and Christians: The Myth of a Common Tradition, but I will certainly have to get my hands on it. While I clearly disagree with Neusner's reported estimation of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, I must confess that I have significantly more respect for it than for those of us who speak glowingly of Jesus' high ethical teachings without any apparent discomfort at our own appearance in its light.

messianic expectations

So I've decided to embrace this current series of posts as an admittedly parasitic series—not so much on the historical Jesus as on April DeConick's thoughts on the historical Jesus. [And, if you're following the original, a parasitic series with considerable lag time!]

At any rate, her fifth installment, Unfulfilled expectations, is a wonderful (and too brief) consideration of the question, Did Jesus' followers come to think of him in messianic terms before or after his death? She acknowledges plainly that the standard answer in the scholarly guild is clearly, After. But she offers some cogent reasons for doubting this. For what it's worth, I think she's exactly right in her argument here.

The question I have, however, concerns the premises supporting her answer (which, again, I like). She begins by noting:
There is one more impulse toward Christology that appears to me to be behind all of this. When the formation of new religious movements is studied from a sociological and psychological perspective, it is the case in prophetic movements that the death of the leader puts the community in crisis. There is a liminal period in which the movement has to reassess and if it is going to go on it has to choose new leadership and/or new direction.

I have not done the necessary research to question this assumption (regarding the death of the leader resulting in crisis), and certainly it falls squarely within mainstream scholarship. But I wonder, Does starting with the concept new religious movements (which has its own problems, especially inasmuch as the isolation of religion as a distinct sphere of life is a product of Enlightenment thinking) or of prophetic movements predispose us to ask certain types of questions and pursue certain types of answers?

Here's what I mean: As historians, we already know that Christianity (loosely conceived as groups devoted in whatever way to Jesus) survives Jesus' death and lasts (at least) for two millennia in various forms. With that knowledge already in our heads, it's easy for us to assume as matters of course that Jesus' early followers, having registered some sort of shock at Jesus' death, had to reassess their devotion to him and the factors capable of legitimating that devotion even in the shadow of the cross. What's more, given the axiomatic and even common-sensical distinction between contemporary Christianity and Judaism, their devotion to Jesus is a peculiarly Christian phenomenon (remember that Jesus-devotion is the heart of the conception of Christianity used here). So, if Christianity was going to survive Jesus' fate (and it did) as a phenomenon or set of phenomena other than Judaism (and it is), then Jesus' early followers would have had to have done x (where x names the process[es] ensuring Christianity's survival).

But these procedures assume the very thing they're trying to explain: The survival and development of Christianity. But can we really take off the table options that would have resulted in the historical disappearance of Christianity? Sure, Jesus' followers had to reevaluate their devotion to him, and they did so in terms of Hebrew biblical traditions, in order to ensure the survival of Jesus devotion. But couldn't Jesus' early followers also have abandoned their devotion to him? Answers to DeConick's question (remember: answers that she herself takes to task) tend to assume the early Christians had to rethink and reinvent Jesus, but I can't shake the sense that their decision to rethink (I hesitate, rightly or wrongly, at "reinvent") Jesus is itself a historical datum that requires explanation. In other words, the question isn't simply, How did Christianity adapt to and incorporate the events of Jesus' death into their devotion to him? but also, Why did they decide to even try to legitimate and sustain their devotion to Jesus after his very public labelling as a Roman criminal? DeConick doesn't address this question, but her comments do acknowledge that the "creation" of Jesus in the wake of the crucifixion was motivated by their devotion which must have predated his death.

POSTSCRIPT: The first centuries BCE and CE provide plenty of examples of historical movements that could not adapt, in the long term, to the "crisis" caused by their founder's death. If we can accept Acts 5.36–37 for the sake of argument, Theudas's and Judas's followers both failed to successfully reevaluate their estimation of these men, at least in terms that proved sufficiently persuasive to their contemporaries, Jews or otherwise. And similar comments could be made of a number of historical figures, including John the Baptist, bar Kokhba, the Teacher of Righteousness, etc.

Friday, May 15, 2009

What really mattered when reading the Bible?

I'm reading a pre-publication version of an article on the significance of the (later) insertion of the Pericopae Adulterae (John 7.53–8.11) into John's gospel. The author, Chris Keith, is a good friend of mine, and I find that he and I seem to be making very similar arguments, more or less independently of each other, with respect to different sets of data (I have focused my research on Jesus' logia pertaining to his acts of healing and exorcism). Since this is a tentative version of Chris's paper I don't want to reveal too much. But he does present a wonderful opportunity to formulate a question I've been wrestling with for a few months.

When we read the Bible (and by we here I mean primarily the church, believers in and worshippers of God, rather than the scholarly community) we have certain expectations about the texts before us. Those texts reveal the God of whom they speak. Those texts describe the history, current state, and future of this world. Those texts make certain claims on my own life as one who lives within the world under the reign and/or care of the God mentioned above. I don't intend to argue with any of these expectations. But I wonder how much these expectations have led us to assume, perhaps even unknowingly, that what matters when reading the Bible is the relationship between the text and the reality behind—as well as above!—the text. Again, no complaints here. But I wonder if this focus on the relationship between the text and something else betrays an unwillingness to affirm the text in itself.

This question was raised for me originally by the argument of, among others, James Dunn, that the textual dynamics relevant for understanding the relationship between the synoptic gospels is best described as variation within the same (a point Keith is discussing in his paper). What accounts for this variation, a phenomenon many of us wouldn't accept today? With respect to the synoptic gospels (Dunn), this variation is evident in readings across the synoptics (compare, for example, the three different versions of the Parable of the Vineyard [Mark 12.1–12 parr.; note also the parallel in the Gospel of Thomas]). With respect to the Pericopae Adulterae (Keith), this variation is evident in the manuscript tradition of John's gospel, which at some point did not contain this tradition and then, without a sense of corruption or intrusion, it did.

If, in church, we would never accept the kind of flux with respect to the Bible that seemed to be at the very least acceptable—and at most commonplace—what significant difference between the church then and the church now explains this contrast? Is our way of reading the Bible "better" than theirs? or is theirs better? How can we know? In other words, I am serious about the past-tense verb in the title of this post: What really mattered—to the early Christians more than to us—when reading the Bible?

One answer—not the answer but one answer—may focus on the reception of the Bible and the God that we believe reveals himself through it. In the assumptions undergirding how we read the Bible we expect the Bible to mean what it means, and our job is to meet the Bible where it is. This assumption is facilitated by the widespread availability of printed Bibles, in which anyone of any age and life circumstance can have their own copy (and often their own copies) of the Bible and read it for themselves. In an ancient environment where the Bible was much less accessible and many people only had access to it through another person's reading and/or performance of the text, things may have worked a bit differently. Instead of a reader "figuring out" what the text means, a performer (or lector) had to connect the text's meaning with the people listening. The meaning of the text, rather than the text itself, occupied the church's focus.

How exactly we could—or even whether or not we should—distinguish between the biblical text and its meaning isn't clear to me. But one thing I'm increasingly sure of: For us the Bible's text is relatively (even firmly) stable (often we cite Matt. 5.18 here), but its meaning might fluctuate depending on circumstances of reading. I'm not willing to say that meaning was stable in the earlier church, but I am confident that the text could shift and adapt in service of what mattered: the text's meaning, its significance. And I can't shake the feeling that the church today could learn something from our ancestors in the faith in this regard.

what is reading?

A good friend of mine has recently put me on to an article that is giving me the language to say things I've been struggling to say for a couple years now. The article, "Toward a Sociology of Reading in Classical Antiquity," by William A. Johnson (The American Journal of Philology 121/4: 593-627; available here if you have access to JSTOR), examines acts and significances of reading as more than individual, cognitive events.

I mention the article here mostly to highlight Johnson's definition of reading, which I think deserves some consideration. Read this and feel free to offer comments. (This quote begins in mid-sentence; I recommend reading the entire article if you're interested in more.)

I prefer to look at reading as not an act, nor even a process, but as a highly complex sociocultural system that involves a great many considerations beyond the decoding by the reader of the words of a text. Critical is the observation that reading is not simply the cognitive process by the individual of the "technology" of writing, but rather the negotiated construction of meaning within a particular sociocultural context. (Johnson 2000: 603; original italics)

review of John and Empire available at RBL

A review of Warren Carter's John and Empire, which I'm reviewing for Biblical Theology Bulletin, is available over at the RBL blog.

[NB: It's in German.]

Thursday, May 14, 2009

where's My Visual Bookshelf?

One of the things I like about having a blog is being able to keep track of, and share, what I've read or am reading. But I've grown tired of having to navigate around My Visual Bookshelf every time I come to Verily Verily. So . . . I've moved My Visual Bookshelf to the bottom of the page. If you have anything resembling a life, you won't care. But if you lack said life, and for some reason you're keeping track of my reading list, be comforted that it is still available.

even more on "Creating Jesus"

In my previous post I explained briefly why I like the title of April DeConick's series, "Creating Jesus." I also offered one reason why those of us with religious and/or spiritual motivations for studying Jesus should be comfortable with the notion of "creating Jesus," whether we understand that creation to be performed by the biblical evangelists or whether we intend our own efforts to understand and portray the real Jesus. In sum, such an approach contradicts modernist approaches to knowing Jesus but are more closely resonant to biblical efforts to portray and proclaim him as messiah.

But I'd like to also look more closely at DeConick's answer to the question, Why did the Christians "create" Jesus? She begins by focusing on the problem of Jesus' death—and specifically the mode of Jesus' death—as the font of christological impulses. I don't intend to disagree with DeConick's comments, especially insofar as she is asking some very difficult, important questions for which I struggle to provide adequate answers. In many ways it's easier to critique others' answers than to provide one's own. But I do want to suggest a couple factors that should be taken into account as we assess DeConick's (and others') arguments.

First, the manner of Jesus' death. It's commonplace for scholars to note, and even to emphasize, that crucifixion is a Roman manner of execution. Sometimes this point is pushed too far, to suggest that the gospels' portrayal of the Jewish authorities as in any way involved with Jesus' death is historically impossible. But the gospels themselves credit Pilate with "handing [Jesus] over to be crucified" [παρέδωκεν ἵνα σταυρωθῇ; Matt. 27.26; see Mark 15.15||Luke 23.24–25||John 19.1, 16]. Obviously the texts also place blame squarely on Jesus' Jewish antagonists (e.g., Matt. 27.24; John 19.6), but they don't deny Pilate's role—even responsibility—for executing Jesus.

Second, the issue is a bit more complex than simply noting that crucifixion is a Roman means of execution and not a Jewish means of execution (compare Stephen, who was stoned [Acts 7.58, 59]). The idea that crucifixion could not function as a Jewish means of execution in ancient memory is simply false. I offer the following two points.
  • Alexander Jannaeus, a Hasmonean king of Judea, crucified 800 men and had their wives and children executed before his crucified victims (Josephus, Ant. 13.380; War 1.97–98 [in both texts Josephus uses the verb ἀνασταυρόω]). According to David Chapman (Ancient Jewish and Christian Perceptions of Crucifixion [Mohr Siebeck, 2008], 52), these two texts represent "the only instance in Josephus where a person of Jewish descent, who also still held to Jewish customs, crucified others." That may be, but it was still a Jewish execution; in fact, that may be what really made this such a shocking incident, in addition to the gory details. If so, the gospels may also be capitalizing on the shock that Jewish crucifixion engendered in the ancient world and emphasizing the Jewish authorities' alliance with Rome and against God (see, e.g., John 19.15).
  • A later rabbinic reference to Jesus' death also provides some interesting, if not directly relevant, possibilities. One text, b. Sanh. 43a, a very famous text that describes "Yeshu" as one who "practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy," claims that a herald went throughout the land for forty days seeking witnesses who might speak on Jesus' behalf to come forward in his defense. According to this text, the herald cried out, "He is going forth to be stoned." This rabbinic text, then, accepts (even claims) responsibility for Jesus' execution, though this may be the result of later Christian claims of Jewish responsibility for the crucifixion. But what really interests me is that, despite the herald's warning of Jesus' impending stoning, twice the text affirms that Jesus was hanged on the eve of the Passover. Even, then, if b. Sanh. 43a accepts responsibility for Jesus' death on the basis of accusations made by Christians during the formation of the Talmud, it accepts responsibility for his death by crucifixion!
Disentangling the Roman and Jewish dynamics of Jesus' execution, then, is not an easy thing to do.

Third, the narrative options available to Jesus' followers for registering and making sense of Jesus' violent death weren't infinite, but they were already in place before the first Easter. Given the appearance of other figures who claimed to be somebody (see Acts 5.36) and whose influence came to naught when they were quickly dispatched by Roman forces, Jesus' followers likewise could have gone quietly into the anonymity of history. But they didn't. Instead, they interpreted Jesus' death according to a number of story patterns found in Hebrew biblical traditions, including those found in Psa. 22, Psa. 110, Dan. 7, and others. If the meaning of Jesus' death posed problems for Jesus' followers (as both DeConick and the NT suggest), they overcame that problem by turning to their sacred traditions and keying his death to patterns from Israel's history. Here Dan. 7 is especially interesting: I don't think the point in the NT is so much that Jesus is the divine Son of Man so much as it is that the oppressed and exiled people of God will reign eternally on God's throne after the beastly pagan rulers have spent their power. In this light, Jesus' death is an example—not just any example, but a paradigmatic one—of pagan power at its worst, but God had already promised his people that the beasts would come to an end and "one like a Son of Man" would restore order and the fortunes of those who worship the Ancient of Days.

Finally, DeConick refers to Jesus' "followers' claims to visions of Jesus after his death." Here, I think, is an excellent example of the problem I noted in an earlier post, in which the failure to recognize the limits of Western historiography results in a distortion of the evidence. I am not confident that historical-critical methods can address the event of the resurrection, though it clearly can seek to explain claims and consequences of resurrection. In other words, I don't know how historical criticism could prove (or disprove) the resurrection, but we can explain what was being claimed on Jesus' behalf, how such claims might have been received and what would make such claims more likely to be accepted, what consequences resulted from a group who claimed resurrection, either for themselves or for others, and so on.

But since DeConick has already said "no" to the miraculous on philosophical grounds, she describes the NT evidence as "claims to visions of Jesus after his death" (my emphasis). Paul, perhaps, can be explained in these terms, and certainly some traditions in Acts fit this description very well (Acts 18.9–10; 22.17–21; perhaps also the three accounts of Saul's encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus). But I cannot see how the gospel texts and Acts 1 in any way claim visionary experiences. Here is the weakness of modern approaches to the question of the historical Jesus: We may want to explain the resurrection in terms of "visions" or "sightings," terms which work very well for us when we want to distance ourselves from affirming the reality of claims to see unusual things (UFOs, demons, or whatever). But what we cannot do is claim that the NT texts explain the resurrection in these terms. They don't. They claim that Jesus appeared physically, was touched, ate, spoke, and breathed on his followers. We can debate the reality of the things described, but the portrayal of that reality is clear.

As a closing comment, I have to admit that the Passion and resurrection traditions are not squarely in my area of expertise, and I appreciate the opportunity that DeConick's thoughts have given me to think preliminarily on these issues. DeConick is clearly on target in the broad strokes of her argument: that Jesus' death and resurrection were major, formative dynamics in early christological development. Of course, the disciples' devotion to Jesus must have been in place before Jesus' death and resurrection and their subsequent reflection on Jesus' identity. Otherwise, how are we to explain why they took up this crucified criminal and focused their hopes and identities on his story?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Bill Mounce on the future of teaching Greek

Over at Koinōnia Bill Mounce prognosticates on the future of teaching koinē Greek (see the video, below). Bill, of course, has provided numerous tools that many have found helpful for teaching and learning New Testament Greek, though I personally haven't used any of those tools in my own teaching. He's right, I think, that language acquisition needs to move beyond the grammar-based approach that has been dominant in colleges and seminaries and embrace the possibilities afforded by new technological and multisensory advances.

But I can't help but wonder: Does the future of Greek instruction really lie in learning to say, in Greek, My hair is ___________, and then learning the different lexico-morphological fillers that can fit into that slot?!

I've studied both conversational Spanish and koinē Greek. With the former, learning to say Me llamo Rafael, or ¿Donde está el baño? fulfilled my purposes for studying the language. But in my experience, both personally and with my students, learning how Paul might have inquired after the lav in an unfamiliar city doesn't really apply to the root motivations for taking a very difficult, elective, two-year program. My students want to learn how to hear the voice of God speaking through the Greek text. That goal—introducing them to genuinely Greek texts rather than contrived, Greek-ish exercises—should factor into the future of Greek (and Hebrew and Aramaic) language instruction and acquisition.

more on "Creating Jesus"

In the fifth installment in her series, "Creating Jesus," April DeConick asks the very difficult question, Why did the Christians "create" Jesus? As I mentioned in an earlier post, I really like DeConick's series title. But I suspect that, for at least some of us, the idea of creating Jesus makes us a bit uneasy. How can it possibly be legitimate to talk of "creating Jesus," especially for those of us with variously traditional views of Jesus and the gospels?

I think some of our problem really is rooted in the modernist frameworks governing most of the last two hundred years' writings about Jesus, whether confessional exposition of "the Jesus of faith" or critical historical analyses of "the historical Jesus." Critical Jesus historiography explicitly and programmatically distrusts the gospels' portrayals of Jesus as self-interested depictions that form Jesus in their own image. Ironically, very much conservative scholarship has accepted the implicit ground rules underlying (but rarely, if ever, stated) critical scholarship but has argued that the canonical texts accurately and faithfully portray Jesus "as he really was."

One problem, of course, is that the gospels don't portray a unified, single image of Jesus, so any argument that the texts don't craft and shape their image of Jesus has to explain how these various depictions jive with the "as he really was" approach to historical reconstruction. As one example, just today I saw a book that advertised itself as "the definitive resource where all four Gospels have been harmonized into one chronological story line. The reader gets an in-depth look at Jesus' life, ministry, death, and resurrection—a look not attainable when reading each Gospel separately." Notice that the gospel texts, even in this very conservative approach to knowing the historical Jesus, present an obstacle to the one seeking Jesus, an obstacle that this harmonized account overcomes as it offers a view of Jesus that not even the biblical texts make "attainable." The harmonization—and not the messy, fourfold portrayals—brings knowledge of Jesus within reach.

This method of getting "behind the gospels" to uncover "the real Jesus" is as bankrupt (see all four posts in DeConick's series) for conservative scholarship as it is for efforts such as the Jesus Seminar. While I believe whole-heartedly that there is significant work left to be done under the banner of historical-critical Jesus scholarship, very much of that scholarship has run headlong down a blind alley. Rather than subtracting the various dynamics according to which ancient texts "create" their portrayal of Jesus in an effort to reveal Jesus pure and "uncreated," historical Jesus scholarship would be better served by asking how the actual person of Jesus constrained and motivated later commemorations and memories, as well as how later contexts presented new and innovative challenges to remembering Jesus authentically in an ever-changing present.

From a rather conservative position—one that affirms the canonical gospels as inspired portrayals of Jesus in themselves, portrayals that neither require nor are aided by harmonization—this approach rejects the modernist notion of uncovering the historical Jesus from beneath the gospel texts. But this also means that there is no point arguing that the gospels are inspired portrayals of Jesus because their information is factual in the sense that an obituary is factual. Rather, we affirm the gospels are inspired portrayals of Jesus precisely because we affirm that the ways in which they "create Jesus" result in authentic commemorations of Jesus in shifting and unstable contexts. And, perhaps ironically, this approach finds someone like April DeConick a much more fruitful conversation partner than someone who brushes past the texts in search of atomistically verifiable historical data. In other words, we affirm the gospels' inspiration not because they are historically true; rather, we affirm (and subject to analysis!) the gospels' portrayal of the historical Jesus because they are inspired texts.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Carter and "the presence of the past" in Ephesus

Warren Carter, in his attempts to put John's gospel in its proper context, analyzes what he calls "a turn to the past" (see chapter 3). He rightfully refers to social memory research, though at this point his engagement with social memory theory has been rather superficial. I'm only a couple pages into this chapter, so (again) my comments are more motivated by rather than directed toward Carter's argument.

Carter begins by illustrating a "turn to the past" in Ephesian social memory: a benefaction given to the city by a Roman, C. Vibius Salutaris, in 103–104 CE (see Carter 2008: 94–97). As part of his benefaction, which was commemorated in a 568–line long inscription at the city's theater, Salutaris funded a procession through the city every two weeks that began and ended at the temple of Artemis and passed by various monumental features of the city that evoked first its Roman, then Hellenistic, and ultimately its Ionian history. In other words,
The procession route recalled the city's foundation legends in reverse historical order: Rome, Lysimachos, Androklos, and Artemis. Rome's recent building activity and Lysimachos's Hellenistic refounding were confirmed and integrated into the city's history and identity. The heart of it, though, centered on Androklos and finally on Artemis, who provided the ultimate civic identity of Ephesus as a sacred community. (96; my emphasis)

As we might expect even from the title of his book (John and Empire), Carter focuses on the political dimensions of memory ("a turn to the past") as the procession from and to Artemis's temple commemorated the city's history. And inasmuch as remembering the past is as intrinsically political act Carter's analysis provides some important insights. But social memory theorists—especially Barry Schwartz, Michael Schudson, Gary Alan Fine, among others—have protested that the political dimensions of memory do not exhaust memory's (and commemoration's) significance in social context. Schwartz especially, in his book Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory (University of Chicago Press, 2000; see now also his Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic Era; 2008), argued eloquently that memory also has, simultaneously, a semiotic function that makes sense of the present before it attempts to persuade certain behaviors in response to the present.

With respect to Carter's discussion, then, the implications of memory's cultural (= semiotic) functions have immediate impact. Carter writes, "The city, like the procession, began and ended in the past with Artemis. Roman presence was not denied or invalidated, but it was shown not to be ultimate" (96–97). Perhaps. But I think a rather different interpretation arises from the procession's itinerary. Rome may have been reduced to simply one of the commemorative fields through which the procession marched (even, arguably, the most ostentatious of those fields), with the [native] temple of Artemis framing the entire event by way of its function as both starting and finishing line. But this commemorative march through the city's history doesn't "de-imperialize" the Asian capital so much as it explains Ephesus' imperial situation in terms of the city's pre-Roman narrative. That is, by virtue of fitting Rome into this memorial parade, Salutaris's benefaction normalized Roman power and, rather than minimalizing it in relation to Ephesus' more ancient history, legitimated that power as one more chapter of the city's continuous history from Artemis to Trajan.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

April DeConick on the Historical Jesus

Over at The Forbidden Gospels Blog April DeConick has a very interesting series, provocatively entitled "Creating Jesus: How Jesus Became a God." I think this is a great title, at least before the semi-colon, if only because scholars have tended to neglect the ways in which our own academic inquiries participate in "creating Jesus." That is, Jesus books very often smugly expose the ways in which the early Christians—especially the evangelists—molded Jesus in their interests while being completely oblivious to the ways our own books shape and move Jesus according to our own interests. DeConick seems especially sensitive to this problem and acknowledges up front that she is doing the best she can with the evidence that survives and the methods that historians and other academics have developed.

I haven't read through her entire series yet (as I write there are currently seven posts online). I just now read the third post, "We Must Say 'No' to the Miraculous." I simply want to point out a problem with her assumptions and then note some significant agreements. But first, the problem: DeConick claims,
The claim to the miraculous is not the same as the claim to the unexplainable. Something might happen to me that I can't explain (in fact things happen to me quite often that I don't have a ready explanation for), but it doesn't become a miracle until I make it a miracle, a manifestation of the supernatural, by my interpretation of the event.

Of course, she's right that the equation miraculous = unexplainable is problematic. To acknowledge we can't explain something is simply to recognize (and respect) the boundaries of our knowledge. But then DeConick ignores those boundaries completely when she claims that the unexplainable "doesn't become a miracle until I make it a miracle . . . by my interpretation of the event." Certainly her comment applies to many situations: What makes a magic trick a trick is my interpretation that something unusual has happened, when in fact the magician knows quite well that only normal things have happened: the ball was in his other hand, or the rabbit was always in the hat, or the assistant's legs were in the same half of the box as her head.

But the real difference between the miraculous and the unexplainable, I think, is the possibility of natural explanations for the observed event. At a magic show I might not know how the magician pulled it off, but I could if given the right information. The problem with DeConick's post, however, is the implicit claim to already know that everything reported in the Bible could be explained in natural terms, if only we had access to the right information (notice her example of Elián González). But how does she know that? Well . . . she doesn't, but she assumes it. And what she doesn't acknowledge—at least not explicitly in this post—is that this assumption is also an interpretation of the evidence. We should reject the implied narrative of the quote, above, that to claim a miracle happened is to provide an interpretation, but to not claim the miraculous avoids the problems of interpretation.

That said, DeConick is certainly right that claims to the miraculous are always interpretive, and that such things are problematic in historical-critical scholarship. Inasmuch as historiography seeks after "what really happened," it strikes me has extremely ethnocentric to start out rejecting any claims to the miraculous. But inasmuch as critical historiography is a Western enterprise that operates according to certain presuppositions and promises a limited type of return, DeConick has a point: The miraculous cannot play the same type of role as naturalistic interpretations in our reconstructions. Notice that I'm not saying that miracles didn't or couldn't have happened. Rather, I'm saying that critical historiography can't discern the miraculous because its methods can't verify (or falsify) miraculous claims.

Even fundamentalist and/or evangelical Christians should be able to recognize this limitation even in DeConick's post. She ends with the flat declaration,
So while miracles might interest us as historians because they will tell us a lot about how Jesus was interpreted by the early Christians, they are not historical events - not in Christianity, not in Judaism, not in Islam, not in Buddhism, not in Hinduism, not in any religion.

Those of us who are predisposed to accept that Jesus really did walk on water, really did heal physical ailments, and really did rise from the dead, are not predisposed to accept the similar claims for Alexander the Great, Vespasian, Apollonius of Tyana, or other people. Why not? Because we implicitly understand that, as DeConick points out, claims to the miraculous are claims to transcend history and space/time. And so historical-critical approaches to the historical Jesus cannot invoke the miraculous as explanatory causes.

And yet . . . Barnes & Noble and Borders are full of books who respect this limitation of historiography and yet still feel myopic and anemic in their rejection of the miraculous. I think that's because, as James Dunn said a few years ago,
The element of miracle must in at least some cases belong to the core [of the Jesus tradition]. The stories were being told as miracles from the first. Only so could Jesus' reputation as exorcist and healer have become so firm and so widespread so quickly. At the same time, we should not lapse into talk of "the original report" of a miracle, as though there was one single "original" from which all subsequent accounts derived. Even in the disciple circles there would have been a variety of tellings and retellings round the stable core of miracle. (Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 672; original emphasis)

The category miracle belongs to the earliest perceptions and commemorations of Jesus. And while our own critical project explicitly refuses to accept those perceptions and commemorations at face value, neither can we simply set that category aside without distorting the evidence that does survive. After all, many of the things we can know about Jesus survived specifically because he was perceived and reputed to be a "doer of startling deeds."

and yet . . . Carter on 1 Peter

In a previous post I mentioned, with some approval but more with interest, Warren Carter's brief reading of Revelation as aimed at a church too comfortable with the Roman Empire rather than fiercely opposed by it.

In the very next section, however, Carter turns his eye towards another New Testament text addressed to Christians in Asia Minor: 1 Peter. I would not claim to be a Petrine expert by any means, but I have done some research into 1 Peter. And I'm quite sure that Carter has flattened the interactive dynamics pulling at accommodation and separation in 1 Peter. In fact, precisely these dynamics sustain the rhetoric throughout this brief epistle, in which the author forges a social space for his readers (former gentiles now aligned with Israel's story). In that space suffering may continue, but it will be suffering "as a Christian" (4.16) rather than as evildoers (e.g., 2.19–20).

Carter, then, unhelpfully suggests a "strategy of public compliance and participation, yet private devotion to Christ" (42), primarily on the basis of 1 Pet. 3.15, which he thinks suggests a schizophrenic (my term, not Carter's) perspective in which Asian Christians participated in the cultic civic life of their society while internally professing faith in Jesus as Lord. If Carter's is not a very convincing reading of 1 Pet. 3.15, he neglects altogether other aspects of 1 Peter, including the language of identity as a παρεπίδημος [parepidēmos; "stranger"] and of παροικία [paroikia; "sojourn"], as well as the striking language of identification at 2.9–10, the strong exhortation in 4.1–6, and so on.

In actual fact, the tensive balance between accommodation and isolation in 1 Peter has been the subject of some discussion, especially between John Elliott and David Balch. For what it's worth (very little indeed), in my view this balance is what sustains the letter through its five brief chapters. Unfortunately, unless I've misread him, Carter has cut the connection between fitting in and standing out and so disrupted the epistle itself.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Hell, yes?

Crossings Knoxville is currently in the midst of a series called "Not Beyond Reason" (see, for example, here), a series heavily influenced by Tim Keller's The Reason for God and trying to be a postmodernist approach to apologetics. Each sermon asks a question that has historically been difficult for Christianity to face squarely and which many people currently cite as one reason for not accepting the claims of the Christian faith (e.g., How can Christians claim to be the only true religion?). Each sermon also begins with a 5–7 minute prepared but unscripted conversation between two or three people that presents the question in broad strokes and seeks to demonstrate a thoughtful and tolerant approach to these difficult questions that doesn't simply abandon the traditional or biblical Christian claim.

In yesterday's sermon, which asked "How can a loving God send someone to hell?" a guy named Kevin made a great point in the opening conversation about hell and judgment and the church's behavior regarding such things. He noted that we have been too willing to take on those things that, biblically, God has reserved for himself—judgment, vengeance, etc.—while neglecting those things that God has genuinely called us to engage—service, love, outreach, etc.

I thought this was a great point. Whatever you think about hell and the difficulties it presents to Christian theology, the biblical teachings about judgment have been distorted by our [the church's] willingness to "help" God exercise judgment and our neglect of the call to transform and restore creation. In other words, hell—always a difficult subject no matter how you approach it—wouldn't be quite problem it is if Christians didn't seem so excited about the idea of peering over the edge of heaven and looking down on those suffering. Many of the problems facing the church's reputation, I think, could be addressed if we were genuinely terrified by the idea of a single person suffering judgment rather than a loving and healthy relationship with a sovereign God.

This video, which I ran across a few months ago and which we played in yesterday's services, makes a similar point, but now from the perspective of Penn Jillette, an outspoken and well reasoned atheist.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Warren Carter on Revelation

I was surprised by this discussion of Revelation (admittedly, in the context of a book on John, in a chapter on the synagogue in first-century Asia Minor, a province of the Roman Empire). Carter says:
Recent scholarship on Revelation argues, from an examination of life in imperial Asia and of the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2–3, that this text addressed not situations of persecution as previously thought, but situations of what the author regards as overaccommodation and compromise with Roman imperial society. The author challenges the overaccommodated lifestyle of the majority in the churches, urging them to discern the (demonic!) nature of the empire and to distance themselves from societal participation. In the words of 18:4, they are to "come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins, and so that you do not share in her plagues" (NRSV). Revelation reveals that Rome, a "dwelling place of demons" (18:2), is already under God's judgment (Rev 6), asserts the devilish nature of Rome's empire and imperial worship (Rev 12–13), exposes its political power and economic greed (Rev 18), envisions God's supreme rule even now and in the future (Rev 4–5; 22), and anticipates Rome's imminent and final demise in the establishment of God's purposes by Jesus, the Lamb slaughtered by Rome but raised by God's power (Rev 18–22). In the meantime, the author urges the seven churches to distance themselves from imperial society. (John and Empire, 39)

Earlier this year I read through a Greek text of Revelation and began thinking I'd like to spend some time doing research at the back of the canon. As of now I haven't, so this strangest, perhaps, of NT books is well beyond my area of expertise.

Even so, I think when we read Revelation as a text about "the end of the world," this book loses the ability to say anything about our lives in the world, here and now, except indirectly and by implication. Maybe this isn't an inevitable consequence, but I think all the futuristic, apocalyptic (in the Jerry Jenkins/Tim LaHaye sense) perspectives have obscured the ways that Revelation is relevant to the twenty-first century church more broadly. I have been known to say that the main thrust of Revelation was that, in the end, Jesus wins, and you really want to be on his team. But does Revelation have more—maybe even significantly more—to say to us now?

Until Carter I had only ever heard people talk about Revelation as a text written to churches in the context of rather extreme persecution (John is, after all, exiled on Patmos!). But the idea that the church has identified itself too closely with the empire, rather than is experiencing persecution at her hands, turns at least some of that thinking on its head. Perhaps much of the apocalyptic imagery driving John's visions isn't directed at a violent empire whose machinations have hurt and endangered a growing and yet increasingly marginal Jewish movement. Perhaps that imagery, instead, is directed at a pagan empire with whom the early followers of Jesus had learned to negotiate and co-exist. Certainly I would think being able to get along is a good thing, but at what cost? Had the church then—and has the church now—given up or simply forgotten its core identity for the sake of getting along?

It's too early for me to say I'm convinced. But the possibility is intriguing. Consider this: In an age when the church has become very comfortable with the centers of power—whether hosting presidential debates and praying at presidential inaugurations, or sustaining massive consumer industries and spending billions in marketing, or identifying with the burgeoning environmentalist market that looks to be the next source of global wealth redistribution, or whatever—perhaps Revelation can reorient us to being faithful participants and prophetic voices in the marketplaces (commercial, political, and otherwise). Perhaps Revelation can show us again how not to legitimate this world's power structures but rather to demonstrate their pallor in the light of God's glorious power.

A. N. Wilson's reflections on Palm Sunday

On 11 April, the Mail Online ran a piece by British writer A. N. Wilson that is well worth reading (even well worth linking to three weeks late!). The essay, "A Religion of Hatred: Why We Should No Longer Be Cowed by the Chattering Classes Ruling Britain Who Sneer at Christianity" gives an inside look at not simply atheism or agnosticism but actual anti-Christian vitriol from a former anti-Christian.

Too often Christians are only too eager to find someone to be offended by or something to revile (it's amazing how thin-skinned Christians can be!). Even so, there are actually offensive and revulsive people and things out there. But too often we get so caught up defending God and defending Christianity that we forget God hasn't called us to get defensive in a fallen and ill-loving world. Rather, he's called us to be brave enough to live and love in the midst of death and hatred. We, unfortunately, have not been faithful.

And yet . . . sometimes we do get it right. Sometimes we do forget to insist on the last word and we focus on showing love to the end. And sometimes we do make a difference.

If you don't know, A. N. Wilson rejected his parents faith and, more than simply choosing not to be a Christian, has spoken and written against the Christian faith very publicly. His book, Jesus, is one of those very many that claim to rescue Jesus from the mire of the church's devotion to him and dust him off, revealing a rather hapless man who failed in this life and then was twisted into the Son of God in the next. And though we can easily (readily, even) document the distortion of the historical Jesus—the Jesus who can be known through the processes of historical critical inquiry—from confessional and pietistic perspectives, the answer, I think, is not found in distorting Jesus in the other direction.

It seems that Wilson would agree. Wilson's article is well worth reading in its entirety, but I include these brief paragraphs to whet your appetite.
My belief has come about in large measure because of the lives and examples of people I have known - not the famous, not saints, but friends and relations who have lived, and faced death, in the light of the Resurrection story, or in the quiet acceptance that they have a future after they die.

The Easter story answers their questions about the spiritual aspects of humanity. It changes people's lives because it helps us understand that we, like Jesus, are born as spiritual beings.

Every inner prompting of conscience, every glimmering sense of beauty, every response we make to music, every experience we have of love - whether of physical love, sexual love, family love or the love of friends - and every experience of bereavement, reminds us of this fact about ourselves.

[HT: Ben Witherington]

Postscript: I glanced briefly at the comments to Ben Witherington's blog post and noticed that the top two comments (at the time, at least) missed the hope and . . . well, miracle of faith and instead took to defending theological views. Granted that the self-styled BW3 had to poke at those of the Reformed tradition in his post, can we knock off the bickering and, with the angels in heaven, rejoice with the one who has [re-]found his faith?!

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