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."


Jim Deardorff said...


In his blog, Mark Goodacre made reference to your blog. A sentence within yours that was of particular interest to me is:

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.When it comes to Apollonius, you probably know that he apparently lived throughout the first century, and could foresee events like Jesus could as well as perform similar kinds of miracles. In the surviving book by Philostratus he alluded that Apollonius would actually be alive when his followers would instead think he had risen from the dead. And you may know of some of the "legends" saying Jesus did survive the crucifixion and did much traveling later, settling in the Kashmir area. Holger Kersten reported some 21 pieces of evidence
supporting this in his book.

To this add another item: Several other books on Apollonius are known to have been written and not survived, and Eusebius wrote a treatise against the Philostratus book.

If one puts all this together, along with much else, including the Gospels' internal evidence, a very strong case emerges for the identity of Apollonius with Jesus. This in turn bolsters the contention that Jesus' miracles, or most of them, did actually occur. So I would let Apollonius be an exception within your above sentence.

Rafael said...


I'm certainly not convinced that Jesus = Apollonius, but that's really not the issue here. Even if that were true historically, certainly they became different, even contesting, figures in ancient memory.

But again, not really the issue. The issue, as it pertains to this post, is that we're still not willing to concede miraculous feats higgledy-piggledy. If we accept Apollonius = Jesus, we're still not granting the genuine working of miraculous feats to people other than Jesus!

Jim Deardorff said...

Why were they contesting figures? The "orthodox" answer is because Jesus had to be unique and unparalleled in divine attributes and abilities. The unspoken alternative is that if they were one and the same, then Jesus survived the crucifixion, which was the most unspeakable heresy imaginable. So they became separate figures because orthodoxy insisted upon it.

As to the higgledy-piggledy miraculous, look at it this way. What if there really is such a thing as the individual human spirit, and what if it gradually evolves? Then some persons would be more evolved spiritually than others, and somewhere there would be the most highly evolved person of all, spiritually. So, such a person, if Jesus, could conceivably have done miraculous feats repeatably that we hear of occurring only sporadically over the years with different people. Things like a suddenly disappearing tumor that doctors can't in any way explain, for example.

Κανένας said...


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