Thursday, May 14, 2009

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?

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