Friday, May 22, 2009

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.


Don White said...

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. Dr. Rodriguez, I admire your turn of phrase as well as your scholarship. I think the apostolic authority is the the first arbiter of the apostolic teaching, and it is that authority the Church has ever acknowledged. I would say that the fellowship of believers knew the texts were veritas because they matched the teaching of the Apostles. The question for me is always the one inferred from Barth: do I read the scriptures, or do the scriptures read me?

Anonymous said...


You spent some time opposing DeConick’s assumption of the sequence: "first Jesus' death, then examination of scripture to interpret Jesus' death," though you say you agree with her that Jesus' followers turned to the Jewish scripture[s] to "figure out what the suffering and death of their Messiah meant." Surely then you cannot disagree with her sequence of those two items (the death came first).

However, I doubt that hardly any of his followers would have searched the scriptures for meaning, as that was something the scribes and Pharisees might do, if they wanted to. His followers must have known that Jesus did not think much of the scribes and Pharisees. His followers were supposed to beware of their leaven. Jesus’ teachings were different. Certainly his disciples wouldn’t have gone to the scriptures, as they most likely couldn’t read or write (except Judas).

More importantly, I wonder why the biggest assumption of all isn't questioned -- that Jesus died from the crucifixion. If he had survived, that would be much more probable than that the concept of resurrection is viable. I think it would also be more probable than that all the stories of the empty tomb and post-crucifixion appearances in physical form were invented. It is understandable that they would contain contradictions, however, if each Gospel writer tried to make the source stories be compatible with early Christian beliefs initiated by Paul.

After all, Josephus reported on the one out of three crucifixion victims that they took down from the crosses before they had died, and one survived. So if Jesus had received (secret) medical attention inside the tomb for 2 or 3 days and nights, the odds aren't so bad that he survived, assuming he had lapsed into clinical death, or a deep trance like samadhi, while on the cross.

It seems to me that it is theological commitment alone that prevents the plausibility of this from being discussed by NT scholars, or fear of receiving scorn from colleagues who know they are supposed to leave the subject alone.

Jim Deardorff said...


I didn't mean for the above comment to be anonymous.

Jim Deardorff

Rafael said...

Don: If you ever call me Dr. Rodríguez in public again I'll make up some almost true story about your past. Re: Barth, the answer is, Yes. I talk about the Bible as an offensive text, not in the way the guy on the bus next to you for whom deodorant is a special occasion, but in the sense of forward moving or aggressive. The Bible claims certain things about me and offers specific choices in regard to those things, and it claims to know the consequences of choosing this way or that. We read it at our own risk.

Jim: I don't want to ignore your comment completely, but I'm not going to respond in detail. The possibility that Jesus didn't die on the cross has, in fact, been offered and debated within academic discussion, and it has two serious flaws. First, it assumes the Romans and Co. weren't very good at distinguishing between dead and mostly dead, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Second, even if possible, there is absolutely no evidence of which I am aware in which anyone claimed Jesus didn't die, which means we simply couldn't know it. We can, as you have, claim it, but the reason I can't argue this point with you is because there is no evidence on which to base an argument. If Jesus lived, all the ancients missed it.

And regarding Jesus' followers not turning to the Hebrew biblical traditions, I think you're wide of the mark. Jesus did conflict with other Jews, according to the texts, but those same texts show them conflicting within the field of biblical tradition (e.g., Mark 12.18ff., parr.). Scribes and Pharisees probably slept lying down, but we shouldn't think Jesus' followers slept standing up in order to avoid their "leaven."

Jim Deardorff said...


It’s interesting how easily an NT scholar can turn an assumption into a supposed fact. If Jesus had lapsed into a state of temporary clinical death, you are assuming that a Roman soldier, or ordinary bystanders, would be correct in believing that as being permanent death. I wouldn’t argue that this sort of condition occurred at all often, but that the man Jesus was quite unique. Such a state of near-death could well withstand a spear thrust, if that had occurred, without disruption.

You say, there is absolutely no evidence of which I am aware in which anyone claimed Jesus didn't die... No, but there’s a lot of evidence that he didn’t die until many decades later, in or near Srinagar. If you want evidence detailed in books, I or Google can supply you with some book titles; similarly with web sites. You will understand that such research has to be done primarily by independent scholars, not SBL-type scholars.

It’s straightforward to read the post-crucifixion appearances as truth, albeit truth revised as necessary by the respective Gospel writers to suggest Jesus’ animated physical body was instead some sort of a resurrected body that could walk through a closed door or suddenly vanish/appear.

After his survival, he would have needed to remain incognito when in the Palestinian region, showing himself only to a few trusted ones who could, for a while, keep his survival a secret. You can understand that he would not want to undergo another crucifixion, one that this time would bring certain death.

Knowing you don’t wish to discuss any of this, at least in any detail, I thank you for
not ignoring my comment completely.

Don said...

Re: "If you ever call me Dr. Rodriguez in public again..."— OK. How 'bout "JiggyDaddy"? In regard to Mr. D's comments I would say that it takes, it seems to me, a great deal more faith to believe that Jesus somehow survived the ordeal of crucifixion, Miracle Max notwithstanding, than it does to believe God the Father could indeed raise God the Son from the dead.

Always easy to find reasons not to believe. Sorry if I'm feeding the trolls (although it reads as though some are pretty well used to rejection). Which reminds me, seen Angels and Demons yet?

Rafael said...

You remember that, eh? Between the two, I'd prefer Dr. Rodríguez.

Haven't seen A&D. I wasn't too impressed with The DaVinci Code, but I've heard A&D is better. I liked the first half of the book (DaVinci), but then it seemed to unravel a bit. Again, I've heard A&D (the book) is better, but I haven't read it.


My Visual Bookshelf