Tuesday, May 19, 2009

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.

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