Tuesday, February 02, 2010

bound in the first century CE

In my essay, "Reading and Hearing in Ancient Contexts" (JSNT 32/2 [2009]: 151–78), I criticize one NT scholar for portraying the author of Hebrews as a writer who exists outside the constraints of his time and culture and who labors to present his point in such a way that his audience—who are so constrained—can understand what he's trying to teach them.
Davis portrays the author of Hebrews as a cultural monstrosity who wishes to communicate complex (literate?) ideas but finds himself constrained by the inability of his audience to follow ‘analytic’, ‘objectively distanced’ or ‘abstract’ discourse. Davis’s author, among other things, seems to grasp the truth he conveys in ways unconstrained by cultural or historical forces, and the task before him as he writes is to express that truth in terms that are accessible within the cultural limitations affecting his hapless readers. Though Davis rightly insists that processes of composing as well as receiving written traditions are at least somewhat culturally specific, his analysis never acknowledges that both the author and auditors of Hebrews were constrained by similar such patterns of information perception, organization, and presentation. Some authors and some oral performers were undoubtedly more effective at navigating cultural scripts when presenting written or oral information than were others, but to varying degrees they all navigated those scripts as insiders, hardly aware, if at all, that they or their audiences were constrained by any supposed ‘oral mindset’. (153–4)

Davis, of course, is just one manifestation of a common problem among NT scholars rather than a particularly inept expression of NT scholarship. As another example, notice Robert Stein's description of Jesus. Whereas my criticism of Davis concerns his conception of "orality" (as opposed to "literate" patterns of information processing and presentation), here I question Stein's implicit conception of Jesus' relation to Judaism. In Mark 1.40–45 Jesus cleanses a leper and tells him to present himself to the priest and offer the sacrifices prescribed by Moses.
Within the present story this command provides the proof of the leper's healing, even as "serving" demonstrated the healing of Simon's mother-in-law in 1:31. In the original setting of the incident and in light of 2:15–17, 18–22, 23–28; 3:1–6; 7:1–23, Jesus appears to be less concerned with demonstrating that he keeps the law than in helping the healed leper reenter society. (Stein 2008: 107–8)

Notice that "demonstrating that [Jesus] keeps the law" is an issue in our own cultural context and not necessarily an issue in Jesus'. Rather, the problem in first-century Galilee concerned how one should keep Torah, not whether one should do so. All the passages Stein cites (Mark 2.15–3.6; 7.1–23) don't present Jesus as non-Torah observant; in these passages Jesus engages in debates about the proper observation of the Mosaic covenant rather than the value of observing Torah. Notice, however, that these ways of talking about the text (Davis's and Stein's) both assume that "the good guy" (whether the author of Hebrews or Jesus himself) is more like us (literate, or unburdened by petty legalism, respectively) but forced to deal with people who aren't like us (oral, or obsessed with the Law, respectively). If only Jesus and the NT authors had had the foresight to wait until the twenty-first century to do their thing, they wouldn't have had to deal with those sad, backward people who couldn't read or were scrupulous about the Law's commands. Pity.

[Clarification: I don't think Mark is trying say that Jesus was a Torah-observant Jew; neither do I think Mark is trying to avoid the implication that Jesus kept the Mosaic Law. Rather, the Torah was the most conspicuous feature of the cultural world Jesus inhabited, and the issues he engaged concerned how to live in light of Torah rather than whether or not to do so. Jesus never had to "demonstrat[e] that he keeps the law," and so Stein has missed the point of the text.]

1 comment:

Ricco the webulite said...

It's actually an interesting idea, that the point of sending the man to the priests was a method of reintroducing him to society. I am not familiar with the author, or this view, but it is one that I had never thought of before.

BTW... are you familiar with the Jesus Myth Theory? The most recent version of it I have heard comes from Earl Doherty. I have not yet read of any scholars that have shown any errors in the theory. I think it is worth looking into, and discussing.


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