Thursday, December 29, 2011

who is Paul addressing in Rom. 2.17?

Those of you who know Romans (and Paul) better than I, I would like to ask you a favor: Help me understand why my revisionist reading of Rom. 2.17, suggested below, isn't plausible.

There is some debate about whether Paul is addressing a Jewish hypocrite or a gentile moralist in Rom. 2.1–16. I have historically held to the former option, though in my current reading of Romans I must admit that I'm seeing less and less that suggests a Jewish audience, either actually or rhetorically, encoded in Romans.

The situation seems to be clearer once we get to Rom. 2.17. In v. 17 Paul resumes the second-person singular address to an imaginary interlocutor, which he had first taken up in 2.1–6. The difficulties regarding Paul’s rhetorical audience in Romans 2 takes a significant turn in 2.17–20, where Paul offers an elaborate and extensive description of his interlocutor. First, Paul:

Εἰ δὲ σὺ Ἰουδαῖος ἐπονομάζῃ καὶ ἐπαναπαύῃ νόμῳ καὶ καυχᾶσαι ἐν θεῷ . . .
Ei de sy Ioudaios eponomazē kai epanapauē nomō kai kauchasai en theō . . .
But if you call yourself a Jew, and you find comfort in Torah, and you boast in God . . .
Paul says clearly that the rhetorical dialogue partner he to whom he pretends to be speaking calls himself [ἐπονομάζῃ; eponomazē] a Jew. According to Hans Bietenhard, eponomazō in Classical literature meant to “apply a word as a name, denominate, give a second name or surname, nickname.”[1] When he turns to Rom. 2.17, Bietenhard rightly explains, “Here Jew is a title of honour, the heir to the legacy described in vv. 17–20. Paul attacks the inconsistency of claiming to be a Jew and at the same time countenancing sin.”[2] However, in the very next sentence Bietenhard makes clear that he thinks the interlocutor in 2.17 does not simply claim to be a Jew but actually is one.[3] Stanley Stowers agrees; Stowers imagines Paul, speaking as a Jewish missionary to interested gentiles, espying a fellow Jewish missionary in the audience and deciding to engage him in front of the letter’s gentile hearers.[4] While the specific rhetorical strategy varies among commentators, most (if not all) agree that in 2.17 Paul imagines and addresses an actually Jewish interlocutor.[5]
Given the weight of this consensus among commentators, I hesitate to offer my dissent. But I wonder if Paul might still be imagining a gentile moralist in 2.17, only now this gentile has taken on the yoke of Torah and, in contrast to the moralist of 2.1–6, worships the Creator God of Israel. If so, this gentile has taken on the name [eponomazē (2.17)] “Jew” and gone on to assume the signs of the Mosaic covenant, including circumcision (see 2.25–29). What is more, this gentile proselyte apparently has taken it upon himself to proselytize other gentiles within his sphere of influence (2.19–21). If this reading is right, the imagined interlocutor in 2.17–24 might be a Jew religiously but is a gentile ethnically. If so, then Paul has moved along a spectrum from morally depraved gentiles (1.18–32) through a morally elitist gentile (2.1–16) to a gentile who has not only assumed a more rigorous moral standard but has explicitly adopted a Torah-observant lifestyle.
As I said already, I offer this proposal cautiously and in full awareness that the breadth of insight and careful exegesis that belongs to Romans scholarship as a whole reads 2.17 at face value (i.e., that Paul addresses an ethnic Jewish interlocutor). Contrary to this impressive insight and exegesis, I suggest that the logical progression from 1.18–32 through 2.1–16 and on into 2.17–29 suggests that Paul tilts at a gentile proselyte who has assumed the name [eponomazō] “Jew.”[6] The difference might not seem significant, but I think some interpretive problems arising from the rest of this paragraph (2.17–24) find some resolution if we take this exegetical option (I will flesh out this claim elsewhere).
But first, we need to take a moment to determine whether a gentile who commits himself to Torah-observance might “call himself a Jew.” Here the Stoic philosopher Epictetus provides a very interesting passage that may be relevant. As a Stoic philosopher, Epictetus is especially concerned that people claim the title philosopher without living out a philosophic way of life: “He is sharply critical of those who lightly call themselves philosophers but continue to ‘eat in the same fashion, drink in the same fashion, give way to anger and irritation’ (Discourses 3.15.10)—that is, to continue in a self-indulgent style of life totally at odds with the philosophical teaching they espouse.”[7] In the context of critiquing those who call themselves one thing but live as another, Epictetus writes:
Why then do you call yourself a Stoic? Why do you deceive the many? Why do you act the part of a Jew, when you are a Greek? Do you not see how (why) each is called a Jew, or a Syrian or an Egyptian? And when we see a man inclining to two sides, we are accustomed to say, This man is not a Jew, but he acts as one. But when he has assumed the affects of one who has been imbued with Jewish doctrine and has adopted that sect, then he is in fact and he is named a Jew. Thus we too being falsely imbued (baptized), are in name Jews, but in fact we are something else. Our affects (feelings) are inconsistent with our words; we are far from practising what we say, and that of which we are proud, as if we knew it.[8]
Admittedly, the key term, the verb eponomazō, does not appear here. When Epictetus speaks of “calling yourself” a Stoic, or people “being called” a Jew or a Syrian or an Egyptian he uses the more common verb λέγω [legō]. Later in this passage, when he refers to the genuine proselyte to Judaism, he uses the verb καλέω: “then he is in fact and he is named [καλεῖται; kaleitai] a Jew.” Though Epictetus does not prove that Paul has a gentile convert to Judaism in mind in Rom. 2.17 when he speaks of/to a person who “calls himself a Jew,” this text does raise the possibility that earning and exhibiting the epithet Jew was an issue for gentile converts to Judaism. “[T]he most significant aspect of the passage is that once they have taken this decisive second step and have fully adopted the Jewish frame of mind and way of life, the convert is seen, by Gentile outsiders at least, as fully a Jew, in fact as well as in name.”[9]

[1] Hans Bietenhard, “ὄνομα” (part), NIDNTT 2.648. He carries this nuance forward into his discussion of eponomazō in the nt (see NIDNTT 2.655).
[2] Bietenhard, NIDNTT 2.655.
[3] “The Jews stand under the divine judgment like the Gentiles” (Bietenhard, NIDNTT 2.655).
[4] Stowers, Rereading, 142.
[5] Dunn, Romans, 1.109; Moo, Romans, 157–58; Schreiner, Romans, 127–30; Witherington, Romans, 85; Wright, “Romans,” 445–46. Jewett (Romans, 221–22) is ambiguous, but seems to agree.
[6] Pace BDAG (s.v.), which considers the compound verbal form equivalent with the simple ὀνομάζω (“ἐπι- without special mng.”).
[7] Terence L. Donaldson, Judaism and the Gentiles: Jewish Patterns of Universalism (to 135 ce) (Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2007), 389.
[8] Epictetus, Discourses 2.9.19–21; Donaldson (Judaism, 388–91) discusses this passage in some detail.
[9] Donaldson, Judaism, 391.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

a review of Dale Allison's CONSTRUCTING JESUS

I've recently returned to Dale Allison's Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010). I'm writing a longer review essay for an upcoming issue of The Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, and I need to get this off my list of things to do. But in the process, I've dusted off my original review, the shorter version of which will appear in The Stone-Campbell Journal soon. I've put the longer, rough draft of that review on Scribd, and I thought I'd share it with any of you who might be interested.
Review of Dale C. Allison, Jr. CONSTRUCTING JESUS: MEMORY, IMAGINATION, AND HISTORY. Grand Rapids: Baker Ac...

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Romans in one sentence

Related to my previous post, let me ask you Pauline and Romans scholars: Would you approve of the following as a one-sentence summary of the entire letter? If so, why? If not, what would you add/change/delete? (Or is a one-sentence summary, in your opinion, inadvisable?) Here's my summary:

Romans is Paul's presentation of the gospel message of the righteousness of God revealed in Jesus, the Son of David and of God, which results in peace with God, first for Israel and then for all the nations.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

the opening of Romans: a question

I'm preparing a graduate-level course on Paul's letter to the Romans. One of the very many famous features of this letter is the credal formula in Rom. 1.3–4. First, let me give my translation of the opening four verses:
1 Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called [to be] an apostle, having been set apart for [the] gospel of God, 2 which he announced beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3 about his son,
  • who came from the seed of David according to the flesh,
  • 4 who was appointed son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by the resurrection from the dead,
Jesus Christ our Lord.

One of the complicating factors of this passage is the relation of 1.2 with the formula in 1.3–4. In verse 2, Paul refers to "the holy scriptures" [γραφαῖς ἁγίαις] as the location in which God announced beforehand the gospel. These are the last two words of the verse. The very next verse then begins with the words "about his son" [περὶ τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ]. I'm sure I've heard/read somewhere that Paul here frames the Hebrew scriptures in terms of their witness to Jesus; i.e., the scriptures are "about his son." Theologically, of course, this isn't a problem; Paul will say something similar in 3.21. But I don't think this is what Paul is saying here.

Here's my question. Would you Pauline and/or Romans scholars be comfortable describing verse 2 as a parenthetical adjectival phrase modifying "the gospel of God" [εὐαγγέλιον θεοῦ]? In this case, we should read verse 3, which begins "about his son," in connection with the end of verse 1. A modified translation might be:
1 Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called [to be] an apostle, having been set apart for [the] gospel of God—(2 which [gospel] he announced beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures)—3 [the gospel] about his son,
  • who came from the seed of David according to the flesh,
  • 4 who was appointed son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by the resurrection from the dead,
Jesus Christ our Lord.

What think ye?

Monday, November 14, 2011

what social memory isn't

I'm currently reviewing Maurice Casey's book (perhaps even magnum opus), Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian's Account of his Life and Teaching (London: T&T Clark International, 2010). I met Maurice in 2005 at the British New Testament Conference, where we both presented papers in the BNTC's Jesus Seminar (not to be confused with the Westar Institute's Jesus Seminar). I found him to be a friendly, encouraging, and collegial figure, which matters since he is a very senior NT scholar and I was (am) just getting my feet wet. Also, I consider one of his protégés, James Crossley, a personal friend; Crossley was also the internal examiner for my PhD thesis defense. This book is certainly the results of decades of detailed scholarship, both in the details and in the larger theoretical and methodological issues.

Moreover, the adjective found in the subtitle, independent, should be taken at face value; Maurice affirms a number of traditional conclusions among NT scholars (Markan priority, Jesus spoke Aramaic, etc.), but he also advances numerous arguments that challenge directly some of the most taken-for-granted ideas in our field. For example, Casey affirms Markan priority and the existence of "Q," though he argues that "Q" refers to a number of disparate written sources, in both Aramaic and Greek instead of a single document written in Greek. However, he also affirms that Luke knew and was influenced by Matthew. Anyone familiar with the Synoptic Problem and the discussion in that field will know how controversial it is for one person to hold to all these ideas at the same time.

And it is to be expected that I have some bones to pick with Casey's approach to the historical Jesus. If nothing else, the fact that Casey isn't a confessional scholar (he is forthright about this but not [always] antagonistic) and I am will necessitate areas of disagreement. But I don't think this difference explains all my complaints. Certainly this one has little if anything to do with my faith or his un- (or non-) faith.

In a section of his chapter on historical method, Casey addresses "social memory," a field in which I am heavily invested professionally. He writes, "In recently scholarly work, both rewriting history and telling stories about traditional figures have been drawn together into discussions of 'social memory'" (133). Already this is wrong. Social memory doesn't refer to either "rewriting history" or "telling stories about traditional figures," though both can be aspects of social memory. Barry Scwartz recently wrote,
"Social memory" refers to the distribution throughout society of individual knowledge, belief, feeling and moral judgement of the past as well as identification with past actors and events. Only individuals . . . possess the capacity to contemplate the past, but this does not mean that such capacity originates in the individual alone or can be explained solely on the basis of his or her experience. Individuals do not know the past singly; they know it with and against others situated in different groups, and through the knowledge and traditions that predecessors and contemporaries transmit to them. (Barry Schwartz, "What Difference Does the Medium Make?" in The Fourth Gospel in First-Century Media Culture [ESCO; LNTS 426; London: T&T Clark International, 2010], 225–38 [p. 231 quoted])

I know this sounds complicated, but the gist is that all of us are affected by social forces larger than our individual, personal identities as we remember the past, whether the past of our social groups (e.g., American history, Christian tradition, Western culture, etc.) or our own autobiographical pasts (e.g., my relationship with my wife and/or children, my personal experience of American citizenship, my religious testimony, etc.). The gap between Casey's rather myopic definition of social memory and the field of study that usually goes by the name is hard to overestimate. I once stood on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon; this seems roughly similar.

As a result, Casey very briefly summarizes the famous story in Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, in which Josephus is waxing eloquently about Solomon's divine wisdom and the exorcistic and therapeutic prowess he exhibited. As an example, Josephus tells the story of a first-century CE exorcist named Eleazar who followed one of Solomon's recipes for removing a demon. At the conclusion of the story, Casey writes,
This is an overt declaration that Josephus had made this non-biblical report about Solomon because of its importance in the world in which he himself lived. His whole account is a perfect example of 'social memory'. (134; my emphasis)

No, this isn't. Josephus's whole account is certainly an appropriate field in which to bring questions of social memory to bear; I suspect this story, and a number of others, would help bring to light "the distribution throughout society of individual knowledge, belief, feeling and moral judgement of the past as well as identification with past actors and events" (Schwartz, cited above). But Casey hasn't brought these questions to bear on the text, and I'm surprised that he seems to think that he has.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

anticipating the kingdom of God

For the second week in a row I was tapped to speak at Johnson University's chapel. The theme for this year is "Extending the Kingdom among All Nations," and our chapel services have been centered on tracing the kingdom of God (loosely conceived) through the story/-ies of the Hebrew Bible. Last Tuesday Mark Nelson (of "The Bible is one story from beginning to Jude" fame; see here for details) presented the story of Nehemiah, which brought an end to our traipse the Hebrew Bible. And next Tuesday Carl Bridges (of very little fame whatsoever, though his mustache has won runner-up in multiple county and state fairs) will speak on the birth of Jesus. Thus begins our look at the kingdom of God in the New Testament.

Between these two corpora, of course, lies an immense story of God's people variously waiting for God to act on their behalf. Sure, the Babylonians who had sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple of the Lord had themselves been conquered by the ascendant Persians. Sure the Persian potentate Cyrus and his successors allowed the Jews to return to Judea and rebuild the city and the Temple. But somehow, the restoration was falling well short of expectations. Something was left undone.

My assignment was to (briefly) discuss the idea of the kingdom of God (again, loosely conceived) in Second-Temple era texts. The theme is vast and the textual database vaster. So I chose to focus on two very different texts to take soundings, as it were, of the various different ways that Jews during this period anticipated their restoration and vindication from God. I briefly introduced the apocryphal book, Tobit, and the Dead Sea Scroll fragment, Melchizedek (11Q13, or 11QMelchizedek). I titled my address, "Anticipations: God's Kingdom during the Second-Temple Era," and my primary point was: "Jews of the Second-Temple era didn’t know what to expect, but they knew to expect something."

Below you can find the text of my address and a PDF version of the accompanying PowerPoint presentation. I welcome your comments.
God’s Kingdom During the Second-Temple Era God’s Kingdom During the Second-Temple Era (pptx presentation)

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

encouragement to study Revelation

At the church where my family and I worship and serve, we have a number of slogans that you might hear with some regularity. One of those slogans is, "We believe the Bible is one story, from beginning to end, of God putting his family back together." Sounds nice, doesn't it?

Except that we don't. I've been trying for a couple years to get our teaching pastor (he refuses to be called "preacher") to do a series on Revelation. Our modus operandi is to take one book of the Bible each year and spend a considerable amount of time studying that book as a community. To date we've studied John, Genesis, Romans, Exodus, and we are currently studying the Gospel of Luke. I think the plan is to break the OT/NT cycle and do Acts next year, then, I dunno . . . Leviticus or something. But the pastor absolutely refuses to do a series on Revelation. So I tell him that our actions say, "We believe the Bible is one story, from beginning to Jude . . ." So far he's been unimpressed.

But I soldier on, trying to convince him that it's for the good of the church. A couple week's ago he showed the famous Sony Bravia commercial in which Sony released a quarter-million bouncy balls in the streets of San Francisco. The image and the accompanying music are . . . well, pleasant (if you haven't seen the video, you should click the link).

Thanks to online file converters and the easy-to-use iMovie, I've edited that video and put together a promo, which I've offered the church free-of-charge, to advertise the series on Revelation. If, that is, Mark ever decides to do one. If you're interested, be sure to e-mail him. Or call him. Or better yet, both.


Monday, October 31, 2011

Greek Text behind the King James Bible

Last week my institution (Johnson University) celebrated the King James Bible and the Quadricentenary of its original publication in 1611. Dr. Tommy Smith presented a brief overview of the historical context of Renaissance and Reformation Europe, esp. the controversies and conflicts facing the Church of England in the wake of Queens Mary and Elizabeth and the ascendance of King James to the English throne. Dr. Greg Linton addressed some mistranslations and misunderstandings in the KJV. Mr. Ron Wheeler discussed the heritage of the KJV on both the English language and English literature. I was assigned the topic, "The Greek Text behind the King James Version." And finally, Dr. Carl Bridges discussed the heritage of the KJV and its influence on subsequent English translations of the Bible.

The entire week was interesting, well-planned (I had no part in the planning), and well-received. No one, perhaps, would be surprised to hear that a quadricentennial celebration of the KJV would be enthralling (nb: sarcasm). But this really was an interesting event. There's talk of compiling the five presentations and making them available. I'll announce it if that happens. FWIW, here's the manuscript of my presentation. I've also included a PDF version of my accompanying PowerPoint presentation. But first, you might also enjoy one of the promotional videos made in preparation for last week. Note the Crocodile Dundee reference at the end.

King James Week Promo from Stuart Large on Vimeo.

KJV Four Hundred Year Celebration

Greek Text Behind the KJV Presentation)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

a breakfast your mom would approve of

This morning I was blessed to have been invited to breakfast at the house of Dr. Gerald Mattingly, probably Johnson University's most well-known faculty member at present. Dr. Mattingly was hosting Father Justin Sinaites, the Greek Orthodox monk who is at the center of current efforts to digitally photograph and preserve some of the world's most ancient manuscripts, including the famed Codex Sinaiticus. Father Justin lives at the famous and ancient St. Catherine's Monastery, situated at the foot of the traditional Mt. Sinai. Breakfast (and the conversation in particular) was a wonderful experience, and I am grateful to both the host and the guest of honor for allowing me to participate.

Father Justin is in the States, among other reasons, to offer presentations at a number of universities in the Southeast and in Texas and California. He'll be presenting at the University of Tennessee (Knoxville) on Wednesday, 26 October 2011. I don't think it would be inappropriate of me to share the flyer (though if I hear differently I will remove it post-haste.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Pieter Craffert on historiography

Historiography refers, among other things, to "the body of techniques, theories, and principles of historical research and presentation; methods of historical scholarship" (, which suffices for our purposes). I am currently reading Pieter F. Craffert's article, "How Historiography Creates (Some) Body: Jesus, the Son of David—Royal Stock or Social Construct" (Scriptura 90 [2005]: 608–20). I'm not  persuaded by his main thesis—at least, not yet—but his description and diagnosis of standard historiographical practices among historians of Jesus is very good and well worth paying attention to.

For example, Craffert writes:
What historians learned from anthropologists is that "people lead meaningful lives, and that these meanings can only be discovered within the context of those lives, it cannot be imputed to them on the basis of some previously established ideas about the biological or psychological makeup of people" (Cohn 1980, 201). Therefore, anthropological historians recognise that they "must grasp the absolute presuppositions, the unspoken assumptions, of the society under review, in order to understand what has occurred" (Stanford 1986, 93). (Craffert 2005:611)

In other words, it will not do to run through historical documents (the Gospel of Mark, the Acts of the Apostles, Xenophon's Anabasis, or whatever) and attempt to isolate historically credible or plausible data that the historian can then use to reconstruct the past. Our documents are situated accounts of the past, written by people with particular perspectives—biases, expectations, values, ideas about what could happen, what should happen, and so on. And unless historians can approximate to some significant degree those particular perspectives, we simply will not be able to get in touch with "what actually happened" (the ultimate goal of most historiography) in any meaningful sense.

As a result, "[a]nthropological historians approach the documents as narrative constructs themselves of cultural realities and experiences" (Craffert 2005:611). This way of approaching texts matters, I think, not just because this more accurately perceives what our historical sources are (though this is true). Instead, it helps us to appreciate more acutely that our own historical reconstructions are similar phenomena: expressions of the past in terms that make sense within, communicate meaningfully to, and provide orientation for people in the present. Back in 2005 I made a similar point in a post on the SBL Forum (available here).

As I said above, I'm not persuaded by Craffert's main thesis regarding the claim of Davidic descent in the Gospels and (I would argue) during the life of the historical (= real) Jesus. However, he has offered us real insight in how we engage historical practice—historiography—as we try to know with some degree of precision and/or certainty what the past actually was. I strongly recommend you check out this essay.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Dead Sea Scrolls online

Good news. More and more of the data upon which biblical scholarship depends is becoming more widely and easily available. And that's a good thing. Now, go, "take up and read!"

Friday, August 26, 2011

on the Golden Rule

I have about an hour or so before I need to run some errands, so I returned to Dale Allison's book, Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (Baker Academic, 2010). In the midst of some comments on the Golden Rule, Allison has this very nice formulation, which I thought worth reproducing here:
To do unto others as one wishes to be done to oneself means not reacting but initiating action; it means to imagine, on analogy with what one wants, what others might want, and then acting accordingly. (319)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

new term

Fall 2011 semester classes at Johnson Bible College University started this morning. The summer was great (busy, but great), and it always seems the autumn comes too quickly. And even though it's hard for me to put down the various projects I get to work on from May til August, it really is good to see returning students and to meet the brand-new freshman.

Speaking of brand-new freshman, new students moved onto campus last weekend. In all the hustle and bustle of meeting new roommates, unpacking milk crates, and trying to get to Walmart to buy more stuff we really needed, I snuck down and filmed a group of incoming freshman. Unfortunately, I had to edit out some language; I guess that's bound to happen when you drop "Bible" from your name. Here's what I got:

Friday, August 12, 2011

review of Structuring Early Christian Memory

I don't know how other scholars keep track of who has reviewed their works, in which journal, and what they've said. It seems to me that you just kind of accidentally encounter a review that you didn't know was being written.

That happened to me last week. I accidentally discovered that Kelly Iverson, of St Andrews University (Scotland) reviewed my published thesis in the Journal for the Study of the New Testament. His brief review is positive and exactly the kind of thing an author hopes for (accurate, fair, critical, etc.). Here's an excerpt, if you're interested:
This study is a welcome addition to historical Jesus studies and provides a fresh perspective that deserves careful attention. For those who may be relatively new to the fields of performance and social memory, this volume offers an informative summary and helpful bibliography. In addition, there is detailed interaction with several textual examples (exorcisms and healings) that illustrates the potential usefulness of the approach. Given the broad objective of this monograph, some will not be convinced that the thesis sufficiently undermines the traditional criteria of authenticity or develops an unobstructed path forward. This volume does, however, make a reasoned argument for appreciating the variability in the Jesus tradition within the contours of an oral culture.

These, I think, are all fair comments. For lengthier and more substantive critiques of the traditional criteria of authenticity, see my "Authenticating Criteria: The Use and Misuse of a Critical Method" (Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 7/2 [2009]: 152–67), as well as the forthcoming volume, Jesus, History, and the Demise of Authenticity (Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne, eds.; T&T Clark International), for which I contributed an essay on the failings of the criterion of embarrassment.

For Kelly Iverson's full review of Structuring Early Christian Memory, you can follow this link (you'll need to search for "Structuring Early Christian Memory," or you can scroll down to p. 44).

silly internet . . .

For reasons that don't need to be explained here, I googled the title of Samuel Byrskog's major work on oral historiography and the Jesus tradition. I can never remember if it's called Story as History, History as Story, or if it's History as Story, Story as History. Anyway, I new the Internet would have the answer, and sure enough, it did. But then I noticed something odd, and I thought I'd share it here. Here's a screenshot:

Even if the picture is cut off, you should be able to see the peculiarity. Amazon, for whatever reason, has classified Byrskog's book in the Interior Design sub-section of their Home & Garden section of their bookstore. Now, Story as History, History as Story is a good-looking book, as you can see. But does it merit classification as "Interior Design"?! You decide.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

beginning at the beginning

Now that I'm done adding my part to the education of James McGrath, I've returned to reading the very lengthy but engaging book, Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (Baker Academic, 2010). I'm currently toward the beginning of the third chapter ("More Than a Prophet: The Christology of Jesus" [221–304]), specifically in the section where Allison takes up the common idea that, whereas the historical Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, Jesus' followers proclaimed Jesus (i.e., "The proclaimer became the proclaimed"). I especially appreciated the following:
Too often, however, at least from the point of view of this chapter, the literature has failed to begin at the beginning. It is one thing, for instance, to explicate the angelic terms in which some thought about Jesus, quite another to explain why anybody found those terms appropriate in the first place. And so it is with other christological conceptions and titles. Why did Jesus draw them all to himself? (pp. 241–42)

My inclination is that this question (viz., Why did anyone consider Jesus worthy of exalted christological titles in the first place?) is too often begged and too seldom asked. It makes sense to me, for instance, that some Jews thought of the messiah in terms of Davidic descent, and so Jesus' followers created/expanded the Son of David motif in the Jesus tradition. But scholars who push this perspective to its ultimate end—that the historical Jesus never thought of himself in terms of Davidic descent—have traditionally been content to demonstrate how the attribution of Davidic descent developed in the tradition and to never ask the ultimate question. Why did anyone think that Jesus, without any precedent of Davidic-ness in his teachings or actions, ought to have been framed in terms of "Son of David" christology?

I asked a similar question in chapter 5 of Structuring Early Christian Memory: Jesus in Tradition, Performance, and Text (T&T Clark International, 2010).
Given the ubiquity of research that traces how Jesus' followers reconfigured him to address their later concerns, we ask a question otherwise unasked in 'historical Jesus' research: why Jesus? Why did Jesus' followers choose him as a vehicle to address and conquer their concerns? (120; see also p. 136)

Jews in antiquity demonstrably turned to exalted figures from the past—whether real or mythic—and exalted them even further. Moses not only died on Mt. Nebo across the Jordan River (so Deuteronomy) but also received burial from the LORD or one of his angels. Enoch didn't just walk with God (so Genesis) but received a grand tour of heaven and God's plans for the future. The Patriarchs not only multiplied the blessing of Abraham from a single heir among multiple offspring (Isaac but not Ishmael; Jacob but not Esau) but then left behind their own blessings (in the form of Testaments) that pulled back the veil of the future ever so slightly.

And so on. But what stands out is that the early Christians did not reach back into the ancient and/or mythic past to pick out their hero whom they would idealize. Instead, they picked a not-unproblematic figure from recent times, whose earthly associates were still available (at least to anyone in Galilee and/or Judea), and whose fate did not exactly commend him to exaltation. This isn't an air-tight argument for the historical reliability of the Jesus tradition as preserved in the New Testament. But it does present problems for anyone who thinks that the NT traditions about Jesus have very tenuous—if any—connections with the historical man from Nazareth. Something about that man made it possible to apply exalted titles to him and to convince others to accept those titles on his behalf.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

a second point in third place

I'm not gonna lie . . . in the middle of writing my first response to the intractably friendly if stubbornly oppositional James McGrath, I completely lost my train of thought. I knew exactly what I wanted to say, and I introduced my thoughts by saying, "But two problems strike at the heart of redaction criticism, and it seems to me that those who accept the results of redaction-critical analyses haven't addressed either of them."

My first point, which I expanded in my second response to James, was that the evangelists don't seem to have been sufficiently consistent redactors of their sources for us to know what motivated their particular method(s) of handling their traditions/sources. James (and many, many other NT scholars) seems sufficiently impressed that Matthew expands the traditions at his disposal. And while he (= Matthew) clearly does exhibit expansionist tendencies, there are simultaneously plenty of instances in which Matthew has the shorter text. So the expansionist Matthew is also an epitomist! Or, Matthew the spiritualizer is also, at times, more concrete than his Lukan counterpart. The situation seems sufficiently muddled to me that even probable and/or plausible historical reconstruction becomes problematic, even for those of us content with less-than-certain historical knowledge.

But then I forgot my second point. There I was, having promised the faithful readers of Verily Verily (both of you!) "two problems" that undermined the redaction-critical enterprise, and I couldn't remember the second one!! What was I to do?! I could have removed the offending promise of "two problems"; after all, blogging is far from the decrees of the Medes and the Persians. Instead, I, your humble blogger, developed an ingenious alternative second point, and no one was aware that I had temporarily lost my own plot. But hooray! I have remembered my second point, which I now offer in third place.

All sarcasm aside, we need to remember that the current discussion began with my original response to Tom Holmén's discussion of the authenticity criteria in Routledge's Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus (2008). My primary complaint, in case I didn't state it clearly enough, was Holmén's advocation of a historiographical method that sought (i) to identify earlier or later features of the Jesus tradition, then (ii) to discard the later features (redactional or otherwise), and finally (iii) to reconstruct the historical Jesus solely on the basis of authenticated, original, or the earliest material. Even if we were to overlook the overwhelming contingency that plagues the redaction-critical enterprise, is this the right way to treat material we identify as redactional? I don't think so.
  • First, in the sixth chapter of Structuring Early Christian Memory, I gave a very close reading of Luke 4.14–30, which I (along with every NT scholar of whom I am aware) think has clearly been subject to the redactional activity of the Lukan evangelist. But this cannot be the end of the story. Instead, I ask, "[W]hence comes Luke's redactional impulse?" (Rodríguez 2010:141). Granted that Luke was able to creatively handle the tradition he received from "those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word," was he free to arbitrarily handle that tradition? My analysis suggests not and shows (i) how Luke's retelling of the story we read in Mark 6.1–6a was heavily influenced by another pre-Lukan tradition (see Matt. 11.2–6||Luke 7.18–23 [Q?]), and (ii) how Luke's portrayal of Jesus' rhetorical maneuvering before the Nazarene Jewish gathering does not make Jesus unintelligible to a Sitz im Leben Jesu. Elijah and Elisha, whom Jesus evokes in Luke 4.25–27, need not legitimize the inclusion of the gentiles (even if they clearly do in Luke-Acts).
  • Similarly, Dale Allison grants the redactional nature of numerous texts (including the summary of Jesus' message in Mark 1.14–15 and the temptation narratives in Matt. 3||Luke 3 [Q?] and Mark 1.12–13), and he demonstrates that these redactional pericopae nevertheless communicate authentically the historical Jesus. This approach, which does not discard redactional material but rather continues to ask critically how such material relates to history and brings the past to bear on Sitz im Leben of the church or of the evangelist, seems to me to handle the synoptic Gospels and the Jesus tradition more responsibly than does, e.g., the approach advocated by Tom Holmén.
So, James, I ask you: How could these arguments, which feel so right, be wrong?


Tuesday, August 02, 2011

back to school early

Classes at Johnson University don't begin until 24 August, which means I should have three more weeks of summer. Unfortunately, James McGrath is in need of some schooling, so I've been called back in to work early. Oh . . . the things we do for our students. (BTW: I'd like to point out that James admits, in the second paragraph after the block quote, "That is the heart of the matter methodologically, as I see it (and I could be wrong)" [my emphasis]. Indeed.) So let the tap dancing begin . . .

James has responded to my previous post (available here, and follow the links back) with a response that  critical scholarship no longer pursues certain knowledge but only probable and/or plausible knowledge. Of course, I agree. The general tenor of my own post, I think, was an admission of what I can't be certain of, but that obviously doesn't mean that I think we should give up being critical scholars. So when James says, "Many of us, however, are convinced that we have other options besides the classic critical quest for certainty on the one hand, and an uncritical acceptance of what all our sources say on the other. We can be postmodern without being post-critical," I wholeheartedly agree. But that doesn't mean the redaction critics have the better, more plausible reading of the synoptic Gospels. Let me illustrate.

James produces an impressive list of Matthean additions to his (= Matthew's) sources, all of which should demonstrate the general Matthean tendency to add to his sources. Indeed, those instances we might call "counterexamples" to the general impression of Matthean expansion are actually evidence of Matthew's redactional tendency and how exhausting it was for Matthew to consistently edit (redact) his sources (hence, the phrase "kingdom of God" in Matt. 12.28 even though Matthew almost universally prefers the phrase "kingdom of heaven"). James writes:
I think that we can see a pattern emerging when we compare Matthew and Luke. Here are just a few well-known examples:

Beatitudes: Matthew adds “in Spirit” and “for righteousness”
Lord’s Prayer: Matthew adds “your will be done…” and “but deliver us from evil/the Evil One”
Parables: Matthew adds “You are the salt of the earth…”
Turn the other cheek: Matthew not only adds details about which cheek and being taken to court, which affect the way this material is understood, but also adds a third piece: “If someone compels you to go with him one mile…”

This seems like the same sort of thing we get in Matthew’s use of his principal source, the Gospel of Mark. Consider Peter’s confession, where Matthew adds the “Blessed are you, Simon…” material, or the apocalyptic discourse in Mark 13, where Matthew adds “in the holy place, as spoken of by the prophet Daniel.” Matthew tends to supplement his source material with explanatory comments and interpretative additions. Should we not expect that same tendency to be at work in his use of other sources – and indeed, allow that authorial tendency to guide us in our detecting of his use of other sources?

This is an impressive list, and it only scratches the surface! Who could argue that Matthew consistently and regularly adds to his sources?!

Except when he doesn't. It wouldn't be hard to come up with a similar list of instances where Matthew has actually pared down the material he received from his sources, whether Mark or Q (I'm accepting the Two-Source Hypothesis for the sake of argument; the terms would necessarily shift if we accepted a different solution to the Synoptic Problem, but I think the same general pattern would/could appear):

  • Matthew only cites Isa. 40.3 in his introduction of John the Baptist, whereas Luke cites Isa. 40.3–5. While we are [almost] certainly dealing here with a Lukan expansion, I simply note Matthew has the shorter text.
  • Matthew lacks a significant amount of ethical material in his discussion of John the Baptist. Luke's John gives instruction to the crowds, tax collectors, and soldiers (Luke 3.10–14). Again, [almost] certainly a Lukan expansion, but again Matthew has the shorter text.
  • These last two examples come from Q, which is difficult because we no longer have access to the source we think Matthew and Luke used. So what about where Matthew uses a source we do still have: the Gospel according to Mark? Take the story of the Gadarene demoniac (Matt. 8.28–34), which depends literarily on Mark 5.1–20. First note how much shorter is Matthew's account (seven verses) in comparison to Mark's (twenty verses). Then, notice the kinds of things Matthew omits: Gone is the statement that the man (there's only one in Mark) lived among the tombs. Gone are the depictions of the townspeople's attempts to bind the demoniac and his overwhelming strength to break the chains and the bonds. Gone also is the summary of the man's behavior "day and night," crying out and cutting himself. Gone also is the depiction of Jesus' struggle to exorcise the demonic Legion (though perhaps this is understandable). Finally, Gone is the interaction between the formerly demon-possessed man and Jesus, when the man asks to follow Jesus only to be sent home to spread the news of what God has done for him.
  • Matthew also omits the father's plea, "I do believe; help my unbelief" (see Mark 9.24).
  • And Matthew omits the phrase, "and for the gospel's sake" from Mark 10.29, and Matthew's description of the reward that awaits those who forsake kith and kin in 19.29 is considerably abbreviated from the parallel in Mark 10.30.
And so on. These last three examples are especially important because we can see beyond any doubt (again, on the basis of the Two-Source Hypothesis) that Matthew has a tendency to abbreviate his source material. So which is the redactional tendency (abbreviation or expansion?) and which is the "counterexample" and the "editorial fatigue"? Granted that we're not questing for historical or redactional certainties, can we really say that we still have any confidence at all that the "expansionist Matthew" we were given by the redaction critics is more authentic than the "abbreviating Matthew"? Indeed, given the last three examples I adduced above (and others like them), perhaps we should suspect that Q actually had the longer citation from Isaiah 40 and the expanded discussion of John the Baptist's teaching. After all, Matthew seems to repeatedly abbreviate his Markan source; he certainly could have abbreviated Q in like manner.

But let me say again that all of this is arguing backward, from the Gospels to Jesus (that is, that later Gospels have redacted earlier Gospels, which themselves have exercised some interpretive freedom with whatever sources to which they had access). But what happens when we reverse the direction and reason from Jesus to the Gospels (I discussed this in my first response to James; see the second bullet point)? When we stop asking whether the Gospels accurately preserve the words and/or message of Jesus and ask instead what that message must have looked like (without regard to content), we have no reason to think that any saying of Jesus except perhaps clichés and proverbs existed in only one form. And if the words of Jesus were already multiform before they were ever passed on by those who heard him, then we need to reckon with the possibility that (at least some of) the differences between Jesus' words across the synoptic Gospels were already part of the tradition itself and not the result of redaction.

When we combine this with the already compelling ambiguities noted above regarding what the redaction critics actually offer us (which is not only far from certain but even far from consistent!), I have to say, No, I'm almost certainly right about redaction criticism.

on second thought . . .

Over on Exploring our Matrix James McGrath has responded to my comments on Tom Holmén's treatment of the authenticity criteria in the Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus (see here for my original post). While some of his comments are a bit unclear, I get the impression that he thinks I'm wrong about redaction criticism. James is a good man, and I respect his opinion. So I've gone back and had a rethink on my comments. And on second thought . . . No, I really was onto something helpful. Lemme 'xplain.

A Google Image search for "James McGrath is wrong" came up with this. Why?!
James points to Dale Allison's recent work, Constructing Jesus (Baker Academic, 2010) and rightly notes the similarity between our arguments. I confess, I've been reading quite a bit of Allison this summer, including Constructing Jesus but also two of his previous books (Jesus of Nazareth [Fortress Press, 1998] and The Theological Jesus and the Historical Christ [Eerdmans, 2009]) and some articles in various places. And while I've learned a lot from Allison, the truth is he and I were already thinking in similar directions.

I'm not sure, however, why James moves directly from Allison's approach (which he [Allison] calls "recurrent attestation") to raise the issue of oral tradition [OT]. Certainly I've had a lot to say about OT in the past, but Allison doesn't spend very much time, if any, dealing with OT, and I didn't mention OT in my post even once. The problem with redaction, it seems to me, is more one of the function of tradition and how Jesus' followers apprehended the stories from and about Jesus rather than the medium (oral performance, written text, etc.) in which they accessed those stories.

James makes a good point—one many media critics conveniently overlook—that written texts could influence later authors, sometimes directly, in antiquity. Some discussions (Werner Kelber and Richard Horsley come to mind) wrongfully give the impression that written texts were rare in the ancient world, and that writing was as obscure as IT technical assistance. In actual fact, writing was (nearly) everywhere, and written texts in the first centuries CE were common enough that Luke could even portray a small gathering of Jews in Nazareth as having an Isaiah scroll at hand (Luke 4.16–30). Whether or not Luke is accurate here, he clearly expects his readers to accept the image of Jesus reading a written text in his hometown! Written texts functioned differently in antiquity than they do in contemporary Western contexts, and they influenced other written texts in multiple ways. But certainly one of those ways is that later authors could copy from earlier texts, and they could edit (= redact) their source texts in ways that suited them.

But two problems strike at the heart of redaction criticism, and it seems to me that those who accept the results of redaction-critical analyses haven't addressed either of them:

  • First, the pattern of changes across an entire text aren't always consistent. Sometimes an author will spiritualize his source text, and at other times he won't. In such an instance, should we say that author exhibits spiritualizing tendencies? If so, should the fact that he doesn't always spiritualize his source text encourage us to conclude that our author is inconsistent? Or is his tendency to spiritualize "moderate" rather than "thoroughgoing"? So Matt. 5.3 is "spiritualized" while Luke 6.20 is "more original." But what about Matt. 7.11||Luke 11.13, where Matthew's Jesus promises "good things/gifts" from the heavenly Father, while Luke's Jesus promises "the Holy Spirit"? Which text is "spiritualized": Matthew, Luke, or Q? As we can see, this problem is only accentuated when we're dealing with a situation in which the source text is no longer extant and we have to reconstruct it by comparing two texts that we believe copied from the same source. So did Q, if it existed, report that Jesus blessed the poor, and Matthew spiritualized this blessing by giving it to "the poor in spirit"? Or did Q pronounce blessings for the poor in spirit, and Luke, with his demonstrable interest in the materially poor and his desire to couple each blessing with a corresponding woe (here, "But woe to you rich . . ." [Luke 6.24]), redact his source to fit his needs? And what if Mark Goodacre is right, and in actual fact Matthew is Luke's source?! Despite James's confidence that in Matthew's Sermon on the Mount, "time and again there are additional words or phrases which, when compared with Luke, seem clearly to be additions to an earlier shorter form, and reflect redactional interests of the author," redaction critics simply cannot be sure what is original, what is secondary, or to what extent secondary changes put us in contact with an author's real or consistent theological or ideological motivations.
  • Second, if we approach the problem from the other direction (forwards, from Jesus ➞ the Gospels, rather than backwards, from the Gospels ➞ Jesus), the issues are radically different. Now, instead of trying to explain multiple forms of a similar saying in terms of a singular original which has been redacted, we need to ask whether it is reasonable for us as historians (this is important, given the apologetic questions James alludes to and avoids at the end of his post) to suppose Jesus only said some things once or in only one way. Could a historical Jesus that looked more like the Lukan Jesus ("Blessed are you poor") have also said something more akin to the Matthean Jesus ("Blessed are the poor in spirit")? Perhaps not. But if not, redaction critics and historians of Jesus need to explain why. If the two statements, however, are both recognizable as words of Jesus, then much of our historical analyses will have been running headlong down blind alleys. (I suspect this is true in any case, but whatever.) In actual fact, however, I'm not asking the question, Did Jesus say both, "Blessed are you poor" and "Blessed are the poor in spirit," because I don't approach either Luke or Matthew as verbatim records of the ipsissima verba Jesu ("the very words of Jesus"). Instead, both present images of Jesus speaking. My question, then, is: To what extent do Luke's and Matthew's images of Jesus speaking overlap, and to what extent do they diverge? And here I'm just not sure that the divergence between Matt. 5.3 and Luke 6.20 is all that significant. Both speak authentically about the historical Jesus, in my judgment, not because both preserve actual words spoken by the historical Jesus but because both convey impressions of the actual message of the historical Jesus. I would even suggest that there are more than two ways this saying could have been uttered by Jesus and/or preserved in the tradition. If next week we unearth a heretofore unknown text that records Jesus' words as, "Blessed are you who are poor today, for tomorrow your reward is here," I would see in this text an authentic image of the historical Jesus. Would this be a more accurate record of the ipsissima verba Jesu? I wouldn't know.
All of this, then, makes extremely tenuous any effort to reconstruct a tradition history on the basis of the extant remains of the ancient world to which we still have access. Let us return to the first beatitude. Our interpretation of Luke and Matthew—as evangelists and theologians—depends entirely on our reconstruction of their source and our interpretation of the differences between their source and their texts. Again, did Q read ". . . poor in spirit," and Luke edited it to enable him to match it to a corresponding woe (after all, what would ". . . rich in spirit" even mean?!)? Or did Q read simply, "poor," and Matthew has changed it? If the latter, is this a "spiritualizing" redaction, or did Matthew mean more-or-less the same thing as Luke? And again, what if the Farrer-Goodacre hypothesis is closer to the truth behind the Synoptic Problem, and Luke relied on Matthew (and there is no Q)?! Then not only is Matthew's "poor in spirit" not redactional, but Luke's unqualified "poor" is a redaction of Matthew itself! And again we'd have to ask, Did Luke mean more-or-less the same thing as Matthew? But what, then, does the first beatitude's tradition-history look like? Is it one of the following, both of which reflect a Two-Source Hypothetical solution to the Synoptic Problem?
  • [word of Jesus] ➞ "Blessed are you poor" [Q] ➞ "Blessed are the poor in spirit" [Matthew]
  • [word of Jesus] ➞ "Blessed are the poor in spirit" [Q] ➞ "Blessed are you poor" [Luke]
Or does it look more like this, reflecting the Farrer-Goodacre Hypothesis?
  • [word of Jesus] ➞ "Blessed are the poor in spirit" [Matthew] ➞ "Blessed are you poor" [Luke]
Or does some other explanation more accurately reconstruct the first beatitude's history of transmission? From an analysis that moves back-to-front, I simply cannot tell. From an analysis that moves front-to-back, I'm not sure why any of our reconstructed tradition histories have the singular "word of Jesus."

Finally, let me assuage James's concerns regarding Christian apologetics. As a historian I would not be impressed with any argument that Jesus said both, "Blessed are you poor," and, "Blessed are the poor in spirit" on specific occasions, and that Luke and Matthew both preserve a record of those specific occasions. This simply misunderstands what the Gospels are. Both are reports of the type of speaker/teacher Jesus was, and both, in my estimation as a historian, are plausible (and consistent with each other!) images of the historical Jesus. I don't feel the need to choose between them not because both are accurate but because the difference is interpretive and not all that significant! Whether or not my analysis provides succor to Christian apologists really isn't my concern. I'm not at all doing what James warns against:
I won’t say more at this point about the approach that has Jesus say things in as many different ways as they appear in the Gospels, since that view seems more appropriate in the realm of conservative Christian apologetics than in scholarly discussions. If we cannot know for certain which form of a saying is original, that does not justify treating all of them as original.

Instead, I'm doing exactly what James commends when he says, "On the contrary, as experts in orality emphasize, it is more fitting to say that there 'is no original" in such circumstances." This prevents us from engaging in tradition-historical analyses. It does not stop us from pursuing the historical Jesus (as Allison demonstrates throughout Constructing Jesus).

So, no . . . I'm not wrong.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Tom Holmén on the criteria of authenticity

I'm currently reading Tom Holmén's entry, "Authenticity Criteria," which appears in the Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus (edited by Craig A. Evans; New York: Routledge, 2008, 43–54). The piece is frustrating, at least to me, because Holmén continues to advocate an atomistic approach to reconstructing the "historical Jesus." In this approach, a critic will take an individual piece of the tradition (e.g., Luke 11.20 par.) and run it through a battery of tests. If the piece passes the battery, it then features in his historical reconstruction. If not, the piece is discarded.

But things are even more complicated than this. Holmén also advocates identifying and, again, discarding secondary additions to the tradition (e.g., many scholars, but not Holmén in this context, view the phrase "in spirit" in Matt. 5.3 as a later addition to something Jesus probably did say, which is more pristinely preserved in Luke 6.20). While this sounds good (who wouldn't want to identify corruptions in the tradition and remove them?!), in practice NT scholars have never been able to pull this off. The problem may be with NT scholars (we're just not smart enough to pull this off, or more charitably, perhaps not enough evidence has survived for us to distill authentic and/or original material from latter additions). But I think it more likely that the problem lies with the approach Holmén and traditional NT scholarship have advocated.

Instead of putting two or more parallel passages beside one another and arguing that this or that feature of one of the passages is later and secondary (what NT scholars call "tradition criticism"), NT scholars need to learn to accept the multiformity that lies at the heart of the Jesus tradition and to stop trying to reduce the extant multiforms to a single original forebear. For one thing, nothing gives us the right to suppose that Jesus ever said anything only once (even such striking and context-bound sayings as, "Give to Caesar . . ." or "Let the dead bury the dead . . ." may have been said on multiple occasions). But for another, what we have preserved for us in the Gospels are not more-or-less original traditions and the corruption of those traditions in later texts. The multiforms provide, instead, stereoscopic access for us to see the types of things Jesus' followers could say about him that (i) made sense of Jesus to themselves, (ii) made Jesus relevant and applicable in later situations, and (iii) illuminated appropriate and desirable courses of actions in the face of new and challenging questions.

So did Jesus say, "Blessed are you poor," as Luke has it, or "Blessed are the poor in spirit," as we read in Matthew? Perhaps both, perhaps neither. As a historian, I simply cannot prove that one or the other or either of them accurately records words that Jesus spoke on any given occasion. But what we do have preserved in the Gospels are two authors who attribute to Jesus strikingly similar (but not identical) sayings, and both seem to understand Jesus in similar (but, again, not identical) ways. This is exactly what we ought to expect, again, as historians, if the authors of Luke and Matthew had any access, direct or indirect, to the real Jesus.

More importantly, their portrayals of Jesus speaking his blessing on the poor (in spirit?) were sufficiently plausible to (i) be accepted, (ii) preserved, and (iii) disseminated. If Jesus was not the kind of person to bless the poor, spiritual or otherwise, such portrayals should have been less plausible in the first century. If Jesus was actually a friend of the rich and an elitist with regard to the poor, our extant sources have simply forgotten too much of the truth for us to know it. But if he actually pronounced blessing on the poor and preferred the socially marginalized, then our sources have preserved exactly this image of Jesus, and we are able to know something about this Jesus on the basis of their testimony. This is a significant (though not new) conclusion of historical scholarship on Jesus. But none of it, I would stress, depends on identifying secondary or later additions to the tradition and removing them. Such historical-critical approaches are, I think, well beyond their sell-by date.

Friday, July 22, 2011

reading outside the NT

I don't usually read non-NT studies material. It isn't that I want to be parochial or anything like that. I just enjoy NT scholarship so much that I'm not usually drawn to read other things. I do, however, worry about the parochializing effect of my comparatively narrow reading.

Last week, however, my dad bought me a little book called The Go-Giver: A Little Story about a Powerful Business Idea (New York: Portfolio, 2007), by Bob Burg and John David Mann. I read most of it on a plane from Denver to Knoxville (with two kids to distract me), and I finished it yesterday. If I had sat at a quiet place (say, the Starbucks in which I'm currently sitting) and focused on reading it, I think it would have taken me an hour.

This is a fantastic little book, and I highly recommend it to everyone with an hour and a hunger to employ their gifts in deeper service to more people. At the heart of this business parable are five principles, styled "The Five Laws of Stratospheric Success" (please don't judge the whole book by this cheesy line):

  • The Law of Value: Your true worth is determined by how much more you give in value than you take in payment.
  • The Law of Compensation: Your income is determined by how many people you serve and how well you serve them.
  • The Law of Influence: Your influence is determined by how abundantly you place other people's interests first.
  • The Law of Authenticity: The most valuable gift you have to offer is yourself.
  • The Law of Receptivity: The key to effective giving is to stay open to receiving.

Reading this little book has energized me and challenged me to consider new ways I can serve my students and invest themselves in their success. It has also re-awakened in me the conviction that this service and investment will augment (rather than distract from) my own success as an educator, an academic, and a Christian.

Friday, June 17, 2011

thoughts on the limits of historical description

I begin with an obvious point: Humans exhibit significant limitations regarding the ability to describe and/or reconstruct the past. I have two such limitations primarily in mind, though perhaps there are others. First, processes of human perception already filter through the sensory data assaulting our senses and limit what we notice about the world around us. As we move through the ever-moving stream of the present, we don't even notice some things (how windy it is on an average day, how many people walked past my office door in any given hour, etc.). We remember even less (I almost certainly noticed things that happened on 11 September, 2000, but I can't recall any of them).

Second, our language is limited in its capacity to describe and communicate the things we do notice and remember about the real world, and what utility our language does have already directs interpretation of the events we're attempting to describe. For example, if I tell you about "what happened" to me at the bank, you expect a certain type of story (perhaps I slipped on the wet floor, or I found a $10 bill on the counter). If, however, I tell you about "the incident" in which I was involved at the bank, you expect another type of story (such as I couldn't get in because the police had barricaded an armed robber inside).

Such easily documented considerations have typically urged historians to exercise caution in what we think we know about the past. And rightfully so. But we have run the risk of being immobilized in our attempts to know anything meaningful and authentic about the past with any degree confidence. So I enjoyed Gerd Theissen's comments in this regard, from his 1996 essay, "Historical Scepticism and the Criteria of Jesus Research: or, My Attempt to Leap Across Lessing’s Yawning Gulf” (SJT 49: 147–76):
So human inability to give a genuine account of truth implies the equal inability totally to refashion everything according to certain interests and intentions. As we are axiomatically convinced of human imperfection before we have studied a single source, so—provided our source material is sufficiently complex—we are protected a priori from the suspicion that everything described in these sources is fictitious. (Theissen 1996:155)

Theissen's comments echo things written by folks such as Michael Schudson, Barry Schwartz, and Gary Alan Fine, all of whose works are finding their voice among biblical scholars. This is a helpful development in biblical historical criticism.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

sayings or narratives?

I'm currently reading William Arnal's essay, "Major Episodes in the Biography of Jesus: An Assessment of the Historicity of the Narrative Tradition" (Toronto Journal of Theology 13/2 [1997]: 201–26). Arnal is a member of the [in]famed Jesus Seminar, and anyone familiar with their work will find Arnal's work squarely within that tradition. (I don't intend this polemically, even though I disagree vociferously with the Seminar; and, to be fair, Arnal takes a number of Seminar Fellows to task at a number of points, including John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, and even Robert Funk.)

Arnal questions the historicity of three key events in the life of the historical Jesus: his baptism by John, his tantrum in the Temple, and his Passion ("suffering"). These events are "key" not simply because they are normally understood as watershed moments in the life of the historical Jesus; they are "key" because they are almost (almost!) universally accepted as historical. But Arnal's argument isn't just that these three events were fabricated by Jesus' followers after his death (though he does argue this). Arnal goes further to offer "a general point about the narrative tradition in the Synoptics":
I believe that a reasonable case can be made that the stories developed out of motifs in the sayings tradition. Sanders very much to the contrary, the narrative tradition can be understood as a result of a narrativization of themes already present in the sayings tradition, as interest in Jesus as a teacher modulated into a desire to make Jesus himself a champion and paradigm of the community ethos generated by those sayings. (Arnal 1997:215; emphasis in the original)

Anyone familiar with the history of the historical study of Jesus knows that the distinction between the sayings and narrative traditions has played a storied role in the historical Jesus scholarship. The so-called "third quest" has largely privileged the narrative tradition (see Arnal's reference to E. P. Sanders, above), though I get the impression that some third-questers try to remove the distinction rather than invert it.

Here, however, is my problem with Arnal's argument (and with any Jesus historian who privileges the sayings tradition and actively derides the narrative tradition). Arnal offers his "reasonable case" that the narratives he examines arose from motifs in the sayings tradition, but nowhere does he justify the bifurcation between sayings and narratives in the first place. What historical basis does he have for presuming that Jesus' earliest followers preserved/passed on his teachings but were uninterested in narratives about him? Additionally, what historical basis does he have for assuming that, once Jesus' followers did develop an interest in stories about Jesus, they didn't have any and so had to turn to what they knew from the sayings tradition in order to fabricate some?

I know of two usual answers. First, Jesus' sayings are demonstrably more similar across the three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) than are the accounts of Jesus' actions. Some historians (not necessarily Arnal and/or the Jesus Seminar) have used this empirical observation to justify the bifurcation between sayings and narratives. Second, and more importantly, a number of scholars, mostly associated with the Jesus Seminar (and here I would include Arnal) privilege the sayings source, known as "Q" (= material that appears in Matthew and Luke that does not appear in Mark), in their reconstructions of Christian origins. Since Q largely comprises sayings and not narratives, the assumption is that Jesus' earliest followers (or at least a subset of Jesus' earliest followers) cherised his teachings and had little or no use for stories about him.

Even leaving aside the hypothetical nature of the so-called Q-document, this second point rests on some dubious assumptions. First, it assumes that the Q-document, assuming it did actually exist, corresponds to the theology of a specific, identifiable group of Jesus' earliest followers. Second, it neglects that Q as currently reconstructed does indeed contain a number of narrative features. Third, again assuming that a Q-document actually existed, it assumes that reconstructions of that document from the material in Matthew and Luke give a reasonably accurate portrait of the Q-document. Joe Weaks's PhD dissertation, "Mark without Mark: Problematizing the Reliability of a Reconstructed Text of Q," should convince us to put such confidence behind us.

In sum, the choice between sayings and narrative traditions in historical Jesus research is a lark. Neither is epiphenomenal of the other; both were of utmost importance to Jesus' earliest followers. Jesus was remembered as an authoritative teacher (so Mark, passim) whose halakha put Torah into proper perspective (see, e.g., Mark 7.1–23; Matt. 5.17–20; Rom. 3.21–31, among many others). But he was also and simultaneously remembered as a powerful prophet/healer/exorcist, whose words calmed the seas, cast out demons, and silenced his enemies (e.g., Mark 1, 4, and 5). Any reconstruction that privileges the sayings over the narratives or the narratives over the sayings has already started off on the wrong foot.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

on the hermeneutics of authenticity

In a 2009 article in The Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, I argued that one of the [many] problems facing the criteriological approach to identifying authentic sayings of the historical Jesus in the Gospels involves the hermeneutical decisions that precede such identifications. In other (hopefully simpler) words, when NT scholars judge a particular logion an authentic saying of Jesus (or, more typically, when they reject a saying as inauthentic), they do so on the basis of a particular interpretation of the saying in question. The argument looks something like this:
  • A particular verse claims that Jesus said x.
  • X means interpretation-of-x.
  • Jesus could not have ever said and/or meant interpretation-of-x.
  • Therefore, x is inauthentic.
The argument to the contrary proceeds along similar lines:
  • A particular verse claims that Jesus said y.
  • Y means interpretation-of-y.
  • No one other than Jesus could have ever said and/or meant interpretation-of-y.
  • Therefore, y is authentic.
The following two quotes from my article are especially appropriate here:
Some criteria, however, have an exegetical function that has gone unremarked in a number of studies. That is, a given logion’s meaning shifts under the weight of our assessment that it differs from extant Jewish and Christian traditions. As an example, James Crossley has challenged a common interpretation of Mt. 8.22‖Lk. 9.60 (‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead’) in which Jesus ‘was prepared to override biblical law and common piety concerning the burial of dead parents’. This passage’s ‘dissimilarity’ from previous and subsequent teachings, on discipleship or otherwise, has earned a favourable assessment among a broad cross-section of critics. Crossley, however, doubts that this passage portrays Jesus as being ‘prepared to say that following him superseded the Torah’ and ‘therefore prepared to challenge the adequacy of the “Mosaic dispensation”’. Whether or not we find Crossley’s reinterpretation of Mt. 8.22‖Lk. 9.60 persuasive, we should note that his criticism pertains to the interpretation of this logion as dissimilar from its religio-cultural milieu and not its authenticity. In this case, the criterion of dissimilarity seems to have motivated an interpretation of this logion that the text itself does not require. (164–65)

And a little later on:
As always, we deal here with probabilities rather than certainties, and therefore a more provisional use of the criteria is warranted rather than the flat declaration ‘authentic’ or ‘inauthentic’. When we pose the question of ‘dissimilarity’, for example, we ought to ask what it means for the interpretation of, say, Lk. 4.25-27 if we posit its origin in Luke’s redaction/creation of Jesus tradition to frame the programme of Luke–Acts, on the one hand, or in the proclamation of Jesus, on the other. The assessment of ‘inauthentic’ too often presupposes a particular interpretation of the tradition being assessed. The question of ‘dissimilarity’ from later Christian theology requires us to note that the traditions to which Jesus refers in Lk. 4.25-27 are involved in political polemic against Israel, but this polemic, as Luke presents it, originates from and remains within Israel. On what basis can we presume, a priori, that Jesus as a Jew could not have levelled theological, social, or political criticism against his own ethnos? That Luke’s programme was overtly concerned with the extension of God’s blessing to the gentiles is, therefore, less relevant to the question of Lk. 4.25-27’s authenticity than to this text’s significance in its current context. (166)

As so often within NT scholarship, this point is not new. D. G. A. Calvert, in an article published in 1972, makes exactly the same observation with respect to the criterion that states, "A saying is authentic if it contains elements that could not be from the Church":
The weakness that [Dennis] Nineham reveals in this pillar argument is that whether we regard a saying as impossible of invention by the Church depends entirely on the interpretation we give to the saying. ("An Examination of the Criteria for Distinguishing the Authentic Words of Jesus," NTS 18 [1972], 216)

Calvert's article was published five years before I was born, and yet historians of Jesus as diverse as E. P. Sanders and the Jesus Seminar continue to ignore the hermeneutical assumptions underlying their employment of the criteria to authenticate sayings purportedly spoken by Jesus. We should be able to do better than this.

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