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.

Friday, June 03, 2011

a classic of NT scholarship

I just finished reading a classic piece of New Testament scholarship, Morna Hooker's essay, "On Using the Wrong Tool" (Theology 75 [1972]: 570–81). I'm currently working on two essays, one espousing an end of form-critical influence over contemporary NT media and memory studies and one on the "demise of [the criteria of] authenticity." Hooker's essay contributes to both pieces nicely and has a number of acerbic turns of phrase (I intend this as a compliment). For example:
First, and most obviously, [form criticism] is a literary tool. It tells us about the form of the material; it examines the shape of a piece of tradition and classifies it. This be interesting to those who like doing that sort of thing, but I do not think it is particularly illuminating to be told that a miracle story is a miracle story . . . At this stage, form-criticism is being used simply as a literary tool, to sort the material into piles according to its shape—and my reaction is a somewhat bored but polite "How interesting". (571)

That's beautiful. Hooker then goes on to discuss (and concede) form criticism's utility for probing the function of this or that unit of Jesus tradition in the early communities of his followers. As I read this section, I kept objecting that Dibelius and Bultmann weren't really after the tradition's form or even it's function; they sought the tradition's origin. This, in my estimation, is the egregious over-reach of form-critical analysis.

So I was delighted to read,
Form-criticism, then, tells us something about the shape of the material, and it attempts on the basis of that shape to tell us something about the way in which the material was being used—about its function within the community. It is at this stage, it seems to me, that the form-critic gets carried away. For he next tries to deduce, from the material which he has before him, what the earlier forms might have been; it is at this stage that he begins to use form-criticism as a historical tool. . . . The trap into which the form-critic so often falls is that he equates the Sitz im Leben with the origin of the material; the Sitz im Leben is not simply the "setting" of the material but, according to Fuller, its "creative milieu". (572, 573; all italics in the original; citing R. H. Fuller, The New Testament in Current Study [1963], 40)

I simply cannot understand how anyone as creative or insightful as Dibelius or Bultmann or any number of their impressive and inquisitive protégés ever actually thought that the dissolution of the written Gospels into individual pericopae and the form-critical analysis of the remaining textual shards ever did put them in touch with the first moment of this or that story from and/or about Jesus. To return to Hooker, she accepts Fuller's point (re: Sitze im Leben as "creative milieu[x]"), "so long as by 'creative' is meant 'that which licked the material into its present shape" (573). Isn't that a lovely image?! But no, we're not talking about "licking into shape" this or that saying of Jesus; too often we think we're looking into the birth of the Jesus tradition. For this task, form criticism is patently "the wrong tool."

Most of the remainder of the essay concerns the criteria of dissimilarity and coherence. Her insights on the assumptions undergirding the criteria and how critics have employed them to verify or disqualify a saying as actually something Jesus may have said are stunning. Simply put, she sees clearly the full range (or at least a broader range than is normally seen) of issues involved with adjudicating authentic tradition on the basis of reputed dissimilarity from Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity, etc.

Unfortunately, Hooker was not able to envision an alternative historical-critical research program, and so she asks, "And what tools should he use in this task? He must, alas, use the tools we have been discussing, for there are no others, and there are unlikely to be any better ones discovered" (580–81). I'm reminded of Dale Allison's book, Jesus of Nazareth (Fortress Press, 1998), in which he came to the very same conclusion:
This state of affairs does not, however, mean that we should lay them aside. For in truth we have nothing better in the scholarly toolshed; at least I have not turned up anything better. Apparently we must reconcile ourselves tot he unhappy fact that our methods are defective and may often mislead us. Probably, as will be explained later, our best recourse is to figure out how to improve and use our existing indices, unwieldy as they are, under the guidance of an interpretive model established independently of those indices. (1998:6–7)

Of course, over ten years later Allison threw down the criteria and pursued a different historiography of Jesus (see my posts here and here). I will be interested to see how Hooker responds to this new state of affairs when she writes the forward to the upcoming volume, Jesus, History, and the Demise of Authenticity, of which both Allison and I are contributors.

One last quote from Hooker, simply because I think it gets at precisely the problem that hampered critical history of Jesus programs, particularly (though not solely) in the second half of the twentieth century:
The fact that I have questioned the value of form-criticism and certain other critical methods as tools in getting back to the Jesus of History does not mean that I am trying to offer comfort to those who have all along maintained a traditional "conservative" approach. I venture to suggest that I am being more radical than those who are commonly labelled "radical". For it seems to me that conservative and radical alike have both succumbed to the temptation to seek for certainty—and to believe that it can be achieved. The "radical", though he may eschew the old form of certainty, is seeking another. He looks for some kind of scientific verification—a litmus paper test which can be applied to the sayings of Jesus, which turns either pink or blue, according to whether they are or are not authentic, so that he may sort his material into neat piles.

A Pile of Poohs
New Testament scholarship has certainly produced myriad "piles" in the nearly four decades since Hooker's essay was first published. These, however, have generally lacked the neatness their creators have claimed on their behalf.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

a new [or non-]criterion of authenticity

This will be much shorter than my previous post. In Constructing Jesus, Dale Allison defends what he calls "recurrent attestation," that is, when "a topic or motif or type of story reappears again and again throughout the tradition" (20). Allison finds that such recurrently attested themes or motifs are either genuine and authentic impressions of the historical (= "real") Jesus, or the Gospels have fundamentally misconstrued Jesus to such an extent that we cannot employ them to know anything historical about Jesus. Again, such recurrently attested themes or motifs convey genuinely historical information about Jesus even apart from the question of the authenticity of any particular saying or narrative or pericope in the Gospels. So even apart from the question of the authenticity of any particular exorcism story in the Gospels or any particular statement about exorcism from Jesus, the historical Jesus must have been widely regarded as a powerful exorcist if the Gospels are of any historical value whatsoever.

At any rate, I highlight this new [or non-]criterion of authenticity because it appears to me that this is the central approach to Jesus research undergirding Allison's book. Indeed, he says as much:
Recurrent attestation yields much more than [Tom] Holmén imagines, for not all the regularly attested themes and motifs are nonspecific and cursory. I offer this book as the proof. Nevertheless, I agree with Holmén to the extent that recurrent attestation is not sufficient unto itself. It supplies as I hope to show, much more than a minimalist foundation. It is not, however, everything. As I stated earlier, although we may well begin by asking, "What are our general impressions?" we need not end there. (20; my emphasis)

If the number of pages is any indication (nearly 600), Constructing Jesus amply demonstrates at the very least that recurrent attestation is a first word in a very long conversation.

the new historiography of Jesus: step 1—memory

Yesterday I moved past Dale Allison's preface and began reading the first chapter, "The General and Particular: Memories of Jesus" (1–30), of Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (Baker Academic, 2010). As the title suggests, Allison begins his historical discussion of Jesus by providing an excellently researched and documented discussion of memory and, especially, all its vagaries.

I'll have much to say about this shortly, but I want to start by noting that historical Jesus scholarship seems to be moving beyond the so-called "Third Quest" and entering a new phase of its own history. In the Third Quest, the first step of scholarship was to apprehend something of Jesus' "Jewishness"; in this new phase, the first step is to explore the processes of memory and the recovery/reconstruction of the past. Whereas earlier Jesus scholarship neglected memory completely (because the Gospels weren't thought to be memory but were primarily expositions on the interests and conflicts of the early church projected back onto the figure of Jesus), the new historiography of Jesus recognizes that memory refers to so much more than simply "recall of the past." Memory is the retrieval and reconstruction of the past from which we perceive we have come within the circumstances and concerns of the present with which we must contend. Memory is about both the past and the present. And this is precisely what we have in the Gospels.

No, this isn't a "Fourth Quest" (how quaint that would be!). If anything, it's a post-Quest. How ironic, then, that the language of "questing" comes from Albert Schweitzer, that early-twentieth century champion of the failed apocalyptic prophet, and that Allison, an important heir of Schweitzer's legacy, is an important voice in historical Jesus scholarship after the Quests! Other voices would include Anthony Le Donne, Jens Schröter, Chris Keith, Samuel Byrskog, Richard Bauckham, and others. (And, of course, I would include myself here.) While some of us (e.g., Bauckham) turn to memory out of a conviction that the Gospels are or include eyewitness testimony about the life of Jesus, most if not all of us recognize that discussions of memory provide us with an apropos critical perspective from which to approach the Gospels even if the Evangelists themselves never saw or heard the prophet from Nazareth. We all remember a past much deeper and broader than simply our own limited fields of experience.

So Allison begins his discussion of memory by painting the canvas black. He appropriately sets the stage in the first sentence: "The frailty of human memory should distress all who quest for the so-called historical Jesus" (1). He immediately sets out a series of nine of memory's "sins," consequences of the "leaks and dissociat[ions]" of the human capacity to recall the past (2–8). Not surprisingly, Allison (who cites a broad range of memory studies) often references the work of Elizabeth F. Loftus, who perhaps more than any other researcher and experimenter has demonstrated how capable of being "messed with" is human memory. The conclusion vis-à-vis memory is stark:
Given what we now know about human recollection, given that "the past is produced in the present and is thus malleable," one researcher, Elizabeth Loftus, has opined, half seriously, that our lawcourts should administer this oath to witnesses on the stand: "Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, or whatever it is you think you remember?" (8; citing Olick and Robbins, "Social Memory Studies," 128, and Loftus, "Memory Faults and Fixes," 127, respectively)

I am unable and unwilling to oppose anything Allison says about memory (at least up to this point); in all this he is exactly right. And yet I do object that the malleability and demonstrably fluid nature of our recall of the past are not weaknesses that the historian must overcome but rather resources that enable the past to persist across the ever-shifting present and make historiography possible in the first place. Or, to pick up a metaphor I dropped above, my canvas isn't as black as is Allison's. For example, in another sentence with which I generally agree, he writes, "As our recollections because increasingly tattered and faded, they are disposed to retain, if anything, only the substance or 'gist' of an event" (11; my emphasis). True. And yet I balk at the narrative underlying this sentence, viz. that memory, like a photograph left out in the wind and sun, tatters and fades at the onslaught of time. Certainly memories can fade. Just as certainly memories can change and even be retrojected. But memories can also persist, become more vivid and stark, take on clearer significances, teach more important lessons, and so on. In fact, memory does not either become clearer or more obscure; often memory's clarity or obscurity depends just as much on what or why we are trying to recall some thing.

Let me illustrate. If I'm trying to remember the squint of my wife's eyes as she smiled on our first date, or the color of her sweater on the night I proposed, the vagaries of the last ten years will certainly have tattered and faded my memory of the events. (To be honest, I'm only guessing that she was, in fact, wearing a sweater, since I proposed in early January and I certainly do remember that it was a very cold day.) If, however, I'm recalling the woman herself who once laughed at my jokes or accepted my proposal, my knowledge and memory of her is clearer now as we approach our tenth anniversary than it was even the day after the events in question. I know more about my wife now than I did then, and my understanding of her in 2011 is better than it was in 2001. So in 2011 I'm positioned to remember 2001 in ways that I wouldn't have been able to in 2001. In some ways my memory today is indeed tattered and faded. But in other ways it's clearer and crisper.

Despite the differences, I think Allison has exactly the right end of the stick (if the stick = how to engage historical Jesus research). As a beginning point, Allison offers the following conclusion about how to appropriate the data provided by the Gospels, a conclusion which differs categorically and fundamentally from work such as that proposed by the Jesus Seminar:
Given that memory is "fuzzy," that we remember the outlines of an event or the general import of a conversation better than the details, that we extract patterns and meaning from informational input, it would be peculiar to imagine that, although their general impressions of Jesus were hopelessly skewed, Christian tradents somehow managed to recall with some accuracy, let us say, two or three of his similitudes or parables and a handful of one-liners. . . . If general impressions are typically more trustworthy than details, then it makes little sense to reconstruct Jesus by starting with a few of the latter—perhaps some incidents and sayings that survive the gauntlet of our authenticating criteria—while setting aside the general impressions that our primary sources instill in us. The larger the generalization and the more data upon which it is based, the greater our confidence. The more specific the detail and the fewer the supporting data, the greater our uncertainty. (13, 14)

So Allison begins by looking not for isolated facts from which the historical Jesus will slowly but surely emerge, like a newer-model Terminator, out of the morass of the Gospels. Instead, he's looking for general impressions (16). Now, anyone familiar with Allison's work will expect him to find that most general of impressions at work in the Gospels: that Jesus was a prophet of the apocalypse. We'll see. But for now Allison's insights rightfully and helpfully set the program for historical Jesus scholarship of the second decade of the twenty-first century. The new historiography of Jesus begins with the Gospels as memorial artifacts, as plausible and coherent presentations of Jesus of Nazareth in the context of the challenges and concerns of his followers in the mid- to late-first century CE. Much critical work remains. But that work expressly is not filtering the Gospels through a battery of criteria and then trying to fit together the remaining textual shards into a critical reconstruction.

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