Monday, May 14, 2012

the original Jesus?

With the Spring 2012 semester behind me, I've turned my attention back to research and writing, and my first task is to review Alexander J. M. Wedderburn's recent book, Jesus and the Historians (WUNT 269; Mohr Siebeck, 2010). Wedderburn is unhappy with how historians of Jesus (and Christian origins more generally) have pursued historiographical questions—that is, questions about how we can know anything about the past. He surveys the work of a half-dozen prominent (more or less) historians of Jesus in order to explore his unhappiness and suggest appropriate corrective measures.

One of the historians Wedderburn surveys is Jens Schröter, and in this post I want to ask a question about Wedderburn's objections to Schröter. First, the quote from Wedderburn:
In the same vein is perhaps his [viz. Schröter's] endorsement of the view that neither in textual nor in tradition criticism is it appropriate to talk of an 'original form' of the text or the tradition;57 this may be true although it is surely still legitimate to raise the question of earlier and later forms and to try to explain, often very plausibly, how later forms arose from earlier ones. (16–17)

In footnote 57, Wedderburn cites Schröter's essay, "Jesus and the Canon: The Early Jesus Traditions in the Context of the Origins of the New Testament Canon" (in Performing the Gospel: Orality, Memory, and Mark [Fortress Press, 2006]) and goes on to quote Schröter directly:
"The effort to uncover the one text or the one Jesus behind the multitude of traditions appears therefore more and more clearly as an inappropriate attempt to discover a unified starting point for the tradition" ([Schröter's] italics). And yet there was surely only one Jesus, however many the traditional images of him may have been that once circulated. (17n. 57)

I am interested in Wedderburn's last sentence: "And yet there was surely only one Jesus, however many the traditional images of him may have been that once circulated." Wedderburn's point is self-evidently true, of course, but it is also historically unhelpful (I'm tempted to say useless). The problem here is the two senses of "historical Jesus," a problem of which Wedderburn knowns full well (see pp. 3–7). On one level, the historical Jesus refers to the real person, Jesus of Nazareth, whose feet wandered the Galilean and surrounding countryside and whose voice echoed across its valleys. On another level, the historical Jesus refers to historians' reconstructions of the real Jesus—the representations of him produced by means of historical-critical and other research. Both Schröter and Wedderburn are engaged in discussing this second level—the reconstructed/represented Jesus, and Schröter is objecting to much historical-critical work that insists that, of two parallel traditions (e.g., Matt. 5.3||Luke 6.20 [this is my example, not Schröter's or Wedderburn's]), one must be earlier and (more) original and the other later and derivative. But notice that, in discussing how we generate the historical Jesus (= the reconstructed Jesus), Wedderburn changes the subject back to the historical Jesus (= the man himself).

Let's explore the question of the first beatitude (Matt. 5.3||Luke 6.20) a bit further. Granted that there was only one historical Jesus (= the man himself), historians have to pose the question, Did Jesus say, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens"? Or did he say, "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God"? Historians of Jesus have generally (but not universally) concluded that Jesus said something more like the latter—Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God—and that Matthew has altered this saying in order to spiritualize it ("poor in spirit") or to avoid referring directly to God. This is certainly plausible. But why should we assume that Jesus himself could not have said the beatitude as Matthew records it and that Luke has altered it to accord to his demonstrable emphasis on the poor? Or, moreover, why couldn't Jesus have employed this same principle (the poor are blessed) in multiple contexts, some more material and literal (per Luke 6.20) and some more spiritual and metaphorical (per Matt. 5.3)? Why does the singularity of the historical Jesus (= the man himself) justify our insistence on the singularity of the historical Jesus (= the reconstructed/represented Jesus)? The only answers I can think of assume either (i) that Jesus was perfectly consistent in various circumstances, or (ii) that Jesus was completely and totally present in every situation. On the contrary, historians assume that Jesus developed in his thinking, his teaching, and in his relationships (like every other person). We likewise assume that Jesus responded to his social context(s) in ways he deemed appropriate; he was no detached from his society and culture but was fully a part of it.

I have elsewhere posted on the problems of assuming a singular original starting point in Gospels or historical Jesus research (for example here, here, and here, among others). And given the problems with Wedderburn's objections to Schröter's particular ways of accounting for the multiformity of the Jesus tradition from the very beginning, I remain unconvinced that historians of Jesus should continue to search for the ever-valued "original tradition."

Monday, May 07, 2012

Dunn inconsistent?

I'm sorry for the long silence. And I'm afraid it's likely to continue. But I just want to bring two quotes from a single article together and ask out loud (even if just to myself) whether these are consistent. First, some background.

I'm finishing up my comments on Paul's letter to the Romans, and I'm reading through some random articles on the famous passage, Rom. 13.1–7. I find myself persuaded by Stowers, Das, and Co. that Paul writes Romans with an audience of gentile believers in mind, whether or not he also knew that there were Jewish believers in Rome. This is an important point: No amount of evidence for the presence of Jewish Christians in Rome early in Nero's reign (56–58 CE) changes the fact that, wherever Paul explicitly identifies his audience in the text itself (his "encoded audience"), he identifies them as gentiles (e.g., 1.5–7, 14; 11.13; 15.15–16, 18). Though Paul has quite a bit to say about Jews and/or Jewish believers (see esp. chapters 9–11, 16), nothing in Romans strikes me as Paul speaking to them. This is a minority position among Romans scholarship, as far as I can tell, but it clarifies a number of problems that have historically attended the interpretation of this long and complicated letter. (For the proof that supports this assertion, you'll need to contact a certain publisher in Grand Rapids, Mich., beg them to accept and publish my book, and then buy the book and read it.)

Now onto the quotes. I'm briefly reading James D. G. Dunn's article, "Romans 13.1–7: A Charter for Political Quietism?" (Ex Auditu 2 [1986]: 55–68), which he published two years before his important two-volume Romans commentary in the Word Biblical Commentary series. In this article, Dunn makes the following two claims (I've quoted Dunn at length to provide a sense of context; I'll put the relevant phrases in bold typeface):
We might simply add the evidence of Paul's letter to Rome itself. For though it is clearly writen with Gentiles particularly in view (1.6,13-15; 11.13,17-21), it also presupposes a thorough knowledge of the ÖT and a considerable concern with Jewish self-identity. This could conceivably be a matter of Paul's self-indulgence, writing to satisfy his own concerns, regardless of whether his readership was able to make much sense of what he said. But this is very unlikely: the situation of the Roman Christians alreadly outlined above would almost certainly mean that questions of Jewish self-identity were questions for many Jewish Christians in Rome as well as for Paul; and the preservation of the letter by Roman Christianity implies that it was valued for its relevance in Rome. It should also be noted that knowledge of the OT within the ancient world was confined almost wholly to Jewish and Jewish-derived communities: the LXX is not known in Greco-Roman literary circles. Consequently to be able to assume such a knowledge of the scriptures as Paul does in Romans he would have to assume that his readership by and large had enjoyed a substantial link with the synagogues in Rome. (pp. 57–58)

Then, in almost the same context, Dunn writes:
At the same time there is clear evidence that the Jewish community in Rome was quite influential. For example, a population of 40,000 to 50,000 made them a substantial minority ethnic group within Rome itself, and because of Jewish support for Julius Ceasar Jews were given special privileges denied to other religious groups 'to assemble and feast in accordance with the native customs and ordinances' (Josephus, Ant 14.214–6). Cicero in his speech on behalf of Flaccus says he will speak softly since the attendant crowd were liable to favour the Jews (Flacc 28.66–67). Horace speaks of the success of Jewish proselytization—'we, like the Jews, will compel you to make one of our throng' (Serm 1.4.142–3). Judaism evidently proved attractive to not a few, including ladies of nobility like Fulvia and Poppaea, the wife of Nero (Josephus, Ant 18.82; 20.195). And early in the second century Juvenal complains about the way Judaism spread its influence by gradually winning over whole families—pork abstaining and sabbath-observing fathers who were surpassed by their sons going on to embrace circumcision and the whole Jewish law (Sat 14.96–106). No doubt it was precisely this attractiveness to some which made the Jews all the more hated and feared by others. (pp. 58–59)

My question: Is it legitimate for Dunn to imply that Romans must address an audience that includes Jewish members ("a substantial link with the synagogues") because the Septuagint (a Greek version of the Old Testament, abbreviated "LXX") was a back-water text, known only within Jewish circles, and then on the very next page to assert Judaism's attraction to gentiles? Granted that "Greco-Roman literary circles" weren't impressed with the LXX, if Roman Jews had made substantial inroads into various gentile communities and attracted a large (even alarming) number of proselytes, wouldn't the Hebrew biblical corpus find a sympathetic audience among precisely these gentiles? And if believers in Rome, for whatever reason, where no longer associated with/welcomed in the synagogues, doesn't Judaism's/the LXX's reception among gentiles in Rome leave open the possibility that Paul writes to precisely those to whom he claims to write (i.e., gentile believers in Rome)?

On closer inspection, I notice that Dunn mentions "Jewish and Jewish-derived communities" (my emphasis). But what, I would ask, is a "Jewish-derived community" if not a gentile community for whom the Hebrew Bible, probably in Greek (i.e., the LXX) had taken on authoritative (inspired?) status? I cannot see that Dunn's treatment of this particular issue is helpful.

Any thoughts?

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