Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Apocryphote of the Day: 2-25-09

"You are white-washed sepulchres, which are filled with dead men's bones because there is not in you the Living Man. The dead shall leap from the grave, from their earthly bodies, being regenerated as spiritual men, not carnal. This is the resurrection which comes to pass through the gate of heaven, and those who do not enter by it all remain dead."

A Naassene tribute to Ash Wednesday (Hipp., Ref. 5.8,23-24).

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Aeon Byte Interview

Miguel Connor of Aeon Byte interviewed me recently about the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas. He has a website where downloads are available HERE. If you scroll down, you will find at the bottom a menu of all his shows and his many guests. This is quite a resource that Mr. Connor has put together over the years! His website contains downloads of shows featuring a variety of well-known scholars discussing their ideas about the ancient world on everything from Hermetism to Gnosticism to Mysticism. Thank you Miguel for caring so much about esotericism in the ancient world, making these interviews available to all.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Kingdom within

Peter Head commented on my last post: "April, the picture contradicts the text. The picture represents the Kingdom of Heaven (the heavenly temple) as something outside of "man"; with the stream of living water coming not from within but from without - from the Lamb and God on the throne."

That was my point. I set these side-by-side with the hope that my readers would consider the differences and become curious about this.

In many esoteric traditions from the late first century onwards, apocalyptic expectations such as the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven as heavenly Jerusalem at the end of time ruled by the Lamb of God, become "interiorized". I understand this to be largely the result of the No-Event - that the end did not come, and didn't look like it was coming. So people in more esoterically-oriented churches and communities began to focus on bringing about the fruits and promises of the apocalypse in the present moment. They understood the Kingdom as an internal experience, their bodies as already transformed into angels, the Lamb or Man enthroned within them, and so forth. This is a phenomenon I am very interested to study, and have been tracking for some time now, and wrote extensively about in my books on the Gospel of Thomas.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Apocryphote of the Day: 2-20-09

"The Kingdom of Heaven is within man."

Naassenes' teaching according to Hippolytus, Refutation 5.7,20.

Illumination: Cambridge Trinity College MS R 16 2

Fol.25v Heavenly Jerusalem; Manuscript on parchment,
430 x 304 mm; c.1255-60

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Apocryphote of the Day: 2-19-09

"He who seeks will find me in children from seven years onwards. For there I am found, who am hidden, in the fourteenth aeon."

Hippolytus of Rome, quoting from the Naassene's version of the Gospel of Thomas, Refutation 5.7,20

Commentary: I have no doubt that the Naassenes had their own version of the Gospel of Thomas. Much of their system is based on certain ideologies present in the Gospel of Thomas, such as the encratic lifestyle (=celibacy), and the primal hermaphodite Man as the original image of God and goal of human existence. They used altered versions of certain sayings in the Gospel of Thomas to support their own Gnostic ideologies and rituals. Fascinating how a Syrian encratic gospel of Jesus' sayings becomes adapted by a later Gnostic Christian group in Rome (?). Its use by these sorts of groups may be one of the reasons that it was not a favored gospel in Roman Christianity and did not manage to make the big "4".

Monday, February 16, 2009

First Year Anniversary of Weight Loss

It has been a year since I reached my weight loss goal, a goal which I have been able to maintain. Colleagues and friends have asked me how I did it, and so I thought that it would be fun to post some of the things that helped me. I did it by joining Weight Watchers, and am now a lifetime member. Aside from that, here are twenty things that I do on a regular basis, and none of them are painful. Weight loss and weight maintenance amount to smaller portions, reduced-fat substitutes, and moving more. My food motto is "Don't deprive, just reduce."

1. I avoid fried foods (fried meats, french fries, onion rings). I choose grilled meats and veggies when possible. If fried foods can't be avoided, I reduce the serving size substantially. Ten french fries is a serving.
2. I eat smaller portions of sugary foods less often. I serve myself half the size goodie I would have normally eaten.
3. I serve smaller portions of side dishes at meals. I use 1/2 cup measure for starchy veggies like mashed potatoes and corn; and also for rice and pasta when it is a side dish. I always measure. The eye is bigger than the stomach, for sure.
4. I reduce the portion served of meat or protein. I ask the butcher to cut thinner steaks. I make smaller burgers.
5. I substitute ground buffalo for ground beef. This greatly reduces fat.
6. I ask for salad dressing to be served on the side so I can control how much goes on the greens.
7. When baking muffins, quick breads, and cakes, I substitute unsweetened applesauce for half the fat. If the recipe calls for 1/2 oil or butter, I use 1/4 cup of oil or butter and 1/4 applesauce.
8. I switched to non-fat milk, non-fat cream cheese, non-fat sour cream, non-fat yogurt.
9. I use butter substitute like a spray butter or smart squeeze when I make mashed potatoes or want butter flavor on something like bread.
10. I use olive oil for cooking and Pam spray for baking.
11. I avoid eating bread or rolls at dinner, or when out to eat.
12. I eat cheese less often and in smaller portions. Feta cheese is a good cheese to use because it has less fat content. In fact, goat cheeses have less fat generally.
13. I substitute low-fat recipes for traditional recipes.
14. I eat one meal a day without bread or rice or potato or pasta.
15. I substitute high fiber pasta for regular pasta.
16. I increase my daily fiber by selecting whole grains and eating Fiber One.
17. I eat three fresh fruits a day.
18. I avoid sugary beverages like soda and juices.
19. I walk more. I park the car at the far end of the lot and walk the extra yardage and take the stairs.
20. I bought a scale and weigh in every morning.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Apocryphote of the Day: 2-13-09

Jesus said, "Love your brother as your soul. Watch over him like the pupil of your eye."

Gospel of Thomas 25.1-2

Image is Syrian, but I know not the date or anything else about it.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Apocryphote of the Day: 2-11-09

And he kissed my mouth. He took hold of me, saying, "My beloved! Look, I shall reveal to you that which neither the heavens nor their archons have known. Look, I shall reveal to you that which he did not know, he who boasted, 'There is no other God except me. Am I not alive? Because I am a father, do I not have power over everything?' Look, I shall reveal to you everything, my beloved. Understand and know them, that you may come forth just as I am. Look, I shall reveal to you the Hidden One. But now, stretch out your hand. Take hold of me."

2 Apocalypse of James 56.15-57.10 (Jesus purportedly speaking to James his "milk" brother)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Gabriel Stone Seminar at Rice University

As promised, a summary of what happened at the Gabriel Stone Seminar at Rice University. Four presenters - Israel Knohl, Matthias Henze, Kelly Bautch, and myself - and others in attendance were Mr. Jesselsohn (who owns the stone), David Capes, Franklin Trammell, Daewoong Kim, Betty Adams, Mike Heyes, and Grant Adamson. Oh, yes (I almost forgot) and National Geographic sent a representative since the NGS is considering making a documentary about the stone.

Israel Knohl argued that "my servant David" is a personal reference, and therefore "Ephraim" who is paired with him must also be a personal reference. He identifies Ephraim with a suffering Messiah, the son of Joseph, known from late sources. He noted that the pairing of David with Ephraim is unique. Also unique is the "evil branch" that is whitewashed, which he understands to be an early formulation of an anti-Christ figure. He emphasized that these two spots in the text are highly significant because it shows something new in the traditions is forming. He came out strongly that this is not a Dead Sea Scroll because the text uses the name of the Lord frequently. He emphasized that the text contains many allusions to the prophets including Zechariah 14 and Haggai 2 and 3.

Matthias Henze was not convinced and argued that he doesn't necessarily see any messianic references in the text. He thinks that the evil branch that is whitewashed is not a messiah. That in fact the unusual pairing suggests that the "branch" is being used by the author to address something different, perhaps a wicked king. He concentrated on what he finds as the concerns of the author which appears to be knowledge of the prophets, interest in the number three, the glory of the Lord, the name of the Lord, and the merkavah. He pointed to the Pseudo-prophets of Qumran as a parallel, although he emphasized that he does not think this is a Dead Sea scroll composed by a sectarian because there is not unique sectarian language of dualism, etc., in the text. He thinks that the text opens with a seer in heaven who asks God a question, and then the Lord replies. The angels Michael and Gabriel are significant and suggest knowledge of Daniel 8.

Kelly Bautch discussed the text's indebtedness to Zechariah 14. She sees the text as an apocalyptic text, but one that is reserved. In this way she contrasted it with the Enochic literature. She thought that the text was very similar to the Qumran Pseudo-Prophets like Pseudo-Ezekiel. She argued that Ephraim was not a personal reference, but a collective, representing an eschatological expectation that Judah and Ephraim would be brought back together at the end of time. Kelly was unsure of the provenance but did not think it was the Qumran sectarians because sectarian language is not present.

I argued that the genre of the stone was very similar to the Pseudo-Prophets of Qumran, especially Pseudo-Ezekiel and Pseudo-Jeremiah. I noted that the text relies on the audience's knowledge of certain biblical passages and that the author only needed to use a word or phrase from the scripture in order to evoke the entire scriptural story and the interpretation of that story by the community. I gave a run down of a number of scriptures that the text invokes including large portions of Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Hosea. I saw Hosea 6:1-3 as key. I tried to understand the message of the stone in more comprehensive terms, even given the risk of its fragmentary nature. The stone appears to be a commission of God to his servant David. It is occurring in heaven before God's throne. The angels are there too, and one of them is supporting David and he is told not to be afraid. The Lord tells him that the last battle will occur when David converses with Ephraim. This is the sign that the end has started. The Lord will destroy evil, the wicked whitewashed branch. The heavens and earth will shake. Michael is mentioned. The Lord and his seven angels on their chariots will descend from heaven to the gates of Jerusalem. Surrounding Jerusalem are the nations encamped, at least some of who are from the north. The Hasidim are in exile outside of Jerusalem. There are a couple of references to blood sacrifices. One appears to be a command to stop the blood sacrifices, while the other appears to have something to do with the Day of Atonement since there is a bloodied merkavah. The Lord says that he has sent three holy shepherds to help Israel. The Lord is going to be merciful to those who love him. Then Gabriel enters the conversation, but what he says is too fragmentary for me to comment. This story appears to me to be one that the Qumran sectarians would have identified with, and indeed may have even produced. Although it doesn't have sectarian language, we wouldn't expect this in a Pseudo-prophetic writing where the goal is to imitate the scripture so that the new revelation appears to be scriptural. But the story and its themes fits well with the Qumran expectations of three messianic figures (prophet, Davidic king, and priest) and the cessation of the Jerusalemite sacrificial cult. The Qumran sectarians thought themselves to be in exile, and according to the War Scroll, were expecting the nations to encamp around Jerusalem at the end of time. They themselves would come and join in the fight against the nations and those wicked in Jerusalem led by a Davidic king. The angels would come down from heaven and join them in battle. And all of this would occur after the "simple from Ephraim" converted and joined their community.

So that is what happened. Matthias Henze and Israel Knohl are planning on editing a volume of papers about the stone which they will put together this year.

This afternoon, a professional photographer took pictures of the stone. So it is quite possible that we will be able to see some of the eroded letters better. Let's hope.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Upcoming lecture on Gospel of Judas

Another attempt to upload a pdf poster.

09 Davidson Annual Lecture

Tearing down the myth

If you have any wonders about how social memory works, and how it can even be a conscious project, I invite you to listen to a recent Fresh Air interview with author Will Bunch who has just written a book about how Ronald Reagan's legacy is being created by the Washington conservatives in order for the Republicans to have a hero. Wade heard it this week and told me, "This is what you have been talking about on your blog." When I listened to it, I smiled.

Regardless of one's politics, it is a fascinating interview because it shows the process of the construction of a hero-myth in the modern day, which can be documented. Bunch argues that certain aspects of Reagan's career have been marginalized and eliminated, others twisted, in order to construct a hero-myth of a popular republican president whose conservative policies worked. This myth is simply taken to be truth by the generations that weren't around at the time - the second generation and beyond - while those of us who lived through it remember, if nothing else, the Iran-Contra scandal, an arms scandal so big that it almost brought the White House down and nearly impeached Reagan. As for those tax cuts, well, yes we got them the first year. And when it turned out to be too much of a cut, we got taxed again.

Will Bunch's book is called Tear Down this Myth.

Should the Historical Jesus matter to people of faith?

In this post I want to try to respond to one of the comments that was left on my last post on whether or not the historical Jesus can be recovered. I argued that I am quite sure that we can recover very early memories of Jesus, but whether or not these get us to the historical Jesus himself is still open for me because of the way in which social memories are constructed from the get-go (both as a natural process or a conscious plan). I think we would need to look at the picture of the early memories we recovered and then do some evaluating from there, with the caveat that we are treading on very dangerous waters.

The questions left in the comments?
I'm a preacher who has had no anxiety (or little, at any rate) about preaching what has been called the "Jesus of faith." Can you say what you think the implications of your method of constructing Jesus might have for those who preach, who take" the quest," as you have described it seriously? Is this something that simply doesn't belong in the pulpit? Or... do you have no opinion on this, since your project is scholarly and not about faith?
There is a long history about this very issue - of faith and reason and whether reason should matter to faith. I leave that to your reading.

For me personally this is very difficult for me to answer because even though my project is not about faith - it is an historical project - the results matter for some people of faith.

I have found that for some Christians they could care less, because for them the Jesus they know is the Jesus of the spirit and the scripture, the Jesus of faith as you put it. There is nothing that an historian is going to say that will make a bit of difference to their religiosity or change their perception of their own experience of God. They are like Paul, the apostle who knew next to nothing about Jesus' life or teachings, and this didn't seem to matter one bit to him in terms of his faith which was based on a mystical experience and conversion.

But then there are those Christians who want their faith to be factual, because for them only facts are true/truth. So they want to align their faith with what they understand to be historical facts about Jesus. It is for these people that the Jesus Seminar was so valuable, because it gave them a new "scientifically"-constructed red letter edition of Jesus' teaching, minus all the supernatural stories and theology.

For me to suggest that the Jesus of history may be lost to us, and all we have are memory constructions of him by Christians writing long after he is dead, can be traumatic for some Christians because we live in a society where truth and fact are equated, and where myth-story-memory-experience (which are definitely not observable empirical facts) are what? Untruth? Highly suspect? False?

So now we see scholars like Richard Bauckham coming to the rescue of these "faithfully nervous", trying out the argument that the early memory constructions in the gospels must have been those of eyewitnesses (they do?) because the texts make this claim (so what?) and because these eyewitnesses were the apostles (they were?) we can trust them (we can?) because they wouldn't purposefully lie to us (they wouldn't?) and we all know that our memories are fairly accurate anyway (they are?).

So I don't know if this answers your questions, which are honest and good questions. But should this information be distributed from the pulpit? I have found in my classroom when students begin to think critically about the scripture, many become angry and confused, wondering why they didn't hear about any of this in their churches. To these people, it matters.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Israel Knohl to speak in Houston on the Gabriel Stone

This is a reminder of the special event organized by my colleague at Rice University, Matthias Henze. Israel Knohl is going to be speaking at the Houston Museum of Natural Science on Monday evening about his thoughts on the Gabriel Stone. Matthias Henze will respond. This is part of a bigger lecture series that goes along with the exhibit "The Birth of Christianity: A Jewish Story," where the Gabriel Stone is on display. Lecture information HERE.
The Gabriel Revelation and the Birth of Christianity
Presented by Israel Knohl, Ph. D., The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
With Comments by Matthias Henze, Ph. D., Rice University
Museum of Natural Science, Houston
Monday, February 9, 6:30 p.m.
On Tuesday, Feb. 11, Matthias Henze has organized a seminar to discuss the Gabriel Stone. I will be presenting my thoughts on it, along with Israel Knohl, Matthias Henze, and Kelly Bautch. We hope to use this time as a workshop and make some progress in terms of understanding what exactly this stone is. It is not news that I don't agree with Professor Knohl's interpretation, and now I have my own to offer. I will keep track of theses of the papers and provide a summary on my blog following the seminar on Tuesday.

I told you that you wouldn't like it

I am smiling reading the comments on my last blog post. It shows how people read what they want to read, not what was written.

1. I never said that my method recovered the historical Jesus or his message about the Kingdom of God. Did I?

2. What I said (and apparently it needs repeating) is that what I would recover with my method would be the earliest constructions of Jesus by the early Christians. This is not the same thing as the historical Jesus. Rather it is how the first Christians were remembering him early in the transmission of the traditions. And it is quite clear when these sorts of detailed studies are done and looked at comprehensively, that the second generation of Christians thought his message about the coming of the Kingdom of God was an eschatological message that did not fulfill itself as expected. Really, let's be honest, is this something new? Paul is all about the problems of the unfilled eschaton already in our oldest Christian writing in the New Testament, 1 Thessalonians.

3. I told you that you wouldn't like it.

Is the Historical Jesus lost?

Historical method has its limitations. It can be pushed only so far. In terms of understanding who Jesus actually was, historical method can take us back fairly early in the memories of Jesus among the first Christians. But is this enough for us? Or must we continue to confuse early memories of him with "him"?

It may be true that the earliest memories of him reflect most closely who he actually was, but there is no guarantee that these early memories are not already information refracted or distorted or wrongly attributed to him. Why? Even setting aside the fact that the first Christians were charismatics who believed that Jesus continued to live and teach in their presence in some kind of spirit manner (a fact which made it fairly simple to attribute to the historical Jesus things said in his name by early Christian prophets), we can expect that even the first memories of him are already in the process of shifting because of the natural processes of human memory and also social memory formation. In other words, the way we remember is a function of our brains and our societies. It is now and it was then.

So my approach to the historical Jesus comes at the issue from a slightly different angle and with a slightly different goal than the questers that have gone before. Not that the historical Jesus has ever been a goal of my research, but nonetheless I have had to work out a solution to the problem myself in order to be able to understand the beginnings of Christianity. I would call my approach "Constructing Jesus." I would frame it as an attempt to come to understand the earliest memories of Jesus from all the sources available to us. I would work the sources in a way that I would lay out how the various communities constructed Jesus. I would then compare these constructions to see where there are intersections of early material that is being rewritten or reformatted by the early Christians because it is no longer useful or relevant to them in their present situation. And I would see what I had in its entirety. And I would not kid myself that I was looking at Jesus himself, but only the earliest memories of him that the communities constructed. For me, that would be good enough.

The main criterion for identifying the threads of this early material would be what I call simply "Theological Reinterpretation." That is, I would identify all the areas in the sources where the early Christians are clearly rewriting Jesus, where secondary development of him is certain. One example must suffice for now.

Mark 9:1 - "And Jesus said to them, 'Truly I say to you, there are some standing here who will not die until they see that the Kingdom of God has come in power."

This saying of Jesus appears to have a life of discomfort among the synoptic writers. Mark appears not to like its implication - that there have been followers of Jesus that have died and yet the Kingdom of God had not yet come in some eschatological manner. So he does something interesting. He places the saying sequentially right before the transfiguration story, which he hopes his reader will understand to be the moment that God's Kingdom manifested in power (rather than at the end of time). I would further suggest, based on other evidence that is too involved to post here, that when Mark did this he also recast an earlier source of his which had a version of this story (without the disciples) immediately following Jesus' baptism.

That this saying continued to cause distress and require further rewriting is evident from Matthew's treatment, who has softened the blow of a failed eschaton by reframing Mark's version to read: "Truly I say to you, there are some standing here who will not die before they see the Son of Man coming in his Kingdom." Then follows the transfiguration story which shows Jesus transformed as God's "son." Neat. No more cognitive dissonance here.

Luke too is highly concerned about what he has received from Mark. So he makes his own adjustments: "But truly I say to you, there are some standing here who will not die before they see the Kingdom of God." The End is no more, because according to Luke the Kingdom of God is already here among us (Luke 17:21).

Even more interesting to me is how this saying is still problematic to Christians today, so bible translators usually try to soften things by translating very woodenly "will not die" with "will not taste death". Now this is remarkable to me because usually bible translators try not to translate woodenly, but to convert the original language idiom into proper sentiment. When our ancient authors write "will not taste death" they do not mean that a person will flirt with death (and might not die), but that they will be dead. It is an idiom for "to die."

At any rate, this sort of analysis, done on a much more detailed level, would yield a good amount of information that I would label "earliest memories of Jesus." And one of them would be (based on a number of these sorts of examples) that the earliest Christian memories of him were of a Jewish apocalyptic preacher who taught that the Kingdom of God was in the process of being established on earth as part of the coming of the End of the world. The last part of this sentence is important because we must be fair to our sources who are all rewriting the saying about the Kingdom of God, because they think that, as it stood, it was a failed prophecy of Jesus. And they were trying to correct or reinterpret this failure in a new theological direction, which they did admirably. This means that the earlier memory they are rewriting is one that understood Jesus' message about the Kingdom of God in terms of an imminent End.

I didn't say you would like it. But as an historian one has to be willing to recover that which might not be "likeable," and leave it for what it is.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

From another university on the problem of translation

Wade brought my attention to this blog post from a student in Professor Goehring's class. He asked his students to read three books on the Gospel of Judas, including The Thirteenth Apostle, and then to compare translations. HERE is one student's response (and shock). What a great assignment!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Update on the Mandaeans, February 2009

There is some success to report in terms of Mandaean refugees. There have been quite a few more Mandaeans sponsored by the community around Boston moved to the US, and the Boston community expects several more families to arrive each month for a while. NPR aired a program a couple of days ago about this Mandaean community in Worcester.
Mandaean Iraqis Try Revive Faith in Worcester, MA
Tina Antolini
WORCESTER, MA (2009-02-03) If you've never heard of Mandaeans before, you're not alone... They're a tiny religious minority--- fewer than 60-thousand people worldwide-- who follow an ancient form of Gnosticism with ties to early Judaism and Christianity. Mandaeans practice multiple baptisms -- as often as every week. And they've lived in what are now Iraq and Iran, for more than two thousand years. But since 2003, it's estimated that 90 percent of the Mandaean population in Iraq has either fled or been killed. Among other places in the world, they've ended up in Worcester, Massachusetts. WFCR's Tina Antolini reports.
To listen to the full program go HERE.

For photo, go HERE.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

My decision about The Jesus Project

After reflecting for two years since I was initially contacted about participating in The Jesus Project, and recently determining the actual goal of TJP which had always been vague to me, I have decided to step aside.

First, the goal to prove Jesus' existence or not is methodologically a black hole from my perspective.

Second, another quest for what we can know about Jesus will turn up nothing new, because each thing that will be identified will be easily deconstructed by the members of the group. When this happens, I can imagine that the minimal-to-nothing "evidence" could be framed as "proof" for Jesus' non-existence. The media will have a heyday - "now scholars prove that Jesus didn't exist" or "scholars say that we can know nothing about Jesus".

This line of reasoning became very evident to me when Tom Verenna quoted a statement of mine published on my blog (in which I stated that the historical Jesus we reconstruct only exists in our imaginations) as somehow aligning with his myther position, as giving validity to it. This is simply false. Because I recognize that my colleagues in the Jesus Seminar have constructed the historical Jesus from their imaginative interpretation of the evidence available, has no bearing on whether or not Jesus actually existed.

In fact, I think that Jesus did historically exist, although I cannot prove this anymore than the mythers can prove he didn't. I have reasons to think that he did exist, including the fact that Paul knew Jesus' brother James and that Hegesippus reports that he knew that the grandsons of Jesus' brother Jude had been interrogated under Domitian. And yes I know how mythers get around this evidence (how it is deconstructed), just as I know how Christians have traditionally gotten around it using some of the same arguments (since human brothers don't coincide with theologies like Mary's perpetual virginity, just as they don't coincide with the position that Jesus was not a historical person).

Unless there is a new orientation to the project, I will not be participating in it, and wish those who remain part of TJP my best.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Jesus Seminar Jesus is bankrupt: Post 4

I want to go back to a point that I made earlier in this series which I said that I would take up later. The point is this. When we begin really evaluating our methods, we discover that in case after case we are using them to try to conclude things that the methods cannot tell us. In other words, the multiple independent attestation criterion cannot tell us that Jesus said something, or that he more likely said something because multiply-attested material suggests that our authors were drawing on earlier sources for the material. It can, however, point us to material that did not originate with our authors, yet was popular enough to be transmitted, and salient enough to be preserved by two or more authors. So this principle, while it cannot tell us what the historical Jesus said, is certainly useful for helping us figure out the tradition history of early Christianity.

The same can be said about the myther position, the position that says that Jesus was not an historical person, but a mythic construct of the ancient people. Tom Verenna has responded that the myther position has moved beyond parallalmania which focused on comparing Jesus' story with pagan myths. The mythers have been employing other better methods to make their point. He writes HERE:
More recent mythicist arguments deal with exegesis, Gospel genre (if the Gospels weren’t written for the purpose of “telling what happened” but rather “telling a good story” there clearly is reason to doubt the historicity of Jesus Christ), intertextuality (the models used by the authors of the Gospels to create narrative—and how much of the Gospel can be traced back to models), Jewish socio-cultural studies in the Hellenistic and Roman periods (did the Jews of the original “Christian” sect expect a historical savior or a spiritual one?), religious-meme change (how quickly did religious trends change and how much could they have changed over that period of time—for example, euhemerizing a legendary figure of Jesus into a historical setting), and proto-Christian origins (was there a “Christianity” before the first-century CE and where did it originate?) .
But isn't this the same pitfall that the Jesus Seminar fell into? The same argument, though turned around? Aren't the mythers drawing from their methods conclusions that force the methods beyond what they can actually tell us? Let me take Tom's points one-by-one:

1. The gospel narratives were written "to tell a good story" not to record "history", so isn't there reason to doubt Jesus' historicity? Well, the short answer is NO. The mere fact that the story is constructed is not evidence for the non-existence of Jesus. Everything we write, speak, and even think is constructed. But that doesn't mean it is constructed with no ground in the historical reality that we experience. The long answer is that the ancient people did not have the concept of history that we do today, and none of them wrote factual accounts, even those who claimed to be writing histories. An "empirical" accounting of our history wasn't actually understood until the Enlightment when people like Leopold van Ranke began to argue that maybe we should be committed to writing history as it actually happened, and that it should not be the historian's duty "[…] to judge the past, nor to instruct one's contemporaries with an eye to the future, but rather merely to show how it actually was."

2. The authors of the gospels used narrative models to construct their stories. True. But this is not evidence for the non-existence of Jesus. All it can tell us is that the early Christians were part of the Greco-Roman educational system, and used models known to them to write Jesus' story. Would we expect otherwise?

3. The original Christian sect expected a spiritual savior. It doesn't matter a hoot whether the early Christians thought Jesus to be a real human being or an angel or a god. They in fact thought all these things, and what these represent are theological interpretations. They may be interpretations laid on an historical figure just as well as not. This argument cannot tell us whether or not Jesus existed.

4. Religious trends change quickly over time. So what. Some do. Some don't. And in each case, these should be tracked and evaluated. This tracking would tell us a lot about early Christian construction of their religion, but Jesus' existence? Come on.

The long and short of this post gets at the heart of TJP in my mind. Does an intentioned constructed story about somebody consequently imply that that person didn't exist? No. In fact, I don't know of a method that would actually tell us whether or not Jesus existed. So this is a non-issue for me. It can't be known. So if all TJP is going to be is a bunch of scholars arguing over whether or not Jesus existed, using methods to conclude things that are beyond the scope of the methods, then I don't want to participate in the Project. I don't have time or patience for this conversation. The question cannot be resolved. And TJP will fall into the same trap that TJS fell into - concluding things that our scholarly methods cannot actually tell us.

However, if the Project wishes to get serious about methods, and commits to using them only to gain what can be gained from them, then I think TJP has something to offer. I think that we need to allow our methods to do what they can, and stop forcing them to do what they can't. Perhaps we might set aside the obsession of historical existence or non-existence of Jesus (which are both faith positions from opposite camps), and instead try to come to a better understanding of how, when, and why the early Christians constructed the story of Jesus in the manner that they did. If this is our goal, then I'm interested in being a part of TJP because this I think is possible to accomplish.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Jesus Seminar Jesus is bankrupt: Post 3

The Jesus Seminar methodology was (and still is) fairly standard in the field. It developed out of the form-critical approach of Rudolph Bultmann, as some of his students have interpreted it. Norman Perrin is one of the scholars in the 1970s who lays out the method in a systematic way in his book Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus. These three principles (dissimilarity, multiple [independent] attestation, coherence) in turn form the foundation of the Jesus Seminar's work, as well as much of the scholarship of the individual scholars who were associated with the Seminar.

I have discussed the first two principles in two earlier posts. The criterion of coherence, the third principle, is also famously used to achieve the Jesus Seminar Jesus. Once we run the Jesus traditions through the dissimilarity principle and determine that it meets this requirement, and we have noted whether or not the material is multiply and independently attested (the more independent attestations the better), we have identified a small block of material as Jesus'. What do we do with the rest?

Rather than cast it aside, we rummage through it again to see if we might pluck out anything else to fatten up the little heap of words we were able to reap fishing with the dissimilarity principle. In Norman Perrin's words, "once characteristics of the teaching of Jesus are established [by satisfying the dissimilarity principle], these characteristics can be used to validate sayings which themselves would not meet the requirements of the criterion of dissimilarity...What we are proposing, in effect, is to use material established as authentic by the one sure criterion as a touchstone by means of which to judge material which itself would resist the application of that criterion, material which could not be established as dissimilar to emphases of Judaism or the early Church" (Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus, p. 43, 45).

Now this criterion makes some sense to me, as long as the "one sure criterion" that you are using previously is really "sure." But in the case of the dissimilarity criterion, the only thing "sure" about the results is that we have identified some material that the early Christian authors found useful enough to preserve, and were not at all certain that this material originated from Jesus or even reflected his historical teachings. So to use a criterion like this, we would need to be very cautious that the material already identified was as definitive as we are going to get, and then we would have to make judgments about what "other" material we thought cohered. Are we going to choose material that coheres to the Jesus we desire to create, while ignoring the other material? It is very risky, and safeguards would need to be established in order to counteract this possibility, safeguards that I don't see in place in the construction of the Jesus Seminar Jesus even though the general rule for the Seminar was "Beware of finding a Jesus entirely congenial to you" (Funk, The Five Gospels, p. 5).

In fact, it seems to me that the Seminar did have a picture of Jesus that they assumed from their work with the dissimilarity principle, and which affected their authenticity decisions of other sayings, allowing them to present a Jesus entirely detached from history:
1. "Jesus' characteristic talk was distinctive - it can usually be distinguished from common lore" (Funk, p. 30).
2. "Jesus' sayings and parables cut against the social and religious grain" (Funk, p. 31).
3. "Jesus' sayings and parables surprise and shock: they characteristically call for a reversal of roles or frustrate ordinary, everyday expectations" (Funk, p. 31).
4. "Jesus' sayings and parables are often characterized by exaggeration, humor, and paradox" (Funk, p. 31).
5. "Jesus' images are concrete and vivid, his sayings and parables customarily metaphorical and without explicit application" (Funk, p. 32).
The criterion of coherence is only going to be as good as the original data set and the controls put on it by the scholar. It will reveal material that is "like" the original data set, but tells us nothing about whether or not Jesus spoke the material. It might begin to give us insight into clusters of "like" traditions though, which might help us to locate the material within the tradition history of early Christianity.

Apocryphote of the Day: 2-3-09

"The passion which is a delight to them constrains the souls of those who are begotten in this place...and they turn away from the light, unable to pass by the ruler of darkness until they pay the last penny."

Testimony of Truth (Alexandrian gnostic text, second century)

Commentary: an interesting use of Matthew 5:25-26, "Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny." The ruler of darkness is the judge of the dead who shuts the soul up in the body (=the prison) unless the soul pays it debt for its sins. This is a doctrine and support text from Matthew is attributed by the church fathers to Carpocrates, the infamous libertine. But the Testimony of Truth is encratic or body-denying throughout the document.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Jesus Seminar Jesus is bankrupt: Post 2

I am sorry that this series of posts is taking a while, but I am very bogged down with work in the office as I am sure many of you are too.

I wish to begin by saying that I am not making these posts to be "critical" in a negative way of TJS or its method, that is to be deconstructive, to nit-pick or to gripe. I am writing these posts to reassess the method, and to ask what the method actually can tell us, versus what it can't. And then I want to move forward with this thinking in a constructive manner. I do not know where the series will end up, since I am thinking aloud here. I don't have some grand solution in place already, but only wish to clear the decks and see what is left out there for The Jesus Project.

The dissimilarity principle (what I call the "apologetic principle") is about the strangest principle that could have been invented by scholars. Yet it has been the darling of most historical Jesus reconstructions. It works by trying to identify material that uniquely belongs to Jesus. The idea is that if a saying or action attributed to Jesus can be found in Jewish literature, then we must be skeptical about its attribution to Jesus. It could have been lifted by our gospel authors from the Jewish literature. Because of this uncertainty, the saying or action should be set aside. The same is true in the other direction. If a saying or action of Jesus is reflected in the literature of the early church, then we have to be less certain it originated with Jesus. So that material has to be set aside. It has been expressed this way by Norman Perrin: authenticity is most certain "if it can be shown to be dissimilar to characteristic emphases both of ancient Judaism and of the early Church" (p. 39, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus).

What is left? Well, it is considered the most likely authentically Jesus.

In evaluating this claim we first should recognize the irrational jump from "what is left" to authentically Jesus. There is nothing to suggest to us that the dissimilar leftovers came from Jesus himself rather than from an early charismatic preacher speaking in Jesus' name or an early Christian author inventing material along the way. Without some other evaluative steps, it is impossible to say who originated the leftovers. To say that they are even "more likely" Jesus than the material set aside is simply wrong.

Second we have created the most unlikely Jesus that we historically might conceive. He is a character completely out of whack from the rest of his first-century peers, from his culture, from his immediate past, and from his immediate future. This is why I call it the "apologetic principle" - because it allows us to create a Jesus who is not Jewish. He comes across as a person who, for instance, isn't kosher, who isn't concerned in fact about discussing or observing Torah at all. And he isn't early Christian - at least in the sense that the scholars have defined early Christians as millenarians. This is the way scholars get rid of the apocalyptic Jesus, and the embarrassment of a Jesus who might have been an end-of-the-world failed prophet. It was the early Christians who were the millenarians (not Jesus), so based on the dissimilarity principle, we can delete those sayings from Jesus' recordings that address an imminent coming of the end-of-the-world.

Because Jesus is left with no historical context or continuity, this means that we now have to invent for Jesus his own historical context, which we foist off as "Jewish" since we know that he was a Jew. Thus he is cast by the scholars as a Jewish Greek philosopher and beggar, even though we have no other known instances of Jews in Palestine acting as Greek philosophers and beggars wandering around the countryside teaching wise words and humorous stories as social critique to those who might listen.

What does the dissimilarity principle tells us? It might point out some of the variety of directions that the traditions of Jesus developed - that there was a need among the writers of the gospels to recall a Jesus who was not kosher, that there was a need among some early Christians to recall a Jesus who internalized the Kingdom. Whether these "dissimilar" ideas originated from Jesus himself or elsewhere would need to be subjected to more evaluation before any conclusion could be drawn. I have my suspicions about where and when these dissimilar ideas came into play, but that is for another time perhaps.

At any rate, it is not a principle that we would use to discover "authentic" historical information about any other figure in from the past, so why do we bother using it at all?