Baker Academic

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The False Narrative of Binary Opposites

I was recently reading this essay by the late Bob Funk (Santa Rosa shout out!). I do not often discuss the Jesus Seminar on this blog because (1) it has become tired and predictable to demonize the "fellows" and (2) the Jesus Seminar has had much less of an impact in historical Jesus research since the passing of Funk and Borg. In reading this essay, however, I was struck by Funk's bold promotion of a paradigm that continues to plague historical Jesus studies. This is the narrative of binary opposites. Now, normally, authors who adhere to this narrative do so unwittingly. Examples of false dichotomies with this paradigm:

Jesus was either a cynic or he was "entirely Jewish."
Jesus either believed that God's kingdom had come or he looked for a future kingdom.
Jesus was either "anti-Rome" or he was apathetic to Roman rule.

Almost every major scholarly discussion in historical Jesus research betrays the tendency to reduce the narrative to binary opposites. No doubt, sometimes binaries help. For example consider this one: either Jesus was either born south of Samaria or he was born north of Samaria. It is difficult to imagine a way into this discussion that is "both/and" or creates a spectrum of possible interpretation. But in history (as is the case with all matters of real-world complexity) binary opposites don't often get us very far. With this in mind consider this short excerpt from Funk's essay:

The label "third quest" has been applied to a group of scholars whose work gives allegiance to a certain set of generalizations about the search for the historical figure of Jesus. The first of these generalizations is that Jesus was an eschatological prophet in the train of John the Baptist and Paul of Tarsus. One can draw a straight line from John to Paul and it passes through the heart of Jesus' message. This is an extension of the thesis of Albert Schweitzer who reacted against the liberal portraits of Jesus which made Jesus out to be an ethical teacher advocating the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of humankind. The second generalization, which is a twin of the first, is that there is overwhelming continuity between Jesus and the primitive church: we can trust the canonical writers (with the exception of the Fourth Gospel) because they got it right; everybody else got it wrong. The third feature of the third quest — speaking generally — is an apologetic undertow for orthodox Christianity as defined by the canonical writers. This aspect of the third quest is a rearguard action being fought against all who would distance Jesus from John the Baptist, on the one hand, and the canonical books of the New Testament, on the other. Third questers may acknowledge the Sayings Gospel Q, for example, but make little use of it; they are vigorously opposed to any regard for the Gospel of Thomas. And they tend to be apologists for the basic tenets of traditional Christianity: the true faith was defined by the "apostles" who correctly understood Jesus. Those whose works might be categorized as belonging to the third quest include the following: E. P. Sanders . . . . John P. Meier . . . . Ben Witherington . . . . N. T. Wright . . . . Dale Allison. 
Funk then goes on to describe what he calls "The Renewed Quest." This is what he calls his own program:
The renewed quest is an attempt to reinstate the original aim of the quest, which was to distinguish the aims of Jesus from the aims of the followers. Put more broadly, the renewed quest is designed to distinguish the words and deeds of Jesus from others attributed to him as his reputation grew in the faith community. After all, the two lie side by side in the gospels. The renewal of the original aim comes to expression in two major ways. First, the renewed quest is focused on the vision of Jesus as formulated in his words and deeds rather than on the expressions of faith in him formulated by the early community. To borrow Bultmann's phrase, the renewed quest is focused on Jesus' proclamation rather than on him as proclaimer. It is a radical shift in point of view or perspective. Jesus points to the kingdom; his disciples point to him. The second aspect of the aim follows from the first. A basic rule of evidence is to look for words and deeds in the gospels that represent his outlook rather than that of the evangelists. Jesus was not a Christian. However, the gospels are Christian through and through. The residual fragments left behind in their memories of him are the only clues we have to his own point of view.
Allow me to point out a few binary opposites represented in these paragraphs: (A) Third Quest vs. Renewed Quest; (B) either eschatological prophet or ethical teacher; (C) Jesus' vision vs. or that of the early community; (D) Synoptic authors and "everyone else." What is most interesting to me about these paragraphs is the binary opposite that Funk creates between continuity and his own imagined world of binary opposites. He wrote that Third Questers hold that "there is overwhelming continuity between Jesus and the primitive church: we can trust the canonical writers (with the exception of the Fourth Gospel) because they got it right; everybody else got it wrong." For Funk this is an apologetic move because the idea of continuity between Jesus and his following is equal to orthodoxy. So not only was there a severe and binary disconnect between Jesus and his following, there is a severe and binary disconnect between scholars on this very point. I talk more about the problem of this paradigm in this book.

-anthony


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Holy Spirit, Trumpsplained: Part 2 of my Interview with Donald Trump

In my continued effort to make an easy-to-understand theology for Americans, I interviewed Donald Trump on the Synoptic Problem. Here is the next segment of my interview in which he Trumpsplains the Holy Spirit.
 __

TJB: Mr. Trump, thank you again for agreeing to interview. I know that you must be very busy writing and revising speeches and consulting yourself on foreign policy.

TRUMP: Yes. Megyn Kelly is a reverse-sexist. But, yes.

TJB: Okay. Well, let’s talk more about the Bible. Many Christians are suspicious that your newly declared appreciation for the Bible is political expediency.

TRUMP: Christians love me. I’m a Presbyterian. But the ones who say that are really weak. And—I don’t know—might be ISIS. But I don’t know. I might definitely sue. This is a real possibility. But I don’t know. It’s something we’re considering.

TJB: Last we spoke, you expressed admiration for Luke’s Gospel. What is your view on Luke’s condemnation of the wealthy.

TRUMP: This is a serious thing that we’re looking at. I love Luke. Anyone who knows me knows that I love lots of things. Luke especially. But things are really slowing down for him. It’s sad really. I am very wealthy and I’ve been very successful. I eat the little crumbs at church and drink the juice. This is why I’ve been audited so many times.

TJB: One of Luke’s key interests is the role of the Holy Spirit. Do you think that Luke presents the Holy Spirit as the eschatological Temple-presence of the Holy of Holies?

TRUMP: I’m a huge supporter of temples. All the best temples. Nobody has given more money to temples. Trust me. I own several temples and many, many Asherah poles. Huge poles. Marco Rubio said—did you see this?—Little Marco says that I’m “compensating for something” because I have baby hands. It’s pathetic. I feel sorry for him. I really do. Believe me, there's no problem. That I can tell you. That I can tell you.

TJB: What do you think of the various feminine portrayals of the Holy Spirit in modern Christian worship?

TRUMP: That’s so stupid. I went to an Ivy League school. I'm very highly educated. I know words. I have the best words. But there is no better word than “stupid.” And I know stupid when I see it. You know, I'm sorry to tell you, but it’s really hard to be perfect ten as a deity if you’re just a spirit. I’m sorry, but it’s true. It’s true.

TJB: So the fact that God is spirit is a problem for you?

TRUMP: The Holy Spirit had a nice little campaign. I gave her a ton of money. And I shouldn’t have. But I was happy to do it. I mean, she begged. She begged. I mean, a boatload of money. Believe me. But she never made it to the top. She is like in second, maybe even third place behind the Father and Son. So I don’t respect her anymore because I don’t like losers.

TJB: In terms of creating a visible and embodied portrait, Luke showcases the Holy Spirit as “tongues of fire.” Do you think that fire represents eschatological Temple imagery?


TRUMP: The Holy Spirit turned out to be a lightweight. God—who I really respect—was like “you’re fired.” Which was the right thing to do. But I love the Holy Spirit. Nice lady. But it’s sad what happened to her.

__

Tune in next week for the third and final part of my interview with Donald Trump.



Anthony Le Donne, PhD is the author of
Near Christianity: How Journeys Along Jewish-Christian Borders Saved My Faith In God

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Jesus Blog Interviews Donald Trump on the Synoptic Problem

I am a strong believer that blog posts are great entry points into complex topics. To this end, the Jesus Blog will be conducting a series of short interviews on complex topics in biblical studies. We hope that these interviews boil these topics down to basics. The first installment, I am proud to say, is my interview with presidential candidate and reality television star, Donald Trump.


TJB: Mr. Trump, thank you for taking the time to discuss a few matters related to biblical studies. I hear that you recently awarded yourself a honorary doctorate from Trump University. Congratulations!

TRUMP: Thank you. Yes, we’re looking into a few things. Some really amazing things. Giving myself a doctorate was one of the things. Trump University—I probably shouldn’t say this—but Trump University is doing amazing things. People really love it.

TJB: You’ve discussed the Bible quite often lately. You’ve spoken of your favorite Bible verse and how much you love the Bible. But are you sure you want to discuss the Synoptic Problem? It’s really not a topic you generally address as a presidential candidate.

TRUMP: Nobody loves the Bible more than me. Nobody. I mean, the Bible is huge. Huge. People are under attack in this country. It’s really bad out there. But I love the Bible and we’re going to deal with this problem. Believe me.

TJB: What problem? The Synoptic Problem?

TRUMP: Look. It’s a problem. But we’re looking into it. It’s just one more thing. Look, China is a problem. You have no idea. We’ve got to start winning. But the Synoptic Problem too. Because that is also a problem that we’re going to solve. We’re working on some amazing ideas.

TJB: Okay, well, great. Let’s get into some of your ideas about the Synoptic Problem. Christian tradition has assumed that Matthew was the first composed. Why, then, do most biblical scholars think that Mark was composed prior to Matthew?

TRUMP: Believe me, Matthew is the best. Really classy. But Mark. Mark is great too. Matthew really got schlonged by the people who, frankly, are overrated. Mark is the best, though. Matthew and Mark are both great. These haters and losers have no idea. No clue. This is something that I might need to change.

TJB: In your estimation, is Mark a shortened version of a longer gospel? Or has Matthew enhanced and expanded a shorter narrative?

TRUMP: I’ve always been for enhancing. I’ve never been comfortable with settling. We’ve got to come to the table with strength. Mexico is killing us. Enhancing Mark was a super-luxury way to build some amazing things. That, I promise you. Matthew is a super-luxury part of the Bible.

TJB: Okay, so let’s get to one of the more controversial topics in New Testament studies. Did Matthew and Luke both incorporate an independent sayings tradition? Or did Luke follow Mark’s chronology and supplement material from Matthew?

TRUMP: Luke is tremendous. Luke has all the women. Really, really terrific women. Perfect tens, all of them. Mary Magdalene was a real stunner. Not—and this has been a thing—not a bimbo. This is something we’ve looked into. Really unbelievable. Jesus was the first great negotiator. Huge brand. Deluxe brand. Super classy. Luke knew how to build from Mark. Other people were like, "Bing bing bong bong bing bing bing." But Luke was just incredible.

___

I would like to thank Mr. Trump for his super-luxury time. We’re looking into publishing another segment of this amazing interview soon. Believe me.


Anthony Le Donne, PhD is the author of 

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Experimenter, the Authoritarian, and the Green Boy

Peter Sarsgaard plays Dr. Stanley Milgram in the 2015 bio-pic “Experimenter.” While it is perhaps not his most compelling performance, you will hard-pressed to find a better actor than Sarsgaard and the life and thought of Milgram is spellbinding. If you are not already aware of Milgram’s famous experiments with obedience to authority in the 1960s, this film will tell you the story of that controversy. Writer and director, Michael Almereyda proves to be a magnificent storyteller.

***This review will contain spoilers***

A short historical sketch: Dr. Milgram believed that Americans, if given the chance to defy an authoritarian voice demanding that they torture another person, would do so. He believed that if regular Americans were brought into a lab and ordered to send 450 volts into a person with a heart condition, a person begging for mercy, most regular Americans would refuse. Milgram hired actors to pretend to be shocked with dangerous levels of voltage and pretend to beg for mercy. He would then study the moral fortitude of Americans who refused authoritarian commands to continue. Milgram was then going to test similar subjects in Berlin. He believed that Germans would show a higher willingness to continue torture. What he found was that regular people, regardless of race, sex, or emotional vulnerability were willing to obey the voice of the authoritarian. Simple, direct commands by a man in a lab coat were obeyed:

Prod 1: “Please continue.”
Prod 2: “The experiment requires you to continue.”
Prod 3: “It is absolutely essential that you continue.”
Prod 4: “You have no other choice but to continue.”

These prods were obeyed while desperate cries "I told you I have a heart condition! Let me out of here!" were heard, met with sympathy, but eventually ignored.

The film asks the question, why did these “normal Americans”—even those who were visibly upset by their own actions—obey the authoritarian voice behind them and not the suffering voice in front of them? Both the study and the film instruct us that the person administering the torture believes that the authority will accept responsibility for what happens even if unethical. If told by an authoritarian voice that this is so, they will act as agents for another person’s will. Milgram called this the “agentic state.”

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 3)

The first chapter of Bart D. Ehrman's book, Jesus before the Gospels, led the reader to expect a discussion of "Oral Traditions and Oral Inventions," though that chapter proved utterly disappointing as such. In actual fact, that chapter provided examples of "false" or "distorted" memories ("a memory that is wrong"; p. 19) from texts beyond the boundary of the NT canon, memories that focus on the whole range of Jesus' life, from his birth and childhood through his life and death and onto his resurrection and emergence from the tomb.

The second chapter, entitled "The History of Invention," extends the discussion from Chapter 1 into the canonical Gospels, especially the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke). The question driving this discussion is: Do the canonical Gospels contain "distorted" memories, "memories of things that did not really happen"? (49). That is, were there processes or social structures in place to prevent processes of distortion—which were so visibly displayed from later (second century CE and beyond) texts in Chapter 1—from affecting the memory of Jesus in the canonical Gospels?

Ehrman argues that, in fact, the same distortive processes at work in extra-canonical texts' portrayals of Jesus were also at work in the New Testament Gospels. Before making the argument, Ehrman asks why NT readers have been so slow to recognize these processes in the NT when they have so readily noticed them in non-biblical texts: "It is interesting that so many people can instantly recognize distorted memories about Jesus from outside the New Testament but cannot see them inside it. I suppose it is for the same reason that readers of the Bible typically do not see discrepancies int he New Testament Gospels until someone points them out to them" (50). He explains this failure of perception by citing Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris's famous study on "selective attention" (see the video, below); people don't see distorted memories in the New Testament because they weren't looking for them and so ignored (in the sense of "failed to perceive") those distortions. "Critical scholars of the New Testament," however, have long recognized these distortions, despite the failure of many to even notice them.


Ehrman begins by providing a lengthy (pp. 52–58) survey of Hermann Samuel Reimarus's view of Jesus, focusing especially on the fragment, "The Intention of Jesus and His Teaching." Writing for a popular audience, Ehrman describes Reimarus as "the very first biblical scholar to write an account of Jesus's life not from a religious or theological point of view . . . but from a critical point of view . . . with a keen eye for discrepancies and inventions" (52). Ehrman concedes that, today, "virtually no one accepts [Reimarus's] specific reconstruction of the life of Jesus," but Reimarus opens the way for scholars to recognize and chronicle how even "the early years after Jesus's death" were characterized by altering (distorting) and even inventing traditions about Jesus' life and teaching (57).

If Reimarus got the question of Jesus wrong but, nevertheless, made it possible for us to ask that question, where do we go from there? Ehrman offers a brief survey of nineteenth-century Gospels scholarship and the emerging consensus that Mark is the earliest of the canonical Gospels. If Mark is earliest Gospel, it must also be the most historical accurate and least theologically distorted, or so it was thought until William Wrede demonstrated that even this, the earliest of our extant texts, is thoroughly theological (= distorted). This leads directly to the work of the form critics: "If the earliest of our Gospels is not just historical but also theological, what about the traditions about Jesus before the Gospels were written? That became the concern of the form critics, . . . who wanted to shift the focus of attention away from the written Gospels to the traditions lying behind them" (61; italics in the original). Ehrman gives a brief précis of twentieth-century form critics (pp. 62–66). He is largely sympathetic to the contribution of the form critics to our knowledge of the pre-Gospel Jesus tradition: "Today, nearly a century after Schmidt, Dibelius, and Bultmann did their work, we are still more or less in their same boat, even if it is now motored with newer equipment" (65).  Their primary contribution, we might infer, is simply this: "the surviving accounts of Jesus's life embody recollections of Jesus as these were passed down by word of mouth over all these years" (66).

The next two sections address two objections to this contribution: First, citing the work of Birger Gerhardsson, "Weren't the traditions memorized?" (pp. 66–71). Second, citing the work of Kenneth Bailey, "Were the traditions 'controlled'?" (pp. 71–78). Both objections are found wanting, especially as both are designed to protect the memories of Jesus preserved in the canonical records by positing social structures that guaranteed stricter memorial accuracy than that displayed in Chapter 1. Gerhardsson proposed that Jesus, as a first-century Jewish teacher ("rabbi"), required his disciples to memorize his teachings verbatim before attempting to expand, interpret, or apply them, but this model, explains Ehrman, is anachronistic, lacks explicit support in the Gospels, and does not fit the record of Jesus' teachings preserved in the Gospels. Bailey proposed that the early communities of Jesus' followers exerted social control over the degree of acceptable variation in recounting stories about Jesus, but Ehrman counters that groups of people actually remember less (and less accurately) than individuals remembering singly, as individuals (75–76), and he also refers to Theodore Weeden's rejoinder to Bailey's work.

The final section of Chapter 2 proposes a model of "how the traditions circulated" (pp. 78–86). This model stresses the oral aspect of the traditions' circulation; literacy rates were shockingly low (by modern standards; see Catherine Hezser's book, Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine [cited on p. 80]), so the transmission of the Jesus tradition took on dynamics much like undergraduate students passing on stories of their or their friends' experiences in a morgue (see pp. 80–81). As more and more converts—flung across the Mediterranean basin and, for the most part, completely disconnected from any eyewitnesses to Jesus' life and teachings—told stories about Jesus, the tradition was subjected to more and more distorting pressures. Accurate stories were distorted in the telling, and new stories were invented and/or attributed to Jesus. "Anyone who thinks the stories don't get changed, and changed radically, and even invented in the process of telling and retelling, simply does not know, or has never thought about, what happens to stories in oral circulation, as they are handed down by word of mouth, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, and decade after decade" (86).

This chapter is a marked improvement over the previous one; at the very least, Chapter 2 actually addresses its announced theme ("the history of invention")! Ehrman frequently engages in over-simplification (e.g., his quasi-heroic portrayal of Reimarus as the first critical biblical scholar), but many readers will likely excuse this in light of his writing for a general readership. In my opinion, the greatest weakness of Chapter 2 is its basic approbation of the work of the form critics. Despite some impressive voices who have recently sought to salvage what was useful from the form-critical legacy (including Samuel Byrskog's reformulation of the Sitz im Leben), I am doubtful that Ehrman's "same boat . . . now motored with newer equipment" (65) sufficiently expresses just how far contemporary NT scholarship has moved beyond the conceptual and procedural assumptions that Bultmann, Dibelius, and the other form critics brought to the texts.

Anthropologists (e.g., Ruth Finnegan) and Folklorists (e.g., Albert Lord) do not conceive of tradition in terms of "layers" that can be peeled back to expose earlier forms, and John Miles Foley's work, which focuses explicitly on, among other things, the transfer from one medium (e.g., oral performance) to another (e.g., oral-derived text) certainly does not conceive of pre-written oral traditions in terms of individual stories ("pericopes") stripped from their narrative contexts. The work of the form critics—at least insofar as it was grasping at the pre-Gospel oral tradition—was already outdated when Lord published his landmark Singer of Tales in 1960, the same year that Gerhardsson proposed his important but problematic rejoinder, Memory and Manuscript. Moreover, E. P. Sanders demonstrated in 1969 that form-critical notions of the development of the Jesus tradition along orderly, measurable trajectories was fundamentally wrong-headed (see Sanders, The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition; Cambridge University Press). Gerhardsson and Bailey might not offer the most helpful way beyond the form-critical impasse, but neither do they exhaust the breadth of NT scholarship's engagement with questions of oral tradition and transmission in the last three or four decades. My hope is that Ehrman will engage this breadth more comprehensively in future chapters.

One thing, however, seems increasingly likely as I progress through the chapters of Jesus before the Gospels: Ehrman continues to exhibit the obsession, traditional among historians of Jesus, with an Archimedean point from which to survey and assess the "accuracy" of the early Christians' texts (esp. the Gospels). Jesus, in this perspective, said or did x, and the texts either do or they don't accurately record x. We, however, no longer have access to this Archimedean point (as if we ever did), and so this kind of analysis which Ehrman offers is, in fact, impossible. This does not mean the Gospels are, thanks to memory, automatically authentic texts whose historical claims are unproblematic. Instead, it means that their images of Jesus saying x or doing y are vehicles of meaning that carry forward the legacy of the past in order to frame the present, giving meaning to the chaotic flux of human experience and orienting people toward possible and possibly appropriate courses of action in the present. We will have to see to what extent Ehrman engages this aspect of memory in the chapters still to come.

As before, continue to watch this space.

Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 1)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 2)

Happy Bengali New Year!


To our readers who celebrate: Happy Bengali New Year!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Do You Want James Crossley’s Autograph? Sure You Do.—Chris Keith

Crossley after killing an endangered snow leopard
What??!!  You've never met James Crossley in the flesh?  Then do we have something for you.  Come to the launch of the second edition of his book, Harnessing Chaos, at St Mary's University on April 20 at 6.30pm GMT. 

"Chris, I have my poster made, but I don't know where to reserve my place at this extravaganza of political biblical interpretation!!!!  Help me!!!"

No problem.  Just go here.

"Will he really be there in person??!!!"

Yes, Prof Crossley will be there, and, as always, will stay until he signs the last autograph.

"Will he wear a suit and tie??!!"

Come on, now.  Ask a real question.
 

Sunday, April 10, 2016

McGrath on Phil 2 and the Passion

Over at Exploring our Matrix, James McGrath suggests a connection between the hymn in Philippians 2 and Jesus' (possible) anticipation of his own death.

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2016/04/philippians-2-and-the-historical-jesus.html

-anthony

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 2)

In the Introduction, Bart D. Ehrman mentioned three general approaches to memory and announced his intention to address all three of them in turn. Those three approaches include social anthropology (memory and oral tradition), sociology (social or collective memory), and cognitive psychology (individual and/or eyewitness memory; see pp. 2–3). Chapter 1 is entitled "Oral Traditions and Oral Inventions" (pp. 17–48), and presumably addresses the first of these three approaches.

Ehrman begins by admitting, rightly, that the word memory is used in multiple senses by scholars who talk about memory. He mentions Endel Tulving's (whom he erroneously calls Engel Tulving; pp. 18; 302n. 1) distinction between episodic and semantic memory (available here), though his discussion of the distinction is confused and somewhat contrived. The whole point of this section seems to be that "episodic memory" (recall of episodes from one's own biography) is often false ("flat-out wrong"; p. 18), and also that different groups of people often remember the same event or figure differently. He says, "Let me stress again: most of the time our memories are pretty good" (p. 20), but despite his claim to stress the normally-accurate-enough functioning of memory, the focus of his discussion is clearly and almost entirely on memory's mistakes. "But there are times when we simply don't remember the past accurately. It is worth exploring why we remember things poorly, or wrongly; it is also worth exploring whether such frail or false memories might be helpful for understanding the contexts within which we remember the things we do—and the reasons we remember them in the first place" (p. 21).

The rest of the chapter includes discussion under five subheadings. The first, "Remembering Jesus" (pp. 21–25), sets up the very diverse portrayals of Jesus in popular American culture and among scholars. Ehrman draws attention to Reza Aslan's book, Zealot, and Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard's very different volume, Killing Jesus. These are merely examples, among very many others, to demonstrate the point: "Not only does the past impose itself on us when we remember; but also our memories of the past are always affected by our views of the present" (p. 22). This is exactly right. This second subheading, "Memories of Jesus' Companions" (pp. 25–32) surveys fanciful stories told about Peter, Judas, and Pontius Pilate, almost exclusively in NT apocryphal texts (Acts of Peter, Gospel of Nicodemus, Papias, etc.). The third, "Memories of the Birth and Early Life of Jesus" (pp. 32–38) similarly provides a survey of fanciful stories of Jesus' birth and youth, again from NT apocryphal texts (Infancy Gospel of James, Pseudo-Matthew, and Infancy Gospel of Thomas).
The fourth, "Memories of Jesus' Life and Death" (pp. 38–45), surveys the Correspondence with Abgar, Gospel of Thomas, and Gospel of Peter. The last subheading, "The Very Real Memories of Jesus" (pp. 46–48), provides a lovely and sympathetic defense of the notion that "what really happened in the past" is only one among many kinds of truth. "If we want to read a book, do we really only want to read histories and historically accurate biographies? Are our only human interests tied to what has really happened in the past? Don't we also want to read novels? And short stories? And poetry? Don't imaginative storytellers who piece together complicated plots with intricate but invented characters have something to say to us? Can't 'truth' by bigger than the bare-bones question about what happened before now?" (p. 46). This is exactly right.

We could delve into the details of the content of Ehrman's discussion, highlighting this or that insight or questioning this or that oversight. But none of that is the most important thing to note about this chapter. The most important thing is this: The Introduction hinted at a discussion of "what anthropologists have written about oral cultures and the ways they preserve their unwritten traditions" (2). Ehrman gave this chapter the title, "Oral Traditions and Oral Inventions." So it is absolutely astounding that nowhere, not in one single section or page or paragraph or sentence or word does Ehrman say a single thing about either oral tradition or oral invention. The user's manual to my minivan has exactly as much information about "what anthropologists have written about oral cultures and the ways they preserve their unwritten traditions" as this chapter. The eighteen endnotes to this chapter refer to one work on memory (remember: Engel [sic; Endel] Tulving's essay), a handful of books on the historical Jesus, and a number of editions and discussions of extra-canonical Christian texts. One looks in vain for even a single reference to even one of the following:
  • Albert B. Lord's now-classic work, The Singer of Tales (Harvard University Press, 1960), which analyzes actually oral tradition and the dynamics of composing long, metrical poetry without the accoutrements of writing (south Slavic moslem epic songs), and then applied that analysis to the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey.
  • Jack Goody and Ian Watt's influential essay, "The Consequences of Literacy" (in J. Goody, ed., Literacy in Traditional Societies; Cambridge University Press, 1968), which undergirds most theories of the eclipse of the past by the present in oral societies, which Goody and Watt call "homeostasis."
  • Walter J. Ong's massively influential book, Orality and Literacy (Routledge, 1982), which set out to describe the effects of communicative media on thought and meaning.
  • Werner H. Kelber's ground breaking volume, The Oral and the Written Gospel (Fortress Press, 1983), which applied Ong's insights to questions of early Christian traditions, especially Q, the Gospel of Mark, and Paul's letters. This book has sparked nearly innumerable works; two books are explicitly identified as responses/reactions to it (Horsley, Draper, and Foley, eds., Performing the Gospel, and Thatcher, ed., Jesus, the Voice, and the Text), and we can probably rightly speak of a "Kelber revolution" in biblical studies.
  • Jan Vansina's seminal work, Oral Tradition as History (James Curry, 1985), which is the standard work on describing and assessing oral accounts of the past.
  • John Miles Foley's work, which transformed the legacy of Albert Lord (and his teacher, Milman Parry) and set it on a new path. Here two books are especially worthy of note: Immanent Art (Indiana University Press, 1991), and The Singer of Tales in Performance (Indiana University Press, 1995). Foley's work sets the agenda for all discussions of oral tradition and movement between media (esp. from oral performance to written text); moreover, Foley has engaged discussions of memory, media, and biblical scholarship on multiple occasions.
  • Elizabeth Tonkin's work on oral history and the transmission of historical accounts and memories apart from written texts; see Narrating Our Pasts: The Social Construction of Oral History (Cambridge University Press, 1992).
  • David C. Rubin's seminal work, Memory in Oral Traditions (Oxford University Press, 1995), which applies the work of cognitive psychologists to the question of memory and the performance and transmission of oral traditions.
  • Ruth Finnegan's extensive anthropological work among the oral traditions of Africa, including (for example) The Oral and Beyond (University of Chicago Press, 2007), or her Literacy and Orality (Callender Press, 2013), though Finnegan is in the later years of a long, productive, and influential career.
These are all seminal voices in the discussion of "Oral Traditions and Oral Inventions." Neglecting one or two would be acceptable, especially in a discussion that engaged not just the others but also a robust selection from the myriad other studies that analyze actual oral traditions, the dynamics of narrating the past in oral media, and the question of reading written texts with roots in oral events and experiences. For that matter, neither does Ehrman discuss even the now-outdated work of the form critics, those biblical scholars whom Ehrman mentioned in the Introduction (see pp. 12–13) and whose work Ehrman explicitly aims to introduce to a general-reading audience. Ehrman's discussion engages exactly no scholarship on oral tradition, whether authentic or invented (though this binary is hugely problematic), and so the title of his chapter is, at best, wrong.*

Let me say one last thing here. It gives me no joy to give such a negative critique of this chapter. And I hold out hope that his discussion of eyewitness memory, social/collective memory, and Jesus will be better and more responsive to the current state of scholarship on the issues Ehrman claims to want to talk about. But this chapter was literally nothing more than a rehashing of issues that Ehrman could have addressed (and did address) without recourse to the language or conceptual apparatus of memory and oral tradition. And that, I think, is too bad.

Continue to watch this space.

Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 1)



* I had earlier used an unfortunately strong word in my criticism of Ehrman's chapter. I have chosen to delete that word, with apologies for those who saw it.

The Competitive Textualization of the Jesus Tradition—Chris Keith

The latest issue of the Catholic Biblical Quarterly (78.2 [2016]) arrived yesterday and it included my article, "The Competitive Textualization of the Jesus Tradition in John 20:30-31 and 21:24-25" (pp.321-337).  Unfortunately, there's no link to it yet, so it seems that if anyone wants to read it, he or she will have to go to one of those old-fashioned "library" things with books and chairs and people who tell you to be quiet. 

Here's the abstract:

Abstract: In this essay I argue that the Johannine “colophons” of John 20:30-31 and
21:24-25 support the argument that the author of John’s Gospel was aware of one or
more of the Synoptic Gospels. Although these passages do not prove that theory, they
demonstrate that John’s Gospel participates in a competitive textualization of the Jesus
tradition, emphasizing its superiority to prior textualized Jesus books. This observation
raises the question of what prior textualized Jesus traditions the author could have
known. Although they are not the only options, it is here argued that the Synoptics are
by far the most likely candidates.

Key Words: Gospel of John • competitive textualization • Johannine transmission
• John 20:30-31 • John 21:24-25

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 1)

Earlier this week I announced that I would be reading and reviewing Bart Ehrman's latest book, Jesus before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented their Stories of the Savior (HarperOne, 2016). Ehrman is perhaps one of the most famous NT scholars in America, perhaps in the English-speaking world, in part because he is such an interesting writer and thinker, in part because his biography provokes admiration or excoriation, depending on one's perspective. No matter the reason for his stature, I was excited when I first heard rumors, in the aftermath of a 2013 panel on memory and the historical Jesus, that Ehrman was going to engage memory studies. I was part of the early wave of Jesus historians and NT scholars who have turned to questions of memory—and especially social/collective memory—in order to recalibrate the study of Jesus and Christian origins. I care about this topic, and adding a name as big as Bart D. Ehrman to the list of historians recognizing the importance of memory in some way justified my own work.

At this point, I've only read Ehrman's Introduction (pp. 1–16), so I'm not yet ready to praise or critique the volume. But we can note how Ehrman approaches his subject, recurrent patterns in his discussion, and the expectations he establishes for the rest of the book.

Ehrman says early on that he spent "about two years" spending his free time "doing nothing but reading about memory" (2). He specifically mentions three areas of memory studies: cognitive psychology (the study of individual memories), sociology (the study of social memory), and cultural anthropology (the study of oral cultures and unwritten traditions). These are all very good and vibrant areas of research; NT scholars are vigorously engaging each of these fields (individually and in various combinations), so Ehrman's voice joins a chorus-in-progress.

And so I was surprised by his presentation of NT scholarship as a whole, which (as I've said) has increasingly engaged questions of memory over the last decade-plus.
The more I read [about memory], the more surprised I became that so many scholars of the New Testament—the vast bulk of them, so far as I can tell—have never explored this research, even though it is so fascinating and most immediately relevant. Even those New Testament specialists who have delved into such fields have in many instances limited themselves to just one, or possibly two, of them. But they are all important. (3)
In the Introduction, Ehrman does not refer to any "New Testament specialists who have delved into such fields," so I cannot evaluate his claim. Moreover, throughout this introduction he cites only one work of one memory theorist (Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory [University of Chicago Press, 2000], the first volume of sociologist Barry Schwartz's two-volume work on American memory of Lincoln). The Introduction, in other words, does not offer very much to substantiate either Ehrman's claim to have read broadly ("for about two years now") in memory studies or his claim about NT specialists. This is, however, only the Introduction, and I hold out hope that more meaningful and substantive engagements will come in the remaining chapters.

When Ehrman does acknowledge that "this book will not be the first to address such issues" (12), he links his work with Rudolf Bultmann and the form critics and never mentions contemporary scholarship on questions of media, memory, and testimony. He laments that "there is not a single book available on the topic for a general-reading audience, a book that explains the form-critics' views or delves into the issues they [!!] raised in an non-technical (and interesting!) way" (13; my italics and exclamation marks). If Ehrman were providing a nontechnical, interesting survey of contemporary NT scholarship on memory and media, I would cheer. I am disappointed, however, to find that he seems to intend to present the nearly century-old work of the form critics, with the subtle (but false) implication that he's the first to do by appealing to memory studies.

We can make another substantive critique even at this very early stage. Some NT scholars engage memory studies in order to assess the question, How well did the evangelists remember Jesus? I think here especially of Richard Bauckham's book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans, 2006), which is keen to link the Gospels with eyewitness testimony and memory. Ehrman positions his work to follow in this vein, even if his conclusions are very different from Bauckham's. (He says the question of the evangelists as eyewitnesses "is certainly a question worth exploring" [12]; see Chapter 3, "Eyewitness Testimonies and Our Surviving Gospels.") Note the following:
At that time [in the 1970s], I heard views from some of my teachers that many people continue to hear today: the Gospels are based on eyewitness reports; they can therefore be accepted as historically reliable; people in oral cultures (such as in the ancient Roman world) had better memories than we do today; and such people always preserved their traditions about the past accurately, since they were not literate and so could not learn about the past from writing.

Are these views correct? (1)
With that last question, Ehrman reveals that the book will be about how well—or how accurately—the Gospels remember Jesus. Unlike Bauckham, Ehrman does not have much confidence in quality of the Gospels' memory of Jesus. He says,
This [before the Gospels were written] was a mysterious period of oral transmission, when stories were circulating, both among eyewitnesses and, even more, among those who knew someone whose cousin had a neighbor who had once talked with a business associate whose mother had, just fifteen years earlier, spoken with an eyewitness who told her some things about Jesus. (2)
Later,
[The Gospels] are memories of later authors who had heard from Jesus from others, who were telling what they had heard from others, who were telling what they had heard from yet others. They are memories of memories of memories. (3)
And then,
But we forget a lot of things as well—not just our keys, and the names of people we are sure we ought to remember, but also factual information that we used to know and events, even highly important events, that have happened in our lives. Even more disturbing, we misremember things. The older we get the more we realize: we sometimes remember clearly what took place and how it took place. Then it turns out we are wrong.

It happens to all of us. And it has happened to everyone who has ever lived. Including the followers of Jesus. Including the ones who told the stories about him. Including the ones who heard those stories and then passed them along to others. Including the ones who heard these thirdhand stories and told them then to others, who told them to others, who told them to others, who then wrote the Gospels. Each person in that link of memory from Jesus to the writers of the Gospels was remembering what he or she had heard. Or trying to do so. (3–4; my emphasis)
A little later,
Who was telling the stories [about Jesus]? Was it only the twelve disciples and other eyewitnesses? Or would it have been other people as well? That is, did people who heard stories from eyewitnesses also tell the stories? Is it possible that stories were told by people who knew people who knew people who knew people who claimed that they heard stories from people who knew people who knew eyewitnesses? (11)
And then almost immediately,
We all know from personal experience how much news stories get changed in the retelling (not to mention stories about us personally) just in a matter of hours, let alone days, weeks, months, years, and decades. Were the stories about Jesus exempt from these processes of alteration and invention that we ourselves experience all the time? (11)
And finally,
All of the people who told stories about Jesus—eyewitnesses, people who heard from eyewitnesses, and people who heard from people who heard from people who heard from people who heard from eyewitnesses—remembered what they saw and heard. And their own stories were based on those memories. (14–15)
These repeated comments about memory and the Gospels, all of which emphasize the multiple layers separating the original eyewitnesses to Jesus' life and teachings from the authors of the Gospels, betray a simplistic conception of memory. I highlighted a phrase from pp. 3–4, above: Ehrman refers to "that link of memory from Jesus to the writers of the Gospels." Like a chain wherein one link is attached to another link, that second link is attached to a third link, and that third link is attached to a fourth link, and that fourth link is separated and distinct from the first link by two intervening links, Ehrman writes as if memory moves from individual to individual in a unidirectional manner.

Memory, however, is not like a chain. Memory is like culture. Individuals create culture as they live and move and have their being together in society, but (and this point arises especially in the work of Barry Schwartz, whom Ehrman cites) individuals are themselves created by the cultures they inhabit. Memory (like culture) is not a chain but a web. Moreover, memory (like culture) is not a web of facts (which are either true or untrue, accurate or inaccurate) but rather "webs of significance" (Clifford Geertz, Interpretation of Cultures, 5) in which individuals and groups find and make (these are not the same thing) meaning. This broader understanding of memory poses problems for Richard Bauckham, who seems to assume that eyewitnesses have direct access to the reality and then subsequently offer interpretations of that reality. I suspect, on the basis of Ehrman's repeated characterizations of memory and memory transmission as akin to the Telephone Game, that this broader understanding will likewise present problems for Ehrman's work. We shall see.

Continue to watch this space.