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.



  1. Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    Anthony, I think that you are correct that there is a fallacy of binary opposites. Basically, it's a distorted type of thinking, often handed down from generation to generation, that attributes truth to one end of a spectrum or the other, with middle-ground being ignored or demonized. I'll resist reference to any political parallels.

    As an example of a false binary structure we can look at the example you gave of eschatological prophet at one end of the spectrum and ethical teacher at the other. Nothing excludes the possibility that one person could be both, and even within the Jesus Seminar's choices for authentic wisdom we find, for example, a tiny beginning huge ending theme (sounds like nonspecific eschatological)in parables like Leaven, Mustard Seed, Sower, and so forth.

    Where I think that I disagree with your emphasis is in the matter of putting Jesus himself at one end of a spectrum and the interpretations of his followers at the other. This seems to me like a perfectly legitimate way to formulate the problem. We do want to distinguish and compare these elements in the biblical material as much as one can, with a recognizable mixture in the middle. Now it may be that the mixture in the middle is all we have in collective memory, and if that's the finding, so be it.

    I do think that the JS came up with a voice print, that when read thoroughly and with an open mind, is a very powerful and positive personal and social influence to which one might give oneself.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

  2. Excellent logical analysis! The way scholars use logic, craft arguments, employ language, etc. is so critically important to being helpful and making progress in the field. Thank you for this!

  3. This post is either helpful or it isn't.

  4. Anthony, what is your proposed way out of the narrative of binary opposites?

    The model of compare and contrast comes down to that most primal comparison, that being us versus them. We simply fight over the categories we use to create our binaries.

    I see how a memory theory of history might undermine the dominance of the binary ... for example, if "memory IS what happened," then there's no reason why Jesus could not have been born in many places, more than two, depending on what was remembered. But even here, social memory seems to be seen in binaries: memory versus counter-memory, or one memory tradition bifurcating into two (seemingly never trifurcating). Then we end up with orthodoxy versus some particular heterodoxy, Hillel v. Shammai, Peter versus Paul, always something like a two-party system. It's not clear how social memory deals with third party candidates. Is it even possible to remember x, other than in the way that the dominant culture remembers x, or in a single alternative way?

  5. In general I agree that these false dichotomies should be avoided. Are there any specific areas where binary options are appropriate?