Monday, July 25, 2005

Millenialism or Myth?

Turton has written a formidable post, as expected. It will be interesting to see reactions to his work from other Markan experts if it gets published. I still say that whatever the chiastic features indicate, Mark is the most oral of the gospels. It has an abrupt beginning and ending, hurtling pace, and rather limited ease with syntax and grammar. Repeated uses of "and", "immediately" (43 times compared to 8 times in Mathew and 3 times in Luke), "again" (28 times compared to 17 times in Matthew and 3 times in Luke), and especially the historical present tense (150 times compared to about 20 times in Matthew and once in Luke), indicate we're not exactly dealing with high literature (on which see, for instance, John Painter's Mark's Gospel, p 8).

Given Turton's view of Mark's historical value as a window onto Jesus (zero), it would help to clarify certain assumptions. We're faced with two options. The first is the one I take, that early Christianity was a failed apocalyptic movement which evolved in a manner typical of millenials, in fact much like the way preserved in the New Testament. Critics like Dale Allison and Bart Ehrman are spot on here. If we can't trust these apocalyptic traditions, then we really can't trust anything in the sources, and Christ-mythers like Michael Turton and Bill Arnal (but not Jesus Seminarians like Funk and Crossan) are right: the historical Jesus is lost (and/or insignificant), if he ever existed; there's virtually nothing reliable we can say about him.

That's our choice: millenialism or myth. Or in Schweitzer's lingo, "thoroughgoing eschatology or thoroughgoing skepticism". If the dominant features of the New Testament tradition don't reflect significantly the sorts of things Jesus said and did, then the search for him is completely futile. The attempts of minimalists to salvage a non-apocalyptic Jesus are flawed for according weight to traditions less secure than those denied. Mythers play a safer and saner game.

But it's unreasonable for anyone, mythers included, to remain so skeptical here. Millenarian groups and cargo cults are real and common phenomena, and if their defining characteristics happen to fit the Christian tradition so neatly, why resist the natural conclusion? As Allison has illustrated (see Millenarian Prophet, pp 81-94), apocalyptic groups (like the Jesus/Christian movement of NT tradition) appeal to disaffected people; they're revivalistic; they think they will be saved, and others damned; they break taboos and defy sacred custom; they're nativistic; they thumb their noses at clan and family in favor of "fictive kin"; they demand rigorous and unconditional loyalty; they think the coming utopia can be experienced partly in the present; and they constantly cope with failed expectations, and revise accordingly.

It's better to be a mythicist than a minimalist, but wiser to be a millenialist than a mythicist. That's what the sources teach us when critically considered. In this light, it would be worth reassessing some of the classic criteria used for determining authenticity.


Blogger Quixie said...

I disagree strongly with the last sentence here. But then, I am probably more aligned with the sceptical viewpoint.

Interesting blog, by the way. Keep it up.



Blogger Milton said...

How is it possible to use any tradition as a source when determining the character of Christ? Was not Christ himself against the use of tradition in moral and theological issues? I suppose I'm a sola scriptura type person, but what else is there that can support itself?


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