Friday, November 04, 2005

North American parochialism

I’m about one third of the way through Scot McKnight’s Jesus and His Death and will have a review posted next week. It’s an ambitious work and covers a lot of ground. For now I only want to call attention to a remark made in the book about North American parochialism, especially in light of yesterday’s blogpost. McKnight writes:

“My reading of scholarship reveals a disappointing parochialism. North American scholarship, especially in its more recent skeptical orientation, has almost completely avoided the discussion of Jesus’ understanding of his death...U.K. scholarship has tended to focus on Jesus as a representative of a figure in Israel’s scriptures, or even of Israel itself, in both his ministry and death... Perhaps American scholarship’s tendency to search for its own identity since the days of European dialectical theology has led its academy to fashion its own approach to questions about Jesus. At any rate, Jesus’ perception of his death is worthy of renewed consideration.” (Jesus and His Death, p 74)

McKnight’s association of North American scholarship with skepticism is the opposite of Akenson, who chides us for being too credulous. But we're skeptical and credulous about different things. U.S. and Canadian scholarship has attached too much value to phantom and late unorthodox sources (Akenson), while dismissing certain ideas from the New Testament likely traceable to Jesus (McKnight). Dale Allison should be cited here:

“Eschatology, Christology, and soteriology are among the things that Christian fundamentalists hold dearest. Is detaching these things from Jesus [an aggressive agenda on the North American continent] encouraged by a personal dislike of conservative religion?...It is a reasonable surmise that Jesus, at least near the end, envisaged his death and gave some meaning to it.” (Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet, p 65)

Exactly. And I am quite pleased to see McKnight backing Allison’s overlooked dissertation, The End of the Ages Has Come, which defends what is stated above: that Jesus saw his death as the start of the tribulation period; that he died -- as Schweitzer insisted a century ago -- to force God’s hand.

UPDATE: Jim West responds:

Has modern American scholarship really become so dissimilar to and distinct from its European cousins (except in some quarters) that it really is doing its own thing and seeking its own way? In my estimation, Historical Jesus scholars in the US do not follow some sort of idiosyncratic, isolated approach in historical Jesus research; rather, most Historical Jesus scholars known to me do their dead level best to check their preconceptions at the door (as best as anyone can, to be sure), just like their European colleagues.

First of all, if Jim thinks scholars like Crossan, Borg, Mack, and Patterson “do their dead level best to check their preconceptions at the door”, he needs to think again. But with regards to parochialism, McKnight is addressing a specific part of the historical-Jesus equation, namely the prophet’s understanding of his death. And there’s simply no question that it is U.K. and European scholars who have been largely receptive to exploring this question, whether in terms of Isaiah’s suffering servant, the Danielic Son of Man, or some combination thereof.

Remarkably, we can know absolutely nothing about the inner workings of Jesus' mind in terms of the significance of his own death. What we have in the New Testament is the Church's meditation on the subject, not a word from Jesus of Nazareth about the matter.

Needless to say, I think Bultmann’s position is a cop-out. No one is trying to put Jesus on the psychiatrist’s couch, only deduce a general mindset based on what we know about prophets and millennial beliefs in ancient Judaism. We have, I believe, more than “a word” from Jesus about the matter. This is precisely the kind of skepticism we need to shed. (Though I somehow doubt that McKnight had Bultmannian skeptics in his sights. Jim seems to be the last of a dying breed here -- though I’m sure he’ll take that as a compliment.)


Blogger Jim said...

Compliment accepted, of course!

Blogger Scot McKnight said...

I'm not quite sure who is saying what. My "parochialism" comment pertains to what scholars have said about how Jesus understood his death.

NT Wright, for all his great work, seems to be completely unaware of the seminal works of Schuerrmann. Ed Sanders, again for all his great work, avoids the same scholarship along with the foundational studies of some other Germans. I give some examples but I did my best to avoid just pointing fingers at scholars and showing they "did not read so and so."

Here's a confirmation. I have been involved in five searches at North Park for new professors for our school. I am amazed, and I could put this all in capitals, at how little American PhDs know about European scholarship. The tendency, as I see it in the interview process and in discussions and in ways that we can see when we come into contact with them, is for American students to master the "method" of their particular school and not read the scholarship for the big picture.

Here's an example: I'm surprised when I encounter a young PhD student from the USA who knows anything concrete about someone like CH Dodd or CFD Moule or even M Hengel.

The idea that professors today are keeping up with scholarship in the UK, continental Europe and North America -- and that, after all, isn't the whole world -- is a chimeral reality.

I've wandered from the point: I'm not persuaded that scholars today keep up with scholars in other parts of the globe. I rarely run into scholars who keep up with the Germans. I know I'm a disaster with the French, though I do try to read what I come into contact with on the subjects I am writing about.

A Jimmy Dunn is a rarity.

Akenson is reading selectively.

On American HJ scholarship: there is simply nothing like the Jesus Seminar in the UK or Germany (Luedemann is in his own world). The imaginative works of many find no substantial parallel in the Universities of Europe that I know of.

I would not contest that scholars think they check their presuppositions at the door, but postmodernist historiography teaches us that this is not quite what we'd like it to be. Ed Sanders' Jesus is what he wants him to be, Crossan's is what he wants him to be, and we could go on -- no one escapes this completely.

And on not knowing what Jesus thought about his death: if we apply any normal "criterion" to the evidence in the Gospels we are shocked by how many times Jesus actually mentions his death. Twice, however, and only twice, does it have atoning value: Mark 10:45 and 14:24. (But, this excludes the tribulation meaning and this could shed significant light on some sense of atonement.)

Loren, I apologize for all this, but thanks for bringing up my book.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Loren, I'm not quite sure who is saying what.

Scot -- the two italicized paragraphs are from Jim West at Biblical Theology.

Thanks for jumping in and clarifying. I'm enjoying your book.

Anonymous jjramsey said...

"Ed Sanders' Jesus is what he wants him to be"

IIRC, the Jesus reconstructed by Sanders is basically an apocalyptic prophet. This hardly seems the result of an attempt to refashion Jesus as one who advocates the things one wants to believe in. It's not as if Jesus is being cast as a sage, or a Marxist-style advocate for the underclass, or (to borrow a tongue-in-cheek term from the Ship of Fools forums) a "fluffy bunny".

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

I agree that Sanders' Jesus can hardly be construed as a figure who mirrors his own beliefs; Sanders is, after all, a social-gospel Christian and anything but an apocalyptic thinker. McKnight is being a bit unfair here.

However, there are other agendas besides "using Jesus as a mirror for one's own beliefs". Sanders' Jesus may serve a more subterranean agenda. For instance, a Torah-observant Jesus helps insulate Christianity from complicity in the Shoah. See Bill Arnal's The Symbolic Jesus for a discussion of alternate agendas.


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