Saturday, January 07, 2006

Dangerous Ideas in Biblical Studies

I'm issuing a call to all bibliobloggers for their one "dangerous idea" pertaining to the field of biblical studies. As I noted this morning, The Edge asked leading specialists (mostly scientists) the following question:

"The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?"

So this is my question for bibliobloggers:

"The history of biblical studies is replete with scholars who were considered dangerous in their time; Reimarus, Strauss, and Schweitzer, etc. What is your dangerous idea? Any idea you think is dangerous, not because you think it's false, but because many others want it to be false and you think it's true?"

Here are five ideas I came up with for examples. I should note that I do not necessarily agree with them to the extent their originators do, though I agree significantly or in part, which is why I chose them. Naturally, not everyone is threatened by the same thing; what is dangerous to one scholar will be rather mundane to another. But I would say that you could find plenty in the guild who find one or more of the following ideas threatening.

1. Biblical exegetes are forever reinventing the wheel, making little to no progress. (Dale Allison: "Forgetting the Past", The Downside Review, Vol 120, No 421; Resurrecting Jesus, Chapter 1)

2. The biblical texts we have today cannot be trusted. (Bart Ehrman: Misquoting Jesus)

3. The historical Jesus attached sacrificial meaning to his death, believing that his blood would appease God's wrath. (Scot McKnight: Jesus and His Death)

4. Scholars cannot be trusted to interpret biblical texts if they cannot be trusted to recognize a transparent hoax like Secret Mark. (Donald Akenson: Saint Saul: Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus, Chapter 4)

5. A Jewish Jesus is just as agenda-driven as a Hellenized Jesus, and the historical Jesus is irrelevant in any case. (William Arnal: The Symbolic Jesus)

So, bibliobloggers: what is your dangerous idea?

UPDATE: Over the course of today, under the comments section and over at Internet Infidels, I've received the following submissions for dangerous ideas. Nice work, folks; keep them coming.

Q is a mirage. (Michael Pahl, citing Farrer/Goulder/Goodacre’s dangerous idea)

The resurrection really happened. (Michael Pahl) In the comments section I explain why I don’t think this really qualifies as a dangerous idea. So does James Crossley.

New Testament studies should become a genuinely secular discipline (James Crossley)

Critical study of the New Testament and early Christianity provides only limited genuine support for modern feminist concerns and agendas. (Andrew Criddle)

Matthew is a thoroughly Christian document, written by Christians for Christians and not for Jews. (Chris Weimer)

Acts is not a historical source accurately dating the Christian movement. (Chris Weimer)

Q is not dead yet. (Chris Weimer)

Much real progress on the gospels have yet to be recovered because of the mentality to not accept change. (Chris Weimer)

Biblical scholarship should start with the assumption that the impossible is impossible. (Joe Wallack)

"We can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either, are moreover fragmentary and often legendary; and other sources about Jesus do not exist." (Rick Sumner, citing Bultmann’s Jesus and the Word)

UPDATE (II): Here are a couple more.

The New Testament isn't big enough and the corpus isn't secure enough to support style theories for authorship determination when the theory is based on counting criteria like hapax legomenon, common words or conjunction use. (Rick Brannan; see his blogpost)

God is supernatural. To approach Biblical Studies from a viewpoint that does not allow the supernatural to be possible is an invalid approach. (Rick Brannan; see again his blogpost)

I'm beginning to think I may have dismissed Michael Pahl's dangerous idea (Jesus' resurrection) a bit hastily after thinking about Rick's second suggestion. Evidently in this field, one person's minefield is another's comfort zone. Ken Ristau also disagrees with me (and Crossley) in the comments section. In response to my statement, "Most people in the guild of NT studies -- let alone the masses -- want the resurrection to be true", Ken said: "This I disagree [with] big time. Perhaps people might wish that their own resurrection were possible but I think the vast majority of us don't want to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, the Jesus of the Gospels. That brings with it far too many additional complications that many people spend their lives throwing off." I've certainly never met a Christian who has stated a longing for their own resurrection while denying Jesus', but perhaps what Ken is trying to say is that while individuals naturally want to resist their own demise (or "escape death" in some way), the resurrection idea in general poses uncomfortable ontological implications in the modern age. I maintain that many more people find ideas about resurrection, reincarnation, etc. more attractive (and less dangerous) than not (that's why they've been around and still persist), though I suppose I can meet people like Ken and Rick halfway: skeptics can indeed be threatened by ideas relating to the supernatural.

I'll take more dangerous ideas up until the end of the week, at which point I'll probably choose ten winners and devote a separate blogpost for them.

UPDATE (III): I've been anticipating a dangerous idea relating to the sources commonly used as a basis for understanding first-century Judaism. Here it is.

Many of the ancient texts used by New Testament scholars as sources for first-century Judaism as background material for the New Testament are actually either Christian compositions or were written long after the first century, or both, and insofar as reconstructions of early Judaism are based on them, those reconstructions are of dubious value. (Jim Davila; see his blogpost)

UPDATE (IV): The esteemed Mark Nanos emailed me his dangerous ideas about Paul. Mark believes Paul was more Jewish-friendly than usually assumed, and has argued this at length in Mystery of Romans and Irony of Galatians. I print below with his permission.

My dangerous idea is that Paul observed Torah, ritual as well as moral, eating kosher, observing Sabbath, having his sons circumcized (if he had any), offering sacrifices at the Temple if in Jerusalem, and so on. Moreover, concomitant with this dangerous notion, he taught believers in Christ who were Jewish to do the same, and non-Jewish believers in Christ to both respect those practices for Jews and to adopt many of them also themselves, as was customary for so-called "God-fearing" non-Jewish associates of Jewish communities (Noahide Commandments, Apostolic Decree of Acts 15).

The communities he formed...practiced Jewish dietary customs and calendars of the area Jewish communities. There was no "Law-free Gospel" or "faith only" in the sense it came to have in Christian tradition, but a Gospel message for non-Jews that they joined the family of Abraham without becoming proselytes, a "Proselyte-free Gospel," because of the faithfulness of Christ to restore not only Israel, but all of the nations to the Creator God.

This also brings up another dangerous idea, Christ-believing non-Jews do not become members of Israel...The "church" is not a new, third group of people (a "third race")... but a subgroup of the Jewish community (Israel)... The ethnic and thus some behavioral differences remain, but the discrimination associated with those differences in the present age is to be eliminated among themselves; they are to live as if the age to come had begun among themselves instead, which is to what Jesus Christ's resurrection bears witness (so Paul claims).

One more dangerous idea about Paul. He was unfair to judge any Jew who did not have the same revelatory experience he claimed for not agreeing with him, for on the basis of Scripture and empirical data he did not himself come to these conclusions; why should he proceed as if it should be so for anyone else? In other words, Paul's own experience, like his teaching at some points, should lead to respectful disagreement, not judgment of motives or ends; that is, to leave judging to God, and to pursue instead mutual respect and service to everyone by those who seek to uphold the faith he proclaimed.

23 Comments:

Blogger Michael Pahl said...

"Dangerous" in a sense, I suppose, is the idea that Q is only a hypothetical construct and that there never was a Q source as commonly reconstructed. This would not just overturn a specific source theory, it would leave many current theories of Christian origins without a key pillar and it would leave many scholars without much of a curriculum vitae.

And, if I may add another that is even more "dangerous," in some ways following on your third one: that the historical Jesus was truly resurrected from the dead...

1/08/2006  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Thanks Michael. I agree about Q and almost included that in my list of examples (Farrer/Goulder/Goodacre's dangerous idea).

Do you really think the resurrection is perceived as a dangerous idea -- or just an idea that's hard to swallow? Atonement theories are seen as dangerous, because many people think that blood sacrifice says awful things about God. But the resurrection says nice things about God. Doesn't it?

1/08/2006  
Blogger James Crossley said...

Again what sense dangerous? Yes the accepting the resurrection of Jesus would make NT scholarship the most bizarre academic discipline in universities by a long, long way (if it isn't already). But the fact that many NT scholars believe it makes it not particularly dangerous within the field of NT studies. Challenging it can be potentially dangerous (cf. Luedemann) but I suspect those who think it didn't happen are a small minority who will not win the hearts and minds of the majority if the discipline remains effectively a Christian discipline.

So how about this one (and I'm not saying I agree with it): NT studies becoming a genuinely secular discipline, e.g. a period of history studied as you might find in a history dept?

1/08/2006  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Again what sense dangerous?

This was my question: "Any idea you think is dangerous, not because you think it's false, but because many others want it to be false and you think it's true?" And I essentially agree with James: most people in the guild of NT studies -- let alone the masses -- want the resurrection to be true. That's why I tend to doubt the resurrection is a dangerous idea.

Yes the accepting the resurrection of Jesus would make NT scholarship the most bizarre academic discipline in universities by a long, long way (if it isn't already).

You think? :)

But the fact that many NT scholars believe it makes it not particularly dangerous within the field of NT studies. Challenging it can be potentially dangerous (cf. Luedemann)

Exactly...

So how about this one (and I'm not saying I agree with it): NT studies becoming a genuinely secular discipline, e.g. a period of history studied as you might find in a history dept?

William Arnal has proposed this on the XTalk list before, and this would indeed qualify as a dangerous idea. Nice one! (Though like you, I don't necessarily agree with it. There are too many believing Christians, including evangelicals, who have done important work in the field.)

1/08/2006  
Anonymous steph said...

Maybe though, if it did become a genuinely secular discipline, more potentially valuable secular scholars would be attracted to it so that any 'important' work produced by believing Christians would become more dispensable. At the moment many aspects of the discipline are ... unusual.

1/08/2006  
Blogger Ben Myers said...

"At the moment many aspects of the discipline are ... unusual."

True enough. But then again, the New Testament is a rather "unusual" collection of texts. ;-)

1/08/2006  
Blogger Ken said...

most people in the guild of NT studies -- let alone the masses -- want the resurrection to be true.

Oh, this I disagree on big time. Perhaps people might wish that their own resurrection were possible but I think the vast majority of us don't want to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, the Jesus of the Gospels. That brings with it far too many additional complications that many people spend their lives throwing off.

1/08/2006  
Anonymous steph said...

Hi Ben, Ben why is the NT an unusual collection of texts?

1/08/2006  
Anonymous steph said...

or even "unusual"?

1/08/2006  
Blogger James Crossley said...

On the inclusion of the supernatural because God is supernatural we would have to think seriously why don't historians don't work like this. Plenty of cultures from ancient times to the modern explain things with reference to God so why give NT studies an advantage? And would we dare tell historians to invoke God as an explanation? And if we start using God as a causal factor how do we know the mind of God?

Actually I agree that the discipline as a whole believing in the miraculous and the resurrection is dangerous as it would mean the discipline would lose all credibility. But is anyone really saying the discipline as a whole should believe this?

1/09/2006  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

James wrote:

Actually I agree that the discipline as a whole believing in the miraculous and the resurrection is dangerous as it would mean the discipline would lose all credibility. But is anyone really saying the discipline as a whole should believe this?

I'm not suggesting this, though perhaps I'm trying to play fair ball a little too magnanimously. Again, by a "dangerous idea", I mean an idea which (a) may very well be true, though (b) many people don’t want it to be true. The ideas suggested by Michael Pahl and Rick Brannan sometimes fit (b), but not (a) if we're applying standards used consistently by historians. So, James, my sympathies certainly lie in your direction.

1/09/2006  
Blogger James Crossley said...

Ok, how about this one:

A conventionally Jewish Jesus.

I know that this requires a definition and there is no objective 'Jewishness' and all that. So remember the following is only a useful definition. Jesus was a fairly standard Jew of his day. He did NOT override ANY Jewish institution even if he engaged in interpretation over specifics. There is not even the get out clause allowed by by Sanders (i.e. let the dead bury their own dead). Jesus didn't think of himself in any kind of grand theological terms but just as a charismatic prophet.

In other words a fairly charismatic Jewish religious thinker who did NOT do anything that was unusual for his times. He was remembered like other Jews for doing miracles which he never did and was not born of a virgin and was not resurrected. A prophet in line with other first century prophets.

Why is this dangerous? It would emphasise the Jewishness of Jesus without resorting to the lip service of Jesus the Jew who mysteriously just so happens to override aspects of Judaism which aren't parts of Christianity. Jesus may be limited in what he says about feminist issues (as was mentioned above) but also to Christianity in general terms in the sense that he has nothing do do with key Christian theological ideas such as the trinity.

Ok, I'm going on and on but isn't it also plausible?

1/09/2006  
Blogger J. B. Hood said...

I would offer an idea that is nearly the mirror opposite of Crossley's, namely, that study of the NT is inherently religious. That is, even those who claim no religious leanings (or who claim the ability to resist them) underestimate the inability of scholars in any discipline to abstract theological, religious, and ideological interests from "science" and scientific decision-making.

The argument can be made on theological grounds, but also on other grounds as well--following the line of Kuhn and a host of others. The discussion LRiii noted on the scientific blog indicates the embeddedness of ideology in the proposals and responses, noting Dawkins' (or Peter Singer's, etc) inability to fully carry out or believe in their own program, the always hostile reaction to ideas like racial differentiation, etc.

I'm certainly not trying to debate James here, nor am I implying that I think every single decision a scholar makes has a religious component--I just think this would qualify as a terribly dangerous idea in the minds of many scholars embedded in Enlightenment era ideas.

Perhaps we could get AKM Adam and Crossley to debate this?!?

1/09/2006  
Blogger J. B. Hood said...

My backup: "Biblioblogging is a legitimate scholarly endeavor." That's a dangerous idea.

1/09/2006  
Blogger James Crossley said...

To be fair, I didn't (and don't) actually think the discipline should be secular, though I do think there needs to be more non-religious people invloved. Actually my own view is openness of all perspectives. I put the secular one forward more as devil's advocate. So the only way I'd oppose you here Jason is that the discipline should not be closed to any perspective in any way (and I mean genuinely, not just in word only). Now that could be dangerous...

1/09/2006  
Blogger J. B. Hood said...

I guess that means Nazi interpretation of Jesus-as-Gentile (I'm working on Matt's genealogy right now) will finally begin to make a comeback. I'm tipping the Iranian president to edit that volume.

1/09/2006  
Blogger James Crossley said...

There are of course problems with extreme libertarianism (though I happily count myself as an extreme libertarian) but if someone comes up with a Nazi Jesus now they will easily be shown to be false. The ideas will not catch on at the moment through banning such racist work but because there is no social context whereby this kind of racist ideology can take off. So the time it did happen was when Christian Nazis were vocal and numerous enough in the discipline and when the social context was very antisemitic. And let's not forget how much anti-Jewish Christian scholarship there has been over the centuries nor the fact that the Nazi edited TDNT with some Nazi contributors still gets used by the good and the great.

1/09/2006  
Blogger Michael Pahl said...

I didn't mean to "post and run" on this, but I was in London all day yesterday so couldn't comment further.

Let me explain my initial two choices a little more. I understood Loren's question to entail a few of things: that it was an idea (recently?) proposed within biblical scholarship, that it was an idea that did not (yet) command wide assent within biblical scholarship, and that it was an idea which had potentially paradigm-shifting potential within biblical studies (to continue the scientific analogy a la Kuhn). Loren's historical examples point to these entailments. Thus, this is not intended to get into a debate about "Is X true?" but rather it is a sort of thought experiment about "What if X is true?"

My example of "Q as mirage" (to borrow Loren's phrase) I've explained a little, but I saw it as fitting within what I've just described. My example of the resurrection needs more explanation, and it wasn't really fair for me to throw this out with a nice ellipsis and no explanation.

The idea that "Jesus continued to exist after death in some form" is not particularly "dangerous" for many of the reasons suggested, but the idea that "Something happened to Jesus' corpse in space and time such that it/he was transformed into a new, 'bodily' state of existence" is "dangerous," I would propose. If this is the case, it means we must take seriously many statements in the New Testament to this effect not just for studying what the early Christians believed but for possibly indicating what may be true of reality. Furthermore, if this very "bodily" resurrection which I've proposed did happen, it means we must reckon with at least one element of an "apocalyptic" worldview as "literally" reflecting reality, when much ink of biblical scholarship has been spilt either denying or re-interpreting these apocalyptic elements. Most deeply, it means we must reckon with the potential inadequacy of our inherited metaphysic and methodology within historical criticism to discover the fulness of historical truth. And it probably has further implications.

Now, I have a lot of quotation marks around words in the preceding, because of the difficulty in defining terms along the way. And I fully realise the difficulties with this proposal and I'm not terribly comfortable with all those difficulties myself. And I'm not attempting to engage in debate regarding something which I cannot "prove" to be true within the metaphysical and methodological confines of critical historical scholarship, the confines within which biblical scholarship currently functions. I'm simply participating in Loren's thought experiment, and on that note I'll end with another ellipsis...

1/10/2006  
Blogger Anne and Mike said...

My dad has made a discovery that probably comes across to scholars as a "dangerous idea," but this discovery is one of highest integrity, and will impact the scholarly community in the years to come.
The entire New Testament has been written using one of the narrative traditions in the Hebrew Scriptures, now called the Literary Form of the Parable.
The literary form is well-defined and invariable which include critical relationships that show the intention of the author. Each book and letter has been diagramed into its literary form, and will be available to scholars soon...begining with the four gospels.

Anne
www.the150parables.com

1/11/2006  
Blogger James Crossley said...

Ok here's another (and let's be clear I include myself in this and it is of course a wee bit tongue-in-cheek): our own personal research and favoured ideas aren't the dangerous idea! ;-)

1/11/2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm coming late to this, but I will add my own.

1) The historical Jesus understood himself as the messiah, grounded in two main events which are most surely authentic- the triumphal entry and Jesus' reply to the imprisoned John the Baptist (see my 5 series posts on 4Q521 and the historical Jesus at deinde.org).

2) Let me offer the total opposite of another dangerous idea that has proposed; NT studies (and biblical studies as a whole) should become an entirely theological enterprise. Only within the community of faith which holds the scripture as authoritative can one truly understand the text. 'Secular disciplines' are guided by an epistemology and world-view that is foreign to the Bible and ought to be foreign to the community of faith.

Danny Zacharias

1/18/2006  
Blogger Richard H. Anderson said...

Theology Is In Transition.

1/30/2006  
Anonymous Bob MacDonald said...

Loren - the only love on this page is a typo - invloved - by James Crossley. The only dangerous idea is that maybe God really is love - I think that is why Gerontius says 'Take me away and put me in the lowest place' when he achieves the beatific vision. NT scholars whether exegetes or theologs - do not forget love - that is God's intense desire for the spirit God has made to live in you.

2/05/2006  

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