A Dozen Dangerous Ideas
I want to thank everyone for submitting their dangerous ideas at my request. Here are the winners, rated in descending order. It was hard picking and choosing; they're all so good. As with the original list by the scientists, by "dangerous" I have in view ideas which may well be true (or have arguably valid reasons for being true) but many people would prefer they not be true. Some of them I agree with completely (#3 most obviously); most I agree with significantly; two or three I have reservations about.
1. Exegetes are forever forgetting the past, reinventing the wheel, making little to no progress. (Dale Allison)
Nothing is more threatening to specialists than the idea that they haven't improved upon their predecessors in large measure. Allison believes we don't pay enough attention to the past, precisely because we are under this "illusion that exegesis progresses like the hard sciences" ("Forgetting the Past", The Downside Review, Vol 120, No 421, p 255). In many ways the field has been regressing, as seen in the secularization of Jesus. "Exegetical amnesia" compounds the problem, as when scholars believe they are proposing something new but are rehashing old stuff under different trappings. The true danger lies in realizing that someday our successors will pay us back with the same short shrift.
2. A Jewish Jesus is just as agenda-driven as a Hellenized Jesus, and the historical Jesus is irrelevant in any case. (William Arnal)
If a Greco-Roman sage can be pressed into secular service, or used to validate liberal Christianity, a Jewish prophet serves more oblique agendas: insulating Christianity against anti-Semitism while, paradoxically, able to reinforce Christian supersessionism at the same time. In either case, says Arnal in The Symbolic Jesus, the figure of Jesus becomes a screen on which to project contemporary debates rather than a subject of genuine historical inquiry. The invective from both sides of the debate proves it. The Hellenized Jesus has even been denounced as an implicit (if unintentional) resurrection of the Aryan Jesus of Nazi Germany, while the Jewish Jesus gets panned, in turn, as a patronizing stereotype of modern Jews. Arnal's dangerous idea is that none of this matters. Even if Jesus turned out to be a Nazi's fantasy, a "pure Aryan", it would be irrelevant, because we don't need Jesus to serve as a precedent for us in today's world.
3. The biblical heroes, genuinely understood, are alien to us. We can identify with them only to a limited extent. (Loren Rosson)
The people of the bible lived in a world where questions were hostile, lying honorable, and wealth thievery. Honor and shame could easily be matters of life and death. Jesus was a man of his times, a macho type who faced opposition in ways we consider juvenile: evading questions with counterquestions, rhetoric, and insults. People from this world weren't introspective: they took their identities from family and peers rather than themselves. Generalizations like these smack of racist stereotyping, but that's the point: in honor-shame cultures stereotyping is not only possible but institutionalized. The early Christians had different psychological makeups than we do. Whether we're orthodox or liberal, evangelical or secular, bridging the chasm that divides "us" from "them" is difficult -- and dangerous, sometimes, indeed.
4. New Testament studies should become a secular discipline. (James Crossley)
I don't quite agree with this anymore than Crossley himself does, though part of me wants to see it happen. As one of my blog readers (Steph) pointed out, "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." Ultimately I can't go with it, for the same reason I could never accept a discipline dominated by believers. Excluding people like this leads to insular thinking and tunnel vision. Many of the faithful, including evangelicals, have proven more than equipped to engage the historical task. An evangelical like Scot McKnight is light-years ahead of the secular Burton Mack. Speaking of McKnight...
5. The historical Jesus attached sacrificial meaning to his death, believing his blood would appease God's wrath. (Scot McKnight)
Blood sacrifice is appalling to people, and Christians have become increasingly uneasy with atonement doctrine. Stephen Finlan speaks for many: "If God wants to save, why is intercession necessary? Why should Jesus' pleading for humanity only be effective after he had been murdered? Why could not this intercession be effective without Jesus being tortured and killed? It does us no good to perceive Jesus as heroic if we are forced to view God as sadistic." (Problems with Atonement, p 97)
6. Q is a scholarly mirage. (Michael Pahl; cf. Farrer, Goulder, Goodacre)
Anti-Q theories have been around for plenty of time, but Mark Goodacre's Case Against Q has made things more difficult than ever for this sacred cow. He notes the irony: "Q has been all over the world, loved by everyone, feminists and liberation theologians, the sober and the sensational, the scholar and the layperson, a document with universal appeal. Indeed one of the keys to its success has been its ability to woo both conservatives and radicals alike." (p 16). Traditionalists favor Q for providing (supposedly) early evidence of the Christian movement, and liberals just adore it for its emphasis on parables and teachings (like gospel of Thomas), lacking orthodox material like Jesus' passion and resurrection.
7. Critical study of the New Testament and early Christianity provides only limited genuine support for modern feminist concerns and agendas. (Andrew Criddle; cf. John Elliott)
I agree with this entirely. Jesus and Paul have more to offer women than many of the orthodox are comfortable with, but the idea has been way overblown. We know Jesus was publicly involved with women; that Paul got women active in the church (Phoebe was a deacon; Prisca helped with his Gentile mission). But none of this has anything to do with egalitarianism on Jesus' part. Ideas about social equality originated with the Enlightenment and were first put into practice with the American and French revolutions. Jesus maintained a hierarchy in which he stood at the top, twelve special men stood below him, and others below them in turn, some of whom, yes, included women. Oppressed women would have naturally found his apocalyptic message attractive, where there would soon be a reversal of fortunes. Jesus and Paul made more room for women than many in their age. But that's not saying too much by our standards.
8. The canons of textual criticism are no substitute for thoroughly understanding the author's personality. (Stephen Carlson; cf. D.C. Greetham)
According to Greetham: "Being a critic means being sensitive to another person's quirks and peculiarities; it means that the critic must by an almost phenomenological leap, 'become' that other person while preparing the text for publication." (Textual Scholarship, p 296). As a novelist accustomed to "becoming other people", however fictionalized, I can readily endorse this claim. Carlson goes further with Greetham, who was speaking about textual criticism, saying "the dangerous idea is that it's also true for the scholarly criticism of any human endeavor."
9. Many texts used for understanding first-century Judaism are either Christian compositions or written long after the first century, or both. (Jim Davila)
Our views of early Christianity have depended significantly on comparisons and contrasts with first-century Judaism, though there was no such monolithic entity. Much of this "Judaism" has been reconstructed uncritically from the Old Testament pseudepigrapha, on grounds that "if it doesn’t look especially Christian it must be Jewish." ("Jewish Pseudepigrapha and Christian Apocrypha: (How) Can We Tell Them Apart?") Davila reverses the burden of proof, demonstrating that many of these texts may be nothing more than "Judaism according to Christianity", even a text like the Wisdom of Solomon. "We know these documents had a Christian context and that Christians liked them and must have made some sort of sense of them." This dangerous idea makes first-century Judaism(s) even murkier than before, and denies us our convenient comparative models.
10. Acts is not an historical source accurately dating the Christian movement. (Chris Weimer; cf. Knox, Hurd, Ludemann)
This may not sound so dangerous today, but many exegetes remain unable to go where Knox did half a decade ago. As Donald Akenson puts it: "[Knox's] trenchantly accurate observations were exactly the kind of behavior that frequently ends a career... [by] introducing a question that is so fundamental that it needs to framed rudely: as a source for the life of Paul, should the Acts of the Apostles be largely torched? That question has hung over studies of Paul and his writing like a grey ash cloud from a distant volcano." (Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus, p 135). If Knox and Hurd are right (I'm not saying they are), then we can say good-bye to a lot of work done on dating Paul's letters and missionary work.
11. Paul was not a prototype of Martin Luther. (The New Perspective)
Since the landmark study of Paul and Palestinian Judaism by Ed Sanders, many theologians have bitten the bullet and accepted Paul for who he was -- an apostle with a robust conscience trying to convert Gentiles, instead of a guilt ridden soul-searcher worrying about his inability to please God. Paul was no more a Lutheran than Judaism was legalistic, and this really should be accorded the status of "simple fact" rather than "dangerous idea". But because diehards continue combating the New Perspective, I include it here under two (very different) approaches within the perspective itself: the Jewish-friendly Paul and the sectarian Paul.
(a) The Jewish-friendly Paul Paul observed the Torah, taught Jewish Christians to do the same, and his churches were sub-communities within ethnic Israel. He never preached a law-free (or "faith-only") gospel, only a proselyte-free gospel for Gentiles, who remained obligated to respect the primacy of Israel and even to adopt certain Jewish practices themselves. (Mark Nanos)
If Nanos' view of Paul is correct, then Christianity gets turned upside down. What would today's churches make of a Paul who exhorted submission to synagogue authorities and adherence to at least some of the Jewish dietary regulations? I'm sure that Nanos is perceived as no less dangerous by many of his fellow Jewish scholars, who have gone to great lengths proving that Paul was an anti-Semitic villain.
(b) The Sectarian Paul Paul resembled Luther in one way only: the offensiveness of his abuse toward the law and Jewish people. But he eventually recanted in his letter to the Romans, owing to bad reputation and/or church crises, and tried playing fair ball with Israel. (Ed Sanders, Thomas Tobin, Philip Esler, Mark Given)
Scholars have tried in various ways to account for Romans' more positive estimation of the law and Jewish people. Paul may have changed his mind over time after struggling through theological dilemmas (Sanders). He may have revised his arguments out of concern for a nasty reputation (Tobin). If he was trying to resolve ethnic conflict in the Roman church, the success of his strategy would have depended on acknowledging the value of each group's ethnicity; i.e. there had to be something good about being Jewish (Esler). On the other hand, perhaps he only modified his scandalous rhetoric, while his real offensive views remained the same as ever before (Given). Regardless which is true, the idea that Paul did away with the law for expedient reasons (to evangelize Gentiles), then had difficulty coping with the mess he created, is anathema to Reformationist champions who see Paul as the "pure" theologian of grace vs. merit.