Tuesday, January 17, 2006

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.

19 Comments:

Anonymous steph said...

Just wondering about point 4: you say you could never accept a discipline dominated by believers or non-believers, but my impression is that this discipline is dominated by believers.

Secular scholars on the US Jesus Seminar and a few others scattered elsewhere I thought were outnumbered by believers.

1/17/2006  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Just wondering about point 4: you say you could never accept a discipline dominated by believers or non-believers, but my impression is that this discipline is dominated by believers.

To an extent, that's my problem with it. I would like to see more secular involvement in the field (though the Jesus Seminar isn't exactly a laudatory example of what secular/liberals can do).

1/17/2006  
Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

This is a very interesting idea, and well executed. Thanks for blogging on it!

For me personally (I'm not a scholar), I find idea #2 the most threatening —

2. A Jewish Jesus is just as agenda-driven as a Hellenized Jesus, and the historical Jesus is irrelevant in any case.

So let me ask this question: how does it square with dangerous idea #6? —

6. Q is a scholarly mirage.

I thought the Jewishness of Jesus was one of the (relatively) assured results of historical criticism … until Q clouded the picture by suggesting the possibility of a Hellenistic Jesus.

If Q goes out the window, aren't we back to saying, with some real confidence, that Jesus was thoroughly Jewish?

1/17/2006  
Blogger Eric Rowe said...

Of course Jesus was thoroughly Jewish. If Jesus wasn't thoroughly Jewish, then nobody was. He was also hellenized like every other inhabitant of Palestine (so with Lieberman "Greek in Jewish Palestine" and "Hellenism in Jewish Palestine").

1/17/2006  
Anonymous steph said...

Loren I agree with you - bias one way or the other in the participants is a problem. However it would be good if as a discipline it were treated or approached more like other disciplines.

And of course Jesus was thoroughly Jewish, with or without Q or qs.

1/17/2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Best definition of "anti-semitic" is here:
http://www.antiwar.com/hacohen/h092903.html

1/17/2006  
Blogger Michael Pahl said...

A thought on #4: New Testament studies only exists as a specific discipline because of the religious nature of the texts, so one can never escape religious questions whether past or present in studying the "New Testament." Put another way: If Christianity did not exist today and/or did not have the historical influence it has had on western life and thought, I doubt very many would be interested in studying an obscure collection of texts centred on an obscure would-be Messiah and his adherents. Study of the "New Testament" or early Christianity would attract fewer scholars, not more; it would be one of those specific historical questions that prompt a few doctoral dissertations and a small group of specialists. Like it or not, it is the "religious question" which has created and sustains New Testament studies.

1/18/2006  
Anonymous steph said...

I'm more interested in the historical questions of the NT origins just as students of Classics are generally more interested in the history of, for example, the Greek pantheon than the religious question of Zeus. Early Christian history is of major significance for Western culture so I can't avoid being fascinated by the New Testament and Christian origins.

1/18/2006  
Blogger James Crossley said...

The reason why both me and Loren (if you don't mind me speaking for you!) were pushing this was more to provoke than what we actually thought. My view is that there needs to be a greater mix of secularists and religious believers in NT studies otherwise it remain a Christian discipline in secular universities. While I quite agree that religious questions have been important in keeping the text going religious believers are asking questions developed in the secular humanities and many are arguing that x, y and z really did happen. But who is the debate between: liberal Christian and conservative Christian? That's fine but believers will get largely Christian results and will not get tested by serious secular arguments unless there is a serious secular presence.

1/18/2006  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

James wrote:

The reason why both me and Loren (if you don't mind me speaking for you!) were pushing this was more to provoke than what we actually thought. My view is that there needs to be a greater mix of secularists and religious believers in NT studies otherwise it remain a Christian discipline in secular universities.

You speak for me nicely. :)

Danny Zacharias just submitted the following "dangerous idea" in the comments section of the previous blogpost:

Let me offer the total opposite of [James Crossley's idea]: 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.

As I've said before, it's clear that one person's threat is another's comfort zone. But I think Danny is in good enough company (unfortunately!) that the above doesn't constitute too much danger. The real threat -- as Steph and James have been saying -- lies in the idea that NT studies could one day be treated like any other academic discipline, like the study of the Bhagavad Gita.

1/18/2006  
Blogger James Crossley said...

Quite agree Loren.

In that other dangerous sense Danny's latter idea is a threat because by that logic some strange things might have to happen. Pagans can only study pagan religions. Zoroastrians, Zoroastrianism. And so on. Then what do we do with politics and history depts: communists can only study the Russian revolutionaries like Trotsky or Lenin?

And are history depts supposed to abandon secular historical methodology because it is alien to the world view of medieval Europe?

And how can a secular educational establishment like a college or university say that its biblical studies and theology depts are communities of faith? This is why biblical studies can only be a faith based discipline in seminaries and theological colleges.

So I think it would be dangerous in that other sense: it could logically follow that academic thought turns the clock back or at least ushers in a dark age of anti-critical thought.
Ok, I can't see this happening but the logic is very unusual.

1/18/2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am sorry that my company is unfortunate Loren, I really am an okay guy :)


I can fully understand James Crossley's point of view in this matter, and where we disagree. He follows my logic down to the bitter end. I would not be able to agree with this type of logic simply because I do not think that Zoroastrianism, communist Russia, Trotsky, nor politics are on the same level as the NT and the life of Jesus and the incarnational community (and for the record I do think that Zoroastrians probably understand Zoroastrianism better that I ever would).

I did not object to the study of the NT in secular colleges, nor did I say that they must label themselves as a community of faith (it came across that way then I apologize) so let me try and reiterate. I believe having the study of the scriptures as a 'secular discipline' (as though this somehow implies objectivity) subjects the scriptures to a methodology, world-view, set of rules, etc., that is foreign to the Bible and foreign to the Judeo-Christian belief system. Why is the 'secular discipline' implicitly given more clout and weight than a faith-based study? It is simply exchanging one set of working assumptions and presuppositions for another. I personally prefer to have my assumptions grounded in the faith community and biblical tradition rather than the Enlightenment.

Blessings, Danny Zacharias

1/19/2006  
Blogger James Crossley said...

Hello Danny,

as I've said, I don't think that the discipline should be entirely secular. this may be at the root of some misunderstanding because the idea of a secular discipline was one I put forward as a 'dangerous idea' and not one that I personally held. As a dangerous idea I think it is just that.

But I don't think a believer necessarily has more or better insight just as I don't think a secularist is necessarily better or insightful. What I actually oppose is that one has a substantial advantage over the other or one is seen as inherently greater than the other. I also don't know how you can make the claim that just one discipline is better than all the others in the context of secular institutions. Also t is precisely because I don't think one is more objective than the other that the academic study should have a complete mix of perspectives. one should not be given authority over the other and I absolutely agree that we shouldn't swap one set of assumptions for another. Though as a few of us have pointed out, the faith approach dominates.

Does that make any sense?

As for the company, isn't one Paul Nikkel on your blog? That says it all ;-)

1/19/2006  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

I am sorry that my company is unfortunate Loren, I really am an okay guy :)

I've no doubt. :)

I believe having the study of the scriptures as a 'secular discipline' (as though this somehow implies objectivity) subjects the scriptures to a methodology, world-view, set of rules, etc., that is foreign to the Bible and foreign to the Judeo-Christian belief system.

I'm not saying (nor do I suppose that James is saying) that secular biblical scholars have on the whole shown themselves to be more "objective" than believing scholars. In some cases, depending on the issue, the opposite can be shown to be true.

On the other hand, subjecting the scriptures to the same methodologies we use in approaching other bodies of literature isn't so much to ask, is it?

I personally prefer to have my assumptions grounded in the faith community and biblical tradition rather than the Enlightenment.

But a faith-based tradition means nothing to those who view the bible as nothing more than ancient literature. That's the reason why a secular discipline would naturally be given more clout in the historical study of any piece of literature. But again, I'm not trying to imply that this somehow makes the secular specialist more "objective" in general.

1/19/2006  
Blogger Rebecca said...

And what place does this leave for Jewish scholars of the New Testament - who may be believers, but not in Jesus! It's essential for ecumenical study of the Bible that it be based in secular presuppositions - what else can all readers agree upon? Or should Jews just stop being scholars of the New Testament? We would then lose some fine scholars like Adele Reinharz, Sara Tanzer, Pam Eisenbaum, Paula Fredriksen, etc. Or I am misunderstanding you?

1/19/2006  
Anonymous C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

Danny Zacharias wrote:
"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."

Not bad, I like this.

However, my central beef is that biblical studies has become secularized among those who claim to be committed to orthodoxy. I have no problem with the Bart Ehrmans of the world doing what they do. I think their work is beneficial in a number of ways. On the other hand, I do have a problem with crypto secularists who hide out on the faculties of orthodox seminaries.

2/07/2006  
Blogger Dan said...

It's absurd to claim that blood sacrifice is "appalling to people." With over a million abortions a year in the USA alone, never-ending wars in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and wild parties outside American prisons whenever executions occur, only the blindest person could fatasize that blood sacrifices are the monopogy of "savages" and "primitives."

8/23/2009  
Blogger Terry B said...

Point # 5. God is not sadistic, Satan is. I don't believe God instituted the blood sacrifice, but I do believe he accepted it, at least temporarily. Every act of suffering Jesus did for us is a nail in the cross of Satan, if you will. You have to believe in such a being, invested with a divine authority, or in one who usurped it. Otherwise you really do have a God who demands blood sacrifice for some inscrutable purpose. I'm perfectly satisfied with the traditional belief that Jesus became sin while on the cross, and God the father's anger was poured out, not on us, but on Jesus. Otherwise, let's just go back to the liberal holy grail of a wise teacher who taught the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, but never claimed to be the Son of God.

9/06/2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

here's another dangerous idea: christianity is largely adopted and coopted mithraism.

8/24/2011  

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