Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Radio Interview with Stephen Carlson

As Mark Goodacre mentioned on NT Gateway, the radio interview in which Stephen Carlson talks about Secret Mark can be downloaded here.

Paul the Deceiver: A Sketch of the Apostle's "True Rhetoric"

In Paul's True Rhetoric: Ambiguity, Cunning, and Deception in Greece and Rome, Mark Given argues that the apostle was deceptively sophistic, saying things he really didn't mean, insulting people "politely", making rules and breaking them, patronizing the Jewish people, and masquerading like a chameleon according to the company he was in. This is an important work, if at times one-sided, offering new ways to understand the various tensions and contradictions in Paul's letters. It also forces interesting questions about the nature of one's "gospel truth".

Given examines Paul's rhetoric in three places, cleverly calling his chapters, "Ambiguity in Athens", "Cunning in Corinth", and "Deception in Rome". I'll briefly sketch his findings.


Given calls Acts 17:16-34 "the most sophisticated speech composed by the most accomplished narrator and speech writer in the New Testament" (p 68), for Luke presents Paul as using double-entendres left and right when addressing the Athenians. Paul continually insults the crowd but in a way that can be construed as either positive (or at least neutral) for purposes of saving face. He tells the Athenians that they are "in every way daimon-fearing” (17:22), which can mean that they are either "thoroughly religious" or "thoroughly superstitious" (p 69). Paul may be saying the former, in effect, while obviously meaning the latter since (in Luke's eyes) the Athenians are idolaters. Paul then calls attention to the fact they "worship a god as unknown" (17:23), which can mean that they either "worship unknowingly" or "worship improperly/shamefully" (p 71), again perhaps saying the former but really meaning the latter. When he says that "God has overlooked their ignorance" (17:30), the Greek word for "overlook" can also mean "despise". Paul may be saying, face-value, that God has overlooked their misconception, while really meaning that God has despised their errors for which they will pay (p 73). Given persuasively argues that the Areopagus speech shows Paul insulting his pagan audience, but ambiguously enough so that he can get away with saying what he really thinks. How genteel.

I have serious doubts, however, about how historical this is. Luke has the tendency to tone down (or make ambiguous) insults in general. We see this by comparing his gospel to the two he used. Jesus' rivals are "malicious hypocrites" in Mt 22:18/Mk 12:15, but they are "crafty" in Lk 20:23, a more ambiguous term. The Jesus of Mark and Matthew tells the Sadducees, point blank, that they are wrong (Mk 12:18-27/Mt 22:23-33), but the Jesus of Luke is more circumspect (Lk 20:27-40). Luke tones (way) down Matthew's catalog of insults (Mt 23:1-36) against the Pharisees (assuming, as I do, that Luke knew Matthew); vicious insults like "brood of vipers" (Mt 23:33) are censored in Lk 20:45-47.

Given declares that "although Luke's portrait of a sophistic Paul may be fanciful, it is not necessarily fantastic" (p 82), based on what he then proceeds to demonstrate from the letters themselves. But the deceptions we are about to see in Corinth and Rome don't involve the rhetoric of insulting -- about which Paul was usually anything but ambiguous. The sophist Paul of Acts 17, while fascinating, is probably more a product of Luke than Given wants him to be.


Turning to I Corinthians, Given finds Paul to be cunning in two particular places, I Cor 1-4 and 9:19-23. In the former, he tells his addressees that the only wisdom that matters is God's wisdom rather than human wisdom (I Cor 1:18-25), only then to present himself as the conduit of true spiritual wisdom which they can't hope to attain without him (I Cor 2:6-3:4). Given suggests that Paul is claiming to have a "secret and hidden wisdom of God" (I Cor 2:7) available only to the privileged -- which would make him as bad as the gnostics he just finished bashing (in I Cor 1:18-25). Paul thus makes the rules and breaks them (see pp 95-103).

Paul's more infamous deception is the one he candidly admits to: that he "becomes like a Jew in order to win Jews" to the gospel (I Cor 19:20) and "becomes like the lawless in order to win the lawless" (I Cor 19:21). Despite scholarly attempts to avoid the obvious implications (or treat as hyperbole), the apostle is admitting that he temporarily, and cunningly, practices Torah in order to win Jews, and then behaves like an immoral pagan in order to win Gentiles. Paul's real view, of course, squares with neither behavior, for he insists that while the Torah is obsolete, the best of its requirements are fulfilled on the avenue of the spirit. It's as if a Southern Baptist were to try converting a group of Jews by observing Torah in their presence, and then later mix with heathens by drinking, dancing, and smoking pot.

People were incensed by Paul's chameleon behavior -- in II Cor 12:16 he responds to charges of "taking people in by deceit" -- and rightfully so. While it's perfectly acceptable to lie and deceive in the honor-shame Mediterranean (on which see here), especially against enemies, it's not acceptable to beguile one's potential converts like this. Given locates the rationale for Paul's deception in an apocalyptic world-view: because he believed people were so blinded by the heathen gods of the present world -- and too easily taken in by pagan deceptions -- they needed to be deceived in turn for their own good. (see pp 115-117). Paul's strategy, in this sense, mimics those of Socrates and Aristotle:
"Just as Plato's Socrates feels free to break the rules of dialectic if necessary in order to win an argument, and Aristotle can counsel the use of sophistic elenchus to defeat sophists on their own terms, so Paul feels free to leave the world of being for that of seeming, 'to become all things to everyone,' in order to propagate the truth, his gospel truth... In a Platonic-Socratic world-view, the ignorance from which humanity suffers results from the elusive and changing nature of the sphere of becoming, but in Paul's apocalyptic worldview, the deceptive character of existence in 'this world' is even more acute because 'the god of this world' is himself a diabolically clever sophist...[In either case], the deceived must first be deceived for their own good." (pp 117, 176-177, 117)
This is an interesting way of looking at it, but I wonder if Paul really thought about justifying his deceptions this way. Is Given perhaps trying too hard to find a rationale here? The idea that people need to be deceived for their own good is fairly common, and one we practice all the time, if without realizing it. Paul's masquerades may simply reflect normal human behavior more than anything.


If Paul was ambiguously insulting in Athens, cunningly self-serving in Corinth, he was deceptively patronizing in Romans. Scholars have tried accounting for Romans' more positive estimation of the Torah and Israel in various ways: Sanders thinks Paul changed his mind over time -- that after struggling through certain theological dilemmas, he came to a more positive view of God's purpose in giving the law and Israel's salvation (Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People). Tobin thinks Paul revised his arguments for more expeditious reasons -- out of concern for a bad reputation (Paul's Rhetoric in its Contexts). Esler thinks the situation in Rome provides the answer -- that Paul was trying to resolve ethnic conflict in the Roman church, and the success of his strategy depended on acknowledging the value of each group's ethnicity; i.e. there had to be something good about being Jewish (Conflict and Identity in Romans).

In contrast to these approaches (though in a way similar to Tobin's), Given thinks Paul's views didn't change one bit since Galatia and Corinth. He "hasn't really softened his view of the law at all" (p 157), only his scandalous rhetoric. His true position on the law and the Jewish people remained exactly the same. The law may be holy (Rom 7:12), and God may have given it for the best of reasons (for "life" in Rom 7:10), but it's still entirely useless and unable to do the job God gave it; the best it had to offer can be fulfilled only by a radically different route (the spirit) (Rom 8:1-4). The only difference between Galatians and Romans in terms of the law's purpose is that in one the law (and thus God) is an active agent in confining Israel under the power of sin (Gal 3:19-26), while in the other sin itself is the agent (Rom 7:7-25) -- thus absolving God of the blame. But "subtract the sin scapegoat in Rom 7, and what remains?" asks Given (p 157). Exactly the same as before: an ineffective and completely useless law, unable to save people.

Likewise, even though Paul now credits the Jewish people with having "adoption", "the covenant/law", "worship", "the promises", and "the patriarchs" (Rom 9:4-5), that's empty credit, because we know what he really thinks: that real adoption comes from being liberated from the law (Gal 4:5) and being led by the spirit (Rom 8:14-15); that there are two covenants, an old and a new, the former of which has been superseded by the latter (II Cor 3:6-14); that real worship takes place "in Christ" (the temple of one's body) rather than the Jerusalem temple (I Cor 3:16-17); that the real heirs to God's promises are Jews and Gentiles in Christ rather than Israel under the law (Gal 3:19,22,29; Rom 4:13-14; Rom 9:6-24); that the only patriarch who means anything is a revisionist Abraham, the father of those who have faith regardless of their ethnicity (Gal 3:6-9; Rom 4:1-17), and the root of a tree from which natural branches (Jews) broke off in order to make room for unnatural branches (Gentiles) (Rom 11:17-24). What Paul really thinks, says Given, isn't hard to figure out (see pp 159-168).

Paul admittedly comes across as deceptive in Romans, but I'm also confident that he's changed his mind about a few things. It's difficult to ascribe the passionate arguments of Rom 7:7-25 and 11:1-36 to pure deception. Paul was human enough to deceive, but he was also human enough to care. And Sanders is right: Rom 7 & 11 show a deep concern about God's perversity and inconsistency. Perhaps the best way of putting it is that Paul wants to have it both ways. He wants to improve his theology without admitting that he's doing so, or that he was ever wrong. In that sense he's indeed a deceiver, and more than likely, a self-deceiver.

Concluding Observations

Given is most persuasive about Corinth. That's where Paul is aggressively deceptive, in more ways than one. I like his treatment of Romans too, though would insist that at least some of Paul's opinions about the law and Israel have truly changed. With regards to his speech before the Athenians, the ambiguously-insulting rhetoric probably owes more to Luke than Paul, who had less tact.

I don't want my criticisms of Paul's True Rhetoric to suggest an ambiguous enthusiasm on my part for the book. That would be deceptive indeed. This is a fantastic book for asking all the right questions, and trying to understand Paul in terms that western people are inclined to distrust. I hope to see more work that builds on Given's approach.

(Previous series on lying and deception: Prologue here. Part I here. Part II here. Part III here. Part IV here. Epilogue here.)

Monday, November 28, 2005

Rejecting I.D.

I enjoy reading Chris Heard’s blog (blogs, actually: he has a D&D blog in addition to Higgaion), even when in disagreement. Today he targets one Paul Mirecki, chair of the Religious Department at University of Kansas, who has recently gloated over the fact that he’s teaching creationism where it belongs -- in a mythology course. Mirecki is reported as saying:

"The fundies want it all taught in a science class, but this will be a nice slap in their big fat face by teaching it as a religious studies class under the category 'mythology.'"

Chris believes, however, that Mirecki’s "motives and comments" are "out of bounds for an academic proposing a course", though I can't understand why. Mirecki’s remarks may be a bit petty, and so I thought it was perhaps their tone which irked Chris more than anything else. But Chris went on:

"Mirecki has become (by his own words) a living caricature: the atheistic religious studies professor out to destroy students' faith."

According to the article Chris cites, however, Mirecki’s comment may have been taken out of context -- addressed as it was to a closed listserve -- and seems to have been directed toward the religious right's particular agenda regarding the teaching of ID/creationism as if it were science. I seriously doubt Mirecki is out to "destroy anyone’s faith" in general.

Chris concludes:

"It bothers me as a professor that Mirecki's stated agenda for his course is anti-religious, and it bothers me as a believer because I have deep religious reasons for rejecting creationism and ID."

But, as I mentioned on Chris' blog (in comments), this is like saying that one has religious reasons for rejecting the idea that the sun revolves around the earth. One may just as easily have religious reasons for accepting such an idea -- or indeed, as many do, ID.

Quote for the Day: The Fear of Deception

"Western culture has feared nothing quite so much as it has feared deception. This concern over deception has played a fundamental role in the formulation of our doctrines of sin and salvation, our definitions of philosophical problems, our conceptions of mental health, and even our justifications of the scientific enterprise. It would not be excessive to claim that in the Western tradition deception has commanded as much aversion as death itself." (Loyal D. Rue, By the Grace of Guile: The Role of Deception in Natural History and Human Affairs; cited in Mark Given's Paul's True Rhetoric, p 5)

As I promised before, I will be shortly dealing with Mark Given's ideas about Paul's conniving deceptions. Rue's observation is spot on. The western aversion to lying and deception is amazing when considered in proportion to how often everyone does it.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Tyler William's "Seal" and Women Bloggers

Tyler Williams has hit on a solution to the question of identifying bibliobloggers, by designing a seal of approval for "white male bibliobloggers everywhere, but especially in developed nations". (See all the links in Tyler's post to observations from other bloggers.) I love it.

Given his sense of humor, it wouldn't surprise me if Tyler has read James Finn Garner's Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, and Once Upon a More Enlightened Time. Some of these revisions of children's stories had me laughing so hard that it hurt when I first read them. Little Red Riding Hood scolds the rescuing woodsman for daring to presume that women and wolves can’t solve their problems without a man's help, and without resorting to violence. Sleeping Beauty is a "sleeping persun of better-than-average attractiveness". Hansel and Gretel become persuaded by the old woman -- a benevolent Wiccan -- to discard stereotypes of witches and assert their bonds with Mother Earth. The Three Bears end up eating Goldilocks (an invading research-driven biologist), even though they are vegetarians, because "trying new things" is a benefit of being multicultural.

On the serious side, I do hope to see more female bibliobloggers, but I don't see much of it happening. I've already mentioned my reason here; I just don't think women are as inclined to preach via the blog -- that's what we do, after all: "preach", though academically, and regardless of how religious or secular we are -- as men are. The biblioblog is a form of self-aggrandizement, and women don't care to draw attention to their own importance as much (or in the same way) as men do. Which is certainly not to say that our blogs serve the sole purpose of self-aggrandizement (if I thought that I wouldn't blog). We blog for very positive reasons too.

James Finn Garner would no doubt have a perfect parody for the issue we're debating.

Friday, November 25, 2005

The Outline of Romans

Hardly a week goes by when I’m not working on Romans, and lately I’ve been spending time with Thomas Tobin’s Paul’s Rhetoric in its Contexts: The Argument of Romans. One of Tobin’s noteworthy contributions is his outline of the letter, particularly in how he groups chapter 8 with what follows rather than what precedes. I don’t think anyone has suggested this before.

Tobin’s rationale for grouping 8 with 9-11 is as follows. He finds that each the four sections of Rom 1:18-11:36 begins with a short expository section which served as a basis for the more lengthy and argumentative diatribe following. Rom 8 is the short expository piece leading into the controversial argument of Rom 9-11 (instead of wrapping up the chapters preceding). Tobin thus outlines (pp 87-88):

1. Rom 1:18-3:20
a. 1:18-32 (expository)
b. 2:1-3:20 (argumentative)

2. Rom 3:21-4:25
a. 3:21-26 (expository)
b. 3:27-4:25 (argumentative)

3. Rom 5:1-7:25
a. 5:1-21 (expository)
b. 6:1-7:25 (argumentative)

4. Rom 8:1-11:36
a. 8:1-30 (expository)
b. 8:31-11:36 (argumentative)

Tobin is on good grounds with the structure, though perhaps not thematically, as the themes of chapter 8 go more with what precedes.

So that’s food for thought. Here are five outlines of the letter (including Tobin’s) for comparison. I like Esler’s for theme, Tobin’s for structure.

Joseph Fitzmyer, Romans, pp 96-101.

1:16-4:25 -- Justification by faith
5:1-8:39 -- Assurance of salvation to those justified
9:1-11:36 -- Justification compatible with God’s promises to Israel
12:1-15:13 -- The demands of upright life in Christ

Ulrich Wilckens, Romer, 1:ix-x; 2:vii-viii; 3:vii.

1:18-5:21 -- Justification of the godless by faith
6:1-8:39 -- Reality of justification in Christian life
9:1-11:36 -- Reality (paradoxical) of election
12:1-15:13 -- Exhortation

James Dunn, Romans, vii-xi.

1:18-3:20 -- The wrath of God on the unrighteous
3:21-5:21 -- God’s saving righteousness by faith
6:1-8:39 -- Outworking of the gospel in relation to the individual believer
9:1-11:36 -- Outworking of the gospel in relation to Israel
12:1-15:13 -- Outworking of the gospel in everyday terms

Philip Esler, Conflict and Identity in Romans, passim.

1:18-3:20 -- Common identity in Christ
3:21-4:25 -- Foundations of the new identity in Christ
5:1-8:39 -- Origins and nature of the new identity in Christ
9:1-11:36 -- Israel and the Christ-movement
12:1-15:13 -- Descriptors of the new identity in Christ

Thomas Tobin, Paul's Rhetoric in its Contexts, pp 425-430.

1:18-3:20 -- The sinfulness of Gentiles and Jews
3:21-4:25 -- Righteousness apart from the law, but confirmed by the law
5:1-7:25 -- Salvation in relation to Christian living, sin, and law
8:1-11:36 -- Eschatology and the place of the Jewish people
12:1-15:13 -- Issues of Christian living: harmony, accommodation, the greater good

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Carlson and Brown on Secret Mark

Almost 50 years after Morton Smith's "discovery" of Secret Mark in 1958, Stephen Carlson has put the hoax to rest. His case against Smith is strong enough to be deemed conclusive, and can be summarized as follows.

* The author of Secret Mark must have read James Hunter's novel, The Mystery of Mar Saba, published in 1940. Philip Jenkins first made this connection in 2001, and I'm sure that if it had been made back in the 70s, a lot less people would have been duped. The novel is about a forgery at the Mar Saba library, exactly where Smith "discovered" Clement's letter. Furthermore, as Carlson notes, both Secret Mark and the novel's fictional discovery reinterpret a resurrection account from the gospels in naturalistic terms.

* The letter to Theodore sounds hyper-Clementine, as if someone went out of his way to mimic Clement (argued at length by Andrew Criddle in 1995).

* The letter conveniently goes out of its way to authenticate Secret Mark, identifying the author Clement, who in turn vouches for Secret Mark’s authenticity; and his full citation of Secret Mark is unnecessary and gratuitous for the concerns he is supposedly addressing (pointed out by Charles Murgia back in 1976).

* Smith published a paper -- right before his discovery of Secret Mark -- in which he connected both Clement of Alexandria and "the mystery of the kingdom of God" (in Mk 4:11) to sexual immorality (in T. Hagigah 2:1), which, of course, is exactly what Secret Mark is all about. Amazingly, no one ever picked up on this before Carlson.

* Smith deliberately planted three confessions which reveal himself to be the author of Clement's letter:
(1) M. Madiotes -- the "bald swindler".

(2) Morton Salt -- the company which invented the kind of salt presupposed in Clement's letter.

(3) Jesus' gay affair -- with the young man later seen in Gethsemane, where Jesus was arrested, thus evoking the cultural milieu of America in the 1950s, where police were cracking down on gay men who met in public parks and gardens.
Identifying these signature-confessions constitutes the bulk of the book, and it's brilliant detective work on Carlson's part. When taken in conjunction with the rest of the damning evidence, forger's tremors, and convenient "coincidences", they suffocate Smith’s hoax once and for all.

Carlson insists on distinguishing hoaxes from forgeries, and believes that associating Secret Mark with the latter has hindered a proper understanding of what Morton Smith was really up to. While I certainly think Secret Mark can be called a forgery, I appreciate Carlson's concern about motive. He's essentially right: Smith didn't fabricate Secret Mark to support his academic theories; he wanted to test his colleagues with an elaborate prank. Secret Mark belongs in a category of hoaxes which include the Ern Malley Poems, Alan Sokol's postmodern hoax, and the play by Sophocles really written by Dionysius the Renegade. In this sense, in terms of motive, it's quite different from forgeries like Macpherson's poetry, the Hitler Diaries, or Ireland's Shakespeare play.

I agreed with what Donald Akenson wrote in Saint Saul five years ago: it doesn't take a specialist to spot the fakery in Secret Mark. But it did take an expert like Carlson -- a legal expert, not surprisingly -- to prove it.

Revisiting Scott Brown's book, therefore, six months after publication, is incredibly painful now that Carlson has crushed all doubts. Mark's Other Gospel is so diligently argued, carefully considered, and plausibly sounding at times, that one could almost believe it describes the hermeneutical intent behind an ancient document. Brown's thesis is that Secret Mark was part of a longer version of the gospel of Mark, written by the same author, but for advanced readers who might have a more gnostic understanding of the first version. Longer Mark elaborates themes of discipleship and Christology already in place, especially elements which were left ambiguous or obscure in the shorter version, like the mystery of the kingdom of God (Mk 4:11) and the appearance and flight of the young man in Gethsemane (14:51-52). Brown even suggests that Secret Mark is an actual parable of the kingdom:
"As an enacted parable of the kingdom, the raising of the young man...illustrates the paradox that one must undergo death in order to defeat it. The private explanation of this parable [where the young man spends the night with Jesus] expounds this insight by using baptismal imagery of death and rebirth [naked under the linen]... Baptism imagery is used here to interpret the salvific dimension of the young man's rising according to the analogy of dying (drowning in water) and rising again, though the baptism by which the transformation is attained is not the rite itself, but a metaphorical immersion in literal suffering and death." (p 206)
While Morton Smith is laughing from the grave, it would be a mistake to dismiss Brown as a fool. By all indications, he's a sharp scholar who knows his stuff (though Mark's gnosticizing of his own gospel is rather hard to take seriously). Even the best can be taken in by hoaxes, and that's what happened here. In fact, I wasn't sure how to rate this book. Does it deserve amazon's lowest rating (one-star) for building a theory of gospel origins on a prank? Or is it valuable for precisely this reason, as an illustration of academic credulity in the context of a wider hoaxing phenomenon?

Brown would find neither flattering, so I should point out some decent things about the book, especially in terms of what it argues against rather than what it argues for. Brown points out considerable problems with ideas that Secret Mark was part of an early version of Mark, part of a secret and elitist gospel, or was used for purposes of pre-baptismal catechism. He's also right about certain scholars who have dismissed Secret Mark as a hoax for the wrong reasons -- whether out of prejudice or malice. In particular, he scores zingers against Jacob Neusner, who clearly maligned Smith out of spite, owing to the infamous fallout between the two men. It's embarrassing to see Neusner's pre-'84 and post-'84 remarks laid out on the same page, as he went from Smith's "brilliant account" of a discovery which "ranks with Qumran and Nag Hammadi, Masada and the Cairo Geniza, but required more learning and sheer erudition than all of these together"; to Smith's "forgery of the century"! (see pp 39-40).

Mark's Other Gospel is ultimately the tragic product of a scholar who ignored (or couldn't see) the humor in Secret Mark. That it's the most ambitious treatment to date only accentuates the tragedy. Perhaps this serves all the more as a lesson to us, in the wider context of literary hoaxes and forgeries.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

SBL Reports: Ruminations

Mark Goodacre and Michael Bird have commented on the paper presented by Ted Weeden regarding Bailey's theory of informally controlled oral tradition. Mark believes that "Weeden has dealt a fatal blow to Bailey's theory", and, though it pains me to say it, so do I. I've always taken oral tradition seriously -- and still do -- but Weeden has shown that we need a better model than Bailey's, which is based not only on inaccurate assumptions about oral cultures but a mishandling of the evidence to boot. We've had numerous discussions about this on the Crosstalk mailing list. For starters, see Weeden's posts here, here, and here, and then responses from these points. I rarely find myself agreeing with Weeden, but he's made an important contribution here that can't be ignored. Those (like Dunn, Wright) who continue to rely on Bailey will be resting their case on a house of cards.

Mark also attended the historical Jesus section, where the question of Jesus' illegitimacy was discussed. He raised a concern at the end about using the criteria of multiple attestation and embarrassment:

"I can't help thinking that one cancels out the other. If everyone, Q, an independent Thomas, Mark, Matthew, Luke all have this same material, who is embarrassed about it? The multiple attestation is itself an argument against embarrassment."

This isn't necessarily true, though in some cases it may be an indicator that one criterion just doesn't apply or work well. For myself, I don't find the criterion of multiple attestation terribly useful -- though not because it supposedly cancels out that of embarrassment. It only tells us is what is multiply attested by the time of the sources, the earliest of which is Paul and (perhaps) James. But something can be multiply attested and still embarrassing to the tradition -- a glaring case being Jesus' baptism by John; just look at the way each gospel writer struggles with the embarrassment. (I wrote a post months ago dealing with the various criteria here.) In any case, this is a session I would have liked to attend, as I tend to think Jesus was illegitimate.

I've been enjoying the SBL reports and regret not being there. I'm anxious to hear how Stephen Carlson's paper on "The Hand of Secret Mark" was received.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Quote for the Day: Paul the Deceiver

"The real Paul is the reel Paul, the fisher of ignorant and deceived humanity, who keeps his audience reeling as he enmeshes them in a net woven of ambiguous, cunning, and deceptive words...[His] apocalyptic God is a mysterious, ambiguous, and finally sophistic God, who cares enough to be cunning and is devoted enough to be deceptive." (Mark Given, Paul's True Rhetoric: Ambiguity, Cunning, and Deception in Greece and Rome, pp 176, 181)

Sometime after Thanksgiving I plan on dealing with Mark Given's thesis at length, which will tie back to my previous series on lying and deception. (On which see the following links: Prologue, I, II, III, IV, Epilogue.)

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

SBL Papers

For those like myself who won't be going to Philadelphia this week-end, here's a handful of online SBL papers. They're all very good.

Mark Goodacre's "The Rock on Rocky Ground". Springboarding from the infamous passage of Mt 16:18, argues that Matthew was a successful reader of Mark, enhancing the latter's theme of bumbling discipleship rather than correcting it. Matthew essentially makes Peter an archetype of unresponsive Jews to the gospel.

Rick Brannan's "Biblioblog Problems and Solutions". A well-written paper addressing the problem of blogpost accessibility. It identifies potential solutions, such as blogging software which allows different types of posts, distinguishing different types of content, etc.

Jim Davila's "Enter the Bibliobloggers". Presents a state of the biblioblogs: their origins, how they've been evolving, and noteworthy accomplishments to date.

Stephen Carlson's "Didache 16: The Tradition Behind 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18". Criticizes Alan Garrow's reconstruction of the Didache's lost ending, while endorsing his main idea that Didache preserves the tradition behind I Thess 4:13-18, "an exciting discovery" which "opens the way for finding out how much more of the Didache is pre-Pauline".

I'd been hoping to attend this year, but no such luck. Papers like these, needless to say, make me wish I could be there even more.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Cautious Blogging

Alan Bandy, Mark Goodacre, and Jim West discuss a perceived need for "cautious blogging" in light of an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The issue is about how blogging may negatively impact one's reputation. Alan lists pros and cons to blogging, Mark cites a nice passage from another article called "Do Not Fear the Blog", and Jim opines that the cons listed by Alan are really not so (to which Alan responds in comments). Good observations from all.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Which Middle-Earth race are you?

Tolkien fans will like this. (Thanks to Siris for mentioning.) To Which Race of Middle-Earth Do You Belong? Of the ~18,000 people who have taken this, the breakdown is as follows.

Numenorean -- 37% (graceful, dignified, tragic)
Hobbit -- 6% (domestic, innocent, agrarian)
Rohirrim -- 21% (fierce, courageous, loyal)
Entish -- 15% (wise, cautious, resilient)
Dwarvish -- 6% (stalwart, possessive, earthy)
Elvish -- 16% (ethereal, lyrical, perceptive)

As if I couldn’t predict my results...


Apocalyptic fire, modern needs, resurrection

Every so often comes a book that everyone needs to read, and Resurrecting Jesus is one of them. Dale Allison's sequel to Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet is as good its predecessor, and in some ways even better. It consists of six independent essays, each of which builds on and clarifies arguments made in the previous book.

The first essay, "Secularizing Jesus", argues that the "third quest" for the historical Jesus is a misnomer, owing to chronological snobbery and the fantasy that we are progressive. Allison scores valid points here: many of today's Jesus-questors are indeed repeating the past, whether for good or bad -- and some of them are secularizing Jesus worse than ever before. But there has been more progress in the field than Allison allows. We have a better understanding of ancient Judaism and Mediterranean culture, and have become increasingly diverse in our methodologies. It's a good essay but rather one-sided.

The other five essays, however, are completely excellent and can hardly be done justice in an amazon review. "The Problem of Audience" argues what may seem to be an obvious point, but one which has been given insufficient heed: that Jesus said different things to different people, and didn't expect the same thing from everyone. (In an interesting anecdote from the preface, Allison says he wrote this particular essay because he had nothing better to do, during two long train rides.)

The third essay, "The Problem of Gehenna", shows that Jesus more than likely believed in hell and judgment, however unattractive that is. We moderns may see little prospect in reconciling a God of compassion with the same deity who throws people into an apocalyptic incinerator, but that's no way to guide our interpretation of Jesus: "All of us are bundles of seeming contradictions," writes Allison, "from which generalization I see no reason to exempt Jesus. It would be unimaginative and foolhardy to subdue him with the straightjacket of consistency." Consigning people to hell was standard fare in Jesus' world, and he shows every sign of having done this, especially to his opponents.

Speaking of what's unattractive provides a segue into the quasi-confessional fourth essay, "Apocalyptic, Polemic, Apologetics", which addresses what people like and dislike about an apocalyptic Jesus who was wrong about the end. It ends by being surprisingly stronger for its own excursions into theology, and is my favorite after the sixth.

The fifth essay, "Torah, Urzeit, Endzeit", tackles the controversial question of Jesus and the law. Allison realizes that however we sift the gospel testimony, it's hard to avoid a Jesus who both observed/intensified the law, while in other cases relaxing it. When doing the latter, Allison believes it was often in the interest of competing moral imperatives. For instance, in sabbath controversies Jesus appealed to the hunger of David and his men, or the value of human need, arguing that one imperative can trump another. The commandment was overridden but remained intact. Today we call this choosing the lesser of two evils. Other Torah-controversies owed to Jesus' eschatology -- "the end in light of the beginning" -- insofar as the law contained concessions to the fall and thus required repair. Thus, in cases like divorce and swearing, Jesus replaced Mosaic imperatives with Edenic ones, Moses not being strict enough in view of the apocalypse.

The last essay, for which the monograph is named, takes up half the book, is satisfying as it is long, and the best treatment of the resurrection to date. Allison steers between the dogmatic poles of Tom Wright and Gerd Ludemann, using the best from both worlds, but with a caution and humility lacking in these treatments. Weighing arguments for the empty tomb as legend and history, Allison comes down on the side of history: Jesus' tomb was found empty, and because of this we today have the doctrine of the resurrection. He also discusses the apparitions of Jesus in terms of grief-induced visions, concluding that in some ways the early church was the reception history of what the disciples' bereavement wrought.

One of his arguments for the empty tomb deserves close attention, since at first blush it resembles that of Tom Wright though is actually worlds apart. Wright has claimed that only the empty tomb could have caused the disciples to make the radical claim Jesus was raised from the dead, for there was no Judaic precedent for the resurrection of an individual (messiah or otherwise) before the apocalypse. This is emphatically not Allison's argument. Allison recognizes that lack of precedent is no obstacle to invention and creativity. The disciples could easily have invented an empty tomb/resurrection legend. Religious people make wild claims all the time; apocalyptic movements find creative ways of coping with dashed hopes in order to survive; rude reality reinterprets expectations. Jesus' original prediction about the destruction of the temple was spiritualized in the gospel of John (Jn 2) for precisely these reasons -- in order to cope with failed hopes and broken dreams.

But here's the problem, says Allison, and why Wright is onto something despite all this: the disciples' dreams hadn't been broken. In their minds, Jesus' death wasn't a mark of failure. The crucifixion would have demoralized them but ultimately been taken as part of the apocalyptic drama. Jesus had braced them for such tragedy: they were living in the end times, on the brink of the tribulation, and suffering/death had to precede the apocalypse. The shame and scandal of the crucifixion would have put them, as Allison says, "emotionally down but not theologically out". They would have gone on hoping for the imminent apocalypse and the resurrection of the dead, at which point they would have been vindicated and resurrected with their savior. Jesus' martyrdom does not constitute a failed expectation, and that is why Wright, despite himself, is right. It's not that revisionism is itself unlikely (for indeed it is); it's that there was no need for revisionism in this case. As far as the disciples were concerned, things were still going "as expected".

The upshot is that both Allison and Wright think it took the empty tomb (in conjunction with visions) to cause the disciples to conclude that Jesus was resurrected prematurely. But they arrive at this conclusion very differently -- Allison correctly. Allison also happens to be more humble about what we can say actually happened to Jesus' body: any number of things. It may have been raised. It may have been moved or stolen. Whatever happened, the tomb was empty when found, and because of this, we today have Christianity.

Don't wait to buy this book, but be sure to get the paperback edition. The hardcover goes for an extortionate $100.00 and has no cover art to boot. Resurrecting Jesus belongs on the shelf of any and all who are interested in the study of the historical Jesus, and the relationship between that study and modern needs.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Quote for the Day: Schweitzer's Motives

"We can still speculate on what drove Albert Schweitzer. He once wrote: 'I live my life in God, in the mysterious divine personality which I do not know as such in the world, but only experience as mysterious Will within myself.' Someone who does not find God at large in the world may well be attracted to an otherworldly [apocalyptic] Jesus... I nonetheless remain unclear as to what extent a personal theological agenda advanced Schweitzer to his Jesus. One suspects that his otherworldly ideology was partly a product of his otherworldly Jesus [rather than the other way around]... It was the interpretation of an apparent discovery, not the motivating impulse behind that discovery." (Dale Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, pp 134-135)

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Wisdom from Pat Robertson

Check this out. Pat Robertson advises the people of Dover. Unbelievable.

“I’d like to say to the good citizens of Dover. If there is a disaster in your area, don’t turn to God, you just rejected Him from your city. And don’t wonder why He hasn’t helped you when problems begin, if they begin. I’m not saying they will, but if they do, just remember, you just voted God out of your city. And if that’s the case, don’t ask for His help because he might not be there.”

Five Things

Rick Brannan has tagged me, in the blogosphere equivalent of a chain letter. See here. I guess I'm game.

Ten Years Ago
At the Nashua Public Library (had returned from Peace Corps service in Africa a year prior).

Five Years Ago
At the Nashua Public Library, but a couple of promotions ahead.

One Year Ago
Still at the library...

Five Yummy Things
1. Lobster tails
2. Red lentil soup with onion, red pepper, tomato, and (yes) apricot
3. Charcoal grilled salmon with summer squash, broccoli, onions, and carrots
4. Brown Cow yogurt with fruit
5. Crunchy tacos and bean burritos

Five Songs I Know By Heart
Noteworthy favorites include
1. Radio Free Europe (R.E.M.)
2. Tom Sawyer (Rush)
3. Shock the Monkey (Peter Gabriel)
4. Tower of Strength (The Mission U.K.)
5. Welcome to the Machine (Pink Floyd)

Five Things I Would Do With A Lot of Money
1. Relocate to Portsmouth NH
2. Buy a home there
3. Install a surround-sound cinema
4. Travel abroad (to the Middle-East and Southeast Asia)
5. Donate to Amnesty International

Five Places I Would Escape To
1. Middle-Earth
2. Library stacks
3. A church, synagogue, or mosque
4. Home
5. My imagination -- the best place there is

Five Things I Would Never Wear
1. Bell bottoms
2. Belts, unless the pants are too wide
3. Shorts, unless it’s over 95 degrees
4. Boots, unless for snow
5. Anything uncomfortable

Five Favorite TV Shows
I don’t watch TV anymore, but old TV shows now on DVD...
1. Doctor Who
2. All in the Family
3. Miami Vice

Five Things I Really Enjoy Doing
1. Writing
2. Reading
3. Blogging
4. Teaching/Discussing/Learning
5. Exercising

Five Favorite Toys
1. My iMac (yes, I’ve actually become a fan of these blasted MacIntoys)
2. Desk calculator
3. My “dentist” chair
4. Treadmill
5. A multi-purpose sex toy (no details here, sorry)

Five People Who Get This Meme
Well, I’m not going to tag anyone. I think enough bibliobloggers will be getting tagged soon enough...

Blog Feuds

Chris Heard and PZ Myers call attention to the petty feud going on in the blogosphere resulting in threats of legal action. I have a low opinion of all parties involved (Paul Deignan, “Bitch Ph.D.”, and Wallace Hettle -- but especially Deignan himself; see his statements cited on Myers blog), and as Chris Heard says, let’s hope we never reach this state of affairs on the biblioblogs.

Blog commenters who have volatile temperaments are best ignored. Obnoxious comments can be deleted or left unanswered. To the proud visitors who are easily slighted and take offense, sometimes (though not always) it doesn’t hurt to apologize -- even when they don’t deserve it -- because really, when you get down to it, an apology costs nothing. Of course, that’s me the public servant talking.

Deignan has certainly acquired a lot of attention out of this, which was probably his motive all along.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Historical Lamb II (McKnight's Blog)

Pursuant to yesterday's review, it looks like Scot McKnight has a separate blog for his book here.

Intelligent Design: Dover and Kansas

Good and bad news on the Intelligent Design front. PZ Myers reports the landslide election results for the Dover School Board. All seven Democrats on record for opposing ID won, and all seven Republicans who support it lost. Talk about a clean sweep.

Kansas, on the other hand, seems intent on embarrassing itself now as much as before. See here.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Historical Lamb

Scot McKnight's Jesus and His Death is, ironically, a breath of life into a field of decay. Against the North American trend which views the question of Jesus' understanding of his own death as misguided, McKnight assumes as likely that Jesus thought he would die prematurely, in the providence of God, and would probably die at the hands of elites who saw his movement as a potential source of rebellion. "It only makes sense," he states, "that one who thought he would die, who on other grounds considered himself a prophet, also tried to make sense of that death" (p 177). Jewish leaders like this regularly looked to prototypes from the Tanakh in order to make sense of death and destiny, and even if they never saw their deaths as atoning, it was always a "short step to the atoning value of these martyrdoms" (p 179).

The book is suspenseful as it works from a more general discussion of how Jesus made sense of his prophetic mission, to the idea that he thought he would die prematurely, to exactly how he made sense of that death. It gets the foundation right, backing Dale Allison's important dissertation, The End of the Ages Has Come: Jesus believed he was living in the end times, on the brink of the tribulation period. Like Allison, McKnight favors the collective interpretation of the apocalyptic Son of Man (Dan 7), referring to the suffering and vindication of Jesus and his followers in the last days (p 173) (see also Allison's Millenarian Prophet, pp 65-66).

McKnight examines the Old Testament scripts invoked in the gospels -- hardly leaving a stone untouched -- and asks whether or not these were used by Jesus to make sense of his impending death. He finds that they do not, dealing instead with how the prophet understood his mission. In Mt 8:20/Lk 9:58, for instance, Jesus applied the script of Psalm 8 (in conjunction with 144) to himself and followers, making sense of the fact that they were itinerants who needed food and shelter (pp 191-194); Lk 9:61-62 points to an early period when Jesus saw himself as Elijah (pp 194-196); the calling of twelve special disciples may indicate a Joshua script, the formation of Israel's nation at the Jordan River, which would be reconstituted at the apocalypse (Mt 19:28/Lk 22:28-30) (pp 200-201); and especially noteworthy is Mt 10:34-36/Lk 12:51-53, which alludes to the prophecy of Micah, through which we find "a rare glimpse into the inner mind of Jesus" (citing Caird) (pp 201-204).

For this last, McKnight notes how Jesus reversed the expectations of Malachi with Micah. While Elijah was supposed to bring peace and put an end to the family chaos in Micah (Mal 4:6; Mic 7:6), Jesus denied that he brought peace -- he brought a "sword" and "division", evidently concluding that he wasn't Elijah after all (though he may have thought this initially). John was Elijah, while he was more like Micah. From the time of John/Elijah forward there would be an ugly time of tribulation (Mt 11:12/Lk 16:16) (a belief which probably owed in large measure to the rejection Jesus experienced from his own family (p 203)).

Moving into tangled territory, McKnight takes on the question of Isaiah's suffering servant (Isa 52:13-53:12), where Christian tradition has for centuries seen Jesus reflecting on the pivotal meaning of his death. Against many scholars (Dodd, Taylor, Cadoux, Manson, Jeremias, Marshall, Caird, Wright), McKnight demonstrates that the servant song doesn't provide a reliable anchor here (see pp 207-224). At best Jesus applied Isaiah minimally to his present ordeal ("he was despised and rejected by others, a man of suffering"), but not the parts later pressed into actual atonement theory ("he was wounded for our transgressions; by his bruises we are healed").

Turning to the passion predictions (Mk 8/Mk 9/Mk 10 and pars in Mt-Lk), McKnight finds that they breathe the air of prophetic martyrdom rather than atonement (p 230), and that they're more about vindication than death in any case. The scriptural basis for them is mostly Dan 7, showing that God will vindicate the Son of Man and his followers at the apocalypse (p 238).

All of these scripts, but some less than others -- the Psalmist's Son of Man, Elijah, Joshua, and Micah, Isaiah's suffering servant, and Daniel's apocalyptic Son of Man -- helped Jesus make sense of his prophetic mission in light of the tribulation period, the opposition he now faced, and the expected vindication/resurrection of him and his followers. But none offer a reliable window onto how Jesus saw his death, and the ransom saying of Mk 10:45/Mt 20:28 is doubtfully traceable to Jesus (p 356).

Where we finally locate Jesus' understanding of his death is in the eucharist account, related in the synoptic gospels and Paul's letter to the Corinthians. McKnight’s analysis of the last supper has to be the best available, and is alone worth the price of the book. Not since Jeremias has the eucharist been so carefully weighed and considered against the background of Judaic passover. McKnight basically argues that the flesh and blood of the passover lamb was replaced by Jesus' own "body and blood" (in the bread and wine), intended to protect his followers from God’s fiery judgment against Jerusalem and its leaders (p 323).

McKnight thus finds John’s chronology to be more likely than that of the synoptic gospels (p 270). Jesus celebrated passover a day early, without a lamb and in a home more readily available, and saw in the bread his sacrificial body (he was now the lamb) and in the wine his blood (p 271). He was thus reenacting the ancient tradition of smearing blood on the doors of Israelite homes so that God would deliver his people from oppressors. When Paul says that "Jesus is our paschal lamb" (I Cor 5:7), and when the fourth gospel writer refers to Jesus as "the lamb of God" (Jn 1:29), we are in touch, however obliquely, with the historical Jesus.

It's crucial to keep passover sacrifice distinct from other forms of sacrifice, and McKnight (initially) does this quite well, distinguishing passover from covenant-ceremony and atonement (p 285). Passover sacrifice did not atone/forgive; it protected. Yahweh "passed over" those so protected when he came in judgment (p 281). Passover was also not a covenant ceremony; while covenant sacrifice dealt with relationship and commitment, passover was all about deliverance from tyranny and bondage. Exod 12 and 24 are, as McKnight puts it, "countries and ideas apart" (p 308).

The problem is that the synoptic writers and Paul portray the last supper as a covenant-renewal:

(Mark) This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. (14:24)

(Matthew) This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many, for the forgiveness of sins. (26:28)

(Luke) This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. (22:20)

(Paul) This cup is the new covenant in my blood. (I Cor 11:25)

Matthew’s "forgiveness of sins" (signaling atonement) is widely acknowledged as redactional, but what about the multiply-attested "covenant"? McKnight argues convincingly that covenant ideas do not trace back to Jesus anymore than Matthew's sin-forgiveness. His argument can be outlined as follows (see pp 308-311).
* In the entire gospel tradition (including John), covenant is attributed to Jesus only at the last supper, "a text cystallizing a tradition that itself became a liturgical expression in earliest Christianity." (p 308)

* Jesus based his vision on "kingdom", not covenant. "Kingdom is the term Jesus chose to build his dream on; one doesn’t surrender one’s dream terms easily." (p 309)

* The last supper betrays few signs of a covenant ceremony. The following prerequisites are missing: an oath, a promise, blessings for followers and curses for opponents, an unconditional bond for the suzerain, and a promise of blessings for Jesus’ followers. If Jesus is setting forth a new covenant, he does so without specifying it as such, "a practice abnormal in Judaism". (p 310)

* Accordingly, Jesus probably only said, "this is my blood", a tidy parallel to "this is my body". (p 310)

* There are big steps needed to get from "my blood" in the context of passover sacrifice, to "my blood of the covenant", and then to “the new covenant in my blood”. It was early Jerusalem-based Christians, or Paul and his associates, and then the writer of Hebrews, who took those steps. (p 311)
McKnight explains further:
"In the exegetical workshop of earliest messianism, then, the tool of covenant became a way of sifting the relationship of believers in Jesus Christ to the scriptural revelation of Torah and its people, Israel. For Paul, it was a tool that separated the Mosaic covenant from the new covenant, primarily by recognizing the significance of the Holy Spirit. For the writer of Hebrews, it was a tool that ontologically separated the old system from the new system, primarily by recognizing the effectiveness of the forgiveness of sins through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and his intercessory powers. If Paul crossed the threshold by sorting out the relationship of the old to the new in terms of covenant, the author of Hebrews set up shop and made the category his home to an unprecedented degree." (p 303)
For Paul, of course, Christ's death was many things -- an example to be followed, a ransom price, a sin offering, a passover sacrifice, and an atoning sacrifice, (all on which see Finlan's book). Covenant crops up occasionally in his letters, but not in terms of Christ's death, only to contrast how the Spirit accomplishes what the Torah/covenant could not. For the author of Hebrews, Christ’s death became not only an atoning sacrifice but a covenant-establishing event. But in the beginning, Jesus understood his death to be a passover sacrifice. That's all.

Having delivered such a convincing thesis, McKnight then undercuts it in his conclusion with a confusion of terminology. He writes:
"[Jesus saw his death as] vicarious and protecting. In stating that the bread was his body and the wine his blood, Jesus suggested that he was the passover victim whose blood would protect his followers from the imminent judgment of God against Jerusalem and its corrupt leadership. We have here the first genuine glimpse of a death that somehow atones. Jesus' theory of the atonement then is that his own death, and his followers' participation in that death by ingestion, protects his followers from the Day of YHWH, which in the prophets especially is often described as the wrath of YHWH. As the avenging angel of the passover in Egypt 'passed over' the first-born children whose fathers had smeared blood on the door, so the Father of Jesus would 'pass over' those followers who ingested Jesus' body and blood." (p 339; italics mine)
In claiming that passover sacrifice is a form of atonement after all, McKnight erases proper distinctions he made up to this point (see especially p 285). Atonement involved forgiving sins, whether understood in propitiary terms (appeasing an angry God with sacrifice) or expiatory terms (wiping sin away by harnessing the lifeforce in the blood of the sacrifice). Passover had nothing to do with forgiveness, nothing to do with atonement. It had to do with protection.

The problem is that in the above citation McKnight falls into the common trap of confusing vicariousness with atonement. But vicarious simply means "for the benefit of others", and we saw in my review of Stephen Finlan's book that Paul understood Christ's death to be vicarious in four different ways (atonement but one of the four). So accurately speaking, Jesus saw his death as vicarious -- it would protect his followers when God rained judgment down on everyone -- but not atoning.

Aside from the confusion of terminology (and even concepts) at the end, I found myself agreeing with most of what is presented in Jesus and His Death. McKnight has seriously redressed a dimension to the historical Jesus which is too often ignored in the academy. Jesus lived on a landscape of eschatology and martyrdom. However foreign that landscape is to us (it certainly is to me), we need to get comfortable with ideas that pertain to it.

Previous posts about Jesus' death: here, here, and here.

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.)

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Q: Skeptical Brits, Credulous Americans

With trademark wit and engaging prose, Donald Akenson contrasts, as he sees it, British and American approaches to Q:

"Michael Goulder, and his predecessor of the 1960s, A.M. Farrer, are so very unlike the present-day Q industry as to be almost unfathomable to the Q scholars. Part of the problem is that Goulder and Farrer are, well, too English. The Teutonic school...has blossomed into America's unique biblical mega-projects, the Jesus Seminar and the International Q Project... These New World magnates just don't understand the English. The Brits, for instance, mostly work alone. And they usually express themselves cautiously and, when on the attack, use the stiletto rather than the cheque book. Thus, two of the sharpest, shortest, most radical criticisms of the last 40 years -- Farrer's 'On Dispensing with Q' and Goulder's 'Is Q a Juggernaut?' -- have gone unanswered, presumably because they are too obliquely witty to be taken seriously and too lethal to be faced squarely. And Goulder, as a one-man Disloyal Opposition to the Q industry, has the dismaying characteristic of being very precise in his hypotheses and rigorous in his standards of proof. These virtues are easily drowned out by special pleading and general large-group harrumping. All this is a mistake, because Q needs sharpening if it is to have any continuing value." (Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus, pp 112-113)

Akenson's book was published a couple of years before Mark Goodacre's Case Against Q -- the book which, on second reading, finally persuaded me to give up my belief in Q. I wonder what Mark thinks of Akenson's contrast between the continents, especially now that he's been transplanted to U.S. soil. Do the Brits have an edge on us here? Is it a coincidence that the three most formidable challenges to Q have come out of the U.K.? Do Americans, on the whole, need more skepticism and less credulity?

Akenson thinks so. Pages before the above citation, he indicts North American Jesus-questors as follows:

"The 'third quest' is distinguished not so much by any new methods, but, in North America, by a mega-project mentality (the Jesus Seminar and the Q project being the best known examples) and by a generally high level of confidence: a pervasive, shared, but largely unarticulated belief that we can indeed know a lot about the Yeshua of history and that the forays of professional biblical scholars are just the thing to bring that knowledge back." (p 89)

While I object to Akenson's (rather foolish) claim that we haven't introduced new important methodology into the third quest (we obviously have much better knowledge of ancient Judaism and Mediterranean culture than ever before), I agree about the inordinate amount of confidence many Americans place in certain mega-projects, particularly those based on hypothetical sources. "More skepticism, less confidence," is a good mantra to adopt when dealing with phantom documents. The credulity of so many liberal Americans derives from an overreaction to the fundamentalist movement, whose success, of course, depends on credulity from its own adherents.

UPDATE: Mark Goodacre comments helpfully, clearly of the mind that Akenson paints too broadly. He notes: “America too has produced Q sceptics, James Hardy Ropes, Morton Scott Enslin, Edward Hobbs, E. P. Sanders. I suppose that the interesting question for me is: why have these been just as unsuccessful in persuading people as the Brits mentioned? The answer is complex, and to some extent it is a thing I try to answer in the first chapter of The Case Against Q. Essentially, I think it comes down to strategy, palatability and plausibility. Farrer was no tactician (he did not think about strategy); Goulder has problems with palatability (the perceived unattractiveness of the associated claims; yet both had an essentially plausible thesis, which is why the seeds that they have sown are bearing fruit, perhaps not yet one hundredfold, but bearing fruit nonetheless."

UPDATE (II): In the comments section of Mark Goodacre's post (see above), John Poirier responds as follows: "I have to agree with Loren's comments: I find that American academia is much more trendy than European academia. I find many more American scholars who simply take over the latest trend without looking closely at the arguments supporting it. In terms of credulity, that translates into always believing in the latest thing hatched. Of course, Q isn't the latest thing hatched--and to that extent the difference between here and over there might be mitigated to some degree--but I do think that the same blind trust in the fruits of scholarship is at work." "Trendy" is a good way of putting it.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Brian McHale on Literary Hoaxes

I hadn't planned on this topic evolving into a series, but so it has. Someone recently called my attention to an article from the Boston Globe, "Gotcha! The Pleasures of Literary Hoaxing", written just a few months ago, and dealing with some of the concerns Stephen Carlson has about the terminology we use in classifying hoaxes and forgeries.

According to the Globe article (and an online interview with Kent Johnson here), scholar Brian McHale objects to the term "hoax" much in the same way Carlson objects to "forgery": they can be reductive terms which obscure motives. Hale thus distinguishes three kinds of hoaxes. (1) Genuine hoaxes are done with no intention of being exposed, and the ones we tend to consider the most reprehensible, or self-serving on the part of the hoaxer. Three of my own four categories would apply here: those done for attention/fame, to serve an ideology, or for money. Carlson calls these forgeries as opposed to hoaxes; I call them both. (2) Entrapment hoaxes are done to embarrass a certain group of people or expose their foolishness, and thus depend on eventual exposure. These belong to my fourth category, the pranks, which Carlson calls hoaxes but not forgeries (again, I say they're both). (3) Mock hoaxes are aesthetic in intent, making art out of inauthenticity, and unlike the previous two categories, involve no ulterior motive. This is an interesting category, to which some of my examples from "serving an ideology" apply.

Running my top 20 list through McHale's taxonomy yields the following.

Genuine Hoaxes

1. Donation of Constantine (the papacy)
3. Fragments of Ossian's Poetry (Macpherson)
4. Letters of Historical Figures (Denis-Lucas)
5. Protocols of the Elders of Zion (Goedsche/Golovinski)
7. Hitler Diares (Kujau)
8. Vortigern and Rowena (Ireland)
9. Pedigree of the Merovingian Dynasty (Plantard)
10. Diary of Ching-san (Backhouse)
16. The Salamander Letter (Hofmann)
17. Notes to Shakspeare's Plays (Collier)
18. Irenaeus Fragments (Pfaff)
19. Autobiography of Hughes (Irving)

These are the kind of scams and propaganda pieces we normally associate with forgery and hoaxing. "Genuine" isn't a particularly helpful label, however. Certainly the third group, the "mock hoaxes" (another poor term; see below), have genuine intentions behind them. Perhaps "standard hoaxes" would be a better descriptor. (Though I'm not happy with this either.)

Entrapment Hoaxes

2. Secret Gospel of Mark (Smith)
6. Parthenopaeus (Dionysius)
11. Malley Poems (McAuley & Stewart)
15. "Transgressing the Boundaries" (Sokol)
20. "An Amusing Agraphon" (Coleman-Norton)

Pranks like this serve as "creative forms of critique" (Boston Globe article). The Malley poems and Sokol's essay "expose the faddishness they despise" (ibid), while behind Mark's gospel and Sophocles' play lurk contemporary authors flipping the middle finger at their colleagues. I agree that "entrapment" is a fitting label for this group.

Mock Hoaxes

12. Fragments: Memories of a Childhood (Dossekker)
13. Education of Littletree (Carter)
14. Rowley's Poems (Chatterton)
** Yasusada's Hiroshima Poems (Kent Johnson? "Tosa Motokiyu"?)

[The last (**) is the honorable mention by Carlson in his post, and the one McHale actually thinks is the best example in this category. I regret not making a place for it on my top 20 list.]

This is a helpful category, but "mockery" is confusing, because it implies the opposite of what it's trying to describe. The Holocaust memoirs, biography of a Cherokee, Rowley poems, and Hiroshima literature were fabricated with very serious intentions and continue(d) to be valued as art and creative forms of reflection after being debunked. Perhaps a better term would be "artistic hoaxes".

Even if McHale's terminology isn't perfect, his categories are helpful and allow us to understand a variety of motives for hoaxing without relinquishing the term.

UPDATE: In the comments section below, Stephen critiques McHale's terminology, concluding: "The three-part classification is not bad, but I'd give them different terms. Instead of the self-contradictory 'genuine hoaxes', I'd call them 'forgeries.' Instead of the entrapment hoaxes, I'd simply call them 'hoaxes'. Instead of the mocking hoaxes, I'd call them 'impostures.'" Not bad. I have to admit that his distinction between forgeries and hoaxes (in terms of motive) is growing on me.

Previous posts: My original top 20 list here. Stephen Carlson's review of the list here. My initial response to Stephen's concerns here.