Sunday, November 28, 2010

Maurice Casey on Morton Smith

At the end of an excellent treatment of Jesus' healings and exorcisms, Maurice Casey considers Morton Smith's Jesus the Magician, concluding that
"Smith has completely misrepresented the cultural worlds of Jesus and the synoptic Gospels. His accusation that Jesus was a magician appears to be due to malicious hostility to Christianity. His misrepresentation of primary sources is so gross as to be virtually fraudulent. This should be borne in mind when considering The Secret Gospel of Mark..." p 278)
Casey then later returns to Secret Mark in an appendix, underscoring Smith's disingenuous claims about the document he supposedly discovered: the rite of homoerotic sex "simply completes an exercise in sensationalist falsehood... nothing resembling the nocturnal initiation into mysteries described by Smith is known until more than a century after Jesus' death" (p 541); that the text of canonical Mark at 10:46 makes perfectly good sense contra Smith's claims (pp 541-542); and indeed "Smith's handling of supposedly primary source material, whether genuine or forged, is fraudulent from beginning to end" (pp 542-543). But in fact Smith did forge Secret Mark (p 543), and he "should have never been believed by anyone" (ibid). Casey then cites Stephen Carlson and Peter Jeffery, not "to imply that all their arguments are convincing, but that those of their arguments which are convincing, taken together with my comments here, and on Jesus the Magician, together form an overwhelming argument of cumulative weight" (p 543, n. 57).

I'd like to know which of Carlson's and Jeffery's arguments Casey finds unconvincing, but at least this new, solid work on the historical Jesus recognizes Secret Mark for what it is.

Jesus Inside the New Testament

My Historical Jesus Pick List includes three scholars who do an exceptionally fine job of blasting the use of non-canonical material in historical Jesus research. Two of them are secular liberals, so it's not as if plain sense flows only from Christian bias.
"In recent years we have been witnessing the 'selling' of the apocrypha under the guise of the quest of the historical Jesus. This is a misuse of useful material... What we see in [the agrapha, the apocryphal gospels, and the Gospel of Thomas] is the reaction to or reworking of NT writings by Jewish rabbis engaged in polemics, imaginative Christians reflecting popular piety and legend, and gnostic Christians developing a mystic speculative system. Their versions of Jesus' words and deeds can be included in a 'corpus of Jesus material' if that corpus is understood to contain simply everything and anything that any ancient source ever identified as material coming from Jesus. But such a corpus is the Matthean dragnet from which the good fish of early tradition must be selected for the containers of serious historical research, while the bad fish of later conflation and invention are tossed back into the murky sea of the uncritical mind... For better better or for worse, in our quest for the historical Jesus, we are largely confined to the canonical Gospels." (John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, Vol I, pp 122-123 140)

"The most likely way to gain access to the historical Jesus is through the canonical New Testament... Here we enter the world of the big risk. We encounter a particularly aggressive cadre [who] have no tribal name, but 'liberal biblical scholars' is close to being an agreed, if irritatingly undefined label. This is a collection of individuals who place little credence in the direct historical accuracy of the canonical Christian scriptures; yet, in an attempt to jump back into the world prior to the great Destruction, they often embrace a bizarre range of possible pre-70 'gospels'... They are courageous; they have a sense of high intellectual adventure. They are trying to traverse a wide and unchartered ocean in order to find a rich prophesied land on the far side. They long to be able to step off their uncertain and pitching vessel and, even if it's just for a brief time, to their feet on solid land. When they cannot find any, they allow one of their leaders to declare that solid terra is dead ahead, just a few feet, maybe just inches, below the surface. They get to that point, step off, and plunge in far over their heads. The depths, it seems, always overwhelm." (Donald Akenson, Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus, pp 116, 84, 94)

"The major sources for the life and teaching of Jesus are the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It is little short of tragic that I should have had to discuss the historicity of other Gospels... Most of them are Gnostic, or Gnosticizing, documents of much too late a date. They are valuable sources for our understanding the development of Christianity in the second to fourth centuries, but they have nothing to do with the historical Jesus. Some of the falsehoods surrounding them are due primarily to American feminists who wish to believe that Mary Magdalene was a major figure in the ministry of Jesus and in early Christianity. Others are due to pure sensationalism, some but not all of it centering on an American novel [The DaVinci Code]. The last one is a forgery by Morton Smith. In one sense, however, it is fitting that this appendix should end on this note. The major fault of the whole quest of the historical Jesus is that scholars have sought to find a Jesus who reflects their own concerns... this appendix merely catalogues extreme examples of that major fault." (Maurice Casey, Jesus of Nazareth, pp 543-544)
Negatively, these three writers are in perfect agreement. Positively, however, there is less agreement as to what should be used to derive the Jesus of history. Meier says the synoptics and John; Akenson says Paul, supplemented by the synoptics; and Casey says the synoptics -- coming down hard on John almost as much as the non-canonical gospels. I'm somewhere in between Akenson and Casey. I think Paul is more useful than John in gleaning the historical Jesus; but alongside him and the synoptic writers I would add the underrated epistle of James.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Historical Jesus Pick List

Post updated here.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

SBL Roundup on PaleoJudaica

Jim Davila has an impressive roundup of SBL reflections and links over on PaleoJudaica, and you can see that he's about to read the latest Thomas Covenant book, which I couldn't put down.

SBL Reflections (III): Paul's Jewishness

My last day at SBL involved a session on Paul's Jewishness. I got to hear Mark Nanos' full paper, "Locating Paul on a Map of First Century Judaism", and part of Paula Fredriksen's "A Way Forward for Research and Discussion of 'Paul and Judaism'", before drifting off to another session. People like Nanos and Fredriksen keep me honest since I understand Paul in significantly less clean terms than they do.

Mark's paper was vintage Nanos, revisiting arguments from his paper on I Cor 9:19-23 (that Paul never actually behaved like a pagan, only reasoned like one rhetorically to persuade Gentiles of Jewish truths), and urges that we attach a disclaimer to everything Paul says negatively about the law: the negativity applies to non-Jews alone, for Paul was Torah-observant, remained Torah observant, and would naturally have wanted other Jews to remain Torah-observant in the body of Christ.

In the part of her paper I heard, Fredriksen suggested that the term "conversion" needs to be dropped from discussion, for the standard view is upside down. Paul didn't urge conversion on pagans, but just the opposite: they did not have to become proselytes (Jews) when turning to the God of Israel. Nor was Paul breaking down ethnic boundaries: he in fact urged that Jews remain Jews, and pagans remain pagans, in the body of Christ.

Part of the problem, I think, is that the question of conversion can be looked at from so many angles, and it's hard to keep them straight. From the viewpoint of Paul himself, Fredriksen may be partly right (I think Paul did effectively break down ethnic barriers in Galatians, then later reinforced them in Romans), but both Jews and pagans had to "turn to" something rather different under the God of Israel, namely, Christ, who was at least on the road to being deified if not implicitly already so. From a more technical point of view (a la Zeba Crook), by the time of Hellenistic Judaism it was possible to be called and thus converted, in the sense that while Paul expressed his vocation in terms of a call or commission, that's exactly the language of patronage/benefaction -- he was invoking the Greco-Roman example of the call of the divine patron-benefactor ("conversion") and the call of the Hebrew prophets at the same time. And the issue doesn't stop there, for what ultimately matters, I think, is how Paul was perceived by others; he could express his calling like Isaiah and Jeremiah all he wanted, but if other Jews or Jewish Christians could readily deny the claims of his gospel, then he effectively taught apostacy, in which case the term "conversion" starts to look very appropriate. Fredriksen nonetheless scored some real zingers, not least in her observations (reinforcing Mark Nanos) about Paul's unyielding Jewish abhorrence of idolatry.

Mark has posted his paper on his website; click here.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

SBL Reflections (II): Accounting for Resurrection Beliefs

Another SBL session I enjoyed was the social-scientific and cognitive-scientific approaches to Jesus' resurrection. The first two speakers in particular had my rapt attention: Pieter Craffert, who analyzed the resurrection from a neuro-anthropological perspective, and Colleen Shantz, who looked at the variety of early Christian resurrection beliefs from an evolutionary psychological angle.

Craffert's approach was already hinted at in his 2008 publication, The Life of a Galilean Shaman. He argues from the view of neuro-anthrolpology: that the dichotomy between seeing (vision) and hallucination (visions) doesn't hold everywhere, and that in polyphasic cultures like Jesus', visual perceptions which lack external stimuli aren't necessarily hallucinations. They can be as real as perceptions grounded in external stimuli. Ultimately it's not the brain which determines the reality of a perception (as it does among monophasic Western people), but rather the "consensus reality or intersubjective validation a community is the final arbiter of reality". Thus visions experienced through altered states of consciousness, if approved, are understood to be as real as anything seen objectively in the space-time continuum. Jesus' baptism experience involving the dove, and the disciples' witness of his resurrection, don't need to be categorized as tangible events recordable on a videocam or bogus hallucinations.

Craffert emphasized that the people of Jesus' culture could make distinctions between real seeing and visions as much as we do, but the point is that if the latter were approved, they were regarded as equally real, yet without being elevated to the status of an objective event. In my view, this all seems to be a roundabout culturally sensitive way of legitimizing hallucinations, and I wonder if the term can still be valid if used non-pejoratively.

Shantz looked at early resurrection beliefs from an evolutionary perspective, in view of how the mind deals with violations of ontologies. Drawing on the work of Pascal Boyer, Justin Barrett, and Jesse Bering People, she explained how people across all cultures find the violation of ontologies fascinating -- talking rocks, weeping statues, men who can fly, etc. are like "brain candy" -- provided that the violations aren't too numerous. In other words, something like a talking rock raptly engages the mind, but a talking rock that sprouts hair and then melts into a puddle will more likely be greeted with indifference and boredom. The evolved mind is evidently alerted to modest violations, probably having adapted this way in order to flag potential hazards from the unknown, but it also shuts down when violations get too out of hand to be taken seriously. Cognitive optimal religion involves beliefs in modest violations of reality, while cognitive costly religion involves beliefs in multiple violations of reality -- and requires a heavy infrastructure and ongoing reinforcements to keep such beliefs alive.

Thus, according to Shantz, evolutionary psychology cannot well account for Paul's view of the resurrection because it's a cognitive costly position, involving multiple ontological violations. Paul believed that Jesus was good and properly dead, that his body rotted, and he was raised into a non-fleshy spiritual existence; likewise, believers were fully dead but would be raised in the same way at a later time. Paul's views were hard to keep hold of, which accounts for the creative (and sometimes convoluted) explanations of I Thess 4 and I Cor 15. (a) To be totally dead (b) until some future time, (c) with the new existence involving serious discontinuities with life as we know it, was a costly belief, and it's little wonder that afterlife beliefs became more optimal after Paul -- as with meal accommodations at grave sites (now understanding that the dead needed food and drink), and more fleshy accounts of resurrection appearances in the gospels. Shantz noted that even Paul himself may have minimized his violations at times, as when he talks in Philip 1:23 of his "desire to depart and be with Christ" -- does that remove the intermediate phase addressed in I Thess?

It was an informative session.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

SBL Reflections (I): Panel Discussion for Crossley's Jesus in an Age of Terror

Six days in Atlanta went fast. Good sessions, good food, and good company among friends and acquaintances. If it weren't such a pricey event, I'd attend SBL every year instead of settling for every other.

I listened to a lot of great papers, but for now will report on what was easily the most lively session: the panel discussion for James Crossley's Jesus in an Age of Terror, critiqued by Mark Goodacre, Zeba Crook, Bill Arnal, and Roland Boer, followed by a response from James himself. Philip Esler was also present in the audience and had a lot to say during Q&A, which was a treat. As Mark says, these folks are the "cool" guys of biblical studies. No tight-asses to be found here, and I enjoyed the odd mixture of pugnacity, uninhibited honesty, and even vulgar humor, but all of it collegial. Bill and Roland spoke most favorably about the book -- especially Bill, who is an outstanding speaker possessed by a rather terrifying enthusiasm -- and there is much about it that I too like, given my interest in the way agendas, however subterranean, can lurk under scholarship. Mark and Zeba, on the other hand, had less flattering things to say, and I'm going to focus on parts of their critiques that could use more fleshing out.

Mark essentially charged that James has made too much of bloggers' silence on political issues, or their implied endorsement of Anglo-American politics, however unintentional. His most striking point came in the analogy of Jim West, whose homophobia and sexism is well known. Most infamously, Jim likened homosexuality to bestiality on one of his deleted blogs, cited at length by Mark. In his response, James seems to have misunderstood Mark's point, which, as I understand it, is not so much that James was obligated to criticize Jim West for being homophobic and sexist in Jesus in an Age of Terror, but rather, given James' complaints about racist stereotyping and anti-Arab sentiments, there is a deep irony that the only biblioblogger who comes out clean in Jesus in an Age of Terror is a bigot. In other words, if the political silence of bloggers, or their approval of certain things said or done by Anglo-American politicians, is supposed to be meaningful in the way James urges on us, then what are we to make of James' own silence (on his blog, at least, if not his book) regarding Jim West's homophobia and sexism? Do his sympathies for Jim West's minimalist views of OT historiography imply a wider endorsement of Jim's other views (including homophobia and sexism) in the same way that Mark's endorsement of a single comment made by Tony Blair supposedly points to deeper issues? Don't get me wrong: I'm not at all suggesting that James Crossley is a homophobe or sexist (surely he is not), only pointing out that his rhetorical argumentative strategy can be used against him -- and this, I think, was the thrust of Mark's point.

Zeba delivered the most forceful, thorough, and impressive critique. Amusingly, this came somewhat at my own expense, for at one point Zeba pointed out (quite rightly) that I am not the "voice" of the Context Group (unofficial or otherwise), as I can hardly be the voice for a group I'm not a part of, especially as a non-professional in the field. To be fair to James, he seems to have just meant that Loren Rosson is the blogger who regularly uses Context Group models, and habitually defends the group's work -- as he basically said in his response -- but I'm not sure what the best catch-all phrase for this is (I've been called a "stooge" of the Context Group by someone less than kind). I do hope that Zeba's paper becomes available online at some point, and it will hardly surprise readers that I agree with about 96% of it. He comes down on James pretty hard, but rather than revel in what I agree with, let me mention one part of the critique where I think he actually slightly misunderstands James -- just to show how open-minded I can be during certain phases of the moon.

About halfway through his paper Zeba complains about James' parallels between Context Group scholars and right-wingers like Ann Coulter and Paul Wolfowitz: "To suggest, however remotely, that the work of the Context Group does the same thing [as right-wingers, who "condemn or mock others" for their cultural differences] is willfully to misread it." James responded that he never suggested such a thing, and he's actually right, though perhaps you'd not guess it on account of his strong polemic. When I wrote my own review, I tried to be fair and precise in nailing down these parallels between liberal academics and conservative media hounds, and I essentially see James as saying that Context Group members, for all their noble intentions -- and who indeed approach cultural difference out of an implied respect instead of mockery -- can still play unwittingly into the hands of these right-wingers. It's a fascinating point, but one I think is largely irrelevant. It's a bit like saying that scientists shouldn't emphasize nature over nurture for fear of racism, or that "survival of the fittest" is dangerous because of social Darwinism. Put simply: if the models of the Context Group are valid, they should be used regardless of the potential for abuse, or for whatever strange bedfellows could result. But of course, the question of validity bring us to the concern about evidence.

As I acknowledged, James' demand for more evidence is entirely reasonable. But the floor response from Context Group member Douglas Oakman also carries weight. In the session, Oakman pointed out that the Context Group originated in no small part in order to make sense of the real-life experiences of its members. I know that Dick Rohrbaugh lived on the West Bank for many years, and other members have evidently lived abroad too. For myself, I lived for two years in Lesotho, and while southern Africa is not the Mediterranean area, there are plenty of honor-shame behavior patterns to be found there. In this light, to people like myself who have lived and breathed shame-based cultures over an extended period of time, experience is all the evidence you can ask for.

And is there really a mystery here? Is there any doubt as to what formal studies of Mediterranean peoples would demonstrate? There have been studies of honor-shame subcultures of the United States. (The American south is an honor-shame subculture, meaning, more shame-based relative to the north, but compared to places like the Mediterranean region, it starts to look as guilt-based as any part of the U.S.) For instance, a 1996 study conducted at the University of Michigan found remarkable differences between northern and southern Americans, in how they react to people who bump into and swear at them. 65% of the northerners were amused by the bump and insult, and 35% got angry; but only 15% of the southerners were amused -- the other 85% got furious. On top of this, the studies showed that the southerners had strong physiological reactions to being bumped/insulted, with increases in cortisol (a hormone associated with high levels of stress and anxiety) and testosterone levels. Now, if differences like these between people in the United States can be verified and documented, there shouldn't be much doubt that studies of Mediterranean peoples would confirm what Context Group members have been telling us for years, based significantly on direct experience. In any case, formal evidence is always needed, so hopefully James' demand for such will be taken seriously at some point.

I wish more scholars would write books like Jesus in an Age of Terror. Like Bill Arnal's The Symbolic Jesus, it addresses socio-political undercurrents we may be oblivious to in academic research, however disagreeable we find the particulars. I also wish I had managed to keep my lunch appointment with James to hash some of these issues out at more length, instead of waiting for him exasperatedly in the wrong area. Mea culpa!

Friday, November 12, 2010

How Similar is a Visionary Shaman to an Apocalyptic Prophet?

In revisiting Pieter Craffert's The Life of a Galilean Shaman, I was struck by a few points where the author's methodology intersects with Dale Allison's in Constructing Jesus: the subject of memory and the reliability of the Jesus traditions, an intriguing resolution to the Son of Man enigma, and the question of how real/literal the NT authors understood their accounts of Jesus to be.

Memory and the Reliability of Traditions

According to Craffert, Jesus is not so much "underneath" the traditions as "in" them (p 90). While Christian prophets and visionaries undoubtedly created new sayings and modified old ones, they nevertheless seem to reflect the kinds of things from Jesus' life itself (p 112). Rumor and gossip, and the building on thereof, represent realistic and plausible transmissions of the Jesus stories (p 108). The idea that people in traditional societies have better memory than those in literate societies is not supported by the evidence (p 113), and rather than think of memory in terms of "actual accuracy", we should think in terms of "overall faithfulness" (pp 113-114).

All of this parallels or supports the arguments of Constructing Jesus. Allison thinks "frequently attested themes" (based on multiple performances of events) are more secure than "multiply attested sayings and deeds" (about which no consensus can be reached, because historians are essentially trying to know the unknowable). "Frequently attested themes" (Allison) and "overall faithfulness" (Craffert) may point to a trend of modesty in HJ studies. Allison thinks we can be sure that Jesus was an apocalyptic who had exalted thoughts about himself, though details are elusive. Craffert thinks Jesus was a shaman who had remarkable healing abilities, though again refrains from trying to guess exactly which healing and exorcist activities are authentic.

The Son of Man Enigma

Appreciating that the Son of Man debate is one of the most chaotic embarrassments of NT scholarship -- no one can even agree on the various ways the term is used in the gospels, let alone how Jesus himself may have used it (see p 314) -- Craffert steps out of the circle and suggests how the term might have been used and understood by a visionary healer. A son of man could have been a modest or reserved way of referring to the self in Jewish culture, and a modest way of relaying a heavenly journey or encounter, on account of sensitivities to direct encounters with Yahweh (pp 329-330). Instead of seeing the circumlocutional use of the son of man and visionary (heavenly) figures as two distinct references, Craffert shows that at least in some sources (notably the Book of Similitudes), a heavenly son of man figure seen in a vision turns out to be the visionary himself (pp 331-332).

This is remarkably similar to Allison's own proposal -- that Jesus referred to himself as the son of man, and that his earthly and heavenly/angelic identities were twin components which couldn't be neatly separated. Jesus, suggests Allison, in fact thought he had a heavenly twin or doppelganger.

What's Real?

Like Allison, Craffert insists that our modern sensibilities are deficient guides in assessing how literal the NT accounts about Jesus were intended. Ancient people obviously made a distinction between the literal and metaphorical, and between reality and fantasies, as much as we do, but not in the same way. But where Allison uses the index of humor as a helpful guide on this point, Craffert insists on an index of cultural determination (see pp 387-388). For instance, a resurrected body was understood to be a real and concrete afterlife form of existence, but that's a bit different from saying that the NT documents were describing a body of transformed physicality or a divinely created supernatural body (see pp 404-405).

None of this is to imply that Allison and Craffert are methodological equivalents, especially on the question of the reliability of documents. Craffert's brazen claim that "all documents from antiquity claiming to be about Jesus of Nazareth should be reconsidered as some form of residue of his life" (pp 94-95), particularly his defense of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, is way too uncritical, and again, ignores the index of humor. My only point in raising these "parallels" between two books on the historical Jesus published recently (Craffert 2008; Allison 2010) is that there could be certain trends on the rise that can help propel HJ studies out of a rut, namely, a growing appreciation that the Jesus traditions are reliable but only in a general (and often unsatisfying) way, that Jesus believed peculiar things about himself in the context of visionary apocalypticism, and that many of our rationalist sensibilities need to be checked at the door when addressing these issues.

Monday, November 08, 2010

The Human Centipede

Ass to mouth will never be the same. Imagine three people having their kneecap ligaments severed so they can't stand, then being surgically joined so that the front guy's posterior is sown to the mouth of the woman behind him, whose own ass is sown in turn to the mouth of the woman bringing up the rear. (See below images.) The result is the ungodly Human Centipede, created by a doctor more diabolical than Josef Mengele, though the repeated claim that the basis for this operation is "100% medically accurate" is rather laughable. Director Tom Six may have consulted a professional surgeon, but somewhere along the line verisimilitude escalated into a bogus marketing ploy. Still, medical accuracy isn't the barometer by which this piece of cinema should be judged. The question is whether or not it excels as a horror film. It does and it doesn't.

As a European (Dutch) film it does everything Hollywood wouldn't dream of doing, and for that alone earns high marks. It's thoroughly demented -- the most transgressive movie I've seen since Martyrs -- and drastically symbolizes the surrender of individuality, the German reputation for fetishism, and medical god complexes. If Martyrs was about transfiguration through torture, The Human Centipede is about metamorphosis through conjoinment, with the same underlying hints of eroticism. The horror is hard-hitting, but mostly psychological. For all the scatological focus, we never see a single smear of feces -- not even during the notorious "Feed her!" scene, involving Dr. Heiter bellowing encouragement as the man in front uncontrollably unloads his bowels into the mouth of the middle woman stitched to his rear end. Six wisely leaves much to the imagination, and if you're cursed with an imagination like mine, that's worse than being graphic. So far so superb.

Other things are not so impressive. While the German Dr. Heiter is played brilliantly by Dieter Laser, the two American women start out as the phoniest performers I've seen in a long time. Crucial to a horror film's success are victims we care about, but Lindsay and Jenny can hardly utter a sentence of dialogue without sounding artificial. It is thus a grace that they become the middle and end pieces of the centipede -- stifling their ability to talk -- at which point their acting actually becomes thoroughly believable, as they writhe, weep, and gag in agony, enslaved to move around on all fours and feed on the excrement of the member in front. The male Japanese victim (the front piece) gives a decent enough performance, and his suicide at the very end is poignant, but he isn't the most sympathetic character either.

While Martyrs boasted top-notch acting and unpredictable turns in every frame, The Human Centipede stalls in places, and even leans on cliche. Lindsay and Jenny get a flat tire in the middle of nowhere, and can't get a signal on their cell phone -- lazy plotting to get them to the home of Dr. Heiter. The cops come calling, then come back with a search warrant, but stupidly fall prey to the doctor's entrapments. Little things, but enough to bring down what could have been a masterpiece with more intelligence applied. Curiously, Roger Ebert refused to apply the star system to this movie, on grounds that he couldn't decide whether it was too good or too bad -- ultimately, he says, the film "occupies a world where the stars don't shine" -- but that's a cop-out. If there's much to like and find fault with in a film, that usually calls for a middle-of-the-road rating, and that's basically where I fall on The Human Centipede.

Rating: 3 ½ stars out of 5.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Facebook Page for Dale Allison's New Book

There's a Facebook page for questions about Dale Allison's new book which I reviewed a few days ago. Baker Academic advertises as follows:
"Confused or curious about the historical Jesus? It's time to get some answers from a luminary in the field. Dale Allison, author of the new book Constructing Jesus, has agreed to answer a few questions on the historical Jesus from our Facebook friends. So, submit a question. Three of the best questions will be passed to Dale for answer that we will post here, and the authors of those questions will get a free copy of Constructing Jesus."
(HT: Michael Bird.)

Friday, November 05, 2010

Maurice Casey's Jesus of Nazareth

The folks at Sheffield have begun reviewing Maurice Casey's new book about the historical Jesus.

Mike Kok reviews the first chapter.
Christopher Markou reviews the second chapter.
Mike Kok reviews the third chapter.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, History

Outstanding sequels are rare, third sequels even rarer, but trust Dale Allison to deliver against the odds. Constructing Jesus: Memory, History, and Imagination caps off the author's work begun in the incisive Millenarian Prophet and the even more impressive Resurrecting Jesus, and is a powerhouse presentation of an apocalyptic Jesus who had exalted thoughts about himself, and saw death coming straight at him and didn't run away. Taken as a whole, the trilogy -- but especially this book -- puts to bed fantasies of a non-apocalyptic Jesus, and calls for new ways of assessing the Jesus traditions in place of the classic criteria.

The first part, "Memories of Jesus", covers the fallibility of memory, and is a healthy antidote to monographs which treat the gospels as robust eyewitness accounts. "Even where the gospels preserve memories, those memories cannot be pristine; they must often be dim or muddled or just plain wrong." At the same time, the Jesus tradition is saturated with certain themes, motifs, and rhetorical strategies, and it is in these places that the historian should expect to find at least some reliable memory. Frequently attested themes point to something more promising, albeit more generally, than multiply attested sayings & deeds (pp 19-20), about which no consensus can be reached regarding authenticity.

The second part, "The Eschatology of Jesus", revisits arguments from the previous two books, but with more muscle and finality. Again we see, beyond a reasonable doubt, that if we can't trust the massive traditions of apocalyptic eschatology, then we can't say anything about Jesus at all. Allison also revisits the hobgoblin of consistency -- this section would have someone like Douglas Campbell wailing like a banshee -- and underscores what, really, should be common sense: that even the best theologians are inconsistent, and the most effective charismatics are those who act strangely, unpredictably, and inconsistently. Apocalyptic eschatology, in particular, "has never incubated practical reason". These few pages alone (pp 88-97) should be required reading of every student of the New Testament, let alone the historical Jesus.

The third part, "The Christology of Jesus," is as strong as the eschatological part, and represents fresh material. Even if messianic complexes strike us as egocentric, they were not so in ancient Judaism, and in any case prophets could be reluctant about their divine callings even when accepting them. I think Allison's arguments would have been strengthened by the further observation that in dyadic cultures identity is provided by one's peers more than oneself; and that if certain roles were thrust on Jesus, he would have had to embrace them in some permutation to keep a strong core of followers.

The author proceeds by skewering the scholarly mantra that "Jesus preached not himself but the kingdom", one of the falsest dichotomies plaguing Jesus-scholarship. That Jesus thought he would rule on God's behalf in the future kingdom is more than likely: the Romans crucified him for being "King of the Jews" (and he doesn't seem to have distanced himself from the title any more than he explicitly accepted it), and only in four cases in Matthew's gospel is God himself portrayed as a king (which confirms, incidentally, my ongoing suspicions that if the parable of The Unmerciful Servant goes back to Jesus, it was originally about messianic kingship, not God). As for why Jesus accepted an "anointed" role, he had probably grounded his prophetic ministry in Isa 61:1-3. Allison also discusses the pros and cons of Jesus as Elijah or Elisha come again, finding the data rather murky, and then finds more promise in the idea that he saw himself as an eschatological Moses derived from Deut 18:15-18.

But by far the most intriguing contribution of the Christology section comes in the author's solution to the Son of Man enigma. Eschewing his earlier support for a collective understanding of the figure (see Millenarian Prophet, pp 65-66), Allison now affirms that Jesus believed the Son of Man to be an angelic figure after all -- indeed, his own heavenly twin or Doppelganger, with whom he was one, or would soon become one. Not only is there precedent for celestial doubles and heavenly alter-egos (see pp 296-300), this would resolve long standing puzzles:
(a) If Jesus and the Son of Man were two yet one, it would explain both the earthly human sayings and the heavenly angelic ones.

(b) Dan 7:14 is easily read as an angelic figure (whether or not the "one like a son of man" was originally intended it as a collective figure). The Book of Similitudes certainly read it this way, and, moreover, ultimately identified it with Enoch the seer: Enoch sees visions of the Son of Man (I En. 46, 48, 62, 69) and is eventually translated into him (I En. 71). Jesus may have correlated his own Son of Man identity with a heavenly counterpart.

(c) Hope for humanity's eschatological destiny is often angelic, which could have encouraged Jesus to imagine his future identification with an angelic savior.

(d) If Jesus believed he had a heavenly counterpart, then there is no mystery in the fact that he imagined himself coming on the clouds of heaven while having nothing to say about being removed from earth, and raised to heaven, before that could possibly occur -- he was already up there.

(e) There are traditions of Jesus having a twin (Acts of Thomas, Book of Thomas the Contender), which could possibly descend from a belief in his heavenly Doppelganger. (pp 301-303)
Like Allison, I've gone back and forth between collective and angelic interpretations of Daniel's "one like a son of man" and the synoptic Son of Man, but in recent years have been moving increasingly in the direction of the angelic. Allison's "Doppelganger" proposal (which he cautions is just that, a possibility rather than probability, p 303) reinforces my faith in this direction and invites more investigation.

The fourth part, "The Discourses of Jesus," is to me the least satisfying part of the book, no doubt for its reliance on Q, and its top-heavy focus on a single pericope. Here the author devotes over 75 pages to the Sermon on the Plain, arguing that Lk 6:27-42 points to a reliable recollection of discourses that Jesus uttered habitually, like a stock sermon, rather than on one occasion. It's not so much that I have a problem with the general conclusion. Allison is on solid ground about "stock sermons": as an itinerant, Jesus was surely "less like a modern pastor facing a single congregation and forced to come up with new ideas, and more like a seasoned professor teaching an introductory class for the umpteenth time" (p 24). I just see red whenever Luke's sermon is prioritized or held to be more historical than Matthew's, since there are powerful reasons to believe Luke truncated Matthew's unwieldy and unaesthetic version. The lesson of this section is nonetheless sound, that in addition to aphorisms and parables, at least one of Jesus' discourses owe to reliable memory derived from multiple episodes, implying that other discourses may too, though Allison is more reserved, for instance, about the eschatological discourse of Mk 13 and the instructions on mission in Mk 6:7-10/Mt 10:5-42/Lk 9:3-5; 10:2-16.

The fifth part, "The Passion of Jesus," argues powerfully that Paul was as much familiar with a passion narrative as the gospel writers were, and that it's a sure bet that Jesus was a martyr. "There is less evidence that Jesus cast out demons, yet who disputes that he was an exorcist?" (p 433) Paul spent enough time in Jerusalem not long after the crucifixion that he could have learned about the circumstances of Jesus's death from those who were with him, and like Donald Akenson (Saint Saul), I would go stronger than Allison on this point: it's incredible that he would not have learned about something like this. Regarding the passion narratives themselves, Allison upholds Mark Goodacre's contention that "history remembered" and "prophecy historicized" are not mutually exclusive, and that, contra Crossan, to biblicize is not necessarily to invent. The passion accounts are memories told in the language of scripture.

The sixth and final part, "How Much History?", addresses whether or not the gospel writers believed their own stories about Jesus, to which there is no tidy answer. On the one hand, the ancients didn't see history everywhere in the bible (in the Talmud one rabbi insisted that Job never existed and was just a "parable"; Origen was comfortable with spiritual truth being preserved in material falsehood in the gospels; and then there was Philo), on the other, they certainly believed things we deride as false (many miracles, the creations accounts of Genesis, apocalyptic prophecies of the end, etc.). Allison suggests an under-appreciated index that can help us gauge how literally an ancient author intended a story: humor. The hilarity and absurdity in (for instance) Judith, Jonah, The Acts of Peter and Andrew, The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and The Testament of Abraham show these works to be products of authors who are declaring their nature up front, and advertising fiction. The canonical gospels, on the other hand, appear to do just the opposite. (Though as an aside, I must confess there's at least one synoptic text which makes me laugh uncontrollably when I try imagining the scenario: Jesus' cursing of the fig tree, which wasn't even supposed to be bearing fruit to begin with; I honestly find this as funny as Thomas' infancy report of him cursing & killing the boy who bumps into him.) The bottom line, says Allison, is that our critical sensibilities are deficient guides on this issue, and we shouldn't underestimate how literal minded people can be about stories that academics see as purely metaphorical.

Constructing Jesus beckons us to fields where memory patterns and themes supplant detailed sayings and deeds. I haven't given up on the classic criteria as much as Allison has -- and frankly, not even Allison has done so as much as he thinks. He half-acknowledges breaking his own rule in demonstrating the historicity of Pilate's sentence for the crime of being "King of the Jews" (pp 231, 233-240), basically wielding a version of both the criterion of discontinuity (with early Christianity) (p 235), and of course, execution. He thus implicitly acknowledges that there are at least some cases where the criteria work, and I'm again put in mind of Donald Akenson, who railroaded the criteria as almost completely useless, save in rare "glaring" cases where an eight-year old can see the process at work (i.e. the embarrassing account of Jesus' baptism by John).

More successfully -- in fact, completely so -- Constructing Jesus pounds the last nail in the coffin of minimalism. I've often said that it's better to be a mythicist than a minimalist -- the former at least don't pretend to be able to construct a historical Jesus on the assumption that our sources are so untrustworthy; the latter (read: Jesus Seminarians) cut their own throats. But it's even wiser to be a millenialist than a mythicist, because, as this book shows, our sources, while legendary, are more reliable than either mythicists or minimalists allow. It's Dale Allison's final say in a trilogy that stands as the definitive guide to what Jesus was about, and in many ways the best of the three.