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.


Blogger Rich Griese said...

You say "a growing appreciation that the Jesus traditions are reliable but..."

I think this is not the case. I think that there is more of a trend to understand that past Christian history studies have taken a great deal of Church dogma for granted, and in the past, this was assumed.

Today, there are folks coming to the study of the subject without assuming these older Church dogma assumptions.

They are finding that there is pretty much no Jesus data, and only assumed legends, and are starting to point this out. They are not finding Jesus traditions "reliable" as you say, they are finding Jesus traditions totally "unreliable"

Cheers! RichGriese.NET


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