Saturday, 30 August 2014

Putting the "Myth" in Mythicism

Once again, someone with only very little knowledge on the subject has posted a blog post loudly declaring that there is good reason to doubt that Jesus existed. Once again, the reasons given are without an exception logical fallacies. Let us consider.

Here is the link: http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2014/08/30/did-the-historical-jesus-exist-a-growing-number-of-scholars-dont-think-so/

Here are the five reasons the author gives, and the fallacies involved.

1) "No first century secular evidence whatsoever exists to support the actuality of Yeshua ben Yosef." This is of course an argument from silence, and thus only compelling insofar as one should expect there to be something other than silence. In point of fact, given that Christianity in the first century is quite marginal, it is hardly surprising that those outside the movement take little notice of the movement. Moreover, given the paucity of evidence from the ancient world few silences are unexpected.

2) "The earliest New Testament writers seem ignorant of the details of Jesus’ life, which become more crystalized in later texts." Again, argument from silence, and moreover something of a non sequitur. That Paul does not mention a matter does not mean that he is ignorant of the matter. There are lots of things I never mention about which I am nonetheless quite aware. More to the point, again, it is only compelling if we should expect Paul to write more extensively on Jesus' life. Should we? If one seeks to provide warrant for this argument from silence then one must make the positive case that if Paul knew more about Jesus's life he would have written about it.

3) "Even the New Testament stories don’t claim to be first-hand accounts." This is another example of a non sequitur. To demonstrate the presence of this fallacy let me use an example. I have no first-hand account that tells me the author of the blog in question exists, yet I judge it likely that she does. If this judgment is true then first-hand accounts are not necessary for affirmation of a person's existence. The author's argument is also an instance of special pleading, as it sets an evidentiary standard far in excess of where one would normally set the evidentiary standard.

4) "The gospels, our only accounts of a historical Jesus, contradict each other." Again, non sequitur. It hardly follows from the observation that the accounts contradict each other that Jesus did not exist. If I tell you a story about a friend of mine and another person tells you a story that contradicts that one you would not normally conclude that the friend in question did not exist but rather that one or both of the stories are inaccurate or even fabricated. As this is not normally how one would proceed it is again also an instance of special pleading.

5) "Modern scholars who claim to have uncovered the real historical Jesus depict wildly different persons." Utterly irrelevant, which is also to say again a non sequiter. That there is not agreement about a historical figure hardly leads to the conclusion that that figure never existed. This is actually, exactly, the same error as #4 above.

So, perhaps there is reason to doubt Jesus' existence, but Ms. Tarico has yet to provide a logically valid reason, which is to say a reasonable reason, which is actually to say that she has not yet presented a reason at all. So, given her account, there is no reason to doubt. It increasingly looks to me as if the only myth around here is mythicism itself.

Incidentally, James McGrath has observed quite rightly that the title of the post is misleading: there simply are not a growing number of scholars who think that Jesus did not exist. There are, to the best of my knowledge, three, and one of those (Richard Carrier) in fact lacks primary expertise in biblical studies.

Friday, 29 August 2014

The Development of Historical Jesus Studies

The title of this post is subtly but only apparently ambiguous, for in fact "the development of historical Jesus studies" could potential refer to at least one or both of two distinct phenomena. The first potential referent is to development of historical Jesus studies as a sub-discipline, i.e. its origin, emergence, and growth within the broader discipline of New Testament studies. The second potential referent to the fact that it is often construed to take as its object of study the development of what is commonly called the Jesus tradition, i.e. the canonical and extra-canonical gospels, references to Jesus in the broader New Testament, the Apostolic Fathers, etc. This subtle ambiguity is apparent because in fact the second referent potential cannot reasonably be construed as the actual referent, not at least if it is supposed that I am referring to sound historical method. Please let me explain.

Development is a very simple idea. Fundamentally, it is simply the recognition that on the one hand the way things are today are not the way they were previously, on the other hand the way things are today are predicated upon previous states of the world. Xn is not Xn+1 but Xn+1 is possible only because of Xn. Such an understanding of the world is really a discovery of the nineteenth century. That statement requires qualification. Of course people knew about the basic idea of change over time. Nonetheless, in the nineteenth century the notion of development assumed a philosophical as well as social and cultural prominence theretofore unknown. This is perhaps best represented by what we might call the Four Horsemen of the Old Atheism: Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud. All were philosophers of development: Marx, of social and political development; Darwin, of biological; Nietzsche, aesthetic; Freud, psychological. From henceforth, as the result of such thinkers, we could no longer think of the great matters of the world in static and synchronic but rather always in dynamic and diachronic terms: and those who did think in the former terms have come increasingly to look as quaint dinosaurs, left behind by development itself.

New Testament scholarship was hardly untouched by this development that was the discovery of development. Textual criticism, source criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, each entail in one way or another the study of textual development, and it hardly seems an accident that they came fully into their own during precisely the time that human consciousness was fully grasping for the first time the significance of development. In the study of early Christianity proper the first philosophers of development are David Friedrich Strauss and Ferdinand Christian Baur. The former had the more direct impact upon historical Jesus studies, the latter the more impact upon New Testament more broadly. In doctrinal and systematic theology it was John Henry Cardinal Newman who first fully made the leap to a philosophy of development. The sequences of transformations that led to and followed from the Straussian breakthrough can be reasonably described under the rubric of the development of historical Jesus studies.

The second potential referent of “the development of historical Jesus studies” is the idea of development within the Jesus tradition. There is a longstanding supposition among not a few scholars that whatever might be the proper method for discovering the historical Jesus such a method will surely be archaeological in character. The Jesus tradition, as the product of development, is like an archaeological tell, and thus the task of the historical Jesus scholar is to dig through this tell, stratify its layers, and when she or he reaches the bottom layer cry “Eureka! I found him!” We will, when we hit the bottom, see the historical Jesus, the same way one would see an archaeological feature. This is often left implicit within the discipline, and sometimes (most notably in Bultmann’s Jesus) made explicit.

Although sufficiently compelling to be the norm for much of the last two centuries, this understanding of the task of the historical Jesus scholar is obviously ill-conceived. It simply cannot be how the historian should proceed. The fact that after more than a century proceeding this way we seem no closer to a collective eureka moment speaks to that fact. It simply cannot be how the historian should proceed because it is not history at all. It is actually just a sophisticated version of what Collingwood calls “scissors-and-paste history,” which is a procedure by which one removes from the data set that which one judges could not happened and stitches together history from what remains. The product is Patchwork Jesus, having no more resemblance to a real human person than Frankenstein’s monster.

More fundamentally, such a procedure is only conceivable if we suppose that knowing is like looking, that objectivity is seeing what is there and not seeing what is not there, and that consequently the task of the knower is to eliminate from her or his field of vision that which is not real. But this is an ultimately inchoate theory of knowledge, one which reduces knowing to perceiving, such that a failure to know is always a failure to see or hear or taste, but never a failure to think. Thus is in fact thought eliminated from the theory of knowledge, which effectively renders impossible the effort to think about whether what we perceived is true or not, whether it is real, whether it is there. But since we can think about that matter then knowing cannot be reduced to perceiving and the task of the historian cannot be reduced to digging down through a metaphorical tell to reach a Jesus that can be known exclusively through perception.

And thus, if we suppose that I am speaking only of sound historical method, "the development of the historical Jesus" can only have one actual referent, namely the development of the sub-discipline qua sub-discipline.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The wonder that was Bultmann

Anthony Le Donne recently posted a poll, asking "Was Bultmann's impact generally positive or negative?" Looking at the results I'm glad to see that (at the time of writing this post) 73% of respondents have selected the correct answer, namely "generally positive." Indeed, the only reason that Bultmann's legacy is ambiguous is because Bultmann's readers, and one suspects Bultmann himself, too frequently fail to understand the nature of his genius. And he was a genius, about that there can be no doubt. Of what did his genius consist?

Let us recall Lonergan's division of theology into eight functional specialties, grouped into two "phases": the first phase includes research (i.e. text criticism and the like), interpretation (i.e. exegesis), history, and dialectic; the second includes foundations, doctrines, systematics, and communications. I think we can all agree that Bultmann's genius did not consist in research, interpretation, or history. The closest he came to research was his work in form criticism, which it is probably safe to say no one really practices anymore, not at least in anything resembling the Bultmannian practices. This is not because we've moved past Bultmann but because we have come to realize that his thinking here was a dead end. Regarding interpretation and history, very few of his specific exegetical or historical arguments have stood the test of time, and indeed some read today as outright howlers. He is often not only wrong but not even wrong: proceeding on such questionable bases that one can only respond by a incredulous shake of the head. Frequently he sees contradiction where none exists (for the life of me I cannot imagine how the doctrine of Jesus' preexistence contradicts the doctrine of the virgin birth), and as Chris Keith has been arguing for some time his understanding of form criticism has being wracking havoc in historical Jesus studies for the better part of a century.

Regarding dialectic, which is concerned with what something similar to what Newman would call "doctrinal development," consider the emphasis Bultmann put upon the "gnostic redeemer-myth" as a background for the New Testament, when in fact it is increasingly clear that gnosticism in its developed forms post-dates the New Testament and that the "redeemer-myth," if it was ever actually a thing, probably constituted a particular range of second-century Christian developments from first-century Christian doctrine. In fairness to Bultmann our better knowledge of these matters is derived to a large extent from data unavailable until the tail end of his career (i.e. the discoveries at Nag Hammadi and Qumran); one suspects that he might have written something quite different had he had that material available. Yet even on the data available to him there was in fact little reason to think that Gnosticism was a thing in the New Testament period.

That all said, it was precisely in dialectic that Bultmann's genius resides. Ben Meyer argues that central to doctrinal development is the work of translation. When Christianity moved from a predominantly Jewish to predominantly Gentile world it had to translate its central convictions from idiom to idiom. It has been continuing to do so for two millennia. Bultmann's genius was that more clearly than almost theologian of the twentieth-century he grasped that the work of translation continues, and that in fact if academic biblical studies is to make any contribution to the life of the Church or the churches it is via undertaking the work of aiding in the task of translating the Christian proclamation into the idioms of contemporary academia. If he hitched his horse to the Heideggerian wagon it was not because he thought Heidegger's understanding of life and the world was definitive or even superior to that of Christianity but rather because he thought it representative of the idiom du jour and thus the appropriate destination "language" for his work of translation. Really, such translation is all Bultmann means by "demythologizing."

What does that mean for our "reception" of Bultmann? It means that in fact we can reject most of his exegesis and his historiography, and that we are hardly obliged to emulate his tendency towards an existentialism that is itself now quite dated. It means simply to recognize that Bultmann's genius resided not in doing anything new but rather in doing what theologians had always done: translate the Christian proclamation from one idiom to another. The theologian most faithful to the Bultmannian legacy is the one who joins him in joining that great throng of Christian thinkers dating back to at least St. Paul.

And if you have not yet voted in Anthony's poll, go do so. And choose wisely (yes, that was a subtle reference to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

The Vanishing Christian of Antiquity


Not long ago Adele Reinhartz wrote a brilliant piece in Marginalia entitled “The Vanishing Jew of Antiquity,” in which she addressed the current fad of translating Ioudaios by "Judean" rather than "Jew." Reinhartz's notion of "the vanishing Jew" mirrors exactly my concern about scholarly commitment to using circumlocutions like "Christ-believers" to describe what the rest of the world knows quite rightly as "early Christians." What it does is effectively rob Christians of their most defining cultural achievement, namely the New Testament, and also drives a wedge between the apostolic church and the historic Catholic and Orthodox churches. It must assume some radical shift at some ill-defined time following the apostolic period from "Christ-believer" to "Christian." When did Christ-believers stop being Christ-believers and start being Christians? Likewise, when did Judeans stop being Judeans and start being Jews? Such terms don't just rob Judaism and Christianity of their respective heritages but also fail to achieve the historical precision their proponents claim.

There are insurmountable historiographical difficulties in such procedure, which can be demonstrated via Zeno's Arrow. Christians c. 2000 are not Christians c. 1000. Yet we call both "Christians." Christians c. 1000 are not Christians c. 500. Yet we call both "Christians." Christians c. 500 are not Christians c. 250. Yet we call both "Christians." Christians c. 250 are not Christians c. 125. Yet we call both "Christians." Christians c. 125 are not Christians c. 63. Yet suddenly we need a new term for the latter. Two problems present themselves. First, what, empirically, happened between 63 and 125 to warrant this change in term? Second, is it the case, as necessarily entailed by the above, that Christians c. 125 have more in common with Christians c. 2000 than the former has with the Christ-believers of 63? Note that these problems would remain regardless of where one draws the line between Christ-believers and Christians; draw it earlier, draw it later, you will simply be substituting the numbers.

These days the standard answer to the first question is that in the late first-century the movement shifted from being a Jewish sect to a predominantly Gentile religion. We can reasonably grant that reality; whereas the entirety of the New Testament, save probably Luke-Acts, is composed by Jewish persons, from the Apostolic Fathers on almost every ecclesiastical writer of record is of Gentile descent. There was a demographic shift in the Church, no doubt. Does it follow that it ceased to be one thing and became another? Is this shift actually more profound than those wrought by the great missionary expansions of the early middle ages or the 19th-century? Today there are more Christians in the Americas than in either Africa, Asia, or Europe; the Apostles could not have conceived of such a demographic shift, not least of all because they did not know that the Americas were even a thing; if the demographic shift of the late first-century brought about a loss of identity should not this demographic shift also? In other words, why do we privilege this demographic shift as identity-destroying?

The answer is remarkably simple. The insistence on "Christ-believer" (or comparably cumbersome, needless, and unenlightening circumlocutions) is of course simply an example of the way in biblical scholarship still operates with a whole host of hidden Protestant suppositions. German Protestant scholarship of a century ago--and more recently; it's certainly present in Bultmann's work--thought of Christian development in terms of a fall from the Spirit-led Christianity of the apostolic age to a hierarchical and rigid "early Catholicism." This simply reproduced in the bluntest of terms the old Protestant saw that Catholicism was a deviation from true Christianity; it was a fall narrative, no more. This narrative was born out of debates germinated in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation: the Protestant churches, in order to sustain their claims to restore authentic Christianity had necessarily to suppose that the Catholic Church had suffered a historical fall from authenticity; the Catholic Church countered with an untenably strong form of the Vincentian axiom that the Catholic faith affirmed what had been believed everywhere, always, and by everyone. Both claims were grounded in a faulty philosophy of history, one that identified continuity with stasis, such that any change must indicate discontinuity (this of course is the fundamental problem with the Vincentian canon, but that's another matter). Under such a philosophy of history Christians of the first century cannot belong to the same religion as Christians of the twentieth, given the great changes that are manifest between the former group and the latter. Thus a different term is needed for the former. All that has differed are the terms: Christian is now the earlier rather than the later term, signifying the fall from grace (and interesting that precisely at a time that Christianity has fallen into ill-repute in many sectors of the academy NT scholars are in a rush to claim that those who wrote the New Testament were not Christians).

The difficulty with such thinking should be obvious. The first principle of history is that change is a constant. This thing called "Christianity" is historical precisely because it has been changing constantly for two millennia. If change is identical to discontinuity such that a new term is needed every time a thing changes then we should need to have a different noun for Christianity in every century, perhaps every decade or even year of its history. Except it cannot have a history, for "it" would not exist. What would exist would be a Whiteheadian series of individuals which just have the illusion of identity. Such would make the work of historical investigation impossible.

Fredric Jameson has argued that "It is safest to grasp the concept of the postmodern as an attempt to think the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place." That is exactly the problem here. More specifically, the problem here is an attempt to think historically from within what Lonergan would describe as an idealist epistemology, one in which ultimately the only reality that we have consists of ideas, and in its even more banal articulation, words. It is an epistemology that cannot grasp history because it cannot grasp that there is a real world, and unable to grasp that there is a real world it cannot grasp that there was a real past world. And so all that is left is to quibble about terms, labouring under the delusion that in so doing we are generating anything even resembling light.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Liberating Critical Realism

I was recently rereading José Porfirio Miranda's Marx and the Bible: A Critique of the Philosophy of Oppression (alas, exclusively in translation, as I have not the capacity to read the Spanish original). Written in 1971 it remains a still-remarkable book, truly one of the great classics of 20th-century biblical scholarship, Catholic or otherwise. It is frequently overlooked by interpreters probably for a number of reasons: the author lived his entire career in his native Mexico, and thus outside of the mainstream of professional academia; the author was sympathetic to Marxism, and this during the height of the Cold War; the author was a Jesuit who made no effort to sound like the neo-Bultmannianism and implicit liberal to neo-orthodox Protestantism then-regnant within biblical studies; the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's explicit condemnation of liberation theology's Marxist sympathies in 1984 rendered this work suspect even in the eyes of many Catholic interpreters and theologians. Nonetheless, Marx and the Bible is in fact not really Marxist at all, but in fact profoundly resonant with Catholic social teaching, especially as that was crystallizing in the post-Vatican II era; indeed, to read the work now, in the papacy of Pope Francis, the first Holy Father to have worked his entire ecclesiastical career following the Council and incidentally also the first to himself be a Jesuit, is to read something that could come straight from the Curia. The interaction with Marxism reflects the reality that in 1971 it was the case that Marxist thinkers and activists had done more work to evaluate and critique the modern philosophy of oppression than any other group, other than perhaps anarchists and feminists (of course to this we would now add such more recent movements as queer theory, critical race theory, etc.).

The above is something of a digression, and away from my primary interest in this post, which is a curious passage on page 36 of Miranda's work.
[S]ome day we will have to give up completely the very common idea that to interpret the Bible is a matter of the mind of the interpreter, since the scripture has various "meanings" and each adopts the one which "moves" him most or suits him beset. Such a belief has been promulgated by conservatives to prevent the Bible from revealing its own subversive message. Without recourse to this belief, how could the West, a civilization of injustice, continue to say that Bible is its sacred book? Once we have established the possibility of different meanings, each as acceptable as any other, then the Scripture cannot challenge the West. If one of these "meanings" were capable of doing so, nothing obliges us to take it seriously.
When I first read this passage some years ago I thought it somewhat preposterous. Are not conservatives precisely the ones who rail against interpretative plurality whereas liberals those who embrace it? Yet it stuck with me, and in time it became the key to integrating two aspects of myself, namely on the one hand my strong sympathies toward liberation theology (especially in its Latin American iteration) and conviction that it tends to do better justice to the biblical text than its competitors, and on the other my critical-realist hermeneutics.

For the longest time I saw these as at best unrelated and, if related at all, incompatible. The breakthrough that allowed me to overcome this impasse was the recognition that this incompatibility was the result of a conceptual error on my part, namely the idea that there is such a thing as a distinctively liberation-theological hermeneutics. I realized that in fact there is not, or at least should be not. Rather, there is a process of knowing common to all domains of inquiry--what Lonergan calls a "generalized empirical method," the basis of which is to successively be attentive, be intelligent, and be reasonable--which, if employed properly, thoroughly, and reflectively in the study of Holy Scripture, will result in interpretations remarkably like on to those common in Latin American liberation theology. Critical realism provides the proper method for knowing scripture, and liberation theology one of the clearest articulations of what will result from pursuing such method.

Put otherwise, contrary to conservative rhetoric that supposes that one can only come to "socialist" or "liberal" positions (somehow in this rhetoric "socialism" and "liberalism" are synonyms, an idea that borders upon the absolutely and incredibly absurd) by ignoring the biblical text I have discovered that the opposite is generally the case: only by disregarding the Scriptures' clarion calls to justice and mercy can conservatives remain conservatives. And they can do this only by reading scripture poorly, a poverty that surely results from ideological blinders. Critical realist hermeneutics, aggressively pursued, will serve as a powerful corrective to these blinders.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

On What History is Not

I return to one of my favourite topics: why the criteria of authenticity are methodically deficient, and for this discussion I turn to R.G. Collingwood, that great philosopher of history who, not at all incidentally, deeply influenced Lonergan's thought on this matter. I should note that my good friend Jordan Ryan, a graduate student in the Department of Religious Studies at McMaster University (not to be confused with McMaster Divinity College) is working on an article-length treatment of Collingwood with reference to historical Jesus studies. Nothing here should be taken as stealing his thunder, for frankly Jordan knows Collingwood much better than I, and that article, when it is published (and it will be, as it's going to be just excellent) is going to far exceed anything that I write here.

That said, without further ado let us proceed with the discussion. Writes Collingwood in his Idea of History (257):
There is a kind of history which depends altogether upon the testimony of authority...[I]t is not really history at all, but we have no other name for it. The method by which it proceeds is first to decide what we want to know about, and then to go in search of statements about it, oral or written, purporting to made by actors in the events concerned, or by eyewitnesses of them, or by persons repeating what actors or eyewitnesses have told told them, or told their informant, or those who informed their informants, and so on. having found in such a statement something relevant to his purpose, the historian excerpts it and incorporates it, translated if necessary into what he considers a suitable style, in his own history. As a rule, where he has many statements to draw upon, he will find that one of them tells him what another does not; so both will be incorporated. Sometimes he will find that one of them contradicts another; then, unless he can find a way of reconciling the, he must decide to leave one out; and this, if he is conscientious, will involve him in a critical consideration of the contradictory authorities' relevant degree of trustworthiness. And sometimes one of them, or possibly all of them, will tell him a story which he simply cannot believe, a story characteristic, perhaps, of the superstitions or prejudices of the author's time or the circle in which he lived, but not credible to a more enlightened age, and therefore to be omitted.
Although Collingwood lived and died before the full development of criteria for historical Jesus studies, and in any case wasn't a New Testament scholar and showed no interest in HJ studies, he might as well have been describing the criteria approach. He might also have been describing HJ studies in general, going back to at least the work of David Friedrich Strauss. Convinced that the work of history consists of excerpting statements from the gospels and other potentially relevant literature which are then rearranged so as to reveal the real Jesus, HJ scholars developed ever-more elaborate criteria to determine which statements are to be excerpted and which are not. Qualifications were added: "Jesus said something like this," even though exactly how "said something like this" differs from "said this" is typically left unspecified; "Jesus did something like this," even though exactly how "did something like this" differs from "did this" is typically left unspecified. Alternatively, one might not look at individual statements but at the entirety of texts. For instance, it might be asked, is John's Gospel a reliable (i.e. trustworthy) reservoir of statements that might be cut from their context and pasted into our history? But this is just more of the same, only at the level of the gospels rather than at the level of statements.

Collingwood has already hinted, in the quote above, that this is a problematic procedure. Why is that? Again, Collingwood (Idea of History, 275):
The act of incorporating a ready-made statement into the body of his own historical knowledge is an act which, for a scientific historian, is impossible. Confronted with a ready-made statement about the subject he is study, the scientific historian never asked himself: "Is this statement true or false?", in other words "Shall I incorporate it in my history of that subject or not?" The question he asks himself is: "What does this statement mean?" The question he asks himself is: "What does it mean?" And this is not equivalent to the question "What did the person who made it mean by it?", although that is doubtless a question that the historian must ask, and must be able to answer. It is equivalent, rather, to the question "What light is thrown on the subject in which I am interested by the fact that this person made this statement, meaning by it what he did?" This might be expressed by saying that the scientific historian does not treat statements as statements but as evidence: not as true or false accounts of the facts of which they profess to be accounts, but as other facts which, if he knows the right questions to ask about them, may throw light on these facts.
Put more simply, history proceeds not by affirming or rejecting ready-made statements found in one's sources but rather of treating those sources as bodies of data from which one might draw inferences. Once that shift occurs--and it really is the shift from pre-scientific to scientific thinking--suddenly not only the appeal but even the epistemological legitimacy of the criteria falls away. They were, quite simply, calculated to answer questions unworthy of the term "historical science."

And again: watch in the near future for Jordan Ryan's article on this. It will be gold.

Paul, Conversion, and Homosexuality

Exodus International has apologized for forty years of harm done to homosexual persons and shut its doors. Pope Francis has said that it is not his place to judge homosexual persons. Vicki Beeching, beloved Christian songstress, is gay. Reactionaries are all in a tizzy. What is happening to Christian values?

The answer is simple: they're winning out.

Let us go back to Paul. I'm not going to rehearse the arguments that have suggested that we have misread what Paul intended by his statements on homosexuality, as valid as these arguments might be. I'm going to say something that somewhat more radical, namely that Christian ethics and moral theology is only quite inadequately understood when conceived as the work of reading the biblical canon as if it were a law book. That this is the case should be clear from Paul's own statements about the letter of the law.

Of what do Christian ethics and moral theology consist, then? Well, here, again, Paul is of some help. Let us think about his conversion. I'm not talking about conversion from Judaism to Christianity: the reduction of the word "conversion" to movement from one well-defined religion to another, or in our era from no religion to a particular religion, evacuates the word of most of its meaning. No, I'm wearing to something like Lonergan's notion of conversion, which is to say of salutary breakthroughs in a person's subjectivity. Among such breakthroughs is indeed that which he calls "religious," by which he means a movement towards profound being-in-love, although we might better call this a Being-in-love: that is to say, through such conversion one's being becomes progressively one committed to loving others, where "others" ideally is not limited to other human beings but also animals, plants, etc.: indeed, all creation. This might or might not coincide with conversion to a new religion, although frankly given that conversion to love is properly in most cases a life-long journey it will properly be the case that it will not coincide with conversion to a new religion.

Let me suggest that what we get primarily in Paul are glimpses into the mind of a man undergoing such conversion. We know from his own words that Paul was not always a loving man. Then something happened to him. He changed. The Acts presents this change as the result of a vision of the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus, and there is really no reason to think that Paul neither had such a vision nor that it did not have a profound effect upon him. That might very well be the moment that in retrospect he viewed as the beginning of his journey towards becoming what a Being-in-love. As he traveled this journey he inevitably and progressively subjected his earlier commitments to critique and found them lacking. The criterion of the critique was love, against which there is no law.

Now, do not let me be misunderstood: I do not think that Paul thought that the Law was antithetical to love. I think rather that he came to believe that interpretation of the Law must be subordinated to the experience of loving and being loved, and that through this in fact we come to discover the truest meaning of the Law. The Church has continued this Pauline work for two millennia, sometimes better than others. What this means is that new experiences of loving and being loved will continue to determine our readings of Torah, and not just of Torah, but also of the Old Testament, of the New Testament, of the Fathers, the medievals, the Reformers, the moderns, etc. And not just how we read texts but also how we interact with others in general. We will progressively submit more and more of the world to the rule of love, which in Christian theology means submitting more and more of the world to the rule of Christ.

And after two millennia the world has reached the place in its pilgrim journey that it is submitting the matter of same-sex attraction to the rule of love, and the Church is slowly, reluctantly, doing likewise. The experience of Being-in-love has led us to confront our often less-than-loving attitudes towards homosexual persons, and this has brought us to the point that we understand Paul and other passages deemed relevant to the matter somewhat differently. As we become less hostile to homosexual persons we become less confident that the scripture warrants our hostility. Put in Christian terms, God is softening our hearts of stone. We are learning that to think as Paul thought means not simply or even primarily or even at all to affirm the sum total of his propositions but rather more fundamentally to understand the logic by which he came to advance those propositions. And as we do so we begin to suspect that maybe, just maybe, St. Paul might be looking down upon our increasing collective love towards homosexual persons with joy and gladness.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Suffer, little children

I have wanted to avoid straying into politics and the like with this blog. I have a specific mandate here, namely to talk about Lonergan and the New Testament, and I want to stick to that. But the fourth command of Lonergan's four-fold imperative is to be responsible, and in light of current events silence is becoming increasingly antithetical to responsibility.

We are hearing today of conflicts, in Gaza, in Missouri, in Iraq. Each has its own set of political and historical issues. Yet each proceeds under a chilling a question:

When is it acceptable to kill children?

As of twenty-four hours ago over 500 children had been killed through Israeli attacks on Gaza. That number has increased over the last few hours, as the latest cease fire has crumbled and we already have reports of Palestinian children being killed in the latest fighting. The Israeli government justifies its actions by saying that Hamas uses civilians as human shields.

When it is acceptable to kill children? According to the above logic, when a third party puts them into harm's way.

The current violence in Ferguson, MO, began when a police officer gunned down an unarmed, 18-year-old, boy. Don't kid yourself: an eighteen-year-old is a child. He'd just barely graduated high school. He had his own life ahead of him. His ostensible crime? Jaywalking. His actual crime? Being black. In this case, as in the Trayvon Martin case, when is it acceptable to kill children? When you're white and the child is black.

Then there is ISIS. When is it acceptable to kill children? When they are Yazidi, Shiite, Christian, a less radical Sunni.

For the third of the world that claims for itself a Christian heritage this situation should be profoundly disturbing. Did not the Lord Jesus have a particular fondness for children? If one believes that whatever one does for or to the least of these one does to Jesus then what does one think that the world is doing to the Lord right now? Has "Suffer little children" now become an imperative: "Suffer, little children"?

Yet of course it is not just Christians who should be disturbed by the slaughter of children. The Muslim musician-poet K'naan (of "Wavin' Flag" fame), whose family fled to Canada from Somalia following the outbreak of the latter country's civil war in 1991, writes in the song "In the Beginning" that

in the eyes of the youth
there are question marks
like freedom
freedom for the mind and soul,
we don't see them
see them for their worth at all,
that's why we lead em
lead em to these wars
and what is it we feed em
feed em our impurities
and who it is we treat em
treat em like the enemy
humanity will need em
need em like the blood we spill

We "treat em like the enemy," and yet "humanity will need them." Spot on analysis, K'naan. We need to stop killing children. Not only is it intrinsically wrong, but it turns out that our collective future, our collective salvation, might well turn on this matter.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Decline: An Illustration

Some readers might have noticed that my post http://criticalrealismandthenewtestament.blogspot.ca/2014/08/progress-and-decline.html ignited a small firestorm surrounding mythicism. Now, I have been quite clear in my view of this "position," namely that it has a scholarly merit comparable to that of creationism or the hollow earth theory. I stand by that position. So one might wonder why I am concerned with addressing the issue. The reason is simple: mythicism is the fruit of historical Jesus studies. We created this beast. It is our Frankenstein's monster.

Now, begin I proceed, let me be clear: I am not interested in continued discussion of mythicism's scholarly merits because, again, it has none. Rather, I am interested in considering why one should care about something that is so obviously erroneous. The answer lies in the insidious character of decline.

Let me elaborate. I described, in the aforementioned post, Lonergan's notion of decline. Oversight leads to oversight, error compounds error. Historical Jesus scholarship began as an autonomous discourse in the 19th century. It built upon a series of genuine insights, predating but whose significance was first fully appreciated in that century, the most notable of which was the recognition that Jesus probably did not do, say, or experience everything that the canonical gospels attest to be the case. The possibility that Jesus might thus have differed subtly or radically from the evangelical portrait emerged. Indeed, the very idea that we are in the gospels dealing with not a single portrait told quadriphonic but rather with four distinct portraits is largely a product of this period. Put otherwise, this was the century that we began to realize the historical significance of evangelical diversity.

A dual enterprise effort was then launched. In his introduction to the epoch-defining and already classic 2012 edited volume on Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity Anthony Le Donne describes quite succinctly and aptly the duality of this enterprise, and I would refer any reader there for fuller discussion. But to make even more succinct that succinctness, the dual enterprise was the pursuit of two forms of authenticity: one, the other the pursuit for the "what really happened"; the other, the pursuit for Jesus's authentic genius. These are of course related: a statement about the "what really happened" would potentially have implications for understanding Jesus' genius, and vice versa. A signal recent example would be the Cynic Jesus: Jesus' authentic Jesus rested in his striking aphorisms and counter-cultural lifestyle and thus sayings and deeds consistent with that genius tended to be favoured over those that did not.

These two pursuits allow us to situate the seeds of decline that have led to our current situation, in which the absurdities of mythicism actually seem to some (indeed, not many) to be something other than, well, absurd. The "what really happened" need not but potentially and in actuality was carried out under the banner of what Lonergan calls empiricism, namely the position that since the real is what is there to be seen the task of the historian is to eliminate from her or his field of vision that which is not real. So clever techniques were devised to carry out the stated elimination. Completely overlooked in such a procedure is the reality the real is not simply what is there to be seen, that knowing is not like looking, but rather genuine understanding entails just that: understanding. What I see is data to be processed, and as such historical reality consists not of data deemed to be authentic but rather of the historians's work in construing via the data the world from which that data came to be.

The quest for Jesus' authentic genius understands that, at least implicitly. It understands that the historical Jesus is not just a sum of the parts left over after we have gutted the gospels via criteria of this or that provenance. Rather it understands that just as the Evangelists were constructing Jesus in their own time so too are we constructing Jesus in our own. The difficulty is that the quest for Jesus' authentic genius lapsed into what Lonergan calls idealism, namely the position that since the real is what is there to be seen and since what is there to be seen is not what was really the case it follows that one cannot apprehend the real. Put more succinctly, the gap between what the scholar thought to be Jesus's genius and the gospels' empirical presentation of Jesus' teaching and actions generated an epistemological chasm that idealism could not and cannot broach, precisely because it cannot apprehend how to move from understanding ideas to understanding the world.

In practice idealism fell back on empiricism. The quest for Jesus' genius became the quest for the "what really happened." Again, the Cynic Jesus portrays this quite well. The procedure that results looked typically something like this: I determine what I consider to be Jesus' genius, then I devise methodology by which to eliminate from the data all that contradicts with said genius. And this is how we would have ended up with mythicism. The mythicists simply take this subtractive approach to an extreme: since all in the gospels is in question it must all be false. The problem is that it in so doing it simply repeats the basic error of both empiricism and idealism, namely that knowing is like looking, that the real is what is there to be seen. It reasons: since what is there to be seen differs subtly or significantly from the "what really happened" then it must follow that there was no "what really happened."

This of course is silliness. No one actually operates that way in the real world, and no one actually could. If I tell you that Friday night I went with John Bolton to see Guardians of the Galaxy and John Bolton tells you that we went on Saturday night one would not conclude that we never went to Guardians of the Galaxy but rather that one or both of us is confused about the date. (Side note: if you haven't seen Guardians of the Galaxy stop reading now and go watch it immediately). It is silliness, but it is silliness of our devising. It's the end product of two centuries of oversight that has seen our vacillate between an untenable empiricism and an unequally untenable idealism, generating in the process all sort of freakish chimeras in between. The so-called "criteria approach" constitutes but the latest chimeric menagerie. We have no to blame but ourselves, or perhaps more precisely our predecessors.

So the solution is simple yet difficult: we need to get our conceptual house in order. No point bemoaning mythicism when it is but a symptom of our own disorder. Only when we genuinely understand what it is to do history will we be able to articulate to people outside our discipline.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Jesus was invented in 1983

N.B.: since I am not a crank who believes that the earth is hollow or that absent tin foil on my head the CIA can hear my thoughts please be assured that what follows is written with my tongue quite solidly in my cheek, in order to show why it is that disbelieve in Jesus's existence is intellectually on par with the aforementioned absurdities. It does so through reductio ad absurdum, a wonderful rhetorical device with a splendid pedigree. Now, without further ado...

Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that Jesus never existed and that the gospels are myths. Now, among the four canonical gospels is one attributed to a man named Luke. Presumably if Jesus is a myth then Luke is too, but we can nonetheless suppose that somebody actually wrote this gospel. Now, there is also another text out there called "The Acts of the Apostles," that purports to be the sequel to the aforementioned gospel by a possibly existent author. Now, whether it was written by the same person or not it seems reasonable to suppose that if the first volume consists but of myth that the second includes little to no history. Yet that volume constitutes our earliest account of Paul's life; indeed, all other accounts of Paul's life are largely dependent on this one. Thus it seems quite likely that if the hero of the first volume, viz. Jesus, was a myth, then the hero of the second volume, viz. Paul, is also a myth.

Now, you might object: but we have letters from Paul! Well, perhaps they are all forgeries, written to sustain the fiction that is Acts. Same with the reference to Paul that is found in 2 Peter 3:15-16. You might object: but we have people referring to Paul in the second century. Well, perhaps those are forgeries too. After all, much of the material that we have from the second century is actually found in manuscripts that date from centuries later; and even if they come from the second century perhaps they are simply part of the deception. Maybe none of those people who cite Paul themselves existed! You don't know; you weren't there. So all we're left with are a few manuscripts dating to the second century that mention a guy named Jesus; a few others that mention a guy named Paul. All told, not enough to affirm their existence.

Yet we don't even have that. What we have are some papyrologists claiming that they have found manuscripts dating from the second century in which Paul is mentioned. How do I know that they are qualified to speak on the matter? And even if they are, how do I know that they aren't in on the conspiracy also? I cannot check for myself after all, I lack access and qualification. I have but their word for it. And I'm such a cautious fellow that I cannot but doubt their testimony on the matter. So really all we have is some twentieth-century scholars, who might have vested interests in establishing the existence of Jesus and Paul, telling us that they have some second-century material that mentions these two figures. And really, I've never met most of these scholars, so I don't even know if they exist. And even if I met them, really I'd have but met people claiming to be these scholars. How could I ever verify that their claims are true and good?

Indeed, how do I know that belief in Jesus or Paul existed before the 20th century? Sure, I read in history books that it was recurrent through history. But those books were written quite recently. They claim to be based upon scholarship, but those scholars might be fictions. They claim to be based upon historical documents but those might be lies. I've not seen most of these documents, after all. I really have no direct experience of belief in Jesus's existence before attending Sunday School in the 1980s. So really I can't be sure that such belief existed before that time. You might tell me that you have memories of such belief from before that but how do I know I can trust you on the matter? Or that you even exist?

Thus do I conclude that no one believed in the existence of Jesus prior to 1983, and that in fact Jesus belief predates Return of the Jedi by just a few months.

Now, let me remove my tongue from my cheek. What I'm done here is intentionally mimic Richard Whatele, who used this sort of radical skepticism to prove that one could not be sure of Napoleon's existence...and this whilst Napoleon was yet alive! Of course Whateley's tongue was in his cheek, because obviously Napoleon existed. But in the process he advances a biting critique: if a line of historical reasoning leads to the conclusion that the greatest news maker of the day never existed then perhaps it is better considered a line of historical unreasoning.

In the end, as with most other conspiracy theories, I'm left wondering: what possible motive would anyone have had for making up Jesus or Paul or the modern New Testament papyrologist? Yes, perhaps with sufficient sophistry I can show how it is logically possible that these figures never existed. But have I given a convincing explanation for why anyone went about this effort? Why bother? Who, in the late first or early second century would have thought it was a great idea to make up Jesus or Paul, if these were not an invention of the 20th century?

Friday, 15 August 2014

Progress and Decline

Following up on my post about responsibility and goodwill, I feel compelled to write on what will perhaps seem to many an outdated idea, namely that collectivities of persons can go through progress and decline. "Progress" has a very simple meaning for Lonergan: genuine insights, good judgments, and responsible decisions build one upon another, such that society is organized and technology is created so as to objectively improve conditions for as many people as possible. Decline is the opposite: oversight, bad judgment, and irresponsible decisions compound each other such that society becomes fragmented, technology that could alleviate suffering is not developed, etc.

The grand scheme of history has seen a general trend towards technological progress, and I would argue also intellectual, social, and moral progress as well. Once we had barely mastered the wheel, now we can send people to the moon. Once we thought that the sun went around the world and was perhaps a personal deity, now we know that we orbit the sun and it lacks personhood. Once our societies were ruled over by the man with the biggest club, now we have at least the semblance of democratic institutions. Once we had no notions of human rights, now we have international treaties and organizations devoted to these matters. It's not perfect, of course, and the potential of many of these more salutary developments remain underrealized, but yet it seems to me that as a species we have achieved quite a lot in a very short time. And that's a good thing.

Yet we are live in a period of obvious decline. The events of this summer have driven this home. Yes, we have tremendous technology, but we use it to kill, whether by shooting unarmed teenagers, or bombing civilians, or engaging in acts of genocide, or systematically turning off the water to people living in the world's largest economy. Our democratic and international structures have largely broken down. Large swathes of the planet have been and continue to be economically and ecologically devastated in order to sustain an unsustainable concentration of capital into the hands of an increasing few. This devastation was once largely limited to what we here in what we call the West call another world--viz., the Third--but now it's in our backyards. Water shut-offs due to ecological and economic concerns are becoming a fact of life for many people living in the world's largest economy. Our cities are turning into war zones. And truthfully none of this is new: it's simply reaching the point that the average citizen of the West can no longer pretend that it isn't happening or that, if it is, it's happening over there.

Lonergan identifies "bias" as the engine of decline, specifically what he calls general and group biases. General bias occurs when a community systematically ignores the reality that certain questions call for appropriate expertise. Instead they try to answer all questions via "common sense." So it is that persons with no training in the sciences think that they can declare virtually all scientists to be in error when they say that evolution is the best explanation for the origin of species. So it is that persons with no training in New Testament studies think that they can declare virtually all New Testament scholars to be in error when they say that Jesus most certainly existed. So it is that politicians can ignore the warnings of specialists in various areas when they say that this or that policy will have disastrous effects. The inevitable result is bad policy compounding bad policy.

Coupled with this is group bias. Group bias is concerned only with what is good for my group. So what if a couple thousand Palestinian civilians have been killed if I'm not Palestinian? So what if some people in West Africa have died of a horrible disease if I'm not West African? Oh, wait--someone from country has died of that illness? OMG! We must take action, now!--but that action must be focused upon ensuring it does not come, and only if curing the disease over there will help achieve that end will I support sending aid. Christians are now being threatened in Iraq? The world must act! Oh, some Shiites have also been slaughtered and in danger? Meh. Things are going well? It must be the other party's fault...can't possibly be mine. That (which is obviously all stated tongue-in-cheek and does not reflect my actual views on the matters) is group bias. And it's just silliness that leads to inane, short-sighted, inhumane, collective decisions.

The problem we face right now is that we are not addressing these biases. We are treating symptom after symptom, but cannot treat the disease until we recognize that it consists on the one hand of a parochialism that allows people to neglect the tremendous untapped intellectual resources that could potentially reverse the decline through better insights, judgments, and decisions, and on the other of a provincialism that leaves us convinced that our own group's self-interest is the only one of legitimate concern.

What is academia's role in all this? The scholar's role should be clear: it is to continue doing the work of scholarship, to build up reservoirs of genuine insights and good judgments, such that if and when society begins to purge itself from general bias and seek the expertise of qualified experts there will be such expertise ready at hand. In NT studies we are concerned specifically with generating genuine insights and good judgments about first and foremost the New Testament, with ancillary interests in the HB/OT and a variety of cognate works. Given the extent to which global culture is shaped directly or indirectly by a Christian heritage it stands to reason that this heritage will likely be part of the solution to general and group bias. Exactly how that might look, and how we might contribute to that process, is left to be determined, but ultimately perhaps our greatest contributions, if any we are to make, will be in the area of moral reasoning. And to think of that is both terrifying and exhilarating.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

On Constructing Reality

We've all heard it. We've maybe even said it. "But that's a cultural/linguistic/etc. construction!" Typically this is said as if it means a darn thing. The interesting reality is that more often than not it doesn't. See, it goes without saying that if we're dealing with a cultural or linguistic phenomenon that we are dealing with something constructed. The fact of constructiveness is not the issue. The issue is two-fold: how did the construction come about, and does this particular construction apprehend the real.

The first question is of course quite interesting, but not my primary interest here. All I will say on the matter is that too often it is assumed that the first issue necessarily lies allow the path to addressing the second question, that before one can know whether a particular construction apprehends the real one must first know how the construction came about. This is simply to commit the genetic fallacy. In point of fact a proposition is true or false independent of the processes that generated it, and constructions are no different. The interesting thing is that whilst one can discover processes that maximize the likelihood of generating constructions that apprehend the real--and critical realism is calculated precisely to be such a process--it does not follow that a construction generated absent such processes will be invariably false. Again, though, that is simply to state that the genetic fallacy is indeed fallacious.

The second question is my interest here. More specifically, I want to ask a general question: can any construction ever apprehend the real? There are two possible answers to this question: yes and no. Let us begin with "No." Let us suppose that constructions, by their very constructedness, cannot apprehend the real. There are two responses to this supposition. The first is that of the empiricist. She or he rightly realizes that one can apprehend the real, and concludes therefore that since constructions cannot do so then any apprehension of the real must occur absent construction. Thus she or he seeks direct, unmediated, knowledge of, for instance, the historical event under discussion. What follows from this are procedures such as the criteria, which seek to separate the unconstructed in the gospels from the constructed (typically called by such rubrics as "traditional" or "redacted," respectively, or "authentic" or "inauthentic," or "history" and "theology"; this is the hoary yet tired Jesus of history vs. Christ of faith distinction). The difficulty, as scholars such as Chris Keith, Anthony Le Donne, and Rafael Rodriguez have recently been urging, is that the gospels are already constructions of the early Christian communities, and moreover any effort to understand the gospels is a work of construction. By their very work of constructing arguments that they believe to apprehend the real they operate on the implicit supposition that constructions can apprehend the real.

The second response to the supposition that the constructed cannot apprehend the real is that of the idealist. She or he rightly realizes that the gospels are all constructed, and even more that our own understanding of Jesus is constructed. Therefore, she or he concludes, one cannot know anything about the historical Jesus. Such persons go about showing all the difficulty entailed in making judgments. They are quite impressed by the unreliability of memory. They cavil endlessly about words and their usage, for in the end words are all they have. The whole time they ignore that if all is constructed and if their words apprehend the reality that constructions cannot apprehend the real then in point of fact constructions can apprehend the real, thus obviating the very premise of their idealism. Like the empiricist they operate on the implicit supposition that constructions can apprehend the real.

If the empiricist and the idealist operate on yet deny the supposition that constructions can apprehend the real the critical realist both operates on and affirms said supposition. With greater clarity as to how we go about knowing the world the critical realist is able to better reflect on the processes of knowledge generation. Thus she or he is able to better cultivate the skills that will increase the likelihood of generating constructions that apprehend the real. Unhindered by the absurdities of either the empiricist or the idealist she or he can simply get on with the work of doing history.

What is exciting about current developments in historical Jesus studies is that, whilst in the past we have vacillated between empiricism and idealism, we seem to be moving into a era that operates functionally on the critical realist's affirmation that constructions are both ubiquitous and capable of apprehending the real. Such an affirmation is necessary for the work of history, and perhaps, just perhaps, collectively we are finally at a place where we can begin such work.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

On Being People of Good Will

In July of this year the world was assailed by news of war in Gaza, Ebola in West Africa, mass water shut-offs in Detroit, genocide in Iraq. Theologically I cut my teeth on liberation theology and spent my undergraduate degree immersed in a department of anthropology dominated by Marxist perspectives; my earliest publications were in the area of Marxist biblical scholarship. I will admit fully that my inner-Gutierrez is seething at these situations. It really takes very little work to frame this within a post-colonial perspective, Marxist or otherwise, and no doubt one would gain genuine insights from so doing. Equally one could gain genuine insights from situating these situations within a feminist perspective, or that whole host of disparate "Leftist" viewpoints that fall within our discipline under the general rubric of "ideological criticism." My tendency, given my own temperament, is to think in terms of a moral theology that is informed by the genuine insights of such perspectives, and coordinated generally by Lonergan's historicized Thomism.

What does that mean, in practice? In an early post on this blog I suggested that all Lonergan is summed up in AIRR, i.e. his four-fold imperative to Be Attentive, Be Intelligent, Be Reasonable, Be Responsible. Now, Lonergan notes that often in practice we begin by being responsible. I hear about mass killings in Iraq. I have a visceral reaction that tells me that this is wrong and that something must be done. Then I sit back and ask two related questions. One, why do I think that this is wrong? Two, what can be done that will positively alter the situation? That is where one must be attentive to the data, intelligent in understanding its significance, reasonable on weighing out various possibilities. This leads to a responsibility that is more than just a visceral reaction but predicated upon genuine knowledge about the matter.

To become genuinely attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible is to undergo conversion, which Lonergan schematizes into three "moments": religious, moral, and intellectual. "Religious" means not conversion to a particular or even any religion but rather to the profound conviction that the world should be a good place and a willingness to work towards the realization of such goodness in and around oneself. It is to confront the problem of evil in its starkest form by acknowledging the problem of good, viz. that despite all appearances to the contrary the world is yet a good and beautiful place. Religious conversion is to become, in the words of the Gloria, "people of good will." Such goodwill leads to moral conversion: converted to goodwill one wills to do good, i.e. to prefer value over self-satisfaction. This in turn leads to intellectual conversion: willing to do good one becomes concerned to discover what is truly good, and this requires that we learn more generally how to distinguish true from false. Put more succinctly, only a person of goodwill can be genuinely open to truth.

The salient point is that not everyone is equally prepared for the work of responsibility. One who gives not a whit about others is going to suffer a chronic handicap when it comes to responsibility, for such a person will recurrently fail to consider the needs of anyone but her or his self. Such a person will think that people suffering from war in Gaza, hemorrhagic fever in West Africa, from thirst in Detroit, from mass murder in Iraq, have no claim on her or his attentions or sympathies, let alone her or his operations to effect a positive difference in their lives. We have a word for such a person: psychopath. Such a person might well come up with this or that quite clever ideology to justify such psychopathic indifference to others, but that is just a smokescreen to cover over the fact that she or he is a piece of crap, and this precisely because there have not been the conversions necessary to generate caring and compassion for others. Such a person is not a person of good will.

The biblical scholar should be particularly disturbed when such ideologies invoke aspects of the biblical tradition. For instance, perhaps Paul's words on effeminacy are used to justify the most egregious homophobia, or passages from Proverbs on the necessity for hard work are used to show how poverty is not the result of complex cultural, historical, and social realities but rather of simple moral failures on the part of "the poor" (a group conveniently generic enough so as to obviate any identification with real persons, thus preventing those pesky pangs of empathy). I would suggest that as the members of the academy most fully trained in the study of scripture that biblical scholars have a responsibility to counter such misuses and abuses of the biblical tradition, and that moreover insofar as a given biblical scholar is a person of goodwill she or he will feel compelled to do so. She or he will be simply outraged, and will find it takes greater energy to stay silent than to speak up. For that is what a person of goodwill truly is: one who cannot but respond to the sufferings of others. The intellectual task is simply to ensure that one's responses are attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Ebola and Parallelomania

Okay, the title is a bait and switch. This post isn't actually about Ebola. It does however use the current fears surrounding Ebola as an instructive lesson for New Testament scholars.

The other day, I came across a news story that a patient was being treated in a Brampton, Ontario, hospital for Ebola-like symptoms. Now, Brampton, Ontario, is about a half-hour drive from my home, so I was understandably a bit concerned by the news. Then I read the story, and noted its emphasis upon the "like" in "Ebola-like." What was going on is that the patient had recently returned to Canada from a country affected by Ebola and had symptoms that looked like Ebola, but also looked like other, more common diseases, such as malaria. The hospital was playing it safe and quarantining the patient and sending out blood for testing, but it probably wasn't Ebola. The lesson: formal similarity is insufficient to establish substantive identity.

This is exactly the same lesson that Samuel Sandmel imparted some time ago when he coined the word "parallelomania." It is a perpetual and still-persistent problem in biblical studies that scholars will identify formal parallels between two texts or corpora but fail to specify the precise significance of such parallels. So what if X is like Y? What is the nature of the parallel? Is it, to borrow a helpful distinction from our colleagues in evolutionary biology, homologous, which is to say a relationship of common origin but not necessarily a common function (i.e. a bat’s wing and a human arm), or analogous, which is to say a relationship of common function but not common origin (i.e. a bat’s wing and a bird’s wing)? If homologous then what generated the divergence? If analogous then what generated the convergence? This is all to say two things: first, that form is not substance, such that a formal similarity does not necessarily imply a substantive identity; second, that the mere identification of similarities does not in fact constitute a historical argument but rather at best a question to which as an answer one might now formulate a historical argument.

I discussed this the other day in relation to mythicism in historical Jesus studies. Yes, there are some similarities between the gospels and an array of mythical texts. There is a figure identified in some sense as divine (although one can argue about the extent to which this is the case for all of the canonical gospels). This figure dies and returns to life: a dying-and-rising god, one might say. This figure performs acts of power. Etc. In light of all these similarities the question becomes quite simply: so what? Before I judge the gospels to be myth I would want to know things like "What did the Evangelists intend"? Do they intend to write myth? Or do they intend something else altogether, such as historiography or biography, and just happen in the process to incorporate into their work quite incidental parallels with mythic literature? I would want to know how the earliest readers of the gospels understood these works. Did they think they were writing merely mythical accounts, without connection to actual real-world events? The more one asks such genuinely exegetical and historical questions the less one is impressed by the formal similarities.


The other interesting thing about parallels is that even if one identifies some sort of genetic relationship one still has to explicate its significance. Let us draw upon an example from the Hebrew Bible here. It is altogether conceivable that Genesis 1 alludes to the Enuma Elish. Although this is not necessarily without dispute, let us suppose that it does. The question, again, would be: so what? The ancient Israelites could in fact have adopted the entirety of the Enuma Elish without necessarily ascribing to it the same values as did its neighbours, and in point of fact there is no data to warrant the conclusion that they did adopt the entirety of the Enuma Elish. Ben F. Meyer, in Early Christians, helpfully distinguishes between two forms syncretism: weak syncretism, which characterizes traditions that, having weak identities of their own, are little more than assemblages of elements borrowed from other traditions; and strong syncretism, which characterizes traditions that, having strong identities of their own, borrow elements from other traditions in order to better articulate that identity. Ancient Israelite and Jewish syncretism seems, at least from the Second Temple Period, to be a strong syncretism.


This has implications for these animals we call "Hellenistic Judaism" and "Christianity." In the case of the former, yes, Hengel is absolutely right, by the 3rd century BCE at the latest Judaism in the land and the western Diaspora can in general be termed "Hellenistic." Yet this requires qualification, for in this Hellenism Judaism did not give up but in fact sought to enrich, enhance, and advance its own distinctive identity. Philo's syncretism is perhaps the exemplar of strong syncretism: not the Platonization of Judaism but rather the Judaization of Platonism. Christianity perpetuates this tradition of strong syncretism. Origen will Christianize Platonism; church architects will Christianize the basilica form; missionaries will Christianize Germanic and Scandinavian pagan sites and symbols; etc. This strong syncretism continues today in various ways (witness for instance the Evangelical Christian tendency to take whatever form of music is currently popular and Christianize it by increasing the Jesus-per-minute factor whilst reducing its quality as music).


Returning to the question of mythicism, why should we think that the gospels are the exception in the tradition of strong syncretism identifiable in both Judaism and Christianity from at least the Second Temple period? Why should we assume that the earliest Christians, with their thoroughly Jewish heritage, suddenly went bonkers and became weak syncretists completely out of step with the tradition upon which they were building, only to return not long thereafter to a strong syncretism? Why should we think they were running off to pagan myths when all the data indicates that they were drawing upon Jewish scriptural and extra-scriptural tradition in building their understanding of Jesus of Nazareth? The answer to these rhetorical questions is of course that we shouldn't think thus.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Mythicist Reason?

When I first began reading Lonergan I found myself puzzled by his distinction between intelligence and reason. Are they not the same thing, I asked myself? Certainly I had always considered them to be synonyms. So perplexed was I by this matter that I nearly threw up my hands in despair and walked away. Yet, sensing that there was something important here I persevered, and I'm glad that I did, for now not only do I grasp his distinction between intelligence and reason but recognize it as a fundamental contrast that reveals why so much scholarship can go so thoroughly awry, despite being the work of well-informed and even quite intelligent individuals. To illustrate please allow me to use this bizarre pseudo-history known as "mythicism."

For those unfamiliar, mythicism or the "Jesus myth theory" is the idea that Jesus of Nazareth never existed, that he was merely a mythical figure and the gospels are merely elaborations of that myth comparable with mythic cycles such as the Enuma Elish, the Osiris traditions, etc. Often various mystery religions are invoked. Now, of course a clever mind can identify all sorts of parallels between any two bodies of literature. More than fifty years ago, in his SBL presidential address, Samuel Sandmel coined a splendid term for this: parallelomania. I can also, if I want, declare by fiat that what appears at first glance to be historical material is in fact legendary. This is all quite possible, and a swift and nimble mind can make all sorts of contortions. Such gymnastics are all the work of intelligence, whose job is produce a coherent hypothesis, in this case that Jesus never existed and the gospels are myths.

Yet hypotheses are just that: hypotheses. They are ideas to be tested for their truth value, and that test is the work of reason. If intelligent aimed at coherent then reason aims at correspondence. Reason asks "Is this hypothesis warranted by the data?" Here mythicism fails dramatically. Its arguments are unsound from ground up. The supposed parallels between ancient myth and the gospels evaporate with remarkable haste. The gospels contain a level of historical specificity unlike what we find in these vaunted parallels. They ignore or the very least under-appreciate the parallels with historical and biographical literature, which are in fact much more impressive than those with mythical material. They commit the serious non sequiter of thinking that just because is like X means that it must be an example of X (which is to say, they elide the not inconsequential distinction between the words "like" and "is"), which is to say that they fail seriously to reckon with the possibility that something can be similar to myth yet not be myth. The arguments are tendentious, such that if they were applied to any other figure they would be seen as utterly ridiculous (as was demonstrated two centuries ago by Richard Whately, who wrote a satirical work in which he employed the sort of skepticism that is today operative among mythicist in order to prove that one cannot know that Napoleon Bonaparte never existed--and this whilst Napoleon was still alive!). When tested against the data one finds that might have first appeared to be an impressive edifice is little more than a castle in the sky.

So this great product of intelligence, this clever approach to explain the data, dissolves in the acid test of reason. It dissolves so spectacularly that one realizes very quickly that only the heavily biased could actually hold the position. It is in these regards it is to historical scholarship precisely what six-day creationism is to biology. Intelligence can work out many clever ideas, but these must be tested to see if they can be true given the extant data about the world. Reason is thus remarkably powerful. It is what allows us to distinguish real from unreal. Intelligence is not up to this task, precisely because intelligence's task is merely to suggest possibilities for reason to test. Many are called but few are chosen; many hypotheses are intelligent but few are reasonable. Mythicism, alas, is not one of the chosen few.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Reality and specialization

I was thinking the other day about reality. More to the point, I was thinking about how to give an adequate account of how it is the case that the gospels do not consist of historical reality but are of course an aspect of reality. It hit me: Lonergan's notion of functional specialties do this work.

I discussed these in an earlier post, but by way of reminder I will say the following. Lonergan divides theology into eight functional specialties, of which history is the third. It is preceded by "research" and "interpretation" and succeeded by dialectic, foundations, doctrines, systematics, and communication. Now, each is a specialty in the sense that theologians tend to most fully develop their skills in one or two of these areas but not all eight. I have come to realize that they designate more than a cluster of skills. More specifically, they designate a cluster of skills which are intended to apprehend a particular object. In other words, functional specialties assign different aspects of reality to different scholars. This would also of course mean that we could give a similar account of the distinction between theology and, say, the natural sciences: the distinction is first and foremost their respective objects.

So, when I say that the gospels do not consist of historical reality I mean precisely and only that: they do not consist of historical reality. That requires careful clarification, though. The object of historical inquiry is the historical event, addressed through the five w's: what, when, where, who, and why. Historical inquiry is carried out through the attentive, intelligent and reasonable compound that is knowing. To say that the gospels do not consist of historical reality is simply to say that they do not consist of historical events. This might sound pedantic but a moment's reflection should reveal that if it is pedantic then it is a necessary pedantry, for the criteria of authenticity necessarily suppose that the gospels consist of historical events, some of which happened and some of which did not. This is their unspoken minor, and it is results in the strange and incoherent combination of a naive realism that assumes that what you see is what you get with an idealism that assumes that much of what you see is illusion.

Yet the gospels do exist, and here we return to functional specialties, specifically what Lonergan calls "research." The object of research is data itself, and it too is carried out through attentive, intelligent, and reasonable knowing. It is research then that establishes the existence of the gospels, that establishes their content, etc. In New Testament studies research consists primarily of textual criticism, although it does also consist of archaeological excavation insofar as that is relevant for studying the NT. The gospels are real insofar as research can show that they existed, that they consisted of a particular content (or, given the fact of textual variants, a particular range of content), etc. They are not however a collection of historical events, and thus the nature of their reality is that they are not historical reality.

The object of interpretation is meaning. If research establishes the texts of the gospel then interpretation asks what it means. More to the point, it asks what the author(s) intended. Of course a thousand readers just recoiled from the word "intend," assuming that by this I naively fall into the intentional fallacy. But only can only think that I am guilty of the intentional fallacy if one does not understand what the intentional fallacy means. The intentional fallacy, as articulated by Wimsatt and Beardslee when they coined the term, is not the view that the author had intention but rather that the intention can be discerned independent of a text and then used as the proverbial "hermeneutical key" for interpreting the text. What Lonergan means by interpretation, what Ben Meyer meant, what I mean is precisely the opposite, namely that once one adequately understands the text one also understands what the author intended to communicate through the text. Thus, again, intention is quite precisely the object of interpretation, whereas in the intentional fallacy it would be the means of interpretation. The difference between object and the means by which one achieves a means is not inconsequential.

Yet I digress. The point is that meaning too is real, but it is not the same as historical reality. To say what the author(s) intended in writing John 9:22 and 12:42 is not to say how John 9:22 and 12:42 relate to actual historical events (I refer to these verses as they were the object of my dissertation). It is a necessary precondition for asking properly historical questions, just as establishing the content of the text is a necessary precondition for asking properly interpretative questions, yet it is not historical inquiry proper. The failure to clearly identify the object of inquiry has sent more than one discussion within historical Jesus studies off the rail. It can lead to scholars talking past each other. And that's when you see heat rather than light.