Monday, December 15, 2014

Jesus, Q, and the Dead Sea Scrolls in JTS

Alan Kirk reviews Jesus, Q, and the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Journal of Theological Studies:

"This volume constitutes an important contribution to Q scholarship, confirming that Q's origins lie at a time and a place in which the Jesus movement, or a branch of it at any rate, has not fully differentiated itself from the Palestinian Jewish milieu. Joseph's work will move research in this direction forward in a number of important respects."

Thursday, October 23, 2014

J. D. Crossan on The Nonviolent Messiah

"Simon’s book argues—powerfully and persuasively—that first common-era century Judaism evoked both a violent and a non-violent Messianic option. Furthermore, that Jesus deliberately and self-consciously chose that latter alternative even unto martyrdom. After this book’s challenge, the debate is no longer the Jesus of History or the Christ of Faith. It is now whether, be it as Jesus in academy or Christ in church, that figure is one of violent or non-violent resistance to inequality, injustice, and oppression." 

John Dominic Crossan
Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies, DePaul University 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Dispelling The Jesus Myth

In recent years, the idea that Jesus was a myth invented by early Christians has become increasingly popular among skeptics and atheists. For many, Jesus-Mythicism serves as an effective tool in discrediting the cornerstone of what is perceived to be the very shaky edifice called “Christianity.” Yet despite the efforts of biblical scholars like Bart Ehrman, Maurice CaseyJames McGrath, and others to challenge the Mythicist position, there seems to be no end in sight to the phenomenon.

It is not that skepticism does not have a valid role in Jesus Research. The problem is that Mythicism depends on problematic arguments that do not hold up under the scrutiny of critical analysis. For example, there is no compelling reason to think that we should have more evidence about Jesus preserved from antiquity. Jesus left no written records and was opposed by most of his contemporaries. We actually have pretty good evidence for Jesus considering that he did not have much of a public ministry. 

Historians know that most of the ancient past is long gone, especially the early Christian past. Christianity was a sporadically persecuted sect for almost three hundred years. Most of its early history was either lost or destroyed. So we can neither assume nor assert that we should have more evidence from this remote period in time. To do so sets up an impossible standard of proof that can never be met, which is why it is such an easy position for Mythicists to adopt: it makes it virtually impossible to “prove” Jesus’ existence to them – no matter what kind of evidence is presented.

What also makes the Mythicist position untenable is that none of the positive evidence for Jesus' existence ever survives their acid baths of deconstruction. The problem is not skepticism. Without critical skepticism of the Christian tradition, modern science would never have progressed at all. But Mythicism takes skepticism to new heights. The Quest for the Historical Jesus isn’t rocket science, but it is based on the critical evaluation of historical sources. Historical-critical scholarship is an exercise in analytical skepticism: rendering critical judgments on the probabilities of past events using the tools of evidence, arguments, logic, and peer-review. According to the overwhelmingly vast majority of scholars who participate in this discussion, for example, the letters of Paul – written between c. 48 and 60 CE, with their references to Jesus’ human birth (“born of a woman”), Jewish ancestry, teachings (on divorce), crucifixion, family, and disciples – refer to a very real historical figure in very real time and space. 

When it comes to Jesus, it is the cumulative weight of the evidence that convinces. This convergence of evidence – Josephus’ references to Jesus, the references in Paul’s letters, the embarrassing political and theological fact of Jesus’ crucifixion, the literary and theological trajectories of the Gospels, and the telling fact that the Mythicist position is never taken by any of the Jesus movement’s many enemies, whether Jewish, pagan, Roman, or Gnostic, throughtout late antiquity – is compelling. The historical question, therefore, is not whether Jesus existed, but why theological ideas and beliefs were added to the Jesus story. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Armed and Dangerous?

How often does Newsweek discuss scholarly articles in obscure academic journals? Not very often. But when research suggests that Jesus and his disciples were violence-prone apocalyptic revolutionaries, they make an exception. In “Jesus Was Crucified Because Disciples Were Armed, Bible Analysis Suggests,” Newsweek reporter Douglas Main discusses the provocative implications of a recent article, “Jesus in Jerusalem: Armed and Not Dangerous,” by Yale University professor Dale Martin. The Newsweek article announces that this new research suggests that “the man from Nazareth was not the pacifist he’s usually made out to be” and that “Jesus may have been crucified because his followers were carrying weapons.”

The Violent Revolutionary Jesus hypothesis has long been rejected by most New Testament scholars, as I noted in my review of Reza Aslan's Zealot last year. I have argued that Jesus advocated and practiced a radical form of eschatological nonviolence. Martin's thesis would seem to call that conclusion into question. But as New Testament scholar Paula Fredriksen points out, Martin's thesis has holes so big “you could drive trucks through” them. For example, just because carrying arms was illegal in Rome doesn’t make it so in Jerusalem, a claim that Martin asks us to simply take "it for granted." Fredriksen also adds that the Greek word for sword “really means something more akin to knife,” and such weapons were easily concealed. Nonetheless, she sees her disagreements with Martin as part of the "contact sport" that is Jesus scholarship: the controversy itself is all part of the "fun."

If Jesus and his followers was preparing to participate in a military overthrow of Roman rule in Judea, he certainly had a funny way of showing it. And the Romans and Jewish authorities certainly had a funny way of punishing them. It is true, of course, that the Book of Revelation envisions an end-time battle, as does the Qumran War Scroll. And it seems reasonable enough to conclude that some passionate apocalypticists took up arms against the Romans. But it is highly unlikely that Jesus was one of them. Why not?

The problems are legion.

Martin begins his discussion by stating that "At least one of Jesus' disciples was armed" at his arrest. He then leaps to the conclusion that because one disciple might have been armed that all of Jesus' disciples - even Jesus himself - were armed. That is just wishful thinking. While it is certainly possible that some of Jesus' disciples or followers may have been covertly "armed" or that there could have been some type of scuffle, that's as far as the evidence goes. Furthermore, in Matthew, Luke, and John, Jesus rebukes the violent act, which is hardly what one would expect if Jesus thought he was launching an angelic holy war. We should not forget that it is the Markan Peter who must also be rebuked by Jesus for misunderstanding his messianic vocation as a militaristic one.

Unfortunately, the problems do not end here. Even if two or more of Jesus' disciples did possess large swords, this un-interpreted fact alone does not tell us very much. Perhaps they were simply armed against brigands and thieves. A few weapons were not "enough" to take on the Roman army nor can we assume that the reason they carried them was to prepare for an imminent apocalyptic war. The mere "fact" (if that is what it is) that a few disciples were armed tells us nothing about their apocalyptic intentions or readiness for battle. In the Gospel of Luke, the only reason the disciples possess swords is to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 53 ("he was counted among the lawless"). Martin plausibly dismisses this as "invention," but his alternative explanation is far more problematic.

If Jesus and his disciples were "armed," why wasn’t Peter (or the unnamed follower) arrested for cutting off a person’s ear? And  why does Luke portray Jesus as healing the servant's ear? If Jesus' disciples were armed and ready for war, why weren’t they all rounded up for sedition? Martin knows that these are major objections to his thesis, but he dismisses these arguments, asserting that the Romans were "pragmatists" (18) and did not need to hunt down the followers once the leader had been properly disposed of. If Jesus and his disciples were really embarking on a military revolt against Rome, I think it's reasonable to conclude that Rome would have eliminated the entire threat.

While the article's title would lead us to believe that the argument will center on the disciples being armed, the heart of Martin's thesis actually focuses on the Temple incident. Here Martin follows E. P. Sanders in arguing that Jesus symbolically demonstrated "the imminent destruction of the temple." Yet Martin goes further in stating that Jesus' act in the Temple was "an attempt to catalyze that destruction" and "may have even threatened to do it himself." He also argues that Jesus intended to launch an angelic "overthrow" of the high priestly rulers and Roman overlords. As most Jesus scholars know, the Temple incident is a complicated site of interpretation. It is very difficult to do justice to the historical and theological problems associated with it. The authors of the Gospels each have their own theological interpretation of the event and want us to think that Jesus predicted, threatened, and inaugurated the destruction of the Temple. Why? Because that signals the end of one era and the beginning of the new, "Christian" era in which Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice, replacing the Temple. Consequently, we cannot assume that Jesus sought its destruction. Martin thinks that Jesus wanted to destroy the Temple, but he doesn't explain why (14).

In the end, the whole point of Jesus' ministry - in the Gospel according to Dale Martin - is that Jesus was a "ringleader" who gathered together a small peasant army to march on Jerusalem during Passover where he would launch a violent overthrow of Roman and high priestly rule as "a small detachment in a much larger [angelic] army" (18). In Martin's eyes, Jesus is tragically deluded - and terribly wrong about just about everything.

This attempted resurrection of the (violent) Revolutionary hypothesis - an hypothesis that Martin admits to having been "discredited" many times before - seeks not only to "second others' claims that Jesus was leading a band of armed insurrectionists," but to "strengthen that hypothesis" (4). Martin begins with a firm foundation - "Jesus was expecting the inbreaking of apocalyptic events" (6) - but within a few short pages misrepresents Jesus' apocalypticism as violent. Martin's thesis implicates Jesus as guilty by association, blaming the disciples for Jesus' crucifixion because they carried swords. Where is that in the historical record? Did Pilate crucify Jesus because his disciples had a few knives? Is Jesus really to be held responsible for everything his wayward disciples do? If that is the case, then Jesus really has a lot to answer for.

The most disturbing thing about Martin's thesis is that it runs roughshod over - in fact, ignores - Jesus' teachings on nonviolence, non-retaliation, and love of enemies. While Martin is correct in saying that Jesus' "apocalyptic expectations must be brought into any scenario" (4n2) - that is precisely where his thesis fails, illustrating how truly "dangerous" the misinterpretation of that "scenario" can be. Martin's paper - while a over-simplification of Early Jewish apocalypticism in terms of eschatological violence - provides an opportunity to revisit the monolithic "apocalypticism" of scholarly imagination. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Imaginary Visions of True Peace (review)

Andrew Marr, a Benedictine monk, has written a review of The Nonviolent Messiah on his blog, Imaginary Visions of True Peace:

"Simon Joseph’s book The Nonviolent Messiah is another helpful study on the question of whether or not Jesus truly preached peace . . . Joseph uses examination of the Q document and the Adamic model of the Messiah in Enochic literature to argue that the historical Jesus consistently preached peace . . . Joseph builds a case that Jesus preached nonviolence and a violent eschatology was added later by the Q community.
   The lesser known Enochic literature is examined for a lesser-known element: the Adamic model that emerged in some of this literature in contradistinction to the Davidic Messiah who would be a political and military figure. The Adamic model posits the hope of a renewed creation that would involve all people and would be achieved by totally peaceful means. The Animal Apocalypse, so-called because animals signify the figures, is a particularly strong example of this. We can easily see the influence of this model on Paul’s use of the New Adam in his epistles. Joseph provides much evidence to suggest that this Adamic model, which was very well-known at all levels of Jewish society in Jesus’ time, strongly influenced Jesus’ self-understanding of the kind of Messiah he was . . . 
   Although a meticulous examination, the book is readable and is an important contribution to the investigations on Jesus’ attitude to peace and violence."