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."

Jesus in India?

A few years ago I published an article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion called "Jesus in India: Transgressing Social and Religious Boundaries." It's about a late nineteenth century text - The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ - alleged to be the translation of an ancient Buddhist manuscript referring to Jesus living in India during his lost years. While the legend is generally ignored by biblical scholars - largely because the text appears to be a nineteenth century forgery - the circumstances behind its composition are fascinating and it has played a major role in the teachings of East Indian spiritual leaders and within the New Age movement.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Death of Jesus as a Political Conspiracy and Assassination

Politics, conspiracy, and assassination are not words typically associated with Jesus, but they are fitting descriptions of the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. Jesus was executed by the Roman state for the alleged crime of sedition or insurrection. The Gospels protest that Jesus was innocent of such charges and attribute the guilt for Jesus’ death to the political machinations of Jewish high priestly leaders. According to the Gospels, Jesus’ death was an assassination, “the murder of a prominent person or political figure by a surprise attack, usually for payment or political reasons, motivated by religious, ideological, or military motives.” Assassination is one of the oldest tools in power politics, as old as recorded human history.

It was also a conspiracy, an "agreement" between two or more persons to commit a crime or achieve some other secret goal. Conspiracies have common features including illegal or sinister aims, carefully orchestrated acts, and secret planning. That is, conspirators conspire. Unfortunately, the relatively neutral meaning of this term – which simply involves a secret agreement between two or more parties to perform an act – has picked up a derogatory meaning signifying a paranoid tendency to detect the influence of some malign covert entity orchestrating historical events. The term is now often used to dismiss historical claims that are considered to be too ridiculous, paranoid, unfounded, or irrational. Historians tend not to use the word, relegating it to theories which lack veracity. A conspiracy theory, in other words, is often thought to be illegitimate knowledge. If the desired goal of a conspiratorial assassination is to re-present the act as accidental by obscuring the real parties responsible, then Jesus’ death - the result of a conspiratorial alliance between the Jewish high priesthood and Pontius Pilate - seems to qualify. At least the authors of the Gospels seem to have thought so.

The Gospels portray the Jewish high priest – among other Jewish religious leaders – as secretly plotting Jesus’ death. Did the author of Mark invent this “conspiracy?” Or was Jesus’ death the result of an “institutional conspiracy” orchestrated in secret? The author of Mark presented Jesus’ death as part of a divine plan: the son of man must suffer and die at the hands of the religious leaders. This explained why Jesus died ("for our sins"), but did so by constructing a conspiratorial narrative that over-exaggerated a political conspiracy between the high priests into a full-blown drama involving all "The Jews" (Matt 27:25). Now Jesus' death was not just a political execution based on religious conflict, but a voluntary sacrifice for the sins “of many.” Jesus' death was a political assassination orchestrated by a small group of priests threatened by his authority and influence. It was then turned into a divine drama that set the Jews against Jesus, Jesus against Judaism, and Judaism vs. Christianity - all based on a tragic misunderstanding of history.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

"The 'Prince of Peace' or the God of War?"

The Isaiah Scroll - Dead Sea Scrolls

My new article, "The Prince of Peace" or the God of War? Jesus as Nonviolent Messiah" was just published in The Bible and Interpretation. Here's the intro

"Was Jesus nonviolent at the beginning of his ministry only to embrace violence later? Or vice versa? Or was Jesus radically nonviolent throughout his ministry and then misrepresented in the Gospels? Did Jesus say "love your enemies" and then assign them to eternal hell? Did Jesus change his mind? Or is it the tradition itself that is confused and irreconcilable? . . . "

Thursday, October 23, 2014

John Dominic 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 methodological weaknesses of 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. We are better off acknowledging that theological accretions have been added to the developing tradition than rejecting the tradition altogether. We are better off cleaning up the Baby instead of throwing it out with the bath-water.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Secularizing Biblical Studies

How "secular" should Biblical Studies be? A common assumption in the academy is that religious belief is somehow uncritical or opposed to reason and must be bracketed from critical scholarship. At the same time, Biblical (and Religious) Studies is often (mis)understood as being implicitly or covertly related to seminary training. On one hand, then, academic Biblical Studies is not quite theological enough for the faithful; on the other, it is not quite critical enough for the academy.

Secularism is foundational to the modern separation of church and state. It promotes no particular religious interest or affiliation and strives to create a religiously neutral public forum for both the freedom of religion and freedom from religion. In other words, secularism has nothing to do with assessing - or denying - the validity of religious truth-claims. It is the elimination of such claims from the public and political arenas in order to facilitate the pursuit and production of knowledge in a free society. Secularism is not opposed to religion; it simply co-exists alongside religion.

Yet the secularist approach to religion has also given rise to fundamentalism(s), largely in reaction to the perception that religious world-views are being undermined. Conservative Christians, for example, complain that Western culture is too secular in its orientation. Biblical scholarship has become the storm-center of this cultural divide. For many, the very idea of secular Biblical Studies is an oxymoron. How do you study The Bible - the quintessential faith-text of the West - non-religiously? How do you interrogate The Text? It is not surprising that many believers prefer to attend Christian schools and seminaries where the Bible is studied as Scripture - as opposed to studying it as an ancient religious text - like any other.

The relationship between church and academy resurfaced a number of years ago. In 2010, Ron Hendel announced his "Farewell to SBL" after a few unpleasant experiences at the annual meeting where he observed faith-based groups in the session-units. Hendel noted that the SBL had removed the phrase referring to the "critical investigation" of biblical texts from its mission statement and replaced it with language about "fostering" the study of biblical literature. For Hendel, this suggested that the SBL was no longer a Society that required critical engagement and blurred the lines between academic scholarship and theological apologetics. Criticizing the SBL for fostering the "views of creationists, snake-handlers and faith-healers," Hendel withdrew his membership from the Society. It seemed like the proverbial line in the sand had been drawn: Evangelical and Pentecostal units had somehow "infiltrated" the "sacred space" of the secular SBL.

This discussion is nothing new. In 1995, Philip Davies argued for the separation of "confessional" and "non-confessional" approaches. And while few scholars have heeded Hector Avalos's prophetic announcement of The End of Biblical Studies or appreciate his disparagement of the SBL as promoting "a self-serving ideology," Jacques Berlinerblau has called for a secular approach to the Bible that recognizes the complex nexus between faith, theology, and reason. In other words, biblical scholars have long navigated these border lines, but despite the fact that there is broad agreement that Biblical Studies, like Religion, should be an academic discipline, there is little agreement on how we should go about it. In Jonathan Z. Smith's collection of essays, Teaching Religion, I came across this passage in his essay "Are Theological and Religious Studies Compatible?":

    "I find no problem, in principle, between the 'academic study of religion' 
    and the 'theological approach' . . . But this is because I invoke a principle 
    of subordination. After all, individuals who 'affirm' . . . some 'religious tradition' 
    make up the bulk of the data for the study of religion . . . 
    In what I freely acknowledge to be a necessarily imperializing move, 
    theology is one appropriate object of study for religious studies. 
    From the perspective of the academic study of religion, theology is a datum, 
    the theologian is a native informant" (74).

Smith's methodological "subordination" is a necessary move. The best reason to adopt the academy's methods and approaches is not that they always produce reliable knowledge about religion, but that they attempt to do so. Facile accusations of theological (and/or anti-theological) bias may be rife in the academy, but there does not seem to be any easy way to identify, isolate, and/or correct for it. And it is all too easy to identify ideological bias in others, but not in ourselves. Accusing others of ideological bias often relies on subjective impressions of others' motivations. The study of religion and the study of God may involve two very different ways (and objects) of knowing, yet either way, our readings are situated in time and space, embedded in social constructions of meaning. Scholarly work informs theological reflections; theological convictions inform scholarly work. No one stands outside of these constraints. Our personal interests reflect the complex dialectic that faith and reason play in our personal lives and are incorporated in our work which reflects - not the impossible dream of complete disinterest - but the reality of our embodied thought.

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, however, 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, which is why I've dedicated my next book to this subject. But in short, 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. How does Martin know that Jesus "was expecting an angelic army to break through the sky"? This sounds more like a scene from Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ - where Jesus actually aborts the revolutionary path of violence - than anything the Gospels have to say. Martin's thesis also 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. These questions are too complicated for a single article (or blog-post!), which is why I have dedicated an entire book to addressing the relationship between Jesus, the Torah, and the Temple. Martin's paper - while a gross 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."

Friday, July 11, 2014

Tuesday, July 8, 2014