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.