Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Historically Theological Jesus

The historical Jesus was a theologically-interested and invested human being. The Jesus tradition was created by theologically-interested and invested authors. Consequently, using theological language and vocabulary in order to understand the origin and development of this historical figure and tradition is virtually unavoidable. It is the interplay of social, economic, political, and theological forces that converge to create and sustain religious movements. The sociological structures of the Jesus movement, the economic pressures on rural Galilee, the political landscape(s) of the Herodian era, and the ideological and theological streams of thought and practice all shaped the lives of first-century Jews. History, in other words, is not simply a record or description of past events, but analytical explanations of the causal forces that generate events. So if our texts represent more than just the ideological thought-world(s) of the texts themselves, and we really want to understand them, then we need to understand and explain the historically enacted theologies of these particular ancient people.

The Jesus tradition contains multiple historical theologies about Jesus. The question, therefore, is whether any particular text about Jesus accurately represents Jesus’ own views and/or provides evidence of history, memory, tradition, and/or redaction. We may or may not agree with the kinds of things Jesus said, the kinds of things ancient authors “believed” about him, or even the best ways to go about assessing the reliability of these traditions, but we might be able to agree that early Christians had “beliefs” that influenced their actions and that those “beliefs” changed over time. 

Unfortunately, our disciplinary distinction between history and theology leads us to think that history and theology are methodologically incompatible, with scientific "history" representing the disinterested, neutral pursuit of knowledge and "theology" representing confessional conviction. This is due, in part, to how these disciplines, within their respective institutional locations, are defined. But this differentiation often blurs the boundaries between ancient and contemporary theological data.

Historians today routinely note the constructed nature of historical knowledge. We have no direct access to the past. We read ancient texts in the light of the present. These historiographical truisms illustrate that the old “scientific” ideal of the “dis-interested” pursuit of knowledge – an ideal that could once be polemically contrasted with theologically “interested” readings – has given way to more self-reflexive historiography. We are all “interested,” whether we admit it, recognize it, or not. Scientific history is now increasingly understood as representing disciplined readings interpreted by interested agents who construct the past within their own complexly situated social locations. 

We study the past, but we live in the present. The historian lives with(in) the tension produced by their social location in relationship to the object of their study. This leaves the critical scholar in something of a quandary. The critical historian may or may not be personally and ethically concerned about biblical endorsements of slavery, genocide, and the subjugation of women, but since such ideas and practices come from another time and place, they can be understood as belonging to the past. On the other hand, biblical literature continues to inform contemporary readers. Our idealistic desires to maintain methodological purity boundaries are often thwarted by the messy realities on the ground.

While contemporary theological interests are always part of the wider contemporary landscape of interpretation, they can nonetheless be "subordinated," if not bracketed altogether, in historical judgments. As Jonathan Z. Smith puts it in Teaching Religion,

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 . . . 
From the perspective of the academic study of religion, theology is a datum,
theology is one appropriate object of study for religious studies." (74)

Contemporary theological beliefs represent data for the contemporary scholar of religion. Ancient theological beliefs represent data for the ancient historian. Historically speaking, therefore, it is imperative to isolate, identify, compare, contrast, and explain the different representations of “Jesus” and “God” in the biblical tradition. It is the Jesus-historian's job to construct persuasive and explanatorily powerful hypotheses that account for the material and documentary evidence and provide sequential narratives of "what happened" and why. In other words, it is the historian's job to account for the literary and theological developments embedded within the early Jesus tradition.

The historical Jesus’ theology is an historical problem that should be discussed with historical arguments and hypotheses evaluated on their historical merits, not judged based on whether or not they conform to or challenge contemporary theological beliefs.

We may not be able to get inside Jesus' head but that doesn't mean we can't interpret his worldview based on his sayings and acts. We don't need to explain the ancient past with the theories and theologies of ancient peoples. But we do need to explain those theologies in their ancient contexts. That is simply the historical Jesus scholar's cross to bear.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Jesus and the Temple Tax

The Temple incident portrays Jesus as deeply upset with the Temple's administration, but it is not clear - as I discuss in my book, Jesus and the Temple - why Jesus was upset or why Jesus offended. Biblical scholars have developed a remarkable number of possible explanations for this and many surmise that Jesus was offended by corruption in the Temple. It is not difficult to envision a pious and passionate Jesus offended by over-commercialization in the house of God.

It seems fitting, therefore, to consider whether economic motives and implications lay behind Jesus’ action in the Temple and a high priestly plot against him. Some scholars have suggested that Jesus objected to the annual half-shekel Temple tax (Exod 30:13) required of all Jews. The Qumran community, in particular, opposed the annual collection of the tax, holding that the tax should only be paid once, when a man reached the age of 20 (4Q159). Did Jesus also object to the annual collection of the tax? 

Alternatively, it has been suggested that Jesus objected to the pagan iconography of the Tyrian shekel, but there is no evidence to support this theory. Some scholars have suggested that Jesus thought that he was above paying the tax because some priests were exempt (m. Sheqalim 1.4), but Jesus never claims to be a priest exempt from the tax. Other suggestions include Jesus rejecting the idea that the poor should have to pay the tax, Jesus thinking that sacrifices should be paid for by everyone through the tax, and Jesus rejecting the tax as being equivalent to his rejection of the Temple.

Many scholars focus on the money-changers and the surcharge added for the service of exchanging local coins for the Tyrian shekel, but the money-changers were a practical necessity. They exchanged foreign monies into the silver coinage of Tyre. So there does not seem to be anything particularly scandalous about a “surcharge” being added as part of an officially sanctioned economic transaction so that people could purchase sacrificial items. We never hear anything in the Gospels about Jesus objecting to the surcharge.

So what's the deal? There is only one passage in the New Testament that explicitly mentions the Temple tax (Matt 17:24-27), and here Jesus is depicted as dutifully paying it. What does this mean? The fact that the Temple tax is only mentioned in Matthew is curious, especially if we recall that Matthew is widely seen as the most "Jewish" of the Gospels. Here Jesus is portrayed as a faithful Jew who observes the Torah and endorses the Temple. Matthew's Gospel, after all, portrays Jesus as having a positive view of the Temple as illustrated in sayings about leaving a gift at the altar (4:23-24) and swearing by the Temple (23:16-22). Should we take Matthew at face value?

The Gospel of Matthew may affirm Jesus' Jewishness, but it also portrays him as rejected by his contemporaries. This Gospel contains some of the most polemical and hostile rhetorical attacks on Jews in the New Testament (Matt 27:25). According to Matthew, Jesus suggests that he should be exempt from payment, but pays the tax so as not to cause offense. But even the way that Jesus produces the tax - by "miraculously" instructing Peter to retrieve it from a fish's mouth - seems suspect. Many scholars regard this as a late saying and inauthentic. The Jesus Seminar, for example, dismisses this passage (Matt 17:24-27) as redactional. Moreover, it is Matthew 26:14-15 - and only Matthew - that identifies how Judas betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. This is the only Gospel that contains this prophetic reference (Zech 11:12-13; cf. Exod 21:32), signifying that Judas' blood-payment probably consisted of Tyrian shekels taken from the Temple's treasury - further implicating the high priests in Jesus' death.

The relationship between Jesus and the Temple is complicated. There does not seem to be any reason to think that Jesus objected to paying the Temple tax, despite how Matthew implies that Jesus shouldn't have had to. Matthew, like Mark, carefully safeguards Jesus against this charge of politico-economic sedition, but as I discuss in Jesus and the Temple, there may be other reasons for Jesus' disagreements with the Temple's administration. 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

On the Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibition

Dead Sea Scrolls: The Exhibition at the California Science Center in downtown Los Angeles is the largest Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit ever shown outside the land of Israel. It is an excellent and impressive collection of artifacts illustrating the history and archaeology of Israel. It is a rare privilege and pleasure to see these ancient texts in person and reflect on their ancient contents, contexts, and communities.

In addition to the Scrolls - which include fragments from the Book of Giants (4Q530), the Psalms (4Q83), Isaiah (4Q56), and the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice (4Q400) - there is also a fine collection of stone vessels, cylindrical clay storage jars, and the tefillin, leather sandals, and linen Scroll-wrapping collected from the Qumran site. I was struck by the beauty, purity, simplicity, and clean lines of these Qumran artifacts and I was also pleasantly surprised to see several of the Talpiot tomb ossuaries, including the famous Mariamne ossuary, as well as a three-ton stone from the Western Wall.

The curators are generally even-handed and well-informed. There is even a kind of Abrahamic rapprochement to the exhibit in so far as Judaism and Christianity (and Islam) are portrayed as branches off the older root and vine of ancient Israel without inscribing any kind of covert supersessionistic theology. Yet there is also a noticeable reluctance to identify the Qumran community as "Essenic," suggesting rather that the Essene identification - initially adopted with enthusiasm by scholars - is now uncertain. It is telling that a recent review of the Exhibition in USC's Daily Trojan reports that while "Some argue that the scrolls are connected to the town of Qumran," "Some scientists doubt that the Essenes wrote the scrolls."

I understand that the Exhibition is curated for the general public, but I find this ambivalence disappointing. Although there is an ongoing debate about the identity of the Qumran community and the authors and collectors of the Scrolls, the Exhibition makes it seem like rival hypotheses (that Qumran was a manor house, villa, pottery factory, or fortress) have equal weight. This is misleading and inaccurate, given that there is actually quite a lot of correspondence between the sectarian scrolls and the sectarian settlement at Qumran. I don't think anyone has ever said it better than the late Frank Moore Cross:

  The scholar who would ‘exercise caution’ in identifying the sect of Qumran with the Essenes 
   places himself in an astonishing position: he must suggest seriously that two major parties 
   formed communistic religious communities  in the same district of the desert of the Dead Sea 
   and lived together in effect for two centuries, holding similar bizarre views, 
   performing similar or rather identical lustrations, ritual meals, and ceremonies. 
   He must suppose that one, carefully described by classical authors, disappeared 
   without leaving building remains or even potsherds behind: the other, 
   systematically ignored by classical authors, left extensive ruins, and indeed a great library. 
   I prefer to be reckless and flatly identify the men of Qumran 
   with their perennial houseguests, the Essenes.

While the Essene theory does not compel assent from every specialist, it has hardly been displaced or disproved. For many specialists, the real challenge is not replacing the Essene hypothesis with another theory, but clarifying the relationship(s) between the (sectarian/Essene) inhabitants of the Qumran site, the pre-sectarian Enochic tradition, and the Essenes as described in Josephus, Philo, and Pliny. It is this complex nexus of inter-relationships that the Exhibition fails even to mention, let alone engage.

The Exhibition thus fails to fully represent the Scrolls, the community, the Qumran site, and contemporary scholarship. It gives the distinct impression that what is most significant about the Dead Sea Scrolls is that they represent our earliest manuscript witnesses of many biblical texts. While this may be true, the Exhibition fails to highlight the fact that a significant portion of these texts are original compositions reflecting the beliefs, interests, and convictions of a sectarian community. Despite these reservations, this is an Exhibition not to be missed. 

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Redescribing the Resurrection

The resurrection of Jesus is the central claim of the Christian faith. It is what makes Christianity a distinctive, perhaps even "unique" religion - the claim that “God raised Jesus from the dead.” That is also what makes the claim so vulnerable to critics. Why? Because it presupposes the existence and agency of God. Historical hypotheses, however, presuppose human agency and natural causation, not supernatural interventions by God. It is not surprising that contemporary discourse on the resurrection of Jesus is at an impasse. This article explores the current state of research on this subject – a field polarized between apologetic defense and rationalistic expose – and examines various attempts to redefine, reimagine, and redescribe the resurrection tradition within early Christianity. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Mythical Jesus - An SBL Regional Report

I was intrigued when I heard that the Society of Biblical Literature's Pacific Coast Regional meeting was going to hold a session on Richard Carrier's book, On the Historicity of Jesus. The debate over the historicity of Jesus has a long history in New Testament scholarship, but in recent years, the idea that Jesus was a myth invented by early Christians has resurfaced with a vengeance. This recent upsurge in Mythicism - although largely confined to online communities - provides us with an opportunity to examine how scholarship and authority actually function within the academy.

In scholarly discourse, one’s audience is other scholars. The goal is to persuade and convince one's colleagues. That is why academic scholars tend to frown on “popularizing” books – primarily because they appeal to a different audience and require a different tone, content, and rigor. Academic and popular books belong to two different genres and speak to two different audiences. This distinction between scholarly and popular writing is important because many Mythicists do not seem to operate within the standard conventions of academic discourse – that is, as scholars among scholars. This also explains the disconnect between Mythicist claims and the academic community's apparent disinterest in those claims, a disconnect that tends to result in hostile rhetoric between what appear to be two opposing camps. 

If it seems like we are just talking past each other, it may be because we are. 

Some people may favor Mythicism for its explanatory power as an historical theory. But many fans and followers of Mythicism represent communities of disbelief, a loosely-defined movement eager to defeat the demons and dragons of dogma, defy the false prophets of consensus scholarship, and proclaim the Good News of a Godless world. Yet the fact that atheistic interests are so prominent in this movement is problematic. Why? Because historical criticism neither affirms nor denies the existence of God. Since the rise of scientific history during the Enlightenment, the adoption of methodological atheism has been a virtual truism in critical scholarship. But when methodological atheism turns into ontological or evangelical atheism, it becomes ideologically biased. 

With few exceptions, most Mythicists are not trained scholars, do not hold university positions, and do not publish in peer-reviewed venues. Many Mythicists attempt to turn this intellectual liability into a strength by insinuating that the field of biblical scholarship is dominated by Christian apologetics or covert Christian traditions that have systemically infected the discipline. That is what makes evaluating Mythicist claims simultaneously fascinating and frustrating – fascinating because they bring fearless insights and interpretations to bear on the field; but frustrating because they are often delivered by outspoken critics of the academic guild of biblical scholarship.
The academy has learned to accommodate ideological activism, but few scholars today would claim that their work is scientifically "objective." And in so far as Mythicists very much want Jesus to be a myth, they are biased in favor of a Mythical Jesus, and predisposed towards that very result. I myself am biased in favor of an historical Jesus. That is, I think he actually existed. This is a bias I share with the vast majority of biblical scholars, although I tend to think of it as a logical, rational conclusion. I like to think that I am open to re-interpreting the evidence in light of new research, but I am self-consciously aware that I view the question through a particular lens. While one’s interests - be they historical, theological, or anti-theological - can and perhaps should be bracketed in one’s scholarship, postmodern historiography regularly acknowledges authorial bias. This requires readers and reviewers to independently assess whether a particular worldview is affecting judgment and rendering questionable conclusions.

The fact that an SBL regional meeting was hosting a review and discussion of Carrier's book was intriguing. Richard Carrier is one of the few exceptions among those who doubt the existence of Jesus in that he is a Ph.D. in Ancient History. His book, published by a respected university press, marks a milestone in the history of Mythicism. It is certainly the most vigorous effort yet to challenge the so-called “Historicist” position. To be honest, I didn't expect to see much productive discussion between Carrier and his respondent, Kenneth L. Waters, Sr.. Waters, after all, is an Azusa Pacific University professor, ordained minister, and former pastor and Carrier is an avowed atheist. While I expected them to talk past each other, I was curious to see how the formal setting of an SBL meeting might influence the discussion on this controversial topic, especially since Carrier's online critiques have been noted for their polemical tone. After all, if the Mythical Jesus theory reflects a dispassionate interest in the historicity of Jesus, then it is subject to the same academic rules of engagement: review, critique - and possible rejection - in whole or in part. A scholar’s arguments may not convince their colleagues, but it is this submission to the rules of engagement that makes scholarship a discipline

Carrier was clearly aware that he was not preaching to the choir. He summarized his central thesis - that Jesus originated as a celestial myth about a crucified dying-and-rising savior god. According to Carrier, "Jesus" never existed except as an imaginary celestial being who telepathically communicated and appeared to hallucinating “disciples.” The figure of “Jesus” was then historicized via a process known as “Euhemerization.” Carrier assumes a formidable burden of proof in arguing against the consensus of scholarship on multiple fronts. He dismisses Josephus’ references to Jesus. He reads Paul’s Jesus as exclusively celestial. He denies that Jesus had a brother named James. He dismisses the Gospels as historically useless. He denies the existence of Q. He dismisses the criteria of authenticity as completely invalid. And he claims to have found evidence for a pre-Christian Jewish celestial Dying Messiah tradition. Any one of these contested claims – if established - would alone be a significant contribution to scholarship. But to combine them all at once while calling for a fundamental paradigm shift in Jesus Research and historical methodology is to court controversy and, well, rejection.

Unsurprisingly, Waters was unconvinced. He rejected Carrier’s argument about James as “untenable” and insisted that Paul’s reference to Jesus being “born of a woman” was a typical example of Pauline thought “habitually and typically” conflating history and allegory. Waters pointed out that there is simply no evidence of “a crucified Celestial Christ in any literature” and criticized Carrier’s use of “relatively obscure texts” (like the Ascension of Isaiah and Philo) to construct his celestial Christ myth. He dismissed the idea that various “Mediterranean fables” provide compelling similarities to Jesus and pointed out that we have no evidence of any Christian or non-Christian critique of a Mythical Jesus. Carrier responded by pointing out that we don’t have enough evidence to falsify this argument from silence, noted that Waters didn’t provide any evidence of Jesus' historicity, and accused him of “ignoring” the scholarship on the Ascension of Isaiah and getting Philo “all wrong.” According to Carrier, Waters’s emphasis on the differences between Jesus and the savior gods of antiquity was simply “terrible methodology.” 

In the end, the audience asked questions, nothing was resolved, and we all went home. This was not an attempt for two ideologically opposed world-views and thought-systems to engage the other and negotiate common ground. No, it was two ideologically opposed world-views holding their own ground in parallel universes with "Jesus" as the central site of discursive conflict, illuminating once again, that "Jesus" is cultural capital in ideological struggles for power. But that's a post for another day.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Jesus, Q, and the Dead Sea Scrolls in RBL

The Review of Biblical Literature just published a review of my book, Jesus, Q, and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Mohr Siebeck). Dr. Michael Labahn calls it a “carefully structured” (“sorgfaltig strukturierten”) study that displays “great erudition and knowledge” (“eine große Belesenheit und Kenntnis”), presents “new arguments and fresh methodological approaches” (“neue Argumente und frische Methodenansätze”), and “sets new standards” (“setzt neue Akzente”) in identifying the sociological and geographical location of Q.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Chris Keith on Social Memory Theory

In The Nonviolent Messiah (p. 6), I write that "social memory theory—as theory—fails to establish either the reliability or unreliability of the Gospels." I am citing here Chris Keith's Inaugural Lecture, "Social Memory Theory and the Gospels: Assessing the First Decade," delivered at St. Mary's University, Twickenham, where Dr. Keith states that “social memory theory as theory neither affirms nor denies the reliability of the Gospel tradition.” Dr. Keith made a similar observation in his February 5, 2013 blog post on The Jesus Blog responding to Paul Foster, where he writes that “Social memory theory does not inherently favor the historical reliability or historical unreliability of the Gospel tradition.” I should have cited Dr. Keith's online lecture and failed to do so. My apologies, Dr. Keith!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Jesus and the Temple

My new book - Jesus and the Temple: The Crucifixion in its Jewish Context - will be published by Cambridge University Press in its SNTS Monograph Series.

Here's a preliminary overview: 

Jesus and the Temple is a critical investigation into the cultural, political, economic, and religious conflicts that led to Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution. Most Jesus specialists agree that the Temple incident led to Jesus’ execution, but what few seem to agree on is why Jesus was in conflict with the Temple. There is a growing tendency in contemporary scholarship to assume that Jesus and the earliest Christians had an almost uniformly positive view of the Temple’s sacrificial system. This approach may correct supersessionist views of sacrifice, but it also tends to downplay the ambiguous, inconsistent, and contradictory views on sacrifice in the New Testament. Jesus and the Temple re-examines these complex views on sacrifice and the Temple in the New Testament and contemporary Jesus Research. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

"Jesus of Nazareth: Pacifist or Revolutionary?" Interview in Portuguese magazine

I was recently interviewed by journalist Margarida Santos Lopes for the Portuguese magazine Além-Mar (Dec 2014). Here is a link to the full article (in Portuguese), "Jesus de Nazaré: Pacifíco ou revolucionário?" There's also a longer version of the original interview here, and a different layout of the article here.