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.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

On Jesus, the Essenes, and the Anxiety of Influence

I have a new op-ed piece in The Bible and Interpretation up this week. It's called "On Jesus, the Essenes, and the Anxiety of Influence." Here are the opening lines: 

The idea that the Essenes influenced early Christianity has a long and colorful history in New Testament scholarship. I have been thinking about the “Essenes” as an historical problem and theoretical tool for many years now . . . 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Jesus and the Vision Quest

I teach an upper division undergraduate course on “Jesus in Film and History.” The class compares scholarly reconstructions of Jesus with cinematic representations of Jesus. One of the highlights is exploring Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ. Willem Dafoe plays an angst-ridden Jesus - a man who wavers in his faith, tempted by inner voices. Here Jesus' eventual triumph over his human nature symbolizes his role as savior. 

One of the most striking scenes in the film is Jesus' "temptations" in the desert. In the Gospels, the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness and he fasts for 40 days. The Devil tempts (or "tests") Jesus with worldly power ("all the kingdoms of the world") but Jesus defies the Devil and even cites biblical passages from the book of Deuteronomy in his defense. In The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus faces new temptations, the most infamous being the temptation to be a normal human being and embrace a worldly life of sexuality, family, marriage, and children. Here "Jesus" draws a circle in the sand and declares that he will not move until God comes to him. It is a resolute act of will not like the vow the Buddha made under the Bodhi Tree - not to leave until he achieved enlightenment.

This temptation scene has always struck me as a kind of "vision quest" - a Native American rite of passage like the traditional Lakota Sioux hanblecheya (literally "crying for a dream") - a four-day ordeal in a sacred circle without food or water praying for a "vision" or an encounter with the divine. Here Jesus "returns" to his people as a holy man bearing spiritual gifts, healing powers, and the divine mission that will "save" them.  

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 of Jesus

Biblical Theology Bulletin has published my new article, "Redescribing the Resurrection: Beyond the Methodological Impasse?" Here's the Abstract:

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. 

Friday, March 27, 2015

An Ascetic Death

On June 11, 1963, 66-year old Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc arrived in downtown Saigon, sat down, and had two fellow monks pour gasoline over him. He then ignited the gasoline with a match. David Halberstam, a reporter for the New York Times, witnessed the event and wrote: “as he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.”

The fact that Thich Quang Duc could perform this self-immolation in public - and that it was recorded  and photographed - has fascinated me for years. Being burned alive is one of the most painful experiences imaginable. But Thich Quang Duc seems to have remained sitting the entire time, even while his body was engulfed in flames. Did he not feel the pain? Or had he reached a state of dissociation from the body so profound that he could remain immobile - as if he didn't feel the pain at all? What are we supposed to make of this extraordinary event? Was it simply an example of a poor misguided monk's pathological dissociation of mind and body? Or a noble and extreme political protest of the Vietnam war? Do we call it a remarkable demonstration of willpower? Or a documented example of the human ability to not only tolerate extraordinary pain but "transcend" it? If Thich Quang Duc was registering the pain, he certainly wasn't showing it.

The material fact of this Associated Press photograph serves as documentary evidence of an undeniably historical event. And however one chooses to explain the event, this was not trickery. This photograph - like Thich Quang Duc's self-immolation itself - has the capacity to jar us out of our comfort zones into a very different world of perception where our most common (even fundamental) assumptions about our ability to experience pain - without experiencing pain - are subject to question. Ariel Glucklich, in Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul, explains how religiously-motivated pain can produce "states of consciousness, and cognitive-emotional changes, that affect the identity of the individual subject." We now know that the nervous system can function in such a way as to make it possible "to experience painless injury to the body" and that even "acute" pain is "to a very large extent, a mental event." Thich Quang Duc's self-immolation is a rare example demonstrating - and documenting - just such an experience. While current research has made significant strides in identifying that physiological processes are involved, we have not yet explained how this monk was able to control this process.

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.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Where Was Jesus Baptized?

According to the Gospels, Jesus was baptized in the Jordan river. This marked the beginning of his public ministry and served as a rite of initiation immediately prior to his temptation in the wilderness. It's the moment when the Spirit descends on him "like a dove," anointing him for his coming mission. To this day, Christians regard Jesus' baptism as the foundation for the Christian ritual of baptism. But where did it actually happen? The Synoptic Gospels tell us it was near Jericho and Jerusalem. The Gospel of Mark suggests that the whole country of Judea and the people of Jerusalem were going out to see and hear John the Baptist. The Gospel of John is a bit more specific. It says that John was baptizing “in Bethany beyond the Jordan” (1:28). He describes Jesus going “away again across the Jordan to the place where John at first baptized (10:40),” suggesting that John’s baptism of Jesus took place on the eastern side of the Jordan River. Today "Bethany beyond the Jordan" is called Al-Maghtas and is located in Jordan, about twenty-five miles west of Amman. Since 1996, archaeological excavations have uncovered a cluster of Byzantine churches with mosaic floors, marble steps, monasteries, and baptismal pools. The site, identified as the “Church of John the Baptist” by medieval pilgrims, marks an area rich in biblical history - where Elijah is said to have ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot (2 Kgs. 2:11), where God showed Moses the Promised Land from Mount Nebo, and where Joshua crossed over. The remains of Byzantine churches suggest that this site commemorated Jesus' baptism by John. It is all the more ironic, then, that Jesus' original baptismal site is still a war-zone, a dangerous area with land-mines and electric barbed wire, a literal “no man’s land” located on an ancient river too toxic to bathe in.

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). Many thanks to Dr. Michael Labahn for the many kind comments. The review is in German, but he 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, February 8, 2015

"Jesus Died For Somebody's Sins ..."

Patti Smith begins her cover of "Gloria" with the line "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine," giving voice to an entire generation of punk. She wrote the song at the age of 20, based on an earlier poem called "Oath" - in reaction to her Jehovah's Witness upbringing. It's an in-your-face rejection of the central theological claims about Jesus, a kind of "keep your Christianity to yourself, thank you very much." Smith was invited to perform at the Vatican Christmas concert in Rome, despite various objections from conservative Christian quarters that she (and/or her music) was "blasphemous." Smith has since reaffirmed her "belief" in Jesus, explaining that "Gloria" reflected more her desire to be "free" of Jesus (and the Church) than any particular negative interpretation of Jesus per se. She has also explained her "mixed feelings" about religion in a Rolling Stone interview, clarifying that while she thinks "there is good in all religions," it has been "so corrupted and so infused with power" that she doesn't have "interest in any of it," preferring to focus her interests instead on "the human condition." As she recently told The Huffington Post, her "ideas of Jesus and his teachings have evolved through the years."

Today Smith regards Jesus as "a revolutionary," a man who "gave us the simplest and greatest ideas: to love one another, making God accessible to all men, and giving people a sense of community." Smith has gone on record praising the aesthetics of religion and the Catholic pageantry of incense, prayer, and smoke and has even - on at least one occasion - changed the lyric to "Jesus died for somebody's sins, why not mine?"

Has Patti Smith come back to Jesus? I don't know if she's on board with blood atonement theology (where Jesus dies to save his followers from the wrath of God) - or whether she's given much thought to the theological complexities of the tradition, or thinks that Jesus was a violent "revolutionary," but I doubt it. What I do know is that she's not about to let anyone define her based on a song she wrote 45 years ago. Yet it is this very ambiguity between Smith's disaffection with religion and the Church as institutions and her outspoken love for Jesus that speaks volumes and strikes chords for so many, reflecting widespread sentiments with those who self-identify as "spiritual, but not religious." While Jesus may have been a great guy, his followers have caused a lot of problems. Here the common refrain and chorus is not "what would Jesus do?" but "Jesus, save us from your followers."

If the poet-artist's role is to register our social paradoxes before most of us are even aware of them - like the proverbial canary in the coal-mine - then Smith's ambiguous reverence for Jesus may well represent a cultural touchstone. In her own idiosyncratic way, Smith forges a path of salvation - a salvage operation trying to rescue Jesus from the Man. In doing so she reveals both our deep-seated disaffection with religion-as-an-institution and our inability to let go of the teacher from Nazareth. In the end, what Patti Smith reveals - in her wrestling with tradition and renegade angelic rebellion - is how "Jesus" changes with our changing perceptions of religion, God, and the Church. The work of this long-haired hippy-punk gritty earth-goddess grandmother is rife with biblical allusions. For anyone with ears to hear, Smith's defiance of authority - whether expressed in songs that skirt the intersection of poetry and politics ("The People Have the Power") or lyrics that challenge the core convictions of Evangelical faith ("Gloria") - is itself informed by prophetic visions of a Golden Age of peace and prosperity for all. In other words, the very best parts of the biblical tradition.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Jesus and Buddha

The word "Buddha" means "Enlightened One." Like "Christ" ("messiah") it is not a name, but a title. For centuries, scholars have wondered whether early Christians knew about or perhaps even incorporated Buddhist concepts in their writings about Jesus. As a missionary religion, Buddhism had been expanding westward for several centuries by the time of Jesus. The trade route known as the Silk Road connected Palestine, India, and China and a number of cities along the route had Buddhist populations in the first century. And the parallels between the lives and teachings of Jesus and the Buddha are striking, as the late Marcus J. Borg pointed out. Jesus and Buddha both taught nonviolence. Both initiated renewal movements. Both were exalted to divine status in the traditions that grew up around them. Both were teachers of wisdom. Both underwent "testing" prior to their public ministries. Both made enemies by their rejection of priestly authority. Both founded orders of disciples. And both taught non-attachment to the things of this world. Jesus and Buddha both seem to have taken up the lifestyle of a traveling spiritual master and the wandering, ascetic holy man travels from village to village teaching and giving advice. He has few possessions and depends on the voluntary contributions of the villagers for his food. Some wandering holy men gathered disciples who looked to them for spiritual instruction. What are we to make of these similarities? 

In Memoriam: Marcus J. Borg (March 11, 1942 - January 21, 2015)

Monday, January 19, 2015

The End of Sacrifice

There are very few cultures today that still practice animal sacrifice - slitting the throat of a lamb as an offering to God. Yet the core idea behind offering something to the Divine - whether it be flowers, fruits, incense, food, another life, or one's own life - lies at the very foundation of most religions. Our desire to be connected to something greater than ourselves - whether Nature, God, or the Spirit World - still comes to profound expression in these simple gestures of ritual reciprocity. That is one "end" of sacrifice.

Historically speaking, however, the "end" of sacrifice, at least in its Jewish and Christian contexts, came to pass because the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, commemorating their victory by erecting the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum, where it still stands today. They carried away the Temple's sacred objects - including the golden menorah and trumpets, pictured here - and murdered and enslaved thousands of Jews.

The Jewish sacrificial system of ritual-cultic atonement had existed in Jerusalem for a thousand years. Now, without the Temple, the sacrificial system was over. Without the Temple, the rabbis needed to reconstruct Judaism around the Torah in order to maintain the continuity of Jewish identity and practice. The destruction of the Temple meant something very different to most Christians. It was the fulfillment of prophecy, adivine vindication of Jesus. It supported the new idea that Jesus and his community were a Temple and his death was a blood sacrifice that replaced the Temple, which was now forever commemorated in the blood-sacrifice rites of the Eucharist. This supported the new idea that "Christianity" had replaced "Judaism" as true Israel. Now the end of sacrifice came to symbolize the end of an era and the Jews were part of that "old covenant."

For 2,000 years, rabbinical Jews have mourned the loss of the Temple. Today, many look forward to the day when a Third Temple might be erected, although others  - especially Reform Jews - do not think that the ancient sacrificial system prescribed in the Torah should be re-instituted. But we all still use the language of sacrifice to describe acts of noble dedication to a higher purpose. Mothers and fathers "sacrifice" for their children. Soldiers "sacrifice" for their countries. We do this because the word "sacrifice" means "to make sacred," "to sanctify," and conveys that something has been offered, dedicated to a higher, nobler purpose. In this sense, then, "sacrifice" has never come to an "end."

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) because I wrote a critical review of Aslan's Zealot. My book The Nonviolent Messiahpaints a very different picture of Jesus. 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.

Here are a few excerpts:

"The interpretation of Simon J. Joseph, Professor of Religion at California Lutheran University (USA) and author of the recently published The Nonviolent Messiah is totally opposed to Reza Aslan . .  . Phrases that Aslan privileges ("I did not come to bring peace but a sword") come from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the primary sources of the Jesus tradition, says Joseph, by email. "Although they may be attributed to the historical Jesus, there is no evidence that Jesus ever resorted to violence to hurt someone, much less to start a military campaign against Rome. The early Christian movement was known in its first three centuries to be pacifist. Christians refused to enlist in the Roman army because in this way, they tried to follow the teachings of Jesus . . ."

"The true meaning of the phrase is that loyalty to Jesus causes division - symbolized by the sword - within families. It has nothing to do with physical or revolutionary violence. Its literary context requires a symbolic interpretation of the word 'sword', and this is something that any responsible New Testament scholar would know. . ."

“Love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek” are, according to biblical scholar Joseph, well known and established authentic Jesus traditions. They belong to the earliest Jesus traditions in Q (material) – commonly referred to as the “Inaugural Sermon.” Loving enemies is an unprecedented commandment in Early Judaism and the scholarly consensus is that this instruction is authentic Jesus tradition . . . In short, nothing suggests that Jesus advocated or participated in any kind of zealot activity against Rome."