Baker Academic

Monday, July 25, 2016

Scripture Reverberating through the Gospels: pt. 1

Biblical scholarship's most conspicuous medium is the printed word: monographs, journal articles, reference works, even electronic forums like blog posts and other social media. Our discipline's primary currency is ideas, and these are usually encountered through the things we publish.

But the printed word has its downsides. Our books and articles may convey our ideas to wider audiences, but they can also conceal us, the women and men behind the ideas. Every semester I try to get my students to see the authors behind the texts they read, whether the authors of modern secondary course texts or the writers of ancient primary sources. Commentaries don't tell you what a text means; they tell you about an author and what she or he thinks a text means (or, I'm discovering with my own work, what they once thought a text meant). Monographs are not comprised of disembodied ideas; they are the products of years of embodied labor, involving the fluids associated with the body—blood, sweat, tears—and affected by all that befalls the body—health and vitality; illness and decline.

Sometimes the flesh-and-blood author is difficult to detect behind the ink spread out upon the page. While this is usually by design, it is always unfortunate. That is not the case with Richard Hays's most recent volume, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (Baylor University Press, 2016). The title is, of course, evocative of Hays's now-classic work, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (Yale University Press, 1989), which in many ways began the tidal shift in the discussion of Paul's use of Israel's scriptures. We no longer read the Apostle merely as a proof-texter who lifted words from the Hebrew Bible and twisted them to serve his own interests; today it is not difficult to find scholars who see in Paul's letters evidence of a creative and attentive reader who shaped and was shaped by biblical traditions and texts. A similar perspectival shift has already affected scholarship on Jesus and the Gospels, and not without reference to Hays's work on Paul's letters. (Think names like Juel, Watts, Marcus, and many, many, many others.) For this reason, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels will struggle to make as monumental an impact on the field of NT scholarship as did its older sibling, though that is perhaps an unreasonably high standard. But we'll turn to the book in a minute; for now, I want to keep our focus on the author.

Hays begins with a seven-page preface that does what all prefaces do: it introduces the reader to the book (pp. xiii–xix). Here Hays offers the standard fare; he offers some explanation of how the book came to be, describes his own interest in the book's subject, and mentions how this book relates to other material he has published (especially his Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness [Baylor University Press, 2014]).

But then the preface ceases to be standard and becomes . . . what? It becomes moving. Unlike other prefaces, the preface to Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels pulls back the curtain to reveal the author as a human being, to make visible the book that follows as an embodied work that participates in all the hopes and fears of life in this Now/Not-Yet. The move from "standard" to "moving" really begins here:
In July 2015 I was suddenly diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In light of this shattering diagnosis, I stepped down from the deanship immediately and went on medical leave. As I write these words in early October 2015, I have been through two months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and it is still unknown whether the treatments will have been sufficiently effective to make it possible for me to undergo surgery. If so, my prognosis will be uncertain. If not, my life expectancy will be short. (p. xiv)
My personal life has been touched by cancer (as I explain here); the words attributed to Amanda's Army in this graphic perfectly expresses my sentiment. My prayers, weak and ineffectual as they may be, are for Richard, his body, and his family.

The remainder of the preface describes "the remarkable events of the past two months" (p. xv), a span of time that, in addition to the myriad personal and existential affairs that require attention in the wake of a dire prognosis, saw the completion of Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels. While every published book (and article) is the product of a team effort, Hays explains the unusually robust contribution that friends have made to the present volume, from Carey Newman and his staff at Baylor University Press to Hays's research assistant to four NT scholars who undertook the task of taking one of Hays's four massive chapters (on Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John) and getting them ready for publication. (I will leave these individuals unnamed, for the most part; see pp. xvii–xix for their identification and a description of their extraordinary work.) When the reader finishes reading the preface, s/he comes away with a sense of relief that this 500+ page behemoth went live while its author was still around to see his work published and while readers might still have access to the embodied perspective behind the work.

I guess what I'm trying to say is: Reading this book, and offering one of the very earliest of reviews, affords me a sense of honor. There will, I'm sure, be occasions to argue and critique. But those occasions will not detract from my gratitude for playing even this small part in the story of this book.

Okay. On to the book itself.

As early as p. xvi, Hays explains the primary objective of Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels: "this book seeks to shed light on the whole range of scriptural interpretation and hermeneutics in each of the four Gospels." Later, in the Introduction, Hays restates this objective: "this book will seek to trace the ways in which the Gospel writers themselves articulated their message through deep engagement with Israel's Scripture" (p. 6). This last statement already reveals a vital component of Hays's thesis (viz., that the Gospels exhibit the marks of their authors' "deep engagement with Israel's Scripture"), though Hays is also careful to acknowledge that this feature common to the four canonical Gospels is not identical in all four texts. All four bear the marks of Israel's sacred traditions, but they bear those marks in various and variant ways.

Hays begins with a discussion of "figural interpretation," a retrospective reading of the past in light of the newly unfolded events of the present. Reading the Old Testament (this is Hays's preferred term, rather than "Hebrew Bible") figurally is not as mechanical or restrictive as reading them predictively. The hermeneutical activity of figuration belongs to the reader rather than the author. "For that reason, a hermeneutical strategy that relies on figural interpretation of the Bible creates deep theological coherence within the biblical narrative" (p. 3; my emphasis).

I find all of this helpful, both for enabling a robustly but respectfully Christian reading of texts from the Hebrew Bible and for a historically sensitive reading of the Gospels (and other texts from the New Testament). Even so, I would quibble with Hays's formulation of the primary question. He asks: "How does each one [of the Gospel writers] draw upon the Old Testament to depict the identity of Jesus and to interpret his significance?" (p. 4). One gets the sense that Hays sees "the Old Testament" as something distinct from the early Christians' perceptions and understandings of Jesus, as if they turned to scriptural texts in order to communicate something they already knew apart from those texts. The influence of biblical tropes, themes, and images, however, belongs not to the early Christians' depictions of Jesus' identity but to their very apprehensions of him, both their perceptions and their interpretations. As I acknowledged earlier, this may seem a quibble. But I think the difference matters, like the difference between contact lenses and eyeballs, or between clothes and skin.

The primary thrust of the remainder of the Introduction (after the restatement of the book's purpose, quoted above) is a discussion of the book's design: its scope, structure, and method (pp. 6–14). As to "scope" (pp. 6–8), Hays is clear that this book is not about the historical Jesus, nor about the earliest Christian social contexts, nor about the development of an early "high" Christology. "Instead, this is a book that offers an account of the narrative representation of Israel, Jesus, and the church in the canonical Gospels, with particular attention to the ways in which the four Evangelists reread Israel's Scripture—as well as the ways in which Israel's Scripture prefigures an illuminates the central character in the Gospel stories" (p. 7, italics in the original have been removed).

As to "structure" (pp. 8–9), the book features one chapter for each of the four canonical Gospels, followed by a brief (twenty-page) conclusion. Each chapter is comprised of five sections: (i) an overview of a given evangelist as an interpreter of Israel's Scripture, (ii) the in/evocation of Scripture to re-narrative Israel's story, (iii) the in/evocation of Scripture to narrate Jesus' identity, (iv), the in/evocation of Scripture to narrate the role of the church vis-à-vis the world, and (v) a summary conclusion (p. 9; see also p. 14). Hays also briefly justifies the decision to address the three Synoptic Gospels alongside the distinctive Gospel of John together in a single volume (p. 9).

As to "method" (pp. 10–14), Hays offers at least three substantive points. First, Hays "presupposes that all four canonical Gospels are deeply embedded in a symbolic world shaped by the Old Testament . . . that their 'encyclopedia of production' is constituted in large measure by Israel's Scripture" (p. 10). The Hellenistic (Greco-Roman) context is also significant, but secondarily so. Second, Hays rehearses how he employs the standard terms "quotation," "allusion," and "echo," with some extended discussion of the last of these (pp. 10–13). "These terms are approximate markers on the spectrum of intertextual linkage, moving from the most to the least explicit forms of reference" (p. 10). This section includes Hays's one reference to John Miles Foley (in an endnote; see p. 370 n.21); in my view it is unfortunate that Hays has not been more profoundly influenced by the Foley's work on tradition and reception, both of which are central concerns in Hays's own works. Even so, Hays rightly grasps the academic task at hand: "not some arcane theory-driven methodology . . . [but rather] simple attention to the way that human language and storytelling ordinarily work" (p. 11). And again, "our discourse is inherently intertextual and allusive" (p. 12). Indeed. Third, Hays assumes Markan priority, but he also employs an ambivalent Q-skepticism: "It seems to me equally probable—indeed more probable—that Luke knew Matthew and that the verbal agreements between these two Gospel can be explained in this fashion rather than through positing a hypothetical Q source" (p. 13). It seems to me, speaking impressionistically, that Q-skepticism (in the specific guise of Markan priority without Q) is quickly becoming an equal rival—if not a dominant option—among non-source-critical scholarship on the Synoptic Gospels; for another recent significant work that rejects Q, see Francis Watson's Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective (Eerdmans, 2013). A fourth point, offered not so much as method but rather as clarification, concerns the legitimacy of the Evangelists' appropriation of the Jewish Scriptures. Here I think Hays preserves an unfortunate set of categories (viz., Christian and Jewish) and attempts to foster respectful and honest discussions between them. But these are our categories, not our texts'. Our authors—all four of them, in my view—wrote as Jews, of a Jewish messiah and other Jewish cultural and theological ideas, and did not approach the concerns and problems they faced with these categories at hand. Even Luke's use of the term Christian (Χριστιανός; Christianos) in Acts 26:28 understands this as a Jewish descriptor; a Christianos is something a Jew (like Paul, and like Agrippa) can be.

Despite these perhaps gnatty criticisms, the preface and Introduction set up Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels as an interesting, insightful, and engaging work of embodied literary scholarship. I'm looking forward to diving into the four substantive chapters on each of the canonical Gospels, though their length is also somewhat intimidating (Chapter 1, on the Gospel of Mark, comprises eighty-nine pages, along with twenty pages of endnotes!). It may be a while before you see pt. 2 of this review, though I can envision interacting with this or that point as I work through the chapter. So I encourage you to watch this space, but do so patiently. In the meantime, buy this book and read it along with me. And if you do, drop me a line to let me know what you think as you read it.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Does media criticism make any difference?

I just received a message regarding my book, Oral Tradition and the New Testament (Guides for the Perplexed; Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014). The person raised an insightful and important question, and I thought I'd share it here, along with my response.

First, the question (slightly edited):
I just finished reading your Guide on Oral Tradition & the NT and came away with mixed feelings. While I was looking for a more general, less polemic introduction to the field, I think your exposition of the contextual approach was very well thought-out and definitely helped clarify the way I think about media in the ancient world. Also, as the kind of person who can easily get carried away with social theory, I appreciated your reminders that written texts are all we have to work with.

However, I came away disappointed because none of your four examples of media criticism at the end of your book seemed to really demonstrate the power or necessity of a media critical approach. Your interpretations were convincing or at least intriguing, but they still relied entirely on textual referents and interconnections. It seemed like your approach was leading you to think "outside the box" and approach these texts in a different way from other scholars, but it was unclear to me how media crit, specifically, led to those conclusions, rather than just casting a wider net of potential textual references. What am I missing?
And second, my response (again, slightly edited):
Dear [sir],

Thank you for your message. You actually raise the one issue (well, perhaps there are two) with my book that readers have conveyed to me. How does media criticism, as a method, affect textual exegesis and/or historical reconstruction? We can see, at the level of method, how redaction criticism handles texts differently from, say, form criticism. But how does media criticism affect the interpretive or analytical procedure? It really is a great question.

The problem, for me, is that I don't think media criticism is a method, necessarily, as much as it is a shift in perspective. In other word, how I read texts might not be that different from a media-critical perspective, but the assumptions that I bring to the texts will certainly be different. So, for example, my discussion of ekballō ["cast out"] in Mark 1.12 did not try to explain the Markan text with reference to other textual artifacts (i.e., specific passages from Exodus, or even Exodus as a whole) but rather by placing Mark, as a tradent within the Jesus tradition—which itself was situated within Israelite tradition—in a larger cultural and traditional context and examining how he used language to take advantage of communicative potential afforded him by his community's (broadly conceived) experience with the tradition. In other words, I privileged the question of how Mark's text functioned as a vehicle of meaning between the author/performer and his readers/hearers. This is distinct from the question of traditional philological questions about the meaning(s) of words, phrases, syntactical structures, etc. My approach focuses on questions of production, performance, and reception, and tries to see how the text arises from the communicative exchanges between author/performer and readers/hearers. So I'm not so much "casting a wider net of potential textual references" as I am trying to cast a wider net of potential cultural (or traditional) references.

I think issues of text and performance, of tradition and culture are terribly exciting. Perhaps my little book was polemical; I didn't intend it to be, but I also did not hesitate from advocating for a particular vision of the future of media criticism. I admit to thinking that many of the voices in this field are using terms too loosely and/or looking for things that don't exist (e.g., remnants of "orality" in written texts), and I think scholars looking in from outside of media criticism see that and so avoid taking an interest in a field that should interest them. So if I can be a part of setting the media-critical discussion on firmer and more fruitful paths (I'm probably mixing metaphors here) and thereby expand its impact among biblical scholars, I will be thrilled.

Quarterly Quote of the Month about Jesus for this Week

Evangelicals are voting for Donald Trump. What part of Donald Trump reminds you of Jesus Christ? Trump lusts after his own daughter on national radio, talks about women's bodies and breasts in such a disparaging way, and mocks them. How is this in any way Christian? When you make the "other" the enemy, how is that Christian?

                                   ~Ken Burns

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Problem with the Jesus Movement

I have been asked to write an encyclopedia article on "Jesus Movement, the." When asked, I realized that I don't often use the phrase myself. But it is a common enough designation in biblical / Second Temple studies that it warrants some definition. So I agreed and began to solicit help from a sociologist friend.

It seems to me that scholars use this phrase to indicate the group that coalesced around the personality, teachings, and legends of Jesus before the group can be properly called "Christianity." It also occurs to me that using sociological language for this group allows us to avoid talk of messianism, experiences of divine intervention, and other god-talk and thus avoid the appearance of religion. I.e. social-scientific language sanitizes Jesus for secular consumption. Or maybe it's just that biblical studies (alongside the rest of the humanities) has been trying to appear more like the "hard sciences" in the era of modernity. Whatever the case, somewhere along the way we adopted this particular sociological category: "movement."

But it must be asked: was the Jesus movement a "movement"?

In my research, "social movements" are variously defined by sociologists. But, in general terms, successful movements tend to have a few discernible features:
1. A deeply felt social problem. This must be a specifically named experience of shared suffering or social discontentment. I.e. there must be an impetus for a social antidote around which the social movement rallies.
2. A charismatic personality. This is "charisma" in Weber's sense. I.e. we're not talking about a gregarious fellow necessarily. We not talking about gifts of the spirit necessarily. Rather, this personality is seen as exceptional in some way. He or she may be a gifted orator or may perform amazing actions that inspire social change. This person usually communicates a direction for the group and accesses resources that mobilize them. This person tends to be an authoritarian, acting unilaterally and forcefully commanding his/her following. This person attempts to revolutionize or reform a particular status quo.
3. A shared ideology: The group must be motivated by a sense of shared moral judgements, intentions, and symbols by which they orient their lives.
4. Organization: The leader(s) must be able to marshal economic, political, cultural, and/or military resources to make the movement move. 
By this short gloss of a framework, was the Jesus movement a social movement? I think not. But I am willing to be convinced otherwise. Do please chime in to help me.

There is no doubt that Jesus' following identified social problems. But does any single social problem explain the emergence of the collective identity? I suppose anti-Rome folks will point to Roman colonization and domination as the key. After all, "kingdom (or rule) of God" probably stands in opposition to Roman rule. But does this motivation explain why Jesus' following, teachings, charismatic actions, etc. took the specific shape that they took? Probably not.

The second stage (and it should be said that stages 2, 3, and 4 happen almost simultaneously most of the time) is the only stage that works for Jesus and his followers. Jesus was an exorcist and a healer. This might have been enough to draw crowds. He (or so it seems) was a skill orator. But then we run into number three....

The third stage is another dilemma. What was the shared ideology of Jesus' so-called "movement"? Eschatology? The belief that Israel's God would return as Judge? Care for the poor? Okay, fine. But how does this differ from many (most?) groups within the Second Temple period? Moreover, Jesus' stories and puzzling sayings often confuse rather than clarify. We must wonder whether a specific ideology was being promoted. After all, early Christianity seems to branch out in several directions.

The fourth stage is also a dilemma. Jesus seems much more like an unpredictable holy man who runs from crowds and much less like an authoritarian who organizes them into a force.

In order to call Jesus' following a "movement" we have to force Jesus into a sociological model that doesn't work. I am much more inclined to think of Jesus as a charismatic personality who ends up alienating most of his followers. It could be that early Christianity rallies around the problem of the Cross and thus launches a "social movement." But this doesn't explain how/why Jesus' initial following came together.

In short, the most important dilemma here is identifying the "social problem" (i.e. stage one). What is the specifically named experience of shared suffering or social discontentment? Sickness? Demons? Rome? Agrarian economic disparity? Differences of opinion on purity issues?

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Melania Trump, Plagiarism, and the Teacher's Dilemma

I love my job. There is so much to love about my job. But every job has hazards and my least favorite is my regular encounter with student plagiarism. In my experience students steal ideas without crediting the original source of these ideas all of the time. I guess that most of the time they come by this theft honestly. By this I mean that most students try their best to use commonsense and thus repeat something written by a scholar of a previous generation. There is nothing new under the sun, after all. Technically this is plagiarism by the standards of most universities and seminaries. Very few professors, however, want to spend their time on such matters.

The real trouble is when a student consciously repeats from a source without quotations or citation. In other words, they attempt to pass off the copy-and-paste job as something they authored. When this happens the teacher sighs, curses, laments the downfall of western civilization (audibly to whoever* happens to be in the room at the time), and begins the process of documenting the problem. This process usually results in the failure of the student and an enormous headache for the teacher. The teacher's dilemma involves suppressing her/his exhaustion, negotiating compassion vs. fairness, and copious amounts of cheap pinot noir. In my case, I inevitably decide that the greater good is to support the integrity of the class, the institution, and higher learning (whatever is left of it). So it becomes a matter of demonstrating compassion for the student within the process of failing the student.

What follows is anecdotal and speaks only from my experience and the experience of other commiserating colleagues.

There tends to be a pattern in the type of student who plagiarizes in reckless and obvious ways. This student tends to be (1) overwhelmed in class and/or life and (2) out of their element culturally or professionally.

This student may be a second-career person who is overwhelmed by the work required of a graduate student. This person may be from a different part of the world and has been pressured by numerous cultural differences. They may feel backed into a corner, confused, and frightened. They may have a feeling of being in a no-win situation.

So I am not surprised in the least that Melania Trump finds herself in this situation. As you have no doubt heard by now, Melania Trump has obviously and recklessly plagiarized from a speech given previously by Michelle Obama. At the risk of appearing holier-than-thou (although readers of this blog tend to be scoundrels so it doesn't take much to appear this way -- I'm looking at you Danny Yencich) I feel no sense of schadenfreude about her plight. I don't doubt that she is responsible for her actions; she is also a victim of circumstance.

Mrs. Trump claims to have written the speech herself with very little help from a speechwriter. This seems difficult to believe. It is part of the social contract that we maintain with public figures that we pretend that they write their own public statements while knowing better. In other words, this is the sort of deception that we all agree to, making it something more like a game of winks and nods. So when we hear Hulk Hogan, Adrien Peterson, or Melania Trump speak with legal/political aplomb, we shrug our shoulders and attribute it to a wordsmith even when they claim otherwise.

But let's also remember that Mrs. Trump's husband has created a "brand" with tremendous, amazing, and huge political currency. He has the best words. She thus finds herself in an impossible situation as a proprietor and prisoner of this brand. This brand boasts being off-script and eschews politically correct language. This is the Trump brand and it is built on a big orange face saying things that a professional wordsmith would never say. And apparently it works. At least 30% of Americans (perhaps more?) like being shocked and enjoy laughing nervously at outrageous statements even when they are baldly false. With this in mind, was Melania Trump given an impossible task? Did she, as she says, choose to write her own speech like her husband does?

Regardless of how we answer this question, let's consider the most likely scenario: Melania Trump never in her wildest dreams imagined that she'd be measured against First-Lady standards. Whatever dubious reasons she had for marrying Donald, she didn't sign up for this sort of dystopian absurdity. Who could have imagined things unfolding the way they have?

My guess is that Melania Trump found herself overwhelmed and out of her element culturally and professionally. So what grade do we give her? I see no way around failing her. She must take responsibility and we must uphold the integrity of the political system (whatever is left of it). But doesn't she also deserve our compassion? It is difficult to imagine a worse no-win situation.

*The relative pronoun takes its case from its use in the relative clause. Tip of the hat to James Ernest.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Quarterly Quote of the Month about Jesus for this Week

              
A Christian community should do as Jesus did: propose and not impose. Its attraction must lie in the radiance cast by the love of brothers.

                                           ~Jean Vanier

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Text and Tradition in Performance and Writing

In 2009, Cascade Books (an imprint of Wipf & Stock) launched the Biblical Performance Criticism series. The series currently has thirteen volumes, including single-author monographs, edited collections of essays, at least one PhD dissertation, and at least two reprints of books that would otherwise be difficult to access. The series is related to the Biblical Performance Criticism website, both of which are under the leadership of David Rhoads, Professor of New Testament, Emeritus, at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Each volume in the BPC series includes the following description of the series:
The ancient societies of the Bible were overwhelmingly oral. People originally experienced the traditions now in the Bible as oral performances. Focusing on the ancient performance of biblical traditions enables us to shift academic work on the Bible from the mentality of a modern print culture to that of an oral/scribal culture. Conceived broadly, biblical performance criticism embraces many methods as means to reframe the biblical materials in the context of traditional oral cultures, construct scenarios of ancient performances, learn from contemporary performances of these materials, and reinterpret biblical writings accordingly. The result is a foundational paradigm shift that reconfigures traditional disciplines and employs fresh biblical methodologies such as theater studies, speech-act theory, and performance studies. The emerging research of many scholars in this field of study, the development of working groups in scholarly societies, and the appearance of conferences on orality and literacy make it timely to inaugurate this series. For further information on biblical performance criticism, go to www.biblicalperformancecriticism.org.
Considering the disparate places in which biblical media criticism has been published (including my own Oral Tradition and the New Testament [Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014] and Eric Eve's Behind the Gospels [SPCK, 2014], but also more difficult books to access, such as Anthony Le Donne and Tom Thatcher's edited volume, The Fourth Gospel in First-Century Media Culture [LNTS 426; Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2011]), I think it's probably a good thing that there is now a series dedicated to bringing together media-critical work.

Volume 9 in the BPC series is Richard A. Horsley's book, Text and Tradition in Performance and Writing (Cascade, 2013). Anyone familiar with Horsley's work (especially over the last two decades) will find much that is familiar here: a broad vision of New Testament studies in general as well as an emphasis on recent challenges to dominant assumptions thereof, an emphasis on broad-scale illiteracy and access to tradition through means other than written texts, a focus on performance as the multidimensional experience of our two-dimensional written textual remains, a strong bifurcation of rich and poor, ruling-class and ruled, city and village, "great tradition" and "little tradition," a refusal to distinguish theology from politics and economics, and so on. Few people have been as consistent (or persistent!) as Horsley in pushing a relatively stable set of ideas and agenda in the various areas of biblical scholarship that he engages. Horsley's NT work has focused especially on the Gospel of Mark and the sayings source, "Q," but he also addresses the Hebrew Bible, Second Temple Jewish literature (especially Ben Sira), and social and archaeological research of our era and area. (He has also recently published on the Fourth Gospel [along with Tom Thatcher; see John, Jesus, and the Renewal of Israel (Eerdmans, 2013)], and of course he has multiple publications on the historical Jesus.) In other words, Horsley ranges broadly in time and space. New Testament and biblical scholarship could use more scholars who range more broadly rather than focus too narrowly.

Text and Tradition in Performance and Writing comprises twelve essays, three of which (Chapters 1, 9, and 10) appeared in previous edited volumes and one of which (Chapter 12) appeared in the journal, Oral Tradition. The essays appear as follows:

  1. Oral Communication, Oral Performance, and New Testament Interpretation (1–30)
  2. The Origins of the Hebrew Scriptures under Imperial Rule: Numinous Writing and Ceremonial Performance (31–52)
  3. Oral-Written Scribal Cultivation of Torah—Not "Re-Written Bible" (53–72)
  4. Oral Composition-and-Performance of the Instructional Speeches of Ben Sira (73–98)
  5. Contesting Authority: Popular vs. Scribal Tradition in Continuing Performance (99–122)
  6. Israelite Tradition and the Speeches of Jesus in Q (123–55)
  7. Hearing Q/Luke 12:2–12 as Oral Performance (156–74)
  8. The Speeches of Yeshua ben Sira—and the Speeches of Yeshua bar Marya (175–97)
  9. The Language(s) of the Kingdom: From Aramaic to Greek and Galilee to Syria (198–219)
  10. Oral Performance and the Gospel of Mark (220–45)
  11. Imagining Mark's Story Composed in Oral Performance (246–78)
  12. Oral Performance in the Emergence of the Gospel of Mark as Scripture (279–301)


Horsley's work is consistently innovative, creative, and interdisciplinary. There is much with which to argue, whether as part of Horsley's analytical framework, his sociological perspective, his exegetical decisions, his comparative analysis, or his working assumptions. And I will mention some of these, below. But before I offer any critique, I want to acknowledge that there is much to learn here. Whereas I will offer different answers to many (most?) of the questions Horsley raises, I think he is at least raising many (most?) of the questions that need raising but are too-often ignored. If you haven't read any of Horsley's earlier works, Text and Tradition in Performance and Writing is a good place to get stuck in.

I offer the following three observations:

First, I do think Horsley is too radical in his denial that written texts as written texts played important functions in Jewish culture during the early Roman period. For Horsley, written texts are the products of the ruling elite (and their servants), especially in Jerusalem and the Temple complex; non-elites (esp. in the villages of Judea and Galilee) had no access to and use for written texts. Also, Horsley thinks that written texts were "largely unintelligible even to the literate who were not already familiar with the text, and extremely difficult to consult" (xii). However, as Larry Hurtado argues (rightly, I think), written manuscripts bear the marks of actual use by readers, and just as importantly we do not read complaints from users about texts being cumbersome or difficult to use (see the essays linked to in this post). Instead, as I have mentioned elsewhere, "[d]espite the relative lack of literacy in the ancient world, written texts were everywhere. . . . Jewish culture in the first centuries BCE and CE demonstrated 'an appreciation for texts among the general population'" (Rodríguez, Oral Tradition and the New Testament, 3, 4; citing Larry Hurtado, "Greco-Roman Textuality and the Gospel of Mark," BBR 7 [1997]: 91–106 [96]). Texts, it seems to me, participated in power dynamics; they were not tools wielded only by the powerful. Horsley points us toward the symbolic value of written texts as cultural objects, a value that is other than a text's written contents (see my "Reading and Hearing in  Ancient Contexts," JSNT 32 [2009]: 151–78 [165–66]), which is significant. But this symbolic value should not lead us to presume that written texts were not also objects to be read.

Second, Horsley offers a new image for the relation between written texts, on one hand, and tradition, on the other. In 1995, Werner Kelber referred to tradition as a "biosphere," a context in which a group lived and to which it made reference in its traditional communications (performances, texts, rituals, etc.). Horsley, who also uses the biosphere-image, offers another: written texts are "the tips of icebergs floating in a sea of Israelite culture or cultural tradition with various identifiable currents" (xii [see also p. xv]; Horsley won't use this metaphor again until p. 265). I like this metaphor because it, like the biosphere metaphor, gets us thinking about tradition as a contextual field within which "texts" (whether written or oral, ritual or informal, etc.) become meaningful. This is a significant advance over the way biblical scholars have been trained to think about traditions, namely as materials that are contained within texts (like Legos). Tradition is not smaller than texts; it is larger, similar to the way English—the language—is larger than any particular English sentence.

Third, I wish Horsley had emphasized more thoroughly the function of tradition, as the sea in which the icebergs of a particular traditional expression (whether oral or written), in the construction of meaning and the navigation of processes of memory and identity. Instead, Horsley focuses on orality, which then sets up an unnecessarily stark conflict between purported functions of written texts (see the first point, above) and those of oral performance. As I argued in Oral Tradition and the New Testament, we don't have any surviving early Christian oral tradition, so our emphasis should be on the noun rather than the adjective. Approaching our written texts as instances—or "actualizations"—of the tradition, as actual embodiments of the potentialities inherent in the tradition itself, helps us to get past the anachronistic models of textual function we have inherited from our training as biblical scholars, but I think it can do so without caricaturing the differences between our alleged "print culture" and their alleged "oral culture." Oral communications are just as vibrant today as they ever have been; similarly, written communications were significant cultural and traditional realities in the early Roman empire, both among Jews and gentiles. We simply do not have to choose between written and oral expressions of tradition, because neither we nor the people we study chose between them. In fact, the constant that transcends various media of communication is the noun which I have been stressing all along: tradition.

There is, of course, more to say about this book; indeed, one could write a serial review if one were so inclined. 😉 Horsley's work is creative and innovative and deserves careful consideration from those of us interested not just in early Jewish and Christians texts but also in the people whose lives were in some way lived in reference to these texts. And as much as we might learn from Horsley's content, I would like to see more of us learn from his example, that more of us would read broadly in the Humanities and Social Sciences, develop truly and thoroughly interdisciplinary perspectives, and discover how these other fields can broaden and deepen our understanding of our texts and, for many of us, even our faith.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Jesus' Wife: What Did We Learn?

I would like to thank all parties involved in the Wife of Jesus fragment forgery. You have entertained us with an interesting puzzle, hours and hours of online debate, ideological rants, at least one documentary, a dedicated issue of New Testament Studies, and an academic conference. I am especially grateful because this scandal afforded me the opportunity to write a book related to the topic of Jesus' wife. I don't mind saying that I really enjoyed this project. It was easily the most fun I've had with a book. I honestly didn't know where my research would lead and my conclusion ended up surprising me.

Now that there is no longer any reasonable reason to argue for the fragment's authenticity, let us devote a bit more time for some self-reflection, shall we? I promise to make this post extra lengthy for your navel-gazing pleasure.

1. A few months after Karen King announced the existence of what she called "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife" I was invited to give a public lecture about Jesus' sexuality alongside a few colleagues at the University of the Pacific. Carrie Schroeder's lecture that night addressed King's fragment more directly. She had a great line that night which has stuck with me. Carrie said, "I'm skeptical of this fragment for a number of reasons. But I am also skeptical of my own skepticism." Or she said something close to this (we'll go with the pink ipsissima vox bead). We could all stand to take this advice. The hermeneutic of suspicion was certainly useful in this case. It is equally true that a bit of reflexive suspicion was useful. Even our best experts are fallible and knee-jerk conclusions are rarely the best conclusions. Also, even if we are absolutely confident in our ability to spot a forgery, why not leave a bit of room for professional civility? Schroeder respectfully disagreed with King's argument for authenticity. King respectfully disagreed with my suggestion that modern ideological biases were relevant in this discussion. The tone of the conversation matters. Why not leave a bit of room for a change of mind in case newer and better information emerges?

2. We ought not forget that King was right about Jesus' historical marital status: the fragment was never going to reveal anything about Jesus as a historical figure. If authentic (and we know now that it isn't) it might have suggested something about early/medieval Christian belief. She never claimed what several news outlets suggested in headlines. In both her preliminary HTR essay and her subsequent interviews, King maintained that the fragment was too late too be valuable for historical Jesus studies.

3. We have not proven that Jesus was celibate. Our earliest and best data for Jesus still do not tell us much about his pre-public life. Sociohistorical research (which is largely what my book covers) suggests that Jesus would have been arranged for marriage by his parents prior to the age of thirty. But Jesus seems to hold some rather odd opinions about marriage and family. So the matter is not settled and it is certainly not hinged on the authenticity or forgery of King's fragment.

4. There are Christian biases in biblical studies. No doubt, there are theological agendas and apologetic motives. The question of Jesus' marital status is one of those issues that will attract (even if unwittingly) traditional assumptions. Moreover, many Christians will be repulsed by the topic of Jesus' sexuality. If this weren't true, there would be no motive for a forger to put forth a counter-narrative. It is also true that nobody is free of bias. The forger of this fragment seems to have some sort of anti-Christian bent. One sort of bias is no better than the other and both sorts are cause for self-reflection and self-awareness. If a fellow like Simcha Jacobovici claims to have discovered the true meaning of Mary Magdalene's menstrual flow, he doesn't get authenticity points just because he's unaffiliated.

5. This ain't your grandfather's social media, folks. In the olden days, when Jim Davila and Mark Goodacre were settling the frontier, social media might have seemed like a fringe interest. Those of us who were convinced that real scholarship happened in print media were convinced that blogs could be (should be) avoided. This latest forgery is a canary in the coal mine: the new peer-review process is a social media procedure.

And now I will leave you with a quotation by the good doctor: Dr. Seuss.

"I like nonsense; it wakes up the brain cells."

Monday, June 27, 2016

Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 8)

In this final installment of my serial review of Bart Ehrman's Jesus before the Gospels, I want to briefly address his final chapter ("In Conclusion: A Paean to Memory"), which is less than seven pages long (pp. 289–295), and then assess the book as a whole.

Ehrman's concluding "paean to memory" is a beautiful reflection on the relative importance of historical-critical work. Knowing that this-or-that event happened in history is important, and Ehrman acknowledges that his work as a historian focuses narrowly on questions of what did or did not happen. Christianity, "widely seen as a 'historical' religion" (p. 291), sometimes (often?) places a high premium on historical actuality. What matters, often enough, to Christians is not simply what their sacred texts say but more so that the events those texts narrate actually happened. The truth of, say, the Acts of the Apostles resides not just in its worldview or narrative theology but rather in its portrayal of actual events in space and time. As a result, Christian readers who encounter Ehrman's writings may perceive him a threat to the integrity of their religious identity.

This is not Ehrman's intent. "But in my judgment there is more to Christianity than history. And there is more to life, and meaning, and truth than the question of whether this, that, or the other thing happened in the way some ancient text says it did" (p. 291). He goes on to describe the Gospels as "so much more than historical sources," which in my view is exactly right. Ehrman does not offer the example of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, but I think Luke 10.25–37 offers us instructive case. Never did a man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho fall into the hands of robbers, only to be neglected by a Jewish priest and Levite headed uphill and cared for by a Samaritan passerby. And nobody thinks either Jesus or Luke intends to speak of an actual event. When historians argue about the "authenticity" of this parable, they are arguing whether or not Jesus actually told this story. The story itself, everyone acknowledges, is fictional.

And yet the Parable of the Good Samaritan is true. It's truthicity ("truthiness" was inappropriate in this context) has nothing to do with its historical referentiality. This is a question of genre. If a history textbook claims that the Battle of Britain was provoked by the British invasion of Belgium, it is not just wrong but false. History books claim to narrate the past, and though they include matters that are not, strictly speaking, historical (e.g., interpretations of events, narrative plot structures, cause-and-effect relationships, etc.), their claims are evaluated on the basis of their historical referentiality. But other genres do not depend on this relationship. The obvious example is literature: The truth (perhaps value is a better term) of Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol depends in no way whatsoever on the historical reality of Ebenezer Scrooge. For that matter, A. A. Milne's characters express simple-but-profound truths about friendship and life, even though no one wonders about a talking bear in a hundred-acre wood. And so, while I usually was more annoyed than anything when Ehrman's argument relied on unanswered rhetorical questions, I found this spot on:
At the end of the day, I find it troubling that so many people think that history is the only thing that matters. For them, if something didn't happen, it isn't true, in any sense. Really? Do we actually live our lives that way? How can we? Do we really spend our lives finding meaning only in the brute facts of what happened before, and in nothing else? (p. 292)
These are appropriate questions, and Ehrman does, eventually, hint at answers: "Our lives are not spent establishing the past as it really happened. They are spent calling it back to mind" (293). This, I think, is a lovely sentiment.



So what's the verdict on Jesus before the Gospels? I once accused Ehrman—in another venue and on another topic—of being "coy." In some ways, that charge does not apply here. Ehrman uses the intuitively pejorative term distorted memory to refer to "false memories" or "memories" of events that did not occur. At some point stories were told in such a way that people who heard them thought they narrated actual events or teachings from Jesus' life, but those stories did not. Ehrman does not hide behind the technical use of the term distortion in order to "sneak in" a negative connotation; when he is doing historical critical work, he is relying on that negative connotation.

In other ways, however, the charge of being coy is apropos here as well. Ehrman too often relies on insinuation and unanswered rapid-fire rhetorical questions that are framed so as to make disagreeing positions seem unreasonable, when often enough the questions themselves are problematic (e.g., pp. 24–25). This is an understandable rhetorical move; I myself often feel tempted to argue in this fashion. But doing so—whether I am doing it or Ehrman—is usually a sign that my argument is not as clear or as precise as I would like it to be. "You don't really think such-and-such, do you?" is not a helpful historical argument, even if it is often effective, and Ehrman retreats to this rhetorical device too often.

More problematic, in my view, is Ehrman's dependence on sources. He reveals to his readers that, "[f]or about two years now I have spent virtually all my free time doing nothing but reading about memory" (p. 2), but his citation of memory studies seems to me rather anemic. It is difficult to get a precise measurement because there is no bibliography included in the book, but scanning the endnotes suggests that Ehrman cites a total of thirty-four sources that I would categorize as "memory studies." The majority of these he cites only once, and on more than one occasion those citations are misleading (e.g., he cites Schwartz's approbation of Maurice Halbwachs's claim that memory adapts the past to "the beliefs and spiritual needs the present" [p. 7, citing Schwartz, Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory, 5] without mentioning that Schwartz also critiques Halbwachs on this very point: "Considering Lincoln's image as a mere projection of present problems is as wrong as taking it to be a literal account of his life and character"; Schwartz, p. 6; see also my critique of Ehrman's use of Ulrich Neisser's study of John Dean's testimony). Perhaps even more problematically still, Ehrman engages almost none of the New Testament scholarship concerned with memory. Unless one includes Birger Gerhardsson's Memory and Manuscript (which does not, strictly speaking, engage "memory studies"), he only mentions Richard Bauckham's book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. There's no mention of scholars such as Chris Keith, Alan Kirk, Anthony Le Donne, Tom Thatcher, Michael Thate, or myself. (Chris Keith is mentioned in the acknowledgements, but none of his works appear in the endnotes.) When he mentions Dale Allison, Richard Horsely, or Werner Kelber, he does not address their engagement with memory studies. This is especially worrisome when Ehrman complains that New Testament scholars, as a group, have largely ignored memory studies. When Ehrman does engage media studies among New Testament scholars, he draws attention to the form critics, whose work is largely seen as out-of-date.

In the end, I cannot endorse or recommend this work as an engagement of memory scholarship for New Testament research. As I said in Part 1 of this review,
I was excited when I first heard rumors, in the aftermath of a 2013 panel on memory and the historical Jesus, that Ehrman was going to engage memory studies. I was part of the early wave of Jesus historians and NT scholars who have turned to questions of memory—and especially social/collective memory—in order to recalibrate the study of Jesus and Christian origins. I care about this topic, and adding a name as big as Bart D. Ehrman to the list of historians recognizing the importance of memory in some way justified my own work.
Perhaps my initial excitement helps explain my disappointment with this book. I had hoped Ehrman would advance the discussion of memory and the New Testament, perhaps with reference to his own expertise in Christian texts outside the New Testament canon, the manuscript tradition of New Testament texts, and so on. Instead, I do not think he has accurately grasped even the current state of memory and the New Testament.

I have tried at every point to engage, summarize, and evaluate Jesus before the Gospels fairly and respectfully. I have literally read every word of this book, and where I have critiqued it I have tried to provide specific examples and quotations from the book itself. Moreover, I have not critiqued this book for its bearing on theological matters or questions of faith. If anything, his concluding "paean to memory" should be welcomed by people of faith even if they continue to disagree with his historical judgments. This book is flawed in its historical and exegetical judgments. This book must stand or fall on these bases and not on its theological merits, since Ehrman is not writing a theological book.

Oh . . . one last thing. I have not enjoyed panning this book; as I said, I started reading Jesus before the Gospels with enthusiasm and high hopes. Whenever commenters here or on Facebook have characterized this serial review as combative (e.g., "Rodríguez vs. Ehrman," or something similar), I have winced a little. I've read and reviewed this book so carefully precisely because I have such respect for Ehrman as a writer, thinker, and scholar, and I hope that hasn't been lost among all the criticisms. I recently met someone who read both Ehrman's book and my reviews and who told me he thought I was being too kind in my review; that was both surprising and a bit encouraging. Whether kind or unkind, I hope I have been fair. And if/as you read this or any other book by Bart Ehrman (or anyone else, for that matter), I hope you, too, will evaluate it fairly.

Okay; you can stop watching this space.

Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 1)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 2)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 3)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 4)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 5)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 6)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 7)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 8)

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Quarterly Quote of the Month about Jesus for this Week


Playboy Magazine: How large a role does pure ego play in your deal making and enjoyment of publicity?
Donald Trump: Every successful person has a very large ego.
PB: Every successful person? Mother Teresa? Jesus Christ?
DT: Far greater egos than you will ever understand.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 7)

Chapters 6 and 7 of Bart Ehrman's Jesus before the Gospels pursue a different topic than do previous chapters. The earlier chapters addressed, more or less, Jesus before the Gospels (that is, how scholars think the early Christians remembered and talked about Jesus in the decades between the life of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels). Here, however, Ehrman turns his focus onto the early Christian texts themselves—rather than what came before them—and describes them as collective memories of Jesus. Ehrman first discusses the Gospel of Mark (Chapter 6); he then addresses other, mostly later Christian texts in Chapter 7, with examples from within the canon (Gospel of John, Paul, Q, and Gospel of Matthew) as well as beyond the canon (Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Judas, Marcion, and Theodotus). But first, Ehrman begins Chapter 6 with a discussion of collective memory and mnemo-history.

The power of collective memory—or what Maurice Halbwachs called "the social frameworks of memory" (les cadres sociaux de la mémoir)—is largely invisible, as is the social construction of knowledge in general. We largely take the world in which we live for granted. That is, until we encounter another world, and we run smack into the existence of other ways of perceiving, interpreting, remembering, and responding to the real world. Rikki Watts, in his near-classic book, Isaiah's New Exodus in Mark, describes an experience of this when an American professor used the phrase, "Four score and seven years ago," which his (American) classmates recognized but he did not (see pp. 30–32). Ehrman describes a similarly disorienting experience when he moved to the American South in 1988 and encountered phrases such as "War of Northern Aggression" (pp. 227–28). Our social context performs a constitutive in determining how we remember the past (and even which past we remember!), and changes in that context do indeed often result in changes in the past one encounters in the present.

This gets us to the primary thesis of these two chapters, that each of the various Christian authors—whether or not their work(s) is/are included in the New Testament—remembers Jesus in ways that are determined by the history and current interests of whatever social group they belong to. Paul reflects communities that have no interest in the life or teaching of Jesus and really only care that Jesus died and was raised. Mark's community rejects any notion of the kingdom of God as present now but eagerly expects that it will be revealed in the very near future. John's community experienced or was experiencing a sharp conflict with the synagogue. And so on and so forth. These diverse situations of memory produce what Ehrman calls
"a kaleidoscopically varied set of images" of Jesus (p. 256), an image that I think could be useful for perceiving and interpreting the significances of Jesus among his early followers. I do think Ehrman over-emphasizes the significances of differences between the Gospels and other early Christian materials, and he exaggerates, I think, the causal connection between different textual images and different contexts of memory. Even so, "the kaleidoscopic memories of Jesus" is an image that I can work with.

But I want to focus on Ehrman's brief survey of collective memory research (especially the work of Halbwachs and Jan Assmann), which I think suffers from some pretty basic misunderstandings. Ehrman contrasts "episodic memory" (remember: "recalling things that happened to you personally"; p. 18) with collective memory; he says, "There are other kinds of memory, and one of them involves remembering the past of our society. For that reason, memory is studied not only by psychologists but also by social scientists—both the anthropologists interested in oral cultures . . . and sociologists who explore how memories of the past come to be constructed and discussed by various social groups" (p. 228). The next paragraph begins: "That different social groups 'remember' the past (not their personal past, but the past of their society) in different ways will make sense to anyone with a wide range of experience." This, unfortunately, is not what social (or collective) memory is, especially not in the stream which flows from Halbwachs's work. To be sure, Halbwachs was explicitly and programmatically concerned with the ways in which the memory of individuals depended on her social environment. In the preface to The Social Frameworks of Memory, Halbwachs begins with a possibly apocryphal anecdote of a young girl who was forcibly (?) removed from any social cues that might've helped her recall details even of her personal history. In fact, Halbwachs singles out "psychological treatises" for particular censure for thinking that individuals actually ever remember the past as individuals, as beings distinct from their social contexts:
One is rather astonished when reading psychological treatises that deal with memory to find that people are considered there as isolated beings. These make it appear that to understand our mental operations, we need to stick to individuals and first of all, to divide all the bonds which attach individuals to the society of their fellows. Yet it is in society that people normally acquire their memories. It is also in society that they recall, recognize, and localize their memories. (Halbwachs, Social Frameworks of Memory, 38; my emphasis)
In other words—and this is a point that many NT scholars miss—"social" or "collective memory" (I prefer the former) refers to a dynamic of memory as such and not to a particular kind of memory (i.e., not "the past of their society" as opposed to "their personal past"). Memory—not episodic memory or procedural memory or eyewitness memory or cultural memory; just memory, full-stop—is a social phenomenon, and it is constituted, conveyed, and transformed via social processes.

Ehrman actually recognizes this aspect of Halbwachs's work (which he calls a "rather radical claim"; p. 230) and summarizes it nicely (see pp. 230–33). So it is all the more unfortunately that Ehrman continues to draw such a stark distinction between accurate (or what he regularly calls "gist") memories, on one hand, and distorted memories on the other. Memory itself is subject to processes of selection, interpretation, communication, contestation, and evaluation. All of these are distorting forces (e.g., regarding "selection," why do we remember words and events leading up to Jesus' crucifixion but not the crucifixions of the two men next to him?), but these are also the forces that preserve and transmit memory across generations (e.g., the selection of Jesus' crucifixion as a meaningful event—and not the other two crucifixions that day—preserves traces of events that, otherwise, would be completely lost to us, as are, for example, any crucifixions that took place on the following Passover). Anthony Le Donne has called these "refractions" instead of "distortions," and for good reason. We read distortion pejoratively, akin to falsify, mar, or deface, like what Laszlo Toth did to Michelangelo's Pietà
in 1972. But in memory studies, distort doesn't necessarily have these negative connotations. Some distortions obscure, yes. But other distortions, like those perpetrated by the lenses of a telescope, provide clarity and focus. When scholars of memory say that memory does not provide access to the past as such but only to images of the past, they are not bemoaning the loss of some pristine truth and resigning themselves to make do with imperfect witnesses to the past. They are, instead, recognizing that all knowledge of the past—whether what an average person "knows" about her national history or what an historian researches in archival records—is only an approximation of the past.

So when Ehrman draws from collective memory research in order to articulate the claim that "the study of collective memory can tell us more about who is doing the remembering in the present than about the actual persons and events they are recalling from the past" (p. 241), he has not allowed the complexity of memory studies to sufficiently affect his understanding of the relationship between past and present, between traces and reconstruction, between identity and power. As a result, the program he pursues in these two chapters—viz., reading the texts as memorial records of the remembering communities' presents—is too simple. We cannot easily read texts and lift the circumstances of their present from their constructions of the past. Sometimes, the past is uncomfortable, even traumatically so. Sometimes, the past resists our will to remake it. And whether we find the past comforting or tortuous, we are constituted by the pasts we remember. This does not mean we can easily lift the past off of the texts we read; neither past nor present are easily distilled from the text.

We are nearly finished with our serial review. In one final post, I will summarize Ehrman's final chapter, "In Conclusion: A Paean to Memory" (which is less than seven pages long) and offer some concluding thoughts on the book as a whole. Continue to watch this space.

Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 1)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 2)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 3)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 4)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 5)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 6)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 7)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 8)

Monday, June 20, 2016

Italian Westerns and the Radical Bible


The Italian Westerns of the 60s and 70s were tied up with discussions of radical politics, the recent fascist past, and, obviously, understandings of religion, Christianity and the Bible, including some Jesus. The most famous to TJB readers are probably Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy but there are countless others, including a number which were part of the debates in Italian politics which were typically more sympathetic to questions of violence than in British debates. Here is a discussion of some of these issues and a context where revolutionary priests were not like English vicars, at least the cinematic ones. Thanks to Culture Matters for hosting this.
Not mentioned in the article is how these films might be of relevance for historical Jesus studies, particularly in the treatment of banditry which is a kind of combination of Hobsbawm on social banditry and Fanon on the wreched of the earth. Plus, Pasolini (whose film on Matthew's Gospel is likewise part of such debates) turns up with his revolutionary Bible.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 6)

After such a long hiatus—it has been over a month since I reviewed Chapter 4 of Jesus before the Gospels—I've finally been able to return to Ehrman's discussion of memory, tradition, and the historical Jesus. You'll recall that Chapter 4 addressed the topic, "Distorted Memories and the Death of Jesus." Chapter 5 ("Distorted Memories and the Life of Jesus"; pp. 179–226) provides a similar discussion, though now focusing primarily on the Gospels' accounts of Jesus' teaching and, secondarily, on his reputation as a miracle worker. Once again, it will be important to recall that Ehrman uses the term distorted memories to refer to "incorrect recollections" (p. 302 n.3); a "distorted" or "false" memory—Ehrman uses the terms synonymously—"involves a memory that is wrong" (p. 19).

Ehrman begins the chapter with a brief mention of Alexandre Luria’s study of a man he calls “S,” a man who seemed incapable of forgetting anything, and the debilitating consequences of his condition. However, Ehrman quickly leaves “S” behind to consider the question, “Are memories stronger in oral cultures?” (pp. 181–93).
Here Ehrman engages the comparative and anthropological research of Milman Parry and Albert Lord, Jack Goody, Jan Vansina, and David Rubin; these are all seminal works in the study of tradition, oral tradition, oral history, and memory. (Readers may recall that I vigorously criticized Ehrman in my review of Chapter 1 for not addressing works like these in a chapter whose title signals a consideration of “Oral Traditions and Oral Inventions.” I’m glad to see some discussion of these authors here.) Ehrman turns to these works to discover whether they substantiate the claim one often hears that non- or pre-literate cultures “have better memories, since, after all, they have to remember more simply to get by” (p. 182). Ehrman immediately presents his answer (“The consensus among both anthropologists and culture historians, in fact, is quite the opposite of what we might assume about oral cultures”) and spends the next eleven pages substantiating that answer. As he presents it, “The thesis of this chapter is that traditions in oral cultures do not remain the same over time, but change rapidly, repeatedly, and extensively” (p. 183). We will return to Ehrman’s treatment of the anthropological scholarship below.

When Ehrman turns to discuss “gist memories of the life of Jesus” (pp. 193–226), he begins with a list facts of whose reliability historians can be relatively confident (p. 194). These facts Ehrman refers to as “gist memories,” and from them he draws “a fair outline of information about the man Jesus himself during his public life” (p. 195). But can we go further than these facts? The rest of the chapter identifies distorted memories of Jesus’ teachings (pp. 195–211) and his deeds (pp. 211–26). Ehrman turns to the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7) to show how historians might detect contradictions and implausible claims in the traditions of Jesus’ teaching (recall Ehrman’s two criteria of authenticity, introduced on pp. 151–52). In this instance, discrepancies between Matthew and the other Synoptic Gospels, the implausibility of verbatim recall over five decades, and contradictions (in the beatitudes, in Jesus’ teaching on divorce, etc.) all suggest that Matthew’s Sermon is a “distorted memory” (in Ehrman’s sense) of Jesus. He then identifies other distorted memories of Jesus’ teaching, from Matthew’s parables of the wedding feast and the wise and foolish virgins to John’s account of Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus. Ehrman continues to identify gist and distorted memories of Jesus’ deeds, focusing specifically on the accounts of Jesus’ baptism (pp. 211–14), his relationship to his disciples, both male and female (pp. 214–20), and finally his miracles (pp. 220–26).

We can level the same criticisms of this chapter that we have made of earlier chapters. First, Ehrman’s strong disjunction between distorted and accurate memories (the latter are now regularly referred to as “gist memories”) simply does not reflect the use of the technical term “distortion” in memory studies, nor does it recognize how distortions (interpretations) are themselves the vehicles that preserve the connection between the past and the present in memory (see my criticism of Ehrman’s discussion of John Dean and Ulrich Neisser). Second, his historical method, which relies on the identification of inconsistencies and implausibilities, is simplistic and only continues the previous (and problematic) criteriological approach to the historical Jesus that has been fairly thoroughly discredited (see Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity [Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne, eds]; see also Constructing Jesus [Dale Allison]). In other words, it is difficult to see how Ehrman’s engagement with memory studies has changed his approach to the historical Jesus, other than that now he uses the language of memory throughout.

But we should return to Ehrman’s discussion of the comparative anthropological work on tradition and oral performance. Perhaps the simplest flaw in Ehrman’s discussion to point out is the implausible claim (citing Jan Vansina) that, “when testimonies are recited frequently, because of the vagaries inherent in the oral mode of transmission, they change more often than when recited only on occasion” (p. 191; my emphasis). I haven’t consulted Vansina’s book (it’s been years since I read it), but I doubt that Ehrman has drawn an appropriate conclusion from it. He does quote Vansina (“Every time a tradition is recited the testimony may be a variant version”; p. 191, see Vansina, Oral Tradition, 43), but this does not mean that more frequent repetition equals more rapid and extensive alteration. Besides, Ehrman himself doesn’t operate from this principle; he regularly implies that the problem with assuming the Gospels’ historical accuracy lies in the chronological distance between the events they claim to narrate and when they were written, using imagery designed to lead the reader to think of a gap between event and narration without intervening narrations. For example, “Suppose you were asked to recall a conversation, word for word, that you had this time last year. Could you get it exactly right? Suppose you tried it with a speech that you heard once, say, twenty years ago. Or suppose you tried it with a sermon you heard fifty years ago. Would you remember the exact words?” (p. 197). The implausibility of the Gospels’ accuracy, for Ehrman, is based not on the frequent repetition of the material they preserve between Jesus and when they were written; it is akin, rather, to trying to recall the ipsissima verba (“word for word . . . exactly right . . . the exact words”) of “a speech that you heard once.” If Ehrman had dealt seriously with the communal recurrence of the Jesus tradition in the years between Jesus and the Gospels, he might have recognized that inscribing Jesus’ teachings and deeds in tradition was one mechanism for providing for the persistence of the Jesus tradition through time, such that it was recognizable as the Jesus tradition despite its observable flexibility and malleability.

A similar problem exists in Ehrman’s treatment of the idea of a tradition’s multiformity: he recognizes that, “in oral performance, there is actually no such thing as the ‘original’ version of a story, or poem, or saying” (pp. 185–86), but he does not incorporate that insight into his scholarship, as he is still attempting the “extremely difficult” task of “separat[ing] out the elements that have been added or altered to an ‘original testimony’ (to use Vansina’s term) from the gist that represents an ‘accurate memory’ of the past” (p. 193). This problem, however, actually gets us to the fatal flaw, in my view, of Ehrman’s use of the anthropological scholarship. That problem is: Ehrman conceives of a tradition’s malleability and variability through time as a movement away from an accurate original, as distortions of what had once been clear. For example, “Whoever performs the tradition alters it in light of his own interests, his sense of what the audience wants to hear, the amount of time he has to tell or sing it, and numerous other factors” (p. 186). As a result, each performance of the tradition is severed from earlier performances, and the group that enacts, performs, and transmit that tradition loses any connection with its sense of history, of identification with members of previous generations. Indeed, in this view, one wonders why we should use the word tradition at all, since each version or performance lacks any causal or normative connection with earlier versions.

But this is not a helpful reading of the scholarship. To focus on only one stream of that scholarship, Albert Lord’s pioneering work, The Singer of Tales, did indeed struggle with appreciating what was traditional about tales composed in oral performance. But in that struggle, Lord nevertheless recognized that, alongside all the factors that endow a tradition with its flexibility and variance, was a causal, normative connection with previous performances. Lord emphasizes that the “oral” phenomena that have caught his interest are, at every turn, traditional:
The singer of tales is at once the tradition and an individual creator. His manner of composition differs from that used by a writer in that the oral poet makes no conscious effort to break the traditional phrases and incidents; he is forced by the rapidity of composition in performance to use these traditional elements. . . . His art consists not so much in learning through repetition the time-worn formulas as in the ability to compose and recompose the phrases for the idea of the moment on the pattern established by the basic formulas. He is not a conscious iconoclast, but a traditional creative artist. (Lord, Singer of Tales, 4, 5; see also pp. 220–21)
Ehrman is right when he reacts to exaggerated claims that one sometimes finds regarding the stability and/or the reliability of oral tradition. Not only are oral traditions flexible, changeable, malleable, but they also often seem to work with a different notion of stability and invariance than we do. But even this should not be exaggerated. Multiform traditions are perfectly capable of preserving a group's sense of cohesion with and belonging to the past that constitutes them. Perhaps the most helpful scholar for readers interested in an updated, even seminal study of the Parry-Lord approach to oral tradition is John Miles Foley (whether his 1991 book, Immanent Art, his 1995 volume, The Singer of Tales in Performance, or perhaps most helpful for the new reader, his 2002 primer, How to Read an Oral Poem). My own book, Oral Tradition and the New Testament (T&T Clark, 2014), is intended as an introduction to Foley's work for students of the New Testament.

When Ehrman describes the fixity of written tradition, he says, “An ‘accurate’ preservation of a tale, a poem, a saying, for most of us, is one that does not vary from its earlier iteration. The reason we think that way is that we have ways of checking to see whether it is the same tradition” (p. 185). This is not quite right. My favorite example, from our own uber- or hyper-literate culture, of a stable but variable “tradition” is the Eagles’ version of “Hotel California” on their 1994 album, Hell Freezes Over. The original was released in February, 1977, and has since become an iconic song not just embodying The Eagles' art but even that era of rock 'n roll. But the 1994 acoustic version is very different. In fact, the audience in the live session in the video above didn't even realize they were listening to "Hotel California" for the first ninety seconds of the song! Even so, the 1994 live version clearly is the same song as the 1977 studio release, and in fact its value as a performance is a combination of both its reproduction of the song we know from the 1970s and its innovative sound and sequence. None of this refutes Ehrman's point that, in our familiarity with print-based exact reproduction, we are used to "preservation . . . that does not vary from its earlier iteration." It is only a plea to remember that even we, with our so-called "print mentality," can accommodate the preservation of tradition alongside and even through innovative variation.

Continue to watch this space.

Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 1)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 2)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 3)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 4)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 5)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 6)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 7)
Jesus before the Gospels: a serial review (pt. 8)