Sunday, 17 September 2017

How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love a Pre-70 John

Among the New Testament texts, the date of John's Gospel is, IMHO, one of the hardest to define. It's no Hebrews, which was pretty obviously written sometime between 50 and 70, and certainly no Romans, which written indisputably written c. 56-57. Given 21:18-19, it seems probable that the gospel was completed sometime after Peter's death. But in principle Peter could have died as early as 54. We know that he died under Nero, who reigned 54-68, and although this is often linked with the Christian persecution said to have broken out after the fire of July 64 there are reasons to disassociate his death from the fire. If so, then the Neronian datum can stand without locking us into July 64 as a terminus post quem. 1 Cor. 9:6 seems to suppose that Peter yet lives, and although it seems to be the latest text that references Peter as still living it can't be dated much later than 55 or 56. At most, it might increase the terminus post quem for John's Gospel to the late-50s. That said, given that the most concrete dates we have on Peter's death associate it with events of the mid- to late- 60s (the fire, Paul's death), a date of death at 65 ± 1 or 2 years is probably to be preferred. In terms of a terminus ante quem, Ignatius of Antioch--writing sometime between 98 and 117 (I'm wary of efforts to narrow the range down more precisely)--almost certainly knows John's Gospel. Given that Ignatius seems to suppose that his readers are also familiar with John's Gospel, one suspects that the gospel predates his use by a few years at least. As such, John's Gospel should not be dated earlier than the late-50s, or later than the 110s, with perhaps a more likely range from c. 65 to c. 100. A more precise date requires a very close examination of certain relevant texts.

If determining a date where simply a matter of determining the average of the possibilities than a "middle" date (i.e. one from c. 70-100) would be preferred. But that is not adequate historiography. A more robust procedure would inquire into whether there is evidence for whether John should be located before the 70 divide or after. Let us begin by considering the evidence for a post-70 date, beginning with 4:21. When Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that "a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem" must he not surely be referring to the destruction of the temple in 70? Two observations are in order. One, it's reasonably clear that the point of 4:21-24 is not the destruction of the temple but rather the soteriological consequences of Jesus' ministry. Two, that the statement is a prophecy after the fact referring to the destruction of the temple during the Jewish War seems highly unlikely given that it is mated with a prophecy that worship would also cease on Mt. Gerizim...something that did not happen during the war. A prophecy after the fact that reports blatant non-facts seems curiously strange. 4:21 probably tells us nothing about the date of the gospel. Similarly, 2:19-22 probably tells us nothing either. Yes, Jesus is reported to have uttered a prophecy that the temple would be destroyed and rebuilt, and yes, we read that the disciples eventually interpreted that as a reference to his own body. That reinterpretation could have occurred after the destruction in 70, in order to explain why the temple was not rebuilt, but it could have just as easily have occurred after the resurrection: exactly as 2:22 states. Indeed, I see no reason to doubt John on this matter, which suggests that the reported reinterpretation could have occurred as early as 30. Again, in turns of defining the date of John's Gospel, 2:19-22 is probably non-probative.

Sometimes it is argued that the Gospel must post-date 70 because 9:22, 12:42, and 16:2 clearly suppose the existence of the rabbinic prayer Birkat ha-Minim, which dates to the post-70 period. This is a non-starter, on so many levels. In fact, it is a non-starter on so many levels that I've written an entire book on the matter. The argument ignores a series of facts. For instance, we can be more confident that John's Gospel dates to the first century than we can be that the Birkat ha-Minim does. Or, we cannot be confident that it was originally an anti-Christian prayer, as this reading of 9:22, 12:42, and 16:2 must suppose. Or, 9:22, 12:42, 16:2 refer to expulsion from the synagogue with no references to prayer, while the material surrounding the Birkat ha-Minim refer to prayer with no references to expulsion from the synagogue. We are left trying to offer as background to 9:22, 12:42, and 16:2 by invoking a text that more likely post-dates John's Gospel than not, probably did not have the aim that it must have had if it is to speak to these Johannine passages, and in fact lacks almost any actual parallel with John 9:22, 12:42, and 16:2. New Testament scholarship's fascination with the Birkat ha-Minim is mischief best laid to rest.

In sum, I see nothing in John's Gospel that should incline us towards a post-70 date. Is there data that should incline us towards a pre-70 one? I think that there is. A key datum is 5:2, which tells us that "Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes." Note the present tenses here. This is exceptional for John. Typically, he assimilates his topographical descriptions to the narrative, typically using the imperfect. The slippage to present tense makes best sense to me if the author most spontaneously thinks about the Sheep Gate as a present reality, and that such thought has led him to neglect assimilating this description to the time of the narrative. Such spontaneity makes far better sense before 70 than after.

One might object that 5:2 cannot bear this much weight, and of course in a fuller treatment I would furnish more data than just this, but I would suggest that if there are no data that points at a post-70 date but there is a datum that seems more "at home" prior to 70, then pre-70 is the safer bet.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Eyewitnesses and the Hellēnistai

Reading the second edition of Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses today, I came across an interesting suggestion. Building upon the idea that the "John" of the Gospel of John was a Jerusalem-based follower of Jesus (and that he is also the Beloved Disciple who features in the gospel), Bauckham suggested that the book's distinctive character might stem from its ultimate origin among a different "circle" of eyewitnesses than the Synoptic Gospels. I was already quite convinced that Johannine distinctiveness was largely a consequence of an author who was a disciple of the earthly Jesus was Jerusalem-based but not one of the Twelve, but the idea that he was a representative voice of a circle of eyewitnesses outside the Twelve had not occurred to me. It is is not without certain attractions.

One such attraction: this hypothesis makes good sense of the Johannine "we-passages." These passages talk in the first-person plural about having witnessed Jesus' glory (1:14b) and knowing that the author's testimony was true (21:24). When I reflect upon these passages in light of Bauckham's suggestion, it occurs to me that they are most naturally read as indicating that at least three eyewitnesses were involved in the development of John's Gospel: John, the Beloved Disciple, the two or more who know his testimony is true in 21:24, and all three or more of these who claim to have witnessed Jesus' glory in 1:14b. As I think about it, I suspect an implicit claim to eyewitness status in 21:24 because the gospel generally links knowing and seeing. For John, to know is to have seen, and if one knows that something is true that is typically because one has seen it. With regard to 21:24, this would only be true of those who had seen the things to which John testifies.

Another attraction: we actually do know of at least two distinct groups of Christians present in Jerusalem during the first year or two after Jesus' life, namely the Hebraioi and the Hellēnistai, the Hebraists and the Hellenists. It doesn't seem that they lived separate institutional lives, but the early Christians were cognizant that there were distinctions between them. While the majority of Jesus' Galilean followers were likely among the Hebraists, it is not unreasonable to expect that at least some of his Jerusalem-based followers were among the Hellenists. It strikes me as hardly inconceivable that the distinctions between Hebraist and Hellenist might not in part have been the grounds for the literary distinctions that we find in the Synoptic and Johannine traditions. Of course, it doesn't follow that either tradition closely resembled their written form at this point, but the idea that the developments that led to those written forms should be located in this first year or two should perhaps not be ruled out.

Interestingly, the above hypotheses (which is all they are: untested hypotheses) would have the consequence of grounding early Christian diversity at least in part in the pre-Easter period. Distinctions between Synoptic and Johannine traditions that can be seen clearly decades after Jesus' death could be in part the consequences of his operations. Put otherwise, following the traditional Lukan narrative that sees Christianity as initially expanding from a relatively small group Jerusalem does not require one to assume that Christianity was homogeneous. It was in principle as diverse as the people who joined Christianity during this period.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Yes, I am Crazy, and That's Okay

I recently shared with a colleague an idea that's been germinating in my head. He informed me that if I carried through the idea it would drive me insane. I pointed out that this was of course nonsense, as I'm already quite loco and have been since at least the mid-90s. But seriously. The idea is to do for ancient Israel and Judaism what Neil Ormerod has recently done for Christian history. Ormerod takes Lonergan's understanding of dialectic and a normative scale of values and uses it to sketch the dialectic development of Christianity. What emerges is not a detailed history, but rather an attempt at a "bird's eye" view of how social, cultural, and personal values have unfolded through the first two millennia of Christian history. Insofar as Ormerod starts in the first century, that is where I'd like to leave off. (I am of course quite aware that Jewish history continues well beyond that period, up to the present and presumably into the future, and the question of how to trace out Judaism and Christianity as parallel developments out of ancient Israelite and Jewish religion is an urgent one. It is however not my question, and not one for which I feel that I have or could reasonably develop the necessary expertise. I would of course be thrilled if my work aided those who do have that expertise and interest).

I'll give an example of the sort of narratives such a history might provide. If you look at Judges, there is a basic pattern. Israel follows after gods who are not YHWH, and consequently a new power oppresses them. Then God raises up a judge, and Israel throws off the oppressor's yoke. Now, certainly one should be very wary of treating this book as an exact account of what happened in Iron Age I Israel. But I would suggest that for the historian there is significant usable data in this basic schema. In Lonergan's understanding, as developed by Robert Doran, cultural values serve to both warrant and where necessary correct social values. Now, best we can tell, Israel at this time was a loose confederation of tribal groups that found its unity in common allegiance to the cult of YHWH. In Lonerganian terms, the confederation falls within the realm of social values, while the cult is that which warrants it. As such, when there is a tendency towards infidelity towards the cult of YHWH, there is a tendency for the confederation system to break down. Thus does Israel become less able to cope with would-be oppressors. The correction to such a situation lies with personal values, with the emergence of persons who have appropriated the necessary cultural values in such a way that they can correct their dysfunction and in turn that of the social values. These are schematized in Judges as exactly that: the judges. Deborah perhaps is the exemplar here, invoking the cult of YHWH to call Barak and in turn responsive tribes to action against Hazor. A breakdown in cultural values allowed a breakdown in social values, while a corrective force originated in personal values corrected for cultural and through them social ones. A fuller analysis would likely suggest that the original breakdown in cultural values was the consequence of, or at least correlated with, a breakdown in personal values, but this is a blog so we'll leave it there. The point is to begin thinking about the dynamic interaction of society, culture, and person, across the duration of Israelite and early Jewish history.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

The Nashville Statement

Many have been talking about the Nashville Statement today. For those unfamiliar with it, it was put together by the so-called "Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood"--i.e. a group of self-appointed evangelical Christian persons whose expertise in either human sexuality or Christian theology is less than evident--in order to define for all and sundry the nature of gender and sexuality. I will again deviate slightly from my normal focus upon Lonergan and scripture in order to provide some reflection upon the matter, for whatever such reflection might be worth.

Others have commented upon the view of sexuality evident in this statement. Myself, I'm going to focus upon the elephant dancing in the middle of the room. Evangelical Christianity historically has been predicated upon a radical understanding of the principle of sola scriptura, i.e. that (66 out of the 73 books that the majority of Christians consider to be in) the bible contains all that is sufficient for Christian doctrine. The fascinating thing is how little of these articles can be warranted from scripture alone. Indeed, as far as I know, there is nothing in scripture that speaks to trans-identity. Now, theologically one might be able to use material other than scripture to arrive at the conclusion that trans-identity is sinful (such an argument would have to articulated carefully, and with conscientious attention to its pastoral implications), but I do not reckon that you can get there from scripture alone. And this raises a question about the very existence of the Nashville Statement: if the bible contains all that is sufficient for Christian doctrine, then why is there any need for this document? Why do the signatories not think that the statement "Read the bible" would suffice?

An answer can be found, I suggest, in Lonergan, who argues that whereas Christian scripture aims to speak to undifferentiated consciousness, i.e. consciousness that is generalized rather than specialized, Christian dogma aims to speak to differentiated consciousness, specifically to consciousness primarily operating within the realm of the intellect. That is, scripture for the most part aims to move the whole person, whereas dogma aims to inform and persuade the intellect. As such, with this greater focus, the latter can achieve a clarity that the former often cannot. (The fruits of this distinction cannot be overstated. It might help explain why Paul, for instance, continues to boggle exegetes: because that which does not take the literary form of dogma is being treated as if it does). This is why, despite their stated abhorrence of creeds, virtually every fundamentalist group feels a need to put out a strongly-worded statement of faith. Quite simply, Christianity has developed to the point that such forms are necessary to clearly express its truths. In fact, it developed to that point by at least the fourth century. In the end, what the Nashville Statement perhaps reveals most profoundly is the intellectual crisis in certain forms of Christianity, which necessarily depend upon that which in principle they consider to be unnecessary.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Cosmos and Anthropos

In my previous post I suggested that the Moses narratives are grounded in an attempt to convey through cosmological myth the experiences provoked by Moses' person and operations. In order to do this, these narratives have to subvert such myth. The king, typically the exemplar of cosmic order, becomes the source of cosmic chaos as he subjugates the Israelites and resists YHWH's efforts to restore justice through Moses' work. Moses the murderer, a figure who should be seen as the profound bearer of injustice and disorder, becomes the agent of cosmic restoration to a just order. And in this subversion something remarkable happens: the foundations of a break with the very cosmological myth in which the Moses narratives are grounded.

One of the recurring problems in the social sciences is how to simultaneously account for how society and culture maintain integrity over generations and yet are constantly changing. How is American society and culture, for instance, recognizably American society and culture at any given point in American history, yet American society and culture at any two given points in American history might be radically different? In order to account for such a phenomenon, one must have some notion of a dialectic. There must be opposed principles at work within the given society or culture, the recurrent interplay of which constitutes continuity while generating change. In the Lonergan tradition, when it comes to culture it has been argued that one might generalize these principles as cosmology and anthropology: the difference between society understood as something grounded in the natural order and society understood as something grounded in human experience. What happened in the exodus, I would argue, was a significant break-through for the anthropological principle, with the human experience of suffering and need for freedom achieving ascendance over Pharaonic social cosmology.

This anthropological principle will recur throughout the Israelite and Jewish tradition. It is what we hear in the prophets, when they call out the wealthy for exploiting the poor, when Micah declares that YHWH seeks mercy and justice and humility, not sacrifices. It is what we hear in Jesus, when he says that the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath, in Paul when he says that without love we are nothing. It is what we hear when the Pharisee Hillel says that the essence of Torah is that one should not do to others what is hateful to oneself. And while this anthropological principle surely did not originate with Moses (no doubt it had its origins in values held by the transhumant groups from which the Israelites originated; indeed, the very decision to opt for transhumance likely represents in part an anthropologically-driven desire to be free of control by what Voegelin describes as "cosmological empires"), certainly it was never the same after him.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Moses and Myth

Think about the great persons of our times. Think of, for instance, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Malcolm X. These are persons whose characters are experienced as being fundamentally different than those of other persons. They are felt as somehow transcending the ordinary limits of human possibility. When we want to express this experience, we turn to narrative. We tell stories about their great deeds, how they defied sheriffs and governors and other hostile folk who sought to destroy them and their people. We speak with awe about King sitting in Birmingham jail, a prisoner of conscience, or Malcolm X's courage in breaking with the Nation of Islam in favour of a moderate orthodox form of his religion, one that he came to recognize more fully affirmed the humanity of all persons. We tell these stories, which find a complement in the resources of modern historiography and the social sciences to provide analytical depth.

But imagine if we didn't have those resources. Imagine if virtually all we had was cosmological myth, i.e. narratives that seek to explain the reality of an ordered cosmos, one in which the sun rises and sets everyday, in which every year days grew intermittently longer and shorter as seasons change and crops are sowed and harvested, one in which the moon travels around the earth twelves times in approximately the time it takes for the seasons to complete their annual cycle. And when such cosmological myths constitute our only real way of accounting for order, they also become how we account for social order. The state is imagined as being as much part of the cosmic order as anything else. The same gods operating within the rounds of the sun or the moon or the Nile are the gods operating through kings. How do we describe someone like a Martin Luther King, Jr., or a Malcolm X, who comes along and disrupts the social order? How does one talk about a man who defies a king when kings are immanently part of the cosmos?

The answer, of course, is simple: you use the imagery of cosmological myth. But of course you must do so in ways that subvert that imagery. Historically, sheriffs were seen as exemplars of law and order. The Martin Luther King, Jr., cycle subverts that, recasting sheriffs as the source of injustice and violence and the "criminal" MLK as the one restoring order through adherence to a higher law. Likewise Exodus recasts Pharaoh, the exemplar of ancient Egyptian law and order, and the murderer Moses, as respectively destroyer and restorer of just order. Pharaoh destroys just order when he subjugates the Israelites to slavery. Moses' story as an adult begins when he commits a murder and must flee, but the murderer returns to restore just order by leading the captives to freedom. Suddenly the story of the plagues makes perfect sense. How, in a world of cosmological myth, do you dramatize the disorder that has distorted Pharaonic reality but by showing how continued refusals to act justly cause the cosmos itself to turn against Egypt? The Mosaic birth narrative also now makes perfect sense. How, in a world of cosmological myth, do you dramatize the imminent restoration of just order better but by showing how the entire cosmos--natural and social--conspired to save the human agent of that restoration from the very injustices that he must later confront? And of course the man who restores just order must also be the one who delivers a just law, and indeed any departure from the Egyptian cosmos would have necessitated a new conceptual basis for social order. Moses as prodigy, Moses as plague-bearer, Moses as law-giver: this connection of symbolizations makes eminent sense as an effort to explain the unexpected, for in a world of cosmological myth one must account for the unexpected through cosmological myth. Moses was the unexpected.

All the above explanations disappear without a historical Moses. Without the experiential core of a historical Moses, the biblical accounts of the exodus simply become the senseless agglomeration of disparate mythical images from a myriad of sources. Of course, Moses has become mythologized, and that because there was no other imagery by which to communicate the experiences that his operations generated. When all you have is cosmological myth, you communicate by cosmological myth.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Exodus in Our Time, Pt. IV.

The previous three parts that I wrote upon the exodus have ended up garnering more attention than I expected, with people asking if I was intending to write any more on the matter. So, I thought I'd write an originally unplanned fourth part, focusing upon bringing out more explicitly the Lonerganian underpinnings of what went before.

The first of these underpinnings has to do with what it means to know. As noted previously, for Lonergan knowing is not like looking. The answers are not given in the data. Rather, one infers the answers from the data. One does this by first attending to the relevant data, which in our case would consist of the biblical accounts of the exodus, the place of Moses and the exodus in Israelite and subsequent tradition, our knowledge of slavery in New Kingdom Egypt, our knowledge of Late Bronze Age southern Canaanites, other ancient Near Eastern material such as that relating to the Hyksos, etc. Few people are specialists in all of this material (and in fact I'm a specialist in none of it), so one must generally rely upon the work of specialists in these different areas. That in turn demands a degree of trust in and thus goodwill towards others (and thus we see that the conversion to love that Lonergan describes as "religious conversion" is--while perhaps not strictly necessary for the historian to carry out her or his work--a significant boon, for love excludes the paranoia that undercuts the trust and goodwill necessary for successful historiography). Attending to these various data, one then strives to understand the ancient world. One considers the various explanations that one might offer for the totality of the data. Then, one considers the conditions that must be present in the data before one can affirm any given hypothesis. Insofar as those conditions are met, one can reasonably affirm the hypothesis, and insofar as those conditions are not met one cannot. Ideally by this point one finds that one and only one hypothesis satisfies all necessary conditions for its affirmation, but when one finds a plurality of such hypotheses one must take on the harder work of adjudicating between possibilities.

The second underpinning has to do with the notion of the level of our time, to which the title "Exodus in Our Time" alludes. This was a favourite phrase of Lonergan's, and has come in some senses to sum up the entirety of his project. The idea of the level of our time is built upon the recognition that insights lead to further insights and that this process extends trans-generationally in time. We today discover that A is true. This leads our successors to discover that B is the case. This leads their successors to discover that C is the case. Eventually, after hundreds or thousands of years Z is discovered to be the case, even though by this point Z might evince little to no obvious relation to A. Such is my argument regarding the world-historical significance of the exodus. I would argue that the insight into human dignity implicit in the phrase "Let my people go!" became the genesis of a long, extended, process of insight building upon insight that has eventuated in our modern understandings of human rights and freedoms (and presumably will continue to make its presence felt for some time yet to come; we, after all, are not the telos of history). No, the exodus is not predicated upon such modern understandings. No, such modern understandings are absent from the balance of the biblical corpus, Jewish and Christian (the writers of these texts were not, after all, moderns). But, absent the exodus and absent the experiences that generated and are transmitted by these scriptures, we would not have arrived at our modern understandings of human rights (or, if we did, the path getting here would have looked quite different).

There is a reason then that the phrase "Let my people go!" has such resonance with us. It represents an insight foundational to what we as a species are becoming. The historian's joyous privilege is to investigate more closely the origin and impact of this insight.