Wednesday, 12 November 2014

The New Perspective on the Synagogue (also, my SBL paper)

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post on “Archaeology and Lonergan” one of the things for which I am profoundly grateful is my formative grounding in synagogue studies. I had the remarkable good fortune of studying under Anders Runesson, whose 2001 dissertation The Origins of the Synagogue constituted the first monograph-length study devoted wholly to synagogue origins since the 17th century. Although this book requires some updating in light of more recent discoveries it should be required reading for every New Testament scholar. Unfortunately, perhaps because it was published through Almquist and Wiksell (Stockholm), it is not as well-known as it ought to be. I would love in fact to see Anders produce an updated second edition with a better known publisher. His sourcebook on the synagogue, co-edited with Donald Binder and Birger Olsson, although also dated by more recent discoveries despite being all of seven years old, is equally indispensable, and needs in fact to be on every NT scholar’s shelf.

Anders’s work, and that of a host of other synagogue scholars (of whom the dean has long been Lee Levine), have fashioned over the last thirty years what we might call a “New Perspective on the ancient synagogue.” For instance, whereas one used to read confident assertions that the synagogue emerged during the Babylonian exile we know now this to be pure speculation. There is in fact no evidence to support this view; it’s an utter non-starter. Most relevant for my primary interest though, viz. historical Jesus scholarship, has helped establish beyond any reasonable doubt that, yes, there were synagogue buildings in the land before 70 C.E. In retrospect it is strange to think that this was ever in question. Yes, only relatively recently did we find archaeological remains of pre-70 synagogues. Even if I grant that the argument from silence allowed one previously to dispute the existence of synagogues, or perhaps more precisely synagogue buildings in the land pre-70 certainly that cannot any longer be case. In point of fact there was never any silence. We always had texts referring to synagogues in the land pre-70. And the moment that you have to tell me that the gospels and Josephus are all anachronistic in picturing synagogue buildings in the land pre-70 is the moment that I turn to more interesting discussions, perhaps those surrounding who will win the present season of Survivor (N.B.: I have not watched Survivor in fifteen years, so that contextualizes how interesting I would find even that discussion).

This of course is of great significance to my own work, and it would have been very difficult to carry out my doctoral work with a scholar less versed in synagogue studies than Anders. Too many discussions of the aposynagōgos passages (John 9:22, 12:42, 16:2, which contain the only NT uses of what is perhaps the Johannine neologism, aposynagōgos, or “out of the synagogue”) continue to ignore the New Perspective on the ancient synagogue. Once one develops any fluency with the New Perspective the confident assertion that it was simply impossible that one could be expelled from a synagogue pre-70 begin to look highly questionable. In fact, one begins to wonder what evidence supports this negative (and note that supporting a negative is always tricky business, for significant epistemic reasons). One soon realizes that the “evidence” for this assertion is not really evidence at all but really an argument from silence. Well, actually not an argument from silence, because the Johannine gospel is not silent on the matter, and it turns out that it too constitutes historical data. Rather it’s an argument from non-corroboration. And it is a fallacy.

I won’t go over why it’s a fallacy, as it suddenly occurred to me that this post is largely reproducing what I have already written to present next week at the SBL. So instead I’ll just give you a link to said SBL paper, if you are interested in reading more about my own take on the New Perspective on synagogue studies and its significance for historical Jesus and Johannine scholarship.

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