Sunday, 14 December 2014

Your construction is too small

Whatever else might be the case the advocates of social memory theory are to be commended for making abundantly clear that the Jesus tradition is always already constructed by human agents. This is where we seem to stand now in Jesus studies: with the full recognition of this reality. Our current struggle seems to consist of discovering how, if all the tradition is constructed, can it be the case that we can ever learn anything about the historical Jesus from the Jesus tradition. Let us think this problem through via deeper engagement with the implications of constructionist theory.
 
Let us begin with that most basic articulation of a thorough-going constructionism:
 
All statements are constructed by human agents.
 
Surely any work in the human sciences and of course any critical hermeneutics must affirm this statement to be true. This must be the case, unless affirms either that statements somehow magically appear fully-formed or that whilst constructed there are no humans involved: both affirmations of course entailing some affirmation of the mystical, whether it is the work of the Holy Spirit or some vaguely defined cultural or social apparatus that somehow operates independent of the human agents of culture and society.
 
Having affirmed the above articulation let us consider certain corollaries of this affirmation. If the statement “All statements are constructed by human agents” is affirmed as true then it must be the case that the statement “All statements are constructed by human agents” must have been constructed by human agents. The opposite conclusion would require the judgment that at most some but definitely not all statements are constructed; but this would be to deny that which we initially affirmed and thus lapse back into mystical. Now, if we affirm as true the statement that “The statement ‘All statements are constructed by human agents’ is necessarily constructed by human agents” then we must also affirm that “Some statements that are constructed by human agents are true,” or, since we have already affirmed the statement “All statements are constructed by human agents” we can eliminate redundancy and affirm that “Some statements are true.”
 
This has clear consequences for certain rhetoric current in historical Jesus studies. Consequent to the work of social memory theorists a number of scholars have revived the radical skepticism associated most (in)famously with Rudolf Bultmann, at least one going as far as to publicly declare a New No Quest. The argument is functionally that since the Jesus tradition is always already constructed (such construction coded in terms of “memory”) then we can know little if anything about Jesus. The most radical form of such lines of argumentation terminates in mythicism, that school of thought made up mostly by internet trolls and a handful of published writers (only one with primary expertise in New Testament) that argue that Jesus never existed (of course it needs to be said that the “New No Questers” do not go this far, although one wonders how an affirmation of Jesus’s historical existence sits with their skepticism with regard to historical knowing).
 
Now, please, do not misunderstand me. I am not making a plea for returning to an obsolete historiography wherein we go through the sources asking which propositional statement is true (coded as “authentic”) and which is false. The point that I want to make here is that the statement “The Jesus tradition is constructed” is not ipso facto identical with “The Jesus tradition is without utility for the work of historical investigation.” It simply means that historical investigation must take into account the constructed character of the data. The gospels and other relevant material in fact do not consist of historical claims at all, not in the sense that the (post)(post)modern historian understands “historical claims.” Our judgments regarding truth or falsity regarding history are thus not rendered directly on the material to be found in the gospels or other relevant material but rather hypotheses that seek to make sense of that material. Exactly how to formulate and then judge such hypotheses is of course another matter (actually, two matters) upon which could write volumes; and in fact I am writing one, so I suppose I’ll stop here.

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