Friday, 26 September 2014

Probability and Criteria

What is the probability that on September 3, 1939, the German head of state, a man by the name of Hitler, would order the invasion of Poland, thus setting in motion the most destructive conflict in human history? It turns out, 100%, because this did happen. But that can only be known retrospectively, by consulting the data. If I were to ask this question on September 3, 1839, it would sound like science fiction (although, as a matter of pedantry, they did not have science fiction as we know the genre in 1839, which speaks really to how benighted the era truly was). I would be laughed at, told that there was no way to know this. And, unless I were a time traveler they'd be right.

This is why such talk of antecedent probability does not work in history. The probability that any given action will be carried out by any person on any given day is infinitesimally small. What we need is a way of thinking about things that can do with the fact that what was initially virtually a zero probability that on September 3, 1939, the German head of state, a man by the name of Hitler, would order the invasion of Poland, became in fact a 100% probably. The only way to do that is through what Lonergan calls emergent probability.

In emergent probability one recognizes that every action, every decision, creates new possibilities whilst closing off old ones. Hitler's birth significantly increased the possibility that he would take over the German state. His decision to become involved with the NSDAP increased it that much more, and his takeover of the party even more. The conditions put in place after Versailles increased the possibility that much more, and those conditions in turn were made possible by earlier occurrences. All this meant that by early September, 1939, a German invasion of Poland, by order of Adolf Hitler, and a consequent second world war, became a virtual certainty.

This has implications for our thinking about the criteria. In abstraction the chance that a guy named Jesus of Nazareth would have uttered a given phrase c. 30 C.E. somewhere in the Galilee or perhaps Jerusalem is actually quite low. That he was crucified in perhaps April of that year, on or around Passover, even lower. Jesus' life and death were what they were because of emergent probabilities. His choices, the choices of those around him, determined the course of his life, his ministry, his theology, his teaching. The criteria aim to think about what Jesus could or could not have done absent such a web of emergent probabilities.

What this means is that whilst it might seem embarrassing to us to claim that the founder of their movement was a crucified criminal it might not have seemed that way to the early Christians. In fact, the very fact that Paul makes so much out of the fact of the crucifixion suggests that this is the case. What we need to ask is what were the emergent probabilities that made crucifixion, in this particular case, not a sign of shame but a sign of glory. That Jesus actually was crucified almost certainly would occupy a significant place in such an account of emergent possibilities; the idea had to come from somewhere, and nothing seems a better candidate than the actual event. But it wouldn't be the beginning; that would be the decisions, Jesus's and others, that led to the cross. Nor would it be the end; that would be the still-ongoing doctrinal development related to the cross as something good to think with.

The crucifixion is just an example of course; there are all sorts of other matters related to Jesus's life that one might well consider. But it's 3 am and I'm only writing due to insomnia, so I'll not get into those. The point is, the criteria assume that they can know in an antecedent fashion what was and was not probable in Jesus's life, when in fact such antecedent knowledge is rendered impossible by the very nature of historical progression. If, as Christian Smith suggests, inerrancy makes the bible impossible, then the criteria do the same to historical knowledge.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

The Decline of Myth

I'm going to step a bit out of my wheelhouse here for a moment. I recently picked up a copy of Foreign Affairs, in which Francis Fukuyama discusses the current political struggles seemingly endemic to the American state. He argues that a major source of these struggles is populism that tends to neglect the role of relevant expertise. The valorization of the "every man" leads to people making decisions for which they might not have the requisite knowledge and experience.

I want to re-frame Fukuyama's argument in Lonerganian terms. What Fukuyama is talking about is what Lonergan calls general bias, i.e. the supposition that any and all problems can be solved by common sense, thus refusing to recognize that many problems must be met by special expertise. Thus decisions tend to be ill-informed. Lonergan cites general bias as the grounds for long-term decline. Ill-informed decisions lead to deteriorating situations, which in turn call for new decisions, which are in turn ill-informed, which in turn lead to deteriorating situations. Etc. That does seem to be a recurring problem right now. Democracy has many benefits, but global warming doesn't go away because it doesn't make sense to the populace.

Now, I don't want to single out the US as uniquely guilty in this regard, although it does seem to place an emphasis on populism generally foreign to other political cultures. We do see it here in Canada as well (can anyone say Mayor Rob Ford of Toronto? A train wreck sustained only by the worst possible expression of populism). I am only mentioning the American state because the article that sparked my thinking was about the American state. Neither am I saying that populism is a bad thing; it has it's place. But like many things some is good but too much can be deadly. It is possible to overdose on even the most beneficial of substances. And that seems to be where we are in much of our politics today.

Now here's where I step back into my wheelhouse. It strikes me that such things as Jesus-denial (i.e. mythicism) are symptoms of such general bias and thus of our ongoing decline. The amateur who perhaps read a couple books or maybe just a wiki entry on a matter supposes that she or he is as or even more knowledgeable than the person who spent years studying the matter formally and in many cases years or decades teaching others the same. It is absurd on the face of it. And worse: such persons do not even realize how absurd it is. And it's absurd whether it is Jesus-denial, or evolution-denial, or any other quackery. Now we have Ebola-denial, and aid workers being attacked; but it's just another example of the same tendency to distrust experts. Such is our culture, and it's a culture in decline. It is a culture in decline because it no longer truly respects the reality and indeed benefits of specialization of knowledge, that no one person can be equally proficient at all things and that consequently the aim is to become as proficient in one's field as possible whilst cultivating the capacity to listen to people in other fields. In short, we are too busy talking to listen, arguing to understand.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Consensus and Quackery

Often we hear words like "consensus," "majority," etc., thrown around, without stopping to think about them. What exactly do we mean by the words. They of course are purely heuristic, ways of describing the current state of play in the discipline. For whomever is interested, I thought I'd put out there what I mean when I such words.

Consensus: virtually all scholars in the field affirm a given proposition, to the point that the statement "Person X is a scholar in field Y" is virtually synonymous with the statement "Person X believes that Z is the case." In other words, the percentage of persons in the field holding this opinion is virtually 100%, statistically negligible numbers rejecting the opinion notwithstanding (in other words, the fact that two NT scholars have said they think Jesus did not exist does not obviate the fact that this is a consensus). That Jesus existed and was Jewish is an example of such a consensus, as is the supposition that the Synoptic Gospels are genetically related to one another in some fashion.

Majority: more than 50% of scholars in the field would affirm a given proposition. That Mark's Gospel was the first written and was used by both Matthew and Luke no doubt falls into this category.

Minority: less than 50% of scholars would affirm a given proposition. That Matthew and Luke also used a second text, designated Q, probably now falls into this category (cf. the recent poll on The Historical Jesus Blog), as does the leading contender, that Luke used Matthew's Gospel and both used Mark's.

Dominant: more scholars would affirm this proposition than any mutually exclusive proposition. By the above definition this would be the case with any majority opinion, such that when I use the word "majority" I necessarily imply "dominant." This category becomes important when considering positions wherein there is no majority but rather only minority positions. The poll to which I referred above suggested that 45% of scholars still hold to Two-Document Hypothesis, or Markan Priority with Q. Let's suggest that of the 55% who reported that they did not 35% hold to the leading contender, Markan Priority without Q, and the other 20% to a variety of other solutions to the Synoptic Problem. We would then say that whilst Q is the dominant view, but not a majority one.

Marginal: a proposition affirmed by a handful of scholars, but which is nonetheless within the realm of respectable scholarship. An example from the study of the Synoptic Problem might be the Augustinian Hypothesis. It has been advocated by a number of scholars who are certainly not cranks, but at any given time the number of proponents probably barely breaks 1% of scholars, if even that many.

Idiosyncratic but respectable: a proposition affirmed by just one, or at most a statistically negligible number of scholars, yet which is sufficiently warranted by the data that it cannot be simply dismissed as quackery. An example might be the arguments in J.A.T. Robinson's Redating the New Testament. For those unfamiliar with his work, Robinson (by no means a conservative) argued that the entirety of the New Testament dates to before 70 C.E. Few have followed him on this. Yet Robinson advances sufficiently robust argument that one who disagrees must bring equally robust counter-arguments.

Quackery: a proposition affirmed by no or at most a statistically negligible number of scholars, and which is so inadequately warranted by the data that it can be dismissed. Jesus's non-existence solidly falls into this category, as does creationism in biology. This has to do ultimately with the robusticity of the argumentation. Whereas idiosyncratic but respectable propositions are supported by robust arguments that fail to persuade many qualified experts, quackery is supported by utterly non-robust arguments. As such the one critiquing quackery need only bring non-robust counter-arguments to bear. Put more colloquially, the idiosyncratic but respectable position requires the critic to bring her or his A-game, whereas the same critic can bring the D-game and still prevail over quackery.

The above are just heuristics, of course, and can be played with as necessary. I simply put them out there for anyone who might find such things helpful.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Myth and Method

I just read an old post on James McGrath's blog, in which he writes about Richard Carrier's Proving History that
[B]y the time I had finished reading, I felt like I had already read two very different books. The other reads like a case study in what happens when someone ignores their own sound methodological advice in practice when turning their attention to the figure of Jesus, an exercise which has led even some of the brightest minds in history to write some absolute nonsense, and many more to write things that were merely unpersuasive. I have read many other books where the same criticism could be made that I will here make of Carrier: the methodology is brilliant but the application is problematic.
Now, I want to be clear: I'm not writing in critique of Carrier here, although I have come to the firm conclusion that he and the rest of the Mythicist Mafia need to be filed under  "C" for "Cranks." Baffling appeals to Bayesian theorem and irrelevant parallels in world mythology don't change but ground that conclusion. I am writing because James' comment is really a brilliant observation about historical Jesus studies. And, as I am wont to do, I will articulate what I think to be the significance of that observation by reference to Bernard Lonergan.

Bernard Lonergan's genius rested in the fact that, when he produced his first magnum opus, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, he did not set out to answer the question "How should we go about understanding?" but rather "How do we go about understanding?" His method was simple: he took a look at how people actually, really, go about the work of knowing, then schematized what he observed, then spent seven-hundred pages articulating that schematization and considering its implications. His reasoning, indubitable in my mind, is that we already go about knowing, and insofar as we are at times successful in that process we already in fact know how to know; so what we need to do is to learn how to do what we already do better and more consistently. Put in other words, the method of knowing is known by observing and reflecting upon the work of knowing, and such observation and reflection helps us do that work better.

What James has flagged brilliantly is the danger that occurs when one reverses the priority, thinking about method antecedent to the work of knowing. I'm not saying of course that one cannot think about method before one engages in a particular act of knowing; the relationship, as outlined above, is precisely dynamic, with the work of knowing informing our method of knowing informing our work of knowing. So reflections upon method can come before particular instances of knowing. But to the extent that these methods lay out a "We should" divorced from "We do," well, those methods will be castles in the sky. And this leads to what Meyer likes to call "self-reversal."

Self-reversal occurs when one "labouriously theorizes in one direction but spontaneously operates in another." I say that in studying the historical Jesus I should do X and not-Y, but in fact I end up doing Y and not-X. A gap emerges between methodology (i.e. the talk about method) and actual method. The cure for this is already outlined above: know what it is to know, and then one's acts of knowing will work much more smoothly. The gap between methodology and method is almost invariably a result of methodological discussions that are completely removed from any account of how we actually go about the work of knowing.

And offering such an account lies at the heart of Lonergan's project, and that's why I think his project one that can greatly inform our work as historical Jesus scholars.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The First Word

Full confession: I come from fundamentalist stock. Whilst my paternal grandfather was Catholic and my maternal grandmother Anglican, and whilst I now identify more with those traditions, I was raised in the Protestant fundamentalism preferred by my mother's family. And with that sort of fundamentalism comes inerrancy, often stated as the first line in such churches's statements of faith, before even God.

Protestant fundamentalism, as most people who might read this blog post are probably aware, supposes that the bible is God's final word on all matters of doctrine and practice. The bible says homosexuality is bad? Well, then, by golly gee wow, homosexuality is bad. Before that the bible was used to say that women should stay quiet in church (indeed, in the church in which I was raised it was a matter of debate whether women could even sing during services, lest scripture be violated). The bible was also used to support bans against interracial relationships and to justify slavery. Inerrancy has a problematic track record.

Now, of course, the clever inerrantist will object that such thinking on women, interracial relationships, and slavery represent misreadings on scripture. But here the inerrantist reveals her or his self to perhaps not be as clever as she or he would like to think, for almost invariably in the next sentence she or he will then assure us that what the bible says on homosexuality cannot possibly be a misreading, with the same confident vehemence that past generations held on their views on women, "race-mixing," and slavery. Few is the inerrantist who will admit that perhaps their own reading is as susceptible to error as these readers. It begins to appears as if what is inerrant is not so much scripture as the inerrantists' proclamations thereupon.

The problem lies not simply in how scriptures are being read but in how it is thought to function in church and Christian life. The entire premise is that if the scriptures are to be authoritative they must be the last word. They must be what settles the discussion, once and for all. Yet revisions of what scripture means to the faith community demonstrate that they do not settle discussions once and for all. So, let me offer a bold suggestion: the scriptures are authoritative not because they contain the last words for faith and practice but because they contain the first. They initiate the discussion, and as such they establish certain ways of thinking that will forever guide the discussion, but they are not a law book or criminal code that lays out in codified form all that one should do and think.

Under such an understanding Christian thought would look to the scriptures not so much for answers but for questions. And the Christian who looks at the scriptures thus will discover that a oddly-shaped question mark: not a squiggle and a dot, but rather a cross, for the cross is the punctuation mark next to any and all Christian reasoning. Not the cross as a metaphysical concept of atonement, etc., but rather the sign of a broken body, of the weak trampled by the strong. Christianity's bold proclamation is that God sides not with the great and powerful but with the lowly and weak, and that those who are murdered will in the fullness of time be vindicated over those who killed them. Christianity's bold claim is that the meek will inherit the Earth: not heaven, not metaphorically, but this world, this one in which we live. It is, Paul says, foolishness to those who do not believe, but it is to those who belief the sign of history in the making. It is the first word of Christianity, and calls in question every effort to give the final words.

This then becomes a way of thinking about history. Not of history in the more superficial albeit essential sense, of the what actually happened, but in the deeper and more excellent sense, of the what does it mean. At the risk of sounding supersessionist (which is definitely not my intent, as that would violate the principle of siding with the persecuted over the persecutors), I would suggest that this preferential option for the weak (which of course includes a preferential option for the poor) is found already in the Tanakh/Old Testament. It is a well-known feature of the T/OT that God prefers the younger brother over the older, the disenfranchised over the franchised. God chooses for God's own people not a great empire but a people that is no people and that has no land. God's laws provide for the stranger in the midst of that people, for the care of the poor, etc. The prophets and the psalms regularly talking about God lifting up the vanquished and laying low the conqueror.

This continues to this day. We revere those killed in the Holocaust whilst reviling those who killed them. The tyrant is revealed as nothing more than a bully, his victims as long-suffering exemplars of what it means to be human. There is a Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, but no George Wallace Day. The great people of history, the ones that we really remember, are not the kings and conquerors, but the ones who died in the name of humanity. They are the martyrs, the witnesses to this alien logic, to this first word, the word that says that in the end not power but goodness triumph.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Virtual Unreason

US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recently made headlines with his arguments that women's use of the f-word is one of the great social ills of our time and there are intelligent reasons to discriminate against women. I could spend quite some time dissecting his reasoning, such as it is, on these matters, but I was more struck by a little slip of the tongue barely in the article. Scalia is quoted as having said that "there really is no, virtually no, intelligent reason to treat people differently on the basis of their skin." I want to rewrite that sentence, with emphasis added to demonstrate what I find so interesting: "there really is no, virtually no, intelligent reason to treat people differently on the basis of their skin."

Now, "no" and "virtually no" are not quite the same thing. "No intelligent reason" would mean that there is, well, no intelligent reason. "Virtually no intelligent reason" would mean that there is intelligent reason, just not very many. So which is, Justice Scalia? No reason, or some reason, to discriminate on the basis of their skin? The difference between "No" and "Some," between X and not-X, is not inconsequential.

Scalia is right about one thing: at stake here is precisely reason. If we think about Lonergan's four-fold imperative--Be Attentive, Be Intelligent, Be Reasonable, Be Responsible--it goes without saying that sexual and racial discrimination are irresponsible, and thus it is quite appropriate to frame the matters in a moral dimension. But they are irresponsible precisely because they are unreasonable. If we lived in a world wherein women and men really did have vastly different capabilities, such that either was genuinely incapable of performing certain tasks, then things might be different; likewise what skin colour. But of course we do not live in such a world. Of course I'm not talking about basic realities surrounding the reproductive process: at this point only men are capable of fathering a child and women of bearing one to term. Policies designed to take these realities into account--such as paid and protected maternity leave, although of course paid and protected paternity leave is also a good thing--are not discriminatory but simply aim to take into account that reproduction is generally speaking a physically more taxing process for women than men. Such policies can be quite responsible, precisely because they are grounded in reason. They are a world away from barring women from certain professions or shooting unarmed teenagers simply because they have relatively high levels of melanin in their skin.

Fundamentally the problem is that Scalia is not speaking from a commitment to reason. Rather he's speaking from a commitment to ideology, which Lonergan defines as the effort to justify a recurrent failure to be attentive, intelligent, reasonable, or responsible. There is a simple test to see if we're dealing with ideology or reason. Ask Scalia whether there is reason to discriminate against persons of Italian descent. See the response. One suspects that the answer will be no reason, not virtually no reason. And he'd be right, but it'd lead to the question why is there is only virtually no reason to discriminate against persons of African descent.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Draft-Dodgers: The Analysis

So, I've been thinking about some further observation I can make regarding the content of my recent post on "Canadian Draft-Dodgers and the Historical Jesus," and I'll add them here.

The most significant point to be made regards a distinction historical judgment and historical explanation. When I found the two documents to which I referred (a 1917 US draft registration card filled out by an Albert Bernier in Waterbury, Conn., and a 1921 Canadian census form detailing the household of an Albert Bernier) and determined that this Albert Bernier was most likely my great-grandfather I made a historical judgment. When I from that observed that this data together indicated that he was in Waterbury, Conn., from no earlier than 1917 until no later than 1920, that two was historical judgment. They had not yet risen to the level of explanation, as they tell me nothing about my great-grandfather's motivations in first moving from Québec to Waterbury, and then back again. Explanation only occurred when I suggested that he was, like many Québécois, concerned about being drafted into World War I army (which Canada entered in 1914) and thus moved to Connecticut to avoid this possibility; and that then, not long after the war was over, he returned to Québec.

There is an interesting parallel here with historical Jesus studies. So much of historical Jesus has been fixated upon determining what Jesus said or did. This was of course the origin of the criteria. This however was to focus attention upon historical judgment rather than explanation. It moreover asked the wrong question with regards to judgment. It sets out to ask "Did Jesus do or say this thing attributed to him in the gospels?", but that only works as a question if one supposes that what we have in the gospels are a miscellany of potential events, and that the work of historical judgment is to determine which potential events were in fact actual. That is just silliness of course, as the gospels are not a miscellany of events.

This leads to a second observation. Historical investigation proceeds not from data but rather from questions. Well, that requires some qualification. The questions that we ask of course usually rise out of our observation of the data. But it becomes investigation proper when we articulate a clear question, the answer to which we seek by inferences drawn from consulting the data. An example. I note that both Matthew and Luke contain accounts of Jesus' conception, in which it is said that although his mother became pregnant with him prior to her marriage to his putative father, that's okay because it was the Holy Spirit who got her in a family way. I ask myself, "Why do they contain these accounts?" Historical investigation begins. I note that whilst Matthew links this with Isaiah 7:14, the prophecy that a virgin will conceive (that this might be a misreading of Isaiah is quite beside the point for my present purposes), Luke makes no such linkage. He sets out to show that Mary was a faithful servant of the Lord and seems to be linking up the virgin birth with HB themes around miraculous conception. Now, it seems to me that the very fact that he makes different doctrinal points than Matthew suggests that the two evangelists are not in the first instance motivated by doctrinal concerns; rather, it strikes me that each has learned something about Jesus that they have sought to situate within an appropriate theological perspective.

Now, what is that thing that they have learned? Most basically, it seems probable that they have learned that there are questions about Jesus' paternity, questions that would on the one hand potentially invalidate the claim to Davidic lineage and on the other potentially impugn Mary's reputation. What is striking about both accounts is that neither denies that Joseph did not father Jesus. That would be the easy thing to do. It's at this point decades after Jesus was born, so it would not have been hard for them to say "What are you talking about? They were married when Jesus was conceived." Rather, each presents an account that will redeem Mary's reputation, transforming her from a loose woman to a God-bearer. Each further introduces material that will nonetheless salvage Jesus' Davidic claim, presenting him as Joseph's son-by-adoption, and thus his legitimate heir. Again though it is striking: why not simply say that Jesus was Joseph's actual son, thus avoiding this problem? As I have argued, the doctrinal commitments to the virgin birth seem intended to account for the fact that Jesus was indeed not Joseph's son; that is, the issue of his paternity is antecedent to rather than derivative of these doctrinal commitments. Thus there should have been no doctrinal impediment to simply denying that Jesus was anyone other than Joseph's legitimate son.

So I am driven to a conclusion: such denials were not tenable at the time that Matthew and Luke were writing. This to say, the questions regarding Jesus' paternity were not easily answered by reference to his human parentage. I thus am led to the conclusion that they were writing at a time and in a context wherein there were persons around who were hostile to Christian claims about Jesus' messianic status and had a strong argument against the notion that Joseph was his father. It is possible also that there were questions about Joseph's Davidic descent: hence the genealogies. From this I am further inclined to think that Jesus really was conceived out of wedlock, and perhaps not actually Joseph's biological son; if I am indeed correct to think that not only Matthew and Luke but also their hypothetical and hostile interlocutors acknowledged this to be the case then it is not unreasonable to think that they were collectively not mistaken on the matter.

But again: the interesting thing about this is that I have no source telling me that such doubts were current at the time that Matthew and Luke were writing, nor that they were thought to be credible. I have rather inferred that from the data. And nary a criteria to be found.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Community and Diversity

One thing that never ceases to amaze me is the quantity and quality of scholarship that Ben Meyer produced in the last decade of his life, a period during which he was struggling with extended and ultimately terminal illness. And one thing that never ceases to sadden me is the thought of what might have been, i.e. what might Dr. Meyer have yet contributed, had he the time and energy to do so. In an article published in the latter half of that decade and collected in the volume Christus Faber Meyer makes a series of suggestions that, if built upon, have the potential to greatly transform our vision of early Christianity. In a paragraph that should be required reading for all biblical scholars, not just of the NT persuasion, Meyer writes that
The contrary of unity is not diversity but division, just as the contrary of diversity is not unity but uniformity. Unity and division, like uniformity and diversity, were reciprocally exclusive, but there was nothing to prevent unity from coexisting with diversity--and in retrospect one might even say (indeed, should say) that, if unity was an imperative grounded in the gospel itself, diversity was a concrete human, existential, personal and cultural condition of this unity.
Now, whilst I do take issue with Meyer's failure to observe the Oxford comma, nonetheless this is remarkably brilliant. It is one of the best, most powerful, kinds of brilliance: a set of simple heuristic distinctions that clarify concepts too often conflated. Unity refers to a single set, whereas division refers to a multiplicity of sets; diversity refers to a multiplicity of non-identical members of a set, whereas uniformity refers to a multiplicity of identical members of one or more sets.

Let us think about this in relation to recent and current debates surrounding the ontic status of gospel communities. Theories regarding such communities developed in part to account for the diversity among early Christianity communities. The problem is that, using the heuristics introduced above, this is not really what they do. Rather, they posit the existence of an early Christianity that is divided into more or less doctrinally uniform communities. There is a Matthean community that is divided from a Markan community that is divided from a Lukan, a Johannine, and Thomasine. Even if some diversity is acknowledged within the community it is highly circumscribed: different keys of Matthean Christianity might exist in the same community but surely not Matthean and Johannine Christianity.

The difficulty with this picture is that it does not quite line up with what we see in the data, most notably but not exclusively those found in the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline letters. The first Christian community, i.e. that gathered in Jerusalem before even Paul's conversion, is presented not as uniform but as diverse, yet despite this diversity united. In fact, this unity is a necessary condition for the diversity, for if diversity is difference among members of a singular set then we must be dealing with a singular set. Likewise Paul's discussion of "Petrine" Christians and "Pauline" Christians, out of which Baur built so much so tenuously, indicates a distinction not between Christian communities but rather within Christian communities; so too his discussions of class distinctions, gender distinctions, etc.

Insofar as we can talk at all about distinctively "Matthean" or "Markan" or "Lukan" or "Johannine" or "Thomasine" communities I am not clear why we should expect that they would be much different. Rather than divided, more or less uniform, communities (which despite this division somehow still circulated among themselves enough of their textual products as to generate the Synoptic Problem) we have a united, diverse, Christianity present in multiple locations throughout the Mediterranean and probably points east. Rather than merely local variants we have a more a complex picture of local instantiations of trans-local tendencies. Now, of course, there might well be regional variation, as Bauer aimed to show in Orthodoxy and Heresy, albeit with mixed results due to a number of conceptual and methodological albatrosses, but that would have to be studied on a case-by-case basis, from what we know about particular regions (cf. Lampe's impressive study of Christianity in Rome, or Tom Robinson's of Christianity in Antioch, or Paul Trebilco's of Christianity in Ephesus).

The interesting thing that comes out of this is that, despite initial rhetoric to the contrary, Bauckham's critique of the gospel community paradigm does not lead to a more homogeneous Christianity but rather a more genuinely diverse one, for instead of islands of homogeneity we would have a sea of heterogeneity. And that seems a much more interesting and in fact realistic picture of earliest Christianity.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Canadian Draft-dodgers and the Historical Jesus

R.G. Collingwood, by whose philosophy of history Lonergan was greatly influenced, talks about something that he calls the historical imagination. The historical imagination functions not by taking ready-made statements found in sources and asking whether they happened or not. That's classic scissors-and-paste history, which Collingwood argues is not history at all. Ready it proceeds via inference, taking the sources as data. Let us illustrate via an instance from my family history.

I have a 1921 Canadian census record for the household of an Albert Bernier, age 36, living in Sherbrooke, Québec. I am confident that this is my great-grandfather. Why is that? Several pieces of information come together. I know through family oral tradition that my great-grandfather was named Albert Bernier. I know that my great-grandmother, his wife, was named Adelina. I know that my grandfather, his son, grew up in the Sherbrooke area. I know that my grandfather was born in 1922 and had three older siblings. I know their names: Elizabeth, Joseph, and Jean. I know that Elizabeth and Joseph were born in Waterbury, Connecticut, when my great-grandparents were residing there. I know further that my great-grandparents were from Québec, and only sojourned temporarily in Waterbury. So what I have in the census document is an Albert Bernier, living in Sherbrooke, with three children, Elizabeth, Joseph, and Jean, ages 3, 2, and 5 months; it tells me that he and his wife, Adelina, were born in Québec; it tells me further that Elizabeth and Joseph were born in the US but Jean in Québec; it fits. I could be mistaken, but there would have to be a lot of coincidences.

I have another document. It's a US draft registration form for an Albert Bernier, filled out in 1917--the year the US entered the First World War. It was filled out in Waterbury, Ct. It has him listed as age 32, the age my great-grandfather would have been if he was 36 in 1921. It indicates that he is married without children, like my great-grandfather would have been if his eldest child was three in 1921. It states that he is an alien from Québec. Quite probable, I think, that this is the same man.

Now, put it together this means that my great-grandfather was resident in the US in 1917 and still in 1919, when his second child was born. Between 1919 and the birth of his third child in 1921 he returned to Québec. Here is where my imagination really kicks in, although I've already in fact been using said faculty to make these connections between family oral tradition and these two documents. But now I ask the most important question: Why? Why did my great-grandparents move to Waterbury by 1917, and why did they move back in around 1920? I turn to the history of Québec and come up with a possible answer. The First World War, which Canada entered in 1914, was a deeply divisive war in French Canada. Many Québécois felt that it wasn't their fight and had little interest in joining up. As conscription became first a possibility and then a reality, many Québécois took steps to avoid being drafted. Since the US did not enter the war until 1917, I hypothesize the following: that my great-grandfather and his wife moved to Waterbury, Connecticut, where there was already a sizable Québécois population dating back to the 19th-century, in order to avoid the possibility of conscription. Then, when the US entered the war, with conscription a reality in both the US and Canada, he ended up having to register anyways. He was something that seems quite odd, in light of more recent experiences: a Canadian who moved to the US in order to dodge the draft.

This also helps explain another interesting bit of family history. When my grandfather joined up within days of Canada declaring war on Germany in 1939, his parents did not approve. This caused a deep rift with his family, one that never fully healed. It was only deepened when he decided to service out a career in Canada's post-war army, staying in the service until 1967. This rift makes perfect sense if his father had taken significant steps to avoid service in World War I. These were people who didn't like the idea of going to war.

At this point it is just a hypothesis. I would have to do more digging to confirm that this is what happened. But it does fit the data. It coheres remarkably well. It has explanatory power, pulling together a number of threads of my family's history that otherwise I find somewhat inexplicable. And what is interesting, from the perspective of a historical Jesus scholar, is that I have not a single source that says that my great-grandfather was a draft-dodger. It just all comes together to form a reasonable portrait, one developed with criteria or the like. Just simple old detective work. And really, I'm not sure why the study of early Christianity would be in principle any different.

Monday, 1 September 2014

A short quiz

I would like to describe to you a discourse that I sometimes hear on the interweb. It has the following features.

1) It is dominated by people without training or expertise in the matter under discussion.
2) When people with training or expertise in the matter under discussion observe that what is being said is highly problematic those without training or expertise in the matter under discussion invariably act as if they have better knowledge on the matter under discussion.
3) Every statement made by those without training or expertise on the matter merely confirms to those with such training and expertise that in point of fact these persons without training or expertise on the matter are ignorant and clueless of the matter.
4) The conviction that their untrained ignorant exceeds trained knowledge is a sure sign of hubris, and has potential to contribute to disastrous policy decisions when it comes to what should be taught in schools. As such all who care about quality of education should be concerned with this discourse.

Now, I am going to list a number of discourses, and will ask you to identify which is the one of which I speak.

A) Young-earth creationism.
B) Jesus-mythicism.
C) 9/11 Trutherism.
D) Holocaust denialism.
E) All of the above.

If you answered "E," you pass!