Thursday, 9 July 2015

Of Cynics and Criteria

One of my great blessings in life, although I did not fully realize or appreciate it at the time, was the opportunity to write a B.A. thesis under William Acres, one of the last students of the great Tudor historian, Geoffrey Elton. The thesis itself wasn't very good, through no fault of Bill's: I just didn't know how to write something on that scale (only forty pages or so, but when you'd never written anything longer than about twelve or so forty is a lot). But what I learned from Bill was invaluable. The one thing that he taught me that I still use everyday in my research is that coming up with the right question is more crucial than coming up with the right answer. This isn't any sort of hippy-dippy "the journey is more important than the destination" stuff. Rather, it's simply a recognition that whilst you can ask the right question and yet get the wrong answer if you ask the wrong question you have virtually precluded the possibility of a right answer. Answers can only be as good as the question that they address. Questions mal posées will almost invariably yield mauvaises réponses.

I've been thinking about this recently, with regards to historical Jesus studies. Part, perhaps most, of the difficulty in this sub-field of New Testament studies has been the tendency to ask questions mal posées. We typically ask "Did Jesus say or do A or B?" or "Was Jesus or B?" The problem with the first question is that it is virtually impossible to answer, at least as it has typically been formulated. The way that it has typically been formulated is to functionally assume that we do not know a priori any of Jesus's activities, and then one-by-one ask whether Jesus did this, or this, or this, or this, each "this" in isolation from each other. This is a quintessential example of what Lonergan describes as pre-scientific thinking, wherein one asks "What is the nature of A?" (i.e.: is X "authentic" or "inauthentic"?), rather than the properly scientific question "How does A relate to B, C, D...?" Asking about the nature of an account, whether it is "authentic" or otherwise, allows one to isolate each account as a datum abstracted from the data pool, and thus to skew the pool so ridiculously that the patently absurd (such as, "Jesus was a Jewish peasant Cynic") looks possible, even compelling. It should go without saying that the question "Was Jesus A or B?" falls victim equally to the charge of being other than scientific, seeking the nature of Jesus unrelated to any other entity (indeed, it is when one puts Jesus in relation to other entities, asking for instance, "How did Jesus relate to Jewish peasant Cynicism?," that one realizes the true poverty of the argument. One realizes immediately that there was no such thing as Jewish peasant Cynicism, and this for two reasons: there is no evidence of a Jewish Cynicism, and Cynicism was a thoroughly urban phenomenon. Thus one is asking "How does Jesus relate to this unattested phenomena?" If one can simultaneously construct from the data a reasonable account of how Jesus relates to, for instance, the well-attested Jewish prophetic tradition, then surely that account is to be preferred to one that seeks to relate Jesus to the unattested).

Such mischief results entirely from asking the wrong questions, in this case as a consequence of a sub-field that is just now becoming to make the transition to scientific thinking. This transition can be dated to the last decade. Whilst there were intimations of such thinking before this point (Ben Meyer being particularly notable, hence my interest in his work) it is really with James Dunn's Jesus Remembered that we see the transition really take hold at the centre of the discourse. Dunn and those who have followed in his wake are asking not "Did Jesus say or do A or B?" or "Was Jesus A or B?" but rather "How does the way that the emergent Christians represent Jesus relate to his operations?" Thus, one is not asking "Was Jesus someone who thought himself to be Messiah?" but rather "How does the fact that emergent Christian represented Jesus as Messiah relate to his operations?" When asked this way we see clearly that the statement "The emergent Christians represented Jesus as Messiah because they believed him to be Messiah" is in fact inadequate, and in fact a tautology. It simply defers the question, which can now be re-articulated as "How does the fact that the emergent Christians believed Jesus to be Messiah relate to his operations?"

So, let us test two hypotheses. The first is the aforementioned Jewish peasant Cynic hypothesis. To the question "How does the way that the emergent Christians represent Jesus relate to his operations?" it would have to give the answer "The emergent Christians represented Jesus as the Messiah despite the fact that he operated as a Jewish peasant Cynic rather than in a manner conducive to messianic interpretation." The second hypothesis to test against this would say "The emergent Christians represented Jesus as the Messiah because he operated in a manner conducive to messianic interpretation." Whilst both are logically possible they are not equal, as the latter exceeds the other significantly in terms in parsimony, a term recurrently misunderstood within the discipline of NT studies, for parsimony is not the principle that one should prefer the simplest hypothesis but rather that among otherwise equally plausible hypotheses one should prefer the one that supposes the fewest entities (your average conspiracy theory fails the test of parsimony, even though they are often quite simple, attributing everything to a shadowy group of conspirators, precisely because such shadowy groups usually are unnecessary to account for the phenomena under discussion); the Cynic hypothesis is less parsimonious not because it is not as simple, but rather because we must suppose the existence of an otherwise unattested Jewish peasant Cynicism, whilst the Messiah hypothesis can dispense with this entity entirely.

The point of the above is to demonstrate that often the primary difficulty in adjudicating between hypotheses is a result not of the data but of our questions. If the question "What is Jesus?" then, yes, in the abstract, the Cynic and the Messiah hypotheses seem like equally matched contenders. If the question is "How do emergent Christian representations of Jesus relate to Jesus's operations?" then we can rule out one of these hypotheses with very little thought.

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