Saturday, 6 August 2016

History without People

My absolute favourite anthropologist remains Eric Wolf. I love his work. Just amazing. His magnum opus is usually considered to be Europe and the People without History (although it was his final work, Envisioning Power, in which he builds upon his experiences as a Holocaust survivor and an anthropologist to examine the culture of Nazi Germany, that really led me to fall in love with his scholarship). In People without History, his focus is upon those non-European peoples that Europeans encountered during their period of expansion from c. 1400, i.e. the people left out of standard accounts (still today, and all the more so in 1982, when he published the work), i.e. people without history (indeed, literally outside of our traditional historiography). It is a breath-taking work that really should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the world that we live in. That said, as I think about the historiography of early Christian studies I am struck by the extent to which we can play with the title of Wolf's book, and talk about New Testament studies and the history without people.

If you read histories of early Christianity, there seems to really be only one identifiable historical actor, namely Paul. We'll talk about what James, Peter, Barnabas, were doing, but generally speaking only insofar as it impugns upon Paul's life. And Paul alone is the one figure that is universally allowed to have written or even notably contributed to (some of) the works attributed to him. Admittedly, to a certain extent this is a consequence of the data: we have something resembling a biography of Paul from relatively early, whereas we have nothing comparable for other figures of the early post-Easter church, and his letters do contain more notably greater amounts of autobiographical data than we find in the Catholic Epistles. Still, it's not like we have zero data on other figures, and at times one is struck by the reticence to utilize that data: indeed, to even try to utilize that data.

The sterling example of such reticence in my mind is Peter. We have enough data from the gospels and Acts to think that Peter was a significant figure both in Jesus's lifetime and in the development of early Christianity. Prima facie, even if we had no explicit statements on the matter, we should reasonably anticipate that he was prominent in shaping the Jesus tradition. It's nice to find that anticipation confirmed via data that dates to within a century of Jesus's death and perhaps a half-century of Peter's, but frankly even without that data it would be a reasonable hypothesis. In fact, the opposite hypothesis, that this figure who was apparently prominent in both Jesus's life and the earliest decades of the Christian movement had little to no input into the shaping of the Jesus tradition, seems on the surface really quite unlikely. Yet for the most part, our models for the origins of the Jesus and gospel traditions have for the better part of a century ignored Peter as a highly probable historical actor.

Now, of course, at times it is appropriate to ignore named actors. Historical investigation occurs on multiple levels of abstraction, and only on some of those is appropriate to work with named actors. On some levels of abstraction it would in fact constitute an impediment to knowledge if we were to do so. That said, one can look at named actors on the level of basic history and at, say, the sort of social-historical concerns that gripped the form critics on another and which in large part require us to abstract from named actors (although the specific procedures and suppositions of form criticism are now largely obsolete, it does not vitiate in principle the prospects of producing a social history of early Christian knowledge, with a focus upon the Jesus tradition). These are complements, not opponents. But there can be no complementary relationship when one of the complements is ignored, as the concrete operation of named actors in the production of the Jesus tradition has been functionally ignored for much of the last century.

1 comment:

  1. My moniker for the form of Christianity that became dominant and produced the New Testament is Petro-Pauline, the joint leaders of full-inclusion-of-Gentiles Christianity. Unfortunately, as you say, we can only surmise his teaching, but its influence is clearly felt through Mark, and his is centrality is shown in all the gospels thereafter.