Saturday, 20 May 2017

Baal and YHWH

The richest thinkers will typically makes observations in passing that could be developing into entire monographs or even entire research programs. Bernard Lonergan was such a thinker, and so was Ben F. Meyer. On pp. 188-189 of his under-read and under-appreciated monograph, The Early Christians (which I maintain is even better than his more famous Aims of Jesus; written the better part of a decade later, EC represents that many additional years of reflection upon Christian origins), Meyer makes a series of observations about the nature of ancient Israelite religion that I increasingly feel need revisiting. Now, in saying that, and in the interests of appropriate humility, I must be clear: ancient Israelite religion is not my primary area of expertise. But cognizant of the difference between thinking about a matter and claiming to be an expert therein, I will risk a foray into that field.

Meyer discusses ancient Israelite religion almost in passing, as part of his larger discussion of the nature of syncretism. Syncretism, for those who do not know the term, refers to the practice of appropriating religious practices or beliefs foreign to one's own religion. Meyer distinguishes between weak syncretism and strong syncretism. Weak syncretism he describes as religious traditions that have a strong identity in their own right, such that any appropriations from other traditions are predominantly formal: they are taken over in order to better articulate the tradition's fundamental understandings. Strong syncretism he describes as occurring as religious traditions that lack such a strong identity, such that appropriations from other traditions will tend to be matters of substance. So, weak syncretism in ancient Israel would entail appropriating the imagery associated with Baal in order to describe YHWH, but making clear that Baal is not YHWH; strong syncretism would entail not only appropriating the imagery associated with Baal in order to describe YHWH, but also identifying Baal and YHWH as the same being.

I would prefer to describe this not in terms of strong and weak identities, but rather in terms of reducibility of being. The question at stake is whether the being in question can be reduced to another (yes, I know that classical theology would potentially raise technical objections to talking about YHWH as a "being," but I use the term in a more colloquial sense here, so please bear with me). In ancient Greco-Roman religion, various gods of the ancient world were interchangeable. If a god of another people's pantheon had functions analogous to those of a Greek or Roman god, they were thought to be the same being. In the Hinduism of the Brahmins, all the gods ultimately are reducible to Brahma. But for the pattern of ancient Canaanite religion that began to emerge in ancient Israel and in the fullness of time eventuated in ancient Jewish monotheism, Baal and YHWH were not so reducible. There was no divine reality more basic than YHWH. Indeed, as creator, YHWH was in a very real sense the ultimate horizon of being. Moreover, Baal could not be reduced to YHWH, because YHWH was defined not simply as Being but as a person, and thus insofar as Baal was another (perhaps real, perhaps fictive: here is the distinction between henotheism and monotheism) person they could no more be identified with one another than any two given human persons. And consequent to the above, the worship of YHWH could entail appropriation of all sorts of imagery used in the worship of Baal, but never in a such a way that YHWH became identified with Baal.

Of course, this understanding of YHWH took centuries to develop, and it was not without conflict. Nonetheless, there is a significant methodological point to be gleaned from all this, namely that it is insufficient to simply note "parallels" between religious traditions. One must also show what is happening with these parallels. This is the problem with such gobbledlygook as mythicism. Even if we granted all the parallels between Jesus and various mythological figures that their asinine memes and vacuous apologists trot out (most of these "parallels" of course tend to be vitiated by profound errors of fact), it would tell us next to nothing. What matters is not simply the existence of comparable material, but its significance. What were the New Testament and post-apostolic writers doing with this material? And no simple listing of putative parallels can tell us that. Rather, that demands the patient, hard work of slugging through the details, a task that meme culture is ill-equipped to carry out.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

James and John

I've been reading through the second edition of Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. He has an extended chapter on the names of the Twelve, and I was struck by something in the lists as given in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts. But before I get to that, some initial observations. In each of these texts, there is a list of the Twelve. The lists are remarkably stable. Eleven out of twelve names recur in all four, vitiating greatly the argument that by the time the Gospels were written the number "twelve" was fixed while the exact names were highly fluid. Moreover, the one is divided between Mark/Matthew (which refer to Thaddeus) and Luke/Acts (which refer to Judas, son of James), and thus--given the common authorship of Luke and Acts--we actually have only one author varying from two. Add in the very cogent argument that Thaddeus and Judas are in fact the same man and you've got a remarkably stable list. The order varies, but even that is limited. As Bauckham notes, each list is divided into three groups of four, and each group has the same four names (with Judas of James taking the place of Thaddeus in the Luke-Acts lists). Moreover, each of the three groups is in each list headed by the same name. This reeks of intentional mnemonic devices, designed to greatly facilitate one's ability to remember the list.

What interests me more than all that however is the handling of the sons of Zebedee. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, James, son of Zebedee, always comes before his brother, John. In Matthew and Mark, John is referred to as James' brother, and no familial relationship is mentioned at all in either Luke or Acts. It has been suggested to me in personal communication that this order might well reflect a reality that James was the elder brother, and that is altogether possible. Nonetheless, this is quite the interesting phenomenon, because John in fact is the one who was more prominent in the Christian tradition by at least the second century, if not earlier. All indications are that in short order there was more energy invested in remembering John than in remembering James. That is perhaps because James died in 41 or 42, during the Agrippan persecution (cf. Acts 12), whereas Paul would later describe John as one of the "pillars" in Jerusalem (cf. Gal. 2). John's connection with the Gospel of John--real or fictive--would no doubt have also contributed significantly to his prominence. Yet, Matthew and Mark explicitly refer to John not in his own right but by reference to his brother, while Luke refers to James before John.

But here's where it gets interesting. In the list in Acts, John is mentioned before James. Why does Luke present James first and John second in his gospel, but reverse that order in his Acts? One could say that he simply remembered differently when he was writing up his respective works, and that's probably quite likely. I don't imagine that this variant was particularly intentional, but that doesn't obviate the possibility that it is significant. Combined with another detail, I would suggest that Acts reflects the reality that by the time Luke was writing, John was more prominent in Christian consciousness than James. In Luke, the author follows his Markan (and I think likely, Matthean; I don't abide Q) source, and places James before John, but (unlike Mark or Matthew) does not mention their familial relationship. John now stands in his own right. In Acts, no longer with Matthean or Markan versions rumbling around in his head to the same extent, he more naturally places John before James, because John is more prominent in Christian historical consciousness.

Of course, such a reconstruction is more comprehensible on a lower chronology than a later one. If Mark wrote c. 40 and Matthew c. 50, as I would argue, then it makes sense that John has not yet eclipsed his brother. Circa 40, James either is still alive or only recently deceased. It is quite possible that for whatever reason--perhaps their relative ages, or their temperaments, or whatever--James tended to be more prominent in the early movement during that first decade. By c. 50, John might be coming more to prominence, but not so as to eclipse his brother's position in the tradition. But by c. 60, he's up the better part of twenty more years to make contributions to the movement than his brother ever did, and his prominence in Christian awareness exceeds that of James'. By contrast, there is no ready explanation for why James would be more prominent in c. 70 but John more prominent by c. 85 or even c. 125. What changed in that period to make John more prominent? One could argue that it was the production of the Gospel of John, but that then opens up the question of why that gospel was attributed to John. Given the tendency of the middle and especially the higher chronologies to suppose that the texts are pseudonymous, the inclination for such chronologies would naturally be towards supposing that John's prominence in the tradition led to the attribution rather than the other way round (there is of course the question of "Which John?" with regard to the gospel, but it does seem that at least in second-century consciousness John, son of Zebedee, was generally assumed to be the answer). For the middle and higher chronologies, the variants on this matter between the lists of the Twelve would probably have to be described as the result of mere randomness. Mere randomness is not implausible, but presents as somewhat less compelling than a cogent historical narrative can account for the precise features of the data in explicable human terms.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Lonergan and Bible

Hello, all. There are some very interesting developments afoot in the world of Lonerganian thinking about biblical studies. As no doubt some who read this blog know, the late Ben F. Meyer worked extensively on developing Lonerganian thought in relation to biblical studies, specifically New Testament studies. But sadly Dr. Meyer was sick for many years, and thus did not produce as many students who could continue this project as he might have otherwise done. There are, however, signs today of a growing interest among biblical scholars, especially New Testament scholars, in returning to Meyer and his engagement with Lonergan. Perhaps most exciting, the idea of developing some sort of Lonergan and Bible Group at the SBL Annual has been floated around.

When this idea was initially proposed to me, the idea was Lonergan and New Testament, simply because the discussion was taking place among New Testament scholars. But some subsequent discussions have led me to think more broadly of Lonergan and Biblical Studies, with the latter term construed broadly to include Hebrew Bible, Second Temple studies, New Testament, potentially even Patristics and Rabbinics. The idea would be to take the fruits of Lonergan's breakthrough in developing a historically-conscious hermeneutic and work these out in relation to these various fields. Of course, because of Meyer's work, New Testament scholarship is currently best situated to undertake such work, but there is no reason in principle that it could not be also carried out in cognate areas. For instance, in a single paragraph on pp. 188-189 of Early Christians: Their World Mission and Self-Discovery, Meyer presents the rudiments of a dialectical--in the sense used by Lonergan--approach to the religion of Israel, a matter that Lonergan also touches upon briefly in, for instance, The Way to Nicea. It would be fascinating to hear what a specialist in Hebrew Bible and ancient Israel might make of Meyer's thoughts here. I would also note that this discussion in Early Christians, published in 1986, could only be improved by engagement with Robert Doran's 1990 masterpiece of Lonerganian thought, Theology and the Dialectics of History, as well as Meyer's own subsequent thought on related conceptual matters in Christus Faber. The point to be made: there are already some ready starting points in Lonergan and the broader Lonerganian enterprise that could greatly facilitate the sort of work in which a Lonergan and Bible Group might be interested.

Anyways, the purpose of this post is to put this on people's radar. There is talk about an informal meeting at SBL Annual in Boston this coming November, to discuss the potential for such a Lonergan and Bible group. I have been quite happily surprised by the degree of interest in Lonergan and Meyer among biblical scholars, and the reciprocal interest in biblical studies by Lonergan scholars, so I feel that there are a lot of people out there who would welcome such discussions. It's now a matter of finding the right venues in which to bring such persons together.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Luke and Papias

I'm reading through the second edition of Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. In effect, this means rereading the entirety of the first edition, as the second edition consists of the first with three additional chapters appended to the end. It's good for me to do so though, as I have not read the book since it came out in 2006, incidentally the first year of my doctoral studies, and am finding that I have largely forgotten the extent to which ideas that I have fully internalized and made part of my own understanding of early Christianity were ideas that I first encountered in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.

Today, as I read, I stumbled across a paragraph that resonates strongly with me, given my current work on the dates of the New Testament. I would like to quote it at length, if I might be so indulged.
Papias in this passage [quoted in Eusebius, Eccl. hist. 3.39.3-4] speaks of a time before the time at which he is writing. The time when he collected oral traditions deriving from disciples of [the earthly] Jesus was in the past. At that time most of the disciplines of Jesus had died, but at least two such disciples, Aristion and John the Elder, were still alive. This must have been close to the decade 80-90 CE. According to most scholars, this is the time at which the Gospels Matthew and Luke were written, and a little earlier than the time at which the Fourth Gospel was written. Thus what Papias says in this passage can be placed alongside Luke's reference to the eyewitnesses (Luke 1:2) as evidence for the way the relationship of the eyewitnesses to Gospel traditions was understood at the time when the Gospels were being written (p. 19-20).
There is much in this passage with which I can readily give assent. I indeed think it likely that Papias was collecting the oral tradition about Jesus that he claims formed the basis of his work during the last quarter of the first century (I would add that I think it likely that he wrote his work probably around the time of Trajan's reign). I would of course agree that this is around the time that the majority of scholars date the compositions of Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John. But when both those points are granted, I find something jarring when I compare Papias' prologue (which Bauckham here discusses) with Luke's. This is best explicated if I quote both.
1 Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed (Luke 1:1-4, NRSV).
3 I will not hesitate to set down for you, along with my interpretations, everything I carefully learned then from the elders and carefully remembered, guaranteeing their truth. For unlike most people I did not enjoy those who have a great deal to say, but those who teach the truth. Nor did I enjoy those who recall someone else’s commandments, but those who remember the commandments given by the Lord to the faith and proceeding from the truth itself. 4 And if by chance someone who had been a follower of the elders should come my way, I inquired about the words of the elders—what Andrew or Peter said, or Philip, or Thomas or James, or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples, and whatever Aristion and the elder John, the Lord’s disciples, were saying. For I did not think that information from books would profit me as much as information from a living and abiding voice (Papias' prologue, as quoted in Eusebius, Eccl. hist. 3.39.3-4, following Holmes' translation).
Although these two prologues are formally quite similar, there is a stark difference in the content. Luke identifies as his primary sources persons who were eyewitnesses and servants of the word from the beginning. He presents himself as in direct contact with the first generation of Christians, and it seems with persons who knew Jesus personally. There is no reference to depending upon others to tell him what these persons had said or were saying. By contrast, Papias identifies as his primary sources persons who knew such first-generation Christians and companions of Jesus. Now, this could in part be due to relative isolation: for whatever reason, Papias does not seem capable of traveling from Hierapolis, the way we read about other early Christian leaders traveling from their primary locales (I've come to suspect that he might have suffered from sort of disability that limited his mobility), and thus was dependent upon those Christians who came through the city to bring him information. By comparison, if the Lukan we-passages are to be taken as what they seem to prima facie suggest (namely that the author was a companion of Paul), then Luke was in fact in Jerusalem around c. 60 and in contact with at least James (cf. Acts 21:18). But I'm not sure that relative isolation suffices as an explanation. As Bauckham notes, Papias seems to have distinguished between those who companions of Jesus who were still alive and those who were not. It seems to me most judicious to think that Papias was collecting his oral traditions about Jesus some significant time after Luke had done much the same.

This correlates precisely with what we have already said here. One, following Bauckham, that Papias was gathering oral traditions around 80-90, and two, that Luke met with at least one, possibly more, eyewitnesses to Jesus c. 60. In and of itself, such correlation does not necessitate a date for Luke's Gospel c. 60, as argued by Robinson and the later Harnack, but it is certainly not hostile to such a date. Such coherence is an important test of any hypothesis, because the more coherence that we find the reasonable inferences that we might draw from data across a single author and even more from multiple authors, the more difficult it is to argue that these authors have contrived to persuade the readers of things that are not the case. As coherence mounts, arguments for authorial contrivance begin to leave the realm of historical hypothesis and rather shade into the realm of conspiracy theory.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Origins of the Synagogue

My Doktorvater, Anders Runesson, has made a PDF of his own dissertation, The Origins of the Synagogue, available via Published in 2001, The Origins of the Synagogue was the first monograph-length study of the synagogue's origins since the 17th century. Not only that, but I think that Runesson's arguments are basically correct. Certain of his statements in the study are now out-of-date, largely because of more recent archaeological discoveries, but I cannot think of anything that would overturn his basic argument. By any measure, it is a landmark study. It also tends to be read less than it should, probably because--although written in English--it was published through a Swedish publisher.

In order to understand the argument in Origins, one needs to have a sense of where synagogue studies stood in the 1990s, when Runesson was conducting doctoral research and writing the monograph. There were basically two schools of thought on the synagogue. The one argued that the synagogue emerged in the Diaspora, and represented the Jewish equivalent of a Greco-Roman voluntary association (what Runesson calls an "association synagogue" or "semi-public" synagogue). The other argued that the synagogue emerged in the Land of Israel, as a local institution comparable to a village or city assembly (what Runesson calls a "municipal" or "public" synagogue). Runesson's brilliance was to recognize that this wasn't an either/or but rather a both/and. The institution known as the synagogue emerged in the cities of the Diaspora and the villages of the Land more or less simultaneously.

Origins has defined my career in many ways. Reading it as an undergraduate student was a large part of what led me to study under Runesson in the first place. It has defined much of my understanding of how Hellenistic and early Roman era Judaism organized itself, as well as how Christianity likely emerged in institutional terms. I have largely moved "beyond" the arguments contained therein, as of course has Runesson himself. It has been a starting point, a departure, for my own work, rather than a blueprint to slavishly follow. And I really could not have asked for a better starting point.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

The Date of Thomas

One when picks up Robinson's Redating the New Testament in 2017, one cannot but be struck by a lacuna in the texts that he treats. He considers the entirety of the New Testament, and in a "Post-Apostolic Post-Script" also treats certain of the Apostolic Fathers (notably, 1 Clement, Didache, Epistle of Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas). He does not however treat the Gospel of Thomas, which in light of its position in subsequent scholarship is a notable absence. No doubt, it's because in 1976 the arguments that would place Thomas, at least in its earliest forms, in the fourth or even third quarter of the first century had not yet taken on the prominence they later would. Given the existence of arguments from quite competent and respected scholars that would situate the Gospel of Thomas as coeval or just slightly later than the last of the New Testament texts, it would at the very least be altogether uncollegial to not address the issue of Thomas' origin in a study on the dates of the New Testament written today.

An initial consideration is the matter of "gnosticism." A first observation on the matter: just as recent scholarship has recently argued that the "high" Christology of John's Gospel cannot be correlated directly with a later date, neither could any "gnosticism" detectable in Thomas'. A second observation: the tendency to treat Thomas as a gnostic text has receded in recent years. It's now increasingly recognized that it was slotted into that category in large part due to guilt by association. The complete Coptic text being found alongside the trove of "gnostic" texts found at Nag Hammadi, people supposed that it must fall into the same category. Yes, just as we cannot suppose without argument that the canon espouses a consistent theology, neither can we suppose the same for the Nag Hammadi library. A third observation: it's not clear to me that the wisdom- or gnostic- oriented Christianity on display in Thomas' Gospel is significantly more "advanced" than that with which Paul is engaged in the Corinthian correspondence. Indeed, there is sufficient resonance that it has been argued that his Corinthian opponents included persons influenced by Thomasine thought. Whether that is the case or not with regard to Paul, the salient point is that the conditions necessary for the emergence of something like Thomas' Gospel probably existed by c. 60.

With that in mind, I am struck by two logia in the Gospel of Thomas. One is logion 12, in which Jesus is asked by his disciples who will lead them after he is gone. He tells them that they should go to James the Just. Now, it seems difficult for me to locate the origin of this logion much after the death of James in 62. The later one pushes it past that date, the less useful an answer it is for those who would want guidance regarding post-dominical leadership. What use is it to someone in 150 to hear that they should go to a person dead for almost a century? It's also not clear to what extent after the 60s there were Christian leaders that based their legitimacy upon any sort of Jacobean authority, thus obviating the (really quite speculative) argument that it refers to those who claim that authority rather than to James himself. Certainly, the most natural place for this logion is before 62.

The second logion of interest is the very next one, 13. In this logion, Jesus asks his disciples to compare him to someone. Peter says that he is like a righteous angel. Matthew says that he is like a wise philosopher. Thomas says that he cannot articulate a comparison. What interests me is that Thomas' Gospel singles out specifically Peter and Matthew here. Now, these just happen to be the members of the Twelve associated with those canonical gospels generally held to be the earliest written: Mark's and Matthew's. Moreover, interestingly, they are listed in the order that most scholars suppose they were written. Is this just coincidence? Those who would state that Thomas' Gospel is independent of the canonical gospels would probably have to conclude "Yes," but one wonders whether that is the best judgment or not. Those who see the Gospel of Thomas as dependent upon one or more of the canonical gospels could answer "No, it is not a coincidence at all."

Given the above statements, it must be noted that there are a series of affirmations that only one who dates the Synoptic Gospels early (i.e. before c. 60) can most readily affirm simultaneously. One who dates the Synoptic Gospel thus early one could affirm that Paul is engaging with an articulation of Christianity similar to that found in Thomas' Gospel; could affirm that the most natural reading of logion 12 situates it as a pre-62 reference to James the Just's leadership; could affirm that there is a compelling logic to the selection of specifically Peter and Matthew from among the Twelve in logion 13; and could affirm the recent (and in my mind convincing) arguments that Thomas either knew all three of the Synoptic Gospels or emerged from Christian circles closely related to those which produced the Synoptic Gospels. Moreover, one could do so without positing hypothetical proto-Thomases that pre-date the "final" form. A lower chronology permits a strong synthesis between competing schools of Thomasine studies that are excluded by the middle and higher chronology. The strength in such synthesis does not lie simply in presenting a diplomatic or compromise position, but rather in the possibility that rather than two diametrically opposed schools, one of which is right and one of which is wrong, what we have is two groups of scholars who, coming at the same material with differing subjectivities, are each apprehending vital aspects of the same reality about the Gospel of Thomas. When their respective positions are brought into dialogue, and chronological barriers removed, perhaps the fuller reality becomes apparent.

Now, let me be clear: I'm not arguing that Thomas' Gospel should be dated c. 60. The above is a hypothesis, one which at this point I neither affirm nor reject. I have not yet thought through the issue sufficiently to reach a final judgment. But one who would undertake to argue that many of the texts of the New Testament canon are notably earlier than typically supposed cannot in principle exclude the possibility that the same is the case for some of the New Testament apocrypha. It is thus incumbent upon me to explore such possibilities, considering and vetting hypotheses for such earlier dates. Any other procedure would run the risk of special pleading.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Romans and Critical Realism, III

Okay, says the reader of my previous two posts on Romans and Critical Realism, I can see how Paul thinks that reality is inferred from data (to use Lonerganian and Collingwoodian sort of language); I can see how his antipathy towards idolatry could be a rejection of the intellectual error of confusing data with reality; but what does any of this have to do with the moral dimension upon which he so strongly insists? The answer, I suggest is: Everything.

As we begin, let us consider how Paul progresses through this section. First, he states in 1:18 that "the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth." He then explicates exactly what it means to suppress the truth in vv. 19-23. Then, in vv. 24-25, he argues that "Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!" This is followed by his (in)famous jeremiad against same-sex relations, both male and female, as an example of the degradation. That jeremiad tends to get the attention these days, but I'm more interested in how Paul is constructing the relationship between morality and knowing. It seems that Paul sees a sort of cycle at work: immorality leads to the suppression of genuine knowledge, and in turn that suppression leads to immorality.

Upon reflection, this makes a great deal of sense. Morality is about values. And the resolute will to know truth, whatever it might be, regardless of whether it contradicts and challenges one's current suppositions, is a value. It places the desire to understand our collective world above the personal desire to control that world. It makes in fact a great deal of sense to think that a person lacking robust values might not put much of a premium on truth (one perhaps need only look to Twitter for evidence of that). That's why Lonergan sees moral conversion, i.e. the conversion to placing value before satisfaction, as antecedent to intellectual conversion: valuing, we learn to value truth; valuing truth, we learn how to find it. This additionally explains why Paul can see that the suppression of truth also leads to greater immorality. There is a sort of feedback process between morality and knowing: as we learn to find truth, we come to better apprehend the world; as we better apprehend the world, we better refine our values, including the value we place upon truth; in turns further teaches us how to find truth. But if we do not value truth, then do we not learn how to find it; instead, misapprehensions lead to further misapprehensions; and as our misapprehension of the world grows, we increasingly misapprehend the moral dimension of the world, calling evil good and good evil.

Now, it would clearly be disingenuous to say that Paul and Lonergan independently struck upon similar understandings of the relationship between morality and knowing. Lonergan was a Jesuit priest, a theologian and philosopher who engaged deeply with the Christian tradition. That meant that he engaged deeply with Paul, and with thinkers who engaged deeply with Paul. We should not be surprised to find Pauline valences and indeed citations throughout Lonergan's corpus. We should also not be surprised if our ideas about what is good and true differ from Paul's. We've had two additional millennia to develop the feedback between morality and knowing. But that is a matter for theologians who work in functional specialties other than my own, so I will leave it there.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Romans and Critical Realism, II

Romans 1:18ff. really is a fascinating text. Paul gives what might be reckoned as a thesis statement in vv. 18-19: "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them." Here Paul draws a close connection between morality and truth that might be somewhat foreign to modern readers. We would tend to see these as independent variables: a morally deficient person can nonetheless be a great theologian, scientist, etc., and to think otherwise is to dabble in argumentum ad hominem. This is not how Paul reasons, at least not on the matters that concern him here. For Paul, it seems, God has made Godself known so plainly that only willful ignorance can account for the refusal to recognize God properly. This is for Paul a moral failing.

In my immediately previous post, I discussed how Paul understands that God has made Godself known: from the data of God's creation, argues Paul, one can infer God's power and nature (v. 20a). After this argument, he continues, arguing that
20b So they are without excuse; 21 for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23 and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.
It is certainly the case that Paul is here displaying a quite unexceptionable Jewish aversion to idolatry. Such a properly cultural argument however perhaps does not quite fully do justice to what is going on here. I would suggest that what is happening is also in part hermeneutical. For Paul, the divine can be inferred from created things, such as human beings and birds and four-footed animals and reptiles; but for Paul's hypothetical idolater, there is no act of inference but rather these are the divine. If created things are the data by which one infers the reality of God, then in taking created things to be God one is mistaking data for reality. As such, it is perhaps not simply cultural differences that drive Paul here, but a particular apprehension of what it means to know. As Lonergan might put it, Paul's hypothetical idolater has confused knowing with looking. This, I would suggest, is part of why Paul can understand idolatry to be not simply a religious but also an intellectual error.

What remains to be explored more fully is what to modern interpreters might well seem to be a non sequitur: Paul's linkage of this (in his mind) intellectual error with moral error. My contention, to be presented in a subsequent post, is that Lonergan offers excellent resources for thinking through this question.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Romans and Critical Realism, I

Critical realism is not always easy to explain. It is, most basically, an insight into the fundamental nature of things. Specifically, it is an insight into the fundamental nature of this thing that is human knowing. It is the fruit of what Lonergan describes as intellectual conversion. In intellectual conversion, the human subject apprehends--not just theoretically, but deep in the bones--that knowing is not like looking. It entails rejecting the empiricist's false conviction that we only what we can look at is real and thus can be known, and the idealist's equally false conviction that the work of looking obviates the possibility of knowing. In historical Jesus studies, my primary area of expertise, these false convictions respectively play themselves out on the one hand in the search for criteria that will exclude from our field of vision that which is not real, and on the other in the recurrent despair of ever being able to apprehend the Jesus of history. Critical realism moves beyond this by affirming rightly that while knowing is not like looking, looking (and hearing, smelling, tasting, touching: experiencing in general) is a foundational and indispensable step in knowing. We infer reality from that which we experience. For those who have experienced this intellectual conversion, critical realism will present as self-evident; for those who have not, it will present as really quite baffling.

Through the work of empirical (not empiricist) inquiry, we come to know that which cannot be experienced by attending to that which can. We call that which can be experienced "data," and that which we can know from experience we call "reality." I was recently reading in Romans, and was struck by the way in which Paul articulated this understanding of knowledge remarkably well, the better part of two millennia ago. In Romans 1:20a, Paul writes that "Ever since the creation of the world [God's] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made." The data: the things that God has made. The inferred reality: God's eternal power and divine nature. Paul's assertion is that while we cannot experience God's eternal power and divine nature directly, we can apprehend it through our experience of God's creation. The crucial step for the critical realist is recognizing that it is this act of apprehension that constitutes genuine knowing. The act of experiencing creation, that is a necessary step on the path to this apprehension, but the apprehension of the eternal power and divine nature is the real act of knowing.

It would take more than the above, quick analysis to suggest that Paul was a critical realist avant la lettre. Even if he were, he would have been one "at the level of this time," i.e. one who operated two millennia ago, without the benefit of the many insights that we have stumbled upon since in our collective project of better apprehending our shared reality. In any case, Paul's consciousness of his own subjectivity and the work of knowing (as interesting as it might be in its own regard) is not really my interest here. My interest is simply in using what Paul wrote to help elucidate the basic insight that drives critical realism. Indeed, Paul could in principle be mistaken in his conclusion about God's power and nature, without obviating the basic understanding of knowing that he evinces. What matters for my purpose here is the work of inferring reality from what is experienced, without falling either into the error of confusing the experience with reality or the alternative error of severing the two completely.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Lonergan and Lightfoot, Pt. 2

In my first my post upon Lonergan and Lightfoot, I focused upon Lightfoot's refutation of the Tübingen dating of the New Testament texts in order to consider why Lonergan might have taken it as a signal example of what he means by the term "appeal to the data" (again, cf. Method in Theology,  In this second part, I want to focus upon Lonergan, and consider more precisely what he means by this term. In doing so, I will begin where I ended the first post, by quoting from Stephen Neill, whom Lonergan cites on the matter of Lightfoot and Tübingen:
Hardly less crushing was the blow delivered to the Tübingen theories by the genuine Clement and Ignatius. If the theories were correct, certain phenomena should have been observable in these letters. In point of fact, not merely is none of these phenomena to be observed, but what is to be found is so contradictory of what to be expected as to raise the question whether any of these phenomena were ever at any time found in the Christian world.
The above is a wonderful example of critical realist thought in action. We have a hypothesis about early Christianity, one presented to us by Baur and the Tübingen school: that into the second century Pauline and Petrine Christianities remained fundamentally opposed and unreconciled. We have a derivative of this hypothesis: the Johannine tradition is the result of a rapprochement between Pauline and Petrine Christianity, and thus must have originated significantly later than the early part of the second century. These hypotheses allow us to anticipate finding certain matters in the relevant data, and not finding others. We should, for instance, anticipate some evidence of tension between Pauline and Petrine Christianity, and little to no evidence of synthesis between the two. Preferably, we would probably want to be able to situate 1 Clement and Ignatius respectively as either Pauline or Petrine. We should, for instance, anticipate finding little to nothing that looks like Johannine material. The difficulty for Baur and Tübingen is that what we should expect on their hypothesis is not there, and much that we should not expect is. Paul and Peter are remembered as co-labourers in 1 Clement. Johannine material abounds in the letters of Ignatius. Etc.

This is the heart of what Lonergan means by "appeal to the data." We have defined the question: to what extent does Baur's hypothesis adequately apprehend early Christian development? In answering that, we have not simply pitted our own countervailing hypothesis against him, but rather asked whether or not his hypothesis can withstand the data. In this case, we have found that the hypothesis does not withstand. We have found that to be the case because we had defined what we should expect in the data if the hypothesis be true, and discovered that the opposite was the case.

Appeal to data is particularly crucial in a discipline as hoary as New Testament studies. All too easily one can substitute disciplinary common-sense for careful attention to the data. For instance, one might state that the canonical gospels report the destruction of the temple, when of course careful attention to the data reveals that in fact they report prophecies about the destruction of the temple (empirically not quite the same thing). Or--a pet peeve of those who work in or even just read contemporary synagogue studies--one might repeat the old absurdity that there is no evidence of synagogue buildings in the first-century Galilee. Such hypotheses, however well anchored they might be in the disciplinary consciousness, are dashed hopelessly against the rocks of data by the waves of attention.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Lonergan and Lightfoot, Pt. 1

I was reading in Lonergan's Method in Theology the other day, and found my heart warmed to discover a reference (on p. 143, n. 1, to be exact) to J.B. Lightfoot's refutation of Ferdinand Baur's dating of the New Testament writings (due to the fact that Baur was long situated in Tübingen, his work and that of those influenced by him are often referred to "Tübingen theories" or the "Tübingen school"). Lonergan uses it as an exemplar of the appeal to data that should characterize the work of empirical investigation, including but not limited to the work of doing history. Given my interest in both Lonergan and NT chronology, let me consider more fully what Lonergan has in mind.

Ferdinand Christian Baur was by any reasonable measure a genius. He was, however, a genius operating at the level of his time. That time was dominated, especially in Germany, by the towering figure of Georg Hegel, Baur's older contemporary. When he turned to thinking about the dates of the New Testament, Baur developed a quasi-Hegelian narrative of dialectical development in the early Christian movement. He found warrant for that narrative in the Clementine literature, a large body of mostly romantic literature centred upon the person of Clement of Rome, remembered as the third (sometimes fourth) bishop of Rome after Peter. Baur made two crucial decisions with regard to this literature: first, he argued that much of it dated to the second century; and he saw in the literature's depiction of a struggle between Peter and Simon Magus coded reference to a struggle between Petrine and Pauline Christianity. Thus, he argued, Christian life during the first and the earlier part of the second centuries was dominated by a fundamental opposition between two contradictory forms of Christianity. This opposition was eventually reconciled, with the Gospel of John the fullest exemplar of Christianity after such reconciliation. The Acts of the Apostles, in showing Peter and Paul standing together in chapter fifteen and more generally showing Paul getting on with the apostles in Jerusalem, anachronistically projects the conditions of that reconciliation back on to the first Christian generation. Baur's understanding of the time that this development must have taken, and his reading of the Clementine material, leads him to the argument that the Gospel and Letters of John could not have been written until c. 170 or so.

This is where appeal to data comes in. Lightfoot demonstrated the implausibility of this narrative by showing that it simply could not withstand the data. There are some problems that should be obvious from the off. For instance, Gal. 2:1-10 presents Paul and Peter (and James and John) reaching agreement, comparable to what we find in Acts 15  (and Galatians was one of the five texts Baur allowed that Paul had written). In point of fact, it seems only by an argument from silence that one can say that the presentation of their relationship in Acts is more irenic than it was in reality. Luke might very well omit conflicts that occurred, but what he reports in terms of agreements are little if at all greater than in Paul's own writings. But Lightfoot's appeal to the data went well beyond this sort of observation, and in the process gave birth to some of the most prominent critical tools still used in the study of the Apostolic Fathers.

The Apostolic Fathers refer to a group of non-Christian Christian texts that are generally believed to have been written in the late first and early second centuries. They include, for instance, 1 and 2 Clement, letters attributed to the above-mentioned Clement of Rome. Let's begin with 1 Clement. Lightfoot showed that it was almost certainly written by the end of the first century (he places it around 95). And that's a problem for Baur, because 1 Clement talks about Paul and Peter together, with no hint of conflict between precisely the time that Baur holds that there remains an unreconciled conflict between the two. And Baur faces even greater problems by the time that Lightfoot is done working through another set of core documents among the Apostolic Fathers, the writings of Ignatius.

The letters of Ignatius were a mess. Eusebius, in the fourth-century, provided a list of seven letters written by Ignatius, but we had more than those seven. Moreover, what we had existed in multiple recensions. Lightfoot patiently worked through the material, persuasively showing that the so-called "Middle Recension" (i.e. not the shortest, but not also the longest) of the seven letters mentioned by Eusebius were those written by Ignatius. He moreover argued persuasively that they were written no later than 117 (the probable latest date of Ignatius' death, as our best data suggests that he died under the emperor Trajan). Now, this is again significant, as Lightfoot is also able to show that these letters are loaded with Johannine imagery. He concludes that Ignatius likely knew John's Gospel. And that's a huge problem for Baur, given that the argues that John's Gospel and letters could not have been written for several decades after that point!

Of the above arguments advanced by Lightfoot, Ignatius' knowledge of John's Gospel is probably the only one that might be seriously contested in 2017, with some people arguing that Ignatius knew not the gospel itself but rather the sort of tradition that is reflected by the gospel. But this does not seem likely to provide much aid to Baur. If already by 117 there existed something close enough to John's Gospel that a researcher as competent as Lightfoot could conclude that it is John's Gospel, the suggestion that John's Gospel or letters could not have been writing for another forty or fifty years would seem to push the limits of the data. Baur's argument isn't that it wasn't written until then, but rather that it contains theology that Christians could not have produced prior to that time. Yet, if much of that theology is present in Ignatius by 117, then that constitutes a probably fatal blow to Baur and his Tübingen school.

In Method, Lonergan specifically refers readers to the account of Lightfoot's refutation of Baur given in Stephen Neill's The Interpretation of the New Testament (1861-1961). With that in mind, I will quote from Neill (here from p. 60 the revised edition of this work, which Tom Wright undertook in 1986):
Hardly less crushing was the blow delivered to the Tübingen theories by the genuine Clement and Ignatius. If the theories were correct, certain phenomena should have been observable in these letters. In point of fact, not merely is none of these phenomena to be observed, but what is to be found is so contradictory of what to be expected as to raise the question whether any of these phenomena were ever at any time found in the Christian world.
This perfectly encapsulates what Lonergan means by "appeal to data": our hypothesis tells us what to expect in the data and what not to expect, so when the data contains what we should not expect and none of what we should, our hypothesis is probably a non-starter.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

The Way to Irenaeus

I've been spending the long weekend in part rereading the prolegomena to Lonergan's The Triune God: Doctrines. This work has an interesting publication history. Published as part of a two-volume Latin work while Lonergan was teaching at the Gregorian in Rome, an English translation of just this initial section was published back in the 1970s as The Way to Nicea. More recently (2009, to be exact), as the Lonergan Research Institute in Toronto worked at publishing Lonergan's Collected Works, a new translation was published (with the Latin on the opposite page, as in a book from the Loeb Library) as the first part of The Triune God: Doctrines. Although at first the intention was to retain the earlier translation, it was decided that a new translation was necessary, so as to integrate it more fully into the larger, two-volume work. But I digress.

The prolegomena is a work that rewards rereading. This has probably been about my fifth time reading the work, in both the earlier and the more recent published versions. It is essentially a dialectical account of the development of trinitarian doctrine in the ante-Nicene period. This time around, I took note of an argument that I had no doubt noted before, but which on this reading seemed to me to be of particular import. I refer to Lonergan's suggestion that alongside the development of dogma during this period, the early Christians were developing the very idea of dogma. That is, the Christians of the first century did not have a clearly-defined concept that we might call "dogma." We see this in the fact that Christians of this period typically are trying to articulate their thought through narratives, rather than through philosophical or theological discourse. We perhaps see the first movement towards dogmatic presentations of Christian thought in Paul's writing, but still here we find that whenever he comes to the heart of his thought he seems almost invariably to fall back on narration. He retells the story of Israel, with Jesus now as in some way its culmination. Within the gospel tradition, and a bit after Paul, we see John's Gospel engaging in what we might think to be an early experiment in dogma, but still retaining the basic narrative form. Perhaps around the same time or a bit later, we see in the Gospel of Thomas a significant formal shift beyond narrative and towards dialogue, which might profitably be seen as a notable step towards the intentional objectification of knowledge that dogma demands.

Lonergan does not dwell at length on the above New Testament material, nor does he touch upon the Gospel of Thomas (probably because a complete text of Thomas had only recently been discovered when Lonergan was working on these studies). But he does suggest that with the gnostic thinkers of the first half of the second century we begin to see a significant breakthrough towards dogma. A concerted number of Christian writings begin to appear that might reasonably be described as "theological treatises." They in many ways retain much of the narrative form, but this increasingly is subordinated to explicit theological reflection. Lonergan suggests that much of what is most characteristic of these works--the speculation upon aeons and the like--represents the perhaps inevitable marks of thought seeking new ways to articulate itself. The shift from this work towards persons such as Justin, Clement of Alexandria, and Irenaeus is that these later investigators could see the limitations of earlier investigations, and correct accordingly. Thus controls were placed upon speculation. Justin's emphasis upon Jesus as Reason incarnate perhaps makes great sense in this context.

As my primary interests are in the first and to a lesser extent second centuries, I'll leave off the narration here. What I find compelling is that it seeks to identify within the movement from the earliest Christian writings through to Nicea a coherent narrative that can account for both the formal and substantive shifts occurring in Christian thought at this time. History thus becomes something more than a chronicle of vaguely related events, and rather a process, or rather a set of densely interrelated processes.

Friday, 14 April 2017

The Historian and the Resurrection

My friend Matt Kovacs wrote on his FB wall today the following questions: "Is it an improper a priori objection to the resurrection to automatically discount it due to it being supernatural?
Should one automatically object to the claim of resurrection as an answer to the origins of Christianity before any data is presented, simply because it would suppose a supernatural claim?" I can't imagine why today, of all days, he would think of this question (that was sarcasm, BTW). Anyways, after some discussion on his wall, I thought I'd blog a longer answer to those questions, framed as an implementation of Bernard Lonergan's thought about specialized knowledge.

A major aspect of Lonergan's thought is the need to cultivate specialized knowledge. His argument rests in part upon the recognition that methods must be commensurate with the questions they seek to answer. Historical questions must be answered by historical method. Metaphysical questions must be answered by metaphysical method. The difficulty with excluding the possibility of resurrection by excluding the supernatural a priori is that it potentially uses metaphysical method to answer a historical question. Now, one can in principle use the fruits of methodological investigation as data in historical investigation. If the supernatural can be excluded on metaphysical grounds, then that can serve as a datum in historical study. With that datum, we now know that any supernatural explanation is a non-starter. But the crucial point is to note that we've arrived there not via historical method but rather through metaphysical. It is not a historical conclusion, but rather a metaphysical conclusion arrived at prior to any historical investigation, and thus taken as a supposition for such work. This then answers Matt's questions: insofar as investigations have taken place antecedent to the work of historical investigation, and insofar as the fruits of those investigations reasonably exclude the supernatural, then it is legitimate to adopt that as a starting supposition in the work of doing history.

Practically, this brings us to the matter of expertise. Another part of why Lonergan encourages the cultivation of specialized knowledge is that no one can master everything that could be possibly mastered. If one is diligent, one can become an expert in a broad area of study, whether it is history, theology, physiology, etc. Within these broad areas however, one must further specialize. I would claim expertise in early Christian history, but not in the history of Reformation England, and even within early Christian history I would claim greater expertise in the first century than, say, the fourth. And this has important consequences for the matter under discussion. Historians do not tend to have expertise in metaphysics or, we might add, physiology. The time that they spent becoming historians precluded the development of such expertise. Conversely, experts in metaphysics or physiology tend not to have expertise in history, for much the same reason. What this means is that any investigation of, for instance, the physiological possibilities that could have followed from Jesus' crucifixion requires inter-disciplinary collaboration. The historian will tend not to have the expertise to pronounce on it alone, while the physiologist will tend not to have the expertise to get into the nitty-gritty details of what we know about Jesus' crucifixion and post-mortem appearances.

The above can be demonstrated by reference to the swoon theory, which is really a covering term for a range of hypotheses that hold that Jesus did not die on the cross but rather merely appeared to do so. He then, so goes the theory, regained consciousness post-burial and left the tomb. There are certain details of the crucifixion and resurrection narratives that could be taken to support this. The narratives emphasize that Jesus was only on the cross for a few hours, whereas crucifixions could ordinarily take days; we thus might think that he was taken off prematurely. There is the report that his legs were not broken, which could account for why he is described as walking in the days after his revival. There is the report that he still had visible wounds after his resurrection, which indicates that there was an awareness that the resurrection did not entail much healing: exactly as we'd probably expect from someone taken prematurely off a cross just a few days earlier. It could potentially account for why those who knew him had difficulty recognizing him after the crucifixion: no doubt he would have been quite marred by the ordeal. In fact, it could potentially explain virtually every detail of the narratives, apart from how the stone got rolled away, but for that one need merely posit that there were visitors to the tomb prior to those recorded in the gospels. But before a historian could affirm that this is what happened, she or he would need to consult with those with the requisite physiological knowledge, and inquire into the likelihood that Jesus could have been mistaken for dead on the cross, that he could have been capable of walking around a few days later, etc. The typical historian lacks this specialized knowledge.

Ultimately, it's not clear to me that the question of whether Jesus actually rose from the dead is really a question within the historian's ambit. The historian's task is not simply to establish what happened in the past, but to inquire into human operations in the past. An example that I often use is Hurricane Katrina. A meteorologist is keenly interested in how hurricanes work: what drives their destructive force, how do they emerge, etc. These are of very limited interest to the historian qua historian. The historian rather is interested in how the federal government responded, what might account for failures or successes in its response, etc. That's what the historian does. Likewise, the historian is interested in the question of whether Jesus was crucified. She or he is interested in the year in which said crucifixion took place (30 and 33 C.E. being the leading candidates). She or he is interested in the fact that the belief that he had risen from the dead took hold among his followers and had demonstrable consequences. She or he is interested in these consequences. She or he is less interested in the physiological or divine processes that generated that belief, just as the historian studying Hurricane Katrina has limited interests in how hurricanes operate.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Chronology and Dialectics

I often joke that my interest in the chronology of the New Testament, especially the dates at which the texts were written, is purely the product of an obsessive-compulsion. While not denying that there is perhaps something vaguely pathological in the pleasure that I derive from such objectively tedious work, the truth is that there is much more to it than that. And for that something more, one must look to this thing that Lonergan calls dialectics.

The term "dialectics" of course has a long pedigree in western thought. But in Lonergan's particular understanding of it, it becomes the study of the conflicts immanent in our lives together as human beings. Writes Lonergan, in Method in Theology: "[t]he materials of dialectic, then, are primarily the conflicts centering in Christian movements. But to these must be added the secondary conflicts in historical accounts and theological interpretations of the movements." And here we have in nuce the question behind the question of New Testament chronology. Actually, the questions because the question. Excluding hypothetical texts such as Q, there are by my count thirty-three extant Christian texts that could arguably be dated to the first century (the twenty-seven canonical texts, plus 1 Clement, the Ascension of Isaiah, the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Gospel of Thomas, the Shepherd of Hermas). It makes a substantive difference for understanding the conflicts that emerged in the first century whether these texts were written during those first seventy or so years of Christian history, and in what approximate order. That is the first question. But arguably as crucial is the second question, namely the modern conflicts over the matter of when the texts were written.

This second question is best elucidated, as are many things, by appeal to Ferdinand Christian Baur. Back in the mid-19th century, Baur argued that many of the New Testament texts were written at dates that we now know to be impossibly late. We know that now because we have access to information that Baur did not. Indeed, much of that information was generated in response to Baur. But the really interesting story with regard to Baur is not simply that he made empirical judgments that turned out to be false, but rather why he made them. At the risk of oversimplifying (a constant danger with a mind as lively as Baur's), he began with a roughly Hegelian framework of early Christian history, which he then used to evaluate such questions as the dates of the New Testament texts. In other words, he dated John's Gospel to the late-2nd century in large part because that best fit with how he thought early Christianity had to have developed.

Now, of course, no one is immune to preconceptions, prejudices, and the like. But what the example of Baur drives home is the necessity to constantly be moving back and forth between the data and our heuristic anticipations. We anticipate that certain things will be the case in the data. To the extent that the data meets our anticipations, we can judge the anticipations to reasonably apprehend reality. To the extent that they do not, we need to generate new anticipations. My interest in chronology, especially the dates of the New Testament texts, is thus ultimately a way of testing the extent to which the relevant data meets my anticipations about Christian origins. It means querying those anticipations, revising or abandoning them as necessary, affirming them when reasonable. And in carrying out this work I address not only dialectical development in the ancient world, but also in the modern: for our evaluation of Baur's understandings of Christian origins, or of Lightfoot's, or Harnack's, or Robinson's, or Meyer's, or whomever's turns to a remarkable extent upon the degree to which they can be said to have adequately or inadequately apprehended the realities that they studied. Their place in the history of thought about Christianity is not altogether separable from their capacity to think well about Christianity.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Atheism and Empathy

I've noticed an interesting trend among some atheists. Not all, perhaps not even most or even many, but certainly some. That trend is an incapacity for empathy. This comes out in their thinking about religion. Again and again I see an incapacity, either willful or constitutional, to understand religious persons or groups from their own perspective. Instead, what you find is an insistence upon articulating those persons' beliefs from the atheists' perspective, and then critiquing that articulation. This almost inevitably distorts what is being critiqued. Usually the critique is well and good, but the problem is that what is being critiqued bears little actual relationship to what real, living religious persons or groups hold to be the case.

A classic and recurrent example of this is the notion that the only difference between monotheism and polytheism is numerical, i.e. monotheism is just polytheism with fewer gods. On a strictly etymological basis this might be true, but a reliance upon strict etymology to understand actual, human realities is an indisputable symptom of a grossly inferior mind. This notion of monotheism as simply reduced polytheism in fact reveals a deep unfamiliarity with monotheistic and polytheistic religions. It ignores the fact that in traditions like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, the divine one and the divine many are in fact different orders of reality. In the Abrahamic faiths, those orders tend towards the antagonistic: the one-ness of the God of Abraham obviates the very existence of other gods. Where other superhuman intellects are allowed to exist, they are not gods at all but rather angels or other servants of the One. In Hinduism, the gods are all manifestations of Brahman; the one-ness of all is expressed through the multiplicity of the many. What I just articulated are themselves horribly imprecise descriptions of the relationship between the one and the many in world religions, and they miss a great deal of nuance and diversity, but they have the advantage of being horribly imprecise descriptions that aim to describe the actual things under discussion, rather than an ideologically-motivated pastiche of those things. And what we can state with reasonable confidence is that few if any monotheists understand the one as simply a numerical reduction of the many. The one is virtually always understood as qualitatively different. To articulate monotheism otherwise simply indicates that one has not yet grasped a basic fact about human religiosity, and that because in one's rush to critique one has not listened to what others are saying. This is, again, quite simply a lack of empathy.

Now, such lack of empathy is hardly unique to atheism. Indeed, one could define fundamentalism--whether in Christianity or Islam or elsewhere--precisely as the substitution of ideology for empathy. And that is why atheism, in its most dogmatic and anti-rationalistic mode, takes on an intellectual form remarkably similar to Christianity or Islam in their most dogmatic and anti-rationalistic mode. That is because they are all suffering from a similar intellectual deformation. In the human sciences, where the aim is to grasp human realities, empathy is more than a moral value. It is an intellectual one, without which failure is inevitable.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Heuristic Lessons from the Oral Tradition

"Oral tradition is always something spoken." So begins the first line of Eric Eve's Behind the Gospels: Understanding the Oral Tradition. With this statement, we must recognize an obvious heuristic reality: by definition, nothing that we read in ancient texts is oral tradition. There is no oral tradition in the gospels, by definition. How then can scholars claim to study the oral tradition "behind" the gospels?

The answer is obvious: inference. This is exactly how historical investigation always works. By definition, we do not find the past in the material that we utilize in the work of historiography. The texts, the artifacts, the architecture, etc.: these remains of the past all exist in the present. None contain the objects that historians want to know about, the entities, relationships, events, and processes that we seek to define and understand. Yet, we can use such remains of the past to infer such matters. Oral tradition is just one such an entity that we seek to define and understand, oral traditioning one such process.

This raises a critical challenge to the current historical skepticism that grips much of NT scholarship, and has in various forms for much of the last century. We are told confidently that we cannot know very much about what the early Christians were doing in the first decades of the movement. Why? Because we do not have direct access to that time. Our knowledge of the period is mediated by texts, by artifacts, by architecture, and such mediation constitutes a barrier to knowledge. Yet, the same skeptics frequently have no difficulty telling us how oral tradition processes worked in that same time, using the same remains of the past as their primary data, using the same basic practice of inference that is used to define and understand any other objects from that time. Indeed, their skepticism is typically predicated upon their understanding of how these remains came about: precisely because they judge these remains to be the result of complicated processes, they judge them to be of limited utility for the work of history. Except: that can only be argued if these remains have already been used in the work of history! Put otherwise, such skeptics are denying the very conditions upon which their skepticism is predicated.

If we can know that "behind" the gospels lies oral tradition, then there is no reason in principle that we can't also know, for instance, who was involved in developing the oral tradition, or where such development took place, or when. If we can answer "What?", then "Who?", "Where?", "When?", even "Why?" are in principle also answerable. And if we can know these things, then there is no reason in principle that we can't know how these matters interact with other objects from this period: with the expansion of the Christian movement, the development of ecclesiastical structures, the elaboration of doctrine, etc. If we can infer one thing about the past from texts and artifacts and other remains in the present, then we can in principle anything. "Postmodern" arguments about the impossibility in principle of knowing about the past dissolve immediately, corroded by the acid of self-reversal. There can of course remain arguments that the extant remains of the past are such that we cannot answer this or that particular question in practice, but arguments from principled skepticism are refuted by the very act of making statements about what happened in the past.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Authorship and Date

As I've worked through the dates of the New Testament texts, the one thing I've wanted to avoid is making this a study of authorship. The more I work on the material though, the more I realize that the relationship between authorship and date is unavoidable. Take the example of the undisputed Pauline letters. I would argue that the ultimate reason that we suppose that these cluster to the 50s of the first century is because we attribute them to Paul. Attributing them to Paul, and knowing that he likely died no later than 68 (the end of Nero's reign), we reasonably suppose that any letter that he wrote must predate 68. We have other data, primarily given by Acts, that leads us towards the 50s as the primary time frame for these writings. In the most recent major study of Pauline chronology, Douglas Campbell recognizes the close relationship between authorship and date in the study of the Pauline epistles, making the question of authenticity the first issue that he discusses in each case; although there is much in Campbell's study to which I object, I am increasingly seeing the necessity in chronological studies of first querying the traditional authorship, not only of the Pauline texts but in fact of any text with a traditional attribution.

So, this has me thinking: how does one go about deciding authorship? When one looks at the scholarship, it's a morass. Paul is just assumed to have written the undisputed Pauline epistles, without question. If Acts' presentation of Paul are thought to differ from how Paul is presented in these epistles, Acts is judged without question to be in error. If the presentation of Paul in the Pastoral Pauline epistles is thought to differ from that in Acts, then the Pastoral Epistles are judged to be in error without question. If the presentation of James or Peter in Acts or the undisputed Pauline epistles differs from that found in the letters of James or 1 or 2 Peter, James or 1 or 2 Peter are judged to be in error without question. There is an unspoken hierarchy: data from undisputed Pauline epistles are supposed without question; data from Acts is accepted where it does not conflict with data from undisputed epistles; data from other epistles, Pauline or Catholic, are accepted where it does not conflict with data from undisputed Pauline epistles or Acts. No attempt to justify this hierarchy of data is advanced; it is just tacitly assumed.

So, then, the question of how to establish authorship really becomes: how do we know that Paul wrote the undisputed epistles? Who can answer that? Very few, I suspect. But how we answer that, it must become the paradigm for answering the question of authorship of any other text. I would suggest that the following procedure is at work. It's very simple. We see that it is attributed to Paul, and find no compelling reason to think that to be in error. This judgment is not offered without data: the crucial datum in each case is the attribution. In most cases this will be a necessary condition, but due to the phenomenon of pseudepigraphy in no case will it probably be sufficient. Thus to this positive test we must add the negative test of compelling reason to judge against the attribution.

The question thus becomes: what reason do we have to say that Paul did not write this? James? Peter? Mark? Matthew? Etc. In each case, the nature of the case will be different, and must be argued from the particularity of the data. Of course, in many cases the particularity of the data will be similar, and some data even will recur from letter to letter (such as with the details of Paul's life, which will recur throughout deliberations on the thirteen canonical Pauline epistles as well as extra-canonical texts attributed to Paul). There will be cases in which the answer is very obvious, in either direction; there will be cases in which that is less the case. Chronology will be related to this in a complex fashion. Sometimes it might exclude the traditional authorship. If a letter clearly references an event that occurred after the author's known time of death, then the traditional authorship must be in error. Sometimes the question of authorship will aid in answering chronological questions, by establishing that the text was likely written during the traditional author's lifetime.  The putative authorship establishes an initial time frame in which to look. If we judge that James, brother of Jesus, wrote the Epistle of James, then we can hardly date the letter later than 62, the year in which (on the basis of Josephus) we know that he died; if Peter wrote 1 Peter, the letter cannot date likely date any later than 68; etc. In most cases, the lower end of possibilities is circumscribed by references to Jesus' life, ministry, or death, making a date earlier than c. 30 impossible.

Authorship and date turn out to be indissolubly linked.

Monday, 16 January 2017

James and Programmatic Skepticism

In his 2013 International Critical Commentary on the canonical Epistle of James, Dale Allison notes rightly that there were numerous pseudepigraphical works written in James’s name. Yet, he also notes rightly, no one argues that these were in fact written by James, brother of Jesus, whereas there are arguments made to support the notion that James wrote the canonical epistle. Thus he asks rhetorically, “Might there not be a canonical or theological bias at work here?” (p. 13). Of course, the answer to the question as asked needs to be “Yes.” There might well be a canonical or theological bias at work. Indeed, it seems hard to deny that such is not at work among those who hold explicitly to any variant of the doctrine of inerrancy. Yes, does it follow that anyone who argues for the authenticity of the Epistle of James must be guided by such a bias?

An immediate observation: the hypothesis is self-condemning. This is obvious if extended beyond the Epistle of James. No critical scholar of whom I am aware argues or indeed has argued that Paul wrote 3 Corinthians, although it is attributed to him. Yet these same scholars have no problem affirming that Paul wrote at least seven of the letters attributed to him and which are found in the New Testament canon. Is there a canonical or theological bias at work? By Allison’s implicit reasoning, there should be, as the situation is precisely parallel: the same scholars who do not seriously entertain the possibility of extant Pauline literature outside the NT canon seriously consider the possibility of extant Pauline literature inside the NT canon. The only difference is one of degree, not kind: with only one rather than thirteen texts attributed to James in the NT, one either affirms 0% or 100% of those attributed to him therein; the possibility of affirming some but not all texts attributed to James in the NT is non-existent. If those who affirm the traditional authorship of our one canonical Jacobean text but not of any non-canonical Jacobean texts are ipso facto guilty of canonical bias, then so too must be those who affirm the traditional authorship of some of our canonical Pauline texts but not of any non-canonical Pauline texts. If we follow this line of reasoning, then a canonical bias is operative in the judgment that Paul wrote at least these seven texts; yet, we continue to affirm that judgment as true; if the affirmation reflects reality, then the bias cannot be thought to constitute a barrier to genuine insight, and why then should we suppose that it would in the case of the canonical James? The question of canonical bias thus seems a non-starter (and this doesn't even mention that if used to vet possible hypotheses, the possibility of bias is really nothing but an instance of the genetic fallacy).

More interesting to me though is the empirical significance of the canon. The reality is that the canon is a historical datum. It exists, in time and space. The observation that the Epistle of James is the only text attributed to James that made it into the canon cannot be programmatically assumed to be a datum of irrelevance for establishing authorship. We know that the early Christians were concerned to admit into the canon only those texts that they had good reason to suppose were written by members of the first Christian generation. It is not a given that this was simply rhetoric or myth-making meant to justify other, truer, but often unspoken interests. That might be the case, or it might not; it needs to demonstrated, not supposed on a programmatic basis. Too often however, it is precisely on a programmatic basis that it is supposed; it is become disciplinary common sense in many circles, but common sense has a tendency to dissolve under closer examination. We cannot dismiss programmatically the hypothesis that the Epistle of James made it into the canon for precisely the reason that our ancient informants claim: that there was good reason to think that it was written by James.

What we’re getting at here is really what it means to be a critical scholar. There is an unfortunate tendency in many circles to suppose that critical scholarship consists of pronouncing negative judgments on early Christians’ own self-understanding of their origins. I would suggest that this is a misunderstanding of what it means to be a critical historian. The critical historian is one who formulates a question, attends to the data relevant to answering that question, weighs possible answers, and then affirms that answer which handles the relevant data best. Sometimes that will much resemble early Christians’ self-understanding of their own origins; sometimes it will be remarkably at variance therewith. The skeptic supposes programmatically that the best answer will be at variance with traditional narratives. That is bias, the bias known as skepticism, which takes as its sinister twin the bias known as credulity: the programmatic supposition that the best answer will be fully congruent with traditional narratives. Both arbitrarily close off possible answers before the investigation even begins. As such, the spirit of critical thought is programmatically opposed to both.