Tuesday, 18 December 2018

How to Date a Biblical Text

Yes. "How to date a biblical text" sounds like the title of a bad romcom or whatever. Get over it, people.

But seriously, I want to propose three basic means by which to date a biblical text. I will note that these were developed particular to the concerns of New Testament chronology, but I think that in principle they can be adapted to HB/OT chronology also.

Synchronization: this is the basic tool of the chronologist, wherein one synchronizes the text to other matters. Most basically, these can refer to manuscript evidence. If a text appears in a manuscript datable to c. 200 C.E., then it must predate said manuscript. These other matters can also refer to events. To use perhaps the best known example: if my text reports that the Jerusalem temple was destroyed by the Romans during the midst of the Jewish War, then it almost certainly post-dates 70 C.E.; conversely, if its argumentation necessarily supposes that the temple yet stands, then it almost certainly pre-dates. These other matters can also refer to other texts. I.e. if I judge that Matthew's Gospel used Mark's as a source then I judge that Matthew post-dates Mark's. The nature of such a dating technique is that it will tend to yield a relative date: after X and before Y. Absolute dates can be introduced only insofar as X or Y themselves are datable. Thus "This text was written after the destruction of the temple" is virtually synonymous for our purposes with "This was written after 70 C.E.," while "This text was written after Mark's Gospel" has no comparable equivalent. Within HB/OT studies, the vast dates with which one works will probably tend to vitiate the utility of this approach, as will the reality that certain texts appear to have developed over time spans foreign to NT studies.

Authorial Biography: really a form of synchronization, it is significant enough in its own right that it makes sense to break it out as a separate category. It uses what is known about the author(s) independent of the text in order to determine when she or he wrote. In principle, this can yield the most precise dates. It is most usable in regard to the Pauline corpus, due to the existence of Acts. For instance, given Rom. 15:25-26 and 16:2 (if the latter is original to the letter), then it is highly probable that Paul wrote Romans in the three months that he spent in Greece in (probably) the winter of 56/57 (cf. Acts 20:2b-3a). The Romans example is useful, because authorial biography arguably allows the most precise dating of any text from the biblical canon, whether Jewish or Christian. Unfortunately, the nature of our data is such that our authorial biographies tend to be woefully inadequate in most cases relevant to NT studies and one suspects almost entirely useless in HB/OT studies.

Contextualization: contextualization uses what is otherwise known about the development of early Christianity in order to determine when a text most likely originated. A sterling example of such work is Crossley's The Date of Mark's Gospel. Crossley argues that Mark's Gospel takes Jesus' scrupulous Torah observance for granted, whereas Matthew's and Luke's have to demonstrate that said observance is not obviated by statements that could be taken as abrogating the Law. He further argues that this difference makes best sense if we understand that Mark's Gospel originated before the Gentile mission made Torah observance a significant issue in Christian consciousness, while Matthew's and Luke's originated after this development. As such, he argues that Mark's Gospel probably dates to the early 40s or perhaps yet earlier. Of all the approaches, contextualization will tend to be the least precise. As a general rule, it probably should be used to narrow down within a range established upon other grounds. Very rarely should judgments about a text's date rely entirely upon contextualization. Such judgments should probably be limited to instances in which we simply have no other basis for judgment. The nature of HB/OT studies is such that I can imagine it being far more dependent upon contextualization than NT studies.

Intimated throughout the above is that these approaches do not function in isolation. Judgments about a text's date should build cumulatively upon as many of these as possible. The strongest judgments will rest upon the strongest evidences adduced by all such approaches. Which is once again to say that history is painstaking.

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Acts 12 or 15?

No doubt, the single most pivotal question for establishing a Christian chronology of the 30s and 40s is whether Paul's second journey to Jerusalem reported in Gal. 2:1-10 refers to the journey narrated in Acts 11/12 (usually abbreviated simply to "Acts 12" in chronological discussions) or Acts 15. The majority of scholars hold that it refers to the journey narrated in Acts 15, whereas a minority of scholars hold to that of Acts 12. Other solutions--that it refers to the journey narrated Acts 18, for instance, or that there is no correspondence between Acts and Paul on this matter--are generally non-starters, for reasons that need not distract us in this post. When we take into account such matters as validity, scope, and parsimony, the hypothesis that Galatians 2:1-10 refers to either the journey narrated in Acts 12 or that in Acts 15 remains that which can best explain the data that we find in both the Lukan and Pauline material. But beyond that, should we prefer the Acts 12 hypothesis, or the Acts 15?

Let us begin with the Acts 15 hypothesis, as it is the majority report. The Acts 15 hypothesis depends upon supposed parallels between this text and Gal. 2:1-10. In Gal. 2:1-10 Paul describes a meeting between himself and "the pillars" in Jerusalem--James, John, and Peter--in which the latter affirm that the former had been entrusted with the gospel for the Gentiles. The Acts 15 hypothesis sees in this an impressive parallel with the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15, which narrates a discussion about whether or not Gentile converts should be circumcised. Now, prima facie, the parallels are indeed strong. There are however at least two flies in this ointment. One, the Acts 15 hypothesis has a hard time accounting for Gal. 2:11-14. Gal. 2:11-14 describes a conflict in Antioch over the issue of whether Jewish and Gentile persons can eat together between Paul on the one side and "men from James" on the other, with Peter and Barnabas in the middle, while Acts 15:1-2 states that the conflict in Jerusalem began with a dispute over circumcision in Antioch. Probably most iterations of the Acts 15 hypothesis suppose that the events of Gal. 2:11-14 precede those of Gal. 2:1-10, with the former paralleling Acts 15:1-2. This is deeply problematic, as there is frankly no hint whatsoever in Galatians that Paul intends the reader to think that the events the he reports in 2:11-14 precede those of 2:1-10. Quite the opposite: the "But when" (ὃτε δὲ) with which Paul initiates 2:11 most naturally suggests a temporal progression. Ultimately, although probably the most popular solution, the hypothesis wherein Gal. 2:1-10 parallels Acts 15:3ff. and 2:11-14 parallels 15:1-2 seems to flounder on the data. That said, a variant iteration of the Acts 15 hypothesis is probably more viable on this matter. In this iteration, Acts 15:1-2 has no parallel in Galatians, Acts 15:3ff. parallels Gal. 2:1-10, and Gal. 2:11-14 narrates a conflict that emerged subsequent to the council. This second iteration does not require us to gratuitously suppose that Paul is narrating the course of events out of temporal order, but it also does not escape the second challenge faced by the Acts 15 hypothesis, namely the number of journeys to Jerusalem undertaken by Paul.

In Gal. 1-2, Paul is much concerned to show that he had little contact with the leadership in Jerusalem. He lists the times that he went, specifying with whom he met and how little they contributed to his understanding of the gospel. In 1:18, he mentions that he went to Jerusalem after three years and met with no apostles but Peter and James. This journey can be quite unobjectionably be identified with that narrated in Acts 9:26-30. In 2:1-10, he states that he went to Jerusalem after fourteen years, and met with Peter, James, and John. On the Acts 15 hypothesis, this second journey mentioned in Galatians is actually the third narrated by Acts. One either has to conclude that Paul has failed to mention that second journey, or that Luke has introduced a journey that never happened. The former hypothesis is often advanced, on the basis that Paul is only concerned to narrate instances in which he interacted with the leadership in Jerusalem. Unfortunately for this hypothesis, Acts 11:30 of course specifies that Barnabas and Paul were sent to meet with the elders on the second journey. Now, yes, elsewhere Luke will distinguish between apostles and elders, and Paul specifically in Gal. 1-2 refers to meetings with apostles. But if anything that weakens the Acts 15 argument, for if Paul is concerned to show how little interaction he had with the apostles in Jerusalem then surely it would serve his rhetorical purpose to mention a journey to the holy city in which he didn't even meet with them (if it is objected that this construal of Pauline intent is speculative, I would observe that it is no more so than the argument that Paul is only interested in narrating journeys to Jerusalem in which he met specifically with the apostles). And in any case, there is enough slippage between the elders and the apostles that we probably do not have adequate warrant to conclude that the elders of Acts 11:30 must exclude the apostles.

By contrast, the Acts 12 hypothesis not only reads Gal. 2:1-14 in sequential order, has a very straightforward explanation for why Paul only mentions two visits to Jerusalem: as of the time that we was writing Galatians, he'd only taken two visit. In this understanding, Gal. 1:18 refers to the visit of Acts 9, 2:1-10 to the visit of Acts 12, and 2:11-14 to the events of Acts 15:1 (although not of Acts 15:2; rather, we need to assume that Paul is writing as he prepares to travel to Jerusalem for the council). In short, it combines the best of both worlds. Indeed, there is virtually only one substantial challenge that can be raised against the Acts 12 hypothesis, and that is that Luke doesn't mention any sort of conflict or discussion that takes place during that visit. Such an argument however is limited in its strength, for at least two reasons: one, Luke is always highly selective in what he presents; two, as recognized since at least F.C. Baur, Luke tends to emphasize the irenic side of inter-apostolic relationships, and as such is not necessarily inclined to report every single conflict that took place. Indeed, given the first of these reasons, lacunae in Luke's accounts should generally not be taken as evidence of absence (this, incidentally, is quite the opposite situation of the problem with the number of journeys, wherein on the Acts 15 hypothesis it is Paul who has a lacuna precisely where we'd expect there not to be one).

For comparative purposes, I have devised a handy chart.

Acts 12
Acts 15/Gal. 2 sequential
Acts 15/Gal. 2 non-sequential
Gal. 2:1-14 in sequential order?
Both are Paul’s second journey?
Acts 15:1 has Galatian parallel?
Acts 15:2 has Galatian parallel?
Both mention a conflict?

Given that it is unlikely that Paul is narrating events out of sequence in Galatians 2:1-14 and the Lukan tendencies to elide details and present an irenic front, the sequential order and the number of journeys should probably be taken as the most definitive factors. And when this is recognized, Acts 12 presents as the strongest hypothesis.

And once again, that is how historians do.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

The Date of the Crucifixion

As long-time readers of this blog will know, I am mildly obsessed with the question of chronology, that being a mildly huge understatement. For more than a year now, the process of interviewing for, being hired at, and moving to the Lonergan Research Institute in Toronto--while welcome and wonderful and a genuine honour--has kept me from really indulging that obsession, but now that I'm settled in the compulsion to precisely date events that occurred in early Christian history has returned with a vengeance. So, pulling together some recent conversations and work, here is my take on that particularly significant event of Christian history, Jesus' crucifixion.

My general procedure when seeking to date an event is to begin with the data that permits an absolute lower date and an absolute higher date, then work with the data that leads me to raise and lower those dates respectively. An absolute date is one with a numbered year, and contrasts with a relative date. For instance, if I say that Germany invaded Poland in 1939, that is an absolute date. If I say that Germany invaded Poland twenty-five years after the First World War broke out, that is a relative data. In the case of the crucifixion, the relevant absolute dates are 27 and 35. We know Jesus did not die before 27 for a cluster of reasons. First, he died in April, at Passover; the Passover at which he died had to be after Pilate arrived in Judea in 26; it had to be after the beginning of the fifteenth year of Tiberius (Luke 3:1), which began no earlier than October of 26; thus 27 is the earliest April in which Jesus could have died. We know that he did not die after 35 because that is almost certainly the last Passover that Pilate spent in Judea. 26 and 36 are just barely permissible, if we ignore the data from Luke 3:1 and play loose with Pilate's chronology, but in reality are improbable to the point that we can treat them as non-starters.

For the better part of a century, the primary way that scholars sought to narrow this down was to employ astronomical data. Jesus not only died at Passover, he died at a Passover that fell on a Friday. This yielded 30 and 33 as the most likely years, and scholarship probably for the most part opted for the former number, with the latter constituting a very respectable minority report. I no longer think that we can rely so heavily on the astronomical data. The difficulties of lining up modern astronomical observations with the practical realities of an ancient lunar calendar obviate the confidence we can place in such data. That said, I would not dispense with it entirely, and we will come back to it. We can however reasonably raise the lower date up to 29, as John reports that Jesus' ministry spanned at least three Passovers, including that at which he died, and Passover of 29 would be the third after October of 26.

So, how do we narrow it down, then? This requires that we turn to Pauline chronology. We know that Paul converted to Christianity subsequent to Jesus' death, so that event can serve to establish the latest possible date for the crucifixion. In order to establish the date of the conversion, we must first determine when the visit to Jerusalem described in Gal. 2:1-10 occurred. This depends in large part upon whether we associate that visit with the one mentioned in Acts 15, as do the majority of scholars, or with the one mentioned in Acts 12, as do a minority of scholars. (Other options, such as identifying it with the visit of Acts 18, are basically non-starters). If the former, then the visit of Gal. 2:1-10 probably occurred around 48; the latter, then sometime between 40-44. From this we, look at Gal. 1:18, which tells us that Paul first went to Jerusalem three years after his conversion, and Gal. 2:1, which tells us that he again went after fourteen years; we recognize that three years probably here means "more than two but no greater than three," and fourteen "more than thirteen but no greater than fourteen"; that the three years could be included in the fourteen years, or in addition to; and thus the conversion occurred thirteen to seventeen years before the crucifixion. This means that the conversion happened no earlier than 23--which can be moved up to 29, as it must postdate the crucifixion--and no later than 35.

So, how does this help us? In terms of establishing an undeniable, "it definitely couldn't have happened any year other than this," not at all. But in terms of allowing us to make informed judgments--which is where historical reasoning matters the most (anyone can establish possibilities; the hallmark of an actual thinker is the ability to take the risk of being wrong and say that this possibility here seems more likely)--quite a lot, for now everything depends upon whether one thinks that the Jerusalem trip of Gal. 2:1-10 is that of Acts 12 or of Acts 15. If one thinks that it is the trip of Acts 15, then one is still left with 29 to 35 as possible years for the conversion and thus the crucifixion. But if one thinks, as do I (for reasons I'll not get into here, lest the post gets even more bloated), that the trip of Gal. 2:1-10 is that of Acts 12, then one must judge that the conversion happened between the latter part of 29 through 31 (44 less thirteen yielding 31, and 40 less seventeen yielding 23, but again, moved up to 29). Now, although it is possible that Paul converted later in the same year as Jesus died, that seems a bit tight chronologically. The Christian movement proper doesn't get started, according to Acts, until May or June of that year, at Pentecost, leaving very little time for the events and developments that we can infer from Acts 3-8 if the conversion occurred in the same year. Thus, I'm disinclined to opt for a crucifixion in 31. As such, I'm inclined towards either 29 or 30 as the probable years of the crucifixion.

Here is where I would tentatively turn to the astronomical data. Helen Bond has recently challenged whether or not Jesus actually died at Passover or on a Friday, and while she makes some interesting observations ultimately I think that Brant Pitre's treatment of the matter in Jesus and The Last Supper shows that this likely remains the case. And on the astronomical data, I think it more likely that ancient persons would have ended up celebrating Passover on a Friday in 30 than in 29. Thus, I opt for Passover in 30 as still the most probable date for the crucifixion, but with Passover of 29 rather than Passover of 33 as a close second.

And that, my friends, is how historians do.

Nota bene: Douglas Campbell has argued that on the basis of 2 Cor. 11:32, correlated with data from Josephus, the conversion should be dated with certainty to 33 or 34. It is a well-argued position, but ultimately I do not think that the data permits the confidence which Campbell has in his chronology. I have a article on the matter, which is forthcoming in Journal of Biblical Literature, so I won't steal my own thunder here. Alexis Bunine published a solid rejoinder in Revue Biblique, which has not had the exposure that it deserves, probably because it was written in French.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

It's Inference, People

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine who was staying in Toronto for a bit came to visit me at the Lonergan Research Institute. Around 11 am, he texted me to say that he was at Bay and Bloor. I immediately apprehended three things. One, he had taken the subway to get to the LRI. Two, he had taken the Bloor-Danforth line. Three, he had just exited the Bay St. subway station, which is located at Bay and Bloor. How did I know all this? Well, because I know the city, and I knew that he knows the city. I know that Bay and Bloor is the closest station on the Bloor-Danforth line to the LRI. I know that the only reason one would specifically text from that location to say one is in the area is if one was just getting out of the station. I further know that he had exited the station because I know that wi-fi is virtually nonexistent in Toronto subway stations. This is all data, and when presented with the new datum that was this text message, led me to correctly apprehend my friend's past actions, even though I neither witnessed them nor was told what they were.

And that is history. That's how we make judgments. We take our relevant knowledge about the world, and use that to infer what happened in the past. The study of the ancient past does not differ from this methodologically. It tends to be more difficult, not for methodological reasons but rather empirical. Quite simply, our data on the past is spottier than that on the present. That increases the work that must be undertaken to arrive at historical judgments, and requires us to recognize more fully that historical judgments are always implicitly if not explicitly probabilistic. Some can be described as certain, or if we're exercising an abundance of caution virtually certain. For instance, using a modern example, we can be virtually certain that on 31 August, 1939, Hitler ordered German forces to invade Poland on the following day, and that this resulted not only in Polish defeat but also in the start of the Second World War in the European theatre. In the ancient world, we can be virtually certain that the Battle of Issus occurred on 5 November, 333 B.C.E., resulted in Macedonian victory, and was a crucial moment in the conquest of the Achaemenid empire. Other matters will allow comparable certainty, but less specificity. We can be virtually certain that Jesus died on a cross at Passover, sometime between 27 and 35 (after the earliest that we can date the fifteenth year of Tiberius, but before Pilate left Judea); that Paul was converted no earlier than the summer of 27 (as his conversion postdated Jesus' death) and no later than 35 (thirteen years before the Jerusalem conference), and that he died sometime between early 62 and mid-68 (after the end of his two years at Rome, but before Nero's death as we know that he died under said emperor). We can marshal evidence to present arguments for particular dates within those specified possibilities, but barring new evidence no one argument is likely to exceed the level of possibility (although that said, in each case we can suggest that both the very early and the very late dates are far less likely than those in the middle). But the crucial point is that while our capacity to speak with certainty to the specific details of the lives of a Jesus or Paul might be less than our capacity to speak to the life of a Hitler or an Alexander, that is not due to methodological but rather empirical limitations. The fundamental procedure of historical judgment remains the same, whether inferring from someone's message that they took the subway to meet up with you, or inferring from data scattered across a number of relevant ancient texts that certain events had to have happened within a specified range. It's inference, people.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

RIP Sean McEvenue

Hello, all. The Lonergan Research Institute today received the sad news that Prof. Sean McEvenue, emeritus at Concordia University (Montreal), has passed away. Prof. McEvenue worked in the area of Lonergan and scripture, and his contributions in regard specifically to Old Testament studies have helped to fill a significant lacuna. A few of his more significant works include

Sean McEvenue and Ben F. Meyer, eds. Lonergan's Hermeneutics: Its Development and Application. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1989.

Sean McEvenue. Interpreting the Pentateuch. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1990.

Sean McEvenue. Interpretation and Bible: Essays on Truth in Literature. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1994.

Rest in peace, Prof. McEvenue.

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Why Hypocrisy Matters

It's become a veritable international past time to point out the manifest contradictions in the political positions adopted by other groups. One of my favourites consists of people who loudly proclaim that since the unborn are human beings we must take steps to ensure that they are born, yet actively place barriers in the way of women seeking adequate prenatal care. There can be no cogent defense of such a position. Denial of such prenatal care increases the probability of fetal death, precisely what the opposition to abortion claims to find so repugnant. A coherent pro-life position must also seek and support policies that will increase access to adequate prenatal care, although exactly what those policies might be will no doubt be a matter of legitimate debate. When a self-proclaimed pro-life position lacks such coherence, we can rightly describe it as hypocrisy. But I think it is something deeper. It is a contradiction, and it communicates some very important data.

Here we can learn much from the Marxist and Freudian traditions. Both put contradiction--whether economic or social or cultural or personal--at the centre of analysis. What we learn from these traditions is that it is insufficient albeit potentially accurate to pass a moral judgment on the contradiction before us, which of course is precisely what we do whenever we diagnose it as hypocrisy. Rather, we must ask why this contradiction exists. Marxist thought will tend to see contradiction as generated by and evidence of class conflicts, while Freudian thought will tend to see contradiction as generated by and evidence of repressed desires. A Marxist account might observe that both the prohibition of abortion and the barriers to adequate prenatal care will tend to be implemented by upper-class persons and disproportionately affect lower-class persons, and thus conclude that both are elements in a more generalized class struggle. A Freudian account might observe that both the prohibition and the barriers are typically implemented by male persons while female persons are the most immediately affected, and thus conclude that both represent male fantasies about dominating and controlling women. Both will likely conclude that the arguments from morality ("protect the unborn," "universal healthcare obviates our freedom to choose") seek to obfuscate the actual motivations from self or others: a Marxist might suggest that these arguments are ideological attempts to disguise class struggle, while the Freudian might suggest that these are psychological defense mechanisms intended to avoid acknowledging the pathological drive for control. Both accounts argue that in fact the apparent contradiction has what we might call a higher-level unity, whether rooted in class conflict or in psychological repression.

It must be emphasized that in this sort of analysis what matters is not whether either of the two positions that stand in contradiction are well and good. Rather, what matters is that they cannot both be coherently affirmed by the same person at the same time. By contrast, one can coherently hold that we must protect the unborn, and from this position argue both for a prohibition against abortion and efforts to increase access to adequate prenatal care. Alternatively, one can coherently hold that both abortion and access to adequate prenatal care are necessary components of women's rights. Neither position is immune to moral critique, but the critique operates on a different level than is involved with the analysis of contradiction. Precisely the absence of contradiction allows us to more fully accept that the reason the person gives for her or his position is in fact the primary reason. This is where the Lonerganian tradition will tend to differ from the Marxist or the Freudian: whereas the latter tend to suppose that everything (except strangely not frequently their own operations: itself a not uninteresting tendency for contradiction) is suspect, the Lonerganian tradition recognizes that there must be cogent empirical reasons to suspect ill-will.

(Nota bene: I recently stumbled upon a fascinating excursus in Ben Meyer's unpublished material that aims to take fuller account of the insights provided by the Marxist and the Freudian traditions and their mastery of suspicion).

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Romans 13, Again

Every fall, graduate students who work in Lonergan studies gather at Marquette University for a conference named Lonergan on the Edge. This year, the graduate students have chosen as their theme "The Problem of Liberation." This is, I think, very timely, not just with respect to Lonergan studies but also with respect to the growing global fascination with authoritarianism. In this spirit, I want to continue thinking about Romans 13, now within the context of liberation theology and exegesis.

For those unfamiliar with the term, "liberation theology" refers to a fluorescence of theological thought in the post-war era that has focused upon the question of social, economic, and political liberation. If I might sum it up in a single sentence, the foundational premise of liberation theology is that if Jesus came to save humanity then that must entail saving humanity from unjust conditions. From this, liberation theologians argue that Christians have a duty in the concrete here and now to work towards constructing an equitable world in which all are free to become the best version of themselves. Liberation theology has made significant and enduring contributions to Christian thought, not least because it represents a decentring from the theological hegemony of white, male-identified, straight-identified, cis persons hailing from western Europe and its more privileged colonies, in order to create space for persons of various backgrounds and experiences to speak from their reality and to their world.

Liberation theology has wrestled significantly with the Christian scriptures. Some of these scriptures are easy to deal with if one is a liberation theologian. For instance, the story of the exodus has become a central leitmotif in much liberation thought. But it must also deal with narratives and passages that prima facie do not proclaim liberation but rather submission to authorities. Romans 13:1-7 is an example of such a passage. Liberation theologians and exegetes influenced by liberation theology have often attempted to neutralize this passage by saying that of course Paul understood that not all authorities pursue the good, and that in those cases they must be resisted. I find myself generally unpersuaded by these arguments. That they are on shaky empirical ground seems evident when they must resort to arguing that this or that passage in Paul implies that Christians should resist the empire and the emperor, and that of course Paul couldn't come right out and say it, because of fear of the imperial authorities. I am not as convinced as such exegetical colleagues that we can know what Paul meant to but did not say. I just don't think that we can turn Paul into a liberation theologian avant la lettre. Paul must be read in his own place, at the level of his time. And that place and time was one in which those persons with relative privilege thought that the Pax Romana was a largely unmitigated good; that slavery was a necessity and even a good; that the subordination of female persons to male was just the natural order of things; etc. In such areas, Paul frankly gives nary a hint of breaking with his apparently affluent upbringing, and in fact the classicist G.E.M. de Ste. Croix has cogently argued that in some regards Paul was even less "progressive" than his fellows.

If liberation theology--or any Christian who desires a Christianity that uplifts rather than tramples down the marginalized--is to flourish, it must come to terms with Paul on a level other than exegesis. One can pretend that Paul says the opposite of what he says, but that would constitute a failure to be attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible. One must simply accept that Paul was, at best, indifferent to imperial rule. We never read in him anything negative about the empire or the emperor, and in his earliest biography he does not hesitate to take advantage of his privileges as a citizen. The question cannot be "Given that Paul opposed the empire, how can Christians resist oppressive state regimes today?" but rather "Despite the fact that Paul failed to oppose the empire, how can Christians resist oppressive state regimes today?" Here some of the work of liberation-oriented exegetes can be retrieved. No, we cannot state that when Paul says that there is one lord, namely Jesus, he must have considered this to be a challenge to Caesar's legitimacy to rule. There is simply no evidence that Paul drew this conclusion, and it is bad exegesis to suppose that authors are always aware of the necessary corollaries of their own statements. But we can state that this is indeed a necessary corollary of Jesus' lordship as conceived by Paul, and with that insight build towards a theological argument for resisting oppressive regimes. Paul need not have drawn the necessary corollaries of his own statements for the contemporary Christian to do so. Put otherwise, we must remember that the work of theology includes but is not exhausted by or completed with scriptural exegesis.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Jesus the Sinner: On the Theology of Jeff Sessions

Jesus is a sinner. Such, at least is the position of US Attorney General Jeff Sessions.


Mr. Sessions holds that Romans 13:1-2 necessitates unqualified obedience to governing authorities. And with this we can agree: a prima facie reading of these passages suggests exactly that. But as anyone with a basic theological education knows, the prima facie reading of Rom. 13:1-7 is one of the most contested in the history of Christianity. Part of the reason for such contest is that we simply know from experience that governing authorities sometimes act in ways that are utterly at variance with the highest aspirations of Christian values. To select a random instance, they sometimes pursue policies that entail separating children from their parents and crowding them into giant kennels barely fit for stray dogs. But even beyond that experiential aspect, Romans 13 itself gives us good reason to rethink the prima facie reading, for if we read vv. 1-2 as does Sessions then we must conclude from v. 3-4 that Jesus was an wrongdoer.

This will be obvious if we look at Rom. 13:1-4 in full, quoted from the NRSV:

13:1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.

Vv. 1-2 indeed say that all should be subject to the governing authorities, as Sessions argues, and it indeed provides no qualification on this. V. 3 gives the reason for the position taken in vv. 1-2: "rulers are not a terror to good, but to bad." The passage further explains that if one does what is good, one will win the authority's approval, and that if one does what is wrong one should fear violence from the authority. On a "hard reading," Paul does not allow for the possibility that the authority might execute wrath on good people. On a hard reading, Paul states that anyone who experiences the wrath of the authorities must be a wrongdoer.

And of course, as we all know, Jesus experienced the wrath of the authorities. That in fact is how he died. As such, if Sessions is correct in his reading of Romans 13:1-2, Jesus must be a wrongdoer. Jesus must be a sinner. So Jeff Sessions.

Put otherwise, Jeff Sessions is a heretic who has radically departed from the fundamental tenets of the very Christian faith by which he tries to justify the administration's policies. He presents a litmus test not just for whether or not American society has sufficient decency to be morally shocked and outraged by this intentional attack upon children and families, but also whether or not self-proclaimed Christians have sufficient commitment to their religion so as to reject rank heresy.

Returning to the man Paul, I don't think that he thought that Jesus was a sinner. That is too clearly excluded from his writings more generally. As such, I think that there are two possibilities in thinking about Romans 13 from the perspective of the author. First possibility: Paul supposes but does not say that there are authorities that act in ways contrary to the good. Second possibility: Paul has not thought through the implications of his position as articulated in 13:1-4, as it pertains to Jesus' death. I rather suspect that the latter is more likely the case. Remember that Paul is writing to Christians in Rome, Acts shows a pattern of conduct on his part of turning to Roman authorities for aid. I think it entirely plausible that as someone who (I suspect) grew up in relative comfort, born a citizen in a time when citizenship still entailed a decent amount of privileges, Paul's experience of the Roman authorities was largely positive. (I've often wondered if he would write Romans 13 exactly the same the day after his execution by Roman authorities). I suspect that he has not yet reflected upon the fact that it was specifically the Roman authorities who ordered his Lord's death. I further suspect that if confronted with the fact that his words in Romans 13:3-4 necessarily entail that said Lord was a sinner, he'd say "Heaven forbid!" and rethink the matter.

In either case, the use of scripture in a contemporary context is informed but not dictated by what the scriptural writers intended. Christian theology must always remember that all persons operate at the level of their time, including the persons responsible for producing sacred scripture. As such, as much as one might recognize that the scriptural writers were inspired so as to reveal divine truth in a peculiar fashion, they did so as persons embedded in particular contexts. As we translate their insights into our contexts, with our own horizons, some things will inevitably be lost and some things inevitably be gained. Lost will be an immediate, direct connection with their horizons. Gained will be two to three millennia of historical experience and more crucially reflection upon the very words of scripture that we are reading.

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

We're all sick

Speaking about the development of values in the early modern period, Erich Fromm in Escape from Freedom writes that "The individualistic relationship to God was the psychological preparation for the individualistic character of man's secular activities." Obviously, there are shades of Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism here, and not surprisingly Fromm cites Weber with sympathy (although he is more fully dependent upon Tawney's Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, but that said it is perhaps worth mentioning that Tawney himself was quite rightly cognizant that the whole discussion was labouring in Weber's shadow). But what interests me more than the Weberian resonances and the ongoing questions about Protestant Ethic is that Fromm explicitly apprehends two distinct domains of human experience, what we might call the psychological ("the individualistic relationship to God") and the social ("the individualistic character of man's secular activities"). But I would in fact argue that Fromm implicitly apprehends three distinct domains in this quotation and certainly throughout Escape from Freedom, with "the individualistic relationship to God" properly defined as cultural and "psychological preparation" as a distinct matter of psychological appropriation. Put otherwise, I think that Fromm in 1941 apprehended at least in part the insight that Doran would make explicit in 1990's Theology and the Dialectics of History: that culture serves as the domain mutually mediating between the personal and the social.

If Doran is correct, then we should not be surprised by Fromm's argument that the psychological and the social are essentially isomorphic, and I would again make explicit the implicit presence of the cultural. Socially, the human animal under capitalism--arguably "late capitalism" all the more so than early modern)--is an atom, defined not by the force it exerts upon or experiences from other such atoms but rather by its wholly autonomous self; this can only be sustained of course if persons living under such an social regime psychologically adapt by accepting themselves as such atoms; and such widespread adaptation can only be achieved if a culture emerges that presents the person as standing in such an atomistic relationship with foundational reality. Only persons who believe themselves to be atoms because everything around them tells them that they are atoms can function fully as an atomistic social regime needs if it is to sustain itself. Isomorphism between society, culture, and person seems necessary for any community--from the smallest units up to the largest states and institutions--to sustain itself long-term.

This insight has tremendous value for those of us whose primary research interest is in a period other than the modern, for if such isomorphism is necessary to sustain any community then we now have the basis for a powerful set of analytical tools. When we see long-term sustainability of a given social arrangement, we have reason to suspect that such isomorphism existed. Perhaps the best example of this from the ancient world is ancient Egypt, whose pharaonic model of government survived in its broad outlines for three millennia; even in the interregnums between the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, it seems that in general this pharaonic model of government persisted, albeit less effective at meeting its own intended ends than at other times in Egyptian history. We might also cite the endurance of the Confucian model in East Asia up until modern times, or perhaps the Indian caste system. Conversely, when we see a community rapidly disintegrate, we have reason to suspect that isomorphism has not been sustained or alternatively has not been maintained. This probably helps in part to account for the collapse of various twentieth-century communist regimes: never able to develop communist cultures as deeply embedded as the capitalist culture of "the west," these regimes were plagued by various instabilities as person's psychic lives were seriously out of step with their social lives. (By contrast, capitalism's capacity to sustain itself despite the clear evidence that it is facilitating gross inequality unparalleled in human history, and that--by reducing the nature upon which we depend to a set of resources that we might pillage for profit--it has in fact become an existential threat to the human species, can probably only be explained by the high degree of isomorphism between society, culture, and person that it has managed to achieve. The problem is that in the face of these clear dysfunctions such isomorphism is itself dysfunctional: a fact that no doubt helps in no small part to explain the deepening mental health crisis. One rather suspects that much--one also suspects far from all--that we define as mental illness is the normative response of healthy psyches to profoundly unhealthy situations).

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Inter-traditional Antagonism

I've been reading Kieran Allen's excellent little book, Weber: Sociologist of Empire. Allen rightly addresses Weber's antagonistic relationship towards Marxism, an antagonism generally reciprocated by Marxist scholars. This intersects quite neatly with David Pavón-Cuéllar's Marxism and Psychoanalysis, which more extensively treats the at times mutually ambivalent relationship between Marxist and psychoanalytic thought. I'm sure it wouldn't take much work to find tensions between Weberian and psychoanalytic thought also. Following upon my post of the other week, this raises a legitimate and urgent question: how can intellectual traditions that have often stood in tension be thought to mutually enrich one another?

Here I am reminded of the first pages of Lonergan's Method in Theology, in which Lonergan identifies three "channels" in which method can run. First, it can run in the channel of the Great Teacher: one finds a mentor and aims to more or less slavishly follow her or his example. This mentor might be a living person, in the case for instance of a doctoral supervisor, or it could be someone from the past, such as a Marx or a Weber or a Freud or an Aquinas or a Calvin. Frequently--but hardly always--this is the methodological channel followed by those most vigourously identify themselves as Marxist or Weberian or Freudian or Thomist or Calvinist. A second channel seeks to identify those disciplines or schools of thought that have been particularly successful in one's time, and again to more or less slavishly follow their example. This often takes the form of faddism. Whether it was imitating Wolf's Homeric source criticism in the formation of Pentateuchal and thus Synoptic, or folkloristics in the formation of form criticism, or the linguistic turn in the formation of (the new) literary criticism, or postmodern suspicion in the development of biblical minimalism, biblicists have long been inveterate band-wagon jumpers.

None of the above should be taken to deny that insights haven't emerged from (say) Marxist biblical scholarship or Pentateuchal source criticism. Quite the opposite is the case. It is to say that insights that emerge from work undertaken in the first two methodological channels will tend to suffer from a lack of coordination with insights that emerged from Great Teachers or various sciences. The above points us towards the need for a third methodological channel, which is precisely what Lonergan proposes. This is a transcendental channel, in that it aims to transcend both particular Great Thinkers and Great Traditions, and also particular sciences. This however is an inclusive transcendence: it does not dispense with these thinkers and traditions and sciences, but rather seeks to operate at a level that methodologically allows us to first identify genuine insights in their work, and to second integrate these insights into a coherent whole. The movement to the third methodological channel often consists in deciding that one aspect of our collective existence is particularly foundational. For instance, Marxist thought at its best has always aimed towards such a transcendence, and when people talk about "reductionism" in Marxism what they very often mean is that they object to the Marxist decision to foreground material conditions as the foundational principle of a transcendent view of human existence.  Likewise the psychoanalytical decision to foreground personality structures and unconscious impulses, often at the expense of material conditions, or the Weberian decision to foreground cultural values. Such decisions apprehend genuine albeit partial insights into reality, and properly objectified can open and facilitate discussions about the nature of transcendental method.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

On Max Weber

This blog has been idle for a couple months. The reason is that towards the end of January, I accepted the executive directorship of the Lonergan Research Institute in Toronto, Ontario, and the work of transitioning from St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia to Regis College in Toronto has occupied more of my attention than I would have preferred. And I find myself increasingly thinking about how the LRI might contribute to developing and implementing Lonergan's thought, and this has me returning more and more to my first love: social and cultural theory. I find myself increasingly thinking about how Lonergan and those who have built upon his work can help us integrate the genuine insights achieved by what we might call the "great traditions" of the social sciences (a term somewhat misleading, as the social sciences deal not only with the social but also with the cultural and the personal, but we will work with what we have), which I would identify broadly as the Marxian, the Weberian, and the Freudian (or psychoanalytic).

In thinking about this, I have the good fortune of being able to build upon the work of one of my predecessors in the directorship of the LRI, Robert Doran, whose Theology and the Dialectics of History remains the most thorough synthesis of the social sciences from a Lonerganian perspective. As it is precisely synthesis with which I am concerned, this is a salutary contribution. The work is chock-full of insights, of which three are particularly relevant: culture is that which mediates between society and the person; the Marxian tradition speaks most fully to the matter of society; the psychoanalytic tradition speaks most fully to the matter of the person. There is much of value here, and I would affirm all these insights as necessary and indispensable for thinking synthetically about the social sciences. As a movement towards fuller synthesis in my own articulation, I would perhaps say that the Marxian tradition starts with the social and moves towards the personal; the psychoanalytic starts with the personal and moves towards the social; and the cultural is where they meet each other halfway. Articulated as such, we would very much want to complement the Marxian and the Freudian traditions with a third tradition that starts from culture and moves towards both the social and the personal. I would suggest that this is precisely what we find in the Weberian tradition.

Of course, Max Weber is not unproblematic: for instance, many of his particular historical arguments—advanced over a century ago, by a synthesizer often working outside his primary area of specialization—have hardly withstood the test of time, and his advocacy of empire raises legitimate questions about his morality. Yet, what interests me is the way in which Weber seeks precisely to account for the dynamic between economic development on the one hand and the person on the other. The best-known example of this is his justly famous The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, in which he argues that modern European capitalism emerged from a specifically Calvinist ethos that sought worldly affluence in order to demonstrate to self and other that one is among the elect of God. The pursuit of divine grace was translated into the pursuit of worldly goods. Although this is the best-known example, the dynamic between economic development and the person resounds throughout Weber's work. We see it in his subsequent studies of the relation between economics and world religion—The Religions of ChinaThe Religions of IndiaAncient Judaism (at the time of his premature death in 1920 from the Spanish flu--a belated and indirect casualty of the First World War--Weber planned to continue this series, with studies of early Christianity, rabbinic Judaism, and Islam, among others; one of the great tragedies of modern knowledge is that he never was able to produce these volumes)—and his unfinished Economy and Society (which includes the three or so hundred pages excerpted as the monograph known as Sociology of Religion). We can quibble about whether or not Weber’s interpretation of Calvinism, capitalism, and their relationships, or of other any particular, historical matter holds up empirically. What interests me is the way in which Weber situates culture at the centre of his analysis, rather than as the secondary consideration that it constitutes in both Marxian and psychoanalytic thought. Weber, I think, significantly contributes to thinking foundationally about the “third term” between society and the person, and more crucially about how that third term functions precisely as mediator. It allows us to adopt a multi-faceted strategy for building the synthesis of social-scientific insights: two flanks moving towards the middle, and a middle moving towards the flanks. The dynamic intersection of these movements moves the entire discussion to a new level, one where the seemingly intractable dispute about whether to foreground the personal or the social dissolves into the need to foreground precisely the relationship between the two.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

MeToo and Method

A couple weeks ago political scandal rocked my home province, Ontario. The leader of the Progressive Conservative Party (the name isn't as oxymoronic as it sounds, if one understands the history of Canadian conservatism) resigned in the wake of allegations of sexual misconduct, which of course he vehemently denies. As inevitably happens in such cases, everyone has an opinion, but most people I note do not know how to think systematically about forming their opinion. Since the question in these cases is fundamentally historically--what happened??--I rather suspect that historical method might aid us here.

Now, history as I conceive it proceeds by way of inference to the best explanation. What we seek to explain is human conduct: what scenario gives us an account in which all respective actors act in a maximally intelligible (which is not the same as rational or even intelligent; something can be intelligibly irrational) fashion. Towards this end, we first query the data. The data for us is not what happened; that is what we seek to know. Rather, the primary data is what is said about the case. The first significant set of data are the reports that two women have alleged that when they were eighteen Brown plied them with alcohol and they ended up alone with him in his bedroom. The first incident (involving whom we will call "Woman A") is alleged to have happened when Brown was in his late twenties and already working as a lawyer, the other (involving whom we will call "Woman B") when he was in his mid-thirties and a member of the Canadian federal parliament. The other significant set of data is what Brown himself says about the case. He acknowledges that he knew both women at the times of the alleged incidents. In response to the first allegation, Brown acknowledges that he was acquainted with Woman A at the time of the alleged event, but argues that her account is demonstrably false because she says that they ended up in his second-floor bedroom when he did not move into a residence with a second floor until shortly after the incident allegedly occurred. In response to the second, Brown acknowledges that he and Woman B kissed in his bedroom, but argues that not only was it consensual but she initiated it.

In thinking about the best explanation, I play with possibilities. I ask how I can account for this data if the women are telling the truth, and how I can account for it if Brown is. I will begin with Brown, as I think this will best elucidate the procedure. If Brown is telling the truth then on his own account we must believe that Woman B followed him into his bedroom, initiated intimate contact, and then years later decided to accuse him of assault. Moreover, we have to assume that Woman A wholly fabricated an account about Brown engaging in misconduct in order to support Woman B's allegation. We would have no evidence regarding their individual or collective motivations. At best, we'd have inchoate suspicious that they are part of some political conspiracy to bring down the leader of the official opposition. The women's actions are unintelligible. So too is Brown's, really, as one wonders how a thirty-something member of parliament who is wholly circumspect in his conduct with women ended up alone in his bedroom with an eighteen-year-old woman.

What happens if I flip the scenario around and ask how I can account for the data if the women are telling the truth? First, I can readily account for why they have brought forth the allegations: having been violated by a man who according to the polls was poised to become the next premiere of Canada's largest province in this spring's election, and at a time at which women are experiencing greater freedom in reporting sexual misconduct, they decided that they had to come forward and tell the world what happened to them. Their conduct now makes eminent sense. It also makes greater sense of Brown's: he would hardly be the first man guilty of sexual misconduct to accuse his victims of lying.  His admitted intimate contact with an eighteen-year-old woman alone in his bedroom now makes much better sense: he is simply a sexual predator who uses his power as a lawyer or member of parliament to take advantage of younger women. Again, there's sadly nothing too exceptional about that. Indeed, his overall conduct fits well with another set of data, namely the known tendency of abusers to deny, minimize, and blame; the denial is not itself particularly probative, as it could in principle speak equally to an innocent man defending himself against false accusations, and minimization ("it was consensual") and blame ("she initiated it") on their own might not be enough to conclude that he is lying, but it would tend to reinforce a judgment of guilt made on other grounds. Everyone's actions are now fully intelligible.

What about Brown's argument that Woman A's account must be false because he did not move into a residence with a second-floor bedroom until shortly after it is alleged to have happened? This too is readily intelligible. The report is that the incident happened when she was a high school student. His argument, as best I can tell, is that he did not have a second-floor bedroom until the summer of the year she graduated high school. An intelligible explanation is readily available: the report that she was a "high school student" at the time of the incident should be taken loosely to include the summer after she graduated. It doesn't strike me as a particularly significant imprecision in language to refer to someone as a "high school student" in the weeks immediately following the end of her grade twelve year. Alternatively, she herself might be remembering the exact timing of the event a bit inaccurately: perhaps she thought it was in, say, June of that year, when it was really in July. Combined with the other data, the timing of the alleged event and of his move into a residence that conforms to Woman A's description is sufficiently close that slight imprecision in language seems a better explanation than the idea that Woman A has fabricated her account, as is his attempt to use such slight imprecision to obviate the allegation.

My decision to believe the women here is not political. It's not ideological. It's rational, grounded in an attentive and intelligent working through of the relevant details of the case. Yes, of course, new data could alter my judgment. For instance, if evidence was found that both women received large and inexplicable payments from the Liberal Party just hours before the story was reported, then that could change things. But given the data currently available, there is no reason to anticipate such new data, and in the absence of such reason it would be unreasonable to substitute yarns about possible payments to interfere with good judgment on the basis of the extant data. Patrick Brown remains innocent in the eyes of the law, but in the eyes of any careful historian things look different.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Voegelin and the Late Bronze Age

I haven't posted for awhile, in part because I've been working on a particularly challenging paper to be presented at a conference next month. It will be my first formal unveiling of the project I've tentatively titled Israel and the Dialectics of History, which aims to work out the theory of history developed by Lonergan and those who have built upon his work, especially but not exclusively Robert Doran. In a certain sense, this project entails that I return to much the beginning of such work, as Doran was deeply influenced by Eric Voegelin's Order and History, especially the first volume, Israel and Revelation. In particular, Doran drew upon Order and History to develop the notion that the dialectic of culture entails a dynamic relationship between what Voegelin called cosmology and anthropology, each of which has to do with where we locate the source of social order: cosmology locates it in the cosmos, anthropology in a world-transcendent source such as God or reason. One of Voegelin's arguments is that cosmologically-oriented cultures often transition to anthropologically-oriented cultures when social breakdown is so extreme that the cosmos can no longer function as a coherent model for social order. Voegelin (pp. 44-45 of Israel and Revelation) suggests that Israel appears to be historically unique in that it made the shift from a cosmological to an anthropological orientation without such a breakdown.

Part of what I am arguing in the paper mentioned above is that Voegelin is empirically mistaken. That he is should occasion little surprise. He was not a biblical scholar, and Israel and History is now more than sixty years old and thus not informed by more recent advances in our knowledge. But we now know that the earliest Israelite settlements in the Land were probably those that appear in the hill country towards the end of the Late Bronze Age, c. 1200 B.C.E. This period is a period of collapse throughout the eastern Mediterranean. This Late Bronze Age Collapse triggers the Greek Dark Age, and occasions a sharp decline in Egyptian control over Canaan. By c. 1150 Egyptian suzerainty over the region comes to a terminus, and the New Kingdom itself doesn't survive the next century. The Canaanite city-states largely disappear, and the Philistines (likely an Aegean people displaced by the fall of the Greek palatial system) appear on the Levantine coast. Such systems-wide collapse (for that is what we're dealing with here) does not occur overnight, and indeed there are signs throughout the 13th century of political disintegration and breakdown in the eastern Mediterranean. The Ramesside kings regularly campaign in Canaan, a fact typically taken as an indication of Egyptian strength but perhaps should be better seen as an empire that is having ever-greater difficulty to maintain control over its holdings. Likewise, the great Egyptian building projects of this century should perhaps be seen not as indications of a civilization at its zenith but rather of a faltering state increasingly dependent upon monumental works to give the symbolic illusion of continued greatness. It is precisely in this period that the majority of scholars who still believe in some sort of exodus would locate the event, and also at this time that Israel first emerges in the historical record.

Our knowledge of Israelite religion at this time is limited by the nature of the data. That's life when one does history. But the biblical conviction that Israel's foundation as a people in the Land correlates closely with a shift towards a more world-transcendent understanding of society makes very good sense within Voegelin's theory of history as developed in Order and History. In fact, I would argue that when we recognize that Israel seems to have emerged during a time of significant political breakdown, it perhaps makes even better sense than he himself realized.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Why I am not a Marxist

I love Marxist thought. Always have, at least as long as I've known what Marxist thought is. Perhaps it is because of a grandfather who deeply respected the "Reds," as he called them (he fought in the Second World War, and I don't think that he ever got his head around the idea that Soviet Russia stopped being our allies afterwards), and in fact traveled to the USSR in the early 70s, at the height of the Cold War. Perhaps it is because I could recognize that at their best Marxists are deeply concerned with matters of justice that also deeply concern me. For a number of reasons I would not identify as Marxist, but I nonetheless recognize that as a result of that genuine concern with justice, Marxist thought has generated a host of genuine insights that enrich our understanding of our shared reality.

So, that all said, why wouldn't I identify as a Marxist?

In order to answer that question, I need to take a bird's eye view of the last two centuries or so. Starting around 1800 or so, western knowledge of the ancient past and also of the non-western world exploded. During the course of the 19th century we learned how to read Sanskrit (this actually began a bit earlier), ancient Egyptian, ancient Sumerian, etc. For the first time we really came to seriously study the religions of India. The foundations of scientific anthropology took hold. During that century our understanding of the many different ways of being human--past and present--increased exponentially, up to and including our awareness that humanity isn't even necessarily self-identical with the species that we call Homo sapiens sapiens (were Homo habilis or Homo erectus or Homo sapiens neanderthalensis any less human species than ourselves?). Marx's achievements--spanning much of that period--represent the fruit of those discoveries. But the discoveries were not finished when Marx passed away in 1883 (and being only 64 when he passed, neither was his planned work. In particular, one can only wish that he had managed to write somewhat more about the connections that he saw between his own work and that of Darwin. Such deeper reflections of one of the modern world's most influential thinkers upon the thought of another such thinker would be invaluable). As is inevitably the case with any thinker of Marx's calibre, his thought requires correction by subsequent developments. I have become persuaded that such correction alters Marx's thought on foundational levels, such that what remains can no longer be properly described as Marxist but rather as something informed significantly by Marx.

In particular, I continue to come back to a problem flagged by Lonergan: in Marx, the cause of and remedy for inequity are virtually identical. The cause of inequity is class struggle. The remedy is class struggle. The problem is bourgeois rule. The remedy is to replace this with proletarian rule. The difficulty, as Lonergan noted, is that the remedy simply reproduces the problem. This isn't a new insight: the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin recognized this during Marx's own lifetime, and predicted (correctly, as the twentieth-century proves) that the vaunted communist revolution would simply lead to new forms of oppression. (The split between anarchists--not this Orwellian appropriation of the name by modern Randians but rather the actual anarchist tradition that emerged following the work of Godwin and Proudhon--in fact was over precisely this matter). I would argue that to build upon Marx in the wake of twentieth-century totalitarianism is to recognize that in fact something more radical than Marx's own remedy is needed. Class itself must be opposed as a concrete aspect of what Lonergan describes as group bias. In fairness to Marx, he grasped that class itself is the problem, but I don't know if he fully apprehended the consequences of that insight. I would argue that he erred in thinking that the ascendance of one class over the currently ruling class could bring us closer to a post-class society. In effect, instead of enabling those who built upon him to better combat group bias he enabled them to better promote their own group at the expense of others. (Again, in fairness to contemporary Marxist thought, reflection upon the twentieth-century has led to an increased awareness of this problem. I would simply argue that any genuine correction would so radically change the bases of Marxist praxis as to functionally create something other than Marxism).

Incidentally, my interest here has to do with how to understand the "revolutionary" dimensions of the biblical tradition. Marxist and Marxist-informed scholarship has correctly noted that the biblical tradition is often quite critical of the ruling classes in ancient Israel and Judea, as well as in the broader Near East and (later) the Greek and Roman worlds. The question for me is whether they the people who produced these texts were simply critical of the ruling classes or more basically of class itself. My sense is the latter, which of course remains an instance of the "preferential option for the poor," as opposition to class itself entails necessarily the conviction that there ought to be a more equitable distribution of resources. Perhaps the greatest contribution by liberation theology, with its interest in rehabilitating Marx for theological discourse, has been to recognize that in all-too-often opting preferentially for the rich the church has debased itself by a failure to apprehend that class division impoverishes the ruled materially but the rulers spiritually.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Did King Josiah Exist?

According to 2 Kings 22-23, during the reign of King Josiah (c. 640-610 BCE) the "book of the law" was rediscovered in Jerusalem. This led the king to implement a wide-ranging program of reform, aimed at bringing Judahite religious life into conformation with the strictures of the book. For over two centuries, beginning with de Wette, biblicists have typically supposed that in fact what happened was that this was the time at which at least the core of the Deuteronomistic legislation was written, and the king either duped into thinking it was ancient material or went along with the fiction. Increasingly, the Torah and what came to be known as the "Deuteronomistic History" (i.e. Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1/2 Samuel, and 1/2 Kings) came to be seen as products of the 7th through 5th or even 4th centuries BCE, and their stories projections of contemporaneous concerns on to the ancient past.

I am struck by a remarkable hermeneutical inconsistency in the treatment of the biblical material. There is no direct extra-biblical evidence for the exodus. Therefore, it is often said, we cannot affirm that there was an exodus, and in fact we might have to affirm that there wasn't. Well, there is no extra-biblical evidence for Josiah's existence. In fact, there is more extra-biblical evidence for the existence of King David than for the existence of King Josiah, yet while there remain scholars who doubt David's existence few doubt Josiah's. One could argue that the fact that much of the Deuteronomistic History originates in Josiah's time is sufficient reason to conclude that he existed, but of course that is simply to beg the question of when this material originated. One might argue that the relative temporal proximity between the texts and Josiah versus David and certainly Moses makes the account of Josiah's reign intrinsically more compelling, but that really doesn't hold. Given the text-critical data, these texts could in principle date at least a couple centuries later than Josiah's reign, and any reasonable mechanism that could be considered to have transmitted material reliably over two centuries can almost certainly be considered to have done so reliably over five (we're not dealing with a game of Chinese Whispers here)--and that assumes that the texts should be thought to date so close to their earliest extant copies in the first place (it's hardly unknown for texts to predate their earliest extant copies by several centuries). And even if we grant Josiah's existence, why should we think that the events described in the text have any bearing upon reality? Why should we affirm that with a slight alteration (the text was written rather than "found") this is basically what happened? There is perhaps some shift towards a stronger aniconism in the late pre-exilic era which could be thought to reflect the Josianic reforms, but that convergence between the biblical and the archaeological data is no greater than those between, for instance, the Judges and the settlement patterns of the Iron Age I central hill country. If the Josianic convergence is granted, so too should the Judges convergence be granted.

The above is not to argue that the earlier material reflects the general course of Israelite history. Rather, it is to say that any hermeneutic that allows one to affirm a historical Josiah who was involved in widespread religious reform cannot be abandoned when one turns to other material, and that this hermeneutic will tend to generate a history of ancient Israel that looks much more like traditional narratives than is often granted among contemporary biblicists. One can be methodologically skeptical and one can be methodologically credulous. What one cannot be is methodologically skeptical in the treatment of some biblical data and methodologically credulous in the treatment of other, at least not if one hopes to produce an empirically sound historiography.