Sunday, 21 December 2014

A Hermeneutics of Trust? Part II

So yesterday I responded to a suggestion on the SBL site that the society should have a section on the hermeneutics of trust for people who "take the bible and history seriously." I did what I know how to do best: advance arguments for why this will not work hermeneutically or historiographically. In the discussion on FB Margaret Aymer Oget pointed out an issue whose significant had not fully impressed itself on me: persons who belong to historically marginalized groups--women, persons of colour, LGBT persons, etc.--have a hard time subscribing to a hermeneutics of trust when reading a book that has in complex ways contributed to that marginalization. Dr. Oget is 100% right, and I thank her for her insights.

This really drove home to me the importance of diversity within the SBL. As white, straight, male I know that I have blinders. And that in and of itself is fine. We are all a product of our experiences. What is not fine is refusing to deal with those blinders. One must actively work to overcome the blind spots, or what Lonergan calls scotosis. One does this by the work of actively listening to others, letting them teach you about their worlds. That is why diversity is so important. It's not just because women and persons of colour and LGBT persons should have an equal shot at success in our discipline, although that is definitely the case. It is also because a diverse discipline contains a rich mixture of experiences that can mutually enrich and correct each other, and I am just optimistic to believe that through such mutual enrichment and correction we are moving slowly, collectively, painfully, towards greater understandings of our world.

So I stand by my initial critiques of the idea of a hermeneutics of trust. To them I add insights brought to my attention by persons with experiences different from my own. And for those insights I am quite grateful.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

A Hermeneutics of Trust?

Recently the following was posted on the SBL's Facebook page:
Given SBL's pluralistic vision and that there are now so many members who take the Bible and history seriously, should we think about proposing a section on Biblical History and the Hermeneutics of Trust? It could provide an alternate scholarly forum to the pervasive skepticism and post-modernism at SBL.
This is horribly problematic, for several reasons, which I will discuss below. First, however, a word situating my own thought. I am heavily interested in traditional historical questions. Not exclusively in such questions but heavily. I also tend to towards what many might describe as a maximalist understanding of such questions, although I must admit that I find the idea that we can know in anything but the broadest strokes what a historical figure said two millennia ago quite baffling. The point is that I am sympathetic to the idea that we can know a fair amount about ancient Israel, Judaism and Christianity and this in large but not exclusive part because of the biblical tradition.

That said I find this suggestion quite problematic, and were such a section to materialize I would be the first in line to produce a less-than-sympathetic review of its premises. First, politically, I am somewhat nonplussed about seeing the language of pluralism used to warrant what seems to be a somewhat reactionary program. Second, conceptually, I'm somewhat unsure exactly how hermeneutics is understood to operate within historiography. By my way of thinking hermeneutics is about how we going on figuring out what a writer intends to communicate; in other words, it is the theory of exegesis. Yet exegesis is not historiography. For instance, exegetically I am quite confident that Luke really does mean what he says in the opening verses of his gospel: he intends to tell us about the events of Jesus's life, and I think we can also generalize these to Acts such that we can say that he also walks to tell us about Christian development subsequent to Jesus's life. Yet even exegetically I have to acknowledge that Luke intends to tell us these things within the ancient framework that he operates. So I have to take account of things such as ancient historiography, and when I do I discover that many of the things that we value--chronological sequence, accuracy in quotation, etc.--maybe were not that significant to Luke. In fact I can point to places wherein it seems clear to me that Luke is clearly not ordering things chronologically. This renders the idea of "trust" difficult, for I have to ask exactly what it is that I am as a historian to trust?

Yet the more interesting thing is that none of the above even gets at the transition from exegesis to history. This idea of a "hermeneutics of trust" in historiography seems to me to operate on the implicit supposition that whatever Luke or any other biblical writer intends to tell us about past events is precisely what did happen. In such an understanding historiography is simply exegesis. Never mind referencing postmodernism: such an understanding of historiography was obsolete two hundred years ago. And not just in biblical studies; no competent historian after about 1800 works that way. And the impracticability of this hermeneutics is evident when we consider what to do with material that makes mutually contradictory claims. And saying that no such material exists in the biblical corpus, aside from being empirically unsound, is quite irrelevant, for any hermeneutics that we utilize in the study of the biblical tradition we must also be able to utilize in the study of the extra-biblical tradition. Yet there is manifestly material in the extra-biblical tradition that is at variance with the biblical tradition; it is hard to imagine even the most dyed-in-the-wool inerrantist saying otherwise. Quite simply not all claims about the world can be true simultaneously and thus one needs to distinguish between what is claimed and what is true.

And that brings us to a third point: trusting, for instance, that Luke intends to accurately tell me what happened in past in fact tells me nothing about whether he does so. Luke could be the most honest person in the world and yet be absolutely wrong. Indeed, for all my tendency towards what could be deemed to be a maximalist understanding of early Christian history there is more than one place in Luke-Acts wherein I think it demonstrably the case that Luke has muddled things up. What this simply says is that every historiographical question needs to be addressed on its own, without either programmatic credulity or programmatic skepticism (to use terms from Ben Meyer) getting in the way.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Your construction is too small

Whatever else might be the case the advocates of social memory theory are to be commended for making abundantly clear that the Jesus tradition is always already constructed by human agents. This is where we seem to stand now in Jesus studies: with the full recognition of this reality. Our current struggle seems to consist of discovering how, if all the tradition is constructed, can it be the case that we can ever learn anything about the historical Jesus from the Jesus tradition. Let us think this problem through via deeper engagement with the implications of constructionist theory.
Let us begin with that most basic articulation of a thorough-going constructionism:
All statements are constructed by human agents.
Surely any work in the human sciences and of course any critical hermeneutics must affirm this statement to be true. This must be the case, unless affirms either that statements somehow magically appear fully-formed or that whilst constructed there are no humans involved: both affirmations of course entailing some affirmation of the mystical, whether it is the work of the Holy Spirit or some vaguely defined cultural or social apparatus that somehow operates independent of the human agents of culture and society.
Having affirmed the above articulation let us consider certain corollaries of this affirmation. If the statement “All statements are constructed by human agents” is affirmed as true then it must be the case that the statement “All statements are constructed by human agents” must have been constructed by human agents. The opposite conclusion would require the judgment that at most some but definitely not all statements are constructed; but this would be to deny that which we initially affirmed and thus lapse back into mystical. Now, if we affirm as true the statement that “The statement ‘All statements are constructed by human agents’ is necessarily constructed by human agents” then we must also affirm that “Some statements that are constructed by human agents are true,” or, since we have already affirmed the statement “All statements are constructed by human agents” we can eliminate redundancy and affirm that “Some statements are true.”
This has clear consequences for certain rhetoric current in historical Jesus studies. Consequent to the work of social memory theorists a number of scholars have revived the radical skepticism associated most (in)famously with Rudolf Bultmann, at least one going as far as to publicly declare a New No Quest. The argument is functionally that since the Jesus tradition is always already constructed (such construction coded in terms of “memory”) then we can know little if anything about Jesus. The most radical form of such lines of argumentation terminates in mythicism, that school of thought made up mostly by internet trolls and a handful of published writers (only one with primary expertise in New Testament) that argue that Jesus never existed (of course it needs to be said that the “New No Questers” do not go this far, although one wonders how an affirmation of Jesus’s historical existence sits with their skepticism with regard to historical knowing).
Now, please, do not misunderstand me. I am not making a plea for returning to an obsolete historiography wherein we go through the sources asking which propositional statement is true (coded as “authentic”) and which is false. The point that I want to make here is that the statement “The Jesus tradition is constructed” is not ipso facto identical with “The Jesus tradition is without utility for the work of historical investigation.” It simply means that historical investigation must take into account the constructed character of the data. The gospels and other relevant material in fact do not consist of historical claims at all, not in the sense that the (post)(post)modern historian understands “historical claims.” Our judgments regarding truth or falsity regarding history are thus not rendered directly on the material to be found in the gospels or other relevant material but rather hypotheses that seek to make sense of that material. Exactly how to formulate and then judge such hypotheses is of course another matter (actually, two matters) upon which could write volumes; and in fact I am writing one, so I suppose I’ll stop here.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

The Prophet and the Priest

Rachel Held Evans wrote an interesting Facebook post the other day which resonates with certain thoughts that I've had of late. Three sentences in particular struck me, and I'll quote them in full.
I'm deeply skeptical of pretty much all religious leaders, whether it's Mark Driscoll or Rob Bell, the pope or the Dalai Lama. Local pastors aren't as much of an issue. Let's just say I'm wary of famous or powerful "gurus."
I'd like to do a little commentary on this, in the way that biblical scholars know best: sentence by sentence response (not exposition, as I don't think that it requires much exposition; Ms. Evans is a quite lucid writer whose thoughts are invariably expressed with notable clarity).

I'm deeply skeptical of pretty much all religious leaders, whether it's Mark Driscoll or Rob Bell, the pope or the Dalai Lama.
If one reads the balance of Ms. Evans's post one discovers that what she means by "skeptical" is what I would call "critical." That is, she's not advocating programmatic distrust (which I would describe as skepticism) but rather a healthy criticism. And to that one can only agree, not just with regards to religious leaders but all persons who make truth claims. Neither God nor the lucid thinker is a respecter of persons; she or he is interested in only one question, whether the truth claim in question is true and good. That's part of why I am a critical realist: it provides me with a set of tools for better answering that question.

Local pastors aren't as much of an issue.
Here I break somewhat with Ms. Evans. Perhaps it's my Plymouth Brethren heritage showing through but I tend to be as skeptical of local clergy as I am of big-name figures. (The connection with my PB upbringing is that the PB favour a congregationalist polity in which there are no pastors but rather elders, as pastors as seen as something foreign to the NT pattern of church governance). Actually, I would argue that without a larger ecclesiastical structure holding the local pastor accountable she or he tends to replicate many of the ills that might otherwise have occurred higher up in the hierarchy. Put otherwise there is always possibility for corruption at the top, and if the top happens to be the local pastor then that's where a goodly amount of ecclesiastical corruption will take place. I've seen more than a few horribly abusive ministers in my time, and it is not for nothing that in the case of the Roman Catholic Church, which has arguably the most fully developed hierarchy and bureaucracy in the Christian world, it was not the pope or the bishops who were abusing children but rather the parish priest. I suppose that my experience has led me to be a bit more wary of local clergy as Ms. Evans.

Let's just say I'm wary of famous or powerful "gurus."
As seems so often the case a return to Weber is warranted here. Let us recall his distinction between prophet and priest. The prophet has charisma purely on an individual basis, the priest by virtue of her or his office. Mark Driscoll or Rob Bell would fit into the former category, the Dalai Lama and the pope into the latter (the Dalai Lama is a special case: his appeal to the west is perhaps better described as prophetic whilst his exile from Tibet obviates much of his priestly functions). This distinction, whilst an ideal type (the messiness around the Dalai Lama reveals that it is ideal and not precisely actual), is not unimportant. Driscoll and Bell need to appeal directly to the populace whilst the pope can work through the hierarchy and bureaucracy of the church. Yes, the pope can at times appeal directly to the populace but that's not really the way that the papacy has typically worked. Such appeal is largely a function of modern mass media. The current Holy Father has been expert at this, as was his predecessor but one, John Paul II. Yet barely anyone cared what Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio had to say the day before he was elected to the papacy. No, it is just his position as pope that made him interesting.

What this means is that for all his formal power Pope Francis, or any pontiff, must ultimately take account of the reactions of the curia and other parts of the hierarchy. The recent synod vote around homosexuality in the church makes that quite clear. He must also be responsive to the faithful, for ultimately they can vote with their feet. That's no doubt why he is making moves to be more inclusive of LGBT persons: precisely those regions where the church is demographically the strongest are also those regions where support for LGBT rights is the highest. Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll: they don't have such limitations. It's not that they won't be held accountable: Driscoll's recent fall from grace makes that clear. But it does mean that the accountability is more ad hoc. This ultimately goes back to my comments about wariness towards the local pastor, because what are Bell and Driscoll but local pastors with really large congregations?

So on balance I'd extend Ms. Evans's wariness around religious figures to include the local pastor whilst also nuancing her critiques of the famous and the powerful to distinguish between the Weberian prophet and priest ideal types. That said I would suggest that these are friendly amendments to Ms. Evans's concerns. The basic point remains: one must be not a respecter of persons but rather a respecter of truth and goodness.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

The Scandal of Redaction Criticism

I've been thinking about redaction criticism. As we all know redaction criticism operates upon the difficulties in the text--the disjoints, the contradictions, the awkward transitions, etc.--seeing these as evidence of redactional activity. This necessarily supposes that more difficult passages are typically secondary to less difficult passages. This is an interesting supposition because it is virtually the opposite of that supposed by textual critics, who suppose that less difficult passages are typically secondary to more difficult passages. The textual critic supposes that editors reduce textual difficulty whereas the redaction critic supposes that editors introduce textual difficulties.

Redaction criticism tends not to go back to the manuscript tradition but rather to work with critical editions, such as the NA28. The difficulty though is that the NA28 has been generated by textual critics, who are operating with the above-mentioned tendency to prefer more difficult readings to less difficult ones. This creates a critical edition in which potential difficulties are maximized. Since the redaction critic adopts the opposite principle, that difficult readings are more likely secondary, the appearance of widespread redaction is also maximized. This however is to a large extent the artifact of a conceptual difficulty, namely the contradictory understandings of an editor's work adopted by textual and redaction critics.

Let us imagine then that textual and redaction critics adopted identical understandings of an editor's work. What would result if the textual critic agreed with the redaction critic, thus judging textual difficulties to typically be secondary rather than primary? In that case we would have a critical edition with fewer difficulties and thus evince less evidence of redaction. What would result if the redaction critic agreed with the textual critic, thus judging textual difficulties to typically be primary rather than secondary? In that case we would have a critical edition with greater numbers of difficulties and thus evince less evidence of redaction. Put otherwise redaction criticism would be greatly vitiated if its understanding of the work of the editor coincided with that of textual criticism.

This is of course not to deny the work of redactors in generating ancient texts. It is to suspect that perhaps we have a bit too much confidence in our ability to detect such work in the texts themselves. Insofar as historical Jesus studies have for the better part of a century, since the advent of form criticism, operated with a felt need to distinguish between traditional (read: non-redactional) and redactional material this has potential significance for that area. If our capacity to detect redaction is vitiated then so too is our capacity to distinguish non-redaction. Of course this ceases to be a problem the moment that we realize that historiography is not a literary analysis and that the question of redaction is largely a sideshow in the work of historical Jesus studies.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Institutional Criticism

My Doktorvater, Anders Runesson, has become to refer to what he does as "institutional criticism." Whilst I'm not in love with the seemingly endless proliferation of "criticisms" in our field I do think that it's a reasonable description. It also covers a great deal of my interests. Even within historical Jesus studies I am far less concerned with determining what Jesus said and did then with determining how he interacted with existing institutional structures whilst contributing to the emergence of new ones. Eventually I want to work on Paul, and there I want to consider his significant role in fashioning this institution that we call the church.

I almost said "interacted with and transformed existing institutional structures" in reference to Jesus but in truth I don't think that his work transformed many if any institutions. No doubt his movement drew inspiration from precedents within the Jewish heritage, perhaps especially prophetic movements. But formal similarity, even intentional patterning, does not mean a structural identity. Jesus and his movement will enter the temple and synagogues but in the end effect little if any transformation therein. Of course centuries later Jewish institutions will become in many ways defined by their interactions with majority and ruling Christian populations but that is really quite remote for the historian (but not the dialectician, who operates precisely on the level of the longue durée). We can say, I think, that with Paul we see clearly an emerging early Christian mutation (to borrow a word that Larry Hurtado used to describe the emergence of Christology) of the ancient synagogue but all indications are that these grew up in parallel to rather than as a transformation within preexisting synagogues.

Anyways, just some musings whilst I stare outside at the bleak winter's day (alas, but we caught the tail end of Winter Storm Knife here in the Greater Hamilton and Toronto Area), waiting until I can check-in online for my flight to San Diego. See you all in the land of sun and fun!

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Objectivity and Subjectivity

There is a baffling rumour circulating, namely that objectivity and subjectivity are mutually exclusive, such the presence of one obviates the latter. This results either in the denial of objectivity or the denial of subjectivity. The problem with this rumour of course is that is grounded in profoundly superficial sophistry.

In full, the argument for denying objectivity goes like this. "Objectivity is the absence of subjectivity. Yet at all times we operate as subjects. Therefore objectivity cannot exist." Certainly true, if objectivity is the absence of subjectivity. Yet given the conclusion objectivity cannot be the absence of subjectivity for objectivity does not exist then it can't be anything. When the conclusion obviates one or more premises we are moving into sophistry territory. Likewise with the argument for denying subjectivity, which goes like this. "Objectivity is the absence of subjectivity. We can and do know objectively. Therefore subjectivity does not exist (or at the very least can be set aside)." The problem with this is that, whilst logically valid, the conclusion is demonstrably false. We operate as subjects; that is indisputable. The conclusion is clearly unsound. And a clearly unsound conclusion supported by valid argumentation again moves us into the area of sophistry.

The key here is to simply cut the Gordian knot, and this by denying that subjectivity and objectivity are antithetical to each other. In the Lonerganian tradition objectivity is the subjective state in which one is more concerned about what is true than about what one would like to be true. A person operates objectively when she or he says "Although I would love to live in a world in which unicorns exist I know that we do not live in that world." Opting against one's preferences vis-à-vis the matter of truth is the hallmark of objectivity, and since people demonstrably do this there is demonstrably objectivity in this world. That is not to say of course that when someone judges that the truth is congruent with her or his preference that she or he is not operating objectively; it is simply to state where objectivity is more clearly evident. The objective subject is one who knows how to discover truth and sets out to do so.

The question then becomes how does one achieve the subjective state that is objectivity. Lonergan's work is largely dedicated to answering that question. He sees objectivity as the result of intellectual, moral, and spiritual development within the subject. Thus it follows that objectivity is not obviated by subjectivity but rather is the fruit of a highly developed subjectivity. Objectivity is the subject operating at her or his cognitive best. Put otherwise, "Be a subject. Just be the best subject that one can be." Consequently it has become my opinion that anyone who says "But that is all subjective," implying necessarily an absence of objectivity and thus any capacity to know truth, evinces an underdeveloped subjectivity, one that has not yet reached the breakthrough of recognizing that one can be both a genuine subject and a genuine knower at the same time.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

The New Perspective on the Synagogue (also, my SBL paper)

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post on “Archaeology and Lonergan” one of the things for which I am profoundly grateful is my formative grounding in synagogue studies. I had the remarkable good fortune of studying under Anders Runesson, whose 2001 dissertation The Origins of the Synagogue constituted the first monograph-length study devoted wholly to synagogue origins since the 17th century. Although this book requires some updating in light of more recent discoveries it should be required reading for every New Testament scholar. Unfortunately, perhaps because it was published through Almquist and Wiksell (Stockholm), it is not as well-known as it ought to be. I would love in fact to see Anders produce an updated second edition with a better known publisher. His sourcebook on the synagogue, co-edited with Donald Binder and Birger Olsson, although also dated by more recent discoveries despite being all of seven years old, is equally indispensable, and needs in fact to be on every NT scholar’s shelf.

Anders’s work, and that of a host of other synagogue scholars (of whom the dean has long been Lee Levine), have fashioned over the last thirty years what we might call a “New Perspective on the ancient synagogue.” For instance, whereas one used to read confident assertions that the synagogue emerged during the Babylonian exile we know now this to be pure speculation. There is in fact no evidence to support this view; it’s an utter non-starter. Most relevant for my primary interest though, viz. historical Jesus scholarship, has helped establish beyond any reasonable doubt that, yes, there were synagogue buildings in the land before 70 C.E. In retrospect it is strange to think that this was ever in question. Yes, only relatively recently did we find archaeological remains of pre-70 synagogues. Even if I grant that the argument from silence allowed one previously to dispute the existence of synagogues, or perhaps more precisely synagogue buildings in the land pre-70 certainly that cannot any longer be case. In point of fact there was never any silence. We always had texts referring to synagogues in the land pre-70. And the moment that you have to tell me that the gospels and Josephus are all anachronistic in picturing synagogue buildings in the land pre-70 is the moment that I turn to more interesting discussions, perhaps those surrounding who will win the present season of Survivor (N.B.: I have not watched Survivor in fifteen years, so that contextualizes how interesting I would find even that discussion).

This of course is of great significance to my own work, and it would have been very difficult to carry out my doctoral work with a scholar less versed in synagogue studies than Anders. Too many discussions of the aposynagōgos passages (John 9:22, 12:42, 16:2, which contain the only NT uses of what is perhaps the Johannine neologism, aposynagōgos, or “out of the synagogue”) continue to ignore the New Perspective on the ancient synagogue. Once one develops any fluency with the New Perspective the confident assertion that it was simply impossible that one could be expelled from a synagogue pre-70 begin to look highly questionable. In fact, one begins to wonder what evidence supports this negative (and note that supporting a negative is always tricky business, for significant epistemic reasons). One soon realizes that the “evidence” for this assertion is not really evidence at all but really an argument from silence. Well, actually not an argument from silence, because the Johannine gospel is not silent on the matter, and it turns out that it too constitutes historical data. Rather it’s an argument from non-corroboration. And it is a fallacy.

I won’t go over why it’s a fallacy, as it suddenly occurred to me that this post is largely reproducing what I have already written to present next week at the SBL. So instead I’ll just give you a link to said SBL paper, if you are interested in reading more about my own take on the New Perspective on synagogue studies and its significance for historical Jesus and Johannine scholarship.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Archaeology and Lonergan

I was just reading Charlesworth's introduction to Jesus and Archaeology, that wonderful, delightful, huge, if now a bit dated 2006 work on, well, Jesus and archaeology. I came across this passage on p. 24:
New Testament scholars are not usually devoted to archaeology and are sometimes wary and even hostile to the field (if not the discipline). Why? There are probably two reasons. The foremost reason is the absurd claims made about the significance and alleged superiority of archaeology over biblical studies. The distrust seems to be because archaeologies methodologies are too foreign to New Testament specialists and too removed from theology; that is, New Testament scholars are in languages..., textual studies, exegesis of the biblical text, biblical and church history, and theology. Only later, almost always after formal training, do some New Testament specialists learn about the methods and purposes of archaeology.
As I read this I found myself, whilst agreeing with Charlesworth, noting that it is not actually reflective of my own formation. I took an undergraduate in anthropology, wherein I took several courses in archaeology. In fact I came into my undergraduate degree planning on being an archaeologist, until I realized that I was in fact interested in ancient history (which, to my young mind, was synonymous with archaeology). When I started graduate school I was really more comfortable talking about archaeological than exegetical method and theory. That's changed of course, as I did not pursue graduate studies in archaeology but rather biblical studies. Still, I was fortunate enough to have a Doktorvater who put a premium on archaeological evidence, especially as it relates to the ancient synagogue.

So I'm not an archaeologist but I have spent a lot of time thinking about archaeology. And now I'm thinking about it again, with specific relationship to Lonergan and the New Testament. The first point to be made is that part of the brilliance of the Lonerganian framework is that it works with archaeology as well as biblical studies. Be attentive, be intelligent, be reasonable: this is the task of the archaeologist as well as the biblical scholar. Indeed, for Lonergan the distinction between biblical studies and archaeology would heuristic rather than ontic, a product of functional specialization. That is to say, archaeology is not biblical studies but the two relate in a dynamic and mutually enriching fashion.

We tend to focus upon what archaeology can contribute to biblical studies, and of course it has much to contribute, but it occurs to me that biblical studies has much to contribute to archaeology. This is very clear to me, having studied North American archaeology before ever looking seriously at the archaeology of the Holy Land. When you deal with peoples who left no written records your capacity to determine their cultural practices and values, including religion, is greatly diminished. Comparably "biblical archaeology" has an embarrassment of riches; first studying within a discipline that genuinely suffers from a lack of data I have never quite understood the notion held by many biblical scholars that we suffer from such a lack. When I turned from a focus on the First Nations peoples of North America to Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity I was in fact overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of the data. The archaeology of the Holy Land would be greatly impoverished without the biblical and cognate literature, which is to say without literature of any kind. Consider: how would we ever know that a synagogue is a thing to look for in the archaeological remains if we had not texts attesting to their existence?

I have tended to focus my attention in thinking about Lonergan to thinking about how his thought can help coordinate various approaches to text and history. I increasingly realize that I must also consider how it can help integrate archaeological discoveries into our historiography. Sigh. Just when you think you have it figured out you realize that you don't.

Monday, 10 November 2014

No, I don't use the criteria of authenticity (or, on how I know what I am doing)

As a follow-up to my previous post on the criteria of authenticity I would like to address an issue raised in response via Facebook. The issue can be phrased as question: are you not employing the criteria of multiplicity and of coherence in your own example? The answer, simply, is “No.” Yes, I note a multiplicity of similar data; yes, I note that from this data one can infer a coherent narrative. It does not follow that I am using criteria of authenticity. In fact I’m not, for a very good reason: authenticity is not my question.

Authenticity, in this particular connexion, refers to whether or not one can state that a given account in the gospels, a given pericope (or “cut out,” to invoke the Greek etymology), describes events that, in that perennially mischievous phrase, “go back to Jesus.” In other words, “Did this really happen?” That is not my question. My question is “What happened?” Those are in fact quite different questions. The latter question does not necessarily depend upon answering the former. This is indicated by that equally perennially equivocation, “something like this,” as in the phrases: “Jesus said something like this,” “Jesus said something like this.” The “something like this” is an explicit concession that Jesus did not do or say this, for “like” is not “is,” which is to say that similarity is not identity. Thus the answer “Jesus did something like this” is in fact an answer to the question “What happened?”, not to “Did this really happen?”, for the latter question can only admit of two answers: “Yes or no.” I suppose one could then modify the question to read “Did something like this really happen?”, but that is again to concede that an affirmative answer is possible only if one has already given a negative answer to the initial question, “Did this really happen?” Moreover, it raises that delightfully sticky question, “How ‘like’ must ‘something like this’ be in order to actually qualify as ‘something like this’?”

Thus in the example of the Bethany/Bethphage complex, given in my initial post, I argue that the data is sufficient to judge that Jesus did indeed have followers in and around Bethany/Bethphage. I do not state that any given account is “authentic,” or “happened.” Such a statement is what the criteria are calculated to allow; it is not what I aim to do. Therefore I am not using the criteria of authenticity because I am not making judgments of authenticity. Put otherwise, the genitival “of” in “criteria of authenticity” means something, such that not just any invocation of heuristic insights regarding multiplicity of data or coherence of narratives will be instances of the criteria of authenticity.

Note further that in fact I am not using the criteria of multiple attestation or coherence, as they are commonly articulated. The criterion of multiple attestation is fully the criterion of multiple independent attestation. It states that if two witnesses, independently of each other, both report much the same thing on a given matter then we can suppose that something much like those reports occurred (note that pernicious “something like” again). I am not using the criterion of multiple independent attestation because independence is irrelevant to my argument. Put more precisely, I do not think that there is such a thing as genuinely independent attestation in the gospel tradition. “Independence” in this connexion has always implicitly, sometimes explicitly, meant “literary independence.” But the stuff of history is not textual relations but human relations, and first-century Christianity is much too small to realistically think that the evangelists did not receive knowledge via media other than writing. In other words, oral interference interferes with the criterion of multiple attestation. When I speak of a multiplicity of data I mean precisely and only that: the Bethany/Bethphage complex recurs sufficiently in the tradition that whether it has come to these sources independently or not (a matter that we probably cannot establish) is quite beside the point. Come to think of it Mark Goodacre said much the same in his chapter on the criterion of multiple attestation in Keith and Le Donne’s Demise of Authenticity.

Nor do I use the criterion of coherence. The test of coherence that I employ is not whether the data coheres with that which is already affirmed as authentic, which is what the criterion of coherence tests. It cannot be, as I am not interested in affirming anything as authentic. So if there are no judgments of authenticity regarding the data to what can further data cohere? Coherence is a perfectly good test, especially when directed at the coherence of my hypothesis. Is it coherent? Is it logically valid? Does it make good internal sense? Even better is correspondence, defined as finding adequate warrant for my hypotheses in the data. Put negatively, and to borrow a phrase from Schröter, does the data "veto" my hypothesis? Is my hypothesis rendered unlikely given what we find in the extant data? That is the question. And among those hypotheses that survive that acid test, which account for the greatest amount of relevant data with the fewest number of suppositions?
To sum up. I am not employing criteria of authenticity because I am not concerned with questions about authenticity. And not every instance of advert to multiplicity or coherence in Jesus studies constitutes use of the criteria of authenticity, and certainly will not when authenticity isn't the question. And whilst surely there are criteria of judgment they are precisely that: criteria of judgment. They ask: by what do I judge a hypothesis to be reasonable or unreasonable. Is the hypothesis adequately parsimonious? Does render the data unintelligible? Etc. They are, in short, what puts the "critical" in "critical realism."

Saturday, 8 November 2014

On What the Criteria of Authenticity Cannot Do

As happens most days that the earth is spinning around the sun I have been thinking about the criteria of authenticity again. In particular I've been thinking about what they can't do. And what they can't do is a lot. They can't tell us anything that isn't already in the sources.

Collingwood has a great example that is quite apposite here. Imagine I see a sailboat in the water. I look away, then back again a few minutes later. I see the sailboat still in the water, but in a different location. Now, all the criteria of authenticity can ask is what whether I actually saw the sailboat. Was my apprehension genuine? What they cannot do, because they do not ask this sort of question, is ask how it is that the sailboat is in two places. The answer, obvious without any particularly sophisticated procedure, is of course that the sailboat moved along the water.

Consider now an example from the gospels. Nowhere is Jesus said to have engaged in efforts to recruit followers in Bethany/Bethphage, just outside Jerusalem. Yet all the gospels suggest that he has followers in that region before his final journey to Jerusalem. This is clearest in John's Gospel of course, when we encounter the family of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. This is intimated in the Synoptics, when Jesus knows where in Bethany/Bethphage his followers can find the animal(s) that he needs for his triumphal entry into the city and tells them what to say if challenged. The criteria at best can tell us that these passages describe events that really happened. They cannot tell us what we must reasonably infer, namely that prior to his first visit to Bethany/Bethphage either Jesus or others operating on his behalf must have worked to establish the connections that we see throughout the passages in what we might call a "Bethany/Bethphage complex."

Note that the above example does not depend upon the authenticity of any particular passage in this complex. It only requires that from the existence of this complex we can reasonably infer that Jesus had supporters in and around Bethany/Bethphage. Luke might in fact evince some awareness of such earlier contacts; cf. his account of the anointing, wherein the episode of anointing, which in the other gospels occurs in Bethany/Bethphage near the final entry into Jerusalem and in the other Synoptics at the house of a certain Simon the Leper, occurs earlier in Jesus's ministry at the house of a Pharisee named Simon. The similarities are sufficient to think that they are all drawing upon the same tradition, and Luke's decision to locate it earlier than the rest is quite tantalizing (does he know of the Johannine tradition surrounding Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and thus that Jesus was in Bethany/Bethphage earlier? Does he omit the name of the location of the anointing in order to make the account better fit his structure?).

But I digress. The above does however bring us to a further difficulty with the criteria of authenticity: they cannot easily handle discordant accounts. Take the sending of the Twelve and the Seventy(-Two). Matthew, Mark, and Luke have Jesus send out twelve missionaries to the villages of Israel; Luke has a second account in which Jesus sends out seventy or seventy-two. The criteria can only determine which of these putative events happened. When they come to Luke then the question is "Did Jesus send twelve, seventy(-two), both, or none?" They cannot easily reckon with the possibility that the sending accounts are entirely schematic, that perhaps Jesus sent out different followers at different times as he either thought it necessary or as he thought them ready. Perhaps there was never one sending or two of a specific number but a whole bunch of sendings, in dribs and drabs, and the Synoptic Gospels merely telescope this into one or two accounts. Note that I am not arguing that this is the case; I am merely arguing that it is a quite reasonable possibility but one that the criteria cannot apprehend.

Anyways, yeah, the upshot is that I don't think that the criteria work.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Paul, Lonergan, and the Law

I've been thinking about Paul lately, for a variety of reasons. It has me thinking about Paul and the Law. I know: stunningly original topic. No one has enter thought about Paul and the Law before. Yet there you have it.

Thinking about Paul and the Law also gets me thinking about Lonergan, as in, how would one think about Paul in Lonerganian terms. As a Jesuit and a theologian Lonergan is not unfamiliar with Paul, and cites him on occasion. That's not what interests me. What interests me is how, as a New Testament scholar active in 2014, working on this side of the New Perspective debates, how might Lonergan's overall project help me think about Paul?

One of the central problems of Pauline interpretation is understanding how it is that Paul can both affirm that the Law is good whilst sharply critiquing the Law. Lonergan has this wonderful phrase, "the level of our time." By that he means that insights from one generation build upon other, such that over time truth leads to truth whilst dispensing with errors. As such one can affirm that there was a time when x was well and good but that that time has passed. I think that Paul evinces a similar but less-developed awareness. The less-developed aspect of this awareness is primarily that Paul could not understand the concept of development itself; as Meyer has argued we did not begin to fully grasp the significance of development, whether doctrinal, or biological, or social, or psychological, until the nineteenth century. Thus he has to envision any such transformation as a sudden rupture; he lacks the conceptual apparatus to do otherwise. Thus, in acknowledging that the Law as written no longer works for the world as is he must suppose that epochal change is underway, and moreover it had to be something that God always intended; and this change he locates in Jesus.

What is interesting is to compare Paul to the rabbinic tradition. The rabbinic tradition likewise evinces an awareness that the Law as written no longer works for the world as is, at least not without some effort. Its response is to generate an ever-developing set of texts and discourses to make the Law work in our world. The world as is now has cars; how therefore should one relate to cars in a way that is consistent with the Law? What is again interesting is that this ongoing development was given warrant by a narrative that denied the presence of development, or more exactly could not conceive the presence of development. Thus emerges the idea of Oral Torah: all the Law was given to Moses at Sinai, even if we are just now writing it down. Of course today Judaism, like Christianity, has become aware of development and thus its brightest intellectual lights are articulating ways to think about halakah in a way that is both historically and theologically robust; and it strikes me that one of the great developments of the twentieth century, in both traditions, is that each is now listening to and learning from the other in ways almost unprecedented in their respective histories.

If the historical Jesus ever lets go of my imagination I might one day turn more fully to Paul. In the mean time, those are some initial thoughts on Paul, Lonergan, and the Law.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Anchor and John's Gospel

I've heard some rumours of late that the Anchor Yale Bible Commentary series is looking to replace the venerable Gospel of John commentary by Raymond Brown. Whilst I love Brown's commentary, and would hate to see it become unavailable (as Bultmann's was for many years, before Paul Anderson worked to resurrect it through Wipf and Stock), I have to also say that I've been waiting for news of a new AYBC Gospel of John for some time. Brown's commentary is almost fifty years old, and whilst its treatment of the Johannine text is second to none it is definitely showing its age. Apparently Father Brown was working on an updated edition when he passed away, and that was almost twenty years ago. The time hopefully is nigh for a new Johannine entry in this venerable series.

This got me to thinking: how would an AYBC commentary on John's Gospel look if written today? Any volume in the AYBC should be representative yet exceptional. That is a tough balance. It shouldn't be idiosyncratic; I go to AYBC to discover the major exegetical and historical issues surrounding a biblical book overall or a particular passage. Certainly writers in the AYBC series can and should take stands, even controversial stands, on these matters; but frankly when I read Luke Timothy Johnson on the authorship of 1 Timothy I am less interested in his judgment that it was written by Paul than I am in his treatment of the arguments for and against that judgment. And that's where exceptionality comes in. Johnson's treatment is not exceptional because he adopts a minority position. It is exceptional because he presents the material in a way that an initiate to the discussion can quickly find her or his bearings. This is a remarkable service to the discipline, and one achieved by the best of the AYB volumes.

It was one achieved by Brown's commentary. The problem is that Brown is, for obvious reasons, engaged with a long-past state of the discussion. Of the material in Brown's commentary the most dated is the introductory matter. Brown wrote during the heyday of redaction criticism, wherein detailed reconstructions of the text's history was all the rage, as was the subsequent albeit quite questionable step of translating that textual history into a community history. Whilst many scholars might still in principle affirm that such procedures are legitimate they are no longer the focus of Johannine studies, and any commentary that made them a focus would be looking backwards rather than forwards. Conversely, Brown was writing at a time when the idea that John was a major source for the historical Jesus, perhaps even on par with the Synoptic Gospels, bordered on the laughable. I'd want to see more attention paid to the consequences of the remarkable quantity and quality of Johannine scholarship that has, directly and indirectly, resulted from the work of the SBL's John, Jesus, and History Group. I'd want to see a discussion of Johannine theology that engages with the arguments of the "early high Christology" crowd, as well as a strong emphasis upon the Jewishness of the text. I've long thought that John's Gospel is both one of the most deeply Jewish and the most distinctly Christian texts of the New Testament, and I think that this is being increasingly borne out as the scholarly enterprise more precisely defines such matters as Johannine Christology. Related to Christology, recent years have seen major conceptual advances in our capacity to correlate our understanding of a text's theological reflections upon Jesus of Nazareth with its historical judgments upon his life; I'd like to see the fruits of these reflections in such a contemporary. More than anything I'd want to see such matters introduced thematically in the intro and then revisited throughout the commentary proper.

For all my disagreements with certain aspects of Brown's thinking on John's Gospel, for all my sense that the commentary is dated, Brown would be a tough act to follow. But with the right scholar--perhaps a Paul Anderson or a Tom Thatcher--we could have a text that will still be read profitably by students and scholars in 2060, just as in 2014 we still read Brown's commentary with profit. Here's to hoping.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Paul and Multiculturalism

The recent attacks on Canada's Parliament Hill have me returning to a subject that has preoccupied me and every thinking Canadian's mind in one form or another for most of my life, namely multiculturalism. It became most acute in the post-9/11 world, as Muslim and really any darker-skinned individuals became increasingly profiled as potential terrorists simply by virtue of their creed or colour. Now, my primary training as a thinker is in New Testament studies, so that is where I tend to go when I think about serious things in the world. And this all has me thinking about Paul and his efforts at reconciliation between Jewish and Gentile persons and groups within the context of the ekklēsia.

Now, for obvious reasons, Paul did not have in mind the relationship between Muslim and non-Muslim persons within the broader context of a modern liberal democratic state, and as such any direct application of Pauline statements to the contemporary context is deeply problematic. No, precisely because two millennia of history have elapsed between Paul and today we have to think in terms of development. We have to consider that Pauline thought has, over two thousand years of reading and knowing the text, permeated our collective consciousness. Such a way of thinking is not unrelated to the projects of recovering Paul recently carried out by continental philosophers such as Badiou and Agamben, among others. And through so doing we begin to reckon with the possibility that multiculturalism in fact has profoundly Christian roots, or put otherwise that the Canadian practice of multiculturalism is a nation-wide radicalization of Pauline thought so as to embrace not just incommensurable gender and ethnic and class differences as did Paul but incommensurable religious differences as well. One suspects that one could well frame most of our most painful struggles within the Canadian state in terms of Pauline struggle: the tension between French and English paralleling the tension between Jew and Greek; the inequality between First Nation and European peoples paralleling the tension between slave and free; the struggle for LGBT rights paralleling the tension between female and male. Our solutions, I think, tend to be ones that Paul would approve, as despite his reputation I think him a deeply cosmopolitan rather than parochial thinker.

I state this not to engage in some sort of Christian triumphalism but rather to suggest that those who assail multiculturalism as somehow opposed to Canada's Christian heritage are in fact deeply misguided. Rather multiculturalism is the distinctly Canadian way of working out that heritage. It is an appropriation of the Pauline legacy in a novel way. It is one that we see developing in Lonergan's work, even if Lonergan never uses that term and rarely addresses the Canadian situation directly, and I hold increasingly that Lonergan should be seen as providing some of the strongest theological and philosophical work supportive of Canada's multicultural vision. Likewise I think work yet needs to be done to situate Lonergan as a deeply Pauline thinker, but that's another matter.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

On "Religion"

I've been thinking about this whole "Religion is a modern, western, concept and therefore it is anachronistic and illicit to think in terms of 'religion' in pre-modern, pre-western, contexts." It occurs to me that this is grounded in a fundamental misconception of what it means for something to be socially constructed, and this due to an antecedent commitment to what Lonergan calls "idealism."

Five difficulties. at least, are overlooked in this discussion. First, they elide the distinction between "constructed" and "not real." Social and linguistic constructions are too often treated as if they are ipso facto false when in fact the exact opposite is the case. Constructions are very real, with very real consequences. Just ask the people dying in Iraq because ISIS has constructed them as polytheists. Second, they elide the distinction between "similar" and "sameness." To call Islam a religion and Buddhism a religion is not to say that they are the same but rather that in certain ways they are similar, perhaps most notably a concern with what we might call "ultimate reality" (i.e. what is the ultimate origin of all that we experience; and pointing out that Buddhism's answer is to deny the reality of ultimate reality would hardly mean that Buddhism is unconcerned with ultimate reality but merely to state its own distinctive approach to the matter). Third, they entail a markedly artificial understanding of discourse, one that ignores how people actually use language. The supposition is that if in reference to a given historical context we cannot speak about religion in the sense that we use it in reference to contemporary phenomenon then we cannot speak about religion at all. Under-considered is the reality that when in academic discourse I use "early Christian religion" I recognize, and assume reasonably that competent readers will recognize, that this is something quite distinct from "modern Christian religion," that in fact the adjectives "early" and "modern" do important linguistic work, signalling the precise semantic meaning to be given to both "Christian" and "religion." Fourth, it fails to consider that just because people are unaware that something is happening in their midst does not mean that it was not happening in their midst. Meyer talks about this with reference to development: Christian religion was always marked by development, even if it took until the mid-19th century for Christians to develop the conceptual tools to recognize that development. This is to say, showing that the ancients had no concept that translates directly to what we mean by "religion" does not mean that they had no phenomena that could be grouped under that term as the broad umbrella. Fifth, there is lurking in the background an interesting western and modernist linguistic hegemony: if the pre-modern or a non-western people does not have religion as we understand the term then they did not or do not have religion at all.

Ultimately much of this discussion flounders on the rocks of pragmatism. We have to have some word to distinguish analytically between what an ancient Jewish women did daily in the marketplace and what she did when she went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. If we excise "religion" and by extension the adjective "religious" then we will have to invent terms that do the work that they did. Rather than reinvent the wheel why not simply retain those terms and remember the hardly new lesson that their religion is not the same as our religion? I.e. that to group two distinct entities under the categorical heading "religion" denotes that they are similar not that they are the same.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Why the Historical Jesus is Indispensable to Theology

I was recently rereading Scot McKnight’s excellent article in Demise of Authenticity, “Why the Authentic Jesus is of No Use to the Church.” My interest in this rereading has to do with my current work on Lonergan and Meyer, and specifically was to think about how it is that Meyer can consider the historical Jesus to be of great benefit to theology, given McKnight’s reservations on the matter. As I reread McKnight I saw the inklings of an answer: McKnight’s reservations are about the relevance of the authentic Jesus for the church, whereas I was thinking about the relation between the historical Jesus and theology.

It seems to me that one can have a historical Jesus who is not the authentic Jesus, at least not in the sense that McKnight appears to use the latter, i.e. to reference a figure at fundamental variance from the church’s understanding of Jesus of Nazareth. That is, judicious historical study of Jesus of Nazareth could potentially lead one to an understanding of the man that is remarkably congruent both with the evangelists’ understandings and with later Christian interpretation. This is in fact to be expected, at least to some extent, given that the gospels remain our best data for the historical study of Jesus of Nazareth and the church’s understanding of Jesus develops largely out of engagement with those same gospels. I would merely add the caveat that we must not expect history to answer metaphysical questions. That is, the historian is not equipped to offer either a "Yes" or a "No" to the question "Was Jesus the Son of God, second person of the trinity, etc.?"

What I find under-developed (pun intended) in McKnight’s argument is a notion of development. He seems to be resting his argument upon the supposition that the church has an invariant understanding of Jesus of Nazareth, such that if the “authentic Jesus” is one that is at notable variance with this understanding it is no longer that of the church and thus of no use to the church. Of course I have no doubt that Dr. McKnight is well aware that such invariance is not empirically the case, that in fact the church's understanding of Jesus of Nazareth has been remarkably diverse over both time and space. Yet I wonder whether he underestimates the significance of that fact. It has always been in development, even if the fact of development was not fully realized until the 19th century (thank you, John Henry Newman). In fact, Meyer defines one of the central problems of New Testament historiography, and I would extend this to include Christian history up until quite recently, as the need to account for the fact of doctrinal development whilst working with texts written by persons who had not the conceptual apparatus to recognize that their doctrines are the product of and continue to be in development.

The fact of development allows us to make two observations. First, we can define the task of historical Jesus studies as the enterprise committed to understanding Jesus’s role in the development of doctrine that leads from Second Temple Jewish theology to such later articulations as the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian definition, the rejection of the latter by churches such as the Assyrian Church of the East, on into medieval, early modern, and contemporary theological and Christological discourse; in other words, the quest for the historical Jesus becomes not the quest for the “real Jesus” but rather for the Jesus who occupies a significant place in the movement from ancient Judaism, even in fact ancient Israelite religion, to contemporary Christianity. Second, consequent to the first observation, we should understand historical Jesus studies not as an aberration from Christian thought but rather a development therein, and in fact one of the distinctive modes in which Christological discourse has taken over the last two centuries. That this is a mode of Christological discourse markedly open to contributions from non-Christians is itself a theological question of some significant interest. That is to say, McKnight is quite right to state that historical Jesus studies is a fundamentally theological enterprise.

The above brings us also to the distinction between church and theology. The church is an institution, or more properly a number of disparate yet historically related institutions, made up of parishioners, clergy, and, yes, theologians. It is to this latter group in particular that falls a particular interest in and responsibility for the work of theology. Not to say that these are matters of disinterest to parishioners and clergy, but that the theologian has a specialized vocation that contributes to the church in a myriad of fashions. Now, insofar as one supposes the development of doctrine to be a matter of some importance to the work of theology and to the extent that one integrates the historical study of Jesus of Nazareth into the study of the development of doctrine it follows that the historical study of Jesus of Nazareth is a matter of some importance to the work of theology. In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that one cannot really understand what happens at, for instance, Nicea, and thus also the urgency of the council’s decisions, without a robust understanding of what gets us from Jesus to the council. And thus we can begin to see the indispensability of the historical Jesus for theology.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

The criteria of authenticity, again

I spend a lot of time thinking about the criteria of authenticity in historical Jesus studies. I remember already as a master's student realizing that they didn't work, but not then really being able to say why. I still struggle to explain the problem: and by then I don't mean that it is absolutely clear in my own head and I have not the words to explain what is clear but rather that I am still parsing out the issue myself. As such my blog posts on the criteria should be read as a sort of stream of consciousness, a glimpse into an ongoing dialogue that is taking place inside my head.

I begin, as one always should in addressing matters of method, by asking "What is the question that this method seeks to answer?" This I think is where we get into problems. Ostensibly the question is "What did Jesus do and say?" But that's not really what the criteria of authenticity are designed to answer. Rather, they are designed to answer the question "Did Jesus do or say what is reported in this particular pericope?" Procedurally do so by asking "Does this pericope pass the criteria that we have developed to determine whether Jesus did or said what the pericope reports him doing and saying?" An affirmative answer is defined as "authentic" and the pericope can now be put in the bin called "Things Jesus said or did," whilst a negative answer as "inauthentic and must now be put in the bin labelled "Things Jesus did not do or say?"

That there are problems with asking this question is evident the moment that scholars have to add the qualifier "something like," as in "Did Jesus do or say something like what is reported in this particular pericope?" or "Does this pericope pass the criteria that we have developed to determine whether Jesus did or said what the pericope reports him doing and saying?" The difficulty of course is that "something like" is semantically equivalent to "something unlike." Judging that Jesus did something like x is the same as saying that Jesus did something unlike x. The practical question then is whether the thing was more like or unlike what is reported, and the most precise answer will give a degree: this is 75% like, 25% like; this is 40% like 60% unlike. Then there is the thorny question of how much unlikeness renders something inauthentic. The qualifier "something like" ends up with affirmative judgments about events that tell us in fact very little about events.

The problem is that the question "Did Jesus do something like what is reported in this particular pericope?", and its procedural reflex, "Does this pericope pass the criteria that we have developed to determine whether Jesus did or said what the pericope reports him doing and saying?" can admit of only two possible answers, yes or no, whilst the qualifier "something like" is a question of degree. This points at an epistemic reality: the question of "What happened?" is not one that can be answered by yes or no judgments regarding the historicity of textual reports. Not to mention the question "Does this pericope pass the criteria that we have developed to determine whether Jesus did or said what the pericope reports him doing and saying?" can never lead us to the quite conceivable situation in which Jesus did something that is unreported in and yet can be inferred from the gospels.

Thus we must either: revise the question ("What did Jesus do and say?") to fit the procedure ("Does this pericope pass the criteria that we have developed to determine whether Jesus did or said what the pericope reports him doing and saying?"); the procedure to fit the question; or something of both. The final option seems the question. Please allow me to suggest that rather than ask "What did Jesus do and say?" we ask "What understanding of Jesus's life and activity best accounts for the data relevant for studying his life and activity?" Such data would be found in the canonical gospels but also potentially the balance of the New Testament, the Apostolic Fathers, etc. When approaching a particular pericope the question then becomes not "Did Jesus do what is reported?" but rather "What event(s) in Jesus's life led to Matthew or Mark or Luke or John or Thomas reporting that Jesus did what is reported, and in the precise that why that it is reported?" Some times the best answer will be "None at all": that is, the text in question is complete fiction, and in fact at marked variance with how Jesus actually operated. Sometimes the best answer will operate on a fairly genuine level; we can, for instance, conclude with greater confidence that Jesus regularly engaged in speech acts that can be described as parabolic than we can that these acts had such and such precise content. Some times the best answer will sound a lot like the text in question; the best answer to the question "What event(s) in Jesus's life led Matthew et. al. to report that Jesus regularly used the phrase 'Son of Man'?" is "Jesus regularly used the phrase 'Son of Man.'" Some times the best answer will be "I have no idea." In answering these questions the heuristics that drive certain criteria might reappear, for in many cases they rest upon quite legitimate insights (for instance, the recognition that the apparent infrequency of the term "Son of Man" outside the Jesus tradition suggests that we are dealing not with the retrojection of distinctive Christian language on to said tradition but rather with a reminiscence that this language was distinctive of Jesus's pattern of speech), but this would not be the same as utilizing the criteria of authenticity precisely because the question is no longer "Is this passage authentic?"

Sunday, 12 October 2014

On Using the Right Tools

I've come to realize that a big part of the problems that have long plagued historical Jesus studies is a failure to recognize that different questions require different methods. Lonergan's notion of functional specialties can help us think through this difficulty. Each functional specialty has a distinct object, and consequent to that object a particular set of data to consult and a particular set of methods to employ. The first four functional specialties are research, interpretation, history, and dialectic. The object of one specialty becomes the data for the next. Thus in biblical studies research investigates via text critical method manuscripts, fragments, etc., to discover the texts that interpretation will investigates via exegetical method to discover the meanings that history will investigates via historical method to discover the events that dialectic will investigates via dialectic method to discover the conflicts upon which the fifth functional specialty, foundations, will take a stand. This can be summarized in the fully table:

demanding attention
to be intelligently understood
Nature of Warrants
to provide reasonable judgment
Text Critical

Of course this is a heuristic. In truth it's messier than that. Nonetheless, such a schema helps us better construe what methods to use to work with which data to investigate which objects. This in turn helps us see why things break down when data, object, and method significantly mismatch.

Let us consider an example. We will often read in the HJ literature that such and such a passage is redactional and thus could not "go back to the historical Jesus." The difficulty is that redaction critical judgments belong really to the level of interpretation, and then only if one goes about establishing what the respective evangelist means to communicate by both utilizing an identifiable source and making a demonstrable change to said source. The data for history is not text but rather meanings inferred from texts, and absent such prior inferential work there is a mismatch between data (text) and method (exegetical) on the one hand and object (event) on the other. As such redaction critical work can contribute to the work of history by defining the content of the data (meaning) with which the historian works but it is not a historiographical method in and of itself. Using redaction criticism to directly answer historical questions is like using a hammer to put in a screw.

But of course I'm not talking about redaction criticism per se. I'm talking about the match between data, object, and method--any data, any object, any method. We've gotten, I think, into the habit of letting method drive our work. I discover a new and innovative method and I'm looking to try it out. So I bring it to bear upon the questions that most interest me. But if the method cannot elucidate that question, cannot discover the object for which it seeks, then I am doomed to failure from the off.

Oh, and, yes, the title of this post is an intentional allusion to Morna Hooker's still-fantastic article, "On Using the Wrong Tools."

Saturday, 11 October 2014

The Necessity of Dialectic

Yesterday I posted some theological reflections upon a variety of contemporary issues that have to do with agents of states, or self-proclaimed states, lynching identifiable groups, such as white police lynching black teenagers or IS fighters lynching Yezidis, Shiites, and other minority religious groups in Iraq. When I shared it via Facebook and Twitter I stated that it has nothing directly to do with critical realism. That was the case of course, the way I articulated things, but it got me thinking about how better to frame my concerns about these matters within a Lonerganian framework. Something I realized as I did so is that these sort of events reinforce the need for what Lonergan calls "dialectic."

Dialectic is the fourth of eight functional specialties that Lonergan identifies within the broader work of theology. The first three are research, interpretation, and history. Each builds upon the other. Within New Testament studies we might say that research works with manuscripts, etc., to discover texts (i.e. textual criticism); interpretation works with these discovered texts to discover meaning; history works with these discovered meanings to discover events; and dialectic works with these discovered events to discovered processes. Dialectic thus introduces into biblical studies what the Annales School called history in the longue durée, history across decades, centuries, even millennia. It is where we can locate many of the issues studied and insight generated by feminist, queer, critical race, postcolonial, Marxian, Freudian, etc., theory. It is about the remarkably durable mentalités (to again use a term beloved by the Annales School) that in myriad ways both constrain and enable our choices, our decisions, our potential.

And mentalité is precisely what is missed when we consider such things as the shooting of Michael Brown as an event isolated from larger concerns. The response by the people of Ferguson, MO, to this crime (let us not call it a tragedy; that ignores the agency of Brown's murderer) is not just about the lynching of Michael Brown. It is of course about that, but if this were an isolated incident then the focus would no doubt be upon dealing with the actions of one aberrant police officer. The problem is that the people of Ferguson, MO, and people of colour elsewhere, are profoundly aware that it's not an isolated incident. Quite the opposite. The response is about a particular mentalité, one dating back to at least the institution of a racialized slave trade, namely the idea that Black lives are disposable, to be taken on the whim of the White establishment. Absent an understanding that it is to this mentalité that the people of Ferguson object one cannot understand why they have responded the way that they have.

A healthy notion of dialectic incidentally relieves one of the need to show that a text is overtly racist, or misogynist, or heterosexist, or antagonistic to any of these matters. "Empire criticism" in NT studies can benefit from such a lesson. It too frequently operates at the level of interpretation. It wants to show, for instance, that Paul really was a critic of empire. With a healthy notion of dialectic one can set out on the work of showing that Paul's thinking was structured by his life within an empire even if he was completely unaware of that fact. Likewise, it is entirely possible that, when he shot Michael Brown, Officer Darren Wilson was unaware of any racialized motivation on his part, and that nonetheless he operated within a racialized structure that made it more likely that he would shot and kill an unarmed Black teen than an unarmed White teen. Thus White people can say with all conscious integrity "Some of my best friends are Black" and yet be deeply and profoundly racist. Put otherwise, it opens up discussions of the unconscious without obviating discussions of the conscious (altogether considered in the work of interpretation).

In short, dialectic is important.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Jesus and the Object of History

I spend so much time on philosophy and method of history in historical Jesus studies that sometimes I forget to take a step back and consider the man himself. So I want to spend time thinking about that here. I begin with two observations. First, Jesus was Jewish. Second, although he was not Christian, Jesus's life and ministry were a direct cause of this thing we call Christianity. Thus we must demonstrate how Jesus represents a development within Judaism whilst he laid the groundwork for developments within Christianity. The same holds really for most if not all of the apostolic generation; even Gentile figures appear to have been deeply immersed in Jewish thought, but here I'm thinking specifically of Jesus. Thus rather than a criteria of double dissimilarity we have a principle of double continuity: a Jesus continuous with Judaism and from which Christianity reasonably continues in turn is a desideratum put upon us by the content of the data.

This almost immediately eliminates such oddities as the Cynic Jesus, even its somewhat odder variant, the Jewish Cynic: the former because it does not adequately situate Jesus within his Jewish matrix, the latter because Cynicism is no part of said matrix. It also calls into question narratives that proceed by posing Jesus in radical opposition to Paul. Part of what we need to explain is how we get from Jesus to Paul. Despite what I just said, the Cynic Jesus offers a powerful insight in this effort, for by emphasizing Jesus's social criticism it helps to retrieve an oft-neglected aspect of Jesus's work. This is better situated within a prophetic paradigm, however, which is to say that I think we best understand Jesus when we think of him as the latest in a long lineage of Israelite and Jewish prophets, persons who turned the rich resources of the Israelite and Jewish theological tradition to critique abuses of power in their immediate context. They were, in Lonergan's language, reasonable and responsible, which is to say authentic, persons, railing against the irrationality and irresponsibility, which is to say inauthenticity, of the cultural and social matrices in which they found themselves, using the conceptual resources available to them, namely those of the Israelite and Jewish theological tradition. Jesus was one such person, as was Paul later.

That both Jesus and Paul at times focused their critique upon perceived problems with Judaism and Jewish life itself is not in and of itself anti-Jewish, anymore than my critiques of the current state of things in Canada makes me anti-Canadian. Quite the opposite: it was out of their love for and commitment to their tradition and their people that they spoke up. I thus see Jesus increasingly as what we might call the loyal opposition: out of his love for his Jewish kinsmen he critiqued what he considered to be abuses of power within his Jewish milieu. This he did using the resources of the Jewish theological tradition, even more specifically the prophetic, although certainly there were likely valences of the apocalyptic and the wisdom. I add that qualifier because in point of fact the lines between prophetic, apocalyptic, and wisdom were porous in the Second Temple period.

I also have no problem describing him as eschatological, but only if it is understood that Jewish eschatology is always also protology: it is an account not simply of the end but of a new beginning. Jesus I think anticipated an imminent renewal of Israel and through Israel all creation. It seems very likely that he expected this to occur via what would seem to us miraculous and supernatural means: the Son of Man coming on the clouds. Yet I think that he, with some degree of paradox, worked to effect change in the here and now, to encourage people to live together in a better, more perfectly and heavenly way. The extent to which he envisioned a continuity between such contemporary renovation and the impending cosmic renovation is open to question. Did he think that through his work there would emerge communities of goodness and light that would endure through the eschaton and into the coming new era? I suspect that this was the case, but I would not at this point press the case. That said, I am playing with the possibility that Jesus intended to establish communities that he expected would be protected from God's wrath during the eschaton and endure into the new creation, and that this best accounts for the distinctive forms taken by Christian communities and identity.

Anyways, that's a very brief synopsis of what I currently think about the man, Jesus of Nazareth. Nothing particularly radical. One can easily detect hints of Ben F. Meyer, but also of Richard Horsley. This reflects my appreciation for both Lonerganian critical realism and the liberation tradition. But with all the talk of method and philosophy, sometimes it's good to just sit back and think about the object of study. So there you have it.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Probability and Criteria

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 25 September 2014

The Decline of Myth

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

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

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

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