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.