Sunday, 31 December 2017

Aniconism and Atheism

Among very standard rhetoric employed by very ill-informed persons is that the difference between polytheists and monotheists and atheists is a matter of degree: a monotheist simply believes in fewer gods than a polytheist, and an atheist one fewer still. Just a few minutes in the Tanakh/Old Testament reveals that this is simply not the case, or a few minutes looking at monotheism in the Greek philosophical tradition. The difference was qualitative, not quantitative. The Israelite and later Jewish tradition symbolized this through the rejection of images. One could not represent YHWH because YHWH's nature was such that it could not be represented. In the Greek philosophical tradition, Aristotle's "Uncaused Cause" and Plotinus' "The One" are not giant bearded guys in the sky but rather metaphysical accounts for the origin and nature of reality. It is a foundational category error to suppose that in any of these cases the "God" concept was commensurable with "the gods."

Of course, it goes without saying that things were always messy. There were Israelites who urged a strict rejection of all gods in favour of YHWH. This was, I would argue, the fruit of what Lonergan calls "intellectual conversion," i.e. the foundational apprehension that knowing is not like looking, that reality is not what is out there to be perceived but rather what is to be inferred from what can be perceived. Thus the rejection of images flowed from and indeed aimed to concretely communicate an epistemic insight into the very nature of insight. Of course, this apprehension took place at the level of the time, and the level of the time was the Iron Age Levant. This apprehension could only proceed as far as that level permitted, but it advanced that level. Lonergan defines genius as the intellect operating fully at the level of its time, thus advancing the level for future generations to build upon. In that sense, the Israelite prophets perhaps are best conceptualized as geniuses who apprehended the nature of human knowing as clearly as their time permitted. They transcended the common sense of the time--what was affirmed spontaneously and without reflection--to produce insights into the nature of reality so profound that we still read their words three thousand years later. (Note that this does not obviate divine activity, for there is plenty of room for a doctrine of grace as that which gifts the intellect with the capacity to undertake this work, nor does it obviate a doctrine of revelation but rather specifies more precisely the concrete human side thereof. But such concerns are those of the systematic theologian, something I am not). But precisely insofar as such rejection of the gods in favour of YHWH demands that one was operating fully at the level of one's time the vast majority of Israelites found that difficult to achieve. It is not surprising but rather quite predictable that they would continue to function at the common sense level of the time, bowing before that which could be seen as they could not conceive of reality as something apprehended not by the senses but rather by the intellect. Similarly, there continue to be followers of Abrahamic religions who remain unable to distinguish between perception and reality.

Perhaps the reason that this qualitative difference between "God" and "the gods" eludes many today is because they have not themselves apprehended that knowing is not like looking. Supposing that only that which can be perceived can be affirmed, their inner life has more in common with ancient paganism than the level of our own time. Indeed, those who state that they differ from polytheists only quantitatively explicitly affirm that the pattern of their thought is essentially that of the Iron Age. Put otherwise, there can be a reasonable argument for atheism, but one that is unable or unwilling to engage with what other persons actually believe to be the case hardly qualifies as reasonable. If one has rejected only quantitative distinctions between "the gods" and not attended to the qualitative distinction between "the gods" and "God," then one's atheism is inchoate at best.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Why the Monarchy?

On the basis of Judges, it's often been argued that during Iron Age I Israel was organized into some sort of tribal confederacy. When I read Judges, I am struck by how little this is borne out by the text. The text seems to assume that there was some sort of shared identity, but that tells us little about their social organization. We find for instance in Judges 4-5 some expectation that the tribes should act in each other's mutual defense, but a significant theme in these chapters is that this expectation was not borne out in actual practice. Indeed, in Samuel, the lack of such higher-level organization is presented explicitly as a barrier to what we might call "national security," and this is presented as a crucial argument for the introduction of a central authority in the form of the Saulide monarchy (my own tendency is to think of Saul more than anything as a powerful Benjamite warlord than as the leader of a Judahite state, but that still can be thought to represent some degree of growing central authority). This is all quite congruent with the archaeological material, which gives us the sense of a generally decentralized society in the central hill country during the 12th and 11th centuries, followed by evidence of state formation in the 10th (state formation perhaps begins in the south towards the end of the 11th century, and by the 10th century it is quite clearly underway). Evidence of external threat is harder to detect archaeologically, but it is not unreasonable to think that at least some persons in the central hill country considered the Philistine city-states to constitute an existential threat.

My interest is in thinking about this dialectically, specifically as Lonergan and those who have followed him have worked out the functional specialization of dialectic (a specialization that is necessarily informed by feminist, Marxist, critical-race, queer, etc., thought). The lack of security can be seen as a failure to meet the vital needs of the community, for whatever else security might be it is certainly a vital need (i.e. those things necessary in the first instance to survive and more fully to thrive). For Lonergan and those who follow him, this provides evidence of a breakdown in social values. Social values guide our relationships with each other, and thus our organization, and insofar as the ends of organization is to secure the vital needs of the community the failure to meet those needs indicates that something social has gone awry. Whether the establishment of the monarchy was the best way to address this social breakdown is a different question. One could argue that with the attendant monarchy's ills--such as an increase in hierarchy and social inequity--made the cure worse than the disease. Nonetheless, it does seem reasonable to think that at least in part there was an effort to correct a deficiency in social values that was at least felt to undermine the security of the community.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Contrast and Contradiction

Bill Heroman has recently written a post that draws attention to the heuristic distinction between contrast and contradiction (my language, not his. I'm incidentally following Robert Doran in this verbiage). A contrast is an instance in which A and B are irreducibly different and can both be true, whereas a contradiction is an instance in which A and B are irreducibly different and cannot both be true. Bill's discussion focuses upon the differences between the Matthean and Lukan birth narratives, and (to use the language employed here) he notes that while they contrast significantly the only contradiction is where the holy family travels after Jesus is born. I think that he is probably correct on this.

Let's approach this a bit more schematically. Take the example of who visits the family after Jesus is born. Matthew reports that magi come from the east, following a star in the sky. Luke reports that shepherds come, following the instructions of angels. It is an irreducible difference: magi cannot be made into shepherds or vice versa, nor angels into a star. But it is a difference that is not mutually exclusive. Both could be true. Magi could have visited, and also shepherds. Of course, one or both could be false, but that's not the point. The point is that it is a logical possibility that both are true. As such, this is a contrast.

But with the matter of the holy family's travel itinerary, Matthew has them leaving Bethlehem in the middle of the night to flee to Egypt, only to return to Nazareth years later. Luke has them travel from Bethlehem to Jerusalem at a leisurely pace, then settle back in Nazareth. These are not only irreducibly different but also cannot both be true. Affirmation of one excludes affirmation of the other. Again, it could be the case that both are false, but the possibility of both being true is foreclosed. As such, this is a contradiction.

This might seem like a trivial point, but it is something that tends to bedevil biblical scholars. Precisely because contradictions close off the possibility that one can affirm both at the same time, biblical scholars who misidentify contrasts as contradictions have excluded a logically possible hypothesis from the off. In some cases, this will make no difference whatsoever, not least of all because ultimately historians are not in the business of affirming statements ready-made in our primary sources, but in some cases it will. Those will be the cases in which both texts provide generally accurate accounts of what transpired. We cannot know before getting into the weeds whether these cases are the exception or the rule. Programmatic decisions to treat all contrasts as contradictions (the skeptic's erroneous tendency) or all contradictions as contrasts (the credulist's equally erroneous tendency) will tend to obviate genuine historical knowing.

Monday, 25 December 2017

Preserving Judges

On this, the first day of Christmas, I'm thinking about stories written long before that of Jesus, namely those of the Judges. I am thinking about the fact that the majority of the judges come from the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. Only two judges come from the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and neither of them are particularly significant to the overall narrative. Why is this significant? Well, Judah and Benjamin are the tribes that would later constitute the core first of the United Monarchy and then of the southern kingdom of Judah, while the northern tribes are those which would later constitute the core of the northern kingdom of Israel. This poses a significant problem for those who would argue that Judges is primarily royal or even post-exilic propaganda that is intended not to record the Israelite past but rather to advance ideological claims in the authorial present, a hypothesis that we might describe as the "retrojective." On this retrojective hypothesis, if the authorial present was the United Monarchy or the southern kingdom, then it is strange that there isn't greater jingoistic promotion of the southern tribes in which first the Saulide and later the Davidic kings located their power base. On this hypothesis, if the authorial present was the northern kingdom then it is strange that later Judahite and Jewish leaders would so readily incorporate into their emerging canon a text that promotes northern leadership while devoting so little attention to southern leadership. In the post-exilic period, as Jewish exiles returning to the land and seeking to establish the new province of Yehud found themselves competing with Samaria to the north, it is again strange that they would write and embrace a text that so emphasizes northern leadership to the virtually exclusion of southern leadership.

On the retrojective hypothesis, it seems to me that the core of Judges cannot easily be thought to date much later than the rise of Saul, which would barely make it a retrojection at all. (Indeed, if thinking about the book as a work of propaganda, the book's final line, that at that time there was no king in Israel and each man did as was right in his own eyes, perhaps makes most sense during the establishment of the monarchy, as both sides were arguing over whether or not such a political reorganization was for the best or not). Such a non-retrojection fits well with certain other data. For instance, settlement surveys have indicated that the most densely-populated area in the central hill country during Iron Age I generally corresponds with the areas in which Judges situates the majority of its action, i.e. in the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh. In other words, Judges reflects a reality in which most of what was happening in Iron Age I was happening in this territory because that's where more Israelites lived. For another instance, Judges depicts a non-state society lacking in central organization, and indeed the hill country settlements of Iron Age I suggest precisely such a society. This also corresponds with the evidence of the Merneptah stele, which c. 1208 refers to an entity called Israel presence in Canaan, and designates it not as a state but rather as a people group.

Now, the interesting thing is that if the retrospective hypothesis makes it difficult for Judges to date much later than the foundations of the monarchy, an alternative "preservative" hypothesis would allow for a much later date. The preservative hypothesis argues that the primary purpose in writing a text such as Judges was to record the Israelite past, and that it represents the cumulation of an extended process of such preservation. Of course, this process can hardly be thought to have been antiquarian: the reasons for preserving stories of the past are always located in the present. The preservative hypothesis is simply that these always-present reasons combined with the means to fulfill the preservative aim were sufficient to ensure a high degree of transmission "accuracy" from the period of the judges onward. In principle, as long as such reasons and means existed, the temporal duration is infinitely extendable. Of course, this does not mean that the stories contained within Judges actually happened. They in fact could represent what we might call Iron Age I historical fiction. But in that case they would be historical fiction that originated not much later than c. 1030 B.C.E., and which represent the social and cultural conditions of Iron Age I Israel reasonably well. That said, neither do I think that we can rule out that many if not most or all of the judges described within the book actually lived and served as leaders in Israel, even if one might evince some healthy skepticism towards their more super-human acts.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Bernard and Karl

My interest in Lonergan largely stems from an epistemic exigency, namely a need for higher-level systematization in my understanding of method. I recognized that when it came to studying the biblical texts, their world, and their impact, there were genuine insights in the work of more traditional exegetes, and there were genuine insights in the work of historians of the ancient world, and there were genuine insights stemming from the work of Marxist scholars, feminist scholars, womanist scholars, etc. The problem that I had was how to integrate and coordinate these respective insights into a synthetic whole. Lonergan's notion of functional specialization resolved this, allowing me to situate the insights of exegesis within the specialization that he called "interpretation," of historians within the specialization that he called "history," and of Marxist, feminist, womanist scholars, etc., within the specializations that he called "dialectics" and "foundations." Because these specializations are recursive, with each supposing and building its antecedent--foundations upon dialectics, dialectics upon history, history upon interpretation--I found the rudiments of a way in which to integrate the quite genuine insights that I was discovering in these disparate areas of scholarship.

Recently, I've been returning to some of the Marxist thinkers with whom I engaged earlier in my graduate career, with an aim of thinking through how to best situate their insights within Lonergan's system of functional specialization. I'm currently reading Boer and Petterson's recent monograph,  Time of Troubles, in which they argue that "it was precisely through the symbiosis and integration of polis and chōra that economic exploitation was enabled and made even more efficient" (p. 78). At a risk of bastardizing Boer and Petterson's argument through over-simplification, the argument is that city-dwellers in the ancient Greco-Roman city were essentially parasitic on those labouring in the country-side, extracting the fruits of their labour without providing anything of comparable value in return. There's no doubt much truth in this. For the Lonerganian, this would be an example of group bias at work: the city-dwellers formulate policies that benefit primarily themselves, with inadequate attention to those who work in the countryside. The Lonerganian would also likely grant that it was more specifically the most powerful and wealthy among the city-dwellers--i.e. the elite, following common parlance used today--who formulate these policies, for they would benefit most fully, and likewise identify that as group bias. The Lonerganian could further grant that insofar as this bias begins to distort peoples' psychological life, such that the irrationality of this group bias becomes the condition by which all groups within society process their world, a "dramatic bias" sets in, thus allowing her or him to affirm many Marxist insights regarding the nature of ideology, false consciousness, etc., perhaps particularly as these were developed by the Freudo-Marxist moves of the Frankfurt School. The Lonerganian could further argue that group and dramatic biases are the grounds of (respectively) shorter and longer cycles of decline that eventuate in the need for radical transformation, thus allowing her or him to affirm many of Marxist thought's legitimate insights into the matter of revolution.

There is a question looming over all this, however. That question is whether or not the relationship between country-side and city, or more generally between producers or non-producers, is constitutionally parasitic. Consider an arrangement in which it is agreed that producers will give up portion of their produce, and in exchange they and their dependents will receive access to the best in cutting-edge medical care. The producers would not have access to that medical care otherwise, and thus this could be seen as a mutually beneficial situation. The Marxist might respond by suggesting that while a situation in which producers receive access to the best in cutting-edge medical care might well be preferable to one in which they do not, nonetheless their relationship with the non-producers at the top of the class hierarchy remains unequal, and indeed such an arrangement could be said to constitute a particularly sophisticated and insidious form of exploitation as producers become all the more dependent upon the non-producers for their survival while the non-producers are able to decide which producers receive what level of care. Again, a Lonerganian can happily grant that group and dramatic bias can create such a situation, but would likely raise the question of whether such bias is endemic to the relationship between producer and non-producer.

The question for the Lonerganian raised by such Marxist analysis might be summarized as follows: can there be human societies that are free of systemic group and dramatic bias?

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Lonergan and the Judges

Those of us who are involved in Lonergan and bible tend to recognize that there has been greater output in the area of Lonergan and New Testament than in that of Lonergan and Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. I can identify at least two reasons for this. First, thinking broadly, I suspect that NT scholars are more likely to have an avocational if not vocational interest in Christian theology than do HB/OT scholars. Second, thinking in terms of the specific area of Lonergan and bible, the work of Ben Meyer established a solid foundation for Lonergan and NT that is not paralleled in HB/OT (Sean McEvenue has written on Lonergan and HB/OT, but not as extensively as did Meyer in NT and it would seem without a comparable impact). As someone who has always had an interest in HB/OT, especially in the early period (that of the judges and whatever might have come before in the development and emergence of Israel), this has me increasingly thinking about how Lonergan and HB/OT might look. Indeed, I will confess that my "book haul" at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature this year was almost entirely in the area of HB/OT history and archaeology.

I increasingly have come to the conclusion that the period of the judges is the place to start thinking about such things. It is at this point in Israelite history that the various extant data begin to permit a convergent historical picture. On the one hand, you have the earliest extant extra-biblical reference to a people called "Israel," in the form of the Merneptah stele (c. 1207 B.C.E.), which locates this people in Canaan precisely at a time by which on biblically-based chronologies we can anticipate that Israel was present in the Land. The stele moreover designates "Israel" as a people group rather than as a kingdom or state, which coheres perfectly with Judges' presentation of Israel as a people without a king. On the other hand, you have the archaeological record for the Canaanite hill country, the area that the biblical data presents as the Israelite heartland, which shows that around this time there was a significant increase in settlements in the region, which correlate with a shift in material culture that indicates, if not a new people, then certainly new lifeways among the persons resident in the land of Canaan. This, again, coheres with what we should anticipate on the basis of the biblical data. None of the above of course is to suggest that the stories of the Judges are literal history (a conceptual absurdity that results from identifying texts with events, and which is thus grounded in a naive and ultimately inchoate empiricism), nor is it to deny the constructed and indeed hagiographical character of much of the material. It is however to suggest that Judges is a useful source of data for understanding the general social and cultural conditions of Israel during the period of the judges, which roughly covers Iron Age I, i.e. c. 1200-1000 BCE.

From a Lonergan perspective, and building upon the work of Robert Doran, I would suggest that the historian's ultimate aim should be to define--as best we can--how the normative scale of values were operative among the Israelites during this period. This means considering the dialectical interrelationship between social, cultural, and personal values. Given the nature of the data, the social and cultural are probably easier to define then personal values, although there is I think adequate data for each of these. From this ground, I would suggest that the task is then to move forward and backward. The red thread, I suspect, is the evidence that Israel was slow in developing a monarchy, a slowness that is presented in Judges as well as Samuel as the result of a cultural resistance to the institution. Moving analysis forward into the first millennium BCE, the question becomes how that resistance gave way to acceptance, while moving analysis backwards into the Bronze Age the questions becomes why there was such resistance in the first place. One would want to avoid romantic and triumphalist accounts that present ancient Israel as some egalitarian utopia, especially as we move into the period of the monarchy but also in the period of the judges and earlier (the biblical account itself does not shy away from presenting the pre-monarchical period as something less than pristine), but at the same time one would not want to deny the evidence that there was within ancient Israel a recurring albeit hardly universal suspicion of state regimes. In such an understanding one would not only want to engage with the archaeological and historical work that has been produced in the study of ancient Israel, but more specifically the tremendous amount of Marxist literature on the subject, which has tended to focus upon not just that domain that Lonergan describes as social but as also has expended considerable effort thinking about this domain's relationship with both the cultural and the personal. Indeed, one of the central conceptual tasks of such an undertaking would be to explain what it offers that is yet lacking in such Marxist work. In any case, this strikes me as something worth doing.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Positive Absence

The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. This is a basic historiographical principle. It is one that requires some qualification, as there is a notable exception: except when one should reasonably anticipate to find evidence of presence. We could go more into the various permutations involved, but the question that interests me here is what happens when the evidence to be sought is literally absence. I'm thinking here of aniconic worship in ancient Israel. Joshua 8:30-35 mentions that Israel under Joshua built an altar to YHWH at Mt. Ebal, and there sacrificed various offerings. Combined with ancient Israelite aniconism and the supposition that the book of Joshua contains at least some usable data relevant to understanding the conditions in ancient Canaan c. 1200 BCE, we can on the basis of this text predict that we will find at Mt. Ebal the remains of a cultic installation dating from around that time that contains evidence of animal sacrifice and an absence of images. And that is precisely what has been found, and it is in fact quite unique among Canaanite sites of the time. Whether this cultic installation has anything to do with Joshua or not is a different story, but the current state of the evidence seems to stand as confirmation of the Deuteronomistic History's report that some but far from all residents of Canaan at the close of the Bronze Age and the transition to the Iron were already engaged in patterns of worship that included an absence of images.

But we are left with a situation wherein the absence of evidence constitutes evidence of presence: the absence of images has confirmed the presence of aniconism, and this because aniconism is precisely the absence of images. It does so however only because we have reason to anticipate an absence of images. That is to say, absence of images on its own is probably not enough to posit aniconic worship. It is the combination of reports that aniconism was practiced by a certain people in this time and place with material remains that are consistent with aniconism which allows us to conclude with reasonable confidence that Mt. Ebal represents a form of aniconic worship present in Canaan c. 1200 BCE. Every time that one finds such convergence in the data one is reminded of the perils of thinking that it is reasonable to think that in an area for which we have such a rich literary tradition it makes sense to ignore that tradition in thinking about its history (and note that it does not follow from this that one should simply affirm that everything in the biblical text is true. The statement "The biblical texts contain data relevant for the study of pre-monarchic Israelite history" hardly entails such a maximalist conclusion, just as the statement "Not everything in these texts pertains to the time that they purportedly describe" entails the minimalist conclusion that there is no data there of relevance for our understanding the pre-monarchic or any other period).

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

The Return

In Topics in Education, when thinking about the agents of positive change that can reverse processes of social and cultural breakdown, Lonergan writes that he has
spoken simply of the process--situation, insight, counsel, policy, new type of action, new situation, new insight, and the snowball effect of the entire cycle. The agents may be called a succession of creative personalities. The situation can be wholly transformed if there is a succession of personalities who are not simply sunk into the existing situation, immersed in its routines, and functioning like cogs in a wheel, with little grasp of possibilities, with a lack of daring. They withdraw, perhaps even physically, but at least mentally. They are detached; it is because of their detachment that they can see how things could be different. They may be accounted as nobodies while they are withdrawn, but when they return, they transform the world. In their withdrawal they become themselves, and they return with a mission (Topics in Education, p. 51-52).
This is such an incredibly rich passage. From a philosophy of history perspective, Lonergan here has taken great strides towards integrating the genuine insights of the Great Man approach to history, which focused upon agents of change, with the legitimate insights of historiographies that focus more upon broader social and cultural movements. It help us to understand how transformative figures--Moses, Jesus, Paul, Buddha, Muhammad, Aquinas, Luther, Marx, to name a few of particular historical import--manage to transform our concrete human reality. A product of said reality, they consciously withdraw from immanent engagement with that reality, precisely in order to gain what we might describe as a transcendent understanding of its qualities. This withdrawal allows them to cultivate their subjectivity, becoming themselves and thus able to operate fully at the level of their time: precisely what Lonergan defines as genius. When they (or their disciples) begin to more fully engage with the world, they have a sense of what must be changed so as to produce a better world. This, perhaps, is the existential origin of such phenomena as the cult of the saints: the commemoration of past persons who came to operate at the respective levels of their respective times, whose operations facilitated comparable transformative experiences in their successors. It is no doubt the existential origin of the church: in his withdrawal--his years spent as an artisan, the time spent in praying and fasting--Jesus became himself, and upon his return he began to fashion the community that would eventuate in the church. Commemorating Jesus was thus not merely antiquarian, but in fact aimed at transforming the world in the here and now, precisely because Jesus was one who saw not only that transformation was necessary but had an at least initial sense of how that transformation must look. Likewise, the origins of the sangha, the mosque, and the like. Through the operations of such geniuses operating at the level of their times new spaces emerge--spaces in which other persons can likewise withdraw sufficiently to become themselves--and this with the guidance and example of previous transformative figures.

We know such figures from our own or at least more recent times, and not surprisingly many of these hail from marginalized groups (after all, it is easier to withdraw when one has already and unjustly been relegated to the fringes). To name just a few: Sojourner Truth; Frederick Douglass; Susan B. Anthony; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Malcolm X; bell hooks; and indeed Lonergan himself, whose work has released a slew of intellectual energy that is still changing the world. The great story continues: one of redemption from the constant entropy that threatens to overwhelm our social and cultural lives.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Lonergan and Bible at the American Academy of Religion

I am sitting in Boston's Logan Airport as I write this, returning from a fun but--as always--exhausting weekend at the concurrent Annual Meetings of Society of Biblical Literature/American Academy of Religion (AKA, SBLAAR). For myself, the highlight of this weekend was a meeting that took place on Sunday night, when a number of us gathered to discuss the possibility of starting a Lonergan and Bible group at SBLAAR. Some highlights from this discussion.

1) It was agreed that there is more than enough will on both the side of Lonergan studies and that of biblical to sustain such a group.
2) It was agreed that such a group needs to operate from the centre (to use a quintessentially Lonergan phrase). That is to say, there are two "movements" here, that will meet in this group: Lonergan scholars with an interest in biblical studies, and biblical scholars with an interest in Lonergan.
3) It was agreed that this operation from the centre can help meet the larger need of bringing together conscientious thought and work in systematic theology with conscientious thought and work in biblical studies.
4) It was agreed that although the initial idea was that this group would function under the auspices of SBL, our aims would be better met if it functioned under the auspices of AAR.
5) It was agreed that we will aim to hold our initial session(s) at the SBLAAR Annual Meeting in Nov. 2018, with the recognition that if this cannot be achieved we can aim for 2019.

As indicated by especially #5, there remains much work to be done. In particular, what we need at this point are persons who are willing to serve on the steering committee. Volunteers for such service would be appreciated. In addition, a long-standing need was identified, namely that of identifying and recruiting persons who 1) have primary expertise in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, and 2) are interested in Lonergan. Due to the pioneering work of the Lonerganian New Testament scholar Ben Meyer there is a readily identifiable body of NT scholars interested in Lonergan, but little comparable among HB/OT scholars. Another need identified by the group was that of gender and ethnic inclusivity, as homogeneity is hardly a virtue.

Thanks to Dave de la Fuente, John Martens, and Jordan Ryan for attending the meeting last night. Thanks also to Michael Barber, John Dadosky, Darren Dias, Robert Doran, Bill Heroman, James McGrath, and Jeff Peterson, all of whom expressed an interest in attending but were unable to do so due to other commitments. (If I've failed to mention any others who conveyed their regrets, my apologies). A special mention needs to go to Jeff Peterson, who got this whole ball rolling by suggesting that we think about starting a Lonergan and New Testament group (which quickly evolved into Lonergan and Bible) at the SBL in the first place.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Of Illegitimacy and Inference

Early in David Hackett Fischer's Champlain's Dream, Fischer argues that Samuel de Champlain might have been the illegitimate son of the future Henri IV, king of France. Fischer acknowledges that he has no direct evidence to establish this as fact. He has no birth certificate with Henri's name on it. He has no document in which Henri acknowledges Champlain as son, or in which Champlain acknowledges Henri as father. No one from the time talks about such a father-son relationship between the two. Nonetheless, argues Fischer, if Champlain was indeed Henri IV's son, and if Henri was aware of that fact, then that would explain a host of peculiarities in Champlain's relationship to Henri IV and to the French state more generally. Moreover, he argues that it would explain these peculiarities in a way that no other hypothesis has heretofore been able to do.

There is no need here for us to get into the details about this argument, for it matters not for our purposes. What matters is that this stands as a wonderful exemplar of how one versed in Lonergan's epistemology would proceed. Fischer understands that what constitutes a historical hypothesis is not ultimately our observational apprehension of the data but rather our inferential apprehension of the relationships between the data. That is to say, history is not exegesis: it is not the interpretation of documents followed by pronouncements about whether their claims are true. As such, the fact that Fischer has no document explicitly identifying Henri as Champlain's father is no impediment to his hypothesis. At the same time, Fischer recognizes that the mere fact that by considering those relationships he can construct a hypothesis in which Henri is Champlain's father is not sufficient to establish that this is the case. Anyone can construct hypotheses. What separates the adults from the children is the ability to determine which hypotheses are most probable. Towards that end, Fischer advances a criterion by which to judge whether this is the best hypothesis on the matter, namely that of scope: does this hypothesis explain a greater scope of relevant data than does any competitor? He is cautious: acknowledging that in this case the data is such that he cannot say with certainty that Henri was Champlain's father, but nonetheless presenting it as a possibility that is perhaps to be preferred to its alternatives.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Of Saints and Savages in Early Christianity

In the Introduction to his 2008 monograph, Champlain's Dream, David Hackett Fischer (of Historians' Fallacies fame) writes that he
seeks a path of understanding between hagiographers on the one side and iconoclasts on the other....Two generations ago, historians wrote of European saints and Indian savages. In the last generation, too many scholars have been writing about Indian saints and European savages. The opportunity for our generation is to go beyond that calculus of saints and savages altogether, and write about both American Indians and Europeans with maturity, empathy, and understanding.
The struggle between hagiography and iconoclasm is quite acute in early Christian studies, with a remarkably parallel development: where we once spoke about (literal) saints in the form of apostles and orthodox leaders on the one hand and sinners in the form of Gnostic, Marcionite, Arian, and other heterodox figures on the other, a shift occurred where we came to speak about orthodox sinners and heterodox saints. The Great Church went from being one of the great achievements in human history and its opponents shiftless malcontents, to a great coercive force that compelled obedience and quelled push-back from valiant heterodox dissenters. Even those who in principle defied the saint v. sinner--or orthodox v. heterodox--calculus tended to replicate it, with a perhaps-unconscious tendency to give preference to non-canonical or heterodox works. For instance, for much of the late twentieth-century one would be hard-pressed to find John's Gospel very much cited in historical Jesus studies--despite being the only likely first-century narrative that in any explicit fashion claims to eyewitness status--but one could readily find in the same literature prolific references to the Gospel of Thomas; rather than repudiating the orthodox v. heterodox divide, the heterodox had simply been granted the normativity taken from the orthodox. In truth, this shift was probably necessary: only by thinking about both orthodox and heterodox material through both a hermeneutic of goodwill and a hermeneutic of suspicion could we reach the point that we could write about each with maturity, empathy, and understanding. The trick, I would suggest, is now to ask how we can integrate what has been learned into a single, synthetic understanding of early Christianity.

As I think about what is necessary for writing the history of early Christianity at the level of our own time, I cannot but be reminded of Lonergan's famous argument in Collection that over and against a "solid right that is determined to live in a world that no longer exists," and "a scattered left, captivated by now this, now that new development," that "what will count is a perhaps not numerous center, big enough to be at home in both the old and the new, painstaking enough to work out one by one the transitions to be made, strong enough to refuse half measures and insist on complete solutions even though it has to wait." The temptation to err to either right or left is very much before us. On the one hand, we have those who would limit the material to which they attend to the works of the New Testament and the orthodox fathers, pretending that we have not learned that early Christianity was much greater than this. On the other hand, we have those who would ignore the New Testament and the orthodox fathers, dismissing them as ideologically-driven or hopelessly biased. Neither inclination strikes me as particularly fruitful. Each such move is fully a refusal to undertake the pain-staking work of genuine historigraphy.

Concretely, probably no actor in early Christianity was wholly saint or wholly sinner. Paul appears to have been a remarkably successful leader and administrative genius, yet also given to anger--even rage--when his authority was challenged and necessarily given to compromise when he believed himself to be in the right. The emerging Great Church had legitimate reasons to define a normative tradition, but this same normativity also became the grounds for exclusions and schisms that persisted for centuries, even in some cases up until today. Marcion did demand of Christian thought a level of systematization that was relatively rare if not entirely unknown before his time, and such demand probably did help move forward Christian discourse; yet, his particular effort at systematization had legitimate intellectual difficulties that required reasoned repudiation. Valentinus might have been as much the victim of ecclesial politics as anything else, and I suspect that he himself aimed at nothing more than to help elevate the intellectual level of Christian thought. Each of these actors operated at the level of their time, advancing the concrete realities of Christian existence in demonstrable ways even as their imperfections and limitations generated a variety of difficulties (some much more than others, in respect to both advance and difficulty).

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

For the Love of Gord

Gord Downie died today. For more than thirty years, he was the front man of The Tragically Hip, "Canada's band," until they played their final show last August. It is, I think, impossible to describe to non-Canadians what The Hip meant to Canadians, especially Anglo-Canadians. Downie wrote most of their lyrics, and his poetry--because that's what his lyrics really were--perfectly expressed everything that Anglo-Canadians want to be, while never shying away from reminding us of the ways in which we still fell short of our own ideals. His words showed us the people we wanted to be, while revealing the people that we really were. And that combination of ideal and reality was remarkably, profoundly powerful. And more: his life embodied his art. He spent his life advocating for indigenous persons and communities. Indeed, after being diagnosed with the terminal illness that has now claimed his life, he spent much of his remaining time traveling the country, visiting impoverished indigenous communities and advocating on their behalf. During The Hip's farewell concert, a night that was for the rest of us about their legacy and Downie's courage in the face of death, he made it about justice, pointing to Prime Minister Trudeau (who was in attendance) and publicly calling on him to address the ongoing injustices against indigenous peoples here in Canada. He was, quite simply, a good man.

Downie, I think, helps us better understand the thought of another Canadian, namely Bernard Lonergan. Lonergan often spoke of the need for love to transform the human subject into someone who is concerned with the well-being of others. He described such a transformation as religious conversion, and although his focus was upon how this worked itself out in the Christian--and more specifically the Catholic--tradition, he never limited the possibility of such love to said tradition. Indeed, Downie, as far as I know, was not an active member of any religion. Articulated from within the Christian tradition, one might say that he is a testimony to the reality that divine grace is not limited to the walls of any given church. However we might want to articulate it, it is not difficult to see in Gord Downie's life a pattern that Lonergan identified in his work: religious conversion, i.e. falling in love with something much greater than oneself, leads to moral conversion, i.e. the consistent option for values over satisfaction, for the common good rather than parochial self-or even group- interest. And in the final analysis, it was no doubt the presence of such love that attracted people to The Hip.

Monday, 16 October 2017

On Gendered Violence

There is currently on social media a trend wherein women (and to a lesser extent men) write "Me too" in their statuses, as a declaration that they have suffered sexual harassment. This seems an appropriate occasion to think about gendered violence (and let's be clear: harassment is a form of violence--not necessarily physical, for physical violence is just the tip of the iceberg--in that it violates the person's dignity and sense of security) from a Lonerganian perspective. As Lonerganian scholars such as Robert Doran and John Dadosky have said about their own writing, in what follows I make no effort to distinguish between Lonergan's thought and my own, as the former has so fully informed the latter that such distinctions are difficult to make.

Most fundamentally, from a Lonerganian perspective violence--gendered or otherwise--is irrational and thus invariably irresponsible. This differs from force, the application of which can at times be quite rational and responsible. If a man assaults a woman, he uses force to exercise violence against her. This is in all cases irrational and irresponsible. If she uses force to resist, that very conceivable could be a rational attempt to avoid injury to self, and thus quite responsible. But more interesting than this basic set of observations is to ask why someone engages in the irrational and irresponsible act of violence in the first place. In Lonergan terms, this will be inexplicably linked to the idea of alienation.

The sort of alienation of which we speak here is in the first instance an alienation from the best version of oneself, i.e. the version of oneself that is attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible. This supposes a view of the subject as something that can be cultivated. The attentiveness, intelligence, reason, and responsibility in view are not native capacities. Rather, they result from the intentional decision to develop the skills associated with observation (attentiveness), understanding (intelligence), judgment (reason), and decision (responsibility). Alienation is not simply a situation in which one is less than fully attentive, intelligent, reasonable, or responsible, but rather a situation in which one actively (although not necessarily consciously) refuses to develop said skills. Instead, the energy that would otherwise be invested in cultivating these skills is invested in justifying the refusal to do so, as well as finding ways to function despite such fundamental impairments in these basic human capacities.

A person thus alienated from her or his best self becomes inevitably alienated also from reality. Precisely because it is through attentiveness, understanding, judgment, and decision that we come to truly know and fruitfully engage with reality, the person who refuses to cultivate these skills is fundamentally incapable of truly knowing or fruitfully engaging with reality. Such a person experiences the world in a fundamentally distorted fashion. Fear substitutes for attentiveness, suspicion for intelligence, paranoia for reason, aggression for responsibility. Unable to escape a bewildering world from which one is fundamentally and existentially estranged, one irresponsibly sets out to control the many aspects of that world that operate in defiance of one's unreasonable expectations. Such control almost inevitably violates the dignity and security of other persons in one way or another. Sometimes this occurs overtly, through acts of irresponsible force, and sometimes it occurs covertly, through various forms of abuse, neglect, harassment, etc.

Due to sexual dimorphism, which results in the reality that female human beings tend to be on average smaller than male human beings in any given population, it is not at all unusual to find that alienated men frequently engage in aggressive conduct towards women. Precisely because the alienated man (and the move to gender-exclusive language here is intentional) is irresponsible, he has a tendency to prefer the quick and easy path to satisfying his need to control. Indeed, entire societies can (dys)functionally adopt such aggressive conduct as a foundational principle, with cultures that become distorted in order to warrant such social dysfunction. Alienated aggression against women becomes normalized, such that women who resist are deemed to be "bitches" or the like, even as women who do not resist are deemed to be "sluts," etc. But of course all this is just projection: irrational and irresponsible men cannot conceive of the possibility that other persons--male or female--might be more rational and more responsible than they are, precisely because they do not actually know what it means to be rational and responsible.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

From Gospel to Dogma

Last week, I had the honour of delivering a talk at Regis College in the University of Toronto, hosted by the Lonergan Research Institute. This talk focused upon how the gospels were seminal in the development of Christian dogma: not in terms of their content, but rather in terms of the processes that led from Jesus' life to the development of the very form of dogma itself that we find emerging at Nicaea, Chalcedon, etc. Here I drew upon a quote from Lonergan's Triune God: Doctrines (p. 49, with the Latin original on p. 48 opposite; yes, although a twentieth-century thinker, Lonergan often wrote in Latin, specifically those writings that started as lectures delivered at the Gregorian in Rome):
[I]n the ante-Nicene doctrinal movement there were not one but two developments that were going forward. During those early Christian centuries both the trinitarian and Christological doctrines were being developed; but this doctrinal development itself enfolded a second and more profound development in which the idea of dogma itself was developing.
What we find here are what we might term a substantial and a formal development, which operated in parallel. The substantial development was the specific content of the doctrines being developed, while the formal development was the mode of expression by which they were articulated. In effect, we are dealing with the difference between what Christians believed and how they communicated that belief. My primary interest in this talk was upon the latter.

Substantially, there are Christian insights in narrative texts such as the gospels and also in dogmatic texts such as the Nicene Creed. But formally they are very different. The movement from narrative to dogma is a profound one, in which sharpened intellectual clarity is achieved by virtue of intellect's increasing regulation of other aspects of the person when thinking about doctrine, which results in a concomitant decrease in the capacity to communicate to the whole person is decreased. What actually happens in the big picture is that narrative--and also song, and other forms that aim more fully at the whole person--becomes less concerned with communicating intellectual truths as forms more appropriate to the communication of intellectual truths come into their own (and thus we see a keen impropriety in comparing ancient narrative to modern narrative; they actually are not the same animal, as modern narrative is much more specialized than ancient). This much is really derived from Lonergan. My particular interest was in how the production of the gospels themselves contributed to this process.

My argument was quite straightforward. The gospels were developed and written in highly diverse milieus; that such communication in such milieus by necessity requires work to clarify concepts; and that this early work at clarification constituted perhaps the first major Christian movement towards dogma. There is strong reason to think that right from the off the church was at least culturally and linguistically diverse: consider the story of Pentecost in Acts 2, for instance, or that of the Hebraists and the Hellenists in Acts 6. This diversity would have only increased as the church spread into the Diaspora (which actually seems to have occurred quite early, perhaps as a direct result of Pentecost. If not then, certainly by the time Paul was converted, perhaps as little as eighteen months after Jesus died and certainly no more than three or four years). All such cultural and linguistic diversity made posed a sharp challenge to communication (indeed, the account of miraculous inter-linguistic communication at Pentecost makes clear that the early Christians were profoundly aware of this challenge). My argument is simply that this challenge to communication necessitated acts of clarification that would characterize the movement of Christian communication throughout the ante-Nicene period, and after.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Of Snake Oil and Titus Flavius

Someone on FB asked me to comment upon the following article, detailing Joseph Atwill's rubbish hypothesis that the "Story of Jesus Christ was 'fabricated to pacify the poor.'" After my response on FB reached its fourth paragraph, I decided to turn it into a blog post.

At the outset, the article requires a basic correction. It erroneously refers to Atwill as a "controversial biblical scholar." This of course is false. He stands to biblical scholarship, the hallmark of which is a commitment to rigourous historical thought, in much the same way that the snake oil salesman stands to medicine: what he peddles is somewhere between useless and toxic, and among those who know better there is virtually no controversy regarding the matter because we can all recognize pseudo-history when we see it. We can see clearly why this is the case by considering his own words, as quoted in this article.
What seems to have eluded many scholars is that the sequence of events and locations of Jesus ministry are more or less the same as the sequence of events and locations of the military campaign of [Emperor] Titus Flavius as described by Josephus....This is clear evidence of a deliberately constructed pattern....The biography of Jesus is actually constructed, tip to stern, on prior stories, but especially on the biography of a Roman Caesar.
A number of observations here. First, he is committing an elementary error, which sixty years ago Samuel Sandmel defined as "parallelomania." This error consists of the supposition that formal parallels must entail a causal or familial relationship. But correlation is not necessarily evidence of causation or family. One needs to do more than demonstrate such parallels. One needs to explain why we should conclude that the parallels indicate deliberate mimicry.

Second, when thinking about such parallels, the fact that the gospels utilize preexisting elements from prior stories does not mean that what they report is fictitious. In fact, it doesn't mean much at all. Let's say that you tell me a story about your high school prom. Many of the features in that story will be stock. In fact, they will be so stock that I could probably predict with a high degree of accuracy the basic narrative that you will tell. Does it follow that you obviously never had a high school prom? Hardly. While, yes, it could be the case that you are employing such stock story features to bamboozle me, it is at least and probably considerably more likely that in fact you had a high school prom, and that you are simply conforming your story to the standard forms in which such events are narrated. Using a more concrete example, I often tell students about the fact that my first day as a full-time undergraduate student was September 11, 2001. When I tell that story, I intentionally employ many of the stock features of a "starting college" story--how excited I was, how I spent much of the previous week getting textbooks, how early class started that day and how tired that made me--precisely to heighten the impact of the unexpected, namely the way in which the events of 9/11 brought the joy of starting university to an abrupt end. In fact, this makes good cognitive sense. If you use stock features to describe the features of the story that aren't of central interest, that frees you to focus cognitive energy upon composing the feature of the story that are; and conversely, stock features allow me to focus cognitive energy upon that which is not stock and thus (you are telling me) more central. Such stock features facilitate communication in such a way that is probably indispensable. Thinking that the very presence of such stock features is of great historical import probably speaks to an impoverished awareness not just of historical thought but more basically of how humans actually think and communicate.

Third, we can ask whether the parallels he identifies are actually that significant. For instance, Judea is in fact not that big a place, and Galilee (where Jesus spent the bulk of his time) even smaller. Should we be horribly surprised if two persons traveling in the same small area just a few decades apart, using the same system of roads and paths, should go to the same places or even have similar itineraries? Coincidence hardly seems improbable. But that having been said, the accounts in any case actually aren't that coincident. For instance, two of Titus' major victories in the Galille occurred at Taricheae and Gamala: two cities that Jesus is never said to have visited! The only significance here seems to be that, if the evangelists were patterning Jesus' ministry after Titus' campaign, then they seem to have little familiarity with the latter.

Fourth, there is a significant chronological problem. The earliest of the gospels, namely Mark's, probably was written either during or even prior to the Judean War. Certainly, one can make a stronger argument for Mark's Gospel predating the Judean War than vice versa, and the gospel certainly predates Josephus' account of Titus operations during that war. Moreover, the core of Jesus' biography is already found in Paul's writings at least ten years before Titus ever set foot in Judea (in fact, Titus was probably not even a teenager when Paul wrote his earliest letters). As such, given the absolute dates involved, there is good reason to think that the basic outlines of Jesus' biography were in place at least a decade before the Jewish War, and if there is a causal or genetic relationship between Josephus' Jewish War and Jesus' biography empirically it is more likely that Josephus imitated Jesus' biography than the other way around.

Fifth, even if we grant the existence of meaningful parallels between Jesus' biography and Titus' operations in the Judean War, and even if we grant that these parallels indicate that the former mimic the latter, it would not follow that this imitation was carried out by the Romans in order to pacify the Judean population. That part of Atwill's argument seems to be predicated upon neither fallacies nor errors, but in groundless speculation.

As a matter of fairness, we should note that Atwill's hypothesis would perform well if logical fallacies, lack of attention to empirical data, and groundless speculation constitute intellectual virtues. I trust that I might be forgiven for suggesting that they do not.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

The Passover Hypothesis and Acts 12:1-4

Acts 12:2-4 has a passage that would be otherwise strange, unless you recognize the sort of multivalent usage that Brant Pitre identifies in chapter four of his Jesus and the Last Supper (cf. my previous post). In the NRSV, this passage reads as follows
1 About that time King Herod [Agrippa] laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. 2 He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. 3 After he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. (This was during the festival of Unleavened Bread.) 4 When he had seized him, he put him in prison and handed him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover.
It is commonplace among New Testament scholars to suppose that "Passover" refers only to 14 Nisan, the day on which the initial sacrifice is slaughtered. It is then followed by the Feast (or Festival) of Unleavened Bread, from 15-21 Nisan. On such an understanding you have a very strange narrative here, wherein James is arrested and executed either before or during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, followed by the arrest of Peter during the Feast and an intention to kill him after the Passover (it is not clear if the statement that this happened during the Feast refers only to Peter's arrest, or also to the arrest and execution of James. I suspect the latter, but the narrative leaves some ambiguity). In other words, on the typical usage, you would have Peter arrested between 15-21 Nisan, with Herod Agrippa planning on executing him once 14 Nisan was past. The only way this would work is if he was arrested sometime during 15-21 Nisan one year, held for a full year until the following 14 Nisan had past. This seems somewhat unlikely.

This problem disappears entirely if, with Pitre, we recognize that "Passover" can also refer to the entirety of the festal week i.e 15-21 Nisan. Then we would have James arrested and executed no later than 21 Nisan, followed by Peter's arrest sometime between 15 and 21 Nisan, with Agrippa planning to have him executed at some point subsequent to the 21 Nisan. The timeline is suddenly not a problem at all. Insofar as a hypothesis' capacity to resolve indirectly-related difficulties should generally be reckoned as confirmatory, Pitre's understanding of the New Testament usages of the term "Passover" seems to receive confirmation from Acts 12:1-4. (Pitre, incidentally, has indicated that Acts 12:1-4 were originally intended to be in chapter four of Jesus and History, but ended up on the chopping-room floor. Quite understandable: as it is, the chapter weighs in at over 120 pages. Sometimes one simply has to let things go).

Incidentally, as I am somewhat obsessive-compulsive about such matters, the events in question probably occurred no earlier than 41, the first Passover during which Agrippa had control of Judea, and no later than 44, the last Passover before his death. Based upon what we know about Peter's movements during these years independent of this passage, I am inclined to favour 41 or 42, with the former seeming more probable to me than the latter. 43 and 44 generally strike me as non-starters.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Brant Pitre and Functional Specialization

As the godly know, there are few things more sublime than solid chronological work. That's what makes chapter four of Brant Pitre's Jesus and the Last Supper a thing of beauty. In this chapter Pitre addresses the ever-vexed question about the date of the last supper. He rightly notes that this question is the single most disputed chronological issue in NT studies. The issue turns upon a perceived contradiction between the accounts in the Synoptic Gospels, which indicate that the Last Supper took place on 15 Nisan, and the account in John's, which is typically thought to indicate that it took place a day earlier, on 14 Nisan. This perceived contradiction has become a significant point of contention in New Testament scholarship, as 15 Nisan is typically identified as being self-identical with Passover. The questions of whether the Last Supper was a Passover meal and whether Jesus was understood as a Passover sacrifice are both related integrally to this matter. Pitre's contribution is to show that the historical problem is based wholly upon questionable exegesis.

Pitre argues that scholarship has made the error of supposing that in all cases, when the gospels refer to Passover, they are referring to 15 Nisan. Against this, he argues that in late Second Temple Judaism, "Passover" could refer to at least four different things: the Passover lamb, sacrificed on 14 Nisan; the Passover meal on 15 Nisan, at which the lamb was consumed; the Passover peace offering, consumed over the period from 15-21 Nisan; or Passover week, also from 15-21 Nisan. Without getting into the complicated details, which span more than forty pages in Pitre's work, suffice it to say that he demonstrates quite persuasively that when the differing uses of the term are kept in mind, the appearance of contradictory claims between the Synoptics and John evaporates.

In Lonergan terms, what Pitre has done is recognize that interpretation must precede history. Before one can on the basis of ancient texts infer what happened in the past, one must first establish what said texts actually say on the relevant matter. The question "On the date of the Last Supper, is John correct or are the Synoptics?" is meaningful only if John and the Synoptics diverge on the dates that they report for the event. If they converge then certainly one can still ask whether or not Jesus ate his Last Supper on the date mutually indicated (Pitre argues that this date is 15 Nisan), but the question of whether to prefer John or the Synoptics becomes meaningless as there is no substantive difference. The historical problem--whether real or chimerical--is entirely the fruit of exegesis.

Incidentally, the potential objection that Pitre is "conflating" texts holds no water, as it supposes what remains to be proven, namely that the texts present divergent data on the matter of the Last Supper's date. If exegesis demonstrates that they do not, then no conflation is possible because there is nothing to conflate. If exegesis demonstrates that they do, then no conflation has occurred because one recognizes that they diverge. Also incidentally, of course our understanding about the possible meanings of the term "Passover" is itself the fruit of previous work. That literally goes without saying, and entails nothing more than the paired and really quite banal insights that one never comes to any question with an empty head and that what fills one's head is the fruit of previous discoveries.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love a Pre-70 John

Among the New Testament texts, the date of John's Gospel is, IMHO, one of the hardest to define. It's no Hebrews, which was pretty obviously written sometime between 50 and 70, and certainly no Romans, which written indisputably written c. 56-57. Given 21:18-19, it seems probable that the gospel was completed sometime after Peter's death. But in principle Peter could have died as early as 54. We know that he died under Nero, who reigned 54-68, and although this is often linked with the Christian persecution said to have broken out after the fire of July 64 there are reasons to disassociate his death from the fire. If so, then the Neronian datum can stand without locking us into July 64 as a terminus post quem. 1 Cor. 9:6 seems to suppose that Peter yet lives, and although it seems to be the latest text that references Peter as still living it can't be dated much later than 55 or 56. At most, it might increase the terminus post quem for John's Gospel to the late-50s. That said, given that the most concrete dates we have on Peter's death associate it with events of the mid- to late- 60s (the fire, Paul's death), a date of death at 65 ± 1 or 2 years is probably to be preferred. In terms of a terminus ante quem, Ignatius of Antioch--writing sometime between 98 and 117 (I'm wary of efforts to narrow the range down more precisely)--almost certainly knows John's Gospel. Given that Ignatius seems to suppose that his readers are also familiar with John's Gospel, one suspects that the gospel predates his use by a few years at least. As such, John's Gospel should not be dated earlier than the late-50s, or later than the 110s, with perhaps a more likely range from c. 65 to c. 100. A more precise date requires a very close examination of certain relevant texts.

If determining a date where simply a matter of determining the average of the possibilities than a "middle" date (i.e. one from c. 70-100) would be preferred. But that is not adequate historiography. A more robust procedure would inquire into whether there is evidence for whether John should be located before the 70 divide or after. Let us begin by considering the evidence for a post-70 date, beginning with 4:21. When Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that "a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem" must he not surely be referring to the destruction of the temple in 70? Two observations are in order. One, it's reasonably clear that the point of 4:21-24 is not the destruction of the temple but rather the soteriological consequences of Jesus' ministry. Two, that the statement is a prophecy after the fact referring to the destruction of the temple during the Jewish War seems highly unlikely given that it is mated with a prophecy that worship would also cease on Mt. Gerizim...something that did not happen during the war. A prophecy after the fact that reports blatant non-facts seems curiously strange. 4:21 probably tells us nothing about the date of the gospel. Similarly, 2:19-22 probably tells us nothing either. Yes, Jesus is reported to have uttered a prophecy that the temple would be destroyed and rebuilt, and yes, we read that the disciples eventually interpreted that as a reference to his own body. That reinterpretation could have occurred after the destruction in 70, in order to explain why the temple was not rebuilt, but it could have just as easily have occurred after the resurrection: exactly as 2:22 states. Indeed, I see no reason to doubt John on this matter, which suggests that the reported reinterpretation could have occurred as early as 30. Again, in turns of defining the date of John's Gospel, 2:19-22 is probably non-probative.

Sometimes it is argued that the Gospel must post-date 70 because 9:22, 12:42, and 16:2 clearly suppose the existence of the rabbinic prayer Birkat ha-Minim, which dates to the post-70 period. This is a non-starter, on so many levels. In fact, it is a non-starter on so many levels that I've written an entire book on the matter. The argument ignores a series of facts. For instance, we can be more confident that John's Gospel dates to the first century than we can be that the Birkat ha-Minim does. Or, we cannot be confident that it was originally an anti-Christian prayer, as this reading of 9:22, 12:42, and 16:2 must suppose. Or, 9:22, 12:42, 16:2 refer to expulsion from the synagogue with no references to prayer, while the material surrounding the Birkat ha-Minim refer to prayer with no references to expulsion from the synagogue. We are left trying to offer as background to 9:22, 12:42, and 16:2 by invoking a text that more likely post-dates John's Gospel than not, probably did not have the aim that it must have had if it is to speak to these Johannine passages, and in fact lacks almost any actual parallel with John 9:22, 12:42, and 16:2. New Testament scholarship's fascination with the Birkat ha-Minim is mischief best laid to rest.

In sum, I see nothing in John's Gospel that should incline us towards a post-70 date. Is there data that should incline us towards a pre-70 one? I think that there is. A key datum is 5:2, which tells us that "Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes." Note the present tenses here. This is exceptional for John. Typically, he assimilates his topographical descriptions to the narrative, typically using the imperfect. The slippage to present tense makes best sense to me if the author most spontaneously thinks about the Sheep Gate as a present reality, and that such thought has led him to neglect assimilating this description to the time of the narrative. Such spontaneity makes far better sense before 70 than after.

One might object that 5:2 cannot bear this much weight, and of course in a fuller treatment I would furnish more data than just this, but I would suggest that if there are no data that points at a post-70 date but there is a datum that seems more "at home" prior to 70, then pre-70 is the safer bet.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Eyewitnesses and the Hellēnistai

Reading the second edition of Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses today, I came across an interesting suggestion. Building upon the idea that the "John" of the Gospel of John was a Jerusalem-based follower of Jesus (and that he is also the Beloved Disciple who features in the gospel), Bauckham suggested that the book's distinctive character might stem from its ultimate origin among a different "circle" of eyewitnesses than the Synoptic Gospels. I was already quite convinced that Johannine distinctiveness was largely a consequence of an author who was a disciple of the earthly Jesus was Jerusalem-based but not one of the Twelve, but the idea that he was a representative voice of a circle of eyewitnesses outside the Twelve had not occurred to me. It is is not without certain attractions.

One such attraction: this hypothesis makes good sense of the Johannine "we-passages." These passages talk in the first-person plural about having witnessed Jesus' glory (1:14b) and knowing that the author's testimony was true (21:24). When I reflect upon these passages in light of Bauckham's suggestion, it occurs to me that they are most naturally read as indicating that at least three eyewitnesses were involved in the development of John's Gospel: John, the Beloved Disciple, the two or more who know his testimony is true in 21:24, and all three or more of these who claim to have witnessed Jesus' glory in 1:14b. As I think about it, I suspect an implicit claim to eyewitness status in 21:24 because the gospel generally links knowing and seeing. For John, to know is to have seen, and if one knows that something is true that is typically because one has seen it. With regard to 21:24, this would only be true of those who had seen the things to which John testifies.

Another attraction: we actually do know of at least two distinct groups of Christians present in Jerusalem during the first year or two after Jesus' life, namely the Hebraioi and the Hellēnistai, the Hebraists and the Hellenists. It doesn't seem that they lived separate institutional lives, but the early Christians were cognizant that there were distinctions between them. While the majority of Jesus' Galilean followers were likely among the Hebraists, it is not unreasonable to expect that at least some of his Jerusalem-based followers were among the Hellenists. It strikes me as hardly inconceivable that the distinctions between Hebraist and Hellenist might not in part have been the grounds for the literary distinctions that we find in the Synoptic and Johannine traditions. Of course, it doesn't follow that either tradition closely resembled their written form at this point, but the idea that the developments that led to those written forms should be located in this first year or two should perhaps not be ruled out.

Interestingly, the above hypotheses (which is all they are: untested hypotheses) would have the consequence of grounding early Christian diversity at least in part in the pre-Easter period. Distinctions between Synoptic and Johannine traditions that can be seen clearly decades after Jesus' death could be in part the consequences of his operations. Put otherwise, following the traditional Lukan narrative that sees Christianity as initially expanding from a relatively small group Jerusalem does not require one to assume that Christianity was homogeneous. It was in principle as diverse as the people who joined Christianity during this period.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Yes, I am Crazy, and That's Okay

I recently shared with a colleague an idea that's been germinating in my head. He informed me that if I carried through the idea it would drive me insane. I pointed out that this was of course nonsense, as I'm already quite loco and have been since at least the mid-90s. But seriously. The idea is to do for ancient Israel and Judaism what Neil Ormerod has recently done for Christian history. Ormerod takes Lonergan's understanding of dialectic and a normative scale of values and uses it to sketch the dialectic development of Christianity. What emerges is not a detailed history, but rather an attempt at a "bird's eye" view of how social, cultural, and personal values have unfolded through the first two millennia of Christian history. Insofar as Ormerod starts in the first century, that is where I'd like to leave off. (I am of course quite aware that Jewish history continues well beyond that period, up to the present and presumably into the future, and the question of how to trace out Judaism and Christianity as parallel developments out of ancient Israelite and Jewish religion is an urgent one. It is however not my question, and not one for which I feel that I have or could reasonably develop the necessary expertise. I would of course be thrilled if my work aided those who do have that expertise and interest).

I'll give an example of the sort of narratives such a history might provide. If you look at Judges, there is a basic pattern. Israel follows after gods who are not YHWH, and consequently a new power oppresses them. Then God raises up a judge, and Israel throws off the oppressor's yoke. Now, certainly one should be very wary of treating this book as an exact account of what happened in Iron Age I Israel. But I would suggest that for the historian there is significant usable data in this basic schema. In Lonergan's understanding, as developed by Robert Doran, cultural values serve to both warrant and where necessary correct social values. Now, best we can tell, Israel at this time was a loose confederation of tribal groups that found its unity in common allegiance to the cult of YHWH. In Lonerganian terms, the confederation falls within the realm of social values, while the cult is that which warrants it. As such, when there is a tendency towards infidelity towards the cult of YHWH, there is a tendency for the confederation system to break down. Thus does Israel become less able to cope with would-be oppressors. The correction to such a situation lies with personal values, with the emergence of persons who have appropriated the necessary cultural values in such a way that they can correct their dysfunction and in turn that of the social values. These are schematized in Judges as exactly that: the judges. Deborah perhaps is the exemplar here, invoking the cult of YHWH to call Barak and in turn responsive tribes to action against Hazor. A breakdown in cultural values allowed a breakdown in social values, while a corrective force originated in personal values corrected for cultural and through them social ones. A fuller analysis would likely suggest that the original breakdown in cultural values was the consequence of, or at least correlated with, a breakdown in personal values, but this is a blog so we'll leave it there. The point is to begin thinking about the dynamic interaction of society, culture, and person, across the duration of Israelite and early Jewish history.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

The Nashville Statement

Many have been talking about the Nashville Statement today. For those unfamiliar with it, it was put together by the so-called "Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood"--i.e. a group of self-appointed evangelical Christian persons whose expertise in either human sexuality or Christian theology is less than evident--in order to define for all and sundry the nature of gender and sexuality. I will again deviate slightly from my normal focus upon Lonergan and scripture in order to provide some reflection upon the matter, for whatever such reflection might be worth.

Others have commented upon the view of sexuality evident in this statement. Myself, I'm going to focus upon the elephant dancing in the middle of the room. Evangelical Christianity historically has been predicated upon a radical understanding of the principle of sola scriptura, i.e. that (66 out of the 73 books that the majority of Christians consider to be in) the bible contains all that is sufficient for Christian doctrine. The fascinating thing is how little of these articles can be warranted from scripture alone. Indeed, as far as I know, there is nothing in scripture that speaks to trans-identity. Now, theologically one might be able to use material other than scripture to arrive at the conclusion that trans-identity is sinful (such an argument would have to articulated carefully, and with conscientious attention to its pastoral implications), but I do not reckon that you can get there from scripture alone. And this raises a question about the very existence of the Nashville Statement: if the bible contains all that is sufficient for Christian doctrine, then why is there any need for this document? Why do the signatories not think that the statement "Read the bible" would suffice?

An answer can be found, I suggest, in Lonergan, who argues that whereas Christian scripture aims to speak to undifferentiated consciousness, i.e. consciousness that is generalized rather than specialized, Christian dogma aims to speak to differentiated consciousness, specifically to consciousness primarily operating within the realm of the intellect. That is, scripture for the most part aims to move the whole person, whereas dogma aims to inform and persuade the intellect. As such, with this greater focus, the latter can achieve a clarity that the former often cannot. (The fruits of this distinction cannot be overstated. It might help explain why Paul, for instance, continues to boggle exegetes: because that which does not take the literary form of dogma is being treated as if it does). This is why, despite their stated abhorrence of creeds, virtually every fundamentalist group feels a need to put out a strongly-worded statement of faith. Quite simply, Christianity has developed to the point that such forms are necessary to clearly express its truths. In fact, it developed to that point by at least the fourth century. In the end, what the Nashville Statement perhaps reveals most profoundly is the intellectual crisis in certain forms of Christianity, which necessarily depend upon that which in principle they consider to be unnecessary.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Cosmos and Anthropos

In my previous post I suggested that the Moses narratives are grounded in an attempt to convey through cosmological myth the experiences provoked by Moses' person and operations. In order to do this, these narratives have to subvert such myth. The king, typically the exemplar of cosmic order, becomes the source of cosmic chaos as he subjugates the Israelites and resists YHWH's efforts to restore justice through Moses' work. Moses the murderer, a figure who should be seen as the profound bearer of injustice and disorder, becomes the agent of cosmic restoration to a just order. And in this subversion something remarkable happens: the foundations of a break with the very cosmological myth in which the Moses narratives are grounded.

One of the recurring problems in the social sciences is how to simultaneously account for how society and culture maintain integrity over generations and yet are constantly changing. How is American society and culture, for instance, recognizably American society and culture at any given point in American history, yet American society and culture at any two given points in American history might be radically different? In order to account for such a phenomenon, one must have some notion of a dialectic. There must be opposed principles at work within the given society or culture, the recurrent interplay of which constitutes continuity while generating change. In the Lonergan tradition, when it comes to culture it has been argued that one might generalize these principles as cosmology and anthropology: the difference between society understood as something grounded in the natural order and society understood as something grounded in human experience. What happened in the exodus, I would argue, was a significant break-through for the anthropological principle, with the human experience of suffering and need for freedom achieving ascendance over Pharaonic social cosmology.

This anthropological principle will recur throughout the Israelite and Jewish tradition. It is what we hear in the prophets, when they call out the wealthy for exploiting the poor, when Micah declares that YHWH seeks mercy and justice and humility, not sacrifices. It is what we hear in Jesus, when he says that the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath, in Paul when he says that without love we are nothing. It is what we hear when the Pharisee Hillel says that the essence of Torah is that one should not do to others what is hateful to oneself. And while this anthropological principle surely did not originate with Moses (no doubt it had its origins in values held by the transhumant groups from which the Israelites originated; indeed, the very decision to opt for transhumance likely represents in part an anthropologically-driven desire to be free of control by what Voegelin describes as "cosmological empires"), certainly it was never the same after him.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Moses and Myth

Think about the great persons of our times. Think of, for instance, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Malcolm X. These are persons whose characters are experienced as being fundamentally different than those of other persons. They are felt as somehow transcending the ordinary limits of human possibility. When we want to express this experience, we turn to narrative. We tell stories about their great deeds, how they defied sheriffs and governors and other hostile folk who sought to destroy them and their people. We speak with awe about King sitting in Birmingham jail, a prisoner of conscience, or Malcolm X's courage in breaking with the Nation of Islam in favour of a moderate orthodox form of his religion, one that he came to recognize more fully affirmed the humanity of all persons. We tell these stories, which find a complement in the resources of modern historiography and the social sciences to provide analytical depth.

But imagine if we didn't have those resources. Imagine if virtually all we had was cosmological myth, i.e. narratives that seek to explain the reality of an ordered cosmos, one in which the sun rises and sets everyday, in which every year days grew intermittently longer and shorter as seasons change and crops are sowed and harvested, one in which the moon travels around the earth twelves times in approximately the time it takes for the seasons to complete their annual cycle. And when such cosmological myths constitute our only real way of accounting for order, they also become how we account for social order. The state is imagined as being as much part of the cosmic order as anything else. The same gods operating within the rounds of the sun or the moon or the Nile are the gods operating through kings. How do we describe someone like a Martin Luther King, Jr., or a Malcolm X, who comes along and disrupts the social order? How does one talk about a man who defies a king when kings are immanently part of the cosmos?

The answer, of course, is simple: you use the imagery of cosmological myth. But of course you must do so in ways that subvert that imagery. Historically, sheriffs were seen as exemplars of law and order. The Martin Luther King, Jr., cycle subverts that, recasting sheriffs as the source of injustice and violence and the "criminal" MLK as the one restoring order through adherence to a higher law. Likewise Exodus recasts Pharaoh, the exemplar of ancient Egyptian law and order, and the murderer Moses, as respectively destroyer and restorer of just order. Pharaoh destroys just order when he subjugates the Israelites to slavery. Moses' story as an adult begins when he commits a murder and must flee, but the murderer returns to restore just order by leading the captives to freedom. Suddenly the story of the plagues makes perfect sense. How, in a world of cosmological myth, do you dramatize the disorder that has distorted Pharaonic reality but by showing how continued refusals to act justly cause the cosmos itself to turn against Egypt? The Mosaic birth narrative also now makes perfect sense. How, in a world of cosmological myth, do you dramatize the imminent restoration of just order better but by showing how the entire cosmos--natural and social--conspired to save the human agent of that restoration from the very injustices that he must later confront? And of course the man who restores just order must also be the one who delivers a just law, and indeed any departure from the Egyptian cosmos would have necessitated a new conceptual basis for social order. Moses as prodigy, Moses as plague-bearer, Moses as law-giver: this connection of symbolizations makes eminent sense as an effort to explain the unexpected, for in a world of cosmological myth one must account for the unexpected through cosmological myth. Moses was the unexpected.

All the above explanations disappear without a historical Moses. Without the experiential core of a historical Moses, the biblical accounts of the exodus simply become the senseless agglomeration of disparate mythical images from a myriad of sources. Of course, Moses has become mythologized, and that because there was no other imagery by which to communicate the experiences that his operations generated. When all you have is cosmological myth, you communicate by cosmological myth.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Exodus in Our Time, Pt. IV.

The previous three parts that I wrote upon the exodus have ended up garnering more attention than I expected, with people asking if I was intending to write any more on the matter. So, I thought I'd write an originally unplanned fourth part, focusing upon bringing out more explicitly the Lonerganian underpinnings of what went before.

The first of these underpinnings has to do with what it means to know. As noted previously, for Lonergan knowing is not like looking. The answers are not given in the data. Rather, one infers the answers from the data. One does this by first attending to the relevant data, which in our case would consist of the biblical accounts of the exodus, the place of Moses and the exodus in Israelite and subsequent tradition, our knowledge of slavery in New Kingdom Egypt, our knowledge of Late Bronze Age southern Canaanites, other ancient Near Eastern material such as that relating to the Hyksos, etc. Few people are specialists in all of this material (and in fact I'm a specialist in none of it), so one must generally rely upon the work of specialists in these different areas. That in turn demands a degree of trust in and thus goodwill towards others (and thus we see that the conversion to love that Lonergan describes as "religious conversion" is--while perhaps not strictly necessary for the historian to carry out her or his work--a significant boon, for love excludes the paranoia that undercuts the trust and goodwill necessary for successful historiography). Attending to these various data, one then strives to understand the ancient world. One considers the various explanations that one might offer for the totality of the data. Then, one considers the conditions that must be present in the data before one can affirm any given hypothesis. Insofar as those conditions are met, one can reasonably affirm the hypothesis, and insofar as those conditions are not met one cannot. Ideally by this point one finds that one and only one hypothesis satisfies all necessary conditions for its affirmation, but when one finds a plurality of such hypotheses one must take on the harder work of adjudicating between possibilities.

The second underpinning has to do with the notion of the level of our time, to which the title "Exodus in Our Time" alludes. This was a favourite phrase of Lonergan's, and has come in some senses to sum up the entirety of his project. The idea of the level of our time is built upon the recognition that insights lead to further insights and that this process extends trans-generationally in time. We today discover that A is true. This leads our successors to discover that B is the case. This leads their successors to discover that C is the case. Eventually, after hundreds or thousands of years Z is discovered to be the case, even though by this point Z might evince little to no obvious relation to A. Such is my argument regarding the world-historical significance of the exodus. I would argue that the insight into human dignity implicit in the phrase "Let my people go!" became the genesis of a long, extended, process of insight building upon insight that has eventuated in our modern understandings of human rights and freedoms (and presumably will continue to make its presence felt for some time yet to come; we, after all, are not the telos of history). No, the exodus is not predicated upon such modern understandings. No, such modern understandings are absent from the balance of the biblical corpus, Jewish and Christian (the writers of these texts were not, after all, moderns). But, absent the exodus and absent the experiences that generated and are transmitted by these scriptures, we would not have arrived at our modern understandings of human rights (or, if we did, the path getting here would have looked quite different).

There is a reason then that the phrase "Let my people go!" has such resonance with us. It represents an insight foundational to what we as a species are becoming. The historian's joyous privilege is to investigate more closely the origin and impact of this insight.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

The Exodus in Our Time, Pt. III

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam each in its own way claims to be the legitimate heir of the religion of ancient Israel. While we often point to Abraham as the figure that links them, thus the term "Abrahamic" religions, in at least Judaism and Christianity the figure of Moses looms much larger. The entirety of Jewish religious life is organized around remaining faithful to God's law, as communicated to Moses at Mount Sinai, and Christian understandings of the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth are steeped in imagery associated with the exodus (after all, the Passover is precisely a commemoration of that event). In many ways, "Mosaic" would be a more appropriate description of Jewish and Christian religion than "Abrahamic." And thus can it reasonably be said that the core of the western religious tradition derives from the successful flight of enslaved persons from Egypt. At the fountainheads of western civilization--that remarkable fusion of Hebraic and Greek experiences--stand escaped slaves.

This has two obvious consequences. The first is that any effort to use the Jewish or Christian traditions to defend slavery ultimately must come up against the reality that such defense betrays the foundational impulse of these traditions. This first consequence has a further consequence: efforts to use these same traditions to support racism must up against that same reality. At its core, the exodus is a radical affirmation of human dignity, one that states that all persons, Egyptian or Hebrew, high-born or low, all deserve the freedom to live free from bondage and abuse. More, it introduces into history an insight that as far as I know was never previously so realized, namely that freedom is a sort of force in its own right. In the words of Ambassador G'Kar of Babylon 5: "There is no greater power in the universe than the need for freedom. Against that power, governments and tyrants and armies cannot stand." This is not obviated because we see later biblical texts that suppose slavery as a given. All that reality says is that the radical affirmation of human dignity that is the exodus had not yet fully penetrated human moral imagination.

The second obvious consequence is that unreasonable denial of the exodus vitiates this radical core at the heart of the western religious tradition. And this has real consequences. When one apprehends that Christian religion in a very real sense can trace its origins back to a group of Semitic slaves flying to freedom, the white supremacists chanting anti-Semitic slogans in defense of monuments to slavery while wielding symbols of the Christian faith are revealed not simply as trollish haters but in fact deeply idiotic persons who do not even apprehend the very civilization they claim to defend. Add in that this seminal event happened not in northern Europe but rather in Africa, and they begin to look utterly foolish, even more than their home-made shields and bizarrely neurotic need to wear bicycle helmets and wield bargain tiki torches already have made them. Of course, such considerations cannot be used to adjudicate whether or not there was an exodus or a Moses, but given that the arguments against the historicity of either are hardly as strong as often assumed--in fact, they largely boil down to arguments from silence and the fallacious supposition that if the Israelites were of Canannite extraction they must have always dwelt in Canaan--then one wonders why, in the face of rising hate and renewed efforts to justify the past enslavement of entire human populations, we are not working more diligently to retrieve this vital core of the western tradition. We who are inheritors of the Jewish, Christian, and post-Christian secular traditions cannot fully become ourselves if we do not acknowledge fully the seminal debt that we owe to the wisdom and courage of slaves.