The Dalton McCaughey Library

…has a coffee shop. Not in the library, but right outside the entrance, selling a range of drinks and food at quite reasonable prices. Nice!!

It was very quiet, but it was also mid-semester non-teaching break. Bright, airy, books easy to find and a reasonable number of photocopiers. The library has been renamed with the move to its new location. When I was a student, it was just the Joint Theological Library (of the Uniting Church Synod of Victoria and Tasmania and the Society of Jesus) but when it moved the decision was taken to rename it after two very great men, Rev Dr Davis McCaughey and Rev Bill Dalton, SJ. Davis was Master of Ormond College, and Bill was Principal of the Jesuit Theological College, when the Joint Theological Library formed. Both of them taught me Biblical Studies and both were very distinctive teachers.

And on the subject of libraries in general and on-line databases in particular, I have decided that EBSCOhost is too smart for its own good. I have the ability to access EBSCOhost through a range of different library memberships, each of which allows me access to different databases. I used to be able to use all of them from my desk at the university, but now I can only get into the UNE subscription, which doesn’t include ATLA or any of the other religion databases. From my room at the conference, I can’t get into any because I don’t have a University of Melbourne student or staff logon – I’m just a guest with a guest account. Grrrr.

The Law of Diminishing Returns

I have a quite extensive Endnote database of books and articles that might well be relevant to my research. Every time I get the chance to visit a different theological/studies in religion library, I take along a list of items that I haven’t already found. Obviously, every time I draft a new list, it’s shorter than the previous one, but also every time I visit a library, the proportion of items I am able to find reduces. Looking at what I don’t have in the way of articles after this visit, I think it’s down to the old and the obscure. For example, just how many libraries outside the Netherlands am I likely to find that have holdings of Nederlands Theologisch Tijdschift?

And, indeed, how much more do I really need to read, anyway? My literature review is already huge and all that I need to be able to do is to demonstrate that I am aware of the discussion and opinions in the literature, not that I have read everything ever written on the Gospel of Thomas! The law of diminishing returns must surely mean that there is a point beyond which there is no value in reading anything more that isn’t obviously new.

That’s the logical voice in my brain speaking. And then there’s the other voice, the one that says that the person who marks my thesis may have read (or even written) that article in the Nederlands Theologisch Tijdschift and may accuse me of plagiarising an idea that I genuinely thought was my own but was expressed very beautifully on the third page of the article I didn’t hunt hard enough for.

People have had their PhDs rescinded and lost their high-flying positions 25 years on because of plagiarism (well, one person that I know of has). My own university is currently investigating a plethora of plagiarism cases in one particular course. Our plagiarism policy says that unintentional plagiarism is still plagiarism and can still incur penalties. It’s easy to become paranoid.

Hey, maybe I can suggest this to Jorge Cham as a story line for a Piled Higher and Deeper comic strip?

Clearly, my particular research-related paranoia is plagiarism. What’s yours?

Technology woes

Here I am in lovely Melbourne at a national university chaplains’ conference. Finally got internet access last night (evening two) after a series of problems. Yes, there is an internet connection in each room, but you need to bring your own coax cable, and they need to generate a guest account for the conference attenders. Oh, your conference attenders wanted actual internet access? You weren’t just asking about it from general interest?

This and a range of other interesting problems means that no-one will be recommending this college as a conference venue, but it does have the advantage of being on the same campus as the largest theological library in the southern hemisphere, reasonably recently relocated to a new building. This afternoon is excursion time and we can choose our own, so I’ve chosen the Dalton McCaughey Library. Unfortunately, there is no wireless network in the library (funding constraints, I assume) so I won’t be able to connect direct to the library catalogue while I’m in the library, but I’m hoping to be able to find some of the journal articles I’ve been looking for for a while. And to see the new library of my theological alma mater, the United Faculty of Theology.

Eyewitnesss accounts

Jim Deardorff asks in the comments section of my last post

Where do heavily redacted eye-witness accounts fit into this? Are they considered non-eye-witness accounts?

I’ve moved this out of the comments section to respond to it, because I think it’s moved away from the purpose of the original post.

This is an interesting question although I think I’d pose it slightly differently and ask how heavily an eye-witness account needs to be redacted before we stop regarding it as an eyewitness account. I would suggest that once it gets to the point where none of the people present at the original event would recognise it as something they witnessed, you no longer have an eyewitness account. Of course, we have no way of determining this because of the distance between the events and now.

It’s possible that when we have accounts in several gospels of which we ask “is this the same story?”, we have several heavily redacted pieces of eyewitness material. We might, however, equally have accounts of several different events. For example, in the various accounts of a woman washing/annointing Jesus’ feet (John 12: 1-11; Matt 26: 6-13; Mark 14: 3-9) I think it’s quite likely that we have material that is so heavily redacted (by John) that it has almost moved to the stage where it can no longer be called “eyewitness” because I think it’s fairly unlikely that this kind of event happened more than once. When we’re dealing with different versions of parables, however, I think it’s equally likely that we have examples of Jesus using the same basic illustration but with different twists to illustrate slightly different points on different occasions. An example of this would be the Treasure parable in Matt 13:44 and Thomas 109.

How you deal with this question depends, of course on what you understand the canonical and non-canonical texts to be. At one end of the spectrum, you get an approach that accepts that Jesus was a real, historical figure and treats the canonical gospels as virtually minutes of Jesus’ life and ministry and the non-canonical texts are heretical documents written to draw people away from the One True Faith. At the other end are people who believe that Jesus was not a real historical figure and that the various canonical and non-canonical texts were written by people who were either attempting to illustrate what they considered were spiritual truths or to trick the gullible into doing what they wanted, depending on how charitable the person is feeling towards the early Christians.

Somewhere in the middle you get those who, like me, believe that Jesus was a real, historical figure but do not consider the early Christian documents as minutes of Jesus’ ministry. Rather, they are accounts written by early Christians whose lives had been changed by an encounter with God to help others to understand how God was working in their lives. Some people in this group believe that all the canonical gospel material is based on eyewitness accounts of contact with the historical Jesus, while others believe that some has a basis in fact and some is myth, written to illustrate Truth.

I don’t happen to think that picking up eyewitness accounts from several different times and putting them together for the purposes of furthering a theological argument renders the individual pieces of material “non-eyewitness”, even though the longer theological passage cannot be viewed as eyewitness.

Making biblical scholarship available to congregational members – a bit of a rant

April DeConick, over on The Forbidden Gospels blog, has three posts (starting here) reflecting on why the Society of Biblical Literature hasn’t set up a panel to discuss Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth, which has not exactly received a standing ovation in biblical scholarship circles. If you want to see why, Gerd Lüdemann’s review in Free Inquiry provides some information from a secular humanist perspective.

I haven’t read the book and don’t have time to, but Geoff Hudson’s first comment on this post raises a bigger issue on which I do want to comment. He says:

So how did the public ‘religious illiteracy’ come about, if not through the academics who trained students and ministers?

This is something I have strong feelings about. As I say in my comment on April’s blog, during my ministry training and in conversations with colleagues, I have reasonably frequently heard it said that telling members of congregations about ‘modern’ biblical scholarship is not appropriate either because they wouldn’t understand or it would destroy their faith. I find this elitist and condescending and have been known to ask whether the person making the statement has understood the scholarship and if so, whether it has destroyed their faith.

In fact, quite a number of people have the opposite response when they are told about it – excitement that it helps them to make sense of things they’ve wondered about for decades and anger that no-one has told them before. Unfortunately, since preachers have, by and large kept this stuff under wraps for well over a century, there’s a lot of catching up to do, so the prospect of dealing with it is quite daunting but, at least in my experience, very worthwhile.

At the other extreme, I get really frustrated when biblical scholars try to use historical-critical method to ‘prove’ things that are actually faith-based. Bauckham’s work on eyewitness accounts in the gospels springs immediately to mind, but there are other examples. I continue to return to the fact that what makes the gospels trustworthy from the Christian perspective is that we believe that we have documents that are inspired by God, so that the processes through which they went to reach the final version were guided by God and can therefore be trusted to preserve “truth”. If someone is not reading them from a faith perspective then it doesn’t matter whether they are eyewitness accounts or not, there is no way to prove that they are accurate accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings. They are simply a corpus of writings that a group of people believe to be true and upon which they base their lives and the non-believer examines them from that perspective. It appears that a particular part of the Christian church is trying very hard to change Christianity from something that is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Co 1:23, NRSV) to something that can be scientifically proven to be correct and I really don’t see it happening this side of the eschaton. That is, after all, the point of Christianity being called a “faith” and there really is no way to stop people who don’t share that faith from thinking that you’re anything from not overly bright to seriously dangerous. :-)

Update 15 Sept: Over on Euangelion, Michael Bird posts about developing a theology of early Christianity which takes seriously both what we know about the history Christian origins and the fact that the early Christians were writing about their encounters with God (sorry, Michael, if I’ve oversimplified).