Creating Jesus

As readers may be able to tell from the sudden flurry of posts, life around my place has become significantly less hectic.  The first of the end of semester exams begin today, so the students basically all have their heads down working and the things that have been taking up much of my creative headspace are beginning to settle.

I have been meaning for some time to call attention to a series of posts on April DeConick’s Forbidden Gospels Blog around the topic Creating Jesus – How a Jewish Rabbi became God. In her first post (there are 19 so far, written over a two month period) she says:

This has always been the central question to studies of Christology and there have been many scholarly models which have varying amounts of success taking into account the vast amount of written evidence. What is certain is that Jesus was not being worshiped as a god by his disciples during his life. This came later after his death. The question is how long it took to happen, and how it happened that a “monotheistic” Jewish sect took on the worship of a second god.

If you click on the link above, it will take you to all the posts on the issue archived together and you can begin at the bottom and read up. It’s created a huge amount of discussion on the blogsite, most of which I haven’t had time to read, but just reading the postings gives a great insight into how studying early christian documents from a “secular” academic perspective happens.  This is quite different to devotional or confessional biblical studies in which the student is asking different questions and therefore using different methodologies and coming up with different answers.

History is not science

Over at The Forbidden Gospels Blog, April DeConick has a very interesting post entitled Theology is not History.  In it, she says (among other things):

I am reminded that in Europe, historians like myself characterize their research and writing as “scientific”. I have stayed away from this characterization myself, feeling that “science” is the field of biology and physics.

As someone who was trained as a research scientist, I agree with her.  The scientific method requires that the researcher looks at what is happening in the real world, develops a(n) hypothesis or a set of hypotheses about why it is happening and sets up controlled experiments to test whether or not the hypotheses are correct.   There is no way that historians can do this.  They can’t say “we think the causes of WWII were X, Y and Z” and then go back to the 1930s and change the conditions to see if WWII still happens without X or without Y.  Much psychological and sociological research also follows the scientific method, although it is sometimes difficult to control as many of the circumstances as researchers would like because research ethics committees won’t allow some things to be done or not done on human beings (and with good reason).

Good historians are careful, methodical investigators, but they are not scientists because they have no way of controlling the circumstances they are investigating in order to test their hypotheses.  The more contemporary the history being written, the better able the historian is to take into consideration context and various biases in their analysis of the material available to them, but they still can’t change the events of the past.  Historians of early Christianity and the various other things that come under the heading “Ancient History” can only work with the texts available, knowing that in some situations this gives them access to incredibly skewed data. Their analysis can still tell us some very valuable things, but it is not science.

Backgrounds of biblical scholars

I have been amazingly busy over the past week or two and only yesterday got around to reading James Crossley’s post from 27 August entitled Doubting Stephen.  In it he interacts with Stephen Law’s posts doubting the existence of Jesus (just go to his blog and scroll down from about here – there’s lots).  In concluding his comments, James says:

Well, just one aside that doesn’t have so much to do with Law’s arguments…My background in pre-university education was extremely a-Christian and a-religious (and even though I did a theology degrees and PhD I didn’t really think of it as being an overly Christianised context, though that may be more to do with my associations and things have certainly swung in the Christianising direction since those days). The past few years has made me think that this could be quite unusual for biblical studies, at least in British biblical studies. Would it be fair to say that most, many, some or few have been educated in contexts where the dominant Christian culture is evident? Just idle thoughts…

The very energetic discussion on his blog has largely been about his arguments with Law’s conclusions, so I decided to respond to this question here.

I think that in Australia a significant proportion of biblical studies is done from within a Christian context.  We have very few universities offering Studies in Religion/Religious Studies courses and the majority of people doing biblical studies are studying through an institution which has as its primary purpose preparing its students for some form of Christian ministry.  Even the theological faculties that are situated in universities rather than denominational colleges tend to be affiliated with one or more denominations and often some of the academic staff are funded by the denominations with which they are affiliated.  Some call themselves “Bible colleges” and others “faculties of theology”.  Bible Colleges tend to be theologically more conservative and more wary of more recent methods of biblical criticism, and both tend to offer qualifications in theology or divinity.  Most of the academic staff in these institutions are ordained, although quite a few have done very little in the way of pastoral ministry. When I did my bachelor’s degree, all the academic staff in my institution were ordained but there have been several non-ordained people employed there over the last decade or so – people who knew before they started their studies that they weren’t interested in being ministers.  These people are nevertheless practising Christians, not people who are studying Christianity “from the outside”.

I am sure this has implications for how people do biblical studies.  If the affiliated denomination understands the notion of the Bible as the inspired word of God to mean that it is God’s actual words, they will approach the text differently to those who do not believe this.  My own denomination says that Jesus is the Word of God and that the Bible bears witness to the Word.  In at least one of our Sydney churches, the affirmation that goes with the readings in worship is “in this is the Word of God”. I nevertheless approach the text from the perspective that what it says is relevant to the way I live my life.  I have been taught that when I look at it, I should be asking questions like “what does this say to me and to other Christians?” I have also been taught that I need to look at what the text was saying to its original audience, because that’s the key to what it might be saying to us, but my training said that this was a means rather than an end in itself.  The former is not a question that a scholar of Christian origins/early Christianity brings to the study of the text.  I’m not sure whether this means that they will come up with a “better” or “worse” understanding of the text, or just a different one.  I like to think that coming at the text from a faith perspective stops one from following some of the wilder flights of fantasy that I’ve seen indulged in by some “secular” scholars, but I suspect that they say the same about scholars who are practising Christians. 🙂

Easter Reflections

If we go by the secular calendar, this time last year, I was making final preparations to fly to Houston to spend five weeks at Rice University with April DeConick. If we go by the church calendar, this time last year, I had been in Houston five days and attended Maundy Thursday and Good Friday worship at the Rice Catholic Student Centre with my wonderful hosts, Judy and David Schubert.

I reflected on this as I sat in the Good Friday service in my home church this morning. There, I was surrounded by people I knew, even though my husband was home nursing a cold. The liturgy, although not actually predictable, was familiar, as was the venue. In Houston, I had been among strangers and the liturgy was in some aspects probably more predictable than the Uniting Church one and in others quite alien. Kissing the crucifix is not a part of the Uniting Church Good Friday ritual! 🙂

Christmas is a part of the church calendar that stays the same each year and fits quite nicely into the secular calendar of “Christian” countries. Although the story of Jesus birth is a bit odd, it doesn’t cause major problems for the average secular member of society.

Easter moves around – doesn’t fit neatly into the secular calendar at all. This year it is so early that the uni isn’t starting the mid-semester non-teaching period with Easter as it usually does – we’re just having four days off and then it’s business as usual for several more weeks before the break. The Easter message is also much more difficult for those who don’t practise Christianity to deal with. An interesting parallel, I think.

As our pastor led us in an affirmation of faith based on 1 Cor 1: 18-25 (the foolishness to the Gentiles and scandal to the Jews bit) and talked about the coming celebration of the resurrection, I thought about the Gospel of Thomas. If ⲡⲉⲩⲁⲅⲅⲉⲗⲓⲟⲛ ⲡⲕⲁⲧⲁ ⲑⲱⲙⲁⲥ (ie the gospel according to Thomas) is an early title for the text, the Thomas community must surely have had a very different theology of what constitutes ‘good news’ to that of the more orthodox Christian communities of the time.

A gospel that doesn’t contain an account of the (crucifixion and) resurrection must consider some other thing than Christ’s triumph over the power of death to be the important part of the gospel message, because the resurrection doesn’t get a guernsey in Thomas. It has, however, been extremely important in the understanding of “mainstream” Christians for nearly two thousand years, if the creeds of the early church are anything to go on.

Deciding exactly what was the heart of the gospel for Thomas Christians is beyond me at the moment. Maybe I’ll think about it later, but just at the moment I am trying to get to the end of my reading on eyewitness testimony in the psychological literature.

A little later

Bother.  Now I’m confused.  On Good Friday last year, I went with David to a marvellous, justice-focussed Stations of the Cross in the Exxon Plaza in downtown Houston, followed by a lunch at a restaurant on the way home.  That wasn’t an alien liturgy.  I’ve done Stations many times before, beginning at Theological Hall (seminary).  I know I went to a Maundy Thursday service at the Student Centre, but I’m pretty sure I went to a Good Friday one, as well.  Maybe in the evening?  Or maybe not?

I do know that on Easter Day, I was very pleased to be at a United Methodist service at St Paul’s, also near Rice, with Judy’s brother and his wife.  The very large church was very, very full and the liturgy was in some ways very like a Catholic one, except that we didn’t kneel (Judy’s brother, who had grown up Catholic, commented on this).  In many other ways, though, it wasn’t and I felt much more at home.

However, my lack of clarity twelve months on about exactly what I did last Easter lines up very closely with the reading I’m doing about eyewitness memory.   I just checked the two emails I sent home on Good Friday and Easter Day and discovered that I did go to church at the Catholic Student Centre on Good Friday – in the evening.  The gist of my recollections was correct, but the detail was a bit fuzzy and without the emails, I really wouldn’t have been sure.  I was very much inclined to think that maybe we’d been offered the option of kissing the crucifix on Maundy Thursday, even though that didn’t make sense liturgically.

This is actually very interesting.  Might be useful for my Auckland SBL paper.

Wisdom from the past

I was recently taken by something that R McLean Wilson wrote in his very early Studies in the Gospel of Thomas (A R Mowbray and Co, London, 1960). He introduces his consideration of the Gnostic element in Thomas by saying:

In the study of an ancient document much depends upon the pre-suppositions with which we begin, on the questions with which we approach the examination of the text.(p 14)

He goes on to say that if you concentrate on details and isolate passages from one another, while you may produce useful information, you may also miss the “range and sweep” of the document. General impressions acquired by looking at the text as a whole, however, may be misleading if not combined with a detailed examination. As Wilson so rightly states, if you start with the assumption that Thomas is dependent on the Synoptics, you can find evidence for dependence, and if you start with the assumption that it’s independent, many of the same things will provide evidence for that, so your initial assumptions are important.

I think Wilson’s comment is sound advice for all studies of ancient text. The challenge is to approach texts with a reasonably open mind and to look at the problematic elements and ask “What sorts of things might cause/explain this? Which of these is most likely and why? What are the minimum conditions that need to apply in order for explanation A to be true? And explanation B? And C, if there is a C? If it doesn’t fulfill either/any of the minimum conditions, what have I missed?”

I try to use this methodology on all occasions and hope that I am usually successful. 🙂