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Re: Must you be a realist to be a "proper" historical Jesus scholar?

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  • mwgrondin
    Andrew, I m going to skip over the philosophical material in your note so as not to get caught up in irrelevant issues. Speaking of which, I m ... Is this
    Message 1 of 18 , Dec 1, 2002
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      Andrew,

      I'm going to skip over the philosophical material in your note so as
      not to get caught up in irrelevant issues. Speaking of which, I'm
      having some difficulty understanding what "this subject" is:

      > It is because I feel this subject is extremely pertinent to the
      > study of the historical Jesus that I bring it up at all. (Of
      > course, this interest is not exclusive but why should we so limit
      > ourselves? Relevance, it seems to me, is enough ...

      Is "this subject" reality in general? That, it seems to me, is an
      irrelevant philosophical issue. Is it the ontological status of
      persons? Again, seems irrelevant. Is it some sort of problem
      specific to historiography, or is it a problem endemic to history in
      general? And if a problem specific to historiography, is it a
      problem more relevant to studies of the ancient world, or does it
      also affect attempts to do historiographies of, say, Lincoln or
      Truman as well? It seems to me that "this subject" has so far been
      notably diffuse and elusive, and that much more specificity is in
      order. One can't address a whole series of questions in one fell
      swoop.

      Of course philosophy and history interact, but in an applied field
      of study, we have to be able to take some things for granted, or
      else we'd never get off the ground. When writing a biography of
      Truman, for example, we don't expect the author to spend a lot of
      time (or even any time, really) on the philosophy of history. If we
      (the readers) are concerned about issues related to the philosophy
      of history, the place to expect those issues to be addressed is in a
      philosophy book, not in a historical biography. But there are
      special problems related to the study of ancient personages, and
      especially those around whom legends and myths have grown, and
      especially where the historian either believes in those myths
      him/herself, or is leaning over backwards to avoid offending readers
      who believe in those myths. Jesus is not unique in this regard; the
      same sorts of problems face anyone attempting to do a historical
      biography of Muhammad in an Islamic environment. The basic problem,
      of course, is that most of the prima facie "evidence" about ancient
      folks who have become religious icons consists of unreliable
      mythical accounts penned by zealous worshipers of such people.
      Whereas the proportion of reliable material would be quite high
      for a Truman or Lincoln, it would be quite low for a Jesus or an
      Asclepius. I perceive these to be problems of evidence, however, (or
      of the existential relation of historian to data), not of reality.

      > Is the historical Jesus real or artificial? Real or imaginary?
      > (Even real or fake?) Now, it seems to me, the historical
      > Jesus is neither simply (or purely) one or the other but an
      > undefined (and probably undefinable) mixture of all of these
      > pairs.

      If by 'historical Jesus', you mean what I think is usually meant,
      namely, the person _behind_ the character described in the Xian
      canon, then I believe that there was such a person, and he would of
      course have been real. If by 'historical Jesus', however, you mean
      either or both of the two different characters named 'Jesus'
      presented respectively in the synoptics and GJohn, I think you're
      right to say that both of them are mixtures of reality and
      imagination - how much of each being up for grabs.

      > Does this binary approach
      > give any useful service and get us the clarification we need?

      I think so. We just need to be clear about whether we're talking
      about the character as presented in the story, or the real-life
      person upon whose life the story was "based" - as they say in the
      modern myth-making worlds of Hollywood and historical fiction. The
      real-life person said and did certain significant things which the
      fictional character doesn't, and vice-versa.

      > Crossan, in his "The Historical Jesus" reminds us that historical
      > Jesus study seems a safe place "to do autobiography and call it
      > biography" (p. xxviii).

      He wasn't writing about himself, of course. He considers diversity
      of results to be an "academic embarassment" that should force one
      back to "questions of theory and method". That hasn't resolved
      the "embarassment", however, if such it be, since the diversity
      breaks out all over again with respect to "questions of theory and
      method". If you ask me, a significant factor in the diversity of
      results derives from the fact that many "academic" researchers
      (including Meier and Wright) cannot allow themselves to make a
      serious attempt at impartiality with respect to the historical data.
      We have the situation wherein professional advocates of the
      Christian mythos are treated as if they were academicians. How can
      Crossan expect uniformity from such a radically-divided group
      of "researchers"?

      > John Meier in volume 1 of his "A Marginal Jew" (p. 24) tells us
      > that the "real" Jesus is not available to us (the "historical"
      > Jesus being something else).

      Not quite sure what he means by this - that it's impossible to
      separate the real from the imaginery in these stories? (I'll have
      to look it up when I have more time.)

      > Hal Childs ... writes that "historiography needs
      > to be seen as a hermeneutic process whose concerns have more
      > to do with consciousness, ethics and practice…than some kind
      > of `scientific' method that establishes absolute and objective
      > facts" (p. 65).

      Sounds like philosophy of history to me - except that it's not a
      very clear or careful statement. Is he claiming that the situation
      is significantly worse with respect to some subjects of
      historiography than others? If not, then why should the Jesus-
      researcher worry about something that the Truman-researcher doesn't?

      > Tom Wright, as mentioned before, seeks the middle way of a
      > critical realism, something fundamentally storied rather
      > than objective/factual.

      Because he doesn't think the factual is separable? But that would
      be a practical stance, not a philosophical one, right?

      > Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, in her "Jesus and
      > the Politics of Interpretation", is concerned not with "data"
      > but with "how [historical Jesus] scholars make meaning out
      > of `data'" (p. 3).

      If her question is "How is meaning made out of data?" (which seems
      an odd locution), it's apparently a general question related to
      the philosophy of science/history. On the other hand, if she's
      asserting that Jesus-scholars do something different (and more
      disreputable) than other historiographers, I'd be interested to
      hear the argument.

      > In none of these does previously mentioned "toe-stubbing" or the
      > distinctions you have (so far) utilised seem helpful, not least
      > because each of these scholars regards the problematic of reality
      > as something a little more complex than that.

      It's not clear to me that the folks you mention were writing about
      the "problematic of reality" (whatever that is) at all.

      > In raising these questions I am attempting to CLARIFY what the
      > historical Jesus scholar thinks is his or her basis for study. Do
      > they seek the real Jesus, the artificial Jesus, the imaginary
      > Jesus or something else?

      Well, of course, unless they're Jesus-mythers, they undoubtedly
      would like to uncover something of the real Jesus. I'm really
      unclear, however, about this distinction between "the real X"
      and "the historical X". Is it the claim that the two can never be
      the same? If so, on what grounds? That no description can capture
      the essence of the thing? (I think the historiographer would be
      satisfied with a set of true statements, whether or not they
      captured the "essence" of the person.)

      > There are numerous books out there about Jesus and all of them,
      > to some extent, are relying on historical premises about the man
      > himself. (That is to say, they are all relying on what they
      > want to posit as the man himself ...

      I don't think that's so - at least not the "all" part of it.

      > There are those who say that
      > fiction can be true (and it is necessary to talk about Jesus).

      I suppose fiction can be said to be metaphorically "true". Did
      Washington confess to his dad that he chopped down a cherry tree?
      Probably not. Is the depiction of honesty in the story true-to-
      Washington? Maybe. But suppose it is; would we then say that the
      story was "true" simpliciter, or would we rather say something
      like "it's true to Washington's character"?

      > There are those who say we should regard Jesus as a character
      > in a story.

      Are you talking about Jesus-mythers? I don't think anyone else would
      claim that he's _just_ a character in a story. I believe that most
      folks would agree that the character is a combination of real and
      imaginary.

      > There are those who say that the historical Jesus is confessional.

      Those people are confused.

      Regards,
      Mike Grondin
      Mt. Clemens, MI
    • Andrew Lloyd
      ... in ... I would say that the problematic, as I see it, resists the distinctions you attempt to impose upon it. I approach my subject from many angles, (not
      Message 2 of 18 , Dec 1, 2002
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        --- In crosstalk2@y..., "mwgrondin" <mwgrondin@c...> wrote:
        >Andrew Lloyd wrote
        > It is because I feel this subject is extremely pertinent to the
        > study of the historical Jesus that I bring it up at all. (Of
        > course, this interest is not exclusive but why should we so limit
        > ourselves? Relevance, it seems to me, is enough ...

        >Is "this subject" reality in general? That, it seems to me, is an
        >irrelevant philosophical issue. Is it the ontological status of
        >persons? Again, seems irrelevant. Is it some sort of problem
        >specific to historiography, or is it a problem endemic to history
        in
        >general? And if a problem specific to historiography, is it a
        >problem more relevant to studies of the ancient world, or does it
        >also affect attempts to do historiographies of, say, Lincoln or
        >Truman as well? It seems to me that "this subject" has so far been
        >notably diffuse and elusive, and that much more specificity is in
        >order. One can't address a whole series of questions in one fell
        >swoop.

        I would say that the problematic, as I see it, resists the
        distinctions you attempt to impose upon it. I approach my subject
        from many angles, (not limited to but including) historical,
        literary, autobiographical and philosophical ones. "Reality in
        general" is, of course, relevant to it and a general (and nebulous)
        way of denoting it. Likewise, the "ontological status" of the
        personage commonly known as "the historical Jesus" is relevant. Such
        an interest is revealed in my asking just "what" the historical
        Jesus is supposed to be. Also the whole area of historiography, the
        oeuvre of historical Jesus study, is greatly implicated. That said,
        I am alarmed, and more than alarmed, that you continue to suggest
        that such issues, being "philosophical", are "irrelevant". It has
        been noted that "scholarly engagement", to coin a phrase and
        approach this from another angle, are matters of some concern in the
        historical Jesus community both currently and recently. William
        Arnal lists "epistemic neutrality" as one of his three "hot spots"
        in current work on the historical Jesus in his closing paper
        of "Whose Historical Jesus" (published in 1997). It is true
        that "one can't address a whole series of questions in one fell
        swoop". However, one can scratch where it itches. A number of
        historical Jesus scholars are, if largely briefly and inadequately,
        scratching this itch.

        >When writing a biography of Truman, for example, we don't expect
        >the author to spend a lot of time (or even any time, really) on the
        >philosophy of history. If we (the readers) are concerned about
        >issues related to the philosophy of history, the place to expect
        >those issues to be addressed is in a philosophy book, not in a
        >historical biography. But there are special problems related to the
        >study of ancient personages, and especially those around whom
        >legends and myths have grown, and especially where the historian
        >either believes in those myths him/herself, or is leaning over
        >backwards to avoid offending readers who believe in those myths.
        >Jesus is not unique in this regard; the same sorts of problems face
        >anyone attempting to do a historical biography of Muhammad in an
        >Islamic environment.

        It seems that I have different expectations. And I'm not alone. Many
        standard treatments of the historical Jesus today DO include (brief)
        work you would label "philosophical" (and thus irrelevant). NT
        Wright's "Christian Origins and the Question of God" series has a
        whole volume devoted to background stuff, of which approximately 110
        pages is broadly philosophical in context (The New Testament and the
        People of God, pp. 31-144. Would the subsequent "Jesus and the
        Victory of God" be a different book without this background? You
        betcha!). Your own comments which précis this paragraph make
        reference to "special problems related to the study of ancient
        personages". Is the historical Jesus scholar to assume that I've
        become aware that such problems exist and have done something to
        enlighten myself about them? What if I'm a historical Jesus scholar
        who doesn't know what you are talking about when you suggest this,
        or disagrees with you? In short, why are you denying, or ignoring,
        that historical Jesus studies is a matter of the student AND the
        studied, a reality of which WE are a part? Your own remarks I would
        submit as ample reason why any decent length treatment of the
        historical Jesus should include at least 10% of its content as
        remarks addressing "philosophical" issues regarding reality,
        ontology, history and epistemology, etc. As I have noted, most
        booklength treatments already at least include passing remarks.

        A further issue is relevant here. If you have not addressed such
        issues, including philosophy of history, it does not thereby follow
        that you have no thoughts in these areas. If you are going to read
        either a Truman or Jesus biography as HISTORY then you are going to
        need the cognitive apparatus to conceptualise it AS history. Thus,
        your proposal ("we don't need to do philosophy of history to read
        history as history") is true but disturbing – for it amounts to
        praising the virtues of uninformed reading of history as history
        (and, by analogy, uninformed reading of reality as reality and just
        plain uninformed bandying about of the word "reality").

        >If by 'historical Jesus', you mean what I think is usually meant,
        >namely, the person _behind_ the character described in the Xian
        >canon, then I believe that there was such a person, and he would of
        >course have been real. If by 'historical Jesus', however, you mean
        >either or both of the two different characters named 'Jesus'
        >presented respectively in the synoptics and GJohn, I think you're
        >right to say that both of them are mixtures of reality and
        >imagination - how much of each being up for grabs.

        And here are more reasons why the kind of discussion I'm seeking to
        foster is highly relevant – so much question begging! To agree that
        Jesus existed is not to exegete, or explain, your use of the
        term "real" here. Indeed, I would like to know what "real" means
        here. The word seems superfluous in this context as far as I can
        tell. At any rate, to require to know what "real" means in this
        context is to implicitly require a discussion of "reality" prior to
        saying that "Jesus was real". And what of all these distinctions,
        these "person(s) behind the canon" and the "two[?] different
        characters named Jesus"? In terms of "characters" surely there are
        as many Jesuses as books about him. This supposition demands a
        discussion of our use of "Jesus" as a referent in order to make our
        communication clearer. Of course, it should not be compulsory that
        every historical Jesus study précis its "arguments about Jesus" with
        such material. However, if I myself had any sense that such work was
        being done, and applied, to historical Jesus studies I would be less
        zealous about promoting these kinds of conversations. It is my
        premise that, to be bold and generalising, we don't know (or have
        not yet clearly and openly enunciated) what, or who, we are talking
        about. It is a discussion we need to have.

        Andrew Lloyd
        Nottingham, England
      • mwgrondin
        ... I keep hoping that you ll either start defining this extremely- diffuse and abstract problematic of reality thingy, or get away from it and start
        Message 3 of 18 , Dec 1, 2002
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          --- Andrew Lloyd wrote:
          > I would say that the problematic [of reality], as I see it,
          > resists the distinctions you attempt to impose upon it.

          I keep hoping that you'll either start defining this extremely-
          diffuse and abstract "problematic of reality" thingy, or get away
          from it and start addressing some of the specific methodological
          problems that you've subsumed under it. Frankly, I think you've
          thrown a whole bunch of fruit into one basket and called 'em all
          apples. Is it, then, "the problematic" that resists distinctions,
          or the proponent of the problematic?

          > I approach my subject
          > from many angles, (not limited to but including) historical,
          > literary, autobiographical and philosophical ones.

          But what is "my subject" exactly? Seems like a whole grab-bag of
          disparate issues.

          > ... I am alarmed, and more than alarmed, that you continue to
          > suggest that such issues, being "philosophical", are "irrelevant".

          The problem here is that within "such issues" you include a wide
          variety of different topics, all apparently tied together in your
          mind with the phrase "the problematic of reality". Some of the
          issues you mention are clearly relevant to historical Jesus studies,
          others don't seem to me to be specifically relevant. Take for
          example the philosophical question "What is a person?" I don't
          consider that to be specifically relevant to Jesus studies. It's a
          question for philosophers, not for historians.

          > Many standard treatments of the historical Jesus today DO
          > include (brief) work you would label "philosophical" (and
          > thus irrelevant).

          The phrase I would prefer now is 'not specifically relevant'. And
          since the textual passages to which you refer are widely varied, I
          can't agree with you that I would label them all "philosophical".
          In the previous note, I responded to several specific items; I did
          label some of them as "philosophical"; others, not. If you disagree
          about my assessment of any of those specific items, perhaps we
          should use that as a starting-point.

          > NT Wright's "Christian Origins and the Question of God" series
          > has a whole volume devoted to background stuff, of which
          > approximately 110 pages is broadly philosophical in context ...

          Well, my short response is that Wright needs it, since he's trying
          to overthrow the Enlightenment.

          > ... why are you denying, or ignoring, that historical Jesus
          > studies is a matter of the student AND the studied, a reality
          > of which WE are a part?

          I didn't think I was denying that. But if historical Jesus studies
          differ significantly from any other field of study, i.e., if your
          concerns are _specifically relevant_ to Jesus studies, then we ought
          to be able to say wherein the difference lies. I think there is a
          difference, and that the difference lies in the fact that many/most
          Western writers and readers have a strong predisposition to believe
          that the prima facie "evidence" of the canon is, in very great part,
          true and factual. It won't do, I think, to remove oneself to the
          level of the abstract and treat this issue as if it were some kind
          of deep philosophical problem. It's rather the concrete existential
          problem of readers/students being predisposed to believe something
          fundamentally at odds with what the writer is conveying. It's as if,
          for example, I were reading a biography of John Brown, and I was
          already convinced that he was something of a saint, only to find the
          author telling me that he was not. Cognitive dissonance.

          > Your own remarks I would
          > submit as ample reason why any decent length treatment of the
          > historical Jesus should include at least 10% of its content as
          > remarks addressing "philosophical" issues regarding reality,
          > ontology, history and epistemology, etc. As I have noted, most
          > booklength treatments already at least include passing remarks.

          Some of these were in response to radical philosophical challenges
          which the author might have better ignored. One needn't engage with
          solipcists at every turn, for example. If I'm going to do a
          biography of a person, I don't think it's necessary to discuss the
          ontological status of persons; I can just assume that X is as much
          (or as little) a person as anyone else bearing the title. Then, if
          you're gonna pick bones with me, you have to do so with everybody
          else who's ever written about persons.

          > ... your proposal ("we don't need to do philosophy of history to
          > read history as history") is true but disturbing – for it amounts
          > to praising the virtues of uninformed reading of history as
          > history (and, by analogy, uninformed reading of reality as reality
          > and just plain uninformed bandying about of the word "reality").

          No such thing. What my position "amounts to" is the common-sense
          truism that a communicator has to be able to take _something_ for
          granted. Now we may disagree about where that line of demarcation
          should be in historical Jesus studies, but I don't think you can
          argue that the necessity of the line is "disturbing", or that
          it "amounts to praising the virtues of uninformed reading". In fact,
          it's precisely the uninformed reader (at one end of the spectrum)
          to whom everything needs to be explained, and the abstract-bound
          intellectual (at the other end of the spectrum) to whom everything
          needs to be defended.

          [Mike]:
          > If by 'historical Jesus', you mean what I think is usually meant,
          > namely, the person _behind_ the character described in the Xian
          > canon, then I believe that there was such a person, and he would
          > of course have been real. If by 'historical Jesus', however, you
          > mean either or both of the two different characters named 'Jesus'
          > presented respectively in the synoptics and GJohn, I think you're
          > right to say that both of them are mixtures of reality and
          > imagination - how much of each being up for grabs.
          [Andrew]:
          > And here are more reasons why the kind of discussion I'm seeking
          > to foster is highly relevant – so much question begging! To agree
          > that Jesus existed is not to exegete, or explain, your use of the
          > term "real" here. Indeed, I would like to know what "real" means
          > here. The word seems superfluous in this context as far as I can
          > tell.

          You're right; it is.

          > At any rate, to require to know what "real" means in this
          > context is to implicitly require a discussion of "reality"
          > prior to saying that "Jesus was real".

          Suppose I say that he was as real as you and me. Does that help?
          If not, then I think you're asking the historian to do philosophy.

          > And what of all these distinctions,
          > these "person(s) behind the canon" and the "two[?] different
          > characters named Jesus"? In terms of "characters" surely there
          > are as many Jesuses as books about him.

          Depends on how fine-grained you want to be. If the slightest
          difference amounts to a different Jesus, then OK, but I was
          focusing on large-scale differences.

          > It is my premise that, to be bold and generalising, we don't know
          > (or have not yet clearly and openly enunciated) what, or who, we
          > are talking about. It is a discussion we need to have.

          Why is it not satisfactory to you that we're talking about a 1st-
          century Galilean sage, healer, and wonder-worker who was crucified
          by the Romans, and who served as the basis of the Christian myth?

          Regards,
          Mike Grondin
          Mt.Clemens,MI
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