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Re: [XTalk] RE: The Five Gospels

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  • William Arnal
    ... You re not saying I m emotional, are you? Seriously, though, I think I agree with your basic point here -- being emotional in and of itself need not
    Message 1 of 151 , Oct 4, 2004
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      Tony Buglass wrote:

      >some memorable exchanges with folk like Bill Arnal (wish he'd come
      >back...), occasionally with a >little steam and heat as well as the
      >considerable light shed on the subject.

      You're not saying I'm emotional, are you? Seriously, though, I think I agree
      with your basic point here -- being emotional in and of itself need not
      indicate a defective position, or even, in theory, a strong distorting bias.
      One might, for instance, very emotionally reject a position, or a given
      scholar's formulation, because of *academic* values. I get frustrated and
      react emotionally when I see people employing dishonest arguments,
      obfuscating, and the like -- and the "bias" these reactions illuminate is
      simply my bias in favor of transparent academic discourse (not that I lack
      other, less admirable, biases, of course).

      >I don't think any one of them is free of a prior agenda, and that is also
      >true of the illustrious >company on this list. The most dangerous agenda
      >is the one which is denied or unacknowledged -> I am aalways suspicious of
      >the person who claims to be taking an entirely objective approach. I >read
      >somewhere that the Jesus Seminar was first launched in part as a response
      >to US >fundamentalism, in effect to recapture the Bible and claim back the
      >Jesus story from those who >had hijacked it. Be that as it may, the spin
      >off of a closer look at criteria, methodology and texts >has certainly
      >been fruitful.

      This discussion allows me to get in a couple of shameless plugs. First, on
      the whole issue of "what is the agenda behind this stuff?" Robert Webb's
      new(-ish) HJ journal will shortly (when, Bob?) be releasing an issue with
      articles by myself, John Kloppenborg, Paula Fredriksen, A-J Levine, Robert
      Miller, Dale Allison, and John Marshall (hope I didn't miss anyone!) on
      subtextual agenda in the discussion of the HJ's (1) apocalypticism, and (2)
      Judaism. Anyone interested in the cultural implications that *animate* the
      study of the HJ ought to take a look at this issue. Second, a much-expanded
      version of my piece for this volume will be coming out as a short book in
      Russell McCutcheon's new "Religion in Culture" series from Equinox Press --
      it's entitled _The Symbolic Jesus_ and should appear in January or February.
      It deals with the cultural implications of scholarly constructions of the
      Judaism of Jesus, and hence the sharp emotions generated in discussions of
      this topic.

      On the issue of bias and emotions, and their (non-?) relevance for scholarly
      conclusions, I think the book's concluding paragraphs are quite on point,
      and what follows is the typescript (i.e., unedited, and, because of the
      constraints of e-mail, un-noted and un-formatted) thereof:


      I have spent a great deal of time attempting to describe the undercurrents,
      the biases, the hidden agenda that I see lurking behind historical Jesus
      scholarship, both that with which I sympathize and that with which I
      emphatically disagree. The fact that such agenda can be claimed for both
      sides in the �debate,� including scholars with whom I am in extensive
      agreement, should serve as an indication that I neither exempt myself from
      such subtextual interests nor regard their existence as an indication of the
      factual falsity of the scholarly conclusions with which they are associated.
      The one simply does not follow from the other. I have been accused in my own
      work on Q (particularly Arnal 2001a) of projecting my circumstances onto
      those of the Q people (whom I describe as, essentially, alienated low-level
      intellectuals, a characterization that certainly reflects my own
      self-conception) while criticizing others who do likewise. I can hardly deny
      the accusation, but at the same time, the actual evidence I cite will
      support my reconstruction (or fail to, as the case may be) regardless of the
      congeniality of my conclusions. Indeed, I would claim�at least in those
      ephemeral moments of supreme self-confidence�that it is precisely the
      congeniality of these views that allowed me to see the historical Sitz
      behind Q accurately.

      So likewise, I must stress that focusing on the subtext or cultural
      implications that may underlie the work of, say, Paula Fredriksen, is not in
      itself any indication that her views are wrong, and is not offered as such.
      Fredriksen, or Sanders, or Crossan, or Mack could indeed be so massively
      biased that their reconstructions of Jesus are nothing but projection; yet
      any one of those reconstructions could still be correct, and we owe it to
      these scholars to examine and assess the evidence they offer and the
      arguments they actually make, regardless of their personal agenda or the
      agenda behind the reception of their work. And it is equally true that
      scholarship which has no bias at all, should such an animal exist, could
      nonetheless produce a historical Jesus which is, factually speaking, one
      hundred percent wrong, or, alternatively, poorly argued. Our aim as
      scholars, therefore, must not and cannot be the impossible task of
      approaching our subject-matters objectively. We cannot do so, and in my
      opinion as human beings we should not do so. Our job as scholars, rather, is
      to provide reasons for the claims we make, reasons for our rejections or
      approvals of the conclusions of our scholarly colleagues�and these reasons
      should, at least in theory, be comprehensible, assessable and �testable� by
      our scholarly peers. By �testable� I do not mean experimental testability as
      is expected in the natural sciences. I think this technique is probably
      impossible for the humanities. I simply mean that our arguments should be of
      a sort that any reasonable person should be able to assess them: they should
      not appeal to personal preferences, transcendent insights, or data that
      cannot be accessed by others.

      I may vehemently dislike the implications of E. P. Sanders� Jesus and quite
      like the implications of Burton Mack�s Jesus. My task as a scholar, however,
      is to keep my mind open to Sanders� arguments, and their potential
      strengths, as well as Mack�s arguments, and their potential weaknesses. And
      should I conclude that I do, on scholarly grounds, think that Mack is more
      correct than Sanders, my reasons for this conclusion should be limited as
      much as possible to the cogency of their arguments. I must also stress that
      the issue here is my reaction to the implications of these reconstructions
      of Jesus, and not on my like or dislike of Jesus himself (as reconstructed).
      It has become fashionable in our field to assume that we will project the
      features we like onto the objects of our study: will make Jesus or Paul or
      the Q people into replicas of ourselves. This strikes me as a presumptuous
      and simplistic notion of how bias works in our field. For some of us, there
      is simply no investment in Jesus, and no need to make him, in particular,
      �like us.� Nor do I imagine that the Jesus of E. P. Sanders, for instance,
      actually reflects his own behavior (at least, I hope not). The point is
      rather in the way that the conceptualizations behind constructions of Jesus
      accord, or fail to accord, with our own worldviews, whether Jesus himself is
      presented as attractive or unattractive.
      Naive though it may be, I offer here a plea for a certain scholarly ethic,
      one that has been characterized by Bruce Lincoln as �mythology with
      footnotes� (Lincoln 1999: 209; cf. 207-216). As scholars, we are still human
      beings, and we in the humanities especially engage in the generation of
      human meaning, in the production of worldviews, in the pens�e sauvage that
      organizes the universe around us. We are thus mythmakers ourselves even in
      our analysis of myth. In our reproductions of the historical Jesus, we are
      doing essentially the same thing that the gospel writers did, whether or not
      we are Christians or even attracted to the figure of Jesus: we are
      projecting our own beliefs onto a story (history) and so using narrative (of
      a sort) to create a myth. The responsibility that sets scholars apart from
      the more usual (especially religious) practitioners of myth-making is the
      care that we must take to document our claims, such that someday perhaps
      those claims may survive the inevitable desuetude of the myths they were
      designed to sustain. Perhaps one may add to this a plea for
      self-consciousness about the assumptions and agenda that influence one�s

      Even this limited goal, however, may prove to be impossible in the long run.
      Yes, we study things because they matter to us, particularly in the
      humanities, and it would not occur to anyone to maintain an objective
      historiography by focusing on matters that no one cares about. There is a
      reason people keep writing books about Jesus� teaching, religion, and
      �ministry,� but have failed to produce any scholarship on his dental
      hygiene, or on the length and cut of his fingernails and toenails.
      Similarly, there is a reason that people keep writing books on those aspects
      of Jesus� life that are deemed relevant, while failing to write books
      dealing with the same aspects of the life of, say, my grandmother, noble
      human being though she was. And this will remain true of all historical
      inquiry: we study things that matter to us, and do not bother to investigate
      material that may indeed constitute facts, raw data of some sort, but which
      concern people or issues that seem irrelevant or frivolous. We study things
      because they are important, directly or indirectly, implicitly or
      explicitly. This applies to all objects of historical inquiry, whether they
      are religious or not, and whether or not they carry the degree of cultural
      baggage that Jesus does. In the case of historical Jesus research, however,
      the ultimate motivations of the work and its methods may be so ill-founded
      and self-contradictory as to render the entire enterprise illegitimate from
      an academic perspective.

      I base this suspicion on three considerations. The first is that the extent
      of Jesus� cultural prominence is so colossal that even purely historical
      inquiries will soon become so bogged down in current socio-cultural
      controversies as to become irrational, or at the very least, lose sight of
      their (historical) subject. Indeed, the bulk of the foregoing study has
      revolved around this point. As I note above, it is not that we should study
      things that do not matter to us, or that we should aim for an impossible
      objectivity that brackets all forms of contemporary significance. But an
      inquiry that claims to be historical ought to actually be about its
      purported object, to at least some degree. Ironically, Jesus is so important
      that his historical reconstruction becomes unimportant, hopelessly
      overshadowed by its big brother, the Christ of faith. That people who talk
      about Jesus are not really talking about Jesus at all was a point made
      brilliantly by Albert Schweitzer almost a hundred years ago (Schweitzer 1954
      [1906]). It seems as valid an observation today as then.

      My second�and related�consideration is that the nature of our sources for
      Jesus exacerbates the situation. While the object of our supposedly
      �historical� inquiry keeps transforming into a theological entity in front
      of our very eyes, the main sources on which we base our reconstructions
      present him as a theological entity in the first place. Whether Jesus
      himself existed as a historical figure or not, the gospels that tell of him
      are unquestionably mythic texts. The Gospel of Mark, for example, is a
      narrative that includes a cast of characters comprising, inter alia, God, a
      son of God, angels, the devil, demons, holy spirits, evil spirits, and what
      seem to be the ghosts of Moses and Elijah. It is a story that features
      miraculous healings and exorcisms, as well as walking on water, feeding
      thousands of people with a handful of loaves and fishes (twice!),
      face-to-face conversations between people who lived centuries apart, spooky
      prognostications, trees withering at Jesus� simple command, a sun darkening
      in the middle of the day, and a temple curtain miraculously tearing itself
      in half. Investigations into the historical Jesus require, by contrast, that
      the gospels be used as historical sources, and in fact the main difference
      between �conservative� and �liberal� scholarship revolves around how much
      legendary accretion is stripped away in order to arrive at the �historical
      core,� not whether there is any historical core to be found at all. In
      seeking to find the real, historical person behind these narratives, we are
      using these texts as sources for a figure that they themselves show no
      interest in at all. Just as the myths and legends about Herakles are simply
      not about a historical person, so also the gospels are not about the
      historical Jesus.

      My third consideration is perhaps the most complex and controversial, but
      also the most important. I would claim that the historical Jesus is
      historically insignificant. As an entity, the historical Jesus is understood
      to be that figure who can be reconstructed with historical, rather than
      theological, methods, and who is important for history itself in some
      fashion. Those individuals (as opposed to conditions, processes, or events)
      who become objects of historical inquiry usually are judged appropriate for
      such investigation for quite definite and specific reasons. Most obvious are
      those people whose activity is regarded as having had an impact on the world
      around them, perhaps even as changing the course of history itself (e.g.,
      Martin Luther King, Jr.). Other objects of historical inquiry, however, may
      be those people who, because of position or celebrity, are prominent in
      their own time, even if they accomplished or changed very little (e.g.,
      Gerald Ford, Marilyn Monroe), or those people deemed to be typical and so
      studied as representative of the life and conditions of a given time and
      place. Historical Jesus scholars tend to treat Jesus as historically
      significant by the first of these criteria. He clearly is not regarded as a
      case study for the lives of ordinary people in Roman Palestine, and he
      simply cannot be described as a celebrity or publicly prominent figure in
      his own lifetime.

      This means, then, that historical Jesus scholars assume that the relevance
      of Jesus as a historical person is as someone who accomplished something,
      did something, and thus changed the course of history. Since Jesus was no
      political or military figure, and never won a battle or occupied high
      office, the obvious accomplishment of his life was the initiation of a
      movement of religious reform that eventually became Christianity. Thus the
      ultimate goal of historical Jesus studies is to uncover the origins of
      Christianity itself, to reconstruct the Jesus who is assumed somehow to lie
      behind this movement as its root cause. The problem here is that the whole
      enterprise, thus conceived, rests on an exceptionally precarious set of
      assumptions. The notion that individuals cause or found religious movements
      is itself open to question on theoretical grounds. But at an even more basic
      level, the idea that the Christianity that came to dominate the Roman Empire
      and thence the world was the movement that Jesus himself caused or
      founded�as opposed to a movement revolving around an image of Jesus that was
      itself the product of mythmaking and legendary accretions�cannot be
      sustained, in part because of research into the historical Jesus himself.
      The discontinuity between the behavior and teaching of the historical Jesus
      as he is normally reconstructed and the beliefs and doctrines of what became
      the Christian religion is so vast as to make the assumption of any causal
      link between the two an instance of especially disgraceful special pleading.

      And so perhaps the quest for the historical Jesus should be abandoned once
      again. Not because scholars cannot agree on their reconstructions; lack of
      agreement may only indicate that further�and more rigorous�work needs to be
      done. Not because the investigation has been biased; bias is unavoidable,
      here as elsewhere. Not even because reasonable conclusions are impossible in
      light of our defective sources, though this may indeed be the case. But
      because, ultimately, the historical Jesus does not matter, either for our
      understanding of the past, or our understanding of the present. The
      historically relevant and interesting causes of the development and growth
      of the Christian movement will be found, not in the person of Jesus, but in
      the collective machinations, agenda, and vicissitudes of the movement
      itself. And the Jesus who is important to our own day is not the Jesus of
      history, but the symbolic Jesus of contemporary discourse.

      William Arnal
      University of Regina

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    • Rikk Watts
      Already on it Tks Bob.
      Message 151 of 151 , Oct 8, 2004
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        Already on it

        Tks Bob.

        On 8/10/04 5:30 AM, "Bob Webb" <webb.bob@...> wrote:

        > Mark and Rikk,
        > You should probably do it soon. Volume 1 had alrady gone out of print, but I
        > convinced Continuum to re-print it so that libraries would be able to
        > purchase the complete run of the journal. I think they may not have
        > reprinted enough.
        > Bob Webb.
        >>> our library doesn't yet take JSHJ (sorry, Bob! I'm
        >>> making moves to rectify this).
        >> Me too! Just this very day in fact...
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