Monday, July 27, 2009

History, Mythology, Theology and sacred texts - a response to Audrey

I do all my blogging on my laptop, I do all my computer stuff on my laptop. I have an old desktop but it sits on a very cluttered desk in my very cluttered bedroom. The lack of space and the convenience of the laptop means that I do pretty much all my blogging and all my computer stuff in bed. Bed is about the only clear space in my bedroom and even it has a pile of books sitting on one side of it (books, books, books, my bedroom is crammed with books).

Blogging in bed is a very comfortable way of putting down your thoughts but it can also have its drawbacks. I'm the sort of person who often falls asleep over a book at night. I find I can also fall asleep over the laptop at night too. My last post, Dating the Scriptures, is one in which I fell asleep several times while writing it on Saturday night. I'm quite disappointed with it because I'd wanted to do a bit more, a lot more with the topic than I actually did, in particular getting into Old Testament texts and dating/history questions. But I kept falling asleep, finally in quite a final way. I woke up quite late on Saturday night not certain how long I'd been asleep and realising that I still had the blog page in front of me. I skimmed it through and gave it a bit of a wrap and then published it but not without misgivings. I'd planned to revisit the topic tonight and maybe explore some more the areas that I didn't really get into the other night. But then I checked the blog this evening and I found a couple of comments there including this one from Audrey to which I made a short reply. However there are a number of issues in Audrey's comment which actually relate to some of what I wanted to say on Saturday night so I'm going to respond to Audrey's observations in more detail. In my response I'll quote from the reply I made on the thread as well - except it doesn't appear to be there so my response might be even more detailed than I expected. Ok here goes

Audrey begins by picking up on the destruction of the Temple in 70 and the dating of gospels and other texts:

I thought the post 70 date, has to do with the destruction 0f the temple, as there are references to that event in some of the gosples (could be wrong about this

Audrey is right here but in my post I pointed out how the late J A T Robinson had questioned that assumption in his Redating the New Testament. In my (apparently lost) reply on the thread I remarked that I thought Robinson had done a pretty good job of putting the cat among the pigeons on this question and made a good case for the apparently clear references to be not so clear at all especially when compared to references to the 70 events in texts that are clearly post 70 and clearly referring to those events e.g. 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, Epistle of Barnabas. I don't feel confident that one can date the NT texts on the basis of any presumed references to 70, except say Revelation which I'm inclined to think is written around 70 as I read it as a reflection on the events of the 1st Jewish war and its significance for Christians

As to the early christians rearanging facts to suit early myth and theology, of course they did! Herod killing the new born in Mathew is clearly meant to put Jesus in the same league as Moses - Its not a statement of fact, it's a literary allusion.
I agree that early Christians rearranged and enhanced and augmented facts. The diffferent narrative order of John to that of the Synoptics is a clear example of that and one that has exercised the minds of many scripture scholars over the generations trying to resolve the differences so as to create a coherent single narrative. The events were also framed in specific theological and mythological perspectives designed to highlight their deeper significance. The problem is, of course, trying to identify clearly which is which. I'm not certain that it's possible and so that's why I couldn't say for sure that Herod's slaughter of the male infants of Bethlehem didn't happen. Yes, the story has allusions to Moses but it has other allusions as well. Are they designed to provide an interpretive to understand the significance of real events or are they fiction designed to highlight a specific relationship Jesus has to Old Testament figures and models, or both (I never dismiss both/and)? Certainly by all accounts the event is in keeping with the character of Herod so something like that could have happened. We just don't have any other evidence to say one way or another. One thing for sure is that a dispassionate reading of both Matthew's and Luke's infancy narratives sees a birth associated with some sort of messianic fervour. Something like that would have made a king like Herod act. The only thing is we can't know for sure and we can't tell what might be real and what might be fiction.

As to the resurection - to an atheist like me, it's simple, if he got up - he was'nt dead. If he was dead - he did'nt get up. This is another example of the early christians using myth (and imagination) to make a theological point, to take it literaly is a little silly.

Is it really that simple? And this is a crucial point that I wanted to get into the other night but didn't. In our culture when people die that's it. But not so in other cultures. Many years ago I knew an aboriginal woman, an activist, still is in fact. Back then she was regularly visited by her grandmother who was always telling her off about stuff and so forth. The only problem was that her grandmother had been dead for quite a few years. According to freinds of mine she lived with, the grandmother had a bad habit of appearing at the top of the stairs (they lived in a big old semi-detached house in North Fitzroy) and deliberately startling this woman. They never saw the grandmother but they certainly knew from this woman's agitation and anger when her grandmother was around. Hers is not the only case of visitations from the dead in aboriginal cultures that I know of and I'm sure these cases can be multiplied n times just for Australian indigenous cultures alone. I'm told that in Central Australia aboriginal people don't like going to hospitals because of all the dead people - spirits - they see hanging around there. Similar stories abound in other indigenous cultures from the Pacific, the Americas and so forth. People have told me stories of all sorts of things they've experienced in such cultural settings and how disturnig it was for them as Westerners to suddenly have all their cultural rational certainties challnged through exposure to a totally different cultural perspective. And in that cultural setting things do happen that aren't supposed to from a modern rationalist let alone atheist perspective. In terms of the Resurrection I want to cite South African New Testament scholar, Pieter Craffert who adopts a social scientific anthropological approach to such questions

From a social-scientific perspective two answers can be given as to whether Jesus rose bodily from the dead: yes and no, but they do not mean the same as in the above scholarly answers. As already argued, yes, the sources do report about real cultural events and realities; yes, Jesus's resurrection was a genuine cultural experience for his first followers; yes, he was resurrected, as the texts indicate, in a first-century material body, because in their world, visionary experiences indeed provided sufficient evidence for such cultural claims. These visions were neither delusions nor objectively real events but culturally real experiences that are reported in the New Testament sources. As indicated above, such a cultural-sensitive understanding of the experiences of Jesus's immediate circle of followers is an inevitable insight provided by this perspective.

....once the myth of realism is replaced by the idea of multiple cultural realities, it becomes possible to also re-evaluate the empty tomb accounts. While they function as one ofthe building blocks in the mod-ern rationalist debate about Jesus's resurrection, the New Testament sources already realised that an empty tomb is no secure evidence to claim a bodily resurrection because the body could have been moved or removed. That is, on the assumption that Jesus was indeed laid to rest in a known tomb — which is not an obvious assumption. But it is the cultural logic about the belief in the possibility that deceased ancestors can intervene in human affairs which should be considered here. A different cultural logic about death and the human self is at work in cultures entertaining the notion that deceased ancestors occupy a continued social position and function in society. If Jesus was resurrected as experienced by his first followers, his tomb must have been empty because he (the person/body Jesus of Nazareth) has then assumed a different mode of being — a mode of being consistent with their afterlife beliefs ["Did Jesus Rise Bodily from the Dead? Yes and no!" Religion and Theology 15 2008]

All the early Christian texts affirm these resurrection experiences as key to the whole Christian project getting off the ground after Jesus was executed. From a historical perspective it should not be matter of saying such things can't happen and so they didn't and therefore the stories must be later inventions retrojected back in time - and consequently the texts must be late because they contain these events. And that's pretty much how the 'realist' rationalists have approached these texts for the last couple of centuries. Religious rationalists have in turn argued that not only did these events happen but they can prove from the texts that Jesus physically rose from the dead. Craffert details all manner of arguments as to whether Jesus rose from the dead and whetehr it was a spiritual resurrection or a physical resurrection. Thing is these are all questions of theology and metaphysics not history. From a historical perspective, Christianity got under way because Jesus followers believed that not only was he no longer dead but that they had seen him alive. It doesn't matter whether the historian beleives what they saw was real or, worse, saying it couldn't happen so the story was made up later.

I personally believe in the bodily resurrection, not least for its sheer poetry, but I'm not going to go over and under and around the texts to try and objectively prove it happened because we can't. All we have are those texts, nothing else, and the very nature of life and death means that we cannot access those events in any way outside the texts. All we can say objectively is that Jesus followers believed they saw him alive and leave it at that.

I supose the ten year gap is just to give time for Mark to be written, then considered worthy of being copied, then physicaly caried to other early Christin communitys, by donkey (eh haw) or on foot. Then read, then thought about, discussed, preached about, argued about. then some one has to be inspired enough by something in the original story, or missing in the original story,(this does assume that mark was first, as there is enough evidence to make that a reasonable view) that they felt another version was needed. Ten years under that context is pretty fast, it could just as easily been 20 or 30, as you say the dating are guestimates, one or two years is pushing it, though possible

I personally think that communication was much quicker in the Roman empire. It was a very sophisticated society. The fact is that early Christians were very much creators of texts. They were pioneers in the use of the codex the precursor of our book. I not only think the timelines are guesstimates but very highly constructed to put as much time between the text and the original events. Consequently John is always dated latest of all, I think because John is so richly imbued with theology and mythology. Under the rationalist approach this could only have happened after a long period of time because early Christians certainly weren't into complex theology and mythology and Jesus least of all.

This rationalist approach is actually based on 19th century romantic notions about true religion and rationality drawn from Hegel and Kant and myths of progress and reformation. It's found in the standard models of Old Testament history - history becomes central to the way scripture is read. History is a rational enterprise and furthermore the historical approach to go back in time and actually get to the spirit behind the text. In good liberal Protetant fashion they valued a simple rational relgion and presumed that the religion of ancient Israel was an ancient instance of such. However over time this religion was corrupted with hierarchy, magic, ritual and mythology. The prophets true to the spirit of Israelite religion struggled against this coruption of real religion but in the end to no avail. Finally the priests triumphed and the simple pure religion of Israel was replaced by priestly ritualistic and legalistic Judaism, a moribund and corrupt entity. And then along came Jesus who represented a renewal of the old purity of spirit. He as executed but his followers continued on his name, although only Paul really grasped the radical/rational/ethical teaching of the Master. However over time, corruption set in with mythology, ritual and priests eventually giving rise to Catholicism. But the spirit of true religion welled up again in the Reformation and then in the Enlightenment.

THis account is a very simple portrait, almost caricature, of the biblical studies project of the last two centuries but those dynamics I would suggest still characterise much of New Testament studies although thankfully it's been pretty much dispelled from Old Testament studies (except perhaps in seminaries and theological colleges) . The model of a decline from ancient Israel into ancient Judaism is false. We don't know much about ancient Israel but I'm pretty sure that the reality of ancient Israel is very different from the portrait of biblical Israel. As for the Old Testament texts they are, for the main, products of the Temple and of priests. Furthermore the old idea of Israelite religion as a simple ethical unitarian monotheism is little more than a romantic fantasy. The religion of ancient Temple Israel was a complex form of monotheism or more probably a complex of monotheisms derived from an older polytheist base and with an elaborate cosmology which included astrology, numerology, and sacred geometries together with angelologies.

Christianity emerges from this complex Jewish matrix. Rather than marking some return to some kind of pure and primitive religion I think early Christianity as a Jewish religious movement subscribed to a suite of theologies that were every bit Jewish and every bit complex. Daniel Boyarin argues that the famous Logos text of John 1 is pretty standard 1st century Jewish Logos theology given a Christological twist. You don't need to put John in the last decade of the first century to account for the theology.

Early Christianity was not a species of evangelical Protestantism as found in Baptist chapels and Gospel halls and certainly not Pentecostal superchurches. It was a Jewish religion practicing rituals derived from older Jewish Temple and synagogue models. I'm inclined to think that just as in the rest of Judaism, Christians created texts for use in rituals/worship. Sometimes they adapted older Jewish texts such as the Ascension of Isaiah but soon created their own Gospels, apocalypses, Psalmic texts such as the Odes of Solomon. I don't accept the necessity of long tunnel periods of oral tradition. Oral tradition is all very well in pre-literate societies but neither the Roman Empire nor the ancient Jewish world can be called pre-literate societies. And indeed religiously what else is 'oral tradition' but the regular rituals of worship and sacrament.

So hence I don't see the need for long time frames for the creation of Christian literature, especially literature with strong theological and mythological motifs. I'm suspicious of such models particularly if they are neatly linear and most especially if they are constructed on the basis of romantic rationalist agendas.

1 comment:

  1. Pieter Craffert also offered a very interesting critique to the Jesus Seminar Jesus and the methodology of JD Crossan. The question he raised was not one of dating the material, Craffert doesn't quite care about dating methods and whether or not they mean that something is historical. His entire criticism is one of appropriating cross-cultural methodology incorrectly. From his essay, Crossan's Historical Jesus as Healer Excorcist and Miracle Worker, (Religion and Theology 10, 2003): I cannot see why they have settled for ideological and symbolic resistance (to the empire of Rome and the corruption at Jerusalem) if traditionally agrarian societies like theirs knew social figures who could actually heal people and exorcise and control demons and travel to other worlds to provide food and control spirits and intervene in heavenly affairs and interact with ancestors on a regular basis. This is what shamans do the world over, for example, and what they did in the ancient world. About no other figure in antiquity do we have so many reports about healings, exorcisms and other exceptional deeds... (pp. 260).

    Anthropologists and historians approaching data from an interdisciplinary methodology are over the spoiler projects and have adopted methods of cross-cultural sensitivity, what Craffert, in another article, terms polyphasic understandings of reality and described by yourself, Michael, in your blog on "Modernist Embarrassments and the Paranormal". In short, cultural realities don't always share the same rules with one another, they don't follow the stern, mechanic logic of 21st century Analytic Philosophy and to communicate between them one must learn both languages.

    I find it funny how Al-Biruni's participatory observation method was much more contemporary a model of cross-cultural studies than the historical Jesus scholars yelping "interdisciplinary methodology" 1000 years later.