Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Book Note: Performing the Gospel (Horsley, Draper, Foley)

Alan Kirk has written a very thorough review of Performing the Gospel: Orality, Memory, and Mark. It is an outstanding edited volume put together by Richard Horsley, Jonathan Draper and John Miles Foley for Werner Kelber. For those who want a quick introduction and submersion in oral consciousness (so vital for the study of our ancient texts), this is a good book to start the journey. I am already using Holly Hearon's contribution ("The Implications of Orality for Studies of the Biblical Text") in my 100-level Introduction to New Testament Studies course at Rice.

I would also like to draw attention to the candid contribution in Performing the Gospel by Jens Schröter, a German scholar who has written another very intense book that I highly recommend on the sayings tradition in the context of social memory studies (Erinnerung an Jesu Worte). His article is called "Jesus and the Canon: The Early Jesus Traditions in the Context of the Origins of the New Testament Canon." He argues quite convincingly that the early church understood the Jesus tradition from the beginning to be "a free and living tradition" which was augmented by an ongoing process of written versions of various gospels. There was "no fundamental difference" between oral and written tradition, but they represent analogous processes in which the living tradition was adapted to new contexts. The tradition was not oriented toward the preservation of original words of Jesus. He says that we must abandon the idea of a "fixed, authoritative form of the tradition." He also shows how the Jesus tradition became linked to "apostolic preaching" to give particular versions of the tradition authority. He takes very seriously the apocrypha for the study of Christian origins. His overview in this article hits many of the same points that I have written about as well, particularly in my first chapter of Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas ("The 'New' Traditionsgeschichtliche Approach," especially pages 24-37). Thank you Jens for this fine contribution.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Slavonic Pseudepigrapha Link

Professor Andrei Orlov from Marquette University announces a wonderful new scholarly resource on the Second Temple Jewish literature preserved in the Slavic Milieux.

The site is developed by the scholars from the Theology Department at Marquette University (Milwaukee, USA). The resource provides original manuscripts, translations, and extensive bibliographies to the following pseudepigraphical materials preserved in Slavonic language:

Slavonic Life of Adam and Eve
Adam Octipartite
2 Enoch
Sataniel Text
Apocalypse of Abraham
Testament of Abraham
The Ladder of Jacob
Joseph and Aseneth
Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs
Testament of Job
Life of Moses
Apocryphal Fragments about David, Solomon, and Elijah
Ascension of Isaiah
3 Baruch
4 Baruch
Pseudo-Danielic Fragments
Apocalypse of Zosimus
The Word of the Blessed Zerubabel
The Josippon
Palaea Historica
Interpretive Palaea
Palaea Chronographica
and some other materials

The First Principle of Historical Hermeneutics

I was reading one of the Thomas the Tank Engine books to my son last night, and the last line struck home. Thomas realizes that "a train is only as good as its track." It made me think again about our field and the shift we are seeing in the Academy's approach to the study of early Christianity. What track are we on? Are we any better off as students and researchers by turning away from historical inquiry, replacing it with trendy postmodern methods?

Whatever else postmodernism may have done for us, it certainly has not helped us understand our ancient texts as ancient texts. Rather, these methods have gone a long way to remove the texts from their ancient religious contexts and sever them from the mega-narratives familiar to the ancient audiences. The fashionable postmodern hermeneutic serves the interests of the contemporary interpreter, which, in the case of a large number of biblical scholars, is still theological. By emphasizing the non-neutrality of texts and the histories we make of them, postmodern critique has done more to dump us back into the methodological cave a hundred and fifty years ago when scholars made any number of truth claims about Jesus and early Christianity with little to no reasoned justification. I thought that Albert Schweitzer taught us a hundred years ago how problematic this is for biblical studies, a point raised by James Tabor on his blog Albert Schweitzer and An Apocalyptic Jesus. But today, under the pressure of postmodern method, we have settled into an academic discourse content with "alternative" scholarly reconstructions and "different" research opinions, as if all reconstructions and opinions were equally sound and legitimate historically.

This is not to say that the Academy has ever been truly uncompromising when it has come to employing historical criticism. The canon always has strong-armed the Academy. The New Testament documents have been and remain privileged. The marginalization of the parabiblical material has a long history, itself caught up in normative discourse. This literature is either named in relation to the canon (non-canonical/parabiblical = non-authoritative or inauthentic) or demeaned linguistically (pseudepigrapha = false writings; apocrypha = spurious or inauthentic; heretical = deviant or worse).

If we are to advance in our knowledge of the beginnings of Christianity, the Academy must throw off the common apologetic position strangling us - that the study of non-canonical documents cannot teach us anything worthwhile (or: new) about early Christianity while the New Testament can. This position must be replaced with the first principle of a truly uncompromising historical hermeneutic, that the historian cannot privilege one set of texts over another, or one position over another.

Monday, January 29, 2007

What does the Gospel of Judas REALLY say?

If we think that the Gospel of Judas gives us evidence for Judas the Hero, whether historical or fictional, we might want to take another look at the Coptic.

On October 27th and 28th, 2006, Professor Madeleine Scopello convened at the Sorbonne a conference called “L’Évangile de Judas: Le contexte historique et littéraire d’un nouvelapocryphe.” The colloquium was the Gospel’s premiere in the Academy, showcasing an international body of scholars who had gathered to discuss their initial readings of this newly recovered and reconstructed text from the Tchacos Codex. There was a sense of relief that those of us in the academic “gnostic” community could finally discuss openly a gospel we had only heard about in private whispers, since the team selected by National Geographic to work on the text had been required to sign non-disclosure statements, or so I've been told.

At the Sorbonne, an array of opinions were expressed about a text whose contents were not divulged until April 9th, 2006, when National Geographic released two books for the general audience, one about its sensational recovery and painstaking reconstruction (Herbert Krosney, The Lost Gospel: The Quest for the Gospel of Judas Iscariot [Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2006]), and the other an initial English translation and startling interpretation, that Judas was a hero, a Gnostic and a comrade of Jesus (Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst, with additional commentary by Bart D. Ehrman, The Gospel of Judas [Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2006]). At the same time, National Geographic aired a two-hour documentary (John B. Ford [Executive in Charge of Production], “The Gospel of Judas: The Lost Version of Christ’s Betrayal” [National Geographic Channel: April 9, 2006]), featured an article in their magazine (Andrew Cockburn, “The Judas Gospel, “ National Geographic [May 2006] 78-95), and posted on the world wide web a transcription of the Coptic text.

The release of these popular materials was the public debut of the Gospel of Judas, but the Sorbonne conference was its academic debut, the moment that can be marked as the beginning of its academic assessment. Although the twenty-five presentations were varied on topic and method, what was surprising to many present was the fact that three scholars in attendance (myself, Louis Painchaud, and John Turner) presented papers with very similar interpretations and criticisms of the team’s transcription, translation, and representation of the Gospel. Each of us had worked independently at different universities (April DeConick, Rice University; Louis Painchaud, University of Laval; and John Turner, University of Nebraska-Lincoln) and were unaware of the opinions of each other until the presentations were made.

A few weeks later, on November 10, 2006, the Department of Classic and Mediterranean Studies at the University of Chicago convened a one-day conference on the Gospel of Judas. Professor John Turner was in attendance and heard a paper read by Einar Thomassen, “Is Judas Really the Hero of the Gospel?” Professor Thomassen sent me a copy of his paper and his cogent remarks are compatible to the position that the three of us had developed independently. He acknowledges in his paper, however, that his own interpretation of the Gospel of Judas was influenced by the opinions of Professor Painchaud, who was a speaker at a Scandinavian seminar held by the Nag Hammadi and Gnosticism Nordic Network (NNGN) and devoted to the Gospel of Judas (Bergen, August 21-26, 2006).

Although we are all indebted to the painstakingly exhaustive work of the team who spent years piecing together shreds of abused papyri so that all of us could have something to read and analyze, in my opinion we are obliged as scholars to offer corrections when we think that errors have been made.

My examination of the Coptic transcription has led me to think that certain translational errors and one mistaken reconstruction of a Coptic line led the team to the erroneous conclusion that Judas is a saint destined to join the holy generation of the Gnostics. The result is that certain claims have been made by National Geographic that the Gospel of Judas says things it just does NOT say: Judas is the perfect enlightened Gnostic; Judas ascends to the holy generation; Jesus wants Judas to betray him; Jesus wants to escape the material world; Judas performs a righteous act, serving Jesus by “betraying” him; Judas will be able to enter the divine realm as symbolized by his vision of the great house; as the thirteenth, Judas surpasses the twelve disciple, and is lucky and blessed by this number.

I have been speaking to audiences about this situation in a public lecture series I started this semester, The Forbidden Gospels, and I am writing a book for general audiences (What Does the Gospel of Judas REALLY Say?) as quickly as I can. It will include a corrected translation and interpretation, one in which Judas is as evil as ever.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Beyond the New Testament Canon

I'd like to start this blog with what may be a shocking observation, but one which I know to be true: the major obstacle to any historical study of early Christianity is the New Testament canon.

At the Scripture and Skepticism conference held at UC Davis this past weekend, I spoke about the importance of historical criticism, how it is absolutely essential to the study of early Christianity because it provides a perspective that does not privilege any particular form of religiosity or the wishes of any Christian community or individual or theological perspective. As a scholar of religious history, I do not have to justify my conclusions to believers nor do I judge the texts I study in terms of our modern perspectives of "orthodoxy" or "heresy." My rules of engagement are simply those of the modern intellectual community in search of knowledge. I consider myself a "humanist," relying on ways of knowing developed since the Enlightenment in the discipline of the humanities and liberal arts. Given these premises, I take very seriously the study of a variety of early Christian documents, and do not operate within the boundaries of the New Testament canon.

What impedes our examination of early Christianity is not the limitations of historical criticism as some in the Academy would like to lead us to believe. The impediment is the fact that the majority of biblical scholars still have not dislodged themselves from their own faith perspectives. As long as this is the case, historical inquiry is impossible because the historical-critical perspective cannot be used uncompromisingly. Although I recognize that there can be no "objective" history recovered or written, this doesn't mean to me that all subjective inquiries are the same. The theological inquiry is not the same as the historical.

Those in the Academy who have not dislodged themselves from their faith operate to defend, justify and explain it in terms they couch "historical" while privileging the New Testament canon and ignoring or dissing the apocrypha. Their personal religious belief in the authority of the New Testament scripture has led them to a common (and erroneous) assumption, that the New Testament texts are the only documents that tell us about the history of early Christianity. This leads to another common (and erroneous) assumption, that these canonical texts are accurate and reliable documents for the study of early Christianity. In this way, the religious walls of the canon have imprisoned the Academy for a couple of hundreds of years, holding us back from an honest historical analysis of early Christianity.

Even though there are some scholars in the Academy who attempt to operate as historians rather than theologians, the theological position is still controlling our discipline. The discipline is still limited by the canon, perpetuating the myth that the religious boundaries of the canon should be the historical boundaries as well. Certainly the New Testament texts are important pieces of the puzzle, but they are not the only pieces. An enormous amount of literature was written by the early Christians in the first two centuries, and all of it needs to be studied critically in order to get a full picture of what was going on. If we only study the New Testament documents, our reconstruction of early Christianity is inherently flawed. Paradoxically we end up promoting as "historical" an "apocryphal" Christianity solely based on the New Testament.

I'm setting up this blog as a place to discuss Christian Origins with historical integrity, taking seriously and skeptically the "forbidden" gospels and what they have to tell us about Jesus and the first Christians. Stay posted for my opinions on the Gospel of Judas, which I will write tomorrow.