Monday, April 30, 2007

Article Note: "À Propos de la (Re)découverte de L'Évangile de Judas (Louis Painchaud)

Laval théologique et philosophique just released Louis Painchaud's statement about the Gospel of Judas, presented orally at the University of Ottawa on September 30, 2006, at the conference "Christian Apocryphal Texts for the New Millenium." It is found in journal# 62.3 (October 2006) 553-568. I thank Professor Painchaud for sending me an offprint. A pioneering presentation and article indeed, challenging National Geographic's misreading of the text!

I reproduce here the English abstract (the article is in French).
Far from presenting Judas as the perfect Christian, the faithful disciple whose assistance Jesus seeks in liberating himself from him material body, the Gospel of Judas actually turns Judas into the leading figure in a sacrificial interpretation of the crucifixion. This sacrificial interpretation, and the various ways in which it is manifested in Christian behavior (eucharist, Christian life seen as an ongoing sacrifice, martyrdom) is presented in the Gospel of Judas as a continuation of Jewish cultic practices, and as being devoted to an inferior god, who is not the Father of Jesus. Judas is thus (literally!) demonized, put under the power of the astral determinism and assimilated to the archons whom he serves. In the gospel that bears his name, Judas is indeed called to reign over others, but his power does not extend beyond the limits of the material world, and those over whom he rules will curse him.
And so it begins...

What good is Form Criticism?

John Shuck asked me in the comment section of the last post, if we can't know Jesus' authentic words by using form criticism, can we at least learn about earlier material?

My response, "Perhaps."

The reason for my ambiguous answer is that the application of form criticism and other assumptions are going to make this determination. Certainly form criticism identifies the literary type of the block of material (although this tells us next to nothing about its oral performance). If there are enough variants, it might even show us how earlier material becomes secondarily developed, such as variants placed in different literary contexts, reinterpreted with the addition of a secondary clause or phrase or introductory question, or developed into fictitious literary dialogues.

But once we leave these parameters, the going becomes rougher since ALL the materials we have about Jesus were remembered and written by and for the early Christians, including his parables and sayings. This means that the parables and sayings are no less "church material" than the miracle stories or apothegms or passion narrative. So trying to sort out some of this material as "less-churchy" than the rest is very problematic. The sayings of Jesus, especially the parables, are considered most authentic of the materials, as if they were preserved in his own diary untouched by the memories and needs of the early Christians.

Form critics seem to have realized this and so ventured to put into use the dissimilarity principle (and the principle of coherence) in order to determine which of the sayings were authentic and which represented the voice of the church. Jesus material is eliminated if there are parallels in early Judaism or early Christianity.

Of course this leads to a serious distortion of any historical Jesus recovered. And it is a way that the difficult apocalyptic materials have been removed from Jesus' mouth, even generating the argument that they are later additions made by the early Christians to the non-apocalyptic message of Jesus. Circular reasoning at its height.

What we end up with is a Jesus that doesn't look anything like anyone around him!

In my opinion, the application of this principle has been theologically-motivated from the start, and in some cases bordering on anti-Semitic. It allows the interpreter to control Jesus to the point that Jesus becomes a man against Judaism and other Jews around him, a man who has no self-consciousness as a Prophet or Messiah, and a man who is unlike all other first-century Jews. Jesus is unique.

This principle can tell us nothing about the historical Jesus, in fact it outright distorts him beyond recognition. It is a principle that we should never have applied in the way we have done. And it is time for it to go.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Why the Quest for the Historical Jesus Fails or "On Using the Wrong Tool"

Judy Redman, who is here from Australia writing a portion of her dissertation on the Kingdom parables in the Gospel of Thomas, dug out an old article from 1972 written by M.D. Hooker ("On Using the Wrong Tool," Theology 75: 570-581) and passed it on to me because she thought I might like it. Wow. Judy was right! This article reads like my course on Jesus and the Gospels.

If you wonder what is wrong with biblical methods, this article is a nice salute, but one that doesn't appear to have been heeded by too many scholars. Like these 2 paragraphs (page 581), which appears to me almost prophetic :
Neither must he (the biblical scholar) use them (tools like form criticism) negatively - to blackball a saying. The critic who tries with his knife to carve away the thick layers of the Church's theology and give us the bare skeleton of the Jesus of history will no doubt shudder at my unscientific analogy, but it seems to me that all his criteria can only give us results like those which appear in the tables of the magazine Which?. The more blobs in the column, the more confidence one may have in that particular product, and the better buy it is. So with our gospel sayings. The saying which is found in all the Synoptic strata, which has no known parallel outside the gospels, which is Aramaic in structure, will perhaps rate more blobs than one which has none of these features. But I am not suggesting that we should assume that those which score so many blobs as authentic, and those at the bottom of the table are not. We are moving here only from the more to the less probable.

For in the end, the answers which the New Testament scholar gives are not the result of applying objective tests and using precision tools; they are very largely the result of his own presuppositions and prejudices...Too many hypotheses have been regarded as proved, and have become accepted as dogmas. Of course one must have working hypotheses; but it should never be forgotten that these are only hypotheses, and that they must constantly be re-examined. Perhaps every NT scholar should have before him on his desk, as he writes, as a constant reminder of the dangers of dogmatism, the words of R.H. Lightfoot: "We do not know."
There is more in her article that I will post on (hopefully over the weekend), but I leave you with this comment, one that I always make to my students at the end of the Jesus and the Gospels course. Whatever else we might think we can do, creating a red-letter edition is not one of them. Given the oral and scribal environments of creation and transmission, given the origin of all of our materials in the Christian communities, and given the charismatic nature of early Christianity, the quest for the authentic or original words of Jesus is bound to end in failure. The number of white marbles or pink marbles or black marbles in the bag is not going to make it so.

Update 4-30-07: some discussion on other blogs
Judy Redman

Best of Luck on Exams and Papers

It is the end of the semester here at Rice University, as I know it is many other places. I wish all of you who are finishing classes, the best of luck on your exams and papers.

I want to thank all my colleagues and students at Rice and abroad for making this a great first year for me. Teaching has been really tremendous here, and I look forward to continuing our studies together in the future. Research and writing has taken on new dimensions for me this year, especially with my attempt to write a book on Gnosticism and Judas for the general reader, my travels to France and Germany, and the tremendous people I met here in Houston and abroad.

Soon it will be time for a much-needed break and reflection. But for now for me, it is on to marking those papers!

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Book Note: Other Early Christian Gospels (Andrew Bernhard)

I just received a copy of Andrew Bernhard's book, Other Early Christian Gospels: A Critical Edition of the Surviving Greek Manuscripts. Mr. Bernhard has a Master's Degree in Greek and Roman history from Oxford, and has re-edited and re-translated the Greek gospel Oxyrhynchus fragments. These are included in his volume (P. Oxy. 654, 1, 655, 4009, 2949, 210, 1224, 840) as well as others fragments not from Oxyrhynchus (P. Cair. 10759, P. Egerton 2, P. Köln 255, P. Vindob.G 2325, P.Mert. 51, P. Berol. 11710).

What a convenient volume! To have all these fragments published together in one book makes them finally accessible to everyone. The edition contains helpful appendices indexing the Greek words in each fragment. Basic papyrological analyses are presented, including the date of the manuscript, measurements, current location that the fragment is housed, original publication information, and any notable features. This is followed by a line-by-line Greek presentation, a "student's edition" where all the reconstruction apparatus has been eliminated, and an English translation.

A critical apparatus appears at the bottom of the page, but there is no justification for why particular reconstructions have been chosen over others. Photographs of most of the fragments are found collected in the back of the volume. Unfortunately the publisher did not produce high quality facsimiles (I guess that they would have been too costly to reproduce), so their usefulness for actual research is rather limited.

Question about Syriac Grammars and Learning Tools

What Syriac grammar is the most accessible for learning independently? Any opinions? Does anyone know of pronunciation guides like CDs, and/or other learning tools?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Pseudo-Tertullian and Irenaeus on Judas

Patrick McCullough had a nice post on the Gospel of Judas last week, in which he asked, "Would Dr. DeConick suggest that scholars working on the Gospel of Judas are too quick to accept Irenaeus' understanding of its message (if not his judgment of it as heresy) and let it influence their translation?"

I suspect that this is the case, although the understanding seems to me to be coming from a pesher of texts that have been read together. Note that Irenaeus never says that Judas is a hero in the Gospel of Judas, or a Gnostic. He simply says (as our manuscript of the Gospel of Judas reports) that Judas is the only one who understands anything in this gospel, and that his betrayal of Jesus has chaotic consequences for the cosmos.
Others again declare that Cain derived his being from the Power above, and acknowledge that Esau, Korah, the Sodomites, and all such persons, are related to themselves. On this account, they add, they have been assailed by the Creator, yet no one of them has suffered injury. For Sophia was in the habit of carrying off that which belonged to her from them to herself. They declare that Judas the traitor was thoroughly acquainted with these things, and that he alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal; by him all things, both earthly and heavenly, were thus thrown into confusion. They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas.
It is Pseudo-Tertullian who is our earliest witness to the idea that Judas is considered a hero by Gnostics he calls the Cainites. He never mentions the Gospel of Judas. In my opinion, there is every reason to think that the Cainites never existed, but were fabricated by the heresiologists, perhaps based on Irenaeus' mention of Cain as a power (which the Sethians do say, but he is an archonic evil power!). Our manuscript was written by Sethian Gnostics, not these Cainites.

The heresiological texts have been read together in our collective scholarly consciousness so that we expected the Gospel of Judas to present us with Judas as a good guy. It is my suspicion that this expectation has influenced the translations (and interpretations), since the Coptic does not present us with a positive Judas, or a hero. Any attempt I've seen so far to interpret our manuscript with Judas as the hero results in dissonance and uneven commentaries.

Again I ask, if the text is anti-sacrifice and is saying that God is against this and does not consider it to be efficacious, then how can Judas be a hero by sacrificing Jesus at Jesus' request?

Monday, April 23, 2007

Thomas Paperback Announcement

My publisher (Continuum/T & T Clark) has just let me know that The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation will be put out in paperback in September this year. So this means it will have an original art cover similar to the companion volume Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas, and it will be less expensive. I'll post the link once it becomes available.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Why the release of the photographs of Judas is essential

In the comments to an earlier post, I was asked by Mr. Eric Rowe two important questions.
  • Of the several scholars who have already completed books on the Gospel of Judas, do you know which ones did have access to the photos?
  • Why did you not wait until you had access to the photographs before publishing your book?

As far as I know, the only people who had access to the photos and the manuscripts are those on the National Geographic Team: Kasser, Meyer, and Wurst who were the original translators and who put out the book The Gospel of Judas. Karen King (the only one who has provided a different English translation in Reading Judas) writes that it is based on the transcription released by NG on its website.

We have been forced into this situation because National Geographic has chosen not to release the photos (I suspect so that they have exclusive rights to the publication on Judas). This has left all other scholars in the lurch. So we have had to work from their transcription, and trust it, and do what we can from it. The academic process is backwards now like it was with the Dead Sea Scrolls.

We were first promised that the photos would be published in December 2006, then January 2007, then April 2007, now June. Obviously this could go on for quite a while. So I decided to go ahead with the publication of my book, because at least I can provide an improved English translation of the Coptic transcription. It worries me immensely that so many scholars already are publishing books based on NG's translation (which is very problematic in my judgment). These books continue to foster the textual and interpretative problems.

As soon as I can work through the manuscript photos (and the manuscript itself), I will offer a revised version. But this will take a couple of years to do well, and I want scholars worldwide to begin working on the Coptic so we can all together establish a critical text we agree on. Then I will revise the translation and republish. But we have to have the photos to begin this process of critical reflection.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Question about Judas and Sacrifice (Colbert Report)

I am confused about part of the thesis that Elaine Pagels and Karen King have set forth in their new book on the Gospel of Judas (Reading Judas). I just watched the Colbert report (I know I'm a few days behind here, but this week was tough). I thought that Pagels handled Colbert's questions and his intrusiveness very well, but I was still confused about part of the thesis after viewing the clip.

Their main thesis is that martyrdom is being severely criticized by the Gospel of Judas. That the good news of the gospel is that Christians shouldn't listen to their leaders who encourage them to sacrifice themselves. Okay, I think this is a very valid point. But then how can Judas be a good guy or Jesus' friend since he sacrifices Jesus, and according to Pagels is asked by Jesus to do so?

In the report, Pagels asked a very good question, a question that I think the Gospel of Judas does raise - What kind of God is this who requires human sacrifice? But, if God doesn't want sacrifices, then how can Jesus' sacrifice at the hands of Judas be understood by Pagels-King as a good deed by a hero, one that Jesus asks him to do? Does anyone have any ideas?

Update 4-21-07: check out these other blogs on the Colbert report
Patrick McCullough
Mark Goodacre
Tony Chartrand-Burke
John Shuck

Friday, April 20, 2007

A new article on the Gospel of Judas by Dr. Peter M. Head

There is a paper in press that you might be interested in reading when it is published with Tyndale Bulletin 58.1 (2007) pages 1-23. It is by Peter M. Head, "The Gospel of Judas and the Qarara Codices: Some Preliminary Observations."

I have had the pleasure of reading an advanced copy, and I highly recommend it. It is one of the best pieces I have read so far on the Gospel of Judas.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Bibliography for the Gospel of Judas (in English)

I am adding an appendix to my book on the Gospel of Judas (The Thirteenth Apostle) which will include some annotated resources for further reading in English. I am wondering if I have included everything written in English on the Gospel of Judas (except newpaper and magazine articles)? Here is what I have so far. If you are aware of anything I've missed, would you be kind enough to give me the reference in the comments? I wish to be as comprehensive as I can for the English-reading audience.

Andrew Cockburn, May 2006. “The Judas Gospel.” Pages 78-95 in National Geographic Magazine.
This is National Geographic’s story of the year, perhaps of the century. Mr. Cockburn, a National Geographic author, writes an overview of the discovery and restoration of the Gospel of Judas in fine journalistic style. Beautiful photographs by Kenneth Garrett grace the pages. 17 pages.
Bart D. Ehrman, 2006. The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Professor Ehrman discusses his own involvement in National Geographic’s project to analyze the Gospel of Judas along with the tale of the discovery of Judas. He describes the contents of the gospel, its relationship to the New Testament gospels, suggesting that it presents a unique view of Jesus, the twelve disciples, and Judas who is the only one who remains faithful to Jesus even to his death. 198 pages.
Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst, with additional commentary by Bart D. Ehrman, 2006. The Gospel of Judas (Washington D.C.; National Geographic).
The original publication of the English translation of the Gospel of Judas made by Professors Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst, in collaboration with François Gaudard. It includes chapters of commentary on the story of the Tchacos Codex (by Kasser), Judas as a typical Gnostic text and alternative vision of Judas (by Ehrman), early mentions of the Gospel of Judas by the Church Fathers (by Wurst), and Judas as a Sethian gospel (by Meyer). 185 pages.
Herbert Krosney, 2006. The Lost Gospel of Judas: The Quest for the Gospel of Judas Iscariot (Washington D.C.: National Geographic).
Herbert Krosney is an investigative journalist who traces in his book what can be known about the discovery, recovery, and restoration of the Gospel of Judas. Includes a brief foreword by Bart Ehrman and an epilogue by Marvin Meyer. 309 pages.
Nicholas Perrin, 2006. The Judas Gospel (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press).
Nicholas Perrin provides us with a brief history of the discovery of the Gospel of Judas in this pamphlet. He makes an overview of the contents as a second century Gnostic gospel. He argues that the text has little historical value in terms of telling us anything about Jesus and Judas. Rather its value comes from what it reveals about gnostic alternatives to what Perrin understands as "authentic" Christianity. 32 pages.
James Robinson, 2006. The Secrets of Judas: The Story of the Misunderstood Disciple and his Lost Gospel (San Francisco: Harper).
Professor James Robinson discusses what can be known about the historical Judas from the Bible and other ancient Christian texts. He recounts the story of the discovery of the Gospel of Judas and its sensationalistic release by National Geographic, criticizing the way in which the publication of the text has been handled. 192 pages.
N. T. Wright, 2006. Judas and the Gospel of Jesus: Have We Missed the Truth about Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Baker Books).
Bishop Wright argues that the Gospel of Judas tells us nothing about the historical Jesus or the historical Judas. Its rehabilitation of Judas in this second century text cannot be linked to the real Judas who betrayed Jesus. He thinks that the publication of this gospel is part of a scholarly agenda to find an alternative Jesus, which has another sensationalistic life in popular literature like The Da Vinci Code – financial profit. 155 pages.
Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King, 2007. Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity (New York: Viking).
This book contains Karen King’s own English translation of the Gospel of Judas, followed by a brief running commentary. The other chapters are written collaboratively by Professors Pagels and King. These chapters attempt to contextualize Judas within the milieu of early Christian persecution and martyrdom, suggesting that the Christians who wrote this gospel were condemning church leaders who were encouraging their flock to die as sacrifices to God. 198 pages.
Craig A. Evans, 2006. Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press).
Included in the back of this book is a brief appendix, “What Should We Think About the Gospel of Judas?” He mentions his own involvement on the National Geographic team and the text’s recovery. He outlines the contents of the Tchacos Codex yet to be published. This is followed by a short description of the contents of the gospel and its meaning, weighing in on the perspective of the Church Fathers – that the gospel honored Judas because it was written by a Gnostic who revered all the “evil” men in the scriptures. These villains like Judas were only “evil” in the eyes of Yahweh the lesser god because they worked for the God of light in his war against Yahweh. So in reality, the villains were the good guys. 6 pages.
Update 4-20-07: a response on another blog
Mark Goodacre

Photo from Matteo Grosso

Matteo has arrived safely home in Italy. He sent this photo to me this morning via e-mail. He reports that he continues to make good progress on his dissertation on the reception history of the Gospel of Thomas.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

In memory of those who died at Virginia Tech

Ecclesiastes 9:11-12; 6:1-2; 1:15; 11:8
I saw that under the sun,
the race is not to the swift,
nor the battle to the strong,
nor bread to the wise,
nor riches to the intelligent,
nor favor to the skillful;
but time and chance happen to them all.
For no one can anticipate the time of disaster.
Like fish taken in a cruel net,
like birds caught in a snare,
so people are snared at a time of calamity,
when it suddenly falls upon them.
There is an evil that I have seen under the sun,
and it lies heavy upon us.
This is vanity; it is a grievous ill.
What is crooked cannot be made straight,
and what is lacking cannot be counted.
Even those who live many years
should rejoice in them all;
yet let us remember
that the days of darkness will be many.
All that comes is vanity.
Comments are reserved for those who wish to leave their own memorials.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Congratulations and Welcome to New Ph.D. Students

Now that the campus visits are over, I want to take this time to congratulate again and to welcome into the Rice community three new Ph.D. students who will be moving to Houston this summer to begin work in the Bible and Beyond speciality. All three have given me permission to formally welcome them on this blog.
Welcome to Chad Day. Chad comes to Rice with a B.S. in Sociology and a M.A. in Religious Studies from UNC Charlotte. He wishes to study the Jesus movement, post-NT Jesus traditions, and the early church, with a particular orientation toward Judaism and its literatures, the Christian apocrypha and extra-canonical writings. He has an avid interest in "disciplinary border crossing" so is interested in continuing to foster his love for a range of methods and approaches to the field including postcolonical criticism, socio-rhetorical criticism, discourse analysis, and social theories (especially Bourdieu).

Welcome to Franklin Trammell. Franklin comes to Rice with a B.A. and M.A. in Religious Studies from UNC Charlotte. He has already written an impressive M.A. thesis (which I got to read parts of) reevaluating Q scholarship, particularly the layering of Q. He argues for a unified Q from the beginning. At Rice, he wishes to pursue another interest in the magical and mystical traditions in early Christianity. So I imagine that he will eventually be working in those alchemical texts that have yet to be fully translated as well as the traditional magical, hermetic, and gnostic materials. But he is aware that the mystical tradition already is emerging in Paul, so he will be studying the NT text from this perspective too.

Welcome to Claire Villarreal. Claire returns to Rice after an eight year hiatus during which she traveled abroad to Thailand, India, and Nepal studying and teaching meditation. She has a B.A. from Rice in Religious Studies and English. She wishes to become a comparativist, particularly in terms of mystical traditions within early Christianity and contemporaneous Buddhism. So Claire will not only be involved in the Bible and Beyond speciality, but also will be working intensely with Anne Klein who will guide her through the Buddhist materials.
I am extremely excited about working with each of these students, and inaugurating in the Fall the Rice Early Christianity Research Seminar, an on-going working seminar whose goal will be to thoroughly reconceptualize Christian Origins. To do this, we will take seriously all literature produced during the ante-Nicene period, archaeology, documentary literature, geography, indigenous populations, Jewish and Greco-Roman contexts. There will be no canonical boundaries. There will be no Christian apology. We will use both the web and traditional publication to share our progress. So stay tuned for that in the Fall.

Best Biblical Studies Blogs

I just found this website mentioned by Loren Rosson on his blog, which ranks the Best Biblical Studies Blogs. It is a fun website to take a look at. Forbidden Gospels is at #18 this month. Thanks to all my readers! I haven't figured out exactly how the "voting" works, but it appears that individuals can go to the site and vote for their favorite blogs (weekly? daily? hourly?). Does anyone know how this thing works?

Update 4-15-07: Thanks to Airton de Silva for sending me this link to FAQ about UnSpun. The way it works is each person has to login. Once this is done, the person can use the up and down arrows next to each blog name if he or she thinks the ranking should move up or down. Only one vote per person per blog is allowed until the blog moves to a new ranking, then it can be voted on again. The numbers next to the blog name don't mean much. The #3 slot is always 1000, so the #1 and #2 will be some higher percentage of that, while the ones below this will be some lesser percentage of that. I haven't figured out what the negative numbers are yet.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Book Note: Esalen (Kripal); and The Serpent's Gift (Kripal)

Jeff Kripal, my colleague here in the Religious Studies Department at Rice just gave me a copy of his newest book, a history of Esalen and the human potential movement in America. The book is called Esalen: American and the Religion of No Religion. Here is an excerpt released on-line by the University of Chicago Press, his publisher. I thought a post on this "alternative" to traditional religion in contemporary society might be of some interest to those of us studying the "alternative" Christianities (and Judaisms) in antiquity.

I want to congratulate him on his outstanding (and beautiful) book, which I saw displayed front and center among the new hardback releases at Border's Books this evening when I was out book browsing with my son and husband. There is a three-page full layout of his book in the Chronicle of Higher Education Review this week (April 13, 2007) for those interested in a taste of what his new work is all about.

While I am mentioning this book, I might also mention that he just published a book on religious studies as a field of study, comparing what we do as scholars (both content-wise and methodology) with ancient gnosis and the gift that the serpent has to give. I truly loved this book, particularly the first and last chapters which made me really think about the study of religion in terms of the esoteric, the subversive, and the gnostic. We had the pleasure of reading this book a few weeks ago for the Reading Religion at Rice lunch group, and it was applauded around the table. Its name couldn't be any more appropriate - The Serpent's Gift.

So I think that double kudos are deserved!

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Katrina and Communal Memory

I received an anonymous tip from one of my readers who tracked down a story about an earlier event in 1927 in which a levy was blown up to keep the flood waters from inundating certain parts of New Orleans. Given the memory of this event, it is quite reasonable that the Katrina memory has been recast in the terms that Brian Kumnow noted in some of the Katrina interviews that his professor at the University of Houston have conducted. He wrote to me about this earlier:
Last semester I finished my undergraduate degree at the University of Houston. I took a class on the way the Hurricane Katrina community in Houston is developing an oral history of the events that took place. One thing that I noticed is that a given community will allow for things to become part of that oral history and communal memory that make sense to the community, but may not have actually happened. An example of this in the context of Katrina is that there is widespread belief within the community that the gov't (at some level) intentionally blew holes in the levies. This is being included as part of that community's developing history because it makes sense to the Katrina survivors-it resonates with their intuition of how the world works-in the absence of any real physical evidence proving that it happened.
Here is communal memory in operation, taking shards from the past and using them to make sense of the present experience. If Katrina victims are doing this today, what might the early Christians have done following Jesus' crucifixion or the fall of the Temple?

Friday, April 13, 2007

Why the Jewish Jesus is Essential (and Dangerous)

I had prepared another post on my own reconstruction of the historical Jesus, but I have decided to hold off on it and pick up a thread today from the comments I have been seeing on my last post, the poll on the historical Jesus (which I encourage people to continue to reply to if you haven't already - I am sincerely interested in your opinion about this difficult question).

As I look back over the long history of the Jesus quest (and its popularized sidekick, Jesus in cinema), I continued to be struck (and I admit ashamed) that Jesus rarely appears as a Jew. There have been occasional voices over the last century that have demanded we remember that Jesus was Jewish, but these have been occasional and against the communal representations of Jesus that were developing in those eras.

And sadly this includes the Third Quest which largely has been trying to get around the fact that Jesus was Jewish by creating categories for Jesus as a Hellenized person living in Palestine or Galilee, but a person that doesn't look like any other Jew we know of who lived in Palestine or Galilee. As Rebecca Lesses noted in her comment, the Cynic Jesus is "bizarre." And it is our methods that have allowed us to feel "good" about our bizarre reconstructions, particularly the dissimilarity principle, which is nothing more than a way for us to create a "unique" and non-Jewish Jesus that will sit better in the Christian cradle.

Now there are a whole lot of reasons why scholars - particularly Jewish scholars and Christian scholars - don't want to talk about Jesus as a Jew. Since my own heritage is Christian, I can speak to that most directly. To be frank, the Jewish Jesus is completely irrevelant to Christianity today. He does not make sense, because all that he stood for that was Jewish, he no longer stands for in Christianity. What would Christians do if they really took seriously that Jesus was kosher, that he demanded his followers observe the Jewish Law in a way quite similar to Rabbi Hillel, that he believed his mission was to Israel, that his holidays were Jewish, that is Sabbath was Jewish, and that the eschatological Kingdom he was talking about never came?

It has only been in the last eight or ten years, as far as I can tell, that scholars as a collective voice have been reacting to this problem in their publications on the historical Jesus, demanding that we take seriously the obvious - that Jesus was Jewish. Jesus as a Jew is not just another agenda-driven "construct" as some have been suggesting (this really is a hyper-post-Modern stance). Being Jewish was Jesus' self-identity, and it has taken us two thousand years to admit it and talk about what it means. No amount of pressing the button on the "diversity" and/or Hellenization of early Judaism is going to erase the fact that for Jesus the Torah and prophets were his scriptures, the Temple his cult, Yahweh his god, and the coming of God's Kingdom his hope. Jesus as Jewish is probably the most essential (and dangerous) idea that I can think of.

Update 4-14-07: some interesting responses on other people's blogs
Rebecca Lesses
Mark Goodacre1
Mark Goodacre2
Loren Rosson
Jeff Garcia1
Jeff Garcia2

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Historical Jesus Poll

Now that we are thinking about the historical Jesus and whether or not we might be in a Fourth Quest, I wonder whose reconstruction of the historical Jesus you think is most convincing and why? This is actually one of my final exam questions for my students taking "Jesus and the Gospels." What is your opinion?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Fourth Quest for the Historical Jesus?

I am teaching "Jesus and the Gospels" this semester, and on Tuesday I was discussing the Third Quest with my students. As I spoke, I realized that we have really entered the Fourth Quest, which I think can be defined as a reaction to the Third Quest, particularly the notion that Jesus can be from first century Palestine but look nothing (or very little) like other Jews from his era.

So I am beginning to bundle the Third Quest in terms of the 1980s and 1990s, dominated by the work of Crossan, Borg, Patterson, Funk, Mack, Downing and the Jesus Seminar, but also including Horsley, Kaylor, Witherington, Meier, and so forth.

The Fourth Quest appears to me to be reactionary and pushes several items to the forefront.
  • Jesus is a Jew
  • there is an apocalyptic dimension to Jesus' teaching (as in, the world is coming to a quick end) that cannot be dismissed
  • there are serious problems with the dissimilarity principle and it should be replaced with or corrected by a criterion of historical plausibility or incremental change - that there must be connections between Jesus and Judaism and between Jesus and the early Church
  • there is an experiential aspect to Jesus' mission that we must address
  • the historical Jesus cannot continue to look like or sound like a hippy from the 1960s or a college professor
  • we have to take seriously studies in orality
There is no clean line to the beginning of the Fourth Quest. Some scholars like Alan Segal, Maurice Casey, E. P. Sanders, and Jimmy Dunn already were sounding some of these warnings in their writings before 2000. But I see a real movement now in scholarship (thank goodness) to address these issues as a community of scholars. So I think we are in a Fourth Quest with the work of Bart Ehrman, Dale Allison, Paula Fredriksen, A.J. Levine, Jimmy Dunn (I'm thinking particularly of his book, Jesus Remembered) and Gerd Theissen (I'm thinking particularly of his book co-authored with Dagmar Winter, The Quest for the Plausible Jesus). I would also put N.T. Wright in this category, although his work is too apologetic for me.

Book Note: Ancient Letters and the New Testament (Hans-Josef Kauck)

Baylor University Press has just made (2006) an English translation of Klauck's German work originally published in 1998, Die antike Briefliteratur und das Neue Testament. The English translation is not a straightforward translation of the earlier German work, but includes revisions and additions, especially in terms of explanatory notes on philological subjects, but also expansions and revisions of some arguments. This makes the book not only more use-friendly for the English-speaking student, but has made the book even better. So if you are only familiar with the German edition, you might want to check out the English one since it is really a second revised edition.

Klauck's book proves to me again how necessary, how urgent, it is for us to dismiss the canon boundaries that have locked us in the bible for too long. His book is quite comprehensive, covering letters in Early Judaism as well as the New Testament and beyond to the Greco-Roman world.

There are chapters on the "practical realities" of paper and the postal system in antiquity, nonliterary and diplomatic letters from the scores of documentary papyri available to us now, literary letters in poetry and philosophy, and the rhetoric of letters. His knowledge of the Greco-Roman world is extensive so he is able to include ancient letters that are little-known to most biblical scholars.

Each chapter is set up with students in mind, to function as a textbook as well as a reference resource. There are exercises at the end of the chapters, and an instructor's key at the end of the book. Each chapter contains valuable bibliographical sections that have been updated to 2005.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Cautionary Note about the Gospel of Judas

One of my readers asked me a while back if I knew when the critical edition of the Gospel of Judas was going to be published. Marvin Meyer has told me that the critical edition is in press and he believes that it will be released in June 2007.

I am assuming that the edition will contain facsimile photographs of the leaves, at least that is what I understood from the conversations that took place at Madeleine Scopello's conference on the Gospel of Judas at the Sorbonne last October.

The manner in which this critical edition has come into publication is a bit odd in my opinion, since the Coptic transcription has not yet been openly discussed by scholars worldwide. It is much better if photographs and access to the manuscript itself are made available to scholars so that suggestions for reconstructions can be made before the critical edition is generated. At least this is how the Nag Hammadi materials were published thanks to the efforts and foresight of James Robinson.

This process has been reversed for the Tchacos Codex, so I imagine that the National Geographic critical edition will probably only be the "first" edition to be released, since once it is published, scholars can examine the photographs and transcription more closely to offer other solutions for problematic areas of the text. So I continue to caution scholars now working on the Gospel of Judas to be aware that the reconstructions offered by the National Geographic team may or may not need correction once scholars world wide have the opportunity to study the manuscript and/or photographs.
I myself have been particularly concerned about several areas in the text, not the least of which is the reconstruction of 52.5-6. From day one when I began working on this gospel, I have not been happy with the reconstruction "Seth" and "Christ." Why? Because these figures never appear as archons over the hells. But before we can suggest other options (which there are) with any certainty, we have to be able to see the lacunae and the traces of ink around them. So when June comes around, I will be very anxious to finally have a look for myself.

Anyway, this is only one of about nine problems with the text/translation that I have identified so far (and cover in my forthcoming book: The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says), and I don't yet have access to the photographs or the manuscript yet. So I'm writing this post as a cautionary note. There will be much discussion of the critical edition once it is released. This can be counted on.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Hermeneutics and Original Intent

Comments on my last post from Loren Rosson and Bob MacDonald brought out a powerful insight that we should probably add to the historical hermeneutic I have been developing on this blog. The ancient Christians (as well as contemporary Christians) when referring to scripture to support or build their ideologies and theologies did not care one bit about the "original intent" of the writing. So they didn't give any thought to what Paul might have actually been referring to when he wrote his letters. Their concern was to redeem the spiritual meaning of the text which could only be had through certain reading techniques like typologies and allegories.

Additionally, they were selective readers. They would rip passages or phrases from their contexts and read them completely divorced from the bigger letter or gospel. This means that they ignored or censored other passages that did not jive with their hermeneutical trajectory.

Sometimes we even hear them complaining that the original letter or gospel had been revised by Christians other than themselves in the spirit of altering what these other Christians thought the original meaning should have been. So the Christians who run across passages that do not support their hermeneutics, strip the texts of passages that they considered later insertions. This appears to me to have been a tactic of several Christian groups (i.e., Marcionites, Valentinians, Ebionites) and may have more prevalent among all the early Christians than we would like to think.

Let me give an example or two from the Extracts of Theodotus because this is the text I am currently rereading. Romans 11:16 ("if the first fruits be holy, the lump will be also; if the root be holy, then will also the shoots") was used by the Valentinians to prove that Jesus saved both the elect pneumatics (=Valentinians) and the called psychics (=Christians in the Church) because all had become "homoousia" with him due to the perfecting of their spiritual seeds. The pneumatics had elect male seeds of the spirit which had matured enough to be redeemed through ritual and contemplative activities, while the psychics had female seeds of the spirit which needed more work in the area of perfecting accomplished through the rites of the apostolic church and righteous living. The elect spiritual seed was understood to be the "leaven" which leavened the bread, the entire Christian Church. It was the "mustard seed," and the "pupil of the eye." Note that the scriptural references say nothing about the elect spiritual seed. But this is their true meaning according to the Valentinians.

I do not want to leave the impression that only the Valentinians were reading scriptures in this manner. ALL early Christians were reading scriptures against the author's original intent. And this tradition of interpretation has continued in Christianity today, which can be seen in the use of the "prophets" to predict Jesus' advent, mission, and death. None of these Jewish texts had such an original intent, as the Jewish community has long argued.

The notion that the original intent of an author might be important to understand is really only a recent development, a post-Enlightenment concern, and is the domain of the historian. Since the original intent of the author of a text has not been the concern of Christian hermeneutics since the beginning of the tradition, this means that when the original intent is described by the historian it is often at odds with the contemporary Christian understanding. And this can cause dissonance for the believer and the reaction to reject, rationalize, or reinterpret.

Now the post-modern philosophers have challenged the notion that the original intent of a text can be recovered. This has led to the hyper-position that there is no accessible original intent of a text, but only multiple meanings generated by its readers, so the historical search for original intent is undermined. This has gladdened many contemporary Christian interpreters who wish their own interpretations of the text to be equivalent or override the historical.

This hyper-position is very troubling, in my opinion. Of course my readers will interpret what I write in different ways according to their understanding and experiences. But this does not mean that what I write does not have an original intent or that I might not hope that my readers will be generous enough to care about trying to understand it.

There is much we can recover about the original intent of authors if we care enough to do the hard uncompromising historical work involved in such endeavors. In the end, we might discover several possibilities for understanding the original intent, but these possibilities will be narrowed and will make sense within the historical context and world view of the ancient world we are dealing with. This process is not the same as the process of reading the texts through the Christian hermeneutic.

Update 4-14-07: some interesting discussion on other people's blogs
Loren Rossen

Sunday, April 8, 2007

A Gnostic Easter Meditation

We are very familiar with the "orthodox" Easter story, the story of Jesus rising from the dead, a story interpreted to be a resurrection of Jesus' physical body, leaving behind an empty tomb.

But there were many early Christians who regarded this as nonsense. Didn't Paul say that flesh would not inherit the Kingdom? Expectations of the afterlife body were varied in early Christianity. The Valentinian Gnostics, for instance, were quite literal interpretators of Paul. They believed that at death, the soul body or psyche would undress, stripping the "garments of skins" that the creator god had given them when they left the garden. This glorified soul body would ascend to the highest heaven where it would await the resurrection at the End-of-Time. At the End, the soul body would be taken off and the glorified spirit body or pneuma would be released and join in matrimony with a beautiful angel. Together all the spirit-angel newlyweds would enter the Godhead, the Bridal Chamber, and make love for eternity within God's embrace.

This is such a different picture of the afterlife than the "orthodox" that came to dominate, where the heavens will be filled with the celibate bodies of resurrected flesh.

Why this different picture? The Valentinians believed that sacred marriage and procreative activity was what God was all about, and also what humans should be all about. I came across a passage I never noticed before when reading the Extracts of Theodotus last week. It was startling even for me who has studied the Valentinians for years.
And because Seth was spiritual he neither tends flocks nor tills the soil but produces a child, as spiritual things do. And him, who "hoped to call upon the name of the Lord" who looked upward and whose "citizenship is in heaven" - him the world does not contain.
I think the Valentinian perspective is a lovely hope for life after death, much more appealing than the resurrected flesh living in perpetual abstinence. Why this celibate-flesh choice was made by the early Christians is the subject of the book I am now writing, Sex and the Gnostic Mysteries. More on this in later posts.

For now, have a wonderful Easter if you are celebrating this day of resurrection, whatever your personal understanding of it is.

Tenure and Blogging

Given the newness of my own blog, I can't help but chime in on the Tenure and Blogging discussion that Cathy Davidson and Mark Goodacre have initiated.

I think the discussion about whether blogging should count for tenure in the US amounts to little more than wishful thinking. To consider it anything "like" equivalent to refereed publications is not realistic. No matter how many hits a site might get, no matter how much discussion might be generated or feedback given, blogging is not only outside peer review, but it is outside the guild. Not only can the blogger write anything she or he wants, but anyone can respond in any way. This is not peer review and it is not critique by the guild. It is not even close to it.

I have published scads of articles and books that have gone through peer review, and it is not an equivalent process to blogging and responses from other bloggers. Whether or not you think that the anonymous peer review process is "elitist" or "traditional," it is what makes what we do a profession, controlled by a community of professors who have had years of training and uphold rigorous and necessary standards. Without it, we would become editorialists and teachers, not professors.

What about blogging and service? My experience with the tenure process is that service means service to your university and your department. There are some overtures to public dissemination of the guild's knowledge, but if this appears to be too generous on the part of the person seeking tenure, it can work to her or his disadvantage. The question will come up, why has this person spent so much time outside the guild? How much more could this person have published if only she or he had spent the time doing that instead of public service? So what "service" really means is "committee work" with an occasional public lecture.

I have real doubts about blogging being a good thing for a tenure case. In fact, if it were me, I would tend to downplay it. When my dean found out that I had begun blogging, his reaction was sincere worry. He wanted to know how I would continue with my writing-for-publication agenda if I spent time blogging. And I am a full professor with tenure and a chair!

Even though each university has its tenure quirks, I really put out a caution to those of you who are in your probationary period no matter your university. I don't suggest stopping your blog, but I do suggest that you make sure it does not interfere with writing-for-publication or committee work. Blogging is not the same as publication or service. It will not be considered the same no matter what arguments you try to make in your tenure document. And if you emphasize it too much, it could raise some eyebrows.

Update 4-14-07: some interesting discussion on other people's blogs
Mark Goodacre
Stephen Carlton

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Meditation on the Middle Day

If John's gospel carries the "historical" timeline, today is the day when his followers would have gathered around the Passover table, recalling the story of the Exodus, the blood of the lambs smeared on the lintels and the passing by of the Angel of Death. Yet today is a day that Christians don't remember well. There are no services, there are no stories, there are no rituals. It is the day betwixt and between, the middle day, when Jesus' body lay in a tomb not his own. It is the day that Jesus is dead.

The early Christians, however, all seem to agree on the import of this day, a day that they understood to be the one in which Jesus battled the powers that rule this world. Whether apostolic Christian or Gnostic Christian, today was understood to be the day that Jesus fought with the Devil or the Archons. And tomorrow would happen because he could not be overcome by them.

This belief was founded on a couple of passages from the Pauline corpus, particularly 1 Corinthians 2:6-8
"Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not wisdom of this age or the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God's wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory."
and Colossians 2:14-15
"erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it."
and Ephesians 1:20-23
"God put this Power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all."
When I read these passages anew today, I think of the Nag Hammadi texts, the Concept of Our Great Power, the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, and the Apocalypse of Peter, which talk about various aspects of the story of the Powerful Jesus conquering Death and the rulers of the Abysses, particularly Hades. In one of the variations of the Gnostic story preserved by the writer of the Great Power, Jesus is crucified by the Archons, the powers who rule this world, and his soul is taken to Archon who rules Hades. By doing this, they brought judgment upon themselves, since they tried to detain a spirit that was undetainable. When the Archon Sasabek discovers that "the nature of his flesh could not be seized, he screams out,
"Who is this? What is it? His word has abolished the law of the aeon. He is from the Logos of the Power of Life!"
Jesus' escape from his grasp, is the moment that he conquers Death, and he rises to God, as the text says,
"The archons searched after that which had come to pass. They did not know that this is the sign of their dissolution, and (that) it is the change of the aeon. The sun set during the day; that day became dark. The evil spirits were troubled. And after these things he will appear ascending. And the sign of the aeon that is to come will appear. And the aeons will dissolve. And those who would know these things that were discussed with them, will become blessed. And they will reveal them, and they will become blessed, since they will come to know the truth. For you have found rest in the heavens. Then many will follow him."
So this is the struggle of the middle day, and the hope for tomorrow - that Jesus will be victorious in his battle with the rulers and the laws by which they govern their creation, laws that the rulers broke when they tried to retain a soul that was not lawful for them to seize. It is a day that looks forward to tomorrow.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Meditation on the Cross

It is Good Friday, and I write this as a meditation while we remember in these afternoon hours, Jesus suffering and dying on the cross.

How important was the death of Jesus for the first Christians? Were there Christians around who didn't know about Jesus' death? Where there Christians who did not give it redemptive value?

It has been asserted that the Gospel of Thomas does not know about the death of Jesus by so many scholars so many times in the research literature for so many years that it has been assumed as a fact. And this fact has led these same scholars to argue for Thomas' alternative position on redemption - that it merely requires a cognition of Jesus' words and the truth they provide about spirituality. This view about spirituality developed before the Cross theology came on the scene, and is akin to the message of the wisdom literature in Judaism.

The Gospel of Thomas, however, does know about Jesus' death, which is explicitly referred to in saying 55 - "And whoever does not hate his brothers and sisters and carry his cross as I do will not be worthy of me." This is one of those fine examples of the fragmented nature of communal memory, a nature which assumes that the audience knows a bigger story. The only way that this saying makes any sense is as a reference to Jesus' death by crucifixion. The people who used the Gospel of Thomas knew the story of his death.

But how did they interpret it? This is where we run into trouble if we continue to think in terms of Western Christians - either Roman Catholics or Protestants - who are quite sure that the meaning of his death was a sacrificial atonement. In early Christianity, there were several ways that his death was understood theologically, the sacrificial was only one of them, and it wasn't the one that the Gospel of Thomas preserves.

What is particularly striking about the Thomasine version of this popular saying is that it emphasizes the imitation of Jesus - "as I do." In the literature produced by the eastern Church Fathers, there was an interpretation of Jesus' death that emphasized imitation. His death was understood to represent the moment when Jesus had conquered his body of passions, had crucified his body of desire and temptation, had left behind the world and all of its attractions and connections.

Clement of Alexandria, for instance, thought that the ultimate example of the achievement of the state of passionlessness was Jesus' crucifixion when he completely separated the passions and pleasures from his soul. Clement says that this is "what the cross means." In overcoming his passions, he struggled with the "spiritual powers," the demons who invade the soul, who impress passion upon it (Strom. 2.20). In this way, "our life was hung on the wood of the tree so that we might believe" (Strom. 5.11). The person who sees Jesus' victory over his passions is supposed to emulate him. "Bearing about the cross of the Savior," this person "will follow the Lord's footsteps, as God, having become a holy of holies" (Strom. 2.20). We have to "crucify our own flesh" just as Jesus did his flesh (Frags. 1.4; Strom. 7.3). There is no salvation by nature, only by obedience when the person voluntarily separates his or her passions from the soul, when he or she is victorious, he or she will be sent on to one of the mansions reserved in heaven after death (Strom. 4.3; 6.14; 7.3; 7.12).

There are many reasons to think that this is the interpretation that the Christians responsible for the final version of the Gospel of Thomas held. The Gospel of Thomas speaks over and over again about the need to renounce the world, the body, and its pleasures, even forsaking family and marriage for the life of the single person or celibate.

Saying 1, "Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not die," points toward study and meditation on Jesus' words, but it is not proverbial wisdom the seeker is after. The eastern Fathers are quite clear that imitation of Jesus alone is not enough to be redeemed. There is a life praxis that must be put into place which includes intellectual study that eventually unfolds into a contemplative life that leads to an immediate mystical apprehension of God and one's divine Self. The study part of this life includes meditation and study of scripture, the notes of one's master or teacher, and the acquisition of knowledge "transmitted unwritten" from the teacher to the student. In this way, "the soul studies to be God." This praxis is all over the eastern literature, but since we are talking about Clement as our example, read Strom. 1.1, 1.6, 2.11, 6.1, 6.7, 6.8, 6.14; Exh. 11, for a few sound bites.

So the Gospel of Thomas does not represent an alternative form of Christianity that has no knowledge or no interest in Jesus' death, a Christianity that based redemption on proverbial wisdom. The Gospel of Thomas did in fact know about Jesus' death, and it did in fact have an interpretation of it. But it is not one that Western Christians are familiar with. It is an interpretation that is applied to a praxis of righteous living, daily struggle with the vices that wish to rule us, study of scripture and the teachings of Jesus, and contemplative activities. All of these in combination were meant to overcome the body, to crucify it as Jesus did, so that the soul can be released and journey to a vision of God and his embrace.

It is this mystical understanding of Jesus' death that I hold up this afternoon.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

The Third Tendency of Communal Memory

In this ongoing discussion of communal memory, I would like to now press its third dimension. In addition to the tendency of communal memory to rewrite the past for the present in a fragmented manner, the process of recreating the past is ongoing for the group since it is constantly under pressure to adjust and respond to societal, political, cultural, and religious pressures that the group experiences.

The experiences of the community cause its memories of the past to confront each other, to fuse together, to become mixed, and even to be erased. When this happens, the group can experience a memory crisis, which can even threaten their present and its connection to their past. The tendency of communal memory in these cases will be to transform or shift its traditions to accommodate, alleviate, or explain the present crisis. So the response is what I call "mitigative" because it relieves the pressure of the crisis, while maintaining its connection with the past. This shifting can occur because communal memory operates in the past, present, and future simultaneously. It is dynamic. As internal and external factors change, the communal memory which houses the group's traditions is subjected to renovation in both gradual and sudden ways.

In my studies of the ancient Christian literature, I have found this particularly helpful to explain how and why we see the developments that we do. There appear to me to be a number of "constants" that served to shift the communal memories of Christians across the Mediterranean world.
  • the death of the eyewitnesses
  • the destruction of the Temple
  • the delay of the End of the world
  • the growth of the Gentile mission (and decline of Jewish converts)
  • the development of a distinct hermeneutic - a rereading of Jewish scriptures that was rejected by the majority of Jews
  • sporadic persecution
  • problem of the participation of women
All of these items resulted in communal experiences that threatened their past memories. All of these items resulted in the reformulation of the past in order to alleviate the pressure of the threat. The death of the eyewitnesses called for the actual writing down of the memories themselves. The destruction of the Temple meant the end of the cult center and wrecked havoc on what remained of the Jerusalem Church. Authority for the Christian tradition was loosened and moved north to Antioch, at least for a while. The delay of the Eschaton meant that Jesus' apocalyptic message had to be reinterpreted either in more vibrant terms (as in Matthew) or as a mystical collapse (as in John and Thomas). The growth of the Gentile mission meant accommodations for them in terms of the Torah and its requirements. The rejection of the Christian hermeneutic by the Jews meant a shift in worship location (no more synagogue) and new way of reading the scripture especially in terms of types and allegories. Sporadic persecution led (among other things) to series of ideologies about righteousness, the body, and martyrdom. The early participation of women in the movement was a liability that eventually was shut down.

All of this was done in terms of recasting the past so that it conformed to the present. Women were written out of the narratives and leadership, Jesus became non-kosher, the resurrection from the dead already happened and the Kingdom came as the Church, the prophets spoke about Jesus' advent, Jesus' death was the final Temple sacrifice (or Jesus abolished sacrifices), and so forth.

What is really fascinating to me about communal memory and its reshaping though, is that all of this is done without awareness of those who belong to the group, and it is always done in terms of remodeling what is already in place. I have yet to see an instance in early Christianity (or elsewhere) where a completely unique or new tradition erupts. There may be an eruption of something that looks new or unique, but when you really examine it, you find that it has shifted an old tradition to accommodate the new experience.

I just had a nice conversation with Brian Krumnow, pastor of Shepherd Drive Fellowship here in Houston, that confirmed this again for me. Pastor Krumnow has been working with a professor at the University of Houston, recording the stories of survivors of Katrina. One of the things that he has noticed is the emergence of stories that the government blew up the dams to flood the ninth ward. He has done his own research on this and has found that there is an older story about a government plan to blow up the levies in case of flooding - that the levies to the west would be exploded to divert the flood waters into the swamps and save the city. Now I haven't yet confirmed this, but I find it quite interesting that if such a plan did exist (or even if people thought it did exist) that after the flood we would see such a shift in the communal memory of the victims whose memories reworked the old story to accommodate their horrific experiences in the ninth ward.

Book Note: An Introduction to Jesus and the Gospels (Frederick J. Murphy)

I just received a copy of An Introduction to Jesus and the Gospels by Frederick J. Murphy. I was very excited to get it in the mail because I am in love with his book Early Judaism: The Exile to the Time of Jesus which I have used whenever I have taught my second Temple course, The World of Jesus. Usually I avoid textbooks like the plague, but this one is so well done, I can't run my course without Early Judaism. In fact, a few years back when the book had another title and was not in print while Professor Murphy worked to revise it, I personally contacted him and asked permission to duplicate the book for my course. He kindly gave me permission for that semester, for which I am very grateful. Professor Murphy integrates all the extracanonical Jewish literature right alongside the canonical voices, giving them an equal and full hearing within their historical context, and the result is wonderful chorus about Judaism in the second Temple period. He includes too Jesus and the first Christians within this Jewish symphony, and the result is striking, I think.

So as you can imagine, I really was enthusiastic about getting his Gospels book. But I was disappointed when I received it and discovered that although Professor Murphy does a good job on the canonical materials especially in terms of standard biblical criticism, the extracanonical gospels are not integrated into his discussions or his history of early Christianity. They are all collected like afterthoughts into one chapter (25 pages) at the end of a 394 page book in a chapter called "Other Gospels." He covers them from a narratological perspective, but that is all. The book is fine for a class that only covers the New Testament gospels, but not for mine which tries to integrate them all.

So I think I will stick with the only other textbook I use in teaching, by Jarl Fossum and Phillip Munoa, Jesus and the Gospels, although it too could use a boost in its coverage of the non-canonical gospels. But at least the few that are covered (Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of the Hebrews, Gospel of the Nazarenes, and Gospel of the Ebionites), are dealt with as important early Christian documents with social locations and their own stories to add to the mix.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Recovering the Shards

I have been asked a very good question in the comments about how we might recover the shards I spoke about in my last post. So I thought I would say something in response here, bringing this out from the comment section.

I wish I had a single easy answer about how this can be done. In fact, the methodological approach used will depend on what question you are asking of the texts, and what shards you are interested in. This will vary.

I think there are a few different kinds of shards we are talking about and several of these are bound up in any given text.
1. actual history about Jesus
2. actual history about early Christianity
3. memories about Jesus
4. memories about early Christianity
First I must tell you that I am not at all comfortable with recovering #1. Given the nature of memory (both individual and community) and the oral consciousness that dominated the ancient world and the kergymatic nature of our documents, what we can recover about the historical Jesus is highly problematic. I won't yet say impossible, but I approach that position in my own thinking about these things. I operate on a "probability" scale (no relation to the scientific use of this word) and a very strict method which begins with what I call the criterion of theological reuse. If the Christians are rewriting a tradition in a new theological direction, then I take whatever they are rewriting as earlier and more likely related to the historical Jesus. For instance, the virgin birth stories are rewriting the paternal genealogies and the fact that Jesus has a name that places his birth in Nazareth. So I am fairly certain that Jesus was born in Nazareth to Mary and Joseph his biological parents.

The recovery of the actual history of early Christianity is not as troubling to me, only because we have Paul, who really is our salvation here. We have here one of the only cases of autobiographical material - which still isn't actually what happened, but it is sure closer to it than what Acts reports (or Eusebius). So I think it possible to tease out this history a bit more reliably.

The third and fourth kinds of shards, well that is the really fun stuff in my opinion. This is the material that helps us reconstruct the various types of traditions that were developing and their opinions of themselves.
My own work on the Gospel of Thomas has recovered an early kernel of sayings - a speech gospel from Jerusalem (=shard #2), dating 30-50 CE. I used a variety of methods to get at this, including literary criticism, historical criticism, social memory approaches, orality theories, and a new form of tradition criticism.

My work on the Gospel of Judas has recovered a form of Christian Gnosticism (=shard #2 and #4) in the mid-second century which was at odds with the apostolic churches and which criticized them for what they considered to be inept ritual activities (baptism and eucharist) and disfunctional theology based on infanticide (the killing of God's son) perpetuated by none other than the cursed Judas. It is clear from this study that the apostolic church was not the dominant church yet, that they began developing more sophisticated theology in response to these Gnostic criticisms, and that there was a very vicious struggle between the apostolic Christians and the Sethian Gnostic Christians with very serious and very nasty accusations being hurled by both sides. And the time? Only a couple of decades after the Pastorals are written! The Sethians believed that they were the true Christians and that all the others were ignorant and in their ignorance worshiped the creator of this world rather than the supreme God.

Think about how much more we can learn about early Christianity when we add to the apostolic memories all the memories of the Christianities that did not survive. Their memories give us a foil for the apostolic, so that we can see what perhaps they wished to vanquish or deny and what threatened them so much that they felt the need to adjust their own theology and practices in response.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The Second Tendency of Communal Memory

The second tendency of communal memory follows the first - retrospective reconstructions of the past are largely achieved by adapting old traditions and historical facts to the beliefs and spiritual needs of the contemporary group. These remembrances do not represent the sum total of what actually happened, but are fragments of the past that have been rearranged and reconnected into a new interpretative framework. This results in a new "original" picture that aligns the contemporary community with its past, present, and future.

The process is akin to an artist creating a mosaic from shards of glass that have been broken or retooled or rearranged to fit a new vision. Some of the shards end up in the trash while others are placed side-by-side in such a way to create a new pattern. Unlike the artistic process, the process of maintaining communal memories is largely unconscious.

This means that the early Christian literature not only is a remaking of the past for the present, but it is a fragmentary past that is recreated. To understand the fragments, the reader has to be privy to the bigger picture to which it relates, or the frame that holds it all together. The text will not tell us the whole story, but only bits of the story, and it assumes the rest. Our job is to try to understand the assumptions, the rest of the story that is missing.

This also means that the fragments have been chosen and rearranged, not willy-nilly like someone heaving a basket of shards down a stairway. But the unconscious process is driven by conscious agendas, to understand the past in certain ways that will explain or justify the present. There is a sense of normation going on, bringing the shards into an order to provide the normative picture for the group.

So there will be shards that are forgotten or diminished in importance. Here I think of my work on the Gospel of Judas - how this text provides us with some of the shards that went missing from the apostolic tradition particularly in terms of the normative struggle over the faith tradition, its rituals, and its authority.

The apocryphal literature is SO IMPORTANT for many reasons not the least of which is its preservation of the lost shards. Much of this literature shows us that the story created by the apostolic churches about the faith that was handed down to them from the Twelve (the same everywhere in all the churches across the world), is a story they created as their normative story. The apostolic churches in the second century were not the dominant, although they told the story in such a way that they appeared dominant. And when they became dominant, they burned the literature of those who represented other opinions, so that it came to appear that they were the only Christians who had anything to say.

So again, we return to the theme of this blog. If we want to really understand early Christianity, we can't do it from the canonical literature alone. We have to try to recover the lost shards and the diverse voices of other Christians whose communal memories are different from the apostolic (and our own).

Monday, April 2, 2007

Excerpts of Theodotous

I have been rereading (and rethinking) the Excerpts of Theodotus for the past couple of days. As I work through the material, I am floored with how poorly translated the English version is (Robert P. Casey, Excerpta ex Theodoto of Clement of Alexandria [Studies and Documents 1; London: Christophers, 1934]). The translation is so problematic that I would warn those using it against trusting it. If you are working with this text, do not rely on the English translation. You will need to make your own English edition from the Greek. The best edition to use is François Sagnard, Clément d'Alexandrie: Extraits de Théodote (SC 23; Paris, 1970).

There are many instances of full sentences (even paragraphs) that are problematic as well as single phrases like "superior seed" which really is not "superior" because it is the seed that is less than the "male" or "elect seed." The word is diapherontos which means "different from, at odds with" and "eminent." So "eminent seed" would be a good translation, referring to the lesser female (but still worthy) spiritual seed given to all members of the Christian Church, while the "elect seed" is the more perfect male spiritual seed given to Valentinian Christians.

I think that part of the problem with Casey's English translation, is that the Valentinian tradition was not (and still isn't) understood very well. So it makes the translation process difficult at best.

Book Note: The Treasures of Coptic Art in the Coptic Museum and Churches of Old Cairo (by Gawdat Gabra and Marianne Eaton-Krauss)

Here's the book on Coptic antiquities I've been waiting for! Paired with Mr. Gabra's other book (put together with Capuani, Meinardus, and Rutschowscaya), Christian Egypt: Coptic Art and Monuments Through Two Millennia (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2002), we finally are getting a close-to-thorough collection of Coptic artifacts and sites published. Both books are coffee table size books, but the information and details within reflect much more knowledge than a simple catalogue. Along with long descriptions of individual items, there are extensive narratives of the history of the region and its art.

Chapters in The Treasures of Coptic Art (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2007) include the first ever to be written as far as I know "History of the Coptic Museum" and a fairly intense overview of "The Churches of Old Cairo." Also: "Pagan Art and Coptic Art," "Pharaonic Elements in Coptic Art and Architecture," "Egyptain Monasticism," "Articles of Daily Life," "Burials," and so on.

There is even a brief chapter on the Nag Hammadi Codices with three beautiful leaves photographed, and a new full-color picture of the leather covers.

The photographs throughout the book are exquisite, down to the fibers of the old textiles in the Coptic Museum. The photographs of the art are better than the originals I remember seeing in person on any of my visits to Old Cairo and the Coptic Museum. The artifacts have been cleaned so that the images are clearly visible.

Welcome, Judy Redman

Judy Redman has arrived on the Rice campus, safe and sound after a long and exhausting flight from Syndey, Australia, yesterday. Ms. Redman is a Ph.D. student at the University of New England. She has traveled here to work with me as a visiting student-scholar for five weeks on a portion of the dissertation she is writing (under the mentorship of Professor Majella Franzmann). Ms. Redman is examining the Kingdom parables in the Gospel of Thomas. Once she recovers from the jet lag, we will start working together.

Judy, very glad you are here and looking forward to making progress on your project!

Book Note: Luke the Theologian (François Bovon)

Baylor University Press just published (2006) the second revised edition of Professor Bovon's single volume on the Gospel of Luke - Luke the Theologian. It is a bibliographical essential for our personal libraries, summarizing research on the Gospel of Luke from 1950 to 2005. The first edition covered only 1950-1975. So it contains three new chapters - What about Luke? (1983); Studies in Luke-Acts: Retrospect and Prospect (1992); and Luke the Theologian, from 1980 to 2005. It contains a completely updated bibliography through 2005 and a handy thematic index. It is also a good price - paperback edition for $34.95.