Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Wishing you a Merry Christmas!

A Merry Christmas from me and my family to you and yours!

Photo: Christmas at Mission Espada

Friday, December 18, 2009

A call to dialogue between postmodernists and historical critics

I am so glad that John van Seters published his response (Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 9.26 [2009]) to Aichelle, Miscall, and Walsh's call for dialogue between historical critics and postmodernists (JBL 128.2 [2009] 383-404). I came across Seters article via the Dunedin School blog.

It will be no surprise that I hold very similar criticisms to Aichelle, Miscall, and Walsh's position. I have been wanting to take a moment to respond on my blog to this 'call' for dialogue since I read it last summer. So now appears to be a great opportunity to do so.

1. It has become evident to me especially in the last year that postmodernism is not a method, and should not be confused with a method, and is not a substitute for empirical research. It does not move us "beyond" the rigors of historical criticism. Rather Postmodernism is a set of critiques and attitudes toward texts and their interpretation that are largely dependent on modernism and historical criticism's own hermeneutic of suspicion.

2. The historian relies on empirical data gathered by using a critical, rational, contextual approach to the materials being studied. In Europe this is called "the scientific" approach to the study of religion rather than the "theological approach".

3. The postmodern approach, which divorces literature from historical context and questing for 'authorial' intent, is more amenable to churched traditions and theological readings which have been at odds with historical methods for 200 years. It claims that texts have a diversity of meanings that are located in the point of view of those reading it and the intertextual associations that those readers make. Thus many postmodernists want to conclude from this that historical interpretation is no more meaningful or valuable than any other. It is as 'ideological' and 'mythic' as the next. This conclusion is very dangerous and very inaccurate for some of the reasons that I outline in #4.

4. The historian is no idiot. Every generation of historians has critiqued its outcomes, well aware that personal biases affect the interpretation or assemblage of the data. In fact, this is a point that I first learned when I was an undergraduate in college in a history class. My professor called it "our colored glasses", and how it was necessary for us to be aware of them because they would affect our interpretation of the data. The fact that we all have biases that affect the interpretative process does not suggest that the historical critical method does not work or that it is 'mythic' or equivalent in validity with any other interpretation. On the contrary! The historian's own hermeneutic of suspicion and agreement to employ a critical or scientific approach to understanding our past demonstrates that the historical method works and that over time, as more and more historical interpretations and critiques of these interpretations are generated, we get a better and better grasp of our past and what was going on.

That's all I have time for today. I need to get back to cleaning and organizing my office, but at least it is a start to the 'dialogue' called for by Aichelle, Miscall and Walsh.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

My Debut in BAR

This summer, I was asked to write a column for Biblical Archaeology Review that reflected my research on the Gospel of Thomas. It was just published in the January/February 2010 issue.

What's Up with the Gospel of Thomas?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

What's on your desk?

I've been office cleaning this week and still in the process. Thought it would be fun to share five things that I found on my desk that I either forgot about or have been looking for but couldn't find previously beneath the massive paper mounds.
William Hartner, "The Pseudoplanetary Nodes of the Moon's Orbit in Hindu and Islamic Icongraphies," Ars Islamica 5 (1038) 112-154.

Howard M. Jackson, "The Meaning and Function of the Leontocephaline in Roman Mithraism," Numen 32 (1985) 17-45.

Bryan Wilson, Religion in Sociological Perspective (Oxford: Oxford University 1982).

Michael Frede, "Numenius," ANRW 36.2: 1034-1075.

Elliot Wolfson, "Seven Mysteries of Knowledge: Qumran E/sotericism Recovered," The Idea of Biblical Interpretation (2003) 177-215.
What is buried on your desk?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Why do Americans believe so many different things?

The Pew Forum has put out an absolutely fascinating report about a survey they recently conducted in which they wanted to analyze how much and in what ways Americans "mix" aspects of different religions. This report has me captivated since I feel like I am reading a report about religious belief of Christians in the second century.

The argument I have been developing about second century Christians is that they were eclectic, and that gnosticism was an amalgamation of Egyptian astrology and religion, Greek mysteries and Hermetism, middle Platonic philosophy, Judaism and Christianity, with its constituents comfortable attending more than one religious house or being part of a multiple of religious bodies. It is exactly the kind of 'hybrid' that we are seeing today, and may have been seeing since the 1800s. I think it has something to do with 'internationalization', when a variety of religious traditions become available for consumption within a given culture at a given point in history.

I will be returning to this report and analyzing it carefully, and expect to post more thoughts on it. For now I just want to bring it to your attention because it is so fascinating and representative of the religion of no religion that is sweeping America.

Empirical research

This month I have been thinking about our graduate program at Rice, and the biblical field and its direction of research. I have written many posts on my concern that the field's infatuation with theory is causing many universities to produce a generation of new scholars who have become more and more detached from the texts and history and the hard work of empirical research.

When I attended a humanities fellows luncheon at Rice a few weeks ago, a historian of French literature spoke directly to the point in her field. When we do not do the empirical research, but privilege theory and method, we are at a disadvantage, because theory and method are trends that shift and change and go away. But the empirical data does not, and so we need to be the best linguists, the best philologists, the best textual scholars we can be.

Although it is to our advantage to employ a variety of approaches and nuance our approach to history, there is no substitute for the hard work of facing the text at the manuscript level, checking decisions made by editors of critical editions we rely on, being immersed in the literature and culture of the era we are studying, and being attuned to the metaphysical and practical landscape of the text under analysis. None of this is "sexy" or "innovative," and it is not quick in terms of ease of publication. But without it, we are left with theory which is here today and gone tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Mandaeans in Massachusetts

Associated Press just published an important article about the Mandaean diaspora community in Massachusetts. There is real concern that the diaspora will be swallowed into the wider community. So to help preserve their ancient religion, they are trying to fund the building of a community center. Read more HERE.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Question about future of SBL

I am sorry to post again on SBL, but perhaps my frequency since the meeting reflects the intensity of my concern. I am a practical person and it seems to me that there has to be resolutions to some of the problems facing our society, especially as long as we remain divorced from AAR. I'm trying to brainstorm some possibilities for solutions.

So I am curious, especially to hear from fellow members: would consolidation of some of the units be part of the solution? What are the pros and cons? Are there ways to re-envision the formation and structure of units to allow for more interchange among members in our society? Is it possible for units to consolidate while still maintaining individual agendas?

Those of you who are in other organizations that operate with discipline units, how do you organize?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Open Letter about SBL

I have concerns about the Society of Biblical Literature. I have been on steering committees and functioning as a chair for different groups on and off for the last fifteen years. Since the AAR-SBL split, I am concerned about the 'health' of our Society.

1. We were told at the Chairs' meeting about the gigantic increase in numbers of groups and therefore number of people participating by delivering papers and presiding. This was represented to us as a great sign of our vitality and growth.

But I don't think so. In fact it is the opposite. The drastic increase in the number of groups is alarming. We should not kid ourselves that this proliferation means growth and strength. Our groups have proliferated to the point that there is so much competition for audiences that entire sessions are beginning to have only a handful in attendance. Papers that may have taken a year to prepare may have an audience of five. This means that there is little discussion and little in terms of dissemination of research to the broader community. As more and more specialized groups form, they are breaking down the membership of the traditional larger groups, causing members to have to choose between the new specialized group (which will eventually run out of steam) and the traditional larger group it is co-opting. This means that the memberships of the groups are getting carved into smaller and smaller pieces, and instead of spreading our knowledge we are ending up talking only to ourselves.

We need to put the brakes on the formation of new groups, and find ways to connect together the ones that we have in place. Whenever possible, steering committees should be finding ways of absorbing groups into each other while maintaining their agendas. I'm not just talking about joint sessions. I am talking about a main group that might have subgroups or panels working on specific projects and these subgroups or panels might rotate sessions or years. What I'm saying is that we need a new model for group formation and maintenance. Limiting the number of sessions per group might help, but it isn't going to be the answer because there are just too many groups now.

2. We have to fix the problem of overlapping in the program similar groups or groups with similar interests. This is not just a complaint. This is a MAJOR problem that is forcing members of different groups to choose between groups that they should not have to, and we shouldn't want them to. Their membership in different groups and participation in those groups is vital to the 'health' of the Society. I think that SBL should consider hiring external consultants to resolve this scheduling problem for us. It is a persistent problem that has become much worse now that AAR is not meeting with us. It is not impossible to fix.

3. The problem comes down to this: AAR sessions are not overlapping with SBL sessions anymore. It was enough of a struggle for us when we competed with other AAR sessions. But now we have significant increase in the SBL sessions (but not an equally significant increase in the SBL membership) and these sessions are overlapping with each other in such extreme ways that the groups are not going to be able to sustain themselves, unless they have a membership that has no other interests or no other competing groups.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The busiest SBL ever!

I don't know about the rest of you but this was by far the busiest SBL meeting I have ever attended. I had so many meetings with various committees and projects, not to mention two presentations, that I found myself running from this thing to that and always being late for everything. I was on the go from 7 am to 10 pm every day. I apologize for missing some really key meetings and sessions, including presentations by my colleagues in the Nag Hammadi and Gnosticism Section, which were booked opposite my own presentation and other meetings I had.

What do I think about this year's meeting?

1. The SBL staff in Atlanta have to figure out how to stop overlapping similar sections. This has been a problem since I started chairing a group fifteen years ago (which I no longer chair). It never gets better and it has never been solved. It was bad when groups were only allowed two sessions each, and it is worse now that the groups have proliferated. Our mysticism sessions were held at the same time slots as the Nag Hammadi and Gnosticism group, the Religious Experience group, the Pseudepigrapha, and a number of others. The problem is that many of us are members of several of these groups, and the overlap means that we have to choose between groups instead of supporting all of them.

2. More is not better. We have too many groups now that the Society has allowed them to proliferate after the split with AAR . The sudden drastic increase in groups means that there is more competition for audiences. I cannot tell you how many rooms I saw as I ran from one thing to the next that had five or less people in their audiences. This is embarrassing all around - for the presenters who prepared papers, for the groups who sponsored them, and for SBL.

3. We were told at the Chairs' Breakfast that 4,400 attended this year (compared to 5,000 last year). We were told that this is because the meeting was not in the northeast where there is more attendance, but this is not the reason I was hearing from colleagues who didn't come. I think this number is inflated since this must be the registered people, not the attendees. Many people who had preregistered canceled at the last minute and did not come as they had planned.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Report from New Orleans

Phew...I couldn't figure out how to use my Blackberry to post, but I did figure out how to use the wireless on my lap top, and from my hotel room nonetheless. I know you have to be laughing, but this wireless computing is all new to me and a little intimidating because I don't know the ropes. But once I figured out that my hotel had a wireless connection and how to hook up to it, well here I am.

This is the first SBL conference in a long time that doesn't feel 'magisterial'. It feels small(er), like the conferences I used to go to twenty years ago. The book exhibit is disappointing. It is packed into two rooms - small exhibit halls, and it looks to me like there are less booths and less books in those booths. In one way it was nice not running around a big convention center since the conference is based in two hotels across the street from each other. But the flip side is that things are cramped. And I really miss my AAR friends who I haven't seen now for two years.

The sessions have been going well, although many presenters decided not to come, leaving paper spots and panels vacated. Our working group on Friday lost its afternoon session because of cancellations. The EJCM book review session on Saturday was missing a reviewer, although his paper was read, and one of the coauthors, although his response was read. The James and Q session was missing half its panel, although I heard it was awesome (sorry I missed it). The Moshe Idel session suffered because Idel didn't turn up and one of the reviewers on the panel, so I feel bad for Francis' group on Religious Experience which had put that together. One of the panelists for Elaine Pagel's celebration of the Gnostic Gospels session that I was on couldn't come at the last minute. And these are just the groups I attended or heard about. It is the oddest year in terms of attendance that I have ever witnessed. Let's put it this way. I have been attending SBL for about twenty years now, and I can count on one hand the number of cancellations of papers I can recall. Until this year!

So I don't know what is happening, but I sure hope it is not a trend. And the sooner that we can join back up with AAR the better. And when I say this, I mean REALLY join back up with them.

And a note about food. I am sick of the same menu which includes shrimp, crawfish, catfish, oysters, in all versions and renditions everywhere. And since I am allergic to all these, my one and only menu choice has been steak. It was nice at lunch today to get the breakfast buffet where at least I could get an egg and some fruit.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

I'll be out of touch for a few days

I fly out to New Orleans tomorrow and I will be out of touch with my blog until I get back. I haven't yet mastered posting from my blackberry. I will post about the conference when I get back and settled at home.

Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism Sessions at SBL 2009

Please try to make these sessions. All of them should be terrific. Our sessions are usually very productive and informative. I am posting here the information from the program book which includes the room numbers.

The first session includes a book review of Christopher Rowland's and Christopher Murray-Jones' long-awaited book on New Testament Mysticism.
Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism
1:00 PM to 3:30 PM
Room: Napoleon D3 - SH
Reviews of Christopher Rowland and Christopher Morray-Jones’ book, The Mystery of God: Jewish Mysticism and the New Testament (Brill, 2009), and responses by the authors.Silviu Bunta, University of Dayton, Presiding
Alan Segal, Columbia University, Panelist (10 min)
Kevin Sullivan, Illinois Wesleyan University, Panelist (10 min)
Charles A. Gieschen, Concordia Theological Seminary - Fort Wayne, Panelist (10 min)
James R. Davila, University of St. Andrews, Panelist (10 min)
Christopher Morray-Jones, California, Respondent (15 min)
Discussion (20 min)
Break (15 min)
Elizabeth Morton, McGill University
The Role of Ecstasy in the Formation of Abraham, the Sage (25 min)
Dragos-Andrei Giulea, Marquette University
The Noetic Turn in Jewish-Christian Mysticism: Revisiting Esoterism, Mysticism, and Internalization with Philo, Clement, and Origen (25 min)
Discussion (10 min)
The second is on second-century mysticism in Christian sources. I'm going to be talking about my next project which is mapping the initiatory rites of the Gnostics (lots of astrology here). Grant Adamson and Franklin Trammell are my graduate students. Adamson will be presenting an important paper on the Gospel of Judas and horoscopes. Trammell will be talking about Hermas' view of the church as the androgynous body of God. Jonathan Draper will be discussing the Ascension of Isaiah.
Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism
4:00 PM to 6:30 PM
Room: Balcony J - MR

Theme: Second-Century Christian Mysticism and Gnosticism

Kevin Sullivan, Illinois Wesleyan University, Presiding
April D. Deconick, Rice University
Star Gates and Heavenly Places: What Were the Gnostics Doing? (25 min)
Grant Adamson, Rice University
Fate Indelible: The Gospel of Judas as Horoscope (25 min)
Discussion (15 min)
Break (15 min)
Franklin Trammell, Rice University
The Tower as Divine Body: Visions and Theurgy in the Shepherd of Hermas (25 min)
Jonathan Knight, Katie Wheeler Research Trust/York St John University, UK
The use of Jewish and other Mystical Traditions in the Ascension of Isaiah (25 min)
Discussion (20 min)
The third session is on mysticism in early Judaism. I am not as familiar with the presenters and papers, except my colleague and friend Rebecca Lesses, and anything she is discussing is well worth hearing!
Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism
4:00 PM to 6:30 PM
Room: Southdown Room - SH

Theme: Mysticism in Early Judaism

Silviu N. Bunta, University of Dayton, Presiding
Matthew J. Grey, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Joseph and Aseneth, Hekhalot Mysticism, and the “Parting of the Ways” between Christianity and Judaism in Late Antiquity (25 min)
Rebecca Lesses, Ithaca College
Female Jewish mystics in late antiquity: real women or literary construction? (25 min)
Discussion (15 min)
Break (15 min)
R. Jackson Painter, Simpson University
Mystical Identification with Christ in the Odes of Solomon (25 min)
David Larsen, Marquette University
And He Departed from the Throne: The Enthronement of Moses in Place of the Noble Man in Exagoge of Ezekiel the Tragedian (25 min)
Discussion (20 min)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Codex Judas Papers to be released

Excitement everywhere. The Codex Judas Papers are going to be published in a couple of weeks. The Codex Judas Papers is the collection of papers written by scholars who attended the Codex Judas Congress last year on the Rice campus. I am the main editor, and these papers are top notch. Many people have asked me for purchasing information once the book was released. So here it is.

The people at Brill have kindly offered a 25% discount for the book to my blog readers. It is an expensive book ($256) - nearly 700 pages - so this will be a substantial discount ($64) which reduces the price to $192.

People always ask me why these books are so expensive. I am not in the publishing business, but what I am told is that the reason that these kinds of academic books are so expensive has to do with the print run. They have very small print runs - just enough to sell to the world's libraries.

When you place your order with Brill, use the discount code 47900, and you will receive 25% discount. ISBN: 978-90-04-18141-0. The toll-free number for ordering in the States is 800-337-9255. The discount is valid until December 31.

New Testament Mysticism Project

Please note: the New Testament Mysticism Project will only be holding its morning session on Friday (9am-12). The afternoon session has had to be canceled due to several presenters canceling their trips to New Orleans. I don't know our room number yet.

UPDATE: meets in Edgewood AB - SH

Monday, November 16, 2009

Will I see you in New Orleans?

I have heard from many of my friends and colleagues that this year they are not going to attend SBL - always a last minute decision. Why are so many people not going this year?

I am just finishing my presentations - thankfully! - but have come down with a bad sinus infection. My doctor raised her eyebrows when I said I had to get on a plane Thursday. I hope I feel better then than I do today!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Letter from Israel Knohl

I received this letter from Professor Knohl this morning. He asked that I post it on my blog which I do below. Just to be clear, the line Professor Knohl is referring to is this one: "When I watched one of their previews, I could not believe the nonsense that the (NGS) narrator was stating. The narration suggests (dubbed on top of some Israeli folk music) that Professor Knohl's reading and interpretation is going to revolutionize and destroy the heart of Christian belief."

It is not my interpretation that Knohl's reading will threaten Christian belief, rather it is the spin that National Geographic has put on it. One of the things I have been trying to communicate on this blog is that the media spins us and we need to be concerned about it. The media is taking our work and spinning it to whatever sensation the media thinks will sell. When scholars like me or Knohl are filmed, they are required to sign an agreement that whatever is filmed can be edited and used in whatever manner the company wants to. This is how the media gets away with spinning our work and words in whatever direction is desired, without any care whether or not we think our work or words support the media's sensationalism and interpretation.

My real concern is that all these "new" finds and the scholars working on them are going to appear sillier and sillier, and what could be very significant to our understanding of the history and formation of Judaism and Christianity will be further marginalized and neglected by other scholars and the broader public who have become confused and numbed.

I want to get the message out there that serious work is being done on these "new" finds, but it takes time and patience to sort out what is going on. The process requires years of scholars examining the new evidence and offering opinions, until some sort of consensus forms, or two dueling positions arise.

If you see a "documentary" that claims things like "it will revolutionize Christianity", etc., beware. New finds usually don't overturn established religions, which have weathered the Copernican Revolution, the Enlightenment and Darwin, adjusting their teachings (or not) to survive. Most often new finds supplement our previous knowledge, and sometimes they will provide us with information that will require us to adjust older paradigms or shift them. But rarely do they require us to throw out the baby with the bath water.
Dear April,

I was very sorry to read the following line in your blog : "Professor Knohl's reading and interpretation is going to revolutionize and destroy the heart of Christian belief". I have not seen yet the NG film, but if this is indeed what they say, it is ridiculous. In my view, my reading and interpretation of the inscription supports the historicity of the Gospels story about Jesus predictions of his death and resurrection rather than "destroy the heart of Christianity".

With regard to your suggestion to explain the word "HAYE" in line 80 as "revive" I must say that in terms of the Hebrew syntax I find this interpretation very problematic. If this was really the meaning of this word, we should expect to find the object of the reviving act immediately after that. Like we find it in Hosea 6 "He will revive us". However, the words which appear after the word HAYE are "I Gabriel" and they can not be the abject of the revival act. In my view, this proves that we should understand the word HAYE here as a commandment: "resurrect, come back to life".

I would be happy if you could post my response at your blog.

Best wishes,

Israel Knohl
Israel Knohl
Yehezkel Kaufmann Professor of Bible
The Hebrew University

The Swell Season

Last night Wade and I went to the Warehouse here in Houston to see The Swell Season perform. The Swell Season formed following the critically-acclaimed movie Once a few years ago. Normally I don't write about entertainment items on my blog, but this group and performance was SO amazing, I just have to pass it on. The entire band (The Frames) was there too. It was the best concert I have ever attended of any venue or type. Glen Hansard (the lead guitarist and vocalist) was the most incredible musician - he has an energy and a passion for his songs that is stunning. I really was impressed with the seamless mix of traditional instruments (including piano and violin) with rock band instruments. Check your local listings and if they are coming to your area, I highly recommend going. You will not be disappointed.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

National Geographic and the Apocalypse of Gabriel

Is National Geographic at it again? This time with the Gabriel Stone instead of the Gospel of Judas? It appears that they are going to be airing next week another sensationalistic "documentary" about how the Gabriel Stone may destroy Christianity's "unique" claim for a resurrected Messiah. When I watched one of their previews, I could not believe the nonsense that the narrator was stating. The narration suggests (dubbed on top of some Israeli folk music) that Professor Knohl's reading and interpretation is going to revolutionize and destroy the heart of Christian belief.

Professor Knohl's reading of the stone is severely challenged (in fact there is a brief article in the recent Cathedra, pp. 133-144 [in modern Hebrew] where Elisha Qimron and Alexey Yuditsky challenge some of the previous readings). The area of the tablet where Knohl reads "In three days live" is eroded. I have seen this line because the stone was here in Houston and we held a conference on it last semester. The tablet does not say, "In three days live." The tablet probably says, "In three days raise us up" and the reference is biblical to Hosea 6:1-3, which I have commented on in previous posts about this stone.

Come, let us return to Yahweh,
for he has torn, and he will heal us;
he has stricken, and he will bind us up,
will preserve our life.
After two days, on the third day
he will raise us up, that we may
live in his presence.
Let us know, yes, let us strive,
to know Yahweh.
As the dawn (breaks, so) certain is
his going forth.
He comes to us as surely as the rain,
as the spring rain that waters the land.

Almost every line of the stone is an allusion to other scriptures. The author is compiling and rereading them in such a way that they map out anew what will happen in the last days. This Hosea passage was being interpreted by the author of this apocalypse to refer to the liberation of the remnant of Israel that had been in exile and was now camping around Jerusalem and engaged in the last battle. God would raise up the exiled remnant and give them victory within three days was the promise being made.

I continue to be concerned with how the media is using academic discussions, especially over newly found objects that have yet not been vetted by the academic community, to threaten Christianity. The media will cry "wolf" enough times that pretty soon Christians won't listen to any academic argument, because they will not be able to distinguish the exploited and sensationalized from the rest.

So be careful consumers. Know that the goal of these so-called "documentaries" is entertainment. They pretend to be "balanced" but they are not. They take minority positions, and positions that cannot be maintained in light of the evidence or have not been vetted by the academic community at large, and make them sound reasonable and authoritative. It is all smoke and mirrors. So beware.

ADDENDUM: Michael in the comments mentions that this type of post will be used to characterize me as a "conservative scholar" who is trying to conserve the faith. Let it be known that this is not the case. Whether Christianity survives or not is not my concern. But good rigorous scholarship is. The Gabriel Stone is not going to make any difference to Christianity or its central tenet the resurrection because the Gabriel Stone does not even refer to the resurrection of a messiah, suffering or otherwise. What I worry about is the media's continual cry about how this new discovery or that new discovery is going to change Christianity and it is going to destroy the faith. This sort of media sensation does nothing more than dull the ears, so when we as academics have something that is actually important to say that may indeed impact Christianity, no one is going to listen.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

What are the different Gnostic types?

I have been working on understanding the larger parameters of ancient gnosticism. In that process I have developed some language to talk about the different kinds of Gnostics we find in the ancient (and likely modern) world.

This material is being published in my paper for the Codex Judas Congress. I will probably be talking about this at SBL during the session honoring the work of Elaine Pagels. What you are reading here is my own analysis and language that has come out of years of research into the ancient Gnostics. You won't find this in any book on Gnosticism (yet! - it will be the framework for my next book The Gnostics and Their Gospels). So if you find this useful and start to use this language in your teaching or research, I would appreciate it if you would reference me - either this blog, or better, my published article: April D. DeConick, "Apostles as Archons: The Fight for Authority and the Emergence of Gnosticism in the Tchacos Codex and Other Early Christian Literature," in the Codex Judas Papers: Proceedings of the International Congress on the Tchacos Codex held at Rice University, Houston, Texas, March 13-16, 2008 (April D. DeConick, ed.; NHMS 71; Brill: Leiden, 2009) 243-288.

Lodge Gnostics: these kinds of Gnostics would define themselves as Jewish or Christian. They attend regular synagogue and/or church, but they also attend additional "lodge" meetings where they learn more esoteric teachings and likely participate in special rituals that the lodge has developed. They are beginning to interpret their scriptures differently from the way the rabbis and priests are doing from the pulpit. They are discussing this at their lodge meetings. Some of the leaders of the lodge may be writing new theological material and this is being distributed and read among the members of the lodge. The rabbis and priests still see these people as part of their flock and are willing to engage them in conversation and theological discussions.

Reform Gnostics: these kinds of Gnostics would define themselves as Gnostic Jews or Gnostic Christians. Gnostic would be an adjective for them. They associate with the synagogue and/or church, but their lodge meetings are more central to their religious life. They would like to see their synagogue or church reform to reflect the esoteric teachings and practices they are partaking of in the lodge meetings. Some of these Gnostics may even be opening their own synagogues and churches and running them themselves as Jewish and Christian alternatives to the traditional places of worship. They have developed a subversive interpretation of scripture that is not being well-received by the traditional rabbis and priests. They may be writing additional scriptures, but understand them to be a supplement to the traditional ones. There is tension developing between the leaders of the reformers and the leaders of the traditionalists who are rejecting the reformers' interpretation of scripture and ritual activity. The word "heretic" starts to be trotted out.

Separatist Gnostics: these kinds of Gnostics would define themselves as Jewish Gnostics or Christian Gnostics. Gnostic would be a noun for them. They think that the traditional synagogue and church is so corrupt that it is beyond redemption. So they belong to synagogues and churches that they themselves have opened and operated. They are not interested in reforming the traditional synagogue or church. They see themselves as starting over and starting right. They are the "authentic" Jews and Christians. They have their own interpretation of scripture that is subversive. They have their own rituals that may or may not be a reflection of the traditional ones. They likely have begun to add new scriptures to their canon, and may be rewriting the old to reflect their beliefs better. They try to convince traditionalists to leave the synagogue and church and join them because they perceive the traditional faiths as corrupt beyond repair. The word "heretic" is normally being used. The tension is so high that persecution from the dominant religion often occurs.

New Religion Gnostics: these kinds of Gnostics would understand themselves as Gnostics, as members of a separate religion. Many have left behind former religious associations. They no longer perceive themselves as Jews or Christians although their brand of Gnosticism likely contains elements from those religions. The place of worship is entirely their own. Their theology tends to be eclectic, drawing on a number of religious traditions. They usually have their own set of scriptures that is different from the traditional religions. They have their own rituals. Over time this new religion is either persecuted by the traditional faiths (in cases of totalitarian state-sponsored religion, when Gnosticism isn't the state-sponsored religion), or the tension between the Gnostics and the traditional people of faith weakens because the traditional faiths are no longer being threatened (in cases where religious freedom is permitted or at least tolerated). In this latter case, the Gnostic religion can survive.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Are Gnostics heretics?

I have really enjoyed reading the comments you left in my post about the Gnostic quiz. Something that occurred to me again and again as I read what you had to say is how much this term exists in tension with traditional religions.

The traditional religions define themselves as "not Gnostic" because the term is perceived as a marker for "heretic." So Mormonism, for one example, will self-define as "not Gnostic" (as we saw in some of your comments) while an outsider studying Mormonism and its formation may see the major signifiers of a modern Gnostic movement (as we also saw in some of your comments). Why? Because Mormonism has the esoteric teachings and practices surrounding the Temple in which the insider's knowledge is transmitted to the initiate, a transtheistic god viewed in ways very different from traditional Christianity, new revealed scriptures that reinterpret and critique traditional interpretation, and a critical subversive stance regarding traditional Christianity. And it became a separatist Christian tradition, if not a new religious movement (again, this is likely a matter of perspective).

Keep in mind that "gnosis" is not a particular set of beliefs so much as it is knowledge that is esoteric (hidden and revealed to a few), mystical (direct immediate experience of God), and subversive (critiques traditional religion).

It is this last segment of the definition that makes "Gnosis" different from other forms of knowledge and other religiosities. The Gnostics believe(d) that the traditional religion does not understand even its own scripture, and that they alone knew/know the true God who exists beyond the god(s) of traditional religion. So my question today is this. Are Gnostics "heretics" by self-definition? In other words, is this only a polemical perspective of the non-Gnostic defining the Gnostic as a heretic? Of is there something intrinsic about Gnosis that makes it heretical?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Secret Mark taken up in BAR

The November/December 2009 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review contains several articles discussing the Secret Gospel of Mark. Helmut Koester weighs in on its authenticity, writing a full length article about why. Charlie Hedrick gives an overview of the discovery. Hershel Shanks writes a piece in which he summarizes the position of a number of scholars who present the case as a forgery. It's a quick overview of where things stand about the question of the authenticity of the Secret Gospel of Mark. Read the articles first, and then weigh in yourself here in the comments. I'd like to see what arguments you think are most convincing, or not.

Are you a gnostic?

On Saturday, the Foundation for Contemporary Theology in Houston asked me to relate what I know about ancient gnosticism to the scene of spirituality today. Yikes! This is a hermeneutical task I usually avoid. But this was a great group of people and so we talked about ancient gnosticism and then we tried to understand what it might be like as a system not dependent on ancient cosmology - or at least as a system that, like Judaism or Christianity, had remained a religious system even when its cosmology had shifted and changed over the centuries or had been absorbed into new cultures. We discussed the nature of gnosis - that it is mystical, subversive, esoteric, and constructed knowledge that involved catechism and initiation ceremonies. Gnostic traditions began in relation to other religious traditions, and that the move toward defining themselves as a new religious movement separate from Judaism and Christianity was gradual and filled with tension.

After this discussion, I gave a quiz that I thought would be fun to share with you.



what is your theology? (choose all that apply to you and add up the points)

1=I view ‘God’ in transtheistic terms, as something ‘beyond’ or ‘other than’ the traditional God or gods

1=I view ‘God’ as neither OR both male and female

1=I think the divine is within me and/or it is my true/real/authentic self

1=I think ‘God’ is something to be experienced directly and immediately

1=I think that I am (partially) responsible for my redemption/enlightenment via my engagement in religious teachings and practices

0=traditional theology is fine for me OR none of these represents my theology

what is your self-identity? (chose one and add the points to your subtotal)

1=I am a gnostic Jew/gnostic Christian/gnostic Muslim/etc.

2=I am a Jewish Gnostic/Christian Gnostic/Muslim Gnostic/etc.

3=I am a Gnostic

0=I am a Jew/Christian/Muslim/etc. OR none of these apply to me

Consider your relationship to the traditional religions (chose one and add the points to your subtotal)

1=my traditional religion needs additional ‘spiritual’ OR esoteric teachings and practices

2=my traditional religion needs to be protested/reformed into a community that is more ‘spiritual’/esoteric

3=my traditional religion is beyond repair; we need to start over and form a more ‘spiritual’/esoteric community as the authentic expression of my traditional religion

4=I (want to) attend a Gnostic community that understands itself to be distinct from the traditional religions

0=my traditional religion is fine for me OR none of these describe my relationship to traditional religions

what do you think about traditional scriptures? (chose one and add the points to your subtotal)

1=scriptures need reinterpretation that involves (some) transgressive/subversive rereading

2=in addition to transgressive rereading, old scriptures need to be supplemented with new scriptures

3=we need to discard the old scriptures and replace them with new scriptures

0=traditional scriptures and traditional interpretation are fine for me OR none of these

Check out the comments for the answer key!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Lectures for BAR Fest in New Orleans

I was just sent a link to the line up for the BAR festival in New Orleans. It looks like a great three days! BAR has created individual webpages for each speaker (here is the LINK to the webpage they created for me - I'm going to present my understanding of the Gospel of Judas and an antique magical gem housed in Paris), so you can find out more information about each lecturer as well as the lecture itself. Hope to see some of you there!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Upcoming lecture on GEM: Gnosticism, Esotericism and Mysticism

Four of us at from Rice Religious Studies department (me [ancient gnosticism]; Claire Fanger [medieval esotericism and magic]; Bill Parsons [psychology and mysticism]; Jeff Kripal [modern mysticism] are going to be holding a forum lecture-discussion for the Foundation for Contemporary Theology on Friday evening and Saturday October 23 and 24.

Location: St. Paul's United Methodist Church, Fondren Hall

5501 Main St., Houston, TX 77004

Times: Friday 7:30-9 pm, Saturday 9 am-2:30 pm

For registration or more information contact: The Foundation for Contemporary Theology 713-668-2345

For this weekend event, we will present synopses of our work and then engage one another and the audience on topics ranging from the historical origins of those traditions to their continued attractions, transformations and enthusiasms today. If you are in the area, I hope you will consider joining us for one or both of these days. It isn't often that you get four scholars to sit together for this many hours and talk to each other and an audience about their work and these topics! In fact, I have never heard of it done before. So this might be a first (and a last?!).

Friday, October 9, 2009

How I feel today and probably for the next few weeks

My friend just forwarded this comic to me via email. I have no idea where it is from, but it hit my target so well I had to post it. I remain buried in proofs, preparations for several talks this month, preparations for papers for SBL next month, and chapter five of Sex and the Serpent. It will be a miracle if I make the boat...

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Nag Hammadi "THE GNOSTICS" film clip

Mark Goodacre put up an old TV clip about the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Codices. It is a documentary called "The Gnostics" (GB Border TV for Channel 4, tx 7/11/1987 - 5/12/1987) according to the link that Mark provided to the BFI. It appears to be associated with the book published in 1987 by the British filmaker Tobias Churton also called The Gnostics. Here is an online interview with Churton about his interest in the ancient (and modern) Gnostics.

It was so wonderful to view this and see and hear again my mentor, Gilles Quispel. I would have just been starting my MA when this was filmed. It was also special to get a glimpse of Muhammad ali al Samman, the man who found the codices. Thank you Mark for sharing this clip.

I am uploading the YouTube video here for posterity's sake as I am sure that you all have had a chance to view it via Mark's blog already. I am sure that I will return to it time and again. I will also try to seek out the full video, perhaps without the Dutch subtitles. I am sure it must be available somewhere.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

I haven't forgotten my blog

Really! The Codex Judas Papers has just arrived, and so I am buried in proofs and indexing...but the book (over 600 pages) will be out by year's end in Brill's Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies series.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Apocryphote of the Day: 10-2-09

"Labor while you are in this world so that you may live forever."

Liber Graduum 853.14

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Digitization of the Goussen Library Collection

Michael Herkenhoff of the Goussen Library collection just sent me this link to 850 prints of their collection which they just finished digitizing and uploading to the net. Some of the prints are in Syrian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Arabic, Armenian, and Georgian languages. They date from the 16th to the 20th century. For copyright reasons, all prints digitized predate 1901.

I briefly checked out the Coptic version of Revelation. The copy dates from 1885. The pdf file of the scanned manuscript shows the Coptic written out by hand with annotations occasionally at the bottom of the pages. Wish I had more time to study this.

I also noticed a Syriac edition of the Didascalia Apostolorum edited by P.A. de Lagarde is in the collection along with a large number of other Syriac texts.

It was VERY neat to click a button and have the printed manuscript in front of me! What will all this digitizing mean for the future of scholarship. One day soon, we will be able to double check the manuscripts themselves for readings by surfing the internet!!

Check out the entire collection HERE.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Exposing the inaccuries of English translations of the bible

Bible translation has been a concern of mine, as has recovering women's history. Elizabeth McCabe has a good article on the subject of Phoebe as a deacon and a church leader on the SBL Forum and how her titles have been inaccurately translated as early as Jerome and his Vulgate. I enjoyed reading this feature which represented a compressed blurb from her forthcoming edited volume. I look forward to picking up the new book that McCabe has edited when it is released:
Women in the Biblical World: A Survey of Old and New Testament Perspectives (ed. Elizabeth A. McCabe; Lanham: University Press of America, 2009).
Phoebe is a good example (as is Junia) of how male translators and interpreters of the bible have altered our knowledge of women's history in the earlier period, erasing leadership roles that were theirs from the beginning of the movement. Historical-literary criticism being done especially by feminist biblical scholars is largely responsible for restoring these women to their historical prominence.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Book Note: Valentinian Ethics and Paraenetic Discourse (Philip L. Tite)

I am trying to unbury myself from the mound of books that is piled up in my office. My students will be smiling by now reading this. Literally, I have three mountains piled on my desk (I have a big u-shaped desk).

One book that I have been intending to mention because it is another new book out on Valentinianism is by Philip Tite, Valentinian Ethics and Paraenetic Discourse: Determining the Social Function of Moral Exhortation in Valentinian Christianity. It is another Brill publication, so it may be a library check out book rather than a purchase.

The subject that Tite covers is the moral instruction given within Valentinian Christianity. He uses a form of socio-rhetorical criticism that he develops from the work of social psychologists and literary critics. He does not map out particular early Christian communities or factions within these communities, but views how the texts "use social re-presentation, through narrative articulation, in order to persuade the audience or recipient to identify with the social idealization of the author as a shared worldview. In this sense, both our texts 'create social identities'; this does not open the texts to historical reconstructions of actual social groups, but rather the elucidation of group formation processes as sets of joint actions. The communicative situation of each text, therefore, can be seen as an attempt to construct identities for persuasive purposes" (p. 314).

I agreed that the texts we are examining are all about the power of persuasion. But I would go farther and point out that the persuading the text is doing is the persuading the author is doing in a real social situation. It is his side of a dialogue. And with the Valentinian material, we have the other side of the dialogue in the heresiologists and their attempt to implode Valentinian ethics. So history is lurking behind the Valentinian ethical persuasion found in their texts, and no matter how "idealistic" the representation of our authors may appear, their point of view represents an historical point of view of the person who wrote it and the people he associated with. It was the ideal which they hoped would be lived (or was being lived) in their community.

Tite spends 56 pages mapping out his methodology and it requires careful reading. Throughout these pages, he is critical of Vernon Robbins' approach because of what Tite calls Robbins' "omission" of a bridge between text and social reality: "Indeed, the movement from the level of the text to the level of the occasion behind the text is not only impossible with this method, there is furthermore no corrective agent in place for the errors that emerge when one moves from one level to the other without such a bridge" (p. 33).

I wonder about this. I have never personally read Robbins' that way, nor has this ever come across in the many private conversations I have had with Robbins about his socio-rhetorical method. I don't think that Robbins' approach omits this bridge. I have always understood that it was built on it. Robbins' approach has always been about real authors and real worlds of the authors and how, by examining the various textures in the text, that the social discourse as the author presents it can be recovered. Robbins understands texts (=implied author) to be extension of the real authors themselves and the social world they are engaged in (cf. p. 21 Tapestry) (and I agree).

The book is well-documented and refreshing in that it presents Valentinian moral exhortation as a Christian moral discourse which was used to shape their social identity. Thankfully, Tite leaves behind the old heresiological categories and point of view. I am glad that this book is now part of the discussion about second-century Christianity.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Apocryphote of the Day: 9-23-09

"The kingdom of heaven is at your right hand."

Gospel (I prefer: Revelation) of the Savior 97.13-15

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Back to women

I just finished writing chapter four of Sex and the Serpent. So I will probably be returning to posting on some gender-related issues. In the meantime, I have been contemplating this jewel from Celsus quoted by Origen. I have been thinking about women's witness and how their prominence in the pre-gospel story cycles are already being dampened in the foundational written narratives in the New Testament gospels, particularly the Lukan version - although the Matthean and Johannine versions are remodeling an older traditional story too. There are many possibilities for "why" these authors were dampening the women's witness, particularly Mary Magdalene's, but Celsus' remarks are telling on more than one account: on the view of women witness as inauthentic among Roman men (Roman Law did not allow women to be witnesses); on the view of women in the Roman world as emotive irrational creatures attracted to religious frenzy and superstitions; on the view that the resurrection is nothing more than a dream misinterpreted or a way to persuade people to give the Christians money. Did the evangelists consider the traditional story about the women's witness and commission by Jesus (see Matthew 28:9-10) a liability that needed to be dealt with?

According to Celsus:

We must examine this question – whether anyone who actually died ever rose again with the same body?...Who saw this? A hysterical female, as you say, and perhaps some other one of those who were deluded by the same sorcery, who either dreamed in a certain state of mind and through wishful thinking had a hallucination due to some mistaken notion (an experience which has happened to thousands of people), or, which is more likely, wanted to impress others by telling this fantastic tale, and so by this cock-and-bull story to provide a chance for other beggars.

What is it about biblioblogging...?

What is it about biblioblogging that invites misreading, mischaracterizations and negative assessments of other bloggers' posts? Is it the speed by which a post is 'read' or the desire to sensationalize everything written or the wish to inflame readers and spread fear among them or the easiness of stereotyping and plugging every argument into an either-this-or-that category when in fact the argument is complex?

What did I say yesterday? I said that as a historian I find the combination of historical-criticism, literary criticism and social-scientific approach to be the most advantageous. I said that I felt that nothing can replace historical-criticism and if we are going to recover history this is not going to be done via literary criticism alone. We must continue to train our students rigorously in historical-criticism even though post-modern interpretation is sweeping the academy.

I laid out the principles of historical criticism as I use them, so that all can see the assumptions I start with. I do this in every book I write too, because I want my readers to know what my approach is and what my presumptions are. There is no neutral text, and there is no neutral interpretation as I have said countless times (so often in fact that I am getting tired of needing to continue to write it, but I guess I do because other bloggers keep criticizing me for missing this very point?!). However, this does NOT make all interpretations equally valuable for the historical endeavor. This is where I draw the line on theological interpretation and confessional perspectives. They are fine for certain discussions, as long as they are not being paraded out as historical or confused with the historical.

As for the historical-critical approach and feminism. There is nothing anti-feminist about the historical approach in and of itself. What is anti-feminist is its application which has been controlled by white (mainly European) males since only recently. So the kind of history that has been recovered and written has been the history of the dominant group, and it is the history that justifies and sustains that group. Here again we are talking about white males who are in power and who wish to remain so. When our histories, whether religious or social or political, have been written and put into text books and taught to our children, it is the history of the dominant group - their master commemorative narrative - that we are disseminating. Now this is not new news. It is ho-hum by now and I imagine you are yawning.

So what have we done about this now that we have recognized it because feminist scholarship and literary critical methods have brought this to our attention? We have gone back and added a paragraph about important women in our textbooks and we have minted coins with Anthony's face on it, coins that we never use! But we haven't rewritten our histories to reflect what we are learning about the hidden histories and the marginalized past nor have we commemorated it as a society (this is especially true of our religious histories - which is why I am writing Sex and the Serpent). Why not add a paper dollar to those we use already, and put Anthony on it? Why not make a government holiday commemorating the Suffrage movement? Why not rename important boulevards with the names of women we wish to commemorate? Etc.

So the biggest "new" piece to the historical-critical puzzle which I included yesterday in my ten principles, is that the historical-critical method I use has been opened up to be aware of the marginalized histories, that - as my mom used to say - there are always two-sides to a story. As a historical-critic, I recognized a long time ago that the dominant story we are told in most of our texts is not the way things were (or for that matter 'are').

This is the call of our generation - to understand our past more fully and appreciate the variety and complexity of it. We need to give proper credit to the marginalized histories for their own sake, but also with the recognition that the dominant stories would not be what they are if those it marginalized had not lived.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Choosing your method

Today I want to address the issue of methodology which any reader of my blog knows is on my mind frequently. I see my generation of scholars in a precarious situation in terms of method because so many have left the hard work of historical criticism to pursue the post-modern literary trends that are of interest to so many in the academy, especially those scholars who are confessional or interested in contemporary theological interests. Literary criticism can provide the means to disengage with history while still leaving the impression that what has been done is a historical investigation.

I have nothing against literary criticism. In fact, various literary methods inform my research. But as I have argued in my publications and on this blog, literary methods alone are not a replacement for historical criticism, because they do not operate by the same assumptions and they do not seek to answer the same questions. I have discovered that the best methodological approach seeks to bring three fields together : historical criticism, literary criticism, and social-scientific criticism.

But nothing can replace historical criticism, and training in it is the best thing that we can give our students whether they know that or not. Without it, we run the risk of falling into the erotics of the text itself or apologetics, and confusing history with story (or worse theology) and de/re-contextualizing its conversation. So you have to choose. There isn't a middle ground. You can't research and write from a semi-historical method. There is no such thing. If you do this, you are allowing your confessional stance to influence your history. It is like being pregnant. Either you are or you aren't. Either you are a historian operating by the critical perspective, or you are not.

These are the 10 'commandments' or 'operating principles' for the historical-critical interpretation of ancient texts which inform my research:

1. There is no such thing as a neutral text. There is always power and persuasion involved.

2. The author always has a viewpoint and that viewpoint is always engaging another viewpoint (hidden or open) whether to polemicize against it or to develop it or to interpret it or to pass it on.

3. When the text is read against the grain (not for its intended purpose of persuasion to its own viewpoint and its own 'history'), the social dynamics of the text become visible and voices that are hidden by the author begin to emerge. It is the job of the historian to not only concentrate on recovering the dominant voice(s) in the text, but the submerged and oft-silenced voices too.

4. The text is not reporting history, it is reporting theology and it is using story to do so. This makes recovering history extremely difficult because all is not as it seems. We need to ask questions such as why is the author reporting his history and his theology this way? What other histories and theologies does the author know about? What traditions has the author received? How has the author shaped those traditions? Why has he shaped them in the manner that he has? Who has something to gain by this view of history and theology? Who has something to lose by this view of history and theology? What are the author's assumptions and how do these impact the author's narrative? How is the author's narrative related to other narratives? How is the author's narrative related to history? Etc.

5. There is always something before, during and after the text. The traditions it yields are part of a dynamic ideological, social, and religious network with strong geographical semblance. This geographical semblance developed along the roads, trade routes, sea routes, that connected the major cities and the various intellectual schools in those cities.

6. There is rarely (perhaps never) an either-or solution to our texts. We must not expect things to fit nicely in two boxes. The real historical situation is complex and complicated, and any solution we develop must be willing to pull things out of the boxes and allow them to get messy.

7. There is no such thing as 'background' to a text or a tradition. The text or tradition is fully immersed and fully engaged in the dynamics of ancient culture written and performed and transmitted from the minds of ancient people. The author isn't grabbing this idea from here and that idea from there, and so forth, and accurately representing them. The author is a person of his time and culture in which he is immersed in the richness and dynamics of his world where things are not laid out in neat columns, but are mixed up, and often confused. He may know bits and pieces of things due to his cultural exposure, but those bits and pieces may or may not be accurate representations of the ideas. Most often they have been arranged into some kind of pattern that makes sense to the author, but doesn't necessarily represent the bits and pieces accurately. For instance, if he were living in Alexandria, he likely is exposed to Hermetism. But this doesn't mean that what he knows about Hermetism is actually what the Hermetics were practicing in their lodge meetings. And his mixed up versions of things may become foundational for later people.

8. To understand the texts historically, it is necessary to figure out the ancient mindset the best we can, mapping its assumptions and expectations, and allow those to inform our reading of the text. This can only be garnered through a cautious cross-cultural study of the ancient peoples who lived around the Mediterranean, reading from medical literature, studying archaeological remains, shifting through documentary evidence, engaging the whole range.

9. There is nothing new under the sun. The perspectives transmitted in these texts are part of a social memory dynamic that constantly shuffles received traditions to align them with the present experiences of the individuals and groups.

10. The historian must remain skeptical of what the author of the text claims to be true or false.

Friday, September 18, 2009

What do I mean by 'confessional'?

I can't seem to find a satisfying word to describe religiously-invested scholars whose contributions are apologetic in orientation. When I used 'apologetic' people objected. When I used 'conservative-progressive' people objected. When I used 'theological' people objected. Maybe people just want to object? If someone has a better descriptor, I'd be happy to entertain it.

My point in using confessional (or any of the other descriptors I have tried out on this blog) is that scholars who are so invested theologically in a religious tradition and its maintenance are willing to suspend what we know to be factual about our world in order to read their scriptures as fact. These scholars confuse their confessional tradition with history and justify it as history, when in fact what they are justifying is actually theology.

Can a Christian be a historian of Christianity? Of course. But I would qualify this: only if that Christian is not invested in maintaining Christian theology as history in their academic contributions. That Christian must first and foremost be operating critical of the religion, and must be unwilling to cave in to the pressure of making theological claims historical knowledge. So training in historical-critical method is essential, as is vigilance in maintaining this orientation.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The never-ending confusion about perspective

As many of my readers know, I have written many posts already on the historical-critical method and how essential it is for scholars in biblical studies to make the choice between confessional scholarship and historical scholarship. As Jesus said, "It is impossible to serve two masters, or one will be honored and the other insulted."

There is a big difference between confessional scholarship and its working assumptions and historical-critical scholarship and its working assumptions, and we must never confuse the two. Confessional scholarship is willing to compromise and apologize in order to keep 'history' aligned with the faith tradition. It is willing to understand theology as history and write about knowledge in these terms. Historical-critical scholarship is built on the presuppositions of the scientific search for knowledge. It is unwilling to allow theology to be history.

If you are at all uncertain about this distinction, it is easiest to see it when you look at a religion that is not your own and the claims to truth that religion makes. Think about claims that are made about Mohammad, Buddha, or any religion that has "historical" founders or scriptures. Its views on their founders are theology historicized. They are religious truth claims that have been accepted as fact by believers from that tradition, and scholars who work in that tradition. Those outside that tradition recognize this easily.

The easiest example of this in Christianity (which I have also discussed on numerous occasions previously) is the physical resurrection of Jesus. Confessional scholars are willing (some even feel compelled) to allow for the physical resurrection of Jesus to be historical fact. Of course it is not. Dead bodies don't come back to life. And Jesus' body did not come back to life. This is a theological doctrine that was historicized in the literature of the early believers. Those outside of Christianity, and non-confessional academics in another field (like science) see this immediately.

The virgin birth story is another example. Confessional scholars are willing to allow for Jesus' birth from a virgin. This is theology that they have confused with history. Of course Jesus had a human father -whether it was Joseph or someone else. Children aren't born without an egg fertilized by a sperm. If you really want to get silly about this, in the case of Jesus, since he was male, he had to get his Y chromosome from somewhere. Since dads are the only transmitters of the Y chromosome, he had to have a dad. And it wasn't the holy spirit. Even the Valentinians laughed at that logic since everyone knew the holy spirit was Jesus' mom. She was a female!

Humor aside, this is a very serious issue for our field, and now that post-modernism is gripping the academy, we see the abuse of philosophy in order to bolster the positions of confessional scholars who want to continue to make the argument that their theology (and their scripture) is history. They confuse the idea that since all positions are subjective, the scientific position has no better claim to truth than their own.

Of course there is a difference, and in the case of the scientific approach is does a more accurate job recovering history than a theological approach because these approaches have different sets of assumptions they begin with. The scientific approach does not allow you to mistake theology for history, nor does it allow you to mistake the doctrines that developed in the religious tradition to be the history that the tradition says they are. The scientific approach knows that this is the way that the religion justifies its doctrines; it is no history. But confessional scholars are willing to excuse its religious doctrine for history and even bolster this justification by (mis)using philosophy, literary criticism and the social sciences to try and argue that there is nothing we can know for certain because there is no objective truth, so their truth is as historical as any other.

I can't write more today because I am home with a sick five year old (as I was yesterday). But I hope in the next few days to continue my train of thought, because I think this is the MOST IMPORTANT discussion of my generation - whether we are willing or not to abandon our field to confessional claims to knowledge and truth in the post-modern age.

Monday, September 14, 2009

My response to Robert Eisenman and "Redemonizing Judas"

Robert Eisenman has updated and republished his Huffington Post piece on "Redemonizing Judas." I mention this not because I think it is a good article (things are quite mixed up in his article), but because again I am characterized by Eisenman as a "conservative" scholar who thinks the NT gospels are more historical than the extra-canonical gospels, all because I argue that the demon Judas is in the Gospel of Judas rather than the hero. The fact that I argue for a demonic Judas is the only point that Eisenman appears to know about my work. From this fact he appears to have drawn the incorrect conclusion that I am a "conservative" scholar who is a "theologian" interested in pushing a conservative Christian platform in my writing for which I am criticized. Indeed, such a characterization of me or my work could not be more off the mark.

In my opinion, it is sad that Eisenman would publish such a mixed up article on a widely read blog like Huffington Post, leaving his readers with the wrong impressions about the scholars he mentions. He calls Michael Williams and Jim Robinson "conservative" theologians too, so at least I am in good company.

It is humorous that I receive criticism for my work on the Gospel of Thomas from those interested in maintaining canonical authority and historicity, while also getting slammed for my work on the Gospel of Judas by those on the other side of the fence who want to trump the canonical stories with (in my view) misunderstood extra-canonical literature.

The fact is I am a historian with no interest in apologizing for Christianity or maintaining Christian tradition. When I read texts, I do so as an historian and I say it like I see it with no concern about whether or not it "fits" with the traditional Christian picture of things.

My studies of the Gospel of Thomas have led me to conclude it contains a very old kernel gospel that pre-dates Paul and likely Quelle in the forms we have it in Matthew and Luke. The mystical tradition and encratic perspective it upholds was developed in response to the delayed eschaton and became the basis for much of Christianity in eastern Syria. So the gospel is both young and old. Because of this, we must use caution when addressing the text in our work. But it contains an essential "missing" piece to the puzzle of early pre-Pauline Jerusalem Christianity.

My studies of the Gospel of Judas have led me to conclude that the Sethian Christians who wrote it were very careful exegetes of the canonical gospels. They took seriously the claims in Luke and John that Judas was a demon, even the demon Satan who ruled the world. As such, they identified Judas with the Ialdabaoth demiurge (the demonic ruler of this world), and understood Judas' astral destiny to be identical with Ialdabaoth's, the god of the thirteen realms. If anything, this conclusion turns upside down the expected narrative based on past scholarly readings of Irenaeus and Epiphanius. It is hardly a "conservative" argument, nor is does it represent an attempt on my part to forward a "conservative" traditional Christian agenda.

The origins of the Gospel of John (and Thomas)

Another attempt to unravel the relationship between the gospels of John and Thomas is at hand. Christopher Skinner has been interviewed by Andrew Bernhard and Michael Grondin about his new book John and Thomas - Gospels in Conflict? which can be read HERE. According to this interview, Skinner uses a narratalogical approach favored by Culpepper. He concludes that because other disciples are characterized negatively in the fourth gospel, the author of John is doing this as a narratological choice, and, therefore, his negative portrayal of Thomas does not suggest polemics against Thomasine Christianity.

My response to this interview:
1. Just because the author of the gospel of John has negative things to say about disciples other than Thomas does not lead to the conclusion that there is (or can be) no polemic against Thomasine traditions in this text.

2. The fact that Riley, Pagels and myself point out differing topics for those polemics (resurrection; genesis exegesis; soteriology) does not suggest that the conflict we see is "speculative" in some negative unsubstantiated way as Skinner implies. All of scholarship is speculative. This is not a bad thing as long as it is based on the evidence and reasoned well. The development of models have to be based on reasoned speculation from our sources. Because three academic studies don't emerge with a consensus opinion on the nature of the Johannine polemic, does not support the conclusion that there is no polemic. The three positions need not be mutually exclusive. These three positions may in fact be pointing to three pieces of the puzzle, and strengthen the argument for a polemical relationship between the Johannine and Thomasine traditions rather than weaken it. In fact, I wrote in my introductory chapter, "I would like to note that this monograph is only investigating one stratum layer among many that influenced the composition of the Gospel of John and its precursors. This investigation offers one more piece of the complicated puzzle of Johannine origins and should be read in addition to previous theories about John's origins rather than as a replacement for them" (p. 33).

3. I am concerned by Skinner's suggestion that because Riley, Pagels and myself do not come to the same conclusions regarding the topic of the polemic, that we are making the details fit our own theories. This type of criticism has nothing to do with scholarly argumentation. It is an attempt to dismiss the evidence without dealing with it. In fact, my hypothesis developed out of my careful exegetical reading of these texts, as did Riley's and Pagel's. I did not have some sweeping theory in place before I started my research, and from the conversations I have had in the past with both Riley and Pagels, neither did they.

4. I want to say a few words in response to Skinner's statement, "One of the first things I found problematic in the approach (which I, for purposes of brevity, have designated the 'community-conflict hypothesis') was that these scholars were all making a great deal about an entirely speculative 'conflict' while doing very little exegesis in the Fourth Gospel." I did "very little exegesis in the Fourth Gospel"? Are you kidding me? I have two entire chapters of exegesis of the Fourth Gospel in my book Voices of the Mystics (as well as a entire chapter exegeting the gospel of Thomas, and another entire chapter exegeting Syrian texts with associated traditions). This is not "little" in my eyes.
I want to reiterate my position, so that it doesn't get too muddled in the internet and future publications.
1. My position has been and continues to be that our narratives are communal narratives that reflect the discussions that have engaged the people responsible for developing those particular traditions before the composition of the narratives themselves. They are not written to be nice stories about Jesus. One of the biggest concerns of the authors, it to write to correct and provide the right information to the intended audience. If you are at all in doubt of this, go and reread Luke 1:1-4, who knows other written accounts and wishes to write the orderly one for Theophilius so that he can be truthfully informed. Or chapter 24 of the same gospel in which Jesus has to correct the resurrection beliefs of those who were saying that his suffering meant that he was not the Messiah (esp. vv. 25-27).

2. My position has been and continues to be that the author of the gospel of John is aware of the type of vision and ascent mysticism that came to be associated with the Thomasine traditions in Syria, and he is polemicizing against them. I have not and do not maintain that the author of the gospel of John knew or read the gospel of Thomas. In fact, the entire first chapter of my book Voices of the Mystics is devoted to discussing the concept of developing TRADITIONS that eventually get embedded in our gospels. The competition is between the Johannine and Thomasine traditions and the communities who "owned" these traditions. It is not a competition between their gospels as literary compositions. If I have read Pagels correctly, she too argues that the author of John knew and thoroughly disagreed with the type of exegesis of the Genesis story offered in the gospel of Thomas, that he was engaged in a clash of traditions and polemics against the specific patterns of exegesis preserved in the gospel of Thomas, not the gospel of Thomas itself (Beyond Belief, p. 479).

3. I don't perceive of these communities as some isolated churches somewhere in the ancient world. The use of Johannine and Thomasine community language is chosen in order to indicate the communal nature of these developing traditions, not a church that had a sign on the front lawn that said "The Church of John" or "The Church of Thomas". In fact, I think that the Thomasine community was the very early apostolic tradition in eastern Syria. In other words, Christianity in Syria early on would have appeared very much along the lines of the theology we find in the gospel of Thomas. As for John, it represents at least two types of Christianity - a pre-final-redactor Christianity and a post-final-redactor Christianity - a form of Christianity as it was being practiced in Alexandria and another form of Christianity as it was being practiced in, I think, western Syria and perhaps Asia Minor. I'm still working this aspect out.

4. The origins of the Fourth Gospel has not been satisfactorily worked out, although we are a fingernail away. It is a gospel containing many polemics, much of which has already been mapped by a number of previous scholars. The author is particularly hard on the twelve (one of them was a devil!, another was a traitor!, and another a doubter!), especially in the pre-final-redactor version (before c. 21 was added; and perhaps the resurrection stories fiddled with). The heroes of this earlier version of the gospel are not among the twelve, but are the outsider disciples: the beloved disciple (who is Lazarus by narratological reading of the gospel), Joseph of Arimathea, and Mary Magdalene. This gospel legitimatizes itself on authorities alternative to the Twelve and the Petrine tradition, Thomas among them and the particular brand of mystical Christianity that appears to have become associated with his name in Syria. It isn't until the gospel is redacted into the form we have with c. 21 that the Petrine is fully embraced. The polemics in this gospel are far-reaching. The Johannine author is like the author of the Testimony of Truth, who is unhappy with everyone except his very own.