Scholars as heresiologists

I want to draw attention to Tony Burke's new contribution to the SBL Forum. He has taken his analyses of modern scholars' presentations of extra-canonical texts and written a fabulous critique. He has called it HERESY HUNTING IN THE NEW MILLENIUM. I recommend reading the entire piece. Here is the beginning:

A cottage industry of books has emerged in the past few years responding to apparent "attacks" on the Christian faith by such perceived enemies as the Jesus Seminar, Bart Ehrman, Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code, and the discoverers of the so-called Jesus Tomb.[1] Targeted also in these books are the texts of the Christian Apocrypha (CA). The books are transparently apologetic with the aim of disparaging the CA and the Gnostics who (they say) wrote them so that their readers will cease being troubled by thei texts' claims. The problem with such books, at least from the perspective of those who value the CA, is that they often misrepresent the texts, their authors, and the scholars who study them. Proper research and sober argument take a back seat to the apologists' goal of buttressing the faith.

In many ways these books read much like the works of apologetic writers from antiquity, such as Irenaeus and Hippolytus. They too were concerned about the impact of non-canonical texts and heretical ideas on their readers and sought to reinforce the faith by denigrating and ridiculing their enemies. Then and now accuracy was sacrificed to the needs of apologetics. Yet, perhaps there is something that scholars of the CA can learn from the modern apologists, something not only about ourselves but also about those who were attacked by the heresy hunters of the past.

Tony has very good insights in this piece, and I hope he considers writing a book on this subject. It would be a real service to the field. Tony shows how there is a group of scholars writing for the popular audience today who use the same techniques as the ancient heresy hunters in order to discredit the apocryphal materials, techniques like name-calling, ignoring scholarship to the contrary, misrepresenting scholarship to the contrary, etc.

This is one of the major reasons, in fact, that I started this blog, have begun to write books on Gnosticism and the other gospels for general audiences, and have increased the number of general lectures that I am giving. I am very concerned that the general public has been misled and misinformed by scholars who are writing with apology as their main goal. These authors appear to be ill-informed about the apocrypha and scholarship on it, especially Gnosticism, and this information is being passed on as credible by editors and publishing houses that do not care to promote good scholarship, but only are concerned about the dollar.

So send me your questions. What do you want to learn about? And I will write some posts in response. Let's get your questions answered.

What is a biblioblog and who is a biblioblogger?

I have been thinking about this question for a couple of days now as I have been working to clean up my sidebar and going back through the year looking over other people's blog templates and older posts, including carnivals. Since I am especially attuned to the issues of canonicity controlling biblical studies' academic discourse, I began to notice the same marginalization of apocrypha blogs in the biblioblogsphere. Should they be included in carnivals? Should they be mentioned in roundups? Should they be listed under "biblioblogs" on websites?

This observation has made me wonder what the parameters are for biblioblogging if indeed there are any? Does a blog have to be focused on one of the testaments? Or can it deal with ancient Israel, Judaism, and Christianity on a broader scale? Does it have to be a so-called "conservative" blog? Or a so-called "liberal" one? Does it need to be "academic" or "theological" to be included?

My opinion? It is not too difficult to guess. If the apocrypha isn't taken seriously, we will never be able to understand the development of early Christianity fully, nor fully appreciate the traditions and texts that eventually were canonized in the NT.

Fallacies about Non-Canonical Texts

Tony has a wonderful post on Apocryphicity summarizing what he considers to be faulty arguments against non-canonical texts. He finds these surfacing almost as tropes in apologetic books he reads. The first five are:

1. All non-canonical texts are Gnostic.
2. Canonical texts are early while non-canonical texts are late.
3. The non-canonical gospels are not "gospels".
4. The writers of non-canonical texts were hostile toward canonical texts.
5. Extant versions of non-canonical texts are their autographs.

I have noticed these same assertions in my own reading of this literature. I must say it really gets my ire up. I would go even farther than Tony does here. These are not just faulty arguments, they are powerful fallacies that are trotted forth in the literature as "truth." Particularly whenever I read material written on Gnosticism by apologetic scholars, I find myself gritting my teeth, since their concept of Gnosticism is as old as the hills. Not only is it not current, it is a regurgitation of the kind of older scholarship that was written ages ago, rediscovering the early Church in terms of modern Protestantism.

I look forward to Tony's next five.

Update: Friday 13th of July
Michael Bird responds to Tony here.

It bears repeating...

Some of the comments relating to the resurrection posts have introduced a very unnecessary and troubling ad hominem element to the discussion.

Because I maintain an uncompromising historical approach to my work and find theological apology troubling when it is trotted forth as "history," I have been accused of saying that evangelicals cannot be scholars. I have been labeled a secular humanist and dismissed as anti-religious.

I have never said that evangelicals (or anyone of a faith) cannot be scholars. I have never said that one must be a secular humanist to be a scholar. As for the labels secular humanist and anti-religious, these are not terms I would use to describe my own religious heritage or leanings.

What I have said and maintain is that to approach the materials as a historian requires that the scholar leave behind the apology and the theology. If a scholar is worried about the outcome of his or her investigation - that it maintain, preserve, match, or explain his or her faith - then the investigation has been or will be compromised. I, in fact, have many close colleagues from a diversity of faith traditions (Baptist; Southern Baptist; Catholic; Methodist; Presbyterian; Pentecostal; Episcopalian; Anglican; Russian Orthodox; Greek Orthodox; Coptic Orthodox; Unitarian; Reform Jewish; Buddhist; Hindu; Mormon; Gnostic; etc.) whose scholasticism is historically praiseworthy and uncompromising in my opinion. In fact, my own work is better because of theirs.

I have also said and maintain that the field of biblical studies has been and continues to be controlled by faith concerns, which (among other things) manifests in the dominance of the biblical canon and the marginalization of other early literature. The marks of this are throughout the Academy, as well as the universities, whose classes and textbooks for instance are marketed as Introductions to the Old Testament, Hebrew Bible, or New Testament. Rarely do we find departments willing to post and hire positions in early Judaism or early Christianity without the OT and NT tags and expectations.

This does not mean that I think that the theological pursuit is worthless, as some have wrongly insinuated. I think that the theological pursuit is entirely worthwhile as a pursuit of its own. It is only when theology is marketed as history that I object.

Part 9: Does the Bible's ritual status hinder acceptance of non-canonical texts?

David Hamilton has offered an intriguing response to the question I posed in Part 8: Non-canonical uneasiness on Ionic Books - where I raised the following question citing Professor Watts' contribution to this question of non-canonical unease.

I wrote: "Does the fact that the canonical materials are ritualized, are "iconic," make it nigh impossible for the study of non-canonical materials to shift the tide (not only in popular sentiment, but also for many in the Academy)?"

Mr. Hamilton doesn't think so:
I encounter many people in my area who are quite comfortable revising their beliefs and commitments. There are many people who seem to be extremely suspicious of the religious establishment, in all its varieties: reformed Catholics, deprogrammed fundamentalists, etc. These (not so) few are more than willing to entertain revisions of Christian history and theology, almost too willing.

As for the Academy, when the Nag Hammadi and Dead Sea Scroll texts first came out, I would have said "Yes". But it takes 1-2 generations of scholars to get enough experience and distance to appreciate such collections adequately. I believe this is starting to happen now. In fact, my take on the past 15 years of scholarship is that the direction is strongly in the direction of revising our understanding of early Christianity to the point that it strongly calls into question the validity of the received tradition.
I think one of the issues that is coming up to the top of this discussion is that we are dealing with reactions to the non-canonical texts from many different groups of people. There is a range of uneasiness, both within and without the Academy. So I appreciate Mr. Hamilton's remarks.

The point to note about the Academy, however, is that NH studies (not so much DSS, which is interesting in and of itself) is marginal, is peripheral in the Academy. No one knows this better than those of us who work on these texts, and the constant reactions we get from our canonical colleagues. Astonishment, amazement, and always "why bother?" In all my years as a scholar working on these materials I have never had a canonical colleague come up to me and say, "Wow, you're rewriting the received tradition, good for you!" What I get is something along the lines, "How dare you suggest that this material has anything to do with the origins of Christianity."

The "change" that Mr. Hamilton points to is not a change that the Academy has welcomed with open arms. It is occurring because there is a comparably small number of non-apologetic historians in the Academy who have worked very hard in this direction, but this work has been against the tide and still is not considered "mainstream." Case in point, how many biblical scholars know Coptic? How many think it is essential to teach their graduate students Coptic - as essential as Hebrew and Greek?

Part 8: Non-Canonical Unease on Iconic Books

Professor Jim Watts has posted his own discussion of this topic on his very interesting blog Iconic Books. He addresses the issue of the marginalization of Nag Hammadi books in the Academy.

He writes very perceptively that the discovery of documents like those from Nag Hammadi has not made much of a dent in the cultural standing of Jewish and Christian scriptures. Professor Watts says:
I suggest that resilience is due to the fact that the Bible’s reputation depends as much on the inspiration it produces through performance in sermon, song and dramatization (now frequently on film) and on the legitimacy conveyed by its iconic representation in ritual, art, and mass media as it does to the textual authority conveyed by interpretations of its message by scholars.

If anything, the main effect of biblical scholarship on public perceptions of the Bible is to emphasize the scripture’s importance precisely because so much attention and effort is devoted to controversies over its meaning and origins. Here may lie one source of anxiety about non-canonical texts: the intuitive suspicion that more attention to these other materials raises their status and dilutes claims to the unique importance of the scriptures.

The history of the actual religious influence of such scholarship suggests that Christians and Jews have little reason to worry. The net effect of comparative scholarship is probably to draw even more popular attention to scriptures whose status is, at any rate, well protected by the ways in which Jews and Christians ritualize their iconic and performative dimensions.
Professor Watts has raised a very subtle but important aspect to our discussion. Does the fact that the canonical materials are ritualized, are "iconic," make it nigh impossible for the study of non-canonical materials to shift the tide (not only in popular sentiment, but also for many in the Academy)?

Part 7: Doug Chaplin's further reflections

Doug Chaplin has put up a lengthy response on his blog here. I copy here only a small bit which I want to say something about.

Doug Chaplin says:

It seems to me, however much I value historical scholarship, that it is never divorced from the concerns, reconstructions, arguments and possibilities of the present. Nor unlike some, would I collapse it into those concerns. (See my post here) Being open to the way in which one’s scholarship will be used, is itself an important question. I think it slightly disingenuous in a historically gullible, controversy and novelty seeking, media-led culture to suggest that the question of “alternative interpretations of Christ” is controlled either by church leaders, or their flock.

It is the use, not the study, of these texts, as I have said before, which causes me unease. But I don’t think that those who study them can, or should, do so, without due consideration for how they can be used, and be sure that they are being entirely clear about what they are, and are not saying. It is because of that, that I particularly welcome the clarity and helpfulness of this series of posts.

To say that it is the media and not the church that has responded negatively to "alternative interpretations of Christ" is neither disingenuous nor gullible. If the churches were to take these alternatives seriously rather than treat them as heresy or strange ideas, we would see a very different value placed on these texts. I don't know what church world you live in Doug, but my own experience and the experiences of those Christians I have had contact with have taught me loud and clear that the churches today do not take seriously alternative interpretations based on non-canonical gospels. In fact, they do not even acknowledge them as "alternatives." And this has played out in academic circles - certainly not for every scholar, but for the majority of the Academy.

It may be important to you to worry about how historical studies of the non-canonical texts are used by others, but it is not to me. I have absolutely no control over what people do or don't do with my work, and I would never adjust my work to suit the tastes of those perceived audiences. If I were to do so, my work would lose all historical integrity. What I can control is that my work is as honest and accurate as I can manage given my skills and knowledge. What happens to it after that is out of my hands, and will not be a concern of mine.


Part 6: Judy Redman's Thoughts on Non-canonical Unease

Judy Redman has made on extensive post reflecting on the question: why do non-canonical texts make us uneasy? I copy her main answer to the question below, but there is more on her research blog. So check it out.

I particularly like Judy's discussion of the dependence-independence problem between Thomas and the Synoptics, and how she thinks that this may relate to "non-canonical unease" - gosh is this beginning to sound like an illness :)?

Judy Redman says:

I think, however, that the primary reason that non-canonical texts make us uneasy (or at least those of us who have grown up in a Christian church, no matter what we believe now) is that they have generally been labelled “heresy” by the mainstream church. Heresy, as we all know, is devised by Satan to lead the faithful away from the one true faith and into eternal damnation, so these texts are dangerous. :-)

In fact, this is not how I conceptualise heresy at an intellectual level, but the indoctrination of decades dwells deep within my psyche and looking at “heresy” makes me uneasy (although it clearly doesn’t stop me). Coming to non-canonical texts with an open mind means that you might end up being convinced by what they say and thus end up outside orthodoxy. Which is uncomfortable. You might even end up believing that you should try to convey your new understandings to the orthodox church, which has the potential to be very uncomfortable indeed.

This, I think, is why there was (and still is to a certain extent) such an interest in looking at whether or not Thomas is dependent on the synoptics, and in using dependent/independent language in the first place, rather than talking about whether Thomas might have used one of the synoptics as a source, as we do when talking about the relationship between Mark, Matthew and Luke. If we can show “dependency”, then we feel that we are in a stronger position to argue that it is safe to ignore anything in Thomas that comes into conflict with orthodox Christian doctrine. If it’s not dependent, then we may have “authentic words of Jesus”, which makes us uneasy, because we may have to think about changing long-accepted doctrine/theology.

Part 4: Why I think that non-canonical texts make us uneasy

I want to thank those who self-reflected and shared their thoughts about non-canonical unease.

Here are my thoughts as promised. Most of them have grown out of my experience as a professor and lecturer. These fears are fears that have been voiced over and over by people in my classrooms and audiences.

Non-canonical texts make us uneasy because:

1. They are are unfamiliar. Their stories, sayings, and mythologies are not what most people today are used to. In so many ways, they are different from the canonical story that is known and loved so well by Christians around the globe.

2. They made many of the "fathers" of the apostolic church uneasy. These fathers, many of whom are "saints" in various church traditions today, are recognized authorities (like the Pope). If they didn't like these texts or think them valuable, why should we?

3. Many of the non-canonical texts reflect expressions of Christianity that people today do not want to practice. Who wants salvation dependent on giving up marriage and sex? This might have been attractive in the ancient world, but not so much today.

4. They give us pause to ask questions of power - its use and abuse. This is a source of discomfort and guilt for those in power. For the powerless it is a very fearsome and paralyzing reality. Why did only certain forms of Christianity survive? The question has a multifaceted answer, but the use and abuse of power is part of the equation.

5. They force us to face issues of selection and legitimacy, issues which challenge faith doctrines like "biblical inspiration," "biblical inerrancy," and "apostolic succession." Why do we have the stories of Jesus that we have, and not the others?

6. They bring an element of doubt into reconstructions of Jesus. If we have to take into account the non-canonical material, the Jesus we have in the NT gospels begins to have some competition. So it's trying to sort out the question, "Will the real Jesus please stand up?" that brings discomfort.

7. They are written later than most (but not all) of the New Testament texts. So there is less confidence extracting history from them - although most scholars remain confident about extracting history from canonical texts, even though these stories are graced with virgin births, feeding miracles, walking on water, healing miracles, visions of the dead on high mountains, and the pinnacle of all, the physical resurrection of Jesus. How are these stories any different from the young Jesus making clay birds and clapping his hands, bringing them to life?

8. When we study the non-canonical texts (and the patristic witnesses about them), we realize that so-called "heretics" like the Ebionites were far more similar to the very first Christians than Irenaeus was. If one's Christianity is based on understanding oneself as emulating the first Christians, this is a problem.

9. They suggest that the second century of early Christianity is important, as important as the first. Why? Because it is the period in which Christianity was thoroughly engaged in the process of normation. The forms of Christianity known today are indebted to that process.

Part 3: What I don't think about non-canonical texts

I appreciated Doug Chaplin's reflections. I would like to respond to some of his concerns. So this is a list of what I don't think about non-canonical texts.

1. I don't think that a newly discovered text is a reliable testimony to the historical Jesus or the early church. But I also question the use of the canonical texts as a reliable testimony to the historical Jesus and the early church. All early Christian texts have one main concern - theology. They are interested in interpreting Jesus and providing the faithful with the faith. Even Luke. How much history we can extract from any of our texts is a difficult question and a project fraught with methodological problems.

2. I do not think that "lost" texts automatically were suppressed texts, although the Church Fathers provide us with plenty of names of texts that were lost and found, texts that were suppressed by them. The question of their value, of course, is a question based on where you stand. If the text is "yours" then it is valuable. If the text is not yours, then its value may be reduced, even negated through systematic suppression and book burning, something we hear plenty of in the ancient documents. If you are in a powerless position - excommunicated for instance - then your text and ideas are more likely to fall out of fashion and be considered less valuable by others than not.

3. I do not think that the orthodox were the only ones who exercised power. The process of normation was a process that included both sides, and the haggling and name-calling and viciousness went both ways (as for instance the Gospel of Judas and the Testimony of Truth show us). But in the end, only apostolic Christianity emerged on top, and in power. And it used that power to erase the other forms of Christianity (and eventually paganism too, and used its power to distance itself from Judaism and denigrate it).

4. I do not think that orthodoxy was monochrome. In fact, it had several expressions dependent on its geographical location. These forms of orthodoxy themselves competed with each other over time, and resulted in the splintering of Christianity into East and West, and so forth.

5. I do not think that the non-canonical materials tell us the "right" story while the canonical texts and later orthodox tradition got it "wrong." The search for the story needs to take all the voices into consideration, so that we can reconstruct a whole picture of the historical origins of Christianity. Erasing or ignoring some of the voices compromises the integrity of the historical search.

6. As for whether or not the non-canonical materials provide us with alternative ways to interpret Christ - this is a contemporary theological concern, not a historical one of mine. A person's desire to deny the possibility of alternative interpretations seems to me to reflect his or her desire to maintain the status quo of the Christian tradition today. This is an issue of self-preservation, not history. Do the non-canonical texts provide alternative interpretations of Christ? Certainly. But whether or not a person finds those meaningful today, is a theological question controlled as much by church leaders as it is by the flock.

Part 2: Your responses to the question, "Why do non-canonical texts make us uneasy?"

Greg Delassu says in the comments:
Tertullian and Origen are just as heretical as the Gospel of Judas or the Acts of Phillip and yet no one supposes that the self-professed orthodox are "afraid" to read Tertullian or Origen. I agree that the vitriol aimed at non-canonical texts (and at those who study them) is largely irrational, but I think this the-orthodox-are-blinded-by-their-fears-and-prejudices line is a poor explanation for that irrationality with little more to back it up other than a popular mythology built up around the idea of the scholarly-hero/Gallileo-contra-mundum.
See Doug Chaplin's self-reflections on his blog.

David Hamilton has posted this in the comments:
I believe that people who are committed to any degree to orthodoxy will always view material such as the gnostic texts as a threat. People who believe that the received tradition is largely correct and this is why Christianity as we know it won the early battles are bound to think of gnostic texts as if they were weeds, so to speak. "We've already beaten these weeds down, so why do they keep reoccuring? Why do they keep coming back?" Such people fear that the battle is not completely won after all, especially if they subscribe to the notion that evil is active in the world.
Leon Zitzer's self-reflections (he has a blog on the historical Jesus), I have moved here from the comments on the previous post:
I think Dr. DeConick is right that these are important questions. Our emotional responses often control our ability to see the evidence let alone to analyze it correctly. Vocabulary or terminology is just one way that scholars, or any authorities really, have to control a discussion and to control what insights are permitted.

Here is one powerful reason why I think so many people are uneasy with gnostic texts or the "new" Gospel of Judas (and why they invent a vocabulary that puts them down or diminishes them): The canonical New Testament (NT)has been around for almost 2,000 years and the control over how they are to be read is well established. There may be alternative voices in the NT but traditionalists feel they have this well under control, so nobody will hear or notice them. But the gnostic texts and the very new Gospel of Judas do not have a long tradition of study behind them. They are not as well controlled as the canonical texts are. So many religious and scholarly authorities feel uneasy with them because they don't own them the way they own the traditional stuff. They have not yet mastered how to totally dismiss them and that worries them. Other voices make them very nervous because it means loss of control; they have not yet figured out a way to make them completely Other.
Jim Deardoff's reflections moved from the comments of the previous post:
What is most disturbing to me is the implicit suggestion by some that any text that once was lost, but now is found, can without careful study be assumed to be an unreliable testimony to the truth of the man known as Jesus.

Part 1: Why do non-canonical texts make us uneasy?

As I wrote my last blog entry on the BYU journal discussing the Gospel of Judas, I kept asking myself the question, "Why do non-canonical texts make us so uneasy?" It isn't just the LDS scholars, or Christian scholars of other traditions. Except for a few, this is the reaction I have seen across the Academy generally. When referring to these texts, they are always the "other," always the "extra," always the "non." There appears to be a satisfaction in writing that these texts are "late" or "legendary" or "gnostic." If "gnostic" then "gnostic" is explained as some crazy, nonsensible, unintelligible, why-would-anyone-want-to-be tradition in antiquity that the church fathers fought, and thank god they did. There is set up a contrast between them and the "real" or "authentic" writings of the church. This is enough to dismiss the text from our scholarly repertoire. But is this historically justifiable?

Personally, I think it worthwhile to reflect on these questions, to ask ourselves why the study of these texts is so provoking? What is it about them that makes us so uneasy? This is not a rhetorical question, but one that I hope to pose as a self-reflection. What are your own answers? I will post mine later this week.

Unearthing Texts: Biblical Archaeology Seminar Coming to San Antonio

Biblical Archaeology Society has asked Professor James Tabor (Chair of Religious Studies at UNC, and author of The Jesus Dynasty book and blog) and I to hold a 2-day seminar in October. It is called Unearthed Texts: Do recently discovered manuscripts tell us anything new about Jesus and Early Christianity?

The seminar will take place at the Sheraton Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas, October 19-20, 2007. If you are interested in attending, here is the link to the Biblical Archaeology Society website.

I have been part of this seminar series for a few years now, and it has been a great time each time. This seminar is meant to provide a public forum to talk about the new discoveries, how the media covers them (or not), and whether they honestly make any difference to what we can and can't know about Jesus and early Christianity.

So here is a short description of the goals of the Unearthed Texts seminar:
What can we learn from Christian communities that did not survive and from texts that did not become a part of the New Testament canon? Do recently publicized manuscripts shed light on these issues or are they a case of media hype? Have some of these manuscripts been misinterpreted? Can we recover early Christian voices that have been long lost or were silenced, voices that were often those of women and the disenfranchised? These and other fascinating issues will be explored.

Book Note: Not by Paul Alone (David Nienhuis)

You wouldn't guess it from the title, but a new book on James has just been released by Baylor University Press. It is written by David R. Nienhuis (Assistant Professor at Seattle Pacific University), Not By Paul Alone: The Formation of the Catholic Epistle Collection and the Christian Canon (2007). The book is about the Catholic Epistles - James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, and Jude - as a canonical collection, rather than as individual letters or tracts. The hope is that by studying them as a collection, we can learn something about when the epistle of James was written and for what purpose(s).

Thus the book includes hefty and informative coverage of the patristic literature in reference to the history of the catholic epistles, including some very helpful charts organizing the reception history of the epistles within the patristic literature of the Syrian church, the Eastern church, the Western church, and the manuscript traditions through the fifth century.

The rest of the book takes up the problem of James - as a letter and as the leader of the Jerusalem church - and describes the first and second century references to him even in gnostic sources. It is too bad that Nienhuis did not know about the Tchacos Codex which contains another version of the 1 Apocalypse of James with significant variations from the Nag Hammadi version. One such variation is the story of James' martyrdom, which is rehearsed at the end of the Tchacos version. This is not preserved in the NH version. Another is an explanation for his epithet "the Just", an epithet which was given to him because he was serving the Demiurge, God the Just, before Jesus intervened and brought him gnosis.

Nienhuis finds it odd that no trace, allusion, or reference to the epistle of James can be located in any of these materials. This leads him to consider the letter of James to be pseudonymous and late. So then he must find a reason for its writing. This reason he thinks can be found in the collection itself - that the author of the collection was creating a "Pillars" of the church collection. Because we would expect "some kind of deliberate engagement with the Pauline witness," one that represented the "Catholic" position, James was written (pp. 160-161).
Excerpt: "The letter of James was probably written sometime in the middle of the second century, possibly by someone associated with the church in Jerusalem, given that church's keen interest in maintaining James' authority...The letter was born out of the same broader anti-Marcionite logic that fueled the composition of 2 Peter and the writings of Irenaeus and Tertullian. It was written to forge together a Jerusalem Pillars letter collection to balance the emphases of the Pauline collection, defend the authority of the Jewish scriptures, and uphold the continuation of the covenants - in short, to protect against the theological distortions that tended to arise whenever readers championed Paul alone."
If you are interested in issues of canon development or the study of James, this book offers a lot for you. If you are a scholar who thinks that the letter of James is old and written by James, this thesis has much to answer to (if it doesn't persuade you to Nienhuis' position). It did occur to me when reading the book that the reasons that Nienhuis outlines for its pseudonymous creation, may in fact be reasons that an old letter that no longer supported the apostolic church doctrinally (especially its position on the Torah and its disinterest in christology) was dug out of the archives and refreshed, taking on new relevance at a new time in the church's history.

Book Note: Reinventing Jesus

If you haven't seen it already, Tony has a very detailed posting reviewing the book Reinventing Jesus. I haven't read the book, so I can't comment except to say that Tony's analysis places it squarely in that camp of books that tries to use bits and pieces of scholarship to support an apology for the historicity of the canonical materials and the inauthenticity of the apocryphal materials. I must say this rhetoric is getting tiresome to me, although at the same time it is disconcerting how selective reading of scholarship and theories is producing this sort of apologetic work with an edge. Thanks to Tony for posting on this.

Handy Introduction to Using the Critical Apparatus

This just in. Mr. Brent Nongbri is a PhD candidate in the department of Religious Studies at Yale University. He wrote me the following about this wonderful write up he has created for his classroom, showing his students how to use the critical apparatus. He was kind enough to allow me to post a link to it for my readers to use. This link will take you to his website, scroll down and click short introduction to the apparatus. Thank you for sharing this with all of us!
Brent Nongbri wrote:
I have been teaching the introductory course in "biblical" Greek at Yale Divinity School for the past couple years. Generally I think students interested in reading Koine Greek are better served taking classical Greek at the university. On the other hand, one thing that makes "New Testament Greek" unique and a bit challenging is the abundance of (often conflicting) manuscript evidence (classicists never have to deal with such a complex critical apparatus); so I think that teaching people how to read the "Greek New Testament" means, in addition to teaching them Greek grammar, teaching them how to access these manuscripts through the apparatus. I found that there was no convenient and concise introduction to this material for students, so I decided to write up this handout.

Since the introduction in the Nestle-Aland itself can be intimidating (and, at times, overly confident about having really produced "the original" Greek of the New Testament), I tried to condense that info. down to the barest essentials and remove some of the Alands spin (replacing it, no doubt, with some spin of my own). After the class finishes the introductory grammar, I give them this handout to the students before we start reading out of the Nestle-Aland in order to get them into the habit of glancing down at the apparatus every time they see a symbol in the text. It's great practice for an intro class because the variants often improve on the Greek style of the printed text, and the students can see the different options for expressing a thought in Greek at the same time they get a sense for the extent and variety of manuscript differences. After a few weeks, I quiz them on the symbols and abbreviations in the handout. The students seem to enjoy this aspect of the class, and they have a leg up on many of their peers when they move into more advanced exegesis courses.

Comments on New Testament Manuscripts

I want to make more visible some of the information that different people left in the comments on the New Testament manuscript post. I am hearing from you that this is a problem that is beginning to surface in our field, and no one yet has figured out how to handle it on a large scale.

I'm wondering if we should put together a group of people to discuss the problem, like a think tank? Maybe there are scholars who would have the expertise and interest to create a manuscript synopsis of the New Testament? I'm not thinking every manuscript, but those that are early and quality witnesses of the texts in various families or geographical locations. To provide a transcription of these witnesses along with English translations of them I think would be great advance for scholarship.

To follow up on Matteo Grosso's comment. Has anyone already written or is anyone willing to write an informative article or booklet on how to use the critical apparatus? This would be a valuable tool for scholars across the world.

Comments copied below from previous manuscript post.

Stephen Carlson:
In one sense, the "Alexandria text" and the "Western text" are scholarly constructs just as artificial as the original text, currently based on eclectic principles. Ironically, with the exception of the Byzantine archetype, it may even be more difficult to reconstruct their archetypal texts (assuming it even exists) than the original. Moreover, even if we did reconstruct these text, they may only be valid for the third and fourth centuries because the usual text-types seem to dissolve when we go back to the second century into what Kurt Aland calls strict and free texts.

A less artificial approach can be found in Reuben Swanson's series of New Testament Greek Manuscripts (so far from Matthew through Galatians), which presents the text of about 30 or so of the earliest and/or most important manuscripts. His format is very easy to use and it has the theoretical benefit of presenting actual texts in use. Unfortunately, most of them are too late for the early Christianity and some textual criticism would be required to peer back into the earliest Christian periods.
Michael Bird:
April, this issue has been raised over at the website "Evangelical Textual Criticism". Many commentators have reached the point that they are unsure about writing commentaries based on electic texts, since they are writing a commentary on a text that does not physically exist, at least not in manuscript form. The approach being undertaken in the Septuagint Commentary Series (eds. Stan Porter and Richard Hess [Brill]) is for commentators to use a single text like Vaticanus as the text for their commentary (see David A. deSilva's fine study on 4 Maccabees).
Patrick McCullough:
I think a synopsis would be grand. Logos Bible software accomplishes this a little bit with their tool to compare parallel Bible versions along with Comfort & Barrett's Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts. You can check out their blog post about it here. I'm guessing a lot of Logos stuff, particularly on their blog, might be a little too chummy with the church for you, but it seems like a good tool nonetheless. I don't know if any other Bible programs have something similar. I'd be interested in hearing from others what flaws there may be in this tool.
Rebecca Lesses:

In a rather different area of ancient religious literature, the Hekhalot literature, Peter Schafer and his colleagues produced a synopsis of 7 important manuscripts of the Hekhalot texts - representing the medieval European textual tradition. His claim was that it is impossible to make a critical edition of the Hekhalot texts because there was no authority to impose a final redactional form on them. James Davila, on the other hand, argues that it is possible to create a critical edition of these texts, in particular of Hekhalot Rabbati, using normal text-critical methods.

Matteo Grosso:
I am very concerned about the issue you rose. I think that to solve this fustrating problem it would require first of all an intensive training for historians about the right significance and the correct use of a NT critical edition. That would be already a step forward. Then a synopsis (at least including the most important manuscripts) would be very welcome by all us! In its absence we can take advantage of the Swanson's series of NT Greek Manuscripts, as prof. Carlson said.
Peter Head:
April,
Good question!
For one attempt see J.K. Elliott, C. Amphoux & J.-C. Haelewyck, ‘The Marc multilingue Project’ Fil. Neot. 15 (2002)3-17.
Summary: Problems of Markan text require a new approach: not a critical edition, but an edition that reproduces the texts of the major manuscripts and ‘text-forms’ objectively (but in their proposed order of development); e.g. six versions of Mark 1.40-45: D, W, Q, ), B, A. No reconstructed ‘original text’; but the earliest witnesses to Mark set out in full. Each language will have a volume of their own (ten volumes in all: Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Gothic, Georgian, Arabic, Christian-Palestinian Aramaic, Slavic).

New Testament Manuscripts

I'm wondering if it bothers anyone else that as historians (in order to illuminate the first and second centuries of Christianity) we are using an eclectic version of our manuscripts of the New Testament created by a modern committee?

The Nestle-Aland text not only doesn't exist in manuscript form, it certainly does not represent any version of NT texts from the first or second centuries. If you think about it, according to the manuscripts we do possess, a Christian living in Alexandria will have knowledge of different version of the texts from those Christians living in Syria, Asia Minor, Rome, or Gaul.

What does this mean for historians studying early Christianity and using the eclectic text as our foundation? Are we operating under false impressions? - that we know exactly what the Gospel of Mark read in the first century, and that this was the same everywhere geographically?

Certainly there is the critical apparatus to consult. But this doesn't give us an actual reading of the Alexandrian text, for instance.

What I'm asking is this, shouldn't we create a synopsis of our manuscript families, so that we can read the Alexandrian text side-by-side with the Western text, and so forth? I know that we still won't be able to know what the manuscript tradition actually looked like in the first century, but at least we can begin to talk about the text basis for variant forms of Christianity in different geographical locations.

If you know of a synopsis like this that already exists, please share that information with me. I am ignorant on this subject.

If not, are there any textual scholars among us who might be interested in producing such a synopsis? I think it would revolutionize our field.

Canonism and Anti-Apocrypha Apologetic

Tony Chartrand-Burke of Apocryphicity has raised some very good questions in a book review of Ben Witherington's release What Have They Done With Jesus: Beyond Strange Theories and Bad History—Why We Can Trust the Bible (San Francisco: Harper, 2006). Thank you for this post!

Professor Chartrand-Burke points to several assumptions that mark this book, the dominant one being the common apologetic attitude that the New Testament texts report the truth and anything that does not agree with these texts is erroneous and/or heretical. This position cannot be maintained academically anymore, at least in terms of historical integrity. Like the dissimilarity principle, it has to go. It is dishonest historically and is nothing less than Christian apology declaring itself history.

The other major assumption is that orthodoxy and heresy were actual borders, instead of inventions of the mid- and late second century Church Fathers. To accept the boundaries that one group created to control the Christian landscape as historical boundaries (rather than polemical boundaries) shows very little understanding of the process of normation. Orthodoxy and heresy, I like to say, are only relative terms. One cannot exist without reference to the other. And who is orthodox and who is heretical depends only upon where you are standing. Let us never forget that Valentinus was lauded as a bible genius even by Tertullian who hated him, and he was only narrowly defeated in the mid-second century election for Bishop of Rome.

Back to Professor Chartrand-Burke's analysis, I appreciate his concluding remarks:
The aim of this post and the larger study of the anti-CA apologetics is not attack to Witherington and his ilk but to bring attention to their technique. What aspects of the texts and the scholarship do they find objectionable? Are they motivated purely by the desire to present history accurately? or are they concerned more about defending Christianity from what they perceive as a demonic attack on its integrity? Are they honest in their assessments of the material? or are they trying to sway the opinion of their readers by intentional deception? In the end I would hope that readers would place more stock in scholarship that holds itself to a high standard of intellectual honesty rather than apologetics that sacrifices honesty in its rush to rescue Christianity from its critics.
Again, thanks for giving us these questions to consider.

The Future of Biblical Studies

Today I am thinking particularly of our future as biblical historians because we are welcoming on campus graduate students who may be coming to study with us beginning in Fall 2007. Where are we in terms of our knowledge of early Christianity, its literature, its history, its practices, its theology, and so forth? What direction does our field need to go? How can we advance?

The first on my list, is the development and practice of an uncompromising historical hermeneutic, informed by contemporary disciplines of thought from the arts and sciences. In former posts, I have spoken about what some of the primary principles of such a hermeneutic should look like, and I will be creating future entries on the subject later.

The second on my list is the fact that we must face the troubled waters of the rhetorical culture and conquer oral consciousness. There is a huge body of literature on orality and rhetorical culture that has amassed in the last fifty years, and which remains largely unknown to biblical scholars. How many biblical scholars have actually read Albert Lord, The Singer of Tales, from cover to cover, let alone numerous books by Walter Ong or Miles Foley to name only the surface "three" who have studied orality? A few of us have, and some of us have incorporated the results of this literature in our work. But we are only in the beginning stages of digesting this huge corpus of material on orality and rhetoric, and trying to sort out the implications (and there are many, and they are deep) for biblical studies. I think these studies are absolutely CRUCIAL, and without them, our field will continue floundering in terms of compositional theories and transmission of traditions.

The third on my list is Social Memory theories. Again, we as biblical scholars are about fifty years behind in our knowledge base. I don't know why this is, since Social Memory theories have been picked up by historians long before we biblical scholars even heard of the existence of these theories. These theories have enormous implications for biblical studies because they explain how and why traditions form and shift, are preserved and erased. They help us with historiographical problems, really proving in my opinion that history recounted is never the history that happened but only the history remembered by people for reasons contemporary to the community remembering. Think about what this means for early Christian writings.

The fourth on my list is cognitive approaches and memory studies. Here again, we are fifty years behind the times. What our colleagues in psychology know about this is truly remarkable, and what we know about it (among us generally) is truly pathetic I think. Yet the application of this material to biblical studies is not just pertinent, it is essential.

The fifth on my list is Coptic. No one who studies early Christianity should be allowed to graduate with a Ph.D. without having learned Coptic. There are too many early Christian documents in Coptic for it to be considered just an "additional" language any more.