Convergence and Historical Hermeneutics

As I work on writing my paper for the Codex Judas Conference, I have been thinking about astrology and the idea of sympathy or correspondence, the old saying "as in heaven, so on earth". This has led me to further thoughts about the job of the historian interpreting these ancient documents. Is locating anything close to "authorial intent" possible? Because texts are what readers say they are, does that mean that the historical inquiry is without merit? Since texts are multivalent in terms of their interpretation, is there a point to historical methods?

Certainly this is not a new discussion to this blog. But what is new to me is something that is sort of in my peripheriel vision, not quite focused clearly. It has something to do with convergences or correspondences. Although a text can be multivalent in its interpretation, not all interpretations are historical, nor are all historical interpretations equally convincing. Why is this (here I am speaking of the latter observation)? Because some historical interpretations have a more convincing frame, have more elements that converge with what we know from other literature (and material remains).

What should govern our historical inquiry so that the convergences or correspondences with other information is the fullest it can be? I can think of several things. First, the frame that I want to use when I am discussing any given text is traditional. That is, I want to make sure that the text I'm discussing is being discussed against the frame of its tradition(s). If the text is Valentinian, then I want to talk about it within the pool of Valentinian literature and information that we have access to, and I want to do it against texts that are regionally and chronologically similar (if at all possible). So besides framing it traditionally, I also want to frame it geographically and chronologically.

The other frame I try on is an oppositional one. Are there texts which are competing with the ideology, the sociology, the narrative of the one I'm studying (again, always with regionality and chronology in mind)? What can be known from this comparison?

The final frame I try on is turning to material external to the particular tradition (i.e, not Valentinian) to see if the discussion in my text is being developed or discussed in other places? What can be gained from this frame? is a question I then pursue.

I find this way of working to be very valuable and honest, because it transcends in many ways the interpretative cavern that post-modernity has left us with. But this is hard work, and it requires historians to become more careful and sensitive exegetes. It means that we have to try to work from inside the texts and traditions we have, rather than imposing on them our own wishes for their meaning.

Forbidden Gospels 2007 Retrospect

This was the first year for the Forbidden Gospels Blog (=FGB). I didn't know what to expect when I started this at the end of January 2007. In fact, I didn't bother putting a counter on the site until April 2007. I was so new to blogging, I didn't even know what I would write about or who would be interested in reading what I would write.

But here I am at the end of the 2007 year looking back at my 340 posts and considering what good has come of all of the chatter. Has the FGB made any difference to the biblioblog world, to the academic conversation, to the larger things of life? I guess my readers must be the judges of this when all is said and done. But here are a few areas that I think this blog has made some difference this year.

1. Gospel of Judas.
This blog raised awareness of the problems with its initial National Geographic translation and interpretation, and the fact that full-size facsimiles were not released to the scholarly community as they should have been according to the 1991 resolution passed by the Society of Biblical Literature. This resulted in the writing and publication of my book The Thirteenth Apostle, the publication of the Op. Ed. "Gospel Truth" in the New York Times, and the publication of "More on the Gospel Truth" in the Society of Biblical Literature Forum. All of these items were featured on the FGB, along with many more posts that can be read in chronological order of posting here: FGB on the Gospel of Judas.

The end of it is not in sight. National Geographic Society just uploaded zip files of all the texts in the Tchacos Codex (Dec. 23rd), so we finally have the full-size facsimiles although I think their resolution is only web quality. Nonetheless, we can now begin to critically work these texts. Thankfully they were made available prior to the Codex Judas Congress, which will take place at Rice University in March 2008 (13-16th). So the scholars coming to the conference will have the photos to work from. In the coming year, I will keep you updated about this Congress, which has been made possible by generous funding through the Faculty Initiative Grant at Rice University.

2. Mandaean Emergency Campaign.
This blog has supported the campaign to help relocate the Iraqi refugees in the US as soon as possible. This blog has promoted a letter writing campaign and has circulated a petition. To read all the Mandaean postings, go to FGB on the Mandaeans.

I was hoping that by Christmas we would have the 1000 signatures needed to complete the petition, but we seem to have stalled at 524. Please, continue to circulate this petition. Tell your students about it in the new year, pass the information on to your family and friends, send out the link in mass e-mails if you can. Let's get this petition finished and sent through the proper channels so that the last living Gnostics may find a place of refuge away from persecution. Here I invoke the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas 68: "Jesus said, 'Blessed are you when you are hated and persecuted. A place will be found, where you will not be persecuted.'" Let us create that safe place in the US for the Mandaeans to survive.

3. A voice for historical hermeneutics.
It is my ardent opinion that when the recovery of history is our goal, theology and apology must not be mixed into our investigation. It matters not the outcome of our historical quest - whether it ends up pleasing the so-called religious conservatives, liberals, or no one at all. What matters is that the quest is as honest to the historical evidence as possible. This is a hermeneutic that I try to uphold at all costs. Historical inquiry must be preserved and distinguished from the faith quest and its issues.

The FGB has many features on the hermeneutics of history, and I have experienced something of its effects with the publication of my analysis of the Gospel of Judas which has been lauded by some of faith as a condemnation of "liberal" scholarship. This is an outcome I find at once fascinating and disheartening, since my work on Judas has absolutely nothing to do with supporting people of faith or undermining "liberal" scholarship. If Judas had been a hero, believe me, I would have been one of the first to jump on that bandwagon. But my historical investigation led me to a very different conclusion, which I'm sure you all know too well by now.

With this, I want to send out my thanks to all my readers - those who agree and who disagree with me. I have learned an enormous amount from you this year, and I look forward to continuing our conversation in the year to come. Happy New Year!

Conservative or Liberal Scholarship?

The past few weeks I have been interviewed by several journalists about my book The Thirteenth Apostle. There are a couple of questions that have been consistently coming up, questions which probably shouldn't have surprised me, but did nonetheless.

One question that I get asked is what religion I am. Now I don't have any difficulties with talking about this per se, except that I wonder how many classicists or historians who write books get asked this question in interviews? Why do religious studies scholars get asked this question? The assumption behind this question appears to be that if you study religion, you do so because you are religious, and your work is somehow justifying that religion.

Now this assumption is not completely wrong. There are in fact many religious studies scholars, particularly of the biblical variety, who either have a conscious task of apology, or who are doing so unaware. My readers know that I am of the opinion that historians of religion need to be very personally aware of this, and demand otherwise of their own contributions. Our apology has no place in the modern histories we are reconstructing from our ancient sources.

That said, when I answer the reporter's question, "What religion are you?", with "A liberal Christian" or "A progressive Christian", there is usually a pause as the reporter responds, "but your book is conservative."

How delightful. How fascinating. How paradoxical.

I am not a liberal or conservative scholar. I am a historian of religion whose main goal is to reconstruct the history and theology of the ancient Christians as accurately as I can. If the text had said that he was a hero, I would have supported that position. But it doesn't. So I have to follow through, maintaining academic integrity even if this means that I have to take a position opposite many scholars whom I consider to be friends. Judas is still a demon, even in the gnostic tradition. Epiphanius was wrong, as are the scholars who wish it to be otherwise.

Talking about miracles

Okay, I have to chime in on the miracle discussion that seems to have enchanted the Christian Origins list serve as the result of Crossley's and Bauckham's discussion at SBL. But I'm going to be brief.

First, if biblical scholars were more concerned about operating as historians than theologians this wouldn't even be a discussion. Historians do not begin with the position that miracles can happen (because God can do anything he wants to do) therefore Jesus performed (or: could have performed) miracles.

When miracles are attributed to famous people in historical writings - and there are many examples beyond Jesus - historians start with the position that these are stories meant to attribute certain superpowers or status to the famous person, or are being used to show the ancient reader that the person being described was thought to be extra-ordinary, divine or godlike. Why should the historical study of Jesus be any different in terms of method?

Second, the fact that this IS a discussion, and that some biblical scholars actually approached James Crossley, maintaining that we can't rule out that Jesus could have performed miracles, should not come as a surprise. The issue at stake is really not about miracles, is it? It is about apology and having it dominate and control our discourse as biblical scholars. It is no wonder that classicists and archaeologists and ancient historians look at our work with suspicion.

I am not going to get into the discussion about whether or not miracles can or cannot happen. I am tired of that discourse and all the false labeling that goes on with it. What I want us to face is the fact that we, as biblical scholars, are willing to suspend what we know about our world when it comes to Jesus and so-called historical research about him, but we are not willing to do so for other figures.

How can we know anything from our texts?

J.C. Baker left a very good question in the comments of the previous post:
I am glad to see this discussion on the historical validity of Acts. I am working toward a dissertation in Acts and cannot simply dismiss that there is some historical value in Luke's narrative. Granted, my minor is theological hermeneutics so i am constantly asking, "how do we know anything is of historical value?"
This is THE question, isn't it? It is a question that we must keep before us every minute as we work through our texts. Skepticism must be second nature. But a working skepticism doesn't mean that we ditch the text as unable to yield any historical information. For me it means that we start with the assumption that the text is not directly relating history - that is, as it is written, it is not telling us how history actually happened. It is a narrative of memory and theology. As skeptics, we begin from the position that the narrative must prove its history to us.

So the real quest is the one of historical hermeneutics, trying to recover elements that are older than the narrative itself, elements that might point us to an earlier time - to an earlier history and an earlier theology. Since communal memory functions to continually update the older traditions to keep them fresh and relevant, we can recover older memories and perhaps even sources by observing how the present author reworks the materials to his liking. Whatever he is reworking, is received tradition that he wishes to revise. This I call for lack of a better term, identification of authorial revision of received tradition. So this is my first step in historical reading.

My second step is reading against the grain, trying to read the narrative against its intended purpose, to see if this reveals anything of merit. Part of this process is identifying anything in the narrative that doesn't support the agenda of the author, anything that conflicts with the narrative's flow or the author's stated theology, anything that doesn't fit the author's contemporary story.

Third, I try to identify the bigger story that the author assumes its audience knows but which we might not know. Other contemporary texts help here because they may contain elements of this bigger picture. Mainly, it amounts to sitting down and mapping the elements in the narrative that are introduced but never explained. Then trying to understand these elements based on our knowledge of other texts from antiquity.

Fourth, I use other contemporary texts as points of comparison. In the case of Acts, we are so lucky to have Paul's letters (and James - yes, I think that James is an early letter from the Jerusalem church). These letters give us comparison points to evaluate what is going on in Acts.

Is Luke a trustworthy historian?

I want to pick up a thread from my last post, one that I left dangling yesterday. I want to pose what I consider to be a very serious question.

Why is Acts written off today as a Lukan myth with little or no historical value? Why do scholars who wish to argue for the historicity of elements of Acts have to go through an inordinate amount of justification before doing so?

I ask this question for several reasons, reasons that feel schizophrenic to me:
1. When Luke uses Mark, he does not rework Mark as much as Matthew.
2. When Luke uses Q, Q-scholars tell us that he retains Q better in terms of verbage and order than Matthew. In fact, our reconstructed Q is versed according to Luke.
3. Luke tells us in the beginning of his gospel that he relied on older sources to rewrite the Christian narrative which we apparently trust given our hypothesis that Luke is a second edition of Mark.
4. If we think that Luke used Mark and Q as literary sources, wouldn't the best assumption be that he also used older traditional sources for the composition of Acts?
5. If 4 is valid, then shouldn't we be trying to figure out what those older traditions are and what they tell us about Christianity earlier than Luke?
I might add that many of the same scholars who are Q experts, are also the scholars who completely discard Acts in terms of any historical value.

I know that many scholars in the previous generation trusted Acts much more than is done today and perhaps more than it should have been. They didn't allow skepticism to be in the forefront of their scholarship; and more than not they were controlled by a Christian apologetic agenda.

But this doesn't mean that in response we should throw the baby out with the bath water. In my view, it means that we have to get back to the hard work of sifting through the actual primary text narrative to recover any historical nuggets we might be able to locate.

Rewriting Early Christianity

My previous post, as many so far this semester, are coming out of research questions that we are pondering in NT and Christian Origins as well as the related Rice Early Christianity Research Seminar (RECRS) where we are going back to ground zero and engaging in thought experiments from the primary texts forward. There is a sense when this is done that things haven't yet been sorted out. There are many tough questions, particularly about the years 30-50, that we must grapple with anew, without the Christian apology that has dogged and continues to dog the historical processes of reconstructing early Christianity.

There is also the desire here at Rice to provide an alternative seminar exploration to the newly reconstituted Jesus Seminar as the Christian Origins Seminar. It will be illuminating to see how the two seminars struggle with the same issues, and finally sort them out. We plan to publish our reflections, although we don't have a dedicated publishing house such as Polebridge. So we will probably submit to NT journals and see what happens.

As for Michael Bird's question about my take on Acts (he wrote in the comments on the last post: "Does this mean that Luke gives us 'reliable' history about the Jerusalem and Antioch churches? Just curious :-"), I have some remarks.

I am not of the opinion that has taken over scholarship - that Acts is a myth created by Luke with little to no historical value.

First, it bothers me very much that as scholars we rely on Luke's gospel for Jesus' words and even deeds when reconstructing our historical Jesuses, but declare Acts devoid of historical value about the early church. This appears to me to be a modern academic agenda to erase or marginalize the Jerusalem church and replace it with original multiple competing Christianities, with the most original represented by Q1 from Galilee. I have a lot to say about this figment of scholars' imaginations, but I won't go into it here because it is off topic.

Second, when we make a careful comparison of Acts and Paul's letters, there is much that they agree on or share similar knowledge of. The biggest issue for me is their agreement that the Jerusalem church was the authority on matters Christian prior to 70. At the very least we can say that if you weren't networked into the Jerusalem church, if you didn't have its blessing, you were in for a struggle.

Third, through careful historical analysis, reading against the grain, and the like, there are elements of Luke's account that can be taken seriously, while there are others that can tell us a lot about how communal memory operated in late first century Christianity, revising and remembering the older traditions in a certain nuanced way. So I like to say that Luke preserves memories of early history. It is our job as scholars to sort out what those are, and to differentiate those from the communal memory at the time that Luke is writing and his own agendas as a narrator.

PS...I met Mark Nanos years ago at a conference at St. Andrews, when he was just starting graduate school. I have always found his opinion on Paul refreshing since he reads him from a Jewish perspective, which is also my preference.

History, the Bible, and Belief

If you haven't ventured over to Judy Redman's blog for a while, she has what I think is a very interesting post. It comes out of her experience as an ordained minister, and I find that it says a lot about the problems/challenges that historians face in the classroom and in lecture halls when discussing biblical materials from a critical perspective. The question that is raised comes from one of Geoff's comments. How did we get to be religiously illiterate people? Why are we so willing to be modern with everything else in our lives, except when it comes to the Bible?

Judy discusses the sorts of reactions that people have to historical criticism of the Bible. These are typical too in my classroom and in public lecture venues, especially when people are first-timers to critically and historically assessing biblical materials. Some are delighted to finally be discussing issues that they haven't been able to do in typical confessional groups. They are finding answers to questions that they have had for years. They engage and express relief and true joy. Others wonder what is going on and want to know when am I going to start talking like a minister. Still others close down because what I do with the texts is not something that they have encountered before in church or bible studies. I usually hear criticisms - that my approach to the biblical literature is "biased," by which is usually meant that I am biased because I do not assume the text's inspired nature and infallibility. In this way, whatever historical work I do on the texts is dismissed by them off hand.

I have wondered about this for years, since it is a continual struggle. Where does this illiteracy and the resistance to becoming literate about biblical issues come from? Judy tells us about her experience within the church, and I find this "confession" fascinating. What I have thought about in this regard is not so much the church, but at least here in the States, the separation of Church and State. Many Christians complain about this separation because they want to pray in schools and hold bible studies as part of the curriculum; but really the separation of Church and State has done more to foster their devotional Christianity than not. Why? Because 100% of education about Christianity is controlled by the churches, until college when it can be elected as a class. So when students come into one of my classes approaching the bible from an historical-critical perspective, there is no preparation for that. Since what I do is so different from anything they have encountered before in the pew, it is easily dismissed as "biased" against Christianity, and folded into the "false teacher" rhetoric.

So I add to Judy's opinion that church leaders have kept the historical perspective under wraps - when the State can't teach youngsters about the critical history of religion(s), this leaves its education to the Church, which can choose what it wants to tell its parish and what it wants to keep silent about.

Now, just in case you jump to the wrong conclusion, I'm not advocating that the State take control of religious education. Why? Because I am more afraid of how terribly this would be done than I am about leaving it undone. I am afraid that it would turn into involuntary confessional bible courses, rather than historical critical studies of the bible and religion(s) such as is done on university campuses.

Long and short of it - if you go to college, take Religious Studies courses and learn. If you don't go to college, go to the bookstore or university library and get books (respected historical ones; not pop junk) to read on your own. As far as religious education, it is up to you.

SBL not an important venue for critique?

Again, I have to disagree with many of my good friends and those who have posted in the comments on my previous entries, that SBL is not the forum to critique the Pope's book.

Who attends SBL? Scholars of biblical literature and its cognate fields, ministers and other people of the cloth, graduate students and seminarians, editors and publishers. It is exactly these people who need to be discussing the Pope's book publically, and then returning home to talk to their parishioners and students about it. These are also the people who write books, articles, reviews, and speak to the media when called upon. It doesn't matter that SBL does not have a direct public audience. It is the direct scholarly, ministerial and student audience that will make the difference, who will individually bring the discussion back to their own enclaves in this world.

It is vital for the members of the Society of Biblical Literature to step up to the plate and address matters of the public and the bible. Much of what we do is erudite, but not all of it has to be. I think that as a Society, we must make a concerted effort to educate the public (beyond the classroom) about the academic study of religion - what it is about and how it is different from the doctrinal or theological study of religion. If we don't, we are only fostering the "religious illiteracy" of the public and its consequences (which reach deep within the political, social, economic, etc. spheres).

(4) Are Gnostics fringe believers?

My third point was that most biblical scholars aren't interested in studying the NH documents because they are perceived to be late and therefore of no consequence to Christian Origins. The same is true, I suppose, for ante-Nicene literature in general. Not many biblical scholars take the time to become well-versed in much beyond the apostolic fathers.

This is a terrible mistake in my opinion. Christian Origins isn't just about studying the historical Jesus or the rise of the first Christian Jews or the study of Paul. Christian Origins is about trying to map out how an obscure Jewish messianic apocalyptic movement became a Christian religion by the time of Constantine. The second century is the "moment" when this transformation was underway, when the normative process kicked into high gear.

It is a fallacy, although one tauted around frequently as fact, that the "other" forms of Christianity in the second century were "fringe" groups of Christians. Part of the reason for this characterization is that for years we have called the proto-orthodox tradition "mainstream" while all the other traditions "alternatives." Although better than "orthodox" and "heretical," this is language that still gives us a false impression. It is still language that is the consequence again of our theological heritage, the desire to preserve authentic biblical faith of the churches today. Our tradition is "mainstream"; everyone else's is "alternative." This makes it seem like everyone else is on the "fringe" of Christianity, and that they are small, minor or deviant movements.

I have realized the problems with this language only recently. So in my newest book on the Gospel of Judas (The Thirteenth Apostle), I have shifted the language I use to talk about the second century Christians. I now use the term "Apostolic church(es)" when discussing what we have previously called "proto-orthodox" or "mainstream." This shift in language suggests something much closer to the truth: that the Apostolic Church was one variety of Christianity in the ancient world, and in the second century it was not yet the dominant form.

The literature tells us - both the patristic and the NH - that the "other" forms of Christianity were in no way fringe or minor. The Church Fathers tell us over and over again, how massive the Churches of Marcion and the New Prophecy were, how widespread the Gnostic teachings. How concerned were they? Enough to write volumes and volumes against their teachings. Tertullian alone devotes an entire book to depose Valentinianism; five books to criticize Marcion. Irenaeus' Against Heresies is no small feat arguing against minor forms of Christianity. Etc. In the ancient world, where literacy is low and writing expensive and for restricted purposes, the massive amount of rhetoric written against these people is extremely informative.

The literature produced by the "other" forms of Christianity looks scant only because the members of the Apostolic Church burnt it. But these other Christians were equally prolific in their writing and instruction. We happened to get lucky with the NH and Tchacos finds, which recovers part of this other literature. From it we can tell that they were very very sophisticated theologically, and were often critical of theologies of the Apostolic Church. And we can see theologies develop within the Apostolic Church that respond to the criticisms of the other Christians. The theology of the Apostolic Church would not have become what it did without the Gnostics and other Christians (and Jews) as dialogue partners.

The next time we want to dismiss the Gnostic material in particular as late and irrelevant, just remember that a version of the Apocryphon of John existed by the time that the Pastoral letters were written (about 130 CE)! Basilides was our first known commentator on any NT books, teaching and writing around 120 CE. By 120 CE, Valentinus had already set up his school in Alexandria and was a well known theologian. Carpocrates similarly was fully operational at this early date. Marcion (who was no Gnostic) was not only functioning in this period, but had successfully established his own churches with the first NT canon in place (Luke and ten of Paul's letters).

Doug has an interesting post on his blog about this very issue, and how it is perceived by people outside the academic sphere.

(3) Is Coptic a hindrance to serious study of NH texts?

My second point was that the Nag Hammadi texts are in Coptic, a language not as accessible to NT scholars as the language of the DSS.

Okay. But so what. Learn Coptic.

I have been a strong advocate that Coptic become a regular language in any Christian Origins curriculum. It should not be considered an additional language to Greek and Hebrew. Over fifty early Christian texts are written in Coptic, and this doesn't even begin to include the early monastic literature, although the early monastic literature is farther removed from the study of Christian Origins than the second and third century literature from NH and the Tchacos Codex.

If a scholar doesn't learn Coptic, he or she can only include the Greek literature in any discussion of early Christianity and Christian Origins. This means that his or her study of the period is lopsided, including only the NT texts and the early fathers. Not knowing how to read Coptic is not an excuse for excluding almost half the literature from full consideration in our reconstruction of early Christianity.

If you want to learn Coptic, it is taught at many major universities. The International Association of Coptic Studies keeps a web page of all places where Coptic is taught. There is one very good learning grammar by Thomas Lambdin. There is another that has just been published by Bentley Layton, although I have not received my desk copy yet to comment on its usefulness as a learning grammar. Crum has been reprinted. There are also online resources available. I have all of these links here. Click and scroll down to Coptic History, Literature, and Art - General Resources/Coptic Language Resources.

Update: July 30, 2007
Mark Goodacre here also recommends that all graduate students in Christian Origins learn Coptic early in their career.

(2) Is Gnosticism Perverted Christianity?

As promised, I'm going to unpack my earlier post. My first reason why the NH documents aren't used or known by scholars as much as the Dead Sea Scrolls: because they were quickly labeled "Gnostic." "Gnosticism" has been used as a pejorative term meant to label texts that "pervert" scripture and the "real" Christian faith. Why would any "real" biblical scholar want to waste time studying perverted Christianity?

There are several things I'd like to note about the inaccuracy of this position for those of us invested in the historical hermeneutic:

1. Not every piece of literature in the NH collection is "Gnostic." The Thomasine literature is simply early Christian literature that represents the earliest form of orthodoxy in eastern Syrian around Edessa - a mystical form of Christianity that required celibacy to be admitted to the church. There is some Hermetic literature in NH collection (i.e., Discourse on 8th and 9th; Ascelpius). There is some Platonic literature (i.e., Republic). There is some early Christian (i.e., Teaching of Silvanus; Letter of Peter to Philip). To lump them all together as "Gnostic" and then ignore them is a way of marginalizing forms of Christianity that aren't familiar to us.

2. The word Gnosticism is a term relatively modern (18thc.) and it does not reflect the historical reality of the second century. There was no Gnostic religion separate from Judaism and Christianity or trying to pervert Christianity. Gnostic thought developed first within Judaism as a way to read the Bible literally while also maintaining the cosmology and anthropology of Middle Platonism. By the early second century, Christian theologians like Basilides and Valentinus who were philosophers were reading Christian scripture through this same lens. Orthodoxy did not yet exist, so there was no "real" Christianity to "pervert." There were many varieties of Christianity competing to control the Christian landscape. The "real" story is that Christianity was diverse in its early expression, and became more and more singular as borders were drawn and ideas and practices limited by very powerful bishops in the big metropolitan areas like Alexandria, Rome, and Antioch. This story is quite different from the one that these bishops claimed and which scholars for centuries bought into: that Christianity was singular in its early formation and that heretical thinkers (the Gnostics!) emerged along the way to lead good Christians astray.

3. The notion that Gnostic thinkers were perverting authentic Christianity is a theological position, not a historical one. It is a position with theological investment, that is, securing and maintaining the "real" and "biblical" Christianity of today.

4. If we want to know how the heck early Christianity formed into the type of Christianity it did, the second century is what we have to study. It is in the second century that the boundaries are drawn and the lines lay out. Everything prior feeds into it and everything after flows out of it. It is a period when normation is at a high and yet nothing has been established. Everyone is talking to everyone else and defining their own positions over and against those of others. Everyone is control of his own piece of the pie and no one owns the whole pie but everyone acts as if he does. Really understanding the second century literature is the only way to really understand Christian Origins. Christian Origins is not just about the creation of the NT books, or what the NT books can tell us about the first Christians. Christian Origins is about understanding how a messianic apocalyptic Jewish sect became a Christian Church by the time of Constantine.

5. If we take seriously the fact that the heretic was not a heretic before he was labeled a heretic by someone else, then the second century literature becomes even more interesting. What was the heretic before he became a heretic? Orthodox? Think of the Ebionites. Their form of Christianity was akin to the "original" form of Christianity of the Jerusalem Church (pre-Paul). By the mid-second century, they are heretics. Why? Because the Christian population became dominated by Gentiles, and their Jewish constituency became in their eyes an oddity and a liability. So the original form of Christianity was declared heretical by the newer Christians. What might this say about the Gnostics?

(1) Why Nag Hammadi texts aren't as interesting to scholars of early Christianity as the Dead Sea Scrolls

Jim West has made an interesting observation in a recent post. He has noticed that more scholars of Christianity show interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls than in Nag Hammadi. Why? he asks.

I have thought about this for a long time. It is one of the reasons why I started this blog - to raise awareness about the Nag Hammadi writings and to focus attention on why they are so vital for us to study as biblical scholars. I'm also trying to get an exhibit of Nag Hammadi manuscripts to accompany the Codex Judas Congress, but this will depend on whether or not the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities will allow them to leave the Coptic Museum. Let us hope!

I think that scholars of early Christianity are more interested in the Dead Sea Scrolls for these simple reasons:

1. The Nag Hammadi documents got labeled pejoratively "Gnostic" from the beginning. Doresse when he looked at the first codex and read a few lines made the announcement that these books were Gnostic writings. In the 1940s and 1950s this was not a positive spin (and frankly it still isn't). In fact, many early commentators talk about these texts as "perverting" scripture and the "real" Christian faith. Since our field is so dominated by this theological perspective, the study of "perverted" literature was not considered important. Many scholars (even yet today) wonder why any "real" biblical scholar would want to waste his or her time studying perverted Christianity. I know this because scholars have said this directly to me, calling the literature "crazy" and "a waste of time."

The Dead Sea Scrolls never had this labeling problem. My understanding of the spin originally put on the scrolls is that it was not one of a perversion of "real" Judaism, but of a disgruntled sect of Judaism (the Essenes), a sect that might tell us something about Jesus and early Christianity. For scholars of Christianity at the time, this was a positive thing because it helped them explain the formation of Christianity which was for them like the Essene movement, a critique or revolt against Judaism. From what I can tell, this was part of the anti-Semitic explanation of Christian Origins common at the time. The other explanation was to erase its Jewish roots by demonstrating the victory of Hellenistic thought and practices. So Christianity was understood to be a Gentile religion that superceded and erased the Jewish one.

2. Because the Nag Hammadi materials are in Coptic, they are difficult for the majority of scholars to assess in the original language. This is not the case with the Dead Sea Scrolls whose original language is much easier for scholars of the bible to handle.

3. The Nag Hammadi materials, for the most part, are from the second and third centuries. Most biblical scholars don't even study the ante-Nicene fathers let alone the Nag Hammadi documents because they perceive the time period to be later than the NT, so therefore inconsequential to biblical studies. This is not so for the Dead Sea Scrolls which predate the NT writings.

4. Gnosticism is a word with a lot of baggage, most of it completely inaccurate. One of these inaccuracies is the belief that Gnosticism is a religion in antiquity that is separate from Judaism and Christianity, that is is a revolt against Judaism and Christianity. So scholars who understand Gnosticism as a religion separate from/revolting against Judaism and Christianity, do not see that the study of Gnosticism has anything to contribute to the study of the bible or early Christianity.

In future posts, I will address why each of these assumptions needs to be reassessed by all of us studying early Christianity.

More about Hybridity

There have been some interesting comments on my last post on hybridity. So I want to respond here to those.

In my opinion, hybridity is a buzz word, and it is problematic because many in our field are applying it too loosely. Often I think that it is being used to try to dress up our field and discussions so that it appears that we are saying something new. There is a tendency in many fields to use arcane insider language instead of transparent. This has always been a gripe of mine about the field of philosophy, and I resist bringing over this language into my own writings UNLESS it is going to help us.

The usage of hybridity is confusing in our field when it moves out of the arena of imperialism and post-colonial analysis where it can be argued to make some sense (but, even the scholars who study post-colonialism cannot agree if it is a best term to use or not!).

To apply it as a descriptor of the tradition of early Judaism-Christianity (pre-Nicaea) - to call this a hybrid - is misleading. It is a "single" tradition that develops positions internally that eventually, through normation, compete and force the consolidation of two separate and different traditions with common heritage.

Gnosticism is not a hybrid either. It does not represent the mixture of the views of a colonizer imposed on the colonized. It is the Platonic world view made biblical by people who wanted to think in these directions. It has nothing whatsoever to do with post-colonial hybridity and imperialism.

Gnostic movements did, however, make other Christians anxious, but then other forms of Christianity made certain Gnostic groups anxious as well. I don't think this had to do with hybridity producing colonial anxiety. I don't think that Irenaeus really cared whether the Gnostic groups laid claim to Christian tradition - what he cared about was the fact that some of his own church members, including one of his deacon's wives, had joined a Gnostic church down the street from his own. This led him then to begin to criticize the Gnostics for not really being Christian, but trying to trick people into thinking they were Christians by stealing Christian language and ritual.

All religions may indeed be syncretistic. But this is not a reason to discard the word or replace it with hybrid (which is a word that has too much baggage from the sciences and from philosophy, and is not being applied carefully enough in our field). To say that a religion is "syncretistic" isn't the point. The point is to describe and analyze the way in which this is true. Then a whole range of possibilities presents itself in terms of politics, normation, religious identities, and all the rest.

Hybridity, the new buzz word

Since my summer is filled with catch up reading and writing, I have become very aware that post-colonial hybridity has found fertile ground in recent publications in the field of early Jewish and Christian studies. In postcolonial studies, "hybridity" refers to "the creation of new transcultural forms within the contact zone produced by colonisation" (Aschroft, Grittiths, Tiffin: Post-Colonial Studies, p. 118)

A hybrid, if I remember my biology correctly, is an often (always?) sterile offspring of two different taxa. So a donkey and a horse make a mule. A blackberry and a raspberry make a loganberry. A fallen angel and a human woman make a giant (okay, not in our biological world, but in biblical mythology!).

I have nothing particularly against the term "hyridity" when it is applied in the context of two or more different aspects of society-culture morphing into something other, although I know that the word is debated in post-colonial circles.

In religious studies, one of the words that we used to use to talk about this phenomenon was "syncretism," which still seems like a good descriptor to me. So the worship of Serapis was a religious movement that morphed out of the mixture of Egyptian devotion to Osiris and the religious sentiments of the Greek colonizers. His name is a combination of Osiris and Apis, a bull god that was worshiped at Memphis. The Greek ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy I established the cult of Serapis at Alexandria and incorporated features of Greek worship including iconographical features of Zeus.

As a side - when I was in Egypt last, I made the trek down to Alexandria - a spectacular city on the coast - and visited the Serapion site. This picture is from that adventure. It was an incredibly beautiful day. Below the Temple ruins was a huge underground library, with shelves carved out of the rock ledges.

Although "hybridity" might be used to replace our term "syncretism", I wonder if its application as a descriptor of early Judaism-Christianity is really such a good idea. To apply this term to Judaism-Christianity before Judaism and Christianity became distinct, only serves to confuse an already confusing nomenclature. Christianity was Jewish for almost two centuries, although by the mid-second century some demarcations are beginning to be either created and/or acknowledged. But this entity was not a hybrid that developed out of Judaism and Christianity merging! It was more like an androgynous entity which became two religious traditions over a long period of time. Maybe I should coin the term "androgynity" to refer to this phenomenon?!

Composition in an Oral-Literate Culture and a Book Note: A Full Hearing: Orality and Literacy in the Malay World (Amin Sweeney)

What does a book about contemporary literacy in Malay have to do with biblical studies? Quite a bit actually. As I continue to prepare my paper "Memory and the Sayings of Jesus: Contemporary Experimental Exercises in the Transmission of Jesus Traditions," I find myself drawn to all kinds of studies on orality and literacy. Sweeney's book, A Full Hearing, is particularly interesting to me because it examines a society dominated by orality but encountering literacy. Fascinating is Chapter 9, "Oral Orientation in Written Composition," in which Sweeney describes the shape of Malay literature, a literature preserving orality. He writes on pp. 307-308:
"The introduction of print literacy - which brought with it the possibilities already realized in the 'donor' cultures - did not cause a clean break with the past. Even those highly literate in a Western language who rejected the old modes of expression found themselves in a battle with the past when they wrote in Malay, for the language brought with it the past, a past of radically oral manuscript culture...The introduction of print literacy did not cause an immediate change in the general state of mind. The natural tendency was to perceive the new in terms of familiar schemata. The result was that even the educated sector of the populace continued to favor a paratactic, formulaic, copious, repetitive, narrative, and concrete mode of expression. Such a mode was necessary for effective communication in an oral or aurally consuming society; in a print culture, it is not: what became redundant in print now strikes us as mere verbosity."
When we think about the oral-scribal culture of the ancient world, and the type of literature that we are dealing with by and large, we see a similar oral mode of expression dominating the writing. What our early Christian literature is, is literature produced within orality, often as a support for oral performance behaviors, including reading which was an oral-aural enterprise.

I am more and more convinced as I continue to immerse myself in these studies, that our old way of framing the Synoptic Problem (and the Thomas Problem) just is not correct. We don't seem to have a good enough handle on how the ancient peoples actually composed literature, and for what purposes. We must push head on in the direction of orality-scribality if we are ever to have a chance to work out these issues fully, and we must leave behind the cut-and-paste literary redaction model, which may work for our world of composition, but has little to do with oral consciousness and composition of works within that type of environment.

Five lessons about Normation

I use the word "normation" to describe the process whereby one religious tradition asserts its superiority over others, particularly laying claim to being "the" orthodox tradition, while others are considered to be lesser, defective, or downright errant.

What lessons about normation might we be able to learn from the most recent declaration by the Vatican and the reinstatement of the Catholic Latin Mass?

1. What is written as normative by one religious group does not reflect the religious reality. In this case, the written declaration of the Catholic Church uses language of superiority, describing other forms of Christianity in deviant and "lesser" terms. But the fact is that other forms of Christianity do not consider themselves to be deviant or lesser, nor do all Catholics themselves think along these lines. Because one group describes another group as thus-and-so does not mean that the other group is thus-and-so.

2. Normative posturing in religion is successful because of its appeals to authority, appeals which are meaningful to certain parties, but do not reflect the fact that other parties have their own equally successful appeals. In this case, the appeals from the Vatican come in two ways: Roman successorship of the Pope (Petrine authority), and apostolic succession (our tradition is a continuation of the tradition that has been handed down from the twelve apostles).

3. Normative declarations result in confusion and offense. Need I say more?

4. There is always response to normative posturing (although in the ancient world this may not always be captured in the literature). Typical responses include outrage, anger, insult, defensiveness and questions like why would you say this about me? My religious views are just as good as yours if not better.

5. The group that is norming will then consolidate its position, sometimes adjusting its previous position, sometimes intensifying it.

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 4: Have we decided anything about the resurrection?

I want to thank every person who took the time to comment in the resurrection posts (Steven Carr, John Noyce, Bryan, Geoff, J.D. Walters, Jim Deardorff, James Crossley, Doug Chaplin [who wrote his own excellent post on the subject], Danny Zacharias, John, Tim Henderson, Deane [who also posted on the resurrection], Leon, and Loren). I have thoroughly enjoyed reading them and I have learned from your generosity of knowledge.

1. I am reaffirmed (thanks to an anonymous blogger named "John") that I should stick with SBL (smile!). I think he is right when he says:
I think you would grow tired, eventually, of the relative monotony of the AAR crowd, careful as that crowd is to rule out of consideration the possibility that God in the classical Jewish or Christian sense exists, while ruling in every imaginable modern ideology as a platform from which to interpret religious texts. I can't imagine you disagreeing that many AAR papers (I've heard or read many myself) are little more than sermons which preach to a choir of choice...
2. Mr. Walters has written many fiery comments in all the resurrection posts, and says that my position is nonsense and that I have misunderstood his. Certainly I do not consider my position that "dead bodies stay dead" nonsense. We can argue many things are possible, and that there are no absolute conditions for laws of nature. Tomorrow I might wake up to find myself green, or the floor no longer solid, or dead bodies rising out of the tombs. But I doubt that that will be the case tomorrow or the next day or any day of my life. Mr. Walters is correct that an inductive argument does not lead to a logically necessary conclusion. But the point of making arguments from history is that they are very strong inductive arguments. The argument that Jesus wasn't physically resurrected from the grave is a very strong inductive argument, much stronger in my opinion than the opposite - If anything is possible, Jesus could have risen from the grave, because we can't say based on inductive reasoning that on one can rise from the grave. On this point, I would like to quote from one of Wade's books by Simon Altmann (Is Nature Supernatural? p. 55-56):
I must remark for the moment that the question of the use of induction in scientific practice remains one of our major problems. I shall later propose a solution based on the principle that propositions in science never stand or fall on their own; that they must be closely knitted within what I shall call the scientific mesh of facts and theories, and that the use of induction for a proposition can only be legitimized when the proposition is integrated (or, as I shall call it, entrenched) as part of this scientific mesh.
It is my opinion that Altmann's "solution" is the one that historians should (even must) own as their own. Without it, we cannot "do" history, as we cannot "do" science.

3. Deane has a wonderful response to my thoughts that just maybe there were some Jews around the time of Jesus who toyed with the idea that some of the righteous dead had already been resurrected. Yes, this would have quite the implications for christology, if it is so (which I'm still pondering). I had always assumed that the righteous dead were "spirits" living with God before the end-of-the-world - Loren is correct that there is a difference between immortality of the soul and a resurrected body (Alan Segal has made this very clear in his wonderful book, Life After Death) - but the teaching attributed to Jesus is not making this argument. He is arguing that the resurrection of the dead is proven because Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob live with God already.

4. Leon has pointed to a couple of OT stories that he thinks could be understood in terms of resurrected bodies. First to note - the stories probably did not refer to resurrection "originally." But what they may have come to mean to Jews in the first century is another story altogether. My question is this: Are bodies brought back from death the same as resurrected bodies in first century Judaism? Maybe. On this point I think of the story of Jesus bringing Lazarus back from the grave and John's understanding of this in terms of resurrection: "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live..." (11:25). If Lazarus is the beloved disciple in John (and I think he is the only good choice narratologically), then the Johannine Christians thought that Lazarus had been resurrected from the dead and thus would never die. So they were surprised and traumatized when he died (John 21). I guess what I'm saying is that whoever wrote John believed that the raising of Lazarus was his resurrection.

5. I think that naturalistic explanations can explain the story about Jesus' physical resurrection. I have thought for a long time as James Crossley has indicated, that we should be investigating these sorts of explanations. James writes in the comments:
I find myself more and more coming to the same kinds of conclusions on the issue of historical practice. There are *always* plenty of alternatives to supernatural explanations. Consequently, it becomes futile to try and explain things with reference to supernatural which can hardly be measured or analysed in a meaningful (in terms of historical reconstruction) way.
For me this would be emphasizing religious experience, psychology, dream states, construction of memories within an eschatological Jewish community, transmission of stories in oral-literate environment, and so forth.

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?