Monday, February 26, 2007

Third Principle of Historical Hermeneutics

I wish to return to our discussion of what a true historical hermeneutic for biblical studies should look like. I have already discussed the first principle in a previous post:
If we are to advance in our knowledge of the beginnings of Christianity, the Academy must throw off the common apologetic position strangling us - that the study of non-canonical documents cannot teach us anything worthwhile (or: new) about early Christianity while the New Testament can. This position must be replaced with the first principle of a truly uncompromising historical hermeneutic, that the historian cannot privilege one set of texts over another, or one position over another.
I have also written about the second principle:
In addition to not privileging the canonical texts and the canonical story they relate, in all our texts we must distinguish between history and theological interpretation of events, between fact and fiction. This is the second principle of historical hermeneutics.
I find this second principle particularly timely to what is going on in the world of archaeology this week. Has Jesus' Family Tomb been found? If so, do we have the bodily remains of Jesus, his brothers, his father and mother? Who is the other Mary in the tomb, the one whose DNA does not match the other family members? Who is Judas son of Jesus? Before we go crazy saying, "no way!", as historians we have to swift through all the possibilities and the evidence, we have to weigh them without apology for the Christian theological tradition. I don't know how it will all be sorted out eventually, but we must not simply give in to Christian apology in our dealings with this evidence. Nor should we succumb to the sensationalism this news is already provoking, and I am truly not looking forward to "Dan-Brown-All-Over-Again."
So let's keep on as historical skeptics, examine the evidence without apology for Christian theology, and see where that leads us.

The third principle of historical hermeneutics is empathy for the ancient Jews and Christians. The historian of religion has a particularly grueling job most comparable I think to the anthropologists who study peoples and cultures. We must beware of ethnocentrism, treating the ancient people as "primitive," "crazy," "backwards," and so on. We also must beware of imposing modernity on the ancient world in such a way that we assume the ancient people operated on the same assumptions that we do, saw their bodies the same as we do, their environment the same as we do, their universe the same as we do. Empathy means that we must try to see the world through their eyes in order to understand what they were saying in their literature and doing in their practices, without judging it or accepting it as historically accurate. There is a difference between empathy and sympathy.

I always tell my students, if you think something you are reading in the literature is "weird" or "crazy," then you don't understand yet the assumptions the ancient Jews or Christians were making. Figure out their assumptions, figure out their worldview, figure out the bigger dialogue, and you will figure out the reference that is troubling you. It only looks "weird" or "crazy" to us because we are unfamiliar with the meta-story it belongs to, because we are trying to understand it as modern people.


Loren Rosson III said...

Well said!

bulbul said...

Figure out their assumptions, figure out their worldview, figure out the bigger dialogue, and you will figure out the reference that is troubling you.

Truer words have never been spoken. Indeed, students of all disciplines studying the past should memorize these words and recite them with their morning coffee.
Thank you, professor.

Phil Snider said...

Now, this is principle I can sign on with. I've spent enough time as a classicist to know that we simply can't assume we understand another (ancient) culture. We do have to try to get into their heads, if, at all possible.


Paul said...

Maybe a fourth principle could be for Christians to have the same sort of empathy with non Christian traditions - to extend it as a hermeneutic for approaching all religious texts. said...

In the field of religion, doesn't the theology of the participants drive their actions?

For example we have 'peaceful' 'Essenes' who were, to my thinking, prophets who obeyed the Spirit. For me, they were the original Christians or anointed ones. The quantum leap they made was to realise that gentiles could be made acceptable to the Jewish god by obeying the Spirit.

Eventually the prophets or Christians did fight to defend their Sanctuary against ransack by Titus. The wealth taken by Titus from Jerusalem was used to establish and sustain the Flavian dynasty.

Simon (to my mind the brother of James and son of Judas) along with other Christians was taken captive to be paraded in a triumph misclaimed by both Titus and Vespasian (Vespasian knew all about misclaimed triumphs). The original Christians were suppressed by the Flavians.

Previously, the Christians had flourished under and been supported by both Claudius and Nero whose disputes and war had been with the messianic priests (messianism drove the actions of the priests - well documented in the DSS).

Later, the 'Christian' religion resurfaced out of Roman culture with a human god Jesus. I have no doubt that there were redundant ex-Jewish priests involved in the transformation.

Phil Snider said...


Perhaps you can unpack what you are saying here because I would suggest that the principle applies to non-Christians to Christian traditions as well.

A general question, though. Just what do we mean by empathy here? Is it, as I read Dr. DeConick saying, understanding that the assumptions and thought-world of the documents we all deal with are fundamentally different form our own and digging deeper to understand that thought-world more deeply? Or, are we asking people to believe what our documents believe when we read them? That is, is it possible for a person who disagrees with the conclusions and beliefs of a text to analyse it sensitively and empathetically?

If we say no to that last question, what does that do to Christian's analysing non-Christian texts AND non-Christians analysing Christian texts. Are not these two problems related?

Grifman said...

"This position must be replaced with the first principle of a truly uncompromising historical hermeneutic, that the historian cannot privilege one set of texts over another, or one position over another."

I don't understand this comment. Surely some texts are more reliable than others. We certainly don't treat some of the mythic texts on Alexander the Great the same as some of the more historical texts. Indeed, it seems part and parcel of the job of the historian to determine which texts are more reliable using historical tools.

All texts are not created equal.

April DeConick said...

This statement is in relation to the canonical/non-canonical divide which is not a historical divide but a theological one. All of our texts must be treated fairly and subjected to the same rigorous historical standards. said...


Would you say that the book of Acts, for example, has more to say about early 'Christian' history than say the Gospel of Thomas? My own view of Acts is that it is a heavily garbled version of what was a real series of historical events, possibly written in the first person as an 'I' and 'we' autobiographical document, nothing to do with Paul.


April DeConick said...

Each of our texts has something to contribute, some piece of the story. The pieces vary. The Gospel of Thomas, for instance, contains within it an older version of itself, an early written gospel of Jesus' sayings from Jerusalem. Acts contains bits and pieces of memories of the church in Jerusalem (and other memories), but exactly what those are is a tough call. That is our job as historians, to shift through all of our texts carefully, judicially and without canonical preferencing, to try to get the full picture. said...


'The story' is fairly obviously several linked stories. To my mind there was no Jesus of Jerusalem involved in the initial story, and Acts begins in Rome, not Jerusalem.

By 'our texts' do you include the writings attributed to Josephus, for example? Because Jesus barely receives a mention in these writings, one might think they had little to say about early 'Christianity', but that would be absolutely incredible given the timing and the circumstances. The editor's paranoia with the name of Judas sticks out like a sore thumb. The various interpolations where the name occurs are spread around the like confetti. Clearly, these passages are garbled versions of earlier texts. In one or two instances at least there are gospel-like overtones which one can even detect in the English.


Grifman said...

I would agree that texts need to be held to the same standard, and the canonical gospels shouldn't automatically be given priority because they are canonical. But I don't think canonical/non-canonical divide is merely a theological one, though the argument often develops along those lines. The canonical texts are the earliest texts we have - earlier than any of the gnostic ones, perhaps with the exception of Thomas, and even that is very disputed. They portray a very Jewish Jesus, while the gnostic gospels portray a very different Jesus. Given the temporal priority of the canonical gospels and their portrayal of Jesus, which are likely to be a more accurate portrait? Whatever their flaws, I'd argue the canonical ones.

Bob MacDonald said...

"between history and theological interpretation of events, between fact and fiction"

I assume that this is not meant to be read as a poetic parallel in which the second phrase interprets and clarifies the first. said...

The messianic beliefs (theology) of the writers of the DSS is at least a predictor of their intent, i.e. that they were prepared go to war to preserve their political independence led by a king who was truly Jewish (11QT56,57,58). The writers were the priests who were quite clearly paranoid about possibility of prophets leading people astray (11QT54).

I happen to think that the prophets of the first century did start a cult of the Spirit as Lord, and that the priests did consider this as leading people astray, and that the priests did persecute those prophets who then fled to Rome to become the first 'Christians' or anointed ones in a foreign land (Acts 1).

My hermenuetic would be: follow the theology to find the real events.