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.