Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Proof is in the Pudding

John Shuck's comments on several of the method posts has generated some more thought on my part. When it comes right down to it, how is it that we evaluate methodology if as Paula Fredrikson insightfully says, "Once method determines our perspective on our sources, how we see is really what we get" (p. 7 of Jesus of Nazareth)?

To use an old proverb, "The proof is in the pudding." This is really a shortened version of the even older proverb, "The proof of the pudding is in the eating." What both mean is that the true value or quality of something can only be judged when it is put to use. When we use the phrase, we mean something like "the results are what count."

When I think of this in terms of the historical Jesus, or my own work on the Gospel of Thomas, what this means is that a methodology has done its job well if the results make sense given everything else we know about Second Temple religiosity and the formation of early Christianity. For me, this means that if Jesus doesn't look Jewish, then there is probably a problem with the method, and it needs to be adjusted.

In terms of the Gospel of Thomas, if my method yields information about the text and its theology that is in accord with what we can know about other early Christian texts and their theologies, then my method has done a satisfactory job.

It is like my algebra teacher in high school used to tell us. If your answer looks off, you probably made a mistake.


John Shuck said...

Thanks April!

I am really fascinated with this kind of thing!

I love the whole methodology question. I think of Dom Crossan's preface to his popular version of "The Historical Jesus", in which he writes an imaginary conversation with Jesus:

Crossan says (to Jesus): "And my method. It was particularly good wasn't it?"

I affirm absolutely that Jesus needs to look Jewish. But what does it mean to look Jewish? I gather that there were many kinds of folks who looked Jewish but looked quite different from one another.

Could not one have been cynic and Jewish, gnostic and Jewish, pluralistic and Jewish?

It would be interesting to define more clearly what it might have meant to look Jewish in the 1st and 2nd centuries.


April DeConick said...


Yes being Jewish is a pluralistic question at any time, not just the first century. The difficulty I have with a cynic Jew, is that we have no other examples of a cynic Jew in any of our known literature. So that raises a red flag for me. Have we created cynic Judaism and what we think it should have looked like?

Phil Snider said...

Sorry, I really feel like a broken record, but, in answer to your algebra teacher, looks off by what standard?

It isn't that I disgree about your suggestion that, if we get a non-Jewish answer for the world of Jesus, we probably don't have it right or that Thomas needs to understood within his own theology. But, what I worry about is why one standard has priority over another. That is how do we know a good theory from a bad one.

I ask this because famous last words in scholarship is 'this has to be true'. So, I ask again, how do we know?


John Shuck said...

Hi April,

Thanks for that.

I am with you on the lack of parallels with the cynic Jew.

Yet it seems odd to me that there are so many parables associated with Jesus. What other kinds of folks told parables like that? That isn't to say that Jesus is unique or special or different from his time and people. But I wonder what kind of person would be remembered by having so many parables attached to him.

I guess I also wonder to what level the cynics might have interacted and shared with Jews then.

Then of course, I ask what of course is a cynic!

john said...

What is wrong with an 'Essene' type of Jew? May be the characteristics of what we know about 'Essenes' (to my mind prophets) do not match those of the prophet of the NT. But then how reliable is the NT in its portrayal of the prophet? Have some of the parables or stories been garbled to portray a different character from that of the real prophet? I would suggest there is intrinsic logical evidence in the extant text that it has been garbled so. Unlike texts that were buried shortly after being written, the text of the NT was exposed for some time to editorial development. I cannot believe that there were not original texts of a purer prophetic nature. I would suggest, for example, that references to destruction of the temple, were originally references to destruction of the altar for burnt offerrings which was built of loose unhewn stones - thus one stone was not to be left upon another. Further, I would suggest that in the writings attributed to Josephus, there is garbled evidence that the prophets did indeed attempt to destroy the altar in front of the sanctuary.

The stone that was rejected was not the 'cornerstone' meaning Jesus, but the imaginary trapezoidal capstone that would have made a complete pyramid out of the altar and pointed to heaven, i.e. the priests rejected the Spirit as Lord.

'Essenes' (prophets) had their own 'lustrations', i.e. they burned incense in the sanctuary to invoke the presence of the Spirit of the Lord.

Geoff said...

I would suggest a sequel for an apocalyptic prophet: A cornerstone is foundational - it can't fall anywhere. A capstone can fall and crush. The Lord, symbolised by the imaginary pyramidal capstone of the altar, can come down in judgement. Thus the Lord as a capstone became Jesus the cornerstone of the church.


April DeConick said...


I understand your frustration. But the answer isn't that complicated, at least not as complicated as you make it seem. We know an incredible amount about what the religious landscape looked like in the first century, including the complex tradition we call Judaism. The historical Jesus has to fit this landscape.

We also know an incredible amount about early Christianity in the first century. We know that there were concerns that the End hadn't happened, and we know that Gentiles came to dominant the movement, and so forth.

No matter what the post-modernists wish us to believe, there are certain things we can know as historians.

Phil Snider said...


I do actually know that there are things we can know about 1st century Judaism and Early Christianity. Nor, appearences to the contrary, am I particularly post-modern in my own methodology. My training as a Classicist (up to, but not completing the PhD) has, I think, innoculated from the worst of that nonesense.

I might be hearing wrong, but the logic here seems circular. What I'm hearing is the evidence should determine the method, but the method is justified by the results which the results we can expect. Perhaps I'm mis-interpreting you, but that is what I'm hearing in this conversation. That worries me.


April DeConick said...


No that is not what I am saying at all. I am saying that if the results do not make sense within the patterns of ancient Judaism and early Christianity, then the method should be re-evaluated.

Phil Snider said...


Okay, I suspect that I was fuzzy when I first read the post. I still am a bit (my cold is mostly better, but I`m still not at my best yet). My apologies for the mis-reading.


jayj said...

Let’s think about JUSTICE.

When I die, should I want justice?

I’m dead after all. Isn’t that a punishment? How can I die and then be given justice? Shouldn’t I be given justice before I am punished (i.e., die)?

Unfortunately, if I am given justice before I die, then, if I am judged positively, I will not die.

Justice and death are an illusion. By that I mean the combination of justice and death. Perhaps Justice by itself is not an illusion. Perhaps, Death by itself is not an illusion.

How would I know? I have not had death nor have I had Justice.

The proof is in the pudding?