Friday, July 6, 2007

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?


Leon said...

I agree with Dr. DeConick that there is a problem with the Academy and it goes beyond their reaction to the non-canonical texts. They have the same negative reaction to any study of the canonical NT that points to evidence scholars have ignored. Nobody ever says, "Good for you. You're discovering new things in the NT and demonstrating that we have exaggerated, for example, how much anti-Jewishness is in the texts. Good for you that you are upsetting the traditional story of Jesus surrounded by Jewish enemies." That's not what the Academy says. Instead, they react with a kind of horror that their control of the NT is challenged. Good science is about learning to see — to see the evidence, all of it — and that is not exactly welcomed with open arms by the Academy.

Leon Zitzer

Jim Deardorff said...

In that example, Leon, you may be underestimating the amount of canonical anti-Jewishness. If you follow the part of the external evidence that places a Hebraic Matthew ahead of Mark, you find that Mark is grossly anti-Jewish, upon comparing parallel passages between it and Matthew. This has been done here, in a modified Augustinian hypothesis for solution of the Synoptic Problem.

Leon said...


By reading too much anti-Jewishness into the canonical Gospels, I mean something very specific. I am referring to the way scholars see only one story there, no matter which Gospel they are examining and no matter which one they say was written first — one story of Jesus being done in by Jewish enemies, whether it is Judas or the priests or Pharisees or a Jewish crowd. Hostility between Jesus and other Jews is the only thing they see. Tell them there is a lot more evidence to contradict this and they get a wee bit irritated.

As most scholars tell it, the details in all 4 Gospels give us a story of a Jewish crowd cheering for Jesus' crucifixion, choosing Barabbas over Jesus, Judas betraying him, Jewish leaders putting him on trial, turning him over to the Romans, etc., etc. A few details support this. Very few, actually. Most of the details in all 4 Gospels contradict this, and the majority of scholars ignore this. It is simply not up for discussion.

The so-called Jewish trial (in reality, an informal meeting) in Mark and Matt are so close that it is really one account. It appears that the priests pronounce a death penalty on Jesus. But there is no Jewish death penalty in Luke. There is none in John either. And at Acts 13:28, Paul is quoted as saying there was no Jewish death penalty. This is just the tip of the iceberg. There is much more. My point is that most scholars are extremely hostile to discussing this evidence and will ridicule anyone who does, though what they prefer in the first place is to give it the silent treatment.

Leon Zitzer