Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Part 7: Doug Chaplin's further reflections

Doug Chaplin has put up a lengthy response on his blog here. I copy here only a small bit which I want to say something about.

Doug Chaplin says:

It seems to me, however much I value historical scholarship, that it is never divorced from the concerns, reconstructions, arguments and possibilities of the present. Nor unlike some, would I collapse it into those concerns. (See my post here) Being open to the way in which one’s scholarship will be used, is itself an important question. I think it slightly disingenuous in a historically gullible, controversy and novelty seeking, media-led culture to suggest that the question of “alternative interpretations of Christ” is controlled either by church leaders, or their flock.

It is the use, not the study, of these texts, as I have said before, which causes me unease. But I don’t think that those who study them can, or should, do so, without due consideration for how they can be used, and be sure that they are being entirely clear about what they are, and are not saying. It is because of that, that I particularly welcome the clarity and helpfulness of this series of posts.

To say that it is the media and not the church that has responded negatively to "alternative interpretations of Christ" is neither disingenuous nor gullible. If the churches were to take these alternatives seriously rather than treat them as heresy or strange ideas, we would see a very different value placed on these texts. I don't know what church world you live in Doug, but my own experience and the experiences of those Christians I have had contact with have taught me loud and clear that the churches today do not take seriously alternative interpretations based on non-canonical gospels. In fact, they do not even acknowledge them as "alternatives." And this has played out in academic circles - certainly not for every scholar, but for the majority of the Academy.

It may be important to you to worry about how historical studies of the non-canonical texts are used by others, but it is not to me. I have absolutely no control over what people do or don't do with my work, and I would never adjust my work to suit the tastes of those perceived audiences. If I were to do so, my work would lose all historical integrity. What I can control is that my work is as honest and accurate as I can manage given my skills and knowledge. What happens to it after that is out of my hands, and will not be a concern of mine.


Leon said...


If you are going to worry about the ways that non-canonical texts could be used or misused, then it is only right that you should worry about the ways that canonical texts are used and misused. This applies not only to religious literature. Think of the ways Darwin's theory was misused by Nazis or Einstein's theory of relativity was misused by people who wanted to argue that all moral values are relative. Everything gets misused and that includes the authorized Bible.

But historical study is a good value in and of itself. It is better to know the truth or to comer as close to it as we possibly can, and to argue sensibly (e.g., pointing out when our conclusions are at besr highly probable rather than absolutely true). And if this is a valuable goal, then fighting abuse of power, which prevents honest historical investigation, is also a valuable enterprise. As I noted on another post in this series, Pharisaic/rabbinic culture had a lot to say about abuse of power and this was Jesus' culture, a culture he loved very much. I am only suggesting that Jesus might smile favorably on anyone who exposes power when it is used to suppress the search for truth.

Leon Zitzer

Doug Chaplin said...

Thanks for this discussion. I have, in the light of you comments, sought to clarify what I was saying in a new post on the topic. I don't expect us to fully agree, but do feel you have misunderstood (or I have badly expressed) my point on the use of scholarship. I am certainly not suggesting altering the research to suit the audience.

Geoff Hudson said...

The gnostic texts may not undermine the idea of the Christ so much, but they do undermine the idea of the human Jesus that most traditonal Christians wish to preserve. Take the gnostic texts on board and the human Jesus becomes defunct. Hence the churches resist gnostic alternatives.

Many of the academy accept the idea of the Christ but are shy about the human Jesus? One southern Baptist Pastor I know of is certainly that way. I have to wonder how he tells his congregation.

I believe we should be looking for an alternative human Jesus, by the name of Judas. Now that really would put the cat among the pigeons.

Leon said...


No author can foresee all the misinterpretations their work will be subjected to. I don't think Darwin could have foreseen Nazis let alone what they would do with his work. After all, he did not even invent the term "survival of the fittest". That came later.

As for Einstein, he was a classical physicist. He believed in the laws of nature. What he meant by relativity was that the point of view of the observer was relative, but what is being observed — the laws of nature — is not relative. How could he possibly have predicted that others would say that we can apply his ideas to laws of morality and argue that moral laws are relative? It's absurd and we should point that out, but that is all we can do.

Authors only have an obligation to be as clear as possible. And if they are misrepresented, then others who come after have an obligation to point out that the author has been put to misuse. As for the media, they are pretty much beyond anybody's control. Some people think they can play the media, but they usually end up losing. Striving for clarity is all anyone can do.

Leon Zitzer