Monday, July 2, 2007

Part 3: What I don't think about non-canonical texts

I appreciated Doug Chaplin's reflections. I would like to respond to some of his concerns. So this is a list of what I don't think about non-canonical texts.

1. I don't think that a newly discovered text is a reliable testimony to the historical Jesus or the early church. But I also question the use of the canonical texts as a reliable testimony to the historical Jesus and the early church. All early Christian texts have one main concern - theology. They are interested in interpreting Jesus and providing the faithful with the faith. Even Luke. How much history we can extract from any of our texts is a difficult question and a project fraught with methodological problems.

2. I do not think that "lost" texts automatically were suppressed texts, although the Church Fathers provide us with plenty of names of texts that were lost and found, texts that were suppressed by them. The question of their value, of course, is a question based on where you stand. If the text is "yours" then it is valuable. If the text is not yours, then its value may be reduced, even negated through systematic suppression and book burning, something we hear plenty of in the ancient documents. If you are in a powerless position - excommunicated for instance - then your text and ideas are more likely to fall out of fashion and be considered less valuable by others than not.

3. I do not think that the orthodox were the only ones who exercised power. The process of normation was a process that included both sides, and the haggling and name-calling and viciousness went both ways (as for instance the Gospel of Judas and the Testimony of Truth show us). But in the end, only apostolic Christianity emerged on top, and in power. And it used that power to erase the other forms of Christianity (and eventually paganism too, and used its power to distance itself from Judaism and denigrate it).

4. I do not think that orthodoxy was monochrome. In fact, it had several expressions dependent on its geographical location. These forms of orthodoxy themselves competed with each other over time, and resulted in the splintering of Christianity into East and West, and so forth.

5. I do not think that the non-canonical materials tell us the "right" story while the canonical texts and later orthodox tradition got it "wrong." The search for the story needs to take all the voices into consideration, so that we can reconstruct a whole picture of the historical origins of Christianity. Erasing or ignoring some of the voices compromises the integrity of the historical search.

6. As for whether or not the non-canonical materials provide us with alternative ways to interpret Christ - this is a contemporary theological concern, not a historical one of mine. A person's desire to deny the possibility of alternative interpretations seems to me to reflect his or her desire to maintain the status quo of the Christian tradition today. This is an issue of self-preservation, not history. Do the non-canonical texts provide alternative interpretations of Christ? Certainly. But whether or not a person finds those meaningful today, is a theological question controlled as much by church leaders as it is by the flock.


Leon said...

Dr. DeConick,

I agree with most of what you have said and will take issue with only one point. By the way, I particularly like point 5, which is to take all the voices into consideration. I would specifically add: The genuine historical voices in the Gospels should not be silenced either, and they have been silenced by imposing a theological scheme on them which actually does not fit.

This brings me to the point I want to take issue with (in #1). I do not think there is as much theology in the Gospels as many scholars often claim. I think there is some theology in them, but actually very little, and there is a lot more history there than people realize. To put it another way (and I risk summarizing my position and thereby not doing it full justice), a scientific approach is essentially conservative; you assume all the data is accurate (after putting to one side any bits you have very good reason to believe are inauthentic) and you ask whether there is one simple theory that could account for this data. Does the data form a pattern that fits the historical context as we know it from other sources (primarily Josephus in this case)?

As you know I've done my own work on resolving the problems surrounding Jesus' death. What surprises me in historical research is that no one has ever asked the scientific question with respect to how Jesus died. Is there a simple theory that explains all this? Skepticism that there might be a lot of history in the Gospels and that there might be a simple explanation should not be used to prevent the attempt to see it (I know you are not doing this, but others are). No one has ever even tried it with regard to Jesus' death. They just repeat that Jewish leaders had it in for him and so did Judas, and yet everyone knows this results in a lot of contradictions.

This theology of blaming Jews for Jesus' death is in the Gospels -- I would not deny it. What no one has paid attention to is with how little the Gospel writers conveyed this impression. And that little bit has blinded us all to what an incredible amount of information in the Gospels actually tells (or preserves) a different story. (I apologize for this long comment, but the importance of the subject compelled me to go on a bit.)

Leon Zitzer said...

Aprils's point 1:"How much history we can extract from any of our texts is a difficult question and a project fraught with methodological problems" is a typical cop-out that I expect from the 'academy'.

And Leon, you should know that even the extant (that is edited) writings attributed to Josephus give very little support to the idea of a historical Jesus - but plenty of support for one Judas.

For me Leon, the Jewish high priests killed one of their own prophets by the name of Judas. He had decided that the time had come to abolish the Jewish law that required animal sacrifices for sins, and he proclaimed a different universalistic route to cleansing by the Spirit. That is what Jewish and Christian scholars alike would find particularly difficult to swallow. Shortly after 70 CE, orthodox Jewish and Christian leaders sold their souls to the Romans. said...

Come to think of it Leon, I would say that one of the prime purposes of the editors of Josephus's original writings was to obfuscate Judas's activities in multiple interpolations of different Judas's. They then were free to set about creating their theological Jesus.

Jim Deardorff said...

"1. I don't think that a newly discovered text is a reliable testimony to the historical Jesus or the early church."

I'm surprised that a scholar would come out with such an unqualified statement! Newly uncovered data needs to be studied carefully for its genuineness and value, without such a negative pre-judgment, before making any such pronouncement about it.

Leon said...

Geoff Hudson,

Since you brought up Josephus, I will just make one point here. The importance of Josephus is not any information about Jesus but the historical context he gives for relations between Jewish leaders and Roman authorities. One thing Josephus makes very clear is that Jewish leaders never cooperated with the Romans in the arrest and prosecution of Jewish "troublemakers" for capital crimes. Absolutely never. There are not even any examples in Josephus of Jewish leaders threatening to turn Jews over to Rome. It simply was not done. And that is not all. Josephus contains some specific information that Jewish leaders would refuse to turn over Jews to Rome if a procurator demanded it.

The significance of all this is that you can apply this knowledge to the Gospels and see the details there in a new light. It is quite clear that Jewish leaders never prosecuted or persecuted Jesus. In fact, there is so much evidence to support this that it becomes a very long story to tell it all.

Leon Zitzer