Friday, November 30, 2007

Conservative or Liberal Scholarship?

The past few weeks I have been interviewed by several journalists about my book The Thirteenth Apostle. There are a couple of questions that have been consistently coming up, questions which probably shouldn't have surprised me, but did nonetheless.

One question that I get asked is what religion I am. Now I don't have any difficulties with talking about this per se, except that I wonder how many classicists or historians who write books get asked this question in interviews? Why do religious studies scholars get asked this question? The assumption behind this question appears to be that if you study religion, you do so because you are religious, and your work is somehow justifying that religion.

Now this assumption is not completely wrong. There are in fact many religious studies scholars, particularly of the biblical variety, who either have a conscious task of apology, or who are doing so unaware. My readers know that I am of the opinion that historians of religion need to be very personally aware of this, and demand otherwise of their own contributions. Our apology has no place in the modern histories we are reconstructing from our ancient sources.

That said, when I answer the reporter's question, "What religion are you?", with "A liberal Christian" or "A progressive Christian", there is usually a pause as the reporter responds, "but your book is conservative."

How delightful. How fascinating. How paradoxical.

I am not a liberal or conservative scholar. I am a historian of religion whose main goal is to reconstruct the history and theology of the ancient Christians as accurately as I can. If the text had said that he was a hero, I would have supported that position. But it doesn't. So I have to follow through, maintaining academic integrity even if this means that I have to take a position opposite many scholars whom I consider to be friends. Judas is still a demon, even in the gnostic tradition. Epiphanius was wrong, as are the scholars who wish it to be otherwise.


Anonymous said...

I sometimes feel as if the words "liberal" and "conservative" have got to be just about the most unhelpful words available for early christian scholarship.

James F. McGrath said...

What a wonderful post, April (and thanks for your reply about Mandaic)! I'll second the point that 'liberal' and 'conservative' are useless for anything other than comparison - that's why Wheaton College is too conservative and too liberal, depending on who you ask. :)

One scholar whose example impressed me deeply while still an undergraduate is John A. T. Robinson. He didn't care if his conclusion was liberal or conservative. He went where the evidence led him, and was willing to say that he had changed his mind about something.

Anyway, keep up the good work with your liberal conservative scholarship! ;)

Nick said...

Well now I'm sold... I'm going to have to get a copy of your book ASAP.

I appreciated this post very much. We all approach everything with certain personal beliefs but the honest scholar is the one who seeks the truth even at the threat of their personal beliefs being contradicted.

And I'm inclined to agree with James on pretty much everything he said... which probably means that I'm a conservative liberal. ;)

Geoff Hudson said...

A number of characters with the name Judas appear demon-like in the records. Why is there such a strong extant tradition that wants to nail these Judas characters to the floor? Judas really was a demonic name that haunted the writers of the early records. The number of occurrences of Judas as a bad character cannot be co-incidences, but must have some common factor in history. To some who did not live to tell the tale, may be this Judas character was a peaceful revolutionary, not a messianic conservative.

Jim Deardorff said...

I think we should leave open the possibility that a view like Geoff's could be historical. The excess of verbage against Judas in the Gospels, with the writer of Luke-Acts giving him an even more ignominius suicidal death than in Matthew, should raise some questions. Perhaps only if he had written something important but also heretical about Jesus was he considered deserving of such nasty press.

Odin said...

April, in your NYT piece, you say: "Actually, the universally accepted word for “spirit” is “pneuma ” — in Gnostic literature “daimon” is always taken to mean “demon.” "

From what I can see this is simply not true.

You say that you are a "liberal". I don't know what that means; maybe it means that you believe in decriminalization of drugs, legalization of marijuana and gay marriage. That would be "liberal" but I don't see any evidence of you as a theological liberal, and on this initial look at your writing my intuition is that you have an agenda, as most people do, and that it is not simply to seek 'objective history'

You also stated "Jesus wants him informed, so that the demonic Judas can suffer all that he deserves." Interesting that a figure I see as a representative of agape love gets degraded in your vision to a lowly torturer.

I am not saying that you may not have discovered some mistakes in the National Geographic translations, but it seems to me that your mistakes in interpreting the document from the basis of Southern Baptist culture is the greater mistake.

You say that 'Ialdabaoth" is a name given to the "king of the demons" but it is also a name that the gnostics associated with the Hebrew god, Yaweh! and of course in Judeao-Christian theology, that blood-thirsty Jewish god is seen as being the same one as the kind loving god of the New Testament.

So, to sum up, I think your article in the NYTimes was misleading and incomplete and highly polemical.

However, to end on a positive note, you look like a nice lady in your photo.

Tom said...

Odin, you wrote:

April, in your NYT piece, you say: "Actually, the universally accepted word for “spirit” is “pneuma ” — in Gnostic literature “daimon” is always taken to mean “demon.” "

From what I can see this is simply not true.

Based on what??? Please, enlighten us.

April, as a seminarian at Chicago Theological Seminary, I enjoyed the NYT article, and I am enjoying poking around this blog. I hear you 100% regarding "liberal"/"conservative" labels--especially since, as we can see from odin's response, being a liberal or conservative Christian should have little bearing upon the integrity of your scholarship.

Anyway, keep up the good work!

Geoff Hudson said...

We are getting there Jim. The excess of verbage against Judas in the NT, and the even greater excess of verbage against the various interpolated Judas' in the writings attributed to Josephus, can only mean one thing. All the excess verbage was about one and the same Judas, who must have been good, but a darned nuisance to various conservatives who wrote him off whenever they could. All the Judas' could not have been bad.

Robert said...

I read an interesting article by April McConick yesterday in the New York Times, on the Judas fiasco. Among other things, I was interested in an analogy with the Dead Sea Scrolls that she drew in passing:

"The situation reminds me of the deadlock that held scholarship back on the Dead Sea Scrolls decades ago. When manuscripts are hoarded by a few, it results in errors and monopoly interpretations that are very hard to overturn even after they are proved wrong."

From what I understand, the consequences of the Scrolls monopoly are indeed still continuing today, in a misleading exhibit taking place in a "natural history" museum in San Diego. See this insane debate for an embarrassing example of the results this has produced:

Thus, I would suggest that the real question confronting us today is whether enlightened Christian scholars -- by which I mean scholars of Christian faith who, like April DeConick, proceed in accordance with the fundamental scientific standards I would imagine natural history museums are held to, rather than with any religious agenda -- will part company with their Evangelical colleagues and frankly condemn what is going on with the Dead Sea Scrolls in one museum exhibit after another.

James F. McGrath said...

Congratulations, April, on joining the ranks of the honorary Irish! :)