Sunday, September 7, 2008

1 comment:

Leon said...

I could not agree more with everything you have said here. And the way the religious right is taking over and affecting studies is particularly disturbing. We now have a de facto religious test for high political office. You have to prove that you go to church and value faith. We have attempts to teach the Bible in high school without telling everyone that it is the Christian Bible which will be taught — not only in terms of translation, but the very order of the books of the Hebrew scripture will be a Christian order carrying a theological point.

But if I may, I want to bring attention to a point usually neglected. We have not yet achieved true historical study of the Bible and especially of the New Testament. Theology intrudes everywhere. There is a theological assumption which even so-called historical scholars make and that is that Jesus was alone and isolated in his Jewish society, an outsider, with no deep or harmonius bond with others like the Pharisees. The evidence is then manipulated to fit the conclusion. This is not historical study.

I recently read a scholarly article online which favorably quoted another scholar saying that Luke-Acts presents a uniformly negative picture of the Pharisees. Really? What about Pharisees inviting Jesus to dinner (Luke 7:36, 11:37, 14:1) and Pharisees warning Jesus about Herod (13:31)? What about Pharisees helping Jesus' followers at Acts 5:34-40 and 23:6-9? Erasing evidence like this is not historical study.

Or look at Marianne Sawicki's book "Crossing Galilee" (2000) which I have just been reading this weekend. There is quite a lot to admire here. She has a deep sympathy for ancient Jewish culture and its developing rituals that is rare in any Christian scholar. She refers to rabbinic literature much more than most and she presents Jewish culture in positive ways, particularly in its creative resistance to Roman imperialism. But at one point she says about Jesus, "He is mestizo, culturally mixed, out-caste, transgressive of borders. That is why he can see things in a new way" (194). What she does not tell you is how much the Pharisees ignored the importance of blood-line and created a meritocracy where learning counted for more than anything. A learned bastard, as the Mishnah puts it, was valued more than an ignorant high priest. It was also a story-telling culture where all could participate. When Sawicki discusses Jesus' sayings, she never tells you about the same sayings in rabbinic literature, despite her openness to the latter. Why? Because there is this Christian theology that dictates that Jesus must have been alone and isolated. It is forbidden to see him as part of Pharisaic/rabbinic culture. Instead he is assumed to have been apart from it. Even when she gets to the salt sayings, she never brings into the discussion that, in rabbinic literature, salt was said to promote good health like a medicine. Bread and salt was a basic meal that could stave off illness. It might have some relevance is all I am saying.

The point is that we do not challenge enough the presumption that study of the New Testament has become a sound historical discipline. We are still silent when theological assumptions actually prevent honest, objective study of the evidence. We have surrounded so-called historical studies with a mantle that prevents criticism of its theological agenda. That is not good.

Leon Zitzer