Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Scholars as heresiologists

I want to draw attention to Tony Burke's new contribution to the SBL Forum. He has taken his analyses of modern scholars' presentations of extra-canonical texts and written a fabulous critique. He has called it HERESY HUNTING IN THE NEW MILLENIUM. I recommend reading the entire piece. Here is the beginning:

A cottage industry of books has emerged in the past few years responding to apparent "attacks" on the Christian faith by such perceived enemies as the Jesus Seminar, Bart Ehrman, Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code, and the discoverers of the so-called Jesus Tomb.[1] Targeted also in these books are the texts of the Christian Apocrypha (CA). The books are transparently apologetic with the aim of disparaging the CA and the Gnostics who (they say) wrote them so that their readers will cease being troubled by thei texts' claims. The problem with such books, at least from the perspective of those who value the CA, is that they often misrepresent the texts, their authors, and the scholars who study them. Proper research and sober argument take a back seat to the apologists' goal of buttressing the faith.

In many ways these books read much like the works of apologetic writers from antiquity, such as Irenaeus and Hippolytus. They too were concerned about the impact of non-canonical texts and heretical ideas on their readers and sought to reinforce the faith by denigrating and ridiculing their enemies. Then and now accuracy was sacrificed to the needs of apologetics. Yet, perhaps there is something that scholars of the CA can learn from the modern apologists, something not only about ourselves but also about those who were attacked by the heresy hunters of the past.

Tony has very good insights in this piece, and I hope he considers writing a book on this subject. It would be a real service to the field. Tony shows how there is a group of scholars writing for the popular audience today who use the same techniques as the ancient heresy hunters in order to discredit the apocryphal materials, techniques like name-calling, ignoring scholarship to the contrary, misrepresenting scholarship to the contrary, etc.

This is one of the major reasons, in fact, that I started this blog, have begun to write books on Gnosticism and the other gospels for general audiences, and have increased the number of general lectures that I am giving. I am very concerned that the general public has been misled and misinformed by scholars who are writing with apology as their main goal. These authors appear to be ill-informed about the apocrypha and scholarship on it, especially Gnosticism, and this information is being passed on as credible by editors and publishing houses that do not care to promote good scholarship, but only are concerned about the dollar.

So send me your questions. What do you want to learn about? And I will write some posts in response. Let's get your questions answered.


N T Wrong said...

Well, because you asked. I've often wondered to what extent and in what ways Christian doctrine concerning the divine was influenced by the emerging Rabbinic orthodoxy (ca. AD 200). That is, Rabbinic orthodoxy seems to have introduced a stricter monotheism to the matrix of Judaisms that included Christianities. Did that part of Christendom which is now called 'proto-orthodox' Christianity likewise, and in response, seek to 'tone down' its polytheistic understandings of divinized humanity, a divinized Christ, angelic and demonic beings, and a Most High God? How do the discussions going on in Rabbinic Judaism provide a normative influence on Christianities which previously seemed quite open to a hierarchy of divinities, even in its 'proto-orthodox' quarters, as is evidenced in the Epistle of the Apostles, or the Odes of Solomon, or Mileto, or the Gospels of John and Thomas?

April DeConick said...

This is a luminous question from someone with wrong as a name (smile!). I will address this in a post soon.

Meg R said...

Thank you for posting the link to this article. I tend to lurk this blog most of the times, but this really prompted me to write my own response which I ended up posting here: http://zarephathcs.livejournal.com/581354.html

N T Wrong said...

Thanks, April. I'll keep a look out for your post.

I enjoy having a read of your apocryphal quotes, by the way.

David Creech said...

An interesting article, though it seems to me that his response does not necessarily facilitate conversation (it reminds me of the Testimony of Truth or 2nd Treatise of the Great Seth). I think that many of the authors he cites do have an agenda, but his position is hardly neutral. I wish we could figure out a way to have intelligent debate from various perspectives without polemics.

April DeConick said...


Objectivity is not neutrality. Tony's piece in my opinion is objective. He writes as a historian who points out the Christian apologetic agenda of some popular writers who are misrepresenting other scholars' work as well as the ancient documents they are writing about. This is not neutral. Who says that neutrality is what we are after?

Pastor Bob said...

First, stating my bias, I'm a pastor. I read Burke's article and was surprised he didn't mention the process of canonization. Do some of the writers he criticizes mention and follow that? There were some early writing that were quite orthodox (even by the early apologist's standards) that didn't make it into the canon. In fact, if I remember correctly, in the various pre-canon lists there were some that didn't make it into the final canon.

As for Brown, it was a NOVEL! Sure he gets some of his references wrong but it wasn't intended as rigorous scholarship.

And as for the Talipot tomb, I watched the show and was surprised by some of the leaps, particularly to the supposed James ossuary.

I don't understand it. As Burke says, why not interact with real scholarship? Dr. DeConick keeps putting up sections of the apocrypha, particularly from Thomas that come very close to sections of the canonical gospels.

David Creech said...

My point is that name calling, even objective name calling, does not facilitate dialogue. This is for me a challenge in the academy. We come to the table with a variety of experiences and persepectives, and those backgrounds inevitably inform our scholarship. Instead of embracing those differences and talking about how they enhance the dialogue, we simply write people off, as the various early Christians--Apostolic, Gnostic, and otherwise--did. The Witheringtons of the world may not want to listen to us, but since we're so open minded can we listen to them?

JCEdwardsStAndrews said...

To be fair, it should be noted that there is a detailed reply to the Burke article on Rob Bowman's blog. Bowman states "This post is the first installment (Lord willing) of a thorough reply to Burke’s article."



Damian said...

I have a question similar to N.T. Wrong's, if you care to address it. I'm curious about the influence of the changes in Judaism in the first few centuries on the formation of the Christian 'Canon'. It seems to my limited P.O.V. that there was, but it'd be interesting to hear an experts opinion on the subject - you certainly know a lot more on the subject matter.

Bostonian Palamite said...


I love the work you do. My wife would kill me if she knew how much money I've spent on your books. I am convinced that your voice is quite important, all the more so by the largely esoteric label which has fallen to much of what you're digging toward.

But can we say that Irenaeus' anti-Gnostic writings and modern Revivalist anti-Gnostic-research writings come from an identical intent, much less an identical faith? Before laying that as a foundation stone to build upon, perhaps more work could be done asking how the intent of the modern "apologists" and the ancient "apologists" are similar. I will be up-front that I suspect most of the similarity to be only apparent - the intent to protect a real or mis-perceived "flock" does not mean that "protect" or "flock" or even the motive for the intent mean the same in each case, much less a whole range of other contextual issues. By saying this I don't mean to say that this and similar question cannot be profitably raised, but I would plead that more caution about what is "proved" or "demonstrated" be taken.

Your latest post is wonderful, by the way!

R.Eagle said...

I'm on the late-freight here, Dr. D....but I didn’t want to miss my opportunity to chime in.

I think you are right about how much of the visible Biblical "scholarship" is shoddy. That is, much of the material in the popular bookstores today (and probably since the late 70’s/early 80’s) is apologetic, evangelical and overwhelmingly one-sided.

Yet, for a time, I supported these apologists. And for a time, being in agreement with these apologists among others, I would have seen someone like you as being a dreaded “liberal” theologian and as one who was misguiding people as to who Jesus Christ (Christian-fundamentally-evangelically, speaking) really is (as they see him and no other).

But something I've found of equal if not greater concern is how I (like so many others still) especially supported (past-tense for myself at least) one of the So Cal mega-churches (one of whom most certainly conveys the idea that they've got the market on the truth), and most of whom have pointed people in the direction of these so-called Biblical scholars for further indoctrination, people like Walter Martin, Ken Ham, and Norman Geisler, for example.

But then, when I got to college, among other experiences, I saw how ridiculous it was to believe in a 6000-year-old earth or how I was supposedly an actual, physical descendant of some man and woman named Adam and Eve.

So, among other concerns and questions, I think it needs to be visibly/popularly shown that these business-like mega-churches DO NOT have the market on Biblical truth, much less overall reality.

Another concern is how many of their followers seem to be perfectly fine with being spoon-fed “Scripture” versus learning how to challenge one's ideas, as well as the LETTER of Scripture and not be afraid of science and history or anything one feels might be circumventing his/her fixed ideas about God, Jesus, and man.

Now I feel better ;-).

andrewbourne said...

I wonder where my old Professor Keith Elliott would come on this list. I studied at Leeds University and did his module on Apocryphal texts your blog keeps me in touch with htis work

Leon said...

You are leaving out the greatest weapon that scholars wield when suppressing any "heresy" or view that disagrees with the mainstream scholarly position: The silent treatment. The most effective form of censorship or suppression of an idea is simply to pretend it does not exist. Thus, the scholarly world presents an almost unanimous position that some Jews were involved in the death of Jesus, notably Jewish leaders and Judas (though they also blame a wider circle of Jews). Scholars simply will not allow any debate on this. Though they have an extremely poor evidentiary case for their ideas, they have forbidden anyone to demonstrate this. Scholars have assumed their conclusions and censor anyone who demonstrates that this is what is going on. It is heresy not only to suggest that NT scholars indulge in irrationality, but proving it is simply out of the question altogether.

If you even dare to suggest that a very rational case can be made that Judas did not betray Jesus and Jewish leaders were not complicit in his death, you will be banned forever. No debate. Just silence.

Leon Zitzer

N T Wrong said...

You may be getting a little paranoid, Leon.

Speaking as a New Testament 'scholar' (which, as my dictionary tells me, means a student/studier of the New Testament, and which is the best definition I know of), I agree that a good case can be made for suggesting that the 'Jewish conspiracy' in the Passion Narratives is entirely fictional.

My entirely non-silencing response to you is: 'Go for it!'

Leon said...

NT Wrong:

I have gone for it and I have proven my case. Let me clarify the point I made above.

I agree that there is a kind of attack on scholars that is not fair and brands them, in effect, as heretics just because they investigate other forms of ancient Christianity. But I cannot feel sorry for them because in a way they deserve it. Call it poetic injustice. Mainstream, and even not so mainstream, scholars have done their fair share of branding anyone who disagrees with their anti-Jewish approach to the NT as a heretic. It's okay to see Jesus as superficially Jewish or a little Jewish to add some Jewish color to scholarly views, but to see him as deeply Jewish is still a forbidden topic. Anyone who tries will be suppressed. I know whereof I speak. The evidence for this kind of suppression is voluminous.

Just one example of Jesus' deep Jewishness: Jesus talks a lot in the Gospels about chutzpah towards God as a valuable quality to have. My experience is that scholars would rather not know any of this.

Second, I do not merely claim that the anti-Jewish story of Jesus' death is fictional. What I claim is that there are only a few elements in the Gospels that are anti-Jewish. Most of the details in the Gospels and Acts are either pro-Jewish or neutral, but it all adds up to a tale of Jewish leaders and Judas helping Jesus. The evidence is there in the Gospels and Acts. NT scholars suppress this and suppress anyone who tries to present it. Again, the evidence for this is abundant. I claim that NT scholars consistently misread the evidence in the NT by erasing any evidence that speaks favorably of what Jewish leaders and Judas did. Raymond Brown was one who at least had the honesty to admit that this is what scholars must do. They silence voices from the past by wielding an eraser as their best tool.

To sum up my point: There is more anti-Jewishness in scholars than there is in the NT. Scholars use their own anti-Jewishness to read it into the texts even where it does not belong. The evidence as to what scholars are doing is plentiful. Scholars will simply not allow anyone to demonstrate how their own tendencies have messed up study of the NT. You are considered a heretic if you do it. Some of these scholars are now getting a taste of their own medicine. It's wrong to suppress anyone's work or to treat it in a hostile way, but I cannot feel sorry for scholars who still do the same to others. They have nothing to cry about.

Leon Zitzer