Monday, February 2, 2009

The Jesus Seminar Jesus is bankrupt: Post 2

I am sorry that this series of posts is taking a while, but I am very bogged down with work in the office as I am sure many of you are too.

I wish to begin by saying that I am not making these posts to be "critical" in a negative way of TJS or its method, that is to be deconstructive, to nit-pick or to gripe. I am writing these posts to reassess the method, and to ask what the method actually can tell us, versus what it can't. And then I want to move forward with this thinking in a constructive manner. I do not know where the series will end up, since I am thinking aloud here. I don't have some grand solution in place already, but only wish to clear the decks and see what is left out there for The Jesus Project.

The dissimilarity principle (what I call the "apologetic principle") is about the strangest principle that could have been invented by scholars. Yet it has been the darling of most historical Jesus reconstructions. It works by trying to identify material that uniquely belongs to Jesus. The idea is that if a saying or action attributed to Jesus can be found in Jewish literature, then we must be skeptical about its attribution to Jesus. It could have been lifted by our gospel authors from the Jewish literature. Because of this uncertainty, the saying or action should be set aside. The same is true in the other direction. If a saying or action of Jesus is reflected in the literature of the early church, then we have to be less certain it originated with Jesus. So that material has to be set aside. It has been expressed this way by Norman Perrin: authenticity is most certain "if it can be shown to be dissimilar to characteristic emphases both of ancient Judaism and of the early Church" (p. 39, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus).

What is left? Well, it is considered the most likely authentically Jesus.

In evaluating this claim we first should recognize the irrational jump from "what is left" to authentically Jesus. There is nothing to suggest to us that the dissimilar leftovers came from Jesus himself rather than from an early charismatic preacher speaking in Jesus' name or an early Christian author inventing material along the way. Without some other evaluative steps, it is impossible to say who originated the leftovers. To say that they are even "more likely" Jesus than the material set aside is simply wrong.

Second we have created the most unlikely Jesus that we historically might conceive. He is a character completely out of whack from the rest of his first-century peers, from his culture, from his immediate past, and from his immediate future. This is why I call it the "apologetic principle" - because it allows us to create a Jesus who is not Jewish. He comes across as a person who, for instance, isn't kosher, who isn't concerned in fact about discussing or observing Torah at all. And he isn't early Christian - at least in the sense that the scholars have defined early Christians as millenarians. This is the way scholars get rid of the apocalyptic Jesus, and the embarrassment of a Jesus who might have been an end-of-the-world failed prophet. It was the early Christians who were the millenarians (not Jesus), so based on the dissimilarity principle, we can delete those sayings from Jesus' recordings that address an imminent coming of the end-of-the-world.

Because Jesus is left with no historical context or continuity, this means that we now have to invent for Jesus his own historical context, which we foist off as "Jewish" since we know that he was a Jew. Thus he is cast by the scholars as a Jewish Greek philosopher and beggar, even though we have no other known instances of Jews in Palestine acting as Greek philosophers and beggars wandering around the countryside teaching wise words and humorous stories as social critique to those who might listen.

What does the dissimilarity principle tells us? It might point out some of the variety of directions that the traditions of Jesus developed - that there was a need among the writers of the gospels to recall a Jesus who was not kosher, that there was a need among some early Christians to recall a Jesus who internalized the Kingdom. Whether these "dissimilar" ideas originated from Jesus himself or elsewhere would need to be subjected to more evaluation before any conclusion could be drawn. I have my suspicions about where and when these dissimilar ideas came into play, but that is for another time perhaps.

At any rate, it is not a principle that we would use to discover "authentic" historical information about any other figure in from the past, so why do we bother using it at all?


Quixie said...

I'm reading along and enjoying the blog.

brainstorm back:

I think it's demonstrable that Jesus (if the story really is based on a real man's life) was almost certainly Jewish in every way that that self-definition meant in the 1st century. It's undeniable that the seed was planted in a Jewish matrix. Where I find a discontinuity is not between Jesus and Judaism, but between Judaism and the early church. I think scholarship has for the most part overlooked this discontinuity and has too easily accepted that the coopted Jewish symbolism in the texts is continuous with the period's normative Judaism.

The Jesus seminar served its function: i.e. to call attention to current scholarship by conferring and then to publish the results of their "voting" experiment. Your critique of their methodology (re: dissimilarity etc) is valid, but like another commenter said, the fact that the Jesus Seminar took place is more important than the actual conclusions of its individual members or its published results.
The Jesus Project is poised (theoretically at least) to engage many of these unexplored presuppositions from a scientific hermeneutic. Who knows? It may be a dead end in the end, but is it inappropriate to try? Should it not be done?



Leon said...

If you ruled out everything Jesus says in the Gospels that cannot also be found in rabbinic literature, there would be nothing left. You would have succeeded in erasing all the evidence. Which is perhaps what many scholars want. This is not very different from what the 19th century scholars did and Albert Schweitzer as well. Many of them asserted that Jesus was outside history. Schweitzer repeated this thought throughout "Quest". At one point, he even says that literal history did not exist for Jesus. Nothing about him could possibly be understood by reference to his contemporary culture.

The so-called dissimilarity criterion is really a case of assuming your conclusion. It's the classic error in science. Scholars assume Jesus was apart from his culture, and then on the basis of this assumption, they "prove" their conclusion. The goal of NT scholarship today is what it has always been: To violently tear Jesus from his culture.

The striking thing is that in 200 years of what is supposed to be historical study of Jesus, no one has even attempted to give a full picture of Jesus' Jewishness. It's not that they have tried and failed, or that there have been various attempts at odds with each other. No, the task has not even begun. Also striking is that you can discover something really significant about Jesus' Jewishness — his repeated teachings about chutzpah — and everyone turns a deaf ear. No one wants to hear it. I don't think there is another field like historical Jesus scholarship which is so intent on erasing evidence that will upset scholars. All good historical arguments must be solidly founded on evidence, but historical Jesus scholarship revolves around preconceived ideas rather than the evidence.

Leon Zitzer

AIGBusted said...

Very nice work April. I've been doing some blogging on Jesus myself lately:


Leon said...

Correction to the first sentence in my post above: Obviously, I did not mean "cannot". The sentence should read: If you ruled out everything Jesus says in the Gospels that can also be found in rabbinic lit, you would have nothing left. The point is that there is nothing that is dissimilar from Jewish culture of the time. It is not only individual sayings and parables, there are patterns of evidence in the Gospels that match Pharisaic and rabbinic thinking.

It is difficult for scholars to accept that Jesus was a full participant in oral Torah. They have always put him at odds with it — on the basis of no evidence. That raises another problem: Misrepresenting ancient Jewish culture (including oral Torah) in order to make Jesus look alone, isolated, and more profound. Scholars have reduced ancient Judaism to a religion of externals. They wrongly make Temple, rituals, and purity concerns the identifying markers of Judaism. Then they present Jesus as being more profound than that. But there are better ways to describe Jewish culture and the accomplishments of the Pharisees. Scholars suppress this knowledge so that Jesus will appear to be completely on his own. But he was very much a part of the deep things the Pharisees achieved.

Leon Zitzer

Homo Escapeons said...

You write with such clarity and sense of purpose..I loved reading your post.

I try to tackle these heavy subjects from time to time but not anywhere near this depth. As a born-again Agnostic I realise that the ultimate question Is There A GOD renders everything else as conversation but it's too much for most to ponder.

Most people either inherit their skepticism or faith from their parents and leave it at that. Our hardwiring has evolved to accomplish bodily needs and I fear that our mental capabilities have outgrown any practical application.
We torment ourselves with these seemingly unanswerable questions.

I realise that the "Church" has had a few Millenia of perfecting the methods of covering their tracks and disguising their motives but I believe that individuals who are dedicating themselves to digging at the truth will eventually help to elevate reality above mythology...but not in my Lifetime (I'm 51).

We are making progress but watching the news and seeing the disastrous effects of the war between competing religious ideologies makes me sad and overwhelmed.

In 150,000 years we've done little to discourage Mother Nature from unleashing the 6th Extinction Level Event. I doubt if she will wait around long enough for us to prove that Yeshua was invented.