Friday, May 3, 2013

A wild thought about scripture

One of the things that has deeply struck me as I have been rereading the ancient sources like John and Paul as I am writing chapters for my book The Ancient New Age, is that our assumptions make all the difference to our understanding of what a text says. 

Now this is not a new revelation for me.  I have known this since I was an undergraduate.  But knowing it intellectually is very different from really experiencing it.  Scholars know this.  But, by and large, we don't do anything about it.  We continue to read texts as we have been trained to read them (as orthodox Christians have read them for centuries), and there is great turmoil if someone suggests otherwise. 

We assume that the orthodox Christian reading of scriptural texts is the author's intent.  We gloss and harmonize what doesn't fit.  We do it unconsciously so that the text fits our preconceived mental frames.

With the work I have been doing (some of it in cognitive studies), I have come to see that the assumption that the orthodox Christian reading of scriptural texts is the author's intent is simply wrong.  The authors of the New Testament texts were not orthodox.  They were not even proto-orthodox.  They had their own ideas, many of which were innovative, revolutionary, and wild.

What makes the text orthodox is its interpretation, one that is imposed upon it by later readers who had a stake in how the Christian tradition was unfolding.  We simply have inherited this interpretation and consider it authorial.

There was a war over these texts and their meaning, a war that continues today.  It was an early war too.  This is not about Gnosticism at the end of the second century that somehow got the interpretation of the texts all wrong.  This is about the first century.  It is about Palestine and Samaria.  It is at the root of the Christian faith. 

Paul of the letters is far removed from the author of the Pastorals who tries desperately to tame Paul's wildness, or Luther's Paul who is further excised of any charisma.  John of the Gospel is far removed from the domestication that the Elder in the Johannine letters imposed on John and later orthodox church leaders picked up and developed. 

Once I was able to dislocate myself from my orthodox training, I have come to see that both Paul and John were impacted by Gnostic spirituality.  It forms the center of their concept of the Christian faith.  Both were reacting to Judaism, which they saw as a religion that did not really know the true God or what he actually wanted.  Both preached liberation from the old forms of Servant spirituality that was the cradle of all the Near Eastern religions.  Both believed that the experience of God, the revelation of God, was what mattered, and it was to be experienced by everyone through initiation.  Both were transgressors who understood the old Jewish scriptures in ways that subverted its accepted meanings.  And on and on.

I guess what I am saying is that I think there is more work that needs to be done on Christian origins, work that demands we set aside our assumptions about orthodoxy, and come to see the wild innovative nature of the early Christian communities.


16 comments:

David said...

We have no idea how much we are affected or controlled by confessional assumptions and terms. Rethinking all that is painful.

Mike K said...

Sounds interesting Professor DeConick. Will you be interacting at length with Charles Hill's monograph "The Johannine Corpus in the Early Church"? Hill seems to me to be the leading proponent in claiming that John was well received by proto-Orthodox Christians from early on and trying to overturn the paradigm of Walter Bauer on "Orthodox Johannophobia" and on the initial positive reception of the Gospel in Gnostic (especially Valentinian) circles.

Christopher T. Wilkerson said...

Thanks for posting this -- these are conclusions I have reached intuitively in my own spiritual journey, but hearing them articulated academically, with the requisite scholarship behind them, is incredibly affirming.

Sam said...

I am not sure what kind of "orthodox training Dr. DeConick was subjected to that imposed the mental equivalent of "blinders and straight-jacket" on her views of Spirituality. I can say for certain that I experienced nothing of the sort, either in my Roman Catholic upbringing, or in my Episcopalian adulthood. Both of those traditions qualify as "orthodox" in the eyes of many.

Jeremy Puma said...

I agree, Sam. This revelation seems about as "radical" as the revelation that Jesus wasn't a Christian. GASP!

Hervé Solarczyk said...

isiVery often, we are unaware of our own mental blinds, imitations and preconceptions, precisely because they constitue a filter through which we perceive reality. We may know that they exist, but we do not know what they are (what color the filter is) because we have been taught, or we have come to suppose, that reality is as our perception of it make us think it is. Professor DeConick, you have great merit in discerning these "thought-flters" and seeing beyond them.

eh said...

forgot to mention Peter who has a very deep Gnostic undertone to his writings

Jake Hartwick said...

Well said, April. Eh is right on about Peter. 1 Peter 1:13 (KJV) puts it in a nutshell. The Revelation of Jesus Christ is just the orthodox terminology for Divine Gnosis.

Jake Hartwick said...

Well said, April. Eh is right on about Peter. 1 Peter 1:13 (KJV) puts it in a nutshell. The Revelation of Jesus Christ is just the orthodox terminology for Divine Gnosis.

Jake Hartwick said...

Well said, April. Eh is right on about Peter. 1 Peter 1:13 (KJV) puts it in a nutshell. The Revelation of Jesus Christ is just the orthodox terminology for Divine Gnosis.

Jake Hartwick said...

Well said, April. Eh is right on about Peter. 1 Peter 1:13 (KJV) puts it in a nutshell. The Revelation of Jesus Christ is just the orthodox terminology for Divine Gnosis.

Jake Hartwick said...

Ooops...sorry

Bishop Shimun said...

Sam:

I don't want to speak for Dr. DeConick, but I would hazard a guess that she is referring to the way scholars are taught to read particular texts and to engage in textual criticism.

The kind of training and indoctrination received by a scholar is a touch different than either Anglican, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Evangelical Biblical catechesis, although there are elements of those traditions depending on the seminary.

What Dr. DeConick is talking about has to do with the way a scholar is taught to interpret and understand a text based partially on the context given to that text by what those who came long after the text and the communities where the text was created.

Anonymous said...

This is one argument for them that they can never defend. There are sumerian tablets that are still preserved. These clay tablets are 1000-1500 years older than Moses's Law (writings of Hebrew OT in tablets) yet are still intact and writings are readable.

Since there are nothing to hide, you can see those clay tablets were entirely not destroyed or lost throughout the millenia. But not for 'Old Testament'. They do not seem to want original hebrew scriptures to exist. Why is this?

Why must Greek translations be used as guidance and assumed inpired? Are there unwanted contents in original Hebrew OT that they thought not suitable thus need to be rewrite?

As for Greek "First Edition" of the Gospel, it was written around early 2nd century. Thats arguably 80- 100 years after the preaching of Jesus in Aramaic.

'Fragment P52' oldest surviving Greek New Testament was in the time of Hadrian and has been challenged by Andreas Schmidt, who favours a date around 170 AD (late 2nd century).

Rebecca said...

Yes--but also deconstruct "Gnostic spirituality" along the lines of Michael Williams at least in order to say, there are wonderfully creative and hybridic explorations of cosmic relations, mediations, inner salvation and revelation which our ingrained categories capture rather than explicate.

Alison in Bama said...

How is this a wild thought and not considered a fact? Have students trained blindly for so many years that as scholars they have accepted current interpretations without questioning this from a point of view of culture and history? It seems utterly obvious. Since scholars know this to be true, why is nothing done? Don't fear the challenge that will come with the inevitable blow back.