Friday, July 6, 2007

Part 8: Non-Canonical Unease on Iconic Books

Professor Jim Watts has posted his own discussion of this topic on his very interesting blog Iconic Books. He addresses the issue of the marginalization of Nag Hammadi books in the Academy.

He writes very perceptively that the discovery of documents like those from Nag Hammadi has not made much of a dent in the cultural standing of Jewish and Christian scriptures. Professor Watts says:
I suggest that resilience is due to the fact that the Bible’s reputation depends as much on the inspiration it produces through performance in sermon, song and dramatization (now frequently on film) and on the legitimacy conveyed by its iconic representation in ritual, art, and mass media as it does to the textual authority conveyed by interpretations of its message by scholars.

If anything, the main effect of biblical scholarship on public perceptions of the Bible is to emphasize the scripture’s importance precisely because so much attention and effort is devoted to controversies over its meaning and origins. Here may lie one source of anxiety about non-canonical texts: the intuitive suspicion that more attention to these other materials raises their status and dilutes claims to the unique importance of the scriptures.

The history of the actual religious influence of such scholarship suggests that Christians and Jews have little reason to worry. The net effect of comparative scholarship is probably to draw even more popular attention to scriptures whose status is, at any rate, well protected by the ways in which Jews and Christians ritualize their iconic and performative dimensions.
Professor Watts has raised a very subtle but important aspect to our discussion. Does the fact that the canonical materials are ritualized, are "iconic," make it nigh impossible for the study of non-canonical materials to shift the tide (not only in popular sentiment, but also for many in the Academy)?

1 comment:

David said...

Don't think so. I encounter many people in my area who are quite comfortable revising their beliefs and commitments. There are many people who seem to be extremely suspicious of the religious establishment, in all its varieties: reformed Catholics, deprogrammed fundamentalists, etc. These (not so) few are more than willing to entertain revisions of Christian history and theology, almost too willing.

As for the Academy, when the Nag Hammadi and Dead Sea Scroll texts first came out, I would have said "Yes". But it takes 1-2 generations of scholars to get enough experience and distance to appreciate such collections adequately. I believe this is starting to happen now. In fact, my take on the past 15 years of scholarship is that the direction is strongly in the direction of revising our understanding of early Christianity to the point that it strongly calls into question the validity of the received tradition.

The degree of the hysteria is proportional to the degree of denial.