Monday, February 28, 2011

Transtradition Criticism

If you have been following my blog over the years, you know that one of my keen interests is becoming aware of how we read texts and the assumptions we make as biblical scholars. Although I think that postmodern critique has been useful in highlighting problems of authorial intent, monolithic hermeneutics, and the politics of power, we must bear in mind that these problems were known to scholars of modernity already. The difference that I see between the modern and the postmodern discourses is that the postmodern critique has moved the conversations out of historical time into disembodied discourse without attachment to the empirical. This has left us in the Middle of Nowhere. It is suffocating the Humanities more broadly. It is isolating biblical scholars more and more from history, while supporting the growth of contemporary theological readings instead.

It is this move that haunts us now, and requires us, in my opinion, to re-examine our old tools and refashion them, rather than abandon them. We are in a crisis. The moment to act is now. We must return to a more pragmatic approach that takes seriously the empirical. Theory comes and goes, but the manuscripts, stones and bones remain. There are texts and there are authors and there are readers. And we need to deal with them as realities.

I have no desire to create some new grand theory. What I want to do is return to the old tools and identify why they failed. I want to remodel them in such a way that they work in a transmodern academic discourse, a discourse that moves us beyond the postmodern suffocation and the Middle of Nowhere.

I am stepping out here by beginning to talk about refashioning Tradition Criticism. I have finally settled on a name for the updated approach: Transtradition Criticism.

Transtradition Criticism is an approach to texts, artifacts, and other cultural productions, which seeks to expose, explain and understand the production, meaning, use and transmission of t/Traditions within their historical fields of conversation. This approach is interested in investigating the dynamic interstitial spaces and networks between and across t/Traditions, exposing the politics of power and conceptions of the Other that support the structures of the t/Traditions. Transtradition Criticism is grounded in a pragmatic and embodied view of human beings as personal and social agents who actively and constantly (re)shape the t/Traditions to align with their experiences of themselves and their world. They are participants in personal and social conversations that support, create, modify and destroy t/Traditions.

I will post more as the remodeling continues.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Hooray for SBL and AAR

Here is what we have all been waiting for. Thank you to all of you who helped make this happen!

Dear Colleagues,

We are pleased to announce that the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature have selected concurrent Annual Meeting sites for the next several years. With anticipated attendance of more than 10,000 members, the gathering requires over 150 concurrent session rooms and 5,000 available hotel rooms. We are delighted to have secured premium meeting space and competitive accommodation rates at several of the most requested destinations for our attendees. We have generated a good deal of savings by booking meetings at the same venue for two separate years in advance. The meeting locations and dates are as follows:

2011 San Francisco, CA November 19-22

2012 Chicago, IL November 17-20

2013 Baltimore, MD November 23-26

2014 San Diego, CA November 22-25

2015 Atlanta, GA November 21-24

2016 San Antonio, TX November 19-22

2017 Boston, MA November 18-21

2018 Denver, CO November 17-20

2019 San Diego, CA November 23-26

2020 Boston, MA November 21-24

2021 San Antonio, TX November 20-23

These meetings will:

Feature a single, jointly managed Exhibit Hall;
Feature a single, jointly managed Employment Center;
Feature distinct and separate AAR and SBL programs planned with open communication between the organizations;
Encourage the organizations’ members to attend each other’s programs and events at no additional cost;
Allow the organizations to pursue their unique, if sometimes overlapping, missions;
Enhance cooperation, not competition, between AAR and SBL;
Encourage participation among other organizations such as AAR’s Related Scholarly Organizations and SBL’s Affiliate Organizations.

We believe that concurrent meetings will serve the interests of our members, will help to advance the many disciplines and areas of study we represent, and will maintain and advance the critical inquiry that characterizes the work of our societies. We invite you to join us in building this exciting new future.


John F. Kutsko Jack Fitzmier

Executive Director Executive Director
Society of Biblical Literature American Academy of Religion

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Mellon Seminar Reflection 13: Embodiment and the Humanities

As we begin to prepare for the visit of Professor Mark Turner, a professor of Cognitive Science from Case Western Reserve, we have discussing the field of cognitive psychology. One book that particularly grabbed my attention this week is Edward Slingerland (PHOTO from his webpage HERE), What Science Offers the Humanities: Integrating Body and Culture (2008).

I can't imagine writing a more courageous book than this, especially as a professor of ancient Chinese religion which is where Slingerland's training is. I was taken by the book for many reasons (and I am still processing it), but what struck me immediately was fact that he sees some of the same problems with postmodern theory that I do, and responds in ways similar to my own responses, responses which I have been recording on this blog, as I go about trying to develop a new sort of historical approach to the study of my texts. What I have come to realize over the course of this year is that I refuse to-throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bath-water. What is happening in my mind and through my pen (yes I still write with a pen) is a major remodeling and rebuilding of Tradition Criticism, in light of its postmodern crucifixion. I am developing an approach I am calling Transtradition Criticism. I will post more about this development later.

To return to Slingerland. He argues that postmodern theory has swept through the Academy, leaving us suspicious of any truth-claim and with "a conviction that the distinguishing mark of sophisticated scholarship is an ability to engage with a prescribed pantheon of theorists" rather than serious study of primary texts. What was fun at first "has left us with an intellectual hangover" (2008, 1), luxuriating in language for language's sake.

I couldn't agree more. In my opinion, we are stranded in a place of nowhere, immobilized by disembodied discourses, authorless and textless, outside of history. With nothing empirical, with no sameness, we are lost in a jumble of difference. We are left to describe what we see as ours, with no power to interpret beyond this. Even these meager descriptions are left in an ethical vacuum to be siphoned off and co-opted to support nefarious purposes.

The Humanities are dying and we are the ones who are responsible to save them.

The big question is HOW? Slingerland offers a solid solution. He says that we need to get our act together and learn from scientists how human beings operate, particularly as embodied cognitive beings. He demonstrates how humanists operate within outdated models of anthropology, and need to come to terms with the fact that science has discovered fundamental things about the human being. That we need to take embodiment seriously or be doomed to spinning tales inside of tales.

In Slingerland's words: "The fact that these body-minds are, have always been, and will always continue to be part of the world of things effectively short-circuits the epistemological skepticism that permeates postmodern thinking. A nondualistic approach to the person promises no privileged access to eternal, objective truths, but is based upon the belief that commonalities of human embodiment in the world can result in a stable body of shared knowledge, verified (at least provisionally) by proofs based on common perceptual access. By breaching the mind-body divide - by bringing the human mind back into contact with a rich and meaningful world of things - this approach to the humanities starts from an embodied mind that is always in touch with the world, as well as a pragmatic mode of truth or verification that takes the body and the physical world seriously" (2008, 8).

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Mellon Seminar webpage

We have finally finished the Mellon Seminar webpage and I invite you to take a look. There is a description of the seminar, the fellows and our projects, our distinguished lecturers, and an event calendar.

Yesterday we had the pleasure of interacting with Professor Gregory Shaw from Stonehill College, an expert on Neoplatonism and theurgy. Theurgy is the ritual use of objects and liturgy to transform the human being into a receptacle for the descent of the gods. Iamblichus (fourth century, Syria) says that this is "old" (Egyptian!) religion as opposed to the "new" religion of the Greeks which worked to rationalize the gods away.

Greg Shaw's book on the subject is called Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus (University Park: Pennsylvania State, 1995).

Monday, February 14, 2011

In Memory of Alan F. Segal

It is with great personal sorrow that I write this morning in memory of my dear friend, adopted mentor and intellectual father, Alan F. Segal.

May the flights of angels sing you to your rest, dear friend.

He passed away yesterday afternoon after a long illness. I cannot imagine my world without Alan, as I am sure is true of so many he befriended with his kindness. Alan had that special something about him, a spark that made him a great intellect while also a kind person who embodied genuine charity and friendship.

I met Alan through my work when I was doctoral student at the University of Michigan. He took interest in my studies on early Christian mysticism. Four of us (Alan, Chris Morray-Jones, Jim Davila and myself) launched the early Jewish and Christian Mysticism unit at SBL in 1996 in order to open up a space at our annual meetings for the discussion of mystical traditions within Judaism and Christianity. This unit has been a long-standing strong group ever since.

Alan's work has been nothing less than tremendous. He wrote books that crossed religions, working easily in Paul, Gnostic materials, and Rabbinic texts alike. He was gifted in interdisciplinary work, and knew the Jewish and Christian traditions equally well and treated both with respect. He was always the voice of the cutting edge, never afraid to move against the current or to say what needed to be said.

From early on in his career, his interest was in patterns of ascent of the soul, and he worked his ideas out arguing that patterns of ascent and descent were essentially the same, although opposite directions. Although he relied on Strauss and structuralism to argue for emergent patterns, he was solidly grounded in sociology and was interested in how patterns were modified within different religious environments. It was the modifications that he was after; this is what interested him.

His first book, Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports About Christianity and Gnosticism (Leiden: Brill, 1977), is nothing less than a classic. He noticed that the rabbinic debates about there being two powers in heaven were in play because there is an old tradition in Judaism that anthropomorphizes God, usually by confusing YHWH with his angel. The figure is given various titles like Son of Man or Manlike in the theophany texts like Daniel. Philo knows the figure as "the second god" or the "logos". It is this tradition that lays the foundation for interpretations of Jesus that make him out to be God. It is also the tradition that was used by Gnostics to develop their demiurge. The rabbis become concerned about this tradition and its usage following the Jewish War. Like their biblical fathers, they wanted to yield up an uncompromising monotheism to ensure their fealty to YHWH.

His second book, Rebecca's Children: Judaism and Christianity in the Roman World (Cambridge: Harvard, 1986), is an absolute must-read for anyone studying early Judaism and the formation of Christianity. The book came out of his teaching experiences and seminars where he wrestled with the controversial idea that Christianity wasn't a product of Hellenized Judaism but was Judaism's sibling. In other words, both Judaism and Christianity formed during the same period and were products of the Israelite religion as it manifested during the Second Temple period. He writes, "Like Jacob and Esau, the twin sons of Isaac and Rebecca, the two religions fought in the womb. Throughout their youth they followed very different paths, quarreling frequently about their father's blessing. As was the case with Rebecca's children, the conflict between Judaism and Christianity molded their characters and determined their destinies" (p. 1).

His third book, Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee (New Haven: Yale University, 1990) is the best modern treatment of Paul ever written. Alan showed in this work that Paul was a Jewish mystic, and it was his experience of the post-resurrection Jesus as the manifestation of the Kavod, that turned him into a Christian and a theologian. Alan wrote this book as a Jewish scholar trying to clarify Jewish history from the writings of Paul and understand Paul as a Jew. How do you explain his conversion from this perspective? He was writing against scholars of Jewish studies who "frequently disparage Paul's writings, as if to say 'Nothing serious can be concluded about Judaism from such a person'" (p. xv). Alan felt that this was nonsense. He wrote, "This is a pretext for ignoring writing with disturbing evaluations of Judaism" (p. xv), and "To be used effectively, the NT should be read with allowance for its anti-Pharisaic and sometimes anti-Jewish tone. Almost every page of the NT reveals intolerance of its Jewish milieu that is borne of an intensely aggravated family conflict" (p. xvi).

His last book, Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion (New York: Doubleday, 2004), is unrivaled in its coverage. It contains almost 900 pages of analysis of western religious traditions and their views of the afterlife. True to his sociological bent, he demonstrates how various pictures of the afterlife are tied to the society's view of the human body and politics. The questions he addresses are raised in his first chapter: "What do these notions of the afterlife suggest about the ultimate meaning of life to these people? Why do they change over time? What social and historical issues lie behind these changes? How do the doctrines themselves condition further discussion and conflict within the various communities as they relate to other communities who value the same traditions? Why do we insist that life continues beyond the grave and why do we give credence to those who have experienced it and return to tell us about it?" (p. 23).

Alan once told me as we lamented his long illness, "Everyone must die." It is a painful truth that he was fully and personally aware of. It is within this light that I now read the conclusion to his book on the afterlife and I hear his voice resonating: "Religion's imagining of our hereafter also seems to say the same - our 'immortal longings' are mirrors of what we find of value in our lives. They motivate our moral and artistic lives. Our longing itself deserves a robe and crown, nothing less. If humans can be, in Hamlet's words, 'in apprehension like a god,' do we not deserve his epitaph: 'flights of angels sing us to our rest'?" (p. 731).

Friday, February 11, 2011

Unbelievable news

"Today belongs to the people of Egypt". I salute you! I smile for every cab driver who has taken me around Cairo and told me about his family's plight, and his inability to find a job even with a top college degree. I smile for every woman I saw caring for her family, trying to cook over open fires while tending the donkey that pulled her cart. I smile for every merchant who wanted to sell me goods, trinkets, rugs, scarfs, to help make ends meet. I smile for every young boy who led the camels I rode on, who sailed the feluccas I sat in, who waited my tables and made sure I was not hungry. I smile for you all. Today is your day!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Book Note: With Letters of Light (Arbel and Orlov, eds.)

There is a wonderful new collection of essays on early Jewish and Christian mysticism available now from De Gruyter. It is a festschrift honoring the career, contributions, and fellowship of Professor Rachel Elior, the John and Golda Cohen Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Jewish Mystical Thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Professor Elior has made tremendous contributions to the field, both in Hebrew and English. Her work is among the best in the world on the subject. Some of my favorites are her books The Three Temples: On the Emergence of Jewish Mysticism (2004), The Mystical Origins of Hasidism (2006) and Dybbuks and Jewish Women in Social History, Mysticism, and Folklore (2008).

In her festschrift, With Letters of Light, her students and colleagues have amassed a fascinating collection of essays on the Dead Sea Scrolls, Early Jewish Apocalypticism, Magic and Mysticism. I contributed an essay myself where I try to describe and explain early Christian mysticism in its earliest stages starting with the biblical materials and working into the second century: "Jesus Revealed: The Dynamics of Early Christian Mysticism" (299-324). I wrote this piece because I had enjoyed a conversation with Rachel a few years ago about the mysticism I saw emerging in the New Testament materials and how similar they were to her own discussions of mysticism at Qumran in The Three Temples. She asked me then if I would write something about it, since she didn't work in the Christian materials as much as she did the Jewish. So I took her up on the suggestion.
With Letters of Light: Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Early Jewish Apocalypticism, Magic, and Mysticism in Honor of Rachel Elior (Edited by Daphna Arbel and Andrei Orlov; Ekstasis: Religious Experience from Antiquity to the Middle Ages, 2; Berlin: De Gruyter, 2011; ISBN 978-3-11-022201-2; US$ 182.00).

You can view this volume in electronic copy HERE.

Contents of the volume:

Daphna Arbel and Andrei Orlov
Rachel Elior – An Appreciation from her Colleagues and
Students - 1-5

Frances Flannery
The Consideration of Religious Experience in the Work of
Rachel Elior - 6-10

I. Exegesis

Kelley Coblentz Bautch
Peter and the Patriarch: A Confluence of Traditions? - 13-27

Silviu N. Bunta
In Heaven or on Earth: A Misplaced Temple Question about
Ezekiel’s Visions - 28-44

James R. Davila
Scriptural Exegesis in the Treatise of the Vessels, a Legendary
Account of the Hiding of the Temple Treasures - 45-61

Dan Merkur
Cultivating Visions through Exegetical Meditations - 62-91

Sergey Minov
“Serpentine” Eve in Syriac Christian Literature of Late
Antiquity - 92-114

Annette Yoshiko Reed
>From “Pre-Emptive Exegesis” to “Pre-Emptive Speculation”?
Ma‘aseh Bereshit in Genesis Rabbah and Pirqei deRabbi Eliezer - 115-132

Mark Verman
Earthly and Heavenly Jerusalem in Philo and Paul:
A Tale of Two Cities - 133-156

II. Ritual

Crispin Fletcher-Louis
The Book of Watchers and the Cycle of New Year Festivals - 159-168

Yuval Harari
A Different Spirituality or ‘Other’ Agents?: On the Study of
Magic in Rabbinic Literature - 169-195

Rebecca Lesses
“They Revealed Secrets to Their Wives”: The Transmission of
Magical Knowledge in 1 Enoch - 196-222

Jodi Magness
The Impurity of Oil and Spit among the Qumran Sectarians 223-231

Andrei Orlov
“The Likeness of Heaven”: The Kavod of Azazel in the
Apocalypse of Abraham - 232-253

Pieter W. van der Horst
Mystical Motifs in a Greek Synagogal Prayer? - 254-264

III. Transformation

Daphna Arbel
“A Chariot of Light Borne by Four Bright Eagles”:
Eve’s Vision of the Chariot in the Greek Life of Adam and Eve - 267-284

Joseph Dan
“Messianic Movements in the Period of the Crusades” - 285-298

April D. DeConick
Jesus Revealed: The Dynamics of Early Christian Mysticism - 299-324

Celia Deutsch
Aseneth: Ascetical Practice, Vision, and Transformation - 325-348

Naomi Janowitz
“You Are Gods”: Multiple Divine Beings in Late Antique
Jewish Theology - 349-364

Alan F. Segal
Transcribing Experience - 365-382

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Mellon Seminar Reflection 12: Does our reaction to death make us human?

The seminar investigated ancient initiatory religions this week, trying to sort out the goings-on in Eleusis. I haven't thought hard about Eleusis and the Demeter rites for about twenty-five years, so it was pleasant to study that material in a more substantive manner this week.

I was very aware this time through the material of the attractiveness of the rites. I didn't find myself asking why someone would want to be initiated, a question that engaged me as a young person. Why would anyone want to haul a pig down to the sea, wash it and sacrifice it? Why would anyone want to parade for 12 miles from Athens to Eleusis, bringing the sacred objects with them and be mocked along the way? Why would anyone want to drink an unknown substance, eat BBQ, and then watch a drama of the emergence of Kore from the Underworld in a cave at night? Why would anyone want to tramp around in mud, lead by hand in the dark, only to be blinded by light and then shown a grain of wheat in a basket? And to do this twice?!

Other than the fact that this sounds to me now more like a big party and a haunted house escapade than it did twenty-five years ago, I think my age is catching up with me. Because now I see the death aspect even more prominently. If I were part of a culture that taught that Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld, emerges every year in a cave in Eleusis, and that if I went through the rites, I would visit the Underworld and meet Persephone and Demeter so that when I die I would have a wonderful afterlife, I would have been the first person in line. To think that this journey was performed, so that initiates felt that they had actually experienced the journey through Hades and met the gods, well that is attractive beyond measure. I would have felt like I had faced death and conquered the unknowable, so that my life could be lived even more fully.

An experience like that breaks down human culture into a few startling breaths: to be human is to die; to be human is to live in the face of our death.

Is human culture our response to the knowledge of our mortality? Not just religion, but everything we have produced, everything that makes up human culture as Jan Assmann says in his book Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt?

I want to end with three quotes:

"Happy is the one who having seen these rites goes below the hollow earth, for that one knows the end of life and its god-given beginning." Pindar, Fr 137a

"Three-times blessed are those mortals who have seen these rites and thus enter into Hades. For them alone there is life. For the others, all is misery." Sophocles Fr 837

"The Ninetieth Psalm prays, 'Teach us to count our days, that we may gain a wise heart.' 'To count our days' means to hold each day dear, knowing that life is finite. The days derive their value from their end; since we must die, we 'count' our days. Death gives life its value, and wisdom consists in being aware of this value." Jan Assmann, Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt, 8.

This is day 17188 for me.