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Monday, June 23, 2008

Popery in Nottingham!

As promised, a review of the Nottingham conference on the Ratzinger's Jesus of Nazareth...

This conference was a strange but definitely fun experience for me. It is one thing holding a minority position in biblical studies but another thing entirely in terms of theology and even more in terms of the Pope! There were various Catholic figures, including the Archbishop of Granada and people from the monastic orders and people from the Radical Orthodoxy crowd. I won’t say much on my paper about the Pope’s construction of Judaism and how it is not so different from the very problematic construction of Judaism in historical Jesus scholarship but I think it was the only paper consistently critical of the Pope’s book. Not surprising perhaps but presenting such a paper to such a crowd was nothing like I’ve experienced before. I’ve debated with WL Craig in front of a largely evangelical crowd and the SBL panel review of Bauckham’s book certainly had a very unusual crowd for an academic context (remembering whooping crowd members and being pounced upon by creationist types still makes me laugh) but I’m sort of used to a variety of evangelicals now. Giving such a paper to theologians brought back memories of postgraduate days but critiquing the Pope in front of devout Catholics was something very new for me. It was one thing being in the audience but another thing presenting to the audience, looking up and seeing the aforementioned good and great looking back and just wondering what on earth must be going through their minds. The question session was fun (I had the allegation of a hermeneutic of suspicion – yep, out and proud!) but what was best for me (and any potential conference organisers take note) was the drinks reception where I could talk things through and get to know potential opponents much better. Always have a healthy drinks reception, they really do help. As much as I think there’s little to top the social side of SBL, there is a tendency to drift off with likeminded people after a paper to the numerous things on offer. The drinks reception at the Pope conference was very helpful in clearing up and/or developing debates. I have to say, for sheer experience, this was one of my own papers I particularly enjoyed giving.

I won’t discuss other papers either because some papers were circulated for internal discussion only and presumably this means not discussing them on the internet. So forgive me for discussing in general terms but I think I portray things fairly and if anyone from the conference thinks I wasn’t and is reading this, feel free to let me know.

This conference revealed what seems to me (and others) a significant and very interesting tension between theology (probably more precisely systematic theology) and biblical studies (more precisely historical criticism). This tension came through in the Bible and Justice conference and other conferences I’ve been to where biblical studies and theology are brought together. This tension came through in virtually all the papers and discussion at the Pope conference. There was a tendency to see historical criticism as almost too secular and too non-theological which is particularly interesting for me as I’ve made opposite kind of suggestions. Many theologians wanted historical criticism to give them the answers they wanted for theology and discard views that were not helpful. Someone did bring the question of whether this could lead to making things up. This also raises the serious problem (and too easily dismissed with allegations of ‘empiricism’) of honesty to basic or contradictory evidence (I got a bit annoyed at the Pope accusing people in his book of imposing things on the text…like he didn’t!). So I was very curious as to how theologically minded people would deal with this.

I had a very interesting discussion with one theologically minded academic and I raised this issue and asked what would be the point of historical criticism if the answers were already known. I was pretty surprised to find that this wasn’t actually seen as a problem. I was even given this answer: the Pope’s Jesus or a sort-of-orthodox Jesus (some people still made minor criticisms of the book) is historically right (you know what I mean), has to be historically right and can be proven to be historically right through historical criticism. Incidentally, I was also told that the Pope’s Jesus is more historically plausible than Jesus as reconstructed by either Vermes or Sanders – can’t say I was convinced! Such an approach, obviously, doesn’t please me in historical-critical terms but it at least helps explain one element of the logic of some of the participants.

But not all. Some, I think, took a kind of Barthian line (am I being fair here…?) and came very close to bracketing out the reconstruction of the historical Jesus thing and some, I suspect, probably wished the Pope had too. Here I would also bring in, maybe unfairly, those advocating canonical criticism and the general role of a believing community. This may surprise some, but I’m starting think, if I were coming in from an overtly theological/faith perspective, I would be tempted to take this position because of the ‘what if’ issue of the historical Jesus actually being something theologically problematic (as I suspect the historical Jesus is). At least from this kind of perspective it can do what it is supposed to do, namely produce what is helpful for a believing community without worry that someone will come along and say ‘it never really happened that way’.

But I don’t come from a theological perspective and I personally wouldn’t be happy in the context of a believing community or any group that roughly knows the answers before hand (we could parallel this sort of theology with forms of Marxism, Freudianism etc, could we not?). Moreover, we should not forget that the Pope did explicitly put one foot in the historical critical camp and therefore opening himself up for criticism from historical critics. And I’m afraid now I start getting all protective of historical criticism (despite slagging it off from time to time) which the Pope seriously misused (if he really used it at all in practice) to come up with a fully orthodox Jesus and have John’s gospel as historically accurate. I know some biblical studies types more-or-less agree with me too on this (including at least one other blogger – you know who you are…!). Ultimately I find myself siding, to the surprise of no one, with Vermes and Luedemann on this and the serious, serious problems with the Pope’s book as a work of historical criticism.

Another notable point raised at this conference was that the Pope’s book is surprisingly not overtly Catholic – much, if not all, would be compatible with the main denominational strands. What wasn’t mentioned, I don’t think, was the obvious result of this, namely that people from main denominational strands at the conference really seemed to like the book. Is this not a notable development? I also thought about Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ in this context. For such a Catholic inspired film, it managed to do very well among evangelicals, including the Bible Belt. I wonder if this is anything to do with a general reaction to the prominence of aggressive atheism of the past decade, general issues surrounding secularisation and the whole culture wars thing (though that is more US)… It is still notable that there is such a bringing together of such denominational strands on such an issue because I was thinking some Protestants would have great fun in demolishing a very flawed book by the Pope. Perhaps I’m just far too cynical and perhaps Michael Ball really was right that love changes everything.

Another reason why I think along these lines was the ways in which the terms ‘secular’ and ‘secular academy’ were being used in opposition. It seemed to me that the term ‘secular academy’ – and maybe I’m wrong here – was not being used as a place for open debate but was being used as a description of non-religious or even anti-religious university setting. If so, I wouldn’t be a fan of such use: I much prefer the anything goes approach. As one colleague said to me, perhaps it is time to call it the ‘independent academy’ to avoid such (potential?) distinctions.

I wish more biblical scholars who would have been critical of the book had attended. The audience was largely sympathetic or at least not very critical of the book. It was also particularly sad that Vermes had to pull out because he would have been scathing given his review of the Pope’s book. I would like to have seen more conflict on the big issue of historical criticism v theology though perhaps that needs to be worked out in a conference of its own. That said, it was a conference I really enjoyed and it was good to see people from my Nottingham past and meet people from Nottingham present. Adrian Pabst and Angus Paddison saw a great opportunity in this conference and organised it well. I’m glad the British Academy funded it too. Whatever we think of the Pope’s book (not much in my case) its publication was a culturally significant event and needed academic discussion.


Blogger Leon said...

The really big problem, it seems to me, is not that there are theologians over there and historical critics here. It is rather that most of what passes for historical criticism is really pure theology. This is particularly true of all the issues connected with Jesus' death. The fundamental assumption of the majority of "historians" is that Jesus was surrounded by Jewish enemies. This is their theology or worldview which they then use to change the Gospel texts, in particular weeding out any evidence that tends to exonerate Jewish leaders and Judas of complicity in Jesus' death. Raymond Brown was at least more honest than most when he said that such evidence should be ruled out of the discussion. He also deemed any sources that convicted Jewish leaders of responsibility as more helpful than sources that do not.

In good scientific scholarship, it is imperpative that you keep theories or interpretations separate and distinct from the facts or data. No one does that in historical Jesus studies. Everyone assumes that Judas' betrayal and the Jewish trial of Jesus are data in the texts. They are not. They are theories or interpretations. As such, they must be supported by plenty of evidence. As such, it is also permitted — indeed scientifically required! — that you ask the question "are there better theories or interpretations?" But everyone stymies this question by promoting the betrayal and the trial as false facts. This is theological scholarship, not historical criticism.

Some of the facts that routinely get erased by scholars: At Acts 13:28, Paul says that there was no Jewish death penalty against Jesus. It so happens that John and Luke are missing any Jewish death sentence. Mark presents not one unequivocally negative piece of information about Judas. Every single bit is ambiguous. Why does he do that? He also fails to give one detail of a story of betrayal (no motive, no conflict between Judas and Jesus or any disciples, no denunciations of Judas after the "deed" is done). How is this a story of betrayal? Betrayal is actually a far-fetched theory to explain all this. But you cannot see this if you falsely promote the betrayal as a given fact. There is so much more. But think carefully about what it means to think scientifically and you will see that historical Jesus scholars fail to do this and just make up their own theological rules of procedure.

Leon Zitzer

June 24, 2008

Anonymous steph said...

"the Pope’s Jesus or a sort-of-orthodox Jesus is historically right, has to be historically right and can be proven to be historically right through historical criticism."

Aghhh How depressing!

June 24, 2008

Blogger Jim said...

Wish I could have been there. I hope you'll visit Cambridge in January!

June 26, 2008

Blogger Geoff Smith said...

I suppose that for any one that claims to believe the gospel that the historical Jesus should theologically problematic.

Not only because of the paucity of data, but because Jesus, regardless of whether he is god-incarnate, is a startling character. People just aren't normally like that in any context, not least that of the first century.

July 01, 2008

Blogger Geoff Hudson said...

Leon, what evidence would you give to prove that the name of the prophet was Jesus?

With regard to Acts 13.28, I suggest that Pilate wasn't around to execute a prophet at the time Jesus was supposed to have existed, but that AgrippaI was.

That there were no proper grounds according to the writer of Acts, doesn't mean that some were not prepared to bend the rules to get rid of a prophet they did not like.

July 04, 2008

Blogger Leon said...

Geoff Hudson,

I am not sure why you would have any doubts that his name was Jesus. He is called Iesous, their Greek transliteration of the Hebrew Yehoshua (later shortened to Yeshua and then to Yeshu), in the Gospels and in Josephus and Yeshua in rabbinic lit. If you want to claim that this is a fiction and the real person was someone else, remember one of the fundamental rules of science: The bigger your claim, the more evidence you need to prove it. You would need a heck of a lot of really good evidence to prove that Jesus of Nazareth was a fiction or not the person described in the accounts we have.

Pilate was certainly the prefect, from around 27 or 28 CE, I believe, to 36 CE (or 37?). And Jesus was executed around 30 CE.

As for Acts 13:28, you can try to explain it away but that is not science. Science is essentially the ability to be startled by the evidence and then to ask the question, is there any other evidence that links up to Acts 13:38 and tells us something we may have missed? Yes, there is, But you cannot see any of it if you insist on explaining things away and insist that Jewish leaders were so evil as to persecute a fellow Jew and bend rules to do so. That is a gross assumption which everyone reads into the texts. Paul says no such thing. You have to take the evidence for what it is, unless you have exceptionally good evidence to contradict it.

Josephus contains no information that Jewish priestly leaders ever worked closely with the Romans or Jewish kings to arrest and prosecute Jewish troublemakers. He actually gives us some information that Jewish leaders would refuse such cooperation.

I have a question for Dr. Crossley: When you calmly point out to other scholars that there is not a good evidentiary case that Jesus was anti-Torah and anti-Temple (the evidence rather points the other way), have you ever convinced anyone to reconsider their position? Have you ever convinced anyone that this is more theology than good historical reasoning? Do they listen when you point out that there are far more severe criticisms in rabbinic lit and no Pharisee or rabbi was ever persecuted for this? Just curious.

Leon Zitzer

July 06, 2008

Anonymous Rook Hawkins said...


I find your last paragraph very compelling given our current project together. Perhaps you could call this a bit intuitive? *grin*

I enjoyed the read, thank you!


July 07, 2008

Blogger Geoff Hudson said...

Leon, I certainly cannot accept the texts of the New Testament or the writings attributed to Josephus as they are (what you call evidence). Remember, the folk who had the major influence on these writings were Flavians, whose historians are now recognised, by a few scholars at least, as liars. Flavian historians concocted their histories to suit their patrons. This was bound to include heavy interference with the Jewish and 'Christian' texts that were permitted after the destruction of the temple. There could no longer be any messianic Judaism of the priests with their temple cult of sacrifice and opposition to Roman rule. Nor could there be any more prophetic Judaism that had rejected the temple cult – a rejection that led to the priests persecuting the prophets, subsequent civil unrest and Roman intervention (initially on the side of the prophets who were not anti-Roman). You can bet that neither the editors of the New Testament prophetic documents, nor the rabbinic writers were allowed to say or write anything that their Flavian masters did not approve of. The texts of the NT and the writings attributed to Josephus are to be read with extreme scepticism. That these texts have been heavily interfered with borders on the self-evident.

For example, Pharisees are not mentioned in the DSS or in the works of Philo. The references to Pharisees in the writings attributed to Josephus appear in passages that are clearly interpolations inserted by an editor to give credence to the early existence of Pharisees. Otherwise, Pharisees appear to be a substitute for the only other religious party that could have existed, namely the prophets who are suppressed in the writings attributed to Josephus and in the NT. Under Roman supervision, there was collusion between the editors of the NT, the editors of the writings attributed to Josephus, and the Rabbis to give a false early provenance to Pharisees, and to suppress information regarding prophets and priests, the real protagonists in what started as a civil war. For the editors of the NT, the Pharisees were made the opponents of their Jesus, essentially replacing the priests in opposition to the real prophet. And it was in the interests of Rabbis to be seen as descended from their created Pharisees, not priests. I have no doubt that the Rabbis were simply priests who changed their tune.

July 07, 2008

Blogger Leon said...


You have made a lot of strong claims and even said they are obvious. But large claims like that need a lot of evidence to support them. Perhaps you are not interested in evidence. If so, you are in good company (or should I say bad company?) as most historical Jesus scholars have no interest in evidence either. From day one, historical Jesus scholarship has revolved around ideas about Jesus, not evidence. (Their ideas being that Jesus was anti-Temple, anti-Torah, at odds with Jewish leaders, presecuted by other Jews, etc. Evidence that contradicts all this is simply erased from the record.) But science is always about evidentiary arguments — not ideas or speculation or fancy theories. The scientific approach is the only approach I am interested in.

Your statement that everybody was under the control or influence of Flavian emperors does not hold up. Just look at what Josephus does at the end of the Jewish War. (I owe this insight to Tessa Rajak.) He describes the heroes of Masada and, as if that were not enough, he then relates the divine punishment (so Josephus believes) of a Roman governor who persecuted Jews. No Roman writer would end their book by stating that a Roman governor died from a terrible disease sent by God because of what he did to Jews. Josephus is constantly standing up for Jewish culture. He was very proud of being a Jew and this pride never left him. He must have been a very strange presence in Rome.

Leon Zitzer

July 10, 2008

Blogger Geoff Hudson said...

Leon, Rajak is wrong. The 'Roman governor' was not a Roman governor, but I will explain later.

The fictitious story of the Masada incident was pure political propaganda placed by the Flavian editors at the end of War. The story illustrated that resistance against Roman power was futile. The construction of the ramp was fictitious - the ramp was a natural feature that could be utilised to construct and service the fortress. The so-called circumvallation wall was fictitious in the sense that it was built by Herod as a first defensive wall with integral accommodation for soldiers. Thus Masada was designed to be defended by a large force. The outer defensive (so-called circumvallation) wall was two miles long. This wall was clearly designed to keep enemies out, not to prevent defenders from escaping – the southern section of the wall was totally unnecessary if the requirement was to keep defenders in. The wall on the summit was about one mile long. Thus the fortress was difficult to defend with a small force. If the number of defenders was small, the fortress was vulnerable to a surprise commando-style attack which was probably how it was taken – the true account is actually garbled in the earlier text. All the fortresses would have been taken before any attack on Jerusalem – no commander would have left himself open to attack from the rear.

July 10, 2008

Blogger Leon said...


You have built an impregnable position for yourself and make it impossible for anyone to argue with you. I cannot present any evidence because you just dismiss it all as a fabrication. Your beliefs cannot be proven or disproven because they are beyond evidence.

Any good scientific theory is, in theory, capable of being disproven, if the evidence lines up a certain way. But you just get rid of all evidence you don't like. You have the perfect theory, one that cannot be disproven, not even in theory. In other words, you are like most historical Jesus scholars. But all I am interested in is science and the proper methods of science. There is a lot that can be proven beyond reasonable doubt about the historical Jesus in this way.

Leon Zitzer

July 14, 2008

Blogger Geoff Hudson said...

Leon, you have not said what you mean by your science or what you mean by evidence that 'lines up'. For example, you may be sufficiently gullible to believe that because similar information is in both the writings attributed to Josephus and the NT, that information must be true, such as Pharisees and Sadducees existing at the time of the prophet. But you don't find them in the contemporary works of Philo or in the DSS. And it is clear that Josephus originally wrote principally about Essenes (really prophets) because that was the group he was really interested in. He originally wrote about the two orders of Jewish governance, priests and prophets, but principally prophets leading up to Judas, his central character. Just take a look at the passages referring to Pharisees in the writings attributed to Josephus. Most are clearly retrospective interpolations.

July 16, 2008


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