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Friday, October 31, 2008

Loren Rosson, a review, and more problems with representation

I know this is going to sound miserable and not in the spirit of things and for that almost apologise. But evidence free opinion and appeal to ‘reasonableness’ just annoys me a bit too much and so I just couldn't resist. So what I’m getting at is that I disagree with Mike Bird that Loren Rosson’s review of our book is even handed and fair, at least in anyway that could be useful. In many ways it was balanced only in saying Crossley was right here, Bird right there. Or better, Crossley agreed with Rosson and his heroes here, Bird agreed with Rosson and his heroes there. It was more a platform for Rosson to stress again which view of this and that he liked. He already knows what he thinks and that's how me and Bird are judged. I hate to say this but Rosson's level of argument was not good and did not support the judgments he made. We were not judged sufficiently on the *details* of the arguments and some counter arguments were just simply ignored (not a great thing to do when reviewing a book).

Rosson goes for me on the issue of law:
‘I should address Crossley's love-affair with a "completely law-abiding Jesus/Markan Jesus". As mentioned above, he bases his view on an overplayed distinction between biblical laws and their interpretation/expansion. When, save in trivial cases, does the former not involve the latter? Whether or not one is violating the First Amendment (freedom of speech), or Second Amendment (the right to bear arms), is no more self-evident to our nation of Americans today than whether or not one was violating the sabbath or the duty to honor one's parents in antiquity. The question is whether or not Jesus was perceived as violating the Torah, which he was...it's always a question of whose Torah we're talking about: the Torah of the prophets? of the priests and scribes? of Galilean peasants? etc...Paul, of course, went beyond Jesus and explicitly dethroned the law (and I think he was largely anti-nomian in his own mind), but the analogy regarding perception still holds. If Crossley wants to insist that Jesus was "completely Torah-observant" from Jesus' own perspective -- in the same way that other Jews who found wiggle room for their questionable interpretations were -- then fine. But many would agree with that anyway.

No, really? I mean, do I not know the different views of the law? Or that there is a link between interpreter and text???? I’ve taught Jewish law, I’ve spent lots of research time on Jewish law and…I somehow didn’t know or factor in that people had different views on the Law?!! When I’ve written (quite a lot!) about people having different views on the Law (including in the book Rosson reviews!!!!) did I…not mean it?? And to turn it onto Rosson, which of the perceptions of the law was Jesus perceived to have broken? Is Rosson implying that Jesus’ interpretations were 'questionable'? Which Jews had ‘questionable’ views on the law? What is a ‘questionable’ view of the law anyway?

Furthermore, my big argument is that Jesus’ views on the Law were all paralleled in early Judaism. Rosson never seriously engages with Jewish evidence on the law. There is loads of material so why not try and read it more? For what it is worth, I think it is complicated and more rewarding than relying on what your favourite scholars think. Anyway the point that there is nothing that would have necessarily led to the Jesus movement having identifying difficulties over against Judaism in the way that Paul begins to because physical circumcision can go. So can food. So can Sabbath. That is something different. That is a big reason why Christianity can develop into a religion in its own right. Jews debating over the specifics of the Law leads to major world religion? Unlikely. As Jesus falls easily into the latter category of legal debater – as can be documented with primary sources – then that is a useful analytical point as can the use of interpretation of the law vs biblical law, a distinction which rabbis knew about, incidentally – that can be read too. Incidentally, just one obvious example: Sabbath. Bible says a few things that constitute work but not much so it has to be interpreted and different people claim different things. That's a potentially useful distinction. Also, the stuff on the amendments isn't a good argument. Despite being a bit too different, is there not a distinction to be made between people discussing how it should be interpreted and even making strong claims about there enemies and people saying that they are no longer required??

Ok, this is getting silly and as much of what Rosson says has nothing relevant to do with my arguments and as I’ve written on the topic there’s no point discussing it further (incidentally, when Rosson cites different scholarly views he doesn’t engage with some of the very detailed and important work specifically on Jewish law). I’m getting tired of a lot of this sort pointless debate (it’s not really engaging with details). Anyway, let’s try and end Rosson’s love affair with his favourite scholars and pre-determined views with, I dunno, some evidence. I’m not going to go into massive detail and if people want to look at a debate between me and Rosson where Rosson gets very confused on issues of law and law breaking and what observance was like see here).

Rosson quotes Bird positively:
"Whose standard of law-observance is [Crossley] talking about? Does he mean the sectarians from Qumran? Does he mean the Pharisees (if so, which school of the Pharisees: Gamiliel or Shammai)? Does he mean the radical allegorical interpreters that Philo refers to in Alexandria? While there was diversity of Law-observance and legal interpretation within Judaism, that does not mean that each group thought that each other's interpretation was legitimate and fitted comfortably within the boundaries of a common Judaism. The polemics that Jewish groups vented against each other would suggest otherwise... Thus it is one thing to say that the Gospels make sense as part of intra-Jewish debates about the Torah, but it is quite another thing to suggest that the view of the Torah espoused within the Church during the earliest decades of its existence were regarded by others (outsiders or insiders) as exclusively Law-observant. Did the Pharisees who debated with Jesus about hand-washing and purity laws think he was Law-observant?... Paul's belief that Gentiles do not have to be circumcised has parallels in certain pockets of the Jewish Diaspora. Did that stop others from accusing him of being anti-nomian? Of course not! If early Christianity was so Law-observant in the 'Jewish' sense that Crossley argues for, then why was James the Just put to death on the charge of being a Law-breaker?" (p 133)

Rosson completely ignores my response to this (as he does elsewhere). Here is part of my response which pretty much applies to Rosson too I suppose (this is from a draft version so there could be a few typos and changes made – nothing dramatic though):
A ‘problem’ Bird has is ‘that Crossley never explains why Paul persecuted the church.’ Against Bird, however, I did speak of evidence ‘that favours an internal Jewish dispute over the correct interpretation of the Law’. But then Bird seems to recognise this and argues that ‘Crossley might say that he was persecuting them for failing to obey the Pharisaic halakhah or legal teachings. But would the Sadducean priestly class sanction a Pharisee to do that and, what is more, why would Paul restrict his persecution to Christians? Why not persecute Philo of Alexandria, the Teacher of Righteousness at Qumran, persons like Banus the Ascetic that Josephus mentions, or Jewish peasants who were generally lax in their adherence to the law?’
These are problems of Bird’s own making. Why on earth would the ‘pre-Christian Paul’ persecute Philo of Alexandria? Bird does not let us know. On the issue of the law, the ‘pre-Christian Paul’ and Philo may have in fact agreed. For instance, Philo talks about not picking fruit on the Sabbath (Philo, Mos. 2:22), a view that is echoed in Jesus’ Pharisaic opponents in the gospels (Mk 2.23-28) and in rabbinic tradition (e.g. m. Pesah. 4:8). Besides, what chances would Paul really have had of persecuting such an elite figure like Philo anyway, assuming for the moment that they would have disagreed on law observance? Bird’s questioning can be taken to strange logical conclusions. We know that the Qumran group (with whom the Teacher of Righteousness was associated) were attacked by opponents (e.g. 4Q171 4), so by Bird’s logic (namely, that Paul would have criticized others if the conflicts were internal Jewish disputes) it would have to be extremely puzzling as to why are these opponents not mentioned persecuting others! Josephus speaks of Pharisees and Sadducees having serious differences with Pharisees (Josephus, Ant. 13:297-98), so by Bird’s logic Josephus would have to mention other groups and individuals in order to be deemed plausible! On the general level, groups fall out with one another and do not necessarily attack everyone else who might be in disagreement. On the more empirical level, Jesus seriously fell out with Pharisees over legal issues (Mk 2.28-3.6) so much so that the gospels say the Pharisees wanted him dead (Mk 3.6). If this is in anyway accurate (as I suspect a good evangelical like Bird would believe it is) I fail to see why Bird sees it implausible for those acting in Jesus’ name immediately after Jesus’ death to be engaged in similar disputes.

Why ignore all that? It is fairly clear in the text and substantial. I dunno…

More law fun on ‘Saul’s persecutions’:
Crossley suggests it was only an "interpretation" of the law calling forth such zeal, to which Bird counters on p 93). Saul's zeal must have been aimed against those who were visibly threatening the integrity of Judaism with outrageous behavior -- not just professing abstract belief in wacky ideas or splitting legal hairs

So aggressive disputes over legal disputes in early Judaism…what? Didn’t exist? Well, yes they obviously did (and the term 'splitting hairs' is a subjective judgment that is not helpful). Are the primary sources not worth considering? It would seem that the narrative Rosson likes is just barging its way through with no concern for evidence. I mean, we have such eivdence and Rosson acts as if it simply doesn't exist. there is much more detail I could add. I worked on the chronologies concerning law observance and the lack of evidence for why the earliest Xns were persecuted and so on in some detail and I simply cannot be bothered to repeat (Date of Mark ch 5, WCH ch 5). I’ll just add, for someone who criticised me on terms of the Law and interpretation, hasn’t Rosson assumed something very close to biblical (circumcision) versus interpretation (‘splitting legal hairs’) as a means of analysis?

Ok, a bit more:
‘Christianity was likely admitting uncircumcised Gentiles (few as they were) right from the get-go’

No evidence is given by Rosson, no useful supporting evidence is actually known, and Acts and Paul are silent on the issue (the latter should be serious problem for Rosson). Why should anyone take Rosson’s statement seriously if it is just a statement? It *needs* a serious argument. None is given. I also wrote a book on the origins of this issue and the significance of social networks and shifting observance levels. I mention such things in the book with Bird too. This gets ignored and Rosson just repeats a view he's liked for however long. Really, what is the point of making arguments??? It seems pretty clear that making arguments that don't cohere with Rosson's views and Rosson's favourite scholars are pointless, not least because he'll simply ignore them or just say that so-and-so argued this a few years back and it's right so, erm, that's it. Don't waste time critiquing, right?

On issues relating to the deification of Jesus, Rosson pretty much resorts to scholarly views he likes and doesn’t engage with the known Jewish parallels. He doesn’t engage with the argument that conflict over such issues is absent from Paul but not John. He states:
The "Big Bang" theory of early high Christology (e.g. Richard Bauckham, Larry Hurtado, and Philip Esler) is to be preferred over the gradual evolution theory (e.g. James Dunn, Maurice Casey, and Marinus De Jong). While I agree with Crossley that we don't get an explicit equation between Jesus and God until John's gospel, it's implied nonetheless in Paul's letters and to a lesser degree the synoptics.

Well, for argument’s sake, I’m going to say I think the other view is to be preferred! Where does that leave us? It’s not helpful. ‘Implied’ and ‘lesser degree’ are too vague and I don’t know how I’m meant to a) be persuaded by that and b) be persuaded my arguments were wrong. Incidentally, who said that Casey, at least, didn’t think there was an early high Christology? A ‘big bang’ label works for a highly elevated figure too, right? I happen to think things like the early visions of the resurrected Jesus prompted an early high Christology that got the ball rolling. Maybe not the full deification in the strongest sense etc but certainly the possibility of taking on divine attributes in the ways other elevated figures did and so on. But that’s another story…

There’s other stuff e.g. the Antioch incident (where my arguments on context of the dispute in Galatians and response to Bird get ignored – again; see pp. 99-100) but I’m not going to respond because I’ve written on the topic elsewhere and others have too and there have been plenty of critiques of the views that Rosson holds dear (Rosson simply ignores mine). What Rosson does is to criticise a view by saying what another scholar said even if that view has been critiqued. When I criticised views he holds dear would it not be more fruitful to say why my objections are wrong instead of simply repeating the views I criticised? Presumably, then, if his heroes don't say it then it's, er, wrong. In other words, whoever is closest to his scholarly heroes has the most chance of being right in Rosson's eyes. There is simply no room for alternative views. This is a rotten model of scholarship.

More generally, I’ve made other arguments that are pretty much ignored by Rosson. And again Rosson doesn’t engage with crucial primary sources (scholarly heroes come first). Again, there is a lot of reliance on views that I’ve actually critiqued and too much reliance on big names by Rosson. I have little time for approaches to to scholarship such as those of Rosson because I find them intellectually stifling. I won’t waste much more of my time on this because I've given it far too much attention though I do think that point about non-argument is worth re-emphasising.

Again, I hate to be so critical but I really don't like this sort of approach so...sorry...but...

Jesus in an Age of Terror Part I (inc. blogs)

The book will be set out in three parts, each containing two chapters. Part I looks at the ways in which New Testament and Christian origins scholarship has historically been influenced by its political and social settings over the past hundred years or so. One of the main points here is to look Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s propaganda model of manufacturing consent in the mass media and Chomsky’s analysis of higher education to the academic study of the Bible. In particular this chapter looks at the ways in which debates are framed by dominant interest groups and how the results reflect, in general terms, the dominant interests and how dissenting views are marginalised. This particular chapter also looks at the role of what is deemed ‘radical’ in higher education and NT studies, particularly the ways in which a scholar can think they are being radical but in broader political terms they are effectively neutralised. Think in terms of NT scholarship how Wright believes his views on physical resurrection are a threat to power (which couldn’t be further from the truth in the grand scheme of things) or how people think Crossan’s Jesus is radical when it is, in terms of political power, tame and only annoys various Christians. It’s when people follow their beliefs that threats to power occur, the most obvious example being certain liberation theologians who are deemed a very serious threat in certain circles of power. In many ways what gets through in the scholarly world is what is culturally and politically palatable or the masses of material that it largely irrelevant in terms of political power (I mean the latter as neither a compliment nor criticism).

Here, then, we start moving to present day scholarship and the new arguments. The bulk of chapter one is dedicated to showing how historically the discipline has been swayed by dominant ideologies. Chapter 2 provides some very important examples of contemporary scholarship explicitly discussing political issues namely…bloggers. Biblioblogging is very important because it is a forum where we don’t simply have to infer political views but where they are expressed openly in many cases. In the case of biblioblogging, bloggers have (unconsciously, so to speak) adopted the mechanisms of the manufacture of consent from the mass media as analysed by Herman and Chomsky. I look at some of the big political themes that Herman and Chomsky use to investigate the mass media and see how these are discussed in biblical studies. I look, among other things, at the portrayal of the ‘war on terror’, Islam and Arabs, myth of unique suffering, and Middle East conflicts. While I do discuss some of the more openly right wing and ‘very conservative’ (to steal NT Wrong’s term) bloggers, I also emphasised the more ‘moderate’ and ‘liberal’ bloggers because I think the dominant agendas of the mass media filter through there certainly is a manufacturing of consent. However, one difference: the mass media faces the restraints and dominance of corporate power in their output which bloggers don’t to anything like the same degree so the future is open for blogging to change should people of different persuasions become involved. But that’s another story.

What we really need are many more NT Wrongs (the bishop came too late, I’m afraid – sounds like a bad bishop joke, I know).

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Jesus in an Age of Terror

Jesus in an Age of Terror: Scholarly Projects for a New American Century (Equinox, 2008) is due out by mid-November in time for SBL. Time permitting, I'm going to give a kind of preview over the next couple of weeks. Time permitting...

The book, as the blurb says, looks at arguments made by Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, Edward Said etc. on international politics and the role of the media, intellectuals and academics and applies a modified form to the study of Christian origins and New Testament scholarship in the past 40 or so years. Such scholars are particularly helpful because they allow a very precise historical contextualisation of scholarship and ideology.

Major points of this book are designed to explain why two major developments in NT studies happened when and where they did and the underlying ideology keeping them bouyant. This will include looking at the emergence of ‘the Arab’ and some very dubious comments about what the ‘Arab world’ is meant to be like (now and then) and what Arabs are meant to be like (now and then). This has become increasingly common in the past 30 years and it seems that huge chunks of NT scholarship are unaware of Said’s very, very famous demolition of Orientialist scholarship which is even more worrying given the events of the past decade where Orientalism has come back blasting. So why does this happen? Well I try to answer that and related questions. Building on Bill Arnal’s work, the other major point involves the (at times quite misleading) emphasis on ‘Jewishness’ in historical Jesus and NT scholarship since the 1970s where love for Jews and Judaism is common but underneath is a widespread view that Jews and Judaism come a poor second. Behind both these major points there are lengthy chapters on Anglo-American historical, political, cultural etc discourse on the construction of ‘the Arab’, ‘the Middle East’, and Islam and the shifting views on Jews, Judaism and Israel in the past 40 or so years. This is to show how higher education and NT scholarship are deeply embedded in contemporary cultural trends and how these cultural trends can help explain shifting trends in NT studies.

What about biblioblogging? Well just a moment. The first section looks at the ideological location of NT scholarship. The first chapter is a brief overview of the history of NT scholarship and how historical and political contexts have influenced the ways in which questions are framed and so on and how dominant interest groups will influence the ways we debate. The second chapter is on bibliobloggers. I chose the bloggers because they are a contemporary example of academics who are less guarded than in traditional publications. Here there is, I think, powerful evidence that dominant political emphases in the media are reflected in the bloggers. More on that to come… Alas, the manuscript was completed before the advent of NT Wrong so I couldn't discuss the great bishop.

There are various reasons for this book. The clash of civilisation and war on terror discourse is so prominent it would hardly be a great surprise to find its impact in NT studies. It was also becoming increasingly common for NT scholars to make some unfortunate comments on Islam and Arabs (the connection is frequently made), echoing the kinds of comments made about Jews and Judaism a generation of so ago in NT scholarship.

I should add that I am perfectly aware that this book was influenced by political and historical context. Most obviously this would include escalation of violence in Israel and Palestine, Sept 11, invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and bombings in Bali, Madrid, and London. So this book is, obviously, as much a work of its time as the works it critiques. On a personal level, I’ve been interested in politics at least as long as I have been reading about biblical studies so perhaps something like this book was inevitable.

Maurice Casey aptly refers to one aspect of New Testament scholarship (research on the hypothetical gospel source, ‘Q’) as being in ‘a regrettably bureaucratised state’. What I’m pretty sure Maurice at least partly means by this is the dominance of consensus and how arguments frequently descend into reference to academic authority rather than, well, argument, and over reliance on consensus. This ‘bureaucratisation’ became very apparent to me at an SBL meeting where I attended a few sect-like sessions where arguments were confirmed right or wrong by the interests of the groups or by reference to scholarly heroes and friends and so on. Part of me wanted to find out why, though to be honest the book ended up not focusing so heavily on the ins and outs of different issues in NT studies. Instead, it’s all politics…

Hunting the Heresy Hunters

The SBL forum is up and running and has published some very interesting things… Lyons has been getting around a bit fairly lately…or so I thought: this is not W. J. Lyons but W.L. These two are going to get confused a fair bit and it doesn't help that they both cover reception historical stuff. We could have one of those polls to vote which one is your favourite...

One of the very recent ones is has been doing the rounds on the blogs and I’m behind the times on this one but whatever. Tony Burke has published a very entertaining (and I mean that in a positive sense) article called ‘Heresy Hunting in the New Millennium’. In general terms, I think he has hit on to a significant recent trend also in NT studies which is broader than the the study of the Christian Apocrypha (though there is seignificant overlap, of course). As ever, the mighty and incomparable Bishop Wrong put the point well:
Mind you, the folk that Tony Burke exposes are perhaps just the most blatant offenders in a ‘discipline’ which is riddled with the type of apologetic reasoning which would just be laughed at in other branches of the Humanities.

I suspect something similar underlies one of the reasons why some of us have been so spectacularly misrepresented, even in scholarly works (see a couple of posts back and see my comments on Wright and the resurrection). We could cast the net further to Hebrew Bible studies and look at some of the ways in which some of our friends from the Guild of Biblical Minimalists have been misrepresented, at times quite disgracefully. Incidentally, it’s good to see the return of Bible and Interpretation where there are some very useful arguments on the deceitful nature of some aspects of this all-new-heresy-hunting.

I wonder if a post-Burke and post-Wrong example of this would be our old friend Mike Bird who responded to Burke while subtly wearing his confessional mitre on his head. I’ve added the odd study note to bring out the true meaning of Bird and should add that I am so glad I don’t work in let's say those kinds of contexts:
If one genuinely believes in "false belief" as the NT indicates and "heresy" as the church fathers did, then there is nothing inherently wrong in exposing deviant forms of belief and behaviour that do not correspond to a perceived norm. Christian Apologetics is legitimate so far as it can explain to lay people why the "lost" Gospels (i.e. excluded, non-canonical, apocryphal, gnostic or whatever) lost out. It explains why the church leaders rejected writings that were androgynist (like the Gospel of Thomas) [unlike…?] or too ascetic (like the Acts of Paul)… we should be cautious and critical of those who promote an alternative "liberal myth" of Chrisian Origins. Something that supposes that the two hundred years of the church was a period of innocent pluralism and tolerance that was destroyed by the machinations of a self-appointed and needlessly narrow oligarchy of bishops who imposed their orthodox faith on a vibrant and diverse church…I'm all for more accurate [er, who isn’t?] and more rigorous use of the non-canonical writings. Yet I advocate that Christian Apologetics written by "conservative authors" is a legitimate activity since it correctly casts aspersions on the theological character and historical origins of the non-canonicals for lay audiences whose own theological profile attempts to line up with the NT canon….he [Burke] cannot disparage the theological and pastoral motivations for critiquing these documents unless he himself comes clean on his own theological and ideological biases [why not? Who will stop him?!]…I certainly don't want seminarians getting their theology of gender from the Gospel of Thomas [presumably Paul then?] or preaching the empty tomb story from the Gospel of Peter on Easter Sunday. In Burke's opinion, what does that make me? I'd like to know!

I could answer that last question – very kindly, naturally – but instead I’ll ask another: have we found ourselves another heresy hunter…?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

New from JBM

The Guild of Biblical Minimalists journal, Journal of Biblical Minimalism, has a review of John Carroll, The Existential Jesus (2007) now available. The review is by Antonius (Fat Nancy) Mokbel and contains language rarely used in book reviews. Most memorably that involving a thumb and a bath.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Guild of Biblical Minimalists

First the arrival of Bishop Wrong, now...the Guild of Biblical Minimalists.