Monday, July 20, 2009

Jesus, Interrupted

This latest book from Bart D. Ehrman repeats a great many facts from previous books. And it is totally repetitive of their themes, so much so that he helpfully bullet points their main ones in this book. Since Professor Ehrman is one of the few theologians who both makes and effort at truthfulness and an effort at communicating clearly to ordinary people, this is a good thing. In the end I have to strongly recommend reading this book as well as his Misquoting Jesus, Lost Christianities and Lost Scriptures. His books on the gospel of Judas, the Da Vinci Code and Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene (all together) are probably informative but I haven't read those. Professor Ehrman has the courage to call contradictions what they are, and the word "forgery" is used.

How can you condemn such a writer? He is a shining example of the academic standards found in the best seminaries and university schools of divinity and departments of religious studies. Any shortcomings would be those of the most highly esteemed institutions and scholars. It is, although people dislike admitting such a possibility, possible to dot every scholastic i and cross every academic t, to industriously mine the sources and footnote the references, to write unread theses valued by merely weighing the bibliography, yet still produce nothing of value. The history of Soviet Studies proves this too, but historically the greatest reason for skepticism about the real importance of academic standards has been theology. Academic standards will not prevent a professor from merely regurgitating the accepted ideology. Even worse, in theology, academic standards are not even required. Ehrman's doctorate (Princeton Theological Seminary) I believe, is in principle not one bit better than the doctorate Jerry Falwell boasted.

I say this to emphasize the by comparison to much of his competition Professor Ehrman is an intellectual and moral giant. He would disdain this comparison, I think: He would much rather be in their company than in mine. The point is that the following points, although they rather call into question his fundamental understanding, is not a personal attack at all, but criticism of the entire field of theology in general, and New Testment studies in particular.

Perhaps the only new idea in the book is the suggestion that Judas did not just reveal the location of Jesus, but revealed his secret teachings, namely, that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah. This reminds me of Courtway Jones' Arthurian trilogy, which posited Kay to be the true villain of Arthur's career (misreading the seneschal's role of being the bad advisor who says no to everyone begging favors.) At best, Jesus is historical in the sense that Arthur is historical. The current favorite historical Arthurs, if I'm not out of date, are the old standby Ambrosius Aurelianus, who is not named Arthur, is not a king, and rather more Roman than British; the other is a Sarmatian cavalryman (this was dramatized in the last big Arthurian movie.) That one is at least named Arthur, though he's not British at all. The point is, of course, that what people really mean by "Arthur," didn't ever exist. What did, isn't what they meant. Ditto for Jesus. And if Arthur is dubious, no one has made a case for Modred. How then do we know Hyam Maccoby isn't right and Judas is as fictional as Modred?

Ehrman holds to the conventionally accepted crucifixion date of c. 29. The only reason for this, near as I can tell, is that it makes Jesus' life a little more comfortably out of reach for Paul. Paul's mysterious silence on Jesus' life is thus a little bit easier to ignore. If someone named Jesus were crucified in 36 (possible even if committed to crucifixion by Pilate,) Paul, who began writing perhaps as early as 50 has no real reason to be so ignorant. The obvious point, that the mysterious appearance of Herod Antipas in some sources (including canonical ones!) as judge of Jesus, as well as Pilate, makes it uncertain who actually crucified him, is ignored by Ehrman, just as it is ignored by most of the orthodox.

The related point, that Jesus is held to historically be from Nazareth with the Bethlehem orgin scripturally inspired, exposes some of the terrible vacuity of academic orthodoxy. Jesus could have been held to be from Nazareth as a way to explain the title Nazarene (also Nasorean.) This is commonly held not to be developed from the same root as Nazirite (some one dedicated to God from birth.) The technical aspects of the argument about Greek linguistics is beyond me. I'm not even sure that Greek linguistics are relevant, how the possibility of an Aramaic loan word suffering a little mangling is ruled out. Then I see how Ehrman doesn't even notice how Jesus' biography is adjusted to attach him to the much beloved, highly respected and well remembered figure of John the Baptist. The historicity of Jesus' birth in Nazareth is suspect! If they do not even see that, how can I trust their arguments on technicalities of Greek. Wouldn't such be a great way to dismiss an opposing argument? Especially when Acts specifically retails an incident where the Baptist's followers know nothing of his supposed cousin.

The gospel of John is held to be as late as 95, primarily because of its supposedly advanced theology. (Ehrman cites the authority of Raymond Brown, for one.) John A.T. Robinson was notorious for arguing that John was earlier (and Dorothy Sayers was ignored) but the similarity of the Word to Holy Wisdom in Jewish intertestamental literature suggests the possibility that Robinson was right. Brown et al.'s assumption that the traces of a human Jesus were the original Jewish sect is doubtful. The divine man common in Greek culture would affect the Greek speakers who took up the Word, and they would imagine him in that way. At the very least Professor Ehrman neglects to explain (when he is usually so careful to do otherwise) how the transformation from Aramaic speaking to Greek speaking occurred.

Revelation is also held to be later. It has never been clear why the opening portion, with its letters to Christian churches in Asia Minor, so similar to those names in Paul's journeys, don't make us think of an earlier time, before Roman and Alexandria and Antioch were great centers of Christianity. Even more to the point, the apocalyptic thrust of Revelation is unexamined. Ehrman is quite clear that Jesus (overlooking his ill defended assumption there was such a person at all,) was an apocalyptic. The thing about apocalyptics is, just like the Tim LaHayes and John Hagees and such today, they are incredibly political. The politics of these apocalyptics is left undiscussed.

Partly that is because the orthodox never confront dissent. In most fields, there is at least lip service toward confronting differing views. Not so in theology. Discussing the possible political implications of apocalypticism would mean confronting the arguments of S.G.F. Brandon that the real Jesus was a revolutionary (my sentimental choice, but hey, I'm trying to go by the evidence, not wishful thinking.) Trying to justify the real existence of Jesus in any sense meaningful to a modern day Christian would mean acknowledging the existence of G.A. Wells and Alvar Ellegard. Amusingly enough, Ehrman tells of being baffled by emails from Sweden. It seems pretty obvious that they were informed by their awareness of Ellegard's work, while Ehrman had no clue such a person existed.

Another problem is the late dating of Docetism, in its various forms. The tale of Simon of Cyrene, who supposedly carried the cross for Jesus, powerfully suggests that there was very early on a story that Jesus was not crucified at all, but Simon of Cyrene was. Traces of this, as early as Mark, which could have been written as early as 65 (when a politically astute person could sensibly predict the destruction of the Temple,) a mere 30 years after Jesus' possible crucifixion, recasts Gnosticism as a broad religious movement in Judaism that was a wellspring of Christianity, not a later heresy.

Perhaps someone should write a book. Till then, such works as Ehrman's, unlike most, can serve as materials for genuine thought.

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