In the Mail from @BloomsburyPub: “Jesus and Brian: Exploring the Historical Jesus and his Times via Monty Python’s Life of Brian”

Over the next few days, I will post some reflections. I really… really…. REALLY wish I was at this conference.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian film is known for its brilliant satirical humour. Less well known is that the film contains references to what was, at the time of its release, cutting edge biblical scholarship and Life of Jesus research. This research, founded on the acceptance of the Historical Jesus as a Jew who needs to be understood within the context of his time, is implicitly referenced through the setting of the Brian character within a tumultuous social and political background.

This collection is a compilation of essays from foremost scholars of the historical Jesus and the first century Judaea, and includes contributions from George Brooke, Richard Burridge, Paula Fredriksen, Steve Mason, Adele Reinhartz, Bart Ehrman, Amy-Jill Levine, James Crossley, Philip Davies, Joan Taylor, Bill Telford, Helen Bond, Guy Steibel, David Tollerton, David Shepherd and Katie Turner. The collection opens up the Life of Brian to renewed investigation and, in so doing, uses the film to reflect on the historical Jesus and his times, revitalising the discussion of history and Life of Jesus research. The volume also features a Preface from Terry Jones, who not only directed the film, but also played Brian’s mum.

Can Ronald Reagan Help us Understand the Historical Jesus?

Ronald Reagan wearing cowboy hat at Rancho del...
Ronald Reagan wearing cowboy hat at Rancho del Cielo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is, perhaps, the most anachronistic post on the internet – besides the guy calling Moses a Christian – however, I wanted to just float some ideas for consumption and regurgitation.

A brief survey of advisors to Reagan reveal a different Reagan than his modern supporters often tout. In 2008, several of them lined up to openly support then-Senator Obama in his first presidential campaign. Candidate Obama startled many Democrats by suggesting he admired Reagan. If one looks at the record, well… that is open for debate.

But, modern “Reaganites” paint an image of Reagan who is almost libertarian, a strict conservative Christian, and a miracle worker. Indeed, many long for the second-coming of Ronald Reagan as demonstrated in the 2012 Presidential race. But these are his supporters, almost a half-a-generation, or more, removed from the man. His ills and faults, his sins, are long forgotten.

We have two classes of “favorable rememberers” here. We have the advisors to Reagan painting a different picture (along with his wife, Nancy, and son, Ronnie Jr). We have his modern day supporters who have learned of Reagan second hand, either through shared memories or a text book. These supporters more often than not, create an image of Reagan that is simply not true, albeit based on some true. For instance, Reagan said something about government being the problem. His current supporters, rather than looking at all of the Government Reagan increased, believe this is a literal statement and they use it as a means to disrupt the service and work of the people as much as possible.

There are  more examples, but I would digress quickly into an anti-Reagan attack and that would be unhelpful.

But, you get the bit. The Historical Reagan, as showed by contemporary recorded data (something we do not have about the Historical Jesus) is different and has a different record (Gov. Reagan anyone?) than what is often acknowledged by contemporary fans. Further, you will often seen modern Reaganites take wildly different “Reagan” positions than his contemporaries and advisors, all the while basing it on the Historical Reagan and invoking his name.

How does this translate to the current discussion of the Historical Jesus? First, the Historical Jesus leaves behind no videos, no youtube, no contemporaries writing modern, critical historical biographies. This makes it rather difficult to get to the “Historical Jesus.” Second, there seems to be, even in the received documents making up the New Testament as well as other non-canonical documents, differing views on who and what Jesus was (or accomplished). For instance, Paul seems to portray a difference between himself and the Apostle Peter and this difference is about the basic view of the Gospel. Paul came about 20 years later while Peter was (according to our records), Jesus’s prime minister. We see this amplified in later documents, of course.1

It may, at one point, become difficult to find the real Ronald Reagan, although that would take a lot to do considering the large amount of data he himself created. But, in the meantime, we have to watch as those who favor Reagan view him completely different. One group, the primary sources, paint a picture of a man the second group (secondary sources) would not accept. We cannot discover the Historical Jesus, or at least on any sort of grand scale, not because there is a grand conspiracy to reshape his image, but because there is simply not enough data and what data has survived is shaped by the winners of orthodoxy.

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  1. If you think the Jesus of the Gospels and the “religion of Paul” are different, you are missing a lot.

Dale Allison on the rise of mythicism

I know I just posted about this, but Allison’s interview includes this snippet:

One more observation on the recent resurgence of the mythical point of view. It may be driven in part by the internet. In the past, most of the gatekeepers of the discipline—acquisitions editors—wouldn’t have been interested in the topic. The internet, for better and worse, has changed this. It’s now possible for a movement to make itself felt independently of the big publishers.

via The Christian Agnostic: Interview: Dale Allison on the existence of Jesus.

This is not limited to mythicism, by the way…

Review of @bakeracademic’s The Story of Jesus in History and Faith: An Introduction

There are a bevy of Historical Jesus books published, in pre-publication, and ready to make their way to copy-editing. Do we need another one? It is likely one could complete their research on Historical Jesus scholarship without ever picking up Lee Martin McDonald’s The Story of Jesus in History and Faith: An Introduction; however, their research would remain incomplete if they did not.

This massive volume is divided into three parts. Part One examines the quest, or quests, thus far, tackling luminaries like Bultmann and Theissen. For the lay reader, this introduction is just enough to tackle the issues leading up to where we are now, although it does little to differentiate itself from other introductions. One thing he does do, however, is to give Bultmann, the overly mythologized demon of Historical Jesus scholarship, a fair shake. He makes no final decisions, at least in this part, but allows Bultmann (and Bultmann’s context) to speak freely. Further, he gives a succinct understanding of the criteria of authenticity and engages with current scholarship, namely Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne’s edited volume (published by Bloomsbury). The only issue I have here is that McDonald simply accepts certain of the criteria (44) without telling us why.

Throughout this part, he is careful to remind us that to understand the Historical Jesus is to acknowledge God’s activity in history. McDonald takes the line that history, while pursued via scientific methods, is not a science in of itself. He does not refer to Hayden White and the discussions about a firmer footing for history and historians, but like others, McDonald repeats the principles regarding history as a non-scientific endeavor. McDonald issues a conclusion may will find difficult to swallow, even those who are devout Christians. He writes, “The Jesus of history, as scholars have reconstructed him, never existed, and the real Jesus cannot be fully known by employing criteria that ignore the activity of God in his earthly journey.” (45). Quite simply, if you do not allow for miracles as a divine narrative around Jesus, then you cannot find the historical Jesus. I tend to, even as a Christian, disagree with him.

The second part examines the evidences of Jesus, beginning with the Gospels. McDonald seems to allow for an Oral Q, and perhaps writings predating the death of Jesus, but in the end, does not hold to mainstream Q scholarship. The glaring problem is that McDonald does not engage, even briefly, alternative theories of Gospel composition, namely the Farrer-Goulder hypothesis. This leads to several audacious statements (such as in Part 3 regarding literary independence in the birth narratives) that simply cannot be proven. The use of the Gospels as evidences of the historical Jesus are circular logic at best. Finally, his exclusion of Paul is troubling.

However, McDonald includes other evidences of Jesus, evidences that send the mythicist scrambling. McDonald is careful in this part, more careful than his use of the Gospels, to careful sift through what may and may not be applied to the search of the Historical Jesus. He uses Jewish and Roman sources, and goes so far as to include a succinct list of parallels between the Gospels as these other sources. This is, perhaps, the most helpful aspect of the book to those who take a critical view towards Historical Jesus research. By showing how those from outside the community viewed Jesus, and in such the viewing becomes evidence of the existence, McDonald provides us with a sounder collection of testimonies to the existence of Jesus and the plausibility of the Gospels than the Gospels. To deny the amount of historical evidence we have of Jesus is to deny reality.

In the final part, McDonald takes a rather serious approach at telling the story of Jesus but with a bit of historical criticism intermingled. Yes, McDonald tackles such issues as the Virgin Birth, miracles, and the Resurrection, but he does so with a constant eye that one cannot simply prove the acting of God in history, that these things are rather a matter of faith. Granted, he does point us to other avenues of consideration for the historicity of these events, such as the number of other important births and wonderworkers during the time of Jesus and how these events were described. These things should give us pause in our effort to demythologize any part of the New Testament. I am greatly pleased to see our author make use of authors known for their hyper-critical approach to Christianity, such as Crossan and Maurice Casey.

There is a deep canyon lacking in Evangelical scholarship, especially in the area of the Historical Jesus. Too much time is spent on defending this or that position, only to allow the entire scheme to slip away. McDonald presents nothing new so as to be groundbreaking, but has built up a virtual library aimed at engaged critical scholarship in the area of the so-called Historical Jesus quest. His charts and other compiled, and simplified, data will remain helpful to all students of the Gospels and their literary sources. His citation and use of secondary material, or material not related to the New Testament, is immediately impressive given that it is not the New Testament that proves the plausibility of Jesus or the message of Jesus, but those who would be his contemporaries. In short, The Story of Jesus in History and Faith: An Introduction is a much needed volume to give us a firm ground on how to explore the quest of the Historical Jesus without letting ourselves get in the way.

Reviewing ‘Is this not the Carpenter?” – Round 1

My goal is to not disparage this entire book as one might hope. I do think that given the breadth of scholars involved, it deserves some measure of attention. Now that it is in paperback form, it is more acce$$ible to the average reader than the previous hardcover incarnation.

I am not going to review every essay, but after having read through many of them, there are a few I want to call attention too. This first one is also the first essay in the book and it is written by none other than Dr. Jim West. Titled truthfully as A (Very, Very) Short Introduction to Minimalism, West takes us on what he considers the biblical norm for reading Scripture not as history but as a theological treatise.

I must agree with West that an “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.’ Indeed, we are not really absent of evidence when it comes to the historical Jesus, although we are absent the evidence some have set as the high bar they now require.1 Further, I agree that the biblical norm was not a desire to replicate historical facts simply in a proto-David McCullough form but the biblical writers sought to provide what is anachronistically called theology.  West declares, “It was not ‘history’ that mattered, but ‘theology.’

He goes on to list the issues with the Synoptics — how Luke truncated Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. He doesn’t mention, because maybe he doesn’t agree, that Matthew could have easily made this up wholesale in the first place. He likewise mentions Paul’s focus only on the theological implications of Jesus rather than painstakingly scoping out and detailing the life of Jesus, as many 18th, 19th, and 20th century liberal theologians have done. I wonder why West does not mention Paul’s use of allegory for the story of Abraham as a sure sign of the lack of historical concern. In the end, he declares ‘minimalism is not a new phenomenon.’ He is correct, if we define minimalism as a concern for uninterpreted history (a distinctively new phenomenon) superseded by the theological truths of the community.

My concern here is that West seems willing to forgo historical criticism about the context of construction, surrendering any historical claims (for instance, Jesus was killed at the order of Pilate) as examinable. While West is no post-modern follower of Kristeva, his approach seems to me to amount to nearly the same. It is not about the author, but about the interpretation by the later reader. My fear is, if we remove the author and thus world of the author from our examination before interpretation, what good is the interpretation?

West has some solid points, and is first and foremost a theologian in this regard. This is not a terrible thing as some may suspect. His intentions are not motivated by a desire to protect some document imposed with inerrancy, but to maintain what Christian Tradition has generally maintained — the theological underpinning of Scripture. Of course, those who deny the authenticity of the Historical Jesus may see this and agree with West as for some of them, Jesus is no less a theological construct than Moses or David.

  1. We might say that mythicism is an argument from silence