Thursday, December 30, 2010

Problems Of Method In Scott's Re-Imagine The World, Part I: The Historical Jesus

I received a marvelous Christmas gift from ER. Re-Imagine The World: An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus is a fantastic general introduction to the parables of Jesus. I do not wish this post, or the one to follow, to indicate anything less than my great thanks for this little book and the way it has opened up possibilities for reading the parables in new ways. I only write these posts as introductions to a far more appreciative overview to come once I've finally finished it (I'm about two-thirds the way through).

One of my most treasured possessions is a biography of Geoffrey Chaucer by John Gardner. The book was given to me by my father, and was originally a gift from one of my older sisters decades ago. At the beginning of his book, Gardner points out a major obstacle to writing a serious biography of Chaucer - we have no information, first hand or otherwise, on Chaucer's life, beyond certain records of his various official, royal, positions, and his writings. Much, then, of Gardner's book, involves painting a portrait around the empty space that is the man Geoffrey Chaucer in the hopes that this empty space can be filled in by the intellectual and existential vacuum it creates. By drawing in from what we do know in general, and those rare bits - baptism records, court documents on Chaucer's diplomatic missions, the writings he left behind - it is hoped we can come to some understanding of who Geoffrey Chaucer, an English gentleman of the early Renaissance, was.

The biggest problem one encounters, faced with a lack of evidence, comes at portraying the last years of Chaucer's life. At some point, the documentation that the man Geoffrey Chaucer lived, simply ceases to record this same person as living. There is no record of anything - no death records in any church, no records of judicial procedures, no diplomatic letters from others at the time noting his passing - and, as my mother noted, "He just disappears." My father points out that, as a royal diplomat and courtier, in all likelihood, Chaucer attracted enemies, not the least for the profane nature of his writings as for his service to the crown. His disappearance was probably the result of intrigue; the Argentines and Chileans may have perfected the disappeared, but the English managed to go a long way to creating that category.

At the end, while Gardner's book is extremely strong on Chaucer's writings, his speculations of an elderly Chaucer enjoying his sunset years puttering in quiet obscurity just doesn't square with the massive silence that ensues. Given what we know about the ways of courtiers, in all likelihood, Chaucer's ending was probably far from pleasant.

With Jesus we face an even greater silence from start to finish. Jesus wrote nothing of which we know. The extant records of his life, contained in the canonical and extra-canonical Gospels, are hardly biographical. The various contradictions among these texts would confound anyone trying to reassemble anything like "The Life of Jesus".

Except, of course, such silence hasn't prevented a whole cottage industry of "Historical Jesus" scholarship from continuing on, blissfully insouciant to the many problems such an intellectual feat faces. Bernard Brandon Scott is among those scholars, a member of the Jesus Seminar, and committed, as he says at the outset, to understanding the parables as the stories of the historical Jesus, the first century Galilean Jewish peasant. Right at this point we confront a major obstacle - we have no direct access to the first century Galilean Jewish peasant apart from the various portrayals, written after his death, who attempted to understand his life and work through the prism of his execution and reported resurrection. Everything we have, accepted by the Church or not, can only be understood with that in mind. While we can, as Gardner did with Chaucer, come to an understanding of the world in which Jesus lived, the various communities that shaped his life and work, wrestle with the differences between orality and literacy as they pertain to Jesus' ministry (an issue to which I shall return when discussing the substance of Scott's text), and consider his ministry as part of the larger Jewish struggle against Roman dominance, at the end of the day, the hole in the middle of the story cannot be filled by all that ever-growing, overlapping sets of information and learning.

Which is not to say that the historical Jesus is some kind of cypher hiding behind the various portrayals of him in the Gospel literature. On the contrary, given the state of various historical-critical methodologies, understanding who Jesus was, what he taught, and how the communities that produced the texts we call Gospels understood his teachings becomes both deeper and broader with each passing year. All the same, I believe it not only impossible to get behind the extant texts to recover the man, Jesus, behind the testimony of Christ, I believe it is unnecessary. Jesus himself is clear enough, roughly speaking across the textual evidence we now have, about who he is, what he is doing, and why he is doing it. It is the texts themselves that testify who the person, Jesus of Nazareth is, because he was none other than the wandering preacher, teacher, healer, friend of tax-collectors, prostitutes, and other outsiders.

Furthermore, as an introduction to the second post - on the inclusion of the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas - the four Gospels, for all their contradictions, inner incoherence (at times), range of literary standards (from Mark's barely literate koine Greek to the fully realized narrative expanse of the Gospel of St. Luke and the cosmic Christ of the Gospel of St. John), provide a marvelous, multifaceted view of this Jesus, who he was, what he did, and most of all why he did it. To understand Jesus, absent any other evidence, by pretending that there exists behind these texts something that is accessible without these texts is really to pretend to something that isn't possible. This position is not helped by Scott's insistence that the entire reading project is theory-laden. This is true, to be sure, but his position on what constitutes a "theory" is wrong. A theory isn't a guess. Rather, it is a set of working assumptions that have proved themselves repeatedly and are connected because, fitting them together in a particular way makes what was previously unintelligible, intelligible.

Finally, while it is certainly important to understand the parables qua parables, the attempt, as Scott says, to understand them as this historical man Jesus told them, without the contextual settings in the Synoptics (as he notes, the Fourth Gospel is parable free, one of many reasons I find N. T. Wright's theory that is the earliest Gospel untenable), does violence not so much to the meanings of the parables themselves, but the narrative function of the parables within the larger project of each Gospel writer. Ripping them from their literary context robs them of their noetic authority, their theological depth, and their reality as part of a larger whole. Much like the "Q" hypothesis - arguments over what is and is not contained in a document that does not exist strikes me as an odd way to spend one's academic career - I find this way of "reading" presupposes facts not in evidence, and incapable of ever being in evidence.

That there was a historical Galilean Jewish peasant named Yeshua who ended up on a Roman crucifix at some point in the ham-fisted reign of Pontius Pilate as proconsul is pretty much beyond dispute. Of the man, the only testimony we have that remains after two thousand or so years is contained in a limited number of unique literary documents that limit themselves to various deeds, sayings, teachings, and goings-on that relate to his work in and for the poor and outcast in Roman Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, and how these acts are related to the claim that this same murdered apostate and rebel rose from the dead. Getting behind this portrait, regardless of the intellectual rigor involved in the effort, ends us up where it began. In the process we lose the context, the subtlety, the beauty, and the testimony of the Gospels. In other words, we lose far more than we gain in the attempt.

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