Monday, January 7, 2013

New Testament Scholars Are (For the Most Part) Unsophisticated Thinkers

Work starts again for me so that means that - theoretically at least - I won't have as much time to place posts here.  I really believe we have made some profound advancements towards understanding the original context for Christianity.  All of which brings us to our next point - why is most of the analysis of the Bible so utterly unsophisticated?  There is this sense that 'everything is really quite simple with respect to the transmission and interpretation of the New Testament when this is really not the case.  I bet even a crack police squad couldn't solve this mystery.

I know we happen to live in an age of decline.  Yet this isn't necessarily a bad thing.  One could make a case for the argument that it is only because of our decline that we are allowed the freedom to think and say whatever we want.  The Christian Church Father Origen lived through the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire.  Many have already made the argument that the rise of Christianity during the decline of that civilization isn't coincidence.  Perhaps we can argue that members of that culture were looking to religion to establish a new social order.

In any event, as we fast forward to our own times, I find it terribly distressing some times to see the manner in which prominent 'thinkers' in this field - I mean the study of early Christianity - have a complete lack of intellectual dexterity.  They can only think in one or two dimensions.  What do I mean by that?  Let's start with the unacknowledged reality in the study of early Christianity, something which should be pointed out to so-called 'historicists' and 'mythicists' alike.

It isn't just the 'gospel' which we have to wrestle with and its portrait of Jesus.  There are the writings of 'the apostle' called 'Paul' in the Catholic tradition - and then there are all the things that the Church Fathers and early Christian texts say about the gospel and the Pauline writings.  There are prominent mythicists like Earl Doherty who rightly experiment with the idea that Jesus might have been portrayed as wholly divine being.  But his theory falls apart when you start to incorporate the Pauline writings and early second and third century commentaries written about the gospel and the Pauline writings.

On the other hand there are the so-called 'historicists' - atheists and believers alike - who attack his experiments.  They rightly point to strained interpretation of historical references to Jesus the man in the Catholic recension of his letters.  Yet they too fall victim to the same one or two dimensional thinking with respect to the integration of (a) the gospel (b) the Pauline writings and (c) the Patristic commentaries on (a) and (b).  How so?  Well let's contrast the shortcomings of mythicists like Earl Doherty with - let's say - James McGrath.

Earl Doherty can be accused of unsophisticated reasoning because he doesn't recognize that the earliest Christian witnesses to the gospel (= c) inevitably assume that Paul (= b) had a written gospel (= a) and the Pauline writings were themselves commentaries on the gospel.  Who can be classified in this list of witnesses?  Marcion certainly, but more significantly perhaps Clement of Alexandria and to an extent any early witness to the Diatessaron at least theoretically.  We have already discussed Marcion and Clement ad nauseum at this site.  But the example of Ephrem is more intriguing and should receive a series of posts in the near future.

The point here of course is that Doherty simply takes the existing canon of Pauline writings and says they reinforce Paul receiving an ahistorical revelation about Jesus.  But even beyond the forced interpretation of many sections of the Pauline letters there is a difficulty when we consider the early witnesses all assumed that Paul wrote the original gospel (or at least had one in his possession).  We have already seen that Clement writes in Book Three of the Stromata that:

when [Jesus] says, "If you want to be perfect, sell your property and give the proceeds to the poor," he is showing up the man who boasts of "having kept all the commandments from his youth." (Mark 10:20) He had not fulfilled "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Luke 18:21, 22) At that moment the Lord wanted to bring him to perfection and was teaching him to share out of love.

This is a reference to the Diatessaronic gospel shared by various heretical groups which fused together the equivalents of the questions about 'life' and 'eternal life' in the synoptic gospels.

In other words, Clement and the Marcionites had a gospel but it wasn't one of our 'four' but a single 'super text' that combined readings from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and was the original text behind these four 'cut' texts of the Catholic tradition.  Yet there is a deeper layer of truth where many of Paul's statements in Romans are consistently understood by Clement (and others) to be commentaries on the lost gospel including Romans 13:9:

For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

There are many other examples of the early tradition assuming Paul had a copy of the gospel including the Marcionite (and the Acts of Archelaus's) claim that Paul was the Paraclete (= a claim which Paul would have needed John 14:16 to make).  We can't get into them right now.  But it is important to note that Doherty's theory falls apart when we get beyond the Catholic paradigm's one dimensional division of (a) gospel, (b) Pauline writings and (c) Patristic commentary all existing together but (b) coming before (a) and (c) assuming that (a) and (b) were separate revelations.

Now on to those who smugly contend that because Doherty's interpretation is flawed that we can fall back on the inherited notion of a historical Jesus.  Let's consider how someone like James McGrath would interpret the original paradigm of early Christianity.  He would undoubtedly agree I expect with Doherty that Paul received his 'revelation' without having a written gospel in his hand.  He would reject the Marcionite understanding that 2 Corinthians chapter 12's 'revelation' was not about his reception of the gospel.  Rather, he would undoubtedly argue in rather conventional terms of a 'special insight' - perhaps by the Holy Spirit - into the already established notion of a historical man named Jesus who was crucified under Pontius Pilate.

The difficulty with that theory however is that (c) doesn't allow for that hypothesis very comfortably.  There certainly were early Christians who thought that Jesus was a man born through an ordinary birth to Mary.  Yet it is only when you line up (a) (b) and (c) that difficulties for this theory emerge.  Certainly Irenaeus is the earliest supporter to the idea that (b) or 'Paul' understood (a) 'the gospel' in a manner which was in keeping with him being a human being born to a woman.  Yet Irenaeus is out of step with his contemporaries and the support we get from Tertullian and Hippolytus only reinforce the influence of Irenaeus, not the compatibility of his ideas with Christian witnesses from earlier periods of history.

Justin Martyr did not use Paul, so the fact that he might have understood Jesus to have been a man does nothing for the argument that (a) (b) and (c) cannot be squared before Irenaeus.  The facts remain that the heretics including Clement of Alexandria all understood Paul not only to have possessed a gospel but that their understanding of his exegesis of that text assumed a supernatural Jesus.  In other words then, Doherty and McGrath suffer from the same shortcoming - they haven't sufficiently comprehended (c) - i.e. the early second and third century witnesses to (a) and (b).  If they did they would neither argue over Paul's witness to (i) a wholly ahistorical Jesus or (ii) a wholly historical individual named Jesus.  The apostle clearly believed that Jesus appeared as a supernatural being in 'real historical' time.

Indeed for the unsophisticated reader - i.e. someone who doesn't want to spend the years required to master (a) (b) and (c) - they can just read his caricature as 'Simon Magus' in the Clementine writings for yet another confirmation of this understanding.  But that is what it comes down to isn't it?  The only people who should be allowed to say anything about the development of early Christianity are those who have mastered all three fields of study - not just (a) or (b).  After all, this only reinforces our traditional notion that (a) and (b) are wholly separate from one another ...

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