Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Larry Hurtado and LSD

It is a wonderful thing when someone as knowledgeable and authoritative in the field of early Christian as Larry Hurtado decides to enter the blogosphere.  As such we are all better off that we have direct access to such a towering figure - a New Testament scholar, historian of early Christianity and Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

I wish I had a friend like Professor Hurtado that I could spend hours discussing things that I happen to share a deep interest.  Nevertheless I doubt we could ever remain friends.  I don't think that I would be to blame for this entirely.  I think we have a fundamental difference about the way we engage texts and the relative significance of what remains from Christian antiquity.

Take the example of Larry's new post at his blog and the comments section that follows.  You get the distinct impression certainly that Professor Hurtado has never dropped acid or done any 'mind expansion' of any kind.  I know that sounds like a joke.  But look at Steve Jobs for a second.  He credits LSD with his ability to think 'out of the box' and create revolutionary technology.

Now I know that for every Steve Jobs there are a million glue sniffing addicts but I think my point still stands.  For I think that Larry's argument about 'expertise' is sort of shallow.  Larry wants expertise and a tightly defined definition of what Christianity is, who Jesus was and the authority of orthodoxy to define what ideas get looked at.  I have read his books and follow his blog so I feel I am entitled to make this claim with some authority (of course Larry would have it that only 'fellow scholars' have the right to say anything about him or his writings, but this again is a consequence of his archaic mindset).

Let me make something absolutely clear.  I think we should all show reverence for the observations of an expert like Larry Hurtado.  We should respect his experience and his familiarity with the texts and traditions associated with early Christianity.  But given the fact that he is such a bitter partisan, we have a right to question whether the cart has led the horse with many of his conclusions.

The most obvious situation here is his 'off the hook' vilification of Morton Smith.  If this were the Richter scale all the cities within a hundred mile radius of Larry would be reduced to rubble.  Over and over again, Larry presupposes that Morton Smith's prejudices 'against Christianity' led him to his conclusions - and even to forge a discovery.  But where his expertise on human motivation and document examination to make this claim?   He isn't a psychologist, he has no background in criminology nor is he a forensic document examiner.  It would seem there is an unrecognized double standard which Larry's unexpanded mind can't seem to recognize. 

In order to accuse Morton Smith of forgery, Larry has to venture into areas in which he has no expertise.  Of course, in his consciousness, he has access to the 'ultimate truth' - i.e. that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world etc. - and so these 'lesser truths' aren't as important to make his assertions.  He has 'suspicions' about the discovery but LSD might help him see that even that might be attributable to an emotional reaction - his fear that he no longer has the expertise and certainty he likes to think he has.

The point here then is that scholars should be used like workmen or day laborers.  Hire them for a task when you read their works.  If you want to learn more about the habits of certain fish in the Caribbean, depend on a scholar.  The same holds true if you want to know whether global warming is real, whether smoking causes cancer and the like.

The problem is, as I have said many times at this blog, it is dangerous when believing Christians or atheists develop scholarly theses from their inherited presuppositions.  I don't think that there are any scientists in other fields who are 'pro cancer' studying cancer.  We can accept their inherently 'anti-cancer' bias because we've effectively 'hired them' (through grants and government subsidies of higher education) to make us live longer.

The same can't be said for the study of religion.  We don't need rabidly partisan scholars to 'prove' that 'everything is fine' or 'everything is a lie' with respect to our inherited tradition.  What we need are dispassionate agnostics who recognize that all of our existing sources have been shaped by subsequent generations of religious partisans to 'purify' them from association with 'incorrectness' of some sort.

Christians in the earliest period did not agree with respect to anything regarding the nature of their religion or Savior.  They couldn't decide if Jesus was a man or God.  They couldn't decide what year it was he descended from heaven.  They couldn't agree on how many years his ministry lasted.  What the order of events in his life were, and on and on we go.  It doesn't follow from this that Christianity is 'completely a lie' or 'totally true' in the face of this.  We just happen to have a problem which no amount of 'expertise' can help lead us to any certainty about anything to do with earliest Christianity.

I think what really scares Larry Hurtado is the fact that it is dawning upon many taxpayers that the study of religion - and a great deal of what is taught in the humanities - should not be funded by taxpayers.  This because, there really is very little objective 'history' in the surviving documents from early Christianity which were not disputed in antiquity.  The Acts of Apostles was 'spurious' according to one powerful group.  For others, it was holy writ.  But should anyone use this text to reconstruct a firm 'history' of Christianity as such?  I think if the majority of taxpayers knew how disputed these and other texts were in antiquity, the answer would be 'no.'

I think the same thing holds true for the unbridled use of Josephus to reconstruct Jewish history in the same period.  I was reading the introduction to Jewish Antiquities as a bedtime story for my son last night (punishment), and I was reminded how reactionary the actual text really is.  The author explicitly states that he has written this 'against' a history that had already been set (= Justus of Tiberias).  He confesses how strange it might appear to some that he has divided his efforts into two works (Antiquities and Jewish Wars) but there is no mention of Life.

Shaye Cohen and others have demonstrated that Life is in fact closer to the lost ὑπόμνημα which stands behind all reconstructions of the actual Jewish rebellion.  But again, if the general public knew that all or most of our knowledge about the period of Jewish history was derived from one reactionary text with a very uncertain provenance - what would the opinions of most of these people be about the 'study' of Jewish history in that period?  I am not certain that a majority would feel this is something which should be continued.  

My point of course is not that I want to shut down the humanities.  I selfishly love the fact that my fellow citizens are basically funding ever new sources and studies to fuel 'what I do in my off time.'  But the reality is that there will come a day when people will ask these very same questions and question the value of the 'expertise' that Hurtado points to as 'decisive' in the reconstruction of history.  

Are we really getting to 'the truth' about how Christianity and Judaism emerged out of the Common Era?  Or are we, as I suspect, perpetuating little more than a fancy re-dressing of old ideas in scientific sounding jargon?  I don't think the answer to this question at least can be decided by 'more expertise.'  For reinforcing old thinking with more old thinking is surely a dead end.  I really think we should think about encouraging 'mind-expansion' of our educational elites as a precondition to their being hired and put on the public dole.  

In the state in which I reside the consumption of at least some of these substances would be perfectly legal.   I don't know if you could force someone to take a substance against their wishes.  But at the very least it should be encouraged within the culture of academia as it is, let's say among musicians and artists.  The last thing we need is more people continuing to use scholarship as a platform for their own political and social agendas.  

We wouldn't allow funding for a cancer researcher who was 'pro-cancer' to carry out ways of developing new cancers.  We shouldn't allow religious or atheist zealots to do the same with our culture. 


Email stephan.h.huller@gmail.com with comments or questions.

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