Ludemann on "Being Christian"

Gerd Ludemann believes that people cannot be Christians if they don’t believe Jesus was raised from the dead.

“If we take seriously the nature of historical knowledge and our own human dignity, we cannot be Christians any longer. Since Jesus did not rise from the dead, those who nonetheless continue to claim that title are deceiving themselves.” (The Resurrection of Christ, p 205)

This conclusion trails Ludemann’s attempt to demolish various “vain” attempts to remain confessional (the first four deny a literal resurrection, the last two accept it):

the “vain” kerygma approach of Bultmann, which maintains that the proper object of Christian faith is the proclamation of Christ, regardless of the historicity of that proclamation (pp 193-195)

the “vain” objective vision approach of Grass, which maintains the reality of visions whether or not they can fit into a scientific worldview (pp 195-197)

the “vain” metaphorical approach of Kessler, which insists the resurrection was real but non-literal and metaphorical (pp 197-198)

the “vain” replacement of the risen Christ with the historical Jesus, the approach of many liberal scholars today (pp 198-199)

the “vain” theological approach of Wright (pp 199-202)

the “vain” fundamentalist approach of Hartlich and Broer (pp 202-203)

I don’t know that any of these approaches are inherently “vain”, even if I personally eschew them as a Unitarian. Christianity is an evolving religion like any other, and I find it curious that a literal understanding of the resurrection would be viewed as a prerequisite for being Christian by an atheist historian.

Hard Candy: Little Red and the Pedophile

Hard Candy is about a 14-year old sociopath (Hayley) who baits and traps a 32-year old ephebophile & closet-pedophile (Jeff), and then plays vicious head games with him before “fixing” him once and for all. But how she ends up doing this isn’t what the viewer is led to expect, and the big debate among reviewers is whether or not the film cops out. I think it does, but that it ends up working for the drama rather than against it.

The film is dialogue-driven, and builds to the crux of Hayley castrating Jeff in his own home. It’s as perversely thrilling as the ear-slicing scene in Reservoir Dogs, the acupuncture torture in Audition, and the S&M in Blue Velvet. But in a way Hard Candy one-ups all of these on account of its non-graphic nature. It’s not as pornographic as the others: we don’t see any gory business going on down in Jeff’s nether regions; what’s left implied disturbs more than the sight of explicit surgery. Screening tests resulted in a lot of walk-outs, and it’s indeed a long, brutal torture scene to sit through.

But: It turns out that Hayley faked the castration. After bravely taking us where cinema hasn’t gone before, the film loses its nerve. And it weakens in another way, by becoming a chase-around-the-house thriller until it reaches its climax on the roof where Jeff hangs himself. Throughout its first three-quarters, the story stood on the strength of sharp dialogue and a cruel “operation”. Now it forsakes indie-style drama for action-thriller sequences, and it even drops the ball with dialogue. Hayley’s final line — “I am every little girl you ever watched, touched, hurt, screwed, and killed” — is cheap, and the sort of self-righteous vindication we expect from the Hollywood crowd.

Yet on subsequent viewings, I began to see a new film, in which those defects become assets. Hard Candy plays as an enacted domination fantasy, whereby a guilt-ridden man is tormented by a teen fantasy figure, taken to the brink of the worst punishment imaginable, culminating in his “noble” decision to kill himself. Yet in the background, you still feel the brutal horror of the first viewing experience, when you really thought Jeff was losing his member. The film works on these meshed levels of reality and fantasy simultaneously, or at least for me.

Like the Todd Solondz film Palindromes, Hard Candy is also a morality puzzle, refusing to anchor us on safe ground. We can no more decide between pedophilia and vengeful sadism than between pro-choice and pro-life; either side is hopeless. Solondz and Slade gives us a young teens driven to extremity — as Aviva engineered the death of an abortion doctor, Hayley forces a pedophile to kill himself. We obviously condone neither action, yet are drawn into empathizing with demented thirteen- and fourteen-year olds who have warped ideas about justice.

Fascinating is how Hayley’s vengeance rests on a hidden contradiction. At one point she lambastes Jeff: “Just because a girl knows how to imitate a woman does not mean she’s ready to do what a woman does.” She spends the rest of the film mocking herself, of course, for as Andrew Criddle points out: “If Hayley’s youth and inexperience make it unacceptable in principle for her to be Jeff’s lover, then her youth and inexperience surely make it unacceptable in principle for her to be Jeff’s self-appointed judge.”

Jeff makes the same mistake from the other direction. As Hayley starts digging into his scrotum, he protests: “A teenage girl doesn’t do this.” Her retort: “I’ve seen your idea of what a teenage girl should do with her day, so don’t even start.” They’re both right, both wrong, and trapped in paradoxes that feed off each other.

Hard Candy is so many things: a brilliant dialogue drama, a brutal revenge thriller, a weirdly enacted domination fantasy, and a morality paradox. The performances of Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson are crucial to the film’s success, and they are first rate.

The Empty Tomb: Arguments for Historicity

(Previous post here.)

Let’s now consider Dale Allison’s assessment of arguments for the empty tomb:

(1) The view combated in Mt 28:11-15 — that the disciples robbed the tomb — shows that everyone agreed the tomb was empty. (p 312)

(2) The early Christians gave no attention to the tomb of Jesus, which is strange in light of Jewish veneration for the burial places of prophets and martyrs. Only an empty tomb accounts for this lack of veneration. (pp 312-313)

(3) Paul’s language in I Cor 15 assumes an empty tomb. (pp 314-316)

(4) The early Christians could not have gotten away with preaching the resurrection of an individual (a wacky idea) in Jerusalem unless, at the very least, the tomb of that individual was known to be open and empty. (pp 316-320)

(5) Apologetic interests, if present in the resurrection narratives, are undisclosed. (pp 320-321)

(6) Only the empty tomb (in conjunction with the post-mortem appearances) could have yielded the resurrection belief, because there was no reason for the disciples to invent a premature resurrection. People create fictions in order to cope with failures and broken dreams, but Jesus’ death wasn’t seen as a failure. The crucifixion would have demoralized the disciples but ultimately been taken as part of the apocalyptic drama: suffering/death had to precede the kingdom, just as Jesus taught them. They would have gone on hoping for the apocalypse, at which point they — and he — would have been resurrected. An empty tomb caused them to conclude that Jesus had been raised prematurely. (pp 321-326)

(7) In a culture where the testimony of women was viewed as unreliable, the early Christians would not have invented female witnesses to the empty tomb. (pp 326-331)

Allison offers counters to the first five arguments (not a difficult task) and declares the last two formidable. Weighing these against the other side of the debate, he decides:

Of our two options — that a tomb was in fact unoccupied or that a belief in the resurrection imagined it unoccupied — the former, as I read the evidence, is the slightly stronger possibility. The best two arguments against the tradition — the ability of the early Christians to create fictions and the existence of numerous legends about missing bodies — while certainly weighty, remain nonetheless hypothetical and suggestive, whereas the best two arguments for the tradition are concrete and evidential. (pp 331-332)

I agree, but have also indicated another reasonable argument from the “against” side, and that argument (2) is more concrete and evidential than (6) and (7): the parallels between Mk 15-16 and Dan 6. Granted it’s not entirely persuasive. Stephen Carlson points out that Daniel was still found in the den in the morning (Dan 6:19, 23) unlike Jesus. But the parallels are still too numerous for me to ignore without feeling guilty. I wonder if it’s time for someone to do a Goodacre-like analysis and strike a balance between history remembered and prophecy historicized? I’m confident that an (historical) empty tomb tradition interacted with Dan 6 and was colored by it; but it’s difficult to say which came first in the case of each parallel.

James Crossley puts stock in argument (3) from the “against” side, that Mk 16:8 (the women saying nothing to anyone out of fear) is an attempt to explain why the tradition of the empty tomb was not well known. But as Allison points out, “they said nothing to anyone” trails not a command to proclaim the empty tomb but a command to tell the disciples about Jesus going before them to Galilee (p 303). The angel simply says that Jesus has been raised and his tomb is empty (Mk 16:6); it orders the women on another account entirely (Mk 16:7), and that’s what their saying nothing (Mk 16:8) is linked to.

Noteworthy is that Paul has been pressed into service on both sides of the debate (arguments (5) and (3)). That’s the trouble with arguments from silence (on the “against” side) and implied logic (on the “for” side). But Paul’s silence tells us nothing, and if his argument assumes an empty tomb it still doesn’t mean it’s historical.

In the end, Allison is right. Arguments (6) and (7) from the “for” side carry considerable weight. Visions of Jesus, without an empty tomb, would have resulted only in a belief that he was vindicated and assumed into heaven, not resurrected. And accounts of female witnesses discovering the empty tomb certainly smell like nonfiction.

The Empty Tomb: Arguments against Historicity

I’m glad to see RBL book reviews of Dale Allison’s Resurrecting Jesus. Michael Licona summarizes Dale’s assessment of the empty tomb:

Allison first takes a look at seven common arguments against its historicity and finds that only two carry weight. He then takes a look at seven common arguments for the historicity of the empty tomb. He concludes that there exists a “decent” case for the empty tomb and a “respectable” case against it (331). Notwithstanding, he judges the position that the tomb was empty to be “the slightly stronger possibility,” since the best two con arguments are “hypothetical and suggestive,” while the best two pro arguments are “concrete and evidential.” Nevertheless, the empty tomb remains a “tentative” historical fact, and its cause is even more so (332).

In weighing the seven arguments for and against, Dale finds only two in each case that carry weight. Let’s list them. We’ll start with the arguments against:

(1) The account is only singularly attested; it comes from Markan creativity. (pp 300-302)

(2) The account is inspired by Dan 6. (pp 302-303)

(3) The words about the women fleeing the tomb, “they said nothing to anyone” (Mk 16:8), is a literary explanation for why no one had heard of the empty tomb before. (pp 303-304)

(4) The account involves the miraculous. (pp 304-305)

(5) Paul knows nothing of an empty tomb, so the account must have originated after him. (pp 305-307)

(6) If people had visions of Jesus and had come to believe in his resurrection, it’s easy to see how an empty tomb legend would have arisen; human beings create religious fictions to justify beliefs all the time. (pp 307-308)

(7) There is remarkable precedent for — indeed, an overwhelming abundancy of — legendary stories about empty tombs and disappearing bodies. (pp 308-311)

After considering each argument individually, Allison concludes:

Of the seven arguments just introduced, the first five are, like Jesus’ tomb in the Gospels, empty. But the sixth cannot be dismissed without a guilty conscience: early Christians did have the imaginative ability to fabricate a fiction on the basis of theological convictions. Similarly, the final argument is formidable and should give its proponents some assurance: people have indeed constructed legends about missing bodies. (p 311)

I agree with most of Allison has to say about the individual arguments, but (2) needs more serious consideration. It’s not nearly as weak as (1), (3), (4), and (5). I’m not saying I think Mk 15-16 necessarily derives from Dan 6, but a good case has been made for it. As noted by Allison, Randel Helms listed the following parallels:

* The law demands the death of God’s chosen. (Dan 6:6-10; Mk 15:1-5)

* The ruler is reluctant to enforce the law but does so. (Dan 6:14-16; Mk 15:6-15)

* Late in the day a sympathetic leader puts the chosen one in a pit or cave and covers it with a stone. (Dan 6:17-18; Mk 15:42-46)

* Early in the morning those who care for God’s chosen one approach the pit or cave. (Dan 6:19; Mk 16:2)

* There is angelic intervention. (Dan 6:22; Mk 16:5-7)

* The hero is not dead but lives. (Dan 6:19-23; Mk 16:1-8)

Allison is unimpressed with these parallels (p 302) and says they are best viewed as “the upshot of happenstance” (p 303). On the other hand, he allows that Dan 6 may have influenced Matthew’s embellishments to the Markan story (see footnote 408 on p 303). I’m unclear as to why Matthew’s embellishments can be safely viewed as haggadic fiction, but Mark’s cannot. The above parallels, after all, are numerous, and hardly forced or contrived.

So despite my leanings to the empty tomb as history, I think argument (2) is much stronger than Allison allows and would accord it as one of three (along with (6) and (7)) which carry weight on the “against” side of the debate. In the next post we’ll look at the “for” side.

New Guest-Blogger: Andrew Criddle

Forgers look out. Stephen Carlson and Andrew Criddle are bonding over on Hypotyposeis. Check out Andrew’s debut post for the dating of a particular gem mentioned in Raymond Brown’s Death of the Messiah. The gem isn’t quite parallel to the Orpheus Amulet, which Andrew believes to be a forgery. (“The Orpheus amulet taken at face value dates from 400 CE or earlier, but iconographically makes little sense in the pre-Islamic world.”) Andrew suggests a dating of about 500 CE for the gem, and that it’s probably “the earliest depiction of a suffering crucified Christ”.

For some time I’d wanted to see Andrew start his own blog, but teaming up with Stephen is just as good, if not better. I now look doubly forward to reading Hypotyposeis.

Reconceptualizing Conversion: "What’s in it for me?"

In light of recent discussions, I’m pasting below my amazon review of Zeba Crook’s Reconceptualizing Conversion, from which we learn that people like Paul converted for rather selfish reasons.

Zeba Crook’s premise is that the key to understanding ancient conversion is “benefaction”, or what is gained, as opposed to introspective soul-searching. With trademark Context-Group gusto, he undercuts cross-cultural psychology which wrongly assumes that all people share the same psychological structure underneath a veneer of cultural difference. The cultural divide between Mediterranean and Western people results in fundamental psychological differences, which have serious bearing on the question of religious conversion.

While the academic field has generally heeded Krister Stendahl’s pointer that Paul didn’t have a bad experience with Judaism and the Torah, it has not heeded his more general claim — that Paul was not introspective at all. People in antiquity converted or chose gods for the same reason they chose patrons — based on the benefits they stood to gain. The “balance sheet” was what mattered in ancient conversion: “what’s in it for me”.

Crook discusses various rhetorical conventions that occur in the context of this “balance-sheet” psychology, including: (a) the unanticipated call of the patron, who gives the client a benefaction; (b) the honoring discourse of prayer, praise, and proselytism — the last of which was expected of clients so as to publicize the generosity of the patron, in an attempt to increase the honor and reputation of the patron and attract new clients (the more clients the patron has, the more honor); (c) patronal synkrisis, by which the client feels compelled to compare his inferior past to the superior present, to the credit of the patron; and (d) the grace received by the client (though “benefaction” is a better translation than “grace”, since the latter is loaded with post-Reformation overtones; rather than abstract ideas of love and mercy, grace referred more often to a concrete item of benefaction or patronage).

The author shows that Paul’s own rhetoric of conversion (in I Cor 9:1; 9:16-17; 15:8-10; Gal 1:11-17; Philip 3:4b-11) owes precisely to these conventions of patronage and benefaction, so it’s all the more surprising that introspection and other western psychological models continue to play a role in interpreting Paul’s conversion.

Of particular interest is the way missionary activity is understood in this context. Paul’s evangelism was nothing more than client-reciprocity, reflecting his obligation to publicize Christ in return for the benefaction Christ gave him. All clients were duty-bound to publicize on behalf of a benefactor, in order to increase the benefactor’s honor — as Paul puts it, “Woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!” (I Cor 9:16) Paul wasn’t so much trying to save souls as he was trying to gain converts in order to increase his Lord’s honor.

The phenomenon of synkrisis helps us understand how Paul’s new religious convictions related to his native ones. Crook shows that in order to credit benefactors, clients almost always described their past as grim and bleak in comparison to the present — except in cases (like Paul) where the patron doesn’t change, in which case they “raise the stakes” by improving upon an already excellent past (Philip 3:4b-6) which in comparison to the present is actually worse than worthless (Philip 3:7-11). Paul’s Jewish heritage had been a source of pride for him, but in comparison with new revelations based on what Christ offered him, that heritage seemed like excrement.

This is not only a profound basis for understanding the relationship between Paul’s twin sets of convictions, but it provides a springboard for making sense of Paul’s contradictions elsewhere. Crook argues that Paul, as a result of converting while still following the same deity, maintained a tenacious loyalty to the traditions of his forefathers, subject to a strict loyalty to the Christ movement:

“[In Romans] Paul seems to be constantly making a point, then back-tracking, working himself into a corner, then fighting to get out. In each case, this has to do with the value of the law…Paul is struggling to express loyalty to God in a new way (law-free salvation) without expressing disloyalty to God for the previous gift of the law…How can Paul argue that the law was a benefaction from God but that the supersession of it was also a benefaction from the same God? These are the issues of loyalty, which are the result of a conversion that involved the same divine patron, that Paul is struggling to work out.” (p 246)

Some prefer that Paul was “called” rather than “converted”. But Crook points out the false dichotomy: by the time of Hellenistic Judaism it was possible to be called and thus converted. Paul indeed expresses his conversion in terms of a call or commission, but that’s exactly the language of patronage/benefaction. He was invoking the Greco-Roman example of the call of the divine patron-benefactor (“conversion”) and the call of the Hebrew prophets at the same time.

This book shows plainly that Paul’s conversion was anything but unique. He followed the general pattern of conversion found everywhere in the Mediterranean. Once again, the balance sheet was the important factor — “what’s in it for me”, certainly not vocation or inner fulfillment. My only quibble is that Crook refuses to speculate on what Paul actually gained from Christ. What was in it for Paul? What was the benefaction he received? Was it simply the revelation (vision) itself? The promise of favored status which would somehow play out in the end (as the twelve disciples are reported as being promised in places like Mt 19:28/Lk 22:30)? Perhaps Crook wanted to leave this a mystery for others to solve, but given that he devotes so much space to Paul as his chief example, I felt a bit cheated here. But quibbling aside, this is a terrific book, another accomplishment of the Context Group whose members continue to help us understand the ancients on their own terms.