God’s War: A New History of the Crusades

At long last: a new comprehensive treatment to replace dated views of the crusades. Don’t miss God’s War, by Christopher Tyerman, if you have an interest in the subject. From Harvard University Press:

“A stunning reinterpretation of the Crusades, revealed as both bloody political acts and a manifestation of a growing Christian communal identity. Tyerman uncovers a system of belief bound by aggression, paranoia, and wishful thinking, and a culture founded on war as an expression of worship, social discipline, and Christian charity… Drawing on all of the most recent scholarship, and told with great verve and authority, God’s War is the definitive account of a fascinating and horrifying story that continues to haunt our contemporary world.”

And from Publisher’s Weekly (via amazon):

“Tyerman demolishes our simplistic misconceptions… Abjuring sentimentality and avoiding clichés about a rapacious West and an innocent East, Tyerman focuses on the crusades’ very human paradoxes: ‘the inspirational idealism; utopianism armed with myopia; the elaborate, sincere intolerance; the diversity and complexity of motive and performance’… God’s War is that very rare thing: a readable and vivid history written with the support of a formidable scholarly background, and it deserves to reach a wide audience.”

See previous posts on the crusades in context here and here.

Gnosticism Revisited

Yesterday I called attention to Bruce Chilton’s remarks about gnosticism, particularly the way neo-gnostics cherry-pick ancient sources, with which I am largely in agreement. A gnostic pastor named Father Jordan feels very differently. Meanwhile, Jim Davila writes as follows:

“Many, perhaps most, religions can be accused of misconstruing and selectively reading their own scriptures to suit later agendas. Some go as far as falsifying history (for example, Christian fundamentalist creationists and Muslims who deny that a Jewish Temple stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem). If people today want to be Gnostics (and it’s not for me to tell them whether they should be or shouldn’t), I would rather they be Gnostics who support women’s rights and the prudent use of the earth’s resources and who aren’t anti-Semitic. If any of that is untrue to ancient Gnostic scriptures or doctrines, so be it. (But if they want to claim that these are the actual values of ancient Gnostics, I will, as usual, call them on any historical inaccuracies.)”

I agree with what Jim says here, but I do think neo-gnostics tend to cherry-pick with more abandon than most, without realizing they’re doing so. This is how I responded to Father Jordan in comments on his blog:

Father Jordan
Contemporary Christianity too must cherry-pick in order to be a coherent functioning religion… Are not “neo-Christians” unlike their ancient counterparts? Doesn’t ancient Christianity have a history of anti-Semitism, misogyny, elitism, and dualism?

Yes, but this isn’t exactly news. Neo-gnosticism often comes as an antidote to a traditional Christianity weighed down precisely by the above baggage. It’s a mystery to many that the sources of that antidote have just as much (if not more) baggage. There’s more ignorance and misperceptions about gnosticism than about traditional Christianity, and reports like this don’t exactly reinforce one’s faith in any discerning ability of the laity.

Father Jordan
What really bothers Chilton (a scholar for whom I have a great deal of respect) is that “Neo-Gnostics” (us, presumably) accept The Secret Mark as a genuine text. The thrust of his article here isn’t really about how dishonest “Neo-Gnostics” are, but how Secret Mark is an obvious forgery. So we’re really guilty by association.

I hate to break the nightly news, but scholars who like the gnostic gospels tend to be the same ones who defend the authenticity of Secret Mark.

Father Jordan
Here’s the thing: I don’t know of a single Gnostic who identifies with Secret Mark, or considers it to be a legitimate or authentic Gnostic text. Not one. At best it’s a peripheral curiosity. Gnostics are not standing up in churches or the PTG saying “this proves Jesus was gay!”. Gnosticdom (!) as a general rule is just not interested in Secret Mark, and every Gnostic I know familiar with the text rejects it as a total forgery.

Neo-gnostics I know either (a) prefer to give Secret Mark the benefit of the doubt without knowing quite what to make of it, (b) accept and identify with it as gnostic, or (c) have never heard of it before. I haven’t run into a single neo-gnostic who rejects it as a forgery/hoax. We mix with different breeds, obviously.

Father Jordan
What scholars like Chilton so often fail to grasp is that the role of history is simply not as important to us as it is to Christians… Most Christians keep trying to wring “what really happened” out of their Gospels, whereas we’ve never been about that. We’re more interested in what is happening, our own alchemical reaction to these catalytic texts.

And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, so long as one is upfront about it. But as I’m sure you know, many people who read (say) Elaine Pagels walk away convinced that gnosticism is really what Jesus was about, and claim accordingly.

As a secular-minded Unitarian, I have nothing against gnosticism per se. People should believe as they want, though with Jim Davila, I prefer that those beliefs not conflict with basic human decency (i.e. respect for Jews, women, gays, the earth and its natural resources, etc.). But history matters too — especially to those of us who love it — and it irks when adherents like the neo-gnostics believe their sources to be purer than those against which they are often reacting.

Chilton on Neo-Gnosticism

Bruce Chilton reviews Gospel Hoax in The New York Sun. It’s a decent review, though readers will know that I think Carlson’s case is more conclusive than Chilton allows yet seems to want to say.

I like Chilton’s sidebar about the modern love-affair with gnosticism:

“Gnostic sources have been routinely confused with history, and some documents that are obviously from the second and third centuries (‘The Gospel of Thomas,’ ‘The Gospel of Philip,’ ‘The Gospel of Mary,’ and most recently ‘The Gospel of Judas,’ for example) have been touted as reporting the truth of the story that the New Testament supposedly distorts. ‘Secret Mark’ fed this naïve enthusiasm, and profited from it.

“Publicity and naïveté have encouraged the rise of a form of neo-Gnosticism, a fashion greatly encouraged by recent discoveries and alleged discoveries. In embracing these ancient sources, the neo-Gnostics are unlike their ancient counterparts. They want to embrace the earth, not subjugate it; they don’t wish to be elitist. Above all, they want to insist on the gender-equality of women with men. You need to cherry-pick Gnostic sources, and ignore a great deal of what they say, to make that picture work as an account of the Nag Hammadi library. Neo-Gnostics do just that, and falsify history. Many ancient Gnostics were openly anti-Semitic, taught that the physical world was the hopelessly corrupt product of a false god, and insisted that only the predestined elect could know the divine truth. These are persistent tendencies, rather than a set of precise ideas that all Gnostics repeated, but they are facts that can’t be denied.”

A lot of Unitarians (my group) are neo-gnostics, and they cherry-pick religious documents better than most. The laity needs some serious education about gnostic documents, and, needless to say, The Da Vinci Code is the last place to get it.

A Great Irony: Paul and the Pillars’ About-Face

In “Judaism, the Circumcision of Gentiles, and Apocalyptic Hope: Another Look at Galatians 1 and 2” (JTS 42 (1991): 532-64), Paula Fredriksen distinguishes between inclusion and conversion of Gentiles. The early inclusion of Gentiles cohered with apocalyptic belief; the later controversy over their conversion owed to the delayed apocalypse. Fredriksen writes:

“From its inception, the Christian movement admitted Gentiles without demanding that they be circumised and observe the Law…until 49 CE, evidently… What had changed between c. 30 and c. 49 CE, and why? Posing the question puts the answer…The kingdom did not come. Time drags when you expect it to end. Put differently, millenarian movements tend, of necessity, to have a short half-life. As the endtime recedes, reinterpretations and adjustments must reshape the original belief, else it be relinquished to unintelligibility or irrelevance.” (pp 558-559)

We thus have an irony. In the earliest days of apocalyptic fervor, Gentiles were (naturally) admitted into the Christian movement as Gentiles, without needing to become proselyetes. This is probably what Paul refers to in Gal 5:11: the period before his conversion when he zealously urged circumcision on these pagans who were sharing indiscriminate eucharist fellowship with Jews. After his conversion he not only accepted Gentiles as the other apostles did, but he saw them as his prime mission, and began evangelizing abroad.

But twenty years is a long delay for the kingdom — and a long time to be fending off persecutions from wider Judaism. The success of Paul’s large-scale mission would have made the issue more poignant: Can Gentiles really go on being included as implied equals without converting? The apostles had increased misgivings and knew they had to evolve accordingly. Paul, on the other hand, wasn’t about to relinquish this aspect of the millenial dream: the Gentiles were his babies.

Paul began as a foe of Christianity, and of Gentiles in particular. The other apostles began as apocalyptic enthusiasts, welcoming Gentiles as they were. Yet Paul ended up championing the pagans uncompromisingly, while the pillars ended up imposing conversion requirements — and circumcision, no less — in act of treachery and revenge.

Top 10 Passages of the Bible

Via Eucatastrophe, here’s a rather mundane list of Top 10 Passages in the Bible:

Genesis 1: The Creation Story.
Exodus 20: The Ten Commandments.
Psalm 23: The Lord is My Shepherd.
Isaiah 53: The Suffering Servant passage.
John 1: In the beginning was the Word.
Matthew 5: The Sermon on the Mount.
Luke 23: The Passion Narrative.
Romans 8: Those Led by the Spirit.
I Corinthians 13: The Greatest of These is Love
Revelation 21: A New Heaven and a New Earth

My list looks a bit different:

(1) Ecclesiastes 1:14; 4:2-3; 9:2-3a. Suggests little meaningful difference between good and evil: “I saw everything done under the sun; all is vanity and chasing after wind… I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil done under the sun… The same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil. As are the good, so are the sinners. There is an evil in everything under the sun, that the same fate comes to everyone.”

(2) Romans. The entire letter, which deals with ethnic conflict and serious theological dilemmas, more positively than on a previous occasion (Galatians). The most carefully structured and considered of all the NT epistles.

(3) Mark 11-13. Jesus in Jerusalem: hailed a messianic liberator, curses a fig tree for no fault of its own, threatens the temple, arrogantly refuses to explain by what authority he does the things he does, obliquely opposes Caesar’s taxes, and caps it all off with the great apocalypse, “The Abomination of Desolation”.

(4) Job 38-41. God railroads Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Who determined its size? Who shut in the sea when it burst from the womb? Have you commanded the morning and caused the dawn to know its place? Have the gates of death been revealed to you? Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you? Can you send forth lightning? Can you hunt prey for the lion? Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? Is the wild ox willing to serve you, and will it spend the night at your crib? Will you dare put me in the wrong?”

(5) I Samuel 8-12. Israel’s demand for a king, Samuel’s warning of the evils inherent in kingship, the election of Saul by lottery, and finally, Samuel’s ominous farewell-address to the people of Israel.

(6) Lamentations. Take something away, and you show people what they had: “How lonely sits the city that was once full of people. Like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations, a princess among provinces. Weeping bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks. The roads to Zion mourn; Jerusalem remembers…”

(7) Luke 15:11-16:8a, 16:19-31. The three best parables in the gospels lined up back-to-back: “The Prodigal Son”, “The Shrewd Manager”, and “The Rich Man and Lazarus”. A father contends with two equally lousy sons, attempting reconciliation. A landowner’s hands are tied by the shrewd survival tactics of his own manager. And a rich man burns in Hades, for no other reason than because he is rich.

(8) James 3:6-8. On gossip and slander: “The tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed on our members as a world of iniquity. It stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human race. But no one can tame the tongue — a restless evil, and full of deadly poison.”

(9) I Corinthians 15. Paul’s murky view of the resurrection: “But someone may ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?’ How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body… Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable… The perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.”

(10) Micah 2:1-2; 6:10-12; 4:1-4. Diatribes followed by a vision of something better: “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house will be established as the highest of the mountains. People will stream to it, and everyone shall beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks, and sit under their own vines and fig trees.”

Why Christianity Happened

James Crossley is telling us why Christianity happened from a secular perspective, and in a “socio-historical context as part of an explanation for the emergence of Christianity from John the Baptist and Jesus to the Jerusalem conference (c. 26-50 CE)”. I had the privilege of looking over parts of this book before it went to the press. James is now providing overviews of the book’s chapters; I’ll update this post as they appear.

Chapter One: Social History and Secular Approaches
Chapter Two: The Origin of Jesus’ View of the Law
Chapter Three: Sinners
Chapter Four: From Jewish to Gentile Sinners
Chapter Five: Networks, Recruitment, and Conversion