How Not to Chastise an 11-Year Old

I normally don’t blog this sort of thing, but I can’t stop laughing about Alec Baldwin’s diatribe against his 11-year-old daughter over a cell phone. It’s been made available online, thanks to his vindictive ex-wife Kim Basinger. Listen here.

I kind of like Baldwin as an actor. Of course, anyone who talks this way to an 11-year old (or 12-year old — Alec doesn’t seem to know his own daughter’s age) is an ass, but for some reason I can’t stop laughing each time I hear this. It could be Baldwin’s heavy New York accent (which he does a good job of suppressing elsewhere), or it could just be that I associate the rant with his humorous, foul-mouthed, and hot-tempered role in Scorsese’s The Departed.

"Tolkien’s Christianity and the Pagan Tragedy"

I still haven’t read The Children of Hurin, but it sounds good — dark and tragic, even for Tolkien. This reviewer understands Middle-Earth perfectly:

“J R R Tolkien was the most Christian of 20th-century writers, not because he produced Christian allegory and apologetics, but because he uniquely portrayed the tragic nature of what Christianity replaced… [He] reconstructed a mythology for the English not because he thought it might make them proud of themselves, but rather because he believed that the actual pagan mythology was not good enough to be a predecessor to Christianity…

“Mere allegory along the lines of the Narnia series can do no more than restate Christian doctrine; it cannot really expand our experience of it. Tolkien takes us to the dark frontier of a world that is not yet Christian, and therefore is tragic, but has the capacity to become Christian. It is the world of the Dark Ages, in which barbarians first encounter the light. It is not fantasy, but rather a distillation of the spiritual history of the West. Whereas C S Lewis tries to make us comfortable in what we already believe by dressing up the story as a children’s masquerade, Tolkien makes us profoundly uncomfortable. Our people, our culture, our language, our toehold upon this shifting and uncertain Earth are no more secure than those of a thousand extinct tribes of the Dark Ages; and a greater hope than that of the work of our hands and the hone of our swords must avail us.”

It doesn’t necessarily take a Christian to warm to this. Tolkien’s fantasy, unlike most, underscores the tragic and hopeless plight of humanity. Whether we end up looking “beyond the world” for an antidote, we’re left with unpleasant implications about our world which can’t be avoided.

Medieval Dishonesty

Richard Nokes wonders about medieval honesty:

“I’ve started thinking about… medieval texts, and I’m having trouble thinking of ones in which honesty is portrayed as an important virtue. Sagas are basically out as an entire genre, given the praise of trickiness of the heroes. Patient Griselda’s husband may be the Christ figure, but he’s also a terrible liar, as are many other of Boccaccio’s characters. Unless I’m forgetting something, I can’t think of a single Canterbury Tale in which honesty is a virtue. I assume that somewhere in saints lives are those praised for their honesty, but all I can think of is Judith.

I’m not trying to suggest that honesty was not a medieval virtue, but I suspect that it was not a particularly important virtue. Loyalty, fidelity, piety, chastity … these seem to be the prime virtues of the literature. Liars are punished in the Inferno, but nothing like traitors are.”

Nokes is right, and the reason is because western medievalism was heavily shame-based by post-Reformationist standards. Doctrinal examples abound: Anselm’s satisfaction model of Christ’s death (emphasizing atonement to restore God’s honor) contrasts with the later Protestant penal substitution model (advocating atonement for the sake of justice). And naturally, the more “honor-shame” your outlook, the more lies and deceptions become acceptable.

When we say that honesty is a western virtue, it needs to be qualified with the cliche that everything is relative. Medieval Europe may have valued honesty more than places like the Mediterranean did, but to later Protestants — and certainly to today’s secularists — they seem pretty, well, “medieval” indeed.

(Hat-tip: Stephen Carlson for the reference.)

Herod Antipas in Galilee

One of the recent RBL reviews merits attention.

Jensen, Morton
Herod Antipas in Galilee: The Literary and Archaeological Sources on the Reign of Herod Antipas and Its Socio-economic Impact on Galilee
Review by Mark Chancey

Last week I echoed the first sentence of Chancey’s review: “One of the chief insights of the Third Quest for the historical Jesus is that to understand Jesus, one must understand Galilee”. Naturally, the historical Galilee has proven to be as elusive as Jesus. The evidence has been used to argue that Jesus was descended from Gentiles, a multiculturalist cynic-sage (Burton Mack); from Hasmonean settlers, a “common Jew” like the Judeans (Eric Meyers); and from ancient northern Israelites, a distant cousin of the Judeans (Richard Horsley). But a common construct involves Galilee in the throes of economic crisis — thanks to Herod Antipas, the arch-villain who has become the chief factor in legitimating one’s understanding of the region.

Chancey endorses Jensen’s thesis that Antipas wasn’t a particularly remarkable ruler, and that Galilee didn’t suffer the economic crises suggested by scholars like Crossan & Reed, Horsley, and Arnal:

“Far from showing any signs of decline in the decades prior to the First Revolt, the rural communities appear to have been flourishing, with public buildings, upper-class residences, and varied industrial and agricultural activity… Sepphoris and Tiberias were modest in comparison, smaller in size, with fewer monumental public buildings. ‘Antipas, rather than imposing real novelties, brought Galilee up to date with some of the infrastructure already known in the area’. Jensen’s analysis seriously undermines claims that Antipas’ construction programs were massive in scale and led to the economic devastation of Galilean villages by draining away their resources.”

In sum, according to Jensen (and Chancey), the idea that Jesus’ activity was a response to harsh economic conditions created by Antipas lacks foundation. I’ll have to read Jensen’s book, not only since I take the opposite view, but because the significance of his thesis apparently points beyond the question of Galilee by raising broader questions. “It highlights the types of problems that occur when application of theoretical models is not accompanied by extensive review of the actual evidence.”

(See also: Four Views of Galilee.)

The Amorphous Third Quest

April DeConick and Mark Goodacre have some pointed observations about the way the quests for the historical Jesus have been categorized. April thinks we have entered a fourth quest — a peculiar claim, in my view, since many of the features she lists as characteristic of this quest have been associated with the third — and Mark thinks (like Dale Allison) that numerically categorizing the quests has had its day and should be abandoned. Dale has been quite strong about this:

“The assertion that we have recently embarked upon a third quest may be partly due, one suspects, to chronological snobbery, to the ever-present temptation, where new is always improved, to flatter ourselves and bestow upon our own age exaggerated significance, to imagine the contemporary to be of more moment than it is.” (Resurrecting Jesus, p 14)

Yes and no. I appreciate Dale’s ongoing warnings about the past being given short shrift — and he’s right, as Mark points out, about the “no-quest” period (1906-1953) being a misnomer — but it’s demonstrably evident that scholarly labors have paid off since the 70s in ways far more progressive than before (which I list below). On the other hand, Mark has a good point about the third quest ceasing to be a useful descriptor on account of its diversity. But that’s an irony, because it relates precisely to one of the defining marks of the quest (see 4 below).

The following significantly distinguish the “third quest” (the 70s to the present) from preceding quests.

1. An understanding of ancient Judaism without caricature (thanks mostly to E.P. Sanders).

2. Increased application of social sciences, which helps understand Jesus as the product of an honor-shame culture, and peasant society, in an advanced agrarian empire (thanks largely to the Context Group).

3. Intensified studies of the differences between Galilee and Judea (thanks to those like Sean Freyne, Richard Horsley, Eric Meyers, Burton Mack, and Mark Chancy — all of whom have very different views on the matter).

4. The amorphous nature of the quest itself, mentioned by William Herzog, which renders the term “third quest” somewhat of a paradox–

“the absence of a cultural synthesis such as those that supported the first and new quests. The first quest grew out of the cultural synthesis of the Enlightenment which we call modernity, and the new quest was held together by a clear hermeneutical program that drew its inspiration from Heidegger [existentialism]. The third quest know no such synthesis. The lack of such an organzing philosophy or theology promotes diversity and exploration.” (Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, p 33).

So I think there are grounds for continuing to use the term “third quest” despite (and because of) the absence of a cultural synthesis propelling it. I don’t see a fourth quest emerging in the near future, because it would have to be reacting against something so diverse that there’s really no vision to react against — unless it’s against the search for Jesus period. In other words, the only “fourth quest” I could see distinguishing itself is one which truly called for a “no quest”, like William Arnal does in The Symbolic Jesus.

The Secular Bible

Jacques Berlinerblau’s The Secular Bible is a postmodernist’s dream-handbook, calling for an end to biblical interpretation on account of texts being seeded with too many possibilities of meaning. The secular scholar, according to this wisdom, should not attempt to recover a text’s original meaning, but rather address how the text has been understood and why it’s so hard to understand. The subtitle of the book is “Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously”, which is ironic, since there’s not much left to take seriously by the time you reach the end.

On the positive side, I like the author’s “criticize and be damned” approach (on which see also here) which treats the integrity of religious texts the same as any other. And one can hardly dispute his claim that the texts of the Hebrew Bible, as we have them today, don’t stand as products of single authors (having been edited, rewritten, and repackaged over and over again). But to go from this to embracing an extreme postmodern hermeneutic, and then hold secularism hostage to it, asks abusively much of us.

Not suprisingly, Berlinerblau focuses mostly on the Hebrew Bible since its process of textual assemblage was considerably more complex — and more successful in burying original voices — than in the case of the New Testament. But he considers Paul briefly in his chapter on same-sex eroticism (pp 101-115). After addressing texts like Lev 18:22, Gen 19, Judg 19, Rom 1:26-27, and I Cor 6:9, he concludes:

“The endeavor to extract the originally intended message of some putative biblical author concerning homosexuality is a hopeless task. It is an aspiration soaked in theological preconceptions about Scripture’s underlying meaningfulness. It has no place in secular inquiry.” (pp 112-113)

Where to begin with such nonsense? First of all, secular inquiry has nothing to do with postmodern assumptions about the irretrievability of original meanings. Secular inquiry is simply about interpreting texts to the best of our ability without regard for sacred convictions. Sometimes things may be unrecoverable, but it’s not an inescapable rule of the game. Second, it’s obviously possible to get a hold on original intentions (when recoverable) and leave one’s “theological preconceptions” checked at the door. Secular and confessional scholars alike have proven capabable of doing this.

Someone like Paul may be an elusive figure, but some interpretations do him more justice than others. Yet in his survey of various interpretations of Rom 1:26-27 and I Cor 6:9 (pp 106-109), Berlinerblau refuses to acknowledge one as being any better or worse than the other: “secular hermeneutics is reluctant to champion any reading” (p 106). I think secular hermeneutics can do more for us than cop out as a general policy. An argument that Paul condemned homosexual acts committed only by heterosexual people is clearly bogus, and we should say so. (The ancients didn’t understand sexual orientation like we do.) But an argument that Paul, as an honor-shame macho man, hated male homosexuality, but didn’t have much to say about female homosexuality (if Rom 1:26 points to alternative heterosexual behavior instead of lesbianism) has a lot going for it.

At one point Berlinerblau tries distancing himself from death-of-the-author agendas and reader-response theory (p 81), but in fact there’s little to distinguish his position from that of classical postmodernism. He may insist on a finite set of meanings seeded in scripture, but it’s a very large finite set (p 82) — large enough, I think, to accommodate Barthes’ absurd notion that “writing is the destruction of every voice and point of origin”.

I can’t help but wonder if the need to erase original meanings stems, at least in part, from an unease with confronting certain historical figures on their own terms. If one doesn’t like the biblical authors, but is tired of disliking them, pretending they don’t exist becomes an oddly elitist alternative. (Berlinerblau does state that secular scholarship should be elitist in nature (p 7).) It allows the scholar to remain aloof from the question of our relation to these figures, and whether or not people like Paul are implictly “for” or “against” us, or can teach us in any way.

But in some ways that’s a phantom fear. It’s possible to like a biblical author despite his hostile and alien beliefs. Here I’m with Donald Akenson. He’s as secular as they come, and says the following about Paul:

“However frequently one encounters distasteful attitudes in Paul’s epistles, these moments are irrelevant. They should be treated as epiphenomenal, like a rain shower occuring in the face of a volcanic eruption. Whatever his rebarbarative moments, Paul seems to me to be the character who is most authentically defined of all the figures we find in the Tanakh, the New Testament, and the Talmuds… Paul is a jagged, flawed, and therefore totally convincing human being. And, unlike everyone else in the scriptures and the Talmuds, he has left us writings that are not merely ascibed to him by others, but are unassailably his own creation… When we finally become at ease with his angular personality, he talks to us in his oblique way of the historical Jesus and starts us on an historical pilgrimage that is pure joy.” (Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus, p 13)

We don’t need to dislike Paul for his homophobia, intemperance, and sectarian hostility anymore than we need to dislike the shogun Ieysu Tokugawa for his xenophobia and penchant for ordering people to commit seppuku. This is especially true if (as Philip Esler explains) we’re not obligated to agree with them.

Berlinerblau, like most postmodernists, has made a very limited contribution in arguing against a hermeneutic of overconfidence. I certainly agree with him that we shouldn’t be avoiding hard questions about the nature of the biblical texts. But we also shouldn’t be avoiding harder questions by pretending all voices under the texts are equally obscure.

Where Did the Flesh Go?

April DeConick offers a healthy Gnostic Easter Meditation, counter-balancing more orthodox reflections we’re used to hearing this time of year. She has a nice take on the Valentinian understanding, but I strongly dispute any tracing of this back to Paul. She writes:

“We are very familiar with the ‘orthodox’ Easter story, the story of Jesus rising from the dead, a story interpreted to be a resurrection of Jesus’ physical body, leaving behind an empty tomb. But there were many early Christians who regarded this as nonsense. Didn’t Paul say that flesh would not inherit the Kingdom?”

He did say this, but I don’t think it meant the original body stayed in the tomb and wasn’t raised. The biggest obstacle to understanding Paul is his adamant hostility to “the flesh”. It keeps interfering with his (equally adamant) insistence on the continuity between the old body and the new one.

Guest-blogger Alan Segal accounts for the ambiguity in terms of Paul’s Pharisaic background. In-between the Sadducees (who shunned an afterlife because they already had paradise, of sorts, on earth) and the millenial revolutionaries (who needed a strong/”fleshy” idea of the resurrection for the sake of justice), the Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the old body without necessarily bringing flesh into the picture. They seem to have grounded the resurrection in terms of Jewish apocalyptic, but not to the extent that angry millenarians did. After all, they did have a happier fleshy existence than revolutionaries and martyrs. Segal notes the rabbinic favoring of the first half of Isa 26:19 (“the dead shall live”) over the second half (“their corpses shall rise”):

“We can translate tehiat hametim as ‘vivification of the dead’, even ‘resurrection of the dead’, but not ‘resurrection of the flesh’.” (Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion, p 608).

Paul was even more hostile to “the flesh” than most Pharisees, and like them he insisted on continuity between the old and new body. The metaphor of the seed (I Cor 15:35-38) suggests that God transforms the old body, no matter how dead and decayed, into a new glorified one. He’s quite clear: the old seed itself is given a body (15:38), and the perishable itself must put on imperishability (15:53-54). Richard Carrier’s two-body hypothesis is wrong: Paul believed the original body was raised, and so he presumably believed in an empty tomb.

The question is what happens to all the flesh from the old body. Is it still there but mixed with the spiritual? In that case “flesh and blood” would have been Paul’s loose way of referring to an ordinary human body as yet unchanged — meaning “flesh and blood in and of itself cannot inherit the kingdom”. But Paul seems to have hated “the flesh” more than that. He’s so consistently hostile to it in his letters that he probably believed it was all eradicated in the new body — in which case the old body is so transformed that the flesh has been transmuted into (or supplanted by) something else altogether. I suppose that’s what Paul’s (unsatisfying) ambiguity is all about.

Between Death and Resurrection

Happy Easter to those who celebrate it. I thought it would be worth considering what the early Christians thought about human nature with respect to the resurrection.

In New Testament Theology Philip Esler tackles this question, first by outlining the “four major accounts of the nature of the person in Western cultures” (pp 234-251).

1. Reductive Materialism. A person is no more than a physical organism. Emotions, morality, and religious experiences can all be explained by science. Death is the end of life; there is no afterlife.

2. Radical Dualism. A person consists of a body and a mind/soul, sharply distinguished, and identified chiefly with the latter which can survive the death of the body.

3. Nonreductive Materialism. A person is a physical organism in relation to the world and God, which gives rise to capacities like morality and spirituality. Nothing survives of the body after death; resurrection is the hope for an afterlife.

4. Integrative Dualism. A person is a composite of separate parts in relation to the world and God, but is identified with the whole. The soul might survive death; resurrection is the hope for the re-unity of body and soul in the afterlife.

I’m a (1) reductive materialist, but needless to say the NT authors lean in other directions, particularly towards (3) or (4). Tom Wright, in Resurrection of the Son of God, insists on (3), but Esler (pp 196-208) has offered a convincing argument for (4), based on texts like Heb 10-12, Lk 23:43, Lk 16:22, II Cor 5:8, Philip 1:23. In Hebrews especially, the faithful from the past applaud the faithful in the present, implying some form of lively existence in the interim state between death and resurrection. Esler’s argument for integrative dualism in the NT is convincing (and even outside the NT: the dead Samuel addresses Saul in I Sam 28; Abel’s soul speaks against Cain in I Enoch 22; etc).

Frankly, I’m not sure why people like Wright insist on “resurrection only” when there are texts which point to the idea of “lively souls” apart from, or prior to, resurrection. Is there a need to make the doctrine of the resurrection square with science (materialism) as much as possible? Does the idea of disembodied souls floating about somewhere now, in the present, raise unease with some Christians?

Who knows. I’m probably too reductive to perceive the hidden issue, if there is any. But I do wish a happy resurrection-day to all nonreductive materialists and integrative dualists, whatever your flavor is and why.

UPDATE: In comments many have pointed out that Wright is closer to position (4) than I was willing to grant. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that he underplays any activity of the soul between death and resurrection as much as possible. He emphasizes “sleep” in this period, and isn’t wild about the idea of believers reuniting before resurrection (as in ROSG, p 217). I believe that’s what Esler is getting at by referring to Wright’s “resurrection only” argument (p 247; cf. pp 197-199), and that’s how I’ve always understood him.