The Moribund Field of Biblical Studies: Avalos on the SBL

“Picture thousands of academics talking about religion and the Bible within the confines of nice hotels and you have a picture of what the Society of Biblical Literature is like… Around convention hotels such as the Hilton and the Marriott are dozens of destitute and homeless people that scholars hardly noticed as they run from one conference to another. Sometimes these academics nearly trample the poor to get to another show and to see another bright star talk about liberation theology and the prophetic call to help the poor and powerless.

“That whole scene is a metaphor for what ails not just the Society of Biblical Literature but also the entire acdemic field called biblical studies. For there is little hint or hope that anything that ever is said in any session of the Society of Biblical Literature will ever make the world around it better. Yet there is plenty of applause and felicitation for those who deliver an entertaining disquisition. What Jean-Jacques Rousseau said about the elite intellectual pursuits in the academics of his day applies to the SBL today: ‘There are thousands of prizes for fine discourses, none for fine deeds.'” (Hector Avalos, The End of Biblical Studies, p 307)

Avalos wants to put an end to biblical studies once and for all, and I’m enjoying his book even in disagreement. More on this later.

UPDATE: See Does Theology Bring Death to Biblical Studies? for more on Avalos’ book.

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A Real-Life Doctor Who

A physics professor at The University of Connecticut is going to create the first real TARDIS… or something like that. The Daily Mail reports:

“Ronald Mallett has overcome poverty and prejudice to become one of only a handful of top-flight black physicists in the United States… But there has been only one motivation: to build a time machine. And, after years of painstaking research, Mallett is sure he’s cracked it… His time machine went public in 2001, when New Scientist magazine ran an article about his design, and TV appearances followed. ‘Mallett isn’t mad,’ the New Scientist article said. ‘None of the known laws of physics forbids time-travel. In theory, shunting matter back and forth through time shouldn’t be that difficult.'”

But how does one build a time-machine? Scientists have been outlining theoretical ways to construct one for a long time. One way would be to spin a huge cylinder out in space and drag spacetime into loops — but the cylinder would have to weigh about as much as the sun, and be compressed into a tube 60 miles long and 40 miles across. Another way would be to rip into the fabric of spacetime with either a black hole or nuclear bombs — but that doesn’t sound too practical or safe either. However,

“Mallett’s solution is much simpler. He thinks he can reverse time by using just a circulating beam of light. Light is energy, and energy can cause spacetime to warp and bend, just like gigantic spinning cylinders, he explains… The details are complex, to say the least. But, in essence, Mallett believes it is possible to use a series of four circulating laser light beams swirling spacetime around like ‘a spoon stirring milk into coffee’. If you were to walk into this ‘timetunnel’ – which would resemble a large vortex of light a few feet across – you could emerge at some point in the past. He thinks he can build a prototype machine in the lab, using today’s technology, with funds of just $250,000 (£120,000)… [But] it would only be possible to travel back in time to a point after the machine was first switched on. If you turned on the machine, on January 1 say, and left it running for three months, you could enter the machine in March and only travel back as far as January 1. So no trips back to the Middle Ages or to Ancient Rome.”

A real life Doctor Who indeed.

(Hat-tip: Jim Davila.)

An Ethnic Identity Crisis

Don’t miss Chris Weimer’s post, Jew or Judean Again, and the discussion in comments. Chris insists that “Judean” be reserved as a geographic/ethnic label, and that “Jew” is a legitimate designation for those in the 2nd-Temple period who had religious connections to Judea in some way. I say that “Jew” is a mistranslation in the bible, for reasons previously laid out here, and that “Judean” is the proper word for Ioudaiou.

UPDATE: In comments Bob Webb mentions an upcoming essay in The Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus: “Jesus Was Neither a ‘Jew’ nor a ‘Christian’: On Correcting Misleading Nomenclature”, by Jack Elliott (5.2, 2007). It should be out sometime this month. Thanks for the heads-up, Bob.

"It’s the End of Biblical Studies as We Know It, and Chris Heard Doesn’t Feel Fine"

Chris Heard has begun reading Hector Avalos’ The End of Biblical Studies, and he says he’s a bit scared of it:

“Hector’s thesis is that the Bible is—despite all the rhetoric to the contrary—irrelevant (and maybe even harmful) to life in today’s world, but biblical scholars ‘conspire’ (in a sense) with religious and media organizations to keep an illusion of relevance alive.”

I pretty much agree with this, but like Avalos I’m a secular type, so that’s easy enough to say. I should note, however, to help assuage Chris’ fears, that there are committed Christians who come close to sharing these sentiments. Take one of my favorites, Dale Allison:

“What can historical Jesus research do for us? Well, maybe this will surprise everyone, but my view is: very little… Too many expect too much from historical Jesus research. We also have ethics professors, theologians, and philosophers. How come? Why do we need them if historical Jesus research gives us our answers? We need them because it doesn’t… I truly think the big issues are best addressed by philosophers, scientific theorists, theologians, poets, and novelists, not historians. Cut my own throat there, didn’t I?”

I don’t think Dale has ever claimed that the historical Jesus is completely irrelevant, but at least largely so. So don’t be scared, Chris. Believers in the faith are warming to the idea of the bible’s irrelevance as much as the infidels.

Here’s how I put the matter in my interview at biblioblogs.com, from the cultural angle, my point being that the bible will never lose its vibrancy for all of its irrelevancy:

“The most fascinating thing about the bible is that it comes from a culture which many of us find alien and unpalatable (honor-shame), and that it can provide only limited support for modern agendas, however liberal or conservative. That’s what makes the book so vibrant on its own right, even to me as a non-Christian. Ironically, I find it easy to warm to the biblical writers in all their flawed and convincing personalities. They were struggling to make sense of the world as they knew it, sometimes commendably, sometimes not. Funny thing is, I don’t know that we do much better than they did.”

We can still take inspiration from that which is obsolete or irrelevant. Now I want to play that R.E.M. song…

UPDATE: See Problems with the SBL and Does Theology Bring Death to Biblical Studies? for more on Avalos’ book.

Being in the Minority

Having consensus on our side can be consoling at times, but thinking outside the box and testing unpopular ideas is really where scholarship grows. This isn’t to say that being unpopular makes us right — only that we don’t wish to stagnate in our own dogmatisms. My take is that if you find yourself in the minority too regularly, you’re probably idiosyncratic, given to pet theory, or agenda-driven. If you’re almost always on the side of consensus, you’re likely an unimaginative or lazy thinker, and a crowd-follower.

Off the top of my head, I came up with the following list of ten items where I’m in the minority. These are common assumptions which I believe to be mistaken:

(1) Luke-Acts was addressed primarily to Gentiles.

(2) The Antioch controversy was over food laws.

(3) The “weak in faith” in Rome were Christian Jews.

(4) Q existed.

(5) By the question “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus already knew he was the messiah, and was testing the disciples to see if they could answer correctly.

(6) An early form of Thomas can be traced to the first century.

(7) James is pseudononymous.

(8) “Jew” is an acceptable word for a follower of Yahweh in the 2nd-Temple period.

(9) The event most responsible for Jesus’ arrest and execution was his action against the temple.

(10) The fathers, kings, landowners, and masters in Jesus’ parables were originally metaphors for God.

On these points I go against the majority (though a few are barely majority positions, like 4, 6, and 7). I say that Luke-Acts was addressed to a community of Jews and God-fearers; that Antioch was about circumcision; that the “weak in faith” in Rome were non-Christian Jews; that Q is a mirage; that Jesus didn’t know who/what he was, and was asking his disciples to tell him; that Thomas is a 2nd-century gnostic document; that James wrote the epistle ascribed to him; that “Jew” is a mistranslation in the bible (though I continue to use it, slap my wrist); that Caiaphas was more nervous about Pilate’s trigger-finger when dealing with popular prophets than Jesus’ act in the temple per se; and that the father in The Prodigal Son, the king in the The Unmerciful Servant, the landowner in The Talents, and the master in The Dishonest Steward are all exactly as portrayed and not ciphers for God.

Well, even if I’m wrong about any of these, it’s healthy to think outside the box — and fun if you like to argue and solve puzzles.

Matthew and Luke: Torah-Loving Communities

On the subject of the law, Matthew and Luke are the most conservative books in the New testament. Matthew for obvious reasons, and you would think Luke too. But aside from Jacob Jervell (“The Law in Luke-Acts”, Luke and the People of God, pp 133-151), Philip Esler (Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts), and biblioblogger Richard Anderson, I haven’t run across many who are keen on the idea of Luke-Acts catering to Jewish sensibilities. Esler seems to have it right: the Lukan community was made up of Jews and Gentile God-fearers who had been painfully excluded from the synagogue. The Matthean community, meanwhile, consisted exclusively of Jews, in tension with the synagogue but not separate from it (Saldarini, Allison, etc). Matthew wanted to re-Judaize Christianity as much as possible, while Luke wanted to legitimate its development out of Judaism as much as possible. The law was esteemed by each in a different way.

In Matthew’s case, the Torah was to be followed in the context of messianic renewal (Mt 5:1-7:28), which called for internalization and intensification at the same time: thus were Jesus’ “new” teachings and Moses’ “old” equally valid (Mt 9:17 vs. Mk 2:22). He toughened teachings on the Levitical food laws (Mt 15:1-20 vs. Mk 7:1-23), cited Peter (who treacherously triumphed over Paul at Antioch for insisting on circumcision as the prerequisite for mixed table-fellowship) as the supreme authority (Mt 16:18), and like Peter before him had no use for mixed table fellowship (Mt 15:21-28 vs. Mk 7:24-30). He acknowledged that salvation had come to the Gentile nations (Mt 28:19) at the expense of Israel (Mt 21:43), but insisted that Jews keep a fair distance from foreigners despite this — or even because of it. Matthew was concerned with saving the lost sheep of Israel more than ever now (Mt 10:6), and re-Judaizing Christianity was the only way he saw this feasible.

Luke kept a conservative outlook on the law in general (Lk. 2:22-24, 39; Acts 21:17-26; 28:17), portraying Jesus as customarily attending synagogue (Lk 4:16), rewriting Mark (and even Matthew’s rewrite of Mark) in deference to the law (Lk 10:25-28 vs. Mk 12:28-34/Mt 22:34-40), and denying any ransom or atoning function of Christ’s death on the cross (Lk 22:27 vs. Mk 10:45/Mt 20:28; Lk 22:15-19a (19b-20 later additions) vs. Mk 14:22-25/Mt 26:26-29). His strategy was to show that Jesus respected the law for Jews as much as he transcended it for Gentiles. There was nothing radically “new” about Christianity (Lk 4:36 vs. Mk 1:27), and indeed the “old” was still desirable (Lk 5:39 vs. Mk 2:22). He was thus able to present Judaism as a legitimate faith which carried within itself the seeds of its own transformation — a transformation (supposedly) sanctioned by the most Judaic of Christians, Peter and James.

So Peter supposedly pioneered the mission to the Gentiles (Acts 10:1-11:18) instead of Paul (Gal 2:1-10). James supposedly agreed publicly with Paul that Gentiles needn’t be circumcised to share table-fellowship with Jews (Acts 15:19), and the two settled on a compromise set forth in the “apostolic decree” (Acts 15:20), instead of a private agreement about circumcision-free Gentiles by which James imposed no additional conditions (Gal 2:6). Christians with Pharisaical links supposedly caused the trouble at Antioch (Acts 15:1,5), instead of Peter and James (Gal 2:11-14) who treacherously broke the agreement reached earlier (Gal 2:1-10). And the split between Paul and Barnabus owed to disagreement over John Mark (Acts 13:13; 15:36-40) rather than Barnabus siding with Peter at Antioch (Gal 2:13). (see Esler, p 107)

That Luke felt compelled to claim the support of Peter and James by reversing their historical roles says a lot about his opposition. Peter and James were evidently being invoked by other Christians (like Matthew) as authorities against certain practices. Of course, Peter and James were historically more like Matthew, but that didn’t stop Luke from claiming them anyway — anymore than it stopped him from claiming the entirety of Judaic heritage:

“It was for his community of Jews and Gentile God-fearers, painfully excluded from the synagogue to which they had once belonged or which they had at least attended, that Luke fixed upon a legitimatory strategy which has often, both before and since, been adopted by the defenders of a new social order. He presented their new faith as if it were old and established, as the divinely sanctioned outgrowth of Judaism… So Luke could console his fellow-Christians with the message that it was not they but Jews still attending the synagogue who had abandoned the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of Moses and of David.” (Esler, pp 69-70)

This means that Luke was sharply sectarian, while Matthew was not. Esler notes that Lk 4:28-30 is a key to understanding Luke’s sitz im leben (pp 56-57), since it is the only occasion in the synoptics where the Jews try to kill Jesus, apart from general plotting which leads to his crucifixion. (The only parallels are in the highly sectarian fourth gospel: Jn 5:18, 8:59, 10:31.) The passage indicates extreme animosity between Luke’s community and the synagogue. Matthew is another story. Texts like Mt 23:1-39 & Mt 27:25 (the woes against the Pharisees and the curse on the Jewish community), point to internal critique (which is often nasty) rather than external polemic: the Matthean community was deviantly competitive, but neither apostate nor sectarian.

But this raises the big question: what was so offensive about Luke’s community unlike Matthew’s? The answer turns on concrete practices rather than abstract beliefs. Christian belief in a crucified messiah, while deviant and misguided, would not have resulted in exclusion from the synagogue — or at least, not in an age where Jewish groups were floating different ideas about messiahship left and right. That’s precisely why the Matthean Christians could stay attached to it.

No, the actual practice which put Lukans beyond the pale is the same as that which distinguished Pauline and Markan Christianity: mixed table-fellowship between Jew and Gentile, which (as we’ve seen) Luke goes out of his way to portray Peter and James as condoning — even pioneering — when in fact they ultimately sided with Jewish tradition. The practice was offensive in the extreme, and was probably what hard-liners (like the pre-Christian Paul) persecuted Christians for. The Mattheans, following the authority of Peter (Mt 16:18; Gal 2:11-14), refused to engage in this practice.

We know this from the way Matthew revises his Markan source in Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30. While the Markan woman legitimates mixed table-fellowship by saying that even the dogs under the table eat from the children’s scraps, Matthew’s revision has her speaking of dogs eating scraps falling from the master’s table — meaning that the children (Jews) and dogs (Gentiles) no longer eat the same bread. (So Esler, p 92). (I would suspect that the diaspora communities addressed in James’ epistle avoided mixed table-fellowship just as the Mattheans did: Richard Bauckham makes a compelling case that James himself wrote the letter.) The dogs are now saved apart from the chosen who remain a light to the nations in their own way.

Matthew and Luke are instructive examples of “conservative Christianity” in different ways. Both were addressed to Jewish communities, though Luke’s included Gentile God-fearers. The Matthean Christians adhered to the Torah, though in the context of a messianic renewal, and were able to retain ties to the synagogue because of it. The Lukan Christians respected the Torah (far more than Paul and Mark) — the God-fearers as much as the Jews — but allowed for its transcendence in certain ways which ultimately alienated them from wider Judaism.

The Primitive "Church"

People sometimes refer to the “primitive church” when speaking of early Christianity, but “primitive sect” is more accurate. Ernst Troeltsch came up with the classic distinction between a church and a sect (The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, Vol I, pp 331-343):

(1) A church largely accepts the secular order and is a conservative force in society. A sect may be indifferent, tolerant, or hostile to the secular order.

(2) A church draws members from all strata in society, but is often dependent on (or allied with) the upper classes. A sect recruits mostly among the lower classes.

(3) Initiation into a church usually occurs by being born into it. Initiation into a sect occurs on the basis of conscious conversion.

(4) A church seeks to embrace the whole world within its apparatus of redemption. A sect offers salvation to a small group of elect (its members).

(5) A church is a large, hierarchal organized institution. A sect is composed of small, largely autonomous groups.

In trying to understand the author of Luke-Acts, Philip Esler, Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts, crosses Troeltsch’s model with the typology of Bryan Wilson, who describes movements exhibiting tension with the world. That tension can manifest itself in one of seven types (Magic and the Millennium, pp 18-26), grouped in three sets according to where the emphasis falls in “responding” “to” “the world”:

(“responding”) Conversionists believe that people must change in order for the world to change. Meaning, they must experience a profound and supernatural transformation of the self.

(“to”) Manipulationists say that people must learn to see the world differently. Thaumaturgists believe that people must work magic/miracles to bring relief to the world.

(“the world”) Revolutionists insist that the world must be destroyed by God, with or without human participation. Introversionists say that people must retreat and abandon the world. Reformists believe that people can amend the world through supernaturally-given insights. And Utopians claim that people should reconstruct the world (but more radically than the reformist option).

These aren’t exclusive alternatives — the Qumran community was both revolutionist and introversionist, for instance — but which ones are applicable to the community of Luke-Acts?

Esler identifies conversion, thaumaturgy, and revolution as the potential candidates, but in the end finds only the first applicable.

“The relevance of the conversionist response is self-evident, in view of the author’s preconception with individual penance and acceptance of the Gospel in baptism, which enable the believer to enter a zone of Spirit-filled experience.” (Community and Gospel, p 59)

With respect to the thaumaturgical response, he claims that the incidents involving Simon Magus, Elymas, and the Jewish sorcerer in Paphos show Luke to be aggressively anti-thaumaturgical, and that “the cures effected by the application of Paul’s scarves and handkerchiefs in Ephesus…are far too insignificant to displace Luke’s anti-thaumaturgical theme” (p 59). And regarding revolution, he agrees with Conzelmann that (Lk 21:32 notwithstanding) Luke has eliminated a belief in an early and revolutionary apocalypse (see pp 60-64).

I would quibble with Esler over the thaumaturgical question, while agreeing about the other two. Even if apostolic healing should be understood as more miraculous than magical, it amounts to the same thing as far as Wilson’s typology is concerned. Luke’s community was thus a conversionist and thaumaturgical sect, a group of Jews and God-fearers who had severed from the “church” (synagogue) of Judaism, and found the solution to worldly evil in terms of radical repentance and spirit-possessed healing.