Rick Brannan’s new meme asks for “five biblical studies books we’re stupider for having read”, but my list would be rather mundane for including mostly historical-Jesus books. (What sub-field of biblical studies, after all, lends itself to the level of stupidity and wild speculation that called forth Schweitzer and still needs him?) If I were tagged, I’d go with (1) the Jesus Seminar’s Five Gospels (needs no explanation), (2) Bruce Chilton’s Rabbi Jesus (should have been published as a novel), (3) Barbara Thiering’s Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls (about as close to something like Baigent’s Holy Blood, Holy Grail while still qualifying as a “biblical studies book”, though just barely), (4) Scott Brown’s Mark’s Other Gospel: Rethinking Morton Smith’s Controversial Discovery (needs no explanation), and (5) Burton Mack’s The Lost Gospel: Q and Christian Origins (an embarrassment to the Q industry, even if you believe in the document).
I came up with another meme, however, something perhaps less negative and more constructive to ponder. How about the five biblical studies books or essays you think have made extremely important and necessary contributions to the field, yet heavily disagree with in spite of this? I have in mind scholarship you find yourself burning to agree with, or a closet fan of, envying the author’s critical acumen, applauding the fact that all the right (and perhaps long-overdue) questions are being asked, but regretfully finding most of the conclusions just plain unpersuasive.
Here are my five:
1. Morton Smith’s Jesus the Magician. This eccentric portrait of Jesus asked good and hard questions, and propelled historical-Jesus scholarship out of seeing Jesus primarily as a teacher. It got scholars (even secular minded ones) to take the phenomenon of exorcisms and healings seriously. As Ed Sanders put it, “when one shifts from extreme books about Jesus as teacher to Smith’s extreme and one-sided account as magician, one whiffs not only fresh air, but also the earnest sweat which comes from the effort to explain history” (Jesus and Judaism, p 7). You better believe it. Smith’s pagan portrait may be hard to swallow, but it’s more credible than anything coming out of the Bultmann, Kasemann, or Perrin camps.
2. Mark Nanos’ The Irony of Galatians. If you can get a Jewish-friendly Paul out of Galatians, you’re either a dexterous exegete or a naive apologist — or maybe just good at seeing things never spotted before. Whatever the case, Nanos’ reading of Paul’s “ironic rebuke” is tantalizing, carefully considered, plausible, and something I used to find myself wishing to be true for sake of Unitarian-like interfaith dialogue. Yes it was wishful thinking, but Nanos can’t be dismissed lightly, especially with such powerfully convincing treatments of the weak in I Corinthians and Romans under his belt.
3. Bruce Malina’s “Christ and Time: Swiss or Mediterranean?”. This fascinating essay distinguishes “forthcoming” events from “future” ones, or experienced vs. imaginary time. It makes accurate enough observations about agrarian peasants who remain focused on their own generation, but tries proving that they thus can’t be eschatologists/apocalypticists as a result. But a “forthcoming” view of “the end” is no less apocalyptic just for being imminent and grounded in present realities. Frankly, a lot of apocalyptic thought works this way, even in today’s western world. In the end, the essay is a rather desperate attempt to deny Jesus his apocalyptic due — even if more credible than the attempts of Jesus Seminarians like Crossan, Borg, and Patterson. As always, Malina’s work is laced with important insights about the mindset of Mediterranean peasants.
4. Klyne Snodgrass’ Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus. This recent evangelical treatment of the parables is in many ways “the” study we’ve been waiting for as much as not. It avoids faddishness (rare in parable studies), but it also avoids cultural dynamics (not least honor-shame), and so in the end often interprets the parables opposite how ancient Palestians would have, despite the author’s insistence otherwise. This tome is without question the best resource on the parables, and a mighty antidote to far-fetched, modern, postmodern, and/or Zen-readings of Jesus’ stories (think Funk, Crossan, Via, and Scott), but misses important subtleties which can change the direction of a parable’s meaning. See my critique of Snodgrass’ take on The Unmerciful
5. April DeConick’s Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas. This book wins the award for “book I most wanted to be convinced by”. I wept and gnashed my teeth when I saw its foundation was quicksand. I have the utmost respect for approaches involving oral history and oral memory, but we need better evidence for applications to a “rolling corpus” model. And I respect DeConick for helping us out of the sappiential wisdom rut which suffocates so many studies of Thomas, but holding gnosticism at bay isn’t the answer. Roll down memory lane for all the hairy details.
And though I usually avoid tagging others, I will do so here since I find this a helpful exercise: Stephen Carlson, Mike Koke, Nick Norelli, Chris Heard, and Chris Weimer may consider themselves appointed.