Maurice Casey on Morton Smith

At the end of an excellent treatment of Jesus’ healings and exorcisms, Maurice Casey considers Morton Smith’s Jesus the Magician, concluding that

“Smith has completely misrepresented the cultural worlds of Jesus and the synoptic Gospels. His accusation that Jesus was a magician appears to be due to malicious hostility to Christianity. His misrepresentation of primary sources is so gross as to be virtually fraudulent. This should be borne in mind when considering The Secret Gospel of Mark…” p 278)

Casey then later returns to Secret Mark in an appendix, underscoring Smith’s disingenuous claims about the document he supposedly discovered: the rite of homoerotic sex “simply completes an exercise in sensationalist falsehood… nothing resembling the nocturnal initiation into mysteries described by Smith is known until more than a century after Jesus’ death” (p 541); that the text of canonical Mark at 10:46 makes perfectly good sense contra Smith’s claims (pp 541-542); and indeed “Smith’s handling of supposedly primary source material, whether genuine or forged, is fraudulent from beginning to end” (pp 542-543). But in fact Smith did forge Secret Mark (p 543), and he “should have never been believed by anyone” (ibid). Casey then cites Stephen Carlson and Peter Jeffery, not “to imply that all their arguments are convincing, but that those of their arguments which are convincing, taken together with my comments here, and on Jesus the Magician, together form an overwhelming argument of cumulative weight” (p 543, n. 57).

I’d like to know which of Carlson’s and Jeffery’s arguments Casey finds unconvincing, but at least this new, solid work on the historical Jesus recognizes Secret Mark for what it is.

Jesus Inside the New Testament

My Historical Jesus Pick List includes three scholars who do an exceptionally fine job of blasting the use of non-canonical material in historical Jesus research. Two of them are secular liberals, so it’s not as if plain sense flows only from Christian bias.

“In recent years we have been witnessing the ‘selling’ of the apocrypha under the guise of the quest of the historical Jesus. This is a misuse of useful material… What we see in [the agrapha, the apocryphal gospels, and the Gospel of Thomas] is the reaction to or reworking of NT writings by Jewish rabbis engaged in polemics, imaginative Christians reflecting popular piety and legend, and gnostic Christians developing a mystic speculative system. Their versions of Jesus’ words and deeds can be included in a ‘corpus of Jesus material’ if that corpus is understood to contain simply everything and anything that any ancient source ever identified as material coming from Jesus. But such a corpus is the Matthean dragnet from which the good fish of early tradition must be selected for the containers of serious historical research, while the bad fish of later conflation and invention are tossed back into the murky sea of the uncritical mind… For better better or for worse, in our quest for the historical Jesus, we are largely confined to the canonical Gospels.” (John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, Vol I, pp 122-123 140)

“The most likely way to gain access to the historical Jesus is through the canonical New Testament… Here we enter the world of the big risk. We encounter a particularly aggressive cadre [who] have no tribal name, but ‘liberal biblical scholars’ is close to being an agreed, if irritatingly undefined label. This is a collection of individuals who place little credence in the direct historical accuracy of the canonical Christian scriptures; yet, in an attempt to jump back into the world prior to the great Destruction, they often embrace a bizarre range of possible pre-70 ‘gospels’… They are courageous; they have a sense of high intellectual adventure. They are trying to traverse a wide and unchartered ocean in order to find a rich prophesied land on the far side. They long to be able to step off their uncertain and pitching vessel and, even if it’s just for a brief time, to their feet on solid land. When they cannot find any, they allow one of their leaders to declare that solid terra is dead ahead, just a few feet, maybe just inches, below the surface. They get to that point, step off, and plunge in far over their heads. The depths, it seems, always overwhelm.” (Donald Akenson, Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus, pp 116, 84, 94)

“The major sources for the life and teaching of Jesus are the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It is little short of tragic that I should have had to discuss the historicity of other Gospels… Most of them are Gnostic, or Gnosticizing, documents of much too late a date. They are valuable sources for our understanding the development of Christianity in the second to fourth centuries, but they have nothing to do with the historical Jesus. Some of the falsehoods surrounding them are due primarily to American feminists who wish to believe that Mary Magdalene was a major figure in the ministry of Jesus and in early Christianity. Others are due to pure sensationalism, some but not all of it centering on an American novel [The DaVinci Code]. The last one is a forgery by Morton Smith. In one sense, however, it is fitting that this appendix should end on this note. The major fault of the whole quest of the historical Jesus is that scholars have sought to find a Jesus who reflects their own concerns… this appendix merely catalogues extreme examples of that major fault.” (Maurice Casey, Jesus of Nazareth, pp 543-544)

Negatively, these three writers are in perfect agreement. Positively, however, there is less agreement as to what should be used to derive the Jesus of history. Meier says the synoptics and John; Akenson says Paul, supplemented by the synoptics; and Casey says the synoptics — coming down hard on John almost as much as the non-canonical gospels. I’m somewhere in between Akenson and Casey. I think Paul is more useful than John in gleaning the historical Jesus; but alongside him and the synoptic writers I would add the underrated epistle of James.

Historical Jesus Pick List

Here’s my revised pick list of Jesus books. Aside from the crown of Allison’s trilogy, they’re no longer rated in order of preference; the scholars are now grouped by theme. All have important contributions. Some are well acclaimed; others under appreciated. Neither John Dominic Crossan nor Tom Wright finds a home here; this isn’t a popularity contest, and who wants a historical guide polluted with egalitarian fantasies and apologetic whitewashes of Jesus’ delusions?

“The Unknown One”

Dale Allison. Millenarian Prophet (1998); Resurrecting Jesus (2005); Constructing Jesus (2010). Allison grounds the deluded prophet in view of millenarian movements, outlining the characteristics of apocalyptic groups and cargo cults which happen to fit the Jesus movement like a glove. Against George Caird and Tom Wright, he shows that Jesus’ apocalyptic language, about which he was wrong, was intended literally. He locates Jesus as an ascetic (a celibate), a notion many people find as unattractive as eschatology, and more than most scholars allows Jesus his natural contradictions and inconsistencies. Jesus was strangely proclaimed to be risen from the dead, most likely on account of the empty tomb in conjunction with visions, since the disciples would have otherwise had no reason to revise standard Jewish beliefs about resurrection. As egocentric as it seems to us, Jesus had exalted thoughts about himself and embraced martyrdom. He may have even thought he had a heavenly alter-ego: the Son of Man. Allison’s trilogy adds up to the finest and most persuasive work on the historical Jesus to date.

Albert Schweitzer. The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906). Who isn’t chilled by the famous conclusion, “He comes to us as one unknown”? Hopelessly dated (most of Schweitzer’s targets are straw men by today’s standards), like Jesus himself, this classic won’t let us go, its influence simple and direct. It’s a delight opening the book to a random page; reading the prose is like savoring Glenlivet: “As of old Jacob wrestled with the angel, so modern theology wrestles with Jesus of Nazareth and will not let him go until he blesses it — that is, until he consents to serve it and suffers himself to be drawn into the midst of our time and civilization. But when the day breaks, the wrestler must let him go. He will not cross the ford with us. Jesus of Nazareth will not suffer himself to be modernized.” Schweitzer’s classic remains the most brilliant and poetic indictment on a plague that always comes back in every era of Jesus studies.

In Cultural Context

Pieter Craffert. The Life of a Galilean Shaman: Jesus of Nazareth in Anthropological-Historical Perspective (2008). Pleading that scholarship is everywhere methodologically flawed, and rejecting both postmodern and positivist approaches, Craffert uses cultural anthropology to reframe questions. He locates the Galilean not so much “underneath” the gospel traditions as “in” them, and finds a shaman who entered altered states of consciousness (spirit/divine possession, ascents to heaven, etc.) in order to heal, prophesy, and control spirits. Across cultures, shamans have assumed the multiple roles of prophets, healers, and sages, enjoined on them by their communities. Their exalted roles owed to personal intimacy and encounters (as they understood them) with their deities, and were not a mark of egocentrism. Craffert’s anthropological framework is the most useful in understanding Jesus as an “alien other” who did peculiar things in the context of visionary possession states.

parablessubversiveWilliam Herzog. Parables as Subversive Speech (1994); Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God (1999). Herzog sees Jesus as a threefold prophetic type. (1) A popular prophet who attracted crowds with the power to heal and an ability to outwit opponents in challenge-and-riposte; as a low-life artisan with no ascribed honor, Jesus acquired honor by these means: exorcist-healing and shaming his rivals with counterquestions, rhetoric, insults, and scriptural one-upsmanship. (2) An oracular prophet who leveled social critiques through the veiled transcripts of parables. (3) A Deuteronomic prophet who critiqued the Torah while upholding it at the same time, primarily by playing the debt codes off the purity codes. Herzog explores a different way of understanding Jesus’ eschatology, and while he ultimately fails to convince on this point, there is some helpful discussion about the way peasants could perceive time in more cyclical than linear terms. Herzog’s work represents the best comprehensive examination of Jesus as the product of an honor-shame culture in the Jewish prophetic tradition.

The Halakic Jesus

E.P. Sanders. The Historical Figure of Jesus (1993); Jesus and Judaism (1985). Sanders’ robust scholarship situates Jesus as a Jew of the first century rather than a Protestant born out of time and place: an eschatological prophet, obedient to the Torah, ultimately killed for acting against the temple in his belief that God would soon destroy it and raise another in the kingdom of God. Sanders sees most of the gospel reports of Jesus’ conflict with the law as inventions used to vindicate the later Gentile mission. To an extent he’s probably right. It’s hard to believe that Jesus dispensed with some parts of the Torah as reported, since the disciples later had to struggle precisely with these issues; and Paul was unable to cite Jesus’ supposed pronouncements on the matter (save in the case of divorce). But it’s also hard to believe that all of Jesus’ alleged custom-breaking behavior reflects later development. Sanders represents the best attempt to ground Jesus within a framework of covenantal nomism.

John P. Meier. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (1991, 1994, 2001, 2009, 2016, ?), 6 vols. This massive six-volume series (the last still on the way) is the best reference source on the subject. Meier hypothesizes an “unpapal conclave” consisting of a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, and agnostic who must reach a consensus about Jesus — an even-handed if not exactly ideal way to reconstruct a figure of the past. For the task at hand, it works reasonably well, because this is more a reference tool for the Anchor Bible series than an autonomous work. While Meier certainly advances his own portrait of Jesus (a cousin, in many ways, of Sanders’ figure) it is exceedingly cautious and qualified with copious references and footnotes, weighing the pros and cons of rival theories. Meier’s project is an exhaustive, objective portrait of Jesus which employs the (problematic) criteria of authenticity as best as humanly possible.

Maurice Casey. Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of his Life and Teaching (2010); The Solution to the Son of Man Problem (2007). Casey’s work offers a cousin of Sanders’ prophet while delving more deeply into sayings, deeds, Torah disputes, Christological titles, and martyrdom issues. His command of Aramaic helps solve the “son of man” problem, particularly by making sense of both an idiomatic and general use of the term. Unlike Sanders and Meier, he takes seriously the pervasive testimony that Jesus’ conflict with Pharisees was enough to be terminal, though also insists that Jesus never actually broke the law. His chapter on healings and exorcisms is one of the best available, and his view that Jesus expected to suffer an atoning death refreshing. While his defense of a completely Torah-obedient Jesus (even in the cases of “let the dead bury the dead” and the prohibition of oaths) isn’t always convincing, and the early datings of Mark and Matthew just wrong, the end result is a decent portrait. Casey’s is in fact the most impressive defense of a halakic Jesus.

Skeptics Corner

Donald Akenson. Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus (2000). A highly polemical book that insists Paul knew more, cared more, and can tell us more about the historical Jesus than the late and unreliable gospels. As a pre-70 writer Paul is a goldmine; we just have to read him in slant. Akenson sees a key to unlocking Jesus in Paul’s “imitation of Christ”: his mission to the Gentiles being a simulacrum of Jesus’ to the people of Israel. The contours of Paul’s life mirrored those of his savior: poverty, celibacy, itinerancy. Both the Galilean and Diasporan were martyred for breaking Jerusalem Rules. Like most apocalyptic figures, they had wild ideas, and the wilder the ideas, the more shrewdly they were able to justify them by scriptural revision. Akenson makes plain that a sharp distinction between Paul’s heavenly Christ and the synoptic earthly Jesus won’t do.

William Arnal. The Symbolic Jesus (2005). Don’t be fooled by the size; there’s substance in this tiny book. And don’t be surprised that it doesn’t advance a portrait of Jesus; Arnal thinks the quest should be abandoned, for “ultimately, the historical Jesus does not matter”. Even if he’s wrong about that, he’s at least right that we don’t need Jesus or his Jewishness to feel good about ourselves. That’s what the book is about: the loaded question of Jesus’ Jewishness; oblique agendas; post-Holocaust biases (resulting in a Jesus who approaches a stereotype of modern Jews); the need to preserve religiosity (a Jesus who believed in Torah, temple, and purity is a bedrock of stability and weapon against the secular erosion of social identity), etc. Arnal’s book is in fact the most important look at agendas since Schweitzer, exposing why scholars want so badly to believe in a Jewish Jesus.

OHJmedium2Richard Carrier. Proving History (2012); On the Historicity of Jesus (2014). Last but not least: the case for no Jesus that should humble historicists. Carrier assesses the NT traditions and non-biblical evidence against a convincing tableau of Jewish and pagan syncretism, and pegs the early Christians as cargo cultists. He argues there was never a man named Jesus who acquired followers in an earthly life and was executed (or believed/claimed to be executed) which in turn led to his status as a divine Christ. Jesus began as a mythic deity who went through incarnation, death, burial and resurrection all in the supernatural realm, and the gospels later gave this figure historical life. Carrier estimates the probabilities of evidence on both mythicist and historicist assumptions, weighs the two, and in the end finds the likelihood that Jesus existed an insignificant .008% (or, being generous as possible, 32%). His key chapter on Paul presents an alternative to the usual apostle we think we know, and you can’t help but envy the interpretations even if you disagree. Carrier shows that Jesus-mythicism is a viable theory after all.

SBL Reflections (III): Paul’s Jewishness

My last day at SBL involved a session on Paul’s Jewishness. I got to hear Mark Nanos’ full paper, “Locating Paul on a Map of First Century Judaism”, and part of Paula Fredriksen’s “A Way Forward for Research and Discussion of ‘Paul and Judaism'”, before drifting off to another session. People like Nanos and Fredriksen keep me honest since I understand Paul in significantly less clean terms than they do.

Mark’s paper was vintage Nanos, revisiting arguments from his paper on I Cor 9:19-23 (that Paul never actually behaved like a pagan, only reasoned like one rhetorically to persuade Gentiles of Jewish truths), and urges that we attach a disclaimer to everything Paul says negatively about the law: the negativity applies to non-Jews alone, for Paul was Torah-observant, remained Torah observant, and would naturally have wanted other Jews to remain Torah-observant in the body of Christ.

In the part of her paper I heard, Fredriksen suggested that the term “conversion” needs to be dropped from discussion, for the standard view is upside down. Paul didn’t urge conversion on pagans, but just the opposite: they did not have to become proselytes (Jews) when turning to the God of Israel. Nor was Paul breaking down ethnic boundaries: he in fact urged that Jews remain Jews, and pagans remain pagans, in the body of Christ.

Part of the problem, I think, is that the question of conversion can be looked at from so many angles, and it’s hard to keep them straight. From the viewpoint of Paul himself, Fredriksen may be partly right (I think Paul did effectively break down ethnic barriers in Galatians, then later reinforced them in Romans), but both Jews and pagans had to “turn to” something rather different under the God of Israel, namely, Christ, who was at least on the road to being deified if not implicitly already so. From a more technical point of view (a la Zeba Crook), by the time of Hellenistic Judaism it was possible to be called and thus converted, in the sense that while Paul expressed his vocation in terms of a call or commission, 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. And the issue doesn’t stop there, for what ultimately matters, I think, is how Paul was perceived by others; he could express his calling like Isaiah and Jeremiah all he wanted, but if other Jews or Jewish Christians could readily deny the claims of his gospel, then he effectively taught apostacy, in which case the term “conversion” starts to look very appropriate. Fredriksen nonetheless scored some real zingers, not least in her observations (reinforcing Mark Nanos) about Paul’s unyielding Jewish abhorrence of idolatry.

Mark has posted his paper on his website; click here.

SBL Reflections (II): Accounting for Resurrection Beliefs

Another SBL session I enjoyed was the social-scientific and cognitive-scientific approaches to Jesus’ resurrection. The first two speakers in particular had my rapt attention: Pieter Craffert, who analyzed the resurrection from a neuro-anthropological perspective, and Colleen Shantz, who looked at the variety of early Christian resurrection beliefs from an evolutionary psychological angle.

Craffert’s approach was already hinted at in his 2008 publication, The Life of a Galilean Shaman. He argues from the view of neuro-anthrolpology: that the dichotomy between seeing (vision) and hallucination (visions) doesn’t hold everywhere, and that in polyphasic cultures like Jesus’, visual perceptions which lack external stimuli aren’t necessarily hallucinations. They can be as real as perceptions grounded in external stimuli. Ultimately it’s not the brain which determines the reality of a perception (as it does among monophasic Western people), but rather the “consensus reality or intersubjective validation a community is the final arbiter of reality”. Thus visions experienced through altered states of consciousness, if approved, are understood to be as real as anything seen objectively in the space-time continuum. Jesus’ baptism experience involving the dove, and the disciples’ witness of his resurrection, don’t need to be categorized as tangible events recordable on a videocam or bogus hallucinations.

Craffert emphasized that the people of Jesus’ culture could make distinctions between real seeing and visions as much as we do, but the point is that if the latter were approved, they were regarded as equally real, yet without being elevated to the status of an objective event. In my view, this all seems to be a roundabout culturally sensitive way of legitimizing hallucinations, and I wonder if the term can still be valid if used non-pejoratively.

Shantz looked at early resurrection beliefs from an evolutionary perspective, in view of how the mind deals with violations of ontologies. Drawing on the work of Pascal Boyer, Justin Barrett, and Jesse Bering People, she explained how people across all cultures find the violation of ontologies fascinating — talking rocks, weeping statues, men who can fly, etc. are like “brain candy” — provided that the violations aren’t too numerous. In other words, something like a talking rock raptly engages the mind, but a talking rock that sprouts hair and then melts into a puddle will more likely be greeted with indifference and boredom. The evolved mind is evidently alerted to modest violations, probably having adapted this way in order to flag potential hazards from the unknown, but it also shuts down when violations get too out of hand to be taken seriously. Cognitive optimal religion involves beliefs in modest violations of reality, while cognitive costly religion involves beliefs in multiple violations of reality — and requires a heavy infrastructure and ongoing reinforcements to keep such beliefs alive.

Thus, according to Shantz, evolutionary psychology cannot well account for Paul’s view of the resurrection because it’s a cognitive costly position, involving multiple ontological violations. Paul believed that Jesus was good and properly dead, that his body rotted, and he was raised into a non-fleshy spiritual existence; likewise, believers were fully dead but would be raised in the same way at a later time. Paul’s views were hard to keep hold of, which accounts for the creative (and sometimes convoluted) explanations of I Thess 4 and I Cor 15. (a) To be totally dead (b) until some future time, (c) with the new existence involving serious discontinuities with life as we know it, was a costly belief, and it’s little wonder that afterlife beliefs became more optimal after Paul — as with meal accommodations at grave sites (now understanding that the dead needed food and drink), and more fleshy accounts of resurrection appearances in the gospels. Shantz noted that even Paul himself may have minimized his violations at times, as when he talks in Philip 1:23 of his “desire to depart and be with Christ” — does that remove the intermediate phase addressed in I Thess?

It was an informative session.

SBL Reflections (I): Panel Discussion for Crossley’s Jesus in an Age of Terror

Six days in Atlanta went fast. Good sessions, good food, and good company among friends and acquaintances. If it weren’t such a pricey event, I’d attend SBL every year instead of settling for every other.

I listened to a lot of great papers, but for now will report on what was easily the most lively session: the panel discussion for James Crossley’s Jesus in an Age of Terror, critiqued by Mark Goodacre, Zeba Crook, Bill Arnal, and Roland Boer, followed by a response from James himself. Philip Esler was also present in the audience and had a lot to say during Q&A, which was a treat. As Mark says, these folks are the “cool” guys of biblical studies. No tight-asses to be found here, and I enjoyed the odd mixture of pugnacity, uninhibited honesty, and even vulgar humor, but all of it collegial. Bill and Roland spoke most favorably about the book — especially Bill, who is an outstanding speaker possessed by a rather terrifying enthusiasm — and there is much about it that I too like, given my interest in the way agendas, however subterranean, can lurk under scholarship. Mark and Zeba, on the other hand, had less flattering things to say, and I’m going to focus on parts of their critiques that could use more fleshing out.

Mark essentially charged that James has made too much of bloggers’ silence on political issues, or their implied endorsement of Anglo-American politics, however unintentional. His most striking point came in the analogy of Jim West, whose homophobia and sexism is well known. Most infamously, Jim likened homosexuality to bestiality on one of his deleted blogs, cited at length by Mark. In his response, James seems to have misunderstood Mark’s point, which, as I understand it, is not so much that James was obligated to criticize Jim West for being homophobic and sexist in Jesus in an Age of Terror, but rather, given James’ complaints about racist stereotyping and anti-Arab sentiments, there is a deep irony that the only biblioblogger who comes out clean in Jesus in an Age of Terror is a bigot. In other words, if the political silence of bloggers, or their approval of certain things said or done by Anglo-American politicians, is supposed to be meaningful in the way James urges on us, then what are we to make of James’ own silence (on his blog, at least, if not his book) regarding Jim West’s homophobia and sexism? Do his sympathies for Jim West’s minimalist views of OT historiography imply a wider endorsement of Jim’s other views (including homophobia and sexism) in the same way that Mark’s endorsement of a single comment made by Tony Blair supposedly points to deeper issues? Don’t get me wrong: I’m not at all suggesting that James Crossley is a homophobe or sexist (surely he is not), only pointing out that his rhetorical argumentative strategy can be used against him — and this, I think, was the thrust of Mark’s point.

Zeba delivered the most forceful, thorough, and impressive critique. Amusingly, this came somewhat at my own expense, for at one point Zeba pointed out (quite rightly) that I am not the “voice” of the Context Group (unofficial or otherwise), as I can hardly be the voice for a group I’m not a part of, especially as a non-professional in the field. To be fair to James, he seems to have just meant that Loren Rosson is the blogger who regularly uses Context Group models, and habitually defends the group’s work — as he basically said in his response — but I’m not sure what the best catch-all phrase for this is (I’ve been called a “stooge” of the Context Group by someone less than kind). I do hope that Zeba’s paper becomes available online at some point, and it will hardly surprise readers that I agree with about 96% of it. He comes down on James pretty hard, but rather than revel in what I agree with, let me mention one part of the critique where I think he actually slightly misunderstands James — just to show how open-minded I can be during certain phases of the moon.

About halfway through his paper Zeba complains about James’ parallels between Context Group scholars and right-wingers like Ann Coulter and Paul Wolfowitz: “To suggest, however remotely, that the work of the Context Group does the same thing [as right-wingers, who “condemn or mock others” for their cultural differences] is willfully to misread it.” James responded that he never suggested such a thing, and he’s actually right, though perhaps you’d not guess it on account of his strong polemic. When I wrote my own review, I tried to be fair and precise in nailing down these parallels between liberal academics and conservative media hounds, and I essentially see James as saying that Context Group members, for all their noble intentions — and who indeed approach cultural difference out of an implied respect instead of mockery — can still play unwittingly into the hands of these right-wingers. It’s a fascinating point, but one I think is largely irrelevant. It’s a bit like saying that scientists shouldn’t emphasize nature over nurture for fear of racism, or that “survival of the fittest” is dangerous because of social Darwinism. Put simply: if the models of the Context Group are valid, they should be used regardless of the potential for abuse, or for whatever strange bedfellows could result. But of course, the question of validity bring us to the concern about evidence.

As I acknowledged, James’ demand for more evidence is entirely reasonable. But the floor response from Context Group member Douglas Oakman also carries weight. In the session, Oakman pointed out that the Context Group originated in no small part in order to make sense of the real-life experiences of its members. I know that Dick Rohrbaugh lived on the West Bank for many years, and other members have evidently lived abroad too. For myself, I lived for two years in Lesotho, and while southern Africa is not the Mediterranean area, there are plenty of honor-shame behavior patterns to be found there. In this light, to people like myself who have lived and breathed shame-based cultures over an extended period of time, experience is all the evidence you can ask for.

And is there really a mystery here? Is there any doubt as to what formal studies of Mediterranean peoples would demonstrate? There have been studies of honor-shame subcultures of the United States. (The American south is an honor-shame subculture, meaning, more shame-based relative to the north, but compared to places like the Mediterranean region, it starts to look as guilt-based as any part of the U.S.) For instance, a 1996 study conducted at the University of Michigan found remarkable differences between northern and southern Americans, in how they react to people who bump into and swear at them. 65% of the northerners were amused by the bump and insult, and 35% got angry; but only 15% of the southerners were amused — the other 85% got furious. On top of this, the studies showed that the southerners had strong physiological reactions to being bumped/insulted, with increases in cortisol (a hormone associated with high levels of stress and anxiety) and testosterone levels. Now, if differences like these between people in the United States can be verified and documented, there shouldn’t be much doubt that studies of Mediterranean peoples would confirm what Context Group members have been telling us for years, based significantly on direct experience. In any case, formal evidence is always needed, so hopefully James’ demand for such will be taken seriously at some point.

I wish more scholars would write books like Jesus in an Age of Terror. Like Bill Arnal’s The Symbolic Jesus, it addresses socio-political undercurrents we may be oblivious to in academic research, however disagreeable we find the particulars. I also wish I had managed to keep my lunch appointment with James to hash some of these issues out at more length, instead of waiting for him exasperatedly in the wrong area. Mea culpa!

How Similar is a Visionary Shaman to an Apocalyptic Prophet?

In revisiting Pieter Craffert’s The Life of a Galilean Shaman, I was struck by a few points where the author’s methodology intersects with Dale Allison’s in Constructing Jesus: the subject of memory and the reliability of the Jesus traditions, an intriguing resolution to the Son of Man enigma, and the question of how real/literal the NT authors understood their accounts of Jesus to be.

Memory and the Reliability of Traditions

According to Craffert, Jesus is not so much “underneath” the traditions as “in” them (p 90). While Christian prophets and visionaries undoubtedly created new sayings and modified old ones, they nevertheless seem to reflect the kinds of things from Jesus’ life itself (p 112). Rumor and gossip, and the building on thereof, represent realistic and plausible transmissions of the Jesus stories (p 108). The idea that people in traditional societies have better memory than those in literate societies is not supported by the evidence (p 113), and rather than think of memory in terms of “actual accuracy”, we should think in terms of “overall faithfulness” (pp 113-114).

All of this parallels or supports the arguments of Constructing Jesus. Allison thinks “frequently attested themes” (based on multiple performances of events) are more secure than “multiply attested sayings and deeds” (about which no consensus can be reached, because historians are essentially trying to know the unknowable). “Frequently attested themes” (Allison) and “overall faithfulness” (Craffert) may point to a trend of modesty in HJ studies. Allison thinks we can be sure that Jesus was an apocalyptic who had exalted thoughts about himself, though details are elusive. Craffert thinks Jesus was a shaman who had remarkable healing abilities, though again refrains from trying to guess exactly which healing and exorcist activities are authentic.

The Son of Man Enigma

Appreciating that the Son of Man debate is one of the most chaotic embarrassments of NT scholarship — no one can even agree on the various ways the term is used in the gospels, let alone how Jesus himself may have used it (see p 314) — Craffert steps out of the circle and suggests how the term might have been used and understood by a visionary healer. A son of man could have been a modest or reserved way of referring to the self in Jewish culture, and a modest way of relaying a heavenly journey or encounter, on account of sensitivities to direct encounters with Yahweh (pp 329-330). Instead of seeing the circumlocutional use of the son of man and visionary (heavenly) figures as two distinct references, Craffert shows that at least in some sources (notably the Book of Similitudes), a heavenly son of man figure seen in a vision turns out to be the visionary himself (pp 331-332).

This is remarkably similar to Allison’s own proposal — that Jesus referred to himself as the son of man, and that his earthly and heavenly/angelic identities were twin components which couldn’t be neatly separated. Jesus, suggests Allison, in fact thought he had a heavenly twin or doppelganger.

What’s Real?

Like Allison, Craffert insists that our modern sensibilities are deficient guides in assessing how literal the NT accounts about Jesus were intended. Ancient people obviously made a distinction between the literal and metaphorical, and between reality and fantasies, as much as we do, but not in the same way. But where Allison uses the index of humor as a helpful guide on this point, Craffert insists on an index of cultural determination (see pp 387-388). For instance, a resurrected body was understood to be a real and concrete afterlife form of existence, but that’s a bit different from saying that the NT documents were describing a body of transformed physicality or a divinely created supernatural body (see pp 404-405).

None of this is to imply that Allison and Craffert are methodological equivalents, especially on the question of the reliability of documents. Craffert’s brazen claim that “all documents from antiquity claiming to be about Jesus of Nazareth should be reconsidered as some form of residue of his life” (pp 94-95), particularly his defense of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, is way too uncritical, and again, ignores the index of humor. My only point in raising these “parallels” between two books on the historical Jesus published recently (Craffert 2008; Allison 2010) is that there could be certain trends on the rise that can help propel HJ studies out of a rut, namely, a growing appreciation that the Jesus traditions are reliable but only in a general (and often unsatisfying) way, that Jesus believed peculiar things about himself in the context of visionary apocalypticism, and that many of our rationalist sensibilities need to be checked at the door when addressing these issues.

The Human Centipede

Ass to mouth will never be the same. Imagine three people having their kneecap ligaments severed so they can’t stand, then being surgically joined so that the front guy’s posterior is sown to the mouth of the woman behind him, whose own ass is sown in turn to the mouth of the woman bringing up the rear. (See below images.) The result is the ungodly Human Centipede, created by a doctor more diabolical than Josef Mengele, though the repeated claim that the basis for this operation is “100% medically accurate” is rather laughable. Director Tom Six may have consulted a professional surgeon, but somewhere along the line verisimilitude escalated into a bogus marketing ploy. Still, medical accuracy isn’t the barometer by which this piece of cinema should be judged. The question is whether or not it excels as a horror film. It does and it doesn’t.

As a European (Dutch) film it does everything Hollywood wouldn’t dream of doing, and for that alone earns high marks. It’s thoroughly demented — the most transgressive movie I’ve seen since Martyrs — and drastically symbolizes the surrender of individuality, the German reputation for fetishism, and medical god complexes. If Martyrs was about transfiguration through torture, The Human Centipede is about metamorphosis through conjoinment, with the same underlying hints of eroticism. The horror is hard-hitting, but mostly psychological. For all the scatological focus, we never see a single smear of feces — not even during the notorious “Feed her!” scene, involving Dr. Heiter bellowing encouragement as the man in front uncontrollably unloads his bowels into the mouth of the middle woman stitched to his rear end. Six wisely leaves much to the imagination, and if you’re cursed with an imagination like mine, that’s worse than being graphic. So far so superb.

Other things are not so impressive. While the German Dr. Heiter is played brilliantly by Dieter Laser, the two American women start out as the phoniest performers I’ve seen in a long time. Crucial to a horror film’s success are victims we care about, but Lindsay and Jenny can hardly utter a sentence of dialogue without sounding artificial. It is thus a grace that they become the middle and end pieces of the centipede — stifling their ability to talk — at which point their acting actually becomes thoroughly believable, as they writhe, weep, and gag in agony, enslaved to move around on all fours and feed on the excrement of the member in front. The male Japanese victim (the front piece) gives a decent enough performance, and his suicide at the very end is poignant, but he isn’t the most sympathetic character either.

While Martyrs boasted top-notch acting and unpredictable turns in every frame, The Human Centipede stalls in places, and even leans on cliche. Lindsay and Jenny get a flat tire in the middle of nowhere, and can’t get a signal on their cell phone — lazy plotting to get them to the home of Dr. Heiter. The cops come calling, then come back with a search warrant, but stupidly fall prey to the doctor’s entrapments. Little things, but enough to bring down what could have been a masterpiece with more intelligence applied. Curiously, Roger Ebert refused to apply the star system to this movie, on grounds that he couldn’t decide whether it was too good or too bad — ultimately, he says, the film “occupies a world where the stars don’t shine” — but that’s a cop-out. If there’s much to like and find fault with in a film, that usually calls for a middle-of-the-road rating, and that’s basically where I fall on The Human Centipede.

Rating: 3 ½ stars out of 5.

Facebook Page for Dale Allison’s New Book

There’s a Facebook page for questions about Dale Allison’s new book which I reviewed a few days ago. Baker Academic advertises as follows:

“Confused or curious about the historical Jesus? It’s time to get some answers from a luminary in the field. Dale Allison, author of the new book Constructing Jesus, has agreed to answer a few questions on the historical Jesus from our Facebook friends. So, submit a question. Three of the best questions will be passed to Dale for answer that we will post here, and the authors of those questions will get a free copy of Constructing Jesus.”

(HT: Michael Bird.)