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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Quarterly Quotations of the Month about Jesus for this Week

“Mere history is petrified history, whose historical significance cannot be brought to light simply by verifying the facts and handing them on.”

“The Problem of the historical Jesus is not our invention, but the riddle which he himself sets us.”

             ~Ernst Käsemann

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Günther Bornkamm was fed up with theologians, poets, and no one questing for the historical Jesus—Chris Keith

I've had occasion to revisit some of Günther Bornkamm's work recently.  His Jesus von Nazareth first appeared in 1956 and was already in a second edition seven months later.  Like his contemporary and fellow Doktorsohn of Rudolf Bultmann, Ernst Kaesemann, Bornkamm was a little annoyed that form criticism's success in Gospels studies had led to a stagnation of historical Jesus work in Germany.  He was one of the architects of the so-called New Quest for the Historical Jesus in Germany.  (Yes, yes, I'm all too aware that this tripartite division of the quests doesn't reflect all the research of the period.) 

I thought I'd pass along the first words of Jesus von Nazareth because they made me laugh a bit:

"In recent years scholarly treatments of Jesus of Nazareth, his message and history, have become, at least in Germany, increasingly rare.  In their place there have appeared the numerous efforts of theologians turned poets and poets turned theologians" (Günther Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth [trans. Irene and Fraser McLuskey with James M. Robinson; New York: Harper & Row, 1960], 9).

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Bible as Literature: Initial Questions for Study

I am lucky to count poet, scholar, and third baseman par excellence, Aaron Michael Moe as an old friend. Moe, among his many talents, is a seasoned reader of great literature. He has helpfully developed a list of questions that seasoned readers ask as they encounter any text. I think that many of these will benefit university and seminary students as they encounter biblical poems, stories, instructions, etc. 

Here is Moe's list:

Questions Seasoned Readers “Always Already” Ask
Aaron M. Moe, Ph.D. | Literature Courses | Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame | Spring 2015

For behind the formulating question about the limits of a category under discussion is hidden a question which bursts all formulas asunder. 
Martin Buber
Why does the story or poem matter?
Who (or what) tells the story? Why must their body and/or their consciousness tell the story?
What tropes are at work in the text? What does the trope open up? What are the underlying assumptions of the trope? What are the trope’s blindspots? Does the author/poet seem aware of these blindspots? What are the implications of the trope’s (un)examined assumptions?
Where are the meta-passages (stories about theories of storytelling or poems about poetics)? What opens up when we read the author’s/poet’s work on his or her own terms? 
What does the story/poem say—explicitly or implicitly—about language?—about identity?
How does the story/poem contribute to the continuity of and the ruptures within the literary tradition?
What is the form/structure of the text? How does the materiality of that structure play with the content? How is that materiality part of a semiotic process (the process of creating meaning)?
How is Power at work in the text? Who has Power? Who has/finds a voice? Who is silenced?
How does the story or poem reflect the historical milieux of the author? How does the text interpret that milieux? How does it shape our understanding of that milieux? What is missing?
How does the text shape/reflect our understandings of or responses to race, class, gender, sexuality, environments, animals, spirituality, and/or language?
What unexamined ideology animates a character’s belief(s) or action(s)? That is, what “invisible” ideologies linger pre-reflectively below the surface of the text. And then: What unexamined ideology animates one’s response to a character’s beliefs or actions?
Where are the crucial, resonate passages/lines of the text? What reading approach allows one to see these passages as crucial?
Which of the following binaries capture a tension in the text: stability/instability; center/margin; public/private? How does that tension develop?
What/where is the point of entry? What word/concept invites you into this particular world of meanings? If you were to choose a different point of entry, (how) would those meanings change?
What “reality” does the story/poem select?—what realties does the story/poem deflect?
How does the text explore the relationships between language, consciousness, and perception?
Poems and stories are ways-of-being in language, in community, and on the earth. What is compelling about the text’s way-of-being that sets it apart from other works?
What questions emerge as you read? If you choose to explore the text further, where would you go? What questions would you ask?

For more from Dr. Moe, check out his home on the web: You might also be interested in his book: Zoopoetics: Animals and the Making of Poetry.


Monday, January 26, 2015

So Very Ashamed to be a Christian... again

Free speech entitles the evil-grown-up-Jerry-Maguire kid to say things like this.

Which makes me think of this:

Thanks Fox radio for reminding us that some Christians have learned nothing at all from Jesus or Jewish wisdom literature.


Winner of the 2015 Great Baylor Giveaway—Chris Keith

The True Random Number Generator has spoken.  Out of the 109 entries to win the 2015 Great Baylor Giveaway (I think a record number of entries for a giveaway on the Jesus Blog), the winner is the owner of comment 85.

True Random Number Generator 85

The owner of comment 85 is "Timothy H." and Timothy left the following comment, indicating his good taste in children's literature:

"My favorite non-theological book is "Go Dog, Go!" by P.D. Eastman.

Timothy H."
Congrats to Timothy, who will be receiving copies of Jens Schroeter's Jesus of Nazareth and From Jesus to the New Testament, as well as Matthias Konradt's Israel, Church, and the Gentiles in the Gospel of Matthew, all published recently by Baylor University Press.  Thanks to Baylor!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Marcus Borg in Context

Marcus Borg, 1942-2015

As a number of blogs have now noted, the famed historical Jesus scholar Marcus Borg (b. 1942) recently died (for footage of Borg debating issues relating to the historical Jesus, see the videos on Biblical Studies Online).

As a historical Jesus scholar, Borg’s most prominent work was part of scholarship of the 1980s and 1990s, especially his Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus (1984) and Jesus: A New Vision (1987) and his activities as a leading member of the Jesus Seminar when it was at its most controversial. Borg is among figures such as Crossan, Fredriksen, Horsley, Wright, Meier, and Sanders who have come to epitomise the postmodern era historical Jesus studies, scholars who were known, or quickly to be known, to anyone engaging the field of historical Jesus studies. Borg was also part of an era which drew significant crowds to SBL papers, many more, by all accounts, than would be found at most historical Jesus papers today. In the case of Borg, this was quite something given that he was arguably more active and prolific in church circles and popular publishing and debating. Borg became especially known for portraying Jesus as kind of ‘mystical’ and inclusive figure with subversive tendencies and his Jesus was, as he may well have embraced, very much a figure of the late twentieth century as much as the first century.

With some exceptions, the influence of Borg’s era of scholarship has been on the wane, as might be expected with any generational change in scholarship. Yet one of the general themes of Borg’s work which has been notably influential in the long run might be labelled ‘subversion’ which, I think, has only recently being challenged or nuanced in any sustained way and still has high profile advocates. It is striking that this theme can be found among Jesus Seminar publications but also in the work of his friend, Wright. I think a fair case can be made for Wright developing a Jesus which was an attempt to claim the rhetoric of ‘subversion’ for more conservative Christian thought. Given his close connections with Wright, Borg’s influence must have been as important as any. It is also clear that Borg’s ‘subversive’ Jesus has had a serious impact on liberal church groups in North America and the UK. Among groups such as Modern Church, for instance, Borg and Crossan are by far and away the dominant intellectual influences on the topic of Jesus.

Friday, January 23, 2015

My Favorite Line from Marcus Borg

I was very sorry to hear of the passing of Marcus Borg a couple days ago. I only met him once and only corresponded with him a little, but he delivered one of my favorite lines in a lecture. In reference to his wife's ordination:

"It was never my junior high fantasy to marry an Episcopal priest."

Rest in Peace, Dr. Borg.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

EABS Call for Papers: Historical Jesus and Revolution!

The Study of the Historical Jesus session at the European Association of Biblical Studies (EABS) is under new ownership for this year after the expert chairing of Tobias Hägerland: myself and Fernando Bermejo Rubio. And the topic for this year? Revolution! Here is the Call for Papers for the 2015 EABS conference in Cordoba (July 12-15th):
‘Revolution, Peace and Violence: Rethinking Jesus and the Politics of His Day’ Throughout the history of historical Jesus studies, questions relating to Jesus involvement in, and views on, politics, revolution, violence, and peace have been repeatedly raised while a cluster of publications over the past two years have attempted to rethink these issues both empirically and theoretically. This session will continue to address some of the classic questions in such debates about Jesus and the earliest Palestinian tradition: Was he ‘peaceful’? Was he ‘violent’? Was he a ‘revolutionary’? How did he view Roman imperialism? Did he have coherent views on the future of the ‘political order’? However, this session will also look at whether the labels commonly applied to Jesus (or the earliest tradition) are still analytically useful and whether strict categorisation of Jesus as, for instance, either ‘peaceful’ or ‘violent’ is too simplistic. Similarly, ideas relating to ‘revolutionary’ will be investigated in relation to variety of themes (e.g. class, gender relations, literacy) and beyond questions of ‘peace’ and ‘violence’ We will also consider papers in the area of historical Jesus studies more generally.
Both of us have, in different ways, an interest in this topic, whether, ahem, my Jesus and the Chaos of History, or Fernando's 105 page article 'Jesus and the Anti-Roman Resistance: A Reassessment of the Arguments' in the latest Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus. And it's a hot topic, is it not?

Saturday, January 17, 2015

An Introduction to Social Memory

When asked for a good introduction to Social Memory theory, I generally point folks to the revised edition of Social Memory by Fentress and Wickham. But I am often asked for a more concise treatment. With this in mind, I've posted an excerpt of my Baylor University Press monograph here:

With your account, you can read chapter three of my The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David. Here I explain some historiographical elements of Social Memory theory. The previous chapter (ch. 2) surveys modern hermeneutical theory in the philosophy of history at large. The following chapter (ch. 4) offers my theoretical adaptation of Social Memory for historical Jesus research. The second half of this book demonstrates my adaptation of Social Memory with a specific method that I call "triangulation" via "memory refraction." I do so by focusing on the exegetical problems presented by the title Son of David in Second Temple Judaism(s). When I completed this book as my dissertation in 2005, it was the first book-length treatment of Social Memory for historical Jesus research.

The chapter linked above was first presented at the Durham-Tübingen symposium in 2004. The papers from that meeting were published in this collection.


Friday, January 16, 2015

Porter and Ong respond to Foster, Foster responds to Porter and Ong—Chris Keith

The most recent volume of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus has two articles that might intrigue readers who remember Paul Foster's argument against the usefulness of social memory theory in historical Jesus studies or the panel discussion between me, Rafael Rodriguez, Zeb Crook, and Paul Foster at SBL 2013.  Stanley Porter and Hughson T. Ong respond critically to Foster's article ("Memory, Orality and the Fourth Gospel: A Response to Paul Foster with Further Comments for Future Discussion") and Foster then responds to Porter and Ong ("Memory, Orality, and the Fourth Gospel: An Ongoing Conversation with Stan Porter and Hughson T. Ong").  I haven't had a chance to read the whole thing thoroughly but will report back in due course.  My own two-part article "Social Memory Theory and Gospels Research: The First Decade," interacts critically with Foster's initial argument at some points as well and has been with the journal Early Christianity since the summer of 2013.  The editors decided to have a themed volume on the memory approach, which is why it's taken a while to come out.  It will be out later this year.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Anthony Le Donne on Mrs. Jesus, Part Three: Most Important Contribution—Chris Keith

In my previous post, I noted that the most obvious contribution of Anthony Le Donne’s The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals is its offering of a coherent narrative, showing how different socio-historical contexts have led to various portrayals of Jesus’ sexuality, including his marital status.  That is the most obvious contribution of the study.  What I wish to focus upon here, though, is his most important contribution, not only to studies of Jesus and gender but specifically to studies of the historical Jesus.   

In my opinion, the most important contribution is his convincing demonstration that historical silence is a knife that cuts both ways.  Indeed, I’m not sure that I’ve come across a study of Jesus that makes this particular point in such an emphatic fashion.  Let me demonstrate how this works by interacting with two interrelated claims of the book. 

First, and to cut to the chase, Le Donne does not think that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, but not for the reason typically given.  Scholars typically argue that Jesus was not married to Mary Magdalene because nothing in the Gospels really would make you think that he was.  Certainly, she seems to be one of his disciples, and a particularly important one of his female disciples.  But there’s really nothing to suggest a sexual or romantic relationship.  Le Donne points this out and shows how this type of speculation really only emerged much later in ancient Christian and medieval reflection on Mary Magdalene.  Supporting this point, he argues that the concept of “romance” isn’t entirely comfortable in Second Temple Judaism and that, when it comes to Jesus’ sexuality or marital status, one should think not in terms of “love” of the hearts-and-butterflies variety but in terms of family, honor, and duty.  Citing Jesus’ tense relationship with immediate family (especially the interchange in Mark 3:31–35) and Jesus’ teaching that his disciples should abandon family and family obligations on various occasions (“Let the dead bury their own dead,” etc.), Le Donne argues that Jesus seems to have been something of a non-conformist when it came to family.  Thus, it seems very unlikely that Jesus would have settled down into a family role with a spouse during his public ministry. 

That last part is italicized because it’s an important nuance that Le Donne has added to the discourse on Jesus and Mary and the second matter I want to mention.  In short, he thinks it is possible that Jesus was married at some point in time earlier.  Indeed, Le Donne goes so far as to say that, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, our default setting should be that Jesus was married earlier in life.  In support, he cites Paul, rabbinic evidence, the Dead Sea Scrolls, life expectancy studies, and also Roman evidence.  He demonstrates that there was societal pressure to marry, pretty much regardless of which society you’re using to approach Jesus. 

On the first point, Le Donne’s observations that typical default thinking about marital relationships in Second Temple Judaism belongs more comfortably in the modern world than the ancient world is convincing.  It’s also clear to me that Jesus acted at least occasionally in manners that were contrary to society’s familial norms.  The second point is, in my opinion, less convincing, but it depends upon the degree to which you interrogate it.  Le Donne forwards this only as a possibility that has to be taken seriously; he never forwards it as a conclusion he has reached.  But, Le Donne mentions it so often that rhetorically I think he might give even the possibility more credit than it is due.  I don’t think the evidence about the normalcy of marriage in Jewish society is so strong that we must constantly think that it’s just as likely that Jesus was married earlier in life (“perhaps in his early twenties”; 128) as it is that he wasn’t.  Le Donne’s appeal to Paul’s celibacy is interesting here (as is his frequent appeal to Peter’s marriage), but suffice it to say that I’m equally unconvinced that it is “quite possible” (106) that Paul was married earlier in life.  There’s an issue here that his study raises but doesn’t fully address, although it does address the larger methodological matter to which it relates:  If Jesus (or Paul) was a non-conformist on these issues later in his public ministry, upon what grounds can we say that this outlook was confined to that period of his life?  Could he not have been a non-conformist earlier, which would lead us to conclude or suspect that—most likely—he was not married later and also was not married earlier?  Stated otherwise, how are we to decide whether the later practice was a change from earlier practice or in continuity with earlier practice?  How do we speculate upon the unknown in light of the known?

We’re dealing with the role of silence in historical argument, but for me there’s not enough to tip the scale from “possible” in the sense of we-really-have-no-idea-one-way-or-the-other to “quite possible.”  This is the splitting of hairs, of course, but in this instance I think it’s important because it’s the role of these types of questions that Le Donne’s study highlights as crucial to historical study of Jesus of Nazareth, and more crucial than we often recognize. 

Indeed, this is, in my opinion, his most important contribution, which earlier I described as demonstrating that historical silence is a knife that cuts both ways.  Le Donne uses the historical silence that scholars typically employ in order to reject the idea that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene in order to affirm that he likely was, or at least very well could have been, married to someone else before his public ministry.  In short, according to Le Donne, Jesus wasn’t married to Mary, but that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t married.  The discomfort that many throughout history have had with a married Jesus is one focus of the book, but this other contribution is directed further toward those who feel that discomfort:  Why, in what we all recognize as an issue clouded by historical silence, are some people happy to invoke that silence when it helps affirm their preferred perspective but marginalize that silence when it would suggest a number of other possibilities that are not particularly welcome for whatever reason(s)?  Le Donne’s study argues persuasively that these other possibilities must be seriously entertained.  At the end of the day, one may not think the case for a married Jesus is that strong—it’s not entirely clear just how strong Le Donne himself thinks it—but one can no longer think that there is no case to be made.  Le Donne has shown that there is.

As I mentioned in the first post, I was wrong to think there was nothing for historical Jesus scholarship in this topic, and I’ve rarely so enjoyed being proven wrong.