Anthony Le Donne on His New Book, Near Christianity (Skinner)

near-christianityMy friend, Anthony Le Donne, has recently written a book entitled, Near Christianity: How Journeys along Jewish-Christian Borders Saved My Faith in God (Zondervan, 2016). I have long been a fan of Anthony’s more academic writing (here, here) and his student-oriented (here) and popular-appeal books (here) about Jesus, but this book is a departure for him. I recently had an opportunity to interview Anthony about the book and the motivations for writing about such different subject matter.

(CWS): You say at the start of the book that you’re writing for fellow Christians. How much of your motivation was to expose Christians to an alternative history of Christianity?

(ALD): I am interested in alternative versions of history. Our histories are always being revised. Sometimes this is good, sometimes not. Christians in particular tend to revise our histories to suit our positive self image. We remember great “fathers” and historic episodes heroically. We tend to see the expansion of Christianity as a spread of the good news. I guess part of my book is about trying to listen to voices from beyond the Christian echo chamber. It turns out that our religious neighbors remember the expansion of Christianity differently. We need as many different voices in the study of our history as possible.

(CWS): In the book you write: “How did Christian morality look in Nazi Europe? What dogmatic shape did it take? And if we find that it looked similar to the Christian moralities at work in the heresy hunting of early Christian theology, or Constantine’s vision, or the Crusades, or our major church splits, or manifest destiny, or the Salem witch trials, or Confederate America, or the Red Scare, or countless acts of harm to LGBTQ+ children, should we not stop to wonder if there is a deeper sickness at work?” Do you think that a deeper sickness is at the heart of Christianity? And if so, what is it?

(ALD): I call this the “mythological foothold.” It is the very old Christian strategy to create a caricature of an “other” who represents some sort of danger, and then triumph over the caricature we’ve created. I don’t think that this needs to be the heart of Christianity. But, for some reason, many Christians need an ideological enemy. This is a very old problem in Christian thought and it began with our attempt to supplant Jews and Judaism. But we’re now seeing the same sort of ideological strategy at work in western Islamophobia. We’ve created a stereotype of Muslims and we’re using it as a rallying cry. It really is the worst version of Christianity. The good news is that we don’t need an enemy to be faithful Christians. We have it in our spiritual DNA to remedy this.

(CWS): In your chapter on Christmas, you denounce Donald Trump as a demagogue. I imagine that ledonnemany evangelicals will not like this description, and this book is published with Zondervan, an openly evangelical press. What, do you think, is the appeal of Trump’s politics to conservative Christians?

(ALD) : Well, I guess that I ought to define “demagogue” as I neglect to do it in the book. So here the Merriam-Webster definition: “a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power”; or “a leader championing the cause of the common people in ancient times.” Aside from the “ancient times” portion of this, I think that this is a perfect description of Mr. Trump. He comes up in the book because he contributes to the so-called “war” on Christmas. My point is that Christians ought to be focusing on Advent rather than fueling a culture war. As a Christian, Advent is important to me. But national surveys show that most American Christians do not observe these important weeks of preparation before Christmas. We have allowed something sacred to be lost. Advent is a time for anticipation, remembrance, and listening for God. But we’ve allowed this time of year to become a consumer frenzy. This is what C. S. Lewis called his “pet abomination”—one can only imagine what he would have thought of people being trampled at Wal-Mart or Best Buy. One of the consequences of this secularization of the Christian calendar is that we’ve created a season of protest. We’ve allowed the news media to draw us into culture wars and Advent becomes a time of celebrating Christmas as a show of religious freedom.

(CWS): Since this book is about your “journeys along Jewish-Christian borders,” can you give us a preview of some of the important insights that have come to you in your interactions with Jewish friends, Jewish customs, and Jewish texts?

(ALD): Sure. But first let me say that my experience of Jews and Judaism is idiosyncratic. Everything that I write in this book reveals only my particular experience. I imagine that others might gain different insights from different sort of inter-religious conversations. In other words, nothing that I say should be used as a general stereotype. This book is more about what I’ve learned from my conversations and less about simply retelling bits of wisdom I’ve digested. That said, here are a few things I’ve learned about Christianity: (1) Christians are much more powerful than we know. We have to get over the us-against-the-world myth. Our inferiority complex is dangerous on a global scale. There are 2.7 billion of us. That we have considerably more power than we think we do is both good news and bad news. It is an enormous responsibility. (2) The best and fastest way to make the world a better place is for Christianity to become the best version of itself. This is not something that I learned from a book or a rabbi or some ancient bit of wisdom. It’s just something that would have never occurred to me unless I had journeyed along Jewish-Christian borders and fault-lines. Finally, (3) most of my Jewish friends want me to become a better Christian. I find this especially motivating. My devotion to God through Christ actually makes me a more interesting dialogue partner at this particular table. For whatever it’s worth, I don’t think that I can say the same thing about my Christian friends. I find that the more time I spend at the Jewish-Christian fence, the more I want to be a good neighbor.

I hope this is enough to whet your appetite. I never cease to be entertained and informed by Anthony’s writing. This book is no exception. Now that you have read the interview, you should go and buy a copy of the book (or two). I’m sure Anthony would appreciate that.

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Reviewing Brant Pitre’s Jesus and the Last Supper, Part One (Skinner)

PitreI am presently reviewing Brant Pitre’s massive tome, Jesus and the Last Supper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015) for CBQ and I have pages and pages of notes that obviously will not find their way into a 950 word review. Therefore I decided to proceed with a serial review, where I will discuss the contents of each chapter and my impressions (both general and specific), culminating in a final series of reflections about the book. This will take awhile to complete not only because the book consists of six substantive chapters and a conclusion (all-in-all, 517 pages of text), but also because I think there is material here to be appreciated but also much here to critique. As Brant and I are connected through various forms of social media, I also want to invite him to reply to any critiques either here in the comments section, on social media, or at his more public forum on the Jesus Blog.

In today’s post I want to focus on laying out the primary questions and methodologies that guide the book, but first a word about “expectations” and an admission. Like Pitre and many other colleagues in the field, I have gone through the process of bringing a handful of books to completion, so I am no stranger to (what is truly for publishers) the humdrum exercise of procuring endorsements for the back of a book. I have even written a few myself, so I know well how this part of “the game” works. However, if I am being completely honest, there are times when I take dust-jacket endorsements more seriously than at other times. When I received this book I immediately noticed endorsements from Dale Allison (whom I personally regard as the most insightful English-speaking historical Jesus scholar currently writing), Anthony Le Donne (whose work I also hold in high regard), and well-known, prolific scholars, Craig Keener and Michael Bird (both of whom have taught me through their writings). Maybe it’s unfair (or maybe it’s perfectly fair; I haven’t decided), but I will admit that my expectations were heightened by seeing this group of reviewers heaping praise upon the book. Just so it’s clear, I entered into the process of reading and reviewing this book with higher than normal expectations (fair or not).

So let’s start with Pitre’s guiding questions and then move to a brief discussion of his methodology.

Questions:                                                                                                                                                  On pp. 1-2, Pitre introduces the questions and assumptions that prompted this study and then details the four specific questions will guide his discussion:

(1) Are the words and deeds of Jesus at the Last Supper historically plausible in a Jewish context? If so, what did Jesus mean by them? [As an aside, it does seem that the second question here implies a “yes” answer to the first question before we even get started.]

(2) What does the Last Supper reveal about Jesus’ self-understanding? [I might add, “if anything?”]

(3) How does the Last Supper fit in Jesus’ overall eschatological outlook? [Again, we might ask, “How, if at all.…]

(4) What does the Last Super reveal about Jesus’ intentions toward the community of his disciples? [Or, “What, if anything….”]

After introducing these four questions (directly quoted from p. 2), Pitre then spends the next 26 pages spelling out their implications in fuller detail. Though I do not yet wish to proceed to a full review, I will make two initial comments about the first part of his introductory chapter: (1) The “spelling out of implications” I mentioned above is evidence of what I will describe as Pitre’s “leave no stone unturned” approach; we will see this from him over and over again in the coming chapters. I will point out places where this is both useful and monotonous.  (2) From the initial discussion on pp. 1-28, it is difficult not to get the strong impression that Pitre has already arrived at his “questions” with specific answers in mind and those answers appear to be driven by  specific doctrinal and dogmatic formulations. I will say a great deal more about this over time, but again, since we will see this over and over in the book, I think it’s important to point it out right away.

Methodology: 

After a useful discussion of current concerns over critical methodology—complete with a discussion of current doubt over the value of the criteria of authenticity and Pitre’s noble admission that he had to consider these discussions before completing his book–the rest of the chapter moves toward an exposition of the method Pitre will apply throughout.

While recognizing that it has its problems, Pitre stays close to the methodology used by E. P. Sanders (Jesus and Judaism) and incorporates the following elements into his approach:

(1) Contextual Plausibility: This means that for something to be considered historically viable, it must be able to situate Jesus faithfully and honestly within his first century, Jewish context.

(2) Coherence with Other Evidence about Jesus: Pitre writes, “This argument can be formulated as follows: If a particular saying or deed attributed to Jesus is both contextually plausible and coheres with or illuminates other first-century evidence about Jesus, then this too is an important argument in favor of its historicity” (p. 37). So even though Pitre jettisons most of the criteria (at the insistence of scholars like Rafael Rodriguez, Chris Keith, Anthony Le Donne, and others), he still retains what is essentially the criterion of coherence. [I find this somewhat interesting since “coherence” is not only, in my opinion, the weakest of the criteria commonly used by scholars, but also the one most “suggestible”; I will discuss this in a future post.]

(3) Plausibility of Effects in Early Christianity: “If a saying or deed attributed to Jesus is contextually plausible, coherent with other evidence about Jesus, and continuous with or provides a plausible cause for the practice and belief of the early church, then it is reasonable to conclude that the evidence in question is historical” (p. 41).

(4) Pitre adds a final point: he is not searching for the ipsissima verba Jesu (“very words of Jesus”) but the substantia verba Jesus (“the substance of the words of Jesus”), which for him is less problematic and more nuanced than the ipsissima vox Jesu (“very voice of Jesus”).

UPDATE: (5) In my first draft of this post, I neglected to mention Pitre’s triple-context arguments against historicity: (1) contextual implausibility, (2) incoherence with other data about Jesus; (3) and implausibility of effects (see, in particular, pp. 45-46). This approach allows him to consider all the arguments against historicity before considering all the arguments in favor of historicity.

A final word for this post: Pitre appears to be intent on erring on the side of historicity. While he may not phrase it exactly in those terms, this seems to be the substance of what he says and then demonstrates in subsequent chapters. I’ll close with a quotation that makes this methodological stance clear:

[I]n this work, my first step will be to at least attempt to offer a historical plausible interpretation of any given saying or deed of Jesus before rendering any judgments about its historicity. Indeed, how can a scholar decide whether or not an episode from the Gospels is historically plausible without actually having attempted to situate it in Jesus’ historical context to see whether it fits. Yet, as we will see over and over again in the course of this study, on numerous occasions, many Jesus scholars will reject a particular episode from the Gospels as unhistorical or implausible before they have even interpreted the evidence in its context. In this way, historical conclusions are drawn based on presuppositions and prejudgments that are often unstated, apart form any detailed analysis of the passage in question (p. 51).

In Dialogue with Chris Keith: My Syndicate Piece is Now Up (Skinner)

Scribal EliteThe most recent Syndicate symposium, focusing on Chris Keith’s Jesus Against the Scribal Elite, is in its second week. Last week there were pieces by Dagmar Winter and Tobias Hagerland. This morning my piece, and Chris’s response to my piece appeared. As anyone who has read my writing on this or my previous blog knows, I am largely sympathetic to the social memory approach undertaken in recent years by the likes of Chris Keith, Rafael Rodriguez, Anthony Le Donne, etc. You will hear that appreciation in my response to the book, though my reflection is largely devoted to an analysis of the book’s reception, both within the guild and the Christian community. We would love to hear any comments or reactions you might have.

Take Anthony LeDonne’s Poll on Billy Graham (Skinner)

Billy Graham & JFKOver at the Jesus Blog, my friend Anthony Le Donne is conducting a(n admittedly) unscientific poll about attitudes toward Billy Graham. (If you recall, he did a similar poll with attitudes toward Bultmann last year). I know that he would really appreciate your input. So head on over and participate. It’s as simple as clicking YES or NO. And of course, I’ll give you extra credit if you participate. 🙂

Helen Bond Reviews Keith & Le Donne on the Criteria (Skinner)

helen-bondOver at the Marginalia Review of Books, Helen Bond reviews Jesus Criteria and the Demise of Authenticity (ed. Chris Keith & Anthony Le Donne). After a thorough consideration of the book’s subject matter she concludes that the volume should be considered “essential reading for anyone even contemplating any kind of reconstruction of the historical Jesus.” Check out her review, and more importantly, check out the book. If you get a chance, you should also check out Bond’s very useful book, Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed.

Le Donne Revisits Jesus and Memory (Skinner)

Over at the Jesus Blog, Anthony Le Donne is revisiting the recent impact of social memory on historical Jesus studies. In two posts (see here and here), Anthony attempts to add some much needed nuance to a conversation that often generates more heat than light. As I read the first post, there is an overarching plea to students and scholars: If you are going to offer a critique of social memory, read the best work being done by the best scholars (Keith, Rodriguez, Schroeter, et. al.), then engage their arguments rather than the arguments of those you want to critique. The second post provides a more substantive interaction between Anthony and Zeba Crook, one of the more recent critics of memory in Jesus research. As with most anything Anthony writes, the posts are worth a read.

Continuing to Re-Think the Jesus Criteria (Skinner)

Historical JesusTracy Chapman’s 1988 hit song begins: “Don’t you know, they’re talkin’ about a revolution and it sounds like a whisper.” To be sure, some revolutions come swiftly, much like the “Arab spring” that garnered so much media attention over the past three years. Other revolutions come in, as Chapman’s lyrics suggest, “like a whisper.” Such seems to be the case with our re-thinking of the Jesus criteria. This subject is on my mind quite a bit right now as I’m teaching a class on Jesus and the Gospels.

Last year I had the privilege (and that’s not hyperbole) of reading carefully through Chris Keith’s and Anthony Le Donne’s edited volume, Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (London: T & T Clark, 2012). I was not only blown away by the insightfulness of the book but by my own ignorance. As I have said elsewhere, I had taught the criteria–quite approvingly I might add–for the better part of the previous eight years without ever thinking through the issues raised by the essays in that volume. By way of background, I did my doctoral work in the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America. Even though John Meier left CUA for Notre Dame a little over a year before I began my doctoral studies, his work on the historical Jesus had clearly shaped discussions of the historical Jesus that went on inside our department. Anyone who has read Meier’s magisterial works knows that he relies heavily on the criteria. During that time I devoured the first three volumes of A Marginal Jew, and I guess you could say I bought in lock, stock, and barrel to the approach advocated there.

I now believe that approach to be deeply flawed and think that Keith and Le Donne (and their contributors) have demonstrated with relative clarity the emptiness of the criteria approach. At the time of the book’s publication, I noticed a lot of support in the blogosphere for their thesis, and it doesn’t seem to me that that enthusiasm has waned to any significant degree. However, for all of the positivity surrounding this new way of thinking, scholarly use and/or approval of the criteria remains ubiquitous. Over the past few months I have reviewed two different books in which the Jesus criteria factor prominently. The first was the recently revised second edition of Mark Allan Powell’s book, Jesus as  Figure in History, which I reviewed for Biblical Theology Bulletin and the second was The Story of Jesus in History and Faith by Lee Martin McDonald which I am currently reviewing for Interpretation. To be fair, both of these books were being produced around the same time as the Keith/LeDonne volume, so there may not have been time for either author to incorporate their findings and still meet their own publication deadlines. But I have also found in personal conversations with friends who teach and research in the field that the Jesus criteria remain entrenched.  I even learned the hard way that an older generation of scholars–especially those committed to defending the historicity of Jesus’ words and deeds–will not let the criteria go away without a fight. This year at SBL in Baltimore I had a scholar whose opinion I respect–one of my mentors, in fact–essentially denigrate the entire enterprise of dispensing with the criteria. This visceral response was a shock to me, but I’m starting to realize that it shouldn’t be.

For my part, I am now committed to thinking of the historical Jesus enterprise in new ways. I can only hope that this new light on the criteria will prove to be as revolutionary as many think it is. For the time being, however, perhaps all we can expect is a whisper.