Crafting Jesus In Many Images (Or: What I Learned About Jesus from Will Ferrell) (Skinner)

dear lord baby jesusEvery student at our college is required to take at least one course in Religion. One of those courses is Introduction to the New Testament, which I teach every semester. As you can imagine, not everyone is excited about the subject matter and many are convinced that the class will be otherwise useless. I begin the semester with a refrain that promises, “The NT and its subject matter are all around you. You only need to pay attention.” Throughout the semester I seek for opportunities to show the relevance of the course to discussions that are continually going on in the public sphere (including politics, sports, social commentary, etc.). To that end, I open class every Friday with a video of some kind in which Jesus or some element of the NT figures prominently. Today I began with Will Ferrell’s well-known prayer as “Ricky Bobby” In Talladega Nights (see below). For many this scene is simply humorous, but I pointed out that it can be viewed as a fairly profound theological statement. One of the more common tendencies throughout the history of Christianity has been to craft Jesus into a specific image according to a set of lenses. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did it. So did the church fathers steeped in Greek philosophy, as did the Reformers, as we do today, and on and on. I found that this opens up some interesting discussion and sets the table for the lecture (which today was on the Gospel of Luke). Take a moment to watch this scene again (or for the first time) and witness for yourself the various images of Jesus that can be present at one dinner table.

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Patterson reviews DeConick

I’ll be back soon with post #4 on Paul’s relationship to the Gospel of Thomas. For now, check out Stephen Patterson’s review of April DeConick’s The Original Gospel of Thomas in Translation: With a Commentary and New English Translation of the Complete Gospel over at RBL.

A view from nowhere

My recent exchange with April DeConick got me thinking about how little attention is paid to the question of hermeneutics in the pursuit of historical questions. When we talk exegesis everyone wants to discuss hermeneutics, but when we talk about historical investigation it seems missing from the discussion (at least as history applies to biblical studies).

 I like to tell my students that—whether we like it or not—what we bring to a given text is often as determinative as what we find in the text. Our “lenses” (so to speak) color, shade, and sometimes taint our best attempts at objectivity. Given the best scholarly controls, we still find at least a bit of ourselves (and often a lot of ourselves) in our interpretations. Add to this the methodologies we choose to employ and we can often find ourselves talking past each other rather than genuinely communicating. I tried to discuss this in my brief exchange with April (and she later seemed to characterize my critique as one seeking to preserve historicity and canonical authority (see para 3), which not only misses the point but is not even part of my approach to the issue of John and Thomas. (As an aside, I think it is ironic that she seems to be subtly mischaracterizing my view while chastising Robert Eisenman for mischaracterizing hers.)

 So let me attempt a little more clarity on this issue. There is no such thing as a “view from nowhere.” There is no such thing as a disinterested reading of a text or an unbiased pursuit of historical knowledge. There is no such thing as objectivity. Even our best attempts at objectivity fail. There are no facts without individuals to interpret them. There are no individuals without biases. This means that every exegetical or historical pursuit is filtered through the lenses of one’s presuppositions, biases, background, experiences, etc. This does not mean that our scholarship is destined (or doomed, some might say) to be apologetic or polemical in nature but an admission of this does allow for more intellectually honest discourse about our conclusions.

I do not mean to set up a “free for all” where we can all create our own meaning and every interpretation is equally valid. I do believe we should acknowledge our presuppositions going into a discussion. What we bring to a text or an investigation is as determinative as what we find there, whether we like it or not. So it is possible to honestly evaluate someone’s else view, while also, equally honestly, divulging one’s presuppositions. I’m not sure everyone in the discussion (including April) is convinced of this.

My reply to DeConick

Earlier this morning April DeConick took the time to respond to my interview with Andrew Bernhard and Mike Grondin. I wanted to respond just to clarify a few things and address some of her concerns:

DeConick wrote: “Just because the author of the gospel of John has negative things to say about disciples other than Thomas does not lead to the conclusion that there is (or can be) no polemic against Thomasine traditions in this text.”

 Agreed. Nowhere do I suggest this. However, in the face of the evidence I present, I am not convinced by her arguments (or by the arguments of Riley and Pagels) that Thomas is the subject of a Johannine polemic. Instead I believe the similar presentation of other Johannine characters provides us with a set of controls that are otherwise absent in the arguments of Riley, DeConick, and Pagels. It is important to realize that DeConick is responding to the interview and not to the book. Her responses show that she has not read my book where I make it clear that I believe the question of John’s relationship to Thomas is still very much open and that I am not attempting to answer that question. My concern is to expose, what I believe to be, a real weakness in the community-conflict hypothesis.

DeConick wrote: “The fact that Riley, Pagels and myself point out differing topics for those polemics (resurrection; genesis exegesis; soteriology) does not suggest that the conflict we see is “speculative” in some negative unsubstantiated way as Skinner implies. All of scholarship is speculative. This is not a bad thing as long as it is based on the evidence and reasoned well. The development of models have to be based on reasoned speculation from our sources.”

 Again, I would say it is important to read the book and not just the interview. This relatively minor critique does not factor in to the book’s overall discussion (although it is interesting to me that there is no agreement on what the polemic is all about; in the book I make the same point about the lack of unanimity in what Johannine scholars have said about representative characters).  I would say, however, that not ALL scholarship is speculative. Not even all biblical scholarship or early Christian studies is speculative. Much of it is. Let me provide an example of the type of thinking I am targeting when I critique all-things-speculative in the interview. A great deal of modern scholarship questions the historicity of much in the NT narratives (and there are good reasons for doing this). Many of those same scholars will then turn around and generate complex, sophisticated theories about how a given document came to exist and present it with a confidence that outranks any discussion of (for instance) the historicity of a given account in Mark’s Gospel. This approach seems contradictory and I am suspicious of this approach because if we can deny the historicity of things for which we have great amounts of textual evidence and then confidently argue in favor of that which has no (or very little textual evidence), we seem to be building skyscrapers on toothpicks.

DeConick wrote: “I am concerned by Skinner’s suggestion that because Riley, Pagels and myself do not come to the same conclusions regarding the topic of the polemic, that we are making the details fit our own theories. This type of criticism has nothing to do with scholarly argumentation. It is an attempt to dismiss the evidence without dealing with it. In fact, my hypothesis developed out of my careful exegetical reading of these texts, as did Riley’s and Pagels’. I did not have some sweeping theory in place before I started my research, and from the conversations I have had in the past with both Riley and Pagels, neither did they.”

 It was never my intention to insinuate that the proponents of this position had a “sweeping theory” in place before starting the research. However, the basic assumptions of their methodological approach have their attendant “baggage” as do the assumptions of my own methods. Nor do I “dismiss the evidence without dealing with it.” I address it in the book and then argue for something different. Remember, this is an interview that is meant to distill, ever so briefly, the conclusions of the book. I am not able to provide every argument point-by-point. I would add that we should all recognize that there is no such thing as a disinterested reading or a view from nowhere. What I was trying to critique in that portion of the interview was their methodologies (which seem inconsistent to me at times). I was not questioning their academic integrity or casting aspersions upon their characters, just critiquing their methods. Given their methodological assumptions they are more likely to arrive at certain conclusions even if they didn’t come to the table with a “sweeping theory.” This is also true of me and it is true of any other scholar working on such questions. The point I was trying to make was one about methodology.

DeConick wrote: “I want to say a few words in response to Skinner’s statement, “One of the first things I found problematic in the approach (which I, for purposes of brevity, have designated the ‘community-conflict hypothesis’) was that these scholars were all making a great deal about an entirely speculative ‘conflict’ while doing very little exegesis in the Fourth Gospel.” I did “very little exegesis in the Fourth Gospel”? Are you kidding me? I have two entire chapters of exegesis of the Fourth Gospel in my book Voices of the Mystics (as well as a entire chapter exegeting the gospel of Thomas, and another entire chapter exegeting Syrian texts with associated traditions). This is not “little” in my eyes.”

 To be fair, I do state in my book that April engages in much more detailed exegesis in the Fourth Gospel than either Pagels or Riley.

 DeConick wrote: “My position has been and continues to be that the author of the gospel of John is aware of the type of vision and ascent mysticism that came to be associated with the Thomasine traditions in Syria, and he is polemicizing against them. I have not and do not maintain that the author of the gospel of John knew or read the gospel of Thomas. . . . .It is not a competition between their gospels as literary compositions. If I have read Pagels correctly, she too argues that the author of John knew and thoroughly disagreed with the type of exegesis of the Genesis story offered in the gospel of Thomas, that he was engaged in a clash of traditions and polemics against the specific patterns of exegesis preserved in the gospel of Thomas, not the gospel of Thomas itself (Beyond Belief, p. 479).”

 I appreciate April clarifying her own views and, for the record, I never say or even imply anything like the above about her position in my book. For the record, here is a portion of how I present her view in the book:

 “While DeConick disagrees with Riley’s characterization of the conflict between the two communities as focused on resurrection, she nevertheless asserts a very real conflict between the two. For DeConick, the root of the conflict (or “discursive field” of their dispute) is soteriological. Specifically, she writes that the Fourth Gospel polemicizes against a Thomas tradition that promotes the idea of disciples seeking visions through ecstatic ascent. This is, she writes, at odds with the Johannine teaching on the necessity of faith apart from sight and is clear evidence of John’s response to the Thomas-sayings tradition.

 DeConick argues that a knowledge of mystical traditions stood behind sayings 15, 27, 37, 50, 59, 83, and 84 of the Gospel of Thomas. Specifically, saying 59 [Coptic text here] Jesus said, ‘Look at the Living One while you are alive lest you die and seek to see Him and are unable to do so’”) is a paradigmatic passage for DeConick. She writes that this saying reflects a pre-mortem experience that “may anticipate death or an eschatological journey but which must be achieved in the believer’s lifetime.” She sees four specific passages in the Fourth Gospel as direct condemnations of this element in Thomas’s theology. Specifically, John 1:18 (“No one has ever seen God”), 3:13 (“No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven”), 5:37 (“The Father who sent me has himself witnessed concerning me; you have never heard his voice nor seen him”), and 6:46 (“No one has seen the Father except the one who is from the Father; he has seen the Father”) are supposed to represent explicit polemical responses to this aspect of Thomas’s theology.” (Skinner, 12-13)

I hope April feels the above accurately reflects her own view.

 DeConick wrote: “The origins of the Fourth Gospel has not been satisfactorily worked out, although we are a fingernail away. It is a gospel containing many polemics, much of which has already been mapped by a number of previous scholars. The author is particularly hard on the twelve (one of them was a devil!, another was a traitor!, and another a doubter!), especially in the pre-final-redactor version (before c. 21 was added; and perhaps the resurrection stories fiddled with).”

 This is where I really begin to run into major problems, and this is where the issue of methodology comes in once again. Why do these need to be regarded as “polemics” at all? In the Gospel of Mark we see a very similar presentation of the disciples. The twelve whom the Markan Jesus appoints to be “with him” (met’autou) are meant to be the ultimate insiders but continue to be on the outside looking in while marginalized characters like the Syrophoenician woman and the hemorrhaging woman, become the ultimate insiders (i.e., those who understand Jesus’ kingdom mission according to Mark’s presentation). If we apply the criterion of multiple attestation to this discussion, we could look at the Gospels of Mark and John and argue that there is a high degree of historicity in the intellectual and/or spiritual failing of the disciples. We might also appeal to the criterion of embarrassment and argue that, if there has been little attempt in the development of the tradition between 70 CE (when Mark was being composed) to 95 CE (when John was being composed) to explain away the incomprehension, we again have a high likelihood that these intellectual failures have some degree of historicity. So I ask again, why must these presentations of the twelve be polemics at all? Couldn’t we be dealing with genuine kernels of historical material that are being shaped during the compositional process to fit the literary and theological needs of the storyteller and/or the community? Again, methodology seems to predetermine (or at least highly taint) the exegetical process. I am more than willing to admit this on my end but DeConick seems to take it as a slight. I do not intend it as such. In fact, I highly regard DeConick’s work (as I say at the end of the first question in the interview) and also here (a post from 9/7).

 DeConick wrote: “The heroes of this earlier version of the gospel are not among the twelve, but are the outsider disciples: the beloved disciple (who is Lazarus by narratological reading of the gospel), Joseph of Arimathea, and Mary Magdalene. This gospel legitimatizes itself on authorities alternative to the Twelve and the Petrine tradition, Thomas among them and the particular brand of mystical Christianity that appears to have become associated with his name in Syria. It isn’t until the gospel is redacted into the form we have with c. 21 that the Petrine is fully embraced. The polemics in this gospel are far-reaching. The Johannine author is like the author of the Testimony of Truth, who is unhappy with everyone except his very own.”

 Several points need clarification here: (1) The view that “by narratological reading” Lazarus is the beloved disciple is far from a dominant position in Johannine studies. In fact, aside from Mark W.G. Stibbe and Ben Witherington, I know of no other recent commentator to argue for that position. (2) It is also far from certain that in chapter 21 “the Petrine is fully embraced.” There is, in fact, significant disagreement over Peter’s role in the Fourth Gospel and whether or not Peter’s restoration is a full embrace or a begrudging nod to Peter’s recognized primacy in the early church. I deal with this at length in chapter four of my book when I deal with Peter’s characterization in the Fourth Gospel. (3) I feel compelled to say something about her comparison with the Testimony of Truth but I fear it will only serve to further reveal the divide in our respective approaches to the question.

 I greatly appreciate April’s response and I hope my rejoinder has clarified my position to some degree.