Friday, December 23, 2005

Hurtado, Segal, Kloppenborg Criteria Discussion at Slate

Mark Goodacre left a parting Xmas gift on his blog, a link to a discussion between scholars Larry Hurtado, John Kloppenborg, and Alan Segal about NT historical studies. Alan Segal commented:

New Testament scholars who wanted to show that Jesus was a historical figure have developed over the last century criteria for judging the historical reliability of a source, like the New Testament, which was entirely written by believers. One criterion is that the story has to have a context in Judaism, as Jesus was born and died a Jew. Another criterion is that multiple sources in the early New Testament must attest to the story. But the most important arrow in the scholarly quiver has been and remains "the criterion of dissimilarity." The criterion sets a high standard: For scholars to arrive at an undoubted fact about the life of Jesus, they must eliminate as possibly biased everything that is in the interest of the early church to tell us. Conversely, for a fact about Jesus to be deemed historical, it must not be in the interest of the church to report it. It must be, in effect, an embarrassment for the early church. Thus, the criterion of dissimilarity is sometimes called the criterion of embarrassment.


For all the rigor of the standard it sets, the criterion demonstrates that Jesus existed. Here are some facts in the Gospels that embarrassed the early church: Jesus was baptized by John (a great theological problem). He preached the end of the world (which did not come). He opposed the Temple in some way (and this opposition led directly to his death). He was crucified (a disreputable way to die). The inscription on the cross was "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" (the church never preached this title for Jesus and shortly lost interest in converting Jews). No one actually saw him arise (though evidently his disciples almost immediately felt that he had). Ironically, it's the embarrassing nature of these facts that assures us of their authenticity. The exalted figure of Jesus as a heavenly redeemer and the Lord of the Hebrew Bible, on the other hand, was the response of Jesus' closest disciples to the events of Easter morning. These are tenets of faith, not claims that can be demonstrated historically.

What's fascinating to me here is that these criteria discussions rarely expose the underlying assumption, built into these criteria, that the stories in the NT are history. None of the three discussants address this problem. For example, Segal writes that due to the criterion of dissimilarity, we know for a fact that:

Jesus was baptized by John (a great theological problem).

But all of Segal's conclusions here are incorrect. First, the Baptism by John was an embarrassment to the later proto-Orthodox Church. Whether it was embarrassing to other kinds of Christianities is highly problematical. We can see that built into this criterion is the unconcious assumption that the earliest tales of the Baptism are part of an proto-orthodox tradition, and not one that p-orthodoxy has taken over from some variant Christianity. Thus, the "theological" problem identified by Segal is an artifact of scholarly axioms about early Christianity that privilege that proto-orthodox tradition over other traditions, and has nothing to do with the text. The fact that this is found in Mark, who gives no inkling of being embarrassed -- indeed, constantly affirms the importance of John -- argues that the writer himself did not find it embarrassing/dissimilar, which means that it is absolutely irrelevant what later Church authorities (and 21st century scholars) might think.

The second problem is that it is an unexamined axiom of the embarrassment/dissimilarity criterion that the text contains history. For a text that does not contain history it will register a false positive. If in some bizarre future world the Lord of the Rings becomes a religious text, then it follows that in that future world, there will be some scholar arguing that Frodo's failure must be historical, since it would not have been recorded as it is too embarrassing.

One could add that there is a body of internal Christian evidence one could amass that shows this event never occurred. For example, in Acts 19 the writer of Luke has Paul encounter a group of adherents of John who are unaware of this seminal event in John's life and of John's relationship to Jesus. The evidence of other Christian writings, such as the Gospel of John, indicates that in the time when the gospels were written the followers of John were a thorn in the side of the followers of Jesus. Further, although Paul discusses the baptism in detail in Romans 6, he never refers to either Jesus' baptism or John the baptizer.

This takes us back to the problem of theology. If Mark was written, and intended as, a constructed fiction, then the whole idea of embarrassment or dissimilarity is completely misguided.

Many scholars have noted how the Gospel of Mark was written by paralleling the OT. It is my contention that its writer also drew on theology of Paul. In Mark, Jesus is never presented as the born Son of God -- that is a later development -- but as the Adopted Son of God. The writer's Christology is Adoptionist.

Once we understand this, it is easy to see what the writer drew on for his ideas: Paul. In Romans 8 Paul reminds his readers that believers are Sons of God:

14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.
15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, "Abba, Father!"
16 The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,
17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (NAB)
The same theme appears in Galatians 4: believers are the adopted children of God, adopted through the sending of the spirit of God into the believer. Far from being theologically difficult, the writer's construction of the Baptism of Jesus is vintage Pauline theology, in which Jesus stands for the believer. It became awkward for later proto-orthodox Christians, who wanted to make Jesus the born son of God.

What is John the Baptist doing there? One can see several reasons why the creator of the Gospel of Mark used him. First, at the time he was writing, the followers of John and Jesus were rivals. Perhaps he is simply attempting to bridge that gap by assimilating John to the narrative tradition of Jesus. The writer of Mark may well have been a follower of John who switched sides and still have some reverence for John. Of course, from this remove it is impossible to be sure.

Another view of the fictional role of John in Mark can be obtained from the Greek novels of the first through third centuries. In such novels it was common to locate stories in a previous era, and use historical characters. Many other aspects of Mark appear to be conventions of these novels. I personally see the Gospel of Mark as a recruiting or baptismal document, whose geography and history are allegorical and symbolic, rather than factual. I doubt its author ever intended it as history. Hence, on that reading, the author simply recruits John into his story to play the role of Baptizer -- his historical association, after all -- and to play a narrative role. Standaert (1978) and Smith (1999) argue that the prologue follows the conventions of Greco-Roman tragedy, in which an actor comes out on stage at the beginning to familiarize the audience with the story. The actor plays the role of a messenger, often from the gods. After the introduction he disappears. Typically, while the audience is aware of what is going on, the characters remain in the dark until the recognition scene at the end. John fits perfectly in that role.

There's much to be discussed in this exchange between top scholars. Unfortunately, as they themselves aver, there is too much agreement between them.

Happy Holidays to All! 聖誕節和新年快樂!


Loren Rosson III said...

If in some bizarre future world the Lord of the Rings becomes a religious text, then it follows that in that future world, there will be some scholar arguing that Frodo's failure must be historical, since it would not have been recorded as it is too embarrassing.


You are raising good objections to the criterion of embarassment, but as a sidebar, you need to stop using Lord of the Rings as an example. It fails on too many levels; see my response in the Internet Infidels Thread.

Michael Turton said...

I already talked about that with Ben (of course I know what Tolkien's intention was!) -- your objection misses a crucial point that I need to flesh out more: authorial intention vs. the future Church.

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