By Thomas Verenna
James Crossley recently commented on the exchange between Bruce Chilton and R. Joseph Hoffmann. I would like to weigh in with my own opinions on this recent exchange. I can only hope that my suggestions will prove useful to the Project and continue to generate the sort of dialog we have seen so far in the community. Although I respect James and Bruce a great deal, I feel some of their advice may be misplaced when one considers the goals of the Jesus Project as a whole. Overall I agree with where they feel the Jesus Project’s focus needs to be. This is a gem from James’ article which I feel was overlooked by the Jesus Seminar and should not be underestimated in the Jesus Project’s investigations:
There is enough work on social history and social anthropology and enough empirical data collected and analyzed to exploit these issues. Areas ripe for exploitation might include: social networks, ethnic interaction, and the origins of gentile inclusion; class-conflicts and the emergence of a new religion; universal monotheism, developments in communication, and the origins of the deification of Jesus; and so on. In each case, the influence of Jesus the individual could be tested.
It is unfortunate that he employed these suggestions in such a limited and narrowed manner (applying these issues specifically to “the influence of Jesus the individual”). They can and should be expanded upon (instead of the “individual Jesus” which implies historicity, for example, these articles should be tested against the character or figure of Jesus, the authors intent, matters of intertextuality, literary composition, and the development of textual-tradition in the Jewish communities and later Christian communities throughout the ANE). I agree with James that these “ripe issues” are often overlooked or misrepresented by historical Jesus scholars. With the exception of a few scholars off the top of my head (Crossan and Mack most prevalent in my mind, but there are perhaps others as well), the Jesus Seminar et al seems to ignore the lack of orthodoxy in Judaism in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, instead opting for the dated perspective that Jews had some sort of unified interpretation of who and what the Messiah would be (and ignore the conclusions of the Princeton Symposium on Judaism and Christian Origins in 1987 onward). The focus of too many studies rest entirely on Jesus’ sayings and deeds, as James rightly points out (but ironically, he is guilty of in his own study when he compares sayings and deeds to Talmudic sayings and deeds). But while this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it is done in an often backwards manner (the method of voting comes to mind, used by the Jesus Seminar; thankfully voting will not be used by the JP) or where authorial intent is often ignored or taken for granted–sometimes to ridiculous proportions (like N.T. Wright’s perspective that the author of Matthew 27:52 documented honestly that the saints really did rise from the dead and walked around Jerusalem).
I would like to see some of the project dedicated to textual structure, narrative creation, model use, eponymic character creation (often indicated by how their names correspond with their actions in the narrative), and to some extent, liturgy (in the sense that we must challenge long-held presuppositions about Paul’s letters being read aloud to congregations of Christians; likewise the Gospels) and the development of “Christian” as a designation (and what came before); these should be explored without the shackles of commonly-held presumptions. In other words, I feel some portion of the project should ask why the Gospel/Acts/epistle/pastoral authors wrote and who they wrote to. These questions cannot be answered as they have been previously (as Philip Davies would put it, “because it happened” is not an adequate reason).
Other questions should also be considered. Could those who read them be considered “full-knowing readers”? Did the authors intend to have their works read as history or something else? Can it be decided what genres we’re dealing with? It cannot be supposed that the Gospels are Graeco-Roman biographies, as Charles Talbert had suggested, as this has been challenged more recently by several scholars like Mary Ann Tolbert, Michael E. Vines, Thomas L. Thompson and Dennis R. MacDonald (the latter two being a part of the JP). Answering the question of genre (as well as the other questions proposed above) will not only provide for the project a new direction by which to judge the New Testament literature, but will answer some of those “big, big questions” that James talked about. If it is determined that the genre of the Gospel of Mark is Jewish Novel (and not Jewish/Graeco-Roman biography or history) that changes the direction of several perspectives, does it not? As Kurt Noll has discussed in a recent SBL article (Why Does the New Testament Exist?, SBL 2008), textual interpretation can change as rapidly as cultural memes, especially in antiquity. Where a letter may have been written with one purpose in mind, that would not change others from using the letter for another purpose entirely. So it may be that Mark’s intention was lost on the second wave of readers or used in a manner he never intended, much like how Paul’s letters were thrown about and used by different sects of Christianity in the second-third centuries CE. The answer cannot be known without first asking, then investigating the questions.
I also fear that Bruce and James are a bit biased in their desires to incorporate Aramaic scholars into the Project. After all, if you start with the assumption that “Jesus spoke Aramaic” (as both Bruce and James do), there would have to be some urgency to incorporate scholars into the project who can authoritatively speak about it, right? While Aramaic scholars should be included for other reasons, and while I feel they are useful for socio-cultural investigations, what should be apparent to everyone is that the statement “Jesus spoke Aramaic” is precisely what has yet been investigated and is not something we should start off assuming. If it can be shown that Jesus existed historically, in some form, using the specific methodologies this Project is working towards perfecting now, the question of “which language Jesus spoke” will have to be asked. But, it will have to be asked while investigating the socio-cultural world of that particular figure of Jesus. It can not even be suggested that Jesus was a Galilean (another oft-to assumed “fact”) and therefore spoke Aramaic, as this subject has also not been investigated thoroughly (it has only been assumed based on readings from the Gospels alone)–nor can it be investigated until the question of historicity has been established in any detail. Until then, all scholars on the project should be open to the possibility that the answer to the question “did Jesus exist” might make their questions obsolete (including those of mythicists–that statement was not just directed towards historicists). Remembering that fact (i.e. every perspective we now have might be turned on its head) will hopefully generate more interesting, thought-provoking questions that will likewise bring about more thought-provoking studies and one-on-one interactions between participants.