The Jesus Project: Offering Another Perspective on the Chilton-Hoffmann-Crossley Exchange

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.

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5 Responses

  1. I find this dialogue profoundly useful. Regarding Thomas Verenna’s comments above, I wish to place a special urgency on his point that at this moment there are no assumptions regarding “Jesus and the Jesus story” that can be made with confidence. I am hearing in the comments of various of us the implied assumption that Jesus surely did not exist, that the gospels are not what the seem, and the all the research done so far is largely beside the point. Such assumptions are as erroneous and faith-based as assumption that Jesus did exist and that the Jesus story is largely what it appears to be. Since we are proposing to start anew from the beginning we must assume something like a tabula raza. However, even such a posture implies the assumption that starting from a clean slate is possible, and that may prove to be a thoroughly erroneous assumption, as well. It seems to me we have no other option than to rummage around in a scholarly way in the sociology, psychology, literature, methods, and culture of the first century, against the backdrop of Second Temple Judaism, with a complete openness to what might surface and then try to see if what floats to the top in these various “scratchings around” begins somewhere down the road to suggest patterns that can drive legitimate assumptions for further testing of the data we generate. Even then, the assumptions must be held very tentatively and only as ephemeral instruments for testing the data that we think we are sniffing out.

  2. Thank you for this. I agree that starting anew may not be as easily accomplished as we hope. Take for instance your statement that we need to “rummage around in a scholarly way in the sociology, psychology, literature, methods, and culture of the first century”–does this not already assume that the Christian (or perhaps “proto-Christian”) traditions have a home in the first century? Wouldn’t this assumption be entirely based on our reading of the Gospel narratives set in the first century? How is this any different than Hebrew Bible scholars or ANE scholars looking for the wandering Hebrews in the desert during the New Kingdom because that is when and where the origin tradition places them? Once more, I feel the need to stress that what we are readily willing to assume can only hurt our ability to start fresh and look at Christian Origins and the Jesus figure in new ways. Even if the task is daunting, it is not impossible. But first we have to shed ourselves of the desires to take any perspective for granted, including the perspective that Christianity “started” in the first century CE. While you are right that we must not make any assumptions regarding “Jesus and the Jesus Story” we should likewise not make any assumptions about the “Christian story”. It’s a dangerous and circular path that could be tread and instead of taking us to a new road, we’ll forever be caught in a loop of Jesus Quests. I appreciate your agnosticism on the issue and your open mind.

  3. Thanks Tom. I’ll write a proper response in due course (marking essays is today’s excuse) but I should just mention a couple of comments on the Aramaic. I don’t think it is quite fair to say that it is an assumption in the strongest sense (let’s just take C1 Galilee first rather than just Jesus). Various scholars have made arguments (right or wrong) for this and recently and this is where I’m coming from.

    Also, even if the Aramaic question was more dubious, we’d still need Aramaic scholars to deal with the issue of tradition history (and indeed what to do with that most obvious of semitisms, son of man). But presumably that is included in your ‘other reasons’…?

    I don’t think the following is entirely fair: ‘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.’ In terms of broader Jesus and Gospel scholarship it has been investigated in some detail (Casey’s recent books are the obvious example, Chilton’s work is another). Again, this is not an assumption in the strong sense: it is based on arguments. They may be right or wrong of course but that’s another question…

    Anyway, thanks again and I’ll respond to this (and, I know, other things!!) when I can.

    James

  4. James,

    I’m glad you stopped by.

    I’ll write a proper response in due course (marking essays is today’s excuse)…

    I trust you will and I can’t wait to read it. You and I have always found common ground on these sorts of issues and I expect we will here as well.

    …but I should just mention a couple of comments on the Aramaic. I don’t think it is quite fair to say that it is an assumption in the strongest sense (let’s just take C1 Galilee first rather than just Jesus). Various scholars have made arguments (right or wrong) for this and recently and this is where I’m coming from.

    Certainly, you are correct. That was not my point of contention.

    Also, even if the Aramaic question was more dubious, we’d still need Aramaic scholars to deal with the issue of tradition history (and indeed what to do with that most obvious of semitisms, son of man). But presumably that is included in your ‘other reasons’…?

    Absolutely. I, of course, understand the need for Aramaic scholars in this sort of Project. In fact, I’m excited about your participation and look forward to working with you and Bruce, and those goodly enough to join the Project, particularly on issues of tradition history and more pressingly, the designation “Son of Man”. I wonder, in fact, if Mogens Muller would be interested in joining the Project and feel that we would be missing a vital Neustestamentler if we did not request his participation precisely because of his work on the use of “Son of Man”.

    I don’t think the following is entirely fair: ‘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.’ In terms of broader Jesus and Gospel scholarship it has been investigated in some detail (Casey’s recent books are the obvious example, Chilton’s work is another).

    I see us talking past each other a bit. Yes, the language Jesus spoke has been investigated, but it can only be investigated by assuming the very case in point (the figure of Jesus’ historicity). Surely you must agree that one would not be able to make arguments about the spoken language of Jesus if it were consensus that the figure of Jesus were nothing more than a literary archetype-hybrid? Of course not, there would be no reason to. But if one were to start under the assumption (being widely held by many respectable scholars) it would seem like a pressing question and one that would need to be investigated.

    The consensus right now may be that Jesus existed in some manner, but how well do you think that claim has been investigated in the past decade? Did you investigate historicity before you wrote your book? Do you think Bruce did? I would venture a guess (I may be wrong, of course) that you accepted the consensus–and while that would not be wrong (you have every right to trust a consensus, after all), in this particular instance, we are asking the question “Is the consensus correct?” The question of whether or not Jesus spoke Aramaic is really beside the point. Certainly that question will be important once it can be determined that a figure of Jesus did exist historically, assuming that will be the conclusion of the Jesus Project this summer. But for now, I feel that by making the statement “Jesus spoke Aramaic” you’re already starting with a conclusion and working backwards.

    I’ll put it this way (and I’m certain you’ll find no trouble agreeing to this); IF it can be concluded (working with new methodologies while investigating these questions) that there had been a historical Jesus and IF it could be concluded that he had been from the very small village of Nazareth around the 1st Century CE, there would be no reason for me to disagree with your point that Jesus would have spoken Aramaic.

    However, you must also admit that the very reason why the Jesus Project exists is to ask the questions that are never or are rarely asked. In fact, the generally held consensus’ concerning the historicity of the figure of Jesus are based on scholarship many decades old; how many perspectives can you name in scholarship that are as vague as the historicity of Jesus which have not been challenged in a decade? I can tell you that I can’t think of one example. Look at New Testament genre debates. That is an area as vague as the figure of Jesus’ historicity yet there are constant debates over what genre best represents the Gospel’s, individually and all together.

    The question of the figure of Jesus’ historicity has not been asked in almost a century by scholarship as a whole. It should have been asked more recently, but it has not been challenged precisely because of the efforts of the Jesus Seminar. The Jesus Seminar did not help scholarship progress in any way in this particular area–it halted progress and in fact set back investigations by (as Bruce very eloquently put it) limiting the initial questions and starting with initial conclusions. This is what the Jesus Project cannot do. We must be open to new and fresh interpretations of the data that may, indeed, contradict long-held presumptions. This does not mean that Bruce or Casey or you are wrong about an Aramaic Galilee; it does mean that you might be wrong about a historical figure of Jesus who lived there.

    Conversely, I could be wrong and there might have been a historical core figure behind the narratives and origin traditions. We will never be sure, and will continue talking past each other, if we do not openly and honestly investigate these core questions before we get caught up in the muddle of all the “if’s” first. And honestly I don’t think conservative or liberal perspectives will do–only good scholarship, strong methods, and open-minds will bring success to this Project where the Jesus Seminar failed.

    Again, this is not an assumption in the strong sense: it is based on arguments. They may be right or wrong of course but that’s another question…

    No, you’re right. We are talking past each other here. You are correct to suggest that, IF a historical Jesus did exist and IF a historical Jesus lived in the town of Nazareth in Galilee, the question of his spoken language will rest on the shoulders of Aramaic scholars. I am not contesting this. I am contesting the assumption that underlies the question of spoken language, i.e. the assumption of historicity.

    Anyway, thanks again and I’ll respond to this (and, I know, other things!!) when I can.

    I really look forward to it James. We all have responsibilities….speaking of which, I have not forgotten the drink I owe you. I fear by the end of the first night, you and Thomas will have drained my pockets!

  5. I can’t tell you how much this dialog is making me happy. To be perfectly honest, Jesus scholarship has, until recently, been a subject I’ve purposefully avoided precisely because it seemed to me that everyone was starting with their preferred conclusion and picking through the evidence looking for support. I’m very anxious to see the Jesus Project succeed — and by succeed, I mean be the first concerted effort to act like scientists, not politicians, when dealing with Christian origins, Jesus, and early literature.

    I would like to encourage all of you who are directly involved to continue with this kind of transparent open dialogue, and to make your research methods just as transparent and just as public.

    Despite rather uninformed accusations leveled at me by John Loftus, I am not a mythicist, and I have no agenda other than encouraging good scholarship. Regardless of what conclusions the project reaches regarding the existence of a man properly called Jesus in a historical context, I think this is one area of history that desperately needs some scientific and epistemological clarity.

    Thank you again, gentlemen. I can’t wait to see what you dig up!

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