Joe Hoffmann asked me to post this up on my blog for the time being. Below, Joe weighs in on the recent exchange and comes out with his own feelings on it all. Take it away Joe:
Memorandum to Myself : The Jesus Project
R. Joseph Hoffmann
Just as I was beginning work for my PhD at Oxford my supervisor was recovering from a bad time in British theological circles for having been a “founder” of the “Myth of God Incarnate” debate. With John Hick and others, Maurice Wiles had been blamed, even in the national press, for undermining the foundations of the Christian (read: Anglican) faith which had always been especially devoted to the doctrine of the incarnation.
The Myth-theologians were not especially interested in the historical Jesus but in pressing the fairly obvious point that the language of the New Testament is essentially derived from a time when gods did become men and men became gods—that is to say, antiquity. Coming fresh from the more energetic Germanics of Harvard Divinity School (I will not name names, but the years were 1976-1980), I found the whole discussion a little quaint. In fact, the former dean of Harvard Divinity School Ronald Thiemann called it that to my face, as I recall, during an interview in 1982. Oxford–England in general with its traditional antipathy for the splashiness of German and American biblical scholarship–arrived late to any interest in Nag Hammadi and felt that its obligations toward the apocrypha had been neatly summarized by a strange little collection by a certain Montague Rhodes James, a librarian, medievalist, and ghost- story writer, whose New Testament Apocrypha had appeared in 1924. Oxford repaid its debt to scholarship with the superb re-do of J K Elliott in 1994. What was happening at Claremont, Utrecht and Cambridge, MA in Coptic-Gnostic studies seemed robust and real compared to the cold-tea debates (as I saw them) when I arrived as a brash postgraduate at Wiles’s door in Christ Church.
This is a memorandum to myself as to why I no longer see the Dutch-American initiative in quite the same way, and why I think I missed the point and the wisdom of the Myth debate. The Myth of God Incarnate was not (to repeat) a seminar devoted to the historical Jesus. That there had been one was assumed with the same nonchalance as one would say “Well of course I had a grandfather. Where do you think I come from?” What there had not been is an incarnation—presumably also, while there was disagreement on some specifics, not a resurrection, virgin birth, or assorted other signs and wonders either. God had not become man. But like the Jesus Seminar later which trudged over some of the same ground the Myth seminar was greeted with a series of awful ripostes including a piece of apologetical nonsense called The Truth of God Incarnate. It was one thing to call Genesis a myth. It was OK to say, even, that Abraham was about as real as Oedipus. But were the canons of Christ Church and the Queen’s appointed theologian now saying that the word did not become flesh?
It’s sad in a way that the Myth seminar was doomed to be overshadowed by the gnostic gospels craze and other, equally important trends in New Testament Studies. Sad because the Myth seminar reminded scholarship beyond theology that the New Testament does not put itself forward as the story of a simple Galilean peasant who got himself godded through the reminiscences of his “community.” We can infer the community from the existence of the written sources, but in fact we only need to infer a writer and an audience for his work to explain the survival of the story. The twentieth century infatuation with the word “community” was itself a construct of theology in its attempts to depersonalize the origins of the gospels. But, as rule, communities do not write books, with the possible exception of the Jesus Seminar. Nor do communities invent the elaborate mythological framework we find fully fledged in the Fourth Gospel, but nascent in all the others. If by social memory we mean a “personality” whose character and actions can be recovered from the myth that encases it, or retrace the process that brought the transformation about I’m afraid I can’t see it at all in the New Testament. I do not think we are dealing with a man who became god, but a god who was made man. I think the New Testament is telling the truth about itself.
The growth of anti-supernaturalism and rationalism from Holbach’s day forward could deal with a man who became God only by ignoring the primary artifact—the story itself. Once you begin to demythologize (and even that once-radical word has become quaint) Jesus can be anything you want him to be. That in my view is what happened as theology tried unsuccessfully to fight for an “ordinary” Jesus whose message could be detached from the prevailing literary form we call gospel.
So my memo to myself (and anyone else who wants to share) is this: you can believe that the author of the Fourth Gospel was “mistaken” or “gnostic” or “inclusive” in using incarnational language, but the story he tells is not about a man who became God. The acts of Jesus, the words of Jesus and the deeds of Jesus befit someone who is God incarnate, the word of God. That’s also, more or less, the Christ of Paul’s Philippian hymn. It is fair enough for theologians and biblical scholars to say that this is the cultural ornamentation through which the significance of Jesus is being expressed by one social group who’d heard the Jesus story (yawn), but the story is the datum, not that guess, and the story is a myth. That’s what the Myth seminar was able to say with something approaching clarity—a clarity never achieved by later investigations—before it disbanded in 1980. The gnostic Jesus, whatever we may mean by that term, is a slightly more radicalized or de-historicized myth; the Lucan Jesus an artificially historicized version of the same thing. But each is to the datum as Subaru is to car. They are not perspectives on an historical individual, but variations on a mythic theme. In its most abstruse and literarily earliest form, it is Paul’s myth of Christ the Lord. In its most abstract and impersonal form, it is the Hymn of the Pearl. It is composite and as I’ve said elsewhere metamorphic—like all myths. But it does not provide knowledge of the life, profession, social status, or parentage of a man.