What a fantastic example of the underlying nuances of the past. For those who question why I stress such caution when investigating figures in the past, say the figure of Jesus, this is why. There are so many nuances to the investigation, that to stress anything with a black-and-white mentality or a hard certainty is, by all means, foolish and reckless. Watch the video. Read the article. It is indeed a cautionary tale:
A recent article by Paul V.M. Flesher on Bible and Interpretation was posted on cultural memory a few days ago, and it was while I was in the process of writing this post, so I thought I might incorporate it into this discussion. Here is a snippet and a relevant definition of ‘cultural memory’ and how we might consider using it here:
For Bible-believing students, an academic approach to the study of Scripture may constitute an attack on their personal identity. It works to recast their “cultural memory”—a key component of their psycho-social makeup which identifies their past (their personal pre-history, if you will) and locates their place in its progression. A course presenting a literary or historical Introduction to the New Testament, for example, can become for these students a threat to their self-understanding and to their ties with their religious community.
Memories shape an individual’s identity. Frequently we think of memories as recollections of events, activities, or experiences that happened in our own lives. Some of these experiences happened to us alone and constitute private memories, while other events were experienced by other people and thus comprise shared memories. Often many shared memories take place with identifiable groups of people, whether small groups like a family or kindergarten class or large groups such as citizens of a nation, members of a religion, or even fans of a World Cup soccer team. These experienced memories are not cultural memories, although a few may ultimately enter that classification.
Most cultural memories, by contrast, do not recall experienced events, but instead refer to events that happened in the past, usually to people conceived of as one’s ancestors or forerunners. These “memories” must be taught in some way, whether through formal classes, informal instruction or storytelling, or through reading. They constitute acquired knowledge rather than recollections of experienced events. Cultural memories differ from other knowledge of the past in that the events selected comprise pivotal moments that shape the identity of the group preserving their memory, whether this is an religious, ethnic, national or familial group. These are not just any events from the past, but events that are particularly relevant to the social group passing on the cultural memory. To a Frenchman, the revolution of 1789 would constitute a national cultural memory, but the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs would not. It is one thing to learn history, it is quite another to acquire a cultural memory.
I suppose the subject of this post is threefold. First, (1) how quickly historical memes spread (often false historical memes) and (2) how quickly they can become rooted in cultural memory. From that point, how does a historian consider the question if ‘cultural memory’ is considered ‘truth’, as rooted in society as well as individuals’ upbringing?
Every few months now, and with greater frequency since the creation of the Tea Party, there seems to be an onslaught of fictional attributions to America’s founding fathers. Whether it be words they never spoke, or deeds they never did, or beliefs they never held, America is on the cusp of a knowledge revolution, wherein ‘facts’ are becoming less important than tradition–especially tradition, albeit newly invented, which conforms to America’s current ideological trend.
Consider the lies being told, the refashioning of history, where in certain politician’s worldviews, is a past where the founding fathers said the Pledge of Allegiance and Paul Revere warned the British, or where Jon Quincy Adams (the son of John Adams) was a founding father and that these founding fathers worked to end slavery. I believe one commenter said it best, “Will these historical snafus cause [these politicians – ed.] any supporters? It doesn’t look like it, but it makes one wonder if they could pass a citizenship test.” And perhaps that is also the scary part. Who educated these politicians? I am reminded of the comment by junior Senator Mark Pryor to Bill Maher, “You don’t have to pass an IQ test to be in the senate.” Aside from the obvious question (“Why the hell not!?”), we must wonder how these politicians are elected into office and why they have such a strong following when they can’t even adequately reproduce the history of the country they are attempting to serve!
The answer, I believe, is in the transmission of the meme through an ideology already set in people who, clearly, don’t care about the facts. And I don’t even mean just one political party, because it goes beyond politics (and as it turns out, both parties are responsible for disseminating quotes without fact-checking and fabricating false quotes to fit their agendas). In general, and probably predominantly in this country, people are starting to care less about facts and more about impact. And once such a powerful, traditional meme is transmitted through social interactions (general conversations, viral media, social websites, whatever have you), people latch onto it without bothering to fact-check, and in some instances some seek to actively include such falsities into books and websites used to educate others.
Why this happens is as interesting as the how, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a result of seeking to propagate an agenda. As my generation gets older, having grown up with the internet, and a new generation who is even more in tune with technology starts to come into its own, the internet is the one-stop source of information. I know that the internet is becoming more integral to education as well, wherein students are allowed to use it for research, often under some guidelines. What implications does internet research have for students today when the most used online encyclopedia can be edited and fixed without any sort of peer review? Many will undoubtedly say that Wikipedia editors try to be fair and eliminate bias where possible, but it remains to be an editable site where the majority of opinion will supersede any balance at times and with complete anonymity, anyone can edit without the slightest worry about retraction. And such a site has repercussions for those whose work has been stolen by Wiki editors:
By the time you happen to find your work copied onto Wikipedia, it has already been propagated all over the net by Wikipedia copycats, making the job of going through their copyright infringement office all but meaningless.
And once a false statement is disseminated to other sites, blogs, social media, people will trust it because it comes from people they, themselves, trust: a blog they read all the time, a friend on Facebook or Google+, a news source which might not have verified the facts first before writing a story on it, and in a more relevant case, a news source who runs with a story about either history or religion without consulting experts in the field first. So people will assume, without much concern, that these sorts of memes are okay to spread and are trustworthy because, well, their friend on Facebook is smart and trustworthy and has no reason to lie,and in our social-media culture the share button is all too easy and tempting to hit. And thus the fictitious meme is spread by those who, while not having negative intentions, are caught up in a wisp of a motion they do every day, unbeknownst that the shared content wasn’t fact checked by their friends on Facebook, nor the source that their friends retrieved it from.
When Osama Bin Laden was killed, the internet was abuzz with quotes attributed to Martin Luther King and Mark Twain. The quote of Martin Luther read “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy” and of Mark Twain, “I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure.” These were found everywhere, except by those who paused for as moment to fact-check, and a good thing they did! It turns out they were both falsely attributed–that is to say, fake. And as a result of some noteworthy research, a trail could be found–where it originated wasn’t some malicious attempt to subvert history but a ‘whisper-down-the-alley’ mash-up of cut and pastes which, somewhere along the way, were so convoluted what became of it was a fictional quote. And as it turns out, we are doubly guilty of allowing this as it happens a lot.
Even a fellow Biblioblogger, known for his fact-checking and for his ridicule of others who spread false information, was just recently caught using a fake quote from Charles Darwin in order to promote a particular ideal to which he follows. The quote was spread by Lady hope who claimed to have been with Darwin on his deathbed, but those who we know were actually there (like his family) state firmly she was never at the bed of Darwin and that her story is a falsity. And the Biblioblogger’s source in this case was a friend on Facebook, one with whom I also am familiar and know did not spread the quote with any intention of deceiving, he simply didn’t know. The quote can be found on all sorts of quote sites, especially Christian/Creationist sites. This Biblioblogger picked up on it, trustingly, and proceeded to spread it, unaware that he was disseminating false information; it is a rarity with this Biblioblogger, but even he, the ineffable scholar he is, can fall prey to his own ideological desires and cultural memory.
And it doesn’t even just occur with the use of quotes; chain letters are another popular internet phenomena proving, for our own age at least, that people care little about checking into the truth of claims and more about the message behind them. Indeed, letters are sent around without a care whether or not the individuals are real or completely fictitious. And this really brought to light, in my mind, interesting parallels to the past, sans current technology, and how quickly a meme can spread and change and what implications there might be.
When you stop to consider how popular ideas can become, and how ardent we are, as social beings who seek out patterns and affinities, about creating cultural references to popular ideas, is it any wonder that we fabricate and create and exemplify and exaggerate? Some fictional legends about our founding fathers are already ingrained in our cultural memory and some are even teaching them as fact! For example, I was tough in elementary school that George Washington had wooden teeth. It was only when I was older and was able to read things for myself that i found this to be a complete fiction. Washington actually had teeth carved from ivory and gold. One set of them is on display at a Baltimore museum. There are, of course, folk legends about historical figures: Johnny Appleseed, Black Bart, Buffalo Bill, and so on. These were historical figures with huge legends about them. But there are also folk stories, based around fictional characters from dime novels, which are also ingrained in our cultural memory. Stories about Cordwood Pete and Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, Ichabod Crane, and John Henry (a very noteworthy African-American folk legend) abound and I am certain there are those who believe these stories are based off historical figures, even though they are characters invented by dime novelists and writers. There are even fiction figure like Uncle Sam (who is the personification of America, whose name stems from a historical person Samuel Wilson) who make up a large part of our cultural patriotism, who of course are not historical figures, but created to exemplify certain ideals we felt, as a nation, best covered us.
The same seems to be true for those in antiquity. In a paper, soon to be published in a volume of great interest (if I don’t say so myself), Kurt Noll argues that the spread of memes in antiquity happened quite fast, faster than people currently give credit. This actually makes sense, if we consider it from a standpoint of the ancient mythic mind. In antiquity, fact-checking even among the more elite of society–the historiographer and biographer for example–was virtually nonexistent, and among the lay audiences or listeners of tales fact checking was just not important. While it might have taken time for news to funnel through the trade networks and social channels in antiquity, once a meme was transmitted, they took on a life of their own. This is perhaps why we have so many differing narratives, conflicting and divisive, even about common myths (like with what happened to Romulus).
The same might be said about early Christianity (whether you believe Jesus was an earthly figure or not–it is irrelevant for this discussion); Bultmann, a believer in the earthly, historical figure of Jesus, still made clear his views that what we have in the New Testament represent cultural memory, or kerygma–the post-Easter traditions–from the early church and not ‘history’ in the sense of real, historical events. Fictional words, deeds, and actions attributed to Jesus and the early church fathers are commonly found in our sources. The Canonical Gospels are no different. When the controversial Jesus Seminar analyzed the 1500 words supposedly spoken by Jesus, they could only agree on 2% likely being authentic. In fact, 82% of the sayings attributed to the figure of Jesus were thrown out. Of course, of the 2% left which the Jesus Seminar believed were authentic, other scholars have put forth studies showing they aren’t at all authentic (most notably, the inexpensive book The Messiah Myth by Thomas Thompson comes to mind, but also Thomas L. Brodie’s massive, yet decently priced, book The Birthing of the New Testament–so pick them up!).
In antiquity, this was a common occurrence. Moses, for example, is often portrayed, similarly to Jesus, in different ways, speaking different (sometimes contradicting the modern canonical narrative we now possess) words, imitating certain actions, traveling to different lands, and so on. Like American folk history, legends were built up around ancient individuals who had historically lived, and sometimes the legends came about during their own lifetimes, like Julius Caesar, but usually after their deaths like Apollonius of Tyana, Socrates, and Pythagoras. Other stories, though, also arose from fictional characters, or those who appeared in fiction writing but were historicized later into cultural memory, like Lycurgus of Sparta, Moses, Abraham, Judith, Horatius Cocles, Romulus and Remus, Aeneas, and so on. There are perhaps hundreds of cases where individuals who never existed were historicized into the past in antiquity. No scholar worth their salt would dispute this (the numbers are too numerous). The question isn’t about whether or not fictional characters could be accepted as historical figures, but the speed at which a fictional story could transform into a mythic one.
In out day, cultural memory plays a large part in the spread of memes circulating around false information. Of course the internet and social media technology certainly don’t hinder the process. But if cultural memory is the reason why we spread information the way we do, as self-serving as that might appear, then we must expect that in antiquity, cultural memory was also a catalyst for the spreading and distortion of memes surrounding legends and myth. The introduction (by Bernard Knox) to M.I. Finley’s The World of Odysseus (See also Barbara Graziosi’s Inventing Homer: The Early Reception of Epic), contains an interesting little story about the power of cultural memory and the spreading of a story while highlighting the speed at which this can be spread within just a few decades.
In 1953 the late Professor James Notopoulos was recording oral heroic song in the Sfakia district of western Crete, where illiterate oral bards were still to be found. He asked one of them, who had sung of his own war experience, if he knew a song about the capture of the German general and the bard proceeded to improvise one. The historical facts are well known and quite secure. In April 1944 two British officers, Major Patrick Leigh Fermor and Captain Stanley Moss, parachuted into Crete, made contact with Cretan guerrillas, and kidnapped the German commanding general of the island, one Karl Kreipe.
The general was living in the Villa Ariadne at Knossos, the house Sir Arthur Evans had built for himself during the excavations at the site. Every day, at the same time, the general was driven south from the villa to the neighboring small town of Arkhanes, where his headquarters were located. He came home every night at eight o’clock for dinner. The two British officers, dressed in German uniforms, stopped the car on its way home to Knossos; the Cretan partisans overpowered the chauffeur and the general. The two officers then drove the car through the German roadblocks in Heraklion (the general silent with a knife at his throat) and left the car on the coast road to Rethymo. They then hiked through the mountains to the south coast, made rendezvous with a British submarine, and took General Kreipe to Alexandria and on to Middle East Headquarters in Cairo.
So much for epic history. Nine years after the event the British protagonists have been reduced to one nameless general whose part in the operation is secondary and there can hardly be any doubt that if the song is still sung now the British element in the proceedings is practically nonexistent—if indeed it managed to survive at all through the years in which Britain, fighting to retain its hold on Cyprus, became the target of bitter hostility in Greece and especially among the excitable Cretans.
It took the Cretan oral tradition only nine years to promote to the leadership of the heroic enterprise a purely fictitious character of a different nationality. This is a sobering thought when one reflects that there is nothing to connect Agamemnon, Achilles, Priam, and Hector with the fire blackened layer of thirteenth-century ruins known as Troy VII A (the archaeologists’ candidate for Homer’s city) except a heroic poem which cannot have been fixed in its present form by writing until the late eighth century, at least four illiterate centuries after the destruction.
Sobering indeed. We have a world where a search on a browser will produce exact results to a search queue, which puts information at our fingertips, in our faces, in mere seconds.. Memes spread quickly in our era as a result of how quickly information is available. But even in pre-computer culture, where memes are spread via oral tradition, something common in antiquity, it only took 9 years to alter the story completely, introducing a new character completely fabricated, and shine light on another faction of the narrative. Only 9 years. And the reader is only told of the one bard. If the same question were posed to other bards, the song might be completely different still.
So the question that follows all of this is how does one locate ‘history’ when even our earliest sources are nothing better than cultural memory? And clearly the first Christian communities, whomever they were, could not agree upon those existing cultural memories (which is why we have competing doctrines, competing Gospels, conflicting theologies and exegeses). This doesn’t just follow for Christianity, but Judaism, or the history of the Greeks, or the Romans, or the Sumerians, or those civilizations for which we have nothing but bones and pottery shards? How does one separate ‘history’ from the ‘meme’ and cultural memory when we have trouble even in our own day! And it does make one wonder why future historians will be arguing about over our generation, assuming we don’t kill each other before then.
Filed under: Ancient Literature, Ancient Near East, Belief, Classical History, Early Christianity, Fun Memes, Minimalism, New Testament, Philosophy, Politics, Scholarship, Society | Tagged: Ancient, Biblical Literalism, christianity, Cultural Memory, historicity, history, Memes, minimalism | 6 Comments »
There is a great deal of debate on this issue. Up until the mid-20th century, the accepted answer was ‘one’: and this Whiggish narrative underpinned a number of works that celebrated electrification and the march of progress in light-bulb changing. Beginning in the 1960s, however, social historians increasingly rejected the ‘Great Man’ school and produced revisionist narratives that stressed the contributions of research assistants and custodial staff. This new consensus was challenged, in turn, by women’s historians, who criticized the social interpretation for marginalizing women, and who argued that light bulbs are actually changed by department secretaries. Since the 1980s, however, postmodernist scholars have deconstructed what they characterize as a repressive hegemonic discourse of light-bulb changing, with its implicit binary opposition between ‘light’ and ‘darkness,’ and its phallogocentric privileging of the bulb over the socket, which they see as colonialist, sexist, and racist. Finally, a new generation of neo-conservative historians have concluded that the light never needed changing in the first place, and have praised political leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher for bringing back the old bulb. Clearly, much additional research remains to be done.
(h/t Chuck Jones on Facebook)
Q. How many historians does it take to change a lightbulb?
A. I dunno – not my period.
Q. How many revisionist historians does it take to change a
A. In actual fact, against popular consensus, the lightbulb was
never actually changed.
Q. How many cultural historians does it take to change a lightbulb?
A. I am less interested in the lightbulb than the discourses
surrounding the changing.
Q. How many art historians does it take to change a lightbulb.
A. 11. One to change the lightbulb, and 5 to show earlier versions
that influenced it, and 5 to say that the changing was actually done by
the changers apprentice.
And my personal favorite:
Q: How many Bibliobloggers does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: I don’t know, let’s ask Jim West.
These are a few polls I’ve put together for no reason other than to gauge the readership of my blog. If you’d be so kind, please answer truthfully and honestly; in instances where I felt that many would choose a different option, I allowed for the ability to write in your own answers. Please feel free to discuss the results of the polls and your opinions (if expressed) in the comments section of this post. I’m just as curious to see the results as you are! Also, feel free to share this post with friends! If you choose to comment, please remember that I don’t allow anonymous comments.
R. Joseph Hoffmann once again weighs in on the recent discussions concerning the Jesus Project. Unlike the previous entry posted here for him, this article handles a wide variety of issues; from detractors and apologists to methods that should be employed by the Project, its a great read through and through. Joe, the floor is yours…
A Discourse on Method: The Jesus Project
R, Joseph Hoffmann
Even before the Jesus Project had resolved itself into a critical mass of scholars with ideas, goals, and vision, bloggers of various persuasions pronounced its fate. It was quickly bloggled into one of three things: More of the Same Old Thing, A Radically New Thing, or a Thing that Wouldn’t Make a Difference whether old or new. To chop these positions finely: the first group consisted of apologists—those who believed that the questions proposed by TJP, or their formulation was impertinent, so were happy to declare the question dead at asking; but also of skeptics who had seen the grunts and groans and fissiparation of previous quests and seminars and were skeptical that anything really new would come from another set of scholarly calisthenics. The second group, which might have included me but didn’t, was giddy at the prospect that stalwart scholars were going to blast the timidity of the Jesus Seminar when it came to the edge of the Big Question, and march on to Baghdad, if the analogy between Gulf I and Iraq isn’t an inappropriate one. I was not the inventor of the preposterous slogan “What if the Most Influential Man in Human History Never Lived?” but I should have been its destroyer. I was however the “creator” of the suggestion that the non-historicity of Jesus is a testable hypothesis and can no longer be ignored and I still believe it. The second group also included, along with people who wanted to ventilate their “myth theories” in a serious forum, many who were interested in the formative power of myth in the creation of social groups and religious movements. The third group, mainly post-Christian and post religious skeptics wondered why in the twenty-first century anyone would worry about such an issue: whatever motives underlay the founding of TJP they were not (surely) as important as such pressing matters as getting God out of the Pledge and getting evolution back into the schools. For two years seriously concerned people wrote, emailed and phoned asking whether I had nothing better to do with my time.
In this space, I want briefly to address each of these positions directly—not to put straight a record that has not yet been written, but to alert both scholars and onlookers that we have everything to gain from confronting our critics as well as our theories.
TJP was never construed as a sequel to the Jesus Seminar. (I have now written that sentence eight times in different places.) That has not prevented linkages in the press of the “Mars-is-to-Earth …”variety. It did not begin as a corrective or a replacement to the Jesus Seminar. There is overlap only insofar as it is impossible to create a brand -new scholarly conversation without involving some of the same personalities and dealing with some of the same questions. Consider the Obama White House and the Clinton White House in terms of recidivist personnel and “issues”. I have said, recently and rather forcefully I hope, that the Seminar asked some of the wrong questions in the wrong order, skated past others, and that to accept any critique of TJP methodology, as it evolves, from a seminar whose own methods were often seen as risible would be–risible. Hence without being dismissive of the Seminar Jeremiahs who’ve been there, done that, TJP cannot proceed without an evaluation of what the Seminar accomplished, failed to accomplish, and the reasons for its performance. While I take the term “scientific” as it is used in the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion both cum grano salis and in its most German sense as “scholarly,” it’s my impression that all of those so far associated with the project take “scholarship” very seriously indeed and want this to be, at the very least, a faith-free process. My colleague April Deconick has recently offered her own superb assessment of the Seminar in a blog-series called “The Jesus Seminar Jesus is Bankrupt” (http://forbiddengospels.blogspot.com/). Critique is always a postmortem enterprise, and I believe the post-mortem has begun.
From what has been said above, it follows that the other part of the category who see the JP as a rehash of the Seminar, the apologists, need to look again. There are certainly associates who hold to a “myth theory,” and there are others who hold to a non-super-naturalist or radical historicist position. There are textualists who believe that a careful and positivistic reading of canonical sources will provide more information than a “fuller” view of Christian origins, and others who believe that there is only a notional difference between what canonical and non-canonical sources have to offer. There are advocates of Matthew Black’s famous view that we need to get behind the text to an Aramaic context to understand what it going on in the translations (if that’s what they are) we possess, and others who think a Galilean folk hero has been inserted into a Greek myth. Obviously that degree of non-unanimity is discomfiting to those who think the New Testament is self-authenticating text without context, but it can hardly be seen as business as usual to invite a free and open discussion of these positions knowing that they cannot all be right.
As to the idea that TJP is “radically new,” let me be the first to say calm down. There has been nothing “radically”—that is, theological-foundation-shatteringly—new in this area since Strauss, and almost no one reads Strauss anymore. Even if they did he’s virtually impenetrable without reading the heroic Hegel first. There has been, to be sure, a great deal of jockeying to say something radically new, as though Jesus-research is no different from looking for a new isotope. I’ve said recently that at a certain point in contemporary New Testament scholarship the quest to be the puzzle-solver largely replaced the quest for the historical Jesus—another caution we can take from the Seminar. In a culture of celebrity, the slow pace of scholarship is painful; in a dozen interviews about TJP, the first question, almost without fail, is “What are you people trying to prove?” or “What’s the conclusion?” Presumably, if I had said that we had stumbled on impressive information that, prior to his ascension Jesus gave to James the instructions for making a camera, and that we now had photographic proof of the event, they would have hung up. But if I say that new papyrus discoveries, combined with some pretty impressive canonical clues, substantiate the claim that the followers of Jesus were a first century gay alliance, they become more interested. Reporters will call you back. As a matter of fact, TJP needs to be new, but new also in eschewing sensationalism and exhibiting a certain lack of intellectual concupiscence as we trudge on. It is not enough to be “non-theological” since what is not theological is not eo ipso “right”; the Project also needs to be bold enough to say that some conclusions will be out of its reach, either for lack of evidence or lack of measurement. Again, the analogy is the sciences. There is nothing about the world of the twentieth century (save global warming) that is physically different from the world of Thomas Aquinas’s day. Our mode of describing the same things about that world has changed dramatically, however, and with it our understanding of how life evolved and human beings assumed their place on the planet. There is nothing in the nature of old evidence that cannot provide better understanding if the right methods of description are developed. TJP, if it is new, will be new to that extent.
And finally to the indifferent, the skeptics-with-portfolio (as distinct from the “detractors” in group one). The question “What does it matter?” is a fair question. It’s a sort of distaff to the view that Jesus matters as a self-evident proposition—matters to the life of faith, to the heart, or, as a moral teacher, to our conduct—not just the necessary presupposition of the movement that bears his title, but as the centerpiece to the religious life. The slogan “What if [he] had never lived” was somewhat bluffly and mistakenly directed at them, as though the sole legitimating reason for the Project is to disabuse religious men and women of their beliefs. Yet why would a Jesus who “did not exist” be of more value to unbelievers than a Jesus who existed in the “ordinary” way and died in an ordinary way? And why would religious folk be troubled by any conclusion reached by any group with such a siloistic objective?
That Jesus matters in one sense is a statement of faith, therefore he cannot matter historically anymore than any other event can matter. It is not legitimate to read back into his original story, whatever that may have been and however it may have evolved, a significance that was three hundred years in the canonical and doctrinal making and millennia in the revising. It seems to me that women and men who have decided that most historical questions have no bearing on the meaning and purpose of life are dead right. That disjunct will have to be acknowledged and almost all scholars do acknowledge it today. But to say that “Jesus does not matter” is a different sort of statement and strikes me as immensely uncurious if not downright tiresome. Does it mean that the question itself is uninteresting because the asker has decided that religion, being bogus anyway, causes us to indulge in inherently silly pastimes? Or does it mean that the question lacks what Aristotle called “Magnitude”—greatness—as might be claimed, for example, for the question of the origins of the universe, or human life, or language?
I have to say that people who have asked me the question seem shocked when I ask them why they are asking it. As if to say, “You seem like an intelligent man; why don’t you know the answer yourself?” But it seems to me that intellectual curiosity cuts in two ways, and that people need to be able to say why they are bored by something as much as why they are intrigued by it. As you may gather, from this little discursus, my sense is that the people in group three are displaying hostility rather than boredom. I remember telling my mother once that I was working on a research paper on the history of Christian marriage and had become fascinated with how relatively late the Church decided to ecclesize nuptial arrangements. Her immediate “Catholic” response was that such inquiries are better left to bachelors and maidens and she hoped that I wouldn’t publish the paper. That kind of hostility. As to magnitude, I think it has to be said that the “big questions” are always etiological and hence always to a certain extent historical; where things come from matters, and without subscribing to historicist or originalist positions, I would find it odd to maintain that the origins of a religion—any religion—are not at least as deserving of investigation as the origins of the English language or the trans-Asian migrations of the early Americans. Some things are worth knowing not because they are matters of fact or de coeur, but because they have achieved magnitude by assent or influence. I would regard it as more informative to know why the “question” of Jesus is not interesting than to explain its interest.
And so to “knowledge.” TJP might begin where Descartes did in 1637 with the Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason. Those who have kept their sophomore philosophy anthology on the shelf will remember that Descartes had professed “perfect confidence” in the ability of reason to achieve knowledge. His own “project” involved a preparation which he compared to the architectural destruction of a whole town. Towns, he recalled, had not developed “rationally” but in fits and starts creating a chaos of a landscape. This he compared to the state of knowledge in the seventeenth century, heavily dependent on everything that had come before, when nothing that had come before achieved the systematic standard he set for himself. “We must begin,” he wrote, by “deliberately renouncing all of the firmly held but questionable beliefs we have acquired through experience and education.” And as we know, while Descartes was not occupied with the question of scripture, having learned a thing or two from Galileo’s fate, he was immensely interested in the question of God.
No one who lives in a post-Enlightenment and postmodern world can believe that Descartes fulfilled even his own hubristic agenda, but he did provide a “method” that TJP might consider (and is considering) as it moves along. In his seminal Book III, the philosopher proposes that a proper investigation should always include four parts:
1. “To accept as true what is indubitable.” That is to say, ascertain to the extent possible what is factual, and what is based only on the prestige of authority. This requires a method within the method. No other field of investigation is so authority-laden as Jesus-research. Thus the question has to be, ‘what sort of authority is it and does it have bearing on the kind of investigation TJP wants to be?’ Do scholars in Christian origins regard anything beyond the mere fact of early Christian literature and aspects of its context as “indubitable”?
2. “Divide every question into manageable parts.” This seems self-evident, but it has not been the pattern of previous investigations. Neither the question “Did Jesus exist?” nor “What did he ‘really’ say?” was manageable. Formulating the sub-questions and prior questions is likely to be a painstaking business. If it is not done systematically and in a free and open debate, the Project may as well disband now.
3. “Begin with the simplest issues and ascend to the more complex.” It seems to me that this is the one step we have a grip on—the early reports came from communities. Their historicity cannot be doubted. That is a simple fact. These communities were called into existence by an event or sequence of events, the precise nature of which scholarship has spent over two centuries trying to reconstruct. I do not think those reconstructions, from the most radical to the most “traditional,” can escape our scrutiny. The road from simplicity to complexity cannot be shortcut by an appeal to the sanctity of consensus. The scientific nature of TJP is on trial precisely at this point; can we be as iconoclastic and skeptical as the Cartesian method requires us to be or do we look for safe havens in the competing correctnesses of our educational or political investments?
4. “Review the process consistently, so that the objectives of the process (the “argument”) is always in view.” The “argument,” it follows, should not be a conclusion, a favorite hypothesis, an agenda. What Virgil says of “Rumour” (Aeneid, IV, 173) can be applied here to “Reputation.” It flies aloft, moves with a strength of its own—threatens every collaboration, and it threatens this one. The ability to keep an objective in view derives from the successful execution of steps one through three. The Seminar evoked attrition because it lost sight of an objective and became a cloud of unknowing rather than a cloud of witnesses. It is important that TJP does not become a sounding board for private or exotic fantasies about Who Jesus Really Was. In short, TJP must not become an opportunity for its members to proselytize others to their point of view.
Above all, Descartes understood the importance of deconstruction, landscape, and using precise measures for “what is known.” His naïve faith in certainty comes to us from a different world, with a different sense of “measurability” and expectation of success.
But I submit the process still has on its side simplicity and intellectual candor, and that is what I personally would like TJP to display.