Archive for October, 2008

More Responses to “Heresy Hunting”

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

Rob Bowman has posted two new responses to my Heresy Hunting in the New Millennium article from the latest issue of SBL Forum. The first addresses my point that the modern apologists tend to disparage the apocryphal texts as bizarre by seizing upon one or two aspects of the texts despite the fact that much of the texts are otherwise benign (thinking specifically here of Gospel of Thomas and Gospel of Peter). I stated in the article: “Such focus on the ‘bizarre’ elements of the texts misrepresents their contents. There is plenty of material in the canonical texts that is bizarre or objectionable but it would be unfair to characterize Acts simply on the basis of the cursing stories, or Luke on Jesus’ disappearing act (4:30) or the sweating of blood (22:43-44), or John on its anti-Semitism.” Rob’s second post deals specifically with Anti-Semitism in John.

Rob’s posts argue that the examples I cite of “bizarre elements” in the canonical texts are not so bizarre and the charge of Anti-Semitism in John is unsubstantiated. He concedes, however, that many readers and commentators have struggled with these issues; and I think that is sufficient for my argument. These are troubling aspects of the texts, whether or not they can be tamed by exegetical athletics. Similarly, some of the “bizarre elements” in Gos. Thom. and Gos. Pet. can also be tamed or explained if one takes the time to do so. It is unfair, I think, to label Gos. Thom. 114 “misogynistic.” For one thing, such an assessment is anachronistic; for another, it is far too simplistic a way to interpret the saying. I won’t attempt to do so here as there are far too many other experts on the text who could do so, and have done so. Unfortunately, the apologists (like Witherington) do not consult these works; they simply draw attention to these sections of the texts that will alarm their readers.

Dan Wallace, co-author with Darrell Bock of Dethroning Jesus (one of the books I mention in the article), has also posted a response to the “Heresy Hunting” on the Parchment and Pen blog. His concern is, again, that I am just as biased in my defense of CA scholarship as the apologists are in their assessment of the CA. One respondent to Wallace’s post commented: “Come on Dan, they’re lost – methodologically, psychologically, and eternally.” Sigh.

Timothy Paul Jones, author of Misquoting Truth, added his voice to the debate in another comment. He states, “What is being exposed is the lack of historically-defensible continuity between the Christian Apocrypha and the historical Jesus…The problem with the Christian Apocrypha was and is that the origins of the claims found therein do not represent testimony from eyewitnesses of the life and ministry of Jesus.” I do not object to the authors’ arguments that the CA say nothing about the historical Jesus; I object to how they make their arguments (e.g., Gospel of Thomas says little about the historical Jesus because it is a second-century Gnostic text dependent upon the Synoptic gospels and other NT texts; okay, but what about the scholarship that is not cited that argues otherwise? Should this not at least be acknowledged?). Jones goes on to say that, my statement on this blog that “Liberals tend to view the texts with neutrality, without needless value judgements or disparaging comments” is the “pinnacle of hubris.” I do not think that liberal scholars are without fault; I think some of them, like all scholars in all disciplines, can be found guilty of bias, particularly in pushing too far in their attempts to establish an early origin to some of the texts. But they begin from the position that the CA (and my point was about the CA not the NT texts) are valid expressions of early Christian thought that should be examined sympathetically.

Jones also objects that I have misunderstood his assessment of the Gospel of Peter. He writes, “I’m also not certain how closely Burke read the books that he critiques—he cites me as disparaging the resurrection account found in Gospel of Peter in a section of Misquoting Truth where I, in fact, contend that Gospel of Peter could represent an authentic strand of testimony to the resurrection of Jesus, albeit one that cannot be clearly traced to eyewitnesses of the risen Lord.” But in the article, my comment was: “However, often the apologists excerpt the texts simply to highlight their differences from the canonical texts. Of course, only those sections of the CA texts that are particularly odd are provided and commented upon. The favorite targets appear to be the resurrection account from the Gospel of Peter…” And that is precisely what Jones does: he discusses only what is different about Gos. Pet. (specifically, the painlessness of Christ’s death, and the talking cross).

A Response to “Heresy Hunting”

Thursday, October 16th, 2008

My recent article in SBL Forum, “Heresy Hunting in the New Millennium,” has elicited some responses in the blogging community—some positive, some negative. Rob Bowman of Religious Researcher has offered the first part of a lengthy response (HERE). I appreciate the time and effort he has put into the response—indeed, the real goal of the article was to get so-called liberals and conservatives talking about the issue. I’d like now to offer my own response to Rob’s comments.

1. Rob calls his response “Defending Heresy” and accuses me of being an apologist for the Christian Apocrypha (CA). A similar charge is made by Danny Zacharias at Deinde; April DeConick, on the other hand, has come to my defense, stating, “Objectivity is not neutrality. Tony's piece in my opinion is objective. He writes as a historian who points out the Christian apologetic agenda of some popular writers who are misrepresenting other scholars' work as well as the ancient documents they are writing about. This is not neutral. Who says that neutrality is what we are after?” I am not defending heresy. If anything I am defending CA scholarship, but only because it is misrepresented, not because it is superior in any way.

2. Rob accuses me of “rhetorical gamesmanship” in the terms I use for the various writers I discuss. He takes issue with me calling them “apologists,” which he says is a “term of disapprobation.” That is not how I intended the term, however, and I’m not sure the writers would see it as offensive; indeed, one of the reviewers quoted in the opening pages of Craig Evans’ Fabricating Jesus calls it “contemporary Gospel apologetics at its very best” (Gerald O’Collins). While I’m no fan of apologetics, my use of the term “apologists” was meant to be value neutral. Are the CA scholars equally apologists? I’m not so sure. It depends on the quality of their scholarship—are they letting their assumptions guide how they evaluate the literature? For example, are they advocating, as is often charged, replacing the canonical gospels with the non-canonical? This is absurd. All that CA scholars like myself (though there may be some who are a bit radical) ask for is a neutral discussion of the texts—that is, to examine them as artifacts of early Christian thought without assessing them as aberrant, as “forgeries,” or “false.” I will concede that Rob is right in noting that my terminology is somewhat inconsistent, even incorrect in the case of calling Baigent et al “scholars” (a little bit of a slip there).

3. Rob takes issue with some of my generalizations about the marketing of the apologists’ works. For example, he points out that Witherington’s What have They Done with Jesus? does not fit in with the other books because it was published by Harper, not a conservative press. He is right, though my argument was phrased more cautiously: “many [emphasis added] of the books are published by conservative presses.” Witherington’s book is an exception, and I’m not sure what Harper was thinking. Jenkins’ Hidden Gospels is another (by OUP). He also states, “But it may be pointed out that books by conservative scholars sometimes enjoy a wider breadth of endorsement than secular works. Bock’s book The Missing Gospels, for example, was endorsed by Martin Hengel (University of Tübingen) and Larry Hurtado (University of Edinburgh) as well as various conservative scholars.” But Hengel is hardly a “liberal,” and I’m not sure where to situate Hurtado. Rob is right that the two sides, liberal and conservative, are firmly entrenched in their own scholarly worlds—i.e., they tend to cite only scholarship produced by their ideological peers. But my final paragraph calls for an end to such entrenchment.

4. Rob takes issue with me drawing upon brief comments on specific texts out of context of a writer’s larger argument—e.g., I criticize Komoszewski’s and Wright’s assessments of the Gospel of Peter even though, as Rob says, the writers’ aims were not to offer thorough reviews of the text. He is correct, but I think it is one thing to note the existence of an apocryphal text which has particular features (e.g., that it presents Jesus as less, not more, human) and another to describe its unique features as “bizarre embellishment” (Komoszewski p. 163) or “strange, somewhat surreal” (Wright, p. 69) (and worse things are said of other texts, particularly the Infancy Gospel of Thomas). That seems to be the crucial difference between liberal “scholarship” and conservative “apologetics”—liberals tend to view the texts with neutrality, without needless value judgements or disparaging comments.

5. Rob also says I misrepresent Witherington’s views on the Gospel of Thomas. But again, my aim was not to agree or disagree with his assessment of the value of this text as a tool for establishing the teachings of the Historical Jesus, but how he unnecessarily disparages the text. One can discuss the historical credibility of the Jesus in the text without labeling some of its sayings as “pantheistic,” “misogynist,” and “obscure for obscurity’s sake!’” Worse still, these assessments are incredibly shortsighted and deserve deeper analysis (if Witherington is not willing to do so, then he should not simply offhandedly dismiss them with comments that will incite his readers to view the text negatively).  I haven’t “missed” Witherington’s point, it’s just not relevant to what I aim to prove.

6. The same charge is made of my use of Jenkins. Rob states, “If Burke wishes to disagree with Jenkins, let him do so, but his failure to engage Jenkins’s argument when it is so directly relevant to Burke’s claim and when it appears in the very pages that Burke cites from Jenkins’s book is inexcusable.” Jenkins’ point in this section of his book is that the heresiologists were essentially correct in their assessment of Gnostic literature. The larger version of my article does mention some of the comments the modern apologists offer about the ancient heresy hunters, but most of the time they agree that the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library has shown how wrong Irenaeus and his ilk often were. I also mention how the modern writers seem unaware they are guilty of the same offense. Regardless, I do not agree that it was necessary to engage Jenkins on this point.

7. Rob criticizes me for mischaracterizing the works of Bock and Evans. He says they provide thorough overviews and discussions of at least some of the texts. He is right that these two works have particular depth but that does not excuse their intentions, which are to discourage their readers from appealing to the texts for studying Jesus. Even Evans, who sees some historical value to a few of the sayings from the Gospel of Thomas, ignores a vast amount of scholarship on the text and focuses only on the authors that enable him to date the text late and conclude that it is dependent on the NT gospels. I’m not sure that we can call such a discussion, in Rob’s words, “very nuanced.” And Bock presents excerpts from the texts only to show their differences from the NT texts; can we call this “even-handed”?

Heresy Hunting in SBL Forum

Friday, October 10th, 2008

The paper I presented at 2008 Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, "Heresy Hunting in the New Millennium", appears in an edited, popularized form in the current volume of the SBL Forum. It can be accessed HERE.

The Childhood of Jesus from the Acts of Andrew and Matthias

Friday, October 10th, 2008

I mentioned some time ago a discussion with A. Vinogradov about a manuscript of the Acts of Andrew and Matthias that features a summary of the life of Jesus. Included in this summary are three episodes from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. The section alludes also to the Protoevangelium of James and begins with an expanded version of the story of the Magi from Matthew. Here is a translation of the IGT material (based on the Greek text edited by A. Vinogradov, “Die zweite Rezension der Actorum Andreae et Matthiae apud Anthropophagos [BHG 110B]”, Christianskij Vostok, 3, 2001, p. 11-105 with some emendations by J-. D. Kaestli.):

And behold, he happily taught the alphabet with joy. And hearing him, the teacher….his hand was withered up to where it touched his fringe, and suddenly he was healed. And filled up with strength again, he dug by a word and commanded the flowing water to divide into twelve streams. And he formed birds of clay on the Sabbath day. And the priests, seeing and being angry, wished to destroy them. But, clapping his hands, he said: “O melodious birds, behold, in the presence of the priests I say to you: become flesh, receive form, become animated, become winged and fly to the entire world. Do not fear the archer, be careful of traps and tortuous snares, fly not toward the ground. And take care of your young in heaven above. And at once the announced deed became a thing manifest for, singing sweet music through the voice, the birds went away crying: “O holy child of a heavenly father and earthly mother… And grace has shone on us, Christ. And we have returned to you again so that you may know that we believe in your father.” And he said to the priests: “You are despising, and are like the clay that was formed by the hand of the craftsman in the form of the birds, which now also have been given form. And you, oh priests, who until now were without form regarding life, through the water, you have been made known to God and are fleeing from the threat of the Law and receiving the grace of life.

And the child Jesus, playing, went upon a roof with his children friends. And one of the children fell and died at once. And when his father and also his mother raised a clamour because of the one who was dead, and when everyone fled, the boy Jesus remained alone. And placing his hand on the one who was dead, he said: “Did I kill you?” And the boy, rising as if from sleep, looked up and saw Jesus and said: “No Lord, but you raised me from the dead.” And then the parents of the one who was raised ran to the temple and reported all that Jesus had done to the high priests of the Law. And they said: “truly this is the messiah, the one born of Mary the holy virgin, and truly she is a virgin still.” And again they (the high priests) said: “Beelzebul, ruler of the demons, he does these things. For who has heard that a virgin has given birth?” And the parents of the boy who was raised were saying to the priests: “Why do you, who read the Law, not recognize Jesus the Messiah in the Law?” The high priests said to them: “Babouberbeth, who is called Accursed, are you teaching us?” And they ordered them to be banished from the synagogue. But they laughed. Then the high priests said: “Why did you laugh?” And they said: “We did not laugh (at ourselves), rather we laughed at you, because from now on we have forsaken you for, having gone away, we will follow Jesus. For if our son Zeno was raised from the dead, he is able to raise us after death also.” And at once they left the temple and came to where Jesus was.

And the high priests called for Joseph, the father of Jesus, and said to him in Hebrew: “Nathazareth and Boum.” And they said: “The god of your fathers, in fear give him praise. Is the child Jesus your son?” Joseph said: “If he is my son, I do not know, for the virgin Mary, who you had given to me from the house of the Lord to protect her, gave birth to him and she is a virgin still.” The high priests said: “No small wonder, that having brought forth she is still a virgin.” And they said to him: “Call Mary, your wife, so that we may see if, after giving birth to the boy Jesus, she is still a virgin.” Joseph said: “I said to you that I took her from the holy house after she conceived from the Holy Spirit there in the temple of God with the virgins spinning the purple and red and the gold embroidery into the curtain for the glory of the Lord. But I am alone in my house, and the child Jesus.” They said to him: “How old is the child Jesus?” He said to them: “Why do you accuse me so, in contentiousness? For the child Jesus is three years old. And he speaks from the beginning so that often also I see him greater, above my height. And also frequently he watches over and considers and prays and does wonderful things, such as the prophets did not do, nor Moses, no Elijah. And he says God is his own father.”

And the high priests said: “Dachodoreth, Samouth, who is called Excellent, Joseph…[Joseph said:] “Why do you accuse me so and talk idly so much? Listen, because Zeno was raised from the dead and two birds molded from clay; animating them and giving them wings, he sent them out to the whole world. He is to me a support and all my nourishment is from him; for when I do not have wood, he commands and a great amount appears. And when I began an evening’s work, he came at night and he observed, and in the morning it was finished. And when it was time for a meal and having nothing to eat, he came to the table and immediately the table became full of bread and good things of all sorts. And drawing water from the well, he offered it to drink and it was found to be fine wine. And as I was eating, he came out from my house and he calls to the neighbours from the street and the poor and those he found to be lame, blind, half-withered, crippled, and thrown on the dungheap and said to them: ‘Rise in full health and come into the house of my father Joseph and eat the bread and drink the wine to filling.’ On the whole, his word is a true deed. And he has a great crowd of disciples. And the Sabbath, he says, was made for man. And he said to the teacher: ‘Why do you strike (me) for not breaking the Sabbath?’ And in striking him, he whipped him and immediately his right hand withered. And running he fell at his feet and it was healed. And everyone in the schoolroom worshipped him as God.”

And the high priests were amazed at what he said. And they said to him: “What can we give you to kill him during the night?” And he said to them: “How could I kill him? I said to you that he never sleeps but he watched and considers and prays, and a great crowd of angels respond: Alleluia.” And the high priests became silent and said to Joseph: “Go to your home and say nothing in arrogance to the child, do not be angry with us and kill us. Go home, Joseph, bless you. Bless also the child Jesus.”