Working Miracles

black-jesus-sacredDid you catch Bart Ehrman’s interview about his new book on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” the other day?

No? Then have a listen.

While there’s lots here to consider if we want to entertain what a truly critical, historical study of religion might look like, what a critical approach to how we talk about the past would look like — one that avoids anachronism, as if we can read back present day identities into the dim past — and even what it means for a scholar to “go public” with his or her research, consider just this one response to Terry Gross‘s question, beginning at 3:41 of the interview; Ehrman replies:

Well, what I argue in the book is that during his lifetime, Jesus himself didn’t call himself God and didn’t consider himself God…

So, at least judging by book sales, we have here one of the most famous current scholars of the New Testament telling us what a textual figure about whom we know nothing other than what we learn in a small number of ancient writings by a variety of subsequent authors who, of course, all had their own agendas in creating their narratives, writings that are themselves copies of copies of copies, and so on, and so on, that, yes, are the results of subsequent editors and copyists with agendas of their own, and so on, and so on…, telling listeners what he thinks this figure actually thought and actually said about himself.

“Jesus saw himself as…”? Really?

Is this what the work of a historically nuanced, critical, i.e., non-theological, scholar of religion looks like? (Better question: Is this what it inevitably looks like when writing for a mass audience?) For although Ehrman aims to be a rigorous historian — something he stresses in the interview, such as when he tells Gross, a little later

… there are some questions that history can answer and other things that history cannot answer.

— telling us what you think a character we only know from texts actually said and really thought sounds an awful lot to me like something other than doing history. For, as I understand writing history, to do so requires a time traveling, mind-reading miracle — but he repeatedly rules miracles as out of bounds for an historian.

So, if it wasn’t a miracle, then just how did we move so quickly from what is nothing more or less than a discourse on the character (the Jesus sign, as Bill Arnal phrased it in what I take to be a far more rigorously histrorical work on the same topic) to an actual historical actor whose thoughts we can somehow know? How did we transcend time and space to get to answers to the old “What did Shakespeare mean…?” question so easily, in only the first minutes of an interview that’s over half and hour long? For I’d hate to speculate on what my grandfather really thought about this or that, let alone what my 21 year old self might have thought, much less a character diversely portrayed in a collection of ancient texts who, though profoundly important to many today, is — at least for the critical student of religion — still just a character in a collection of texts.

(By the way, was that the “right” picture of Jesus for this post?
Perhaps you see my point…?)

6 thoughts on “Working Miracles

  1. My short comment: Forget nuance, Russ, he’s selling books.
    My longer comment on my short comment: Ehrman’s assertion is old hat among biblical scholars. Namely, Jesus, based on the written evidence we have(!), probably did not refer to himself as son of God (leaving aside issues of the meaning of that phrase in Jewish and Greco-Roman contexts). But then, of course, the statement has to be dressed up in controversial garb for a popular audience, thus now we’re told what he is actually thinking etc. I’m more interested in what Jesus had on his morning bagel.

  2. Thanks for the comment.

    “… probably did not refer to himself as son of God.” And that’s the problem with Biblical scholarship of this sort (and much history writing, of course): it is locked in a typical origins quest in which it unproblematically posits a real ancient world behind what are, in the end, merely texts that happen to have made their way to some modern reader for a wide number of reasons, many of which are sheer happenstance, thereby putting readers in the position of doing all sorts of mental gymnastics to rationalize this or that reading of some ancient figure and what s/he had for breakfast. Wink.

  3. To what extent do you think this a problem for history more generally? Suppose we take a more recent historical figure, like George Washington, and want to talk about whether he understood himself in this or that way—a way upon which he is not recorded to have made any observation? As with the case of Jesus, all we have are textual sources written by others—sources that we use to reconstruct what he thought about himself (though ones that are perhaps more numerous and less likely to depend on each other). Would you say that American historians are equally at fault for not distinguishing a George-Washington-as-he really-was vs. a George-Washington-as-he-is-portrayed-in-textual-records? Do you think Bart’s move is less responsible than theirs simply because of the comparative paucity of independent ancient sources about Jesus? Or do you think the discipline of history in general is deficient because (despite what it says its doing) it constantly fools itself into thinking that it deals with things as they really are as opposed to things as they are reported to have been? In short, how much of your comment represents a critique of Bart specifically and how much a critique of the discipline of history generally? Your last comments suggest to me that you think that any historian should finally understand himself or herself as nothing more than a historian of signs. I am fine with that. But it means that all historians (and not just Bart) will be selling fewer books, at least to popular audiences.

  4. Historical skepticism, even of a radical sort, has its utility. But what we should not forget is that Jesus and or Christianity should not be limited to texts. We should perhaps then be talking about Christianity more as a historical social organization and movement rather than as a set of beliefs or texts.

    There was such a social movement in first century Palestine that could be called a Jesus movement. And as Ehrman has argued in other books, and as it is now widely accepted, the so-called New Testament is a product of that movement. Posed otherwise, the question might well be whether the memory of that early community squares with the constructions of later theologians. Think of the Arian heresy for example

    Such a movement, since its existence is recognizable quite early would have been made up of some people with immediate memories of Jesus of Nazareth. To be continued

  5. Continuation….doc

    Now that is not to say that the memory of the early community is somehow “true”, only that it does represent a certain kind of Datum with different sources than those of later theological commentary. The memory or perception of the members of the early Jesus movement were just as structured as those of later theological commentary. But it does then make sense to contrast that data and that theological construction or set of constructions with those of later days. It does make sense to contrasts what would have been a first century Palestinian construction of such a figure such as Jesus of Nazareth with those of the constructions of later theologians. But still, the point about the constructed nature of historical figures still carries a lot of weight.

    In this context then, I’m reminded of a joke that arises from the incident in which Jesus asked his disciples the following question: “whom do men say that I am?”

    The disciples in turn replied, “some say that you are the Son of Man.” “Others say that you are the eternal logos”. ” others say that you are the Thou of the I-Thou relationship.” “And they’re still others Lord who say that you are the ultimate reality, the ultimate ground of being.”

    Jesus remained silent for a while and then said “Huh?”

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