Archive for June 2014

Jesus and Brian Conference (2) The Fetishizing of Apocalyptic   Leave a comment

 

The parable of the sower, Van Gogh

The parable of the sower, Van Gogh

 

Today, I will write the second and last part of my reflections on the Jesus and Brian conference. This one is longer and less fun, no falafel stories this time.

 

As I said earlier, I was intrigued to see Paula Fredriksen and Bart Ehrman in this conference as a scholarly context different to the public context which made the latter in particular a celebrity. I wanted to see how they will defend their view of the apocalyptic Jesus: will they treat every piece of evidence?

 

 

Fredriksen’s lecture was basically all about the apocalyptic Jesus who was misunderstood by Christians… Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, like those who were everywhere in Jerusalem, with woes and judgments just like the apocalyptic prophets scene (click here to view) in the Life of Brian movie.

 

The next day, it was Bart Ehrman’s lecture. Just like his debates with his old fellows who he calls “Fundamentalist protestants”, Ehrman gave his long speech about his story and struggle with the conservative church and followed it with a lengthy argument against the idea that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses. What came to my mind was: did Ehrman realise that he is standing before scholars, not the same public audience from Bible Belt cities? Why is he bringing all these things up?

 

In the middle of his apologetic speech he had to construct the apocalyptic Jesus. He repeated the same scene from the movie then my ears caught two important statements:

 

  1. THE majority of scholars today” think that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher.
  2. He meant by “apocalyptic” preaching the strict definition: the judgment against people followed by God’s coming which is associated with cosmic destruction.

 

The second statement was very important because the definition of apocalypticism is extremely problematic. Many use the term to describe any futuristic statement, some others follow Bultmann and define it as statements in the near future that affect the present existentially and others like Ehrman who limit themselves to the definition that features cosmic destruction. If you are aware of the debate and its associated publications you can imagine how huge an exaggeration the first statement is if this is how he understands apocalypticism.

 

I asked him the same question I addressed Paula with: what about the rest of the sayings and traditions that run against apocalypticism? He said that apocalypticism was a problem and that Christians gradually (on a trajectory) reduced it. So, Mark and Q were heavily apocalyptic then Luke and Matthew toned them down until John and the Gospel of Thomas completely de-apocalypticised them.

 

I cannot respond comprehensively to that image of the apocalyptic Jesus in a blog post. However, I want to make some major methodological comments on the points he raised:

 

1- one of the fatal approaches to the explanation of early Christianity is heaping all literature on a single trajectory. Its problem is that it is deceptive i.e. it will look as if it  is working… just like the logical fallacy of dividing by an unknown (x) in an equation: you will get a solution (hooray) but it is certainly a mistake because the unknown could equal zero and the entire logic of mathematics will collapse! It was F C Baur who pioneered the idea of setting Christianity over two trajectories: a Petrine and a Pauline, and the result was dismissing it by realising that the Christian spectrum is getting wider and wider according to the later papyriological discoveries. Baur is excused because he wrote in the mid of the 19th century, Ehrman is certainly not. I find that the oversimplification of Ehrman’s thoughts are beyond my comprehension and I do not think that anyone who studied the Gospels would agree even partially with the idea of a single trajectory.

 

2- Did Christianity gradually dispense with the allegedly original apocalyptic message of Jesus?  Here Ehrman raised two points: the apocalyptic message was embarrassing and therefore it was gradually replaced (by what?) and that could be seen in the de-apocalypticising of Mark and Q. Here’s my response:

 

In terms of relevance: What is really embarrassing or problematic for a community? To give promises in the future and leave them there or to tell them here’s the Kingdom of God here and now in this very terrible world? To tell them just wait , God still has more than that and will destroy Caesar at some point in the future or to tell them that they are already experiencing God’s reign (Basileia) !? I think the answer is clear: apocalypticism is much better than the awkward and challenging realised eschatology.

 

In terms of history: Apocalypticism was boosted by Caligula’s declaration to set his statue in the Temple (around 40 CE), the destruction of the Temple, which is always attached to apocalyptic sayings in the Gospels and the second revolt… Christian and Jewish (if the distinction is correct!) literature witnessed to the soaring apocalypticism; Syb.Or.5 constituted a clear apocalyptic shift from books 3 and 4 after the events… Philo’s Rewards and Punishments before it, the War scrolls, 1Enoch..etc.  On the Christian side, Ignatius expected the end of times in his generation, the Epistle of Barnabas provided a reading of a historical end in his time with the final war between the Son of God and “the Black One” , the book of Apocalypse … up until early second century the Jewish-Christian world was full of apocalypticism everywhere because it was the relevant hermeneutical reflection on the persecution and tyranny of Roman Emperors since Nero to Hadrian …

 

In terms of Gospels: I cannot show the redaction process of every unit (Kleinliteratur) in a blog (there are many standard references on that)  but let me talk about Q which Ehrman claimed to prove how Jesus’ message was apocalyptic.

 

Did Q contain an apocalyptic message? With Ehrman’s definition of the word, NO. Helmut Koester’s studies[1] with James Robinson on the Gattung of Q primarily as a wisdom book (Logoi Sophon)[2] made it legitimate to speak of a trajectory of wisdom-centralised Christianity which includes the Gospel of Thomas. Migaku Sato showed that out of nearly 45 sapiential sayings around 24 sayings are explicitly eschatological, 5 are eschatological even if not in their wording and 13 are not eschatological yet they are operating in the context and sphere of eschatological ethical instructions (mainly self examination of the disciples).[3] This analysis leads him to conclude that the sapiential material operates within the prophetic sphere provided by the eschatological character of Q.[4] The presence of the Kingdom of God was not only explicitly stated (ex. Q 11:20)[5] but  it was also described dynamically through natural processes as in the parables of the growth. Following C. H. Dodd,[6] Jeremeias describes the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven (Q 13:18-21) as an evidence of encountering a growing diving reality present in Jesus’ time that goes beyond the limits of the natural process (a mustard seed cannot grow to be a δενδρον, and the three measures of yeast no housewife could bake so vast a quantity of meal).[7]

 

While there is no specific definition of apocalypticism, there are some common features almost universally agreed on. Several scholars agreed on common features:[8]

 

1-      Cosmic disorder, due to human behaviour, which evokes predictions of serious cosmic dysfunctions and catastrophes.

 

2-      Humans are left without the resources for the recovery of their eroded structure.

 

3-      Historical determinism, which is expressed in the prophecies about the signs of the times.

 

4-      It brings exhortation and consolation as a social function.

 

There is no evidence of cosmic disorder, “the wrong king is not on the throne.” The world is not presented out of God’s control.

 

First, The parables explain the growth of the Kingdom of God by natural processes and the admonitions against fear and anxiety (Q 12:22b-31) emphasise God’s control.

 

Second, it  is not only the lack of any prophecies about the signs of the times but also repudiating the waiting for them by emphasising the unpredictability of the “day of the Son of Man” (Q 12:39-40, Q 12:42-46; 17:20-21). The only recognizable time is the present time of Jesus and the failure of recognizing it brings the impending judgment(Q 12:54-56).[9]

 

Third, comparing Q to early Christian apocalypses Mark 13, Matthew 24, Didache 16 and 2Thessalonians 2 show how the difference between them and Q is clear. “Unlike these apocalypses, there is nothing approaching a narrative presentation of the eschatological events. No clear sequential relationship among the various items is established nor is there any indication of the relation of the eschatological events to the reader’s own time.”[10] Kloppenborg correctly observes how Q 17:28-30 records an interest in Jewish history, not in the sinfulness of the generations of Noah and Lot nor the righteousness of the latter, but in an un-apocalyptic character of the events prior to the end.[11]

 

Fourth, the apologetic language against contemporaneous Jewish apocalypticism in which the signs of time are awaited is unmistakable in Q 17:20-21.[12] We are here encountering an anti-apocalyptic tradition, but not an anti-eschatological one.[13]

 

3- Where is this coming from then?

 

I think that this is the right question for the case of Ehrman in particular. I do not wish to talk about his personal matters even if he keeps evoking them almost in each and every lecture he gives because I consider this as a sort of Ad Hominem. Generally, it is about theological investment. A cynic Jesus (non-eschatological) as well as a strict apocalyptic one are equally reflecting special interests and worldviews of their owners.

 

Jesus’ challenge to realise God’s decisive act in history, whether the one believes it or not, is problematic and alternatives such as “another crazy apocalypticist” could be a solution for some people .

 

It has become a theological question rather than a historical one. At this point conservatives and their ex- fellows stand equally on the same level of fundamentalism which is enforcing an ideological agenda over history. In this case honesty in research ends, regardless of the religious affiliation of the researcher,  and cherry-picking, motivated by theological debates about God’s providence or miracles, starts. This turns the whole business into a subjective issue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Apocryphal and Canonical Gospels, The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 73, No. 1/2. ΓNΩMAI ΔIAΦOPOI. The Origin and Nature of Diversification in the History of Early Christianity. and most importantly his book Ancient Gospels passim.

 

[2] Trajectories

 

[3] Gospel behind Gospels p.139-158

 

[4] ibid. p.157-8

 

[5] εἰ δὲ ἐν δακτύλῳ Θεοῦ ἐγὼ ἐκβάλλω τὰ δαιμόνια, ἄρα ἔφθασεν ἐφ’ ὑμᾶς ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ Θεοῦ (But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then there has come upon you God’s reign)

 

[6] Cf. C H Dodd The Parables of the Kingdom, p.131f.

 

[7] Jeremias p. 147

 

[8] Kloppenborg Symbolic Eschatology p.294-5

 

[9] ·”«But he said to them:» When evening has come, you say: Good weather! For the sky is flame red.‚ ·55‚ ·And at dawn: Today «it’s» wintry! For the lowering sky is flame red.‚ ·56‚ ·The face of the sky you know to interpret, but the time you are not able to?” Cf.Jeremias Parables. p.122

 

[10] Kloppenborg Symbolic Eschatology p.301

 

[11] Symbolic eschatology p.302

 

[12] Q 17: 20-21«But on being asked when the kingdom of God is coming, he answered them and said: The kingdom of God is not coming visibly.»‚ ·21‚ ·«Nor will one say:» Look, here! or: «There! For, look, the kingdom of God is within you!»‚

 

[13] Crossan, The Birth of Christianity p.305

 

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Posted June 25, 2014 by Mina Monier in Uncategorized

Life of Brian  Conference (1) Falafel   Leave a comment

Q_Cleese+Brosnan

Q on Q

So, the Jesus and Brian conference concluded two days ago. It offered three days of first class lectures by top scholars featuring Martin Goodman (I’m a huge fan), Steve Mason, George Brooke and others. Scholars used the movie Life of Brian as a parameter to discuss many issues regarding the life of the Historical Jesus and First Century Judaea. The warm presence of the pythons Terry Jones and John Cleese was an absolute pleasure. As an Egyptian, I wasn’t interested as much as my British colleagues to see John Cleese. I barely recognised him as Q in a couple of James Bond 007 movies. Yet at the Life of Brian conference, I enjoyed his talk which was very genuine, thorough and striking in many points.

First of all I was impressed by Cleese’s knowledge of the New Testament scholarly concepts like the dating of the gospels and Q. It was funny to see “Q” talking about “Q” and even funnier to see how he picked up on this irony. Does this show us the problem with today’s media compared to the past? Cleese and other pythons said that they did not only read the Gospels and studies about them but they went as far as reading the Dead Sea Scrolls… something even NT students don’t really bother to do. Cleese did underline this issue by saying that New Testament scholars and theologians are doing an “extremely important”  important task and that media is not interested in them because of that very reason (the importance of their task). Media today, according to him, focuses on sex, celebrities and drugs … but not critical questions like eternal life.

People, according to him, enjoyed the Life of Brian and laughed at it because they had biblical literacy .. they could understand the joke behind “blessed be the Cheesemakers” because they knew what the beatitudes are. Today, it wouldn’t work.

His point regarding comedy and transcendent (or mystical) doctrines (or ideas) was striking. Cleese explained that the logic of making a comedy about something divine like Jesus or religion comes from the very fact that it is “mystical” i.e. it cannot be fully grasped. Cleese explained the problem of dogmatism in his simple words.

Most interesting to me is his view of Jesus: Cleese said that the authority of Jesus is not derived from the cross… It’s not because you nail something that it becomes divine or authoritative!  Of course these words had a strong impact on the ears of protestants in particular who hold the crucifixion at a central point more than anything else (unlike eastern theology which prioritises resurrection). However, the impact of Jesus stems from his teachings, as Cleese believes. Again, Cleese senses the tension between the Kerygma of Paul against the Christian Wisdom tradition, which could be fully seen in 1 Corinthians… something that had to be fixed later by the rise of Catholic Christianity.

These are not the words of a biblical scholar or an academic philosopher but a TV comedian who showed genuine and solid reflections about issues like culture, religion and secularism, more than many of those who wander around holding PhDs.

It is an wake up call for usacademics to engage seriously, wisely and most importantly honestly (something we will discuss when we come to Bart Ehrman) with a world that is always hungry for answers.

When we are ready to discuss and engage with contemporary language we will find an interested public. Yes, biblical literacy has shrunk, but not the interest in God and Jesus. Perhaps the Life of Brian was made decades ago but since then we have seen the figure of Jesus appearing in many comedy series and movies. Jesus appeared in Family Guy engaging with Peter Griffin’s family questions. He appeared in the religious neighbours of Bart Simpson, offering so many religious reflections that we have a book today called “the Gospel according to the Simpsons.” Most importantly he appeared in a prism scattered in the figures of Star Wars … we could see him in the Jedi and even Darth Vader’s sacrificial act at the end.

In a scene relevant to World Cup 2014, the comedy sitcom Badults showed Jesus in the famous controversial goal of Maradonna known as the “Hand of God incident.” It was interesting how it was Jesus who scored, not an old bearded man (God), at the same time Jesus appeared with dirty poor clothes… could it be more expressive of Chalcedonian Christology in which Jesus is God and the historical man?

Falafel

As an Egyptian as well, I wasn’t sure if an Israeli archaeologist would love to chat with me. However, I was struck with the charming character of Guy Stiebel with whom I had nearly an hour of discussion and chat after his brilliant lecture. Besides the fruitful discussion over the possibility of finding any archaeological evidence pointing to the Jews’ return to the area of the destroyed Temple to revive any cults by its remains shortly after 70 CE, we had a very important discussion over what could launch a war between our two countries. We agreed that claims over the ownership of Falafel invention could be a justifiable reason 🙂

interestingly we realised that while we (Cairo people) call it طعمية  Ta’meya (very delicious), unlike Alexandrians who call it Falafel, some Israelis also call it טָעִים מְאוֹד (te’em m’od) which also means so delicious. Etymologically, Ta’meya and Te’em have the same root. What came to my mind is this: it takes too much foolishness and stupidity to overcome the pleasant similarity between the Israelis and Arabs in order to keep this war and hatred blazing! How would a Palestinian and an Israeli hate each other if we managed to bring them to share one sandwich of Falafel? (sounds Eucharistic lol).

I remember a decade ago I had a Muslim friend who started to listen to radical preachers. One day we travelled together to Alexandria and I noticed that he avoided sharing with me food from one dish (bread, canapes or beans..etc.).  I insisted that we share one dish of Fool (فول – beans) with Tahini. We ate it all and then I asked him, “how are you feeling now? a little bit impure? possessed? something worse? after all you shared food with a Christian! (نصراني )” … I can assure you, me and my friend have been very close since then (and he stopped listening to radicals) … the act of love embodied in the shared food defeated all dogmatic barriers!

Anyway, academically speaking, I was intrigued to see Paula Fredriksen and Bart Ehrman in a different context: the context of scholarship. Particularly the latter who has become a celebrity. The reason for the intrigue is quite different to what many would expect: it has absolutely nothing to do with how Ehrman particularly tries to divide the world according to a ‘enlightened against the evil conservatives’ paradigm. I will leave that for the next  post which will be dedicated to responding to his reply to my question.

Posted June 24, 2014 by Mina Monier in Uncategorized

Joan E. Taylor on “Jesus and Brian” Event!   Leave a comment

Listen to Professor Joan Taylor (my supervisor) speaking about the upcoming event of Jesus & Brian conference, the biggest Historical Jesus event with top Second Temple and Biblical scholars from around the world.

Tickets are still available, join John Cleese  and Terry Jones, the famous British Pythons to this great and amusing event!

Posted June 9, 2014 by Mina Monier in Uncategorized