On Metamethodology in Religious Studies: For John Morehead

On Metamethodology in Religious Studies: For John Morehead August 19, 2016

John, I very much appreciate your calm and well-informed response to my earlier blog entitled “The Gospels Are Inherently Anti-Semitic: Deal with It.”  That title is inflammatory, but accurate. The underlying social issue is what should be done, and by whom, about the problem.

You and I know and agree that the Greek hoi Iudaioi means and should be translated as “the Judeans.” Then it would refer merely to the citizens of a particular kingdom a long time ago. Who would care about them? But it wasn’t. It was and will continue to be translated in the KJV and the RSV, as “the Jews” and therefore seems to be referring to the entire Jewish people.  When ordinary people are read the words, “His blood be upon us and upon our children,” are they then told that, in that story, those words were spoken by only the Roman’s quislings?  Of course not, or, at least, only by relatively rare pastors. Hence those words, and Mark’s entirely fabricated Passion story, will continue to generate and reinforce the stereotype of Jews as “Christ killers,” the battle cry of the lynch mobs that carried out genocidal massacres of Jews down into modern times. Those words, that story, were the root source of the Nazi Holocaust.

You and I both know, of course, that such pogroms were rarely carried out by the Christian Church as such. Rather, it was the bishops who tried to protect the Jews from the mobs. (Not discounting the fact that the church did carry out genocide against the Cathars.)  In modern times, when the Nazis took over Italy after the fall of Mussolini, Pius XII hid the Jews of Rome and Italy within the folds of the church. The World Jewish Congress credited him with having personally saved the lives of about half a million Jews. That was genuine Christianity.

Now, moving toward the methodological considerations. Please forgive me if I’m making any unjustified assumptions about you, since I know and respect your sincere and deeply committed Evangelical faith. I also like that you are a very well-informed scholar in religious studies—a rare combination in my experience. But in your argument you seem to assume that the Gospels are essentially true, except where scholarship has demonstrated that particular details must be reinterpreted, adjusted, nuanced, or quietly ignored. I certainly understand why you take such a stance, and I profoundly respect that. But I don’t. Why? To explain that, I need to discuss my own version of faith, as anyone must who is trying to be honest about religion.

I was raised Catholic and took the church’s teachings so seriously that by age fourteen I was (looking back) suicidal. Fortunately, “having had a spiritual awakening as a result of” what I parsimoniously must interpret as an intervention, I was relieved of all obligation to simply believe in the truth of those (or any other) teachings. Instead, I was given marching orders (or a moral obligation) to investigate the truth of all things, especially of all things religious, for myself, never settling for anyone’s mere opinion. I have never since then been able to believe that I have found a final truth. No, there is no end to truth. There will never be an ultimate Theory of Everything. The philosophy of scientific method depends on knowing that even the most profoundly established theories will someday turn out to be inadequate.

Now, about the Gospels. I am under no obligation to believe that they are at all factually true. However, I am obligated to not merely believe that they are factually false, or that they are absolutely true or absolutely false—and let me note that their moral truth or validity is a completely different issue.) Instead, I have had to investigate to what extent they might be factually true. I began serious investigation by reworking through the Synoptic Problem, starting in 1972, then by investigating, in my doctoral program at the GTU, how Christianity as a distinct religious community had actually started. By 1976 I had concluded that the only parsimonious answer is that Jesus’s followers sincerely believed that they had seen him again after the Romans had murdered him. If you believe that they had in fact seen him, then you are a Christian; otherwise, not. As Paul said, “If Christ be not raised, our faith is in vain.”

You do argue that I should depend more on mainstream NT studies scholarship, and less on the work of a fringe liberal like Robert M. Price. But what I like most about Price is that he, like me, is dedicated to pursuing truth wherever it might lead. He too cannot settle for the comfort of becoming a True Believer, and his profound discomfort over that restriction is evident in many of his essays.

I have read some of the authors you mention. My major problem with such “mainstream” scholarship is that I can rarely find a book that is not fundamentally apologetic. That is, almost all such books assume that one must consider the Gospels to be innocent until proven guilty, that is, true until proven false, thus placing the burden of proof on the one who questions their truth. I reject that burden. Assuming the Gospels to be true, and fighting against any contrary evidence, is exactly the “wishful thinking” that inspired Bacon (and the Muslim scholar he got the concept from) to invent the scientific method. Statements of value in the Gospels are inherently nonfalsifiable hypotheses, of course, and thus cannot be investigated by the scientific method, whereas statements of facts, or presented as facts, can be.  If the preponderance of the evidence is that a statement is probably false, then it is probably false. The preponderance of the evidence is that Mark constructed his Gospel the way we would now construct a historical novel.

You also question the accuracy of my metaphor about the liberal scholars beating back the orthodox with a wand of reason. No, “it’s not that simple”—one of my favorite mantras. But consider the overall progress. Before the Enlightenment, virtually everyone believed that the Gospels were eyewitness accounts written by the ancient equivalent of investigative reporters (and the very few who did not believe that wisely kept their mouths shut). A good part of Mark’s literary genius is that his Gospel does read as if it were objective reporting.  Even in the early nineteenth century, college professors who questioned that orthodox belief got fired. But now, even Evangelical scholars, as far as I know, accept that the Gospels were written between forty to seventy years after Jesus’ lifetime, out of oral traditions that had evolved and mutated, partly by Rumor Effect. A great leap in progress was made by Willi Marxsen’s demonstration that the evangelists were not clerks copying from extant documents, but were conscientious authors taking full moral responsibility for the truth of what they were writing.

You and I share a common question: we look at the portraits in the Gospels and wonder, “What was he really like?” My own pursuit of the “historical Jesus” has led me to reject C.S. Lewis’s dichotomy that Jesus was either literally the son of God or a madman. I would rather rescue him as one of the great Tannaim, as he would have been remembered if his friends had not begun creating other beliefs about him. He makes great, parsimonious sense as a Rabbi who had had what the Gnostics called an Awakening (and who thus may have himself been the source of the Gnostic movement), who believed that he had become a True Prophet like Moses and that he had been endowed with full power and authority (that’s what the metaphor of “anointing” meant) to interpret the Law and the Prophets.  But he did so, as Hans Kueng demonstrated in To Be a Christian, as a Rabbi of the House of Hillel; his teachings were not entirely unprecedented and unique.

It would be useful to collect his actual teachings—as far as one can disentangle them and translate them correctly—from not only the Gospels, but also the Church Fathers, the Nag Hammadi documents, and even the Talmud (his saying in Gittin that “The son and the daughter must inherit equally” certainly should settle the question of whether he was egalitarian), and present them as something like a supplement to the Pirke Avot. (Even some of the sayings in Jn make sense as being from the viewpoint of a True Prophet.) I might get around to doing that. At the moment I am thinking about a novel covering the history of the Jewish people, using the evolution of the concept of the Shekina as the narrative thread.

My theology is thus fundamentally Jewish. Why? Because I had a Jewish grandfather. My mother grieved that she could not inherit Jewishness from him. She once said to me, “Jesus was Jewish. His mother was Jewish. All his friends were Jewish. For me, being Catholic is just another way of being Jewish. I don’t know from Protestants, but they’re not my problem.”  She meant literally that being Catholic was as close as she could get to being Jewish, which, she taught me, was something to be desired, to be proud of. I have always believed that, and have continued my mother’s struggle over it, gradually learning about Jewish culture, mostly from the red-diaper babies I have been privileged to know.

Recently, I was saying to my delightfully Jewish Dean, Tara Watson, as I’ve said to others, “I’ve always held off from just flatly calling myself Jewish, because I always feel that doing so might be claiming something precious that I’m actually not entitled to. But I suppose that’s a very Jewish attitude, isn’t it?”

She responded, “It certainly is!”

I have now arrived at a resolution, spurred by my wife’s discovery last December that she and therefore our kids are Jewish. (It was a family secret.) While working for Jeremy Tarcher in 1990, I met and had long conversations with Rabbi Sherwin Wine, the founder of Humanistic Judaism; I liked his concept of a Judaism focused on the reality of the Jewish people, not on belief in the traditional monotheism. Hence I knew that my agnostic Jewish Gnosticism would be acceptable there. So I have been communicating with the presiding Rabbi of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, Miriam Jeris. On the first, when my Social Security comes, I will pay my dues, pick a Hebrew name, and send a formal letter explaining my reasons for wanting to join (which we’ve already covered). She will then send me a certificate of Adoption/Conversion into Humanistic Judaism. Since I am sure her rabbinic credentials go back, by some path, to the Men of the Great Synagogue, if she says I’m Jewish, then I am Jewish, and no one else has any right to argue about it.

I was telling some students about this the other day, out smoking in the parking lot, and commented, “So I’ll be a card-carrying Jew.”

“What?” one asked. “Is there such a thing?”

“I doubt it,” I replied, “but I’ll suggest it to the Rabbi. Maybe wallet membership cards might be a good marketing tool.”








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