Tuesday, March 27, 2012

From the "They think we still care" file

In one of the more memorable scenes from the movie Major League, aging catcher Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger) walks in on a dinner party hosted by his ex-girlfriend and her fiance. Urged to stay despite the awkwardness of the situation, Jake introduces himself and says he is a player for the Indians. "In Cleveland?" asks one of the dinner guests. "I didn't know they still had a team."

I recall that scene every time I come across some stray piece of news about some entity that long ago ceased to have any relevance and was not particularly significant even in its heyday. Such an entity is the Jesus Seminar, a consortium of "biblical scholars" so obscure that those of us who, upon reading this article by Jeff Walton, have been duly notified of its continued existence had, first, to be reminded that it had ever existed at all. 

Yes, I do recall that marvelous little book, The Five Gospels, in which this esteemed collection of biblical brainiacs presented their scholarly "findings" based on the cutting edge research and hermeneutical methodologies of the late nineteenth century. That was two, maybe three, decades ago (the late twentieth century) and it provided ample fodder for late night conversations among insomniac seminary students at the time. Most of us, however, have long since forgotten about these luminaries of the literati. The real world of parish life is a far more edifying pursuit.

Unfortunately, so it seems, the Jesus Seminar is forgotten, but not gone. Their message today is as fresh as yesterday's mildew on the water-stained pages of a first edition printing of Schleiermacher's Reden über die Religion.

Early Christianity was an oral culture launched by an illiterate Jesus Christ, according to two liberal New Testament scholars who spoke recently at a Jesus Seminar event in Washington, D.C.

The claim was one of several bold assertions made during a recent March workshop in which the prevalence of Evangelical Christianity was bemoaned and scripture was “reimagined” from a feminist perspective. The Salem, Oregon-based Jesus Seminar dismisses scripture’s historicity and draws from sources outside of the Biblical canon in order to produce what they claim to be a more authentic view of Jesus than the church teaches.

Bernard Brandon Scott of Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Joanna Dewey, a professor emerita of Biblical Studies at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, argued that a later move into manuscripts minimalized the role of women in the early church.

“Early Christianity was an oral culture based on oral authority,” Dewey claimed, adding that manuscripts were “inherently male” and eliminated women, while oral story kept them in.

Reimagining Mark

During one session of her presentation, Dewey donned a head covering and dramatically sought to “re-imagine” a female-centered telling of Mark’s gospel, performing as an imaginary late first century woman.

“I think something like this could have happened,” Dewey proposed, titling her performance “the Gospel of Ruth.”

The Episcopal seminary professor described such a “reimagining” of Mark’s gospel as an important step in countering alleged sexist distortion of Biblical history. Women, Dewey argued, would be at center, rather than periphery, of any actual gospel events.

Scott agreed, asserting that “These days, unless you are a right-wing conservative, a feminist reading of the Bible is typical.”

An Illiterate Christ

Dewey was firm in her assertion that Jesus was illiterate. Refuting the Luke chapter 4 account of Christ reading in the synagogue as an invention of the gospel writer, Dewey claimed it was “because he couldn’t imagine Jesus as illiterate.”

The seminary professor claimed that a scroll of Isaiah would have been too expensive for the Nazareth synagogue, and the story manufactured. Dewey did not address Jesus writing on the ground in John chapter 8, or other examples of his literacy.

“Jesus did not know how to read and write, there was no reason to,” Dewey flatly declared, adding that while modern people take literacy for granted, “this was not true in antiquity.” Dewey offered that the only group among whom literacy was the norm at the time was the elite, with letters orally dictated and then performed before community.

Scott mostly agreed, stating that no more than 10 percent of the urban population was literate during the time period, and that only 2-3 percent of the rural population was literate. The two speakers differed on whether or not Jesus spoke Greek, with Dewey arguing it was less likely, while Scott countered his observation that lower classes quickly learned the language of dominant culture, and Jesus’ peers would have been no different.

Imperial Images

While Scott and Dewey agreed on Jesus’ alleged illiteracy, Scott argued that widely understood images pervaded early Christian society. Citing early images of Christ portrayed as Roman Centurion, Praetorian Guard and lastly in the clothing of an Emperor, his hand lifted in imperial gesture, Scott stated that early Christianity was juxtaposed with imperial image.

Pointing to a recurring image in some Roman tombs of a woman praying, Scott identified those tombs as Christian, and the woman as a pre-Constantinian Christian image paired with Christ as a shepherd youth. While this female praying form was not mentioned in writing, Scott asserted it was “all over artwork” and the images would later be displaced with Christ portrayed as an emperor.

Sweeping claims by Scott and Dewey, including an assertion that monastics rejected episcopal authority, went mostly unchallenged during the workshop at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill. Scott at one point suggested to the audience of 40 mostly elderly participants to “make up your own canon” of scripture.

“I would trade the book of Revelation for Hamlet any day,” Scott announced, adding that he would swap the Pastoral Epistles for any two Emily Dickinson poems. “We’d be way better off.”

The United Church of Christ layperson also categorized Revelation as the book of “a left-wing bomb thrower” violently reacting against the violence of Rome.

No Love Lost on Evangelicals

Both Scott and Dewey shared their dismay at the continued worldwide spread of Evangelical Christianity and the failure of liberal religious thought to gain widespread traction. Both of the Jesus Seminar speakers complained that the prevalence of evangelicalism led to assumptions that it is the only viewpoint of Christianity, resulting in either adherence to evangelical belief or a rejection of Christianity altogether.

Mainline Protestants also earned Dewey’s scorn, as the retired Episcopal seminary professor expressed frustration at “pressure still there to preach [Bible] stories as true.”

“We’re not just talking about Evangelicals – but liberal, east coast Episcopalians,” Dewey fumed. Scott agreed, sharing that he no longer revealed to fellow airplane passengers that he was a New Testament scholar out of frustration with preconceived notions he encountered.

“We have lost the public battle for what it [scripture] means, and that’s unfortunate,” appraised Scott, with Dewey adding that the church was going through a “profoundly anti-intellectual” period.

The über stupidity of these "scholars" is eclipsed only by their slavish adherence to a feminized pseudo-hermeneutic which makes the "colored bead" voting system of the Seminar's early years seem almost respectable. David Fischer eviscerates the arguments of Scott and Dewey with a few simple facts of history.

1) Christianity grew directly out of Judaism. Judaism was, indisputably, a “manuscript culture,” one that took great pains to pass down the revelation of God and its rabbinic interpretation in written form. That doesn’t mean there weren’t oral elements, of course (that’s where most if not all of the Talmud comes from), but that by Jesus’s day Judaism was based on the written word. So how could Jesus have been taken seriously as a teacher and preacher if He wasn’t familiar with the written tradition of His faith?

2) Given the extraordinary care that was taken to insure that the written tradition was properly maintained, why should we think that there was some kind of opposition between the two in the early church?

3) Why was writing “inherently male,” other than because it happens to fit the presuppositions and ideology of the academic?

His whole critique is well worth your time.