May 31, 2013

Jesus in the desert, with or without pesky Devil talk

Those who handle the Gospels most intelligently are too eager to dismiss their basic historical aspects, and those who handle the Gospels most reverently are completely unwilling to reconstruct historically upon it's "reliable" evidence. As for me, I no longer desire to handle the material uncritically, but I still fail to understand why "critical analysis" seems to require the associative dismissal of so many incidental fact claims. For example, in my work on Matt.2 I've said dismissing the Egypt sojourn doesn't mean Joseph didn't flee from Archelaus. Or perhaps Joseph dreamed "Galilee" and then blamed God for that dream. At any rate, we deserve more nuanced acceptance from our skeptics. And that leads us to this...

The closest I've found to a middle ground is the new memory scholars - recent work by Dale Allison, Chris Keith and Anthony LeDonne. In particular, Allison's 2009 book charts a brilliant course to trusting the spirit of an episode above and beyond the letter of the text which is telling the tale. Allison himself cannot, for example, accept as factual the fantastical accounts of Jesus and Satan actually having conversation in the desert. And yet, quite admirably, the gentleman does not let that judgment erase all historical value from the Gospel story. In his own words:
this legend is steeped in memories of Jesus. Was Jesus not a miracle worker, as our story presupposes? Did he not refuse to give authenticating signs, just as he does here? Did he not think of himself as leading a victorious battle against the forces of darkness, for which Matthew 4 and Luke 4 stand as fitting illustration? Did he not have great faith in God, a fact that the dialogue between Jesus and the devil presupposes and expounds? The temptation narrative may not be history as it really was, yet it is full of memory. My judgment is that, taken as a whole, its artistic originator has managed to leave us with a pretty fair impression of Jesus, even if the episode does not contain one word that Jesus spoke or narrate one thing that he did."
To my knowledge this was groundbreaking work in 2009, and I like it even more today than I did then. Furthermore, I must admit I have swelling respect and increasing sympathy for the reasons Dale gives for seeing the story as "haggadic fiction", a la the tradition of similar rabbinical writings. For more on this view, see Chapter 1, p.25, of The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus. But, I do have a "but".

Personally, I remain skeptical about our human powers of skepticism. I mean that sincerely and straightforwardly. In the same way I enjoy Allison's effort to find truth in this "fiction", I would seek to find more. As much as I applaud Allison's finding memory consistent in these general impressions, I wonder why the story chose to be so specific in the details. In short: If I consider the temptation conversation as a metaphor, must I also dismiss the time, place and details of its setting?

Apart from their incredible mysticism, the temptation narratives purport that Jesus celebrated his baptism with a period of self-denial and solitude. Indeed the details are heavily typological (40 days, desert wandering, temptation by hunger/idolatry) but instead of "prophecy historicized" it strikes me more realistically as "history scripturalized" (borrowing Mark Goodacre's turn of phrase, contra Dominic Crossan).

In other words, the most likely way to explain this story - with or without accepting the fantastical elements - is to suppose that Jesus really went into the desert after his encounter with John, that he likely wandered and fasted, that he likely battled hunger while wrestling with deeply personal concerns. Would people accept his intended message, and/or his special position, if he offered no signs to prove his authority? Would he be offered a measure of political power as a salve, or would he feel bitter through subtle desire for that ultimate earthly power, for that which his dynamic spearheading of "God's Kingdom" naturally suggested he should have full right to claim?

From another perspective, I must add that if this story were pure haggadahic fiction then we might have expected much more from the writer! I mean, there are certainly parallels, but it's hardly a full parallel of Israel's desert wanderings: Jesus' 40 days was for testing, but Israel's 40 years were punishment. Moreover, where is Sinai? Where is God's further instruction? Where are the commandments? Where is the Tabernacle or the daily provision? Is it a parallel that Israel received bread daily, when Jesus fasted? And - perhaps not least - where is Satan in Exodus? But again, none of this is to say the writer did not attempt parallel. This is merely to say "prophecy historicized" could have done much more with the material... which is why "history scripturalized" seems more convincing to me.

So what to conclude? Is there incidental history in the Jesus-wilderness narrative? We must grant that some things simply must remain indeterminable. At the end of the day, we are all free to believe or to disbelieve whether or not Jesus fought off temptations of Satan "in person", if at all. However, although that question may not require black or white answers - as I discussed imaginatively years ago - it is indeed the side question for me. At least, such considerations are far beside today's point.

Satan or no Satan, whether in person or as metaphor, whether present or merely imagined-in later... regardless... there is much about the story in Matt.4 & Luke 4 that bespeaks to a particular time in Jesus' personal development.

In addition to Dale Allison's wonderful observations - how significantly it reinforces our general knowledge about Jesus' received public identity - my own modest suggestion is that remembrance can be chronologically specific. In terms of memory, we might say the "legend" of Jesus' temptations grew up in the way that it did for reasons we cannot fully surmise, but that legend attracted to itself some specific details that happen to fit best into one particular time of Jesus' life. That's worth further consideration.

My overall point, as usual, is NOT the evangelically-popular "therefore we really can trust the Gospels"! No. Bleeecch. *shudder* Of course we can trust the Gospels. I mean... Or not.

The way I feel about evangelical positivism is the same way Dale Allison felt about the Jesus' Seminar voting black on Jesus' temptation narratives. This is not where we quit. This is where we begin.

My larger hope, as always, is that scholarship will someday include more four-dimensionally reconstructive work that is more particularly based on the Gospel material we do have... and perhaps that doing such work might soon be possible without quite so much apologizing to our various constituencies, with their shades of belief and/or skepticism.

Anon, then...

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