December 11, 2015

Jesus Research: Hermeneutics or Hypotheses?

At one point in the Syndicate Symposium for Jesus and the Chaos of History (which I am currently enjoying), in responding to a critique from Brent Driggers, (scroll through both here), the inimitable James Crossley engages the topic of reconstruction, and yet quickly reverts to the problem of authentication.
For Driggers we are effectively doing two different things (where Crossan is more reconstruction of the historical Jesus, I am more the earliest traditions). Here I would partly disagree with Driggers. On one level, this is obviously a fair assessment. Yet, on another, I do not think it is really that easy to do the kind of precise historical reconstruction of the figure of Jesus because we can only go back to the earliest perceptions. Thus, I would say that all we can realistically do is a reconstruction of the ideas present in the earliest tradition (with the qualification that such perceptions could, theoretically, have been present during the life of Jesus)...
The remainder of that paragraph drives the point home (rather heroically, I must add - although, James, please trust I make that remark with no satire intended!) by briefly surveying the work and impact of 2012's (earth shattering) Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity.

All well said. All good so far. And now we come to my takeaway.

Whether curiously or not, this passage began as Crossley's comparison of his own reconstructive work against Crossan's reconstructive work, and yet Crossley defends his comparison by recourse - not to methodology of hypothesizing based upon data - but by recourse to the perils of assessing historical data.

Regular readers should know I'm fond of discussing the relationship between these two factors -- the one being authenticity, a.k.a. historicity, the other being reconstruction, a.k.a. hypothesis -- but since returning from SBL last month I've been reflecting a lot about their relative importance NOT with regard to historiographical practice, BUT with regard to scholarly discussion within the guild of historical Jesus research. A question had begun weighing on me, first before and heavily during the H.J. session with Paul Foster, Jordan Ryan, and Brant Pitre. Given the fact that many H.J. scholars have long performed reconstruction, why has the scholarly debate fixated so predominantly upon historicity?

If this sounds like an old question, let me clarify. It's obvious why conservatives do this. "The liberal construction is obviously wrong because it doesn't line up with the Gospels. End of argument."

What I'm starting to wonder more recently is different. Why do so many non-evangelical, or "non-conservative" scholars so often do the same thing?

As of this week I am also (for the first time, at long last) currently working through Albert Schweitzer's The Quest of the Historical Jesus, and I keep wondering this question anew. Schweitzer had various problems with the 18th century's liberal lives of Jesus, but what stands out most among his critiques is stringent objections to insufficient judgment about historicity. What is accepted or not accepted sometimes seems to be - de facto - the only substantial consideration. Thither also came, evidently, Schweitzer's own search for (in Michael J. Thate's recent phrase) "a single hermeneutical key through which to read all the material in order to reconstruct a tidy profile". (H/T Rafael Rodriguez!)

What is this strange affinity for equating hermeneutics and hypothesizing? How we read the text is how we see the past? There is no putting together? No building? Is this strictly positivism? And last month, why did Jordan Ryan's vigorous review of Collingwood's 1950's admonition (against "scissors and paste" history, in favor of a "question and answer" approach) seem so startling, so foreign, so refreshing, so electric?

Now, it's unfair of me to go picking on James Crossley, who is valiant, noble, and handsome (or so I've been assured). He is also, quite sincerely, a gifted, talented, and insightful historian. To this injustice, therefore, I offer as my only defense that James is a very good sport! And, James, my only apology is that I've here only engaged with the meta-Chaos. Your Chaos well deserves further attention in its own right. Anon, to that. Anon. Anon.

But to wrap up today's post, let's return to the Symposium, where it seems to me Crossley's point (here at top) stands most convincingly with specific regard to the reconstruction of *ideas* and *material conditions*. In turn, perhaps Crossan​'s approach (or at least Driggers' view of it) is most justified with regard to the reconstruction of an individual's response to the ideas and conditions of his time. But perhaps this is largely to repeat what Driggers had originally offered:
So, whatever one makes of Crossan’s historical conclusions, we are really looking at two different questions, with Crossley assessing the ideologies of the earliest Palestinian traditions and Crossan reconstructing the mission and teachings of the historical Jesus
To that statement, I would editorially emmend "assessing". Crossley is not assessing ideologies. Properly speaking, he is assessing the texts of the Gospels, but the earliest traditions and their corresponding ideologies, Crossley is reconstructing. He's reconstructing very effectively. My concern at the moment is simply that James himself may not be quite sure where his own reading ends and his reconstructing begins. If so, then it may partly be that confusion which motivated his slip, in the blockquote at top, and not simply the expediency of dispatching Crossan via the easier method (which, let's be honest, is incredibly tempting to all of us, really).

I'll close with another quote, serendipitously from the very same Syndicate Symposium. In her response to Crossley's book, the illustrious scholar, historiographically proficient and methodologially erudite, Helen Bond offered up quite a mouthful, which I treat here as regarding all of this in general. I mean, it's really something, this paragraph. Although I'm not Pentecostal (and I don't suppose Helen is, either) I suspect she might well have prophesied, somewhere in here.
It has to be said, of course, that a critique of the “Great Men” view of history is nothing new, and it has been challenged in other disciplines. Crossley is right, however, to highlight its survival, even vitality, within contemporary Jesus scholarship. Although he doesn’t speculate much on why this might be, two reasons spring immediately to mind. The first is that most historical Jesus critics are not really “historians”; an analysis of the figure of Jesus is often a thinly veiled way to comment on theology, contemporary politics, or both. Second, although Jesus critics nowadays claim to treat Jesus in exactly the same way as figures such as Alexander the Great or Socrates, this is rarely the case. Jesus might have been an “ordinary” first-century Jew, but for many critics he wasn’t that ordinary (to adapt a favourite Crossley formulation). Holding on to a rather outdated way of doing history (whether consciously or not) is a useful sleight of hand for a critic who wants to claim rather more for Jesus and his legacy than strict evidence allows.
As for me, I continue to read, to ask questions, and to engage these, my most esteemed, and (thank God!) my most patient scholarly friends.

Dear readers, put together your own conclusions. Or better yet, educate me!

In professional Jesus studies, in actual practice, how often is there a difference between Hermeneutics and Hypotheses?

And more to the point, how often is that difference publicly recognized?


********** UPDATE (24 hours later) **********

In all sincerity, I continue trying to figure this out for myself. Where does reading end and reconstruction begin?

What is recontextualization? If recontextualization is the final stage in a process of reading, then it's hermeneutical. But if recontextualization is the beginning of constructing a new storyworld that best befits the (non-fiction) text, then it's hypothetical. But then again, to whatever extent that reconstruction (storyworld) is simply a "context for reading", then we're back to hermeneutics.

And yet, James Crossley, your work offers quite a bit more than simply a list of selections from texts, passages which you've deemed to be worthy of use. Your craft is well honed, and highly effective, but it's not strictly methodology, I don't think. There's something more than art but less than science in the way you discern patterns and put certain pieces together (but not others). It's not pure subjectivity. It's more than discernment. It's imagination, but it's highly structured. It's architecture, but critiques reduce it to accounting.

There is no uncontextualized reading, just as there are no uninterpreted facts, and there is no reconstruction that's not based on data. Calculus depends on statistics, but the reason we plot points is to examine the curve. So why does critique so often attack points, instead of the curve?

Is the answer staring me in the face? Is it simply that Scholar A's reconstruction relies on Scholar B's imagination, because B must follow A's argument and correctly put the data together, while Scholar A's data is more objectively available for critique?

Maybe it is just the expediency of attainable refutation, but I still think there's something deeper worth getting at in all of this. It's not just easier to dispute data. It's precisely that we cannot stop our brains from continuously re-blending data and interpretation back into one whole, again.

I see your data. I follow your arguments. And then a moment later I have trouble distinguishing where one began and one ended. Maybe this is why we slip so easily back and forth?

Perhaps that is all we do. But it's not all that we're doing...

Anon. ********** I was wrong. I'm not done. I have one last thought to play out in this thread. Then I'll quit. If we follow the metaphor of Calculus (plotting points and sketching curves), then the parallel to my question would be, How does Scholar B critique Scholar A's curve without critiquing Scholar A's points? And the only possible answer - keeping strictly within this particular metaphor - is that Scholar B can INTRODUCE ADDITIONAL POINTS. I think this is a self-critique of my own position, up to now.
If S.B. adds points of data, that would challenge S.A.'s sketch of the curve; e.g., "Your sketch shows development flattening out between H and K, but what if I rose and J fell again?" But from where should S.B. get such data? In Calculus, we can generate new data. In Jesus Research, there are no new pieces of data. The introduction of theories, hunches, conceptions, and plausible conjectures - while these can often be valid - are not typically the best ways for Scholar B to refute the presentation of Scholar A. That leaves data from the Gospels which has been previously rejected by Scholar A. And this, finally, may be where I conclusively answer my own question. Why do histories present reconstructions, while critiques focus on data? Because the most objective, valid, and available means of introducing new data is - as I just said - to salvage data previously rejected. Technically, this is a positive addition, but it plays straightforwardly as the critique of a negative. Thus, even when B grants A's positive assumptions, the second most available means of critiquing A's representation is to refute A's negative assumptions. This is particularly acute in examining the Gospels because (1) there is such limited data, and (2) there has been so much disagreement about it all.

Thus, it may be unavoidable. But a change in tone and awareness (at least!) is still needed. In Annette Merz' response to Foster, Ryan and Pitre (at the SBL session mentioned above), she discussed the rise of Mythycism in the U.K. and stressed the ethical responsibility of the Academy to combat this misinformation. At one point in her discussion, however, she mused a while about whether scholars' debates about historicity were also somewhat to blame. Mythycism, that is, can be considered as the extreme form of treating the Gospels as "fictions". To that end, and especially if this "reversion to data" is unavoidable in our critiques, we might at least do a better job of emphasizing HOW our disputes about data inclusion EFFECTS our constructions of past history. Not fiction. Not myth. History. And on that. At last. I will say good night... ------------------------------------------------------------------ Clarification: In case it hasn't been obvious enough, my entire post until this clarification was focused on critiques of histories, not on producing histories. This post was all about criticism, not historiography.

No comments:

Recent Posts
Recent Posts Widget