Monday, April 09, 2012

Passover/Easter Reflections

The other Jesus and Mo.
The rites of spring are come and gone again.

My family held two seders this year, the first with only the nuclear Tanners and the second involving a fuller Tanner clan. In both cases, we conducted the seder briskly to skip all flummery and to keep the kids entertained.

My dad's seder talks about the Exodus a bit more than mine. He presents the liberation of the Hebrew slaves as a basis for believing all people should have political and religious freedom. I focus more on self-advocacy and self-determination.

For the Easter part of the weekend, my wife and I hosted a meal with her family. First, however, I went to my wife's church to see my son and older daughter sing in the holiday choir. The kids were very cute, but the Easter service was insufferable. The music was so douchey, with the basic message that Jesus is Superman.

The sermon was also dreadful. The pastor asserted again and again that Jesus REALLY DID die on the cross. Really, he did. He died.

And how do we know he really really died?

Because the details of the Gospel of Mark are not what we would expect if the story was made-up, says the pastor. Here's the passage we covered together:
1 - When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.

2 - Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb

3 - and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”

4 -  But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away.

5 - As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.

6 -  “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.

7 - But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”

8 - Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
The pastor was trying to dispel the idea that Jesus perhaps fainted and didn't die. He was also arguing against the hypothesis that the corpse was moved.

I won't go into the specific points the pastor made, but I want to dwell for a moment on the idea that only Mark's accuracy is at issue here. In fact, we are dealing with reliability at many levels in the Marcian account, where a fuller reporting sequence is as follows:
The young man in the tomb

[time]

The three women

[time]

The first people they finally told

[time]

The people who heard the story from the first people

[time (decades?)]

The person or group who wrote down Mark into manuscript form
Add to this a muddied bed of Christian interpretation and re-interpretation, and you see my point: between whatever might actually have happened and us are layers of re-tellings, time, cultural and linguistic nuance, and beliefs based on a very different and more limited understanding of reality.

Therefore, whoever produced Mark was decades away and between two and five people-layers removed from the reported events. So, what is it that is REALLY, REALLY true in the story?

Clearly, we don't know what's true. Yet many of us remain comfortable with assigning high probability that of all life forms in the universe, this one human being reversed death.

Fortunately, my home was filled with turkey, vegetables, and milk chocolate to make everyone forget the amount to cognitive dissonance required to muddle through the Jewish and Christian rituals.

7 comments:

  1. It was a little tricky at times to navigate between faiths between my atheist seder, and my husband's theist one. Kudos to you guys for so enthusiastically navigating through even more theological ground! I really do love how holidays (and the associated meals) get everyone together!

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  2. Larry-

    What troubles me about this argument is not that there is no truth in it, but that you believe that it is objectively and demonstrably convincing unto itself. In other words, you think you've asserted something that, on its own, undermines the reliability of Mark's Gospel when all you've done is begged the question.

    What is far more important for your argument (i.e. what will actually make it an argument) is proving that: (1) Ancient oral tradition and transmission was generally unreliable, and (2) The oral tradition and transmission that aided in Mark's writing was unreliable. You've assumed these things.

    You like to go through books here. How 'bout you go through Bauckham's "Jesus and the Eyewitnesses"?

    -Billy Smoke

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  3. Billy,

    You might be troubled with my argument because you are assessing it incorrectly.

    The question--or at least, one question--is the unreliability or reliability of the Marcian account. The Pastor has read the account and decided, based on its content, that it really, really is true.

    I have disagreed that we can determine it is really, really true based on the content of the story. I am saying that the pastor has begged the question.

    The other aspect I have pointed to is that "Mark's" reliability depends also on how reliable the others are: the young man, the three women, the first hearers, and so on. All of these tale tellers have at least the potential to lie, to err, to omit, to embellish, to exaggerate, and so on.

    I fail to see how ancient oral tradition bears on our case, but I know quite a bit about orality from my academic work in Medieval textuality. Most oral traditions I am aware of allow for creativity in presentation and content of narratives. Granted, some elements of a particular narrative must be present and must happen in one way rather than another (a Beowulf, for instance, must fight a Grendel). Nevertheless, a teller may use his skill to weave the best, most impactful tale possible.

    I am not familiar with Bauckham. I'll add the book to my list, yet I have many to get to before I could even consider it. A quickie search turns up the following assessment of the book, which does not impress me:

    "In a brief review we must be content with asking, What is the upshot of Bauckham’s discussion? It is that the original Christian Gospels need to be taken far more seriously as sources of reliable historical testimony about the life of Jesus, his words and deeds, his disciples and demise, and the aftermath thereto. They were neither created nor passed along in the form that modern form critics (such as Rudolf Bultmann and Martin Dibelius) thought. We do not have in those Gospels “cleverly devised myths” or stories only loosely based on history, but rather eyewitness testimonies and traditions that in many cases the witnesses were prepared to die for, so profoundly did they believe them to be true.

    The Gospels were written by people who were indeed in touch with vivid eyewitness testimony about events that had been seared into their memory and had left indelible impressions. As it turns out, we may know more about the historical Jesus and his first followers than modern skeptics have suggested—far more, if Bauckham is right."

    If the review is any indication, the book is pretty much a scholar's case for the hallelujah, right? Sorry, well-written justifications of wish-thinking are not very interesting.

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  4. Larry-

    Thanks for the reply.

    "I have disagreed that we can determine it is really, really true based on the content of the story. I am saying that the pastor has begged the question."

    Fine, but you intentionally avoided going into details here and skipped straight to reliability of the eye-witness accounts based on their oral transmission. If you'd like to explain how the Pastor argued for Mark's historicity via the unexpected nature of the story, and how his argumentation was faulty, go for it.

    But it was you who concluded:

    "Therefore, whoever produced Mark was decades away and between two and five people-layers removed from the reported events."

    Again, this is not an untrue statement, but a non-argument unless you deal specifically with the details themselves. You dismiss them because, as you say, "Most oral traditions I am aware of allow for creativity in presentation and content of narratives." Who cares about what they allow for? The point is not that those in the account potentially lied, erred, omitted, embellished or exaggerated, but to discover whether or not they actually did these things. To claim potentiality in this area is not nearly enough evidence to make your case.

    "I fail to see how ancient oral tradition bears on our case, but I know quite a bit about orality from my academic work in Medieval textuality."

    Yes, first-century oral tradition and transmission and medieval oral tradition and transmission are the same thing. Yes, really. Really.

    "If the review is any indication, the book is pretty much a scholar's case for the hallelujah, right? Sorry, well-written justifications of wish-thinking are not very interesting."

    On some planet that's not self-referentially absurd/ironic.

    Thanks as always for letting me contribute.

    -Billy

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  5. Billy,

    Yes, I avoided the details on how the pastor argued for Mark's historicity. The pastor's approach was simply to read bits of Mark and say, "who would lie about that?" Mark 16:1-8, for instance, shows that the women believed that Jesus was really dead; otherwise, why anoint the body? For my purposes here, I intentionally avoided the details because I felt they were silly and thought readers might agree--therefore, their time and attention would be better focused elsewhere.

    You are kind of misunderstanding me and/or my approach. When you say "this is not an untrue statement, but a non-argument unless you deal specifically with the details themselves," then you are not getting what I want to do. What I want is to make true statements and then understand what arguments can and cannot made thereafter.

    Frankly, I have not dismissed Mark. But I want to think about:
    (a) Is Mark more likely reliable if we have several layers of transmission and time between the reported events and the earliest manuscripts?
    (b) Are there more likely to be several layers of transmission and time between the reported events and the earliest manuscripts if Mark is reliable?

    One of the ultimate points I make is fairly banal: we should not be s quick to accept that what Mark reports is really, really true. We have several considerations and approaches to work through before we ever get to a judgment on Mark's reliability.

    No doubt some of my posts--many if them, perhaps--appear to you as "justifications of wish-thinking." You might be correct: we all do this. But hopefully I offer some value when I talk about how I think certain facts and phenomena might be approached. I hope that often enough, I'm thinking about thinking. I humor myself by believing this is the real subject of the blog.

    You are welcome to contribute, but I'd appreciate it if you came at me with a counter-argument. For example, if you think that the chain of transmission I laid out is incorrect or unimportant, I'd like to hear that case.

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  6. Larry-

    Cool. Good responses.

    I suppose the counter-argument I’ve offered is not so much an argument, per se, as it was the pointing out the hole in yours. For the record, I would say that any misunderstanding on my part was owing (in part) to the sentiment I perceived behind your first post. This last contribution is far more generous and apprehensible than the first. (One got the impression from your first post that any person who thought Mark’s gospel historically reliable, despite the suspect transmission process, was stu - pid.) I’ll believe you that this was not your point, but only to (acidly) provoke discussion on reliability, not make pronouncements.

    With regard to your questions:

    “Is Mark more likely reliable if we have several layers of transmission and time between the reported events and the earliest manuscripts?”

    I suppose the only answer to this is no, but I hesitate saying that because I do think oral transmission was different (and better) in the ancient world. At the very least, it does not make it UNreliable.

    “Are there more likely to be several layers of transmission and time between the reported events and the earliest manuscripts if Mark is reliable?”

    This seems an unnecessary question, only because all history is burdened by this. And so to ask it of Mark is to ask it of Homer or the Civil War. Which is why it is so important that you followed up by saying, “we should not be so quick to accept that what Mark reports is really, really true. We have several considerations and approaches to work through before we ever get to a judgment on Mark's reliability.” Amen, and amen. If all we had to go on was this idea that there was a transmission sequence, then sure, Mark would suck. But we don’t. Much more goes into determining its historical veracity. But to keep on going here would require pages and time I don’t got.

    Do check out Bauckham at your convenience. Or take an hour and watch Peter Williams, a Biblical scholar (evangelical), talk about some of the evidence Bauckham has uncovered. http://youtu.be/Z5vrFAAhpss

    On “justifications of wish thinking,” the point is not to be so naïve to think that anyone, including me, deals with ideas objectively. I appreciate your purpose, to “think about thinking.” But everyone’s in the business of proving their point of view. And so it’s important that we read all sorts of points of view. Which is why I read you often, and happily.

    I don’t doubt that you read lots of things. But I do wonder if you take seriously the scholarship on the opposing side. I won’t say that all Christian scholarship is first-rate, or equal to the other side, but it is thoughtful enough, learned enough, to take seriously. And it sounds like in a “blended” family like yours, intellectual generosity and grace is imperative.

    Thanks again.

    -Billy

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  7. Billy,

    Thanks. I'm troubled by one statement you make: "I do wonder if you take seriously the scholarship on the opposing side."

    I can't decide whether you have a point or whether I don't really think about "sides." Certainly, I enjoy some scholars who clearly are believers, such as James Kugel and John Byron (blog: The Biblical World). James McGrath is good, too. I also think rather less highly of some atheist scholars and bloggers. I'm lukewarm, for instance, of John Loftus and Richard Carrier.

    I tend to scoff impatiently when I feel a scholar is not taking the problems of her/his stance seriously enough. Belief is highly problematic because it's just hard to reconcile many doctrines with history, science, and a just society. The texts often don't reconcile with themselves. But unbelief is very problematic, too. Its relation to ethics, the observed world, and human happiness is not clear-cut or satisfying in some considerations.

    I think the most interesting thing about religion and atheism--and I do find them interesting--is that each holds up despite the problems.

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Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.