July 11, 2003
To die for, cont'd

(See part one of this post.)

Wright also continues with the same approach he's been taking all along, which in his case is to see Jesus as very much a product of his place and time. Unlike Borg, he does see Jesus' death as central to his mission, and calls upon the Jewish traditions of atonement as well as prophecies in Isaiah and the like. (Though I haven't read any other of the prophets, I can vouch for the presence of atoning death in Isaiah.)

One of Borg's objections to this idea is that, if Jesus' point on earth was to die, that seems to denigrate Jesus' healings, preachings, and other virtuous activities while he was alive. Was he doing all that "on the side"? Wright answers, plausibly, that this was all part of the same thing: the atonement of Israel, and by extension, the world.

Another point of disagreement between the two scholars relates to the accounts of Jesus' trial. Borg asks a question that I wondered myself when I read the Gospels: how could Jesus' followers have known what happened? They were not there, and the next time they saw J he was on the cross. Therefore, Borg concludes, the early church invented the stories.

Wright has an interesting counterargument. In premodern cultures, he says, it is much more difficult to keep a secret than in our society, because there is such an active gossip chain, or as locals call it, "bush telegraph." He gives an example from the modern era:

When the Ugandan Archbishop Janini Lawum was killed by Idi Amin's soldiers in 1977, his murder was the culmination of several swift nocturnal journeys, kangaroo courts hearings, and beatings. No one person was present for more than part of the sequence. Those who were involved had reason to tell nobody what they had done. Yet by the middle of the next day the entire story was told as a connected narrative on the streets of Kampala. The bush telegraph not only transmits snippets of information; it can put them together and make a coherent whole. It simply wil; not do to say that certain people weren't present so they didn't know. Ask any journalist.

Well, that may well have been the source of the Gospel narratives, but this journalist is not entirely trusting of such grapevine information. For one thing, it's based on eyewitness testimony, which as I already pointed out, sucks. For another thing, while there are instances of such back-fence gossip being true, maybe especially in premodern cultures, you just have to poke through Snopes to find plenty of cases where the truth didn't work out so well, especially if they banged around for decades among groups with different agendas.

Also, though Wright goes on to emphasize that the bush telegraph tends to be "conservative" and produce a uniform story that changes little over time, there were clearly some competing rumors afoot that the Gospel writers were trying to squelch. I'm not going to dig up the exact cites now, but at one point the writer refutes a rumor that Jesus talked to Elijah on the cross, and another knocks down a story that Jesus' body was stolen. It's impossible to tell how much of the narrative was disputed, but clearly some of it was. (There are also differences between the Gospel narratives themselves, of course.)

Wright wraps up with some musings about the spiritual meaning of the crucifixion, and what it achieved. Since I went into that ad nauseum six months ago and I don't think this adds anything, I won't go into it here.

My main quibble with Wright is the same as it's been: he's inferring a lot from historical context, without explaining why that would be the key to understandin Jesus. I griped about this to Telford by email recently and he answered thus:

It's a burden of proof thing. In the absence of contrary evidence, you would tend to assume that a figure is influenced by his or her
environment in basic ways; and the evidence for Jesus fitting basically
(but creatively and somewhat uneasily) into his Jewish world is pretty
substantial. Moreover, you would assume that in the absence of contrary
evidence, when the people in that culture use terms and images and
concepts that have basic meanings in that culture, those are the
meanings they intend to convey. To me, Borg comes across as working too
hard to cut away these relationships and connections. Wright is arguing
against Borg in a lot of these pages, saying, "There isn't any
compelling reason to cut him away like that; in fact, he and his
movement make more sense when you don't."

I certainly agree that there are features of Jesus' life that can be
described in generalized categories. Some of what Borg does here,
finding parallels between Jesus and figures from other cultures,
missionaries do all the time. But the point is to build a bridge,
establishing some surface understanding in order to go deeper into the
specific characteristics of Jesus. For instance, you could describe a
lot of my own personality by appealing to generalities: white, male,
middle-aged, married, conservative, Protestant, a prof, with kids and
an elite education. You would certainly 'know' more about me with these
labels than you would with no labels at all. Yet the more specific you
can get with those generalities, the more you can know. It also helps
to know that I'm from southern California, that my children are young,
that I am an evangelical, that I used to be a deejay in college. Finally,
you do best to develop and correct them by appealing to my own story,
personality, opinions, and so on. I see Wright doing all this better
than Borg is doing it.

The "burden of proof" is indeed the main issue here, and that's what's annoying about it. Borg and Wright have been passing it back and forth, challenging each other to prove their cases, rather than actually proving their own. It rather confirms my complaint that started off this whole thing: this seems like betting on a probability, rather than actually knowing anything, much less having faith in it. Saying, well, current evidence makes X seem most likely, so I'm going to assume X until proven otherwise, is a reasonable way to treat a scientific hypothesis. But scientific hypotheses change all the time.

Actually, this connects to something else I've been thinking since I wrote my last post. I've been pretty rough on Borg, as have the rest of the commenters on this other than Lynn, but it occurs to me we might all be missing the boat. Borg is, as Lynn noticed and I observed myself, very friendly to mysticism. I don't know enough about him to know if he's had much mystical experience himself, but I gather he's had something. If Borg actually had some kind of direct contact with God, why wouldn't he be trying to fit his historical research to what he already knows?

Let me extend Telford's metaphor about himself. Suppose I were trying to reconstruct his life. I know him, I know his personality, so whatever evidence I find I would see through that lens. It does not surprise me to learn that he was a deejay. It would surprise me if someone told me that he was a drug dealer, and I would treat that information with more suspicion.

Would I be a better source on Telford Work than someone who'd never met him, who lived in, say, Japan and was an expert on the society and culture of southern California at the turn of the millennium? I think I would be. Sure, there may well be things the expert would get right that I would get wrong, but given the choice, whom would you ask?

Telford is not mystical at all, and he places a pretty low value on it. (Kind of funny for a Pentecostal, but then Christian Assembly isn't all that Pentecostal.) He's an intellectual and a poli-sci major, so it's not surprising that Wright's historicism should appeal to him more than Borg's mysticism. But being more mystical myself, I'm not so sure.

This relates to a last point I wanted to get to (sorry this post is so huge!) in response to Rob, a commenter who's been repeatedly impressing on me that this whole thing is pointless, and this is not the way to faith. As you might have gathered from what I just said, I'm pretty sympathetic to that point of view. But I'm going to continue on, for two reasons.

One, this is clearly really important to Telford and I promised him I'd do it. This topic seems to have been important to Telford's faith journey, even if it wasn't to Rob's, so it seems like it's worth a look. More to the point, Telford has done so much for me that even if this functions as nothing but a gift to him, it would still be worth the effort.

But the second reason is that I feel like I have to do something. The trouble with mystical experience, and with faith generally, is that you can't will it to happen. The most I can do is make myself available to God through various activities, such as going to church, praying, volunteering for the poor, and studying. All those I've been doing, and as far as I can tell all I can do is keep trying stuff until the "hole" has something in it.

So I apologize to Rob if this topic is annoying you, but I'm going to have to go on annoying you for a little while longer.

Posted by Camassia at July 11, 2003 06:04 PM | TrackBack

I'm surely not annoyed. The mere presentation of the topic provides an opportunity to express ideas that the work-a-day world has no time for. I went through a historical Jesus phase myself, learned some interesting stuff, and came out the other side driven to search in the directions about which I've been writing. I can only thank you for listening and for providing the opportunity and the place to do so.

Posted by: Rob on July 11, 2003 07:24 PM

The concept that the mission of Jesus was ultimately to die for our sins, is in no way a denigration of his acts of mercy and charity. Our interpretive historians are looking for facts. The only sure things, as the old saying goes, are death and taxes. We are all going to die; not just Jesus. The mission of Jesus was two-fold: 1) to teach us how to live, and 2) to teach us how to die. By living according to the rule of love, we die in the flesh, but not in the spirit. The life of Jesus was to exemplify what we should strive for across the span of our own God-given lives. Life is opportunity.

Posted by: Rob on July 12, 2003 11:00 AM

Thanks, Rob, I appreciate your reading. Sorry if I misinterpreted/projected -- wouldn't be the first time.

Posted by: Camassia on July 12, 2003 12:58 PM

I completely understand. The misunderstanding was probably caused by my own choice of words. Coincidentally, this morning I read the last essay in James Woods's book, The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief. The essay, entitled, The Broken Estate: The Legacy of Ernest Renan and Matthew Arnold, is most pertinent to this string of thought. Woods was apparently brought up in a family that attended a charismatic church and is no longer a believer. The essay (and the whole collection) brings a lot of light to bear on the question of treating scripture as history and/or as literature, and I recommend it highly, despite not agreeing with many of the conclusions that Woods arrives at.

Posted by: Rob on July 12, 2003 02:55 PM
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