I’m moved to write this short piece by two disconnected and discordant events: one an advertisement, the other a death.
First the ad. I occasionally receive promotional stuff from the Center for Inquiry in Buffalo, New York. The Center was founded by Paul Kurtz, a long-term friend of mine, and until 2009 the chair of the CFI and its affiliate organizations. Recently I received news of a short course entitled ”The Real Origins of Christianity,” ($60, including t-shirt) to be taught by a librarian who blogs and self-publishes on New Testament studies, Richard Carrier, and an employee of CFI who specializes in American philosophy, John Shook. Apparently while walking through the markets of East Jerusalem, someone sold them a magic key.
I worked for a short time within the Center and for a longer time alongside it as Chair of its Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion (CSER).
While it lasted–for almost thirty years–CSER was a successful entrepot between professional, critical investigations into religion and biblical history and a general public that had understandably come to believe that religion was either what people did when the golf course was soggy (the benign version) or a variety of obnoxious television godhawkers in bad fitting suits, begging for money to pay their bills (the toxic version).
CSER sponsored a wide variety of conferences in its day, ranging from a groundbreaking one at the University of Michigan in 1984 (Jesus in History and Myth) which can fairly be said to have spurred a new generation of interest in the non-confessional study of the historical Jesus-question, to a 2004 conference at Cornell (Just War and Jihad), focusing on the sources of violence in Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Its last academic conference was at the University of California at Davis in 2007, an investigation into the methods used by biblical and koranic scholars in analysing the origins of their sacred writings and traditions.
During its heyday, CSER attracted some very significant voices: Morton Smith of Columbia, the controversial “discoverer” of the Secret Gospel of Mark; Van Harvey of Stanford, America’s leading historian of religion; David Noel Freedman of UC San Diego, editor of the Anchor Bible; James Robinson of Claremont, the compiler of the first English translation of the Gnostic gospels.. In addition to its stalwarts and recidivist contributors, it attracted a wide variety of younger scholars and international supporters as well and was growing rapidly in outreach and prestige when CFI, without Kurtz at the helm, decided to suspend it as a cost-cutting measure.
At its last significant meeting in Davis, California, the aged and the young sages had multiple chances to interact–sometimes, as in a particularly lively and dramatic exchange between James Robinson and Arthur Droge of Toronto–to risk correction and possible embarrassment. Nothing is more energizing than watching lions defend their legacies while challengers try to gain ground. It is a spectacle that few of the “laity” ever get to witness: scholarship in action. Smart people correcting each other, egos exposed to the elements.
And let me stop at that word. Scholarship is fundamentally about correction, not the display of extreme or private theories in public. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, it has been a “dialectic”– ideas getting tangled up with other ideas. It is surgery, not sculpture, scalpels not chisels. It requires knowing what to throw away and what to replace it with, and whether the new is any better than the old. The word publication defines its purpose in its root: work designed for public scrutiny.
Without dialectic, which operates on the foundation of suspicion and skepticism, just as in the sciences, religious studies and biblical scholarship would still be a mere translation of texts assumed to be inviolable. Much of an older generation of biblical scholarship was just that: translation (often good translation), theological paraphrase, and noble efforts at establishing dates and points of origin based on (often spurious) reports and traditions.
Yet the danger of evading the dialectic is not just a “conservative” problem. At another and equally dangerous extreme, private, non-dialectical theories might hold that eccentric views are inviolable because the opinions of experts only exist to be demolished–a kind of textual iconoclasm that thinks it can bypass “traditional” methods of investigation completely, even if it doesn’t fully comprehend them. To trivialize this view ever so slightly, it is one often held by self-trained amateurs who think the greatest service they can perform for scholarship is to line all existing theories up against a wall and shoot them (and their perpetrators, if still alive) dead. Theoretically, this greatly accelerates the forward march of new opinion.
This is a fancy way of saying that the real origins of Christianity is not the subject for a monologue, certainly not one by amateur dialectic-avoiders. It’s a subject for argument and interpretation. It is closer to being a dog fight–of a genteel kind–than a dog show.
At the risk of offending amateurs and enthusiasts everywhere, biblical scholarship is not for amateurs and enthusiasts. Is is arduous and often dull work. It means learning Greek and Coptic and Hebrew and Aramaic not just well but very well, and Latin just for fun. It means knowing how books were produced in the ancient world, what literary genres were available. –What scribes ate for breakfast that might have spilled onto their paper and what copyists (editors) were thinking that might have caused them to scratch something out.
If you were not taught this in graduate school, then you were not taught properly–or at all. It is not the da Vinci Code. It is not normally fraught with exciting new discoveries or ingenious hoaxes, and when it is–as in the case of the Qumran (Dead Sea) scrolls or Nag Hammadi (Gnostic) documents, the discovery soon turns to the drudgery of translation and piecing cultural puzzles together. In putting that puzzle together, it helps to have in your head an image of what the picture, in its totality, might plausibly look like. That is where the drudgery pays off.
It is primarily a story of watching extravagant claims about “startling new information” fade into the reality of prosaic results. The (shameful) fifty years that elapsed between the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls and their complete publication was a bitter period for scholars who were interested in “putting it out there”; the thirty years that intervened between the discovery and translation of a version of the Nag Hammadi material was a little better. True, even reputable scholars have made preposterous claims before, during, and since the process of translation and editing.
But if your interest in New Testament studies (or if any of the conspiracy- or fabrication- theories you now hold) is based on any of this work, my earnest advice to you is: Don’t quit your day job. If you think that such work is best fueled by two-hour debates on the resurrection of Jesus with fundamentalist know-nothings rather than subjecting your ideas to peer review and criticism, think again about pursuing it as a vocation. (Twenty eight years after the publication of my “controversial” study of Marcion and the New Testament, I am still patiently defending my suppositions).
Having learned and taught the subject for more than thirty years, I can honestly say, I have no idea how Christianity began. Having also read, however, most of the theories put forward by mythtics and Jesus-skeptics, I can also say, in a friendly kind of way: you’re not close to an answer.
Which brings me to the death. I learned yesterday of the death of C. K. Barrett, who is described in his obituary, written as it happens by one of my PhD examiners, this way:
“Charles Kingsley Barrett, who has died aged 94, stood alongside CH Dodd as the greatest British New Testament scholar of the 20th century. Barrett regarded commentary on the texts as the primary task of the biblical scholar, and his meticulous commentaries have provided solid foundations for students and clergy for more than 50 years. He was a Methodist minister for nearly 70 years and, during his time as lecturer and professor of divinity at Durham University (1945-82), and in retirement there, he preached most Sundays in the city or a nearby village. His opposition to the scheme for Anglican-Methodist reunion in the 1960s brought him into contact with a wider public as a church leader, as well as a renowned teacher.”
Barrett was ancient, or considered so, even when I was a graduate student, and what Robert Morgan calls “meticulous” in his article many of us would have called unacceptably conservative. In his time, he was considered anti-Semitic by some and stubbornly refused to revise some of his commentaries that seemed to duplicate some of the worst instincts of German theologians and scholars.
Yet in other ways, he was fair-minded and most of us had devised ways to read around his incipient Calvinism for the jewels of insight that were embedded in books like The New Testament Background: Selected Documents (1956) and The Gospel of John and Judaism (published in German in 1970, and English in 1975). As Morgan notes, “The learned and judicious historian of Christian origins did not in his writing and lecturing allow more than glimpses of the fire in his belly.”
A year after the appearance of Marcion, and eager to have his opinion, he wrote– in response to me–a single cordial sentence: ”Very experimental, very tentative of course. We shall have to see.” Because his judgment mattered, it was a more important comment than “Good job” or “I might disagree with your premise if only I could find it.” I was especially hopeful for Barrett’s verdict because of a traditional opinion that Marcion, who, I had come to believe, is actually the author of the first written gospel, was anti-Jewish, a view I tried hard to disassemble.
Yet there it is: “Charles Kingsley Barrett, who has died aged 94, stood alongside CH Dodd as the greatest British New Testament scholar of the 20th century…” A man who did not know the Real Origins of Christianity though he knew practically everything about it. And worse, a man with no listing in Wikipedia.