Baker Academic

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Historical Jesus and Wikipedia Part I - Le Donne

Wikipedia is low-hanging fruit.  If there is some basic detail that you've forgotten, it is just a quick google search away.  The judicious scholar uses the Stanford Encyclopedia of PhilosophyThe Catholic EncyclopediaThe Jewish Encyclopedia, etc, but there are times when that low-hanging fruit tempts us.  For example, I know that Spinoza was born in 1630-something, but what is the exact date?  It takes me four clicks and two fields to get to this information with the preferred resources... or I can be one click away from the answer with Wikipedia.   This is altogether shaming because, when one knows a subject well, it is quite common to find Wikipedia lacking (yeah, big surprise, I know).

A few days ago it occurred to me that I had never examined the "Historical Jesus" entry for Wikipedia.  I imagine that millions of interested searches have landed on that page.  I also imagine that most of these searchers took the low-hanging fruit on offer.  I was curious what I would find.  In many cases, the information represented is typical.  But not always and I thought it might be an interesting project to work through the content and point out strengths, deficiencies, and statements that I simply disagree with or would rather word differently.  I suppose that I'll try to take it a paragraph at a time and do something on this weekly.  It is also entirely possible that I will forget that I was ever interested in this.

Paragraph one:

The term historical Jesus refers to scholarly reconstructions of portraits of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. These reconstructions, which are distinct from the question of the existence of Jesus, are based on historical methods including critical analysis of gospel texts as the primary source for his biography, along with consideration of the historical and cultural context in which he lived.
I have no real problems with the first sentence. The term "historical Jesus" is misused by students and scholars alike.  It does not mean "Jesus, the man, as he was".  "The historical Jesus" is a scholarly construct; it is the Jesus that historians reconstruct.  If you want to talk about "Jesus, the man, as he was", just say "Jesus" and leave it at that.  So my first point of critique is to say that Wikipedia is helpfully correct here.

The second sentence is a nightmare.  Where to begin?  I do my best not to correct grammar - I know that I have my own problems - but how about working in a period every now and then?  "...which are distinct from the question of the existence of Jesus..."?  Does anyone have any clue what this is trying to convey?  Is this a way to distinguish the man from the reconstructions of the man?  Or is it a veiled nod to the conspiracy theorists?  Are historians not interested in Jesus' existence? 

Also, doesn't it go without saying that historians are interested in "historical and cultural" contexts?  This second sentence isn't misleading as much as it is ugly.  God Father, Part III-ugly; Reh Dogg "Why Must I Cry"-ugly.

Okay, more to come - I have a big problem with this whole "Quests" paradigm.  But do you (pl) have any thoughts so far?

-anthony

Part II is here.

15 comments:

  1. If only it were possible to somehow edit this Wikipedia article...

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    1. Sarcasm and wit. I don't know you, but I like you already.

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    2. That would be just too good to be true.

      -anthony

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  2. I've always thought that it would be a neat course assignment (perhaps for some extra credit?) to tell students--having completed a research paper--to edit a Wikipedia page related to their topic and make a meaningful contribution. What a wonderful world this could be.

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  3. The second sentence looks like some kind of effort to incorporate YOUR position, as some might see it: that in effect, to say something is "Historical" does not necessarily say that we are dealing with an actual physical individual; but rather means that we are regarding what is widely taken to be one.

    I wouldn't worry or object much; looks like at least some version of your idea has gained some ascendency. And is now in Wikipedia. Though you might object to some of it, overall you should be flattered. Though to be sure, you might want to technically disavow any firm attachment to the full details or this particular variation - as you just have.

    But overall? You should be flattered after all. Your idea - albeit with some variations - is having some effect.

    - Brett

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    1. I'm certain that I did not come up with the position. I have no ownership of this idea; it is standard fare in HJR (though some seem to ignore it).

      And I'm still not sure that this is even an attempt to distinguish history from actuality. There would have been a more direct way of saying this.

      -anthony

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    2. Well, in my own dissertation decades ago, I took up phenomenology and poststructuralism; (VERY) roughly the assertion that we can't really know "real reality," behind how it appears to us. But I disagreed with some of poststructuralism etc., even decades ago. And there have been some pretty good criticisms of it, in the last 40 years.

      I guess even a modern, postmodern phenomenologal Analytic Philosopher, would suggest that there is still a sigificant difference between 1) our own perception, that some given sensation we have is "subjective" (like our sudden feeling of fear at seeing a scary clown), vs. 2) and our still-to-a-degree subjective perception that that pickup truck out in my yard is "objective"ly, or less subjectively real. Perhaps one would not say that one is MUCH more real than the other. Yet there is at the least a PERCEIVED difference. And perhaps an ACTUAL one; if you accept the post-poststructuralist critiques.

      - Brett

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    3. Background:

      Much of Philosophy (Poststructural especially), suggested that we are so enveloped in our minds and subjectivities, our own human limitations, that we cannot ever know "objective" reality. Even our most "objective" truth, is merely our own, all too human, perception of it. In that sense, we should not presume even to speak of or about, a firm objective "reality" or "history" outside and beyond ourselves.

      In the case of the study of History, that results in what sounds a lot like your position on this blog. Or perhaps, all this goes one step further: we do not presume to say what the "real" events were; but only what we currently perceive to be real.

      This is a common idea in many circles. But perhaps it is new and useful for theology /religious study. In this case, it means we mentally put brackets or quotes around any current idea we might propose, of "the real" or the "historical" Jesus.

      Some people are comfortable with this ultimate modesty and hesitation, regarding even our firmest ideas or constructs. Others are not.

      To me it seems that you two, the authors of this blog, flirt with this position; but do not want to fully or explicitly or unequivocally embrace it.

      And indeed,for that matter, many in theology have suggested that there are reasons to try to have it all, to have it both ways: to 1) appear to some to be merely propose constructs; while 2) appearing to others to advance and support very firm, historical realities.

      In fact, theology is very good at this game of equivocation, and has played it a very long time. Though personally, after 2,000 years of this, I'm more than a little impatient with it. Traditional as it is.

      - Brettongarcia

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  4. I like your proposed self-advice about forgetting you were ever interested in this ...

    I have bigger problems with the first sentence than you do. I dislike the word "scholarly" -- it's too general (aren't theologians scholars?) and too vague (are we saying that one needs a PhD to write about the historical Jesus, or are we using the word "scholarly" to exclude devotional or apologetic studies?). Then there's the word "reconstruction", which implies an earlier "construction", one that's not itself a description of the historical Jesus but that can be reassembled or renovated to ... do what, exactly? Be "scholarly"?

    I can't object to the word "portrait", as I use (overuse) it when I try to write on this topic. But I have problems with the text saying that these are portraits of "the life" of Jesus. What are we trying to exclude when we say "the life"? That historians cannot talk about the Logos, or the Resurrection? Wouldn't the first sentence read just as well if we struck "the life" and simply wrote "portraits of Jesus"?

    I don't have the courage to venture into the second sentence. I'll say only that I don't like your suggested edit. Yes, you're right, "historical Jesus" is defined in reference to what historians do. But to leave it at that is not very helpful -- it is akin to describing a house as something that a home builder constructs. Isn't it the wiki-task here to describe the construction and not merely to identify the constructor?

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  5. Much of theology and religious study to be sure, is well known for not being too direct, or confrontational. I'd assumed that was deliberate, in the case of the Wiki article as well.

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  6. I agree with Larry and object also to "scholarly" in the first sentence. Case in point: I dedicated a lot of time on the research about HJ and early Christianity, and I am not a scholar. The product of my research is on the internet and easy to find: Google on "historical Jesus" in the US or Canada and my website is in 2nd position, right after the WIKIPEDIA entry. And I got a lot of enthusiastic feedback, including from those who studied the matter for years.
    I object also to "portrait of his life" because we do not know enough to establish a portrait of HJ, and even less of his life (only a few things happening in his last year). That means anyone trying to flesh out any "portrait" or "life" is either a fool or imagining a lot.
    I think the goal of reconstruction is to determine his role in the creation of Christianity (which in my view was very minimal but critical, a bit as Rosa Parks was for the Civil Rights Movement), and not defining a portrait of his life or biography: there is simply not enough data for that.
    So please, let's remove that "scholarly", "portrait" and "biography".
    I would also include the seven Pauline epistles with the gospels.

    Cordially, Bernard

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    1. Bernard, since you write about HJ, how do you survive without using the word "portrait"? Fill in the blanks: "John Meier's ____________ of HJ can be compared to Robert Caro's _____________ of LBJ, in that neither ______________ seems capable of coming to an end." Your careful response here could do much to improve the lives of those reading my blog!

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    2. I guess we could talk about say, in quotes, "Jesus." To mean 1)the character - not as he necessarily really was in History. But as he was perceived. First a) by those in the early church, b) or as pictured in the Bible.

      I agree that would be one useful focus. Though at the same time, 2) lots of us would also like to make some effort - albeit fated - to see how far "behind" all that we might get. If not to any real historical character, then at least to some of the earliest persons mentioning the name Jesus, say?

      Here we really seem to have two slightly different focuses though: 1) Jesus as the early church and Bible speak of him; vs. 2) the (POSSIBLY historical) institutions, individuals, that generated, edited things, to create the Bible's "Jesus." Remotely, we might even eventually get to some historical person(s) that inspired the legends.

      Granted, the second is hard - perhaps currently all but impossible - to do. But it seems to me that this second approach is what dominates the field of HJ studies today?

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    3. To Larry,
      I do not see your point. Obviously what fits in your blanks is the word "portrait". But I still do not understand what you are up to.
      Obviously, scholars are free to generate portraits of anybody of interest. However I think trying to make a portrait of HJ in order to explain the beginning of Christianity is wrong (and then, there is not enough reliable data in order to do that. Proof: many scholars came up with vastly different "portraits"). Why?
      HJ had only a small role into that, mostly by circumstances dictated by the immediate religious & historical contexts.
      Contrary to what many historicists think, he was not truly the founder of Christianity, just the accidental "ignitor" of it, within a series of events involving others (Pilate, John the Baptist, the group of Seven, the Church of Antioch, Paul, etc.).
      I gave the example of Rosa Parks. I can also cite Gavrilo Princip. Both (accidentally) started a chain of events culminating in huge aftereffects, good or bad. And they did that not by some engaging personality, populist appeal or efforts over a long period (calling for "portraits"), but by one act for each (somewhat not related to the overall consequences).

      Cordially, Bernard

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