Baker Academic

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Secular Historians Don't Do It This Way

It was the early 1990s and I was taking my first class in New Testament studies. The professor was Rabbi Sandy Lowe and the class was titled "Jesus Seminar." It required my participation in several sessions of the Jesus Seminar.

We met at the Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa, CA. This hotel looks like it belongs in a Miami Vice episode. On the first day of class a woman dressed like Aunt Beru whispered and pointed in awe, "That's John Dominic Crossan!" It was indeed; although, I had no idea at the time why that name mattered. Judging by the way she swooned, I guessed that he must be the Sonny Crockett of Jesus studies.

There were a few lectures, there were questions, there were answers... there were colored beads. If you're not familiar with the method, the Jesus seminar made a practice of voting on the sayings of Jesus using colored beads. There was a spectrum of four choices ranging from "Jesus never said this" to "Jesus certainly said this." The seminar fellows - about forty of them on this occasion - sat in a circle in the Flamingo's large conference room. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy; actually, they all seemed pretty nice. But I must say it was fascinating. I felt like I was watching a burgeoning cult. And, eerily, I couldn't stop humming "Hotel California."

I wish I could tell you who said it. Some scholar within the inner sanctum, someone with a particularly squeaky voice chirped, "I've been trying to figure this out, but I just can't. What the hell are we doing?" His exacerbation was met with an eruption of laughter. What he said next was a sentiment that I've heard in various forms over the past 20 years, but this was the first I'd heard it: "You know, secular historians don't do it this way."

I've heard this accusation of historical Jesus research a number of times. Another formulation of this accusation goes like this: if professional historians could see what we're doing, they wouldn't recognize this as "doing history." I've also heard it this way, historical Jesus scholarship would look much different if it hadn't become it's own sub-discipline. All of these statements betray a truth: most historical Jesus scholars do not emerge from university history departments. We, most of us anyway, are religious scholars primarily.

One of the chief virtues of historical Jesus research in the past ten years is that the conversation has widened and deepened. The trend toward social memory has required many of us to become conversant with historiography outside our "Third Quest" echo chambers. Not only does social memory give us better categories to discuss the nature of history (and historiographical practice), it is a theory that has matured within interdisciplinary study. Not only does social memory theory allow us to expand beyond the inner-sanctum echo chamber, it puts Jesus historians in conversation with historiographers, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, political theorists, cognitive theorists, etc.

The following book edited by Tom Thatcher is a case in point:

Memory and Identity in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity: A Conversation with Barry Schwartz 

If you've ever wondered what a "secular historian" might think of what we're doing here in the inner sanctum, this is the book for you. While busy with his Abraham Lincoln monograph series, Professor Schwartz has become conversant with historical Jesus research and New Testament studies in his "spare time" over the past ten years. Schwartz has deep roots in sociology and is (without rival) the leading voice of social memory theory in the English-speaking world. That said, he tends to be more of a "traditionalist" (or, better put, "continuitist") concerning the relationship between the past and the present. In simple terms, he believes that we can indeed talk intelligently about the past, including Jesus. To be completely honest, Schwartz tends to be more "traditional" than many career Jesus enthusiasts (myself included).

I should not mislead; this volume is not primarily about historical Jesus research. But Schwartz's entry point into biblical studies was indeed historical Jesus and early Christianity. Here are few essays in the volume that will demonstrate how the topic of the Gospels, early Christianity, history, and media culture has evolved:

"Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire: Memory and History" by Barry Schwartz

"Cult’s Death in Scripture: The Destruction of Jerusalem’s Temple Remembered by Josephus and Mark" by Gabriella Gelardini

"The Memory-Tradition Nexus in the Synoptic Tradition: Memory, Media, and Symbolic Representation" by Alan Kirk

"Prolegomena on the Textualization of Mark’s Gospel: Manuscript Culture, the Extended Situation, and the Emergence of the Written Gospel" by Chris Keith

"The Memory of the Beloved Disciple: A Poetics of Johannine Memory" by Jeffrey E. Brickle

"The Shape of John’s Story: Memory-Mapping the Fourth Gospel" by Tom Thatcher

"'According to the Scriptures': Suffering and the Psalms in the Speeches in Acts" by Rafael Rodríguez

"On the Difficulty of Molding a Rock: The Negotiation of Peter’s Reputation in Early Christian Memory" by Frederick S. Tappenden

"Social Memory and Commemoration of the Death of “the Lord”: Paul’s Response to the Lord’s Supper Factions at Corinth" by Dennis C. Duling

This is by no means a complete table of contents. There are also essays by Carol Newsom, Steven Fraade, and Tim Langille. Most importantly, you will not want to miss the final response by Barry Schwartz.

In short, the repeated accusation that "secular historians don't do it this way" no longer holds. While there is no set method that can describe how historians (broadly speaking) go about their business, we can say with confidence that there has been a move toward interdisciplinary study. To my mind, this is the most important development in Jesus studies since the early 1990s.


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