Wednesday, 18 October 2017

For the Love of Gord

Gord Downie died today. For more than thirty years, he was the front man of The Tragically Hip, "Canada's band," until they played their final show last August. It is, I think, impossible to describe to non-Canadians what The Hip meant to Canadians, especially Anglo-Canadians. Downie wrote most of their lyrics, and his poetry--because that's what his lyrics really were--perfectly expressed everything that Anglo-Canadians want to be, while never shying away from reminding us of the ways in which we still fell short of our own ideals. His words showed us the people we wanted to be, while revealing the people that we really were. And that combination of ideal and reality was remarkably, profoundly powerful. And more: his life embodied his art. He spent his life advocating for indigenous persons and communities. Indeed, after being diagnosed with the terminal illness that has now claimed his life, he spent much of his remaining time traveling the country, visiting impoverished indigenous communities and advocating on their behalf. During The Hip's farewell concert, a night that was for the rest of us about their legacy and Downie's courage in the face of death, he made it about justice, pointing to Prime Minister Trudeau (who was in attendance) and publicly calling on him to address the ongoing injustices against indigenous peoples here in Canada. He was, quite simply, a good man.

Downie, I think, helps us better understand the thought of another Canadian, namely Bernard Lonergan. Lonergan often spoke of the need for love to transform the human subject into someone who is concerned with the well-being of others. He described such a transformation as religious conversion, and although his focus was upon how this worked itself out in the Christian--and more specifically the Catholic--tradition, he never limited the possibility of such love to said tradition. Indeed, Downie, as far as I know, was not an active member of any religion. Articulated from within the Christian tradition, one might say that he is a testimony to the reality that divine grace is not limited to the walls of any given church. However we might want to articulate it, it is not difficult to see in Gord Downie's life a pattern that Lonergan identified in his work: religious conversion, i.e. falling in love with something much greater than oneself, leads to moral conversion, i.e. the consistent option for values over satisfaction, for the common good rather than parochial self-or even group- interest. And in the final analysis, it was no doubt the presence of such love that attracted people to The Hip.

Monday, 16 October 2017

On Gendered Violence

There is currently on social media a trend wherein women (and to a lesser extent men) write "Me too" in their statuses, as a declaration that they have suffered sexual harassment. This seems an appropriate occasion to think about gendered violence (and let's be clear: harassment is a form of violence--not necessarily physical, for physical violence is just the tip of the iceberg--in that it violates the person's dignity and sense of security) from a Lonerganian perspective. As Lonerganian scholars such as Robert Doran and John Dadosky have said about their own writing, in what follows I make no effort to distinguish between Lonergan's thought and my own, as the former has so fully informed the latter that such distinctions are difficult to make.

Most fundamentally, from a Lonerganian perspective violence--gendered or otherwise--is irrational and thus invariably irresponsible. This differs from force, the application of which can at times be quite rational and responsible. If a man assaults a woman, he uses force to exercise violence against her. This is in all cases irrational and irresponsible. If she uses force to resist, that very conceivable could be a rational attempt to avoid injury to self, and thus quite responsible. But more interesting than this basic set of observations is to ask why someone engages in the irrational and irresponsible act of violence in the first place. In Lonergan terms, this will be inexplicably linked to the idea of alienation.

The sort of alienation of which we speak here is in the first instance an alienation from the best version of oneself, i.e. the version of oneself that is attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible. This supposes a view of the subject as something that can be cultivated. The attentiveness, intelligence, reason, and responsibility in view are not native capacities. Rather, they result from the intentional decision to develop the skills associated with observation (attentiveness), understanding (intelligence), judgment (reason), and decision (responsibility). Alienation is not simply a situation in which one is less than fully attentive, intelligent, reasonable, or responsible, but rather a situation in which one actively (although not necessarily consciously) refuses to develop said skills. Instead, the energy that would otherwise be invested in cultivating these skills is invested in justifying the refusal to do so, as well as finding ways to function despite such fundamental impairments in these basic human capacities.

A person thus alienated from her or his best self becomes inevitably alienated also from reality. Precisely because it is through attentiveness, understanding, judgment, and decision that we come to truly know and fruitfully engage with reality, the person who refuses to cultivate these skills is fundamentally incapable of truly knowing or fruitfully engaging with reality. Such a person experiences the world in a fundamentally distorted fashion. Fear substitutes for attentiveness, suspicion for intelligence, paranoia for reason, aggression for responsibility. Unable to escape a bewildering world from which one is fundamentally and existentially estranged, one irresponsibly sets out to control the many aspects of that world that operate in defiance of one's unreasonable expectations. Such control almost inevitably violates the dignity and security of other persons in one way or another. Sometimes this occurs overtly, through acts of irresponsible force, and sometimes it occurs covertly, through various forms of abuse, neglect, harassment, etc.

Due to sexual dimorphism, which results in the reality that female human beings tend to be on average smaller than male human beings in any given population, it is not at all unusual to find that alienated men frequently engage in aggressive conduct towards women. Precisely because the alienated man (and the move to gender-exclusive language here is intentional) is irresponsible, he has a tendency to prefer the quick and easy path to satisfying his need to control. Indeed, entire societies can (dys)functionally adopt such aggressive conduct as a foundational principle, with cultures that become distorted in order to warrant such social dysfunction. Alienated aggression against women becomes normalized, such that women who resist are deemed to be "bitches" or the like, even as women who do not resist are deemed to be "sluts," etc. But of course all this is just projection: irrational and irresponsible men cannot conceive of the possibility that other persons--male or female--might be more rational and more responsible than they are, precisely because they do not actually know what it means to be rational and responsible.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

From Gospel to Dogma

Last week, I had the honour of delivering a talk at Regis College in the University of Toronto, hosted by the Lonergan Research Institute. This talk focused upon how the gospels were seminal in the development of Christian dogma: not in terms of their content, but rather in terms of the processes that led from Jesus' life to the development of the very form of dogma itself that we find emerging at Nicaea, Chalcedon, etc. Here I drew upon a quote from Lonergan's Triune God: Doctrines (p. 49, with the Latin original on p. 48 opposite; yes, although a twentieth-century thinker, Lonergan often wrote in Latin, specifically those writings that started as lectures delivered at the Gregorian in Rome):
[I]n the ante-Nicene doctrinal movement there were not one but two developments that were going forward. During those early Christian centuries both the trinitarian and Christological doctrines were being developed; but this doctrinal development itself enfolded a second and more profound development in which the idea of dogma itself was developing.
What we find here are what we might term a substantial and a formal development, which operated in parallel. The substantial development was the specific content of the doctrines being developed, while the formal development was the mode of expression by which they were articulated. In effect, we are dealing with the difference between what Christians believed and how they communicated that belief. My primary interest in this talk was upon the latter.

Substantially, there are Christian insights in narrative texts such as the gospels and also in dogmatic texts such as the Nicene Creed. But formally they are very different. The movement from narrative to dogma is a profound one, in which sharpened intellectual clarity is achieved by virtue of intellect's increasing regulation of other aspects of the person when thinking about doctrine, which results in a concomitant decrease in the capacity to communicate to the whole person is decreased. What actually happens in the big picture is that narrative--and also song, and other forms that aim more fully at the whole person--becomes less concerned with communicating intellectual truths as forms more appropriate to the communication of intellectual truths come into their own (and thus we see a keen impropriety in comparing ancient narrative to modern narrative; they actually are not the same animal, as modern narrative is much more specialized than ancient). This much is really derived from Lonergan. My particular interest was in how the production of the gospels themselves contributed to this process.

My argument was quite straightforward. The gospels were developed and written in highly diverse milieus; that such communication in such milieus by necessity requires work to clarify concepts; and that this early work at clarification constituted perhaps the first major Christian movement towards dogma. There is strong reason to think that right from the off the church was at least culturally and linguistically diverse: consider the story of Pentecost in Acts 2, for instance, or that of the Hebraists and the Hellenists in Acts 6. This diversity would have only increased as the church spread into the Diaspora (which actually seems to have occurred quite early, perhaps as a direct result of Pentecost. If not then, certainly by the time Paul was converted, perhaps as little as eighteen months after Jesus died and certainly no more than three or four years). All such cultural and linguistic diversity made posed a sharp challenge to communication (indeed, the account of miraculous inter-linguistic communication at Pentecost makes clear that the early Christians were profoundly aware of this challenge). My argument is simply that this challenge to communication necessitated acts of clarification that would characterize the movement of Christian communication throughout the ante-Nicene period, and after.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Of Snake Oil and Titus Flavius

Someone on FB asked me to comment upon the following article, detailing Joseph Atwill's rubbish hypothesis that the "Story of Jesus Christ was 'fabricated to pacify the poor.'" After my response on FB reached its fourth paragraph, I decided to turn it into a blog post.

At the outset, the article requires a basic correction. It erroneously refers to Atwill as a "controversial biblical scholar." This of course is false. He stands to biblical scholarship, the hallmark of which is a commitment to rigourous historical thought, in much the same way that the snake oil salesman stands to medicine: what he peddles is somewhere between useless and toxic, and among those who know better there is virtually no controversy regarding the matter because we can all recognize pseudo-history when we see it. We can see clearly why this is the case by considering his own words, as quoted in this article.
What seems to have eluded many scholars is that the sequence of events and locations of Jesus ministry are more or less the same as the sequence of events and locations of the military campaign of [Emperor] Titus Flavius as described by Josephus....This is clear evidence of a deliberately constructed pattern....The biography of Jesus is actually constructed, tip to stern, on prior stories, but especially on the biography of a Roman Caesar.
A number of observations here. First, he is committing an elementary error, which sixty years ago Samuel Sandmel defined as "parallelomania." This error consists of the supposition that formal parallels must entail a causal or familial relationship. But correlation is not necessarily evidence of causation or family. One needs to do more than demonstrate such parallels. One needs to explain why we should conclude that the parallels indicate deliberate mimicry.

Second, when thinking about such parallels, the fact that the gospels utilize preexisting elements from prior stories does not mean that what they report is fictitious. In fact, it doesn't mean much at all. Let's say that you tell me a story about your high school prom. Many of the features in that story will be stock. In fact, they will be so stock that I could probably predict with a high degree of accuracy the basic narrative that you will tell. Does it follow that you obviously never had a high school prom? Hardly. While, yes, it could be the case that you are employing such stock story features to bamboozle me, it is at least and probably considerably more likely that in fact you had a high school prom, and that you are simply conforming your story to the standard forms in which such events are narrated. Using a more concrete example, I often tell students about the fact that my first day as a full-time undergraduate student was September 11, 2001. When I tell that story, I intentionally employ many of the stock features of a "starting college" story--how excited I was, how I spent much of the previous week getting textbooks, how early class started that day and how tired that made me--precisely to heighten the impact of the unexpected, namely the way in which the events of 9/11 brought the joy of starting university to an abrupt end. In fact, this makes good cognitive sense. If you use stock features to describe the features of the story that aren't of central interest, that frees you to focus cognitive energy upon composing the feature of the story that are; and conversely, stock features allow me to focus cognitive energy upon that which is not stock and thus (you are telling me) more central. Such stock features facilitate communication in such a way that is probably indispensable. Thinking that the very presence of such stock features is of great historical import probably speaks to an impoverished awareness not just of historical thought but more basically of how humans actually think and communicate.

Third, we can ask whether the parallels he identifies are actually that significant. For instance, Judea is in fact not that big a place, and Galilee (where Jesus spent the bulk of his time) even smaller. Should we be horribly surprised if two persons traveling in the same small area just a few decades apart, using the same system of roads and paths, should go to the same places or even have similar itineraries? Coincidence hardly seems improbable. But that having been said, the accounts in any case actually aren't that coincident. For instance, two of Titus' major victories in the Galille occurred at Taricheae and Gamala: two cities that Jesus is never said to have visited! The only significance here seems to be that, if the evangelists were patterning Jesus' ministry after Titus' campaign, then they seem to have little familiarity with the latter.

Fourth, there is a significant chronological problem. The earliest of the gospels, namely Mark's, probably was written either during or even prior to the Judean War. Certainly, one can make a stronger argument for Mark's Gospel predating the Judean War than vice versa, and the gospel certainly predates Josephus' account of Titus operations during that war. Moreover, the core of Jesus' biography is already found in Paul's writings at least ten years before Titus ever set foot in Judea (in fact, Titus was probably not even a teenager when Paul wrote his earliest letters). As such, given the absolute dates involved, there is good reason to think that the basic outlines of Jesus' biography were in place at least a decade before the Jewish War, and if there is a causal or genetic relationship between Josephus' Jewish War and Jesus' biography empirically it is more likely that Josephus imitated Jesus' biography than the other way around.

Fifth, even if we grant the existence of meaningful parallels between Jesus' biography and Titus' operations in the Judean War, and even if we grant that these parallels indicate that the former mimic the latter, it would not follow that this imitation was carried out by the Romans in order to pacify the Judean population. That part of Atwill's argument seems to be predicated upon neither fallacies nor errors, but in groundless speculation.

As a matter of fairness, we should note that Atwill's hypothesis would perform well if logical fallacies, lack of attention to empirical data, and groundless speculation constitute intellectual virtues. I trust that I might be forgiven for suggesting that they do not.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

The Passover Hypothesis and Acts 12:1-4

Acts 12:2-4 has a passage that would be otherwise strange, unless you recognize the sort of multivalent usage that Brant Pitre identifies in chapter four of his Jesus and the Last Supper (cf. my previous post). In the NRSV, this passage reads as follows
1 About that time King Herod [Agrippa] laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. 2 He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. 3 After he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. (This was during the festival of Unleavened Bread.) 4 When he had seized him, he put him in prison and handed him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover.
It is commonplace among New Testament scholars to suppose that "Passover" refers only to 14 Nisan, the day on which the initial sacrifice is slaughtered. It is then followed by the Feast (or Festival) of Unleavened Bread, from 15-21 Nisan. On such an understanding you have a very strange narrative here, wherein James is arrested and executed either before or during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, followed by the arrest of Peter during the Feast and an intention to kill him after the Passover (it is not clear if the statement that this happened during the Feast refers only to Peter's arrest, or also to the arrest and execution of James. I suspect the latter, but the narrative leaves some ambiguity). In other words, on the typical usage, you would have Peter arrested between 15-21 Nisan, with Herod Agrippa planning on executing him once 14 Nisan was past. The only way this would work is if he was arrested sometime during 15-21 Nisan one year, held for a full year until the following 14 Nisan had past. This seems somewhat unlikely.

This problem disappears entirely if, with Pitre, we recognize that "Passover" can also refer to the entirety of the festal week i.e 15-21 Nisan. Then we would have James arrested and executed no later than 21 Nisan, followed by Peter's arrest sometime between 15 and 21 Nisan, with Agrippa planning to have him executed at some point subsequent to the 21 Nisan. The timeline is suddenly not a problem at all. Insofar as a hypothesis' capacity to resolve indirectly-related difficulties should generally be reckoned as confirmatory, Pitre's understanding of the New Testament usages of the term "Passover" seems to receive confirmation from Acts 12:1-4. (Pitre, incidentally, has indicated that Acts 12:1-4 were originally intended to be in chapter four of Jesus and History, but ended up on the chopping-room floor. Quite understandable: as it is, the chapter weighs in at over 120 pages. Sometimes one simply has to let things go).

Incidentally, as I am somewhat obsessive-compulsive about such matters, the events in question probably occurred no earlier than 41, the first Passover during which Agrippa had control of Judea, and no later than 44, the last Passover before his death. Based upon what we know about Peter's movements during these years independent of this passage, I am inclined to favour 41 or 42, with the former seeming more probable to me than the latter. 43 and 44 generally strike me as non-starters.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Brant Pitre and Functional Specialization

As the godly know, there are few things more sublime than solid chronological work. That's what makes chapter four of Brant Pitre's Jesus and the Last Supper a thing of beauty. In this chapter Pitre addresses the ever-vexed question about the date of the last supper. He rightly notes that this question is the single most disputed chronological issue in NT studies. The issue turns upon a perceived contradiction between the accounts in the Synoptic Gospels, which indicate that the Last Supper took place on 15 Nisan, and the account in John's, which is typically thought to indicate that it took place a day earlier, on 14 Nisan. This perceived contradiction has become a significant point of contention in New Testament scholarship, as 15 Nisan is typically identified as being self-identical with Passover. The questions of whether the Last Supper was a Passover meal and whether Jesus was understood as a Passover sacrifice are both related integrally to this matter. Pitre's contribution is to show that the historical problem is based wholly upon questionable exegesis.

Pitre argues that scholarship has made the error of supposing that in all cases, when the gospels refer to Passover, they are referring to 15 Nisan. Against this, he argues that in late Second Temple Judaism, "Passover" could refer to at least four different things: the Passover lamb, sacrificed on 14 Nisan; the Passover meal on 15 Nisan, at which the lamb was consumed; the Passover peace offering, consumed over the period from 15-21 Nisan; or Passover week, also from 15-21 Nisan. Without getting into the complicated details, which span more than forty pages in Pitre's work, suffice it to say that he demonstrates quite persuasively that when the differing uses of the term are kept in mind, the appearance of contradictory claims between the Synoptics and John evaporates.

In Lonergan terms, what Pitre has done is recognize that interpretation must precede history. Before one can on the basis of ancient texts infer what happened in the past, one must first establish what said texts actually say on the relevant matter. The question "On the date of the Last Supper, is John correct or are the Synoptics?" is meaningful only if John and the Synoptics diverge on the dates that they report for the event. If they converge then certainly one can still ask whether or not Jesus ate his Last Supper on the date mutually indicated (Pitre argues that this date is 15 Nisan), but the question of whether to prefer John or the Synoptics becomes meaningless as there is no substantive difference. The historical problem--whether real or chimerical--is entirely the fruit of exegesis.

Incidentally, the potential objection that Pitre is "conflating" texts holds no water, as it supposes what remains to be proven, namely that the texts present divergent data on the matter of the Last Supper's date. If exegesis demonstrates that they do not, then no conflation is possible because there is nothing to conflate. If exegesis demonstrates that they do, then no conflation has occurred because one recognizes that they diverge. Also incidentally, of course our understanding about the possible meanings of the term "Passover" is itself the fruit of previous work. That literally goes without saying, and entails nothing more than the paired and really quite banal insights that one never comes to any question with an empty head and that what fills one's head is the fruit of previous discoveries.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love a Pre-70 John

Among the New Testament texts, the date of John's Gospel is, IMHO, one of the hardest to define. It's no Hebrews, which was pretty obviously written sometime between 50 and 70, and certainly no Romans, which written indisputably written c. 56-57. Given 21:18-19, it seems probable that the gospel was completed sometime after Peter's death. But in principle Peter could have died as early as 54. We know that he died under Nero, who reigned 54-68, and although this is often linked with the Christian persecution said to have broken out after the fire of July 64 there are reasons to disassociate his death from the fire. If so, then the Neronian datum can stand without locking us into July 64 as a terminus post quem. 1 Cor. 9:6 seems to suppose that Peter yet lives, and although it seems to be the latest text that references Peter as still living it can't be dated much later than 55 or 56. At most, it might increase the terminus post quem for John's Gospel to the late-50s. That said, given that the most concrete dates we have on Peter's death associate it with events of the mid- to late- 60s (the fire, Paul's death), a date of death at 65 ± 1 or 2 years is probably to be preferred. In terms of a terminus ante quem, Ignatius of Antioch--writing sometime between 98 and 117 (I'm wary of efforts to narrow the range down more precisely)--almost certainly knows John's Gospel. Given that Ignatius seems to suppose that his readers are also familiar with John's Gospel, one suspects that the gospel predates his use by a few years at least. As such, John's Gospel should not be dated earlier than the late-50s, or later than the 110s, with perhaps a more likely range from c. 65 to c. 100. A more precise date requires a very close examination of certain relevant texts.

If determining a date where simply a matter of determining the average of the possibilities than a "middle" date (i.e. one from c. 70-100) would be preferred. But that is not adequate historiography. A more robust procedure would inquire into whether there is evidence for whether John should be located before the 70 divide or after. Let us begin by considering the evidence for a post-70 date, beginning with 4:21. When Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that "a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem" must he not surely be referring to the destruction of the temple in 70? Two observations are in order. One, it's reasonably clear that the point of 4:21-24 is not the destruction of the temple but rather the soteriological consequences of Jesus' ministry. Two, that the statement is a prophecy after the fact referring to the destruction of the temple during the Jewish War seems highly unlikely given that it is mated with a prophecy that worship would also cease on Mt. Gerizim...something that did not happen during the war. A prophecy after the fact that reports blatant non-facts seems curiously strange. 4:21 probably tells us nothing about the date of the gospel. Similarly, 2:19-22 probably tells us nothing either. Yes, Jesus is reported to have uttered a prophecy that the temple would be destroyed and rebuilt, and yes, we read that the disciples eventually interpreted that as a reference to his own body. That reinterpretation could have occurred after the destruction in 70, in order to explain why the temple was not rebuilt, but it could have just as easily have occurred after the resurrection: exactly as 2:22 states. Indeed, I see no reason to doubt John on this matter, which suggests that the reported reinterpretation could have occurred as early as 30. Again, in turns of defining the date of John's Gospel, 2:19-22 is probably non-probative.

Sometimes it is argued that the Gospel must post-date 70 because 9:22, 12:42, and 16:2 clearly suppose the existence of the rabbinic prayer Birkat ha-Minim, which dates to the post-70 period. This is a non-starter, on so many levels. In fact, it is a non-starter on so many levels that I've written an entire book on the matter. The argument ignores a series of facts. For instance, we can be more confident that John's Gospel dates to the first century than we can be that the Birkat ha-Minim does. Or, we cannot be confident that it was originally an anti-Christian prayer, as this reading of 9:22, 12:42, and 16:2 must suppose. Or, 9:22, 12:42, 16:2 refer to expulsion from the synagogue with no references to prayer, while the material surrounding the Birkat ha-Minim refer to prayer with no references to expulsion from the synagogue. We are left trying to offer as background to 9:22, 12:42, and 16:2 by invoking a text that more likely post-dates John's Gospel than not, probably did not have the aim that it must have had if it is to speak to these Johannine passages, and in fact lacks almost any actual parallel with John 9:22, 12:42, and 16:2. New Testament scholarship's fascination with the Birkat ha-Minim is mischief best laid to rest.

In sum, I see nothing in John's Gospel that should incline us towards a post-70 date. Is there data that should incline us towards a pre-70 one? I think that there is. A key datum is 5:2, which tells us that "Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes." Note the present tenses here. This is exceptional for John. Typically, he assimilates his topographical descriptions to the narrative, typically using the imperfect. The slippage to present tense makes best sense to me if the author most spontaneously thinks about the Sheep Gate as a present reality, and that such thought has led him to neglect assimilating this description to the time of the narrative. Such spontaneity makes far better sense before 70 than after.

One might object that 5:2 cannot bear this much weight, and of course in a fuller treatment I would furnish more data than just this, but I would suggest that if there are no data that points at a post-70 date but there is a datum that seems more "at home" prior to 70, then pre-70 is the safer bet.