Shuck and Jive

Monday, March 05, 2007

Westar Roundup

The Westar Spring Meeting was held this past week in Miami Lakes, Florida. This was the 45th semi-annual meeting of the Jesus Seminar.

James Veitch
gave a presentation on Islam, the situation in the Middle East, peak oil, suicide bombers and their theological rationale for that (a call for attention to resource injustice against the West that consumes 4/5 of Earth's resources with less than 1/4 of the population), and war--endless war. It was informative and quite depressing. As I heard him, realist-oriented religion is not helping but is rather a cause of ignorance, hatred and our inability to truly evaluate what is happening in our world. Religion could be the rationale as well as the emotive force for killing ourselves and others. He suggested that it is time to move to a non-realist approach for religion. For Christians, non-realism begins at home.

L. Michael White gave a presentation on the methods of constructing early Christian history. Much of the information was from his book, From Jesus to Christianity (2004). He is a professor at the University of Texas and was the main force behind the PBS special From Jesus to Christ. This is all too much to summarize here. I recommend the book and the PBS video. You can find out a great deal by browsing the PBS website. White is an engaging lecturer and works with congregations and fearful clergy to bring critical scholarship to the churches.

Joanna Dewey lectured on orality and manuscripts. This was a lecture about how much we do not know about the early Jesus movement since oral transmission is as foreign to us as writing was to the ancients.

Several seminars met, The Liturgy and Literacy Seminar, The Acts Seminar, and The Christian Origins Seminar. A number of scholars returned for this seminar including John Kloppenborg, L. Michael White, James Robinson, and Stephen Patterson. The focus for Westar for the next few years will be reconstructing early Christian history. This series of meetings focused on place, particularly, Galilee. Presenting for the first time included archaeologists Mordechai Aviam of the Institute for Galilean Archaeology and Daniel Showalter, who was the Associate Director of the Macalester College excavation at Omrit in northern Israel.

Focus questions for this week included the following:
  • What can new archaelogical discoveries tell us about the Jesus movement in Galilee?
  • What can the lost gospel, "Q," tell us about the origins of Christianity?
  • What role did women play in the founding of the Jesus movement?
I serve on the Liturgy and Literacy Seminar, and David Galston presented an exciting paper, "Liturgy in the Key of Q." He described worship in his congregation that was based on the historical Jesus as we read Jesus in Q.

Results of voting on various papers will be published in the next Fourth R.

As I watched the seminars and lectures, I realized that we really do not know much about the earliest communities. The Acts of the Apostles (which the Fellows earlier had voted a second-century fiction) tells us as little about the early church as the The Gospels (late first-century fictions) tell us about the historical Jesus. We have no first-century Christian artifacts. Basically, the first century is a black hole.

I was thinking of this analogy. Say we are living 500 years from now and all information about John F. Kennedy is gone forever. The only thing we know about him is the Oliver Stone documentary. Not only that, but the documentary has been presented as the true history of JFK for the last 420 years. We can do some reconstruction of the time period (archaeology, etc.), but we have no texts, videos, or films from the late 20th century save Oliver Stone's that was presented as the official history (because it is believed that Oliver Stone channeled God in order to write it). So what do we do? Just take Oliver Stone at face value? Or do we probe the video itself for historical clues and seek to disentangle Stone's agenda from the historical nuggets contained within it? Such is the task of reconstructing the first century Jesus movement from the New Testament. All we have about Jesus and the early Jesus movement is the New Testament and perhaps some others that are first or early second century. Even they (the New Testament and the other writings) are is suspect as we only have copies of copies of copies that were written several centuries later.

No wonder there are so many diverse views about Jesus and the early Jesus movement. Scholars range from the view that Jesus did not exist at all to those who say he was like a Cynic sage, to those who view him as an apocalyptic prophet such as those found in the Qumran community, and many views in between. And they all seem so sure of themselves! I am talking about all of the scholars both within the Seminar and its critics. Of course I put clergy, theologians, and myself (the foremost among sinners) in that category of self-assuredness.

While this was happening the news broke about The Jesus Family Tomb. Ironically, if this tomb proved to be that of our man, Jesus, it would be the only 1st century Jesus movement artifact we have! In one sense, that would make sense. When we do genealogy, birth dates and death dates on gravestones are about all we get. This tomb has no dates but it does have names scratched on the ossuaries.

Let's think about the tomb for a minute. What do we know about these ossuaries?
  • They are first-century ossuaries. Fact.
  • They were found together in a family tomb. Fact.
  • The inscriptions on most of them are indisputably authentic. Fact.
  • They contain intriguing names, Jesus son of Joseph, Mariamne, Maria, James son of Joseph, Jose, all in one family. Fact. (More testing needs to be done to be certain as possible that the James ossuary belongs in this tomb).
  • All of these names are also found in the New Testament associated with Jesus. Fact.
I don't know if anyone is disputing those facts. What do we make of it? They could be some other first century Jewish family. Absolutely. They could belong to our man, Jesus. If we didn't view Jesus as a god who rose from the dead, it wouldn't be that big of a deal. We do have an ossuary with the inscription "Caiaphas," and no one seems to object that he is "the Caiaphas" who put Jesus on trial.

If we found the tomb of Peter or Josephus or Herod or John the Baptist or even Mary Magdalene it wouldn't make that much difference, really. It would be for most folks rather mundane. "Did you hear that, Louise? Scholars found the tomb of Mary Magdalene!" "Oh, that's nice, dear. Where are we going for vacation this year?"

It seems that the objections to this rather mundane find, the tomb of Jesus and his family, is that Jesus isn't supposed to be in a tomb (according to the Oliver Stone-esque Orthodox Creed). The official story is that this guy rose from the dead! He ascended into heaven! Is that more believable than finding his tomb?

It seems more likely that if Jesus existed, he died. If he died he is buried somewhere. If buried, he can be dug up. What is so unusual?

Objections not only come from the Orthodox crowd. Other scholars object as well. Why? Well, maybe a Jesus buried in a family tomb doesn't fit their theories about Jesus. If Jesus is a fictional character you won't find his tomb. Or if Jesus was poor or was from Galilee or whatever, even if he did die and decompose, he wouldn't be buried there with that bunch.

I don't know. I am leaving the case open. By the way, if you are interested in a portrait of Jesus that does fit with the possibility that these ossuaries do belong to Jesus and his family, you might give a hearing and a reading to James Tabor. I don't know if his portrait ultimately will be compelling or not. In fact, in regards to the overwhelming superstition that Christianity has become in America, it is doubtful James Tabor will even get a hearing. Orthodoxy (now fundamentalism) will pummel all dissenters into submission as it has done time and time again. But I do think his case should be considered and not dismissed out of hand. If you are seriously curious read his book, website and blog.

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