Shuck and Jive

Friday, October 10, 2008

Heresy Hunting

Here is an interesting paper by Tony Burke delivered to SBL (Society of Biblical Literature). It is entitled Heresy Hunting in the New Millennium.
A cottage industry of books has emerged in the past few years responding to apparent "attacks" on the Christian faith by such perceived enemies as the Jesus Seminar, Bart Ehrman, Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code, and the discoverers of the so-called Jesus Tomb.[1] Targeted also in these books are the texts of the Christian Apocrypha (CA). The books are transparently apologetic with the aim of disparaging the CA and the Gnostics who (they say) wrote them so that their readers will cease being troubled by their texts' claims. The problem with such books, at least from the perspective of those who value the CA, is that they often misrepresent the texts, their authors, and the scholars who study them.
Burke points out that many of the same rhetorical strategies of the ancient heresy hunters are used by contemporary critics of the Christian Apocrypha. These strategies include:

1) Refutation by exposure. This includes selecting unfamiliar passages from the Christian Apocrypha (CA) in an attempt to dismiss them because they sound weird. Burke writes:
Such focus on the "bizarre" elements of the texts misrepresents their contents. There is plenty of material in the canonical texts that is bizarre or objectionable but it would be unfair to characterize Acts simply on the basis of the cursing stories, or Luke on Jesus' disappearing act (4:30) or the sweating of blood (22:43-44), or John on its anti-Semitism. Large parts of the CA are quite "orthodox" but these sections are not discussed.
2) Explicit ridicule of the texts' contents. Apologists define "gnosticism" in a simplistic way and equate non-canonical texts with this definition.
Several of the apologists go on to associate all non-canonical texts with Gnosticism—even the Gospel of Peter[12] and the infancy gospels[13]—either because of a lack of awareness of the complexities of defining Gnosticism, or because of a reliance on outdated scholarship on the texts, or simply because it suits their purposes to associate all non-orthodox forms of Christianity with oft-demonized Gnosticism.
3) Demonizing their opponents. Ben Witherington says this of scholars like Helmut Koester, Elaine Pagels, and James Robinson:
"these scholars, though bright and sincere, are not merely wrong; they are misled. They are oblivious to the fact that they are being led down this path by the powers of darkness."
4) Concluding their works with statements of orthodoxy. They claim to have the "real Jesus" of orthodoxy as opposed to the fake Jesus of the apocrypha and of those who study the apocrypha.
Some of the apologists instead simply assert the superiority of the canonical texts over the non-canonical. Such declarations seem to be a necessary component of apologetics. It is not enough to defend the faith from its enemies; one also has to affirm one's own orthodoxy. The readers thus are reminded of the strengths of the orthodox perspective and any fleeting interest they may have in the vagaries of the popular media's current fascination with the apocryphal Jesus is checked, at least for a time.
This article helped explain a few things to me. I really couldn't understand why the Jesus Seminar has been so demonized by the apologists. They have become a focal point for the modern heresy hunters. It can't be their scholarship. It isn't that radical. Form and redaction criticism isn't new. Nor is it because they are anti-church. Many are within the church (ie. Marcus Borg).

I think it is because they have spilled the beans and have made critical scholarship available and accessible. When other scholars such as Bart Ehrman (who is not with the Seminar) write books for the general public, they too join the ranks of the heretics, who in Witherington's words: "are being led down this path by the powers of darkness."

Hardly a statement of scholarship.


  1. I do have to wonder why there is this strong interest in gnosticism today. In reading some of the popular books out there, it's almost as if folks have never heard of the gnostics before in their lives.

    And, yet, the early church fathers spoke of the gnostics, and even mentioned material such as the Gospel of Peter, or the Gospel of Thomas by name.

    Personally, I'm definitely able to see why this material did not find it's way into the recognized canon, and why gnosticism as a whole was eventually regarded as heretical.

    But, what do you think? Could there be a larger agenda, and purpose behind all of this, just beyond hearing something different, and academic interest? I'm not sure.

  2. I would think there is interest because of the Nag Hammadi library. A pretty big find.

  3. But, still this find was decades ago. I'm wondering why this huge interest today. I mean you can't turn around in the bookstore without seeing everything from the DaVini Code to the Jesus Mysteries.

    Do you have any ideas? What has drawn your focus so very strongly?

    Hey, off to go horseback riding now. It is absolutely beautiful out here with the fall colors at their peak. :)

  4. **these scholars, though bright and sincere, are not merely wrong; they are misled. They are oblivious to the fact that they are being led down this path by the powers of darkness."**

    What troubles me about statements like these is that I'm unsure where to find any objectivity. How does the scholar conclude that what the other scholars investigate is influenced by the powers of darkness? The only method I can see that is used in determining what is and is not tainted with the powers of darkness is a method that almost "begs the question." One source of material is used to judge another, thus making that first source the measuring stick. It's not giving each source an "equal opportunity." So how can the other source be approached without any bias?

    It's the same reservations I have when seeing a biblical scholar say that one knows the Bible is true by the inner witness of the Holy Spirit -- regardless of any external evidence to the contrary. The "evidence" used is no longer evidence that everyone can access. The measuring stick becomes entirely subjective, rather than comparing the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas side by side.

  5. It is only recently that these works are getting published for the general public. Hal Taussig who came to our JSOR has a forthcoming book on the text, Thunder, Perfect Mind. His book will reveal a text that is quite different from what we might expect.

    Certainly there is academic interest especially as a window to exploration of Christian origins.

    Others are finding these works spiritually interesting for a variety of reasons.

  6. Thanks, One.

    This whole "way to darkness" thing is so pervasive in Christianity. This is beyond academic interest. There is a real fear that anything outside the orthodox path is evil and of the devil.

    It is the gift that orthodoxy keeps on giving.

  7. Perhaps "objectivity" itself is the thing that is so galling for those who approach the topic with subjective reverence and intentional bias.

    Just a thought.