2013-06-10

About Justice, Love, and Peace . . . and That “Nice Guy” from Emory

by Tim Widowfield

Catching up

I’m still catching up with all things Vridar after having been on the road for awhile. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to answer a certain “dbg” who seemed quite unhappy with my post on scholarly consensus. I’m happy to see that Neil engaged with him and for the most part said the same things I would have said.

We still have no confirmation that Mr. dbg was in fact David B. Gowler himself. Indeed it is possible, given his habit of referring to Gowler in the third person, that the commenter is merely a fan who happens to have the same intials, and who happened to commandeer Dr. Gowler’s email address for a brief period. Neil tried to get dbg to “confess” his identity without success. So the mystery remains unsolved.

Appreciating Jesus’ message

What Are They Saying about the Historical Jesus?

What Are They Saying about the Historical Jesus?

Mr. dbg first complained that his comments in the preface to What Are They Saying about the Historical Jesus? in no way indicate a personal faith in Jesus Christ. He commented:

I’m sorry, but expressing appreciation for Jesus’ “message of justice, love, and peace” is not the same as “personal faith in Christ” (including the pre/post East[er] Jesus distinction). The same thing could be said about Gandhi, or Dr. King, or a host of other people. I think the book (Gowler’s) clearly was written from a historian’s perspective, not a faith perspective.

Yes, Gowler’s book was not written from a confessional perspective. I normally shy away from such books, since they’re entirely useless to me. However, if Mr. dbg had read more closely he would have known that I was talking about people who believe in Christ as their savior and who simultaneously endeavor to write scholarly works from an academic, historical, nonpartisan perspective.

I could just as easily have quoted from an earlier paragraph in WATSA the Historical Jesus:

If we listen to the voice of Jesus, we can still hear the prophetic message of this first-century peasant artisan who proclaimed not only a message of hope for the oppressed but also one of judgment upon an exploitative, dominant class. That prophetic voice should haunt Christians like me who live in a nation that dominates the world politically, economically, and militarily. (p. viii, emphasis mine)

Perhaps my understanding of what Gowler meant by “Christian” is incorrect. However, it would seem only natural that if an author, especially one with Gowler’s academic credentials, did not mean someone who has a “personal faith in Christ” then he is obliged to say so. If by “car” I do not mean “a four-wheeled motorized means of conveyance,” then I should probably explain myself up front.

But in fact, we have every reason to think Gowler did use “Christian” in the normal, everyday, follower-of-Jesus sense. He makes it clear on the very next page:

This book is therefore not just an academic exercise. It incorporates aspects of my academic and spiritual journey. (p. ix, emphasis mine)

Now Mr. dbg’s protestations do seem a bit incongruous when compared to his (or Gowler’s) earlier confessional statements. Again, my understanding of the term “spiritual journey” may be incorrect. I took it to mean that as a Christian (see above) his study of the New Testament had a two-fold effect in his life: it laid the path for his academic career and it enhanced his spiritual journey.

Who said anything about dismissing Gowler’s work?

Mr. dgb, showing signs of impatience with Neil, finally lays out what he sees as the problems with my post (at least with reference to Gowler, the only part of the post he’s interested in). He writes:

1. Gowler is praised for being aware of the “academic amnesia” and the problems raised by Strauss.

Absolutely correct. I am impressed with the fact that Gowler treats seriously the writings of Strauss, which are all too often skimmed over, brushed aside, or completely ignored.

2. Gowler’s work is dismissed because he allegedly has a “personal faith in Christ,” although Gowler never mentions “Christ” [and] sticks to the issues concerning the historical Jesus and his message, not some (["]Christian” theological view of “Christ.” Gowler does not do theology based on my reading of the work (although every person has an ideology, it’s not absolutely clear where Gowler stands except for his views on the historical Jesus).

Is dbg really Gowler? Tim doesn’t know. Tim is confused when people refer to themselves in the third person. Tim is doubly confused when the third person (“Gowler does not”) and the first person (“my reading of the work”) collide in the same sentence.

Let me be as clear as I can here. I do not dismiss Gowler’s work. In fact, I think WATSA the Historical Jesus would make a fine introductory text for a course on the HJ, because it represents fairly well the current consensus. Of course, it’s no secret that I often disagree with the the current scholarly consensus, but you can’t have an informed opinion until you have a clear understanding of the lay of the land.

3. That is weak if not lazy argumentation based on an unproven assumption of Gowler’s alleged “personal faith in Christ.”

It certainly would be a lazy argument, and I would challenge anyone who made it. Show me that guy and I’ll give him severe upbraiding.

However, on the point of “Gowler’s alleged ‘personal faith in Christ,’” I must refer once again to the statement above in which he calls himself a Christian and refers to his spiritual journey. (These admissions in no way disqualify him from writing about the historical Jesus.)

4. No real examples are given of where this alleged and unproven “faith” damages or alters Gowler’s academic work. Did the author of the post even read the rest of the book? In the rest of the book, Gowler critiques Meier’s work in places where it is affected by his Catholic faith. Gowler also argues that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who was wrong about the imminent end of the world. He also argues that Jesus’ message included a social element that denounced Roman oppression and the elites much like the Jewish prophets such as Amos denounced the oppression of other elites.

Yes, the author of the post read the book. He recommends it. He is me.

But again, if dbg has read (or written) the book, then he should know that the self-designation of “Christian” rather implies a proven “faith.”

5. Any dismissal of someone’s scholarship should give concrete examples of where one’s ideology (or theology) influences one’s positions or arguments. I find no such discussion of Gowler’s work in the blog post or in your responses. I also fins [sic] no evidence of anyone reading anything other than the Preface to Gowler’s work.

The reason David B. Gowler or dbg didn’t find any evidence of anyone reading past the preface is that the post was not about his book. It had to do with consensus — where it comes from, how it is measured, whether it means anything, etc. A secondary point had to do with the acceptance of new ideas and different perspectives when scholars have more than an academic interest — say, for instance, a spiritual interest — in the subject matter. I’ll repeat what I wrote before:

How do people separate their personal faith in Christ as a real and potent force in their daily lives from their professional quest for the historical Jesus? I’m not dogmatically saying it’s impossible. I just can’t think of a way that makes logical sense to me.

I frequently find that quotations ascribed to people in history — especially people that I admire, like Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain — aren’t really authentic. Sometimes I discover that things famous people in antiquity are supposed to have done turn out to be legendary. Such revelations only require that I rethink my assessment of that person.

By the same token if I find out that Jesus probably never uttered a given saying or did not perform a certain act, I merely reassess the situation and think, “These are things followers of Jesus in later decades believed happened, but we have no corroborating evidence, and they seem rather implausible.” Since I’m not a Christian, I don’t have to “recalibrate” my entire worldview. Beyond that, I can ponder the very existence or nonexistence of the historical Jesus with the same nonchalance that I have when contemplating the existence or nonexistence of King Arthur or William Tell. It simply doesn’t affect me personally.

What’s so funny about peace, love, and . . . justice?

Reading over my old post and Gowler’s dbg’s comments, I have new, different questions concerning Gowler’s statement about wanting his sons to adopt Jesus’ “message of justice, love, and peace” as a “driving force” in their lives, namely: Would the concepts of justice, love, and peace as understood by a first-century apocalyptic Jew be anything like our concepts of justice, love, and peace? How would they differ, and does it matter?

If dbg is Gowler, then we should deal seriously with this assertion:

He talks about the message of Jesus — of “justice, love, and peace” — aspects that Gandhi and others also contain in their messages. Also, those are aspects of Jesus’ message that can be — and should be — derived from historical scholarship.

Naturally, that brings up another question. Can that message truly be “derived from historical scholarship”? It would be a strange prophet indeed who preached a message of injustice, hate, and war. However, if we accept the idea that Jesus, if he existed, was probably an apocalyptic prophet, then sayings like the following are not out of line:

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:34-37, KJV)

Is this an authentic saying? Why not? If Jesus really thought the end of the age was approaching fast (after which we might enjoy an age of peace), then certainly his message of disruption and change was bound to disturb the status quo. If Jesus was a charismatic leader like David Koresh or Jim Jones, perhaps he really did demand greater love from his followers than they had for their own family members. Cult leaders know how to drive a psychological wedge between their followers and those who would “get in the way.”

If this is the kind of prophet or religious leader Jesus was, and if the sayings in Matthew are authentic, then his meaning of love was probably not the same as ours. For him, love was “unquestioning devotion and obedience to him.”

In fact, I submit that none of these words — justice, love, or peace — have the same meanings to us as they did to people living in the ancient world.

Justice

We cannot separate our modern concepts of justice with our current understanding of the dignity, worth, and equality of people. For example, we in the West would characterize slavery — the ownership and total control of a person by another person — as unjust, perhaps even as the very definition of injustice. Such an idea in the ancient world would have sounded like total nonsense. Slavery was merely part of the natural order — a consequence of the inherent inequality of human beings. God may be “no respecter of persons,” but among humans some are more equal than others.

Furthermore, “justice” to an apocalyptic Jewish prophet naturally entailed the just rewards of the righteous as well as the just punishment of the unrighteous. We should not minimize the aspect of retribution in the teachings of the New Testament. For every nice turn-the-other-cheek saying, we can find a repellent logion such as the ones recommending that we chop off body parts rather than be thrown into Gehenna. The promised justice in the future was more than just about the meek inheriting the earth; it had just as much, if not more, to do with the satisfying eternal punishment of the wicked.

You and the historical Jesus would both claim to be very much “pro-justice.” But if you were somehow able to sit down together and carefully examine your understandings of that word, I think you would, if you were honest, find that you disagree more than you agree.

Love

We have already noted that love need not necessarily mean the selfless desire to help other people, a trait that is often associated with Jesus of faith. Could the historical Jesus have plausibly said that the two greatest commandments are (1) to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength” and (2) to “love thy neighbour as thyself”? Certainly.

But note well that the first commandment trumps the second. How is it possible to love your neighbor, but stone him to death for picking up sticks on the Sabbath? How is it possible to shun your parents or ostracize your own children?

How indeed? Say the word I’m thinking of. Have you heard? The word is “love.”

Peace

Today we think of peace as respectful cooperation among nations or nation-states. We consider diplomacy and compromise as the sensible way to avoid war. The people who lived in the ancient Near East understood peace only as the result of the application of force or the threat of force. A strongman — a warlord, king, or emperor — imposed justice and compelled the vanquished rebels, usurpers, and brigands to lay down their arms. In their minds, chaos, not peace, was the natural order of the human condition. Peace could not and would not magically “break out.” Rather, it was imposed from above.

In the Kingdom of God, the Lord will impose peace. The wicked will be vanquished. Those who love (i.e., offer unquestioning, selfless devotion to) God will be rewarded.

If you described your modern view of peace, which includes tolerance for different ideas, compromise, mutual respect, empathy, diplomacy, etc., to a first-century Jewish apocalyptic prophet, he would think you were out of your mind.

Conclusion

To an ancient historian, nothing that I just wrote concerning the ancient concepts of justice, love, and peace should be controversial. Times change. People change. Modern sensibilities are quite different from ancient sensibilities. For a historian (even one with degrees in religion) to say that Jesus’ message of justice, love, and peace can be “derived from historical scholarship” is not in itself astonishing.

However, that same historian saying that he hopes his sons follow that message is rather astounding. I can only make sense of that statement if he has a hopelessly naive (and incorrect) view of how the historical Jesus would have defined those terms. Mr. dbg writes:

Gowler also says that Jesus was an apocalypticist but doesn’t encourage his sons to follow that part of the message! 

I’m sorry, but Jesus’ message wasn’t compartmentalized. If he was an apocalypticist, then his views about justice, love, and peace simply will not make sense in the modern world. A Christian apologist can twist the apocalyptic sayings of Jesus into something a modern person can stomach. But a historian should know better.

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6 Comments

  • 2013-06-10 04:05:32 UTC - 04:05 | Permalink

    I’m apprehensive about commenting, but this post gets to the nub of my personal/political stake in HJ analysis. I’d sum up my perspective in the phrase, “Jesus made me a communist,” a title I’ve given an autobiographical essay that I’m preparing for publication in old and new media. To prove Jesus never existed to a wider audience than scholars, seems like a long-term endeavor, probably decades. Meanwhile, the Christian Right has a stranglehold on US politics. I’d say it’s more urgent to change their politics than their theology. Tying Jesus to Gandhi and Dr. King (who was a Christian, after all) works quite well in beginning such an appropriation of Jesus for the left.

    While I encourage scholars to continue their work into the historical origins of Christianity, it seems to me the dangerous agenda of the Right demands a different public war of ideas about how Jesus fits into our contemporary world.

  • proudfootz
    2013-06-10 06:53:50 UTC - 06:53 | Permalink

    If there turns out to be a ‘real Jesus’ underneath all the stuff written about him, it seems likely he wouldn’t have been much like the many ‘historical Jesuses’ on offer from modern academics. If there is any candidate for an historical figure upon whom the legend of Jesus Christ was (in part) based, I’d guess it was the fellow who was stoned as a sorcerer and whose body was displayed before Passover sometime about 90 BCE.

  • 2013-06-10 10:32:06 UTC - 10:32 | Permalink

    I’m not saying Jesus did exist. I’m agnostic on that point. I also love Helen Keller and Jane Addams. However, I became a leftist because of the message of justice, love, and peace that I learned from the gospels. I even left my father’s Pentecostal church to find a church that rejected the Right, winding up first with Mennonites (not Amish) and eventually Quakers. Now I’m solidly ex-Christian, but I still believe in justice, peace, and love, because of that earlier experience.

    • 2013-06-10 11:01:25 UTC - 11:01 | Permalink

      I’m by no means denying or disputing your experience and the way those messages in the gospels resonated with you. At the same time, I wonder what your thoughts on “justice, love and peace” were before you even read the gospels. When did you first learn that these were gospel messages? What I’m wondering is whether there was something about the Gospel narrative that found a particular attraction for you because of the sort of person you are. Again, I’m not dismissing or making light of your experience, but I find it interesting the way the Gospels can feed in to so many different messages and Jesus can become an icon for so many different causes.

  • Pingback: Vridar » O’Neill-Fitzgerald Debate #3, Are Most Biblical Historians Christian Preachers?

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