2010-03-02

The insurmountable wall that preserves both church and academy

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by Neil Godfrey

I have just been alerted to a post on FRDB that quotes a blogpost by April DeConick, Self-Preservation and the Gospel of John.

. . . . . what is coming home for me in a very real way is just how much the traditions are safe-guarded by the dominant group – be it the mainstream churches or the academy – and how far the dominant group will go to protect them. The interests and preservation of those interests often become the end-all, even at the expense of historical truth. The rationalizations, the apologies, the ‘buts’, the tortured exegesis, the negative labeling, the side-stepping, the illogical claims accumulate until they create an insurmountable wall that preserves both church and academy, which remain (uncomfortably so for me) symbiotic.

The entrenchment of the academy is particularly worrisome for me. Scholars’ works are often spun by other scholars, not to really engage in authentic critical debate or review, but to cast the works in such a way that they can be dismissed (if they don’t support the entrenchment) or engaged (if they do). . . . . The quest for historical knowledge does not appear to me to be the major concern. It usually plays back seat to other issues including the self-preservation of the ideas and traditions of the dominant parties – those who control the churches, and the academy with its long history of alliance with the churches.

I link above to April’s comments on her site, and some of the discussion (and related links) on FRDB.

Forgive me if I happen to see something of James McGrath’s recent exchanges described in the above — although April herself is certainly no “mythicist”.

I am also surprised how her publication The Thirteenth Apostle seems to have made less impact on the popular notion of the “good Judas” than I had expected.

Good grief! If this is the fate of challenging ideas within the guild, anyone with a mythical Jesus view would need rocks in his head to even touch the subject with a mainstream academic.

Not quite on the same wave, but it reminds me of how Gregory Riley’s work in Resurrection Reconsidered was not widely known although his arguments just happened to appear later (with no acknowledged link to Riley’s work, so presumably by sheer coincidence) in a work of the highly marketable author Elaine Pagels. (When Robert Price published the same observation, it was disheartening to think how things really do seem to work in the real world of academe.)

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0 thoughts on “The insurmountable wall that preserves both church and academy”

  1. I am also surprised how her publication The Thirteenth Apostle seems to have made less impact on the popular notion of the “good Judas” than I had expected.

    Among academics or among the masses?

    I don’t know how it’s playing out among academics, but I’m not surprised that the masses haven’t even heard much about DeConick’s work. The “good Judas” idea is a marketable one that gets eyeballs on National Geographic specials and prominent displays on tables at mass chain bookstores. Because it does two things – first it plays to the “everything you know about X is WRONG” framework in people’s minds and they want to know more about it. People like scandalous speculation, and the “good Judas” idea fits that well. Second, Judas has been the stand-in for “the Jews” in Christianity for a long, long time. Finding a Judas who isn’t a betrayer in essence finds a version of Christianity without the anti-Semitic baggage that Christianity carries with it. In contrast, a book that says “no, you’re reading the book wrong, this is the same Judas you’ve read about before but with a gnostic twist” is of interest to a smaller group of people, and at most is going to get a counter-point on the next “History Channel” special about Judas when they decide to spend some money on one (which probably won’t happen until some scholar comes up with some sensational new take that they think will capture eyeballs, or some fiction writer writes a best-selling DaVinci Code style book involving Judas).

    So I can see why the “good Judas” would be attractive to the masses. And to theologians. I don’t see why academics would care one way or the other – in fact, given the traditional bent of academics in general I’d normally assume that there would be a lot of resistance to the idea of a “good Judas” in the first place, since most scholars (and biblical scholars especially seem prone to this) are often loathe to give up on long-held traditions without overwhelming evidence to change their minds.

  2. I’m pretty sure DeConick is not talking about mythicism in that post, but some aspect of Johannine scholarship that she is not willing to share yet. I suspect she is about to either challenge the usual dating, the independent connection to oral tradition, or the Christology.

  3. One work in particular I was thinking of was Elaine Pagel’s and Karen King’s “Reading Judas” — perhaps they were unaware of April’s calls for caution at the time.

    I can understand academics liking the idea of a good Judas. It does set them apart from the racial stereotyping of the past and still among some quarters today.

    (DeConick definitely does not argue for a “mythical Jesus”. But the suggestion of gnostic ideas in either any of the gospels or letters of Paul has had a very contentious history, I think.)

  4. Neil Godfrey wroteNot quite on the same wave, but it reminds me of how Gregory Riley’s work in Resurrection Reconsidered was not widely known although his arguments just happened to appear later (with no acknowledged link to Riley’s work, so presumably by sheer coincidence) in a work of the highly marketable author Elaine Pagels. (When Robert Price published the same observation, it was disheartening to think how things really do seem to work in the real world of academe.

    I thought that Riley and Pagels looked remarkably similar as well, but I’m not sure how much of that owes to my own limited familiarity with the nuances of Thomasine scholarship. When Pagels’ book was published, in the midst of his overwhelmingly negative appraisal Stevan Davies did point out that he felt Pagels was right, and Riley wasn’t, so far as John and Thomas went.

    I’m not entirely sure what he sees as different between the two, as I hadn’t yet had Pagels steal my $30 CDN for her crappy book, so didn’t have a reason to inquire.

  5. Apologies, sent before I was finished.

    I’m not entirely sure what he sees as different between the two, as I hadn’t yet had Pagels steal my $30 CDN for her crappy book, so didn’t have a reason to inquire.

  6. Do you have a link to Stevan Davies’ appraisal? (I don’t think I have either books with me to compare now. Maybe something Davies says will remind me. I seem to recall Pagels and King seeming to write some sort of sermon or “spiritual message for the 21st century” from the gospel of Judas, as much or even more than a serious study of it.)

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