Scholarly Protection of the Uniqueness of Christianity

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by Neil Godfrey

John S. Kloppenborg

Thanks to Jim West I was informed of the public availability of a new article by the well-known New Testament scholar John S. Kloppenborg.

Kloppenborg, John S. 2017. “Disciplined Exaggeration: The Heuristics of Comparison in Biblical Studies.” Novum Testamentum 59 (4): 390–414. https://doi.org/10.1163/15685365-12341583.

I think the article should always be cited whenever reference is made to Samuel Sandmel’s 1962 article warning of the flaws of uncontrolled “parallelomania“. Together they warn against either extreme.

Some quotations from Kloppenborg’s article (with the usual notice that formatting and bolding is mine):

By contrast, comparison in the historiography of early Christianity has had a peculiar history: comparisons were often employed either to establish the difference and, indeed, the incommensurability of Christian forms with anything in their environment; or, as Jonathan Z. Smith has observed, comparison was used to create “safe” comparanda such as the construct of “Judaism,” which then served to insulate emerging Christianity from “Hellenistic influence.” . . . .

. . . . comparison in the study of early Christianity has often been used to assert its sui generis and incommensurable character. That is, comparison is invoked to rule out comparison or to limit it so that comparison becomes inconsequential.  (p. 393)

Some readers will be aware of the work of the Jesus Seminar and the publications of John Crossan, Burton Mack and others pointing out similarities to Q and Cynic sayings.

On this hypothesis, the social postures evident in either the Sayings Gospel Q, or (for Crossan) in for the historical Jesus himself could be fruitfully compared with Graeco-Roman Cynicism. There was no claim that Q or Jesus were “influenced” by Cynicism, but instead that the social postures of Q (or Jesus) were “cynic-like,” in the sense that they constituted a radical deconstruction of the prevailing ways in which Galilean society constructed social and economic hierarchies, moral categories, and the very nature of piety. The reaction to this proposal was immediate and visceral. (pp. 394f)

And continues to this day, I notice.

No! No! No! went the reaction. There was no “archaeological evidence” of Cynicism anywhere in Galilee. Recalling the story that the reputed founder of Cynicism, Diogenes, set up his home in a bathtub (some say wine-cask) Kloppenborg wryly comments:

one wonders what could constitute archaeological evidence of Cynicism: bathtubs?

But K more pertinently notes the evidence of the tendentiousness of this reaction:

But simultaneously, detractors asserted that the equipment instruction in Q 10:4 that prohibited the carrying of a pera and a staff, was anti-cynic. So, evidently, it was important for Q to guard against the Cynics who were not present in Galilee!

At the same time, some opponents of the Cynic Q hypothesis argued that the Q people could not be cynics because they were prophets, apparently failing to notice that the evidence for prophets in the Galilee was every bit as thin as that for Cynics in Galilee (all of Josephus’ signs-prophets are in Judaea and Samaria). (p. 394)

Why the “visceral reaction”?

[C]omparison was naively and falsely being understood to imply genealogy, and that the outright rejection of comparison and the denial of commensurablity were likely being employed to protect certain theological convictions. The biblically “safe” comparandum of “prophet,” imbued with a positive theological value, was invoked in order to displace the potentially threatening category of “Cynic.” (p. 394)

I like the image of “muscular” in the following:

The muscular character of the refutation of the Cynic hypothesis and the complete lack of argumentative parity in the assessment of evidence suggested that the Cynic hypothesis had in fact touched a deep theological nerve: historiography had become exorcism. (p. 394)

Not backing off from that painful nerve, Kloppenborg continues

[T]he exceptionalism and supersessionism that is fundamental to Christian theology collided with the comparativism (and the presumed genealogical conclusions) of members of the religionsgeschichtliche Schule [“history of religions school”] such as Hermann Gunkel, who characterized Christianity as a “syncretistic religion” that had in effect synthesized numerous Hellenistic and “oriental” motifs. This coupled with the Darwinian discourse of “origins” threatened to undermine any sense of the uniqueness of Christianity. (pp. 394f)

Another reason Kloppenborg suggests relates to the “developments in theology after World War I”. “Natural theology” was rejected and scholars even began to assert that “Christianity was not a ‘religion’ among other religions, contrasting ‘religion’ as a human activity with the authentic communication of the true God.”

Such a theological construct inevitably disinclined Christian historians from engaging in a serious comparison of Christian forms other contemporary Hellenistic forms for any other purpose than establishing utter difference. (p. 395)

At this point I intended to segue back to an earlier post in which I addressed another quirk among some biblical scholars to use descriptive language (“surprising”, “remarkable”, “astonishing”) that set Christian origins apart from anything else that had preceded it, and even from normal explanations of human activity and life-expectations. But I cannot find it. Is it still sitting there in my drafts? Either way, I will have to take a break before continuing with this post.


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Neil Godfrey

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10 thoughts on “Scholarly Protection of the Uniqueness of Christianity”

  1. “But I cannot find it. Is it still sitting there in my drafts?”

    It was a topic about Larry Hurtado’s language in Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World: https://vridar.org/category/biblical-studies/book-reviews-notes/hurtado-destroyer-of-the-gods/

    As a first time commenter (and long time lurker) I would also like to take this moment to thank you and everyone who contributes to vridar for enhancing my understanding of history. You have opened my eyes to the field of biblical history and how theologians/biblical historians differ from actual historians. For example, when I studied history, Bayesian analysis was one of many possibilities to do historical research, while the criterion of embarrassment never came up. I think in biblical history, it’s the other way around. To me, it is also remarkable how personal en vicious the debate about Jesus can become in comparison to other historical topics. Obviously, I don’t fault vridar for that. This blog has always set an example for decent en polite debate, without holding back on the substance.

    Keep up the good work! You guys are awesome.

    1. Thank you for reminding me of that post. I had forgotten that one entirely and was in fact looking for something I believed was more recent and in which I cited another scholar making a similar point about Hurtado’s language in a review of his work. I have since found that more recent draft but see now I should bring the earlier post (the one you pointed to and the one I had forgotten) into the picture.

  2. Neil, thank you for the Kloppenborg reference and discussion. I was able to receive this article through interlibrary loan and have found it suggestive and stimulating as I do your posts.

  3. Meleager, Philodemus. Oenemaus. Three noted Cynic philosophers from intertestamental Gadara, where Jesus killed some pigs allegedly. There are bricks more intelligent than most Christer apologists.

    1. Pro Cynic scholars pointed to Gadara as relevant by geographic proximity but their opponents pointed out that Gadara was in gentile territory and not in Galilee where Jesus was raised and worked.

      1. Following the Roman conquest of Judea led by Pompey in 63 BCE, Aulus Gabinius, proconsul of Syria, split the former Hasmonean Kingdom into five districts of legal and religious councils known as Sanhedrin. Based at Jerusalem, Jericho, Sepphoris (Galilee), Amathus (Perea) and Gadara (Perea—Al-Salt or Decapolis—Umm Qais).

        • Gadara of Perea (identified as Tell Jadur near Al-Salt ) was the chief city or metropolis of Perea (not to be confused with Gadara of the Decapolis—a Hellenistic city).

        1. Mark does not use the contemporary term for Perea:

          · Septuagint writes: πέραν τοῦ Ιορδάνου (beyond the Jordan).

          · Mark 3.8 writes: πέραν τοῦ Ἰορδάνου (beyond the Jordan).

          · Josephus per The Jewish War, Book 3(3) writes: Περαία (Peraía).

          · Pliny the Elder per Naturalis Historia, Book 5(15) writes: Peraea.

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