2021-07-04

A Wunderkind in the Temple? (Part 2)

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by Tim Widowfield

[More stuff from James McGrath’s What Jesus Learned from Women.]

Child Jesus in the Temple — Jan Steen

In the previous post, we discussed McGrath’s assertion that the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple was learning from the teachers of the law. According to the esteemed doctor, Jesus was just a really good pupil. In rebuttal, I provided some reasons to think that Luke wanted us to believe Jesus “astonished” his interlocutors with his insightful questions and answers. Joel Green, the author of one of the better commentaries on Luke, says Jesus was at least on equal footing with men who had devoted their entire lives to studying the law.

Not a Pupil, Not a Fan

As I mentioned last time, Green cited a paper by Dennis Sylva that lists a few reasons why he thinks Luke had no intention of portraying Jesus as a student. In “The Cryptic Clause,” he writes:

Luke did not present Jesus as a pupil of the Jewish teachers, as scholars often suppose. . . . The fact that Jesus is said to have questioned the teachers and answered questions does not necessarily mean that Jesus is presented as a student of the Jewish teachers. Luke often presents the adult Jesus as asking questions and answering them without portraying him as a student. . . . (Sylva 1987, pp. 136-137)

Exactly so. As we noted earlier, Jesus’ teaching method often involved both asking and answering questions. He continues:

Further, Luke writes that the child Jesus was kathezomenon en mesō tōn didaskalōn (Lk 246a). By way of contrast, Luke writes about how Paul “was taught at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3). Still further, the fact that in subsequent chapters in the Lukan narrative Jesus is presented as condemning many views of the Jewish teachers makes it highly unlikely that Luke would present Jesus as a student of the Jewish teachers in Luke 24 1:51. (Sylva 1987, p.137, formatting altered slightly)

We picture Jesus sitting (καθεζόμενον) in the middle of the teachers, not learning at their feet. That’s a powerful image. Consider the social implications of a boy looking eye-to-eye at the most learned people in all of Judea. And recall that he’s been at this, allegedly, for three days.

Moreover, Sylva is absolutely correct about Luke’s portrayal of Jesus’ relationship with the Jewish authorities, especially the doctors of the law. Does McGrath propose that he learned from them and then learned more later from some other source, thereby changing his outlook? Perhaps. We know he believes Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist. And we’ve already noted that he thinks Jesus had some education previous to the encounter in the Temple.

The depiction of Jesus on the cusp of adolescence in the Gospel of Luke already suggests a certain level of prior education. (McGrath 2021, p. 25)

Memory, Essence, and Gist

Now the mythical tale of the boy in the Temple can serve a dual purpose: It foreshadows Jesus’ career as a teacher and it magically reveals the gist of his actual, real-life, honest-to-goodness historical education.

Regardless of McGrath’s intentions here, the reader will easily infer that the historical Jesus “must have” acquired some education in his youth. We’ve seen this sleight-of-hand maneuver in NT Studies many times before. Continue reading “A Wunderkind in the Temple? (Part 2)”


2021-06-20

A Wunderkind in the Temple? (Part 1)

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by Tim Widowfield

James F. McGrath

[More stuff from James McGrath’s What Jesus Learned from Women.]

To establish a convincing case that the historical Jesus learned from women, McGrath could have simply started from the inarguable fact that all humans learn — i.e., “Jesus was a man; All men learn; Therefore Jesus learned” — and built from there. However, McGrath knows that a good portion of his audience will be committed Christians, and they might have an issue with the concept of a member of the trinity needing to learn anything.

 

The fact that a significant number of people feel discomfort with the idea of Jesus learning really ought to surprise and shock us. It is an axiom of the historic Christian faith that Jesus was fully human—a complete human being, with a human soul (or what many today might prefer to call a human mind and personality). (McGrath 2021, p. 7)

Surprise, Shock, and Astonishment

Why should it “surprise and shock” us that people “feel discomfort” with the notion that the object of their worship, a pre-existent divine being, needed to learn anything? After all, besides the article of faith (i.e., Christ’s fully human nature asserted in the Nicene Creed) alluded to above, Christians also recite this line: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made.

So I’m not surprised at all. I can understand completely someone being troubled and confused by the idea that an omniscient being might need to learn something, but McGrath is quite sure of himself. The discomforted Christian reader is terribly mistaken.

Consequently, the dear doctor of religion believes he must proceed beyond simple logic and find a convincing biblical proof text. He thinks he has found it in the Gospel of Luke, in which the evangelist tells us Jesus “grew in wisdom.” Remember the story where Jesus stays behind in the Temple and his parents don’t realize they left him there (Hieron Alone)? Many of us learned this story in Sunday School. They told us Mary and Joseph found Jesus among them, teaching the teachers. His would-be teachers were gobsmacked.

McGrath says that’s all wrong. Continue reading “A Wunderkind in the Temple? (Part 1)”


2021-06-07

Yes, Vridar Was Hacked!

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by Tim Widowfield

As far as I can tell, the break-in was confined to a single author account. Thanks to David Fitzgerald for alerting Neil and me.

We seem to be back to normal. Let us know if you see anything odd!

widowfield [at] gmail [dot] com


2021-05-28

McGrath, Casey, and “Good Reasons” to Believe

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by Tim Widowfield

The Raising of Jairus’s Daughter

Dr. James McGrath wrote a new book. If you read his blog, you already knew that. I, on the other hand, was blessedly ignorant of that fact until Neil recently told me. And, like any curious person, I can’t help but rubberneck as I slowly drive past a traffic accident. In much the same way, although I knew it would be painful, I started reading What Jesus Learned from Women

Ipsissima vox?

But now here’s an unexpected blast from the past: McGrath is convinced by Maurice Casey’s nonargument about the pronunciation of talitha koum (ταλιθα κούμ) in Mark 5:41, as proof of the historicity of Jesus in general and the raising of Jairus’s daughter in particular. I had no idea any serious person thought Casey was making a cogent historical argument. However, each day brings new surprises and wonders.

McGrath writes:

Our manuscripts differ in the spell­ing, and that difference is one of the reasons that some historians [sic] feel particularly confident about there being a historical core to this story. (McGrath 2021, p. 219)

By historians, McGrath actually means “theologians who know ancient languages and call themselves historians.” And among that group of self-confident theologians who know ancient languages, Casey was unmatched. I called Casey’s pronouncement a nonargument because it contains a single premise followed by a dogmatic conclusion. Here it is from Jesus of Nazareth:

The first two words, Talitha koum, are Aramaic for ‘little girl, get up’, so Mark has correctly translated them into Greek for his Greek-speaking audiences, adding the explicitative comment ‘I tell you’, as translators sometimes do. Moreover, I have followed the reading of the oldest and best manuscripts. The majority of manuscripts read the technically correct written feminine form koumi, but there is good reason to believe that the feminine ending ‘i’ was not pronounced. It follows that Talitha koum is exactly what Jesus said. (Casey 2011, p. 109, bold emphasis mine)

Surely Casey has missed a step or two. To start with, what is this “good reason” that convinced the dear doctor — and which seems to have captivated McGrath as well? Well, we do have a hint in the form of a footnote, in which Casey cites himself from an earlier article (in JSNT 25.1, 2002) in which he defended himself from an “attack” by Paul Owen and David Shepherd. (Recall that any questioning of Casey’s authority was always viewed as an attack.) These scholars had dared to question Casey’s “solution” to the Son-of-Man problem. Casey chastised them, Joseph Fitzmyer, and any other scholar who avoided using later inscriptions and manuscripts (i.e., well after the supposed time of Jesus) calling it “a quite catastrophic and unjustifiable loss.” Casey rarely did anything halfway. Continue reading “McGrath, Casey, and “Good Reasons” to Believe”


2021-02-06

What the Left Means by “Systemic”

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by Tim Widowfield

At the end of 2020, I began to see the requisite social media posts asking what we’re tired of hearing or seeing in the news, and which words or terms we hope never to hear again. Not surprisingly, several people cited “systemic racism” (or, for that matter, systemic anything).

Throughout the previous year, pundits on the left (i.e., centrist liberals) and the right posted responses to what they see as the overuse of the term systemic racism. Disingenuous conservatives warned that blaming the system for generating racist ideas and exclusionary behavior would tend to absolve individuals for moral failings.

On the surface, they may seem to have a point. If the system causes people to behave the way they do, then how can we blame anyone? You may recognize this sort of argument when, for example, centrists and conservatives reflexively point toward the sin of greed rather than the underlying system that rewards or even requires it. They redirect our attention to failing people so that we don’t look too closely at the failing structure that nurtures and supports them. By focusing our attention on the actions of individuals they hope to prevent meaningful change.

Before continuing, we need to be absolutely clear about what we mean by “systemic.” In the mainstream press, we frequently see references to ideas, policies, and behavior that pervade the system. However, they focus our attention on the people who hold those ideas, promote those policies, and engage in that behavior. And where the right sees only bad actors, centrist liberals see bad actors working in a system that needs to be reformed. Neither view is particularly helpful; however, the notion that the politico-economic framework is a neutral playing field that just needs a fairer rulebook and better referees is comforting, but seriously wrongheaded. Continue reading “What the Left Means by “Systemic””


2021-01-16

What Is the Purpose of the Nicodemus Stories in John? (Part 2)

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by Tim Widowfield

Before returning to the Johannine stories containing the words and deeds of Nicodemus, I must digress briefly to discuss the issue of dependence. The Gospel of John contains countless mysteries, many of which can keep a scholar busy for a lifetime. Who actually wrote the gospel? What were his sources? Who is the Beloved Disciple? Can we find seams (aporias) that might reveal both sources and later redaction?

These puzzles may entertain the mind, but they can often become dark, twisting, endless rabbit holes. I would offer here a rather imperfect analogy to the so-called hard sciences in which we may not understand certain things (yet), but rather than beat our heads against the wall, we measure what we can and try to derive workable models and submit modest predictions. With that in mind, let’s look at larger patterns — looking less at syntax and semantics and more at pragmatics and narrative frames.

Literary Dependence

Typically, scholars will demonstrate the probability of independent, unique Johannine sources by means of declaration rather than explanation.

The Raising of Lazarus, by Duccio, 1310–11 (Wikipedia)

As you probably know from my previous posts on Vridar, I believe that the author of John knew the Synoptics — especially Mark — and used them as source material. Anyone who argues for absolute independence must either ignore or explain the astonishing fact that John re-invented the gospel genre. We have discussed in earlier posts the ways in which John follows narrative boundaries already laid out in Mark.

The author of the Fourth Gospel has built his own road, but he was clearly following already established paths. As an example, we have the narrative “Dead Zone” between Jesus’ burial and the discovery of the empty tomb. The curtain closes as the tomb is sealed. Nothing happens in the story for about 36 hours. The curtain lifts, the sun rises, and the truth is revealed.

Many scholars posit the existence of “traditional material” that lies behind the Fourth Gospel. They insist that John’s usage of such unknown, unseen, never-referred-to sources is more likely than John’s appropriation of and embellishment upon existing Markan frames. Typically, scholars will demonstrate the probability of independent, unique Johannine sources by means of declaration rather than explanation.

However, I would argue that the silence in the Dead Zone represents a Markan frame adhered to by John. We can more simply explain it as an artifact of literary dependence than as a coincidence among pre-existing (yet somehow always magically independent) sources. The silence signals dependence. Yet despite this shared silence, we can find clues that John ached to say more.

The Raising of Lazarus and the Dead Zone

In fact, we can find the missing action between the burial and Sunday sunrise somewhere else. What are we missing from Jesus’ resurrection stories in Mark and John? Continue reading “What Is the Purpose of the Nicodemus Stories in John? (Part 2)”


2021-01-06

What Is the Purpose of the Nicodemus Stories in John? (Part 1)

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by Tim Widowfield

Longtime Vridar readers may recall a post from 2013 in which I discussed an argument put forth by William Wrede regarding the priority of Mark’s gospel. Wrede noted that when Matthew took over Markan accounts, he sometimes condensed or rewrote his source, which led to oddities in the finished product. It turns out Volkmar and Wrede described this evidence of “inaptness” of the text well before Mark Goodacre discovered editorial fatigue.

Editorial Clues in the Burial Story

Vienna – Plaster statue of Burial of Jesus with the Nicodemus and Joseph from Arimathea in Michaelerkirche, Vienna.

In a similar fashion, in a post back in 2018, we considered the possibility that a grammatical error in Mark 8:27-30 might indicate a redactional seam that may hold clues to the original (hypothetical) source material. Recently, I became interested in whether such inconcinnities might be found in the narrative layer of the Fourth Gospel. Specifically, I wondered if we might find hints in the empty tomb story of editorial fatigue, which could have been caused by the intrusion of the Nicodemus legend in the burial story.

Recall that Mark’s burial story neatly pre-answers several continuity questions posed by the women-at-the-tomb story.

  1. Q: Why did the women wait until Sunday morning?
    A: Jesus died and was buried on the Day of Preparation (Mark 15:42). They rested and waited on the Sabbath.
  2. Q: Why were they bringing spices to anoint Jesus’ body?
    A: Joseph of Arimathea had quickly wrapped the body and buried it in a tomb. (Mark 15:46)
  3. Q: Who’s this Joseph guy?
    A: A member of the Sanhedrin who was seeking the Kingdom of God. (Mark 15:43)
  4. Q: So Pilate just gave him the body? How did that happen?
    A: He was really brave. He demanded it, and Pilate relented. (Mark 15:43-45)
  5. Q: If the women didn’t participate in the burial, how did they know where to find the tomb?
    A: They followed Joseph and watched from a distance. (Mark 15:47)

The Stone

However, as Sunday morning rolls around, we begin to see some substantial inconsistencies in John’s account.

Mark’s attention to detail in the empty tomb story extends to the stone that blocks the tomb. As an afterthought, the women wonder how they’re going to move “the” stone that’s blocking the entrance. What stone would that be? Continue reading “What Is the Purpose of the Nicodemus Stories in John? (Part 1)”


2020-12-31

Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 4)

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by Tim Widowfield

A Short Excursus on Descensus

In previous posts, we looked at dying-and-rising gods as a category, specifically as a Weberian ideal type, which could help us compare Christianity to other religions in late antiquity. Jonathan Z. Smith (among many others) found the category misleading and lacking any firm foundation. Robert M. Price took Smith to task, accusing him of not understanding ideal types.

Sir James George Frazer (image from Wikipedia)

Perhaps the most rigorous refutation of Smith’s conclusions (which, incidentally, have become more or less the consensus among scholars of comparative religion) came from Tryggve N. D. Mettinger (see: The Riddle of Resurrection, 2001). However, even Mettinger admits one can hardly defend Frazer’s original conception. After all, Frazer’s “central idea,” as stated in the preface to the first edition of The Golden Bough was that of a “slain god” — which would seem to leave out those gods who voluntarily move to the underworld for alternate periods.

Moreover, despite Price’s apoplectic protests over Smith’s supposed “throwing out the box” just because many dying-and-rising gods don’t fit exactly, Smith has an important point. We should consider it reasonable to expect that members of the category would include (1) gods who (2) die and (3) return to life. Mettinger has his own core characteristics, in which the definition of “dying” includes not just murder, execution, accidental death, etc., but any descensus into the realm of the dead. He writes:

The minimum requisites for me to speak of such a dying and rising deity are:

(a) that in the specific cult the figure in question is a real god, whatever his previous history, and
(b) that he is conceived of as dying (his death represented as a descensus to the Netherworld or in some other way) and reappearing as alive after the experience of death.

Two other points are also worthy of particular attention, but do not hold the status of criteria, namely,

(c) whether the fate of the deity is somehow related to the seasonal cycle, and,
(d) whether there is a ritual celebration of the fate of the deity in question. [Mettinger 2001, p. 42, bold emphasis mine]

Mettinger, in case you were wondering, does view this category as an ideal type.

When in the following I use the term “dying and rising god(s)”, I use it in the Weberian sense referring to an ideal type (ldealtypus): the terminology does not per se presuppose genetic relations. We must always remember that the various deities belong to different religious contexts. It is no longer necessary to restate the profound differences between the symbolic universes of the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the peoples of the West Semitic realm. Meaning is always contextual. Structural analogies may, however, occur, and these may be of the kind to indicate that we are, in specific cases, confronted with the results of contact and influence. [Mettinger 2001, p. 41]

The King of the Dead

Regarding Mettinger’s minimum requirements, I would argue that his second criterion should actually contain separate, albeit related, subcriteria — namely, these three actions: (1) dying, (2) sojourning in the realm of the dead, and (3) rising to the realm of the living. With these in mind, I find it difficult to regard Osiris as fitting the criteria, since he remained in the underworld. He isn’t visiting; he has taken up permanent residence. He isn’t merely dead; he has become the Lord of the Underworld and the Judge of the Dead. In fact, Osiris forms the pattern for dying Egyptian pharaohs, who will “live” in the world of the dead. Continue reading “Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 4)”


2020-12-21

Document Request: Jonathan Z. Smith’s Dissertation

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by Tim Widowfield

Greetings, Vridarians.

We have a humble request. Does anyone out there have a PDF copy of Jonathan Z. Smith’s doctoral dissertation, The Glory, Jest and Riddle. James George Frazer and The Golden Bough (1969)? I thought I’d found it today, but it’s incomplete. This appears to be one of those oft-cited, rarely read works.

Here’s the WorldCat URL:  https://www.worldcat.org/title/glory-jest-and-riddle-james-george-frazer-and-the-golden-bough/oclc/315509294/editions?referer=di&editionsView=true

Thanks!

–Tim


2020-12-09

Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 3)

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by Tim Widowfield

Smith and the Ideal Type

As you recall from the first post in this series, on several occasions Robert M. Price has accused Jonathan Z. Smith of not understanding and grossly misapplying Max Weber’s ideal type. For example, in Price’s critique of Drudgery Divine (see: Higher Critical Review), he wrote:

In the same way, Smith seems unwilling to admit the viability of an ideal type of the dying-and-rising god mytheme. If the various myths of Osiris, Attis, Adonis, et. [sic] al. do not all conform to type exactly, then they are not sufficiently alike to fit into the same box, so let’s throw out the box. Without everything in common, he sees nothing in common. [Price 1996]

Eugene V. Gallagher

He has recycled this accusation elsewhere, sometimes copying and pasting the “et.” error, sometimes not. Price is quite proud of his “throw-out-the-box” turn of phrase, as he should be — if he were correct.

Fortunately for us, Smith actually discussed ideal types, so we have a window into his thinking on the matter. In a footnote on p. 99 of Drudgery Divine, he refers to a book by one of his students, Eugene V. Gallagher. In Divine Man or Magician, Gallagher examined the work of Ludwig Bieler, whose studies of the divine man (θεῖος ἀνήρ) type were groundbreaking and insightful, but often misunderstood.

Smith put it this way:

While justifiable criticisms can be brought against both Bieler’s theoretical presuppositions and his methodological procedures, it is sadly revealing and utterly characteristic that most scholars of early Christianity have fundamentally misunderstood his enterprise, in that they have historicized the Typus and viewed the second comparative step as genealogical. E. V. Gallagher, Divine Man or Magician? Celsus and Origen on Jesus (Chico, 1982): 10-18, in the series, SBLD, 64, offers a sophisticated account of Bieler’s enterprise, and usefully compares his work to Max Weber’s notion of the ‘ideal type’. [Smith 1990, p. 99]

Let’s examine the two fundamental errors Smith has identified above. First, some scholars forgot (did they ever know?) that the ideal type is a modern construct. The “theios aner” exists not in the historical past, but in the realm of ideas. Hence, to criticize Bieler’s type as an anachronism misses the point entirely. Second, when Smith criticizes scholars on the basis of genealogy, he means they’ve jumped the gun on issues of dependence and who borrowed from whom. The second step should be that of analogy, which includes seeking evidence of both difference and similarity. In To Take Place, he wrote: Continue reading “Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 3)”


2020-12-03

Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 2)

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by Tim Widowfield

Was Jesus a Dying-and-Rising God?

Burton Mack

As I mentioned in the previous post, over the past few months I’ve been rereading several important scholarly works from 20th-century NT Studies. I found it interesting that several scholars seemed to be in dialog with one another — especially those involved in Q Gospel research and the cynic-sage Jesus theory. Jonathan Z. Smith, for example, relied heavily on Burton Mack’s works, while Mack referred to Smith in his books, including (among others) The Christian MythWho Wrote the New Testament, and A Myth of Innocence.

As you may recall, in the last book listed above, Mack argued that some of the earliest Jesus-following groups were not Christ cults. In fact, the notions of Jesus’ martyrdom, resurrection, exaltation, ascension, etc. could have seemed alien to them.

It should be emphasized at this point that nowhere in this tradition running from Q into the early stages of biographic interest in Jesus is there any evidence for a view of Jesus’ death as a “saving event,” much less for thinking that Jesus had been transformed by means of a resurrection. The express application of the notion that Jesus had suffered a prophet’s fate appears to have been made when the authors of the gospels combined the Jesus traditions with views of Jesus’ death and resurrection that had developed in the Christ cults. But the notion of rejection was very near the surface in some of the later oracles in Q, thus preparing the way for thinking of Jesus as the rejected prophet. That Jesus had died a prophet’s death would only have meant, however, that he also and especially had been a true prophet in the line of prophets, nothing more. That would have been, in itself, a striking claim about Jesus and his purposes, to be sure, a claim of great significance for the emergence of Christian thought. But it would be wrong to read in any additional Christian nuances about the importance of Jesus’ death for those thinking in these terms. [Mack 1988, p. 86, emphasis mine]

Smith agreed. He believed that several competing groups of Jesus-followers sustained their own different communities. Some communities believed in a dying-and-rising Jesus; some did not. Consider the community that produced and preserved the Didache. For them, the bread and wine had nothing to do with the body and blood of a martyred savior.

[T]here is a set of Jesus-traditions which either do not focus on his death, or conceive of his death without attributing either saving significance to the death or linking it to a resurrection. For these latter options — a significance to Jesus’s death without a resurrection or the development of a ‘dying/rising’ myth with respect to Jesus — we must turn from the ‘movements in Palestine and southern Syria that cultivated the memory of Jesus as a founder-teacher’ to the ‘congregations in northern Syria, Asia Minor and Greece wherein the death and resurrection of the Christ were regarded as the founding events’. [Smith 1990, p. 138]

In Smith’s view, the Apostle Paul took the Jesus traditions he had received and pushed them along a new path of development, emphasizing the death-and-resurrection motif to that point where even the most central cultic rituals drew their entire meaning from it. And yet other Jesus-following communities focused their concerns on other things. He cites Mack here, noting five groups that “constructed thoroughly satisfying Jesus-myths without either a death or a resurrection.” [Reformatted below:] Continue reading “Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 2)”


2020-11-25

Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 1)

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by Tim Widowfield

Religious historian Jonathan Z. Smith

Over the summer and autumn of 2020, I’ve been catching up and rereading several important books on the New Testament, especially those that have approached their subjects from a sociological standpoint. Those works led me to others (sometimes the bibliography is more worthwhile than the book itself), and so on.

I remember reading Jonathan Z. Smith and noticing what he had actually written did not correspond well with what Robert M. Price had told us he wrote. Price has continued to insist for many years that Smith didn’t understand Weberian ideal types and that if an instance of a type did not conform exactly to the type, then we had to discard the instance.

Yet, in Drudgery Divine we observe in Smith’s writing an honest effort to categorize unique events within frameworks of classification. In fact, he pushed against “uniqueness” as a modern concept, too often used as an excuse to mystify, a lazy justification not to compare, for example, one event with another.

Let us be clear at the outset. There is a quite ordinary sense in which the term ‘unique’ may be applied in disciplinary contexts. When the historian speaks of unique events, the taxonomist of the unique differentium that allows the classification of this or that plant or animal species, the geographer of the unique physiognomy of a particular place, or the linguist of each human utterance as unique, he or she is asserting a reciprocal notion which confers no special status, nor does it deny–indeed, it demands–enterprises of classification and interpretation. A is unique with respect to B, in this sense, requires the assertion that B is, likewise, unique with respect to A, and so forth. In such formulations ‘uniqueness’ is generic and commonplace rather than being some odd point of pride. In my language, I would prefer, in such instances, the term ‘individual’, which permits the affirmation of difference while insisting on the notion of belonging to a class. [pp. 36-37, emphasis mine]

He tackled the subject of categorization and classification in greater depth in his 1982 work, Imagining Religion. When trying to explain what a religion is and how one particular religion fits within a framework of categorization, we often stumble on the problem of necessary and sufficient criteria. He wrote: Continue reading “Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 1)”


2020-10-24

Is This Any Way to Elect a President? The Electoral College and Minority Rule

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by Tim Widowfield

It is happening again. A curtain of dread hangs over the United States. Will we have yet another election in which millions of votes by American citizens go for naught simply because they live in the wrong states? Or will Joe Biden manage to win by a big enough margin to overcome structural deficits in swing states like Florida and Ohio?

And for heaven’s sake, how did we end up with such a bizarre system in the first place? On the right side of the political spectrum, an unending stream of purple punditry with its requisite wailing and garment-rending would lead one to believe that both the Senate and the Electoral College arose solely from the Founders’ belief in republicanism. The brain trust assures us that we have “a republic, not a democracy,” and (gasp!) if we degenerate into a democracy, all hell will break loose.

Roll the Bones

To do away with either or both of these institutions, they intone, is a bridge too far. A 2019 column by Sumantra Maitra at The Federalist is an excellent case in point.

After crossing the river, Caesar famously said Alea Eacta Est [sic], or the die is cast. Thus crossing the Rubicon is now considered a revolutionary act that aims to destroy the status quo, structure, and balance, from which there’s no return. The only way forward is through chaos.

The current Democratic presidential frontrunners, with their war cries of Electoral College abolition and reduction of the voting age, signify another crossing the Rubicon moment. That’s because without the Senate, and without the Electoral College, there would be no states in the United States of America. Essentially, there would be no republic anymore. And if history is a good teacher, every time there was direct democracy, it has led to a Caesar—or worse.

I refer to this essay as a nearly perfect example, not only because it typifies modern bombastic, pseudointellectual conservatism, with its requisite citations of irrelevant historical precedents (while in this case, hilariously misspelling alea jacta est), but also because it consistently fails to define its own terms. To evaluate whether the removal of the Electoral College would destroy the republic and somehow create, as Maitra warns, a “direct democracy,” we would need to understand what the founders meant by a “republic.”

In fact, while many conservatives in the U.S. will gladly tell you at every opportunity that we have a republic and not a democracy, they rarely will tell you what that means. They will, of course, imply that a republic is better and will sternly warn you that democracy is nothing but “mob rule.” But what are the characteristics of a republic? What are its fundamental principles? Continue reading “Is This Any Way to Elect a President? The Electoral College and Minority Rule”


2020-08-25

Cultural Context and Confirmation Bias: Why We Loved Edward T. Hall

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by Tim Widowfield

At some point in the not-too-distant future (we hope), you’ll be able to buy a new book, an anthology of papers related to Jesus mythicism. In it, you’ll find essays from the usual suspects, including Neil and me.

While neither of us would characterize himself as a mythicist (I still think of myself as an agnostic on the matter), we still hold that it’s a viable option that needs more research. Further, we’ve both been fairly outspoken on the poor scholarship and bad faith continually demonstrated by many anti-mythicists. Good theologians often make poor historians.

My paper is entitled: “‘Everything Is Wrong with This’: The Legacy of Maurice Casey.” Just to whet your appetite, here’s a small excerpt.


I would call your attention to perhaps the most common error in NT studies: confirmation bias. Our minds are wired to seek data that proves our arguments, which helps explain why Casey and many other scholars have discovered concepts like high-context culture, but have not followed through with due diligence.

If they had, they would have discovered that modern scholars have called Hall’s framework into question, and for good reason. It turns out that despite widespread approval from armchair sociologists, business gurus, and human resource directors, we lack the sort of research that definitively shows Hall was correct. A closer examination shows that he often relied on intuition and anecdotal evidence. In his writings, he neither described nor mentioned his methodology. Peter Cardon writes:   Continue reading “Cultural Context and Confirmation Bias: Why We Loved Edward T. Hall”