April 21, 2007
The Deconstructed Jesus
Deconstruction overturns privileged hierarchy and meaning. Defenders promise us that they do not practice Anything Goes in their deconstruction of texts. Do they keep their promise? How do we verify it?
John D. Caputo is a prominent interpreter of deconstruction and Jacques Derrida's writings.
Caputo writes in his book Deconstruction in a Nutshell (Fordham, 1997) that a deconstructive reading must research a wide range of topics to understand Plato or Aristotle, for example. But it does not engage in "anything goes." Caputo says:
To read Plato and Aristotle well, one must learn Greek, learn as much as possible about their predecessors, contemporaries, and successors, about their religious, social, political, and historical presuppositions, understand the complex history of subsequent interpretations of their work, etc. This is "not easy"; indeed, it is an infinite task, and deconstruction does not circumvent it. For otherwise, if this reading does not take place, then "anything goes," and readers may say of a text whatever comes to mind (p. 78, emphasis added)
Caputo, representing other scholars, repeats the notion that a deconstructive reading does not say "whatever comes to your head about the text" (p. 79). But how do we evaluate their promise, except by their conclusions?
Jesus has been a focus of the mainstream media in the last decade and particularly on the front cover of Time and Newsweek (go here for the cover images). For the faithful two billion-plus, he occupies a position of privilege and transcendental meaning. So here in Part Five in the series on Postmodernism and the Bible we verify the deconstructionists' promise by analyzing their reading of Jesus, whether or not the scholars define themselves by the labels "postmodern" or "deconstruction" as such. It will be clear that they have drunk deeply from a common source, which is supplied upstream (see Part Two for the origins of postmodernism). I have also supplied brief replies to their conclusions.
What do the following specialists say about Jesus?
82% Muffled, 100% Demythologized
The Jesus Seminar was founded by Robert Funk in 1985. It consists of a group of scholars who meet twice a year to debate over the historical Jesus. They have come up with seven "pillars" or assumptions. One of them is the distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. Thus, the Seminar continues the nineteenth century project of demythologizing Jesus, removing the miraculous elements. The Seminar came out with their results in Five Gospels (Poleridge, 1993), the fifth being the Gospel of Thomas. Simply said, the Seminar scholars color code the words that Jesus spoke or not or maybe. They conclude that he said only eighteen percent of the words found in the Gospels.
Revealingly, the Seminar scholars dedicate the book to David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874), a founder of the distinction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. Incidentally, they also dedicate the book to Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), who was opposed by the church and who "altered our view of the heavens forever" and to Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), who "took scissors and paste to the gospels," meaning he created a rationalist version of the Gospels, omitting the miracles.
In reply, the underlying assumption behind this bifurcated Jesus is an anti-miracles starting point. No one should be naïve about analyzing texts that show and tell miracles. We should not follow God-of-the-gaps explanations that invoke a miracle whenever a problem is difficult. But to exclude them philosophically altogether before the start of the investigation is prejudicial and question begging. And neither should we drone on for page after page about how gullible the New Testament authors were. If they absorbed too much of their first-century "naïve" culture (and that's a big "if"), then maybe modern hyper-skeptics have absorbed too much of their own skeptical culture (and that's a small "maybe").
I have already explored in a series the problem of miracles. Go to the Conclusion and then scroll down to the bottom of the page to find the links to all of the articles. Part One deals directly with the quest for the strictly historical Jesus, as Strauss and Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), a prominent twentieth century New Testament scholar, understand the topic.
However, even more problematic than Funk's pillars is his epistemology (a study of how we define and acquire knowledge and truth), which may be the foundation of the pillars for the Seminar. Funk writes:
In spite of the sciences, impressive methodological advances, and the knowledge explosion we still cannot be certain that we can tell the difference between illusion and reality. Aspects of what we think we see and hear, of what we believe we know, are almost certainly illusory (Honest to Jesus, Poleridge, 1996, p. 26, emphasis added)
So begins Rule Five in his "Ground Rules for the Quest." We cannot be certain about the "difference between reality and illusion"? Really? Which aspects of what "we think we see and hear" and of what "we believe we know" (note his hesitant wording) are "almost certainly illusory"? By anyone's account, that quotation expresses skepticism in the extreme. Forget the miracles. Granted, scholarship evolves and improves, but could the historical quest for Julius Caesar or Napoleon stand up under such an extremely skeptical starting point? Did Napoleon lose the Battle of Waterloo, or is that an illusion? If Funk's hyper-skepticism represents that of the other Seminar scholars, then it explains, to a large degree, how they reached their stringent conclusion that Jesus spoke only eighteen percent of the words recorded in the Gospels-a conclusion that most other New Testament scholars reject.
Thus, N. T. Wright, one of the most prominent New Testament scholars today, says in an offhand way in his book analyzing the gnostic Gospel of Judas that the mainline of Jesus scholars have bypassed the Seminar. He writes:
The main line of Jesus-scholarship today has, I believe, largely left behind the fantasyland of the "Jesus Seminar" and its attempt to produce an "objective" portrait of Jesus while measuring the data against an already reductionist framework. (p. 65)
Please see Wright's Judas and the Gospel of Jesus: Have We Missed the Truth of Christianity? (Baker, 2006)
In Tom Harpur's book Pagan Christ: Recovering the Lost Light (Walker, 2004), he asserts that Jesus never existed and that the Gospel writers transformed Egyptian religion and its gods and put them in the Gospels.
The reply to this is simple. Craig A. Evans, in his book Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (Intervarsity, 2006), says it best. First he summarizes what many scholars believe about the existence of Jesus, writing:
. . . Almost no serous academic - of any ideological, religious, or nonreligious stripe - doubts that Jesus of Nazareth actually lived sometime in the first century and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea. The evidence for the existence of Jesus - literary , archaeological, and circumstantial - is overwhelming. (p. 220)
Then Evans tracks down the source of Harpur's faulty scholarship. Evans writes:
Judging by the comments that [Harpur] makes at the beginning of his book, his change [from believing Christ existed, worked miracles, and was raised from the dead] in thinking had little to do with critical, historical work (though the work of "minimalists," that is, those who minimize the historical elements in the Bible, exerted some influence). It had more to do with adopting the theosophic views of Gerald Massey (1828-1907) and Alvin Boyd Kuhn (1880-1963). The work of these men, especially their reconstructions of ancient history and attempts to draw lines of continuity between Egyptian religion and Christianity, is deeply flawed. No qualified historian takes the theories of these men seriously. (pp. 220-21)
Then Evans offers a word of advice to curious readers:
Anyone charmed by Harpur's Pagan Christ should beware. We are talking old, odd stuff here. Personal philosophy and introspection it may be; history in any responsible, recognized sense it is not. (p. 221)
In addition to Evans' direct reply to Harpur, in Chapter Five Evans also reminds us of recent scholarship on the historical context of Jesus. It is imperative to locate him in his first-century Jewish setting before the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. Scholarship from the 1990s onwards demonstrates beyond doubt that Galilee before the destruction was not nearly as Romanized as scholars once believed. Archaeological digs of Sepphoris (a city four miles from Nazareth) and Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee reveal a mostly Jewish environment. These Jews observed the rituals and customs and beliefs of their religion. Romans did not take over until after the destruction. Other archaeological digs in Galilee confirm the mostly (but not exclusively) Jewish presence in the region before the destruction.
This means that Jesus was thoroughly Jewish. It is no longer certain that he came in contact with Greco-Roman philosophers, such as wandering Cynics, and imitated them. He certainly was never influenced by Egyptian religion, and neither were the New Testament authors, all but one of whom were devout Jews, and some scholars say that Luke may have been a Jew as well. In any case, Jesus was a devout Jew who honored the Torah and the God of Israel, his Father. We must not put Jesus in alien contexts and under alien influences. And we should not do this to the New Testament authors, either. Then we will not teach odd theories and reach strange conclusions.
The word "gnosticism" comes from an ancient Greek word for "knowledge." A gnostic is "someone who knows" or a "knower." But what does he or she know? She or he knows secret teachings that lift him or her above the mundane and the all-too-human (to use a phrase anachronistically). In the Mediterranean world many decades after Jesus lived and the church grew rapidly and the Four Canonical Gospels were written down, who was more qualified than Jesus himself to be the Ultimate Gnostic? ("Canon" means "measuring stick" or the "standard" by which we evaluate other writings.) The teaching of Jesus, the names of his disciples (e.g. Peter, Andrew, Thomas and even Mary and Judas), and the Four Gospels traveled well. Gnostics capitalized on this fame.
So what are the basics of gnostic teaching about Jesus? He came to reveal hidden truths and secret knowledge. He discloses a way of escape from the world and the human body, if only a few special people would realize or come to know this. The gnostic authors often borrowed the names of Jesus' disciples to attach to their texts, such as the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, and the Gospel of Mary. The Gospel of Judas has been published recently. Using the disciples' names (or other Biblical names) gives the appearance of authority, but it is deceptive. The original disciples or Bible characters had nothing to do with these writings.
All of these late gnostic documents would not be a concern to anyone but a few specialists. Yet some scholars, who have access to the national media and who write their books for the general public, imply that Gnostic texts should be accepted as equally valid and authoritative as the Four Canonical Gospels, or at least the Gnostic scriptures could have potentially been elevated to the canon, but were suppressed instead by orthodox church leaders. ("Orthodox" literally means "correct or straight thinking," and here it means the early church of Irenaeus and Athanasius, to cite only these examples).
However, this assertion of the equality of Gnostic writings with canonical Scripture is overstated. N. T. Wright in his book Judas and the Gospel of Jesus gives us at least four reasons why none of the gnostic writings fit in with the Four Gospels (and the rest of the New Testament, incidentally). To save space, we cannot include Wright's finer points. But these four main ones should suffice for now.
First, the goal of Jesus for the world is different. In the canonical Gospels, Jesus is passionately concerned about the kingdom of God in his own world of first-century Israel. Also, he was "bringing history - world history, Israel's history - to a great climax through which he would establish his sovereign and saving rule in and for the world," which was created by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The gnostic gospels, on the other hand, saw the world itself as "a gigantic blunder of a secondary, incompetent and hostile deity," so humans must escape from it (pp. 65-66; 68).
Second, the kind or genre of the writings is important. The canonical Gospels are narratives or stories. On the other hand, with a few exceptions acknowledged, such as the Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of Peter, Wright says that the gnostic gospels are collections of sayings. . . . "The main difference is that whereas the canonical gospels are news, [the Gospel of] Thomas and the others are advice" (p. 67, emphasis original). I would add that the canonical Gospels do a much better job of showing and telling, and this was important for most people in the Greco-Roman world, who could not read or barely read.
Third, the canonical Gospels place Jesus and his teaching in a thoroughly Jewish setting and outlook (not one without the other). On the other side, "Judaism and its institutions are irredeemable. At this point there is simply no common ground between the gnostic gospels and their canonical predecessors" (p. 72). Some of the gnostic writings are explicitly anti-Semitic. They go astray when they downplay the thoroughly Jewish context of Jesus.
Fourth and finally, it is a simple fact that the canonical Gospels "are early, and the gnostic ones are late (by ‘early' I mean within a generation or so of the death of Jesus; by ‘late' I mean no earlier than around the middle of the second century)" (p. 76). The gnostic gospels borrow elements from and then distort the canonical ones, not the other way around.
New Testament scholar A. K. M. Adam edited a book, Postmodern Interpretations of the Bible (Chalice, 2001). One of the contributors is Deborah Krause, who does an exegesis (interpretation) of key passages in the Gospel of Mark, through the eyes of Lacanians (Lacan was a French student of Freud) and Michel Foucault (a French culture historian). In her article "School's in Session: the Making and Unmaking of Docile Disciple Bodies in Mark," she uses two interpretive keywords to reread Mark as a tale of desire. The two terms are castration and phallocentrism.
According to Krause, to be castrated is not literal (thankfully). It is the "limitation of one's will to comprehend, to master" . . . (p. 182). A text's meaning is more diffuse (meaning cannot be nailed down) and less domineering (no one meaning controls) (p. 181). The characters in a story may be "castrated" because they do not comprehend the big picture in the story itself. The opposite is symbolic phallocentrism or phallocracy, which signifies comprehensive forms of knowledge. It is meaning that is more domineering and exclusive.
So how does this two keyword symbolism apply to Jesus? The short version of her article says that when Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night he was betrayed and arrested, he was praying for the will of his Father to pass him by. He was struggling in his will not to drink the cup of his death. It is difficult for him to comprehend the "phallic" will of the Father that dominates (p. 184). Why does Jesus have to submit and die? This incomprehension on his part is symbolic castration, as he is seized and led away (pp. 185-86).
Krause calls her reading "un-disciplined" (p. 181), punning off "disciples" who figure prominently in her analysis as foils for Jesus. The word could not be more apt. It speaks of Anything Goes.
Stephen D. Moore is "the leading practitioner of deconstruction in the field of biblical studies today." So says the back cover of his book Poststructuralism and the New Testament: Derrida and Foucault at the Foot of the Cross (Augsburg Fortress, 1994). Never mind the insensitive subtitle because Derrida was a Jew.
In his chapter "Deconstructive Criticism," he does an exegesis of John 4, in which an unnamed Samaritan woman and Jesus dialogue at a well. Jesus asks her for a drink. And after an exchange of words, he promises her living water that springs up to eternal life. But she thinks literally. John 4:15 says:
15 The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water so that I won't get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water." (John 4:15)
Moore's goal in John 4 is to reverse "the hierarchical opposition of male and female - the male in the missionary position, the female beneath" (p. 50). This sexual innuendo, one of several, reflects a Freudian interpretation. In any case, Moore writes of his goal:
But what if the Samaritan woman were found to be the more enlightened partner in the dialogue from the outset? What if her insight were found to exceed that of Jesus all along? Impossible? Not at all, as I hope to show. (p. 50)
In a summary passage, Moore retraces the motif of water through his chapter. He writes:
At the Samaritan well, literal earthly water was declared superseded by figurative living water (4:13-14), which was later interpreted as the Holy Spirit (7:39), which has now become available through Jesus' death as symbolized both by his giving up pneuma [spirit] as he expires (19:30) and by the fresh flow of water from his side (19:34). (p. 58)
From this water motif, Moore says that Jesus confuses the literal and figurative, but the woman understands the difference. She has "outstripped her male teacher" (p. 62), another sexual innuendo. I have read Moore's chapter carefully many times, and his interpretation is still not clear to me. He says that reversing the hierarchy (e.g. spiritual / material; heavenly / earthly; male / female) is the key to a deconstructive reading (p. 56).
However, the plain and unambiguous meaning of John 4 demonstrates that it is the woman who misunderstood the literal and the figurative. Jesus presents the nuanced differences between them, and she has her mind on the literal. He then explains that he has water to give that will eternally quench every thirst. He later clarifies that the water is the Spirit. But how does this show that he is unenlightened and she enlightened? Next, why does his request for water, while he is hanging on the cross, make him confused and her unconfused about the literal and figurative? What if he really was thirsty, which happened to fulfill prophecy? Finally, how does the blood and water flowing from his side after being stabbed with a spear propel her to "outstrip[...] her male teacher"? Is it not less convoluted to take the meaning in each passage in its "clarity" (to use a water metaphor)? The woman at the well has no bearing on later events and the teachings of Christ in John. And Jesus does not lose his grasp of deeper truths.
Curiously, Moore overlooks (not looks over) the passage in which Jesus walks on water (John 6:16-24). Moore stirred up the clear water in John and muddied it. But Jesus confidently walks on it, rising above Moore's demotion of him, slipping out of his deconstruction. The reason Moore's interpretation is muddy is that it is goes against the clear flow of the Gospel of John.
This list of postmodern, deconstructed Jesuses could have been expanded to a social deviant, magician, dynastic founder, Cynic philosopher, or Buddhist master, so say other specialists. But I have to stop here, or else the article would grow too long.
In the Introduction to this article, I said that the way to test the promise of deconstructionists that they do not practice interpretive Anything Goes is to evaluate their conclusions. The verdict is now in. These postmodernists do not practice what they preach. They broke their collective promise. They may not accept anything that pops into their heads, and they may examine a text carefully from their point of view, and some scholarship is better than others. However, Jesus, who occupies a privileged place in the hearts of two billion-plus faithful and in a sacred text, has been deconstructed, that is, dethroned, overturned, in odd ways and by radical scholarship. These scholars come as close as possible to interpretive Anything Goes.
It must also be stated that the Jesus critics examined in this article may not use the label "postmodernist" or "deconstructionist" as such to describe themselves, except Krause and Moore, the last two. However, it is quite apparent that the critics are not moderate, not even close. Evidently, they have breathed the air and drunk the water of this large and mostly destructive intellectual movement.
We have been tracking two key words throughout this series. One is the odd and big word "transmogrification," which I have come to appreciate while writing this series. Recall that Webster's Dictionary says that its origin is unknown (postmodernism plays with origins or nonorigins). It means a great change or alteration, "often with grotesque or humorous effect."
These critics have done that to Jesus. Their altered versions of him have become grotesque and humorous. The second key word is the prefix "hyper." Their scholarship is hyper-skeptical, except when they embrace farfetched evidence. Then they drop their hyper-skepticism, only to follow it again, once they return to the New Testament. Regardless of their inconsistency, they end up being hyper-radical (see Part One, linked below, for the justification of the prefix "hyper"). Who can rightly doubt this?
The next two articles present the other side.
James Arlandson may be contacted at email@example.com