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Elaine Pagels (again) on the Gospels of John and Thomas

October 30, 2013

Many thanks to Mike Grondin over at the Gospel of Thomas online discussion group for pointing out this lecture at Vanderbilt Divinity School featuring Elaine Pagels. Pagels begins by recounting the Nag Hammadi discoveries and from there, proceeds to outline her understanding of the relationship between the Gospels of John of Thomas. Her work on this question is well-known and served the basis of her 2003 bestseller, Beyond Belief. Pagels was (along with April DeConick and Gregory Riley) one of three primary conversation partners with whom I interacted during my doctoral research. While I happen to disagree with her conclusions, I find her scholarship compelling. If you have two hours free (and who doesn’t?), you should consider checking it out.

Book Review: Anthony Le Donne, The Wife of Jesus

October 24, 2013

Last Friday I received in the mail a shiny copy of Anthony Le Donne’s latest book, The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals (London: OneWorld, 2013). Vexed by curiosity and a strange desire for self-flagellation (and also currently in the middle of three other books), I decided to drop everything and read it at once. I’m glad I did because–let me put an end to the suspense–I really like this book! This is the fourth of Le Donne’s books that I have read and here, as elsewhere, he writes with characteristic wit, attention to overlooked details, and an adept use of pop culture references. He does all of this while raising issues the reader may not be anticipating. I know that I was surprised by some of the turns Le Donne’s discussions took throughout the book. I should point out at the outset of my remarks that this book is not an academic treatise but rather an exposition of scholarly questions (and answers) in a format that is both readable and perfectly suited for the non-specialist. Now for my review:

Introduction: Le Donne sets the stage by wondering aloud, “what does it say about us that we’re so fascinated and repulsed by th[e] possibility” that Jesus was married (p. 7) ? This question betrays a much larger concern expressed throughout the book: when we in the Christianized West talk, think, and deliberate about Jesus, we are often talking, thinking, and deliberating about ourselves, our culture, and our particular religious understandings. Christian cultures have been creating Jesus in their own images for the better part of two millennia, and this is no doubt true when it comes to the unmarried, asexual, celibate Jesus of modern (mainly Western) Christian imagination. Le Donne demonstrates here and elsewhere in the book, how historical thinking about Jesus evolves, and exposes several iterations of Jesus and Mary Magdalene in order to provide a more robust historical context.

Chapter One (“According to the Flesh”): Here Le Donne looks at the Jesus of orthodox Christian confession with an eye to demonstrating why a Jesus with a sexual identity is troublesome for so many. If Jesus was “fully human,” as both the creeds insist and his earthly existence would suggest, then we would expect Jesus to be, in most respects, like everyone else. This would dictate that Jesus had some sort of sexual awareness, even if he chose to reject or ignore it. Le Donne is spot on that Westerners are simultaneously obsessed with and terrified by sex. Westerners also associate sexuality with something inherently sinful or faulty. How then, can Jesus be a model for humanity and have also had (or worse, expressed) sexual awareness? Le Donne concludes that traditional arguments for Jesus’ celibacy cannot be sustained since they are rooted in assumptions that do not fully account for his humanity.

Chapter Two (“Substance and Shadow”): Professional historians and those who draw upon the work of professional historians must be prepared to reckon with the difficult issue of silence. Our earliest texts about Jesus–the four canonical gospels and possibly the Gospel of Thomas–do not explicitly tell us that Jesus was single, nor do they affirm that he was married. As with any debate, the burden of proof lies with anyone who would make an affirmative argument. To complicate matters, we know of so many other married men in the NT (e.g., James, Peter, the brothers of Jesus, etc.) and we never meet their wives. Thus, it does not automatically follow that just because the NT is silent about Jesus’ wife, this means he never married. An ancillary point made in this chapter–and one that Le Donne raises several other times in the book–is how women are either nameless, faceless agents in the story of Jesus, or manipulated greatly (especially in the case of Mary Magadalene) as it fits the purposes of the church.

Chapters Three & Four (“Something About Mary” / “Mrs. Christ”): These two chapters have Mary Magdalene as a primary focus and trace her development from disciple to wealthy patron to prostitute. At the end of chapter four, this helpful paragraph succinctly sums up Mary’s evolution in the Christian imagination:

In the first two centuries after Mary Magdalene’s death she went from disciple, to obscurity, to a target for misogyny. Her legacy was confused with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Parallel to this progression, Mary became the ideal and transcendent disciple, and an object of jealousy. From the Middle Ages onward, she became the harbinger of vices. Twelve hundred years after she died, she became inexplicably wealthy. She was royalty, owner of a walled city, but tragically given to sensuality. In short, Mary Magdalene became a prostitute in the imaginations of the Christianized West. She became the exemplary sinner and the model of penitence during the Reformation. In the modern world – sexualized as she was – she became a modern, worldly woman. She was the object of Jesus’ desire and temptation. She became the lover of Jesus and then, finally, the wife of Jesus (p. 67).

Chapter Five (“Smithing Jesus”): This might be my favorite chapter in the entire book. Here Le Donne examines the way Jesus has been used to advance specific agendas by looking at the “polygamist Jesus” of early Mormon tradition and the “gay Jesus” of Morton Smith. Again, he reveals how when we talk about Jesus we are often simply using him as a means to some self-serving religious, political, or social end. He concludes that spotting the agendas behind such extreme (and extremely inaccurate) agendas as the “polygamist Jesus” and the “gay Jesus” is fairly easy for us, but what proves to be more difficult is identifying our own agendas and how we project them onto Jesus.

Chapter Six (“From Persia With Love”): I have to say that I wasn’t expecting this chapter but I thought it helped Le Donne focus his presentation more toward Westerners who view love, marriage, & sex as inextricably linked. Le Donne traces the rise of “romantic love” as a dominant concept in Western thought and suggests that we often bristle at the idea of a married Jesus because we lump together marriage and sex with romance. He points out, however, that marriage in Jesus’ socio-historical context was utilitarian and pragmatic, having implications for the survival of the family unit (in which the father-son dynamic was the most important relationship). An awareness of this fact will give us pause before insisting that Jesus could not have been married.

Chapter Seven (“Average Joe”): A brief, almost transitional chapter, “Average Joe” suggests that it was likely that Jesus was a Jewish male like other Jewish males of his time. He could have had an arranged marriage prior to his public career and his parents would certainly have felt a societal pressure to make this happen. The chapter ends with these helpful thoughts:Buddy Christ

The New Testament does not tell us that Jesus was married. But it also does not tell us if he ever skipped a stone, or laughed, or learned to dance, or countless other things that would have been common to the human experience. Are we to conclude that Jesus never whistled a tune just because the Gospels do not say so?….I would argue that our default position should be that he did skip stones, and whistle tunes, and that he did get married — unless we have good reason to think otherwise (p. 116).

Chapters Eight & Nine (“Alternative Lifestyle” / “Bride of Christ): These chapters represent the heart of Le Donne’s argument that Jesus was likely not married. He builds a case for what he calls, “civic masculinity” (chapter eight) which is “built on the premise that the ideal male would have the power and responsibility of ownership. However wealthy he was, he would wield authority over his people and possessions. In this way, the ideal civic male would contribute to the larger economic and social integrity of the nation” (pp. 120-21). But this isn’t how Jesus behaved, at least not according to the gospel tradition. Jesus encouraged his followers to forsake social and economic security and he taught in ways that would surely have been seen as undermining the “traditional” family in his context. Le Donne also emphasizes how early church tradition drew upon the idea of a “wedding feast” to paint the picture of eschatological consummation (chapter nine). This latter image is often (mis)appropriated as a theological justification for why Jesus couldn’t have been married. All that “marriage talk” must be simply spiritual, right?

Chapter Ten (“Was Jesus Married?”): In this concluding chapter, Le Donne offers his final reflections on why Jesus was likely not married, while continuing to emphasize that if you want to make this argument, it must be for reasons other than those traditionally provided. Two excerpts from this chapter, to my mind, helpfully conclude the argument of the book:

In short, our earliest and best sources for the life of Jesus do not give us the portrait of a teacher who instructed men to become civic patrons. Given all of this evidence, the pertinent question remains: Did Jesus practice what he preached? I think that he probably did. This, of course, does not prove that Jesus was unmarried before his preaching career. It does, however, make it very difficult to imaine that he was married to Mary Magdalene or to any of his followers. In his career as religious leader–short lived as it was–Jesus was a sexual nonconformist. Specifically, he had invested in the two-sided coin of economic disobligation and celibacy (p. 161).

and

I would challenge my readers to remember that the “why” questions of history are just as important as the “what” questions. Jesus was not celibate because sex is sinful or because the Church has claimed status as the wife of Jesus. If true–if our most celebrated and despised icon was celibate for other reasons–we in the Christianized West will do well to reconsider our misogynistic and fear-driven notions of sexuality. Perhaps our notions of civic masculinity will become casualties on our continued quest for the wife of Jesus (p. 162).

I would like to close by pointing out three things about this book that make it useful, especially for the non-specialist:

(1) The Wife of Jesus shows us how often we pose the right questions for the wrong reasons or attempt to answer the right questions with flawed or faulty logic. If we are going to insist that Jesus was celibate/single, let’s do it for the kinds of reasons Le Donne proposes.

(2) I have already mentioned this, but a strength of this book is it’s emphasis on how a given culture’s Jesus will change according to the ideas and sometimes, whims of the day. The Jesuses of the church and the Jesuses of academia are ever-evolving. This book shows how a little historical context can go a long way.

(3) This book does what it can to rescue, restore, and demonstrate the value of women in Jesus’ life and in the contemporary life of faith. I know it’s an ancillary concern in the overall scheme of the book, but Le Donne has skillfully kept this in the forefront of our thinking by weaving into the discussion throughout the book.

No doubt, there are things I have failed to emphasize in this review (and I invite Anthony to point those out). That said, I would like to conclude by recommending this book enthusiastically. In a culture where ideas about Jesus abound and terribly uninformed portraits like those recently provided by Reza Aslan and Bill O’Reilly receive wide attention, one can only hope that the sane, sober, careful reflections of a book like this will be noticed.

Frank Moloney on Love in John’s Gospel

October 23, 2013

Today I received my copy of Frank Moloney’s latest book, Love in the Gospel of John: An Exegetical, Theological, and Literary Study (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013). I have only had a chance to read the preface and the opening chapter but I know intuitively (and can promise you that) this is going to be very useful book. I had a chance to view much of the book prior to its publication and I have been engaged with Frank in enough classes and lunch conversations over the years to appreciate his status as an authority on all-things-Johannine. To go along with the book there are a few things of interest. Baker Academic has posted a description of the book along with a detailed rationale from Frank for why he wrote the book. During the last year, Frank was in the US, teaching at Graduate Theological Union (Berkeley, CA) over the summer, and at St. Mary’s Seminary and Graduate School of Theology (Cleveland, OH) for the beginning of the fall semester. Just prior to his recent departure back to Australia, Frank gave the Mullen lecture at St. Mary’s. His talk was entitled, “Love in the Gospel of John: To What End?,” the text of which has been reproduced on the St. Mary’s website.

This book will prove to be a useful resource, but if you are unsure of my recommendation, just check out a few of the other endorsements the book has already received from well-known scholars in the field:

“Francis J. Moloney is one of the most distinguished Catholic scholars of John’s Gospel in the English-speaking world today. In his latest work on the Fourth Gospel, he displays his fine gifts as an able teacher. Having absorbed a vast amount of literature on the topic of love in John’s Gospel, he presents his own argument in a clear, orderly form that even the uninitiated can grasp.” – John P. Meier, Warren Chair Professor of Theology, University of Notre Dame

“What better way to crown a lifetime of research and writing on the Gospel of John than to produce a book on its major theme of love! Francis Moloney, one of the world’s leading experts on the Gospel, has brought to bear his keen analysis of the text and vast knowledge of the secondary literature in this comprehensive study. Moloney not only illuminatingly treats God’s love for the world in the giving of the Son, the love commandment, and the Beloved Disciple but also embeds the discussion of such topics in the developing narrative as it moves towards Jesus’ hour of glory. In showing how love pervades this Gospel and is integrally related to its other major themes, Moloney’s engaging book is bound to become indispensable reading for all students of John’s Gospel and its theology.” -Andrew T. Lincoln, Portland Professor of New Testament Studies, University of Gloucestershire

“Love plays a central role in the Gospel of John, and in this fine volume Frank Moloney offers a richly textured interpretation of the theme. With insights gained from a lifetime of engagement with this Gospel, Moloney invites readers to see the many facets of love that are disclosed by John’s narrative and to discover anew the ways in which love’s many dimensions cohere in the self-giving actions of Jesus. Scholars and students, theologians and pastors will welcome this compelling treatment of the idea that shapes John’s understanding of God, Jesus, and the path of discipleship.” – Craig R. Koester, Asher O. and Carrie Nasby Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, Minnesota

Larry Hurtado on Peer Review in Biblical Scholarship

October 21, 2013

Over at Larry Hurtado’s blog, there is a decent little primer on peer review with specific focus on how peer review works in a field of the humanities such as Biblical studies. This is helpful in that (1) comes from someone with the expertise and reputation that Hurtado possesses, and (2) there are recent (and some might say, pernicious) attempts to subvert the peer review process by making outrageous and untenable claims like “the Romans invented Jesus.” I’m just spitballin’ here, but I’m not sure such a grandiose claim would pass the “peer review sniff test.”

Some Friday Wisdom from C. Clifton Black

October 18, 2013

Today, while reading the afterword in the 2nd edition of Clifton Black’s magisterial book, The Disciples according to Mark, I came across this gem:

It is a sadly ludicrous truism that doctoral dissertations in the humanities are written for an audience of one (the student’s director), at most three to five (a committee). If the dissertation be approved, never again should an author with scholarly aspirations write for so few. Should Fortune smile and one’s dissertation be accepted for publication, the potential readership is enlarged, though the royalties thereafter are dismal reminders that a closet of regular dimensions would accomodate that audience (pp. 302-3).

I find it incredibly ironic (and soberingly confirming) that I would read this little nugget on the very same day I received the first royalty check from my most recent book. Nevertheless, I remain very thankful that I get to while away the days doing something I love and care about this much.

Book Notice: A Student Handbook of Greek and English Grammar

October 15, 2013

A few weeks back I received a promotional offer for an exam copy of Robert Mondi & Peter L. Corrigan, A Student Handbook of Greek and English Grammar (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2013). I received my copy last week and had a chance to examine it over the weekend. The book is attractive, both inside and out–not something you always see from a smaller, independent publisher. What I like even more is that Mondi & Corrigan do a nice job of introducing students to the nuances of Greek grammar while presenting the similarities and differences in English grammar. I like this book so much that I am thinking of listing it is a required text for my Greek II course next semester. Many (if not most) of my students were educated in a public school system that did not teach grammar as part of the curriculum. This lacuna in their education has created a situation in which I must continually explain the nuances of English grammar before I can explain how Greek grammar functions. So this book helps fill a gap but can also assist students who have a decent knowledge of English grammar in learning Greek grammar more seamlessly. One caveat: the book is focused on classical Greek, so some of the examples may not be as pertinent if you are teaching Biblical Greek. In the end, I think that concern will prove largely immaterial.

O’Reilly’s Jesus: The “Dirty Work” Has Been Done For Us

October 15, 2013

Over at The Biblical World, John Byron reviews Billy O’Reilly’s book on Jesus so that you and I don’t have to waste our time. Thanks, John for taking one for the team!