Sunday, July 17, 2005

Anti-Semitism and scholarship

My post about gnosticism ended by essentially blaming anti-Semitism for much of the rancor and controversy surrounding gnostic texts, both in the ancient world and today. I argued that the ancient split between orthodox and gnostic Christianity might have looked quite different had an earlier split not taken place between Jews and all of Christianity, or at least if that split had not gone down its lamentable road to full-blown anti-Semitism. Gnostic and orthodox Christianity were essentially in a contest over which of them was the closer representative of Jesus and of Christianity's origins. Sometimes these Christians were aware of the question in these terms, and sometimes they lost sight of it; but in all cases, Jews were generally not available anymore to help illuminate the origins of Jesus and his first followers. So the fight between these forms of Christianity was denied access to some real answers, and to that extent became more a hostile contest of strength.

At Wikipedia recently I found evidence for what can happen, when anti-Semitism subsides, to a question about Christian origins that languished for a long time without resolution or consensus.

The Testimonium Flavianum is a brief paragraph about Jesus that is found in surviving copies of The Antiquities of the Jews, a late first-century work by the Jewish historian Josephus. The onetime consensus among Protestant, Jewish and secularist scholars, against Roman Catholic opinion, was that the whole paragraph was written later by Christian scribes and not by Josephus himself. It can fairly be said that through the early 20th century, such was the majority of modern scholarly opinion -- since Roman Catholic work, in these years long before Vatican II, had not yet become fully modern. This opinion, that Josephus did not provide an extrabiblical witness to the existence and ministry of Jesus, flourished at the same time that the idea of Jesus' possible nonexistence reached its peak in scholarly circles (though this peak never left the margins of scholarship). But work on the Testimonium in recent decades has been marked by the participation of Jews on both sides of the question. And now there is what formerly seemed elusive, a growing consensus among Protestants, Jews, secularists and Catholics -- indeed among scholars of all faiths and methods. As noted at Wikipedia, a 2003 survey of scholars reveals growing agreement, now in the majority, that Josephus wrote something about Jesus which was, however, edited or corrupted later into its exact present form.

The inclusion of Jewish scholars is not the only factor: the 20th century discovery of new manuscripts has also been crucial. Indeed I wonder if a case could be made here for the importance of healing the rift with the Islamic world, since the most important recent discovery has been the publication in 1971 of a 10th-century Arabic version of the Testimonium, as preserved by a Christian Arab of the same century. This Arabic-language Testimonium has Josephus speaking of Christ in more neutral terms, not like a Christian scribe ready to use worshipful words about Jesus, but in a manner that sounds like a first-century Jewish historian.

Whatever the reason, it's remarkable for a consensus on a question so widely studied to shift this far -- and even more remarkable that it should shift away from what was once regarded to be modern, up-to-date scholarship. It's also fascinating to see how an increase of opinions, dialogue and evidence has made it possible for scholars widely to identify how the former opinions of their field had been subjective.

It is almost no longer argued that the Testimonium is completely authentic; even fundamentalist scholars are willing to concede that Josephus did not write all of the Testimonium as it has come down to us. And there is a decreasing percentage of scholars who ply the opposite argument that the Testimonium is completely inauthentic. The chief place where this argument is heard is among wholesale skeptics, particularly on the Web; these writers remain outside the growing consensus.

I quote the following summary by a Josephus scholar at length, not only for its relevance to the question of the Testimonium; she also covers the question of postmodernism and its disillusionment with Enlightenment skepticism. And I quote it simply because it offers us one instance of difficult division giving way to agreement. Alice Whealey writes:

Twentieth century controversy over the Testimonium Flavianum can be distinguished from controversy over the text in the early modern period insofar as it seems generally more academic and less sectarian. While the challenge to the authenticity of the Testimonium in the early modern period was orchestrated almost entirely by Protestant scholars and while in the same period Jews outside the church uniformly denounced the text’s authenticity, the twentieth century controversies over the text have been marked by the presence of Jewish scholars for the first time as prominent participants on both sides of the question. In general, the attitudes of Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish and secular scholars towards the text have drawn closer together, with a greater tendency among scholars of all religious backgrounds to see the text as largely authentic. On the one hand this can be interpreted as the result of an increasing trend towards secularism, which is usually seen as product of modernity. On the other hand it can be interpreted as a sort of post-modern disillusionment with the verities of modern skepticism, and an attempt to recapture the sensibility of the ancient world, when it apparently was still possible for a first-century Jew to have written a text as favorable towards Jesus of Nazareth as the Testimonium Flavianum.

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