Learning from Fallacies
Last week (29-31 August) featured the 2013 British New Testament Conference (in St. Andrews), always a combination of scholarly papers (of varying persuasiveness), catching up with long-time colleagues, and meeting bright and energetic postgrad students from various universities. The BNTC was founded through the leadership efforts of J.D.G. Dunn and (the late) Graham Stanton, in discussions commencing in 1978, the first BNTC held in 1980 (Glasgow). (For more information, the British New Testament Society web site is here.)
At this year’s BNTC I had the honour of giving the (now annual) Graham Stanton Lecture, in honour of this much-admired colleague. My lecture title = “Fashions, Fallacies and Futures in NT Studies.” I briefly mentioned one or two obvious “fashions” (emphases that rise in interest and then fall just as quickly), but spent more time on a couple of views long and widely held that are now rather clearly seen as fallacies. My purpose was not to gloat, but to urge us to learn from these things. I’ll briefly mention here the two fallacies that I discussed.
For several decades a number of scholars confidently asserted that there was a pre-Christian gnostic redeemer myth that was well-known in the cultural setting of earliest Christianity, and that accounts for such ideas as the incarnation of Jesus “the Son”, and his heavenly ascent. The idea stems from scholars in the early 20th-century referred to as the “religionsgeschichtliche Schule” (“History of Religion School), but the idea was really taken up more widely under the influence of Rudolf Bultmann. But since at least the crucial study by Carsten Colpe (1961), it has been clear that there was never any actual pre-Christian evidence for the idea, and that it was a fabrication.
The other fallacy I discussed (related to the first fallacy) was even more widely held: The notion that there was in pre-Christian Jewish tradition a widespread and coherent belief in a heavenly figure who bore the title “the Son of Man.” From the early 70s onward, however, it became increasingly clear that there was actually no evidence for this notion. Among early critiques, Ragnar Leivestad’s two articles were influential. Leivestad referred to the idea as a “theological phantom,” and proclaimed the “exit” of the apocalyptic Son of Man. To be sure, there were ancient Jewish ideas about various messianic-type figures and various exalted/heavenly beings, and the figure in Daniel 7:13-14 was sometimes taken as a messianic figure. (See, e.g., my discussion of various such figures in my book, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism, 1988; 2nd ed. 1998.)
But these various notions did not comprise some supposedly coherent belief in a particular figure, and none of these figures bore the supposed title “The Son of Man.” (Even in the references to “the Elect One” in the “Similitudes” of 1 Enoch we don’t have a fixed title “The Son of Man” used. There are several Ethiopic expressions used in this text, although English translations often translate them all as “the Son of Man,” giving a misleading impression of a fixed title. See, e.g., the studies in the multi-author volume, ‘Who is This Son of Man?’ The Latest Scholarship on a Puzzling Expression of the Historical Jesus, eds. Larry Hurtado and Paul Owen [T&T Clark, 2011].)
So the haunting question is how learned, critical scholars for so long (several decades in both cases) took one or both of these ideas so confidently as valid, when we can now see that they are fallacies. I propose that part of the reason was the misguided view of what “historical” explanation involved.
There seems to have been the notion that “historical/critical” explanation of something meant showing that it had been derived from some putative precedent-source. So, scholars scoured the ancient world, ranging geographically from Gaul to the Indus Valley, and chronologically from the Persian to the Medieval periods, invoking any text or idea that looked similar enough to posit it as the source of this or that belief or ritual attested in the NT. In the case of the “pre-Christian gnostic redeemer myth,” this meant using texts from the 5th-7th century CE to develop a myth that could be projected back to pre-Christian times, so that it could “explain” the sort of Christological ideas that we find, for example, in Paul or the Gospel of John. In short, chronology went out the window, in the ill-judged effort to perform “historical/critical” explanation.
Moreover, as Suzanne Marchand showed in her impressive study, German Orientalism in the Age of Empire: Religion, Race, and Scholarship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), the “religionsgeschichtliche Schule” were German intellectuals deeply concerned about what they saw as the moral and spiritual decadence of the German Volk, and sought to develop a form of Christian faith that could be embraced by “modern” Germans. Thereby, these scholars hoped to revitalize the German people spiritually, and so strengthen the German people politically, socially, and in wider areas of the time. So, various ideas that they regarded as primitive and embarrassing (e.g. “high” christological beliefs) could be pruned by positing that they were influences from “pagan/oriental” sources, allowing for the moral/ethicizing form of “Liberal” Christianity that these scholars favoured to be promoted.
But, as I say, the point isn’t to gloat and indulge in “Schadenfreude,” but to recognize that, if such great scholars of the past could hold confidently ideas that we now know to be fallacies, today’s scholars need to learn from this. How are our various larger interests and personal dispositions unconsciously shaping our scholarly predilections? What simplistic notions have we inadequately examined?
The nature of proper scholarly discourse should involve this sort of self-critical emphasis and the testing of assumptions that may be widely held, and at its best this is what scholarly discourse includes. If this characterizes NT studies, the futures of the field will be more promising.