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More on “Labels” and Scholarship

October 20, 2014

Personally, I have little time for labelling scholars (e.g., “liberal,” “conservative,” etc.).  The only question for me is what someone is saying and the adequacy of their basis for saying it.  I hold the view that you should have to read a scholar’s work before you make up your mind about it.  How about that for radical!

But I know that lots of other folk, including lots of other scholars, seek to label everybody, and then use such labels through which to read/hear what someone says.  So, e.g., they’ll judge a book by its publisher, or by the institutional base of the author.  In the USA especially, this seems to be a big activity.  Nothing compares, of course, to the stupidly polarized political situation (Fox News has a lot to answer for when the last judgement takes place!).  But even sober scholars (who should know better) can be guilty of trying to peg other scholars and label them, often thereby determining in advance what to make of what these labelled scholars have to say.

Now it’s true that some people operate as activists of this or that “cause” or camp.  E.g., there are those who see themselves as defenders of a “conservative” position in NT studies, actively policing the lines to ensure that their notion of proper views are maintained, and quick to identify those not “conservative” in order to marginalize what they say/write.  Likewise, there are equally militant exponents of “liberal” positions who do similar things.  These folk actively fly a given flag, and operate as supporters of a given political stance in scholarship.  That they do so openly makes it better, actually, than the covert labelling often practiced by some others.

But to my mind, for scholarship to mean anything, the only thing that counts is what a given scholar says/writes, and how well based it is:  How well it takes account of all relevant evidence, how soundly it is reasoned, how well it engages the positions of others, etc.  Of course, the values, and even the personal qualities, of a given scholar may well shape what she/he writes.  Granted, there is no truly “unconcerned objectivity” in a subject as “hot” as the NT/Christian Origins.  But we can aim to be fair, honest with the data, transparent in how we work it.

I’ve occasionally been contacted asking if I’m “conservative” or “liberal” or “evangelical,” which actually pleases me.  For it suggests that maybe what I’ve written isn’t so easily labelled.  When asked, I may reply that I’m all those, and more, if I’m allowed to define what the terms mean.  But, really, I’m just a scholar of Christian Origins, seeking to understand what I regard as a fascinating phenomenon:  the origins and emergence of what became “Christianity”.  I’m sure I’ve got things to learn still (though I’ve been at it for nearly fifty years, as student and scholar), but I don’t know that I’m trying to fly some fleet flag or advance some party cause.  I’m just trying to do the best work I can, within my real limitations.  And I just want to assess what others do as best I can in terms of the same criteria by which I hope to be judged.

So, that’s the only label I think I would own.

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  1. Steve Walach permalink

    Larry –

    Back in June you recommended Craig Evans’ new book “From Jesus to the Church.” I have no intention of labeling Evans as liberal, conservative, Marxist etc. However, he seems to hold a mindset that affects his analysis of James, referring to him as “second in command” to Peter, even though the very examples Evans presents could easily lead readers to a radically different conclusion. As a non-NT scholar I’ll try to evaluate the facts as they appear on the page and argue the validity of the conclusions Evans derives from them.

    When Peter is arrested by Agrippa I and then escapes he says, “Tell this to James and the brethren” (Acts 12:17b). Evans infers that Peter’s instruction “implies that James is ‘second in command,’ as it were” (65). However, it could also imply that Peter is a faithful lieutenant dutifully reporting back to his commander. One could also infer that Agrippa arrests Peter not because he is the acknowledged leader of the Jesus movement but perhaps because Agrippa knows full well that James – Evans’ ‘second in command’ – is the real leader and has a much wider and politically connected base of support than Peter, so why tempt fate. Years later, James’ loyalists succeed in ousting Ananus – no small feat – after he has James stoned to death, and one could infer that Agrippa – “that fox” – would have been privy to important details regarding James’ political support among prominent Judeans and decided to leave well enough alone.

    Evans quotes from 1 Cor. 15, in which Paul cites the resurrected Jesus’ appearance to James. He adds, “… we infer it was Jesus’ appearance after the resurrection that transformed James into a believer” (59). The supporting evidence for Evans’ inference is that in the gospels James is both a marginal and marginalized figure; consequently, Evans marvels, James’ elevation to leadership of the Jesus movement “is something of a mystery” (59). Is it less mystery or more an example of cognitive dissonance?

    When Paul comes hat in hand to Jerusalem (Galatians 2) seeking approval of his mission to the Gentiles, it is James he lists first, presumably in order of prominence. Although Peter has the first word speaking on behalf of Paul’s good intentions in Acts 15, it is James who has the last word and who gives directions that Paul must follow. The final decision rests with James and not Peter, and Evans sees this as “surprising” (68). Surprising only if we rely entirely on the gospels, and cast Acts, and then Paul’s letters – which pre-date the gospels – to secondary status.

    By leaning so heavily on the tradition of Peter’s indisputable leadership, Evans misses a conclusion his own evidence points to: namely, that James was not a late-comer or a second in command but “the gate of Jesus” (111), a title Evans reluctantly adopts in the book’s penultimate chapter.

    Would Robert Myles conclude that Evans is operating out an ideology he cannot acknowledge? Would you? Because Evans is perplexed by factual details that he himself raises – best evidenced by his use of the words “mystery” and “surprise,” logic leads me to consider that very possibility.

    • Steve: I have no idea what Myles would say, and it’s not that important. You raise some critical questions about Evans’s judgements on some issues. Fair enough. But let’s not drag ideological accusations into the discussion, OK? If a scholar overlooks something or misjudged something, that’s the point to argue about. But, to respond on behalf of the evidence (not on behalf of Evans), Paul cites Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to “Kephas” (Peter) first in the list in 1 Cor 15:3-8, which does suggest a priority. Moreover, in Gal 1:18-19, he describes his purpose in visiting Jerusalem as specifically to visit and make inquiries from Kephas, and then he mentions meeting James as well.
      So, Evans is by no means alone is judging that Peter had a certain special status in the early Jesus movement, but that at some early point James came to leadership specifically in Jerusalem. Peter seems to have exercised a somewhat more trans-local leadership.

  2. Michael Brugge permalink

    I think “liberal” and “conservative” are particularly un-helpful labels. I think these political labels get imported to the fields by lazy journalists, and then get adopted both by historians and theologians who should resist the temptation to use these labels. They come with too much baggage from the world of politics and culture wars.

  3. anton permalink

    well said, Larry.

  4. Interesting thoughts, although I am only in partial agreement. I’ve written a critical response over on my own blog.

    • Robert: Interesting response. Too bad that it doesn’t really reflect an effort to understand where I’m coming from, or even pay attention to what I cited as illustrations of my focus. And I do take offence at the accusation of being “disingenuous” (= “insincere, lacking candour”). You can certainly disagree with me, no offence taken. But to impugn my character is really kidney-punching and unworthy of someone such as yourself who I presume wishes to be treated with fairness.

      • Larry, no personal smear was intended and I find it troubling that you would make such a claim. R

      • Robert: Then what is your understanding of the adjective “disingenuous”?

      • Have another look at the post (which remains unchanged). The word “disingenuous” appears twice: both times in reference to the use of ideology as “false consciousness”. There is nothing personal here.

      • Robert: I’ve just had another look, and you still seem to me to be saying that I’ve cloaked or not been candid in my ideology. I find that ad hominem, and offensive. You never establish your basis, but simply assert it. That’s neither fair nor sound.

      • Larry: With all due respect, that is what I am claiming, but it is in no way a personal attack. Rather, it’s a reflection of the ideological framework out of which your scholarship is operating. Although I don’t explicitly reference him, the basis is made by applying Fredric Jameson’s theory on the ideological unconscious to your post. I’m sorry if you find that offensive, but it’s not ad hominem.

      • Robert: If what you mean to say is that I’m unwittingly (naively?) working within a “framework” or outlook and should examine it more closely, then say that. That’s a critical comment to which I can respond, and might lead to fruitful results (for you and/or for me). But terms such as “disingenuous” are accusations, not critique, and unavoidably will be offensive.

      • I think that’s more or less what I have argued. But instead of engaging with my argument, you’ve accused me of being offensive and implicating you in a class struggle.

      • Ok, Robert, if you’ve now dropped using the term “disingenuous,” and want to focus on my alleged failures of insight or outlook, let’s talk issues. For my part, I fail to see that affirming the importance of sound argument, full evidence, and transparent analysis comprises some ignorance or cognitive dimness on my part. My posting was solely about the uselessness of “liberal” and “conservative” labels and such like. I can’t find any forbidding or disdain for the various approaches that now figure in biblical studies (e.g., Bible and/in modern culture, feminist criticism, etc.). So, what makes you think that I’m some ogre about these matters?

      • Thanks Larry. Again, however, rather than responding to the arguments made in my post, you’ve said you don’t see it that way, without actually giving any reason for why. I’m also not sure about the second part of your comment, as my post never claimed these things.

      • Robert: What arguments did you make? Forgive me for any denseness from your standpoint, but, honestly, I didn’t see any arguments in your posting. You *asserted* that my posting (which simply pled for fairness, for examining one another’s evidence, arguments, etc.) reflected a “disingenuous” ideological stance (that’s not an argument). You agreed with some of what I said (not an argument). So, help me see any argument, and I’ll try to engage it. OK? (Honest).

      • Okay, I’ll try and summarize in a helpful way. Look to my original post for further details.

        In my response I largely agreed with what you had written, but noted that (evoking a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’) things are not always as they appear on the surface. So I sought to explore what might be unconsciously hidden beneath your musings.

        I suggested that one possible rupture was the term “sober scholars” which, when combined with your ideals of what constitutes good scholarship (which I also largely agree with), appear to conceal underlying power dynamics within academic discourse (things like who get’s a voice, how do underlying economic structures and cultural contexts affect directions in research, and so on). You’ll note I included the quote where you grant there is no such thing as “unconcerned objectivity”. My issue here is that you appear to be saying the values of fairness, transparency, and so on are what really matter at the end of the day. But from my perspective, this is not enough, as a focus on these values does not adequately address how academic discourse is already overdetermined by ideology.

        To try and make sense of why you don’t seem to realize this, I distinguished between two conceptions of ideology, and, based on the preceding analysis, deduced that you are operating out of the conception of ideology as “false consciousness”. This understanding views ideology as something bad and to be avoided. This contrasts with the idea that we all operate within frameworks of ideology, and that ideology doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing, so long as it is addressed. This latter conception also entails a good deal more than presuppositions, values and personal qualities, but is connected to things like material conditions (i.e. the dominant make-up of the academic discipline, as I alluded to earlier in the post). The argument I made is that in your post, and also in your wider musings on the discipline, you are disavowing this second conception of ideology. In other words, you seem unaware that you often speak past the ways in which ideology (e.g. a modernist epistemology, the material make-up of the discipline, etc) is already shaping your own thoughts and ideals about how scholarship operates and/or the discipline is constructed.

        Your defence appears to be to claim you are not doing this, or that it misrepresents your position, and then reasserting the values and points you have already made. This defence, combined with the remark that you find my arguments offensive, however, confirms to me that you are still operating within the “false consciousness” conception of ideology. To respond to the argument adequately you would need to demonstrate how you are either not using ideology in this way, or demonstrate how your focus on academic values don’t conceal and potentially re-inscribe underlying power relations that a good deal of humanities research over the past 40 years has already exposed.

      • Ok, Robert. That’s basically clear. Actually, I am already well aware of all that you say: that no one is free from an outlook or presuppositions, that academic discourse is conventionalized by various factors, etc. Because all this is fairly well known, that may have been the reason why I couldn’t immediately sense what was your point or arguments.
        Actually, I can’t find a place in any of my writings where I “disavow” that I’m an exception and don’t have any framework. Indeed, I’ve repeatedly acknowledged that we all do, and have laid out the questions that I address, the means I use in addressing them, and the criteria that I operate with in doing so. How much clearer can one be? Of course I use what you call a “modernist epistemology”: Have I disguised this somehow, or given reason to think that I don’t know this? I conduct historical investigations of Christian Origins in a discourse mode that can be addressed/engaged by others of various nations, languages, and philosophical/religious stances. I don’t do special pleading. If that’s “modernist”, then guilty as charged. But don’t think I’m ignorant of that. OK?
        Oh, and it wasn’t your “arguments” that I found offensive, as I’ve repeatedly and clearly indicated. It was the accusatory term “disingenuous”, which unavoidably connotes “cloaking, dissimulation” etc. That’s not an argument, Robert. That’s simply accusation.
        Actually, I still don’t see argumentation, but essentially labelling.
        So, if you want to do something more, point me to some work of yours in which you address the NT and/or Christian Origins and show how your own approach makes a difference, how you disclose something that adds to our knowledge/understanding.

      • Based on your response I suspect we might not get any further in our discussion. But thanks anyway for attempting to engage with my arguments.

        Since you asked, my book which came out earlier this year (The Homeless Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew) addresses the scholarly interpretation of Jesus’ homelessness in light of ideology. The book demonstrates how an improved exegesis of the text can be achieved when broader ideological trends are discussed rather than disavowed.

      • Well, thanks for your generous tolerance of my inability to say anything sensible in response to your “arguments”, Robert. And good luck with the book.

  5. jesselukerichards permalink

    Thank you for being a scholar first in your academic work. Your commitment to evidence, reason, and charitable interaction in the scholarly community is a great example for young emerging scholars.

    • Jesse: That’s very kind of you. It’s not really about me, however, but about advocating a fair and reasonable consideration of scholarly work without first labelling it.

  6. samtsang98 permalink

    The labels are so passé anyway. Thanks for your call to stop this nonsense.

  7. Larry Burton permalink

    What an intelligent and transparent position. It is the reason your blog is my “go to” for what I believe to be the most solid, unbiased, and humble understanding of early Christanity. Thank you so very much.

  8. Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging and commented:
    Thanks Dr. Hurtado for your honest and reasonable thoughts!!

  9. In addition to my previous comment, I completely agree with your position on this. Recently there has been some rumbling in the Australian theological publications/blogosphere over what it means to be ‘Reformed’ with regard to Justification. (See Bird et al vs ACR)

    Ultimately most of the labels slung around are relatively unhelpful in this environment, especially with some shoddy excuses for scholarship hiding behind ‘safe’ labels and therefore attempting to be legitimised by the authority of the label. The research should stand on its own two feet, not withstanding the shoulders of others of course, and be judged on its own merits, not the popularity game of the author or the legitimacy of the camp.

  10. I suspect I know the answer, but out of curiosity how do you see the theological position labels playing out. Reformed, Lutheran, Calvinist, Arminian etc.

    Also, would you say you would own the label “Early High Christology Club Member”?

  11. Larry, this is a very sane and reasoned stance. I have been following your blog for about a year now, I think, and must say it is one of the only ones I always read fully. It is refreshing to find someone whose only “axe to grind” is actually proper scholarship. I may not always agree with you (though I usually do), but your posts are always thought-provoking and enlightening.

    Thank you for your willingness to share your work with those of us outside the formal scholarly community. It is a great blessing to me, and I suspect to very many others.

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