Thursday, November 30, 2006

"Taking Up the Cross": The Use of Scripture During the Crusades

In the last two posts, we examined the motives of the pope in preaching the holy war and the crusaders in taking up the cross. Now it's time to consider how scripture was used to justify and makes sense of the crusades. How was "New Testament pacifism" reconciled with the radically new concept of holy war?

The first point is that there is no uniform pacifism emerging from the New Testament. If Jesus insisted on turning the other cheek, he also used a whip of cords to drive moneylenders out of the temple. If he said "blessed are the peacemakers", he also said he himself hadn't come to bring peace but a sword. It's true that he would have been shocked by the crusades, but he would have been shocked by almost everything later Christians did in his name. (Is there any Christian group today which patterns itself on his original movement of itinerant exorcist-healing and apocalyptic fervor?) The 11th-century reformers were doing what all theologians do: reinterpreting tradition in light of contemporary beliefs and crises.

The favorite and most frequently cited text during the crusades was the following synoptic piece, around which the holy war was understood to revolve:
"If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me." (Mt 16:24/Mk 8:34/Lk 9:23)
"Taking up the cross" amounted to having a cloth in the shape of a cross sewn into one's clothes. As one then donned the sword, the following became relevant:
"I have come not to bring peace, but a sword." (Mt 10:34-36; cf. Lk 12:51-53)
Finally, Jesus could be seen as alleviating fears about leaving behind one's family, taking on fiscal hardships, and facing likely death:
"Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life." (Mt 19:29/Mk 10:29-30/Lk 18:29-30)
By the time of the Second Crusade, Bernard of Clairveaux was focusing on this deutero-Pauline passage:
"Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against the flesh and blood... Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness, and your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace...taking the shield of faith...and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God." (Eph 6:11-17)
Like all innovative theology, Bernard's reworking of tradition stood in contradiction to it:
"The knight who puts the breastplate of faith on his soul in the same way as he puts a breastplate of iron on his body is truly intrepid and safe from everything... So forward in safety, knights, and with undaunted souls drive off the enemies of the Cross of Christ." (De laude novae militiae, Sancti Bernardi Opera, ed J. Leclercq, 1963, pp 214-215)
The amazing success of the First Crusade popularized "bloody prophecy":
"The winepress was trodden without the city, and blood came out of the winepress, even unto the horse bridles." (Rev 14:20)
Chroniclers often cited this when describing the slaughter in Jerusalem. For instance:
"It is sufficient to relate that in the Temple of Solomon and the portico crusaders rode in blood to the knees and bridles of their horses." (Raymond of Aguilers)
Medievalists, of course, were acutely aware of the pacifistic leanings of the New Testament. "Love your enemy" was the savior's most famous saying, and Christianity had always been averse to violence because of it. In the fourth century, Augustine excused violence in cases of "just war" but still insisted it was evil. This exacerbated a warrior's guilt, and by the eleventh century, Christianity had become so suffused with Germanic values that knights were left in a state of contradiction. How could they possibly love their enemies? The Peace of God movement tried curtailing violence (banning it on certain days of the week), but that was doomed to fail from the start. It was simply impossible for a medieval knight to practice loving/forgiving his enemy.

But crusading theologians now saw a way out of this. In Jerome's Latin Vulgate, the word for enemy is inimicus, implying a personal enemy. The Latin word for a public enemy, hostis, never appears in the New Testament. Medievalists began arguing that there was no contradiction between personal, individual forgiveness and certain forms of public violence. Love your personal enemy, yes; but hate and kill your public enemy (the Muslims).

Finally, it was inevitable that the Old Testament would become more relevant. Pope Gregory VII had actually tried to get a quasi-crusade off the ground decades before Urban II, and his favorite text was
"Cursed is he who keeps back his sword from bloodshed." (Jer 48:10)
Theologians began to see pre-Christian figures like Joshua, Saul, David, and Judas Maccabeus as crusading prototypes -- as holy as the spiritually elect preached about in the New Testament.

In sum: what strikes many people as obvious -- that holy war is at odds with peace and forgiveness -- isn't so obvious. In playing certain texts off each other and reinterpreting others, medieval theologians were doing no differently than the early rabbis who cited Ezek 18:20 against one of the ten commandments (Exod 20:5/Deut 5:9). Like the Protestant and counter-Catholic movements of the 16th century, the crusading reformers relied on the malleability of scripture to serve their ends.

In the next post, we will look at Islamic responses to the crusades, in particular the jihad.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

From Just War to Holy War: A Godsend to Knights and Warriors

In the last post we examined Pope Urban's motives in preaching the First Crusade. He was purifying Christendom as he played power-politics, redirecting violence in an attempt to achieve solidarity with the eastern churches and take repossession of the holy lands. But what about the crusaders themselves? What made them respond so readily to Urban's war cry?

A popular myth is that crusaders were mostly land-hungry younger sons who saw an opportunity to carve out territories in Palestine. Aside from exceptions who prove the rule (like Bohemund of Taranto), we know this wasn't the case. Many crusaders were eldest sons, and many of them already enjoyed wealthy lordships -- which they obviously jeopardized by going on crusade.

Generally speaking, greed wasn't a motive. Most crusaders expected to return home, and indeed most who survived did. The cost of embarking on a crusade was lethally expensive: knights had to shell out anywhere between 2-5 times their annual income to afford equipment, supplies, horses, and servants. (Buying a horse back then was as fiscally intimidating as buying a house is for us today.) Most of the crusaders, who had never been more than 100 miles from home, let alone 2000 (the distance to Jerusalem), were terrified about the journey to Palestine. Simply put: those who were looking to improve their lot in life did not go on crusade.

That the goal of the crusade was "materialistic" by definition -- repossession of land -- does not mean that crusaders were driven by colonial or imperialistic motives; they were not. That leading crusaders ended up quarrelling, sometimes nastily, over who would assume lordship of conquered territory (Antioch, Tripoli, Jerusalem, etc.) does not mean they had been drawn to the holy war for mercenary reasons; all the evidence speaks against it. Our sources depict warriors making harsh sacrifices, driven by sincere piety, a reverence for relics and holy places, and, above all, an insecurity about their moral standing. Thomas Asbridge explains:
"All medieval society was preoccupied with the pursuit of purity, but the knightly aristocracy, forced by the nature of its profession into daily contact with contaminants such as violence and personal wealth, seems to have been particularly prone to harbor an obsession with spiritual infection and the afterlife... Knights across Europe were trapped -- their secular obligations made sin inevitable, but monks cautioned them that their transgressions would, in the afterlife, trigger the most gruesome torments." (The First Crusade, pp 71-72)
Urban's holy war thus came as a godsend, an antidote to Augustine's theory of just war which only exacerbated knightly guilt. Since the fourth century, Christianity had taught that violence was intrinsically evil, even when justified. By reversing the morality of violence -- by making bloodshed sacred -- the knightly dilemma was effectively resolved. For decades the Peace of God movement had tried imposing a quasi-pacifism on the warrior class, obviously to no avail. Now these warriors could "kill for Christ" and have their sins remitted, enabling them to bypass suffering in purgatory.

This is what the crusaders latched onto more than anything: an unprecedented opportunity to use their warrior-profession for salvific purposes. To make a superficial but pointed analogy: the modern al-Qaeda terrorists didn't fly planes into buildings for material gain; they really believed that a host of virgins would be waiting in paradise to reward them. The medieval crusaders likewise truly believed -- with the pope's promise -- that spilling Muslim blood and safeguarding Christian holy places would absolve them of their sins.

In the next post, we will examine the use of scripture during the crusading period.

The Busybody in Jive-Speak

For a good laugh, you can read my blog in jive-speak. Or go to Gizoogle and translate the website of your choice. Thanks to Matt Bertrand for pointing out this handy and efficient translating tool.

Monday, November 27, 2006

From Soldiers of Hell to Soldiers of Christ: Exporting Violence

On this day, November 27, 1095, Pope Urban II gave a ringing sermon on a field outside Clermont that set in motion what later became known as the First Crusade, and a radically new concept of holy war that would evolve and last for centuries. No official account of Urban's speech survives, but we have a good idea of what he said based on four later reports. The commonalities point to a powerfully staged propagandist piece. This comes from Robert the Monk's version, c. 1120:
"Distressing news has come to us: a race utterly alienated from God has invaded Christian lands and devastated them with sword, pillage, and fire. They have ruined God's altars with filth and defilement. They have circumcized Christians and smeared the blood on the altars or poured it into the baptismal fonts. And they have cut open the bellies of those they choose to torment with loathsome death, tearing out their intestines and tying them to a stake, then making them walk around the stake until their innards spill out and they fall dead. Others were shot through with arrows, and still others were decapitated. And what shall I say about the abominable rape of women?

"Rise up, then, Christian warriors: you who continually and vainly seek pretexts for war, rejoice, for you have today found a true pretext. You, who have so often been the terror of your fellow men, go and fight against the barbarians, go and fight for the deliverance of the holy places. Go and merit an eternal reward. If you are conquered, you will have the glory of dying in the very same place as Jesus Christ, and God will never forget that he found you in the holy battalions. If you must have blood, bathe in the blood of the infidels. Soldiers of hell, become soldiers of the living God!!"
With inflammatory rhetoric, Urban was presenting the first crusade as a war of defense (against Muslim aggression) and repossession (of the holy lands). But were these really the factors which motivated him to preach the holy war?

Hardly. The holy lands had been in Muslim hands since the 7th century -- not a fresh wound -- and the threat of Islamic aggression had presented itself for decades without any response from Rome. Moreover, despite the loss of territory in Asia Minor to the Seljuks, there was no serious pan-Islamic threat to the eastern empire; Islam was more fragmented and internally conflicted than ever before (which is exactly why the First Crusade was able to succeed). And despite Urban's lurid account of atrocities, the reality was that Islam and Christianity had been co-existing in relative equanimity for centuries. There was little to distinguish the recent Seljuk-Byzantine conflict from typical military struggles which flared up from time to time. Urban exploited the Byzantine call for military help, and capitalized on a golden opportunity to take back the holy lands, but those were not his reasons for summoning the holy war to begin with.

Urban was "proactive rather than reactive" (Thomas Asbridge, The First Crusade, p 19). He designed the crusade to meet his needs, which involved consolidating papal power and expanding his sphere of influence. William of Malmesbury understood perfectly that Urban engineered the holy war in order to gain popularity and create enough upheaval to allow him to recapture Rome from the anti-pope Clement -- a stooge of Urban's arch-enemy, Emperor Henry IV.

But why would the crusade make Urban so popular? The answer is that by making warfare sacred under the right conditions, he was able to address the spiritual dilemma of medieval knights whose violence had been tearing apart Christendom for the past century -- and which the Peace of God movement had tried in vain to remedy. "If you must have blood, bathe in the blood of the infidels; you who have been the terror of your fellow men, go and fight against the barbarians." By demonizing the Islamic world, Urban was able to channel violence abroad and make bloodshed -- for the first time ever -- not merely justified-but-evil (per Augustine), but holy and penitential. In the words of a medieval preacher: "By this kind of warfare, people make their way to heaven who perhaps would never reach it by another road."

The First Crusade, then, was primarily about exporting violence and purifying knightly souls. In the process, the pope hoped to achieve solidarity with the eastern churches and recover the holy lands. All of this served the broader 11th-century reformist agenda, as the church struggled to stay on top of secular authorities and their influence, particularly that of the Holy Roman Emperor.

In the next post, we will examine the motives of the crusaders themselves.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Pedophilia and Ephebophilia

Post updated here.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Jeffery on Secret Mark

The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled: Imagined Rituals of Sex, Death, and Madness in a Biblical Forgery, by Peter Jeffery. Yale University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-300-11760-4.

Like Stephen Carlson a year ago, Peter Jeffery is able to show how obvious it is that Morton Smith fabricated Clement's letter to Theodore. One would think that Carlson exhausted all of Smith's anachronisms (the "bald swindler" M. Madiotes, Morton Salt, and modern gays in the 1950s being arrested in public Gethsemanes), but Jeffery has spotted more:

* The three features of Secret Mark's initiation rite -- resurrection symbolism, a period of teaching followed by a night vigil, and the wearing of a white cloth -- point to the Anglican Paschal liturgy as it was before the 1960s liturgical renewal movement. In addition, Clement and the Alexandrian church had a theology of baptism that was based not on the easter event of Jesus' resurrection, but on the epiphany event of Jesus' baptism by John. Secret Mark should thus have epiphany motifs (i.e. creation, the heavens opening with light, the descent of the Holy Spirit and fire, the seal of priestly and messianic anointings) rather than easter motifs (i.e. Pauline associations between baptism and resurrection).

* The homoeroticism in Secret Mark makes no sense in an ancient context. Adult males were supposed to pursue young boys/men, who in turn were supposed to acquiesce only after "playing hard to get" and only if the boy perceived that the sex would have intiatory value (i.e. that the man would go beyond sex and educate him in proper mores). But in Secret Mark, Jesus does not pursue the young man: just the opposite if anything, and this would have been shamefully unacceptable. Secret Mark was evidently written by a modern person who assumed that ancient homosexuality would have followed Plato's model of an older teacher with a young disciple, but who didn't quite understand how the roles played out -- and such misunderstandings were common in academic circles before the work of K.J. Dover in the late 70s. (This would seem to improve on Carlson, who argued that the homoeroticism in Secret Mark makes no sense since Jesus and the young man are depicted as social peers. But a "young man", however rich, suggests they're not quite peers.)

* Clement's letter is riddled with allusions to Oscar Wilde's 19th-century play, Salome, and Wilde was a homosexual martyr to boot. In the play Salome does the "dance of the seven veils", which is punned by Smith's Clement, who writes about "the truth hidden by seven veils". She is punned, in turn, by Smith's Salome, whom Jesus rejects along with the rest of the female race.

On top of this, Jeffery catches Smith in some pretty amusing lies. A notable one: whereupon discovering Clement's letter, Smith says he went to Vespers instead of staying to investigate his discovery, apparently forgetting what he said two pages earlier (in The Secret Gospel, p 10) -- that he had stopped attending religious services because he no longer "responded" to them.

Jeffery examines Smith's brief career as an Anglican priest, noting his excessively harsh judgments on homosexuals in a 1949 article -- very severe by Anglican standards at the time. Any fool can make the diagnosis: Smith was going through his own sexual crisis that caused him to leave the priesthood a year later. Interestingly, in that same 1949 article, Smith referenced a 19th-century debate between Catholics and Protestants over whether Clement of Alexandria believed that lying was justified if it served the causes of the church. Quelle surprise: the letter to Theodore answers that very question.

Jeffery goes after Morton Smith pretty hard, unlike Carlson who seemed (at least in part) to respect or admire a man who had the skills to bamboozle so many academics. Jeffery expresses sorrow and contempt: Smith "became what he opposed: a hypocritical Clement who condoned lying for the sake of a fundamentalist sexology"; "a man in great personal pain", who didn't even understand himself despite pretensions to a superior gnosticism; a bitter academic, whose hoax stands as "the most grandiose and reticulated 'Fuck You' ever perpetuated in the long and vituperative history of scholarship". He's right about that last one, but whether Smith wrote his hoax more out of experimental amusement or angry revenge remains unclear.

The names Stephen Carlson and Peter Jeffery will soon become closely associated, and that's a credit to them both. But who has the stronger case? Carlson has the edge with his forensic handwriting analysis. The Morton Salt exhibit (Carlson) and Anglican liturgical analysis (Jeffery) each point to Morton Smith in particular. Both address the homosexuality issue -- which also puts Smith directly on the spot -- though Jeffery more satisfyingly. Carlson insists on the pernicious nature of fakes, while Jeffery seems more interested in the perniciousness of Morton Smith himself. They complement each other perfectly, and stand as definitive twin debunkings of the Secret Mark hoax.

UPDATE: Don't miss Stephen Carlson's reflections, as he compares and contrasts Jeffery's work with his own.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Peter Jeffery Unveiled

Today I received my copy of Peter Jeffery's The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled: Imagined Rituals of Sex, Death, and Madness in a Biblical Forgery and began reading it over lunch. It looks like it's going to be every bit as much fun as Stephen Carlson's Gospel Hoax, though it's too early for me to tell how sound its arguments are. So far Jeffery is accusing Smith of amnesia (p 10):
"When Constantin von Tischendorf...discovered the Codex Sinaiticus...he stayed up all night studying it, for 'it really seemed a sacrilege to sleep'. When Smith discovered the letter of Clement, he got up and went to Vespers instead of staying to investigate his discovery, even though his time at the monastery was almost over -- or so he says. Smith seems to have forgotten what he told us [two pages] earlier [Secret Gospel, p 10] -- that he had stopped attending the religious services because he no longer 'responded' to them."
So there's a teaser. A full review will follow when I finish the book.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

SBL Papers

From the biblioblogosphere there are some interesting SBL papers around the corner:

Sean the Baptist will be Re-reading the Great Commission (Matthew 28.16-20) in Imperial Context, engaging postcolonial readings of the text and offering an alternative.

Rick Brannan is going after Modifiers in the Pastoral Epistles, examining word group usage data in comparing the Paulines and Pastorals.

Stephen Carlson has two papers, one The Nineteenth-Century Exemplar of "Archaic Mark" (MS 2427), the other Luke's Panel Technique for "Orderly" Narration.

Michael Bird will answer Who Comes from the East and the West? Luke 13.28-29/Matt 8.11-12 and the Historical Jesus, engaging (and disagreeing with) Dale Allison's argument that Jesus was referring to Jews in the Diaspora rather than Gentiles.

And as we all know, Mark Goodacre will present some of the material from his current blog series and explain why he thinks many of Paul's Galatian converts were Already Circumcised when the letter was written.

UPDATE: Chris Heard will tell us What the Mob Wants Lot to Do in Genesis 19:9 -- is it "stand back" or "come closer"? -- and he's also going to talk about that atrocious Jay-and-Silent-Bob movie Dogma.

Danny Zacharias thinks The Influence of Old Greek Daniel 7:13-14 on Matthew's "Son of Man" is significant.

And Jim Davila is presenting two papers, one Scripture as Prophetically Revealed Writing, the other The Hekhalot Literature and the Ancient Jewish Apocalypses.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

God's War: A Review

Historians and students of the Christian holy wars should read God's War: A New History of the Crusades before they are a month older. With the insights of Jonathan Riley-Smith and ambition of Steven Runciman, Christopher Tyerman has written the definitive study needed for a long time now. It's heavy reading at times, but well worth it and fun, a fascinating account of an alien era. I agree with the forecast that this will replace Runciman's hostile and misleading (if elegant) classic from the 50s.

Tyerman draws on corrective scholarship, demolishing myths about crusading motives, which had nothing to do with colonialism. Most crusaders expected to return home, and they knew they would take heavy financial losses. Nor was the papacy driven by economic interests: Urban II exploited the Byzantine request for military aid by working a new idea of holy war into his reformist agenda. Alongside the pacifist movement, the abolishment of simony, concubinage, and lay investiture, the crusades represented an attempt to secure papal leadership and power over secular authorities. "The crusade is impossible to understand outside of this wider context of church reform." So while it's true that the First Crusade was a defensive war only in a superficial sense -- Catholic territory wasn't threatened, and the Latins were hardly motivated to help the Greeks out of altruism -- there was no materialist agenda on the part of the papacy.

As oxymoronic as it sounds, the crusades were part of the reform movement stemming from puritan-radicals who took over the papacy in the 1040s. The Peace of God movement at home and holy wars abroad went in tandem, the former playing right into the inception of the latter. Christian knights had been living in contradiction, taught that violence was intrinsically evil even when necessary. What better way for the church to exploit this by channeling such aggression into a radically new cause which made warfare, for the first time ever, and under the right conditions, sacred? Crusaders were driven by religious zeal, the desire to protect holy places and secure their salvation; the papacy by reform and power-politics.

Tyerman also dispenses with lazy comparisons to the Islamic jihad. Unlike the crusade, the jihad was enjoined on the entire faith community (all able-bodied Muslims), and it was fundamental to faith, an actual sixth pillar of Islam. The crusade and jihad were both driven by militant zeal, but other commonalities are superficial.

The crusading phenomenon wasn't born overnight. It evolved, and this book has the length and patience to illustrate how. The success of the First Crusade didn't usher in a "new age" of crusading, especially since with the capture of Jerusalem there lacked an ongoing perceived threat. Enthusiasm waxed and waned according to volatile perceptions (it hit a major low between the Second and Third Crusades, during which time holy wars were often mocked and dismissed as foolish and wasteful). Crises like the loss of Edessa in 1144 and Jerusalem in 1187 called forth sudden massive responses, a couple of papal bulls, and minimal doctrinal guidance. Only after the Fourth Crusade, and thanks to the ambitious vision of Innocent III (1198-1216), did crusading really come into its own as an established institution and public devotion, with all the logistics formalized. Now the crusades touched the daily lives of Europe's laity in the form of public processions, special prayers at mass, taxation, alms-giving -- all of this reinforced by popular stories and songs.

Particularly refreshing is Tyerman's analysis of historical figures, who come across as realistically complex. There's no clear division of good and bad guys here. Bohemund of Taranto wasn't the demon he's made out to be. Raymond III of Tripoli, far from a wise and cautious tactician, proved treasonously incompetent, and his rival Guy of Lusignan has been overly maligned. The outrageous Reynald of Chatillon, usually perceived as destructive to his allies as much as his enemies, might have actually been good for the crusader kingdom if not for his sixteen-year absence in a Muslim cell. Tyerman challenges assumptions often made about these people, and you're often unsure whether to dislike or warm to them -- or both.

When you've finished this 1000+ page tome, you'll feel like you've heard the papal bulls and gone on crusade yourself. It's amazing how the more we learn about holy wars the more difficult it becomes to judge them. As Tyerman concludes, "the personal decision to follow the cross, to inflict harm on others at great personal risk, at the cost of enormous privations, at the service of a consuming cause, cannot be explained, excused, or dismissed either as virtue or sin. Rather its very contradictions spelt its humanity."

UPDATE: See Andrew Criddle's comments about the book.

Were the Galatians Already Circumcised?

Building on a lot of previous blogposts (see here for all the references in the first paragraph), Mark Goodacre is trying to convince us that the Galatians were already circumcised by the time Paul wrote his flaming letter. He's not convincing Mark Nanos, who has replied at length (and more than once) in comments. Don't miss this series; it isn't over yet, and I'll continue to post summaries of Mark's argument as they appear.

Part I: In Gal 6:12, "these are the ones compelling you to be circumcised", should not be taken as the conative present, as if Paul is saying "these are the ones trying to compel you to be circumcised". Just as at Antioch (Gal 2:14), the compulsion has already taken place. [EDIT: The compulsion, precisely speaking, is already taking place. See Mark's comment below.]

Part II: The lack of thanksgiving at the opening, in contrast to every other Pauline letter, indicates that something rather drastic has already taken place in Galatia.

Part III: In Gal 3:1, Paul is attempting to explain what the Galatians have already done in the light of the evil eye. (Though note Mark Nanos, who replies that Gal 3:1 implies exactly the opposite, that the evil-eye accusation depends on the Galatians not being circumcised.)

Part IV: Paul charges the Galatians with not thinking at all, rather than thinking the wrong way; and Gal 5:10 says nothing about Paul's supposed confidence that they will remain on a non-circumcision course (in response to Mark Nanos).

Part V: In Gal 3:3, the terms for what the Galatians are doing suggest a process already underway, just as Gal 4:10-11 -- "you are observing days and months and seasons and years" -- certainly implies this.

Part VI: In Gal 5:12, Paul imagines his opponents with a knife already in hand -- "so busy at the work of circumcision that he hopes the knife slips". And in Gal 5:3-4, he addresses those who have already undergone the knife: they "have been severed from Christ" and "have fallen from grace".

Part VII: In Gal 5:2, Paul is not speaking about the possibility of the Galatians getting circumcised. If that were the case, he would have used the aorist subjunctive rather than the present subjunctive (i.e. "if you get circumcised" rather than "if you are circumcised").

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Quote for the Day: Judging the Crusaders

"Wars destroy and create... The internal, personal decision to follow the cross, to inflict harm on others at great personal risk, at the cost of enormous privations, at the service of a consuming cause, cannot be explained, excused or dismissed either as virtue or sin. Rather, its very contradictions spelt its humanity." (Christopher Tyerman, God's War: A New History of the Crusades, pp 921-922)

"Criticize and Be Damned!"

Thanks to Kevin Wilson for calling attention to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, "What's Wrong with the Society of Biblical Literature?" by Jacques Berlinerblau. It's a fine and lengthy article, dealing with the confessional underpinnings of the SBL, its pseudo-secular character, driven by the goal of interfaith dialogue more than anything else:
The SBL's promotional literature doesn't acknowledge a peculiarity about the society that strikes nearly every outside observer: Its membership is most decidedly not like that of any other academic society. The overwhelming majority of its practitioners work in the confessional contexts of seminaries and divinity schools...and through their work pursue ends relevant to those contexts...

The SBL cannot address the situation, because it cannot bring itself to acknowledge the confessional underpinnings of the enterprise... Strange as it might sound, the society's governing ethos, as I have described it, amounts to a sort of reluctant pseudosecularism... This reluctant secularism is so soft that it degenerates into an ethos of ecumenicism. In fact, this is really what the society excels in: fostering interfaith dialogue... Isn't this more properly the purview of the National Conference of Christians and Jews? What business does a putatively academic association have in the ecumenicism industry?...

An ecumenical vision has real drawbacks... In a field whose operating principle is ecumenical banter, there is little place, or tolerance, for the heretic... [But] some of the very best thinking in the history of biblical scholarship has come forth precisely from heretics...

The society needs to devote thought and resources to the creation of a form of biblical scholarship that goes beyond theology and ecumenical dialogue. That would require exploring ways to speak about the Bible that are not specifically Jewish or Episcopalian or Lutheran. In so doing, the SBL would be required to suspend or, ideally, abandon its ecumenical model. In its place, a harder secular model would be advocated. Its motto: "Criticize and be damned!"
I think this cuts to the heart of what we've discussed before on the blogs, particularly in James Crossley's dangerous idea that biblical studies should become a genuinely secular discipline. There's a part of me that wants to see that happen. Hey, if scholars of the crusades can do it, bible specialists can join the rest of the world too.

UPDATE: See Stephen Carlson, Mark Goodacre, James Crossley, and Danny Zacharias for more reactions to the article.

I'd like to comment on two things, first on a remark made in passing by Crossley:
"The idea of the unpapal conclave sometimes gets mentioned in these debates and is a great idea in the abstract but simply cannot be put into practice as things stand and we should not pretend otherwise."
Actually, the unpapal conclave idea is useful -- James should know, since he participated on one -- though admittedly in a very limited way. It gets at common denominators, in the sense that any points of consensus reached among people so diverse stand a good chance of being objectively true. But that says nothing for all the areas of disagreement, and we know there are loads of those.

More importantly, a more general observation, particularly directed at those who were nonplussed by the article. Zacharias wrote:
"It is the society of BIBLICAL literature. The bible will never come out of the hands of the communities that hold it as scripture, nor should it... Confessional communities are our primary 'consumers' and will continue to be so."
But not only is this irrelevant to the point being made -- namely the problems that have come with this particular faith-dominated field -- I don't think anyone is asking believers to "stand aside" and not participate in the academic task, only to make more efforts in keeping apologetics and interfaith issues where they belong (elsewhere). To use an analogy with historians of the crusades: pious Catholics are naturally found here, though you'd have little reason to guess they were "pious Catholics". There is simply no analogue of a Tom Wright, Ben Witherington, or William Lane Craig in crusade scholarship. Jonathan Riley-Smith is no apologist for the crusades, even if he can lend a sympthatetic ear to them. Outlandish claims like this --
"I regard [Jesus being raised from the dead] as coming in the same sort of category of historical probability so high as to be virtually certain, as the death of Augustus in AD 14 or the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70." (Wright, Resurrection of the Son of God, p 710).
-- aren't found in other fields of study. No one, however pious the scholar, claims the crusaders really found the Holy Lance (that pierced the side of Christ on the cross) after the siege of Antioch in 1098, nor that accompanying visions of Christ, Mary, Peter, and Andrew somehow contained an objective reality. Crusade academics don't rhapsodize about their faith like a Ben Witherington.

This, I think, is what Berlinerblau is getting at in his article: the "peculiarity about the SBL that strikes nearly every outside observer", "its membership most decidedly not like that of any other academic society", that a large number of biblical scholars, through the academic task, "pursue ends relevant to confessional contexts". And that's more than a fair observation, even if the author's rhetoric runs away with him at times, and even if he seems a bit paranoid about Christianity in general.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Misunderstood Jew

Publisher's Weekly reviews Amy-Jill Levine's The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, ISBN 978-0-06-078966-4.
"Levine presents a strong and convincing case for understanding Jesus as 'a Jew speaking to Jews', and for viewing Christianity as a Jewish movement that ultimately swept the world in in its influence and authority. But with this expansion came an insidious anti-Jewish sentiment... Levine does a masterful job of describing the subtleties of anti-Semitism, across the years and across the religious spectrum, from the conservative evangelical mission to convert the Jews to the liberation theologians who picture Jews as adherents to an older, less merciful religion... This is an outstanding addition to the literature of interfaith dialogue." (issue 10/30/06, p 54)
I wonder if Levine addresses whether or not Jesus' Jewishness really, or ultimately, matters -- as per Bill Arnal's suggestion that it does not in The Symbolic Jesus. This should be a good read in any case.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Tyerman on Holy War

I'm enjoying Christopher Tyerman's new book on the crusades, God's War, and will eventually write a detailed review of this colossal achievement. I found this interview with the author from about a year and a half ago, back when his shorter book was published. Excerpts:
Were the Crusades imperialism as we think of it today, a yearning to colonize?

TYERMAN: There was no strategic reason for Western knights and soldiers to be laboring about in the Judean hills... They were there for essentially ideological religious reasons. The Holy Land and Jerusalem were regarded as part of Christendom, as a relic, and the Crusaders went there, in a sense, to establish a protective garrison to restore, as they saw it, their holy city to Christian control. But the prime motive of crusading in the Holy Land was not initially that of settlement. If you wanted to make a profit, you did not go on Crusade. Crusaders habitually made thumping losses.

And you describe the enthusiasm with which men volunteered for the Crusades really saw themselves and the army they were joining as instruments of God's will. Talk to us about that.

TYERMAN: The whole idea of a holy war is different from that of a just war. The Crusade was a holy war; therefore, it was a devotional practice in itself. A just war is a legal form of war that excuses war, but admits that war is an evil. Holy war says that the war engaged in is a holy act in itself. The actual killing and fighting is in accordance with God's will.

Are the Crusades parallel to the idea of jihad in Islam?

TYERMAN: Jihad is slightly different. In Islam, there is the greater jihad, the jihad al-akbar, which is largely a spiritual, an internal and personal struggle for spiritual purity. There is the lesser jihad, the jihad al-asgar, which is expressed in military terms, particularly against infidels... [From God's War: "Both were obligatory on able-bodied Muslims. Unlike Christian concepts of holy war, to which the Islamic jihad appears to have owed nothing, jihad was fundamental to the Faith, described by some as a sixth pillar of Islam. In theory, fighting was incumbent on all Muslims until the whole world had been subdued." (p 53)]

And so how do you think we should look back on the Crusades or how should we be holding them in memory today?

TYERMAN: The Crusades should not be discounted as a barbaric eccentricity. The role of violence in Christianity, the role of violence as a tool of state-building, of identity-building, of expression, of human ambitions, either temporal or spiritual, is an important lesson. We tend, I think, today to think that we are wiser than our predecessors, and I think we're not. And I think if we looked at the Crusades directly, we will see that many of the solutions that 12th-century people reached in reaction to their desires and problems have, as I say, parallels, not connections, to what we do today.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Biblical Studies Carnival XI

The eleventh Biblical Studies Carnival is up on Michael Pahl's The Stuff of Earth.

The 25 Most Controversial Movies (Revisited)

Months ago I blogged Entertainent Weekly's list of the 25 most controversial movies of all time, to which guest-blogger Alan Segal just made an observation in comments. For those wondering, Alan should be getting back to guest-blogging shortly.

In the meantime, it looks like EW has since posted the list online, complete with summaries of the controversies behind each film. Enjoy.