Monday, June 27, 2005

The Peril of Modernizing Jesus 1: The California Jesus

Several scholars have cast Jesus in the mould of an egalitarian Jewish peasant who stands in proximity to the tendencies of Cynic philosophy. Cynicism was a movement in the Greco-Roman world deriving principally from Diogenes of Sinope (fourth century BC). Cynics were typified by a simple and counter-cultural lifestyle which emphasized minimal possessions, freedom, living according to nature, itinerant movements, and renunciation of social norms. These scholars also emphasize a distinct lack of apocalyptic eschatology in Jesus’ teaching and stress the Hellenistic background to the sayings of the Jesus tradition. What is wrong with this picture?

(1) The assumption upon which the hypothesis depends is that Galilee was largely hellenized and urbanized. However, recent archaeological and literary studies have tended to emphasize the Jewish nature of Galilee and the type of urbanization and hellenization associated with a Cynic presence in Galilee is entirely absent. Jonathan Reed comments: ‘In this context it should be stressed that lacking a substantial component of gentile inhabitants, having only two Jewish cities in their infancy of Hellenization, and lacking much evidence for interregional trade, notions of Cynic itinerants influencing Jesus or his first followers makes little sense. Though the scholarly comparison of Jesus’ teaching with that of Cynicism merits attention as an analogy, any genealogical relationship between Jesus and Cynics is highly unlikely.’ (Archaeology and the Galilean Jesus, 218).

(2) Several advocates fail to emphasize the differences between Jesus and Cynicism. There are no references to Jesus or his followers committing acts that Cynics were infamous for such as defecating, masterbating or copulating in the streets. The Cynics were largely an urban phenomenon, whereas Jesus focused on rural areas.

(3) Much of the Cynic thesis depends on the work of John Kloppenborg who stratifies Q into an earlier sapiential (Q1) and a later prophetic layer (Q2). The earliest edition of Q was supposedly a Cynic-like document with prophetic and apocalyptic accretions added later. But to assume that one can use the manuscripts of Matthew and Luke to discriminate between composition and redaction in Q is sheer make-believe. Does anyone think that they can use the text of Luke and Matthew to determine pre-Marcan redaction of Mark?

(4) There is also a strong methological objection to the Cynic approach. Although historical reconstruction is highly indebted to studies in background and environment one must avoid what Samuel Sandmel called ‘parallelomania’. Analogy does not prove genealogy. Philo quotes the Cynic tradition extensively, but this does not necessarily make him a Cynic.

This ‘Cynic Jesus’ may be a convenient icon in an anti-Reagan or anti-Bush rally, but it comes at a price, that is, it is historically suspect. John P. Meier writes: ‘A completely un-eschatological Jesus, a Jesus totally shorn of all apocalyptic traits, is simply not the historical Jesus, however compatible he might be to modern tastes, at least in middle-class American academia.’ (A Marginal Jew, 2:317). On a sardonic note, Richard Burridge declares that the Jesus Seminar, ‘has produced a Jesus who is not Jewish in his teaching, but more like a Greek wisdom teacher or philosopher, and he’s against sexism, imperialism and all the oppressiveness of the Roman empire. In other words, he’s a Californian’. (Jesus Now and Then, 32). Gerd Theissen is similar: ‘The “non-eschatological Jesus” seems to have more Californian than Galilean local colouring.’ (The Historical Jesus, 11).

1 comment:

Scot McKnight said...

See the excellent analysis of David Aune in Jesus and Hillel.