Tuesday, October 14, 2008

SBL Forum: Tony Burke's Study on Modern Heresiology

If you have not read it, Tony Burke of York University has an excellent paper in the current SBL Forum comparing the techniques of ancient heresiologists and the modern ones. I highly recommend it for reading. The following about Ben Witherington III especially caught my attention:
Confusing scholarly interest in a body of literature with religious belief, he is perplexed at why the "new school" scholars wish to study Gnostic texts at all. "None of them are actually ascetics like the original Gnostics," he writes, "nor have they withdrawn from the world and anathematized the goodness of things material. Frankly, the Old Gnostics would have repudiated the new ones."[28] And finally, Witherington may rival Epiphanius—the heresy hunter who "has no equal in the history of heresiology for the art of insulting"[29]—in his demonization of the new school when he writes, "these scholars, though bright and sincere, are not merely wrong; they are misled. They are oblivious to the fact that they are being led down this path by the powers of darkness."[30]

I've never really understood why people confuse scholarly interest with the scholars' own religious beliefs. It is often the case that the two coincide, as it seems to with Witherington, but need not. Not everyone who studies the New Testament is a Christian. Not everyone who studies Judaism is Jewish, and so on and so forth. Are Classicists all ancient Greeks? In addition, I would probably say that modern Christians who study the New Testament are hardly like the people they study. How many modern Christians live in a communistic fashion with all property held in common as in Acts? Only first-century Christians acted and thought like first-century Christians if the term "Christian" is really fully applicable. And by the time we get to second-century Christianity, there is such a proliferation of groups, beliefs, and practices that no single one is dominant just yet, and they all think they are right--just as Herodotus said of all groups (everyone thinks their own customs are best). I guess the modern Heresy Hunters have not learned the lesson of Herodotus--that is, if everyone thinks they are right, everyone is actually on the same plane in their rightness, but, at the same time, different groups' beliefs, practices, and customs are actually interrelated to one another in highly complex ways. Before evaluation must come understanding. Finally, none of us are really the people we study even if we place ourselves in that overall traditional trajectory (as if it were a linear one, instead of the convoluted, labyrinthine path that it really is). "Powers of darkness" is pretty strong language for research interests.

Overall, the article by Tony Burke is quite good as he uncovers the rhetorical strategies of the modern day heresiologists (it reminds me, in some ways, of what Karen King did for late nineteenth and early twentieth century scholarship in her book, What is Gnosticism?).

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