Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Valentinian Melons

April DeConick has been talking about Gnostic mushrooms, based upon a reference in Irenaeus, and it reminded me of the same writer's parody of the Pleroma in terms of vegetables:

There exists a certain royal Pre-principle, pre-unintelligible, pre-insubstantial and pre-prerotund, which I call Gourd.  With this Gourd there coexists a Power which I call Supervacuity.  This Gourd and this Supervacuity, being one, emitted without emitting a Fruit visible in all its parts, edible and sweet, which language calls Cucumber.  With this Cucumber there is a Power of the same substance, which I call Melon.  These Powers, Gourd and Supervacuity and Cucumber and Melon, emitting a whole multitude of Valentinus' delirious Melons.  For if one must accommodate ordinary language to the first Tetrad and if each one chooses the terms he wants, who would keep him from using these last terms, much more worthy of credence, in ordinary usage, and known by all? (Against Heresies 11.4; trans. Robert M. Grant).  

Say what you want about Irenaeus or his argument or his larger project; he's often quite funny.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

In Memory of Jane Schaberg

I was saddened just now to discover the passing of Jane Schaberg, Professor of Religious Studies and Women's Studies at the University of Detroit Mercy, from Mark Goodacre's blog.  I had only met her once, but recall being quite moved by listening to James Tabor giving a talk on her behalf at SBL a few years ago.  I love her work, The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament, from which I regularly assign portions for my Sexuality and Christianity class.  She wrote brilliantly, challenging entrenched scholarly perspectives with good research and, something much rarer, creativity.

Update:  See now April DeConick's post addressed as a letter to Jane Schaberg.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Hebrews and the Social Sciences

Reviewing some works on Hebrews and the "social-scientific method," by which one usually means taking the insights of sociology and anthropology and applying them (or putting them in dialogue with) the biblical texts, I have been somewhat amused that, when discussing cultic aspects at least, the typical go-to's are still Victor Turner and Mary Douglas.  No one would deny their importance and influence.  And the latter is particularly understandable, since she did theorize using the Pentateuch, especially Leviticus and Numbers, to discuss ritual as a symbolic system.  Nonetheless, the social sciences move on and Bible scholars are often the last to know.  So, I had an idea perhaps for a future project in which one might be a little more overt about the the implications of the application of the social sciences and the Bible--that is, instead of making a particular thinker the background or general approach one has to the text, to see what happens when one makes the application the very topic under investigation.  Considering my own interest in the scholarly study of ritual (or ritualization), this might be an interesting, fun, and educational project to clarify the implications of using "this" thinker rather than "that" one.  I can just imagine the chapters (or sections for a smaller project).  So what would happen if you dedicated separate chapters or sections to different thinkers and how their thought related to Hebrews (Why Hebrews?  As the Doctor says, "Because it's cool."). 

Hebrews and Ritual Studies:

1.  Betwixt and Between:  Arnold van Gennep, Victor Turner, Liminality, and Hebrews

2.  The Symbolic System of the Heavenly Sanctuary:  Mary Douglas, Structuralism, and Hebrews

3.  Ritualizing Jesus’ Sacrifice:  Catherine Bell and Hebrews

Conclusion:  Insights, Blind Spots, and Next Steps

One could, of course, open it up beyond this as well with Geertz, Bourdieu, etc.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Social Network of the Epistle to the Hebrews: A Proposal

There have been persistent problems when thinking about the intellectual, religious, social, and cultural backgrounds of Hebrews with various ones being postulated and rejected.  Different contexts arise in scholarship like a whack-a-mole, popping up, dropping from sight, and reappearing in new places.  Contexts are proposed through perceived similarities—oftentimes compelling, but always with a slight stretch, revealing new lights and truths concerning Hebrews but always concealing a lie.  Others will point out the differences in order to undercut such possible contexts, as if any two writers ever agree on all details!  (As a side note, how often does a pupil sound exactly like his/her teacher?  We would expect numerous continuities, to be sure, but also a great deal of development, alteration, and reworking as we find among early Christian texts where we cannot exactly place lines of influence).  It is an odd exercise in which parallels equal contact and differences undermine it.  Nonetheless, socially, one should expect similarities and differences as people pass on ideas from group to group and then adapt them to new audiences and new circumstances.  One should expect emphases in earlier works to be de-emphasized as they become less relevant and older obscure elements to be emphasized as they become more relevant.  These days the search for a single background to Hebrews has largely been abandoned, even as, I myself, have sought to include and “complexify” that background further in my dissertation and more clearly, I think, in my monograph.

I wonder if we could do a different type of analysis that can take all of these partial contacts into account to use the Epistle to the Hebrews as an example to illustrate the much broader social networks of early Christians.  In this case, the content of a document will be important only insofar as it shows intellectual contact and exchange (including the necessary and inevitable changes that occur as ideas are communicated from person to person).  Having been in conversation with April DeConick with her concepts of “Network Criticism,” in which she takes more cognitively than I am thinking of here, and with a friend of mine, Kevin Sullivan, who is writing a book on early Christian travel (one implication of which is that the dissemination of ancient Christian letters and texts need not take years or decades, which scholars inexplicably assume when trying to date documents, but mere months--think of Paul's letters!), I began to think about the communication networks of early Christians and how we might use texts as the evidence of communication, dissemination of ideas, including constant change and adaptation from locality to locality as each connected by a larger interactive network. 

Approaching the issue as a social network mostly downplays the importance of direct literary dependence:  if we see a couple texts as different nodes—say Hebrews and 1 Peter—along a network of ongoing communication and exchange, then whether one directly influenced the other is less of a question than how it can illustrate and unearth underlying social networks (there could be multiple mediating people or groups between them along the same network, for example).  In this line of thinking, the particular combination of similarities and differences and the values we assign to them (such as how unique the similarities are, etc.) indicate not “influence” vs. “no influence” but where they lie upon the vast, complex networks of communication and exchange.  In this case, we should NOT be surprised to see a work like Hebrews falling along very complex intersections of the network and having multiple strands of this network, both proximate and remote, interconnections in which it draws on several lines that resemble other “nodes” along that network but equals and completely fits none of them.

This, moreover, could be the initial mapping of the social network of the earliest Christians using the texts less as content describing such interactions (e.g., Acts) but as the material evidence of such interactions.

Of course, all reconstructions must necessarily be partial.  My primary operating assumption is that these are not the only things written by our authors.  Paul surely wrote more letters than have survived; the writings of his churches to him (which he refers to) have not survived; you don’t become as good a writer as the author in the Epistle to the Hebrews overnight—it would be miraculous if this were the first and last thing the author ever wrote.  Therefore, I am assuming that whatever reconstruction we have is just the skimming of the surface of a much vaster, intricate network of early Christians communicating to one another.  Moreover, this is only part of the written network; undergirding this would also be a more personal network of oral communication and personal interaction.

Moreover, just because an author has evidence of contact with certain forms of thought that are prominent in a particular locality does not mean the author was necessarily from that locality or that the author was writing to or from that locality at the moment of writing; it means that the author has some acquaintance with those forms of thought.  For example, I have read, absorbed, actively incorporated, and developed things that I have read from Russia, Germany, Greece, France, England, Canada, and all over the U.S.  I am not from all those places; I have not visited all of those places; I have not met every author I have ever read; but they are part of my broader intellectual network.  The author of Hebrews may have familiarity with Alexandrian thought, whether passing or more intensive, but it does not mean that he ever went there, that he was from there, or wrote to there.  It means it is part of his network.

Once we start pulling on the different threads of these interconnections, what might follow?