Gossiping Jesus is now a Kindle Edition

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To get to the hard copy edition CLICK HERE to get to Amazon.com!

My book is now available in a Kindle Edition. CLICK HERE for that.



“Daniels turns our attention from the sayings of Jesus to what others said about him.
This stimulating analysis of gossip about Jesus highlights his depiction in John 1-12
as an elusive, ambiguous figure and opens the door to fuller consideration of Jesus
in the mold of a Galilean Shaman. This is an innovative contribution to the study of
John’s Gospel and a welcome addition to anthropological approaches to Jesus and
the Gospels.”
-STANLEY SAUNDERS, Columbia Theological Seminary

Memory – Storytelling – Traditioning Exercise


An activity I pulled with a small group of students to help experience memory, storytelling, and inscripturation. The results below are fantastic! Three eyewitnesses “observed” a generative event (a scene from the 1981 movie EXCALIBUR – that, btw, should have won Oscar for best picture! The Youtube clip above is only 4.5 minutes out of the 9 minute scene viewed). After receiving instructions that this was not an exercise in accuracy of memory, but rather one of memory and storytelling – and promising not to put anything (ANYTHING!) to paper until instructed – two of the three “eyewitnesses” each contacted someone who was not an eyewitness, told them what happened. Five days after the event, the two who each heard an eyewitness tell them a story of what happened, were instructed to write it down and submit (Gospel “A” and Gospel “C”). The third eyewitness was instructed not to tell anyone, but to “ponder these things in her heart” until five days later, when she transformed her memory into a narrative of sorts (Gospel “B”).

The results were even more interesting than I expected, especially two things: 1) how each of the three versions offers its own unique signification statement of the event in the final sentence [they were instructed to include one]; 2) how Gospels “A” and “B” lingered a while over Arthur’s remorse – notice how similar their signification statements are vis-à-vis that of Gospel “C” which makes no mention of Arthur’s remorse.

Gospel AGospel BGospel C

“What sort of man,” this Jesus of Nazareth?


As a follow-up to my June 4 post about the relevancy of historical Jesus research for the Church, or not, I offer this further reflection.

It seems to me that despairing the idea that we only have access to interpretations that, some think, can never approach the “historical Jesus,” misses the point of it all. It may be the case that the worse problem of historiography (and yes, the authenticity paradigm) is the pseudo-certitude it implies is actually attainable – or should be. And since those engaged in the quest keep coming up with so many different Jesus’, well then, the whole enterprise  certainly isn’t  even worth the Church’s while – as if the Church is as caught up with implied certitudes as the historians involved in the quest.

I enjoy “lurking” on the very nicely done historical Jesus weblog called The Jesus Blog maintained by two brilliant (brillianter than I’ll ever be) young (much younger than I; Lipitor, anyone?) scholars – Anthony Le Donne and Christ Keith. While writing about memory theory and the Quest, Le Donne recently wrote “Dale (Allison) is still of the mind that historians cannot get behind memory to what actually happened. While there is a profound truth here, I do not lament ‘memory distortion’ because I work from the premise that memory is what happened. In other words, historians shouldn’t be attempting to find something that preceded memory or lament that they can ‘only’ get to what was remembered.”

Le Donne’s comment that “memory is what happened” is delightfully refreshing and, to my mind, right on target. And although a number of historical Jesus scholars have been saying (or at least suggesting) the very same thing for a number of years, with any luck, Le Donne’s utterance will get the notice it deserves, if for no other reason than it’s straight-forward clarity: “memory is what happened”!

There are no primordial events in history, only events experienced and re-membered by various socio-cultural processes – gossip and rumor, story-telling, performance, liturgy, inscripturation, gossip & rumor, story-telling, performance, liturgy, and so on, and all of this, of course, involving interpretation.

I’ve written it elsewhere before, and again here. The best utterance of the “historical Jesus” question is the one uttered by Morton Smith in his book Jesus the Magician: “What sort of man and what sort of career, in the society of first century Palestine, would have occasioned the beliefs, called into being the communities, and given rise to the practices, stories, and sayings that then appeared, of which selected reports and collections have come down to us?  (Smith 1978, 5-6).” It is “the best” because is implies the lack of historical-critical certitude the reigning authenticity paradigm infers is a necessary part of the “historical Jesus” that subsequently makes (it has been claimed) that Jesus irrelevant for the Church.

The “historical Jesus” – his words and deeds – is the re-membered Jesus that comes to us always fresh and new in the never-ending process of re-membering by Jesus scholars, and by communities of believers, that is, the Church.

Is the “historical Jesus” useless to the Church?

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At the risk of seeming like I’m fixating on Scot McKnight, here’s another entry about something he wrote. [My present interests lie less with McKnight and more with what is being dubbed "the demise of the authenticity paradigm" in historical Jesus studies. McKnight happens to have a very accessible chapter in a recent collection of essays (Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity, eds. Chris Keith and Anthony LeDonne, pp. 173-185) about this "demise" where he claims the uselessness of the historical Jesus for the Church. So, while the bulk of the essays deal heavily in memory theory (the emerging "new paradigm), McKnight's essay is relatively straightforward and thus, immediately relevant for the "average joe" - hence, this post].

I’ll save a lengthy review of the chapter for later. But, in a nutshell, McKnight’s reasons for the uselessness of the historical Jesus for the Church include the following which I offer and then follow with brief comment:

1) History is meaning-making, and since the Gospel authors were ancient historiographers of sorts, their narratives about Jesus are already “interpreted” narratives. Thus, compared with this, what the modern historical Jesus scholar offers (his/her own interpretation of the data) is irrelevant to the Church.

2) The criteria (of authenticity) “will not allow us to get back to a Jesus that is intellectually compelling to more than a gaggle of like-minded scholars.”

3) Memory studies (the emerging new paradigm?) “dampen the enthusiasm for the kind of confidence needed to construct a genuine historical Jesus.”

4) Echoing Martin Kahler, “historical Jesus studies shift and change from generation to generation, and that means the Jesus offered changes, and that means the church, if that Jesus is of value to the church, would be asked to re-do Christology every generation.”

Now, the second and third reasons, are right on target – I think – but hardly reasons to “treat” (whatever that means) historical Jesus research as irrelevant to the Church.

The first and fourth reasons seem peculiar to me since, interpreted narratives are themselves, endlessly interpreted and will/should be endlessly interpreted by communities of believers. Moreover, the shifts and changes of the multiple, generational Jesuses on offer with the historical Jesus quest reflects the very same sort of shifts and changes found in the living and breathing Christologies that are re-membered and re-construed by believing communities of faith. In other words, is it really the case that we only have the monolithic (formal-controlled) “high Christologies” of the creeds vis-à-vis the useless low-Christologies of scholars. What of the “Christologies from the side” emerging with social scientific and anthropological perspectives, and more importantly, the (informal-uncontrolled) daily/relevant Christologies of everyday “average joe” Christians who are, after all, re-construing and re-membering Christ every day in their discussions about him?

As it says in the Didache 4.1, “Where his Lordship is discussed (laleo), there is the Lord!” I think the fruitful imaginations of historical Jesus scholars, although sometimes far too out of touch with most folks, does have the potential to fertilize our faithful discourses about Christ.

Jesus’ Labeling of the Pharisees: A Brief Response to Scot McKnight

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How research in ancient speech & talk sheds light on Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees in the Gospels is something that is still emerging in biblical studies. From time-to-time, one finds articles about Jesus and the Pharisees in journals, magazines, and online blogs that would have benefitted from considering ancient Mediterranean social processes like gossip and rumor. One such article is Scot McKnight’s response to the new BARNA Study at the PATHEOS website (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2013/05/01/the-pharisees-my-response-to-the-new-barna-study/ ) this May 1, 2013.

The BARNA study asks “Are Christians More Like Jesus or More Like the Pharisees?” McKnight incisively points out the problems this question implies enough so that I can refer you back to his article (which one should read anyway, especially if one continues reading this blog entry). Along his way of assaying who the Pharisees were according to Josephus, the Gospels, Mishna, Tosefta, and both Talmuds, McKnight rightly identifies how calling someone(group) a “Pharisee” is an example of labeling:

“Now another point: this kind of rhetoric is what is called “labeling” in order to overpower someone with moral status. To label someone is to put them in a category, or a box, or a corner, and then slap a sticker on their head so we know what to think and how to think about such a person. Labeling often strains the wisdom of Jesus and becomes unChristian, and it is what Jesus fought against constantly — and this means we have to see what Jesus meant by “Pharisee” and what he didn’t mean by “Pharisee.”

I think it is important to recognize that although labeling is indeed a rhetorical tool used by a labeler to gain some kind of power over the label-ee, more to the point, labeling involves the construction of social identity.  Labeling was integral to the construction of a group’s collective identity insofar as it was directed at outsiders to, among other things, evince what “we insiders” are not – especially if the labels are negative, as they usually are.

Labeling was also often closely associated with the values of honor and shame in antiquity, and thus implies the agonistic (competitive) aspects of the social process that were typically worked out through public hassling of others in a process called challenge-riposte. In other words, when someone or some group was publicly challenged, labels would probably soon be flying in an attempt to negatively construct the identity of an outsider.

Indeed, labeling was often part-and-parcel with gossiping about someone negatively. Alternatively to McKnight’s suggestion that Jesus “fought against” labeling, the Gospels report that Jesus actually engaged in negative labeling (and gossip!), and was very aggressive about it (See my article “Gossip in the New Testament,” Biblical Theology Bulletin, 42.4 [2012] 204-213). In Mt 23, Jesus both gossips about (23:1-7) and then vigorously labels the Pharisees as “hypocrites” (23:13ff.) – as McKnight’s article points out so well, but interestingly without calling it what it is, that is, labeling.

Indeed, McKnight’s unpacking of what Jesus meant by “hypocrisy” according to Jesus’ own elaboration on the label, is just fine as it is, but his conclusions about the Pharisees are puzzling to me:

Put together, Jesus accuses the Pharisees for “hypocrisy” because they had abused their teaching authority by teaching false things, not living according to what they taught, and for the desire for power. In addition, their teaching was a focus on minor issues to the neglect of major issues. To be “hypocrite” is to be a false teacher who leads both self and others astray from the will of God. The term should not be limited to “contradiction between appearance and reality.” Should we call anyone “Pharisee”? Be careful, that’s my rule.

As a corrective to this conclusion, or perhaps a clarifying nuance(?), it is important to emphasize something that McKnight does not, namely, that the reasons Jesus’ labels the Pharisees “hypocrites” – “…because they had abused their authority…” etc. etc. – are all reasons according to Matthew’s Jesus! McKnight offers these “reasons” for the label without articulating an opinion as to their accuracy. Yes, some Pharisees may have been doing these things (as McKnight points out earlier in the article, but not after opining what Jesus means by “hypocrites”) but not all of them, and perhaps not many of those Pharisees standing there listening to Jesus tear into them in front of the crowd. Moreover, there is little or no indication how the crowd responded to Jesus’ tirade. This is important because as soon as Jesus turns toward the crowd (Mt 23:1) and starts gossiping negatively about the Pharisees (Mt 23:2-7), he basically invites the crowd to construct the Pharisees with him – ah, the risky business that gossip can be.

If Jesus’ labeling is granted moral maneuvering room by Christian readers sympathetic to his cause, then why no such slack for the Pharisees who labeled Jesus a drunkard and a glutton (Luke 7:34)?

(I’ve often wondered: if Gandhi said something to the effect of “Ahimsa means not to injure any creature by thought, word or deed, not even to the supposed advantage of this creature,” how would a discussion about non-violence between him and Jesus go? But, I digress.)

In any event, like most people in the 1st century Mediterranean world, Jesus wondered about the gossip about him (Mk 8:27) gossiped about people (Mt 23:1-12), labeled them indulging in name-calling (Mt 23:13ff.), and even told lies (John 7). Knowing this sort of thing may shock a Christian at first, but in the socio-cultural story-worlds of the Gospels where he does all of this, he is actually behaving honorably. This Christological perspective “from the side” adds important plausibility to any portrait of the historical Jesus.



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