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Friday, October 10, 2008

Heresy Hunting

Here is an interesting paper by Tony Burke delivered to SBL (Society of Biblical Literature). It is entitled Heresy Hunting in the New Millennium.
A cottage industry of books has emerged in the past few years responding to apparent "attacks" on the Christian faith by such perceived enemies as the Jesus Seminar, Bart Ehrman, Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code, and the discoverers of the so-called Jesus Tomb.[1] Targeted also in these books are the texts of the Christian Apocrypha (CA). The books are transparently apologetic with the aim of disparaging the CA and the Gnostics who (they say) wrote them so that their readers will cease being troubled by their texts' claims. The problem with such books, at least from the perspective of those who value the CA, is that they often misrepresent the texts, their authors, and the scholars who study them.
Burke points out that many of the same rhetorical strategies of the ancient heresy hunters are used by contemporary critics of the Christian Apocrypha. These strategies include:

1) Refutation by exposure. This includes selecting unfamiliar passages from the Christian Apocrypha (CA) in an attempt to dismiss them because they sound weird. Burke writes:
Such focus on the "bizarre" elements of the texts misrepresents their contents. There is plenty of material in the canonical texts that is bizarre or objectionable but it would be unfair to characterize Acts simply on the basis of the cursing stories, or Luke on Jesus' disappearing act (4:30) or the sweating of blood (22:43-44), or John on its anti-Semitism. Large parts of the CA are quite "orthodox" but these sections are not discussed.
2) Explicit ridicule of the texts' contents. Apologists define "gnosticism" in a simplistic way and equate non-canonical texts with this definition.
Several of the apologists go on to associate all non-canonical texts with Gnosticism—even the Gospel of Peter[12] and the infancy gospels[13]—either because of a lack of awareness of the complexities of defining Gnosticism, or because of a reliance on outdated scholarship on the texts, or simply because it suits their purposes to associate all non-orthodox forms of Christianity with oft-demonized Gnosticism.
3) Demonizing their opponents. Ben Witherington says this of scholars like Helmut Koester, Elaine Pagels, and James Robinson:
"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."
4) Concluding their works with statements of orthodoxy. They claim to have the "real Jesus" of orthodoxy as opposed to the fake Jesus of the apocrypha and of those who study the apocrypha.
Some of the apologists instead simply assert the superiority of the canonical texts over the non-canonical. Such declarations seem to be a necessary component of apologetics. It is not enough to defend the faith from its enemies; one also has to affirm one's own orthodoxy. The readers thus are reminded of the strengths of the orthodox perspective and any fleeting interest they may have in the vagaries of the popular media's current fascination with the apocryphal Jesus is checked, at least for a time.
This article helped explain a few things to me. I really couldn't understand why the Jesus Seminar has been so demonized by the apologists. They have become a focal point for the modern heresy hunters. It can't be their scholarship. It isn't that radical. Form and redaction criticism isn't new. Nor is it because they are anti-church. Many are within the church (ie. Marcus Borg).

I think it is because they have spilled the beans and have made critical scholarship available and accessible. When other scholars such as Bart Ehrman (who is not with the Seminar) write books for the general public, they too join the ranks of the heretics, who in Witherington's words: "are being led down this path by the powers of darkness."

Hardly a statement of scholarship.

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