Does Christology Rest on a Mistake?
By R. Joseph
Distinguished Scholar at Goddard College and head of the
Goddard Program in Human Values. Former Chair of the
Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion (CSER). Co-chair of The Jesus Project (2007-2009).
Just as I was beginning work for my PhD at Oxford, my supervisor was recovering from a bad time in British theological circles for having been a “founder” of the “Myth of God Incarnate” debate. With John Hick and others, Maurice Wiles had been blamed, even in the national press, for undermining the foundations of the Christian (read: Anglican) faith which had always been especially devoted to the doctrine of the incarnation.
The Myth-theologians were not especially interested in the historical Jesus and many were systematic theologians rather than “Biblicists” (though that line has always been permeable in the ancient universities of Britain), but in pressing the fairly obvious point that the language of the New Testament is essentially derived from a time when gods did become men and men became gods.
Coming fresh from the more energetic Germanics of Harvard Divinity School, I found the whole discussion a little “quaint,” a point pressed home more emphatically during a 1981 visit to Oxford by Jacob Neusner, who claimed in front the Theology Faculty that the whole weight of biblical scholarship had shifted from Europe to the USA and that there was no significant work being done, at the moment, in Oxford. Among the eighty or so despondent scholars who filed out of the lecture hall after Neusner’s address were Geza Vermes, G. B. Caird, E. W. Heaton, John Barton, Robert Morgan, John Fenton, Dennis Nineham, E.W. Nicholson and at least a dozen other people of no particular consequence to the lecturer. In just a couple of years, E.P Sanders would join the procession.
Since that time I have sometimes reflected on why Oxford scholarship went (or was perceived to go) from center-stage to the wings and from cutting edge to quaint. In part, the reasons have to be located in the disaggregated nature of teaching that characterized Oxford in those days: scholar-tutors., many of them chaplain fellows of their colleges, whose association with each other was more geographical and social than departmental. Theological and biblical studies residuated from their presence; they were not “hired” in any sense to staff a field of study with a separate existence. That alone was confusing to visitors, faculty and new postgraduates students, who were accustomed to the industrial model of filling vacancies and plugging gaps in college catalogues. Oxford, as recently as the eighties, was a collection of lecturers who created a “curriculum” based on an agreed syllabus, but reflecting largely their termly preferences for what they thought students might like to hear.
But there was another reason for Neusner’s critique. England, in general, with its traditional antipathy for the splashiness of German and American biblical scholarship arrived late to any interest in Nag Hammadi and had little use initially for the extravagant claims being made for the usefulness of such studies for solving the mysteries of text and canon. Pangnosticism seemed not only extravagant but foolish in a university that still had a high respect for the sobriety of patristic studies, and where the burning issues that had been introduced by Walter Bauer and Martin Werner were seen as fires that responsible Anglican theologians should extinguish.
I was part of a younger generation of confused internationalists who looked on enviously at what was happening at Claremont, Utrecht, and Cambridge, (MA) in Coptic-Gnostic studies. It seemed robust and real compared to the cold-tea lectures I was getting from my Oxford teachers. I spent most of my time immersed in German and Dutch scholarship, listening patiently but slightly skeptically to my well-intentioned but (it seemed to be) sadly non-courant tutors, and by 1981, I had packed my bags and headed to Heidelberg.
This is a memorandum to myself as to why I no longer see that period in quite the same way, and why I think I missed the point and the wisdom of the “Myth of God Incarnate-debate.” The Myth of God Incarnate was not (to repeat) a seminar devoted to the historical Jesus. That there had been one was assumed with the same nonchalance as one would say “Well of course I had a grandfather. Where do you think I come from?” What there had not been is an incarnation—presumably also, while there was disagreement on some specifics, not a resurrection, virgin birth, or assorted other signs and wonders either. God had not become man.
But like the Jesus Seminar, which later trudged over some of the same ground, the Myth seminar was greeted with a series of awful ripostes including a piece of apologetical nonsense called The Truth of God Incarnate. It was one thing to call Genesis a myth. It was OK to say, even, that Abraham was about as real as Oedipus. But were the canons of Christ Church and the Queen’s appointed theologian now saying that the word did not become flesh? The debate was an interesting one not from the standpoint of technical New Testament study but because it was an important way of interrogating the tradition that undergirds the actual beginning of the Gospels. Moreover, while it paid quiet homage to the German school, especially to Bultmann and Kaesemann, it was not a buckshot approach to the mythological strata of the New Testament. It did not focus on miracles. It did not focus of the doctrine usually presumed to be the touchstone of Christian belief, the resurrection. It focused on the core “organizing” belief, expressed as a blatant fact in John 1.14, with the slightly mischievous knowledge that no exhaustive lexicon of the development of Christological titles (the sort of things the Germans considered programmatic for every Einleitiung) would do more to put the canon in perspective than a careful examination of the core doctrine: the incarnation itself. It was a far more radical project than anyone (with the possible exception of Maurice Wiles and Don Cupitt) recognized at the time. I for one missed the point entirely.
It’s sad in a way that the Myth seminar was doomed to be overshadowed by the gnostic gospels craze and other, equally important trends in New Testament Studies. Sad because the Myth seminar reminded scholarship beyond theology that the New Testament does not put itself forward as the story of a simple Galilean peasant who got himself godded through the reminiscences of his “community.” We can infer the community from the existence of the written sources, but in fact we only need to infer a writer and an audience for his work to explain the survival of the story. The twentieth century infatuation with the word “community” was itself a construct of theology in its attempts to depersonalize the origins of the Gospels. But, as a rule, communities do not write books. Any of us who have served on a university committee will know the unlikelihood of having one approved. Nor do communities invent the elaborate mythological framework we find fully fledged in the Fourth Gospel and nascent in all the others.
If by social memory we mean the recollection of a “personality” whose character and actions can be recovered from the myth that encases it, or retrace the process that brought the transformation about I’m afraid I can’t see it at all in the New Testament. What the Myth seminar raised in a tentative way was the prospect that should not be overlooked in technical New Testament studies. That the New Testament is telling the truth about itself when it says it is the story of a god who became man. True, this is the Johannine mode of expression; but it may well have been the point d’appui for many more Christian speculators, certainly for Marcion, Apelles, Basilides, Valentinus, the author of the Hymn of the Pearl, and of Philippians 2.5-11. I am relatively convinced it undergirds the synoptic as well, and that if we could examine Marcion’s text with any integrity it would be in bold relief.
Let me end with a recommendation. That in between the enormous mound of things we have to read, write, grade and skim every day, you take a look (if you have it) at the invitatory essay by Wiles in a book that is enjoying a deserved injection of new popularity: “Does Christology Rest on a Mistake?” The Myth of God Incarnate (London: SCM, 1977). I hope in my next post to have a stab at the question I was then too thoughtless and inexperienced to answer.