Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Francis Watson on the Gospel of Jesus' Wife as a likely forgery and an Jesus' inferred celibacy from the canon and Esther's inferred character in the hands of Driscoll, a study in possible parallels


... The New Testament is silent on Jesus’ marital status. Two evangelists – Matthew and Luke – tell of his miraculous conception, without sexual intercourse, and this asexual origin sets the tone for his entire life. That Jesus did in fact practise an ascetic renunciation of sexuality is entirely plausible, in a historical context that did not share the modern conviction that a life without sex is a life unfulfilled. [emphasis added] For Christian traditions that place a high value on celibacy, Jesus is the supreme celibate; and he retains this status even when, in Protestantism, celibacy is no longer seen as a mark of the truly holy life. The Christ who offers salvation to all, the incarnate divine Son, can, surely, never have uttered the words, “My wife”? Yet it is just these words that some scribe, ancient or modern, has put into his mouth. That scribe knew exactly what he or she was doing: subverting deep-seated assumptions about Jesus in the most effective way possible, by challenging them out of Jesus’ own lips. The Jesus of this text renounces not only his celibacy but also the community for which that celibacy is integral to who he is. No Christian institution – not the Vatican itself – could withstand such a challenge, if it really is Jesus who speaks here. 

Is it Jesus himself who speaks here? If not, whose is this Jesus? Is he the creation of a would-be evangelist of the 2nd century, whose Greek text was translated into Coptic a couple of centuries later? Or does its origin lie closer to home? The fragment might conceivably preserve a suppressed item of information about the historical Jesus. Or it might reflect the views of Christians two or more centuries later, far removed from Jesus himself. Or it might be a modern creation – a forgery, a hoax. 

Given the information currently available, the third option seems to me the most credible: the text is probably a modern forgery, composed at some point after 1956, the year in which the Coptic Gospel of Thomas was first published.

Watson points out that traditionally it has been accepted that since no wife is mentioned for Jesus in the canonical gospels that Jesus was celibate.  Watson also points out that voluntary celibacy was a plausible option for Jesus in that time and culture, even though this would have been a choice in our own time and culture that is practically inconceivable (and paradoxically this often seems to be as true of American evangelical Protestant conservatives as non-Christian "liberals" despite substantial differences about prescribed practices and working ideologies).

It is useful to point out here that the inference that Jesus was celibate is one that has been made from the simple observation that if Jesus were married this detail would have been too significant a detail to have ignored by any authors who purported to tell us anything about Jesus.  It is significant in light of some other blogging claiming that arguments from silence do not apply that if that methodology were actually sound then it would be sound for an evangelical to state here that we should never assume Jesus was not married at any point in life merely because the canonical gospels do not mention Jesus' marital status.

We can consider this a case study in which the silence of the canonical gospels on whether or not Jesus was married has, traditionally, been taken as an indication that Jesus was NOT married because if Jesus was married, so the reasoning goes, that would have been important enough to get mentioned.

Coincidentally (in historical terms not for the sake of this discussion, of course) Mark Driscoll's tendentious assertion that the book of Esther does not describe Esther as a subject of sexual exploitation by a Persian ruler and Driscoll's claim about the problem of "view 2" (that Esther was a victim of sexual exploitation) is not defensible on the grounds that the text doesn't tell us outright that this is what happened to Esther.  What's good for the goose has to be good for the gander when we try to dismantle an inferential case about a figure mentioned in a biblical text where we are not told in the plainest possible terms that X or Y proposition is true of that figure.  If Driscoll wants to hedge on the question of whether a possibly teen-aged Jewish girl in Persia WASN'T subject to a campaign for a Persian king to take up, as it were, a new favored concubine having put aside the formal queen by claiming that where the text isn't explicit we have room to speculate then where the canonical gospels themselves don't mention Jesus having a wife the same force of argument (if it has any merit) would apply.

That the likely forged fragment of a Gospel of Jesus' Wife has come to light in the last few weeks is simply coincidental but the questions that have emerged along the way about an inferential case from the canonical gospels for the traditional Christian understanding of Jesus' celibacy are a useful counterexample to Mark Driscoll wanting to have his cake and eat it to about how direct a biblical text is about the sexual activity or mores of a figure in a canonical text and what can then be claimed about that in the context of preaching and teaching. In the case of the probably forged Coptic fragment and in the case of Driscoll's blithe dismissal of the viability of Esther having been exploited by a pagan ruler's whims we may consider the same potential methodology at work, take something where the canonical texts don't spell out something clearly enough for some as yet unclarified set of motives and then build a case that a traditional and inferential case grounded in an understanding of what was motivationally and situationally plausible in that time and place in which a biblical character would have lived has to be less important than a series of contemporary considerations connected to agendas that don't necessarily have much that we can observably show to be true about the times and people about which the now canonized texts had a concern.

But you're never going to hear Mark Driscoll make a serious case that Jesus was married because he's going to take seriously the argument that if Jesus WERE married the canonical texts would have mentioned that.  For the book of Esther, since Esther isn't Jesus, Mark Driscoll has the luxury of proposing his curious ideas about Esther being a beauty peagant mistress-in-training and defends that this is possible because Esther as a text doesn't explicitly spell out that Esther was sexually exploited.  You can't even sustain this counter-argument inferentially if you propose that Vashti was asked to wear only her royal crown and parade naked before partiers. (minute 14:00)  Just because you can't confirm or deny, according to Driscoll, that Esther was sexually exploited by a perverted king (and Driscoll makes a significant effort to emphasize how perverted the king was) would not mean that Jesus was celibate because, after all, you can't confirm or deny just from what the canonical gospels say that Jesus WASN'T married. Now by now you may have inferred that I obviously consider Jesus' celibacy and Esther's sexual exploitation at the hands of a pagan ruler to both be strong inferential cases to be drawn from canonical texts.

One of the most obvious reasons the book of Esther would not presume to come down as though directly from God is because nothing about the provenance of the feast of Purim could be construed as having been instituted by or through Moses.  Putting a festival that developed from an exilic narrative on the same level as the origins (literary and traditionally) associated with Passover is not something that would be lightly done, would it?  Well, let's recall the Sadducees had the minimalist approach to the canon that would not have considered Esther legitimate.  If within Judaism in the first century CE there was not unanimity regarding what was canonical and what wasn't, what was authoritative and what wasn't then it's not exactly a big leap to propose that if powerful and influential groups within Judaism had not yet considered Esther canonical it's no surprise that early Christian authors and advocates, who were attempting to avoid making Gentile converts observe Jewish feast days and dietary laws, spend a bunch of time in Esther, a book with the obvious literary point of explaining why Purim has been observed within Judaism.  Which is to say that of course pious Jewish authors wanting to explain the origin of Purim would avoid insisting that God directly authorized a festival that wasn't mentioned in the Torah.

The questions about how Esther and independent Persian accounts raise questions as to the historicity of the entire narrative of Esther is a big chunk of why many people wouldn't rush to preach through it and those questions are precisely the sort Driscoll will, if he stays close to habit, will scrupulously avoid.  If you'd like an old-school, public domain discussion of the background, provenance, and questions of historicity of Esther as at least one of many possible starting points check this out and start reading at page 460. If formal marriage between Persians and women of other tribes was strictly forbidden (go check out page 464 in the linked document above) then Haddasah really would have had to have been not the queen in any Persian formal sense but simply one of the king's most favored (for a time) concubines.  The queen was put away but not divorced, after all. That it is possible for Persian accounts and the book of Esther to potentially be understood as having their own biases and that Esther may have presented Hadassah as a queen when she would not have been recognized as a queen of any sort by Persian customs would be an entirely separate discussion.

Another separate discussion would be about the "technical definition of a eunuch" as "someone who used to have a life and joy and hope." But more on that, perhaps, sometime later. Mark Driscoll has decided that Vashti made the right decision in not complying with the royal command (19 minutes into this sermon) Fair enough, I agree, but it means that Grace Driscoll's use of Vashti as an example of a disrespectful and unsubmissive wife in Real Marriage could turn out to be completely wrong and Grace Driscoll's application of Vashti as a case study of a disrespectful wife means that inside of 2012 two Driscolls have presented contradictory interpretations of Vashti's decision.

This is a matter for discussion in small groups around Mars Hill, to be sure.  So who would you propose is right, Pastor Mark or Grace (and Pastor Mark back in the period in which he went along with that for the publication for the book)? If the Driscolls themselves don't come down to a single interpretation of Vashti's character or decision then surely there's room for wiggle room in interpretation since Grace is Mark's "functional pastor". I lean more toward Mark Driscoll's most recent take but this is coincidental. It's still curious that what Driscoll preached in his Esther series flatly contradicts what was in his bestselling marriage book in the same year.  Well, maybe this is proof he hasn't made up his mind which view he's going to back. Perhaps he is still testing the winds before he decides which way he spits.

(Driscoll has an aside in recent weeks about sages "wise men" not being wise that will be a useful segue-way later this week to highlighting some more blogging on Ecclesiastes.  It's actually a helpful observation to point out that sages and professional "wise" people were not always seen as wise.  To flip things around a bit, sages and professional wise people did not necessarily view prophets as great, either.  Let's see if later this week we can discuss that later.)

Now "if" Christians traditionally infer that Jesus was celibate because no wife (or wives) ever get mentioned does this mean we ignore that because, you see, where the Bible doesn't clearly say X we can never infer that X was the case from other internal evidence?  If, however, the internal evidence is actually a bit more than might first appear then just as an inferential case could be made that Jesus was celibate "because" no wife was mentioned an inferential case that Haddasah was one of many young women taken up in a compulsory quest for a new favored queen (or concubine since Persians were not necessarily supposed to have non-Persians as queens depending on which sources you consult) is not a bad inferential case to make either.

Now Driscoll has managed to not get to discussing Esther's character.  Perhaps he hasn't decided what he's going to publicly preach regardless of whether or not he's made up his mind about her already.  While the debate about the provenance and veracity of a fragment purported to be the Gospel of Jesus' Wife is in the news among bibliobloggers, it doesn't hurt to point out that the inferences and arguments from silence that have come up in that set of discussions and debates can inform us about methodological and textual assumptions Driscoll has brought to his buzz-generating blog posts about Esther and the book of Esther.  It's possible to take Esther seriously without necessarily taking everything a guy like Mark Driscoll says about Esther or interpretation of Esther seriously as he builds up a buzz for his latest preaching series.

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