comments powered by Disqus
Jeff Walton March 27, 2012
Note: This is the second of two articles on the Jesus Seminar’s “Social World of Early Christianity.” To read the first article, please click here.
Early Christianity was an oral culture launched by an illiterate Jesus Christ, according to two liberal New Testament scholars who spoke recently at a Jesus Seminar event in Washington, D.C.
The claim was one of several bold assertions made during a recent March workshop in which the prevalence of Evangelical Christianity was bemoaned and scripture was “reimagined” from a feminist perspective. The Salem, Oregon-based Jesus Seminar dismisses scripture’s historicity and draws from sources outside of the Biblical canon in order to produce what they claim to be a more authentic view of Jesus than the church teaches.
Bernard Brandon Scott of Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Joanna Dewey, a professor emerita of Biblical Studies at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, argued that a later move into manuscripts minimalized the role of women in the early church.
“Early Christianity was an oral culture based on oral authority,” Dewey claimed, adding that manuscripts were “inherently male” and eliminated women, while oral story kept them in.
During one session of her presentation, Dewey donned a head covering and dramatically sought to “re-imagine” a female-centered telling of Mark’s gospel, performing as an imaginary late first century woman.
“I think something like this could have happened,” Dewey proposed, titling her performance “the Gospel of Ruth.”
The Episcopal seminary professor described such a “reimagining” of Mark’s gospel as an important step in countering alleged sexist distortion of Biblical history. Women, Dewey argued, would be at center, rather than periphery, of any actual gospel events.
Scott agreed, asserting that “These days, unless you are a right-wing conservative, a feminist reading of the Bible is typical.”
An Illiterate Christ
Dewey was firm in her assertion that Jesus was illiterate. Refuting the Luke chapter 4 account of Christ reading in the synagogue as an invention of the gospel writer, Dewey claimed it was “because he couldn’t imagine Jesus as illiterate.”
The seminary professor claimed that a scroll of Isaiah would have been too expensive for the Nazareth synagogue, and the story manufactured. Dewey did not address Jesus writing on the ground in John chapter 8, or other examples of his literacy.
“Jesus did not know how to read and write, there was no reason to,” Dewey flatly declared, adding that while modern people take literacy for granted, “this was not true in antiquity.” Dewey offered that the only group among whom literacy was the norm at the time was the elite, with letters orally dictated and then performed before community.
Scott mostly agreed, stating that no more than 10 percent of the urban population was literate during the time period, and that only 2-3 percent of the rural population was literate. The two speakers differed on whether or not Jesus spoke Greek, with Dewey arguing it was less likely, while Scott countered his observation that lower classes quickly learned the language of dominant culture, and Jesus’ peers would have been no different.
While Scott and Dewey agreed on Jesus’ alleged illiteracy, Scott argued that widely understood images pervaded early Christian society. Citing early images of Christ portrayed as Roman Centurion, Praetorian Guard and lastly in the clothing of an Emperor, his hand lifted in imperial gesture, Scott stated that early Christianity was juxtaposed with imperial image.
Pointing to a recurring image in some Roman tombs of a woman praying, Scott identified those tombs as Christian, and the woman as a pre-Constantinian Christian image paired with Christ as a shepherd youth. While this female praying form was not mentioned in writing, Scott asserted it was “all over artwork” and the images would later be displaced with Christ portrayed as an emperor.
Sweeping claims by Scott and Dewey, including an assertion that monastics rejected episcopal authority, went mostly unchallenged during the workshop at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill. Scott at one point suggested to the audience of 40 mostly elderly participants to “make up your own canon” of scripture.
“I would trade the book of Revelation for Hamlet any day,” Scott announced, adding that he would swap the Pastoral Epistles for any two Emily Dickinson poems. “We’d be way better off.”
The United Church of Christ layperson also categorized Revelation as the book of “a left-wing bomb thrower” violently reacting against the violence of Rome.
No Love Lost on Evangelicals
Both Scott and Dewey shared their dismay at the continued worldwide spread of Evangelical Christianity and the failure of liberal religious thought to gain widespread traction. Both of the Jesus Seminar speakers complained that the prevalence of evangelicalism led to assumptions that it is the only viewpoint of Christianity, resulting in either adherence to evangelical belief or a rejection of Christianity altogether.
Mainline Protestants also earned Dewey’s scorn, as the retired Episcopal seminary professor expressed frustration at “pressure still there to preach [Bible] stories as true.”
“We’re not just talking about Evangelicals – but liberal, east coast Episcopalians,” Dewey fumed. Scott agreed, sharing that he no longer revealed to fellow airplane passengers that he was a New Testament scholar out of frustration with preconceived notions he encountered.
“We have lost the public battle for what it [scripture] means, and that’s unfortunate,” appraised Scott, with Dewey adding that the church was going through a “profoundly anti-intellectual” period.
The Institute on Religion & Democracy
1023 15th Street NW, Suite 601, Washington, DC 20005-2601
P: (202) 682-4131 F: (202) 682-4136