Monday, June 24, 2013

The Road to Heaven Is Paved With Conspiracy Theories

Before I leave behind the topic of conspiracy theories for a while, I thought I'd spend a little time on the book I've just begun reading, C. E. Hill's Who Chose the Gospels?: Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy (Oxford, 2010).  Hill, who is Professor of New Testament at the Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, wishes to discredit not only the real conspiracy theory that drives Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, but the theories (which do not necessarily involve conspiracies) of some of his colleagues: James M. Robinson, Elaine Pagels, and Bart Ehrman, for example.  He also criticizes the work of a scholar, Walter Bauer, whose 1934 book Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity has influenced those scholars and remains controversial to this day.  I decided to read it less for that aspect than to update my knowledge on the formation of the Christian biblical canon, particularly the list of books that make up the New Testament.  As far as I know, we know almost nothing about why these books, and not others, were adopted as Scripture by the early churches.  So far, it doesn't look as if anything major has been learned since I studied early Christianity thirty years ago, though Hill mentions some research that is new to me; so even if I get nothing else from Who Chose the Gospels?, I'll get that.

But what concerns me here today is the "Great Gospel Conspiracy" in the book's subtitle.  Hill is right, I think, when he says that "it is remarkable how Bauer's thesis seems to predispose many of its advocates to what we might call a 'conspiracy theory' mentality.  That is, to explain what now may appear to be the prominence of our 'mainstream' church before the fourth century, many lay great weight on the notion of the ultimate 'winners' rewriting history" (22).  This is even more true outside of scholarship.  I've often talked to people who wanted to see the history of Christianity as a tale of wicked churchmen deliberately, knowingly distorting the pure Good News taught by Jesus of Nazareth so they could control the sheeplike masses.  Professionals like Ehrman, Pagels, and Robinson know better, as did Bauer.  (It has been at least twenty years since I read Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, but I don't recall it advocating conspiracy theories.  Bauer may have been wrong on some matters -- what scholar isn't? -- but he wasn't a crank.)

But it isn't only revisionist approaches like Bauer's that seem to predispose their advocates to a conspiracy-theory mentality.  So does orthodoxy in Hill's terms, and why not, since the New Testament itself is full of conspiracy theories.  Jesus' opponents are characterized as hating him and trying to bring about his downfall from sheer malignant perversity and hatred of God, not from any principled reasons.  Paul takes the same tack with regard to his opponents, as do other New Testament writers with theirs.  Since these tactics became canonical as the writings that contained them became Scripture, even conscientious scholars (most of whom were Christians) found it easiest to accept them as truth and at most try to rationalize them.  This isn't a "conspiracy," it's just going with the flow.  George Orwell accused his fellow leftists of the same laziness in his attacks on sloppy political thinking and writing.
Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news - things which on their own merits would get the big headlines - being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that 'it wouldn't do' to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralized, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is 'not done' to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was 'not done' to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.
Since the early churches, "orthodox" or "heretical," were not devoted to rational discourse, it's not surprising or even sinister that they preferred ad hominem attacks on opponents to critical analysis of their errors.  As Jennifer Wright Knust showed in her Abandoned to Lust: Sexual Slander and Early Christianity (Columbia, 2006), the same techniques were taught and demonstrated in the teaching of rhetoric by highly educated Roman "pagans."  If you want to win a court case, you don't argue the facts, you accuse your opponent of outrageous, baroque, and humiliating sexual excesses.  In this respect the early Christian controversialists were very much people of their time.  Knust concluded:
From biblical tradition, to Greek invective, to early Christian polemics, "the opponents" -- be they gentiles or slaves or barbarians or heretics -- were universally said to devote themselves to sexual excess. Though there may have been licentious gentiles, slaves, rulers, philosophers, barbarians, heretics, or Christians, the sources I have been exploring will not help us find them. Instead, these sources indicate a widespread attempt to employ moralizing claims regarding sexual behavior and gender deviance to validate authority [160].
You only need to read the online comments sections of local newspapers today to learn that this approach to debate is still widespread and popular.  Similar tactics are used against political dissidents even in the elite press, and at the highest levels of government.  Fag-baiting is popular all over the political spectrum. (Remember when the Bush administration tried to discredit a political reporter by revealing that he was gay?  It didn't work, because he wasn't closeted, so he couldn't be outed.  But it said a lot about the mentality of his accusers that they tried.)  And when Christian laypeople defend orthodoxy, they too follow in their Master's steps by attacking the (real or imagined) motives of their critics, whom they accuse of wanting to undermine the simple faith of ordinary believers, just to ruin their day.  So do professional scholars, unfortunately.  This doesn't excuse the conspiracy-theory mentality of many atheists or nominally Christian critics of orthodoxy, of course: it only indicates where they learned it.  One of the reasons why conspiracy theories have such power is that they are evidently a natural, normal way for human beings to think.

So far, Hill has refrained from speculating about the unclean motives of the scholars he quotes, and I want to give him credit for that.  But I still object to some of his arguments.  That bit about "rewriting history," for example: his point is that though many critics of orthodoxy say that the Christian canon was settled by wicked priests and archbishops at "the fourth-century Council of Laodicea" (Hill, 3), there is good reason to believe that the four canonical gospels -- Matthew, Mark, Luke, John -- were already widely accepted as uniquely authoritative by most Christians by the end of the second century.  Fair enough.  And it may be that some of today's critics, especially lay critics, believe that a unique revision of Christian history began when the Emperor Constantine began the process by which Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and everything was different before then.

But I don't think that many professional scholars think so.  They know that the process of writing and rewriting history is always ongoing, and that Christians began "rewriting history" from the beginning of their sect.  In particular, partisans justified their differences with other partisans by telling the story of the faith so that it began with Jesus and led directly, inevitably to them and their faction.  This too is normal human practice: the whole history of the world seems to lead to my glorious country, my family, and me.  The early Christians, struggling for legitimacy, claimed that the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition was all about them, and that the Church was the True Israel, heir to the promises Yahweh made to Abraham.  This was nonsense on any rational account, but who was rational?

So, Hill supports his argument by quoting a famous second-century church father and martyr, Iraenaeus of Lyons.  He writes that "when orthodox writers of the period such as Irenaeus of Lyons report on the use of Gospels in their day, they could be, and have been, accused of skewing their reports in favour of the four Gospels, as if involved in a conspiracy" (21).  Hill quotes Ehrman saying that "once it [the orthodox party] had sealed its victory over all its opponents, it rewrote the history of the engagement -- claiming that it had always been the majority opinion of Christianity" (22-3).  Ehrman is wrong here, but I don't see where "conspiracy" comes into the picture.

Of course any Christian writer would have skewed his reports in favor of his church's library and teachings; the heterodox writers did the same.  Many of the "Gnostic" writings were written in the name of various disciples of Jesus, in order to claim that the writers' churches could trace their beginnings to the Lord himself.  I don't know of any evidence that the heterodox writers were any more generous about the motives of their opponents than the orthodox were.  None of them made up their traditions and arguments and sacred history out of whole cloth: they drew on "apostolic" tradition, handed down from the elders, and on Scripture.  Ehrman should know better than to claim that the process of creating a history that authorized present claims began only in the fourth century; as a New Testament scholar, he knows perfectly well that it was going on all along, on all sides.  But Hill should know that too.

But no matter how sincere Irenaeus was, it doesn't necessarily mean he was right.  Hill writes:
Despite his statement that 'It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer than they are', Irenaeus' argument is not one of logical necessity but of aesthetic necessity, of harmony, beauty, or proportion. 'It is fitting,' he says, that there are four and only four; the characters of the four cherubim are 'in accord with' the characters of the four Gospels.  Later in the passage he reiterates, 'there cannot be more or fewer than those we have mentioned.  For since God made everything with harmony and proportion, it was necessary for the form of the Gospel to be harmonious and in proportion' [37-8].
Because these notions come from "earlier Greek and Latin philosophical and artistic sources, from Plato and Aristotle to Irenaeus' day', Hill declares that "objections to Irenaeus' arguments ... as logically uncompelling are a bit beside the point" (38).  Are they?  It is, I agree, important to recognize what sorts of criteria Irenaeus and his audience found compelling, but it is also important to remember that they have no bearing on historical questions like those that concern Hill and me.  If early Christians had adopted only three gospels, Irenaeus would have found criteria by which their three-ness was in harmony and proportion (like the Trinity!); better still if there had been seven gospels (the days of the week! the seven heavens!), or twelve (the tribes of Israel! the apostles!). Hill wants to establish that the four now-canonical gospels were widely recognized and accepted as authoritative in Irenaeus' day, and that may well be true, but it doesn't explain why there were only four, and why those four.

Consider Irenaeus' account of the origin of the four canonical gospels, also quoted by Hill:
Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect ... Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, also handed down to us in writing what was being preached by Peter.  Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him.  Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who had also leaned upon his breast [see John 13.23], himself published a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia [39].
Irenaeus didn't make up this description himself; it is similar to other early accounts of the authorship of the gospels.  The trouble is that the gospels described here don't sound like the gospels we have.  The gospel of Matthew wasn't originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic; most scholars nowadays believe it was written by revising and adding material to the gospel of Mark.  Some scholars have speculated that the "Hebrew" Matthew might have been the source of what was added to Mark; maybe so, maybe not, but it wasn't canonical Matthew.  Mark, however, shows no sign I've ever been able to detect of having any connection to Peter.  (For one thing, it doesn't include an account of the risen Jesus' appearance to Peter, who according to Paul was the first witness to the resurrection [1 Corinthians 15.5], though this appearance isn't described and is barely mentioned in any of the canonical gospels.)  The gospel of Luke doesn't bear much if any resemblance to the teaching of Paul as we know it from his letters; it's easy to see how the book became associated with Paul, though, because the same author wrote the book of Acts, with Paul as its hero. The gospel of John is notoriously hard to reconcile with the other three, or to connect with John the Son of Zebedee.  As Morton Smith wrote fifty years ago, "We have thirteen or fourteen names for Jesus' reportedly twelve disciples, and we hear of his brother James and of missionaries like Barnabas and Apollos in outlying districts; but of all these ghostly fathers nothing genuine has been preserved, not, at least, with their names attached to it."*

I'm perfectly willing to accept that the four now-canonical gospels were established among most Christians as authoritative by the end of the second century -- probably even among the "heretics", most of whom probably just supplemented them with other gospels and writings they found useful, though this too is uncertain.  (An important exception would have been Marcion of Sinope, who supposedly rejected everything except the gospel of Luke and some of the letters of Paul.)  But we have no idea where these books came from, how they came to be associated with certain of Jesus' followers, or how they won the recognition among Christians that they evidently won, because we have none of the evidence we'd need to answer these questions.  A conspiracy theory won't answer them either, but dismissing those who reject the orthodox account as conspiracy theorists doesn't help.

I have a related objection to Hill's account of Bauer's thesis as developed by later scholars.  As he puts it,
... Ehrman and others restrict their use of the terms 'orthodox' and 'heretical' to fourth-century and later phenomena (after the victory was sealed) and use 'proto-orthodox' to describe people or groups before that.  For, until the victory was sealed, there was no 'orthodoxy,' no main or intrinsically more genuine stream of Christianity [23].
As an orthodox modern Christian, of course Hill objects to this downgrading of his stream of tradition.  But there's nothing particularly radical about it.  I'm not sure whether Ehrman thinks "there was no 'orthodoxy'" before the fourth century; I would say that there were numerous competing, conflicting orthodoxies, each convinced that it was the true vine and all the others were impostors.  That would have been the case in Paul's day, certainly, when there were on his account many competing accounts of the Gospel, but only his was correct -- it even trumped Jesus' original followers in Jerusalem.  And Paul's connection to later orthodoxy is dubious; some of his teachings fed into that stream, others were rejected, others were drastically revised.  His writings were canonized, but only as they were authoritatively interpreted by the Church.

As for "no main or intrinsically more genuine stream of Christianity," well, that's the question on the table, isn't it?  Given the strange disconnect between Jesus' original followers and the later churches, indicated by but not limited to the fact that they left no surviving writings and that the writings attributed to them are almost certainly not by them -- I don't see how it can be taken for granted that "orthodoxy" as ratified by Constantine was the "intrinsically more genuine stream of Christianity.  Analogously, which modern dialect of Latin is "main or intrinsically more genuine" than the others? That's a historical question which can be settled, if it can at all, by evidence and analysis, not by statements of faith in received tradition, especially when there are such yawning gaps in that tradition.

Neither Hill nor Ehrman nor Bauer nor Pagels nor Robinson is engaged in a conspiracy to pollute, divert, or block the "main stream" of Christian teaching.  They are all (as I am) hampered by blind spots and biases.  Hill, to his credit, makes some serious arguments against the positions of these revisionists; but even if his every criticism were sound, it wouldn't prove that the traditional orthodox position is correct.

*Morton Smith, "A Comparison of Early Christian and Early Rabbinic Tradition", Journal of Biblical Literature 82 (1963), 171.