Yesterday a review copy of Anthony Le Donne‘s new The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals arrived in the mail. I began reading it this morning. In the forward Le Donne recounts a forum held by the University of the Pacific (Stockton, CA) in the response to the so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. What was most interesting about his story (and its central point) is how people began to respond fiercely in local newspapers and through blogs at the news of this meeting prior to it taking place! Immediately, there was verbal attacks against academics and the university that would sponsor such a blasphemous discussion. When all was said and done though there had been no Da Vinci Code like theories presented and Le Donne recalls that it was a very balanced and level headed discussion among the panel participants and the audience.
Then as a historical Jesus scholar he makes these important observations:
This topic has been sold as a scandal for so long that people can’t help but be scandalized by it….people tend to be more scandalized by the question itself and less so by the answers. 
This served as motivation to research the subject, both as a historian and an observer of modern culture and religion. Le Donne writes:
I had no predetermined conclusions; I only knew that the topic was worth exploring. Indeed, any topic that enrages and fascinates so many people is important — if for no other reason than to tell us something about ourselves. 
This makes me wonder what other aspects of historical Jesus research seem emotionally off-limits to us and why. What is it about the idea of a married Jesus that threatens us? What was it about Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth that scandalized us (besides the shoddy scholarship? I mean the the idea of Aslan’s thesis, not the execution of his research which received much criticism) that causes similar reactions? What is it about Jesus that causes us to protect him as we understand him presently?
 p. x
 p. xi where it should be notes that this is not a claim for objectivity, per se, but instead an admission that he had come to a predetermined position prior to doing the research. Le Donne admits in the previous sentence, “While I have dedicated my life to historical Jesus research (so I am anything but impartial, I really had no idea what I would discover on my quest for the wife of Jesus.”
Reblogged this on Sunday School on Steroids-The Seminary Experience.
Those are terrible questions. I am surprised you would even think of asking such, especially as a seminary graduate!
Ok, that wasn’t too funny. 🙂
I think this is true across so many spectrums. I’ve seen it in the whole cessationist-continuationist ho hum the past week. In the end, we just want to be able to control things a bit better. I remember once teaching a class on Genesis to some pastors down in Zambia. We somehow got on the topic of hell. I presented the idea that, whether the descriptive fire language is literal or imagery, the biggest thing is that we see that God will bring judgment upon the unrighteous. But some had so many problems with this, with one response being something like this: If we cannot teach it is real fire, then think of what people will do – they’ll more easily live promiscuous lives, drink, etc.
Now this is a bit strong for western culture now, but I think a similar vein is in so many people’s theological approaches: If we allow this issue, if we allow these questions, if we allow people to explore this issue, then we really won’t be able to keep them safe and control the extreme problems, etc. I really think so many people approach life this way. And I can testify to this because I’m a recovering control-freak.
Of course, to do this from the western, individualized approach is so normal to our culture. But we need to help shift towards doing things within relationship with the larger community of the present-day community of believers and in the context of the larger sweep of church history. Again, not to overly control, but for health and togetherness.
I hope all that makes sense. 🙂
I agree. There does seem to be a “control” problem of which this question is but a microcosm of a larger one – concerning our own desire for stability and our fear of challenging or threatening paradigms that differ from the one we embrace currently.
Also, I think your observation regarding individual v. communal research is important. Some pastors might see a book like Le Donne’s and worry about their parishioner reading it, alone, on a rainy day, and freaking out about it. This implies that parishioners are all too dumb to think for themselves, but it also suggests that often Churches aren’t willing to proactively investigate important questions together creating a culture where investigation is acceptable and people feel free to do it among friends rather than alone lest they offend someone.
Brian asked “This makes me wonder what other aspects of historical Jesus research seem emotionally off-limits to us and why.“.
The most obvious response to this query would (likely) be the question of the ‘Jewishness of Jesus’. There’s great work being done on how Paul saw himself and how he understood ‘Jew’ to mean, but very little reasonable investigation/debate is happening on the same question with respect to Jesus, for a number of possible reasons.
Nearly everything to do with historical ‘Jewish Identity’ is off-limits because modern Jewish identity is off-limits (because of Zionism, politics, etc). People suppose that ‘Jesus was Jewish’ without stopping to question that some particular prepositional notion of ‘Jewishness’ is historically correct, or in agreement with consensus , or even that consensus exists about what this means. This question is also off-limits because of a perception that discussions about Jesus ethnic identity (as a Jew, whatever that means) could thwart Jewish/Christian dialogue by destroying the only apparent catalyst for discovery of common-ground (whether or not this is true).
Arguably, the biggest question about the nature of Jesus is the ontological implications of him being a God/Man, however as a man, the biggest question is about the implications of Jesus’s self-expressed nationality and identity. Jesus saw himself as an Israelite of the House of David who was frequently confronted by a hostile Jewish ruling elite, and yet any exploration into the meaning of this label Jesus was most frequently encumbered with, and emotions run high and begin to trump reason.
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