The late great Hebrew University scholar Gershom Scholem (1897-1982), who devoted his life to the study of Jewish mysticism and messianism has been oft quoted as having once said:
“Nonsense is nonsense, but the academic study of nonsense is legitimate scholarship.”
I can’t remember when or from whom I first heard this, or even if I read it years ago, but it always stuck with me as a particularly wise observation. As it turns out, according to Neil Silberman, who has run down what he thinks is the origin of the quotation, it in fact came from Saul Lieberman, and was either then passed on by Scholem or wrongly attributed to him. ((According to John Efron, “My Son the Alchemist: Shedding Light on the ‘Great Art.” Forward, October 7, 1994: “…An apocryphal story is told that when the distinguished talmudist Saul Lieberman once publicly introduced the historian of Kabbalah Gershom Scholem, he began with the quip, “Now everybody knows that Kabbalah is narishkayt (foolishness), but the history of narishkayt — now that’s scholarship!”))
Signorelli’s Resurrection of the Flesh
I find the quotation more than appropriate to my own specialty, the quest for a historical Jesus and the origins of Christianity. Such a study involves one in a thick complex of overlapping areas including magic and miracles, angelology and demonology, journeys to heavenly realms, revelatory epiphanies, messianism, and a range of cosmological and eschatological models of world transformation. These and many other related categories seem to have one thing in common. They involve “imagining the world” based on claims of religious experience that move decidedly outside the purview of a scientific understanding of reality. Indeed, for many post-Enlightenment thinkers they involve a way of thinking about the world that is often called “magical,” that can best be described as “fantasy,” or if taken seriously enough, outright delusion.
In other words, to cut to the chase in terms of the Jesus movement, women do not become pregnant without a male, decaying corpses do not return to life, walk out of tombs, and eat meals with living people, angels do not descend from heaven and move tombstones, sickness is not caused by demon possession, humans do not walk on water, the truly blind and lame are not instantly healed by a word or a touch, five thousand men are not fed by five loaves and two fish, no one ascends or flies bodily into the sky, and the overthrow of the kingdoms of this world will not come “in a moment, in the blink of an eye” by the appearance of a human-like figure in the clouds of heaven. And yet, millions of Christian “believers” insist that unless such things are affirmed in an absolutely literal fashion one has somehow rejected both the message of Jesus and Jesus as the messenger. Others, equally claiming to be fully a part of the Christian community, understand such phenomena in a mythological or symbolic way, as part and parcel of a Hellenistic world view of the cosmos and its operations. Their position is that such affirmations cannot be simply imported from an ancient pre-scientific understanding of the universe in the cosmology of the 21st century without some kind of interpretive evaluation.
In terms of communicating this to the masses, with Christian believers squarely in mind, Bishop John Shelby Spong’s recent work, Jesus for the Non-Religious, makes an appealing case that I highly recommend. Less known in the U.S. are the works of Uta Ranke-Heinemann, the first woman to teach Catholic theology in Germany. ((Prof. Ranke-Heinemann teaches in the theology department of the University of Essen. In 1987, the Vatican sought to invalidate her authority as a theologian after she pronounced the virgin birth a theological belief and not a biological fact. One of her more provocative books, published in 1992 titled Putting Away Childish Things: The Virgin Birth, the Empty Tomb, and Other Fairy Tales You Don’t Need to Believe to Have a Living Faith makes a powerful case for a faith fully built on a scientific view of things and a recognition of the power of religious myth and symbolism.))
Such a stance is not necessarily “materialistic,” nor is it reductionistic, see my recent blog posts: “Why the Category of the Supernatural Makes No Sense,” and “Rejecting the Supernatural.” Indeed, there are surely undiscovered mysteries beyond number awaiting our further understanding, but no appeal to the unknown and the not-yet-understood should become a justification for an affirmation of nonsense. As Philip Davies once remarked, biblical literalists affirm faith in phenomenon of the past that they would instantly reject as absurd and impossible in their own present lives and experience. Imagine contemporary reports of someone walking on water, flying into the clouds, or raising a corpse at the local cemetery, and how they would be received. I will never forget the late philosopher and theologian, Richard Underwood, telling me how as a young boy of eight years old he sat in a small country church on a spring day with the windows open, and suddenly had his own epiphany. The local preacher was giving a sermon on Easter in which he insisted on a literal view of the corpses of the dead in coming to life and walking around Jerusalem. Suddenly, it came to young Underwood like a bolt, an insight that stayed with him into his mature adult life–what the preacher was saying had to be untrue. It simply never happened. The world outside the window, in all its beauty and its agonizing complexity, was more “real” than what the preacher, so separated from “nature” by rhetoric and tradition was affirming.
Historians, by definition, operate within the presuppositions of a scientific world view. Yet one often hears the claim that believing that someone was raised from the dead, or ascended bodily into heaven, is no more of an act of “faith” than considering such claims to be nonsense, as if both views are equally compelling as rational alternatives depending on ones “presuppositions.” It may well be that such approaches are culturally conditioned in that these same folk would not dream of taking Mohammed’s journey from Mecca to Jerusalem on his horse in a single night (the Isra and Mi’rah) as a subject deserving any kind of serious historical investigation–did it really happen? And, just as one might expect, Muslims also are divided into camps, with some taking the journey as a literal “physical” event, and others interpreting it more “realistically,” as a dream.
The subject of the Talpiot tomb that broke into the news again this past February seems to have crystallized, or maybe even galvanized, Christians into two camps–those who interpret the resurrection of Jesus as having to do with his physical corpse being resuscitated, and those who understand “resurrection of the dead” as referring to what Paul calls a “spiritual body,” neither flesh nor blood (1 Corinthians 15:42-50).
Whether or not this tomb can be shown to have held the physical remains of Jesus of Nazareth or not, the issue remains. It seems to me that a historian, as historian, has no choice. Jesus as a human being died and his body eventually “returned to the dust,” as happens with all of us, and all other creatures when we die. I am convinced that the evidence supports the view that he was most likely reburied in a rock hewn tomb in Jerusalem, which well might have become a family tomb for other intimate members of his family. But those who are absolutely certain that no tomb with Jesus’ physical remains can possibly ever be found, since Jesus ascended bodily to heaven, are surely engaged in a discussion that is ahistorical, or at least nonhistorical, in which the normal “rules of engagement” are suspended.