Taking the Text with Her Pleasure

A Post-Post-Modernist Response to J. Dominic Crossan The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (T & T Clark, Harper San Francisco, 1991)

(With apologies to A.A. Milne, St Paul and James Joyce)

[Originally published in Theology, 96, 1993, 303–310. Reproduced by permission of the author.]

N.T. Wright

Crossan’s newest book bases its reconstruction of Jesus on sources such as The Gospel of Thomas, a hypothetically reconstructed ‘Early Q’, and a Hypothetical ‘Cross Gospel’ reconstructed out of the Gospel of Peter. Crossan argues that, faced with the ‘brokered empire’ of the Roman world, Jesus initiated a ‘brokerless kingdom’ in which all had equal access to God. Crossan’s work in one way, and that of scholars like Helmut Koester and Burton Mack in other ways, form a serious revival of the until-recently moribund Bultmann school of Gospel interpretation.

Once upon a time there was a book. We do not know where she came from, or how she grew to be what she was; one doesn’t know about books, only that, well, there they are—or at least, that we ourselves confronted in what we feel to be a bookish way when we are in their presence. And the sense of being so confronted is so strong in this case that we will skip Stanley Fish and say, again but with more conviction, once upon a time there was a book.

Her name—well, we can’t be sure about her name. But the words ‘Mediterranean Jewish Peasant’ on her jacket are pretty obviously a secondary, modernist and historicizing addition. It may well be that derives from her initials, M. J. P. We shall call her Michelle.

If we can’t know where Michelle came from, since of course real authors are notoriously elusive, at least we can know her implied author. An adopted parent, she knew, could be almost as satisfying as a real one. Michelle felt good about her implied author, as indeed she had every right to; for her implied author, clearly, was a serious postmodernist. She glowed with pride at the thought. She had heard that there were other, um, books, even of her own age, that continued to press the old modernist distinction between fact and interpretation. Facts, they said, were things you discovered by objective research in places like the basement of the Harvard Divinity school; interpretations were what humans did with facts. Michelle knew that this was a decidedly false dichotomy, and preened herself on the fact—or at least the impression—that her implied author had no time for such nonsense. Reconstruction is everything. All we can do is to tell stories, and see what happens ‘There is only reconstruction.’ She repeated the sentence lovingly. She thanked her implied author that she was not as other books positivist, objectivist, dispassionate, and all the time hiding social power and imperialist control. Her vocation, she felt in her bones, or at least her spine, was to challenge the reader on the level of formal method, material investment, and historical interpretation. Her implied author, in short, was savvy, courageous, a brilliant word-smith, subverting current ideologies with his shafts of wit, his subtle irony, his shrewd aphorisms. A shadow of doubt crossed Michelle’s mind as she reflected on this implied author. He was beginning to look disturbingly like her implied subject. Was that inevitable, she wondered, and if so did it matter?

Michelle turned her attention to her implied readers. There were lots of them, she thought with pride. The New York Times review had done its work well. But who were they? The natural assumption might have been that a book with a postmodernist implied author would have a postmodernist implied reader. So, indeed, it seemed. ‘In the end, as in the beginning, now as then, there is only the performance.’ ‘These words are not a list to be read … they are a score to be played and a programme to be enacted.’ Did this not send a signal to all implied readers that, if they weren’t already postmodernists, they had better become such at once? Michelle sighed with content. It is a comforting thing for a book to feel integrated, to have implied author and implied reader shaking hands with each other across the intertextual void.

No sooner had Michelle decided that this question was settled, however, than her eye was caught by the clothes she was wearing. It was a fine jacket, to be sure: sophisticated with the merest hint of seductiveness. But what was this? There, on the jacket, were words which appeared to subvert the whole identity she had just decided she possessed. ‘The first comprehensive determination of who Jesus was, what he did, what he said.’ It was the word determination that really worried her. It sat uneasily in her mind beside all her resolute implicit postmodernism, like a large Scotch sitting uneasily in the stomach alongside half a bottle of red wine. It surely couldn’t be the case, could it, that, though her implied author was a postmodernist her implied reader was after all an arrant, unreconstructed, old-fashioned modernist? A way out offered itself. A jacket is only a jacket, and when you get indoors—into a library, say—you usually take it off, revealing a truer self underneath. Perhaps after all it wasn’t the implied reader, but only the implied purchaser (a category strangely absent from recent literary theory) who was a died-in-the-wool modernist. She felt somehow that this was a bit of a cop-out but all this auto-analysis had wearied her. She resolved to return to the question in the morning, and, slipping somewhat guiltily out of the jacket, fell into a deep postmodernist sleep.

As she slept, she dreamed. She found herself standing in the old library at Alexandria, some time in the middle of the second century. The librarian, an ageless man with a long, white beard and sad eyes, was sending his assistants back to the market one more time in search of the most elusive of books. ‘We already have the combined texts’, he was saying. ‘I want the early one—the pure one—the unadorned one, the one that looks just like our beloved Thomas.’ ‘Master,’ they replied, ‘we have toiled all night and taken nothing. The booksellers say they’ve never heard of it. They think you’re just imagining it. They’ve looked in the catalogues for codices in print, papyri in print, and scrolls in print for the last hundred years and there’s just nothing listed under Early Q. Are you sure it’s not just a figment of your imagination?’ The old man leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes, and looked sadder and wiser than ever. ‘Ah,’ he said as though in a trance, ‘I can see how it will turn out. We will never find it. Nobody will ever find it. But I will tell you how it will be in the last days. There will be no agreement. There will be a man called Dominic who will claim that most Jesus-material comes from Thomas; and he will be opposed by a man called Thomas who will claim that most Jesus-material is Dominical.’

Michelle woke up with a start. It was like an apocalyptic vision, she thought. Her implied author didn’t approve of them; they weren’t Thomas, and one of the ways you knew what was in Early Q was that it was non-apocalyptic. Was this, perhaps, her subconcious telling her something that her own pages hadn’t allowed for? She fell asleep again, and dreamed one more time. She saw an old, old man, with the preaching-gown of a Lutheran, the mind of a neo-Kantian, and the sad smile of a Heideggerian existentialist. His Jesus had been a man of words, aloof from the real concerns of first-century Judaism. And now the old man was dying. The ‘New Quest’ that His followers had invented to try and keep him alive in changing times had itself become old and tired. Finally, a Third Quest had arisen had rejected the old man and spurned his methods and his followers. It had reinstated apocalyptic Judaism as the true matrix of Jesus, and had focused as much on his actions as on his words. It had even begun to explore the historical reasons for his death, instead of regarding the passion narratives as simply historicizing accounts of primitive theology. It finally starved the old man to death (Michelle had a feeling, she didn’t know why, that this had happened in 1985), and he was buried unceremoniously in a pauper’s grave. Three years passed and the watchers at the tomb—the sorrowing followers of the old man—sat there still, playing with coloured billiard-balls and recounting aphorisms. Then, suddenly, there was an earthquake. The tomb opened, and there came out three men, followed by a large book. The first man was himself a German, with an accent not unlike the original old man; he carried under his arm two volumes dedicated to the old man’s memory. The second was an American, with a beard like a lion, and a sword in his right hand with which he had slain innocent myths ancient and modern. The third was an Irishman with a tongue of silver. And behind them came the Book. As Michelle looked in her dream, a loud voice was heard, saying, ‘Have you reconstructed the Quest?’ And an answer came from the Book. As Michelle recognized her own voice—‘Wait and See’. [I should say at this point that the answer ‘Yes’, found in some sources of the Crossan Gospel, is clearly secondary, being a naive doublet of the end of this story.]

Michelle awoke, sweating all over—not a good thing for a book to do at the best of times. She put on her jacket, resolved to get to the bottom of it. But to whom could she turn? If she went to a modernist psychiatrist for a methodological critique, he would tell her she had been hallucinating not only at night but all her life. If she went to a postmodernist psychiatrist for a methodological critique she would be told some more stories which might or might not help. A wave of hermeneutical sea-sickness swept over her, as she longed for a fixed point on which to rest her eyes, and simultaneously felt guilty for wanting it. She resolved, in the best postmodern fashion to try self-analysis in the first instance.

Let’s take the matter of criteria, she thought. I suppose that’s important; but, strictly speaking, modernists have holes, and positivists have nests, but the Son of Postmodernism ought to have nowhere to lay his head. Where, then, do these criteria come from? Double or multiple attestation appear fine—or do they? How do we know that a single one-off story might not be the pearl of great price for which one should sell all the lesser pearls of frequently-repeated aphorisms? Michelle felt through her pages to see how rigidly the ‘criteria’ were applied. With a sense of guilty relief, she came to the passage on the Lord’s Prayer. It met all the criteria, there could be no question about it. There were probably, she recalled, three independent versions. But, her implied author had said, ‘I do not think ...’, ‘I do not believe ...’ ‘that such a co-ordinated prayer was ever taught by Jesus to his followers’. Maybe, thought Michelle, maybe these neo-modernist criteria are only a surface noise. When push comes to shove, they can be dispensed with, leaving a purer, more personal storytelling underneath. She wasn’t quite happy about this, but it would do for the moment, she thought.

And what about sources? Michelle felt decidedly uneasy about the chronological list of supposed Jesus-sources that nestled so impressively inside her back cover. Why was she uneasy? After all, surely it was an excellent thing to set the material out so that one could see where on was. The fact that a modernist would want to do that as well was surely just a superficial coincidence. But the order itself—the way in which the sources were listed chronologically—she still found deeply puzzling. Her implied author, of course, would never have made the naive mistake of thinking that because Matthew’s highlights the conversion of Matthew that therefore it was written by Matthew or that because John’s Gospel highlights the role of the Beloved Disciple that therefore it was written by him. Why was it, then, that Thomas 12 could be invoked so straightforwardly evidence that the first layer at least of the book was ‘composed by the fifties CE, possibly in Jerusalem, under the aegis of James’ authority’, or that Thomas 13 could be pressed into service to support a second layer being written in the sixties or seventies ‘under the aegis of the Thomas authority’? It was, of course, a happy thing to be under someone’s authority rather than simply the product of someone’s pen. Perhaps the notion of ‘implied aegis’ should be added to those of implied author, reader and purchaser. And it was of course, much more satisfactory to speak of ‘the Thomas authority’ than of Thomas himself, even if it did sound a bit like a local government department. Yet doubts remained, as they did with the Cross gospel itself; Michelle had heard it whispered in the library that even her implied author’s closest implied colleagues weren’t happy with his extraction of a section from the Gospel of Peter his firm dating of it in the 50s, his placing of it in Galilee, and his declaration that it was the single source of all the canonical passion narratives. The whole construct, of course, was a quite brilliant fiction the postmodern sense) about the early Church, despite the tactical disclaimer which, no doubt due to implicit modesty, stated that the book was about Jesus, not about the earliest Church. But did it really work, even on that level?

As Michelle pondered this, she was reminded of Winnie-the-Pooh who, in his search for Woozles, went round and round the same clump trees following his own footprints in the snow, and using the extra sets of tracks, each time round, as evidence that the quarry was more real and numerous than before. How did it go? Early Thomas and Early Q give a ‘sapiental’ portrait of Jesus the Cynic or Jesus the early Gnostic; these are the earliest sources, therefore that’s what Jesus probably was probably like. Once round the trees. Why are Early Thomas and Early Q early? Because they contain no apocalyptic and are sapiental, or Cynic, or Gnostic. Twice round the trees. Why is the absence of apocalyptic a sign of earliness? Because Jesus and the earliest church weren’t into that stuff. Three times round the trees. How do we know Jesus and the earliest Church weren’t into that stuff? Because of Early Thomas and Early Q. As Michelle thought of the ever-increasing footprints in the hermeneutical snow, she didn’t exactly feel that the circle was vicious. That wasn’t a nice thing to think about one’s implied author. She did, however, have an uncomfortable feeling that the circle was shy: that is to say, that any virtue it might possess remained well hidden behind a thick veil of hermeneutical modesty.

Keeping her jacket on, Michelle sat in the library, pondering deeply. Then, ignoring the regulations, she began to whisper to the books on either side of her. How did the analysis of Jesus’ so social world square with what the others had been saying? It was now her turn to be shy, as she could see glances being exchanged by a couple of paperbacks further down the shelf. Yes, they’d all heard of Social Banditry. Hadn’t that rather forbidding book on Spirals of Violence been going on about it a few years ago? But wasn’t there a danger of replacing the now-unfashionable pan-Zealot hypothesis with a pan-Bandit hypothesis? Surely a good postmodernist would want to insist on a much looser, more varied and storied, world. Michelle got even more worried, and went back to her own thoughts. It was all very well, she thought, for her implied author to tell stories about the first century based on studies of the twentieth century, or to tell stories about the Middle East based on studies of South American Indians. But would her modernist implied readers like it? She wasn’t at all convinced. How could she reassure them? She remembered with a glow of relief the quote, from a distinguished figure, on the back of her jacket. ‘The book’, it said, ‘avoids projecting current ideologies.’ That was a fine thing. Nobody, modern or postmodern, wanted mere projection. But, she thought with a start, supposing I’m projecting non-current ideologies? Michelle felt through her pages again, and came upon the phrase which the publishers had so gladly highlighted in their press release: Jesus and his followers fitted into the mould of being ‘hippies in a world of Augustan yuppies’. Where did that come from? It was quite true that the hippy culture wasn’t current ideology. It belonged, she well knew, in the 1960s, not the 1990s. Back to the implied purchaser again, she thought. The quote on the jacket was true, but it wasn’t comforting.

Michelle was by this time thoroughly non-plussed. The more she longed for integration, the more disintegration seemed to lie close at hand. The sense of Sturm und Drang, so deeply beloved of postmodernists, was all very well for them, she thought bitterly. They have to live with it day by day. They projected it onto their existentialist forebears, and simply basked in reflected Angst from the safety of implicit authorship. Where could she turn for help? A vision came into her mind of a book that would understand; a book that would reassure her; a book that would appreciate the problems she’d been through, and would bring comfort and warmth into her life

In her mind’s eye she could see him now. He wouldn’t be a modernist or positivist, of course. She could never go with someone like that. And he’d have to understand her wayward side, her delight in the free play of deconstruction and reconstruction. But he would also give her an inner reconciliation, a sense of being at peace with herself. He would help her to work out the tension between her implied author and her implied readers. He would help her out of the introverted world of postmodernism, with its tendency to neurotic self-examination—wasn’t that what she’d been doing all day so far?—and into the hermeneutically risky but ultimately more satisfying world of public discourse. She would find herself in a brand new way.

She could see him now in her mind’s eye. She wandered back to the study and sat shyly on the desk, hoping, waiting. And as she waited, it came to her.

If all there is is reconstruction, she thought, then all there is is somebody’s reconstruction. Every reconstructor then becomes a broker—which, throughout her pages, was a word that seemed to carry all kinds of negative overtones, not least (she supposed) through its implicit association with those yuppies, whether Augustan or otherwise, of whom her implicit author so deeply disapproved. How could we ever make progress, she wondered, away from this brokered hermeneutical empire? The embattled brokerage that had constituted her inner Angst all day longed for the brokerless kingdom of public truth; who would help her find it?

A soft voice behind her (he’d been reading the back of her jacket) made her turn in surprise. She found herself looking into the eyes of a critical realist.

They gazed at one another with unspoken questions and answers. He needed her, his eyes said, as much as she needed him. From somewhere there came a voice, which she dimly recognized:

There is therefore now no solipsism for those who engage in critical realism;

For the law of the freshly storied world has set you free from the law of private worlds and inner tension between modern and postmodern.

For what positivist historiography could not achieve, in that it was weak through the postmodern critique, critical realism can achieve,

Offering itself in the likeness of postmodernism’s stories, it condemns postmodernism’s collapse into mere story,

In order that the brokerless kingdom of public truth may be available to all who walk not according to positivism, nor according to relativism, but according to a newly storied public world.

A covenant, she thought. A new covenant. A covenant that might reach ... but modesty forbade her from completing the sentence. She looked steadily at him. Ask me, she said with her eyes. He asked her, but she couldn’t speak. She felt the negations of postmodernism melting away inside her. He softly removed her modernist jacket. Ask me again, she said with her eyes. He asked her again, and now she found her voice. Yes, she said. Yes. Yes.