Thursday 6 July 2006

Tunnel Vision

I once wrote that Vision, the flagship magazine of David Hulme’s group, was the best of the bunch. Wrong. It’s merely the most pretentious.

That realization was brought home after reading the Vision review of James Tabor’s The Jesus Dynasty. Sect heavyweights Hulme and Peter Nathan (former WCG Regional Director for New Zealand) collaborated on a lengthy pasting of Tabor’s book. Fair enough, if the criticism is valid. But is it?

They begin by lumping Dynasty together with The Last Week by Jesus Seminar scholars Crossan and Borg. Why? These are very different books. The Last Week gets the briefer treatment, and Crossan and Borg are chided for (wait for it!) not adopting the Wednesday crucifixion theory! Hulme and Nathan are then reduced to citing antiquated sources (Torrey, 1907; Pearson, 1939; Bullinger, 1922) to make Herbert Armstrong’s adopted reconstruction look credible (it’s noticeable that they don’t cite Hoeh.) The trouble is that the theory is a curiosity that has never gained acceptance, probably for very good reasons. If Hulme thinks this is the crux of a relevant discussion of The Last Week then he obviously needs to reread the book.

Tabor is the next for the chop, but here the Pasadena-based duo has to be careful. Tabor has previously been interviewed in Vision, and in their Paul television promotional, as a scholarly authority. What to do? The strategy they adopt is to both slap him around and then pat him on the head with an air of condescension.

The criticism: Tabor “doesn’t examine every side of an issue”, miracles “have no place in Tabor’s approach to history”, he believes that Paul and James were “antithetical” to each other; he believes “the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses”, he adopts a Thursday crucifixion reconstruction, and he suggests Jesus didn’t use matzos at the Last Supper. Then, in a final sideswipe, they accuse the unfortunate Dr. Tabor of being a “neo-Ebionite.”


While some have expressed keen reservations about the approach Dr. Tabor takes in The Jesus Dynasty, Vision’s rather facile objections miss those issues entirely.

If anyone deserves to be labeled “neo-Ebionite” it’s church leaders like Hulme. The Ebionites were the Jewish Christians of the first century. Mind you, Hulme isn’t a very good Ebionite because he tries to hold together the Old Testament elements alongside Protestant assumptions. Neither fish nor fowl, there’s a built in contradiction at the heart of this posture which just doesn’t work (witness the disintegration of the WCG.)

There are strong reasons why the Gospels can’t be regarded as eyewitness documents – and they’re spelled out in any college level textbook on the subject. Putting aside the speculative side of Tabor’s book, in this matter he’s only telling it like it is – honestly.

Miracles have no part to play in an academic approach to history. That doesn’t mean they can’t happen, or that there are no fairies at the bottom of Hulme’s garden, it just means that if you’re writing history you can’t excuse a weak argument with special pleading.

And if Hulme and Nathan aren’t aware of the broad consensus on the tension between the Jerusalem Church and the Pauline mission, well, they’re not nearly as well read as they make out.

A final observation: the story of the early church is a bit like a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle with 900 pieces missing. The actual hard data is surprisingly thin, and any reconstruction – Tabor’s, Crossan’s or Hulme’s – must be speculative to some extent. Some reconstructions are more probable than others, but if you had to put them on a scale of most to least likely, the traditional Armstrong version would drop right off the improbability end with a solid clunk.

If The Jesus Dynasty has rattled a few COG cages then that’s no bad thing.

Addendum: You can hear James Tabor speaking about his book on Tulsa Public Radio.


Richard said...

A neo-WHAT?!?!!?

I've heard of Ebonite -- a company in the U.S. which makes bowling balls. But not that other thing.

Is Vision is writing for the mass unchurched audience which needs a Savior and the truth of the Bible -- or somebody else?

Anonymous said...

Is Vision is writing for the mass unchurched audience which needs a Savior and the truth of the Bible -- or somebody else?

Hulme's Vision is writing for COG members with self-esteem issues, who desperately want to maintain the illusion that they belong to a religion with deep philosophical roots, and not to a personality cult based on one man's quirks and whims.

Vision isn't more intellectual or scholarly than the Good News magazine. It's just more dishonest.