Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Beware the Theological “Silly Season”

By Roy Ciampa, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

During the recent presidential campaign there were several references to the political “silly season” – that stage in election campaigning when candidates (or, more frequently, their ) say outrageous things about their opponents in the hopes of spreading fear or misinformation that would move their opponent into a dehttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.giffensive mode. There is a seasonal silly season, a political silly season and at least a couple of theological silly seasons: the periods before Christmas and Easter. On March 23 I received an email from Time Magazine with a list of the “10 Most Popular Stories of the Week.” The http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifstory on the top of the list? “Scholar Claims Dead Sea Scrolls 'Authors' Never Existed.” This is a pretty silly piece that really has nothing to do with the Christian faith. It is about an Israeli scholar, Rachel Elior (whose views on several issues are , who denies the Essenes (an ancient Jewish sect thought to have produced the Dead Sea Scrolls) ever existed. It can only be for the sake of sensationalism that we are told that the scholar’s theory “has landed like a bombshell in the cloistered world of biblical scholarship.”

Bombshell? Haven’t even heard a firecracker recently, and it’s not because I’m deaf or not listening. The author bases her claim, it seems on the grounds that “the Essenes make no mention of themselves” anywhere in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Not that the authors of the scrolls don’t ever refer to themselves, but they don’t use the term “Essenes” when they do. To the credit of the author of the article, he points out that “James Charlesworth, director of the Dead Sea Scrolls project at Princeton Theological Seminary and an expert on Josephus, says it is not unusual that the word Essenes does not appear in the scrolls. ‘It's a foreign label,’ he tells TIME. ‘When they refer to themselves, it's as “men of holiness” or “sons of light.”’” Professor Elior, for her part, suggests those who disagree with her “should read the Dead Sea Scrolls — all 39 volumes. The proof is there.” But those who disagree happen to be experts on the Dead Sea Scrolls. And one wonders how carefully she has read the scrolls. Has she never noticed that the authors of the scrolls never mention the Pharisees or Sadducees by name either (it seems the former are referred to as “those who seek smooth things” (people who look for easy interpretations to avoid the rigorous teachings of the Law)? Perhaps we should conclude that neither of those groups ever existed either?

While this “bombshell” is supposed to be shaking up our understanding of Judaism in Jesus’s day, it hardly merits serious academic interest, in my opinion. And it really has nothing to do with Jesus or the Christian faith. Nevertheless, the editors embed this link in the middle of the online article: (Read "Is This Jesus's Tomb?"). The article about “Jesus’s tomb” was written at the beginning of Lent last year. That’s right – it was last year’s contribution to the http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.giftheological silly season. Evidently they are having a hard time coming up with something nearly as sensational and settled on this strange view about the Essenes and the opportunity to embed a link to last year’s sensational story within it.

But the theological silly season is not necessarily over yet. This may just be the first round. We can expect news reports and television shows intended to exploit the heightened interest in Jesus and the resurrection (or the Christian faith in general) by promoting controversial or sensational claims.

As a Christian I guess I have no right to complain. I have my own sensational and controversial claim to highlight at this time of year and I also hope that heightened interest in the subject will win for this outrageous claim the attention it deserves: That Jesus of Nazareth, who died on a Roman cross 2,000 years ago rose from the dead, appeared to many and then was exalted to the right hand of God the Father and that “God has made this Jesus, whom [we] crucified, both Lord and Messiah" (Act 2:36 TNIV). This message is not one that lasts just until the silly season is over, but has changed the course of history and the course of millions of lives through the centuries. It is a message which has withstood the test of time and which brings a renewal of life and hope to people in every season of life.

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