FIFA refs and The New Testament

Seeing the Word: Part 4.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with international soccer, FIFA has classically resisted the use of technology as an aid for regulating the game – i.e. unlike other professional sports, FIFA refs cannot use instant replay to review a call. This fact has resulted in a good deal of anguish for soccer players and fans in the 2010 World Cup. Most recently, English striker Frank Lampard’s goal against Germany was disregarded even though the cameras showed it was clearly a legitimate goal, and the header from Argentina’s Carlos Tevez was counted even though the cameras showed he was clearly offside. The refrain resulting from these two bad calls has sounded something to the tune of this: “The only people who missed those calls in the entire world were the referees.” In other words, those refs could not see from the subjective position in the game what everyone else could clearly see from the objective view of instant replay. Basically, fans and players are upset because they feel that FIFA has written their own version of “soccer history” which is based on the poor (perhaps biased) memory of those referees.

What I find striking (pun intended) in this story is that many people (scholars and laity alike) have the same sorts of feelings about the first few centuries of Christian history. The refrain goes something like this: “The orthodox Christianity we know today from the New Testament is really a product of the biased memories – history subjectively written by the winners. But through the objective work of historical-critical scrutiny, we can see what they couldn’t see – they were wrong.”

The point is not that those FIFA refs should be given more credit and are probably correct in their decision (although we could be more graceful in our critique – unless there is a conspiracy of course). Those were definitely bad calls. The instant replay makes this clear. The point is that some are looking at the reception history of the New Testament like they are looking at FIFA. Some scholars give the impression that the subjective bias of the early “orthodox” community is obvious – those early Christians had bad memories – while the objectivity and accuracy of historical deconstruction is also obvious – from our vantage point we can clearly see the facts. However, the story of some critics is not so obvious.

In the chapter “Living Memory and Apostolic History” Bockmuehl addresses the issue of the “reception history” or “effect history” of the New Testament. He writes, “When everything is said and done, can history generated by the text shed any light whatsoever on the history and world of meaning represented by the text itself?” (166) In short, the story that some scholars tell is what early Christians said about the text, or what the first believers wrote about Jesus cannot reflect the actual historical intention and reality. Both the effect of the text and the memory of its authors is the product of an optical illusion which takes place as time passes. In other words, as time passes memories of events tend change or grow to fit the ideological interests of the group (i.e. the fish gets bigger).

In contrast to this “evolutionary” reading of history Bockmuehl follows recent scholars (like Samuel Byrskog, Richard Bauckham, and Martin Hengel) in emphasizing the role that living memory plays in the evaluation of the first several centuries of Christian history. Bockmuehl argues for a 150-year window of living memory: the apostles of Jesus (e.g. John) – those who were taught by the apostles personally (e.g. Polycarp) – those who were in turn taught by these students (i.e. Irenaeus). This means that by around AD 130, the last eyewitnesses of apostles was very old or had recently died, and the “grandchildren” of these eyewitnesses were probably around until 200. That is, essentially, 150 years of eyewitnesses testifying to what was guarded as truth. The role of eyewitness testimony and of memory in ancient Jewish communities cannot be elaborated here but must be stressed as vitally important.

In an age when memory is both Freudinized and not widely practiced it is easy to miss and undervalue the significant role it played in the first few generations of Christian history. Early Christian history did not operate like the telephone game, and there is no instant replay that we can watch but the apostles cannot watch. Bockmuehl summarizes this chapter well,

Jean-Paul Sartre once said that whether the past lives or dies depends on the here and now…however, [we] have affirmed exactly the opposite: whether there is life in the present depends wholly on the remembrance of God’s saving acts – and hope in his promises. Until the end of the second century, that Christian point of view was rooted in part in a living memory of the original actors in the saving story of Jesus of Nazareth – those whom Irenaeus called the eyewitnesses of the Word of Life. (188)




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