Indiana University Research & Creative Activity April 1998 Volume XXI Number 1


by Eric Pfeffinger

In many college courses, differing interpretations of assigned texts--Dover Beach, say, or Das Kapital--can be accommodated or shrugged off as competing but coexisting readings. But as an assistant professor of religious studies and historian of early Christianity, David Brakke examines and questions texts that many of his Indiana University Bloomington students consider to be the inspired word of God. That can, at times, make classroom discussion a little tense.

"When I teach Introduction to New Testament," Brakke recounts, "some Christian students become anxious, worried, or angry about primarily two things. First, we evaluate New Testament texts as historical sources in a way no different from other texts. This letter claims to be from the Apostle Paul. Is that true? Here are four different accounts of Jesus' life. Can that be? These questions can disturb students.

David Brakke, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Indiana University Bloomington, at Trinity Episcopal Church in Bloomington --credit

"The second thing can be either disturbing or liberating: the discovery of the diversity of teachings in the New Testament, for example, John's view of Jesus versus Mark's. You have some Christian students who would like to see Christianity as a single entity. Others are happy to learn that they can be Christian and not adhere to a single viewpoint. What is left undone, this being a big lecture class, is some discussion of how Christians theologically deal with and have dealt with these problems. So often students are left in a state of quandary, puzzlement, and the like. For most, I think, it leads to a growth in their faith."

In Brakke's classroom, then, as in the Christian community at large, multiple factions exist. "Scripture is almost a classic instance," he says, warming to his topic. "There are the Christians who are looking to scripture for an authority to which they can be obedient and for the conclusion to their search. There are other Christians who look to scripture for inspiration and a stimulus to creative thought, for the facilitation of their ongoing search. To identify 'true' Christianity with either is inaccurate. In our culture people identify it with the first. That's the loudest voice, but not the only one."

If Brakke speaks with authority and enthusiasm about how competing Christian outlooks play out in his undergraduate classes, that's not solely because he's been witnessing it firsthand during his four years at IU (and in his teaching experiences at Concordia College and Yale before that). It's also because these conflicts mirror the ones that occupy center stage in his research. As a historian of early Christianity from Jesus to about 500 C.E., Brakke is focusing on a crucially active period for Christian scriptures. During this span these texts were not only written, but collected, advanced as authoritative, distributed, interpreted by learned persons, and preached upon. This single period of less than five hundred years, then, has it all: one-stop shopping for any scholar interested in how one collection of texts became scripture.

"The driving question is this," Brakke says. "How did this one guy, Jesus, wind up being the center of the official religion of the entire Roman Empire? That's the process of scripture." It's a process that Brakke, with his defined historical period, is positioned to study. "The people before me [here at IU] were scholars of the New Testament: how it was produced and so on. So it seems like they'd be more oriented toward the whole question of scripture. But at that point, it wasn't scripture yet. It's really those of us who study what happened right after who are dealing with scripture."

The Book of Hours was produced in France in the mid-fifteenth century. It was written in Latin and is lavishly illustrated. --credit

Dealing with scripture is dealing with issues of authority. "What you see in the early centuries of Christianity is an increasing concern to locate authority in certain places. Who's more authoritative, these books we have from early times or inspired teachers? The position of the early church was clear: the books."

This interest in books and authority has enabled Brakke to pursue a broad range of research inquiries, including such a seemingly provocative and sexy work as his 1995 article "The Problematization of Nocturnal Emissions in Early Christian Syria, Egypt, and Gaul" and his current work compiling a critical edition of three Syriac manuscripts on the meaning of Christian virginity. "They function to--the fancy Christian word is 'exhort'--'pump up' Christian women on how to live their lives, and how not to." Working on these fragments entailed a research trip to the British Library in London. "Fortunately, they were all in one place," Brakke says, then smiles. "Or maybe unfortunately--I could've had a trip to Paris or something."

Another of his current projects taps more directly into the question of scriptural authority. He worked on a piece this past summer about a small group of early Christians, known as Gnostics, who had a different approach to the authority of the established scriptures. "Instead of just writing a commentary on a biblical story, they would rewrite the story as myth or narrative." For instance, instead of just analyzing the story of the Flood, they would rewrite it, retell it as a new story. Most mainstream Christians rejected the Gnostics' practices, and for obvious reasons: "Every time you create a new story, you create a new religious group. So often it's not the ideas but the story that's crucial."

"Probably the most shocking thing was when the Gnostics rewrote the Old Testament, they decided the God of Israel was not the ultimate God but a lower, deluded god. While other Jews and Christians worried: How does a just God create a Flood that wipes out almost everything? These Gnostics had no problem with that."
As Brakke describes the Gnostics' rationales and methods of rewriting biblical stories, glimpses of his undergraduate English major occasionally show: "Instead, the Gnostics worried about things like: Who were these people in this Ark? Why did they get in there? Mostly, they decided that these were predecessor Gnostics that God wanted to get rid of and they outsmarted him" by building the Ark and riding out the Flood. This freedom of imagination feeds into Brakke's interests in the authority of the writing process, the relationships among narratives and between narratives and readers, and the reasons behind the establishment of certain texts as authoritative.

The tension between the mainstream Christians' reliance on old stories and the Gnostics' interest in creating new ones is reflected in comparable tensions today. While some Christians, including some of Brakke's students, continue to imbue the canonized books of the Bible with ultimate authority, "other Christians continue to believe, just as in the early years of the church, that Christians of their own day could have inspired experiences that bring not only new insights but new narratives." Although his scholarly bent seems to favor the latter group and their emphasis on imagination and reinterpretation, Brakke is fair in his assessment, acknowledging both good and bad reasons underlying the impulse, both in the early days of the church and now, to exclude new narratives from consideration. "The bad reason is that you close out diversity. But the good reason is: How do you maintain cohesion otherwise?" He points to Mormonism as a modern example of how the adoption of new texts by one branch of Christianity can lead to estrangement from the other branches. The relevance of these issues of authority and narrative didn't die out with the Gnostics.

Indeed, there must be something gratifying in the fact that Brakke's field--the boundary between scripture and other narratives--has resonance well beyond the fabled ivory tower of academe. "For the last two or three hundred years, Christian theologians and intellectuals have begun to re-evaluate the New Testament in ways that make that boundary very suspect. There are early Christian texts written before the Gospels in the New Testament that include the words of Jesus. So where is the center of revelation? Should these words be considered authoritative?"

"For most mainstream Christians," Brakke acknowledges, "these aren't live issues." But neither are they confined to the academy, as religious studies sections in major bookstore chains continue to swell with popular titles addressing these questions of authority and canonicity. The theologians and the mainstream church aren't the only participants. On the popular front--what Brakke calls "the level of Christianity at Borders Bookstore"--interest in the blurring boundaries of Christian scripture is alive and well.

The popular/elite dichotomy is also germane to Brakke's field, as indicated in another of his current projects, an article examining why early Christians thought Jesus spoke in parables. Focusing on the Gospel of John and the newly discovered Secret Book of James, Brakke finds that "both texts think in the end that mysterious, hard-to-understand scripture is better than scripture that's easy to understand because then, if you can understand it, you can show that you're part of the enlightened group." Scripture, then, can serve to erect barriers--quite a different lesson than the expanded authorship of the Gnostics.

For his part, however, whether he's working with undergraduates who are grappling with new ways of seeing their scriptures or studying the writings of early Christians who were grappling with the very same things, Brakke is committed to transcending barriers, to expanding the ranks of the "enlightened group" by expanding the source materials of scriptural study itself. The nascent field of comparative study of scripture strikes him as one step in that direction. "The three major religions of the West--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--are seen [by most historians of religion] as religions of the Book. Their textual bases are seen as fairly small and well-defined. The religions of the East are seen as different in that respect. Those of us who study western religions could benefit from understanding there to be a wider range of scripture than just The Book."

That's not a surprising sentiment coming from a scholar whose interests are not confined to the New Testament and the Secret Book of James but also spill over into the Festal Letters of Athanasius of Alexandria and early church leaders' writings on nocturnal emissions. The more texts that come under scrutiny and contribute to our understanding of how authority is attributed to scriptural writings, the better.

Especially if, at least occasionally, they turn up in places like Paris. dingbat

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