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Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).

Sunday, 22 August 2010

The Life of a Galilean Shaman, by Pieter F. Craffert

I recently read Pieter F. Craffert's book, The Life of a Galilean Shaman: Jesus of Nazareth in Anthropological-Historical Perspective (Eugene: Cascade, 2008). It is the most interesting thing I have read on the historical Jesus in a few years.

Essentially, Craffert argues that historical Jesus scholarship — both on the Wredebahn (which tends to be more sceptical of the Gospel accounts) and the Schweizerstrasse (which takes the Gospels as more reliable historical sources) — is methodologically problematic. He maintains that a historical method that takes the insight of cultural anthropology is what is needed.

So he offers a new road for historical Jesus research which he calls "cultural bundubashing." This approach does not merely offer different answers to the traditional question but reframes the entire project and poses some different questions. Instead of digging in the sources for "authentic nuggets" of historical data it considers both the social personage (Jesus) and the literary texts (the Gospels) as cultural artifacts produced in specific cultural processes within a particular cultural system.

Craffert uses the model of "the shaman" as a cross-cultural social personage to try to account for as much of the data about Jesus that we have. Jesus, in the Gospels, performed miracles, cast out demons, was a teacher and prophet, was credited with a special birth, etc. Often historical Jesus researchers dismiss this picture because they "know" that Jesus could not really have been like that. But cultural anthropology reveals that, in fact, a historical figure really could have looked like this and that these perceptions of Jesus make perfect sense as originating during the time of his ministry rather than years later as mythical expansions of the real history.

Shamans were religious entrepreneurs who enter controlled altered states of consciousness (such as S/spirit or divine possession, ascents to heaven) on behalf of their communities and perform certain functions, such as healing, divination, and control of spirits. Whilst the term "shaman" does not apply to Jesus context, the model designated by the term does. And it accounts for more data about the personage of Jesus than labeling him as a "healer" or an "exorcist" or a "prophet."

In a series of chapters Craffert considers Jesus' baptism and Spirit-possession experiences, his activity of healing, exorcism, and control of spirits; his teaching, preaching, and prophetic activity; the stories of his miraculous birth; the resurrection accounts.

There are some absolutely fascinating insights and perspectives in these chapters (for instance, the discussion on sickness and healing in cross-cultural perspective really opened my eyes to how I read the Gospel accounts through certain cultural assumptions that may not be adequate to make sense of the Gospels).

Now I am not endorsing everything in this book. I think that his shaman model did not work (despite his best attempts) on the resurrection (though there were some helpful insights along the way). The approach is inadequate for a Christian reader of the Gospels or for a theological reader (and at times must simply be resisted). I also believe that he throws out too much in the methodologies of more traditional historical Jesus research.

BUT in a debate that seems to rehearse the same kinds of arguments over and over again this is a real breath of fresh air. It does not drive down the same roads across the landscape but takes some radical new routes that dissect that landscape in unexpected and interesting ways. The journey will prove gripping and eye-opening for any who care to take a ride even if, in the end, they don't choose to go all the way with Craffert or to completely abandon the more traditional roads.

And, whilst this approach is not enough for a Christian reader, I do think that it could play a very helpful role in a more culturally-aware and nuanced Christian approach to the Gospel material.

For anyone interested in historical Jesus research this really is a "must read" (and I don't say that about many books). I came away seeing the Gospels through new eyes and that can't be a bad thing.

4 comments:

James Goetz said...

I suppose that I'll find this book valuable for apologetics. However, I dread the thought of a follow up volume titled The Life and Time of Jesus the Shaman. :)

Robin Parry said...

Not sure whether or not it is useful apologetically. The author is not a Christian and some of his conclusions (esp. on the resurrection) and incompatible with a Christian view. So it requires handling with wisdom.

The theological follow-up would be called "Jesus: A Shaman But More Than a Shaman." To really get Jesus one cannot see him just as a shaman figure. Jesus is, in the end, unique and unlike any other figure! However, seeing him in such ways is very helpful as far as it goes.

I learned a lot.

James Goetz said...

I understand that using Craffert's view in apologetics would be something along the lines of pitting one naturalistic view against another. But Craffert's naturalistic view at least says that the perceptions of Christ's miracles originated during the ministry of Christ instead of merely decades after his ministry. Likewise, if I correctly understand this, Craffert throws a wrench into other criticisms about the life of Christ. For example, "a historical figure really could have looked like this and that these perceptions of Jesus make perfect sense as originating during the time of his ministry rather than years later as mythical expansions of the real history."

James Goetz said...

I'll also clarify caution in citing Craffert in an apologetics work. Nobody should quote mine Craffert to imply that he supports the historicity of Christ's miracles in the four Gospels. Craffert only supports the historicity of the perceptions of Christ in the four Gospels.

I hope that I clarified myself.