From The Fourth R
and the viper
“the fountains of myself are a vision
I will not behold”
A. R. Ammons, Diversifications
Memories? What you remember, what you forget, and, most unnervingly of all, what is in there somewhere, forgotten but recoverable with some accidental and external prompting. My mother carefully boxed and stored the youthful debris of her three children. After she died, I found a forgotten pocket diary I kept in 1948. It covered the Winter and Spring terms of my third year in high school.
Thursday, April 1st: “Shot and wounded two homing pigeons, breaking their wings. Dickens of a row. How was I too know they were homing pigeons. That shook them anyway.”
Minor misspelling, minor exculpation, minor defiance, of course, but a single reading brought it all back. My father had a .22 rifle I was allowed to use only out in the countryside and under his supervision. I had shot it from our backyard into one of our neighbor’s trees. “Dickens of a row!” A long forgotten incident, in a long forgotten diary. The reading brings back unmentioned details and prompts the necessary inclusion of others. Thus: I must have been at home for that to happen; so it must have been Easter break from boarding high school; so Easter Sunday must have been the preceding March 28 in 1948. Memory as reconstruction, not just remembrance.
Back to the beginning. My parents lived in Portumna, Co. Galway, a town in Ireland too smaIl to have a good hospital. So my mother went to nearby Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, where I was born in 1934. My father was a banker. Since the Irish banking system involved a head-office in Dublin and branches throughout the country, each promotion entailed a transfer. Home never meant for me a fixed house or even a fixed town. Home was where you were.
Grade school was in Naas, Co. Kildare, a large market town about twenty miles from Dublin. On long walks along the Dublin road, when I was nine or ten, my father recited poetry which I then memorized. The price, say, for “Gungha Din,” complete and correct by the end of the walk, was sixpence. My father is gone now, so is the sixpenny piece, and so, through the new bypass, is the Dublin road. I have been asked recently whether an Irish background influenced my understanding of Jesus as a peasant resister to imperial aggression. Here is what I recognize and remember.
I grew up among the first generation of post-colonial Irish in the protected lee of the foundering British Empire. I spent 1945 to 1950 at St. Eunan’s College, Letterkenny, Co. Donegal. This county is connected to the Republic by a narrow sliver of land, surrounded on all its non-Atlantic sides by Northern Ireland, then as now a part of Britain. This schooling bred strange anomalies. All instruction was in Gaelic, but the curriculum was adopted bodily from the elite private schools of England. So in Irish History class, I learned the awful things Britain had done to Ireland. Against empire, therefore? But in courses on the Greek and Roman classics, with texts chosen by British education to prepare its youth for imperial administration, I learned, say, from Caesar’s Gallic Wars, to admire the syntax and ignore the slaughter. Even of our ancient Celtic ancestors. For empire, therefore?
On festive occasions, when the boarding students were released to visit their local relatives, I usually went to a paternal uncle-in-law. When he was a little drunk (that is, on all festive occasions), he would show me from a well-greased rag beneath his bed a Luger, used not in the fight for Irish independence but in the Irish civil war which immediately succeeded its partial acceptance.[one_half]
From all of that pedagogical confusion I still hold two truths with equal and fundamental certainty. One: the British did terrible things to the Irish. Two: the Irish, had they the power, would have done equally terrible things to the British. And so also for any other paired adversaries I can imagine. The difficulty is to hold on to both truths with equal intensity, not let either one negate the other, and know when to emphasize one without forgetting the other. Our humanity is probably lost and gained in the necessary tension between them both. I hope, by the way, that I do not sound anti-British. It is impossible not to admire a people who gave up India and held on to Northern Ireland. That shows a truly Celtic sense of humor.
I still hold two truths with equal and fundamental certainty. One: the British did terrible things to the Irish. Two: the Irish, had they the power, would have done equally terrible things to the British. … The difficulty is to hold on to both truths with equal intensity, not let either one negate the other, and know when to emphasize one without forgetting the other.
My paternal grandparents were lower-class farmers and my maternal grandparents were middle-class urban shopkeepers. (I say poor farmers and not peasants because, unlike peasants whose surplus is expropriated by elite force, with them there was no force, and no surplus either.) When I stayed at their respective homes in the very early forties, my father’s family was still living well outside the nearest town, Letterkenny in County Donegal. They had a white-washed thatch-roofed cottage with an open fireplace for cooking, no internal plumbing, chickens and one goat for animals, donkey and trap for transportation. My mother’s family lived in a market town, Ballymote in County Sligo, above and beside their shop in a house with standard plumbing. But does that early experience with my paternal grandparents sufficiently explain why I made Jesus a peasant instead of, like my other grandparents, a shopkeeper, running a carpentry business out of his home in Nazareth? I admit, however, to a definite prejudice towards those paternal grandparents. Where else could you chase chickens, ride a donkey, and annoy a goat sufficiently to make it charge?
Many representatives from monastic orders spoke at my high school. One, from the Servite Order caught my imagination more than any of the others. After graduating in 1950, I entered the American province of this thirteenth-century Roman Catholic monastic order. And so, one early morning in October 1951. I stood on the deck of the Queen Mary with the Statue of Liberty slipping behind to port as we moved up the Hudson to the Cunard docks.
The Servite major seminary was near Chicago but we students lived in complete isolation from the outside world. Monastic life meant celibacy and liturgy, work and recreation, silence and study. The curriculum was designed for safety rather than originality; obedience was the supreme virtue; discussion and debate were hardly encouraged. Still, there was the library, and thoughts could always be kept to oneself. After two years of philosophy and four of theology I was ordained a priest in May, 1957.
From those years I still love Gregorian Chant, which I sang very badly for three or four hours in daily choir, and the Bible. My teacher, Neal Flanagan inserted the Bible, with competence and enthusiasm, into the general aridity of thomistic philosophy, scholastic theology, and canon law. I was about twenty-two before I knew the Bible was anything more than a quarry for liturgy. That means, irrevocably, that I see the historical Jesus, the New Testament, and early Christianity with a Roman Catholic, not with a Protestant, sensibility. This Roman Catholic sensibility is not automatically right or wrong, but it is inevitably different from the Protestant. And it is a sensibility, not a baptismal certification, ecclesiastical designation, or denominational acceptation.
I went to Maynooth College for my theological doctorate in 1957. It is the national seminary of Ireland, founded about two hundred years ago by the British Crown in order to keep Irish clerics away from the European continent and radical ideas away from Irish clerics. When I entered, it was no longer under the British Crown but was still dedicated to its original purpose. Still, after six years of monastic isolation, even Maynooth was wonderful. I finished the degree in two years but also spent hours of remedial reading every day. I read the complete works of anyone worth reading for the last hundred years. I also discovered film, and remember a Saturday afternoon when the Dublin Film Society showed, without subtitles, a film just released called The Seventh Seal. Imagine Bergman without warning.
In 1959, with a shiny new doctorate, I went to the Biblical Institute in Rome to specialize in the Bible for two years. The curriculum presumed Hebrew and Greek, demanded extra biblical languages each year, involved much detailed textual analysis, but was terribly weak on self-conscious method and self-critical theory. Those omissions were not exactly accidental since that way danger lay. But the years from 1959 to 1961 were a marvelous time to be in Rome and indeed all over a Europe, recovering fast from the horrors of the thirties and forties.
I returned to America in 1961 to teach at the Servite seminary from which I had been ordained. I was the entire biblical department and taught my way through the complete Bible over a four-year cycle. Such total unspecialization is neither usual nor desirable, but I have never regretted having done it at least once. It was then I first began to learn something about the Bible: day after day, word after word, book after book. My first years of teaching coincided with a very exciting period in Roman Catholicism. The Second Vatican Council began to raise more questions than it would dare to answer.
In 1965 I went for a two-year sabbatical to the Ecole Biblique, the school of archeology run by the French Dominicans just outside the Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem (then Jordan). Most of the time I was doing my own work, but the location made it possible to go everywhere in the Middle East: in short trips to Jordan and Israel, and in longer ones to Greece and Turkey, Iraq and Iran, Lebanon and Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco. In those days (though not anymore) I thought that the Lebanon solution might offer a model for Ireland’s tribal problems. On a beautiful late May day in 1967 the United Nations’ officers and officials moved their dependents into Lebanon, across the border from Israel and Jordan. We knew it was time for those of us who could leave to do so. The war came in three days. But by then, I was on my way home to teach with the Servites in Chicago.
In the fall of 1968 I decided to resign from the priesthood for two reasons. I wanted to marry Margaret Dagenais, who was then in the process of founding the Fine Arts Department at Loyola University in Chicago. And I wanted to be free from the irritation of thinking critically, as I had been trained, but being in constant trouble for doing so. I wanted to move from seminary to university teaching. In the late summer of 1969 I married Margaret and began teaching at DePaul University that fall. Not every Catholic university was willing to accept ex-priests into their departments of theology in 1969. It is a tribute to DePaul’s integrity that it was willing to judge me in terms of academic competency rather than dogmatic orthodoxy. There I remain, out of gratitude and loyalty, but more out of profound respect for that integrity.
In the early seventies Margaret and I discovered a bay, a valley, and a hillside high above the Mediterranean near Cala Llonga on Ibiza in the Balearic Islands of Spain. We bought some land, designed a villa, had it built, and spent the summers of the late seventies and earliest eighties there. (A year in Provence, nothing. Try a decade on Ibiza.) Margaret died from a heart attack in 1983. It was the first Saturday in June, the day we were to have left for Ibiza. I had what few of us get, three months with nothing to do but mourn, nowhere to hide from it and nothing to distract from it. Slowly, that first summer without her, I proofed In Fragments: The Aphorisms of Jesus, which was perfect: it required no thought but great concentration. And slowly, that same summer, I folded all Margaret’s clothes, dismantled her studio, gathered her books and realized, in watching myself do it, that I was getting the luxury of a three-month burial to replace the three-day one that had happened too soon, too fast. At the end of the summer I put our villa on Ibiza up for sale and went wind-surfing with my oldest nephew off Wexford in the Irish Sea. Raw terror is excellent therapy.
I knew that late May, early June, and no Ibiza would make the summer of 1984 an intense reminder of 1983. And I still had not done any work that required high originality or sustained creativity. Justus George Lawler had just become editorial director of Winston/Seabury and, in late May, asked me if I had anything for his first catalogue that Fall. He gave me overnight to think about it and on the telephone next morning I proposed Four Other Gospels: Ghosts that Haunt the Corridors of Canon. George disliked the subtitle so I slipped it into the Prologue, kept its rhythm, but replaced it with Shadows on the Contours of Canon. All necessary materials were on hand from In Fragments and the book was written in June and July of 1984. It was transmitted electronically from DePaul’s microcomputer to Polebridge Press and the page proofs were back by August when I returned after some more raw terror on the Irish Sea. We got the book out for the professional annual meeting, just six months from start to finish. But what it meant for me, above all, was that I was back and I was all right. Four Other Gospels will always be very special to me, and not just because its last chapter grew into The Cross that Spoke: The Origins of the Passion and Resurrection Narratives. The published subtitle, The Origins of the Passion Narratives is the work of some editorial type who found my version too long.
In August of 1986 I married Sarah Sexton, a school social worker. She has two children from an earlier marriage, but when Michelle and Frank entered my life they were already out of their teens. This is a procedure which I recommend highly. Although it lacks a little in biological immediacy, it is much easier, I am told, on the nerves. It is to Sarah, Frank, and Michelle that The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant is dedicated.
With that book, life got a little hectic. For six months it was in the top ten of religious bestsellers according to Publishers Weekly. After I made a promotional tour in Boston, New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles before Easter, it became No. 1 in June, 1992. Separate British and Australian editions as well as Portuguese, Spanish, German, and Italian (where’s France?) are out or in process. Rumors of a Gaelic translation, however, are unfounded. There is out there, for twentieth-century Christianity, those I call the Jesus-likers—a phenomenon akin to that of the God-fearers for first-century Judaism.
Between myself and the publisher, HarperSanFrancisco, The Historical Jesus is known as “Big Jesus.” This is to distinguish it from a reorganized, popularized, and updated version due out in November 1993 and entitled, publicly, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, but privately, “Baby Jesus.” Beyond that, the next major project is obvious. Its working title is After the Crucifixion: The Search for Earliest Christianity. By “earliest” I mean before Paul, apart from Paul, and if Paul had never existed. If we can get behind the gospels to the historical Jesus, can we get behind the Acts of the Apostles to earliest Christianity?
I have been asked, quite often, what drives this life-time of research. I have been told, quite often, that I must be anti-dogmatic, anti-ecclesiastical, or anti-fundamentalist, that, having left the priesthood and monasticism, I must be seeking excuse at best or revenge at worst. Maybe. But dogmatism or fundamentalism, which have certainly scarred others terribly, have not really hurt me early enough or badly enough to warrant hidden attack. And, while I was a priest and a religious, I was quite happy. When I wasn’t, I left. I sense in myself no hidden agenda of either excuse or revenge. Here, however, is what I do see.
The last chapters of the gospels and the first chapters of Acts taken literally, factually, and historically trivialize Christianity and brutalize Judaism. That acceptation has created in Christianity a lethal deceit that sours its soul, hardens its heart, and savages its spirit. Although the basis of all religion and, indeed, of all human life is mythological, based on acts of fundamental faith incapable of proof or disproof, Christianity often asserts that its faith is based on fact not interpretation, history not myth, actual event not supreme fiction. I find that assertion internally corrosive and externally offensive. And because I am myself a Christian, I have a responsibility to do something about it. My reconstruction of the historical Jesus, for example, must be able to show why some people wanted to execute him but others wanted to worship him, why some thought him criminal but others thought him divine. But criminal or divine are not fact but interpretation, one by imperial Rome and the other by early Christianity. To say, therefore, that Jesus is divine means that some group sees in the historical Jesus the manifestation of God. That historical Jesus must be open to each and every century’s public proofs and disproofs, and it is precisely each century’s reconstructed historical Jesus that becomes an ever renewed challenge to Christian faith.
I never presume that we find the historical Jesus once and for all. I never separate the historical Jesus from the Christ of faith. Jesus Christ is the combination of a fact (Jesus) and an interpretation (Christ). They should neither be separated nor confused, and each must be found anew in every generation, for their structural dialectic is the heart of Christianity.
Copyright © 1993 Polebridge Press. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.