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HTS Theological Studies

On-line version ISSN 2072-8050
Print version ISSN 0259-9422

Herv. teol. stud. vol.64 n.3 Pretoria Jul./Sep. 2008





Craffert, P F 2008 - The life of a Galilean Shaman: Jesus of Nazareth in anthropological perspective
Publisher: Wipf & Stock. 451 pages. Price: US$52.00
Reviewer: Prof Dr R J Miller (Juniata College - Pennsylvania, USA)

This important, potentially seminal book makes two basic arguments. "The one is that based on developments in historiographical discourse, an alternative interpretive framework can be conceptualized for historical Jesus research, and the other is that within this framework, the historical Jesus of Nazareth can be seen as a Galilean shamanic figure" (p 420). The book comes in three parts. Part One, "A paradigm shift in historical Jesus historiography", argues for an "anthropological historiography" based on ontological pluralism and a recognition of multiple worldviews, grounded in the conviction that reality is socially and culturally constituted. Anthropological historiography aims for a culturally sensitive reading of ancient texts that seeks to make sense of them from the subjects' cultural system, while also interpreting these texts using cross cultural models. Craffert argues that historical Jesus (HJ) research is trapped in positivism, despite earnest efforts to avoid it, because the gospels are "read straight, as if they are talking about events and phenomena in the world of modern exegetes" (p 63). Craffert aims to redefine the questions that drive HJ research, not to give new answers to the existing ones. Rather than working within the "authenticity paradigm" (reconstructing the HJ by first distinguishing authentic from inauthentic material), Craffert's agenda is to discover what sort of man and career would have elicited the beliefs, communities, and traditions mediated by the gospels. The goal is not to determine whether the words and deeds reported in the gospels' reports are factual, "but whether they plausibly belong to the biography" of Jesus. (p 96)

The gospels are seen neither as "reports about actual supernatural events", nor as "literary or mythological fiction," but rather as "the residue of cultural processes that are connected to the dynamics of the cultural figure they report about" (p 93). The task of cultural historiography is to determine "what essentially happened," but with the awareness that everything that happened with Jesus needs to be interpreted through an understanding of the cultural dynamics that constructed both his social personage and the traditions about him.

Part Two, "A model of shamanic figures", seeks to establish and describe the "shamanic complex," to describe a first-century shamanic worldview, and to identify shamanism in the ancient world in general and in Israel in particular. The shamanic complex is a family of cross cultural features, consisting of specific configurations of ASC (altered state of consciousness) experiences (e.g., visions, spirit possession, spirit journeys) which license certain social functions (e.g., healing, divination, exorcism, and control of spirits). Shamans are "religious entrepreneurs who enter some kind of ASC for the benefit of the community" (p 157). A first-century shamanic worldview was a three-tiered cosmos connected to the spirit world and densely populated by various human and spirit beings linked in a hierarchical great chain of being.

Part Three, "Jesus and the shamanic complex," argues that Jesus can plausibly be seen as a shamanic figure because he (and his group) often experienced ASCs, such as various visions (e.g., Jesus' transfiguration and his walking on the sea) and his experiences at his baptism and temptation. Jesus was thought to be possessed by ancestral spirits and by God's holy spirit - the latter possession explains his ego eimi sayings. Further indications of his shamanic status are his sense of divine identity and divine sonship, his celibacy, and his astral prophecy (e.g., his eschatological discourses). Jesus' healings, exorcisms, nature miracles (i.e., control of the spirits of nature), and resurrections (recoveries of the spirits of the dead) can all be understood as shamanic activities and thus suggest that Jesus was a shamanic holy man. His teaching (especially his sayings about the kingdom of God and the Son of Man) were shamanic utterances based on his ASC. The kingdom of God is Jesus' name for his mediations of divine power in everyday settings (healings and exorcisms) enabled by his ASC experiences. His kingdom teachings originate in his personal ASC, not in anti-imperial sentiments "despite the significance of the imperial setting and the economic/political importance of kingdom language" (p 349). Craffert argues that the infancy narratives (including the Infancy Gospel of Thomas) and the resurrection stories fit perfectly as cultural expressions of the birth, youth, and afterlife of a shamanic figure.

The above summary does not do justice to the breadth and richness of this book. Craffert has digested an impressive array of anthropological, philosophical, historiographical, and biblical research and he skillfully presents it with nuance and clarity. His sophisticated discussion of historical method can teach us much about how different ancient peoples were from us and about the need to approach those differences with cultural sensitivity.

The book raises many questions and objections; in this brief review I can summarily mention only five.

1. Craffert argues that the shaman was a familiar social type in the world of Jesus and the early Christians. If so, why did they not have a name for this social type? And it surely counts against Craffert's claim that the only figures from Israelite history he identifies as possible shamanic figures are Moses and Elisha.

2. Craffert would subsume Jesus' parables and aphorisms as shamanic utterances based on Jesus' ASC, but it is doubtful whether this can account for their considerable verbal artistry and their sly subversive wisdom.

3. Craffert surely does a service in exposing the lingering ethnocentrism in HJ research, even in the work of those who earnestly try to avoid it. Yet Craffert's liberal application of the label "ethnocentric" (an unmistakably polemical term) seems overly broad. Is it necessarily ethnocentric to ask what objectively happened or whether Jesus actually said this or that saying? To be sure, these are modern interests, not those of the first century. But is it ethnocentric (in a pernicious sense) to ask and seek answers to questions that interest us - and modern readers, who care greatly about the "facts" of history - even if such questions might have been irrelevant to the ancients? Deriding this desire as "positivism" (another polemic term) is unhelpful.

4. Craffert's project operates outside the "authenticity paradigm" and proceeds without source criticism (his references to Q are often qualified by "if it existed"), tradition history, or redaction criticism. Can HJ scholars be persuaded that such tools of the trade are irrelevant? Should an approach to the HJ be properly called historical if it agrees with Craffert to consider all gospel materials (including John and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas) as equally useful historically?

5. Craffert's acknowledges that his method cannot distinguish (and Craffert seems uninterested in making the distinction) between culturally plausible reports of events about Jesus that objectively happened in time and space and culturally plausible stories invented by Christian tradents. The inability to tell historical fact from historical fiction surely reduces the power of any historical method.

I register these objections within the larger context of my admiration and gratitude for Craffert's achievement. This book is required reading for all interested in the HJ. It has the potential to reshape the field.

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