Q&A with François Bovon

François Bovon, Frothingham Professor of the History of Religion, began teaching New Testament and early Christian literature at Harvard Divinity School in 1993, and was chair of the New Testament Department from 1993-98 and again in 2001-02. Before coming to HDS, he was a professor for 26 years at the University of Geneva in its Divinity School. Bovon has recently published a book of articles entitled Studies in Early Christianity and his book Les Derniers Jours de Jésus has been reissued by a Swiss publisher. HDS Staff Writer Wendy McDowell sat down with him to talk about his recent books and his research interests.

Your book Les Derniers Jours de Jésus (The Last Days of Jesus) has recently been reissued by a Swiss publisher (Geneva: Labor Et Fides, 2004). What interested you in the topic when you wrote the book, in the 1970s?

I published this book some 30 years ago, in 1974, and it was an historical approach to Jesus' trial. I had two main concerns. The first one was methodological: How do we reach any historical reconstruction? My way was not to follow first the gospels, but to try to draw on all the sources in the Pauline letters where Paul quotes hymns or creeds, or in the Book of Acts in speeches attributed to Peter, like at Pentecost or with Cornelius, in which Luke uses old tradition about Jesus' death and resurrection, and also using some Jewish sources. The Jewish sources included Josephus and Tacitus in his book Annales, where there is an explanation of the name "Christians," saying it derives from Christ who was put to death, crucified, by Pilate, so that the connection of the crucifixion with the Roman authority is present in one of the oldest non-Christian sources.

So those were the sources, and then I addressed how to reconstruct the trial. One important aspect was the legal system in Palestine, the Roman system. In Roman law, penal law, you need to distinguish between a system called the ordo, which was well established in the city of Rome, and another procedure applied for the imperial provinces and the procuratorian provinces like Judea, where the legal system was administrative. This means that the governor was at the same time the judge who investigates and the one who judges and he was completely free [to mete out punishment]. The procedure was called cognitio extra ordinem which means prosecution or inquiry outside the order. So Pilate could decide very fast, he didn't have to wait or have witnesses, he could decide at the same time to punish and to execute. In the ordo you had to wait a certain time between the decision and the execution of capital punishment. So it explained many things to know the administrative procedures in places like Jerusalem, where you have a delegate of the emperor and not a governor coming from the Senate.

After looking at these sources and learning about the penal system, my judgment was that Jesus was punished and condemned by the Roman authority, and I don't think that the people were so much against Jesus. It was more perhaps a small group of high priests who arrested Jesus, but in my view there was no longer any power for those Jewish judges to condemn anyone to death. Capital punishment was no longer in the hands of Jewish authorities. The Romans tried to leave as much freedom to local courts as possible, but capital punishment was excluded from local power.

Among the evidence that serves as proof that the Romans were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, was that the Romans had this tradition to advertise the cause as to why someone was condemned. It was a kind of tablet that you would carry over you, but in the gospels it is said that it was put on the cross, which was a possible practice at the time. The interesting point here is the title you have in all the sources, in all four gospels, the term "king." It may have been in Latin, Hebrew, and Greek, but in Greek the term for king is "basileus" and it was a term of the emperor. In Latin, it doesn't work, because the emperor is never called king, he is never called "Rex," because they were so much opposed to the king. But in the East, to have the title "basileus of the Jews" translated as "king of the Jews," was a kind of competition to the Roman Empire. So Jesus was condemned because there was the accusation that he had political claims, which was probably not true, but he was accused for that.

What changes, if any, have you made to the new edition?

I reworked it considerably and I integrated research that has been published between then and now. I have made several changes, but one of the major changes is among the sources. I now use the non-canonical Gospel of Peter as a source alongside the canonical gospels. It was discovered at the end of the nineteenth century, so it's not new, but it was new to my analysis.

I also did research into Roman law and asked scholars in the field if there have been a lot of changes in the discussion about legal procedure. Actually, I have a good friend who is a historian of antiquity in Geneva, Adalbert Giovannini, and he read my book and said: "I am writing a book on penal law and Roman law, but you can go ahead. I will have other ideas but it is too early to mention them."

Actually, he does a lot of fascinating research. He has studied four important fires in world history and the reaction of people during these mega-fires. One was the fire in Rome in the capital in 65. The people said, "the emperor did it," and it was probably true because he wanted to have space to build his "golden house," as he called it, so probably he had people put fire to part of the city. But Nero reacted to these accusations by the population by saying, "The Christians did it." That was the first time the Christians were an autonomous group to be accused, besides the Jews. Giovannini has an article about that, why Nero chose the Christians, and it's very original—I don't know if it's right but it's clever—he said the Christians were expecting the end of time, so when they saw this huge fire, they thought "this is the beginning of the end," and they rejoiced, but they were the only ones to rejoice!

What spurred the new edition to be released?

It was not my idea, it was the publisher's, because they knew about the film [Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ]. They are clever to hook it around the film. So I would say that the topic was already important to me some years ago, but now it has been made important to a wider audience. And because of this book, since the film came out, I've been in contact with French and Swiss newspapers and done interviews.

Of course, the issues of your book are now very timely because of this blockbuster film. What do you think about the swirl of controversy and discussion around the film?

Because of this book, I promised that I would see the film very soon, so I went the first evening. The role of the Jews, historically speaking, is not the same as what the Christian tradition had done in the Middle Ages in the mystery plays. Yet the movie is very much medieval in one sense. I don't think the crowd played such a negative role in Jesus' crucifixion, and I don't think we can speak generally about "the Jews" in a way that carries into the present time. For instance, nobody accuses "the Romans" now for killing Julius Caesar. It's past and it has nothing to do with the present population.

There is another tricky argument in the traditional view of Jesus' trial, which holds that the Sanhedrin changed its mind. They first accused Jesus of blasphemy and then they said, "Wait, this will not work with a Roman governor," so then they changed it and said, "It's not blasphemy, it's against the emperor, it's political." That's the traditional view, that it was a hypocritical change. But in my perspective, the charges are bound together. These few high priests were scared of the possible political implications of Jesus' prophetic movement. You can understand their perspective. They wanted to have peace and order, they didn't want to create an incident and have the reprisal of the Romans. They had their own logic.

What do you think about being called upon for expertise because of this film?

Of course we can use this actuality to interest a larger audience. We have an intellectual responsibility. Some years ago, the Czech writer and leader Vaclav Havel spoke in Harvard Yard, and he spoke about the intellectual responsibility to a wider audience. I was disappointed, though, because he spoke only of the journalists and politicians, and he was speaking at Harvard, so I think he should have had a paragraph on the intellectual responsibility of academics.

So you do believe you have an intellectual responsibility to the public?

Yes. I don't refuse newspaper and media requests, but I feel here the fence of language!

Is Les Derniers Jours de Jésus available only in French?

The first edition was also translated into Italian and Hungarian. I told my publisher they could send a copy for an eventual translation into English, but it would probably be too late because in this country everything goes so fast! We had Mary Magdalene. Now we have Jesus' passion. Who knows what is next?

My concern is that there are so many books and they are so easily neglected and forgotten. When you go to the SBL meeting or AAR and you see all these publishers, you think, why write a new book if it is going to be forgotten so soon? I was in a bookstore in Geneva because someone had asked me for a French book, and it was published in 2002, and they told me, "It's already sent back." They keep a book for five months, to a year, and if it doesn't sell, they return it to the publisher.

Let's talk about your book Studies in Early Christianity (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck), which is recent, though it includes articles from many years of your scholarship. What made you want to publish a book of your essays?

I am more a person of articles than of big books, and so I was asked to bring them together and to translate many that were written first in French into English. Those that I wrote in German remain in German in the book, but the French ones have been translated into English.

The collection is shaped according to two of my major scholarly concerns. One is on the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostle, written by the same author; the other is the early Christian apocryphal literature. In the discussion on the historical Jesus, particularly in this country, there is a large use of the source "Q." Though I am in agreement with that source, I think there has been an over-concentration on that Q material and scholars particularly neglect what I would call the special material in Luke. Many of Jesus' sayings and parables are only in Luke, like the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan.

Though these are not neglected in popular or lived Christianity?

It's true, they are very popular, but scholars have neglected these special materials. There is in my book a study of one parable, where I try to show with the Widow and the Wicked Judge in Luke 18 that we can go backward, and what people do with Q we can do that also from the Lukan redaction to the tradition and eventually to the historical Jesus. These texts from the special materials of Luke are neglected in the recent historical Jesus quest.

In these Lukan studies, I have another concern that has to do with the notion of quotations. Luke often quotes the Hebrew Bible. What scholars did was either to analyze the content of the quotation to see if it's connected to the Hebrew Bible or to the Greek translation, if it's a precise quotation, this is one of their interests, or to focus on the content, if it's a quotation about the suffering servant or whatever. That is to say, they are interested either in the textured form or in the content, but only a few people have really studied the literary functions of quotation. What do you do when you quote someone? You can do this for two reasons. You can, on the one hand, quote to show your knowledge. And in antiquity you would quote even without mentioning the source, such as Plato did, because it's part of the culture and everyone knows. It's like quoting Shakespeare today—you don't say, "Ha! That's Shakespeare!" You just quote and show your erudition.

The other more frequent reason to quote is because you need an authority to cover what you are saying. So I was listening to one of the quotations of Luke at the end of his work in chapter 28 of the Book of Acts, and he quotes the prophet Isaiah. In my view, the literary function is to show that according to Luke, God, the prophet Isaiah, Paul, and finally Luke are wholly in harmony. At the same time, you have these opponents who are said to be asymphonoi—that is, they are without symphony, without harmony, when he quotes Paul saying that Isaiah was right because the Holy Spirit was inspiring the prophets. In one sense, it's very polemical, but it's very well constructed.

Besides Lukan studies, are their other central concerns in your articles?

The other group of articles deals with apocryphal material. In that material, I have a central concern, which is new and is the subject of the first paper in this section, it has to do with the fact that the first Christians sometimes remember very well and sometimes are very clever to just forget. Particularly with the apostles, sometimes we don't know anything about what was the fate of Bartholomew or Philip, for instance, because there was no interest at one point, but in other corners, suddenly there was a large interest and we have many non-canonical stories. So my question is why people would like to remember and why they would like to forget.

I think they sometimes wanted to forget because the old narratives that existed were not orthodox anymore. So in the fourth century when they constructed orthodoxy, they were skillful to choose what was convenient and decided just to forget what was not. But the main concern to remember, I think, is a religious one. They tried to remember not only Jesus Christ, which would be the Protestant view of things—I am Protestant, so I can criticize my own tradition—but I think they were also remembering what the first witnesses were doing because for them there was a strong motive of imitation.

Is this like the imitatio Christi?

The medieval imitatio Christi was a little different; it was more formal, but there was participation in those early generations and there certainly was the belief that what the first Christians had gone through was important for later generations.

Another one of my concerns is that you seem to have two types of memories of Christian origin. One is more intellectual and scholarly and the other is more of a popular narrative, and there's not very much dialogue between the two. I'm trying to show this by taking one speech of Jesus, the speech which is called the Missionary Speech which is found in Matthew 10 and Luke 10—which is probably built on Q—in which Jesus says, "I send you like lambs among the wolves" and "There are few workers but there is a lot to do, etc." I looked at how that speech was accepted in narratives and popular literature of Late Antiquity, where people were considered to be useless workers in the field and they were practicing what was said in the text. On the other hand, I looked through commentaries, intellectual and theological books like commentaries on Luke and Matthew, and actually, they were not so much interested in how these commands of Jesus were executed, but more if they were true, if Jesus was in agreement with the Hebrew Bible, and if the gospels were in agreement with each other. So the commentaries on Luke 10 are completely different from the popular narratives. My view is that there have been two types of memories on the origin, one more interpretive and one more popular.

Would you say this divide exists even through today?

Probably. That's why you have tension sometimes between divinity schools and grassroots Christianity.

What are some of your other interests as expressed in the articles?

I have two articles connected with visions and dreams, one entitled "These Christians Who Dream: The Authority of Dreams in the First Centuries of Christianity" and the other about a vision in the Protevangelium Jacobi.

What interests you about visions and dreams?

In a new text that I discovered on stories of Philip, there is at one point a blind man who asked for help, he asked the apostle Philip, and he said: "I had a dream. I saw one person with three faces. One face was a young man, without beard, the other was a young woman, and the third one was an older guy." And that woke up my interest in the role of dreams and visions [in early Christian literature].

I also studied one vision according to an apocryphal text, the Protevangelium of James, where Joseph has a vision when Mary gives birth to Jesus. She's in a cave and Joseph says, "I will go and find a midwife." It is too late, of course, because the child was born while he was going to find a midwife, but on his way to the midwife he has a dream or vision. What is extremely interesting is that what he sees is very local. He sees shepherds in the fields, goats and animals, a river, birds. But what happens is that everything stops. This is a suspension of time. He sees that people are eating and they are paralyzed, they no longer can eat. And the birds are in the air but they are stopped. And the goats are trying to reach the river to drink and they can't. I was thinking about what it means that time stops. I did research about the topic of suspension of time in ancient and other literature, and also spoke to many people. I heard two things. At the birth of the goddess Athena, for example, in the Homeric hymn, or at the birth of Buddha in some stories, we have the same motif. Because this birth is so important, time stops. This is to show how important it is. For the author of the Protevangelium of James, the purpose is to show not only how important it is, but to show it is the beginning of the end, namely, the presence of the kingdom of God. It's now the end, it's so important. But after a while, time starts again, and the people around the table finish their meal and the goats can drink. My interpretation is that for the author, the birth of Jesus is the beginning of the end, but it's not the end itself.

If you read modern novels, you can also find suspension of time. I found the motif in one of Kundera's novels. Also, in Greece, there are cicadas and crickets, and there is one for the day and one for the night, they are two different insects. A Greek friend told me that there is a moment amounting to a few minutes where the one of the day, the cicada, is stopped, and the one of the night, the cricket, has not started, and they would say time is suspended in modern Greek. So this is a motif I found in so many places.

How many years worth of articles are represented here?

Most of them were written in the last 10 or 15 years. The oldest one is my first article on Eusebius of Caesarea—this is the first historian of Christianity, and our students have read Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History of the Fourth Century. My paper on Eusebius and his view on the divine project and human history was published first in French. I am happy to have it now translated into English.

One third of the articles I wrote in English, a third were written in French and are translated into English, and the other third was written in German.

Since you do write in different languages and for journals from different countries, do you notice that those audiences have different concerns?

These are scholarly articles, so the audience is not so different. I am more concerned to try to reach something that is sure than to worry what the reader is expecting. I am perhaps too oriented to the topic and too little to the reader. But I'm not very good, to be frank, on choosing the right topic for an audience.

I was educated in a way that writing is something personal. It is something you have to learn yourself; you cannot teach writing to someone else. It is a conception of the author as an individual separate from the rest. And then I had a student at the Divinity School who had taught English writing, and she asked, "What level of language would you like me to write in?" She said "I can tell the same story for kids or for Harvard professors," so she was very conscious of the several levels of language and how to connect with an audience, which is the best way to write books, I suppose, but I'm not very talented at that.

I am very interested in what you said about Q vs. the Lukan source, and in your perspective on that. Can you say a bit more about what has been lost or missed by ignoring this Lukan special material?

I would say three things, actually. One would be the poetic aspect of Jesus' teachings, because these sayings and parables in the special material are extremely poetic. The second aspect would be Jesus' kindness, the loving person, because that's very evident in this material. Third, I would say, particularly in the parable of the widow, an apocalyptic view. Because the community who paid attention to these special materials was, in my view, very much concerned with the apocalyptic (see Luke 18:8a). So this would contradict those who would say that the origin of Q was more wisdom than apocalyptic. My view is that in Hebrew tradition, like in the book of Daniel, you have always wisdom and apocalyptic connected. In the Book of Revelation, also, in the apocalyptic visions, you always have a very strong ethical concern. So I would never oppose wisdom and apocalypticism. Those are the three important aspects I find in the Lukan special material: The literary quality, the Christological perspective and the apocalyptic dimension.

You also include an article on the church in the New Testament. Can you talk about that and why it interested you?

I compared three types of churches, the Pauline type, the Q type, and the type of the Book of Revelation. My view is that they are very different in their structure, or their organization and ministry, but there is a unity between these types, which is the title of the article, that it's at the same time the topic of victory and the topic of weakness or suffering. The example that I give in the Book of Revelation, in chapter one, when John presents himself, he doesn't say, "I am your bishop," he says, "I am your brother." He is saying, "I am your companion, I am really at the same level, we are in the same boat." And then he spells this out in terms of three different qualities: in the kingdom of God, we are kings and queens together, so it's really a claim of triumph; then we are together in persecutions, the suffering aspect, so you see the power and the weakness together; and then you have a third term, which is typical in the Book of Revelation, you have togetherness in perseverance. It's not patience in a passive form, it's more determination and going through. But these aspects of power and weakness are typical of all the forms that the church takes in the New Testament. In Paul it's the same—"My strength is in my weakness" in Second Corinthians, or in Q, with the itinerant, and "you have to carry your cross and to abandon everything."

That's a very interesting view of church. How many churches today would see themselves that way?

My view is that now people tend to confirm family value with church value, or validate church value because of family value, that's why churches are so often for families, and single people sometimes feel marginalized in the church. In early Christianity, there was much more tension between church community and family community, and you have all these sayings of Jesus, which are very famous in early Christianity, in which you have the division of family, "two against three and three against two." And we have sociological arguments, like in Justin's Second Apology, we have stories about a husband appealing against his wife because she became Christian, and he accused the preacher to the governor. I think (the early church) created much more tension than we believe now. Today, I think there should be more competition between the church community and the family.