Once Again, the Power of Disconfirmation

See Also: Let’s Talk about Lost Gospels

By James Constantine Hanges
Professor and Chair
Department of Comparative Religion
Miami University, Oxford Ohio
May 2015

If I might be indulged for returning to my previous post about the implications of approaching Christian origins through the lens of disconfirmation. In my view, disconfirmation, the mother of cognitive dissonance, is one of the most powerfully creative forces in the histories of religions. The intellectual and emotional distress resulting from the disappointment of failed expectations shaped the final form of the Hebrew Bible. The delay of the parousia demanded a creative response from early Christian writers. The application of this lens to our description of early Christianity could potentially shift our focus from the gospels as avenues to the historical Jesus to the gospels as accounts of the multiple ways his enduring followers (in every case of disconfirmation known to us some of the devotees simply abandon the movement) tried to reconcile their cognitive dissonance resulting from disconfirmation. Perhaps the most obvious example is the problem of the conversion of non-Jews. Both the writer of Luke-Acts and Paul the apostle reveal that the earliest Jesus communities were caught off guard by the inclusion of non-Jews.

Even so, the most explicit and telling admission of cognitive dissonance in early Christianity may be short admission of the travelers to the risen Christ incognito on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (RSV, v. 21a). This simple admission may point well beyond the disconfirmation represented by non-Jewish believers and toward the more fundamental role of disconfirmation in the very origin of what becomes Christianity. For the moment, however, I want to return to the disconfirmation represented by non-Jewish believers.

The appeal of the Jesus cult to non-Jews, despite apologists’ protests to the contrary, appears to have been a disconfirmation of the expectations of the original Jewish followers of Jesus. The signs of the spirit evident among Gentiles (Acts 10:45-47; 15:7-8) provoked a cognitive dissonance demanding religiously creative resolution. Evidence for such attempts to resolve the dissonance is not limited to the writer of Luke-Acts or Paul. The writer of Matthew also wrestles with dissonance born of his community’s expectations of Jesus. In my view, further research must test the possibility of interpreting Matthew as the site of ongoing religious creativity forced upon the author and his community by the disconfirmation of their expectations that the Messiah is the redeemer of Israel and not of non-Jews as non-Jews.

A number of recent commentators see the gospel of Matthew as, if not a Jewish text, a text reflecting a Jewish perspective. Other scholars, those invested in the intertextual theological consistency of the New Testament, are troubled by this view. In other words, for them the question is obvious; “How can the gospel of Matthew be a Jewish messianic document of the sort described and be reconciled with the gospel Paul preached, and most importantly with a Jesus who, in order to function as the Christ of faith, must have intended the mission to non-Jews and have carried out his own mission with that future in mind?” The quest to answer this question has led to a range of attempts, from convoluted to clever, that usually argue that while the pre-Easter Jesus clearly prioritized the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10:6; 15:24, cf. 10:5), he, nevertheless, in some way knew that after his crucifixion the salvation provided Jews through him would be extended to non-Jews. For some (e.g., the recent revised dissertation by Michael F. Bird, Jesus and the Origin of the Gentile Mission, 2007), we ought, in fact, to see Jesus as the first missionary to the Gentiles. In most cases, these authors depend on a salvation-historical argument, claiming that Jesus understood, consistent with the writer of Acts and Paul, that the gospel be first preached to Israel, and only then to Gentiles (e. g., Andreas J. Köstenberger and P. T. O’Brien, Salvation to the Ends of the Earth, 2001, or Eckhard Schnabel, Early Christian Mission, 2004). Some may find this a satisfactory explanation of the development from Jesus’ mission to Paul’s. I find it too convenient. In my view, the salvation-historical hypothesis fails to explain how Jesus could have envisioned the inclusion of non-Jews, let his own disciples in on the plan, and yet leave the poor oafs so drastically caught off guard by the actual Gentile acceptance of Jesus, that they have not even the foggiest notion of how to handle something about which they were purportedly thoroughly briefed.

One of the most peculiar and yet common ways of dealing with this problem is to read Matthew’s Jesus as not only sympathetic to Gentiles, but as actually praising them for the superiority of their faith over Jesus’ fellow Jews. The most familiar locus of this kind of reading is the narrative of Jesus’ encounter with the Syro-Phoenician women (Matt 15:21-28, cf. Mark 7:24-30).

I doubt that the issue in the story turns on the Jewish notion of reciprocity for Gentile benefactions, as some early commentators suggest, nor is it done justice by describing it as a salvation-historical allegory, even a Midrash intertextually laced with allusions to 1 Kings and the story of Elijah and the widow, the Psalms, or to a series of prophetic texts including Isaiah and Jeremiah. These allusions are certainly detectable, but their function may be less apparent. As I read them, I detect a missed layer of meaning, in fact, a meaning that might be the very point of the story, namely, the shaming of Jews for their rejection of Jesus, using the Gentile woman as the comedic foil. In other words, the story does not function to show how benevolent Jesus could be to non-Jews, but rather to humiliate Jews for being unable to discern a truth that a despised Gentile has recognized.

Let me illustrate this by anecdote. Being admittedly a bit behind the technological curve of my students, I once asked a student worker in my office to assist me with a computer task. She came to see what I needed only to snicker at me and say quite innocently, “Oh, Dr. Hanges, even a chimp could do this.” Her point was not to compliment chimpanzees or do illustrate her warm feelings toward them. It was her way of shaming me for something that I should have been able to do but could not. I believe that the writer of Matthew has done something very similar in his version of the Markan story the Syro-Phoenician women.

I suspect that a survey of humor in the ancient writer’s time, sprinkled with a healthy dash of humor theory, this suspicion would prove quite likely. The intertextuality with the Jewish scriptures detected by scholars could now be seen as the writer of Matthew’s “targeting mechanism” aiming the shaming directly at knowledgeable but unbelieving fellow Jews. Matthew’s writer did not incorporate Mark’s story because he wished to show how much Jesus was concerned about non-Jews. Rather, if we continue use the lens of disconfirmation, Matthew’s writer was creatively rationalizing the failure of Jews to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, and simultaneously trying to explain the unanticipated spread of Jesus-devotion among non-Jews. The story thereby belongs to the realm of religious creativity, to sociology and group identity formation, to humor as much as to salvation-history and theology. To take the implications a step further, I suggest that were we to carry out further investigations of the this story and many others within the gospels through the lens of current work on new religious movements, we would discover that the origin of this story is not to be found primarily in the actions of words of the historical Jesus, but in the creative process produced by the post-crucifixion disconfirmation of Messianic expectations invested in a messianic claimant named Jesus who, in reality, must clearly have limited his mission to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

This brings me back to the point I was trying to make in my previous blog. Rather than assuming as the starting point of our research that the origin of Christianity must lie in Jesus’ own salvation-historical consciousness and in his actions toward non-Jews as the embodiment of that intention, we should test the likelihood that stories such as this are products of the clash between expectations and history—to use a time worn phase, a product of the cognitive dissonance caused by disconfirmation. To put it more specifically, we need to test the hypothesis that, just as in more recently and more thoroughly documented cases, Jesus left the impression on his disciples that he was the expected Messiah, but that he failed to carry out the tasks that his disciples understood to be the mission of the Messiah. He was arrested, humiliated, and executed. The disciples did what any members of a new religious movement would do, i.e., they rationalized the disconfirmation.

Comments (3)

Dr. Hanges drives home an unmistakable point: Jesus' first followers must have had a difficult time acknowledging that the Messiah didn't intend to restore Israel--and that the kingdom did not come. As Dale Allison has observed, the majority of the disciples probably expected Israel's Messiah to vindicate his nation (and expell the Romans).

#1 - Steve Harris - 05/12/2015 - 20:11

A nicely done article, but I would question the application of "Matthew’s 'targeting mechanism' aiming the shaming directly at knowledgeable but unbelieving fellow Jews" to the Syro-Phoenician woman's story. Does not Matthew's (as well as Mark's) depiction of the disciples as _uninformed_, not "getting" Jesus on numerous occasions, rule them out as the responsible, highly-informed "knowledgable" Jews that Dr. Hanges posits as targets in Matthew's "shaming mechanism"?
Matthew's whole point about the disciples and their countryside peers is that they are _not_ knowledgable, they do not sense the "core Jesus" (and Matthew's Peter only sees that core via special divine revelation) and therefore are thus seem no to be likely candidates for the shaming mechanism. One would think that Matthew would save the targeting only for scholarly Jews, e.g., scribes, priests, Pharisees, and the like...

#2 - Steve Bastasch - 05/20/2015 - 00:12

Are we seeing an admission by the Evangelists that they, or the group to which they belonged, had cherished expectations of a Restored Kingdom but found then 'discinfirmed' by events or are we seeing a carefully constructed narrative whose purpose is to assure readers that the Jewish rejection of Jesus had been massive, despite their being given every chance? This would support the Christian explanation of the destruction of the Temple, to which the Jews had, for the moment, no convincing reply.
The Pauline Epistles do not support the idea of a pre-70 Jewish phase in Christianity. If there were non-Jewish Christians before 70, waiting for the Evangelists to do their work and explain historical events, they can't have been told that 'this message is not ffor you because you're not Jewish'. Why. In that case would they have joined the movement? If they believed that they were welcome they can hardly have regarded the failure of a new Kingdom of specially Jewish character to appear as anything but an emphatic confirmation of what they believed?

#3 - Martin Hughes - 05/21/2015 - 20:26

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