Saturday, August 01, 2009

a [nearly] new article

I fell a bit behind in my reading and so have only just now picked up the second-most-recent issue of Bulletin for Biblical Research (19.1). I have just finished Gary N. Knoppers's very interesting article, "The Synoptic Problem? An Old Testament Perspective" (19.1 [2009]: 11–34). Admittedly I misunderstood the article's title. I expected the piece to present an argument regarding the synoptic problem within gospels scholarship from the perspective of Old Testament criticism. Instead, Knoppers focuses on biblical synopticism in general, but especially in the Hebrew Bible, from the perspective of mimēsis (or imitatio) in the ancient world (Classical, Egyptian, Hellenistic, Roman) in general. Knoppers brings a breathtakingly broad sample of ancient evidence to bear on the question of mimēsis. Given the related discussions among source critics of the gospels' interdependence and the relatively disconnected nature of those discussions from the practices of reproduction and adaptation in ancient milieux, Knoppers's article is probably the place to begin source critical analyses in the future.

To provide one sample, among many possibilities, Knoppers addresses the problem of distinguishing mimēsis from plagiarism in the ancient world (2009: 27–33). It is fairly common practice for gospels scholars to claim, in their introductory source-critical comments, that plagiarism is a modern cultural construction that does not apply to the evangelists. When we claim that Matthew and Luke, for example, reproduced significant portions of their sources (Mark and Q), we are not making the same claim as when we accuse one of our students of reproducing significant portions of their sources in a research assignment. As one example,
Some view [the theory of the gospels as interdependent] as portraying two of the Gospel authors as copyists who relied on others for a large portion of their work. Ancient authors had no scruples about plagiarism; so the theory does not suggest the writers did anything unethical, but it does reduce the originality of the later writers. (Richard Niswonger, New Testament History [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992], 102; my emphasis)

Knoppers's article, pace Niswonger, documents the rather heterogenous and contentious ideas surrounding ideas of imitation and plagiarism. Slavish reproduction of one's sources was not merely considered "unoriginal" by many ancient writers, but it was even referred to as "thievery" (klopē). While the legal concept of copyright did not exist in the ancient world, there was often fierce, sometimes contentious arguments over authors' rights and the obligations of later writers vis-à-vis their sources. Knoppers, who cites Michael Silk's entry, "Plagiarism," (Oxford Classical Dictionary [ed. S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth; 3rd ed.; Oxford: Oxford University Press 1996, 1188]), deserves citing at some length:
As Silk comments, "The preoccupation with plagiarism over many centuries serves as a reminder that, contrary to some modern misstatements, ancient literature, especially poetry, was expected to be 'new.' Certainly many writers, Greek and Roman, are anxious to assert the originality of their own claim to it." Much of the modern discussion about imitation and plagiarism assumes clearly available and agreed-on rules across the spectrum of ancient scholarship during a variety of times, but no central, universally recognized arbiter of definitions and standards existed in antiquity. There was, of course, no such thing as copyright, and, there was no widespread notion of the sanctity of intellectual property. Working within diverse traditions, diverse times, and diverse settings, ancient critics were sure to disagree. (2009: 32)

The gospels, of course, were produced in vastly different cultural milieux than those discussed by Knoppers; the values and norms of ancient elite cultures were certainly not operative in the production and reception of the gospel traditions and texts, certainly not during the first century. But elite standards were massively influential, and their values and norms would have "trickled down" into more popular writings. Those values and norms, also, would have been distorted in the process. But we cannot simply wave aside our students' discomfiture (or our own) at the implied accusation that the evangelists were plagiarists by denying such a concept to the ancient world. Mark himself, if our source-critical theories are accurate, may have picked up a copy of Matthew and exclaimed to himself, "Now just wait one gosh-darn minute!"

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