Sunday, January 03, 2010

educated guesses on Jesus . . .

. . . in the second and third centuries. I'm currently in the middle of Chris Keith's proposal regarding the Sitz im Leben der Kirche of the Pericope Adulterae's [PA] original insertion into John's gospel at 7.53–8.11. Keith identifies four facts for which any such proposal must account:
  • A version of PA known in the early church no later than the second century;
  • Early references to PA "as being located in a gospel context, which could have been GJohn but may not have been";
  • Early Christian writers typically employed PA as an example for early Christian leaders to follow (especially bishops, especially in terms of ecclesial discipline);
  • At some point no later than the mid-fourth century CE a scribe had inserted PA into John's gospel at John 7.53–8.11. (Keith 2009: 213)

After rejecting the popular theory that the early church suppressed the Pericope Adulterae from their Jesus tradition, Keith goes on to propose that second- or (more likely) third-century Christian responses to pagan critiques of Jesus/Christianity as thoroughly uneducated and illiterate provide the most likely context driving the insertion of PA into John's gospel. [Note that Keith does not suggest that PA originates in the second or third century, only that PA's insertion into John's gospel occurred during this time.] The driving consideration behind Keith's proposal is that, of all various facets of PA's portrayal of Jesus, only the image of a Jesus who was capable of writing (= grapho-literacy) is unparalleled elsewhere in the Jesus tradition. In other words, Jesus as out-maneuvering the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus as interpreter of Torah, Jesus as compassionate for the outcast, Jesus as siding with sinners . . . these all have parallels elsewhere (and presumably, therefore, would not justify PA's inclusion into a canonical gospel). But Jesus as writing . . . this is unique to PA and so sustains Keith's explanation of PA's interpolation.

If a writing Jesus explains PA's insertion into John's gospel, then the socio-historical context of PA's insertion must be one that required (or at least desired) a writing Jesus in the first place. With this in mind Keith surveys a number of early pagan critics of Christianity (Celsus, Lucian, Galen, and Minucius Felix) who highlight Christians' and Jesus' vulgarity and illiteracy. These criticisms were rooted in earlier critiques (see John 7.15; Acts 4.13), and later, more educated Christians (including Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine) benefitted from PA's portrayal of a grapho-literate Jesus.

All of this makes very good sense, and Keith's argument is well worth reading in full. But I have a question that, so far, has yet to be addressed (or even raised).1 It seems to me Keith's argument depends a lot on the assumption that the literate Christians needed (or at least found useful) a grapho-literate Jesus for their responses to their pagan opponents. But if these literate, educated Christians (again, including Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine) needed (or at least found useful) a grapho-literate Jesus, and one of these (not necessarily Ambrose, Jerome, or Augustine, but someone like them) inserted PA into John partly in response to non-Christian polemic, then how do we explain the presence of these educated folk among Jesus' followers in the first place? In other words, something attracted grapho-literate people to Christianity even before a grapho-literate Jesus, via PA, entered the Jesus tradition. This is especially the case if we accept Keith's argument, as I'm prone to do, that "the highest educated Christians in the early centuries of the Church tended to be converts who had gained a pagan literate education in their pre-Christian lives" (Keith 2009: 84). Why, then, would these same individuals need to insert PA's image of a grapho-literate Jesus into John's gospel rather than point to whatever factors legitimated their own conversion to Christianity?

While I'm here, I'm still not sure how this Sitz im Leben der Kirche would explain PA's insertion into John's gospel, since, as Keith argues, PA was already widely known (and accepted?) even before it found a canonical home. That is, Keith does not argue that PA originated in the second or third century (as I noted above) but that it was inserted into John's gospel at this time. He also argues that PA did not (necessarily) present a grapho-literate Jesus prior to its insertion in John's gospel, which means that when a scribe inserted PA at John 7.53–8.11 he also took a pericope that didn't mention writing and used it to propose an image of Jesus doing precisely this (see John 8.6, 8). So we have grapho-literate Christian leaders taking an authoritative, if non-canonical, story of Jesus not judging an adulteress and inserting that story into the Fourth Gospel, along with the twice-added mention of Jesus writing in the ground with his finger.

At this point I'm not sure I'm persuaded by Keith's proposal here, but (as I say) he may address my questions a bit further on. And even if not, Keith's analysis of PA and features of the Johannine narrative that may have motivated PA's insertion is very persuasive. But the situation surrounding PA's entrance into John's gospel is largely lost to history, and so Keith is trying to make a proposal on the basis of very sparse evidence. His critique of other proposals makes them largely untenable, and my own questions of Keith's proposal may be simply a function of our inability, absent new evidence, to identify when, how, or why the Pericope Adulterae found a place between John 7 and 8.

1 Let me say again, I'm in the middle of Keith's argument (pg. 228; see Keith 2009: 203–56 for his entire discussion of "The Historical Context for the Insertion of the Pericope Adulterae into the Gospel of John"). Knowing my luck, Keith addresses this question on p. 229!


Anonymous said...

CK's thesis would be stronger if we had any examples of church fathers who said, in effect, "See? Jesus could write!" But AFAIK those who used the pericope used it for other purposes entirely. In other words, if the motive behind the creation/ insertion of the PA was to present a grapho-literate Jesus, wouldn't someone have made this point explicitly?

CARL (posting as Anonymous because he doesn't want another identity)

Rafael said...

That's a great point, Carl. [Pause to acknowledge Carl's mutter: "Of course it is, RR."] In fact, Keith offers precisely this type of evidence to support the link he draws between PA's portrayal of Jesus and God's authorship of the Decalogue (hence, Jesus' divine grapho-literacy).

Keith does mention (and even chronicles) that other Christian response to pagan criticism of Christ/Christians as generally uneducated: They accept the criticism and explain it. And certainly PA's insertion into the Fourth Gospel makes sense in the context Keith adduces (and makes better sense than other proposals, I think). But nothing about Keith's thesis justifies seeing later Christian response to pagan charges of illiteracy as the causative factor of PA's insertion. And as I pointed out in the post, Keith acknowledges this as a limitation of the surviving evidence (which is very sparse; maybe Jerome did say, in his now-lost epistle to Thomas Campbell, "See? Jesus could write!").

clk said...

Dear Gents,
Of course no ancient author says "See, Jesus was literate." If they did that, I wouldn't have been able to get a PhD! However, no one ever says this about other portrayals of Jesus as literate (e.g., Luke 4 or several others I discuss in my final chapter) despite the fact that it manifestly was an issue in the early Church. As I've opined to Rafael in personal correspondence, I don't think necessarily that the portrayal of a literate Jesus was necessary (i.e., they "had" to insert PA for this reason), only that it explains why they did in light of the available evidence, sparse as it is, better than the other reigning theories. The real "argument" of the book is the interpretation of John 8.6, 8. The final chapter is something I felt obligated to write so as to avoid the inevitable, "Well, then, how does this interpretation relate to the transmission history?" I have very much appreciated your review of it, Rafael. I have, however, found that lost epistle of Jerome to Thomas Campbell in the hymn section of the library here at LCU and plan to co-publish it with the mad dogs at Restoration Herald.

Rafael said...

Thanks, Chris. I have tried to make clear that your argument throughout The Pericope Adulterae, the Gospel of John, and the Literacy of Jesus is very persuasive, and that your final chapter is a suggestion to provide a plausible scenario for PA's insertion at John 7.53–8.11. And given what I know about PA (i.e., given what you've written about PA), I find your suggestion better than those on offer elsewhere.

My criticism wasn't that you claimed PA's insertion was necessary for the later debates about Jesus' education/literacy. Unless I missed something, I don't think you ever suggested that. Rather, I was saying (in my second point) that I'm not sure why needing (or wanting) a grapho-literate Jesus would result in inserting PA into John. If PA was otherwise known and otherwise accepted, why did it need to be inserted into John? If I remember correctly, you link this to the increasing authority of the four-gospel canon, and as you demonstrate PA fits very well between John 7 and 8 given a certain reading of the text. So perhaps; it's unfortunate that we don't have more data to help make this point.

With my first point, however, I was trying to keep in mind that belief in a grapho-literate Jesus may have preceded the shaping of PA (by the interpolator?) to portray a grapho-literate Jesus. If not, at the very least other grapho-literate pagans (as you demonstrated in the third chapter [see my reference to p. 84) were impressed enough with Christ/Christians to convert to Christianity before they could appeal to PA in defense of a grapho-literate Jesus.

Finally (and this is something I never thought I'd say), I may have to finally subscribe to The Restoration Herald. [*shudder*]

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