Tuesday, March 16, 2010

how the ancients used language

I need some help. I'm reading Ruth A. Clements and Daniel R. Schwartz's edited volume, Text, Thought, and Practice in Qumran and Early Christianity (Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah 84; Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2009), which has been a fascinating collection of essays to this point (I'm about two-thirds of the way through). I'm currently reading Menahem Kister's essay, "Divorce, Reproof, and Other Sayings in the Synoptic Gospels: Jesus Traditions in the Context of 'Qumranic' and Other Texts" (195–229). I'm extremely sympathetic to Kister's reading program, which situations NT traditions (here the sayings of Jesus) within overtly Jewish frames of reference.

But I am once again flummoxed at the implicit model of language and communication that enables conceptions such as the following:
Moreover, the expected Greek rendering of יסוד הבריאה is ἡ ἀρχὴ τῆς κτίσεως, an expression in which the word ἀρχὴ would mean "principle." It seems that this expression was changed in Mark to ἀπ᾽ ἀρχῆς κτίσεως, "from the beginning of creation" (10:6), and in Matthew further revised to ἀπ᾽ ἀρχῆς (19:4, 8). If this expression indeed underlies both CD and the sayings tradition, there must be a close genetic link between them. If this is the case, we have here a striking case in which the originality of the wording in one Gospel may be established over against that of another through comparison with the Qumranic parallel. (Kister 2009: 202; my emphasis)

Anyone familiar with redaction-critical analyses of the synoptics will recognize immediately the familiar notion of language revised in later gospels from earlier ones. So Matthew's "from the beginning" is a modification of Mark's "from the beginning of creation" rather than an autonomous instance of language that relates to the sociolinguistic phenomena of Hellenistic Greek in general. Kister takes that thinking to a new level, if I understand him rightly, by applying redaction-critical analytical tools to texts that don't exhibit a literary relationship. In other words, the comparison of Mark and Matthew at least rests on the theory that Matthew knew and copied from Mark; but what theory legitimates Kister's claim that Mark changes language from another (Hebrew) text?

The larger problem, however, stems from our theory of language and communication, if it can be said that we have one at all. As historians of antiquity, we can only work with and analyze the remains of language that was inscribed some place, whether on papyrus or parchment, on a monumental stele or statue, or even the plethora of graffiti that survives from the ancient world. It seems to me, however, that redaction criticism in general, and especially analyses such as Kister's, implicitly assume that written language was all there was. This sounds ridiculous, of course; who could imagine a silent world where people communicated solely in writing?! But this is precisely the conception of language that appears to underlie anlyses of language from text to text. Otherwise, how can Kister (or anyone else) suppose that Mark has changed "the principle of creation" to "the beginning of creation"? Why is either phrase the cause or the effect of the other?

Werner Kelber has for over two decades been arguing against just these very analytical assumptions when he refers to the "equiprimordial"-ness of variant sayings. Kelber's neologism is, perhaps, unfortunate for two reasons. First, it's just plain weird, though it seems Kelber delights in weird language (or in weirdly using language). But second—and more substantively—the concept of equiprimordiality is an exaggeration of an otherwise very insightful point. That is, Kelber argues that tradition, in oral performance, enjoys a certain autonomy vis-à-vis previous and subsequent performances of the tradition. That is, if in one performance Jesus is reported to say, "Blessed are the poor . . . Blessed are the hungry," and in another performance he is made to say, "Blessed are those who mourn . . . Blessed are the meek," the two instances are both equally ("equi-") original instances of the tradition ("-primordial"). One is not "more original" than the other. This variability in the tradition goes back as far as Jesus himself, who on different occasions may have given various renditions of the Beatitudes (cp. Matthew and Luke), and who may have sometimes correlated his Beatitudes with parallel woes (Luke) or not (Matthew).

Kelber perhaps goes too far when he insists that traditions in oral performance are equally "original" or "primordial." Tradition could certainly develop as well as devolve; it could be applied to new contexts, integrated with other traditions, or cast in new frames of reference. These would not be equi-primordial. But we should recognize the fairly obvious point that the traditions we analyze transcended and existed well beyond the texts we work with. As a result, any analysis of one text solely—or even primarily—in terms of another text runs the risk of neglecting the ways that nontextual factors contextualized both the production and the reception of our texts. In other words, in a world where people could (and presumably did) say ἡ ἀρχὴ τῆς κτίσεως as well as ἀπ᾽ ἀρχῆς κτίσεως, and many other things besides, no one was likely to perceive one phrase in terms of (or as a change from) the other.


James F. McGrath said...

Thanks for posting on this! I have similar issues with Kelber's language of "equiprimordiality" - not that an individual cannot themselves introduce variations, but this doesn't exclude the possibility of tracing developments and trajectories in a resulting tradition.

Judy Redman said...

Another option for the particular Mark/Matthew problem is that Mark was quoting LXX and Matthew, who was familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, reverted to the Hebrew version. This happens often enough in the Gospels for it to have been suggested as a general explanation by, I think Metzger and Ehrman (but it could have been Perkins or Aland and Aland - I read it somewhere recently but can't remember exactly where). So, has Kister checked LXX?

The oral tradition stuff is also very interesting but I need to go to work. :-) Hope to have another look later today.

Rafael said...


I'm not sure I'm as confident (or that I'm confident at all) that we can trace trajectories. I've never heard anyone explain how, when we place texts side-by-side, we can know which differences are earlier/later, or even which are significant (i.e., developmental) and which are just other ways of saying the same thing. But I'm fixin' (a good east Tennessean word!) to read Anthony Le Donne's published thesis, The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David (Waco: Baylor UP, 2009), which explicitly sets out to examine how to identify and analyze traditional development. I'll report his argument as I read it.


Kister doesn't mention the LXX in this connection. I'm not sure how Matthew's ἀπ᾽ ἀρχῆς could be a translation of a Hebrew Vorlage as opposed to Mark's ἀπ᾽ ἀρχῆς κτίσεως, which Mark would have taken from the LXX. What do you have in mind?

James F. McGrath said...

I'm really eager to read Anthony's book and so will look forward to your posts about it. I wish I had the time to read it simultaneously and make it a "bloggersation".

John W. Daniels, Jr. said...

Entering into this more than a year late...I've found Kelber's concept quite helpful in terms of ancient modes of speech and talk, specifically, gossip. Gossip and the gossip network are all over the Gospels. It's easy to imagine multiple eyewitnesses to strange words and deeds turning to each other: "What the #&!! did he say?" or "Did you see that?" And each relating their re-membering of it to other not present. It seems to me, from the very moment the words were uttered or deeds were done in the presence of others - outsiders and even insiders - we're looking at equiprimordiality. And then if one considers Berger and Luckmann's social construction of reality - not only in terms of events, but also identity - then one is holding a live wire!!! The "traditioning process," indeed.

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