Tuesday, August 24, 2010

papyrus and parchment, leaf and roll

HT: Kelli Macqueen
The second chapter Harry Gamble's Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995) offers a very interesting discussion of book formats in the ancient Mediterranean, including the properties and manufacturing processes of roll book (scrolls) and leaf books (codices) as well as the early Christian's distinct preference for the codex even while codices weren't really considered "books" but were more like Post-It Notes.

I especially liked Gamble's point of departure. After a brief introduction he notes the chasm between our perceptions of a book—what it is, what it does, how we handle it and its contents, what it's worth, etc.—and the ancients':
The modern book and its reader are removed from antiquity not only in time and culture but also by two major developments in the history of books: the change from the roll book (scroll) to the leaf book (codex), which transpired between the second and the fourth centuries, and the change from the handwritten to the printed book, which occurred in the fifteenth century. Ancient books, then, were fundamentally different from modern ones. (43; my emphasis)

More provocatively, Gamble argues that the early collection and distribution of Paul's letters (without the Pastoral Epistles) as a corpus led the early Christians to prefer codices well before their Jewish and Greco-Roman contemporaries made the switch. His argument is detailed and fascinating, if still fundamentally circumstantial.

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Saturday, August 21, 2010

early Christian textuality

With the beginning of the semester barrelling down on us like a melodramatic steamtrain, I haven't had as much time to spend with Harry Gamble's book, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995). So this morning I got up with my alarm and finished the first chapter, "Literacy and Literary Culture in Early Christianity" (1–41). As a reminder of my first impressions of Gamble's book, I especially like his discussion of early Christian literacy (2–10), and his phrase "participation in literacy" in particular. Gamble proceeds to survey the influence of Franz Overbeck, Adolf Deismann, and form-critical scholarship in scholars' understanding of early Christian literary culture—and to dismiss any strong polarization between Hochliteratur ("high literature") and Kleinliteratur ("common or vulgar literature").

From there Gamble traces "the scope and character of early Christian literature" (21–40). Here he finds a world of written texts, from those that remain from antiquity (e.g., the NT, the NT Apocrypha, etc.) to those we find referenced but that no longer survive (e.g., Paul's first [?] letter to Corinth; see 1 Cor. 5.9), and those we only infer (e.g., Q, various miracle or parable collections, etc.). He also points out, rightly, that even before these texts early Christianity was already involved with a rich textual tradition: the texts of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, and other Jewish writings.

But already there are problems. For example, Gamble takes a rather maximalist approach to detecting written sources behind the gospels. As part of that approach, he writes,

Futhermore, the extended genealogies of Jesus given in Matthew and Luke are not the sort of material to have been orally preserved; their documentary content suggests that they were in written form from the beginning, and they must have had an early and Jewish origin since they presuppose Jesus' human ancestry. (23)

Leaving aside the implication that later and non-Jewish Christians were uninterested in "Jesus' human ancestry," I'm not sure why the genealogies "are not the sort of material to have been orally preserved." Notice that Gamble isn't arguing on evidentiary grounds that these two related traditional accounts rely on one or more written sources; he's claiming that this type of tradition—records of one's ancestry—must've relied on written texts.

The problem is that this is patently and demonstrably false. Even just a quick search through JSTOR looking for the terms oral tradition, oral historiography, and genealogy turns up nearly twelve hundred hits, nearly half from 1994 and earlier. Anthropological work in Africa, Southeast Asia, among Native Americans, and elsewhere demonstrates the varied ways that diverse and sundry societies across vast temporal, geographical, and cultural expanses have taken up the past—including ancestral records—without relying upon (or without relying solely upon) written texts. In other words, there's no reason whatsoever that the genealogical accounts in Matthew 1 and Luke 3, irrespective of their historical value, must have relied on written accounts. It remains to be seen whether or not any evidence suggests they did rely on textual sources, but this is not settled a priori.

The problems continue from there. For example, in his discussion of early Christianity's relationship to the products of Jewish literary culture, Gamble writes:

Although it need not be denied that there was a period, possibly a long one, during which some Christian traditions were orally transmitted, during that same period Christians were deeply and continuously engaged with texts. Christians were from the beginning assiduous students of Jewish scriptures. This not only presumes the literacy of at least some of them, but also implies what may be called a scholastic concern and activity. (23–24; my emphasis).

I'm not sure what Gamble means by his description of early Christians as "assiduous students," but it strikes me, at least, as a bit anachronistic. Despite the hesitation in his presumption of literacy for "at least some of them," I wonder what happened to his very helpful concept of "participation in literacy" (see pp. 8–9), a phrase that among other things reminds us that even illiterate, non-literate, and otherly-literate people can have access to and make rather robust use of written tradition. This is not a trivial point, either. Gamble's assumpiton of a "scholastic concern and activity" leads him to formulate the early Christians' work with Hebrew biblical texts in terms of constructing "the textual warrants of Christian convictions and [of] making those texts serviceable for Christian preaching, apologetics, and instruction" (25). But this is only part of the picture, as those texts also (and simultaneously) participated in the construction of Christian convictions themselves—and not merely their "warrants." Like chickens and eggs, these come from each other. As a result, I rather doubt that there was any felt need to "mak[e] those texts serviceable for Christian preaching, apologetics, and instruction" because those activities were already considered the proclamation, defense, and teaching of the texts themselves!

Despite these criticisms, Gamble goes on to provide a rather helpful discussion of "the character of early Christian literary culture" (32–40) that locates early Christian texts among the informative, instructional texts of Greek scientific writing (rather than the "vulgar texts" of the papyri [á la Deismann] or the rhetorically stylized texts of ancient Greek historiography). My doctoral supervisor, Loveday Alexander, argued for just this location of Luke-Acts on the basis of Luke's prefaces (Luke 1.1–4; Acts 1.1), and Gamble makes many and useful references to her work. Most significantly—especially in light of the highly textually biased discussion I critiqued immediately above—Gamble stresses that

the earliest Christian writers participated in the rhetorical culture of antiquity and that the earliest Christain literature cannot be set outside the larger literary culture. (35)

This, I think, is much better. Early Christian writers and texts (and readers, too) participated in their surrounding rhetorical and literary cultures. Of course, written texts played vital roles in these cultures, but we should not suppose that these cultures are reducible to written texts. Instead, these cultures envelope and contextualize those texts and expand the possibility that even groups and subgroups with comparatively limited access to the texts might take up and employ the traditions they embody.

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Friday, August 20, 2010

do you Growl?

Earlier this week I mentioned that I began using Dropbox. But the next day I noticed that both my home computers displayed a notification that a "new version of Growl is available online." I've never heard of Growl; I certainly didn't know it was on my computers. After a quick search I found Growl's website, which prominently displays a link:

Something made me think others had experienced this, too. Apparently a couple programs install Growl without asking permission; Dropbox was the first of these mentioned. My question: Those of you who use Dropbox, do you also use Growl, or did you uninstall Growl and turn off Dropbox's Growl support?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

a f/Father's love

On Friday, 6 August 2010, ten humanitarian workers were killed in Afghanistan by Taliban militants. One of those ten was Cheryl Beckett, whose father, Charles, is a local minister in south Knoxville and an adjunct teacher at my institution of higher education.

Charles Beckett is a friend of mine and—more than that—an example of how a man should love his daughter(s). The selfish father in me wants to keep my daughters near at hand and available for my own sense of family and fulfillment. Charles's example reminds me that I am their father, not their Father, and that true love trusts my daughters to his loving and perfect care. I pray I will one day love my daughters that much.

[The full story is available on knoxnews.com.]

Jerusalem Syndrome: is this a "turn of phrase"?

James Davila mentions an article from Emunah magazine heralding a decrease in "Jerusalem Syndrome." I think Jim's right that the fundamental problem—differentiating reality from fantasy—remains, even if this particular malady is on the decline. But I point out Israeli psychologist Gregory Katz's description of at-risk groups:
“The majority of patients that come into the psychiatric clinic with religious delusions were already suffering from psychological problems before they arrived in the holy city.” He says that those most susceptible these days are extremely religious persons who are ninety-eight percent Christian. They normally come from remote rural areas and in most cases and are traveling abroad for the first time in their lives. (emphasis added)

Ninety-eight percent Christianity, apparently, isn't enough. You need to be one hundred percent sold out to Jesus. Then you can safely visit the Holy City without fear of transmogrification into the Virgin Mary or whatever.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Gambl[ing] with early Christian books and readers

I'm finally addressing a series gap in my professional reading. Considering that (i) my major work, Structuring Early Christian Memory, deals directly with media-critical issues, the significance and function of oral and written traditions in early Christianity, and issues of literacy in the ancient world, and that (ii) I've even published a more focused analysis of "orality" in "Reading and Hearing in Ancient Contexts," it's quasi-scandalous that I haven't read Harry Gamble's seminal work, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995). Yesterday I began to rectify the situation. And my first impression: Only ten or so pages into it, and this book has well earned its reputation.

There are, naturally, a number of excellent points that I could highlight here; as I read I find myself underlining just about every line and trying to cram my comments into the margin. Here I think I'll just comment on one particular phrase that I've come across twice in the first ten pages; there will be plenty of time later for additional comments.

One of the problems facing scholars of Christian origins concerns how to understand the tension between (i) the nearly assuredly low literacy rates across the early Roman Empire (including among Christians), rates which may have rarely if ever exceeded twenty per cent in some urban areas, and (ii) the equally secure fact that the early Christians produced, transmitted, and poured over a surprising number of texts. These latter weren't simply early Christian texts (gospels, letters, homilies, etc.) but just as importantly Hebrew biblical texts; from the very beginning Christians valued Moses, the prophets, and (to a lesser extent) the later writings.1 The impression that texts played a vital role in early Christianity isn't simply a by-product of the dominance of written texts among the extant evidence; from the very earliest images we get of the church the presence and public reading of texts loom large (e.g., 1 Tim. 4.13; Justin, 1 Apol. 67). Gamble rightly recognizes both poles of this tension. Most early Christians—probably more than four out of every five—were functionally illiterate, and written texts played a vital role in the construction and expression of early Christian identities.

In my own research I have used a distinction between literacy (the ability to read written texts) and textuality (access to written traditions) to navigate this tension. Gamble has a wonderful phrase that I find at least as helpful, if not more, for this purpose. On two occasions he speaks of participation in literacy.
If most Christians were illiterate, it did not prevent them from participating in literacy or from becoming familiar with Christian texts. . . . Thus, although the limited extent of individual literacy certainly had a bearing on the composition, transcription, private use, and authoritative interpretation of Christian texts, it had little adverse effect on the ability of Christians generally to gain a close acquaintance with Christian literature. The illiterate Christian found in the public reading of Christian texts at least as large and probably a more consistent opportunity than his pagan counterpart to participate in literacy and become familiar with texts. (8–9)

This phrase—participation in literacy—needs to gain wider currency among scholars of Christian origins. It will help us to recognize the centrality of written texts in early Christian experiences (pace, e.g., Richard Horsley, who can be read to imply that written materials were alien things that only existed in Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and other exotic places) even as we respect the rather different avenues of access available to the typical Christian, the believer who was completely unable to "take up and read" (pace the picture of early Christianity [and Judaism] Horsley is trying to displace).

1 Notice, for example, that when Luke enjoins gentile believers to abstain from the meat of animals offered to idols or from strangled animals, from blood, and from fornication (Acts 15.20), he bases these injunctions on the fact that "Moses, who is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath, has had in every city from generations past those who proclaim him" [Μωϋσῆς γὰρ ἐκ γενεῶν ἀρχαίων κατὰ πόλιν τοὺς κηρύσσοντας αὐτὸν ἔχει ἐν ταῖς συναγωγαῖς κατὰ πᾶν σάββατον ἀναγινωσκόμενος (15.21)]. Whatever Luke may mean here, the obvious point is that the church as he presents it values Moses and expects new members to make ethical decisions in light of others' high valuation of Moses and his texts (ἀναγινωσκόμενος).

syncing files with Dropbox

Yesterday I created an account with Dropbox, an online file-syncing and -sharing service that gives you 2Gs of free storage, with significantly more for a subscription fee. I work on most of my files on my MacBook, so syncing across multiple machines isn't a high priority for me.
But off-site backup is. Also, I am planning a collaborative project with a colleague in the UK, and it looks like this service enables us to access (and edit) the same files (rather than multiple copies of the same file). With Dropbox, you can also undelete files and access previous versions of files. This also isn't a feature I will use frequently, but those relatively rare instances when you do need to undelete a file (or to revert to a previous version), you really need to undelete. So there's a sense of security knowing that I can't accidentally scrub my lecture notes for this semester from my computer.

[HT: James McGrath]

Monday, August 16, 2010

delivered today

The mailperson delivered today my copy of Louis H. Feldman's translation and commentary of Flavius Josephus, Judean Antiquities 1–4 (Boston and Leiden: Brill, 2004). This is the newest comprehensive translation of Josephus into English and complements rather than replaces the Loeb edition. I'm very excited to start reading this. You can find the series description at Brill's website.

If you feel compelled to purchase a volume from this series as a gift for me, please be aware that I'm seeking the paperback rather than hardback editions due to the price. I don't usually accept bribes from my students, but since even the paperback volumes are so expensive I will probably grant at least passing grades to students with enough chutzpah to slide one of these under my office door. I might even smile at you if you include a Kit Kat or Twix PB along with the book. Well . . . the grade and the smile aren't guaranteed, but you can try if you like.

Masonic reading of Luke-Acts

I am finishing up Steve Mason's book, Josephus and the New Testament (second edition; Peabody, MA: 2003). This may be one of the best books I've read recently; it's easy-to-read, original in its reading of Josephus and his texts, and well-structured around its central purpose (to explore how to capitalize on Josephus' value for New Testament and Christian origins scholarship). I recommend this book to anyone interested in the New Testament, first-century Christianity, or Josephus.

Without diminishing the praise I have for this book, however, I think Mason's thesis in chapter six, "Josephus and Luke-Acts" (251–95) suffers serious flaws. His overall point in265– this chapter lies squarely in the mainstream: that Luke-Acts and Josephus rely on common written and/or oral traditional sources. But Mason opens the door to the idea that Luke-Acts "builds its case with knowledge of Josephus's advocacy of Judaism" (252), an idea of which I am not yet convinced. But some key features of his analysis of the generic similarities between Josephus and Luke-Acts—"they are both histories, written in Greek according to the conventions of their period, which we may loosely call Hellenistic" (252)—strike me as oddly lacking in nuance.

For example, Mason says more than once that both the author of Luke-Acts and Josephus "write from the margins of society, using their accounts to convey essential features of their communities' values" (252; see also 265–67). While this is generally true, Mason does not clarify the very important differences between Josephus' and Luke-Acts's location "at the margins" and their relation with Roman centers of political, cultural, and social power. Anyone familiar with the Greek of both authors—and Mason is intimately familiar with their Greek—knows that these texts come from very different worlds and, despite Luke's nod toward his literary patron (κράτιστε Θεόφιλε [Luke 1.3]), are written for very different audiences.

As a result of his blurring the differences between Josephus and Luke-Acts, Mason distorts a number of Lukan features. As an example, he spends some time aligning Luke-Acts more closely with Josephus than with the other canonical gospels, despite real problems raised by this realignment.
Mark (3:6) and John (5:18) place Jesus in dire conflict with the Jewish authorities almost from the beginning and, in their different ways, make Jesus' own Jewish identity ore or less irrelevant to his role as savior. In Luke-Acts, however, Jesus operates comfortably within the Jewish world throughout the entire gospel, attending temple and synagogue (2:21, 41, 49: 4:16), consorting in a friendly manner with popular Jewish teachers (7:36; 11:37; 14:1), and debating with other teachers the correct interpretation of Sabbath law. (256)

This is a terrible reading of Luke. Luke's Jesus is indeed thoroughly Jewish, but even here, as a Jewish teacher in a Galilean synagogue, Jesus is nearly shoved off a cliff at the very beginning of the narrative (4.28–29). Indeed, Luke's Jesus is barely a week old when the old man Symeon sounds an ominous note of opposition over the baby's future (2.34–35). Notice that I agree with Mason that Luke's Jesus "operates comfortably within the Jewish world," but I fervently disagree with him that this is different than in the other gospels, especially Mark and John.

Additionally, in his effort to demonstrate affinities between Luke-Acts and Josephus, Mason turns to the preface of Luke's second volume. (I should disclose here that my doctoral supervisor, Loveday Alexander, has published multiple researches on the prefaces of Luke-Acts. Obviously this doesn't make me an expert on these prefaces, as if by association. But I do clearly have alliances in this discussion.) As Mason reads Acts,
Like Josephus, Luke glides easily from a summary of his earlier work to his present book. Whereas the former history had dealt with Jesus' actions and teachings, this one will recount the actions and teachings of his apostles. (257)

Again, this isn't the most helpful reading of Luke-Acts. Yes, "Luke glides easily from a summary of his earlier work to his present book." In fact, unlike the gospel (the preface of which clearly ends after 1.4, with a new section beginning at 1.5), Acts's preface doesn't so much end as fade into the scene of the risen Jesus eating with "the apostles." But Luke describes his "former book" [πρῶτον λόγον] as an account "of those things which Jesus began both to do and to teach" [ὧν ἤρξατο ὁ Ἰησοῦς ποιεῖν τε καὶ διδάσκειν (1.1; my emphasis)]. Thus Mason's distinction between Luke and Acts—the former an account of Jesus' teachings and life, the latter an account of Jesus' followers' teachings and lives—is blurred in the preface, which frames the Acts as the account of what Jesus continued to do and to teach through those he sent out to the ends of the earth (1.8).

Problems also attend Mason's reading of the Lukan Paul vis-à-vis the Paul of the epistles. This is certainly a complicated and controversial subject, but Mason's position here needs some refinement.
[A]ccording to Acts, out of all the possible Scriptures that one could cite as proof texts, Peter and Paul choose the same ones and use them in the same way. . . . In his letters [however], because he writes as the apostle to the Gentiles, Paul spends no time at all proving that Jesus is the Messiah or recounting Israel's history in any connected way. Indeed, the absence of Jewish content in his gospel is what provoked a response from his Jewish-Christian opponents. (263)

Mason offers Romans as "only a partial exception" to this observation. A lot depends on how we read his qualifier, "in any connected way." Certainly the epistolary Paul does not offer an exegetical presentation of the gospel akin to that found in Acts 13. But Paul's own thinking relies so firmly on categories, images, and narratives drawn from Hebrew biblical traditions that the discordance between the epistolary and the Lukan Pauls is less pronounced than Mason suggests. Romans certainly argues about as well as through Jewish texts and traditions (esp. Rom. 2–5; 9–11); we find similar arguments in 1 Cor. 1–2; 10; 15; 2 Cor. 6; Gal. 3, 4; Phil. 2 (and others besides). This may not represent a "connected" presentation of the gospel or argument that Jesus is Israel's Messiah, but the generic differences between Paul's letters and Acts's narrative account for these differences. Indeed, the same Lukan Paul who gave a strikingly "Petrine" sermon in Acts 13 gives a non-biblical sermon in Acts 17. I'm not arguing that there aren't any differences between Luke's Paul and the Paul of the letters. But these differences are not solely the result of Luke's literary and rhetorical interests having their effect upon his presentation of Paul. Portraying a historical figure in literature, no less than presenting a self-portrait, is complicated business.

I have other issues with Mason's reading of Luke-Acts, but my discussion thus far suffices to demonstrate the kind of thing I don't like about this chapter. Even so, these criticisms should not detract from my endorsement of Josephus and the New Testament as an excellent book. Mason offers us an impeccably responsible demonstration of how to take Josephus on his own terms and allow him to shed his own light upon the history and literature of earliest Christianity. The danger of proof-texting Josephus in order to bolster or question this or that NT text plagues scholarship at least as doggedly as the danger of proof-texting the NT itself to bolster or question this or that doctrine plagues popular Christianity (of whatever theological position). Mason provides vital context for understanding Josephus first and then bringing his writings to bear upon early Christian texts.

a note on commenting

Offending links, in case you doubted.
Some blogs have posted explicit guidelines and protocols for posting comments. Given the low number of comments on Verily Verily, I haven't felt the need to do so. But over the last year or so I've noticed that about half of the comments that are left here involve (i) Chinese characters (which I've seen), and (ii) links to porn sites (which I haven't, but I did send one of the links to a colleague who later told me about it). I've wrestled with whether or not to moderate comments in order to filter out these links, and up to now I've been happy to trust the general wisdom of anyone who also has the good sense to read my thoughts not to click on strange links (with apologies to my aforementioned colleague!!). But alas, I'm tired of hosting links to disreputable sites. If said links happened to be your primary draw to Verily Verily, you will have to find another gateway to the nethercyberworld.

Friday, August 13, 2010

John, Jesus, and History

This is a little late. In my news reader I've kept unread Paul Anderson's essay, "A Forth Quest for Jesus . . . So What, and How So?", which appeared on The Bible and Interpretation last month. Anderson has been a significant figure in the SBL's John, Jesus, and History group, which began (if memory serves) at the Toronto Annual Meeting back in 2002. His essay is well worth reading (if you haven't already) in part because of his discussion of the use and function of criteria of historical authenticity (on which see my article, "Authenticating Criteria" (JSHJ 7/2 [2009]: 152–67). [Chris Keith has is also doing some interesting work on the criteria of authenticity; look for his upcoming book on Jesus that will be published by Baker Academic.]

In the teaser I include below, Anderson raises the question of our reaction to the Fourth Gospel if it had disappeared from history until the twentieth or twenty-first century. If the late Gospel of Judas incited considerable hubbub, how much more would the re-discovery of the Gospel of John?! Even posing the question immediately reveals how shocking it should be that historical Jesus scholarship has become so sanguine vis-à-vis John. Essays like this give me some confidence that, after floundering for a number of decades, historical Jesus scholarship is finally beginning to head in some interesting (and potentially fruitful) directions.
Think of it! What would happen if the National Geographic Channel ran a special on a recently discovered gospel text from the late first century, which was different from the Synoptics but also developed an alternative rendering of Jesus and his ministry? If the third-century Gospel of Judas created a stir, with virtually no historical-Jesus tradition within it, imagine what sort of a ruckus would emerge if John were taken seriously as an independent Jesus tradition, differing from the Markan gospels with at least some knowing intentionality. That’s what I believe will happen if the Fourth Gospel’s historical features come out from being eclipsed by its theological ones.

Paul, Agrippa II, and Josephus

I enjoyed this paragraph on Paul's hearing before Festus and Herod Agrippa II, narrated in Acts 25–26. Mason's book overall is very good and well worth reading, especially if you're taking my World of the New Testament course (since it's one of your assigned texts!!).
But the story of Paul's hearing before Agrippa II matches Josephus's account in its repeated reference to his companion Berenice (Acts 25:13, 23; 26:30). Acts does not explain that she is Agrippa's sister, nor does it divulge why she is there, since she does not figure int he exchanges with Paul. The modern reader might easily suppose that she is his wife. But once we know Josephus's account, the episode takes on a sharply sarcastic tone. Here is the great king in all his pomp (25:23), brought in by the Roman governor Festus because of his purported expertise in things Jewish (25:26), which the governor lacked. INdeed, Paul repeatedly appeals to the king's familiarity with Jewish teaching: "With all that I am being accused of by the Jews, King Agrippa, I consider myself fortunate that I am to defend myself before you today, about all because you are expert in Jewish customs and issues" (26:2–3, 26–27). But if the reader knows that this august Jewish leader, who presumes to try Paul, is all the while sitting next to the sister with whom he is reportedly having an incestuous affair, in violation of the most basic Jewish laws, then the whole trial becomes a comedy. Paul's appeals to Agrippa's Jewish knowledge are, in that case, devastating barbs.1

1 Steve Mason, Josephus and the New Testament (second edition; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003), 164.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Irenaeus reading Matthew

In Adversus haereses 3.8, Irenaeus apparently counters Marcion's differentiation of Jesus' Father from the God of the Hebrew Bible. As part of his answer, Irenaeus offers an extended discussion of Matt. 6.24 and 12.29. Here are the Matthean texts, according to NA27:

Matt 6.24:
Matt. 12.29:
Οὐδεὶς δύναται δυσὶ κυρίοις δουλεύειν· ἢ γὰρ τὸν ἕνα μισήσει καὶ τὸν ἕτερον ἀγαπήσει, ἢ ἑνὸς ἀνθέξεται καὶ τοῦ ἑτέρου καταφρονήσει. οὐ δύνασθε θεῷ δουλεύειν καὶ μαμωνᾷ.ἢ πῶς δύναταί τις εἰσελθεῖν εἰς τὴν οἰκίαν τοῦ ἰσχυροῦ καὶ τὰ σκεύη αὐτοῦ ἁρπάσαι, ἐὰν μὴ πρῶτον δήσῃ τὸν ἰσχυρόν; καὶ τότε τὴν οἰκίαν αὐτοῦ διαρπάσει.
No one is able to serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.Or how can anyone enter the strong man's house and plunder his possessions, unless first he bind the strong man? Only then will he plunder his house.

What I find interesting is the way Irenaeus's concerns as he reads Matthew are so utterly different than the evangelist's concerns in recording Jesus' words. Of course, none of the evangelists dealt with teachings quite like Marcion's, so any appeal to the gospels in this regard is going to apply the texts to situations to which they never envisioned being applied to in the first place. Even so, the way Irenaeus reads Matthew cuts so strongly against the grain of the text that the text itself is barely recognizable.

To illustrate this "cutting across the grain," let's consider Irenaeus's reading of Matt. 12.29. This verse is part of Jesus' response to "the Pharisees" (12.24), who accuse him of casting out demons in the name/power of "Beelzebul, the prince of demons" [ἐν τῷ Βεελζεβοὺλ ἄρχοντι τῶν δαιμονίων].1 Jesus answers their charge with the images of (i) a divided kingdom and (ii) a divided house (12.25), and then applies these images to Satan's [ὁ σατανᾶς] kingdom/house (12.26). In 12.27 Jesus likens his own exorcistic practice to that of "your sons" (viz., those associated with his accusers); in 12.28, however, Jesus isolates his exorcisms as the harbinger of God's kingdom. Matthew 12.29, then, continues these images/themes (house, Satan, God, inter- rather than intra-house conflict). That is, Jesus' exorcisms demonstrate not that he is in league with Beelzebul but that Satan has been bound and has his domain plundered.

Irenaeus recognizes that, contextually, the "strong man" [ἰσχυρός] of 12.29 refers to Satan. And, just as clearly, the one [τις] who binds the strong man is Jesus (note the strong first-person reference in 12.28: εἰ δὲ . . . ἐγὼ ἐκβάλλω [but if I am casting out . . .]). But in other respects Irenaeus pursues a different program than Matthew. In the gospel, the point of Jesus' saying in v. 29 is that Jesus overcomes rather than serves the satan, the enemy of God's people; the focus is on the contrast between Beelzebul and Jesus. In Adversus haereses, the point of Jesus' saying becomes the connection between Jesus and the Creator God, against whom no created thing could reasonably be compared. "[F]or not he alone, but not one of created and subject things, shall ever be compared to the Word of God, by whom all things were made, who is our Lord Jesus Christ" (Haer. 3.8.2). The link with traditions of creation in both the Hebrew Bible (Gen. 1–3; Isa. 55) and the developing canon of NT texts (John 1.1–14; Col. 1.15–20) are intentional; notice that Irenaeus immediately proceeds to offer a meditation on the proper relation of the created order vis-à-vis the Creator and the language that befits this relation (Haer. 3.8.3).

Certainly my expertise in Christian history in the second through fifth centuries is very limited. But I suspect that this hermeneutical development—in which the gospels' witness to Jesus is being pressed in service of christological debates significantly different than those the evangelists engaged in—would continue until its climax in the great ecclesial councils, especially Nicaea. I can't help but wonder, though, the extent to which writers such as Irenaeus may have been aware that they were wielding the texts in alien arenas and for alien purposes even as they felt themselves constrained to honor and faithfully preserve the heritage of the past. For all Irenaeus's hermeneutical innovation in reading Matthew, he seems to have felt genuinely that Marcion had crossed the line in shaking off the constraint of the past and developing a scandalously new theological program.

(Of course Marcion, for his own part, apparently thought he was restoring, not repudiating, the heritage of the past. But that's a discussion for another post.)

1 For a detailed discussion of "the Beelzebul controversy," see chapter 7 of my Structuring Early Christian Memory: Jesus in Tradition, Performance, and Text (ESCO; London and New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 174–210.

when in Rome . . .

I've been reading through Plutarch's whirl-wind explication of Roman culture in Roman Questions (Moralia IV; LCL 305). One of Plutarch's questions reminded me of the time we spent in Sheffield, UK. First, Plutarch (according to F. C. Babbitt's translation).
Why did they not allow the table to be taken away empty, but insisted that something should be upon it?

Was it that they were symbolizing the necessity of ever allowing some part of the present provision to remain over for the future, and to-day to be mindful of to-morrow, or did they think it polite to repress and restrain the appetite while the means of enjoyment was still at hand? For persons who have accustomed themselves to refrain from what they have are less likely to crave for what they have not.

Or does the custom also show a kindly feeling towards the servants? For they are not so well satisfied with taking as with partaking, since they believe that they thus in some manner share the table with their masters.

Or should no sacred thing be suffered to be empty, and the table is a sacred thing? (QR 64)

As I was reading, I imagined a hapless Greek traveller, enjoying the lavish hospitality of a Roman patron and graciously eating every bit of food his host sets on the table before him, only to find that his host then feels obliged to replenish the table. Reminds me of this advertisement, for HSBC.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

add this to the collection

I came across another turn of phrase I'd like to add to my growing collection. I'm reading through Steve Mason's very interesting and easy-to-read Josephus and the New Testament (second edition; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003), which I've assigned for my World of the New Testament course. Notice Mason's wonderful description of Josephus' historical accuracy in the Life relative to Josephus' narration of events in War:
While referring the read to the War for more details (Life 27, 412), he blithely contradicts the earlier account at every turn. This almost aggressive carelessness may in fact be a deliberate clue to his purposes. (124; my emphasis)

"Aggressive carelessness." Mason could almost be describing the average driver in East Tennessee.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Ehrman in proper context

As we wrap up Bart Ehrman's The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, it would be helpful to make a couple of points in closing to make sure we properly apprehend the value of this provocative book while being ever aware of its shortcomings. The following are given in no particular order:
  • The word corruption in Ehrman's title is misleading, probably intentionally so. This is a technical term within the field of text criticism, and Ehrman uses it in line with its technical usage. Or at least he claims to.
    The term "corruption" derives from traditional text-critical discourse, in which the "original" text (i.e., as it was actually penned by an author) is the dominant concern, with changes of that text—whether accidental or intentional—representing contaminations of that original. Not everyone, however, assigns a pejorative sense to the term. This neutral usage is found particularly among critics who recognize the problem of privileging the original text over forms of the text created during the course of transmission. . . . This takes me now to a different theoretical understanding of the significance of textual variation in the New Testament manuscripts, an understanding that derives less from traditional categories of originals and corruptions than from modern literary theories that call these categories into question. Because scribes occasionally changed their texts in "meaningful" ways, it is possible to conceptualize their activities as a kind of hermeneutical process. Reproducing a text is in some ways analogous to interpreting it. (29)

    Corruption, as Ehrman uses it, signifies no more than "change from an 'original' text" without any pejorative sense, and in fact only means that the process of transmitting a handwritten text (a manuscript) also involved processes of interpreting the text. This is very good; I have no problems here. But Ehrman well knows that corruption—as in corruption of scripture—means something entirely different and that those who judge a book by its cover (and we all do, even if some of us reserve the right to revise our judgment) will take his title to mean the falsification, degradation, et cetera of the Bible. Ehrman is too media-savy not to know this, and his many appearances in popular fora (not least the Colbert Report and the Daily Show) bank on this misconception. Ehrman is having his cake and eating it, too.
  • The vast majority of examples Ehrman adduces as examples of "the orthodox corruption of scripture" express or clarify the meaning of the reading Ehrman supports as the original reading. That is, few of the changes he discusses alters the meaning of the text to make it say something it didn't or couldn't have said before the corruption. That is, we are very often talking about appending Christ to the name Jesus, or Joseph for his father, and such like. Very few of the variants Ehrman analyzes take the text in a different direction, for example naming another Christ (say, "Brian") or a substantively different portrayal of Jesus. (See his discussion of Heb. 2.9 [146–50] for one variant that does present a substantive alteration of the original reading.) In fact, many of the changes Ehrman chalks up to orthodox corruption—meant to ward off heterodox interpretations—were just as liable to being read differently by proto-orthodox and Gnostics, or docetics, or whoever as were the uncorrupted (or pre-corrupted) texts. Notice, for example, the following cautionary note:
    We do well to recall that Gnostics were notorious among the orthodox for overlooking the "straightforward" meaning of the words of the biblical text (straightforward, that is, to the orthodox). Among other things, this means that even were a scribe to make such a corruption in light of the heretical position, the Gnostics (as least according to the heresiologists) would have remained undisturbed, because for them the words of the text were ultimately unimportant on the literal level. (173–74, n. 104)

    Don't miss what he's saying. Irrespective of how accurately this depicts actual Gnostic hermeneutical practices, Ehrman claims here that orthodox polemicists (i) made subtle changes to the NT manuscripts they transcribed in order to shore up their own particular interpretations and/or to stave off heretical readings even as (ii) they knew that heretical exegetes "would have remained undisturbed." Having cake; eating cake.
  • These criticisms notwithstanding, Ehrman has demonstrated, I think, that scribes who copied NT manuscripts were also inhabitants of their social worlds, and that inhabitation included the polemical contexts of the early church. Anyone at all acquainted with text criticism knows that scribes mistakenly made changes to their texts; just as uncontroversial is that scribes also made intentional changes from their exemplars. Ehrman establishes what we maybe should have suspected all along: That sometimes scribes' intentional changes were motivated by the debates and controversies that provided the contexts in which Christians of all stripes read the NT texts. But this may make the previous point all the more noteworthy: Given the fact that scribes modified scripture in response to how others [mis]read the texts, we should perhaps be impressed with how rarely those changes actually changed the text's meaning and significance. Stated another way, the Church Fathers certainly could engage in some fantastic, even outlandish, exegetical practice, no less than their heterodox counterparts. But Ehrman doesn't produce any examples of an orthodox exegete supporting an incredible interpretation by means of emendation.
  • Even so, we should recognize how limited in scope are the consequences of Ehrman's analyses (despite his claims to the contrary in the conclusion [274–83]). At numerous points Ehrman has rightly recognized a lack of consistency in [proto-]orthodox scribes' textual alterations. But this inconsistency stands in tension with the overall thesis of Ehrman's book, that scribes altered the text to make it say what it already meant. The fact is, sometimes they didn't. And given the historical situation Ehrman wants us to envision, inconsistency = a lack of willingness/motivation to expunge potentially difficult or ambiguous texts from scripture. Two other observations mitigate the force of Ehrman's thesis. First, many (though certainly not all) of the variants Ehrman adduces as "orthodox corruptions of scripture" simply do not bear the weight Ehrman puts upon them. For example, on pp. 237–38 he argues that, in some instances, "scribes have simply interpolated references to Jesus' 'humanness' into passages that otherwise say nothing directly about it." As an example he offers the variant at John 7.46 in \mathfrak{P}66, which changes οὐδέποτε ἐλάλησεν οὕτως ἄνθρωπος ["No one has ever spoken in this way"] to οὐδέποτε οὕτως ἄνθρωπος ἐλάλησεν ὡς οὗτος λάλει ὁ ἄνθρωπος ["No one has ever spoken the way this man speaks"]. I can readily see why Ehrman reads this variant as an anti-docetic corruption, but the supposed ambiguity of the original text, along with the "improvement" offered by the variant, do not make it so. Without any evidence that the reading in \mathfrak{P}66 actually did stave off docetic christological formulations, formulations which were sustained precisely by a certain reading of John 7.46, Ehrman's case is circumstantial at best. Second, with few exceptions Ehrman was only able to document changes within individual manuscripts and/or families of manuscripts. The larger tradition itself—what was embodied within and expressed through the surviving manuscripts—was able to absorb these corruptions without losing every trace of the original reading. Again, in a few cases the corruption (nearly) thoroughly replaced the original reading, and in a few other cases determining conclusively which reading was original and which the corruption was impossible. But for the vast majority of variants Ehrman puts forward, we could clearly differentiate earlier and later readings. In other words, the consequence of the "orthodox corruption of scripture" was fairly limited in scope.
All in all, Ehrman's book well deserves the attention we give it. He reminds us on every page that real texts were handwritten, physical objects produced by real people with real temperaments and, sometimes, real strong opinions on the debates of their day. The cold, dispassionate, objective copy of the UBS Greek New Testament or the NA27that sit on my desk—still less the modern English translations developed from them—are not the text of the New Testament transmitted through the centuries. In fact, the stable texts that give me comfort depend upon the handwritten manuscripts, with all their vagaries, not the other way around.

Monday, August 09, 2010

a text-critical question

I have a question about how textual critics identify problems requiring explanation and then proceed to search for and land upon satisfactory solutions. I'm currently in the throes of reading Ehrman's extensive discussion of the textual issues surrounding Luke 22.19–20.1 First, let me present the problem in very brief terms.

There are, essentially, two readings to consider, the "longer," more traditional, reading here is as follows:
19 "Then, taking [some] bread and giving thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, 'This is my body, given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.' 20 And likewise the cup, after eating, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for you. 21 But look! The hand of the one who is betraying me is with mine upon the table.'"

This longer text is attested "by all Greek manuscripts except D [= Bezae] and by most of the ancient versions and Fathers."2 The "shorter, or Western, text"—that is, the reading attested in Bezae and in mss of the Old Latin, which is typically an expansionist tradition—omits vv. 19b–20:
19 "Then, taking [some] bread and giving thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, 'This is my body. 21 But look! The hand of the one who is betraying me is with mine upon the table.'"

Ehrman rightly emphasizes how difficult it is to explain the omission of 19b–20 in the Western tradition if the longer reading is original. There aren't, apparently, any satisfactory contextual factors to support an accidental omission (e.g., homoeoteleuton or homoeoarchton). And, of course, why any scribe would intentionally omit (i) the description of Jesus' body as "given for you . . ." and (ii) any reference to cup at all presents insurmountable problems.

Ehrman provides other arguments in favor of the shorter reading, to be sure. But quite a bit of weight is put on the difficulty involved with explaining how vv. 19b–20 dropped out of the Western manuscript tradition if these verses were originally part of Luke's gospel. And I don't suppose I have anything to offer by way of explanation (though note that the UBS committee felt strong enough about including vv. 19b–20 in the text that they give it a [B] rating). But here's my question: How does the proposed originality of the shorter reading explain the presence of the shorter reading in some Western manuscripts? On the surface the answer seems obvious, but upon closer look the problems Ehrman seeks to avoid by accepting the Western reading loom just as large.

  • Given the intractable problems explaining why any scribe would drop vv. 19b–20 from his exemplar, don't we still need to explain why Luke would omit this passage from his Markan source (on either the Two-Source or Farrer theories of synoptic relationships) or, less likely, from Matthew (assuming the Griesbach-Farmer hypothesis)? I can't find ready explanation why Luke would drop this passage, and this—it seems to me—balances evenly the difficulty of why a later scribe would omit it.
  • Ehrman finds it significant that the vocabulary of vv. 19b–20 is non-Lukan and sounds an awful lot like Paul's version of the Last Supper in 1 Cor. 11.

    Interestingly, this "other tradition" (i.e., vv. 19b–20 in the longer text) is not only anomalous within Luke's Gospel itself, it also has very few connections with Luke's source, the Gospel of Mark. Instead, as has been frequently noted, the additional words practically mirror the familiar account of the institution preserved in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. The fact that the words of the longer text of Luke are not precisely those of Paul should not be used, as it sometimes is, to argue that they could not have been added secondarily to the text of the Gospel. No one need think that a scribe referred to his manuscript of 1 Corinthians to check the accuracy of his interpolation into Luke. Instead, the addition has all the marks of a familiar narrative based on, or at least parallel to, Paul's account of Jesus' Last Supper.3

    I'm not convinced. If the best explanation for the manuscript data for which we must account is that a scribe inserted a Eucharistic tradition from another text into Luke's gospel, why should they have chosen 1 Corinthians? This becomes even more of a problem the more we stress the differences—and there are significant differences—between Paul's Eucharist and that found in Mark and Matthew. If a scribe felt the shorter, "original" text of Luke's version of the Last Supper required supplementing, why choose Paul's distinctive account instead of Mark's or Matthew's? Certainly we can't expect scribes in antiquity to be as aware of different traditions as we are (and esp. that Paul's account of the Eucharist conflicted with Luke's way of thinking about Jesus' death). But inasmuch as Matthew was the most popular, most widely read, and most frequently copied of the canonical gospels, I think we need to ask why a scribe would interpolate Paul's instead of Matthew's version of the Last Supper. The language of 22.19b–20 may be distinctive within Luke-Acts, but its Pauline rather than Matthean flavor creates a problem for a theory of interpolation. This falls short of proof for these verses' originality, but it does weaken Ehrman's argument in favor of the shorter reading.
  • [The following two problems belong together; I give the weaker one first.]
  • If we accept the shorter reading because we simply can't imagine why a scribe would drop vv. 19b–20 (and let me say again, I can't imagine why), we actually need to suppose that at least some Christians of the West observed a Eucharistic liturgy of bread alone or that took the cup first and then broke the bread (see vv. 17–18). Either this, or we will have to suppose that the scribes responsible for the manuscripts bearing the shorter reading tolerated a striking discrepancy between their Eucharistic practices (supported by the accounts of Mark, Matthew, and/or 1 Corinthians) and Luke's gospel.
  • The alternative to expecting a Lukan Eucharistic liturgy (according to the shorter reading) is to suppose that scribes in the second century and later [Bezae is a fifth-century uncial!] observed a traditional Eucharistic liturgy and preserved the original [= shorter] Lukan account of the Last Supper. This, in fact, is exactly what Ehrman argues. But how does the originality of the shorter reading have any explanatory power for the reading in Bezae and the Old Latin if we assume that these same scribes also observed a traditional Eucharist? We rightly scratch our heads and wonder how/why a scribe might have elided vv. 19b–20, but on Ehrman's explanation we still have to deal with scribes who believed the institution of the Lord's Supper occurred one way (see the traditional Eucharistic liturgy we are now positing for these scribes) but who believed, somehow, that the original text of Luke's gospel portrayed a significantly different account of that institution. In other words, it seems to me that the shorter reading still requires explanation in fifth century, irrespective of any judgment of originality. In yet other words, even the if the shorter reading is "original" and the longer reading "corrupt," the shorter reading would [ought?] have struck ancient scribes as corrupt. So why did they preserve this shorter, "original" reading?
In the end, I am (i) unable to answer Ehrman's objection that it's simply too difficult to explain the shorter reading if the longer reading is original, and (ii) unconvinced by his arguments that the shorter reading is, in fact, original. Instead, I think the unusual data requiring explanation is still the shorter reading: Why should any manuscript tradition omit vv. 19b–20? I don't know, but I don't think the problem is solved by supposing this is the original reading. Instead, I think it's a problem that Ehrman has to resort to reading Luke so far afield from one of his favorite sources and one of his favorite Christian characters; notice that he has no problem suggesting that Luke "understands the death of Jesus differently from both the predecessor of his Gospel (Mark) and the hero of his Acts (Paul)."4 But why should Luke have so willingly accepted (and reproduced) so much of Mark's gospel and expended so much effort broadcasting and endorsing Paul's reputation, if he held a fundamentally different view of so pivotal a Christian tenet as the death of Christ?!

So again, my question is: How does the proposed originality of the shorter reading explain the presence of the shorter reading in some Western manuscripts? Can anyone provide a reasonable answer?

[CLARIFICATION: Ehrman continues in this chapter to discuss the [in]famous "Western Non-Interpolations," a body of variants that he finds in service of anti-docetic polemics (see, e.g., pp. 255–56, n. 145). In many of these (e.g., Luke 24.12, 40, inter alia) the question I'm raising regarding his analysis of 22.19–20 would be inappropriate. The reason I find the shorter western reading's originality insufficient to explain its presence in Bezae and the Old Latin is precisely the use of the tradition in question (viz., the Lord's Supper) in the liturgical life of the church. Luke 24.12, of course, was not liturgically significant and so may be preserved more accurately (and succinctly) in the Western manuscript tradition.]

1 See Bart Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, 198–209.
2 According to B. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (second edition; New York: United Bible Societies, 1994 [1971]), 148.
3 Ehrman, Orthodox Corruption, 204.
4 Ehrman, Orthodox Corruption, 203.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Justin Martyr and the Sermon on the Mount

As I read Justin Martyr (1 Apol. 15–17; available online from the Christian Classics Ethereal Library) I notice a familiar feature of Justin's reading of the Sermon on the Mount/Plain. This section of Justin's Apology cites extensively from Jesus' Sermon, and I think it does so largely from its lengthier version in Matthew. At one point, however, Justin clearly quotes (or cites from memory) a non-Matthean version of one of Jesus' sayings. Compare the following:

Justin, 1 Apol. 16:
Matt. 19.16–17:
And when a certain man came to Him and said, "Good Master," He answered and said, "There is none good but God only, who made all things."Just then one man approached him and said, "Teacher, what good thing shall I do so that I might have eternal life?" He answered him, "Why do you ask me about what is good? [Only] one is good."

Notice that the man asks the Matthean Jesus about some "good thing" [τί ἀγαθὸν ποιήσω], whereas according to Justin the man calls Jesus "Good Master." Significantly, in both Mark's and Luke's version of this pericope, the man addresses Jesus as "Good teacher" [διδάσκαλε ἀγαθέ (Mark 10.17; Luke 18.18)] and asks simply, "what shall I do." What's significant here is that Justin, in an extended passage where he seems to be interacting with the Matthean version of Jesus' Sermon, he inserts the Markan and/or Lukan version of a saying found outside the Sermon.1

But that isn't what caught my immediate attention. Rather, notice how Justin—like Christian interpreters ever since—struggles with the balance between ethical rigor and vigorous grace exhibited in the Sermon. Notice that, for Justin, those who commit the sins Jesus discusses in the Sermon become objects of divine judgment: "For not only he who in act commits adultery is rejected by Him, but also he who desires to commit adultery: since not only our works, but also our thoughts, are open before God" (1 Apol. 15). This conflicts rather plainly not only with the picture of Jesus' acceptance of the adulterous woman in the spurious Pericope Adulterae (John 7.53–8.11) but also with the authentically Johannine story of Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4.

But Justin hasn't replaced the merciful, gracious, forgiving Jesus of the gospels with a more rigorous, demanding Jesus (still less a legalistic Jesus!). For in the same paragraph Justin provides a compelling description of the powerful effect of God's grace at work through Christ:
For what shall I say, too, of the countless multitude of those who have reformed intemperate habits, and learned these things? For Christ called not the just nor the chaste to repentance, but the ungodly, and the licentious, and the unjust; His words being, "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." For the heavenly Father desires rather the repentance than the punishment of the sinner. (1 Apol. 15)

Immediately afterward Justin cites Matt. 5.46 in support of this portrayal of a gracious and forgiving God. So in very short space we have a picture of God as (i) rejecting not just those who commit sin but also who desire to commit sin, and simultaneously (ii) as calling sinners and accepting their repentance. This tension isn't peculiar to Justin; actually, I think it reproduces fairly accurately a tension found even in the evangelists' accounts of Jesus' Sermon. This shouldn't surprise us; this section of the Apology [viz., 15–17] really isn't much more than an interpretive expansion of excerpts from the Sermon. Actually, this tension between holiness and graciousness lies at the heart of Christian theology itself. And so, nearly nineteen hundred years after Justin Martyr, we still wrestle with the ways the Sermon on the Mount offers comfort to the meek and the mourning without easing the expectation that God's people would be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (see Matt. 5.48).

1 Philip Schaff seems not to have noticed this slippage from Matthew to one of the other synoptic gospels; in his footnote here he cites "Matt. xix. 6 [sic], 17." "Why do you call me good?", of course, is precisely what Jesus does not say in Matt. 16.17, because in Matthew the man hasn't called Jesus good!

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Ehrman on 1 John 4.3

In the third chapter of his book, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), Ehrman turns to "Anti-Separationist Corruptions of Scripture" (119–80). The structure of this chapter follows that of the previous chapter, beginning with a brief description of the proto-orthodox perception of the heterodoxy in question and then text-critical analyses of (potentially) relevant variant readings. As I mentioned in two previous posts, Ehrman needs to do a little more work to demonstrate that certain variants did participate in the christological polemics against which he interprets them, whether (i) to show that these variants were read the way Ehrman reads them, or (ii) that the scribe made the change in order for them to be read the way Ehrman reads them.1

So I really enjoyed the opening text-critical discussion in this chapter. Ehrman considers at length a variant at 1 John 4.3 that has recently (in the last hundred years or so) found favor among scholars from a wide range of idealogical and/or theological perspectives (125–35). In the majority of witnesses—including every extant Greek mss—the opening of 1 John 4.3 reads, "And every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God" [καὶ πᾶν πνεῦμα ὃ μὴ ὁμολογεῖ τὸν Ἰησοῦν ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ οὐκ ἔστιν]. However, a number of Latin witnesses—with roots as far back as the late-second century—read, "every spirit that looses Jesus" [πᾶν πνεῦμα ὃ λύει τὸν Ἰησοῦν]. Ehrman's discussion of the relevant documentary, linguistic, and theological issues (125–27; 127–30; 130–34) is excellent. Though I have a few minor quibbles here and there, Ehrman provides compelling explanations for all the relevant data.

Perhaps most significantly, the data Ehrman analyzes in the case of this variant provides exactly the kind of evidence I would like to have seen more of in the previous chapter. First, the Greek and Latin Fathers who quote 1 John 4.3 in terms of "loosing/separating" Jesus do so in polemical contexts. So even if we cannot identify the original change from "acknowledges" to "looses"—and so we cannot get at the motivations behind that change—here we clearly have a variant that did, in fact, participate in proto-orthodox debates with heterodox christological positions.

Second, Ehrman notes that a number of Fathers know and cite both readings of 1 John 4.3, including Origen, Tertullian, and Priscillian (128). The Fathers' apparent approval—simultaneously!—of both readings seems to minimize the difference between the two readings. That is, at least in some contexts, "not acknowledging" Jesus [μὴ ὁμολογεῖ] meant "loosing" Jesus [λύει]. I was very pleased to see Ehrman coming to pretty much the same conclusion:
In all likelihood [this variant] did not originate as a simple scribal error. In fact, it may well have not originated as a textual variant at all, but as a recapitulation of the text's "meaning" in the context of proto-orthodox christological polemics, that is as an interpretive paraphrase that was later incorporated as an orthodox corruption. "Not to confess Jesus" during the Gnostic controversies meant (for the proto-orthodox) to adopt a Gnostic Christology, a Christology that separated Jesus from the Christ. Anyone who accepted such a view was "not from God." (134; my emphasis)

This gets at the distinction I made in my previous post between "what the text says about Jesus," on the one hand, and "the words used to say what the text says about Jesus," on the other. Here we have a compelling glimpse of the important differences between our cultural perceptions of text as fixed sequences of words and ancient perceptions of text that allowed for significantly more fluidity. (See my discussion of the reproduction of Isa. 61.1–2, which interpolates a line from Isa. 58.6, at Luke 4.18–19 in chapter six of Structuring Early Christian Memory: Jesus in Tradition, Performance, and Text.) Ehrman's analysis brings these important differences into clearer focus.

1 Of course, as I mentioned earlier, Ehrman balks at this second point precisely because of the difficulties in establishing a scribe's intentions (see pp. 28; 44, n. 110; 103, n. 55). This caveat seems to make Ehrman's work more rigorous, but in the end it allows him to include any variant he can interpret in terms of christological polemics as instances of "orthodox corruption of scripture" without having to demonstrate actual historical connections between those polemics and the variants at hand. I'm not unsympathetic to Ehrman's problem here. Since scribes never flag a reading in the NT mss they're copying and identify the reason for that reading, the evidence I would want to see likely never existed at all. Even so, given how tenuous the connection between some variants Ehrman discusses as "anti-adoptionistic" corruptions, some closer argumentation seems required.

more on "anti-adoptionistic" corruptions of scripture

As I mentioned in my previous post,  one of the problems confronting Ehrman's argument regarding specifically anti-adoptionistic changes in NT manuscripts is (and this is a little embarrassing!) identifying specifically anti-adoptionistic changes in NT manuscripts. Ehrman discusses a number of candidates under a handful of classifications, including changes that (i) resist acknowledging Joseph as Jesus' father, (ii) avoid calling Jesus "chosen," (iii) explicitly affirm Jesus as Son of God before his baptism, and (iv) blur the distinction between God and Jesus (while resisting a complete identification between Jesus and the Father). But the problem is that Ehrman never establishes the connection between some of the variants he adduces and polemics over adoptionist christologies.

Certainly Ehrman proposes that anti-adoptionist tendencies "may have effected" (95; my emphasis) this or that variant, or a change was introduced into a manuscript "presumably to mitigate its potentially adoptionistic overtones" (71; my emphasis). But his emphasis on the potential of scribal variants to function within the christological debates of the second- through fifth-centuries CE provides Ehrman with a too-easy out. What Ehrman's thesis needs is some criteria for determine whether or not this or that variant actually was motivated by theological considerations, and especially the specific theological considerations being discussed. In some (many?) instances the connections between theological debate and manuscript tradition are fairly plausible; in others they're a bit of a stretch. For example, in my view, the change in Vaticanus at Acts 10.37—in which μετὰ τὸ βάπτισμα ὃ ἐκήρυξεν Ἰωάννης ("after the baptism that John proclaimed") becomes μετὰ τὸ κήρυγμα ὃ ἐκήρυξεν Ἰωάννης ("after the proclamation that John proclaimed")—has nothing to do with anti-adoptionist polemics.1 I'm not arguing that the text of NT documents was more stable than Ehrman suggests (though I have some quibbles in this regard, which I'll mention presently); but his explanatory model for the variation that does exist among the manuscripts breaks down, in some places quite dramatically.

But that brings us back to the question of the stability of NT traditions. I remember reading the latest edition of Metzger's classic The Text of the New Testament a couple years ago and being struck by how easily the discussion slipped between discussing changes in a particular manuscript (or manuscript tradition) and characterizing the tradition itself as fluid.2 In other words, just because this or that scribe changed the text he was transcribing does not mean that the tradition, embodied in multiple manuscripts across the ancient world, had been corrupted. Sometimes a corruption will become regionally dominant; Ehrman even argues that, "[i]n several passages (e.g., Mark 1:1 and Luke 3:22) [orthodox] corruptions virtually displaced the original text" (1993: 97). But in the main changes in one manuscript did not effect changes to the tradition itself, and very often corruptions were undone when a manuscript was corrected.3 But clearly we know, despite "the orthodox corruption of scripture," that Luke 2.33 explicitly refers to Joseph as "his [viz., Jesus'] father" [ὁ πατὴρ αὐτοῦ], despite "the majority of Greek manuscripts . . . along with a number of Old Latin, Syriac, and Coptic witnesses" (55) that replace "his father" with "Joseph" [Ἰωσὴφ].

Again, I'm not suggesting that the text of NT documents was more stable than Ehrman is arguing; clearly the wording varied from manuscript to manuscript for various and sundry reasons. But I would make two suggestions: First, perhaps we ought to seek the tradition's "stability" somewhere other than in its wording. What the text said about Jesus was more important than the words used to say it. This is a difficult distinction, especially in a cultural situation such as ours where print and electronic technology makes exact verbal reproduction a commonplace. But this distinction, I think, matters, and it matters a lot. Second, I think we need to get some sense of scope as we examine the manuscript data. If Ehrman is right that the original opening to Mark's gospel, for example, did not contain the words υἱοῦ θεοῦ ["s/Son of God"], then the dominance of that reading among the extant manuscripts may justify Ehrman's ambitious title, the orthodox corruption of scripture. But for most of the variants Ehrman analyzes we are dealing with something significantly more mundane: the orthodox corruption of this-or-that [group of] scriptural manuscript[s]. Sure, it's less sexy as a title, but it does help us understand better what we're actually dealing with here.

1 To be sure, Ehrman's discussion of Acts 10.37 in Vaticanus is part of a larger argument and is not focused on 10.37 alone. He's actually more interested in v. 38 and a variant found in Bezae as well as Old Latin, Syriac, and Middle Egyptian manuscripts (see pp. 68–69). But Ehrman finds confirmation of his interpretation of this variant by turning to the reading of v. 37 in Vaticanus.

2 Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (fourth edition; London and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005 [1964]). I have not read earlier editions of this book; I admit baldly that I am assuming certain features stem more from Ehrman's thorough revision of Metzger's text. If I were publishing these opinions in a more formal setting (rather than on my own blog), I would need to document whether the "slippage" under consideration appears only in the fourth edition or was also present in earlier editions. Of course, I see this "slippage" at work also in Ehrman 1993.

3 Corruptions were also introduced into manuscripts by later correctors, and even corrections were subject to later emendation (see, e.g., the text of Heb. 1.3 in Vaticanus). But that doesn't undermine the point I'm making. Changes introduced into one manuscript were not necessarily ultimate corruptions of that manuscript, let alone of the NT tradition it attests!

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

on proper types of documentation

As part of the orientation program to our in-coming MA New Testament students, I give a presentation entitled, "The Nature and Expectations of Graduate Education." In one section of that presentation I explain the difference between primary and secondary literature and the importance of becoming expert in both as part of pursuing graduate-level research. Part of the perennial problem I encounter when I grade my students' papers concerns knowing just what kind of documentation is necessary for what kind of claims. As luck would have it, I've just encountered a similar problem in an otherwise excellent published article, and I'd like to take this opportunity to clarify how we ought to engage in historical discussions of the ancient world.

In his article, "The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21–7:12)," Glen Stassen makes a fairly standard claim about alms-giving, prayer, and fasting in late-Second Temple era Judaism.1 He writes,
Almsgiving, prayer, and fasting went together as the three traditional Jewish practices of righteousness in the first century. "The three disciplines were almost certainly traditionally associated with one another. . . ." Clearly these are "traditional righteousness, as expected. (284; citing Davies and Allison, Matthew, 1:575; Weder, "Rede der Reden," 158; Davies, Setting, 305–15)

To be clear: I don't have any issue with Stassen's claim; he, like the scholars he cites, are almost certainly right. But notice what Stassen has done (rather that what he has claimed). Stassen has made a claim about how Jews in the ancient world perceived the practices of alms-giving, prayer, and fasting, and then he has cited modern historians in support of that claim. This, I suggest, is the problem.

How could Stassen have been more precise and helpful in his use of documentation? I think either of two options would have been preferable. First, Stassen could have made the claim that his documentation supported. That is, he could have said something along the lines of, "Scholars typically understand Jesus' teaching on these three practices together, which suggests that they see them as largely overlapping expressions of piety." If Stassen had cited Davies and Allison, Weder, and Davies in support of this claim, his citation would have provided examples of the very thing he was discussing.

Alternatively, Stassen could have provided documentation for the ancient phenomenon in question (viz., the association of alms-giving, prayer, and fasting together). That is, if these three practices did go hand-in-hand in Second Temple Judaic piety, then presumably we have texts that exhibit the connection between them. Certainly Matt. 6.1–18 might be one of these texts. But I would want to see other texts, whether from pseudepigraphical and/or apocryphal texts, the DSS, Josephus, Philo, etc., that make this connection and make it more explicitly than Matt. 6.1–18. These texts—and not claims made by Davies and Allison, Weder, and Davies—support the claim Stassen is making. Now, I assume that the secondary literature Stassen does cite provide references to the primary sources, but that actually exacerbates the problem rather than eases it. If other scholars have already gathered the primary evidence, then it should have been very easy for Stassen to provide references to that evidence.

Instead—and this is the point I want to make—the pattern of (a) making a claim about the ancient world and (b) supporting that claim with a reference or references to secondary sources enables us to root our historical claims in scholarly consensus rather than concrete historical data. Even when we're making fairly straightforward claims that probably are rather indicative of the ancient world (as is Stassen in this example), we need to get in the habit of more rigorously distinguishing the historical world(s) we have reconstructed in the critical mass of historical scholarship, on the one hand, from the actually historical data upon which that scholarship depends (and beyond which it extends).

1 Glen H. Stassen, "The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21–7:12)," JBL 122/2 (2003): 267–308.

Hans Dieter Betz and the Sermon on the Mount

Hans Dieter Betz is probably the most significant student of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7); certainly he is the most significant scholar of the Sermon alive today. Almost twenty years ago Klyne Snodgrass noted twelve publications and/or presentations Betz issued in preparation for a commentary on the Sermon.1 That commentary, published in 1995, is 736 pages long—longer than many commentaries on the whole of Matthew's gospel!2 When Betz speaks about the Sermon, he speaks with authority.

So as I ask the question (see below, in boldface; I would greatly appreciate some feedback here), I realize I'm a gnat pestering a giant of Matthean scholarship. But here goes anyway: In an autobiographical moment, Betz reveals how he became so interested in the Sermon on the Mount:
When I was working on the commentary on Galatians I noticed the unusual number of parallel references, mostly of antithetical parallels, that kept coming up between Galatians and the Sermon on the Mount.3

Does anyone else find it ironic that Betz was steered into the Sermon on the Mount via Paul's letter to the Galatians, especially in light of his strong differentiation between the Christianity behind the Sermon and Pauline Christianity? To be sure, Betz refers to finding "antithetical parallels" between Galatians and the Sermon. But I can't shake the suspicion that Betz employs an unhelpful conceptualization, made influential by F. C. Baur and the Tübingen school, that opposes a "Pauline" Christianity with a "Jewish" Christianity. Certainly "Jewish" Christians could (and did) have problems with Paulinism. But the story of Pauline scholarship in the last quarter of the twentieth century is largely the story of scholars rediscovering that the opposite of the adjective Jewish is not Pauline.4 Betz is not unaware of this rediscovery, but I'm not sure how his reconstruction of Christian origins on the basis of Galatians and the Sermon can stand in light of it.

1 Klyne Snodgrass, "A Response to Hans Dieter Betz on the Sermon on the Mount," BR (1991), 88.
2 Hans Dieter Betz, The Sermon on the Mount: A Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995).
3 Hans Dieter Betz, "The Sermon on the Mount: In Defense of a Hypothesis," BR (1991), 74. Betz refers to his commentary, Galatians: A Commentary of Paul's Letter to the Galatians (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979).
4 This is often referred to as "the Sanders Revolution" (in honor of E. P. Sanders) or, more popularly, "the New Perspective on Paul."

Sunday, August 01, 2010

yet one more great turn of phrase

This is starting to look like a series. Anyway, I came across this wonderful, graphic turn of phrase in Ellen Charry's essay, "The Grace of God and the Law of Christ" (Interpretation [2003]: 34–44):
Paul's grand exposition of the Christian life is 1 Corinthians. Paul declares that God is not interested in notching foreskins on his belt, but that we keep God's commandments (7:19). (37–38; my emphasis)

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