Monday, January 31, 2011

a great phrase

"[K]now thyself must also mean know thy history. . . . [T]he kind of history which we are apt to understand best may be our own."

John Lukacs, Historical Consciousness: The Remembered Past (New Brunswick: Transaction), 1994: 31

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

more from Pieter Botha

I haven't read Pieter Botha before. I've done quite a bit of reading in oral traditional research and the gospels (including the gospel of Mark), so I've run into Botha's work on numerous occasions. But I've never read him before. So his essay, "'Publishing' a Gospel: Notes on Historical Constraints to Gospel Criticism" (see this post), has come as a very nice surprise. Here's yet another quote worth working through:
Incidentally, these practices remind us forcibly of the fluidity of all manuscript traditions in antiquity. What we would call an edition simply did not exist in antiquity; ἔκδοσις (usually translated with "publish") merely indicated the stage at which the author let a version out of his own hands. Copying was basically ad hoc, determined by innumerable factors and completely outside any formal control. It is impossible to speak of fixed traditions. . . . When we think about books in Greco-Roman antiquity, we should accept that single, final autographs probably never existed. In reality many participated and contributed to textual traditions endlessly in flux. (347; original emphases)

The phrase, "endlessly in flux," seems a bit exaggerated to me. But the point that writing a text did not fix the tradition is well taken. Too often, NT scholars talk about writing as the point at which a variable oral tradition becomes fixed; oral traditional scholars (both inside and outside biblical scholarship) have known for quite some time that written texts are only as stable as the cultural practices that facilitate their use.

Bart Ehrman in Knoxville

The University of Tennessee has created a new lectureship, the David L. Dungan Memorial Lecture. The inaugural lecture, "Does The New Testament Contain Forgeries? The Surprising Claims of Modern Scholars," will be presented by Bart D. Ehrman at the University Center auditorium at 5.00 pm on Thursday, 27 January 2011. The UT press release is available here.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

texts in context

A common refrain among scholars and people who want to appear scholarly is, "Context is king" (or some something similar). So when we read, for instance, the story of Mary and Martha entertaining Jesus in Luke 10, it should matter to us that Luke has included this story immediately after his account of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. That is, the Good Samaritan is a vital part of the context of the story of Mary and Martha.

Many examples of how "Context is king," including the one just given, concern the history of ideas. If you want to understand, for example, the various conceptions of "the messiah" in the New Testament documents, then you need to know something of how the idea, messiah, functioned in the world in which the NT was written. So the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, pseudepigraphical texts (esp. 1 Enoch and 4 Baruch), and other texts come into play.

But context isn't simply about ideas. The historical figures who interest us—Paul, Peter, Herod, and even (or especially) Jesus—lived in real time and real space, handled real objects, engaged in real social interactions with other real people, and so on. And the realness, or the materiality, of the world these people lived in can have important consequences for our own efforts to understand ancient texts and reconstruction historical scenarios.

So I especially enjoyed the following paragraph, from Pieter J. J. Botha's essay, "'Publishing' a Gospel: Notes on Historical Constraints to Gospel Criticism" (pp. 335–52 in The Interface of Orality and Writing: Speaking, Seeing, Writing in the Shaping of New Genres [A. Weissenrieder and R. Coote, eds.; WUNT 260; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010]):
Readers, audiences and authors are products of particular historical conditions. By studying the formats of books and their typographical disposition(s) we can learn how they were created, how they were read, and undersatnd something about their possible meanings. In writing and reading materials, technology and human activity interact, and these various specifics must be taken into account when written artifacts are to be understood. Historical investigation requires that textual criticism, the historical study of books and cultural history be interrelated to describe "the variations that differentiate the 'readable space' (the texts in their material and discursive forms) and those which govern the circumstances of the 'actualization' (the readings seen as concrete practices and interpretive procedures)." (336, citing R. Chartier, "Laborers and Voyagers: From the Text to the Reader," Diacritics 22 [1992]: 50)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

a cool thing, I guess

I'm still reading The Interface of Orality and Writing: Speaking, Seeing, Writing in the Shaping of New Genres (A. Weissenrieder and R. Coote, eds.; WUNT 260; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010). At the moment I'm working through Annette Weissenrieder's essay, "The Didactic of Images: The Fig Tree in Mark 11:12–14 and 20–21" (260–82). Weissenrieder locates the story of Jesus cursing of the fig tree in Mark 11 in Rome rather than in Palestine—not that Mark places Jesus in Rome but that the fig tree generates meaning within the context of Rome's foundation story (which Weissenrieder documents) rather than with Hebrew biblical themes of Israel, judgment, and fig trees.

At any rate, she writes the following:
What does the motif of the fig tree associated with the suckling twins Romulus and Remus and with the goddess Roma on the coins and on the Ara Pacis, have to do with the withered fig tree in Mark 11? The connection would be provided if Jesus' saying about the fig tree, which produces no fruit and for that reason withers, alluded to Rome's foundation saga, in particular and Augustus's new version of the saga and its intensification by Claudius and Nero. Jesus' word on the cursing of the fig tree thus would point to a historical event. (274)

At the end of this paragraph Weissenrieder places a footnote and references a number of books, including Jesus, the Voice, and the Text (T. Thatcher, ed. [see here]), Memory, Tradition, and Text (A. Kirk and T. Thatcher, eds.), and Performing the Gospel (R. Horsley et al., eds.). But I was surprised to find my own book, Structuring Early Christian Memory: Jesus in Tradition, Performance, and Text included in the footnote. Now, to be honest, I'm not sure how my book supports her point—that "Jesus' word on the cursing of the fig tree thus would point to a historical event"—but I'm glad to find my work cited here.

Annette: If somehow you ever happen to find this post, perhaps you could provide a brief explanation?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

gospels as messengers

I'm reading an essay by Kristina Dronsch and Annette Weissenrieder, entitled, "A Theory for the Message for New Testament Writings or Communicating the Words of Jesus: From Angelos to Euangelion" (The Interface of Orality and Writing: Speaking, Seeing, Writing in the Shaping of New Genres [A. Weissenrieder and R. Coote, eds.; WUNT 260; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010], 205–35). The argument is highly technical and dense, and the authors' specific proposal is not very clearly communicated. But they do engage the media dynamics of early Christian traditioning processes in a sophisticated and nuanced way.

Their argument, in a nutshell, is that the written texts comprising the New Testament—and specifically the gospels of Mark, Luke, and John—bridge the distance between the absent Jesus and the present audiences of the texts. The evangelists, or actually the gospel texts themselves, serve as messengers (Boten) mediating the message and making present the message's sender to the message's recipients. You can find one particularly useful statement of their thesis on p. 222: "[M]essengers are not only a link in an information chain, they also have to be understood as a medium of communication. Messengers do not just bear messages; they are also media of transmission."

All that simply to introduce the following quotation, found in the authors' introductory comments to their discussion of Luke's gospel as postal communication:
The messenger plays an important role behind the transference of information. That is, the reliability of the messenger has a prominent role in successful communication. . . . The qualities demanded here like dependability and credibility were transferred to the messenger to fulfill the purposes of the absent transmitter; nevertheless, this is to be understood not in a sense of fidelity to the letter of the message, but the fidelity to the sense intended by the sender. It is not about preserving, but about passing on directly. Therefore, the protection of the message aims as Horst Wenzel has explained, not at the authentic preservation of the message, but at the dependability of the messenger. (228, citing H. Wenzel, Hören und Sehen. Shrift und Bild. Kultur und Gedächtnis im Mittelalter [Munich: Beck, 1995], 262; my emphases)

Friday, January 14, 2011

source criticism and text production in antiquity

I'm still working through David Rhoads's essay, "Performance Events in Early Christianity," and Rhoads has just made an excellent point. He says, "The early Chrisitian communities had no un-embodied experience of the stories [in the gospels] and the [New Testament] letters" (178). In light of the massive amount of research in the last twenty-plus years on reading in antiquity, I think this point is fairly safe, even perhaps axiomatic. That is, in the early church no one (or nearly no one, so nearly that the difference is negligible) engaged a NT text alone, in a "quiet time" sort of atmosphere without others around. Reading, it seems, was a communal activity.

If so, then I have a simple question, and I hope someone out there can honestly engage it. Has anyone ever attempted to explain, on the strength of any particular source-critical theory, an evangelist's act of writing in culturally informed ways? In other words, if (say) Luke sat down with Mark and Matthew before him (à la the Farrer hypothesis), what cultural scripts informed his act of composing the gospel as he read from his two (and others?) sources? Was Luke, on this model, engaging a disembodied tradition? And if not, then how did the mechanics of his text-production actually work?

is this nonsense?

I'm still reading The Interface of Orality and Writing: Speaking, Seeing, Writing in the Shaping of New Genres (A. Weissenrieder and R. Coote, eds.; WUNT 260; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010). Now I'm working through David Rhoads's essay, "Performance Events in Early Christianity: New Testament Writings in an Oral Context" (166–93). Rhoads frames the NT texts as "performance literature," written texts that are incomplete in themselves.
Simply put, the writings we have in the New Testament are examples of "performance literature," that is, literature that was meant for performance—like music or theater or ancient poetry. It is difficult to imagine musicologists studying scores of music without ever hearing a performance. Nor can we imagine theater scholars studying scripts of ancient drama without having seen performances of the plays or without trying to determine how they may have been performed and experienced in ancient times. Yet we biblical scholars have studied the literature of the New Testament for centuries without ever hearing them performed as stories or speeches or epistolary orations, without trying to determine how they may have been performed in the early church, and without constructing ancient performance scenarios as a basis for interpretation. (169)

I agree completely. Rhoads has put his money where his mouth is. He regularly performs large sections of the New Testament (e.g., the Gospel of Mark, or Revelation) from memory; so deep is his conviction that people need to hear the text at least as much as they should read the text. And so I have a real appreciation for Rhoads's work.

But. When Rhoads turns to the question of memory, he makes the following statement: "The first century was a memory culture more than it was a manuscript culture." My question: Is this gibberish? What does Rhoads mean by "the first century," and how is that any kind of culture, memory or otherwise? Are "memory culture" and "manuscript culture" "things," separatable, isolatable, able to be set in contrast with each other like lemons and protractors?

I appreciate the question Rhoads is trying to raise, and I even agree that we need to raise it. That is, How did "memory" (whatever that is) and "manuscripts" function in antiquity in specific cultural locations? That is a very important question (or better, a very important set of questions). But notice that Rhoads's language is way too blunt to get at the question, let alone to propose helpful starts at useful answers. Rhoads's identification of "the first century" as any kind of "culture," as if it were a culture at all, swings a sledgehammer at a question that requires considerable finesse.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

on imagining new worlds

I'm currently reading Richard Horsley's essay, "The Gospel of Mark in the Interface of Orality and Writing," in The Interface of Orality and Writing: Speaking, Seeing, Writing in the Shaping of New Genres (A. Weissenrieder and R. Coote, eds.; WUNT 260; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010). If you're familiar with Horsley's other works then you'll already know what to expect from this essay: a critique of certain culturally inappropriate models sustaining biblical scholarship and a striking reliance on certain key binary oppositions (Judean vs. Galilean, élite vs. ordinary people, etc.).

Despite the need to improve on and further Horsley's work, he nevertheless does provide a helpful opportunity to think more largely about biblical studies and the concrete social functioning of the texts we analyze. This has always been one of the key strengths of Horsley's scholarship. So I thought I'd reproduce this helpful quote on the need for us to get past ourselves and appreciate Mark's gospel as, perhaps, a single performance of the Jesus tradition rather than a collection of previously independent short stories (novella, according to Dibelius).
What remains difficult even for those who recognize Mark as a sustained story, I think, and perhaps also for those of us who also recognize the interface of orality and writing, is to imagine the formation, the composition, of the whole (Gospel) story. Perhaps because we are so habituated to composition in/as writing we have particular difficulty imagining how a text of the length and complexity of Mark could have been composed other than in writing—even though many epics that are orally performed (and composed) are much longer and more complex in plotting than Mark and the other Gospels. (157)

Of course, worlds of difference separate Mark and the other gospels from the epics I think Horsley has in mind (Homer, Moslem Yugoslavian epics, etc.). But that's not the point Horsley's making. He's reminding us that Mark's story—impressive and complicated as it is—isn't really so impressive and complicated that it had to be composed by an author in possession of himself, deliberate and laboriously working at a table or desk, free of the distractions of the wide world around him.

Instead, Mark certainly could have been (I think probably would have been) the kind of story Jesus' followers told as they gathered together to learn, to worship, to fellowship, and to pray. Certainly at some point someone (let's call him Mark) wrote the story down—though strangely Horsley would disagree. But that doesn't mean that Mark's written gospel was the first time the story ("the whole [Gospel] story") was apprehended in a single social engagement by women and men devoted to Jesus. In fact, given that the first mention of Mark's gospel doesn't occur until early in the second century CE (Papias), I suspect no one thought what Mark had done to Jesus' story was particularly groundbreaking or innovative (pace Kelber). Mark's gospel provided another in a very large number of possible performances of the Jesus story, and before long Matthew and Luke (and even John) would show that Mark's story, indeed, wasn't even that long!

Friday, January 07, 2011

Taylor-made Bultmann

One of my perennial interests concerns the way we have distinguished Judaism from Christianity and the various ways this distinction has affected our historical, exegetical, and theological work. A lot of work in the post-World War II era has gone to expose and/or correct the anti-Judaic tenor of a lot of Christian scholarship, but even here the fundamental disjunction between Judaism and Christianity as separate things is frequently detectable.

Rudolf Bultmann, famously, attributed the creation and transmission of many of the miracle-stories in the gospels to "Hellenistic circles," by which I understand him to mean Greek (= gentile) Christian communities. The transposition of the Jesus tradition from Palestinian (= Jewish?) to Hellenistic circles is, for Bultmann, a major source of the distortion evident between Jesus and the gospels. Here, then, is an excerpt from British NT scholar Vincent Taylor explaining how Bultmann would have considered a parable to have escaped relatively unscathed the distorting effects of Hellenization:
For the parables he [viz., Bultmann] lays down the principle that the best criterion of genuineness is the presence of an opposition to Jewish morality and piety or of the eschatological attitude which characterized the preaching of Jesus, always providing that no specifically Christian details are present (G.S.T. 222). (The Formation of the Gospel Tradition [London: Macmillan and Co., 1933], 28)

the gospels and "gospel tradition"

In my gospel narratives class I regularly refer to "tradition"—whether "gospel tradition" or "Jesus tradition"—though I don't necessarily explain what I mean. This is a problem, I think, because tradition is one of those words, like myth or criticism, whose connotations overshadow their denotations. Tradition connotes negatively; after all, didn't Jesus condemn the Pharisees for their privileging tradition vis-à-vis the word of God? Aren't tradition-al things bad, like hymnals, bee-hives, and racism?

Of course, this isn't the technical sense of tradition, and the term itself is ubiquitous in biblical scholarship. In fact, tradition as an analytical concept is in need of some precision; in the current environment it's only too easy to write whole books on some aspect or other of tradition without ever really spelling out precisely what we mean by it.

Vincent Taylor, in his famous book, The Formation of the Gospel Tradition (London: MacMillan and Co., 1933), reflects on the term explicitly on the very first page. There's much to disagree with here, especially eighty years after the book was published. But it is helpful for thinking about how far thinking about tradition has come.
It is important that we should appreciate the distinction between the 'Gospel tradition' and the Gospels. Before the Gospels were written the 'tradition' was organic; it was a thing of life, and as such was always changing and growing. Just because of this it was subject to the accidents and experiences of life; it could be corrupted, but it was also capable, through growth and change, of becoming more truly itself, as the sapling grows into the tree and as the child becomes the man. In the Gospels the 'tradition' has attained a relatively fixed formation; it is no longer subject to change, except as it is altered by copyists or by the writers of the later Apocryphal Gospels. Whenever we return to our Gospels we find the tradition as we left it, and the only changes which can happen are those which take place within our own minds through fuller knowledge and understanding. Before these books were written the position must have been very different. At that time the tradition was more plastic; it was a story of life and a product of life; its formation was determined by its contents and by the mental and spiritual environment in which it lived; it grew, and developed, and had a history. (1–2)

Many people recognize that tradition (as distinct from texts, as Taylor is using the term) is hardly made static or fixed by virtue of being written down. Certainly Matthew and Luke, if they knew of and used Mark as a source for their own gospel texts (the standard position among NT scholars) did not think of the tradition in Mark's gospel as "fixed" or "static." And the early Christians who recognized these texts as the word of God did not, apparently, experience angst at the variation and fluidity of the tradition as evident across the three synoptic gospels, to say nothing of John's gospel (!). However counterintuitive it may seem to us that tradition remains "organic," vibrant and adaptable, even in written form, this seems to be the clear perception of the texts among the early Christians. It may seem weird to us, but I suspect that, if they could analyze us, our own preoccupations with the verbal fixation of written/printed texts would seem equally alien.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

is Bultmann's idea of Mark schizophrenic?

In my last post I presented, in his own words, Martin Dibelius's conception of those responsible for the Jesus tradition as the anonymous, unskilled community that passed on the tradition until the evangelists (especially Mark and Matthew, but also Luke) got their hands on it.

In his own landmark form-critical study, Rudolf Bultmann exhibits a different conception of the evangelists (or at least of Mark). Bultmann begins Die Geschichte der Synoptischen Tradition (1921) with a recapitulation of the previous generation's estimation of Mark as "the actual course of historical events" in the life of the historical Jesus, and he then revisits William Wrede's devastating critique of that view. In his revisitation Bultmann writes,
Mark is the work of an author who is steeped in the theology of the early Church, and who ordered and arranged the traditional material that he received in the light of the faith of the early Church—that was the result; and the task which follows for historical research is this: to separate the various strata in Mark and to determine which belonged to the original historical tradition and which derived from the work of the author. (History of the Synoptic Tradition [trans. by John Marsh; Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963], 1)

Dibelius, if I read him rightly, considers Mark and Matthew, especially, to be collectors of tradition, hardly authors at all and certainly not in any meaningful sense of the word. So he can dissolve the gospel narratives into their individual pericopae, because the evangelists strung them together, leaving the traditional units they collected more-or-less intact. Bultmann, following Wrede, sees Mark as a much more revolutionary presentation of Jesus. Mark—in this way of reading him—casts Jesus as Israel's messiah, but he well knows that no one during Jesus' lifetime thought of him in messianic terms. So he weaves a narrative in which the messianic secret develops organically from the very beginning, in which Jesus himself at first silences and then gradually affirms his messianic status.

So Bultmann's Mark—again, if I'm reading rightly—is a strange hybrid between two competing conceptions. Bultmann affirms Wrede's innovative Mark, who tells the story of man who never was and so is responsible for both the story and the man. But Bultmann also affirms Dibelius's traditional Mark, who collects the traditions told by others and so is responsible only for anthologizing stories already in circulation. Hence Bultmann's program: "to separate the various strata [viz., the innovative (Wredian) and traditional (Dibelian) strata] in Mark and to determine which belonged to the original historical tradition and which derived from the work of the author."

Those of you more familiar with the history of form-critical scholarship: Is this a helpful way to understand what I'm reading?

the anonymity of gospel tradition

The opening words of the English translation of Martin Dibelius's landmark work, Die Formgeschichte des Evangeliums (1919):
There is a theory that the history of literature is the history of its various forms. This may be true of literature properly so-called, but it cannot be applied indiscriminately to every kind of writing. It has, however, special significance when applied to materials where the author's personality is of little importance. Many anonymous persons take part in handing down popular tradition. They act, however, not merely as vehicles, but also as creative forces by introducing changes or additions without any single person having a "literary" intent. In such cases the personal peculiarities of the composer or narrator have little significance; much greater importance attaches to the form in which the tradition is cast by practical necessities, by usage, or by origin. The development goes on steadily and independently, subject all the time to certain definite rules, for no creative mind has worked upon the material and impressed it with his own personality. (From Tradition to Gospel [trans. by Bertram L. Woolf; New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1935], 1)

It would be difficult to explain how strongly and how thoroughly I disagree with just about every word with which Dibelius characterizes the early Christian tradition. That this is our received heritage should give all of us currently involved in exploring and reconstructing Christian origins pause to consider just how far astray our forebears drifted. We should also expect that breaking free of this heritage can only happen with tremendous and focused and sustained effort.

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