Tuesday, August 02, 2011

back to school early

Classes at Johnson University don't begin until 24 August, which means I should have three more weeks of summer. Unfortunately, James McGrath is in need of some schooling, so I've been called back in to work early. Oh . . . the things we do for our students. (BTW: I'd like to point out that James admits, in the second paragraph after the block quote, "That is the heart of the matter methodologically, as I see it (and I could be wrong)" [my emphasis]. Indeed.) So let the tap dancing begin . . .

James has responded to my previous post (available here, and follow the links back) with a response that  critical scholarship no longer pursues certain knowledge but only probable and/or plausible knowledge. Of course, I agree. The general tenor of my own post, I think, was an admission of what I can't be certain of, but that obviously doesn't mean that I think we should give up being critical scholars. So when James says, "Many of us, however, are convinced that we have other options besides the classic critical quest for certainty on the one hand, and an uncritical acceptance of what all our sources say on the other. We can be postmodern without being post-critical," I wholeheartedly agree. But that doesn't mean the redaction critics have the better, more plausible reading of the synoptic Gospels. Let me illustrate.

James produces an impressive list of Matthean additions to his (= Matthew's) sources, all of which should demonstrate the general Matthean tendency to add to his sources. Indeed, those instances we might call "counterexamples" to the general impression of Matthean expansion are actually evidence of Matthew's redactional tendency and how exhausting it was for Matthew to consistently edit (redact) his sources (hence, the phrase "kingdom of God" in Matt. 12.28 even though Matthew almost universally prefers the phrase "kingdom of heaven"). James writes:
I think that we can see a pattern emerging when we compare Matthew and Luke. Here are just a few well-known examples:

Beatitudes: Matthew adds “in Spirit” and “for righteousness”
Lord’s Prayer: Matthew adds “your will be done…” and “but deliver us from evil/the Evil One”
Parables: Matthew adds “You are the salt of the earth…”
Turn the other cheek: Matthew not only adds details about which cheek and being taken to court, which affect the way this material is understood, but also adds a third piece: “If someone compels you to go with him one mile…”

This seems like the same sort of thing we get in Matthew’s use of his principal source, the Gospel of Mark. Consider Peter’s confession, where Matthew adds the “Blessed are you, Simon…” material, or the apocalyptic discourse in Mark 13, where Matthew adds “in the holy place, as spoken of by the prophet Daniel.” Matthew tends to supplement his source material with explanatory comments and interpretative additions. Should we not expect that same tendency to be at work in his use of other sources – and indeed, allow that authorial tendency to guide us in our detecting of his use of other sources?

This is an impressive list, and it only scratches the surface! Who could argue that Matthew consistently and regularly adds to his sources?!

Except when he doesn't. It wouldn't be hard to come up with a similar list of instances where Matthew has actually pared down the material he received from his sources, whether Mark or Q (I'm accepting the Two-Source Hypothesis for the sake of argument; the terms would necessarily shift if we accepted a different solution to the Synoptic Problem, but I think the same general pattern would/could appear):

  • Matthew only cites Isa. 40.3 in his introduction of John the Baptist, whereas Luke cites Isa. 40.3–5. While we are [almost] certainly dealing here with a Lukan expansion, I simply note Matthew has the shorter text.
  • Matthew lacks a significant amount of ethical material in his discussion of John the Baptist. Luke's John gives instruction to the crowds, tax collectors, and soldiers (Luke 3.10–14). Again, [almost] certainly a Lukan expansion, but again Matthew has the shorter text.
  • These last two examples come from Q, which is difficult because we no longer have access to the source we think Matthew and Luke used. So what about where Matthew uses a source we do still have: the Gospel according to Mark? Take the story of the Gadarene demoniac (Matt. 8.28–34), which depends literarily on Mark 5.1–20. First note how much shorter is Matthew's account (seven verses) in comparison to Mark's (twenty verses). Then, notice the kinds of things Matthew omits: Gone is the statement that the man (there's only one in Mark) lived among the tombs. Gone are the depictions of the townspeople's attempts to bind the demoniac and his overwhelming strength to break the chains and the bonds. Gone also is the summary of the man's behavior "day and night," crying out and cutting himself. Gone also is the depiction of Jesus' struggle to exorcise the demonic Legion (though perhaps this is understandable). Finally, Gone is the interaction between the formerly demon-possessed man and Jesus, when the man asks to follow Jesus only to be sent home to spread the news of what God has done for him.
  • Matthew also omits the father's plea, "I do believe; help my unbelief" (see Mark 9.24).
  • And Matthew omits the phrase, "and for the gospel's sake" from Mark 10.29, and Matthew's description of the reward that awaits those who forsake kith and kin in 19.29 is considerably abbreviated from the parallel in Mark 10.30.
And so on. These last three examples are especially important because we can see beyond any doubt (again, on the basis of the Two-Source Hypothesis) that Matthew has a tendency to abbreviate his source material. So which is the redactional tendency (abbreviation or expansion?) and which is the "counterexample" and the "editorial fatigue"? Granted that we're not questing for historical or redactional certainties, can we really say that we still have any confidence at all that the "expansionist Matthew" we were given by the redaction critics is more authentic than the "abbreviating Matthew"? Indeed, given the last three examples I adduced above (and others like them), perhaps we should suspect that Q actually had the longer citation from Isaiah 40 and the expanded discussion of John the Baptist's teaching. After all, Matthew seems to repeatedly abbreviate his Markan source; he certainly could have abbreviated Q in like manner.

But let me say again that all of this is arguing backward, from the Gospels to Jesus (that is, that later Gospels have redacted earlier Gospels, which themselves have exercised some interpretive freedom with whatever sources to which they had access). But what happens when we reverse the direction and reason from Jesus to the Gospels (I discussed this in my first response to James; see the second bullet point)? When we stop asking whether the Gospels accurately preserve the words and/or message of Jesus and ask instead what that message must have looked like (without regard to content), we have no reason to think that any saying of Jesus except perhaps clichés and proverbs existed in only one form. And if the words of Jesus were already multiform before they were ever passed on by those who heard him, then we need to reckon with the possibility that (at least some of) the differences between Jesus' words across the synoptic Gospels were already part of the tradition itself and not the result of redaction.

When we combine this with the already compelling ambiguities noted above regarding what the redaction critics actually offer us (which is not only far from certain but even far from consistent!), I have to say, No, I'm almost certainly right about redaction criticism.

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