Tuesday, August 02, 2011

on second thought . . .

Over on Exploring our Matrix James McGrath has responded to my comments on Tom Holmén's treatment of the authenticity criteria in the Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus (see here for my original post). While some of his comments are a bit unclear, I get the impression that he thinks I'm wrong about redaction criticism. James is a good man, and I respect his opinion. So I've gone back and had a rethink on my comments. And on second thought . . . No, I really was onto something helpful. Lemme 'xplain.

A Google Image search for "James McGrath is wrong" came up with this. Why?!
James points to Dale Allison's recent work, Constructing Jesus (Baker Academic, 2010) and rightly notes the similarity between our arguments. I confess, I've been reading quite a bit of Allison this summer, including Constructing Jesus but also two of his previous books (Jesus of Nazareth [Fortress Press, 1998] and The Theological Jesus and the Historical Christ [Eerdmans, 2009]) and some articles in various places. And while I've learned a lot from Allison, the truth is he and I were already thinking in similar directions.

I'm not sure, however, why James moves directly from Allison's approach (which he [Allison] calls "recurrent attestation") to raise the issue of oral tradition [OT]. Certainly I've had a lot to say about OT in the past, but Allison doesn't spend very much time, if any, dealing with OT, and I didn't mention OT in my post even once. The problem with redaction, it seems to me, is more one of the function of tradition and how Jesus' followers apprehended the stories from and about Jesus rather than the medium (oral performance, written text, etc.) in which they accessed those stories.

James makes a good point—one many media critics conveniently overlook—that written texts could influence later authors, sometimes directly, in antiquity. Some discussions (Werner Kelber and Richard Horsley come to mind) wrongfully give the impression that written texts were rare in the ancient world, and that writing was as obscure as IT technical assistance. In actual fact, writing was (nearly) everywhere, and written texts in the first centuries CE were common enough that Luke could even portray a small gathering of Jews in Nazareth as having an Isaiah scroll at hand (Luke 4.16–30). Whether or not Luke is accurate here, he clearly expects his readers to accept the image of Jesus reading a written text in his hometown! Written texts functioned differently in antiquity than they do in contemporary Western contexts, and they influenced other written texts in multiple ways. But certainly one of those ways is that later authors could copy from earlier texts, and they could edit (= redact) their source texts in ways that suited them.

But two problems strike at the heart of redaction criticism, and it seems to me that those who accept the results of redaction-critical analyses haven't addressed either of them:

  • First, the pattern of changes across an entire text aren't always consistent. Sometimes an author will spiritualize his source text, and at other times he won't. In such an instance, should we say that author exhibits spiritualizing tendencies? If so, should the fact that he doesn't always spiritualize his source text encourage us to conclude that our author is inconsistent? Or is his tendency to spiritualize "moderate" rather than "thoroughgoing"? So Matt. 5.3 is "spiritualized" while Luke 6.20 is "more original." But what about Matt. 7.11||Luke 11.13, where Matthew's Jesus promises "good things/gifts" from the heavenly Father, while Luke's Jesus promises "the Holy Spirit"? Which text is "spiritualized": Matthew, Luke, or Q? As we can see, this problem is only accentuated when we're dealing with a situation in which the source text is no longer extant and we have to reconstruct it by comparing two texts that we believe copied from the same source. So did Q, if it existed, report that Jesus blessed the poor, and Matthew spiritualized this blessing by giving it to "the poor in spirit"? Or did Q pronounce blessings for the poor in spirit, and Luke, with his demonstrable interest in the materially poor and his desire to couple each blessing with a corresponding woe (here, "But woe to you rich . . ." [Luke 6.24]), redact his source to fit his needs? And what if Mark Goodacre is right, and in actual fact Matthew is Luke's source?! Despite James's confidence that in Matthew's Sermon on the Mount, "time and again there are additional words or phrases which, when compared with Luke, seem clearly to be additions to an earlier shorter form, and reflect redactional interests of the author," redaction critics simply cannot be sure what is original, what is secondary, or to what extent secondary changes put us in contact with an author's real or consistent theological or ideological motivations.
  • Second, if we approach the problem from the other direction (forwards, from Jesus ➞ the Gospels, rather than backwards, from the Gospels ➞ Jesus), the issues are radically different. Now, instead of trying to explain multiple forms of a similar saying in terms of a singular original which has been redacted, we need to ask whether it is reasonable for us as historians (this is important, given the apologetic questions James alludes to and avoids at the end of his post) to suppose Jesus only said some things once or in only one way. Could a historical Jesus that looked more like the Lukan Jesus ("Blessed are you poor") have also said something more akin to the Matthean Jesus ("Blessed are the poor in spirit")? Perhaps not. But if not, redaction critics and historians of Jesus need to explain why. If the two statements, however, are both recognizable as words of Jesus, then much of our historical analyses will have been running headlong down blind alleys. (I suspect this is true in any case, but whatever.) In actual fact, however, I'm not asking the question, Did Jesus say both, "Blessed are you poor" and "Blessed are the poor in spirit," because I don't approach either Luke or Matthew as verbatim records of the ipsissima verba Jesu ("the very words of Jesus"). Instead, both present images of Jesus speaking. My question, then, is: To what extent do Luke's and Matthew's images of Jesus speaking overlap, and to what extent do they diverge? And here I'm just not sure that the divergence between Matt. 5.3 and Luke 6.20 is all that significant. Both speak authentically about the historical Jesus, in my judgment, not because both preserve actual words spoken by the historical Jesus but because both convey impressions of the actual message of the historical Jesus. I would even suggest that there are more than two ways this saying could have been uttered by Jesus and/or preserved in the tradition. If next week we unearth a heretofore unknown text that records Jesus' words as, "Blessed are you who are poor today, for tomorrow your reward is here," I would see in this text an authentic image of the historical Jesus. Would this be a more accurate record of the ipsissima verba Jesu? I wouldn't know.
All of this, then, makes extremely tenuous any effort to reconstruct a tradition history on the basis of the extant remains of the ancient world to which we still have access. Let us return to the first beatitude. Our interpretation of Luke and Matthew—as evangelists and theologians—depends entirely on our reconstruction of their source and our interpretation of the differences between their source and their texts. Again, did Q read ". . . poor in spirit," and Luke edited it to enable him to match it to a corresponding woe (after all, what would ". . . rich in spirit" even mean?!)? Or did Q read simply, "poor," and Matthew has changed it? If the latter, is this a "spiritualizing" redaction, or did Matthew mean more-or-less the same thing as Luke? And again, what if the Farrer-Goodacre hypothesis is closer to the truth behind the Synoptic Problem, and Luke relied on Matthew (and there is no Q)?! Then not only is Matthew's "poor in spirit" not redactional, but Luke's unqualified "poor" is a redaction of Matthew itself! And again we'd have to ask, Did Luke mean more-or-less the same thing as Matthew? But what, then, does the first beatitude's tradition-history look like? Is it one of the following, both of which reflect a Two-Source Hypothetical solution to the Synoptic Problem?
  • [word of Jesus] ➞ "Blessed are you poor" [Q] ➞ "Blessed are the poor in spirit" [Matthew]
  • [word of Jesus] ➞ "Blessed are the poor in spirit" [Q] ➞ "Blessed are you poor" [Luke]
Or does it look more like this, reflecting the Farrer-Goodacre Hypothesis?
  • [word of Jesus] ➞ "Blessed are the poor in spirit" [Matthew] ➞ "Blessed are you poor" [Luke]
Or does some other explanation more accurately reconstruct the first beatitude's history of transmission? From an analysis that moves back-to-front, I simply cannot tell. From an analysis that moves front-to-back, I'm not sure why any of our reconstructed tradition histories have the singular "word of Jesus."

Finally, let me assuage James's concerns regarding Christian apologetics. As a historian I would not be impressed with any argument that Jesus said both, "Blessed are you poor," and, "Blessed are the poor in spirit" on specific occasions, and that Luke and Matthew both preserve a record of those specific occasions. This simply misunderstands what the Gospels are. Both are reports of the type of speaker/teacher Jesus was, and both, in my estimation as a historian, are plausible (and consistent with each other!) images of the historical Jesus. I don't feel the need to choose between them not because both are accurate but because the difference is interpretive and not all that significant! Whether or not my analysis provides succor to Christian apologists really isn't my concern. I'm not at all doing what James warns against:
I won’t say more at this point about the approach that has Jesus say things in as many different ways as they appear in the Gospels, since that view seems more appropriate in the realm of conservative Christian apologetics than in scholarly discussions. If we cannot know for certain which form of a saying is original, that does not justify treating all of them as original.

Instead, I'm doing exactly what James commends when he says, "On the contrary, as experts in orality emphasize, it is more fitting to say that there 'is no original" in such circumstances." This prevents us from engaging in tradition-historical analyses. It does not stop us from pursuing the historical Jesus (as Allison demonstrates throughout Constructing Jesus).

So, no . . . I'm not wrong.

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