Friday, August 26, 2011

on the Golden Rule

I have about an hour or so before I need to run some errands, so I returned to Dale Allison's book, Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (Baker Academic, 2010). In the midst of some comments on the Golden Rule, Allison has this very nice formulation, which I thought worth reproducing here:
To do unto others as one wishes to be done to oneself means not reacting but initiating action; it means to imagine, on analogy with what one wants, what others might want, and then acting accordingly. (319)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

new term

Fall 2011 semester classes at Johnson Bible College University started this morning. The summer was great (busy, but great), and it always seems the autumn comes too quickly. And even though it's hard for me to put down the various projects I get to work on from May til August, it really is good to see returning students and to meet the brand-new freshman.

Speaking of brand-new freshman, new students moved onto campus last weekend. In all the hustle and bustle of meeting new roommates, unpacking milk crates, and trying to get to Walmart to buy more stuff we really needed, I snuck down and filmed a group of incoming freshman. Unfortunately, I had to edit out some language; I guess that's bound to happen when you drop "Bible" from your name. Here's what I got:

Friday, August 12, 2011

review of Structuring Early Christian Memory

I don't know how other scholars keep track of who has reviewed their works, in which journal, and what they've said. It seems to me that you just kind of accidentally encounter a review that you didn't know was being written.

That happened to me last week. I accidentally discovered that Kelly Iverson, of St Andrews University (Scotland) reviewed my published thesis in the Journal for the Study of the New Testament. His brief review is positive and exactly the kind of thing an author hopes for (accurate, fair, critical, etc.). Here's an excerpt, if you're interested:
This study is a welcome addition to historical Jesus studies and provides a fresh perspective that deserves careful attention. For those who may be relatively new to the fields of performance and social memory, this volume offers an informative summary and helpful bibliography. In addition, there is detailed interaction with several textual examples (exorcisms and healings) that illustrates the potential usefulness of the approach. Given the broad objective of this monograph, some will not be convinced that the thesis sufficiently undermines the traditional criteria of authenticity or develops an unobstructed path forward. This volume does, however, make a reasoned argument for appreciating the variability in the Jesus tradition within the contours of an oral culture.

These, I think, are all fair comments. For lengthier and more substantive critiques of the traditional criteria of authenticity, see my "Authenticating Criteria: The Use and Misuse of a Critical Method" (Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 7/2 [2009]: 152–67), as well as the forthcoming volume, Jesus, History, and the Demise of Authenticity (Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne, eds.; T&T Clark International), for which I contributed an essay on the failings of the criterion of embarrassment.

For Kelly Iverson's full review of Structuring Early Christian Memory, you can follow this link (you'll need to search for "Structuring Early Christian Memory," or you can scroll down to p. 44).

silly internet . . .

For reasons that don't need to be explained here, I googled the title of Samuel Byrskog's major work on oral historiography and the Jesus tradition. I can never remember if it's called Story as History, History as Story, or if it's History as Story, Story as History. Anyway, I new the Internet would have the answer, and sure enough, it did. But then I noticed something odd, and I thought I'd share it here. Here's a screenshot:

Even if the picture is cut off, you should be able to see the peculiarity. Amazon, for whatever reason, has classified Byrskog's book in the Interior Design sub-section of their Home & Garden section of their bookstore. Now, Story as History, History as Story is a good-looking book, as you can see. But does it merit classification as "Interior Design"?! You decide.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

beginning at the beginning

Now that I'm done adding my part to the education of James McGrath, I've returned to reading the very lengthy but engaging book, Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (Baker Academic, 2010). I'm currently toward the beginning of the third chapter ("More Than a Prophet: The Christology of Jesus" [221–304]), specifically in the section where Allison takes up the common idea that, whereas the historical Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, Jesus' followers proclaimed Jesus (i.e., "The proclaimer became the proclaimed"). I especially appreciated the following:
Too often, however, at least from the point of view of this chapter, the literature has failed to begin at the beginning. It is one thing, for instance, to explicate the angelic terms in which some thought about Jesus, quite another to explain why anybody found those terms appropriate in the first place. And so it is with other christological conceptions and titles. Why did Jesus draw them all to himself? (pp. 241–42)

My inclination is that this question (viz., Why did anyone consider Jesus worthy of exalted christological titles in the first place?) is too often begged and too seldom asked. It makes sense to me, for instance, that some Jews thought of the messiah in terms of Davidic descent, and so Jesus' followers created/expanded the Son of David motif in the Jesus tradition. But scholars who push this perspective to its ultimate end—that the historical Jesus never thought of himself in terms of Davidic descent—have traditionally been content to demonstrate how the attribution of Davidic descent developed in the tradition and to never ask the ultimate question. Why did anyone think that Jesus, without any precedent of Davidic-ness in his teachings or actions, ought to have been framed in terms of "Son of David" christology?

I asked a similar question in chapter 5 of Structuring Early Christian Memory: Jesus in Tradition, Performance, and Text (T&T Clark International, 2010).
Given the ubiquity of research that traces how Jesus' followers reconfigured him to address their later concerns, we ask a question otherwise unasked in 'historical Jesus' research: why Jesus? Why did Jesus' followers choose him as a vehicle to address and conquer their concerns? (120; see also p. 136)

Jews in antiquity demonstrably turned to exalted figures from the past—whether real or mythic—and exalted them even further. Moses not only died on Mt. Nebo across the Jordan River (so Deuteronomy) but also received burial from the LORD or one of his angels. Enoch didn't just walk with God (so Genesis) but received a grand tour of heaven and God's plans for the future. The Patriarchs not only multiplied the blessing of Abraham from a single heir among multiple offspring (Isaac but not Ishmael; Jacob but not Esau) but then left behind their own blessings (in the form of Testaments) that pulled back the veil of the future ever so slightly.

And so on. But what stands out is that the early Christians did not reach back into the ancient and/or mythic past to pick out their hero whom they would idealize. Instead, they picked a not-unproblematic figure from recent times, whose earthly associates were still available (at least to anyone in Galilee and/or Judea), and whose fate did not exactly commend him to exaltation. This isn't an air-tight argument for the historical reliability of the Jesus tradition as preserved in the New Testament. But it does present problems for anyone who thinks that the NT traditions about Jesus have very tenuous—if any—connections with the historical man from Nazareth. Something about that man made it possible to apply exalted titles to him and to convince others to accept those titles on his behalf.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

a second point in third place

I'm not gonna lie . . . in the middle of writing my first response to the intractably friendly if stubbornly oppositional James McGrath, I completely lost my train of thought. I knew exactly what I wanted to say, and I introduced my thoughts by saying, "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."

My first point, which I expanded in my second response to James, was that the evangelists don't seem to have been sufficiently consistent redactors of their sources for us to know what motivated their particular method(s) of handling their traditions/sources. James (and many, many other NT scholars) seems sufficiently impressed that Matthew expands the traditions at his disposal. And while he (= Matthew) clearly does exhibit expansionist tendencies, there are simultaneously plenty of instances in which Matthew has the shorter text. So the expansionist Matthew is also an epitomist! Or, Matthew the spiritualizer is also, at times, more concrete than his Lukan counterpart. The situation seems sufficiently muddled to me that even probable and/or plausible historical reconstruction becomes problematic, even for those of us content with less-than-certain historical knowledge.

But then I forgot my second point. There I was, having promised the faithful readers of Verily Verily (both of you!) "two problems" that undermined the redaction-critical enterprise, and I couldn't remember the second one!! What was I to do?! I could have removed the offending promise of "two problems"; after all, blogging is far from the decrees of the Medes and the Persians. Instead, I, your humble blogger, developed an ingenious alternative second point, and no one was aware that I had temporarily lost my own plot. But hooray! I have remembered my second point, which I now offer in third place.

All sarcasm aside, we need to remember that the current discussion began with my original response to Tom Holmén's discussion of the authenticity criteria in Routledge's Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus (2008). My primary complaint, in case I didn't state it clearly enough, was Holmén's advocation of a historiographical method that sought (i) to identify earlier or later features of the Jesus tradition, then (ii) to discard the later features (redactional or otherwise), and finally (iii) to reconstruct the historical Jesus solely on the basis of authenticated, original, or the earliest material. Even if we were to overlook the overwhelming contingency that plagues the redaction-critical enterprise, is this the right way to treat material we identify as redactional? I don't think so.
  • First, in the sixth chapter of Structuring Early Christian Memory, I gave a very close reading of Luke 4.14–30, which I (along with every NT scholar of whom I am aware) think has clearly been subject to the redactional activity of the Lukan evangelist. But this cannot be the end of the story. Instead, I ask, "[W]hence comes Luke's redactional impulse?" (Rodríguez 2010:141). Granted that Luke was able to creatively handle the tradition he received from "those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word," was he free to arbitrarily handle that tradition? My analysis suggests not and shows (i) how Luke's retelling of the story we read in Mark 6.1–6a was heavily influenced by another pre-Lukan tradition (see Matt. 11.2–6||Luke 7.18–23 [Q?]), and (ii) how Luke's portrayal of Jesus' rhetorical maneuvering before the Nazarene Jewish gathering does not make Jesus unintelligible to a Sitz im Leben Jesu. Elijah and Elisha, whom Jesus evokes in Luke 4.25–27, need not legitimize the inclusion of the gentiles (even if they clearly do in Luke-Acts).
  • Similarly, Dale Allison grants the redactional nature of numerous texts (including the summary of Jesus' message in Mark 1.14–15 and the temptation narratives in Matt. 3||Luke 3 [Q?] and Mark 1.12–13), and he demonstrates that these redactional pericopae nevertheless communicate authentically the historical Jesus. This approach, which does not discard redactional material but rather continues to ask critically how such material relates to history and brings the past to bear on Sitz im Leben of the church or of the evangelist, seems to me to handle the synoptic Gospels and the Jesus tradition more responsibly than does, e.g., the approach advocated by Tom Holmén.
So, James, I ask you: How could these arguments, which feel so right, be wrong?


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.

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.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Tom Holmén on the criteria of authenticity

I'm currently reading Tom Holmén's entry, "Authenticity Criteria," which appears in the Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus (edited by Craig A. Evans; New York: Routledge, 2008, 43–54). The piece is frustrating, at least to me, because Holmén continues to advocate an atomistic approach to reconstructing the "historical Jesus." In this approach, a critic will take an individual piece of the tradition (e.g., Luke 11.20 par.) and run it through a battery of tests. If the piece passes the battery, it then features in his historical reconstruction. If not, the piece is discarded.

But things are even more complicated than this. Holmén also advocates identifying and, again, discarding secondary additions to the tradition (e.g., many scholars, but not Holmén in this context, view the phrase "in spirit" in Matt. 5.3 as a later addition to something Jesus probably did say, which is more pristinely preserved in Luke 6.20). While this sounds good (who wouldn't want to identify corruptions in the tradition and remove them?!), in practice NT scholars have never been able to pull this off. The problem may be with NT scholars (we're just not smart enough to pull this off, or more charitably, perhaps not enough evidence has survived for us to distill authentic and/or original material from latter additions). But I think it more likely that the problem lies with the approach Holmén and traditional NT scholarship have advocated.

Instead of putting two or more parallel passages beside one another and arguing that this or that feature of one of the passages is later and secondary (what NT scholars call "tradition criticism"), NT scholars need to learn to accept the multiformity that lies at the heart of the Jesus tradition and to stop trying to reduce the extant multiforms to a single original forebear. For one thing, nothing gives us the right to suppose that Jesus ever said anything only once (even such striking and context-bound sayings as, "Give to Caesar . . ." or "Let the dead bury the dead . . ." may have been said on multiple occasions). But for another, what we have preserved for us in the Gospels are not more-or-less original traditions and the corruption of those traditions in later texts. The multiforms provide, instead, stereoscopic access for us to see the types of things Jesus' followers could say about him that (i) made sense of Jesus to themselves, (ii) made Jesus relevant and applicable in later situations, and (iii) illuminated appropriate and desirable courses of actions in the face of new and challenging questions.

So did Jesus say, "Blessed are you poor," as Luke has it, or "Blessed are the poor in spirit," as we read in Matthew? Perhaps both, perhaps neither. As a historian, I simply cannot prove that one or the other or either of them accurately records words that Jesus spoke on any given occasion. But what we do have preserved in the Gospels are two authors who attribute to Jesus strikingly similar (but not identical) sayings, and both seem to understand Jesus in similar (but, again, not identical) ways. This is exactly what we ought to expect, again, as historians, if the authors of Luke and Matthew had any access, direct or indirect, to the real Jesus.

More importantly, their portrayals of Jesus speaking his blessing on the poor (in spirit?) were sufficiently plausible to (i) be accepted, (ii) preserved, and (iii) disseminated. If Jesus was not the kind of person to bless the poor, spiritual or otherwise, such portrayals should have been less plausible in the first century. If Jesus was actually a friend of the rich and an elitist with regard to the poor, our extant sources have simply forgotten too much of the truth for us to know it. But if he actually pronounced blessing on the poor and preferred the socially marginalized, then our sources have preserved exactly this image of Jesus, and we are able to know something about this Jesus on the basis of their testimony. This is a significant (though not new) conclusion of historical scholarship on Jesus. But none of it, I would stress, depends on identifying secondary or later additions to the tradition and removing them. Such historical-critical approaches are, I think, well beyond their sell-by date.

My Visual Bookshelf