Thursday, December 4, 2008

SBL Memories 2: Dating our sources

On Saturday afternoon, the new consultation on the Cross and Diversity in early Christianity held a session on dating sources. Mark Goodacre and Simon Gathercole gave key note papers. I responded to Goodacre and Stephen Patterson to Gathercole. The room was packed. People were hanging out the doorways, and people were even sitting behind me when I was speaking at the podium. Conclusion: the room was too small for a discussion that many wanted to be a part of.

My sense was that this was a panel that really brought out how divided the academy is in terms of method and assumptions. It showed me just how much we are in a time of transition, when the older models are being seriously questioned and yet we don't have anything better in place yet. I tried to emphasize three major shifts in the field that I think must be taken very seriously:

1. What are we to do with the extra-canonical materials? My approach is to understand three phases of writing among early Christians. I would place these documents in these phases, which means that there is substantial material to work with in the pre-70 CE period, informing us mostly about Jerusalem and Antiochean Christianity and the conflicts that were taking place. I am still not convinced that the provenance of Q is Galilee. It appears Antiochean to me:
First-level bearers of tradition. Pre-70 CE. The early missions when letter writing was important, as well as instruction manuals and catechisms of Jesus’ words. Here I would place Paul’s letters, the letter of James, the Didache, at least two versions of Quelle, and the early written book of Thomas that I call the Kernel Thomas.

Second-level creators of foundation stories. 70-100 CE. The death of the eyewitnesses and the destruction of the Temple prompted this generation of Christians to rewrite their memories and revise their received traditions. In this period, the synoptic gospels and John, Gospel of the Hebrews, Acts, deutro-Pauline letters, Revelation, P. Egerton 2 (?), Hebrews (?),

Third-level developers of formative theology and ecclesiology. 100-135 CE. This generation of writers was focused on formative theology, ecclesiology and interactions with other communities (whether peaceful or aggressive). 1 Clement, Johannine letters, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude, Pastoral Pauline letters, commentaries of Basilides (lost), writings of Valentinus (fragments), Shepherd of Hermas, writings of Marcion (lost), letters of Ignatius and Polycarp, Papias’ books (fragments), Hegesippus (fragments), Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of the Egyptians, Gospel of the Ebionites, Letter of Barnabas, Gospel of Peter.
2. New developments in textual criticism and scribal practices are demonstrating that the eceletic text we call the critical edition is NOT a first century text, and is NOT what the early Christians wrote or were reading or hearing read. We have created a manuscript of the “Bible” which we treat as if it were a first-century document. The Nestle-Aland edition is not an ancient manuscript. Its committee readings to do represent any manuscript that ever existed in the ancient world. Yet our forefathers worked with this as our received critical text and made all sorts of theories about literary relationships between texts based on comparing Nestle-Aland readings internally and externally to other texts. And this approach continues today without even the slightest pause.

But honestly when we are dealing with issues of literary dependence and basing our conclusions on “same” words here and there, shouldn’t we be more than a little concerned that we don’t have much in terms of manuscripts prior to the third century? And those which we do have vary substantially, even versions of the same text.

This sort of variation is typical of rhetorical societies where scribal practices have developed out of oral consciousness. Add to this that we know the early Christians were quite comfortable altering texts to fit their needs, and complaining loudly about other Christians whom they thought were doing so too.

This suggests that we have two big hurdles: we don’t have the first-century texts, and we don’t have stable texts until relatively late, and some would argue, if ever. So for the future of literary dependence arguments to succeed, scholars are going to have to figure out how to take into account our vast manuscript tradition and what the existence of all these variants actually means in terms of ancient composition and transmission of documents.

3. We need to understand how ancient people actually composed their texts, how they operated within the rhetorical environment. What part does human memory play in this process? I will try to post separately an expansion on this issue.

4. We need to start testing our theories by setting up scientific experiments, or at the very least, reading cognitive psychology literature beyond a few college textbooks. Because human memory is a factor in the transmission of materials in rhetorical environments, it behooves us to know how the human memory works and how its effects might be reflected in the various versions of sayings of Jesus that we find in the literature. I'll try to post a separate post on this as well.


Jared said...

Thanks for posting this, April, as one who could not attend that talk. I found your periodization quite useful.

I always get a little giggle when people speak of dating sources. I guess you have to take them out to a nice restaurant, chat a bit, then have a nice drink to cap off the night....

David said...

Excellent analysis. Very helpful to me in discerning canonical canonical versus pre-canonical thinking.

Tommy Wasserman said...

As for textual criticism, there are of course different opinions in the field, concerning the nature of the text we can reconstruct.

How do we know that some scribes had a freer attitude to the text, and how are we able to study them? Because other scribes had a more conservative attitude to their task.

It is true that we do not have any MSS from the first century, but apart from external criteria we also use internal criteria in order to reconstruct the initial text.

Michael F. Bird said...

Thanks for the memories!
But as for # 2, I agree for the most part and have argued similarly in JSHJ that historical Jesus research needs to take into account the complexities of textual criticism. Still, I would hardly say that these developments are "new" at all and many text critics have long recognized that UBS/NA does not correspond to any Bible of antiquity (which is why Brill's Septuagint Commentary Series focuses on one particular manuscript rather than just usihg Ralfs eclectic text). Still, a sensible eclecticism might be the best way to go and excavating the texts as far as we can go, even into the early second century, is still the primary task of the Editio Critica Maior series! Your comments on the instability of the NT texts in the second century is also contestable and depends on whether you're asking Koester or Birdall!

Rafael said...


I wish I had been able to attend the session (though it sounds like there wouldn't have been room anyway!).

Re: no 4: I think serious—even fatal—problems plague any attempt to perform cognitive psychological experiments to shed light on relationships between ancient texts. As I'm sure you know, Rober McIver and Marie Carroll attempted to do this very thing (JBL 121/4 [2002]: 667–687). But the problem with their work is precisely the assumption (unavoidable, I think) that the subjects participating in the experiment perceive, interact with, and interpret text in ways analogous to early Christians.

I don't think McIver and Carroll (or you, for that matter) actually think we treat texts the same as first-century CE persons. But in order for the experiment to have any significant, reportable results, we have to act as if we do. But what an Australian college student (to link to the JBL article cited above) thinks about some strange text about the sinking of the Titanic, and how she creates a text about that event on the basis of access to another text, sheds no real light on the compositional (or, more broadly, performative) strategies of early Christian authors.

Or am I misunderstanding something here?

Pastor Bob said...

And I would add another couple of thoughts about human cognition. The first is that if such tests are to be done they should be done on non literate people. I'm wondering if brain processes of those of us who receive most of the information we pay attention to (as compared to the itch on my leg) from reading might not be different from those who don't.

Also, and this is just a weird thought: I understand that in antiquity people read out loud even if others in the room were also reading. Would reading out loud change cognition?

Which brings up something else: since writing in the ancient world was primarily done so that it could be read out loud rhetoric was much more important then than it is now.

All of which makes me wonder if scribes were willing to change texts they were copying so that they would sound better.

Judy Redman said...

April, Rafael,

I agree that we need both to look at what we can learn about human memory from the work of cognitive psychology and be careful that we do not assume that we can transfer our learning directly to the culture of first century Palestine. While I doubt that the capacity of the human brain to remember things has changed dramatically in two millennia, how it is trained to process and remember things has a significant effect on how it functions. The people we can easily conduct experiments with have been trained to remember things very differently to the way that people in Jesus' society were trained, and it is not easy to determine how this will affect any results. Nor do we know exactly what Jesus' society was like because the level of literacy was so low and confined to particular, elite strata of society and much of what was written is no longer available to us.

What experiments can do, however, is to highlight areas where we should be wary of making dogmatic statements based on the texts we have in front of us. I don't think you can say that because 80% of Australian college students did X in an experiment, 80% of first century Palestinian Christians would also do X, but it should cause us to wonder if they were more likely to do X than not-X.

Leon said...

Any attempt to talk about how human memory worked for these people is presumptuous unless you are able to talk correctly about the historical context and what these events meant to the people at the time. Memory works differently depending on how important something is to you. At present, there is still such a fear of understanding the Jewish context of all this. The Jewish historical context is still poorly understood for the precise reason that no one wants to understand it. There is a fear which still dominates in this study that a Jewish understanding of these events will affect our views of Jesus and diminish him. Even people who claim to be secular historians carry a set of beliefs about Jesus and they do not want to see these diminished in any way. For most scholars, a very Jewish Jesus and a very Jewish movement that followed will always be a smaller Jesus and a smaller movement. Since it is still forbidden to talk about these fears, we will not get any closer to the historical context.

Also, most scholars in the west have an attitude that our understanding of historical events is more objective and superior to that of the ancients. We think all the ancients were basically childish or theological or mythological in their approach to remembering history. They could not possibly have good, accurate memories. That is a very racist assumption. I think it is closer to the truth that every people on earth has a grammar of history and if you can understand their grammar, you can understand the original events they were talking about. It is possible to do this with the Gospels. But scholars have invented a clever lie: They impose their own theology on the Gospels and then claim that this theology is in the Gospels. How not to impose yourself on ancient documents and history is the principle dilemma that confronts genuine historical scholarship, but current NT scholarship is still engaged in the opposite task.

Leon Zitzer

barryc said...

O you traditionalist optimist with regard to the synoptics. First and before launching into the argument, I have been a somewhat regular reader of this site and I really have appreciated all the work you personally have done on it and all the insights I have gotten from many of the contributors. So enough "sucking up" as Kirk Douglas says.
I've been struggling with the Christian origins issue for over 40years. Was Paul just hearing voices or does his "conversion experience" mean something totally different that is lost in the translation or the transmission of the story? The rise and victory of the Pauline Christianity from within a Judaism raises all sorts of problems and quandries. What was Paul really after? A new religion to replace Judaism and meld with the mystery religions?? Or was he really trying to pacify the Jewish communities throughout the empire by recasting a revolutionary zealot militia leader into a deity? Was Paul a Herodian more than a Pharisee he claims? What does he mean by Pharisee? Is he really saying he is missionary-minded and focused by using Pharisee to describe himself. His argumentation style has been criticised as not traditionally Pharisaic (sic?). I really wander if he might have realized at the end of his life how wrong he had been? No second coming in his lifetime and he seemed so sure it was going to happen?
Was the conflict with James and the Jerusalem leaders really extreme? Was Paul aware of the Talpiot tomb? Was "resurrection" in his writings a statement that Jesus body was revivified after a crucifixtion or an end of days event? Why do we give so much credence to a person we would treat with medication and mental hospitalization. Paul is really the winner though.
I place the gospel of John within the fights with gnosticism(pre Irenaeus). Even though there is no intent to be histories per se, much of his settings and geography is more accurate than the synoptics.
The synoptics, although Q maybe really early, really seem focused on the conflict with Judaism and question of who is the Messiah. And the only really strong Messianic figure that would have caused that internicene(sp?) argument is Bar Cochba. If Akiba's endorsement was so powerful in the community, I can really see Matthew being written as a counter response: Jesus not Bar Cochba was the messiah. (Sorry about the spellings.) The synoptics don't have a realistic geography or history. After all, did Jesus get born twice 10 years apart? And when was Nazareth really a city home for Jesus? NEVER So if Nazareth is part of the story then Mark couldn't have been written before Nazareth appeared on the map. Do we know of any Jewish settlements on top of graveyards?
Eventually I'll try to submit a piece for peer review, it just requires I put too much of my other life on hold. But the process of the search is really invigerating. Thanks again.