Thanks to Rafael Rodriguez for continuing the conversation in not one but two posts on his blog. I think that there are several issues that are getting entangled, which it would be worth disentangling (to the extent that we can) before proceeding.
First, can we identify redactional tendencies in works? I think so, and I think Rafael does as well.
Second, are all instances of variations that accord with a work’s redactional tendency necessarily redactional changes made by the author, rather than variations the author inherited? Not necessarily. It seems unlikely that any author’s emphases are solely their own, and so we should expect their concerns to be shared with others and reflected in the forms of storytelling and teaching in their community or network of communities of shared faith and practice. And so their emphases will shape, but also will be shaped by, the versions of traditional material that they have inherited, communicated, and transformed well before a given author wrote them.
Third, can we always distinguish between an earlier oral variant and a deliberate authorial change? No. But that does not mean that we should not try. When an author reproduces a saying exactly as it is found in a source that we have good reason to believe they used, but with something added, would it make sense to treat that as something other than a chance made by the author? We could be wrong, but are we likely to be?
Fourth, it can indeed be the case that inauthentic material may give an accurate impression about a historical figure nevertheless, as Dale Allison has emphasized. If we only had the Acts of Paul, or the Acts of the Apostles for that matter, and none of Paul’s letters, would we get an impression of Paul that was completely wrong? Would not some material which is at best of doubtful authenticity, and certainly not Paul’s own ipsissima verba, not give us at least the gist of Paul correctly in some respects, even if distorted at times by the author’s own interests and concerns? This seems to me to be another key point of agreement between Rafael and myself: telling stories and passing along traditions neither leaves the material unaffected, nor is it free to simply to transform it into something completely and altogether different.
Fifth, if in some instances it may be impossible to tell what is original and what is secondary, in others it seems clear. Matthew’s addition of Peter walking on the water, and his reinterpretation of the sign of Jonah in reference to the resurrection, may originate with him or have been inherited, but by comparison with other sources which recount the same stories, can we not safely identify these elements as secondary?
As for Rafael’s question of how his arguments, which feel so right, could be wrong, I think there is in fact an analogy with the transmission of words and the process of transformation that they can undergo. Sometimes a tradition feels right, feels authentic, like some of the Biblical “sayings” which circulate, and which are in fact not Biblical at all. Presumably in some instances, one of the Gospel authors may have given a version of something that “felt right” but which a historian may judge to probably not have been. The question is whether, in at least some instances, we can determine on the basis of our texts that one version of a saying is a more original form (not, I should emphasize, necessarily the original form, but one that nonetheless takes us closer in time to the historical Jesus).
By way of illustration (and since we seem to be dueling with videos), here is a video of “Blinded By The Light” performed by Mannfred Mann’s Earth Band, with the lyrics presented as some people have from time to time (mis)heard them:
Here’s a link to the lyrics as performed by Mannfred Mann, as well as a link to the original lyrics by Bruce Springsteen. Here we are fortunate enough to have the original lyrics. But hopefully given the way that things can be misheard, you will understand why it is important to try to get back to the original or most original form of things when we can. Even if we never got back to Bruce Springsteen’s original lyrics through critical study of Mannfred Mann’s version, it would be worth identifying as many mishearings as we could as secondary (or tertiary) transformations of the tradition, would it not?
Here are two other favorite misheard lyrics videos that I shared a while back, which seem worth sharing again.