Rafael Rodriguez has posted some thoughts on reading Tom Holmén’s entry on “Authenticity Criteria” in the Routledge Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus. Since Rafael and I have had conversations about this topic both in the blogosphere and in person, he won’t be surprised to hear that I think he is wrong. But since the theme of the Synoptic problem is thus far the only theme that has been suggested for next month’s Biblical Studies Carnival, this is a good opportunity to try to set the biblioblogosphere abuzz on this topic.
Rafael raises justifiable concerns about an atomistic approach that isolates sayings, runs a battery of tests on them, and pronounces on their authenticity in isolation from the overall impression of Jesus given in our sources (a point made with admirable force in Dale Allison’s Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History). There is a danger, however, that the mere fact that oral tradition does not allow us access to an original form of sayings, will be turned by some into an axiom that is inappropriately applied to the redaction of the written Gospels. While the distinction between oral and written is blurred in antiquity by the fact that even authors using written sources drew heavily on memory and rarely were able to have multiple sources open for consultation before them, it remains the case that in some instances we have good reason to believe that one written work is later than another, and that the one drew on the other in terms of direct literary dependence. If, under those circumstances, we see the later author add a clause or sentence to what is found in their source, it is definitely worth considering that it may be an oral variant – but it is also worth considering that it may represent a deliberate addition by the author to the source material, in particular if we see a proclivity towards making such additions, as we do in Matthew’s treatment of Q material.
And so I don’t disagree with the principle that there could be divergent versions of sayings floating around and incorporated into texts – indeed, I have said before that I think it is important to not assume that between texts with overlaps there can be only one sort of connection, either oral or written, when in fact a work may borrow directly from a source at one point, quote it from memory at another, deliberately change it at another, and offer an independent variant on its material that had been heard previously on yet another.
But for that very reason, it should not become a dogma that we cannot identify redaction or distinguish between earlier and later forms of a saying or story, any more than it should be a dogma that variations between texts always represent deliberate redaction of one by the other.
In the case of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount material, 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. Is there any reason, under such circumstances, not to regard these as redactional changes?
It is true that we can never know with absolute certainty which is the case. But that is simply the nature of historical reconstruction, and it should not prevent us from identifying a scenario that is more or less likely, simpler and parsimonious.
Even if the criticisms that Rafael and others are raising about the criteria of authenticity carry the day, Occam’s Razor will surely remain a useful tool. And treating all the additional phrases in Matthew as oral variations, which just happen to agree with Matthew’s own outlook, seems to be introducing complexity where a simpler explanation is available.
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. On the contrary, as experts in orality emphasize, it is more fitting to say that there “is no original” in such circumstances.
What do others think?