Rafael Rodriguez is Wrong on Redaction

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?

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    In the end all are information sits on a foundation of probability. I think one could always wonder or hope that a certain thing turns out to be true, but you shouldn’t let that blind you to evidence it is not. On the sayings of Jesus, I agree with you James we can make some very reasonable estimations of what is earlier, and even original.  I think the odds of any saying being spot on accurate are very low, mostly because they are all translations and thus to a degree imprecise. I mean, how many ways could even simple material be translated back to Aramaic, not counting the issue of odd translation choices, and mutations in the reproduction of the saying.  
    I do think we can point to a core of material as being close to things Jesus said, but I’m not sure what sort of guide the few that survive all the test of criteria are of the Jesus lexicon. There are so few  (and contrary to the thoughts of some, those that do not pass all the test, are hardly spurious, they are simply somewhat less probable than the one that pass) that it is possible minor accidents in the transmission may have given a skewed image.  It is possible that Jesus said some of the less attested things said about him, I like to imagine the % given by Funk’s colored marbles as a rough indicator of probability that Jesus said such a thing, not an absolute judgment, as those who claim “it was determined Jesus only said 10% of what was attributed to him”
    On his issue with the saying that are found in alternate forms in Gospels, Yeah, it would be safe to label additions that are made along a consistent theme as the redactor and not an independent tradition.  It is likely that there were separate traditions of what Jesus said in separate communities, and that every early apostle probably had their own unique set, though I imagine that there may have been some that Jesus reinforced or that the apostles in concert reinforced as standards. A guy who teaches for a year or two can say a lot even if they have a few favorite sayings or zingers.
    By way of comparison I recommend the Gospel of Rama Krishna. My Religious studies professor, Barton Scott turned me on to it. It is written much like a Christian Gospel as a record of his movement and words, but with a detail the gospel authors could not afford.  You definitely get a different appreciation for how a guru communicates, and it is not all in short quips and one liners. When Peter spoke to Paul, I could imagine them having deep conversations about Jesus ideas that might be less quotable than the material of Thomas or Q. (could you imagine the early Marxist sitting around and planning world domination relying on the wit and wisdom of Marx, or anecdotes of his deeds?)
    I do think the whole picture view rather than the reduced and purified could give a more accurate general picture if Jesus if not a precise one. For instance, if you made all the sayings clustered by subject and reliability, you could form a representation of Jesus message, in form and content.  Even among those things that are poorly attested and not very dissimilar, you could figure out that Jesus was not a general, for instance.  Or as some have, that he was familiar with countrysides more than big cities.

  • Rafael Rodríguez

    CHALLONGE!! [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FaBTaok3qG0]

    You can see my response here: http://thinkinginpublic.blogspot.com/2011/08/on-second-thought.html

    I look forward to continuing the conversation!!

  • Gary

    Less damage done if Rumsfeld had gone into religious studies, instead of directing a couple of wars with the approach of:
    “As we know,There are known knowns.There are things we know we know.We also knowThere are known unknowns.That is to sayWe know there are some thingsWe do not know.But there are also unknown unknowns,The ones we don’t knowWe don’t know.”     Donald Rumsfeld
    Sounds like PhD material to me.