Interpolation Mythicism

Interpolation Mythicism November 8, 2015

Commenter arcseconds made this useful observation in a discussion about whether Galatians 1:19 might be an interpolation, as mythicists hope:

[I]t requires the existence of a copyist prepared to make clarifying interpolations, who thinks this clarification is needed, who actually made this interpolation, at a point where they could influence the manuscript tradition, and who managed to influence it so much it wound up in all extant manuscripts. That’s a figure with really quite specific properties we have to propose to explain this one verse.

Why is the existence of this hypothetical copyist less problematic than the existence of the historical Jesus? The historical Jesus can explain a lot more than a single verse in Paul, so is vastly more explanatory and parsimonious than a copyist with very specific properties the existence of whom is only proposed to problematize the existence of said historical Jesus, by calling into doubt a verse which probably isn’t even an interpolation.

This seems to me to get at a key point – genuine skepticism, of the sort that scholars aim for, has to look with the same skepticism at the claims being made for one’s own position, as for those one is arguing against. Asking whether the text is likely to reflect what was originally written is appropriate – but so too is asking about the likelihood of interpolation.

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  • John MacDonald

    Here at 31:12 Price makes his case that the James passage in Paul is an interpolation:

    • Neko

      I find this argument from silence in Tertullian one of the more intriguing mythicist points and am interested to know the scholarly counterargument.

        • Neko

          Thanks for that! I think the argument goes that since Tertullian does not deploy Gal 1:19 against Marcion’s “docetism” that Tertullian and Marcion’s Galatians lacked the reference to James, the Lord’s brother, therefore the verse is interpolated. A related proposal is that Gal 1:18-24 is interpolated because it creates tension between Paul’s insistence that he was unknown in Jerusalem even after having met with the pillars in Jerusalem for two weeks and protests too much, and that the word “again” in Gal 2:1 is also interpolated!

          It’s my understanding that all the manuscript evidence includes these disputed verses, so…the mythicist challenges are based on silence and incongruity.

          • Galatians 1:19 is relevant to mythicism, but less so to docetism, both because there were even mainstream Christians who viewed the brother relationship as non-biological (seeking to preserve the perpetual virginity of Mary), and because Docetism did not typically deny that Jesus appeared to have been born and to have had a family, but only that in the process he was genuinely human with human limitations and suffering.

          • Neko

            Yes, that much I know! I put docetism in quotes because at times mythicists seem to take an expansive view of docetism to suggest belief in a non-historical Jesus.

  • As I stated in my comments to that post, my questions concerning Galatians 1:19 exist despite my belief that there may in fact be good arguments for historicity. Thus, the purpose in raising the possibility of interpolation is not to problematize the existence of a historical Jesus, but rather to assess the weight that the verse should carry in any argument for or against.

    If I had to answer the question posed in the comment, I would say that the existence of copyists is completely unproblematic, and the existence of copyists who were prepared to alter the text doesn’t seem to me to be much of a stretch. The need for clarification is obvious as it would have been Paul’s motivation for adding “the brother of the Lord” in the first place. Had there only been one possible James that Paul could have met on his first trip to Jerusalem, he would not need to have clarified which one it was for the Galatians.

    I think that there is a perfectly plausible reason why someone might have interpolated the phrase “brother of the Lord” and the question becomes how the existence of such a perfectly plausible reason affects the weight that the verse can carry.

    • arcseconds

      And as I stated in my reply to you, it’s plausible in the sense that we don’t have to suppose anything terribly strange. But it’s not very probable.

      It’s not probable because what we do have to suppose is the existence of a person with a particular set of properties, and the only reason for proposing the existence of this person is to call into doubt this particular verse.

      We have no evidence for the existence of this person, and no reason to think that the verse is an interpolation apart from such improbable and unevidenced stories (however plausible they might be).

      I agree it’s useful to consider this matter, but now we’ve discovered that it’s improbable and unevidenced and entirely ad hoc, we can dismiss it… can’t we?

      We don’t want to commit some kind of narrative fallacy here, after all… starting to think your interpolator actually existed because it’s such a nice plausible story…

      • Would you agree that we would be more certain about the text of Galatians if we had Paul’s original writing than we are now? If so, then there is uncertainty as a result of 150 years of unsupervised transmission by unknown persons with unknown motivations. The existence of these particular people is not in doubt.

        Around the time of our earliest manuscripts of Galatians, Origen wrote

        The differences among the manuscripts have become great, either through the negligence of some copyists or through the perverse audacity of others; they either neglect to check over what they have transcribed, or, in the process of checking, they make additions or deletions as they please.

        That seems to me to be decent evidence of the existence of people with the characteristics of my hypothetical copyist.

        What I am proposing is that we seek ways to assess that uncertainty rather than ways to dismiss it. As you noted at an earlier point in our discussion, “a significant probability of interpolation entails there’s a significant probability of a reason for interpolation.” At that point, you did not see any such reason and correspondingly proposed a low probability. It should logically follow that you would adjust your probability estimate upward based on the plausible reason I have suggested.

        • I have no objection, provided that your estimates of the probabilities for other ancient literature, for which there is a bigger gap between purported original and earliest copy, are proportionally lower, as would be appropriate.

          • I think that the estimates would be related relatively lower, but not necessarily proportionally lower. My understanding is that it is the earliest period of transmission in which ancient texts were most likely to be corrupted. Thus, a 500 year gap would not create twice the uncertainty of a 250 year gap as most ot the alterations in either case would take place in the first 100 years.