Re: [XTalk] Re: Discontinuity and Multiple Attestation
- To: Crosstalk
Cc: GPG; WSW
In Response To: Loren Rossen and Others
On: Criteria for HJ
I thought there was considerable theoretical interest in this recent
exchange. I here add a few methodological reflections of my own. Loren
concluded the series by summing up his initial point this way:
LOREN: But my original point was that the criterion of discontinuity (with
early Christianity) is flawed **in
principle**, while other criteria at least have the right idea, even when
problematic in certain cases.
BRUCE: The "criterion of discontinuity," whether one expects Jesus to be
non-Jewish or non-Christian or both, does seem to be problematic on its
face. We can expect Jesus to have been Jewish, and we can at least keep open
the possibility that the later movement had some sort of continuity with
what he did during his lifetime. And not reject those continuities out of
hand, when the evidence seems to suggest them.
But I think the short answer is that all rules of thumb are problematic.
They and their counterparts in textual or lower criticism cannot be
mindlessly applied. That mind is needed in the conduct of text criticism
(higher as well as lower) was established long ago by Housman, and people
coming into the field should have read Housman. An abridged version is
available 7/24 at
The larger question here, it seems to me, is, What is the use of experience
in the study of texts? The old hand should be better at it than the
greenhorn, but everyone knows that previous knowledge can act to prevent the
acquisition of new knowledge. What is the practical solution of this
paradox? I think the key to successful use of previous knowledge is the
quality which I call tact, the most elusive of the intellectual virtues.
TEXTUAL CRITICISM EXAMPLE
A lot of experience is summed up in the observation that sometimes scribes
leave out things. This gets into the canon of known and recurrent scribal
errors, as it should. And there are subtypes, such as retrace errors, when
the scribe goes back to his Vorlage and picks up, not the place he was at,
but a place three lines lower which ends in the same phrase. The intervening
material then gets omitted. Recurrent situations tend to acquire names in
the trade; this one is called homoeoteleuton.
Knowing these recurring situations is very helpful. You meet one and you
don't struggle to discover its working principle, or to explain it in some
ad hoc ingenious way (such as the omitted line in the Tang Stone Classics,
somewhere in the Jvng Songs section); you say, Oh, yeah, there's one of
*those* again. And you move on, unfatigued, to the next thing. Excellent
economy of time. We can't avoid spending time, that's one of the rules of
the game in Pascal's Casino, but we can at least try to get something in
return for our expenditure. Having a mnemonic list of things likely to occur
helps us to maximize that ratio.
The error comes with being oversold on the idea that scribes *always*
abbreviate, so that the shorter of two variants is *always* preferable to
the longer, yielding the maxim
Lectio brevior potior.
Which is entirely right - except in the cases where it is entirely wrong,
and as Griesbach already showed, these are at least as numerous,
typologically, as the cases where it is right. In effect, the very helpful
recollection mnemonic, when elevated to an unthinking principle, leads one
to guessing one and not the other of the Griesbach options, with a 50%
chance of success. Anybody off the street could do as well. Any kid. Any
random number generator. This is what happens when we enshrine some
experience at the cost of other experience. The problem is not experience,
it is the enshrinement of experience, and the substitution of past
experience for future observation.
MULTIPLE ATTESTATION (THE CASE OF OATHS)
This, to me, is another of the fallacious principles that have dogged NT
from its early days. Here was one comment on Loren's original post, which
began by agreeing that the principle of discontinuity was perilous in
practice, and then continued (with Loren's example: the question of oaths in
CHRIS WEIMER: I don't think, however, it's quite a flip of the coin. Meier
is implying that Paul, Gos. John, Epist. Hebrews do not have access to such
a tradition about oaths, but Matthew and James do. Since Matthew and James
have this statement that conflicts so much both with other writers of the
early church (Paul, John, Hebrews) and Judaism which proceeded it (Philo,
Ben Sirah). How else, he is implicitly asking, would this prohibition
against oaths arise in two independent documents of Matthew and James?
It's certainly a fair question to ask. For me, it's merely a variation of
multiple attestation, since one author alone could invent something that is
discontinuous both from earlier Judaism and the early church. But when two
authors do it, the likelihood of it becoming historical (under this paradigm
we have assumed) increases.
BRUCE: But the two have to be independent. It used to be thought that if a
story appeared in all three Synoptics, then we had three independent
witnesses to that story. It is now understood that the Synoptics are
mutually dependent, and that the presence of a story in Luke may merely mean
that he thought it worth retaining from Matthew, who in turn liked it in
Mark. It is a further vote of confidence, if you like, but it is not an
independent reading. There is no separate pipeline back to Jesus.
Are Matthew and Jacob (as it says in my Greek text) independent? Not if you
examine them closely, and take account of the gradual formation process of
one or both. Are any two Christian texts really independent? Not all of them
borrow verbally from all the others, but many of them are probably aware, at
some remove, of at least some of the others. The argumentative or
refutational stance of much of the early Christian literature alone will
attest the degree of awareness (not always leading to passive acceptance)
within this body of writings. Thomas, for example, is undoubtedly an
enterprise of its own, but one which is at pains to give a special spin to
some already familiar stories about Jesus. It is parasitic on what I might
call the Gospel tradition. This is not the same as being independent of the
Date also plays a part. If a story (or an idea) occurs in several texts, but
all those texts are late (say, all of them Deutero- rather than Pauline
epistles), then all that proves is that the idea was popular at a late stage
in the evolutions (sic) of Christianities (also sic). Reducing that evidence
to the "multiple attestation" rubric throws away too much information. It is
not that appearance in more than one text is without interest, but rather
that it is not the only fact of which we need to be aware in interpreting
Jim West, as I read him, came near to recommending that all rules of thumb
be dumped. I think that may be a little drastic. I would rather see previous
experience preserved, just not as an .exe file. Thought is necessary to
successful application. On that, Housman and I agree. But it is still handy
to have something to apply in the first place.
CHRIS (After an intervening comment by Loren): I guess for me I have to
partially agree with Jim that universal application is hard without an
examination of each particular case. Which is why I would accept oaths going
back to Jesus if both James and Matthew contained it (although it's still
iffy, for example why doesn't Luke have it?) but not if James alone had it.
BRUCE: Again, this disregards the dates, and the other probable
circumstances, of the texts in question (and of those not in question). It
conspicuously omits Mark, not to mention the first and thus earliest layer
of the Didache. I would favor instead a look at the big scene.
THE BIG SCENE
To take the problem in its largest dimension, I think it is wrong to
approach this fairly large body of evidence asking only one question, in
this case, the HJ question. The evidence is prepared to tell us much more
than this, and if we let it tell us what it knows, say about the emergence
of the sacraments in early church history, or the variety of disputation
about the nature of Jesus, or the ways of accommodation of the early Jesus
groups to the insistently present world around them, or anything else that
they have in mind as the urgency of the moment, then we take a lot of the
undesirable heat out of the investigation. Some of the text material that
points to early church practice gets used up, so to speak, in documenting
that practice, and those pieces are that much less likely to be misapplied
to a question for which they are not really appropriate evidence.
This is what I mean by the maxim, Let the text ask its own questions, and
give its own answers. Let it give us hints about Peter, for instance, or the
Galilean churches, or the early days of Antioch (I would love to have a
videotape of Antioch in the year 31). Any lawyer knows better than to
interrogate Witness A in an attempt to establish Point B. In this sense, I
would like to see more lawyerish thinking in the NT discussions.
What does Jacob, for example, tell us? Nothing directly about the HJ, who
(except for two manifest interpolations) is not even mentioned. A fact which
scandalized Luther, and others before and since. But rather, most probably,
what a movement leader, perhaps in Galilee, thought it most important to
emphasize to some newly planted cell groups north of him, undoubtedly some
in Syria and probably also in more distant places, eg Edessa. These, at
least according to one interpretation of the evidence, are the zone of the
oldest Christianity. What the Galilean center was saying to the Syrian and
Edessine periphery, pretty early in the game, is a matter of intense
interest. I think it unwise to waterboard it in search of something else,
such as a biography of the HJ. Let it tell us what it happens to know, and
then take to ourselves, later on, the task of assembling that and everything
else into a picture. The picture will probably be largely one of the early
and middle development of the several early Christianities. Well, OK, that
is just where it happens to come out. From that, judiciously assembled and
carefully interpreted, it may become much more practical to try to detect
the original impulses, the HJ impulses, amidst all the others. If we should
then desire to do so.
The mathematicians know that you sometimes can't reach a desired result in
one jump. You need to work with intermediate stages (lemmas) instead: two or
three jumps rather than one jump. Their method is sanctioned by its
tremendous practical success. We might think of taking a hint from that
success. Maybe a one-year moratorium on talk of HJ, and a concentration on
anything and everything else, would do unanticipated wonders for the HJ
E Bruce Brooks
Warring States Project
University of Massachusetts at Amherst
- With regard to some of the items classed as "discontinuous"
I am not sure that discontinuity is the best term
for analysing the problematic criterion.
In its early stages what happened was that
form critics identified passages which belong
to a transitional stratum, which goes beyond
what it owes to Judaism, but without containing
formulations which are arrived at in early Christianity.
One could class this material as "transitional" though
that term was not, as far as I am aware, used in the
works which kicked off this kind of analysis of
Identifying passages or parts of passages which belong
to the transitional phase does seem to me to be
a viable and worthwhile way of proceeding.
David Mealand, University of Edinburgh
The University of Edinburgh is a charitable body, registered in
Scotland, with registration number SC005336.