Cc: CGC (Comparative History Discussion)
In Response To: Joe Weaks
On: Theory and Method
[Preface for the comparative law people on the CGC list: this is one item in
an NT exchange which, as it evolved, I thought might be suggestive for legal
history. It is copied to you accordingly. Would those who know the JDEP
theory of the origin of Jewish law, and its historical consequences, as I do
not, care to comment? / Bruce]
I suspect that this exchange may be wearying the NT many. I add this note
nevertheless, since I feel importantly about the distinction (under whatever
names, and I am open to better ones) between what I would call theory and
Method, to me, is the toolkit. It is the list of devices one learns in, say,
Metzger's Text of the New Testament. This is not so much a set of
conclusions about the manuscripts, or about the text of the NT as deduced
from the best manuscripts (Metzger does touch on these things, but for a
full-fledged theory of the NT text, one goes instead to something like
Westcott and Hort, 1882 and reprints), as a list of stuff to watch for when
working on those problems. Prominent among them is the error canon, the list
of mistakes which experience shows scribes are likely to make. Knowing those
likely errors sensitizes the beginner by appropriating a huge amount of
other people's experience (Griesbach's caution that "lectio brevior potior"
does not mean that scribes ALWAYS expand, and so on, is very well taken, at
all points). Method has no content.
Theory, on the other hand, as I understand it, is a view of a particular
text or corpus arrived at after using method (or by serendipity, or any
other way). It offers an explanatory model. It proposes to explain, to
account for. Theory has content; content is the whole point and power of
JOE: Most of what you said about your method is in fact what I meant by
"theory"-- it is theoretical. The point of examining practical implication
follows the theory-- it's the "so what".
BRUCE: I have no problem with the idea that once we have arrived at a theory
(in the above sense: an explanatory model), we need to ask, what are the
consequences if it is true? I think it is well established in the sciences
that a theory without consequences is nugatory, since it cannot be tested by
observing those consequences. As for method being "true," it is a
contradiction in terms. Method can at most be helpful in trying to arrive at
truth. Method is not an answer, it is a way of reaching answers. For that
reason, it cannot be tested, and thus cannot be refuted (though it is always
subject to being better observed). Thus, refuting a particular theory of
Gospel origins, or establishing that a given passage is not after all an
interpolation, and so on, would leave the methodological the observation
that scribes often expand still standing, and unaffected. The country doctor
might misdiagnose a given case of influenza, but his thermometer will still
work. Method is what tells him to use the thermometer.
JOE: I think of JDEP in Hebrew Bible introductory texts... it ruled the day
as THE means for
understanding the majority of texts, but in recent introductions, JDEP is
introduced without any "so what".
BRUCE: JDEP (as I understand it, the idea that not Moses, but four different
persons represented by the letters J, D, E, and P, wrote the first five
books of the OT) strikes me as precisely a theory - a conclusion after
examination, including an examination of the names for God in particular
segments of text. JDEP has content, it says something about the Pentateuch.
Whether the JDEP theory is presented in a given book AS a theory, or
silently accepted as an assured fact, may reflect one way or another on the
author of that book, but it doesn't change the status of JDEP as a theory.
JDEP isn't a method by which one investigates any other problem (though, if
found valid, it might be suggestive as a precedent for seemingly analogous
cases). It is rather a theory whose point is limited to explaining (or if
one prefers, and conservative denominations apparently do prefer, offering
to explain) one particular problem: the origin of the Mosaic law.
I should think that JDEP can be tested by its consequences, like any theory.
I am out of my element here, and off-topic for the list to boot, for which
apologies, but for instance: If the JDEP explanatory model is true, what
sort of historical picture emerges? Do the successive layers of law in that
model make sense as social evolution, or as a response to social evolution?
Can we form from the JDEP model a picture of an evolving Israel, and is
there any collateral evidence that would either support or refute that
picture? Is there seeming contact with the law codes or organizing documents
of any contiguous civilization, and does the interchronology work out right?
Stuff like that.
At which point one calls in the comparative law people and asks them: Does
this make sense to you? The previous philology, the work that noted a
certain distribution of J and E in those OT books, is not subject to that
kind of verification (instead, it is subject to correction by more accurate
observation). Method teaches us to pay attention to distributions. But no
distribution becomes a theory until it has been judged significant, and made
into a scenario for the emergence of the material in question.
Or so it looks from here. Better terms, and better explication of these
terms, are always welcome. And if anyone would like to recommend a book as
the current best exposition of NT or NT-relevant philological method (I
already have Maas and West, and obviously Metzger), I am listening.
E Bruce Brooks
Research Professor of Chinese
Warring States Project
University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Synoptic-L Homepage: http://www.bham.ac.uk/theology/synoptic-l
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