I’ll try to complete Paul-Louis Couchoud’s explanations for the second-century productions of the canonical New Testament literature starting here with his discussion of Acts. For those who enjoy the stimulation of new (even if old) ideas to spark fresh thoughts, read on.
I left off my earlier series on Couchoud’s thoughts on Gospel origins with his argument that the Gospel of Luke was the last Gospel written and was primarily a response to Marcion. The final remarks in that post were:
On the Emmaus Road Marcion had Jesus remind the travellers that Christ must suffer. Luke goes further and adds that Jesus began with Moses and taught them all that the Prophets said must happen to Christ.
Marcion’s Gospel closed with the words:
Thus it was that the Christ should suffer, And rise again from the dead the third day And that there be preached in his name Repentance and remission of sins to all the nations.
Luke saw what was not said so added:
These are my words that I spoke While I was yet with you; How that all things must needs be fulfilled as it is written In the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms of me. Then opened he their mind To understand the Scriptures.
Thus Jesus’ final teaching links up with the first. Marcion is refuted. The Old Testament and Gospel are not in opposition. The Gospel is found in the Old Testament.
Recall that it was Couchoud’s suspicion that the real author of this Gospel and its companion, Acts, was Clement of Rome. So to continue on from there:
Edited conclusion and added the last paragraph since first posting this.
This is not about mythicism versus the historicity of Jesus. It makes no difference to me if Jesus was a revolutionary or a rabbi, lived 100 b.c.e., 30 c.e. or was philosophical-theological construct. All of that is completely irrelevant for assessing the validity of the fundamentals of how historians [ideally/should] work with sources. From what I have read of mythicist literature I think that few mythicists are any more informed of the basics of how a historian ought to approach sources than are most theologians and other historical Jesus scholars. Theologians have taken the lead in biblical studies and others approaching this field have fallen in step with the methods they have bequeathed.
Unfortunately theologians generally have the most to lose ideologically from any change in their methods and so are likely to be the most antagonistic to any criticism of their methods that comes from outside their guild. Not that valid historical methods will necessarily mean the demise of the historicity of Jesus. Far from it! But I do believe that valid historical methods will at least open up the question to potentially greater respectability; they will also make greater intellectual demands on theologians to justify their hypotheses and assumptions. Maybe there lies the great fear.
Recently I have posted a few extracts from historians giving basic advice on how historians should approach their sources. “From Reliable Sources” by Howell and Prevenier looks primarily (not exclusively) at written sources and Vansina is an authority on history derived from oral sources. Since I placed these quotations beside those of a theologian who asserts strenuously (though consistently with zero supporting evidence) that theologians do just what other mainstream historians do, I was accused of misrepresenting both the historians’ works I quoted and his own words that I quoted in full. It was even suggested I had not even read the books along with the sly hint that since I was a “lowly librarian” I was not qualified to quote anyone or comment on an academic question anyway. Such are the cerebral (intestinal?) responses from those who reluctantly look into a verbal mirror placed before them by one whose otherwise unrelated conclusions they despise (fear?).
The touchstone of all historical interpretation of a source is knowing its provenance. Yet this is the first hurdle historical Jesus scholars crash into. Historical Jesus scholars bypass the basic standards historians normally apply when approaching their sources and rely entirely on circular reasoning to establish what they need to support their hypotheses.
Let’s look again at what are the basics any historian worth his or her salt should first establish in order to know how to interpret a document and understand what sort of information can be validly gleaned from it.
Two caveats to the above, though.
An increasing number of scholars, no doubt theologians among them, are now embracing valid historical methodology in relation to the Old Testament.
Further, there are good histories and bad histories, diligent historians and lazy historians. My yardstick in this post for what constitutes good history is taken from works I have discussed in recent posts — an introduction to graduate students about to undertake serious historical research and various editions of an authority on oral history.
Certain Basic Matters
Here is some of what I quoted from Howell and Prevenier in my earlier post:
In order for a source to be used as evidence in a historical argument, certain basic matters about its form and content must be settled. (p. 43, emphasis mine)
Contrary to the understanding of a few theologians oral historian Jan Vansina does NOT use the “criterion of embarrassment” in the same way as a number of historical Jesus scholars do. His discussion of embarrassment in fact supports the arguments of those scholars who argue the criterion is invalid!
I asked Dr McGrath for a page reference in Vansina that supported his claims that historical Jesus scholars draw from oral history their justification for their use of the “criterion of embarrassment”. He replied with Oral History, pp. 83, 84. (I can tell immediately he has read this book because he did not put its title in quotation marks — a sure giveaway.) This in fact is not the same book I read or quoted from but another, more recent, one (2009), much of which is available online. So I replied with this:
Thank you for the reference. This is not from the book or edition I was quoting or the one I have at hand (1985) but your reference refers to the title available online. . . . [I leave interested readers to consult the relevant pages I discuss below for themselves.]
You would have been more informative in your post had you pointed out that what Vansina is saying on page 83 of the work you cite is that an oral tradition is unlikely to have been falsified if it runs counter to the purpose for which the tradition is told. Yet on the other hand, in the same paragraph, Vansina goes on to explain that it is possible to argue that the tales do not run so very counter to the purpose for which they are told, and cites their supernatural or narrative coherence. And on page 82 Vansina explains how important it is to know thoroughly the details of the cultural interests of the people and their institutions where the oral tradition is found. So how does one know the purposes for which the oral tradition is told? Answer: By knowing the provenance of the oral tradition. That is, knowing (Vansina would say knowing intimately) the values and interests of those who are performing the tradition.
This is exactly the argument against the validity of the criterion of embarrassment. Scholars who critique the validity of this criterion point out that we do not know the details — the provenance — of the original composition of, say, the baptism of Jesus. What was clearly embarrassing for later authors and institutions may not have been embarrassing for the original composers of a tale.
But thank you for a stimulating exchange.
But reading Vansina’s reference to logical inferences from embarrassment in the larger context of his entire argument — not just cherry-picking convenient references from a page or two, but understanding those pages in the context of the argument of the entire book — makes it as clear as day that Vansina is assessing historical probability with the aid of standard historical “tools” commonly applied by historians generally. Vansina is relying on the very same “tools” as used by historians dealing with written sources. Embarrassment is not one of these tools but is an inference drawn from the application of the basic tools. I quoted his plain statement to this effect in my previous post and repeat it here: Continue reading “Oral History does NOT support “criterion of embarrassment””
Recently a theologian helpfully advised me to do a bit of background reading on how historians work generally in order to come to see that historical Jesus scholars do work by the same principles as applied by historians generally. So I did. I shared what I read there about the basics of how historians ought to approach their documents in How Historians Work – Lessons for historical Jesus scholars.
The same theologian was even kind enough to subsequently recommend that I read a work by oral historian Jan Vansina in order to understand that historians “adapt” or “refine” standard principles in order to make them fit the special requirements where, say, written sources are very scarce. The point of this exercise was for me to learn that if I see theologians using something not exactly the same as I see in other history books, then I was to understand that if historians do not have a rich abundance of written materials they do indeed “refine” or “adapt” principles so that they can work with that scarcity of evidence.
So I did that, too. I chose Jan Vansina’s “Oral Tradition as History” (1985) and his earlier “Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology”.
Before I continue I should say that the idea that any historian “refines” basic methods such as “external attestation” or the need to establish provenance before knowing how to interpret a text for certain types of historical information quite confused me. My own understanding has always been that historians merely limit and change the questions they can ask so that the tried and true tools they use can still be used validly. They don’t “refine” their tools to enable them to get more answers than the sources would otherwise allow. That has certainly been my understanding as a student of both ancient and modern history. From my experience there is nothing different in principle at all — no refinements or adaptations of what are really basic logical “tools” — but only the fact that historians of ancient times can never hope to know the sorts of details about events or people as they can know for the well-documented recent past.
But the theologian insisted I was in the wrong and that if I read Vansina I would see that historians do indeed “refine” and “adapt” their methods to fit their “needs”. They are applied differently, he has said.
John Van Seters is of the view that the Biblical narrative of David is a composite of two narrative strands: one by a “Deuteronomistic Historian” (Dtr) who in essence has little but good to say about David — he is God’s faithful servant, etc. — and a later thread by one writing in the period of the Persian empire. This latter author had a much more cynical view of David, or at least opted to portray David as a typical exemplar of all that Samuel forewarned would go wrong with Israel if they chose a king to replace God (via the judges like Samuel himself) as their leader. Here I outline his discussion of The Bathsheba Affair in The Biblical Saga of King David. It is more than about dating the narrative to the Persian empire period, though. Van Seters makes some interesting observations about the intent of the author to undermine any respect for David as an ideal king.
Context: War with the Ammonites
This war against the Ammonites stands out from all the other foreign wars of David by the way in which it pays attention to particular details. First, it deals with the casus belli for the war in [2 Sam] 10:1-5, something that in Dtr’s treatment of foreign wars needs no such explanation. (p. 287)
For Van Seters the Deuteronomist historian (Dtr) always portrays David as going to war in the service of God. They are holy wars against God’s enemies and need no other explanation. So note the difference with this one:
1 In the course of time, the king of the Ammonites died, and his son Hanun succeeded him as king. 2 David thought, “I will show kindness to Hanun son of Nahash, just as his father showed kindness to me.” So David sent a delegation to express his sympathy to Hanun concerning his father.
When David’s men came to the land of the Ammonites, 3 the Ammonite commanders said to Hanun their lord, “Do you think David is honoring your father by sending envoys to you to express sympathy? Hasn’t David sent them to you only to explore the city and spy it out and overthrow it?” 4 So Hanun seized David’s envoys, shaved off half of each man’s beard, cut off their garments at the buttocks, and sent them away.
5 When David was told about this, he sent messengers to meet the men, for they were greatly humiliated. The king said, “Stay at Jericho till your beards have grown, and then come back.”
Dtr would never have approved of David having a solemn friendship understanding with the pagan king Nahash. But apart from this it is quite anomalous to suggest here that David did have such a friendship at all since in the days of Saul Nahash and his Ammonites were the most bitter enemies of Israel (1 Samuel 11; 31:11-13).
Recently a theologian kindly advised me to do a bit of background reading on how historians work (specifically to read chapter one of From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods by Martha Howell & Walter Prevenier) in order to come to see that historical Jesus scholars do work by the same principles that all other historians generally use.
As I recall, after the last time you claimed . . . that New Testament scholars working on historical questions use different methods than other historians, or that I had failed to adequately articulate my methods and those of the guild, I referred you to Howell and Prevenier’sFrom Reliable Sources. Chapter One would serve you well, and get you clued in on the basics that seem to still elude you. (Comment by Dr James McGrath)
But chapter one addresses only the nature of what is widely called “primary sources” by historians (archaeological remains and direct testimonies, including oral reports. This chapter focusses
exclusively on the type of resources that most other research guides call primary sources. (From Review by Ronald H. Fritze in The Sixteenth Century Journal XXXIII/4 (2002), p. 1248)
This is the very evidence we lack for historical Jesus studies.
But chapter two does indeed address in detail how historians should approach the written sources (in this case “secondary sources”) we do have for Jesus.
Misunderstood lesson from Chapter One
Unfortunately my theologian advisor had not read chapter two and insisted that it really was chapter one that I needed to read because, he explained, it mentioned “oral traditions”. Sorry, sir, but that chapter does not as far as I can see use the phrase “oral traditions”, though it does speak of orality as a primary source — that is, it refers to genuinely oral communication as heard by the researcher in the here and now. The chapter thus refers to “oral reports”, “oral evidence”, “oral sources”, “oral communication”, “oral acts”, “oral witnessing”. HJ scholars do not have any evidence like this for Jesus. The early Christian evidence is all written and literary, not oral, and it is all secondary, not primary. If there had been any oral reports relaying the narratives of Christianity before the Gospels appeared they are all lost now and researchers must rely upon secondary written evidence alone. They may attempt to uncover what they believe are “oral traditions” behind that secondary written source but that is not the type of primary “oral source” that Howell and Prevenier (H&P) are discussing in chapter one. The only sources available are written and secondary.
An extract from an oriental raisin tree – a compound called DHM – has proved its worth as an alcohol antidote in a series of experiments on rats. . . .
But she says those dreaming of a magic antidote to drinking too much can think again. The presence of DHM also reduced the cravings for alcohol – a factor that Dr Liang says could prove invaluable in treating alcoholism in humans. . . .
John Van Seters in The Biblical Saga of King David offers arguments that much of the biblical narrative about King David was composed in the period of the Persian empire. Snippets from this work cannot possibly do justice to those arguments. So I am not presenting this as evidence of the Persian provenance of the story of David, but only as an illustration of how a highly respected biblical scholar comes to conclude that a particular narrative in the Bible — in this case the tale of David’s capture of Jerusalem — is neither based on official archives nor at all historical. Generally concluding comments in parentheses within each section are my own summaries.)
The scripture for this lesson is 2 Samuel 5:6-12:
6And the king and his men went to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who spoke unto David, saying, “Unless thou take away the blind and the lame, thou shalt not come in hither,” thinking, “David cannot come in hither.”
7Nevertheless David took the stronghold of Zion (the same is the City of David).
8And David said on that day, “Whosoever getteth up through the gutter [water shaft] and smiteth the Jebusites, and the lame and the blind, who are hated in David’s soul, he shall be chief and captain.” Therefore they said, “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.“
9So David dwelt in the fortress/stronghold, and called it the City of David. And David built round about from the Millo and inward.
10And David went on and grew great, and the LORD God of hosts was with him.
11And Hiram king of Tyre sent messengers to David, and cedar trees and carpenters and masons; and they built David a house.
12And David perceived that the LORD had established him king over Israel, and that He had exalted his kingdom for His people Israel’s sake.
Van Seters begins his discussion with:
There are many enigmatic elements within this short unit that have elicited a great amount of speculation and debate. . . . (p. 214)
The following points about the biblical narrative of David are taken from The Biblical Saga of King David (2009) by the eminent scholar John Van Seters. Not that this post reflects the purpose or theme of Van Seters’ study. I am focusing on a small segment in a much larger study that analyses both the archaeological research relating to the Davidic period and the Davidic literature. Van Seters believes the evidence points to the Saga of King David being composed in the Persian period. But I leave those arguments aside for now.
2 Samuel lists dozens of named officials, military officers and sons that to the average modern reader are so boring they have to be genuinely official records!
Van Seters references Nadav Na’aman (1996) who thinks the following lists must be derived from authentic written records. (“No-one would make them up”):
Why, when different religions meet, does syncretism sometimes follow? What need does it fulfil? This was the question in the minds of Claude Orrieux and Édouard Will in Ioudaïsmos — Hellenismos; essai sur le judaïsme judéen a l’époque hellénistique, 1986, when they sought to understand the religious reactions of Judeans living in Judea when faced with acculturation pressure from Greek colonization in the wake of Alexander’s conquests. I am drawing this discussion from Philippe Wajdenbaum’s Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible, 2011. (These posts are archived here.)
That those peoples conquered by the Greeks and who embraced Greek religion the need met may seem obvious.
For the peoples who submitted to the Greeks, adopting Greek religion was a means of joining the ranks of their masters. (p. 40)
Before continuing, it is important to address another name appearing in this discussion — that of political anthropologist Georges Balandier. Balandier, as I understand from this outline, posits 4 possible reactions of peoples faced with acculturation:
Active acceptance or collaboration with the new powers; the peoples embrace the culture and lifestyles of the new masters.
Passive acceptance by the masses; people allow themselves to be dominated.
Passive opposition, such as fleeing, passive resistance, anxiety, expressed through utopian or messianic hopes and dreams.
Active opposition, which is not simply a rejection of the dominant culture, but often consists of using some aspect of the ruling culture as a weapon against the new masters.
This post continues from my post some weeks ago in which I covered primarily Philippe Wajdenbaum’s account of the rise of the Documentary Hypothesis. At that time in one of the comments I explained I had paused to take stock of how best to address the challenge that has arisen against the Documentary Hypothesis. This is a study I undertook some years ago and so thoroughly enjoyed that it is easy for me to cover way too much detail. Maybe I will have to return to address some of the specifics in separate posts later. Once this is out of the way I would like to post another explaining how political anthropology offers a cogent explanation for the character of the biblical books as Hellenistic productions.
First, to recap the Documentary Hypothesis. This is the idea that the Old Testament was essentially a result of four separate sources that were originally written over a span of some centuries:
a Jahwist/Yahwist (J) written in the southern kingdom of Judah around the time of Solomon – 10th century bce / later shifted to the Babylonian Exile period:
Gerhard von Rad in 1944 “considers the time of Solomonic enlightenment to contain all the prerequisites for literary production, including history writing. It was first of all a time of political stability and economic prosperity. On top of this came the need of a new state to provide a history of its past. Finally the creative impetus following in the wake of the establishment of an Israelite state created this new literature.”
Subsequent scholarship revised this, arguing that “External circumstances were thought to provide the most likely background for this kind of literature.” (pp. 158-9 of The Israelites in History and Tradition, Niels Peter Lemche)
an Elohist (E) composed in the northern kingdom of Israel – 9th or 8th century bce
a Deuteronomist (D) in the southern kingdom of Judah at time of Josiah – late 7th century bce
a Priestly source (P) during the Babylonian Exile – 6th century bce
The dating of the sources is central to the hypothesis:
Essential to the history of scholarship expressed in Wellhausen’s synthesis [the DH is the result of W’s synthesis of two generations of OT historical-critical scholarship] was that these four discrete sources of the pentateuch were to be understood as literary documents created at the time of their written composition, and hence as compositions reflecting the understanding and knowledge of their authors and their world. (p. 2 of Early History of the Israelite People from the Written & Archaeological Sources, by Thomas L. Thompson.)
This meant, for example, that the Pentateuch was not a reliable source for the events it narrates, such as the Patriarchal period and Exodus.
But in recent decades biblical scholars are not so united in their acceptance of this explanation for the Bible or “Old Testament” portion of it.
Basically, the old consensus that had developed around the Documentary Hypothesis has gone, though there is nothing to take its place (Rendtorff 1997; Whybray 1987). Some still accept the Documentary Hypothesis in much its original form, but many accept only aspects of it or at least put a question mark by it. There has also been much debate around the J source (Rendtorff 1997: 53-5) and the P source (Grabbe 1997). It seems clear that the Pentateuch was put together in the Persian period (Grabbe 2004:331-43; 2006). (p. 44 of Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It? by Lester L. Grabbe)