I have recently caught up with Sara Park’s PhD contribution to New Testament studies, Spiritual Equals: Women in the Q Gender Pairs. I understand that Parks has rewritten much of the thesis to make it more palatable for a general readership: Gender in the Rhetoric of Jesus: Women in Q.
James McGrath interviewed Sara Parks about her book:
Parks is a new scholar in the field and I found some of her discussion interesting insofar as it might shed some light on “the making” of a biblical scholar. (I have engaged with Sara Parks going by the blog name of Dr Sarah in comments on this blog but had not known at that time that she was a scholar of religion.)
A question that struck me as I began to read the thesis was how one could justify using a hypothetical document as a primary source for reconstructing slithers of a historical Jesus and his earliest followers. James McGrath raised the question that Q sceptics are going to ask: Does her book fall to pieces if there is no Q? Parks answers that question in her thesis and its published book version:
The gendered pairs form part of what Jesus scholars deem to be authentic material that dates back to his Galilean career. With or without Q the parallel parable pairs are sayings that text critics, redaction critics and historical Jesus scholars connect with Jesus. Their importance as deliberately gender-aware and in their way a gender levelling evidence remains.
[My transcript of Sara Parks podcast reading from her book]
Or more technically, from her thesis:
. . . [T]his project is significant whether one goes so far as to stratify Q in the footsteps of Kloppenborg, or doubts its very existence in the footsteps of Goodacre. As Schottroff writes of her work on women in the Q pairs, “the results should be equally useful for those who presume a distinction between Q1 and Q2 and for those who doubt the very existence of Q. They all may read the following discussion as a description of some central elements of the Jesus movement or of the message of Jesus.” 383 The present project is the first book-length work in English to treat the parallel parable pairs of Q with a view to the ways in which these pairs not only uncover some realities of women in the earliest Jesus movements, but also something of Jesus of Nazareth’s attitude toward them. Its findings concur with those of the French monograph to examine the pairs for this purpose, wherein Denis Fricker concludes that a pairing of female figures with male figures is a process undertaken by Jesus himself384 and that the pairs “seem to have been an original and remarkable mode of expression in the discourse of the historical Jesus.” 385 However, my findings diverge from Fricker’s where he finds the pairs “firmly rooted in Semitic poetry” and “their argumentation … in Hellenistic rhetoric. 386 I assert instead that the pairs achieve clear rhetorical uniqueness.
383. L. Schrottoff, “The Sayings Source Q” ; 384, 385, 386. Fricker, Quand Jésus Parle au Masculin-Féminin, pp. 377, 380, 79
(Parks’ thesis, 158f)
To my way of thinking it seems, then, that Q is not necessary for Parks’ exploration of Jesus’ thoughts on women as spiritual and intellectual equals with men. The addition of Q surely is an unnecessary hypothesis if scholars are convinced that the same sayings are authentic to Jesus even without Q. Yet note that even without Q there is said to be a consensus of some certainty about what Jesus actually said. It is what lies at the foundation of that confidence that strikes me as setting biblical studies apart from other historical studies.
As Parks’ thesis entered into a survey of Q sceptics, in particular Mark Goodacre, I began to anticipate a presentation of her reasons Goodacre and any revival of the Farrer thesis was mistaken. But the work has already been done according to Parks and there was no need for her to repeat it. She writes:
Goodacre has been refuted point by point by a number of scholars, including J. Kloppenborg (e.g. “On Dispensing with Q: Goodacre on the Relation of Luke to Matthew” NTS 49 : 210–236.
“Refute” is an ambiguous word. It can mean either to prove a statement is wrong or it can mean to argue against a statement. Does Parks mean the former? The “point by point” phrase seems to indicate Goodacre’s case has been demolished brick by brick. If so, one might reasonably respond that Kloppenborg’s refutation has been equally “refuted point by point” by Stephen Carlson in a series of posts on his blog Hypotyposeis beginning in September 2004. Ongoing publications challenging Q in recent years additionally indicates that Kloppenborg has not “refuted” Goodacre in the sense of “disproving” the Farrer thesis.
What interests me here is a scholar’s confidence in academic consensus as if consensus itself is a secure enough foundation for one’s work. No doubt consensus on certain foundations is important when it comes to expecting one’s work to find peer acceptance. Yet many lay outsiders, at least, want the scholars to explain how we know certain things, or what is the logic and evidence that underlies a consensus. Too often too many biblical scholars at this point resort to telling the unwashed of the necessity to learn several ancient languages and undertake years of training in specialist qualifications. But I submit that we don’t get those sorts of answers when it comes to questions about history in nonbiblical areas. We have, for instance, very good reasons (certain kinds of independent and contemporary writings) for believing Socrates existed and taught as some kind of “sophist”. The evidence is not bedrock solid (the surviving manuscripts are late, for example) and a few have at times raised the question of his existence but on balance (especially when we factor in the explanatory power of subsequent literary references on top of the earlier sources) we can say that multiple independent and contemporary sources testify to his historicity. That sort of evidence is strong enough to allow us to overcome scepticism for the moment and accept Socrates’ historicity. Scepticism demands good, clear answers. Scepticism has served us well since the Enlightenment, I think. (I’ll address certain appeals to postmodernist challenges below.)
Where scepticism is really hip right now
So my ears pricked when I heard Sara Parks and James McGrath appearing to belittle the role of scepticism.
Q is one of those points in New Testament scholarship where scepticism is really hip right now. [McGrath at this point murmurs agreement], and a lot of people rush to ask me “What if there’s no Q? Your book is [then] useless.” But honestly, I’m not sure of a single area of NT research that isn’t based on hypotheses that we have to work with. The dates of the text, the authorship of Pauline/post Paulines, the synagogue expulsion theory around John, Marcan priority, the demographics of audience: was this book written for primarily Jewish or primarily non-Jewish audiences? In a way, it’s all guesswork and it’s normal for NT scholars to settle with the hypotheses with which they’re comfortable. And to me at this point, Q is a text — when the Hermeneia series publishes a critical edition, when every [student?] goes to college, they’ve got to learn about the Q hypothesis. That’s enough for me.
[My transcript of Sara Parks podcast interview]
Those last four words reverberated in my head. I have a different starting point from Parks and I think many other interested lay readers do, too. What I mean will become clearer so let me backtrack a moment and try to set out what I understand to be our different worlds.
Sara Parks is unquestionably dedicated to advancing women’s causes and interests through biblical studies. Finding a historical Jesus who supports her quest at some point is not going to come as a surprise. I think it was Mark Goodacre (surely others, too) who have pointed out that one major attraction of the Q hypothesis is that it seems to bring us closer to the historical Jesus than Paul’s letters or the later gospels allow. (But even this assumption that Q originated with a historical Jesus is one more layer of untested hypothesis on the former.)
Kloppenborg points out that it is technically incorrect to call Q a hypothesis:
. . . Q . . . is not a hypothesis on its own, despite those who tirelessly refer to ‘the Q hypothesis’. Rather, Q is a corollary of the hypotheses of Markan priority and the independence of Matthew and Luke, since it is then necessary to account for the material that Matthew and Luke have in common but which they did not take from Mark.
(Kloppenborg, On Dispensing with Q, 211)
NT scholars indeed work with so many hypotheses. A leading Q scholar, Kloppenborg, goes too far, surely, though, when he appears to affirm that the Gospel of Mark itself is “equally” with Q a hypothetical document:
John P. Meier advises: ‘. . . biblical scholarship would be greatly advanced if every morning all exegetes would repeat as a mantra: “Q is a hypothetical document.” ’ Meier’s exhortation is well taken but also bespeaks confusion. Q is indeed a hypothetical document. Equally hypothetical, however, are Matthew and Luke’s dependence upon Mark, something that Meier (along with Farrer and Goulder) apparently did not think it worthwhile calling ‘hypothetical’. These too might be added to Meier’s mantra. For that matter, the text that we call ‘Mark’ is a hypothetical document. It is reconstructed on the basis of dozens of manuscripts, none earlier than the beginning of the third century CE. The substance lent to the text of Mark by the printing presses of the Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft should not be allowed to disguise the fact that ‘Mark’ is not an extant document, but a text that is reconstructed from much later manuscripts with the help of hypotheses developed to account for the numerous disagreements between those manuscripts and the text-critical criteria that flow from those hypotheses.
But of course, we do have manuscripts with versions of the Gospel of Mark in hand and we have second-century testimony of its existence. We have neither for Q. Kloppenborg would be more accurate to speak of hypothetical versions of a document and hypothetical earlier versions of the gospels that are in themselves clearly more than hypothetical. (Kloppenborg later points out a mistake of confusing data with a hypothesis but unless I have misunderstood something I think he has done something similar himself here.)
But much is hypothetical and we can only make (educated) guesses about the original form of the Gospel of Mark. Yet too often we see biblical scholars hanging entire hypothesis upon their certainty that a certain word or phrase in a fourth-century manuscript was unarguably what the original author surely wrote despite lack of supporting evidence in the discussions of that source among the Church Fathers.
In the light of the tentative nature of so much of our knowledge Parks rightly stresses the need for scholarly humility:
Those who continue to identify as historical-critical scholars in postmodernity must do so with the humility that comes with the degradation of the notion of objectivity. . . . . The current project puts historical-critical methods to work in the ethical interests of elucidating women’s history, and with the humility that comes with insecure foundations.
. . . .
The process of moving from ancient literary data to ancient socio-historical realities is one which requires great humility and caution.
(pp. 17 and 21)
Kloppenborg would agree with these sentiments:
It is true that some have incautiously presented Q as though it were an assured result of research rather than the corollary of the hypothesis of Markan priority and the independence of Matthew and Luke. Willi Marxsen once ventured:
[t]his Two-Sources theory [sic] has been so widely accepted by scholars that one feels inclined to abandon the term ‘theory’ (in the sense of ‘hypothesis’). We can in fact regard it as an assured finding – but we must bear in mind that there are inevitable uncertainties as far as the extent and form of Q and the special material are concerned.
Happily it is now difficult to find similar expressions of rhetorical bravado in favour of the 2DH. . . . these sorts of overstatements and the conversion of hypotheses into ‘facts’ by sheer dint of repetition or by logical sleight of hand . . . .
(Kloppenborg, 214. K goes on to make similar complaints about some opponents of “the Q hypothesis”.)
Sara Parks speaks of scholarly humility even while effectively treating Q as something more than a hypothesis (or corollary to a hypothesis). Is there not some confusion here?
I imagine biblical studies, especially New Testament studies, attracts a fair number of students who are driven by a passion to make Christianity relevant and to advance the faith in some way. Initial naivety is presumably toned down as more sophisticated versions of faith are learned but the cause, the ideal, the evangelistic drive, seems to remain at some level. I was thrown aback hen one prominent NT scholar (Mahlon Smith) on a discussion forum some years back sent me a message asking me bluntly where I stood with respect to Jesus — meaning personally, in belief, in faith! I had naively assumed that NT scholars would be beyond that sort of thing. But then I have to remember that it is no secret that a good number of biblical scholars also don clerical robes and preach from pulpits, others just preach at Sunday schools, and some write passionately about “the faith”. Parks further seems to underscore her primary interest in advancing an ethical cause and warns against too much preoccupation with a certain side to the intellectual foundations:
. … I have no interest in [arguing?] in public over the hypotheses I use. I do have an interest in gender and early Judaism and those who keep asking me, Oh but what about the Farrer hypothesis? — in my opinion they risk sidelining women’s scholarship on gender and on gender with the historical Jesus, which is a lot of what’s happening right now in Q.
[My transcript of Sara Parks podcast interview]
What I sense here is that the Q hypothesis has been accepted in a way that it functions as a “fact” or “primary source” because it is the “consensus hypothesis”. I have to wonder: Is the foremost interest of some scholars an ideological or ethical cause or message that the traditional gospel story at some level is used to convey? Is this what some critics have referred to when they have protested that biblical historical scholarship is often theology in disguise?
I do not argue against advancing ethical ideals, of course. That’s a good part of what anthropological and sociological studies are all about: getting to the bottom of what makes some parts of our societies so dysfunctional and proposing sound courses of action to remedy the problems. My point is that what is said to be “historical Jesus” scholarship follows its own rules that are alien to other fields of historical studies.
And that brings me back to addressing what is said to be a postmodernist challenge to the assumptions and methods of historians.
“Postmodernism” and the methodological foundations of historical Jesus studies
I am aware that certain postmodernist ideas in historical studies are being applied to historical Jesus or Christian origins scholarship to justify proceeding on insecure foundations. Yet as I have pointed out elsewhere, some of that postmodernist thought is misapplied. The views of Hayden White, the historian reputed to have introduced the postmodernist challenge into historical studies, have been misapplied by some New Testament scholars to justify the entirely hypothetical foundations of Christian origins and reliance solely upon the “most plausible” narrative. I addressed this misapplication of White’s views in my recent post on M. David Litwa’s discussion in Review, conclusion #2. What White said was insecure were conceptualizations and interpretations of persons and events in the past. He did not dispute the evident “facts” of, say, the existence of Hitler or the historicity of World War 2, or the existence, say, of Cicero and the reality of the Roman empire.
Historical Jesus studies are unique among historical studies more generally, as far as I have been able to determine, in that they rest on nothing but “hypotheses” and “possibilities” and “plausibilities” all the way down. That is not the case with other ancient figures universally accepted by as historical by the relevant scholars. Unlike the case with other ancient figures deemed historical,
- Jesus does not indisputably appear in any early sources whose credibility is regularly confirmed by independent primary (as in material, stone, coins) evidence;
- Jesus does not appear as the subject of writings that are confirmed to be independent sources;
- Jesus does not appear in literature whose provenance and/or authorship is well enough known to provide us with confidence that the details we read go back to contemporary sources.
In other words, we have virtually certain grounds for believing in the historicity of “obscure” persons like Tiro (Cicero’s slave) and Publius Vinicius (the stammering rhetorical competitor of Seneca) yet we lack the same certainty, the same quality of evidence, in the sources for the historicity of Jesus. (For a list and links to posts that address this question in depth see Historical Methods (with reference to the study of Christian Origins/Historicity of Jesus). I don’t think even many historians in other fields have thought too deeply about “how we know certain persons existed” at a general level because the evidence they usually work on persons and events for which there is clear and secure evidence at least to be able to say they did exist or did happen. It is not correct to simply say that we know persons existed by what has been written about their deeds and sayings as some biblical scholars have asserted. No. Historians have ways of distinguishing between historical persons and mythical or fabricated persons even though our sources document what each type of figure did and said. Lay people are quite justified in asking biblical scholars “but how do we know Q or Jesus existed?” It is not correct, however, to give the impression that biblical figures and events in this respect are on an equal footing with other ancient figures and events.
Now it does not follow that Jesus was not a historical figure. As Thomas L. Thompson warned in a recent interview, mythicists are sometimes too quick to jump to the conclusion that Jesus did not exist. They grasp too quickly at arguments that are not sufficient to support their conclusions. If you are not so sure, consider this syllogism:
Because of X, Y and Z we have confidence in the historicity of certain ancient figures;
The Jesus figure does not have X, Y and Z;
Therefore we cannot have confidence in the historicity of the Jesus figure.
It doesn’t follow, does it. There might be other reasons to strongly suspect the historicity of the Jesus figure.
What I regret is that a few (too many) biblical scholars do not approach the evidence and methods with the humility that Sara Parks wrote about. Some do. Raphael Lataster dedicated his book to Philip R. Davies whose work on ancient Israel we have discussed here several times now. (The link is to his essay on the scholarly attitudes towards the “christ myth theory”.) Sara Parks’ words about scholarly humility before an honest acknowledgement of the real nature of our evidence are admirable. That’s what Davies was calling for, too. Humility sets aside any need for hostility.
The new collection of essays Is This Not the Carpenter represents something of the agenda I have had in mind: surely the rather fragile historical evidence for Jesus of Nazareth should be tested to see what weight it can bear, or even to work out what kind of historical research might be appropriate. Such a normal exercise should hardly generate controversy in most fields of ancient history, but of course New Testament studies is not a normal case and the highly emotive and dismissive language of, say, Bart Ehrman’s response to Thompson’s The Mythic Past shows (if it needed to be shown), not that the matter is beyond dispute, but that the whole idea of raising this question needs to be attacked, ad hominem, as something outrageous. This is precisely the tactic anti-minimalists tried twenty years ago: their targets were ‘amateurs’, ‘incompetent’, and could be ignored. The ‘amateurs’ are now all retired professors, while virtually everyone else in the field has become minimalist (if in most cases grudgingly and tacitly). So, as the saying goes, déjà vu all over again.
(Davies, Did Jesus Exist?)
Wouldn’t it be nice to have stimulating intellectual discussions about Christian origins without sarcasm, ad hominem attacks, arrogant put-downs, etc.
Somehow I think humility and scepticism go hand in hand. Neither comes to us naturally.
- If Scepticism Does Not Come Naturally. . . It’s Worth Fighting For
- The Positive Value of Scepticism — and Building a Negative Case — in Historical Enquiry
- Two misunderstandings in biblical studies: the nature of “scepticism” and “evidence”
Davies, Philip R. 2012. “Did Jesus Exist?” The Bible and Interpretation. August 2012. http://www.bibleinterp.com/opeds/dav368029.shtml.
Kloppenborg, John S. 2003. “On Dispensing with Q?: Goodacre on the Relation of Luke to Matthew.” New Testament Studies 49: 210–36. DOI:10.1017/S0028688503000110
Parks, Sara. 2020. ReligionProf Podcast with Sara Parks. Podcast. https://anchor.fm/religionprof/episodes/ReligionProf-Podcast-with-Sara-Parks-e9j66m.
Parks, Sara. 2016. “Spiritual Equals: Women in the Q Gender Pairs.” [Montreal]: McGill University Libraries. https://escholarship.mcgill.ca/concern/theses/3r074x901
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