2020-02-17

Q: Where scepticism is really hip right now; and other thoughts on historical Jesus studies methods

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by Neil Godfrey

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.)

Foundations

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 [2003]: 210–236.

(p. 36)

“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. Continue reading “Q: Where scepticism is really hip right now; and other thoughts on historical Jesus studies methods”


2019-12-29

Questions for James McGrath: Seeking Understanding

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by Neil Godfrey

Professor James McGrath of Butler University recently posted on his blog a tantalising article, The Gospel of the Gaps (and the Gaps of the Gospels). I describe it as tantalising because it seemed to promise so much but left readers without answers to the questions it raised.

The post began:

One of the things that mythicists regularly mention is the (in their view) long period between when the events that gave rise to Christianity transpired, and our earliest copies of texts that mention them.

Yes, that is true. But it is also true that the very same question is raised by many more mainstream biblical scholars. And they suggest different hypotheses to explain that “(in their view) long period between when the events that gave rise to Christianity transpired, and our earliest . . . texts that mention them.” (I don’t know of any mythicist — and I am sure McGrath knows of none — who argues a case that Jesus did not exist because we have a large gap between purported events and the earliest manuscript copies describing those events. It’s a big world and there are probably some who do argue that but I don’t think they are any more widely accepted than someone who argues for the non-existence of Priam, Agamemnon, Achilles etc on the bases that our earliest manuscripts of Homer are many centuries subsequent to their time.)

But back to the point. Mythicists like Earl Doherty and Thomas Brodie and others do indeed “regularly mention” the gap between events described in the gospels and the apparent fact that the gospels were not written until a generation or two after those events — but they do so by addressing the problem as raised by mainstream biblical scholars. McGrath has read Doherty’s book so only needs to consult its index and bibliography to refresh his memory.

But McGrath’s point is bigger. All of the above is only pointing out the tendentious nature of McGrath’s approach to the question.

The next question is most interesting and one I hoped to see answered:

They clearly have no sense of what is typical when it comes to ancient history more generally.

Now that reminds me of a time some years back when I grappled with “How do we know certain persons/events existed/happened” in ancient times? I had studied ancient history for three years as an undergraduate and knew how we knew what we did about Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, for example. Books and lectures would usually begin by setting out and explaining the sources our studies were to rely upon. With the presentation of those sources there was no question, “Did Julius Caesar exist?” We could all see the evidence and the question never arose.

So what is different about the gospels as sources for Jesus?

When McGrath raised the question of “what is typical when it comes to ancient history more generally” I was looking forward to at least a summary to explain what that typical thing is. But it never appeared. I suspect the reader is meant to assume that all ancient sources are written long after the events they describe and, well, if we believe them, then we should believe the gospels, too.

But if that was what the reader was meant to assume then the message is a misinformed one.

So here are questions I would like someone to present to Professor McGrath to offer him a chance to encourage serious dialogue. Perhaps his responses could be copied here in the comments.

  • Question 1: What ancient event (or person) do historians generally, without controversy, accept as having happened (or existed) for which our known sources are entirely very late (by a full generation of forty years or more)? By sources, I include here the sources mentioned by the later authors: thus, for example, we have, say, a very late history of Alexander the Great but the author of that source explains how he acquired his information and that it comes from such and such a biographer who lived at the time of Alexander. (The gospels have nothing comparable: Luke’s prologue is as vague and ambiguous as ancient historian prologues are specific and clear.)
  • Question 2: And this is a slightly extended form of the above question. What ancient event (or person) do historians generally, without controversy, accept as having happened (or existed) for which we have no independent evidence to help verify our written sources? By independent supporting evidence, I include here not only archaeological evidence but also other writings that are independent yet testifying to the same event/person.

There are many other questions I could ask but those are the key ones. I have discussed the above points — and many other related questions — about historical methods, in particular the methods of ancient historians and about the writings of ancient historians themselves in many posts. I have also raised the above questions before, but years ago, directly with McGrath. (Just click on the tags related to this post for scores of such posts.)

Maybe add one more question here:

  • Question 3: What are the different explanations biblical scholars have advanced in scholarly works for the gap of 40 to 80 years between the canonical gospels and the time setting of the events they narrate — and in what area of ancient history are there comparable gaps (bearing in mind the relevance of Q’s 1 and 2 above) for which classicists and historians of ancient times propose similar explanatory hypotheses? Or are the canonical gospels in some ways unique and not comparable to the methods normally accepted in the field of ancient history?

Now I certainly admit that some answers may be new to me and I may be forced to revise or at least modify my past conclusions. But I need clear examples to demonstrate the comparability between the generally accepted methods of historians of ancient times and those of biblical scholars. Looking forward to new knowledge and understanding.


2010-09-02

Gospels and Kings

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by Neil Godfrey

Reading James Linville’s Israel in the Book of Kings (introduced in my previous post) I can’t help but notice resonances with the methodologies and assumptions largely taken for granted by New Testament scholars. The same issues of assumptions of historicity and lack of evidence bedevil (or at least did much more so in 1998 when the book was published) the questions of the historical nature of the narratives. Continue reading “Gospels and Kings”