Ethics and principles.
A code of right and wrong in textual excavation.
Textual excavation, as I conceive of it, carries with it a code, as it were, of ethics and
As regards the passages that I cite for each principle,
I in no way imagine or intend to convey that the original author
had that exact principle in mind while composing. I provide the quotations
in order to inspire and to provoke serious thought. I am not actually excavating these
citations on this page.
- Textual investigation.
These were more noble than those
in Thessalonica, for they received the word eagerly, daily investigating the scriptures
as to whether these things were so.
This principle is quite simply the basis for this website. In order to
understand and appreciate the ancient texts, one must read them,
reread them, and then read them some more. One must investigate them
diligently, preferably in the original language.
This idea plays out in a practical sense in the claims that one makes for
ancient Judaism or Christianity. Simply put, neither make nor believe claims
that are not firmly rooted in the texts. Counter speculation and wishful thinking,
including and perhaps especially your own, with the textual evidence produced
by careful textual excavation.
- Intellectual humility.
τη ψυχη σου
Do not exalt yourself, nor permit
haughtiness to your soul.
No human is infallible. No human theory, therefore, is absolutely secure.
There is no need for haughtiness as you approach the ancient texts.
It is rather common in some circles to know for certain what a text
will mean before one has even read it. Nothing could be more arrogant,
in my humble opinion, than to approach the text already
knowing what it can or cannot mean. Textual excavation is intended
as an antidote for such presumption.
- Multiple attestation.
From the mouth of two witnesses,
or from the mouth
of three witnesses, shall the word be
This principle has long been one of the usual criteria for discerning the authentic
words and deeds of the historical Jesus. The saying or event that is attested in two or
more independent sources is more likely to be genuine than one that is attested in
only one. Logically, of course, single attestation does not constitute proof of
inauthenticity, but the careful investigator will weigh the probabilities and place more
weight on items with multiple attestation.
Multiple attestation, then, ought to suggest a direction for textual excavation as
historical reconstruction. Start with the items that are best attested, and use them to
help interpret those that are not so well attested. Do not base some farflung theory
on a single line in a single book.
- Fair examination.
Whatever things you wish men to do
unto you, so do unto them; for this is the law and the
To fairly examine the textual evidence is to treat your own pet theory no better than
you treat the theories of others. If your theory has merit, then it should need no
unfairly generous treatment, no special pleading, no separate canon of inquiry.
Along a similar vein, one ought to leave possibilities open in a textual excavation.
Few will be the times when definitive answers are possible to those nagging historical
questions. Be certain to note the possibility of alternative theories even while
arguing for the probability of your own.
- Vicarious reconstruction.
I have become all things to all men,
so that I might by all means save some.
(1 Corinthians 9.22b.)
Merely reading (and rereading) the words of a text does not guarantee that you will
know what they mean. You are separated from the foundational texts of the Judeo-Christian
tradition by millennia. Ways of reading, ways of writing, ways of thinking may have
changed. What is meant by a given word or phrase in one time and place may or may not be
what is meant by that same word or phrase in different times or places.
Textual excavation ought to strive at getting into the cultural context
of the ancient authors. It is not what I understand by a particular word or phrase,
not how I would normally react to it, that matters. What counts is how the
ancient reader would have interpreted it. Your ability to accurately reconstruct the
situation at hand in the text utterly depends on your ability to interpret the culture
of the author and his readership.