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 principles.

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.

  1. Textual investigation.
     
    Ουτοι δε ησαν ευγενεστεροι των εν Θεσσαλονικη, οιτινες εδεξαντο τον λογον μετα πασης προθυμιας καθ ημεραν ανακρινοντες τας γραφας ει εχοι ταυτα ουτως.

    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.
    (Acts 17.11.)

    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.

  2. Intellectual humility.
     
    Ουχ υψωσεις σεαυτον, ουδε δωσεις τη ψυχη σου θρασος.

    Do not exalt yourself, nor permit haughtiness to your soul.
    (Didache 3.9a.)

    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.

  3. Multiple attestation.
     
    על־פי שני עדים או על־פי שלשה־עדים יקום דבר׃

    From the mouth of two witnesses, or from the mouth of three witnesses, shall the word be established.
    (Deuteronomy 19.15b.)

    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.

  4. Fair examination.
     
    Παντα ουν οσα εαν θελητε ινα ποιωσιν υμιν οι ανθρωποι, ουτως και υμεις ποιειτε αυτοις· ουτος γαρ εστιν ο νομος και οι προφηται.

    Whatever things you wish men to do unto you, so do unto them; for this is the law and the prophets.
    (Matthew 7.12.)

    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.

  5. Vicarious reconstruction.
     
    Τοις πασιν γεγονα παντα ινα παντως τινας σωσω.

    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.