The scholarly game.

How textual excavation fits into the study of Jesus and the apostles.


Modern scholarship on Jesus and apostolic Christianity is a game.

Scholarship has not always been a game. There have been times and places in which it was life or death, and unorthodox opinions could get one excommunicated or executed. But now it is only a game, and for that I thank God.

It is, however, a game with remarkably few set rules. It is not science, a field in which new discoveries are made virtually every year. It is history, in which a single modest cache of new sources is a windfall. For the most part, the sources remain the same from generation to generation. It is our interpretation of those sources that changes. And interpretations of the sources vary to such an extent across an incredibly wide spectrum that one can surmise only that this is one game whose rules are either very few or very flexible.

In fact, so far as I can tell, there is only one hard and fast rule, and even it is often stretched to the breaking point. This rule is:

The hypothesis must somewhat look like it has something to do with at least one of the relevant sources.

Groups of scholars in this or that school of thought often draw up other rules. Call them criteria, call them methodologies, call them whatever you wish, but there will inevitably be another group of scholars of another school of thought that will callously ignore them, and will draw up their own rules of the game.

How far will the flexibility of the rules take us in modern scholarship on Jesus and the apostles? So far as to render each of the following pairs of hypotheses viable:

Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea to a virgin. Jesus was never born at all; he was a myth or legend.
John the baptist pointed to Jesus as the coming one. John the baptist and Jesus never even met each other.
The message of Jesus was that of an apocalyptic prophet. The message of Jesus was doggedly against apocalypticism.
The passion story was based on eyewitness testimony, its gruesome details burnt indelibly on the memory. The passion story was a tapestry of scriptural motifs and details fabricated to fill in the lack of eyewitness testimony.
The tomb of Jesus was discovered empty on the third day after his execution, implying a literal physical resurrection from the dead. The account of the empty tomb was a late innovation in the Jesus tradition, which originally spoke of a spiritual or metaphorical raising.
The apostles were honorable men who died for their sincere beliefs. The apostles were frauds and liars who knowingly perpetrated a falsehood.
All thirteen epistles that bear the name of Paul in our New Testament are genuinely Pauline. All thirteen epistles that bear the name of Paul are either spurious or awash in spurious interpolations.
The gospels were written in the first century, even before the fall of Jerusalem in 70. The gospels were written in the second century, well after the oral period was over.

Not all positions above are necessarily of equal merit, but all of them have been argued strongly by experts in the field. And there is no smoking gun to completely eliminate any of these options. Again, history is not science. Evidence against an hypothesis from the extant sources has only to be dismissed as late, spurious, or irrelevant. Any little quirk within the source itself may be seized upon to move it out of relation to the case at hand.

Some on the one hand prefer to admit only those sources that belong to what we now know as the Bible, dismissing other sources as derivative and legendary. Others on the other hand prefer to admit only those sources that stand outside of orthodoxy, dismissing the Bible and apostolic fathers as tendentious and biased.

The final score in the game depends entirely on the starting positions. Start by trusting certain sources over others and you will finish very differently from someone who started by distrusting your sources and trusting others or none at all.

I offer no solution to the problem of game rules. I am not even certain that it is a problem in the first place. Everybody is different, and has different sensibilities and sensitivities. I have learned a great deal from those whose starting positions and final results differ vastly from mine.

What I can offer is my own starting position in the game. Then, at least, you will be able to trace my progress toward the finishing line on each issue. I do not outline this position as the only or even most reasonable stance. I outline it for the sake of clarity and completeness:

  1. Imagine a spectrum ranging from what the source says on the one side to what the scholar thinks on the other. I tend to value the former over the latter. I have very little confidence in the abilities of modern critics, even and especially myself, to take a source apart and discover what layers, communities, and silent concerns lie behind it. I tend to trust my sources over my own ability to argue around them. I try to let my sources argue for me. If I wish to disagree with any given source on a matter, I like to have at least one other source firmly behind me.
     
  2. Imagine a spectrum ranging from low source selectivity on the one side to high source selectivity on the other. I tend toward the former degree. Each source must stand on its own historical merits, and not on the opinions of church or state or any other group. When I decide that one source is more original than another, it is not with the intent to admit the former and dismiss the latter. This decision is only the beginning of a long studious process, and I fully intend to use the derivative source in some meaningful capacity as part of my reconstruction of the times of Jesus and the apostles. The only exception is if I end up deciding that the source is so late as to fall out of my range of study.
     
  3. I regard the presentation of the relevant sources as my most important task. You will find pages on this site that contain only lists and tables of original sources, with no attempt to draw them together into an essay or article. I may eventually get around to inserting my comments into such pages, but what is vital for me is to let the reader see the juxtaposition of original sources in such a way as to inspire original ideas, sytheses and analyses, and historical reconstructions. This element of my personal tendency is the natural outworking of my first two positions above. For if what the text says matters more than what the scholar thinks, and if all relevant sources are potentially important to the process of studying Jesus and the apostles, then we are obliged to face our sources as long and often as possible. It is my sincerest desire that, even if you utterly disagree with my views on Jesus or the apostles, you will at least find the presentation of original sources helpful to your own endeavors.

Those first two points above can be graphed across each other into four fields:

What the scholar
thinks.
What the source
says.
High source
selectivity.
Ultra-liberals.
Ultra-conservatives.
Example:
N. T. Wright.
Low source
selectivity.
Example:
J. D. Crossan.
Textual excavation,
my approach.

My lumping of ultra-liberals (such as Jesus-mythicists) and ultra-conservatives (such as fundamentalists) into the same category perhaps deserves further comment. Both of these groups tend to rely on their own reasoning more than on what the source actually says, and tend to favor this or that kind of source over other kinds.

  • An ultra-liberal will argue his or her way out of the many sources that discuss Jesus and the apostles in historical terms, and will find some lone statement in some solitary document that trumps them all.
     
  • The ultra-conservative will argue his or her way out of the many inconsistencies and tensions between what he or she believes and what the sources actually say, and will limit inquiry to a handful of accepted documents.

My placement of N. T. Wright and J. D. Crossan scarcely requires explanation. Wright takes his sources seriously as they stand, but feels compelled to address only a few of them. Crossan addresses as many sources as one can count, but then feels himself competent to reason against their combined bulk.

Wright, on the one hand, eschews redaction criticism for the most part, preferring to read each source as a complete document and in a splendidly Jewish light, but then waves the gospel of Thomas away as late, derivative, and Hellenistic, and never deals with the Egerton papyrus or other potentially early witnesses.

Crossan, on the other hand, values the Egerton papyrus, the secret gospel of Mark, and the gospels of Thomas and Peter, favoring them alongside the canonical gospels and Paul in his ambitious inventory of Jesus material, but then argues around an apocalyptic Jesus, even though it comes in second place on his own inventory.

My own approach, which I call textual excavation, falls between Wright and Crossan, and stands opposed to the ultra-liberal and ultra-conservative approaches. Like Wright, I tend to treat my sources as complete and self-contained. I do not at all mind hypothesizing subsources within them, but resist building other hypotheses upon those hypotheses. Like Crossan, I tend to deal with a wider swath of sources. I do not regard all of my sources as answers to the same questions, of course, but I like to find a useful place for them in my overall reconstruction.

Examples: On the one hand, while freely admitting that Q may have existed, and while willing to attempt a tentative reconstruction of its contents, I doubt my own ability to reason my way into the Q community and trace the manifold processes in its composition. Rather, I am tempted to view it as the Matthean logia of which Papias wrote on the authority of the elder. On the other hand, while freely admitting that the gospel of Thomas may not be derivative of the canonical gospels, and while willing to look for original traditions therein, I doubt that it somehow reflects the original Christianity from which all the other gospels somehow deviated. Rather, it may well represent the kind of tradition that Paul opposed in Corinth. Both Q and Thomas, then, may find a place in my reconstruction, but that place may not be that which many scholars have reserved for them.

My starting position in the scholarly game is by no means the only one, nor the most obvious one, nor necessarily the best one. Therefore, the final outcome is not going to be the only one, or the most obvious one, or even necessarily the best one. But I think that it is important to be honest with oneself about how one is playing the game. I try to post my rules for all to read. I try to play by them fairly.

Most of all, I try to provide a service to those who play by a different set, inasmuch as I am at least presenting the original sources in their original languages as a vital part of my reconstruction.