The real and the ideal.

Direction of development in the tradition of the historical Jesus and the apostles.

Proving a connection, whether oral or written, between instances of historical Jesus or apostolic tradition is no great trick. Our extant texts abound with parallels, separate items of tradition that point to one original word or deed (or to one original set of words or deeds) of Jesus, or of his followers. Some of these parallels seem so close that only a written connection can explain the similarity. Others seem more distant, and can be explained in terms of an oral connection.

But the trick is proving which instance, if any, of the parallel tradition is the more primitive, and which is the derivative. Tradition does not always have to develop, but, if we can determine that it has developed in any given case, how can we tell which of its instances gave rise to the other versions? How can we tell which developed into which?

Two working principles.

Scholars have proferred many criteria for direction of development in the historical Jesus and apostolic tradition, but the principle that I intend to offer here has to do with only two of them in combination. Those two are:

  • Redactional tendency.
  • Editorial fatigue.

The first word of the former term is essentially a synonym for the first word of the latter. That is, redactional is basically synonymous with editorial. To redact is to edit. To edit is to redact. Both refer to what an author or compiler does to prepare his or her text for publication.

The second word of the former term is closer to being an antonym for the second word of the latter. A tendency, on the one hand, is an emphasis that the author goes out of his or her way to point up in a text. Tendencies are intentional, though once an author has established one he or she can lapse into it unintentionally, as well. They are the motifs and themes that the author emphasizes, the literary devices that he or she uses, the lines and phrases that he or she likes to repeat. An instance of fatigue, on the other hand, is a tension that the author has either not noticed or not cared enough about to make any changes. Fatigue is unintentional. Its instances are the rough spots in a work, the non sequiturs and implausibilities, the details that ought to have been elucidated for the sake of clarity, but were not.

Note that we are now speaking exclusively of the written traditions as we have them in our extant texts. Theoretically, it might be possible to apply these concepts to oral transmission of the traditions as well, but we do not have access to the actual oral information. We can study only what has survived in writing.

Redactional tendency.

In few enterprises has redactional tendency been put to more use than in the synoptic problem. On page 198 of Some Principles of Literary Criticism and Their Application to the Synoptic Problem, Ernest De Witt Burton formulated a list of evidences that one work is derivative of another. Burton offers six such indicators, of which I first present the last three, as cited in William Farmer, The Synoptic Problem, page 229:

4. Insertion of matter the motive for which can be clearly seen in the light of the authorís general aim, while no motive can be discovered for its omission by the author if he had it in his source.
5. Vice versa, omission of matter traceable to the motive natural to the writer when the insertion of the same matter in the other gospel could not thus be accounted for.
6. Alterations of other kinds which conform the matter to the general method or tendency of the author.

Authorial aim. The motive natural to the writer. Method or tendency. Every one of these three indicators turns to redaction criticism for support. The primary author has intentionally pointed up a theme, motif, structure, or layout that the secondary author has followed, but for less good cause than the original.

Editorial fatigue.

Sticking with the synoptic problem for the moment, editorial fatigue is also a frequently addressed indicator of direction of dependence. I turn once more to page 198 of Some Principles of Literary Criticism and Their Application to the Synoptic Problem by Ernest De Witt Burton in order to now present the first three indicators, again as cited in William Farmer, The Synoptic Problem, page 229:

1. Manifest misunderstanding of what stands in one document on the part of the writer of the other.
2. Insertion by one writer of material not in the other, and clearly interrupting the course of thought or symmetry of plan in the other.
3. Clear omission of matter from one document which was in the other, the omission of which destroys the connection.

Misunderstanding of the material. Interruption of symmetry or plan. Lack of connection. In all three cases the secondary author has unintentionally created a tension by following the primary author for some purposes but not for others. He or she has presented the scenario in a fashion that is less cogent and coherent than the original text presented it.

One combined principle.

It is my intention to combine these two common indicators into one basic principle that explains most clearly why together they can argue powerfully for a direction of development. (It is also my intention, in another essay, to test this basic principle as it is laid down here.)

But first a change in vocabulary. I refer, on the one hand, to redactional tendency as an idealism in the text. The author is wrapping his or her own ideals up in the work, choosing what to emphasize, what he or she thinks most important for the reader to grasp. I refer, on the other hand, to editorial fatigue as a lack of realism in the text. Cogency and cohesion have been compromised somehow by a decision on the part of the author.

What is real in a text is what shows a great deal of verisimilitude. What is ideal in a text is what the author wishes to communicate to us. The real is how things are. The ideal is how things should be.

(Notice that there is no necessary tension between those two notions. Sometimes how things are is exactly how they should be. The principle that I shall adumbrate can be applied only in those cases in which there actually is a tension between the real and the ideal.)

I propose that these two entities, realism and idealism, can often work together to point out a direction of traditional development. Which leads me to enunciate the principle of the real and the ideal:

The historical Jesus and apostolic tradition tends to develop from the realistic to the idealistic.

I ought to rephrase this principle so as to deal specifically with two different kinds of cases that one might encounter. In some cases we have more than one instance of the same tradition. In other cases we have only one instance of the tradition at hand.

The same principle, then, as it pertains to two or more available instances of the same tradition...:

Given two or more parallel instances of historical Jesus or apostolic tradition, it is more likely that what is relatively realistic has developed into what is relatively idealistic than that what is relatively idealistic has developed into what is relatively realistic.

...and as it pertains to only one available instance of a tradition:

Given only one instance of historical Jesus or apostolic tradition in which a tension exists between what is relatively realistic and what is relatively idealistic, it is more likely that the piece has been developed from an already extant tradition than that it has been invented for the occasion.

What is realistic for any given piece of tradition depends very much upon our sense of what is plausible, especially as we hone that sense with our knowledge and assessment of the historical period and situation to which the tradition professes to belong. What is idealistic for any given piece of tradition depends very much upon our sense of the habits and emphases of the author.

Realism is all about plausibility and verisimilitude. Idealism is all about compositional purpose.

Note that this principle cannot in any way help us solve the familiar problem of how to treat reports of the miraculous. Some will continue to regard miracles as realistic, others as purely idealistic.

Note also that the principle of the real and the ideal is not necessarily intended to prove literary dependence, a direct connection between two texts. It is intended to prove only that the tradition as presented in one text is more original than that same tradition as presented in another, whether the connection be oral or written or some combination of the two. If it is already established that two texts are literarily connected (if, for instance, they share long passages given almost verbatim), then the principle can indeed help us determine which text is copying which. If we cannot independently establish a literary connection, then the principle will help us determine which text better represents the origin of the tradition, and no more.

It is ever important to keep in mind that the real and the ideal can often coincide. A report about Jesus that seems ideally suited for the themes and motifs of the reporter, but which bears no trace of inherent unreality, we cannot automatically discard as an invention. It is quite possible for a person to report that particular datum about Jesus precisely because it corresponds so well with his or her own opinions. Which is why we must be on the lookout for that piece of tradition that displays some sort of tension between the real and the ideal, whether internally within itself or externally with other instances of the same tradition. We need at least two points to plot a line of development. One point does not a line make.

All principles of interpretation ought to be tested. I test this one in my piece on the real and the ideal in Josephus.