Monday, May 14, 2018

Bible difficulties, Matthew editing Mark, and witness testimony

The fact that Mark, in Mark 6, does not even purport to give Jesus' words but rather that the narrator expressly summarizes Jesus' instructions to his disciples when sending them out and that Matthew actually does give an appearance of direct quotation is some evidence that Matthew is not merely "editing Mark" at this point. The hypothesis of eyewitness testimony absolutely does make a difference to what possibilities are on the table. While it is not impossible that Matthew was merely putting into direct quotation what Mark puts in indirect quotation, we also need to get rid of rigid redaction-critical assumptions that, if an incident is both in Mark and Matthew, Matthew is merely getting his information from Mark. Again and again Matthew may well be adding information, based upon memory, that Mark did not have. In this case, a well-known Bible difficulty concerns the fact that Mark summarizes (in the voice of the narrator) that Jesus said not to take anything except a staff, whereas Matthew says not to "take," inter alia, a staff. 

But as has been noted by old-style inerrantists for a very long time, the Greek word in Matthew is "acquire." Since Matthew may actually have been a disciple, he may actually have remembered that Jesus said not to acquire these items rather than that they were to discard a staff they already had. Luke, who may at this point indeed have been dependent upon both Mark and Matthew, combines the two (using the appearance of direct quotation) by using the general word "take" from Mark and listing a staff, as in Matthew, as one of the things that they were not to "take." But Matthew's more precise use of "acquire" can help us to understand Luke's approximate quotation at this point better as well.

This is not to say that Matthew's quotation is absolutely verbatim, word-for-word, as a tape recorder, either. But it is to say that his use of "acquire" is helpful and may well indicate what an eyewitness remembered more specifically that Jesus said, especially since Mark does not even give the appearance of quoting Jesus directly.

We must take more seriously the hypothesis of eyewitness testimony giving us additional insight into actual events. Again and again, critical scholars ignore this hypothesis, to the detriment of our understanding of Jesus' words and actions. It is overly restrictive to be constantly insisting to the laity that in any such case they must simply accept that Matthew and Luke "edited Mark," as though the hypothesis of additional witness testimony is simply off the table as a useful explanation of what we have. While it is certainly true that witnesses do moderately paraphrase what they have heard and witnessed, that is not all that they do. They also remember additional information. The word "acquire" in Matthew is part of what we observe. The possibility of separate witness testimony to Jesus' use of such a term is a perfectly plausible explanation.


Tony said...

I suspect that the "dependency" of Matthew and Luke on Mark that is effectively universal among NT scholars is so entrenched a POV that they scarcely even recognize it as a theory, and only a partial one at that. For many, it seems, it is simply the background landscape of the NT, like dirt and air, not something to think about critically.

This uncritical background assumption also would manage to play right well into the hands of those who would use the dependency far beyond the reaches in which it is justified, to support hypotheses and analyses that otherwise would look ridiculous. And ARE ridiculous.

I believe that all of the rampant hypothesizing (and pure imaginative speculating) about the authorship of the gospels, and the existence of a Q source, and fictional speeches by Christ, are part of the same treatment: once they've snuck a nose into the tent by the tendril of possibility that maybe not everything you see in the 4 gospels was directly witnessed and reported by one of the Apostles, they run out to any and every imaginative account of what went into the author's writing OTHER than "I wrote it that way because that's what I remember from when I was there." It's almost like a game of "who can invent the analysis that LEAST claims actual reportage?" Needless to say, "conservative" NT scholarship that accepts even a little bit of that attitude is unlikely to remain well-grounded. It's like an infection that tends to fester and poison everything else.

I don't know if this really accounts for the problem, but let me propose it: NT scholarship rightly is prepared to consider the texts of the NT as simply "ancient documents that can be assessed and examined on the exact same basis as any other ancient documents, like Caesar's Gallic Wars, and Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics." As such, they rightly consider evidence about who wrote them, and when, and under what conditions. There could well be reason (for a non-believing historian) to consider that the evidence for whether Matthew was written by the Apostle Matthew may not be conclusive. And any NT scholar can reflect on such an analysis and speak to it strictly on the grounds that would be accepted by any scholar, including non-believers. And while there may be quite respectable grounds for accepting the Mattheian authorship of Matthew, outside of the evidence garnered from faith in Christianity such a result may well not be “conclusive”. (A great many historical findings are in the exact same boat, because history is a completely different kind of discipline than math or physics.)

Tony said...

However, in terms of exegesis, the NT documents should be considered under the light of faith: The works of the NT are inspired of God, and are wholly worthy, they not only are protected, the inspiration of the Spirit meant not only that the human writer avoided error, but that he conveyed what God intended would be conveyed, and not only "in general" but also in detail. And, further, that God not only inspired the human writer by protecting his writing in this way, but further that God inspired his thoughts so that at least with respect to the primary meaning of what was written, what the human author intended was just what God intended: God inspired the writer with TRUTH, not only with mechanical protection that side-stepped his understanding. This means that for exegesis, everything in the NT should be accepted to mean what the human author would appear to mean at face value, unless and until the entirety of the evidence should show that he could not possibly have meant that and still be consistent with what we know and can prove is true. St. Augustine elaborates on this theme (I can't remember where just off the top of my head), saying that he would abandon the obvious sense of the NT words only if absolutely forced to do so by extrinsic proof of, say, some historical fact, and only then resort to metaphor, parable, idiom, and other ways of taking the gospel writer's words.

But this is not at all the way modern NT scholarship proceeds in its exegesis. They present tiny puzzles - not even "problems" really - and create episodic, disconnected, sometimes plausible but not even particularly probable alternate readings of a passage (than the obvious face-value meaning) and then build whole castles in the sky on them. They seem to do so on the basis that non-believer scholars would not take the evidence that the writer meant the passage in the obvious sense as "verified" or "conclusive" to mean that they must invent some other account, as if exegesis proceeds on the basis of "accept at face value only when it has been proven conclusively" i.e. even to the complete satisfaction of non-believers. Which is completely upside down as a method of understanding the NT. It makes no sense to apply such a filter to determining the meaning of the NT books.

In reflecting on that, I would turn completely on its head the hypothesizing (like I read in Gundry's account) that the "Johannine community" would have known explicitly that the events in John's Gospel (like the "I am" statements and events) were not literally true but were created myths, but that this explicit knowledge was "lost" over the next generations. Such a hypothesis is incompatible with the early Christian concern, explicit in many places of the NT, (and other early works) to hand on what was received without adding anything of their own, or at least to make clear what was received and what was added by further elaboration. It also makes the early Christians out to be hypocrites and fools, because they would have failed utterly to realize that that evidence which convinced THEM to convert to Christianity should have been the evidence they passed on to the next generations, and not some quite made-up basis that was (therefore) completely untested as a basis for converting, and was (as myth) ultimately insufficient for the edifice they were trying to build - as is proven over and over by the millions of former Christians of the modern world who first are taught to treat the NT accounts as full of mythologizing, and who then abandon Christian belief. The modernist NT scholars fail to grasp that by making the early Christians out to have mythologized the NT, those NT writers would put Christianity on the same ground as Hindus with turtles all the way down in terms of basis for belief in Christianity. (But the non-believing NT critics DO get that, which is why they push that model of criticism: they are not unbiased in the matter.)

Lydia McGrew said...

What's turned out to be really strange is watching the same types of methods (in some ways) actually being applied to secular texts like Plutarch. I have no faith commitment to Plutarch, needless to say. But the myopia of NT-scholarship-like methods applied to Plutarch, "finding" contradictions and deliberate, fancy changes where it's obvious that something far simpler is going on, has been a thing to behold. It has also confirmed me in the conclusion that if we really could be rational, sensible people, viewing the gospels through the lens of faith would not even be necessary in order to ward off this nonsense.

In fact, something particularly odd has happened recently: In his recent podcasts on his views (with a host who asked only the softest of softball questions and accepted everything he said unquestioning, without deeper probing), Mike Licona went this far. He stated that, if God "gave us" the gospels filled with these "literary devices," then, since we *do* believe that they are inspired and given to us by God, anyone (such as that gadfly Lydia McGrew and her husband, who were never named) who has a problem with this does not have a problem with Licona himself but rather has a problem with God. Yes, he actually said this. Despite the weaselly "if," this verges on megalomania and is an extremely unhealthy thing to say. No scholar should ever imply, directly or indirectly, that someone who questions his views needs to take it up with God! And of course since Licona obviously thinks that he is right about the Gospels, he thinks that those who disagree with him *do* have a problem not with him but with God.

Now, notice how this is manipulating his audience's faith in the inspiration of the Bible. If someone takes his word for the way things are, and if that same person believes that he must go on, at all costs, having faith in the gospel as given to us by God (even if God, in that case "gave" them to us filled with invisible fictionalizations and a consequently very fuzzy picture of Jesus), that person is supposed to be boxed into a corner. He's now supposed to give the submission of faith to...the-gospels-as-Licona-says-they-are. It's hard to wrap one's mind around something this twisted, but that's where he's trying to take his followers.

An obvious question to ask at that point is why the canonical Gospels should be regarded as any more "given by God" than something apocryphal like the gnostic Gospel of Thomas. If the Gospels are that *factually* unreliable (and we all know what we mean here, so no nonsense about redefining "reliability"), why should we think God gave them to us at all?

So in a very bizarre way, we would almost be better off treating the Gospels *sensibly* as human documents than treating them and evaluating them in this wildly *unreasonable* way and then bullying people just to shut up and accept it because they are committed a priori to saying that they were given by God.