SBL Memories 2: Dating our sources

On Saturday afternoon, the new consultation on the Cross and Diversity in early Christianity held a session on dating sources. Mark Goodacre and Simon Gathercole gave key note papers. I responded to Goodacre and Stephen Patterson to Gathercole. The room was packed. People were hanging out the doorways, and people were even sitting behind me when I was speaking at the podium. Conclusion: the room was too small for a discussion that many wanted to be a part of.

My sense was that this was a panel that really brought out how divided the academy is in terms of method and assumptions. It showed me just how much we are in a time of transition, when the older models are being seriously questioned and yet we don't have anything better in place yet. I tried to emphasize three major shifts in the field that I think must be taken very seriously:

1. What are we to do with the extra-canonical materials? My approach is to understand three phases of writing among early Christians. I would place these documents in these phases, which means that there is substantial material to work with in the pre-70 CE period, informing us mostly about Jerusalem and Antiochean Christianity and the conflicts that were taking place. I am still not convinced that the provenance of Q is Galilee. It appears Antiochean to me:
First-level bearers of tradition. Pre-70 CE. The early missions when letter writing was important, as well as instruction manuals and catechisms of Jesus’ words. Here I would place Paul’s letters, the letter of James, the Didache, at least two versions of Quelle, and the early written book of Thomas that I call the Kernel Thomas.

Second-level creators of foundation stories. 70-100 CE. The death of the eyewitnesses and the destruction of the Temple prompted this generation of Christians to rewrite their memories and revise their received traditions. In this period, the synoptic gospels and John, Gospel of the Hebrews, Acts, deutro-Pauline letters, Revelation, P. Egerton 2 (?), Hebrews (?),

Third-level developers of formative theology and ecclesiology. 100-135 CE. This generation of writers was focused on formative theology, ecclesiology and interactions with other communities (whether peaceful or aggressive). 1 Clement, Johannine letters, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude, Pastoral Pauline letters, commentaries of Basilides (lost), writings of Valentinus (fragments), Shepherd of Hermas, writings of Marcion (lost), letters of Ignatius and Polycarp, Papias’ books (fragments), Hegesippus (fragments), Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of the Egyptians, Gospel of the Ebionites, Letter of Barnabas, Gospel of Peter.
2. New developments in textual criticism and scribal practices are demonstrating that the eceletic text we call the critical edition is NOT a first century text, and is NOT what the early Christians wrote or were reading or hearing read. We have created a manuscript of the “Bible” which we treat as if it were a first-century document. The Nestle-Aland edition is not an ancient manuscript. Its committee readings to do represent any manuscript that ever existed in the ancient world. Yet our forefathers worked with this as our received critical text and made all sorts of theories about literary relationships between texts based on comparing Nestle-Aland readings internally and externally to other texts. And this approach continues today without even the slightest pause.

But honestly when we are dealing with issues of literary dependence and basing our conclusions on “same” words here and there, shouldn’t we be more than a little concerned that we don’t have much in terms of manuscripts prior to the third century? And those which we do have vary substantially, even versions of the same text.

This sort of variation is typical of rhetorical societies where scribal practices have developed out of oral consciousness. Add to this that we know the early Christians were quite comfortable altering texts to fit their needs, and complaining loudly about other Christians whom they thought were doing so too.

This suggests that we have two big hurdles: we don’t have the first-century texts, and we don’t have stable texts until relatively late, and some would argue, if ever. So for the future of literary dependence arguments to succeed, scholars are going to have to figure out how to take into account our vast manuscript tradition and what the existence of all these variants actually means in terms of ancient composition and transmission of documents.

3. We need to understand how ancient people actually composed their texts, how they operated within the rhetorical environment. What part does human memory play in this process? I will try to post separately an expansion on this issue.

4. We need to start testing our theories by setting up scientific experiments, or at the very least, reading cognitive psychology literature beyond a few college textbooks. Because human memory is a factor in the transmission of materials in rhetorical environments, it behooves us to know how the human memory works and how its effects might be reflected in the various versions of sayings of Jesus that we find in the literature. I'll try to post a separate post on this as well.