Sunday, February 28, 2010

Why Bother?

Yeesh. Finish up the movie list later today or tomorrow morning, I'm only two months behind Loren

So, about a month and a half ago I started reading Questioning Q: A Multidimensional Critique, editted by Nicholas Perrin and the de facto mayor of the Biblical Studies global village, Mark Goodacre. For reasons I'll outline, it took me until yesterday to finish it.

A discussion on historiography on the FRDB interrupted me to re-read Hayden White's MetaHistory, which (in the sort of bizarre lead-ins that can only happen in real-life; and we hope to understand ancient minds?) led me to Statues in Roman Society, which led to The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Augustus, which led (by reference) to The Companion to the Roman Army (which led bizarrely, to a couple brief looks at commentaries on Samuel). In the midst of all this, I decided to do something I'd intended to do for awhile, and read the Aeneid through.

Something struck me as I read Vergil's work. The care he took with it is well-known, and often emphasized by the observation that his average pace is roughly three lines a day. The fruits of that careful labour are readily apparent, and the Aeneid is a literary masterpiece by any standard.

But I'm not the intended audience, so more than once I had to check references, consider interpretations offered by scholars of the subject matter. And here's the rub: The most convoluted reading of the Aeneid pales in comparison to the most straightforward reading of the Gospel of Mark.

I am implicitly expected to accept that the Aeneid is less densely nuanced than a work whose greatest literary contribution is slapdash Greek and the abuse of the word kai.

When you look at it, phrased like that, it seems absurd.

The reason for that is simple: It is absurd.

Hervey Cleckley's seminal work on psychopathy, The Mask of Sanity, provides an insight that now seems self-evident but at the time, psychology being what it was, did not. He cites a piece on the attraction of a drum majorette.

The attraction of a drum majorette should be obvious. She's hot, scantily clad and jumping about. But no, the piece contended, the obvious attraction wasn't it. The drum majorette protruded from the band the way an erect penis protruded from the body, and attraction to the drum majorette reflected our repressed homosexuality.

This notion, Cleckley observes, was accepted, cited and built upon uncritically by a number of professionals. That it's ridiculous should be self-evident. A hideously unattractive drum majorette would not be terribly appealing no matter how she protruded.

Cleckely's criticism, of course, is that there was a tendency to accept crap because it sounded good, and sounded like it was in keeping with the received notions of what psychology was. But it had nothing to do with whether or not it was true, nothing to do with whether or not it was critically assessed, and nothing to do with even the most basic test of whether or not it makes obvious sense.

While I would not suggest that Biblical Studies at large has gone as far as the drum majorette, I also wouldn't suggest that there are not a few drum majorette papers out there.

We have no rules. And consequently our interpretations of the texts are as nuanced as we need them to be, and we build them on the last guy, who also made it as nuanced as he needed it to be.

Which brings me back to Questioning Q. Or, more specifically, a paper by Eric Eve contained therein. In "Reconstructing Mark" Eric Eve takes on a test he discussed before online. Can we build Mark from Luke, Matthew and Q? The answer, predictably, is no, and even if one isn't persuaded against Q, surely we should follow the caution in the difference between what Perrin calls "Warranted Q," and "Actual Q." The former is exceedingly unlikely to be the latter.

But he provides a necessarily brief discussion on Matt.16:22-23. He plays by all the "rules," and develops a case from linguistics and Matthean redactive tendencies that we would have to view 16:22-23 as a Matthean invention. The case is solid, and it's easy to see how it could develop into a very full treatment. Even if we ultimately rejected it in an "International Mark Project," I'm hard-pressed to believe that everyone would be convinced of that.

Except the answer, of course, is wrong. Matt.16.22-23//Mk.8.32-33.

So he makes his case, so far as the IQP goes, but the implications go farther than that. Because Eve doesn't do anything that we don't do in virtually every branch of Biblical Studies. We try and find out if this verse or that verse owes itself to the author's redactive tendencies, if it was interpolated, if it is OT symbolism and on and on. Eve has essentially falsified the entire approach we take to the texts.

Falsification isn't inherently that big of a deal. Speculation is a necessity, not a vice, as a Beck quote I posted recently attests. I can't think of a criteria that can't be reversed, that can't be applied in at least one instance to get the wrong answer. It's the nature of the beast that we deal in plausibilities, things like "explanatory power" and "common sense."

But to be falsified so fundamentally that we would, quite realistically, mistake a distinctively Markan theme as a distinctively Matthean verse? That's a problem. That's a very big problem indeed.

So with the combination, Eve's paper and reflections of Virgil, it just seems so futile. I'm severely tempted to pack the NT in. . .maybe I'll switch to the early Romans. I know little enough that the subject still fills me with wonder and excitement at finding something new, not so little that I'm starting from scratch, and not even close to enough that I'm filled with the same sense of frustration.