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.


Steve Runge said...

I can appreciate your cynicism about such topics, and the list could be expanded quite easily. It was these very issues that led me to major in Hebrew Bible, since they seemed to have turned a corner toward more practical exegesis in some areas.

One important lesson I learned along the way is that you do not need to pursue their questions (or at least along the same lines). Presupposition builds upon presupposition, eventually creating a house of cards. What is needed is to reframe the question in such a way that you can move in a more profitable direction, which is what I see Goodacre to have done regardin Q. There is indeed a lot of crap masquerading as research, unfortunately. As long as folks need to claim something new for a thesis or dissertation, the flow of crap will continue. I would suggest focusing on finding a new approach rather than attempting to turn crap into creme brulee. You will find it less frustrating.

Rick Sumner said...

Hi Steve,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

The problem of presuppositions is paramount, I think. One can even find an example of it in my post--the answer isn't necessarily "wrong." The more appropriate response, if we find Eve's treatment of Mt.16.22-23 persuasive, is to count it as a point in favour of Griesbach.

That, of course, would lead to a response from the proponent of Markan priority, followed by rejoinder, and so on and so forth, and would end up being endemic of the problem I see. The explanations would get more nuanced, more convoluted, both parties would refer to Occam a lot, and in the end we'd get a reading that almost inherently has more to do with the milieu of twenty-first century scholars than early Christian authors. Everyone would go home banging their head against the wall, wondering why the other party didn't see the obvious.

It's interesting that you chose Hebrew Bible for those reasons, since I recently picked up a bunch of books on a wide array of subjects in the OT state of affairs, for precisely that reason. The hope being that I'd find a venture that caught my eye the way the Historical Jesus or the New Perspective on Paul did for the NT.

But there I run into a different problem: All roads lead to Egypt. They had the gold, they had the grain, they called the shots, to a large degree.

Me? I'm something of an anomaly. The ANE fascinates me. Except Egypt. Egypt bores me to tears until after the Ides of March.

A new approach is exactly what I think is needed. Not just for me, but generally. Though just for me would be a good start for. . .well, me. I'm just not sure that I have one. Which is all the more reason I think I need a break, if not an outright abandonment of the NT. Maybe I'll find something to freshen the perspective elsewhere. But as I see it right now much (most?) exegesis should be graded on how creatively it uses the texts, not how likely it is to be true.

Alan Lenzi said...

The Hebrew Bible isn't much better. I think religious zeal is what motivates most scholars in these fields. When you lose that, you start to scratch your head and wonder why no one else is tired of reading ANOTHER commentary on X or ANOTHER monograph on Job 28, etc.

Steve Runge said...

For the record Rick, I am back in NT studies for the long haul. I got some things figured out regarding how to reframe questions from Christo van der Merwe. I am beginning to focus on the synoptic debate by applying discourse principles to evaluate the minor disagreements in the triple tradition. There is lots to be done, and at the end of the day I am reading my Bible much more closely than I would have before, regularly finding new things in old texts, I could not be happier. I am now psychotically passionate about the importance of having a sound and adaptable theoretical framework. All the rest flows out of this. I'll never go back to the old way again. Reframing the question requires understanding all sides of the argument well enough that presuppositions can be identified. This requires a significant amount of engagement of the theories, and the scholars that employ them. Where are people coming from and why, what led them to make such a hypothesis? If another more plausible explanation can be provided, it eliminates the need for the kooky hypothesis. Note to self: Biblical scholars never throw something out, they add something new. Once a theory has been postulated, it is rarely ever abandoned. Instead, some "remodeling" is done to compensate for the new data. So I have given up on trying to change the mind of the proponent, focusing instead on winning the hearts and minds of the interested spectators who do not have a dog in the fight. They have little to lose with change, but change is very costly for the proponent.