Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Gospel of False Dreams?

I would be willing to bet that less ink has been spilled on the Gate of False Dreams in the Aeneid than has been spent on the first ten verses of the Gospel of Mark.

That this is true should be shocking.  But it isn't, it's expected.  It is, in general, considered warranted even.

I've been mulling over the different assumptions that guide inquiry the past week or so, particularly as relates to Brodie, MacDonald and "parallelomania".  And I realized an assumption I have that is radically different from Biblical scholarship at large.

See, from the very conservative Raymond Brown to the very liberal Thomas Brodie or Earl Doherty, there is this general sense that the gospels represent the product of a complex literary process.  Not everybody agrees on what that process is, or how it works, but almost everyone--at least implicitly--agrees that it exists, that it is there to be teased out.

Confession time:  I don't think there was any complicated process at all.  I certainly don't think the authors thought it out as thoroughly as the modern exegete does.

Many would agree with this statement in principle, but in practice they go right on digging.  The unstated assumption of virtually every commentary in print is that the gospels are uniquely an utter embarrassment of riches for the exegete to plow.

I don't think they are.  I don't even think there are any good reasons to suppose it to be true.

See, Mark reads almost like a stream of consciousness, joined by "and" a lot.  Matthean symbolism has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.  Lukan symoblism is only slightly better, and sometimes even worse.

I am expected to believe that these are the literary geniuses whose work we need to harvest every nuance from?  You'll forgive me if I reject the premise.

People are very good at finding patterns, at making connections, at seeing significance.  We can come up with all kinds of models for how they wrote the gospels.  And then find all sorts of evidence that that's what they did.  This isn't actually evidence that it happened, only that we can find a consistent pattern.  We can find a lot of consistent patterns.  Often competing.  That in itself should shake our confidence in the fruits of such inquiry.  What of the alternative?  That they didn't have ten scrolls open in front of them while they worked?  That when they called earlier scripture to mind they were doing it from memory and off the cuff?  That they wrote...I don't know, like real people, instead of modern constructs?

4 comments:

VinnyJH57 said...

Imagine someone two thousand years from now finding a Jackson Pollack painting without knowing anything about the abstract movement of the twentieth century. What would it take to justify treating it as an influential work of art rather than an incoherent mish-mosh of shapes and colors?

Rick Sumner said...

I actually contemplated exactly this question (well, with abstract art generally instead of Jackson Pollack in particular). That's why I went with "assumption," though it's really not one in the more conventional sense. It's not wild speculation, it's informed speculation, and the type of fundamental, historiographic speculation that is demanded by any inquiry.

But by all appearances it would just be a mish-mash of colors. So while the assumption would be wrong, it wouldn't be unwarranted. Similarly, I'm looking at what is ostensibly bad writing. My assumption that it's just bad writing isn't unjustified. It might be wrong, but I don't see any compelling reason to think so, which is why I don't think I need an alternative to Brodie's take on Luke, or many elements of Brown's take on the infancy (for two extremes) to reject them.

Basically what I'm saying is that I'm justified in not seeing a problem needing solved, so I'm equally justified in not worrying overly about proposed solutions.

So to get back to your question, I don't know. It could be that the truth was simply lost to the annals of time, with no way to tell the correct interpretation. The historian would have to make a choice, and see where it leads, with the recognition that they're choosing, and not achieving certainty.

I'm okay with that, and would contend that's a lot closer to what most of history is than some would admit, particularly in Biblical studies where we cling to some odd brand of positivism. As Arnold would have it, history is the art of making good guesses, and justifying your choices. Not knowing in any concrete sense that your choices are the right ones.

This is my guess, and has been for several years now (since I first read the Aeneid through, in fact). That guess affects how I see the texts, just as the opposite guess produces a different effect.

VinnyJH57 said...

The other problem in biblical studies is there are too many scholars studying too little data. So they go over the data with a finer and finer comb.

But if the information isn't there, it isn't there. It's like the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination. No matter how much you slow it down or blow it up, there aren't enough pixels or enough frames to answer the questions.

Rick Sumner said...

I think this is exactly what has happened. New Doctorates require new ideas, which require even more digging. The cycle builds an illusory certainty, and the foundational assumptions are never questioned.