Sunday, 30 August 2015

Dating 2 Peter

A recent blog post by Daniel Gullotta has inflamed my neurotic obsession with the dates of the New Testament texts. I recognize fully that this fixation on the tedious and the trivial is not healthy, and that I should be judged and probably medicated, but in lieu of that I will work out my compulsion in writing.

Gullotta's post is not directly about dating the NT texts, but he does address the dates of 2 Peter and Matthew in passing. He argues that since 2 Peter 1:17 quotes Matt. 17:5, and since Matthew reports the destruction of the temple, both must be post-70; from this he further infers that Peter thus could not written 2 Peter, but I'm not particularly interested in that question, but rather in the claim that both must be post-70. So, first, the obvious: if indeed 2 Peter 1:17 is quoting Matt. 17:5 and this from the final text of Matthew then it would follow that the production of Matthew's Gospel is a terminus post quem for the production of 2 Peter. The discussion thus turns on two initial questions. Does 2 Peter quote Matthew? Could Matthew be pre-70? Gullotta says "Yes" to the first question and "No" to the second, thus requiring him to date 2 Peter to the post-70 era. With regards to the first question I'm not actually convinced that 2 Peter 1:17 does quote Matt. 17:5: it might, it might not. But let's run with the supposition that it does and see what results. With regard to the second question, it ought to be observed that a sizable number of reputable and hardly fundamentalist scholars have argued that the Matthean (and also Lukan) reference to the destruction of the temple does not necessitate a post-70 date. As such a "Yes" to both initial questions are live possibilities, at least sufficiently live to allow us to explore as a thought experiment what would follow if 2 Peter 1:17 does indeed quote Matt. 17:5 *and* Matthew could be pre-70.

Now, let me emphasize the above: this is merely a thought experiment, nothing more. I am not arguing what I think to be the case with 2 Peter, in large part because I have yet to formulate clearly my own thoughts on the date of 2 Peter. However, I am reminded of John Robinson's observation, at the beginning of his Redating the New Testament, that when it comes to the dates of the NT corpus everything is intricately interconnected. The judgments one makes with regards to one text or set of questions will have implications for the judgments one makes with regards to other texts and questions. And that leads me to think about the Synoptic Tradition more broadly, asking two further questions. One, is Luke-Acts pre-70, as a reputable minority would infer from the ending of Acts? Two, did Luke know and use Matthew, as an increasing number of scholars would hold? If one answered "Yes" to the two prior questions and now "Yes" to these, then Matthew must be pre-70 and 2 Peter potentially but not necessarily pre-70. In fact, in such a situation, Matthew cannot be much later than 60 (the argument for a pre-70 Acts is, in its fullest form, that the text was written not long after the last event mentioned, namely Paul's two years of house-captivity in Rome, which probably ended c. 62, and certainly no later than his subsequent death; this would probably put Luke not much later than c. 60, and Matthew earlier still). Note that this wouldn't settle the issue of pseudepigraphy, as 2 Peter could still be post-70 or pre-70 but not Petrine. It would however open up the chronological (and only the chronological) possibility of Petrine authorship. We would now require a fifth question: is there adequate warrant, independent of the relationship to Matthew's Gospel, for thinking 2 Peter to be Petrine? If one answered "Yes" then one would have to conclude that it is Petrine, whereas "No" would lead one to conclude the opposite. Note that this question should be asked anyways, and if the answer is "Yes" whereas any of the previous answers were "No" it might require one to revisit those answers (that is, if one has compelling reason to think that 2 Peter is Petrine and yet one judged both that it quotes Matthew and that Matthew is post-70 one will need to revise one or both of those latter judgments, as all three cannot be true at the same time).

Again, the above is purely a thought experiment. It is offered to demonstrate how the judgment that 2 Peter quotes Matthew does not obviate the possibility of Petrine authorship (as, incidentally, neither does the fact that 2 Peter obviously stands in some sort of close source-critical relationship with Jude, even though you will hear it argued that somehow this militates against Petrine authorship). Part of the difficulty with these sort of discussions is a tendency to make observations without fully thinking through their significance. Does a Matthean quotation actually necessitate a post-70 date? If not is a post-70 date more probable than a pre-70 date? On what grounds? Under what conditions would a pre-70 date be more reasonable (one was suggested above: if the text can be shown to be most reasonably judged as Petrine then a pre-70 date should follow)? Similar issues occur when it is argued, for instance, that the reference to Paul's writings in 2 Peter 3:15-16 necessitate a date in the late first or early second centuries. Why is that the case, though? Paul's earliest letters probably date not much later than c. 50, perhaps even earlier (depending upon what one does with Galatians). Is the difficulty that 3:16 refers to Paul's letters as "scriptures"? How do we actually know that someone could not refer to Paul's letters as γραφὰς (which at this time should probably bear the more neutral term "writings") in, say, 65? Perhaps it is the case that such a reference is impossible before 70, and perhaps it is not the case. It needs to actually be demonstrated, not simply assumed.

Jacob Neusner has a dictum: what we cannot show we cannot know. In other words, one must be able to show why one's conclusion is the most probable, and that means explaining why the data that one cites actually support the conclusion that one reaches. Too often the work of showing is simply over-looked in the rush to judgment.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Historiography and Inference

When my maternal grandfather was approaching 65 he assembled his paperwork in order to claim his pension. As he did so he was surprised to discover that after a lifetime of writing out Dec. 6, 1910, as his birth date that in fact his birth certificate said that he was born on Dec. 6, 1911, a full twelve months later. This was problematic as his health was in serious decline and he really needed to get that pension. For the historian it presents an interesting question: how do we explain the discrepancy between what a man believes to have been his date of birth and the date listed on his birth certificate.

Now, the first thing to do is to ask how my grandfather came to know that his date of birth was Dec. 6, 1910. The answer is: probably the same as most of us know our birth date. Our family members who can remember when we were born tell us that was the date. In short, it is based upon what we might call oral tradition. In the case of my grandfather there was the interesting situation that his eldest sister was still alive when the discrepancy was discovered, and she was old enough not only to remember but to have actually assisted in his birth. This was the early 20th-century in rural Canada after all: he was born at home, not in a hospital. Aunt Dorcas was quite certain that, yes, Grandpa had been born in 1910, not 1911.

So what we are really dealing with at this point is a discrepancy between oral tradition and written records. Now, there is a tendency I think for many historians to favour records over oral tradition, but in this case we run in to trouble if we do, and this because of another datum, namely that my grandfather's younger brother was born early in 1912. If my grandfather had been born in December, 1911, my great-grandmother would have given birth to him whilst several months pregnant with another child, a biological improbable scenario. Quite simply, if his brother was born early in 1912 then my grandfather could not have been born in December, 1911.

The balance of the data suggests that in this case the written record is probably mistaken and the oral tradition probably correct. Yet the historian, at least any worth the name, will not stop there. In fact, this is where historiography really gets going, because the question now to be asked is "Why did this error arise?" Recall that I said this was rural Canada in the early 20th-century, a land before cars and telecommunications. Recall that I also said that he was born at home. Recall that he was born in December, which a century ago would have been the dead of winter in the region where he was born. So his family would have had to physically go into the county clerk's office to get him registered, and this without car and in the dead of winter. Under these conditions it is quite probable that the birth was not officially registered until several months after he was born, quite likely in the New Year. This would have been quite standard practice a century ago. Thus I infer that what simply happened was that when they went to get the birth registered whomever filled out the paperwork at the clerk's office had gotten to used to writing "1911" for the year and simply made a typographical mistake. This seems by far the easiest way to account for the totality of the data.

The interesting thing to note is that whilst this is the easiest way to account for the data I actually do not have a source that tells me that this was the result of a typographical error made by someone who was used to writing 1911 rather than 1910. And that's okay, because history is not the enterprise of adjudicating which sources are true and which are in error, even though (as in this case) one might recognize demonstrable error in the sources. Rather, history is the enterprise of explaining why the extant data relevant to a certain event (in this case, the birth of my grandfather and the registration of that birth) takes the form that it does and only that form. Sometimes the best explanation might actually appear in our sources, and if so that is a happy evidentiary boost, but very often we have to infer it using our imagination. The trick is to develop an imagination disciplined by reason and informed by data.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Narrative and Chronology

I was just rereading Marc Bloch's The Historian's Craft. Now, anyone who knows anything about 20th-century historiography will know that Marc Bloch is hardly would could be a conservative or traditionalist historian. He was one of the foundational figures of the Annales School of historians, who have been working for four generations to establish history as a department of the social sciences rather than a department of the humanities. He had little time for traditional, "political," history. Yet, interestingly enough, in his book most fully focused upon historical method we come across the following statement.
Now, the narrative sources--to use a baroque but hallowed phrase--that is, the accounts which are consciously intended to inform their readers, still continue to provide valuable assistance to the scholar. Among their other advantages, they are ordinarily the only ones which furnish a chronological framework, however inconsistent.
As I read this I cannot help but be reminded of Rainer Riesner's observation that no historian of Paul's life or the course of the first Christian decades has ever been able to dispense entirely with the framework found in Acts. And with good reason. Try to construct a history of the church in those decades absent Acts. Or the gospels for that matter. Without these narrative sources we'd have practically no idea when to situate the epistles. It is only because we read in the gospels (and in 1 Tim. 6:13, which is at that moment actually functioning in a narratival fashion, as defined by Bloch) that Jesus died under Pontius Pilate that we can narrow his crucifixion down to a specific decade, and frankly apart from that and other references to contemporaries we would have no idea that Jesus is to be situated in the first century at all. That's of course why mythicists need to work so hard to dispense with any connection between the gospels and history: because it is precisely these texts that nail Jesus down to a real time and place.

Similarly, the single most important chronological "anchor" not just for Paul's life but for the decades following Jesus's life is the inscription, found in 1905, that allows us to date Paul's appearance before Gallio in Corinth to sometime between July 1, 51, and June 30, 52. This chronological insight is lost however the moment that we decide that Acts 18:12-17 is nought but fiction. And it continues. New Testament historiography has tended to stake a great deal on the Jewish War of 66-73 and the Domitianic persecution of the church in the 90s. Yet again the very occurrence of such events are known almost entirely from narrative sources. Or try to talk about Valentinus and Marcion and other significant figures of the 2nd century absent such sources. Etc.

Bloch notes that the narrative sources are valuable with regards to chronological framework, despite often being quite inconsistent. This, I think, is a crucial point. Due to the pernicious influence of a particularly virulent inerrancy New Testament historiography has tended to put far more emphasis upon chronological and other inconsistencies in our narrative sources than is probably helpful or healthy. Those given to Chicago-style inerrancy want to show that the sources lack any inconsistency at all, a quest that would make Don Quixote proud. Such persons adopt an all-or-nothing approach to the narrative sources: either all is consistent or none is useful. The problem is that many of their opponents adopt the same approach, the only difference being that where one chooses "all" the other "chooses" nothing. Neither allows the possibility that it might very well be the case that, yes, Paul did indeed appear in front of Gallio in 51/52, even as, for instance, everything that Gallio is reported to have said during that meeting is entirely a Lukan construction. Or Luke might get details of Paul's itinerary wrong even whilst depicting the overall sweep of the church's early missionary expansion with reasonable fidelity. Etc. So many, probably far too many, of our debates regarding history method are really engaged with disputing the Quixotism of inerrancy instead of dealing with the actual work of historiography.