Monday, December 21, 2009

Does the existence of text types support the idea that the Gospels were written for relatively insular communities?

A handful of prominent critics of Richard Bauckham's famous essay, "For Whom were the Gospels Written?", have argued that the existence of text types (Alexandrian, Western, Caesarean, Byzantine) is evidence against Bauckham's view that the Evangelists wrote, not only for their own "community", but also with an eye toward wider dissemination.

The argument goes something like this: the existence of distinguishable text types testifies to the strength and relative isolation of the individual churches which produced and preserved those manuscripts. This suggests, it is argued, that early Christian literature was produced primarily by and for individual communities.

I confess that this argument strikes me as specious, and I'm wondering if someone can help me see if I'm missing something.

While the list of commonly acknowledged text types may look impressive, it is misleading. The Byzantine text is thought to be, in part, the result of conflation of earlier text types, so it actually testifies to the interpenetration of streams of textual transmission in Christian antiquity, not to their isolation. Similarly, Bruce Metzger described the Caesarean text as being characterized by a mixture of Western and Alexandrian readings and as "the most mixed and the least homogeneous of any of the groups that be classified as distinct text types" (The Text of the New Testament, 2005 p.310-12).

Now we're left with just the Alexandrian and the Western texts, both of which appear to have emerged at some point during the second century, in the case of the the Western text the latter part of the second century. The existence of two identifiable text types does attest to some degree of isolation. Nevertheless, the significance of this relative isolation for the question of Gospel audiences is greatly attenuated by the fact that we're talking about a period of time 50 to 100 years after the composition of the Gospels. And of course both text types attest to all four canonical Gospels.

To sum up: when it comes to the debate over Gospel audiences, it seems to me that only the Alexandrian and Western texts count as evidence of the relative isolation of streams of transmission of Christian literature, and this evidence is too late and too weak to tell us much, if anything, about the concerns of the Evangelists.

I'd love to be shown if I'm missing something. That's what blogs are for, right?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Cast your vote! What are the Gospels?

Everyone who votes will receive a free copy of Joel Marcus's Mark commentary!

Friday, December 11, 2009

David Kelsey on the New Perspective on Paul

A friend recently emailed me the following quotation from David Kelsey's new book, Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology. It's illuminating, I think, to listen to a theologian attempt to summarize the insights of the last few decades of work on Paul.

When Paul inveighed against justification by works of the law, the law he had in mind was Torah, God's revealed positive law that specifies what God wills that human creatures ought to do. It might well be interpreted as including a positive duty to forgive others. In seventeenth-century Protestant-Roman Catholic theological polemics, Protestant theologians held that Paul’s critique of the project of ‘justification by works of the law’ included works evaluated by ‘law’ more broadly understood as moral law, whether revealed in Scripture or rationally discerned in the structure of created reality as natural law. Such law might well include a duty to forgive others. It has not been uncommon in modern Protestant theology for Paul’s critique to be broadened to cover the project of justifying one’s life by ‘works of the law’ where ‘law’ is understood to cover any social convention that serves as a criterion for excellence in behavior…

These successive broadenings of what Paul meant by ‘law’ move entirely outside the theological context in which he framed his critiques Paul’s concern was highly particularist and Christocentric. He was concerned to reconcile the unbrokenness of God’s covenant with Israel, and the continued validity of Torah as the expression of God’s will regarding life in the covenant, with the Gospel claim that in Jesus Christ God enacted reconciliation with estranged human creatures, including Gentiles outside the covenant and not subject to all the demands of Torah. Successive broadenings of understanding of ‘law’ in ‘justification by works of the law’ do not develop Paul’s theological point. They simply change the subject.”

(I'm sorry I don't have the page number. I asked my friend for the full reference, but he said he was busy updating his Facebook profile or something. Ah, the life of a PhD student in theology...)

I do have one question (similar to something pondered here): what's the difference between developing Paul's point and simply changing the subject? I don't dispute that there is a difference, but I'd be interested to hear how new perspective folks answer this.