Wednesday, August 31, 2011

As Someone Important was (not) Saying....

I've been ruminating on this topic for a long time now. The NYT op-ed page brings it to mind again:

But ours is an era in which it’s believed that we can reinvent ourselves whenever we choose. So we recast the wisdom of the great thinkers in the shape of our illusions. Shorn of their complexities, their politics, their grasp of the sheer arduousness of change, they stand before us now. They are shiny from their makeovers, they are fabulous and gorgeous, and they want us to know that we can have it all.
There are other examples which have nothing to do with self-regard, such as Mark Twain's statement that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco (he didn't say that), or the line often (now) attributed to Einstein: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result." This is not a peculiar affliction of our age. These acts of misattribution are actually quite old in human culture, and they produce of a great deal of confusion and trouble.

Take the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures, for example. According to Martin Luther's German translation (one of the first into a common European tongue after Jerome's Vulgate), the titles of the books are "The ------ Book of Moses." Each book gets a ordinal ("First," "Second," etc.), to keep the order clear. They weren't, of course, written by Moses at all. Modern (well, since at least the early 19th century) Biblical scholarship has identified 5 different authors for these five books, some of the "authors" almost certainly being groups of scholars and scribes, not individuals; many hands over many centuries revising and rewriting what was passed on to them. Then there is the book of Isaiah, probably the work of 4 different authors; and Baruch, secretary to Jeremiah, probably wrote some of that prophet's book.

Except to really hard-core fundamentalist Christians, this is a pretty acceptable state of affairs in scriptural studies. Even conservative Christians are comfortable with some critical distancing from the Hebrew Scriptures; but when it comes to the New Testament, there is a different response altogether.

Paul's letters, for example, outrage many Christians and non-Christians, because he advises such anachronistic ideas as women being submissive to their husbands, and covering their heads in worship, etc. And yet if you point out Paul didn't write those words, that evidence is used to prove people in the first century were gullible, and people in the present century are equally credulous. We don't do that anymore, you see. We keep careful track of our authorities, and certainly after the Enlightenment we don't even speak of The Philosopher anymore (as Aquinas did, referring to Aristotle, in distinction to the previous ruling philosopher, Aristotle's teacher Plato), because we don't regard authority as authoritative just because it is, well...authority.

But we still like to ascribe pithy ideas to famous people, either because they sound wiser that way, or because it makes us feel better about what we want to think anyway. If you are old enough, you remember "Desiderata," which was purportedly "Found in Old St. Paul's Church in 1692", a sign of the soundness of its timeless wisdom. If you can't ascribe the words to someone famous, "Anonymous" is always second best. And "anonymous" is even better if the words are supposed to be old, because then they have the patina of wisdom from "the elders" on them. The problem is, "Desiderata" was written by Max Ehrmann in 1927.

Go placidly, and pay attention to who you're listening to.

So, was Paul, for example, such a chauvinist pig? No, according to Dom Crossan and some pretty sound archaeological as well as textual evidence. The historical Paul was actually quite radical; too radical for his contemporaries, some of whom took on his authority while softening the edges of what he said. Is it really credible that the man who said "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus," would turn around and berate women for being women?* It is more likely someone wrote in his name, assumed his authority to assert their own opinions, opinions more widely acceptable in the culture at the time. Why, rather like the examples Brian Morton comes up with.

The more things change....

There is a great deal of scriptural study along this line. I was re-reading the Jesus Seminar's work on the parables of Jesus. They categorized some versions that we have as "original," some as modified, some as the inventions of the gospel writers or other, later hands. Basically, the more conventional they were, the less likely they were the original work of Jesus of Nazareth. But, of course, there is tremendous power in giving the imprimatur of the Anointed One to the "common sense" wisdom of the day. The challenge to us, 2000 years later, is to discern the true wisdom from the merely comforting aphorism.

Maybe the recent adage should be revised: "If it feels good, it's probably not worth knowing."

*Similar examples have been found in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the Book of Exodus, after the Red Sea has closed over Pharoah's army, Moses offers a spontaneous song of praise to God for Israel's deliverance. Immediately after his song his sister Miriam also offers a doxology; but only one verse of it still exists. Scholars surmise the rest, rather like the fingers on the hand of Thecla in the fresco Crossan describes, were expunged by later scribes to reduce the importance of women in the culture. There is a rich scholarship pointing out how many women's stories persist in the Hebrew scriptures (some of the first Judges were women) despite clear efforts to redact and revise the historical record. There is, indeed, nothing new under the sun.


  1. Anonymous6:00 AM

    I will have to read Crossan's book about Paul, would also welcome a short bibliogaphy on these subjects.

    I wish it were true that people don't ascribe authority as trustworthy based on it's assumed authority. It's my experience that it's more a matter of choosing different authorities to be unquestionable than it is of giving up unquestioning argument from authority.

    Anthony McCarthy

  2. The Enlightenment, according to some intellectual historians, marked "Paid" to the notion that authority was the only word we needed to establish "truth."

    But, as the French say, the more things change....

  3. Someday I would like to take some serious time with the whole critical reading of scripture that has created a new consensus this last century, if only because, as I read the scriptures, more and more in their original languages, and as I look at the consensus, I see it more and more as "possible," but by no means "likely," and certainly no more scientific than the systems proposed by Marx or Freud (which I by no means despise, but certainly exclude from the category of science). I hope, for instance, that it's not just the increasing crankiness of age that makes me more and more convinced over time that Paul did in fact write the letters to Timothy, and to find the arguments against based on inadequate criteria looking only at artificial and trivial discrepencies.

    More for your information than anyone else's, this summer I actually started blogging again after about a year and a half hiatus. You might enjoy some of the ramblings there.