Monday, November 19, 2018

Submitted for your approval

something worth thinking about, as Advent impends (and this blog turns itself over to matters religious and liturgical for a month or so; don't say you weren't warned!):

One of the most fascinating arguments of the book is that while Christians knew there were problems with the text, it wasn’t the “faith killer” that it is today. Knust and Wasserman show that interest in the “original version” and “accuracy” of the New Testament texts is very much a recent phenomenon that began in the 18th and 19th centuries with the rise of critical scholarship.

Prior to that, and in the early Church in particular, Christians were more likely to have been used to thinking about the Jesus story in practice, rather than on paper. As they told me, “The stories and sayings Christians tell, hear, read, copy, illustrate, and perform, in and out of church, have always been as important—even more important!—for determining beliefs about ‘the gospel’ than the words in a given text.”

What the history of this story shows, as Knust and Wasserman so deftly demonstrate, is that even though this story doesn’t belong to the author of the Gospel of John (and, many might argue, probably never happened), this isn’t the central point. To early Christians this story had “broad appeal,” and that appeal was not exclusively grounded in the claim that it was historically accurate. As they write in the conclusion to their book, the “lesson” of the woman caught in adultery isn’t just that the text of the Gospels changed, but that what survived and counted as ‘authentic’ was greatly influenced by local liturgical traditions.  

This, if true, is fascinating; but I'm not sure it's true:

Though they are careful to point out that we don’t know for sure where the story came from or why it was added to the Gospel of John, Knust, an associate professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Boston University, and Wasserman, a professor of Biblical Studies at Ansgar Teologiske Høgskole in Norway, told The Daily Beast that the interpolation took place “in a context where Greek was used but Latin was also spoken, and probably because the interpolator thought it fit best into that Gospel.” They added that “we can only speculate about why John and not some other Gospel,” but mentioned several theories, including the prominence of stories about women in the Fourth Gospel. They also note the intriguing theory of New Testament scholar Chris Keith that, in addition to portraying Jesus as forgiving, the story also presents Jesus as able to write. Perhaps it was added, then, to combat the scandalous accusation that Jesus wasn’t fully literate.

Kind of depends on who you're trying to impress.  Full widespread literacy didn't occur the late Middle Ages.  Paul could read, but could only write his name.  He dictated his letters to a secretary, somebody who could write as he talked.  Jesus of Nazareth was undoubtedly illiterate, a fact that wouldn't have bothered those who heard him (or initially followed him) at all.  The people demanding Jesus be portrayed as literate (didn't Luke do that already, with young Jesus in the Temple?) were not the same people listening to the stories of Jesus and enjoying the nativity (and later morality) plays in church in December.  Anyway, an interesting (if old, again; at least in seminary and scholarship circles) issue that made me want to pull down my copy of Bultmann on the Gospel of John, which I will do if the pace of the holidays relents long enough to let me (gotta line up those advent posts!).


  1. I have a hard time thinking that someone who could write Romans was illiterate. If he composed it in his head, that's way, way more impressive than if he went through multiple drafts on papyrus.

    If Jesus was illiterate it would have even less relevance to his teaching and mission, he did that through spoken words.

    The issue of literacy is interesting considering how many of those I encounter online who pretend they're all worked up over the authenticity of parts of the Gospels or other works don't seem to be able to think, and that many of them never seem to have exercised their literacy all that rigorously. I don't think they're really sincere in their feigned admiration for the art of reading.

  2. "Illiterate" is too broad a term. Paul could read, but didn't write (they really are separate, and separable, skills). And oral composition was much more common, for centuries. If memory serves, Sickens dictated his novels, and Earle Stanley Gardner dictated multiple Perry Mason novels at one time.

    But I couldn't do it, either. I learned to dictate in an office, but I couldn't do it now.

  3. That might account for the rambling nature of some of Dickens,though it's still impressive. I've never read a Perry Mason novel so I don't know what to think of it. I think Romans is more impressive if taken as a mere intellectual achievement than David Copperfield. And it is more.