Friday, 30 January 2015

Zebedean Economics

A couple weeks back I posted about the conceptual difficulty entailed in any argument from deduction, using specifically the case of Zebedean authorship of John’s Gospel as an example. I observed that the argument “John, son of Zebedee, could not have written the Fourth Gospel because he was a Galilean fisherman” contains an unspoken major: namely, that no one who is a Galilee fisherman c. 30 C.E. could have written something like the Fourth Gospel. Only to the extent that that premise is true could the argument be considered valid and sound, and the empirical work of establishing its truth would be more than a little difficult.

I would to flesh out that argument with additional considerations that in my mind make Zebedean authorship seem significantly less implausible than is often assumed. Specifically, I want to point at the growing body of evidence related to the ancient Galilean economy. This evidence is driving a general shift from the substantivist and primitivist historical economics associated with Karl Polanyi and Moses Finley, and for some time assumed in the treatment of the ancient Galilean economy, towards a formalist and modernist historical economics such as those associated with the work of Michael Roztovzeff. Given this shift, archaeologists are increasingly interpreting the ancient Galilean economy as a place of relative affluence; at the very least there is a recognition that one cannot characterize all Galileans are peasants just barely getting by fiscally. In fact, the very idea of a Galilean peasantry is in the dock; after all, absent either a primarily agricultural economy or a feudal politics “peasantry” might well be nought but a mischievous anachronism in discussions of first-century Galilee.

Enough however of theory. It appears that fishing was a potentially quite lucrative career path in the ancient Galilee. The salted fish from Magdala were renowned throughout the empire. The data en toto would suggest that not every fisherman, perhaps not even most, was operating at a subsistence level. Many, perhaps most, were selling their wares for distribution and consumption within a lively international market (the shift towards formalist historical economics has made archaeologists and others familiar with studies on the ancient Galilean economy more amenable to the language of market than those still operating within a substantivist framework). Some, such as Zebedee, could afford to hire other fishermen to work their boats. And if Zebedee could afford to hire fishermen to work his boats then it is hardly inconceivable that he could afford to give his sons a decent education. Indeed, it is not hard to imagine that Zebedee would have considered such an education, inculcating a fluency and literary in Koine, to be a significant advantage for sons who would one day take over the business.

If John is to be identified with the Beloved Disciple then there is the question of how a Galilean fisherman was known to the chief priest. It is of course altogether conceivable that John had business dealings of some sort with the household of the chief priest. Again, however, recent advances in Galilean studies might help furnish another hypothesis. The growing consensus is that the first-century Galileans were descendants of Jewish colonists who came to the region during the Maccabean era. It is hardly inconceivable and indeed virtually certain that among them were priestly families. Zebedee and his sons might very well belong to such a family, thus raising the possibility of familial or cultic ties with Caiaphas. That is all to say, the idea that a Galilean fisherman, and quite possibly an affluent fisherman at that, could also be moving in the same circles as the chief priest can hardly be ruled out.

In the final analysis however there will be no knock-down argument for Zebedean authorship of the Fourth Gospel. Indeed, all I have done above is sketch the outlines of a world in which such authorship is possible; I’ve hardly made an argument. What the above discussion does suggest however is that already during Jesus’s lifetime we see a phenomenon that would be present not too much later among the Paleo-Christians based in Jerusalem and elsewhere: socio-economic heterogeneity. Jesus’s followers from the off appear to have come from a range of socio-economic backgrounds. Those romantic treatments of the movement that want to valorize his followers as the noble poor would thus seem to suffer a disconnection from reality.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

On How (Not) to Situate a Text

Let me be clear: I think Séan Freyne's last book, The Jesus Movement and its Expansion to be an masterpiece. It is just an incredible overview of the archaeological data related to historical Jesus studies, and Freyne's efforts to demonstrate the relevance of those data for studying both Jesus and his followers is second-to-none. Yet, what is the fun of reading a book with which one never takes issue, and I do take issue with some things in this book. One sterling example comes on page 295, when he says of the Gospel of Mark that
[T]he place of original composition would appear to be resolved, at least in a general way, also: somewhere in Galilee, or its immediate environs! Is it possible to be more precise? Probably not, other than to say that the author would seem to be quite familiar with the political and geographic situation in the region as a whole, and in addition aware of the Galilean social conditions in which Jesus and some of his first followers operated.
The problem here is an unspoken major, which can be articulated as follows: if a text evinces awareness of the known reality of a given region then said text must have been written in said region. This is clearly false. People move around, and that was no less true in the ancient world than the modern, even if the frequency, speed, and distance of movement have greatly increased. The reality is that the Gospel of Mark could quite conceivably have been written by someone quite familiar with Jesus's Galilee yet not been written in the Galilee.

Moving from discussion of mere possibilities it is interesting that this is precisely what we find in some of the earliest data on the matter: accounts that tell us that Mark wrote his gospel based upon Peter's teaching in Rome. Now, I raise this issue not to argue that this traditional account is the way that things happened. Rather, I want to observe that we can learn something from the very fact that people writing within a century, at most a century and a half, after the Gospel of Mark thought this to be a plausible course of events; and what we learn is that near-contemporaries thought it altogether plausible that a Galilean's account of Jesus could be written down in Rome. And why not, really? If Magdala could provide Rome with the bulk of its salted fish then surely Galileans could travel to the capital.

We stand at a point in historical Jesus studies that the only way to proceed is to do what I did above: query the major premises of given arguments to see if they are true or false. Of course the minor premises matter also; even if a major premise is well and good the argument is ultimately invalid if, contrary to the minor, the conditions outlined in the major have not been satisfied. Lonergan refers to a situation in which all conditions have been properly identified and satisfied as a virtually conditioned: i.e. although the argument is properly-speaking conditional given that all conditions are met it is no longer in the realm of the merely possible but rather in the realm of the reasonably certain. Such work transcends all our hand-wringing about method, and in fact is the only means by which we can adjudicate between methods.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Flipping Coins and Writing Gospels

I was recently preparing a lecture for a third-year undergraduate course at McMaster University on "John's Portrait of Jesus." Traditionally this course has been an introduction to Johannine studies, and of course such introductory work will take place this term. However, given the course title and description indicates that there is to a focus upon how John presents Jesus of Nazareth, and given that my primary research interests fall into the realm of historical Jesus studies, and given that the relationship to HJ studies lies at the centre of recent and current debates in Johannine studies, I have decided to gear the course towards what we might call "John and the historical Jesus." This preamble is written to explain why no doubt there will be a surge of posts on this theme in the near future.

As I was preparing my PowerPoint slides for today's lecture two things struck me. First, I really hate using PowerPoint. Two, how tenuous the argument against Zebedean authorship truly is. The core of that argument looks like this:

No Galilean fisherman could have written something like the Gospel of John.
John, son of Zebedee, was a Galilean fisherman.
Therefore, John, son of Zebedee, could not have written something the Gospel of John.

This line of argumentation has two major problems for the empirically-oriented investigator. First, it is deductive, and a deduction is only ever as strong as its major and minor premises. Sure, the argumentation is valid: if A then not B; but A; therefore B. Yet as I look at the major premise I wonder whether the argument is really that sound. Do we actually know that a Galilean fisherman could not have written something like the Gospel of John? If so, how do we know this? And this leads to the second problem: it is incredibly difficult to prove a negative.

There is a deeper problem, related to the distinction between what Lonergan calls classical and statistical heuristic structures. The former he defines as properly prescientific, the latter as properly. Prescientific, classical, structures, seek invariant rules: no Galilean fisherman could have written something like the Gospel of John, ever. This invariance is necessary, for absent that invariance the conclusion would not follow from the major and minor. That means that if I can show but one example of a Galilean fisherman who could have written something like the Gospel of John then I have proven the major to be unsound.

Once we shift to scientific, statistical, thinking, then for the major premise to be sound the probability of such a person having existed must be zero. Not less than zero, for that is impossible, or greater than zero, for such would invalidate the conclusion. One might try to salvage the argument by rephrasing the major to read "No typical Galilean fisherman..." but that then raises a difficulty with the minor premise, namely: how do we know that John, son of Zebedee, was a typical Galilean fisherman? This is also to say that the nature of statistics is such that even if 99% of all Galilean fishermen were persons who could not have written something like the Gospel of John it does not follow that there is a 99% chance that John, son of Zebedee, would be such a person. It's an example of the coin flip problem: just because you flip a coin ten times and eight times it comes up heads it does not follow that the eleventh coin has a 80% chance of coming up heads; it in fact has a 50% chance; and even if that were not the case 80% is not 100%.

Now, let's be clear: I am not arguing here that John, son of Zebedee, wrote the Fourth Gospel. I am arguing that that in a scientific, statistically-oriented, enterprise such as biblical studies should be it is extremely difficult if not impossible to use deductive arguments from historical generalizations in order to prove a negative with regards to a particular instance. As such I have become increasingly persuaded over the years that Zebedean authorship might not be as out there as is often supposed. I am thinking that in the next little while I'm going to spend some time really thinking about how Zebedean authorship might help or might alternatively hinder our understanding of the Fourth Gospel and the traditions related to its origins.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Biblical Studies as Theology

The ultimate impetus for this reflection on "biblical studies as theology" is a growing conviction on my part that one of the single greatest problems afflicting biblical scholarship today is the mutual recriminations between what we might call theologically-interested and theologically-disinterested parties. The proximate impetus for this reflection is that I am currently reading the first volume of Bernard Lonergan's The Triune God, first published in Latin in 1964 but now available (since 2009) in an attractive bilingual edition (think Loeb, but Lonergan). In this book he makes a distinction between positive and dogmatic theology. This distinction is a foretaste of the more elaborate schema of functional specializations that will emerge in Method in Theology seven years later, with positive theology now defined as the first phase of the theological enterprise and consisting of research, interpretation, history, and dialectic; and dogmatic theology as the second phase and consisting of foundations, doctrines, systematics, and communications. I "jump ahead" to Method in order to articulate the central thesis of this post, namely that the work of biblical scholarship proper falls within the realm of positive theology. This does not mean that biblical scholarship is by definition positive theology but rather that those who want to think about their biblical scholarship as a sort of theology should place it under the rubric of positive rather than dogmatic theology.

This is crucial, for the distinction between positive and dogmatic theology is the distinction, in Lonergan's words, between the singular and the catholic. The positive theologian wants to know how and why particular persons thought and acted at particular times and places. The most appropriate procedures of contemporary biblical studies as a sort of twentieth-first century positive theology are thus the whole panoply of historical-critical procedures developed in the last two centuries: anything that helps us understand how and why particular persons thought and acted at particular times. Thus can feminist, Marxist, queer, critical race, etc., theories greatly enrich the work of positive theology, and indeed any biblical studies that would attempt to put these genies back in their respective bottles would result in a vitiated and sub-par positive theology.

By contrast the dogmatic theologian wants to know how all these particular persons studied by the biblical scholar interacted with the same God, and through knowing this the character of that God. This will necessitate procedures quite distinct from those of the positive theologian. The dogmatic theologian is thus quite right not to engage in "higher criticism," for that is the work of the positive theologian. The dogmatic theologian is quite wrong however to think that she or he can do without the discoveries of the positive theologian, and conversely the positive theologian is quite wrong to think that the work of theology is finished when she or he understands this or that text a-right. Each represents an indispensable moment in the broader work of theology.

And thus I would suggest can we begin to carve out room for both the theologically-interested and the theologically-disinterested biblical scholar: the former can define her or his self as a positive theologian, the latter as something other than that. Each however would continue to use exactly the same procedures. Each is freed from excessive concern with the work of dogmatic theologian: the theologically-interested biblical scholar is freed because she or he need not feel any obligation to reduce her or his scholarship to lowly status as handmaiden to dogma (the urgent need for inerrancy disappears almost immediately, once the distinction between positive and dogmatic theology is recognized and respected); the theologically-disinterested biblical scholar is freed because she or he need not feel any obligation to raise her or his scholarship to the exalted status of dogma-slayer (one could now, for instance, say "Yeah, I think that the early Christians had a very high early Christianity" with one breath whilst saying "And I think that metaphysically-speaking they were wrong on this matter" with the next). They can each and all just get on with the work of biblical scholarship. And each does this without sacrificing her or his theological interest or disinterest.