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.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, and no rural lout from Stratford could have written "Hamlet."