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.

No comments:

Post a Comment