Monday, 23 January 2017

Authorship and Date

As I've worked through the dates of the New Testament texts, the one thing I've wanted to avoid is making this a study of authorship. The more I work on the material though, the more I realize that the relationship between authorship and date is unavoidable. Take the example of the undisputed Pauline letters. I would argue that the ultimate reason that we suppose that these cluster to the 50s of the first century is because we attribute them to Paul. Attributing them to Paul, and knowing that he likely died no later than 68 (the end of Nero's reign), we reasonably suppose that any letter that he wrote must predate 68. We have other data, primarily given by Acts, that leads us towards the 50s as the primary time frame for these writings. In the most recent major study of Pauline chronology, Douglas Campbell recognizes the close relationship between authorship and date in the study of the Pauline epistles, making the question of authenticity the first issue that he discusses in each case; although there is much in Campbell's study to which I object, I am increasingly seeing the necessity in chronological studies of first querying the traditional authorship, not only of the Pauline texts but in fact of any text with a traditional attribution.

So, this has me thinking: how does one go about deciding authorship? When one looks at the scholarship, it's a morass. Paul is just assumed to have written the undisputed Pauline epistles, without question. If Acts' presentation of Paul are thought to differ from how Paul is presented in these epistles, Acts is judged without question to be in error. If the presentation of Paul in the Pastoral Pauline epistles is thought to differ from that in Acts, then the Pastoral Epistles are judged to be in error without question. If the presentation of James or Peter in Acts or the undisputed Pauline epistles differs from that found in the letters of James or 1 or 2 Peter, James or 1 or 2 Peter are judged to be in error without question. There is an unspoken hierarchy: data from undisputed Pauline epistles are supposed without question; data from Acts is accepted where it does not conflict with data from undisputed epistles; data from other epistles, Pauline or Catholic, are accepted where it does not conflict with data from undisputed Pauline epistles or Acts. No attempt to justify this hierarchy of data is advanced; it is just tacitly assumed.

So, then, the question of how to establish authorship really becomes: how do we know that Paul wrote the undisputed epistles? Who can answer that? Very few, I suspect. But how we answer that, it must become the paradigm for answering the question of authorship of any other text. I would suggest that the following procedure is at work. It's very simple. We see that it is attributed to Paul, and find no compelling reason to think that to be in error. This judgment is not offered without data: the crucial datum in each case is the attribution. In most cases this will be a necessary condition, but due to the phenomenon of pseudepigraphy in no case will it probably be sufficient. Thus to this positive test we must add the negative test of compelling reason to judge against the attribution.

The question thus becomes: what reason do we have to say that Paul did not write this? James? Peter? Mark? Matthew? Etc. In each case, the nature of the case will be different, and must be argued from the particularity of the data. Of course, in many cases the particularity of the data will be similar, and some data even will recur from letter to letter (such as with the details of Paul's life, which will recur throughout deliberations on the thirteen canonical Pauline epistles as well as extra-canonical texts attributed to Paul). There will be cases in which the answer is very obvious, in either direction; there will be cases in which that is less the case. Chronology will be related to this in a complex fashion. Sometimes it might exclude the traditional authorship. If a letter clearly references an event that occurred after the author's known time of death, then the traditional authorship must be in error. Sometimes the question of authorship will aid in answering chronological questions, by establishing that the text was likely written during the traditional author's lifetime.  The putative authorship establishes an initial time frame in which to look. If we judge that James, brother of Jesus, wrote the Epistle of James, then we can hardly date the letter later than 62, the year in which (on the basis of Josephus) we know that he died; if Peter wrote 1 Peter, the letter cannot date likely date any later than 68; etc. In most cases, the lower end of possibilities is circumscribed by references to Jesus' life, ministry, or death, making a date earlier than c. 30 impossible.

Authorship and date turn out to be indissolubly linked.

Monday, 16 January 2017

James and Programmatic Skepticism

In his 2013 International Critical Commentary on the canonical Epistle of James, Dale Allison notes rightly that there were numerous pseudepigraphical works written in James’s name. Yet, he also notes rightly, no one argues that these were in fact written by James, brother of Jesus, whereas there are arguments made to support the notion that James wrote the canonical epistle. Thus he asks rhetorically, “Might there not be a canonical or theological bias at work here?” (p. 13). Of course, the answer to the question as asked needs to be “Yes.” There might well be a canonical or theological bias at work. Indeed, it seems hard to deny that such is not at work among those who hold explicitly to any variant of the doctrine of inerrancy. Yes, does it follow that anyone who argues for the authenticity of the Epistle of James must be guided by such a bias?

An immediate observation: the hypothesis is self-condemning. This is obvious if extended beyond the Epistle of James. No critical scholar of whom I am aware argues or indeed has argued that Paul wrote 3 Corinthians, although it is attributed to him. Yet these same scholars have no problem affirming that Paul wrote at least seven of the letters attributed to him and which are found in the New Testament canon. Is there a canonical or theological bias at work? By Allison’s implicit reasoning, there should be, as the situation is precisely parallel: the same scholars who do not seriously entertain the possibility of extant Pauline literature outside the NT canon seriously consider the possibility of extant Pauline literature inside the NT canon. The only difference is one of degree, not kind: with only one rather than thirteen texts attributed to James in the NT, one either affirms 0% or 100% of those attributed to him therein; the possibility of affirming some but not all texts attributed to James in the NT is non-existent. If those who affirm the traditional authorship of our one canonical Jacobean text but not of any non-canonical Jacobean texts are ipso facto guilty of canonical bias, then so too must be those who affirm the traditional authorship of some of our canonical Pauline texts but not of any non-canonical Pauline texts. If we follow this line of reasoning, then a canonical bias is operative in the judgment that Paul wrote at least these seven texts; yet, we continue to affirm that judgment as true; if the affirmation reflects reality, then the bias cannot be thought to constitute a barrier to genuine insight, and why then should we suppose that it would in the case of the canonical James? The question of canonical bias thus seems a non-starter (and this doesn't even mention that if used to vet possible hypotheses, the possibility of bias is really nothing but an instance of the genetic fallacy).

More interesting to me though is the empirical significance of the canon. The reality is that the canon is a historical datum. It exists, in time and space. The observation that the Epistle of James is the only text attributed to James that made it into the canon cannot be programmatically assumed to be a datum of irrelevance for establishing authorship. We know that the early Christians were concerned to admit into the canon only those texts that they had good reason to suppose were written by members of the first Christian generation. It is not a given that this was simply rhetoric or myth-making meant to justify other, truer, but often unspoken interests. That might be the case, or it might not; it needs to demonstrated, not supposed on a programmatic basis. Too often however, it is precisely on a programmatic basis that it is supposed; it is become disciplinary common sense in many circles, but common sense has a tendency to dissolve under closer examination. We cannot dismiss programmatically the hypothesis that the Epistle of James made it into the canon for precisely the reason that our ancient informants claim: that there was good reason to think that it was written by James.

What we’re getting at here is really what it means to be a critical scholar. There is an unfortunate tendency in many circles to suppose that critical scholarship consists of pronouncing negative judgments on early Christians’ own self-understanding of their origins. I would suggest that this is a misunderstanding of what it means to be a critical historian. The critical historian is one who formulates a question, attends to the data relevant to answering that question, weighs possible answers, and then affirms that answer which handles the relevant data best. Sometimes that will much resemble early Christians’ self-understanding of their own origins; sometimes it will be remarkably at variance therewith. The skeptic supposes programmatically that the best answer will be at variance with traditional narratives. That is bias, the bias known as skepticism, which takes as its sinister twin the bias known as credulity: the programmatic supposition that the best answer will be fully congruent with traditional narratives. Both arbitrarily close off possible answers before the investigation even begins. As such, the spirit of critical thought is programmatically opposed to both.