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.

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