Sunday, 10 February 2019

1 Clement v. Tradition

Biblical scholars have often like to cast ourselves as critics of received tradition. Given that self-conception, it is fascinating to note just how frequently we tend to unreflectively repeat the received traditions of our scholarly heritage. A sterling example of such repetition is the standard date given for 1 Clement (not a biblical text per se, but certainly biblical adjacent), namely c. 95. This date was first proposed in 1633, by Patrick Young, Royal Librarian to Charles I, who was the first western scholar in the post-medieval world to have access to a(n incomplete) copy of 1 Clement, and was given the not-insignificant imprimateur of J.B. Lightfoot in the latter's magisterial study of the Apostolic Fathers. In 1633, we were two centuries away from the advent of modern historical consciousness, and almost two-and-a-half away from having a complete text of 1 Clement. Neither of these realities shows the date to be wrong, of course: persons operating before the nineteenth-century's "Copernican Revolution" in historical thinking were altogether intelligent and quite capable of reaching conclusions that we now on a more solid basis know to be correct, and the portions of 1 Clement most significant for purposes of establishing its date were already available to Young. What is more significant is that the two primary bases for the standard c. 95 date are now known to be almost certainly false.

The first of these bases begins from 1 Clement 1.1, which speaks about "sudden and repeated misfortunes" recently suffered by the Roman church. Young confidently concluded that this is a reference to the Domitianic persecution, and thus argued that the letter must date to the very end of Domitian's reign (81-96). There are two problems here, which E.T. Merrill brought convincingly to our attention in 1924. First, the "Domitianic persecution" seems to have been limited to the execution of the emperor's cousin, Flavius Clemens, and the exile of Clemens' wife (also the emperor's niece), Flavia Domitilla (III: both her mother and grandmother appear to have borne the same name), who may or may not have been Christians. Second, 1.1 probably does not refer to a persecution at all. More likely, it is just a typical rhetorical move common to the sort of letter that 1 Clement represents. In other words, 1.1 probably doesn't reference a persecution that didn't happen. 1 Clement 1.1 probably contains no data usable for chronological purposes.

The second basis for the c. 95 date is the dual supposition that Clement must have written this letter while he was monarchical bishop of Rome, and that on the basis of ancient succession lists his episcopacy can be dated to the 90s. There are again (at least) two problems here. First, as there probably wasn't a monarchical bishop in Rome until the second century, Clement probably never held such a position. Certainly, 1 Clement does not seem to envision a monarchical bishop in Rome. Now, I don't necessarily think that the succession lists are without historical value, and think it entirely plausible if not probable that figures such as Linus, Anacletus, and Clement (the second, third, and fourth "popes" respectively) held some sort of privileged position that was in retrospect recognized as standing in succession with the later monarchical bishops. But that brings us to the second problem with this basis: it is not clear that Clement was associated with the letter because of his episcopal office. Here Shepherd of Hermas Vis. 2.4.3 (8.3) is potentially relevant, as it says that a certain man named Clement was responsible for sending letters abroad from the Roman church. This coheres remarkably well with the evidence furnished by Dionysius of Corinth, who c. 170 wrote that the Corinthian church still regularly read the letter that the Roman church sent to them through Clement. We might rather suspect that Clement became associated with the letter not because he was bishop when it was written, but rather because he was a sort of chief scribe for the Roman church. In such a case, the possibility that the letter predates Clement's "episcopacy" is very real. And this is before we even address the matter of authenticity, for if the association with Clement is spurious then there would be no reason to connect it with the particulars of his biography.

Now, of course, the c. 95 date could be correct, but if so it would be correct for reasons other than those which were most instrumental in establishing that date in the first place. Young and Lightfoot would have been correct by accident. Until alternative and compelling arguments for this date are put forth, it would be best if we caught up with 1924 and stop treating it as a given.

Thursday, 7 February 2019

Context and Transmission


In On the Reliability of the Old Testament, Kenneth Kitchen argues that many of the details found in Genesis are most fully at home in the Middle Bronze Age Levant and broader Near East. Here of course he is building upon an older stream of scholarship, one which our scholarly memories connect most fully with William Albright. Regardless of its pedigree or veracity, this sort of argumentation is largely what I would group broadly under the category of contextualization. In order to tease out how contextualization works in practice, especially in relation to a text such as Genesis where the dates that scholars have suggested for its composition range over a matter of centuries, let us suppose that Kitchen's argument is correct in at least the broad outlines. Let us also stress that this supposition is entirely for purposes of argumentation: no judgment is rendered here regarding the veracity of Kitchen’s argument. We are merely asking what follows if Kitchen is correct in arguing that the setting-in-life of much of the material in Genesis is to be found within the Middle Bronze.

If that argument is correct, we would then have to ask how Genesis came to include so much material that is most fully at home in the Middle Bronze Age. Under such conditions, the likelihood that this material originated much later—into the Iron II or even as late as the Persian or Hellenistic periods—would be exceedingly slim, demanding affirmation of such a high number of coincidences as to beggar the intellect. Far more likely would be that the bulk of this material originated in the Middle Bronze and was transmitted to the later times in which they are more fully documented. The extent to which this material was transmitted in a form that resembled our Genesis would remain a matter of investigation (and given the state of the evidence, probably also conjecture), but any adequate hypothesis would require transmission processes that yield a reasonably high rate of preservation. The state of the data might well be such that we cannot now reconstruct those processes with any degree of precision, and we might not be able to do much more than state that they almost were operative, but the alternative "coincidence theory" would be so significantly improbable as to be functionally excluded. Arguments that would deny a priori that such transmission is possible would have to yield to evidence which makes such transmission necessary a posteriori.

Now, again, let me be clear: I am not here affirming Kitchen's arguments. I am simply teasing out the historiographical implications that would follow if he is indeed correct. And let me be equally clear that if one were to affirm that Genesis contains material from the Middle Bronze Age one would not necessarily need to affirm that its stories describe actual events from that time. Although the presence of material from the Middle Bronze would likely increase the probability that Abraham et. al. were historical figures whose lives to some degree resembled themselves described in Genesis (at the very least, the absence of such material would tend to militate against historicity), it could also be the case that such material is entirely in the service of fictional accounts. Once again however, this would have to be figured out on the basis of a posteriori investigations, not a priori suppositions.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

On Dating the Old Testament

(A small apologia for my use of "Old Testament" rather than "Hebrew Bible." Working in a Catholic context, I am interested in not just the books shared in common by Judaism and Christian, but also in the so-called "Deuterocanon" or "Apocrypha." As really the only historic category that encompasses these 46 books is "Old Testament," I use this term, with the clear statement that supersessionism is neither implicit nor intellectually and morally acceptable).

I have been giving some more thought to the method of Old Testament chronology, specifically how to go about establishing when specific books were written. The starting point is what I have learned from working on NewTestament chronology (cf. previous posts, and eventually my forthcoming monograph with Baker, Rethinking the Dates of the New Testament), and to that end I would remind my devoted reader of the three basic categories of argumentation that I have recognized in the work of establishing the date of specific NT books: synchronization, authorial biography, and contextualization. Synchronization is the classic work of establishing the text’s temporal relationship to independently datable events or situations, including the composition of other texts. For instance, when Isaiah 1:1 tells us that Isaiah had a vision in the days of kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah, we can be reasonably certain that the text dates no later than the reigns of these men. At least two factors tend to vitiate but do not necessarily obviate the use of synchronization in the work of Old Testament chronology: one, the relative dearth of independently datable events or situations in the Old Testament corpus; two, the fact that certain texts appear to have been composed over very lengthy periods of time. Both problems exist within the work of New Testament chronology, but are more acute in Old Testament (although the latter problem is perhaps overstated at times, and is often driven more by lingering Victorian commitments than by careful attention to the evidence). Indeed, without getting into the nitty gritty of the evidence, my guess is that there are several prominent books of the Old Testament for which arguments from synchronization will be almost entirely fruitless.

Authorial biography begins from what we know about the author independent of the text to ask where in her or his life the text is best situated. Nowhere in the biblical corpus is this of greater utility than the work of Pauline chronology, where it yields the most precise compositional dates of probably either testament (for instance, one must argue in spite of the best evidence if one wants to date Romans at any time other than late 56 or early 57). As with synchronization, authorial biography is of greatly limited utility to the work of establishing the date of Old Testament books, in large part because in very few cases do we know much about the authors independent of the texts in question. Indeed, off the top of my head, I cannot think of any Old Testament book for which arguments from authorial biography could be particularly fruitful. It is entirely conceivable to me that this entire category of argumentation would be absent from efforts to establish the dates of the Old Testament texts.

Within New Testament chronology, contextualization consists of establishing the text’s temporal relationship to the general course of early Christian development. James Crossley’s treatment of the date of Mark’s Gospel is a classic example here. Noting that Mark’s Gospel takes it for granted that Jesus was Torah observant whereas Matthew’s and Luke’s must address questions about whether he was, Crossley argues that Mark’s Gospel is most appropriately situated before the Gentile mission had forced early Christians to seriously confront the matter of Torah observance. In Old Testament studies, contextualization would comparably seek to establish the text's temporal relationship to the general course of developments in Israel and the broader Near Eastern milieu. A recent example might be Sandra Lynn Richter’s argument that the economics supposed by the Urdeuteronium (which she defines roughly as consisting of Deuteronomy 4.44–27.26) are most reflective of those which straddle the Iron I/Iron II transition (i.e. in more classical terms, the period of the Judges through the early monarchic period); if Prof. Richter is correct on this matter, then all other things being equal such a range becomes the best candidate for dating this material, as any other alternative will almost certainly be significantly less parsimonious. My expectation is that arguments from contextualization would be the most fruitful in the work of establishing the dates of particular Old Testament writings.