28 March 2015

Simplicity and sophistication

"S Mark's Gospel must be the earliest to have been written because it is so much simpler; and its rough, primitive unsophistication ... "

"Early Christological models are inevitably simpler, indeed, more sincere, than the later Christologies, with their complex and artificial ... "

"The sophisticated theology and complex narratological techniques of S John's Gospel make clear that it can hardly predate the second decade of the second century ... "

"The worship of the Christian Churches, as it developed from the simple fellowship meals held by the early Christians in memory of Jesus of Nazareth ... "

"The palaeographic indications which appear to suggest that the papyrus containing the prayer Sub tuum praesidium dates from as early as the third century, must give way to the realisation that its developed Mariology cannot possibly ... "

So very many of the 'assured results of modern scholarship' have rested ultimately upon comfortable and rarely interrogated Enlightenment prejudices. To the mentality of the last two-and-a-half centuries, it has seemed obvious that 'primitive' simplicity must have been transformed, in a simple linear process, into greater complexity. Rousseau's Noble Savage, dated into mythical human pre-history, must necessarily predate the Bourbon Court! That such a methodological presupposition still survives among 'liberal' Christian academics is, it seems to me, another example of the failure of many such writers to keep up with advances in the secular study of the ancient world. Here is a passage, written in 1998 by Peter Parsons, Regius Professor (now emeritus) of Greek in this University and a very great papyrologist. He is surveying the large number of 'new' Classical texts which the sands of Egypt had yielded in the couple of decades before he wrote. (It is worth adding that discoveries since 1998 have done nothing to weaken his argument.)

" ... the new texts test the categories and structures of scholarship, the faible convenue which nineteenth century positivists based on the assumption that the texts then surviving were typical and to be explained simply in relation to one another. As usual, aesthetic prejudices and unquestioned categories lie below the scientific surface. Scholars used to regard Aeschylus' Suppliants as the earliest of his plays; it has a simple plot, little action, and long choruses. Now a papyrus has dated it, less than ten years earlier than the Oresteia. False assumption: that artists develop in linear mode, from simple to complex, irrespective of theme. Now that we have Simonides' celebration of the Battle of Plataea, the great patriotic war of classical Greece, we see how he reinvented epic in elegy, the Trojan war in the Persian war, Homer in himself. Standard literary histories had put such generic mutations and complex intertextualities two centuries later. Another false assumption: that classical poets were all genius without artifice (and that their successors all artifice without genius)."


Leroy said...

The concept of the "rising trajectory" in Christology should have died long ago, but I think it holds on because historical criticism needs some way to determine the order of the Gospels because it still assumes that authorial intent determines the meaning of a document, and redaction criticism is the tool to determining that meaning.

Mark itself possesses such profound theological and literary beauty revealed through the structure of the narrative itself (thinking here of Juel's Master of Surprise or Rhoads & Michie's Mark as Story) that it's simply impossible to use the concept of trajectories of any sort, especially some supposed Christological trajectory, to relate Mark to the other Gospels, and, mutatis mutandis, the Gospels to each other. Put differently, the synoptic problem is intractable.

Martin said...

There's also a protestant assumption that Early Christians must have done things in a simple way, i.e. like protestants.

John F H H said...

I have yet to see a serious refutation of Robinson's Redating the New Testament.

Most criticis, if they deign to acknowledge it, seem to rely on "Everybody knows Mark was first", which I cannot call a serious refutation.

Christopher Boegel said...

It seems reasonable that Matthew's Gospel came first, in Hebrew, as indicated by Origen, Augustine etc, as the Jewish community was the first main source of Christians, and needed to have the story of Jesus told. I seriously doubt that these and others like St. Jerome were "out-thought" by 18th C scholars such as Storr.

William Tighe said...

If you like Robinson's *Redating the New Testament* (1977) you'll love (and ought to read) George Edmundson's *The Church of Rome in the First Century* (1913), a book which Robinson praises unreservedly in his book.

Deacon Augustine said...

John F H H, I very much agree with you. I think this work has probably been the greatest contribution to Scripture scholarship by any Anglican.

It is pretty obvious when you read the NT that every book within it assumes the continued existence of the Temple in Jerusalem - even the Apocalypse. I can't see a case for any of the NT corpus being written after 70 AD. It was just too good an apologetical opportunity for them to fail to miss it. It would have been the ultimate "Yah, boo, sucks" to their Jewish persecutors/interlocutors.

austin said...

Picasso, on the cave paintings at Lascaux:
"We have invented nothing."

William Tighe said...

I wrote:

"If you like Robinson's *Redating the New Testament* (1977) you'll love (and ought to read) George Edmundson's *The Church of Rome in the First Century* (1913), a book which Robinson praises unreservedly in his book"

but forgot to add, Edmundson's book can be read online here:


Richard Chonak said...

Isn't the declining complexity of language itself a counterexample to the notion that human thought and communication become more sophisticated over time?