25 November 2022

Peter Parsons, obiit 16 November 2022; Dix; and Lewis.

The inter-war years were a happy hunting ground for a particular type of Anglo-Saxon 'Biblical Scholar'. He [there were not so many shes] felt certain that, if he possessed a tiny number of pieces of evidence, all he needed to do was string them together correctly, and he would have a neat and convincing chronological model. S Mark's Gospel must be the earliest to have been written because it is so much simpler than other gospels; and its rough, primitive lack of sophistication ... blah blah ... You get the method. 

Promise me you will never use it.

Lack of formal structure also helped to keep this ship afloat. It stood to reason that simple, fluid structures must come earlier than complex rigidities. The complex, whether grammatical or philosophical or theological, must come later than (what seems to us to be) the unsophisticated. 

And we don't like Rigidity, do we?

The certainties of those interbellum years (Jazz, Tennis, Flappers and Cocktails) still survive, particularly in discussions about the Christian Ministry. And, not least, the Papacy. Even Eamon Duffy, no wide-eyed berserker, can begin his enquiries with the comfortable assumption that "To begin with indeed, there was no pope, no bishop as such. For the Roman Church was slow to develop ... " et cetera.

Divertingly, much of this culture had already shown its hand in 1929. A leading Anglican liberal, a Canon B H Streeter, had written an account of the 'Primitive' Church especially from the point of view of its Ministry. But ... poor old gent ... he had chosen just the moment when Dom Gregory Dix, Anglican Benedictine monk and historian ... wit ... gadly ... tormenter of liberals and exploder of easy and convenient simplifications ... mocker of bishops ... was just ... let's say, 'coming on stream'. He demolished Streeter's assumptions and crucified with his humour Streeter's solemn 'conclusions'.

Dix, then merely a youthful whippersnapper and iconoclast, had him for breakfast. Dix's paper was the first in his long, brilliant series of brilliant interventions. The Anglican bishops came to fear him. 

R A Knox was hardly any less merciless, despite having an episcopal father.

Please may I now draw you from 1929 to a period a little closer to our own time ...

Or rather, I would like, after a few preliminaries, to bring Professor Peter Parsons to your attention. This great scholar and unique Oxford classicist died a few days ago, 16 November 2022.

I have remarked that old presuppositions still survive among 'liberal' Christian academics. This fact, so it seems to me, is an example of the intellectual naivite of such writers and of their chronic inability to keep up with advances in the secular study of the ancient world. Greater men than me have pointed this out: here is a passage, written in 1998 by Peter Parsons, Regius Professor of Greek in this University and a very great papyrologist. He is surveying, in The Times Literary Supplement,  the large number of  'new' ancient Greek texts which the sands of Egypt had yielded in the couple of decades before he wrote. (It is worth adding that further papyrological discoveries in the two decades since, 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 [of the 'Hellenistic' period] were all artifice without genius."

You might care also to consider this alongside C S Lewis's masterly demolition of 'Modern Biblical Scholarship' in Fern-seed and Elephants  ... And, as for  Q ...

The Noble Savage has truly fallen. Let us enjoy to the full the mightiness of his disintegration. 



Oliver Nicholson said...

Here lies poor Streeter stiff and stark
Whose corpse foul Farrer slew,
For though in like he made his Mark
In death he lost his Q....

Matthew F Kluk said...

Two thousand years from now some scholar may make a learned supposition that Arthur Roche was Pope bc he had a Roman mailing address. Ha!

Fr PJM said...

Pope Saint Pius X issued two official catechisms, one in about 1904 and the other, which supplanted the first, in 1912. The second was shorter, more concise and yet deeper.

Sue Sims said...

If anyone hasn't read 'Fern-seeds and Elephants', some helpful person has put it online, though there are quite a few irritating typos: https://orthodox-web.tripod.com/papers/fern_seed.html

Albrecht von Brandenburg said...

When I studied Classics, one of our tutors tore modernist scripture scholarship limb from limb - and he was, if I remember rightly, a non-practising Catholic.


Banshee said...

I just found out that St. Paul's Letter to the Hebrews has Odyssey references, right in the first verses.

Why is this not something that gets mentioned? If there are going to be all these footnotes, how is this not a useful thing to point out?