Thursday, January 11, 2018

Projecting contradictions

An exchange I had on Facebook:

An example of this is the case of Jesus' anointing at Bethany. John clearly intends to communicate that it took place 6 days before Passover (John 12), whereas Mark clearly intends to communicate that it took place 2 days before the Passover (Mark 14). It is obviously the same event being described. I haven't to-date conceived of a way to harmonize those texts. So here are the options: (1) state that either John or Mark deliberately changed the day of the anointing for some purpose or other (a Licona-style method of harmonization) OR (2) entertain the idea that perhaps this is best explained by variation in eyewitness memory. Personally I opt for the second option. I think the gospel authors intended to communicate true history and that they are substantially trustworthy. I don't think they deliberately changed things or falsified episodes to suit an agenda.

i) I don't think commentators are very helpful on this example. 

ii) I think the impression of a chronological contradiction in this case (and some others) exists in the reader's mind rather than the text. Readers, especially modern readers, bring to the text an unspoken preconception of how books are written. In our experience, an author sits at a table or desk, by himself, and writes continuously until he's completed a section, or until he's tired of writing, or until he must get up to do something else. It's a methodical and solitary process. 

But I think that's an anachronistic model of ancient writing. I doubt we should visualize the Gospel authors seated at a desk, by themselves, with pen in hand, committing their memories or "sources" to parchment.

Rather, I suspect it was more of a social occasion, like story-telling at a family reunion. Assuming traditional authorship, John was present, so his account is based on his own recollection. 

According to Acts 12:12, Mark was a native of Jerusalem, so it's possible that he was present at the meal. Or else he may have interviewed somebody who was present. Since his home was one of the founding house-churches in Jerusalem, he had access to many eyewitnesses to the public ministry of Christ. 

iii) Mark doesn't actually say the anointing was 2 days before the Passover. Rather, there's a break between 14:1-2 and 3-9. The anointing is a different topic than 1-2. 

Suppose Mark was present at the dinner. Suppose Mark is dictating his Gospel to a scribe. This could well be a social gathering where other Christians are present. 

He could begin dictating "holy week" events from memory, then someone asks him a question, which gets him onto the subject of 3-9, then he resumes with 10ff. 

That kind of thing happens in oral history. Consider family get-togethers where younger relatives are questioning their grandmother or grandfather about events in their life.

It isn't linear. Their grandmother will begin talking about something from the past, then she may interject something else that happened before then. It isn't sequential. Whatever comes to mind. 

Or they may begin talking about something, and a younger relative will ask them a question, which leads to a digression. 

Or suppose Mark wasn't at the dinner. Suppose Mark is the scribe, and he's questioning one of the disciples who was there.

Again, though, consider all the TV interviews you've seen in which the interviewer is questioning a guest about events in his life. Consider how it skips about from one thing to another in no particular order. Free association, where a statement about one thing leads to a question about something else.

If that was then edited, it might leave out the questions, but it would still be somewhat jumpy.

Keep in mind, too, that handwritten MSS aren't like word processors where you an erase something or rearrange paragraphs. 

This is part of what makes it maddening for modern readers to read Puritans like John Owen. So many digressions. That's because those books weren't written on computer. They wrote down whatever they were thinking about at the moment. It isn't neatly arranged. 

I think modern readers perceive chronological contradictions in the Gospels because we imagine the process is more literary and controlled than it actually was. But assuming traditional authorship, the Gospels are transcribed oral histories. That's not planned out and structured in the way a modern historian writes. 

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