Friday, April 21, 2017

On the Possibility of Interpolation

If I were to argue that we cannot be certain about Matthew's account of the guards at the tomb both because none of the other gospels corroborate it and because there is an obvious, plausible motive for its invention (i.e., to counter claims that Jesus' body was stolen), no liberal scholar would bat an eye. Moreover, even many conservative scholars would see the need to offer affirmative reasons for believing Matthew's account.

On the other hand, if I suggest that we cannot be certain about Galatians 1:19's reference to James as the "brother of the Lord" due to lack of early corroboration (i.e., no other 1st century writing describes Jesus' brother James as a leader in the movement) as well as an obvious, plausible motive for interpolation (i.e., to clarify which James it was that Paul met), I am met with howls of outrage from liberals and conservatives alike. Moreover, my argument is deemed to be so spurious that it does not even warrant a response.

While I am happy to concede that different factors may lead to different conclusions in each case, the basic logic and structure of the two arguments is nonetheless the same. I am hard pressed to see why the former should be uncontroversial while the latter is viewed as some sort of dirty trick.


  1. Would you agree that "howls of protest" is a little hyperbolic? It's been a while since I've heard biblical scholars howl about anything.

    I think there may be a distinction between the two lines of reasoning you mention. It is a rule of thumb in biblical interpretation that we prefer more difficult passages to less difficult ones. Almost no serious scholar would doubt the existence of John the Baptist because his existence poses so many theological problems for the Christianity of the Gospel era.

    Similarly, I think the brotherhood of James poses certain, if fewer, theological problems to a community suggesting the virginity of Mary. Especially if Mary's virginity is proposed as perpetual, but even without this, the existence of a brother to Jesus is not something that would readily be inserted by the Gospel-era community. Not only that, but Paul, who is constantly trying (especially in Galatians) to establish his own dominance in the Christian party's hierarchy would certainly be the last to propose the biological brotherhood of a rival who otherwise would have no such claim.

    The Guard at the tomb, however, is an explanation that fills in an existing gap. The invention of this story I think you might agree is much more likely than the invention of a brother to Jesus.

    In addition, Galatians predates Mark by possibly a decade and a half, while Matthew postdates Mark by possibly the same length of time. The absence of the guard from both Luke and Mark would call the guard's existence into serious question. In one or the other, there might be some evidence for the guard, but without either the historicity of the guard is highly doubtful.

  2. Hi Vinny,

    You left this comment on Dr. Michael Strauss' blog:

    "Over the last two decades, hundreds of people have been released from prison after being exonerated by DNA testing that was not available at the time of their convictions. In many cases, the conviction was obtained by eyewitness testimony. Nevertheless, when faced with a choice between eyewitness testimony and scientific knowledge, the law goes with the latter. No court has ever considered the possibility that some supernatural event might explain the discrepancy between the eyewitnesses and the DNA.

    Even if it could be established that anything in the gospels could be traced back to eyewitness accounts, it is absurd to think that they could be used in a court to establish facts that are contrary to scientific knowledge."

    I hope you don't mind but I am going to repost this statement on my blog. I believe it is fantastic! It blows the Christian argument about eyewitness evidence and the Resurrection out of the water!

    Take care,

    1. Just checking in, as I do from time to time, but there are two problems with this supposed problem with eyewitness accounts of the Resurrection.

      1. No one suggests there is no other evidence other than eyewitness testimony, and

      2. Paul invites people to seek out the many that were witnesses, of which there were hundreds.

      The law gives greater weight to eyewitness testimony as the number of witnesses rises. This doesn't mean absolute certainty, but logic dictates that the more witnesses there are, the more likely the testimonies are valid.

  3. Hi Vinny, I didn't know you had a blog. Way to go!

    The James passage in the epistles may just be an interpolation against docetism, or maybe even mythicism. By the way, I just posted a new post yesterday on my blog about Noble Lies and the Origin of Christianity (I overhauled an earlier post I did in March). If you wouldn't mind, could you take a look at it and let me know if you have any suggestions? You always have such interesting ideas! Anyway, if you get a moment here it is:


    John MacDonald