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 comment:

  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.