Can Liberal Textual Critics Save the Gospel

I started the CADRE in 1998. Since then its leadership has moved to a more conservative direction, its membership has always been diverse, but leans conservative especially in theological matters. Just to keep them mindful of where the group came from I like to throw in a wrench now and then, just to remind them of the liberal roots of the group. Lately I've turned to the study of textual criticism, that's my latest "wrench," the liberal discipline of textual criticism as an apologetics "must." This has always been one of my main loves, but I am so bad at Greek I could not go into it as a profession. I find it alarming that so many of the non canonical texts are placed In AD 50 or earlier, and these same texts, written before the canonical Gospels are devoid of the cross or the tomb. It seems that a parallel tradition grew up along side the Orthodox, or even preceded, a tradition that lacked the central tenets of the faith. They did not venerate Jesus as Lord, or even understand to be Messiah, they saw him as a great moral teacher. They did not seem to know of the cross or resurrection. To my mind this is cause for alarm. My liberal roots go only so deep, I'm really more of a neo-orthodox or "new" Evangelical. To me it seems that if the cross and the empty tomb are not part of the original faith there is no original Christian faith.

Some just dismiss the problems as non existent (Q is hypothetical) or "those are just Gnostic sources." When I protest that people on message boards wont accept this, I am told well boards, are a thing of the past, just get into blogs. Well Praise God, blogs came along just in time to save Christianity, it must be a miracle. Read my blog Jesus Seminar lackies. I hope Burton Mack doesn't have a blog of his own. We need to take the problem a lot more seriously and not just dismiss Q as "it doesn't exist because we don't have a copy," or "Thomas is just Gnostic so it's no problem." We have to engage them through textual criticism. More importantly, we can learn a lot from textual criticism. I'm not saying we have to make all the assumptions that Burton Mack has made but it behooves us to understand his assumptions and know why he made them.

The reasons why textual critics think that Q material doesn't include the cross or the tomb is something of a mystery. After all, if Q is that material shared by Matthew and Luke but not Mark, then there are statements about the cross and the tomb in Matthew that are not in Mark. After all, the whole ending of Mark is not in Mark. All the Resurrection sightings, the epiphanies should be Q stuff. The problem is those are seen to come from different disperate sources, not the early pre Mark redaction. It' is no good just dismissing it by saying "O we don't have a copy of Q, it's just hypothetical so it doesn't exist." That wont reach anyone. We have take the criticism by the horns. On the other hand, this is not such a bad answer. There are scholars, such as Mark Goodachre who disparage Q and some without giving up Mark as prior. After all, if we stipulate that Q is a saying source we have eliminated the action narrative of crucifiction and resurrection. But why must Q be a saying source? Because at some point some scholar decided that saying sources came first, but the only real proof for it is the sayings they can designate as 'Q' which means arguing in a circle.

Q is backed by the Gospel of Thomas, which is clearly Gnostic, but most scholars agree that it contains an older core of sayings that may pre date the canonicals. It is also clealry a saying source and not a narrative. Thomas contains a lot of Q sayings. This re-enforces the idea of the Q saying source. It reinforces the idea that saying sources came before narrative Gospels. Although this is actually circular as well because the only reason to date Thomas as early is the assumption that the saying source came first. So they are just taking sayings material in the synoptics and assuming it comes from a "sayings" document even though they have no textaul verification of it, and then assuming that this other document backs up their assumptions, while also assuming the other document is backed up by the assumptions.

The truth of it is there is more to it than just making assumptions about genre. The real issue is in the copying. We examine word for word the syntax and the structure of the actual writing. This is the core of the textual critics work. In the early 1960s Raymond Brown discovered that the Gospel of Peter was independent of Matthew in its account of the Passion narrative. The reason was that no one copies a text in the way that it would have to be copied if it derived from Matthew, that is every other word, every fith word, here a phrase there a phrase interspersed with other things. Brown realized that both Gpete and Matt had affiniities with the psalms but GPete was not copying Matthew. Based upon this same idea one can make the same discovery in Thomas. Thomas is not just copied form the synoptic Gospels but shares with them a certain tradition, but it's version of that tradition (it's version of Q) is different than either Matt or Luke.So the problem is real and cannot be dismissed by spotting some flaw in reasoning. Not that there are no flaws to spot, but the critics have a very real point.

Even if we assume Q exists and that it doesn't include the cross or the tomb, it includes many references to Jesus death. The idea that Jesus was predicted to die and did die and the meaning of his death all hinted at by Q. Much has been made by the notion that Q sayings are in the vein of stoicism or cynicism of the Greeks. It is this cynical tendency upon which Earl Doherty bases his theory of the evolution of Jesus as a fictional character. That is, despite the fact that Helmutt Koester, probably the world's greatest living textual critic and an authority Doherty sites in support of his own ideas, tells us we cannot make the kind of assumptions about the cynical nature of Jesus ethics that Doherty makes. The mention of place names in Q sayings (which are Galilean) are not evidence of a Galilean Q community, as the popular layer of Jewish life contained cynical allusions throughout the diaspora. Paul was aware of cynical allusions. Nor were the cynics at all interested in the eschatological assumptions made by Q sayings. The emergence of this fictional Q community is quite plaussible but Doherty jumps the gun setting it in Galilee and writting a history of fictional Jesus as a product of this fantasy community.

Even if we assume there was an early tradition that did not reflect the kind of interest in the cross and the tomb that orthodox would come to appreciate, the Orthodox material of the canonical Gospels forms a tradition that is just as old and goes just as far back, if not further, and it contians the cross, the passion narrative and the empty tomb.Koster shows that the material for the passion narrative is circulating in writing in AD 50 and Crosson agrees with the date. The only discussion btween the two is the sources of the epiphanies. They both agree the original pre Mark source includes the empty tomb. For a full development on this tradition see my pages on
The Gospel Behind the Gospels

attacks on the idea of Q: two articles by Mark Goodacre; Fallacies at the Heart of Q

Has Goulder Sunk Q? An Assessment of Mark Goodacre’s Goulder and the Gospels:An Examination of a New Paradigm

Can textual critics save the Gospel? Yes, after putting it peril in the first place.


Kevin Knox said…
I am disappointed that there are no comments!

I am not qualified to discuss this subject, but it's a great article nonetheless. We DO have to put the truth in peril to save it. Something really happened, and it almost certainly involved something Q-like. Pursuing that chain of events probably will lead in some uncomfortable directions, but getting to what really happened is worth it.

In Ante Pacem, Graydon Snyder presents a Christian world that has nearly a dozen major symbols. None of them is a cross. Nobody instinctively believes that, but it is not a trivial point. If it is true, and I am totally convinced it is, it means that the early Christians always saw Christ as happy and triumphant - never as morose and suffering a la Catholicism.

A Q-like document just might tell us something about the way the church traded information that could really help us today.
Kevin Knox said…
(Ante Pacem is about pre-Constantinian Christian archaeology.)
slaveofone said…
I, too, am not qualified to speak. But I am also a hypocrite. Thus...

Textual Criticism is fascinating. And the kind of critical textual maneuvering that someone like Tom Wright does in his Christian Origins and the Question of God series - it's like learning how to love something all over again... After reading Wright, I really don't think I can ever go back to a positivistic naive impressionism. And I believe my faith (or perhaps lack thereof) is all the more better for it. But I think Wright has liberals to thank for the influence he's had with me. And--gasp--I'm growing to enjoy and even incorporate the Gospel of Thomas into my canon...just don't tell :)

I don't know if liberal textual critics can save the gospel, but they are needed. If for nothing else, they are needed for the process of scholarship. While thorough-going skepticism may be a detriment to progress on its own, if the liberal skeptics are right, then that's a good thing. I don't want to believe a fiction. I don't want to hold history and faith or reason and faith apart. Either the gospels say something that is factual and historical, or they do not, and it is our pleasure—both liberal and not so liberal--to try and find out what they can, cannot, do, or do not say. For better or for worse, we need each other and each other’s perspectives.
I think that's really sad that people are turning to the non canonical. why? It's just disatisfaction witht he church?
BK said…
Great post Metacrock, but I have two thoughts:

First, I disagree wholeheartedly that "most scholars agree that [the Gospel of Thomas] contains an older core of sayings that may pre date the canonicals." I think that there are certainly some who think this, but my reading does not reflect that a majority believe that.

Second, I think that people are turning to the non-canonical for the same reason that people always turn away from the Gospels. To quote J.P. Holding:

[quote]Behind this attention lies a desire to find a Jesus with no eschatology, no demands upon our person, and no outrageous claims to be the Son of Living God - as indeed is frankly admitted by Harold Bloom in his commentary at the end of Meyer's work. Appeals are made to the idea of seeing Christianity in "a fresh light" [Camer.FECy, 392]- is the traditional view somehow "stale"? Not at all: This is no more than a matter of saying, "Gosh, there's no way the traditional view can be TRUE! Let's look for a better way!"[end quote]
Layman said…

I agree with BK in that a strong majority of textual critics and Bible Scholars have concluded that the Gospel of Thomas is a second century work that is dependent on canonical gospels for much of its material.

As for Q, I honestly don't know who you've been talking to because most scholars -- Christian and conservative -- accept that some sort of Q source existed. The dispute is over what significant we attach to that fact. I think the basic error of more liberal scholars is that they reconstruct an entire community of Christian believers based on Q, therefore assuming that they only believed what was in Q and believed nothing else. This is silly. We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that one religious community can produce a variety of different literature, from sayings sources, to midrash, to more apocolyptic writings. Q was likely a collection of Jesus' sayings that some element of a Christian group wanted to preserve.

In any event, we know from Paul's letters that from the beginning the central focus of Christianity was the identity of Jesus, his death, and resurrection.
Layman said…
Kirby has a variety of reconstructions of Q:
Kevin Rosero said…
Meta, I have not seen any convincing overall argument that Thomas predates the canonical gospels. I don't know if you have it, but John Meier's A Marginal Jew, vol 1. chapter 5, contains a good review of the problems with making Thomas either independent of, or earlier than, the NT gospels -- and he also discusses Egerton 2, another precanonical candidate that I know you've been looking at.

As for Q, I accept that this pre-canonical text existed. But I agree with Meier that too much is attempted with Q. All we can reasonably assume, as Layman says, is that some element of the early Christian communities created the document because they wanted to. Q's existence does not mean that a distinct or separate community created it; nor does Q tell us what they did not know. There is still less justification for affirming, as Doherty does, that we can read 3 distinct stages of Q development, and that only the third stage conceived of a human founder. What Doherty does with Q is a prime example of attempting too much with Q -- as you've said in other ways yourself.
Kevin Knox said…
Thanks all!

(I always forget nobody blogs on weekends.)
BK said…

For whatever reason, it is actually unusual for our blog to generate a large amount of comments even though we have a decently large number of regular readers and visitors each day. So, please don't take a lack of comments as a lack of interest. :)
I think you guys are still not really paying attention to textual critics. Saying "most scholars think Q is not real" or "most schoalrs think Thaoms is second century" is like saying most non speciliasts who haven't really studied it and who don't do textual criticism think x." who cares?
Layman said…
None of us said that we think Q is not real. I said I do think it is real.

When I discuss the scholars I am referring to those competent to judge the Gospel of Thomas.

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