CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

In effect, Bishop Spong’s strategy so far has been, first, to appeal to a set of evidence that when examined with even moderate closeness runs totally against the thrust of his position; and then, second, to launch an increasingly speculative set of arguments from silence as positive evidence for his case.

But, for what it’s worth, in hindsight I think I can fairly say that the tail end of his second round (already covered) and the beginning of his third round of evidence and argumentation, are the high points of his attempt. Relative to the rest of his attempt.

One of the most popular sceptical theories of Gospel composition involves the folk anthropological phenomenon known as legendary accretion. This is a process of directed evolution (mixed with some accidental mutation, so to speak) where the shape and content of an original event is changed by people during numerous retellings for any of many various reasons. A common example would be someone telling a story as accurately as they know how, but adding an explanatory gloss concerning a detail--a gloss that might be due to actual knowledge of the teller, or might be a well-informed guess of the teller, or might be a wild-ass guess of the teller, or might be the teller actually trying to sabotage the meaning of the story around in a new direction. The receiver accepts the gloss as data, incorporating it into the next round of telling where, if it goes uncorrected, it may survive and spread as a new variant of the story.

Depending on dozens of factors, a story may spiral wildly out of control relatively quickly; such as when French propagandists spitefully spread a rumor that the Russian Empress Catherine the Great died from being crushed by a stallion she was having sex with! In fact she had died of a stroke in bed quite peacefully, but the rumor combined two of her favorite passions: riding horses, and sexual conquests of the men around her; and obviously the denigration served immediate political purposes at the time. The rumor still survives persistently today.

This is a case where a total falsehood was fadged up by opponents, purely for sake of politically convenient spite, but based on enough truth that it tickles the imagination (so to speak). It is also just barely a case of legendary accretion per se, in itself; it doesn’t go very far, but it does creatively “accrete” together two prior pieces of (in this case) actually real historical data. (It could have “accreted” together unhistorical data, too, of course.) A major work of legendary accretion would be some bawdy epic of the final days of Catherine the Great (and maybe how she got to this fatal habit!) based on numerous past retellings, each ‘generation’ testing out new innovations and keeping successful ones in the narrative.

This is only one way accretion can happen. There are many other possibilities. But this seemed like a good example, since in effect it’s the sort of thing Bishop Spong is accusing the Gospel authors of.

Unfortunately for sceptical theorists, technical identification of legendary accretion can be quite difficult. Fortunately for sceptical theorists, innuendo and supposition can go a long way toward making any set of data seem like a process of legendary accretion. Ironically, this process of innuendo and supposition can itself often result in legendary accretion! Also ironically, the four canonical Gospel texts often serve better as cautionary examples against facile use of legendary accretion theorizing.

All things considered, I was expecting Bishop Spong to try to claim what amounts to legendary accretion in regard to Judas Iscariot. Sure enough, here we are at what he would have his readers consider the third (supposedly) “easily identifiable, documentable fact” which (supposedly) “created” his “suspicion of the historicity of Judas Iscariot and his role in the Christian story as the traitor”: "the way the Judas account so obviously grows once it has been introduced by Mark somewhere between 70 and 75 CE."

One of the problems with detecting actual legendary accretion is that any process where actually historical data is (for whatever reason) incorporated piecemeal into retellings of the story, will create a result that on the face of it is indistinguishable from people just coming up with new non-historical details for whatever reason in a sequence of development. This is especially problematic when considering the first few surviving data points in a tradition, from a standpoint long divorced from any possibility of getting anything like a full snapshot of what material existed at that time (if any) outside the data points. Arguments from silence are widely regarded by logicians as being dangerously weak; yet here is Bishop Spong once again depending on the force of such an argument to create an impression of material being certainly created instead of progressively reported.

The surest way of identifying legendary accretion is to compare a line of tradition with actually ascertained positively obvious contravening facts (such as with the death of Catherine the Great). But we have no such standard of contravening facts to compare the Gospel data with. (Which may be why Bishop Spong tried to make it seem like the previous two points counted as “easily identifiable, documentable facts”.)

But it becomes easier (though still far from certain) to infer legendary accretion (per se) when subsequent retellings include substantially more new detail than they drop out. Do the Gospel narratives have this characteristic?

Obviously, any such answer (pro or con) depends on first ascertaining the compositional chronology of the Gospels. Bishop Spong uses the popular Mark, Matt, Luke, Acts, John compositional order, uncritically treating this as though this order of composition is itself one of those “easily identifiable, documentable facts”--when not only is the composition order not easily (or at all!?) “documentable”, but when (as anyone even moderately familiar with the field ought to know) this compositional order has never been quite as settled among scholars across the board as a reader might forgivably gather from only reading popular works.

But, be that as it may: assuming for sake of argument that the compositional order is correct (which I would personally have no problem with in principle, despite my doubts of us ever being able to accurately reconstruct the compositional order in fact, suggestive guesses notwithstanding)--does the material in this sequence show clear developmental characteristics? And, if so, to what extent?

[Next time, part 2 of 4 for this Round: Iscariot material in GosMark and GosMatt is assessed for accretional development.]


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