Sunday, 20 September 2015

The Accidents of History

The Accidents of History

A week ago, traffic coming into town in the early morning was delayed by an accident along the road between Beaumont and Bel Royal. 103 FM reported that it was on the zebra crossing at the filter in turn. BBC Radio Jersey reported it had taken place further afield, up at the press button lights.

Both accounts had a pedestrian in an accident with a bicycle, but how we would visualise and possibly expand on those accounts would differ. At Beaumont, where the zebra crossing is, we would visualise a pedestrian crossing and a bicycle coming along the road. At the red lights further along, bicyclists regularly press the button and travel across the traffic, along the pedestrian route, but cycling.

As it happens, I was there, delayed, and from a vantage point, before being turned around, I could see the ambulance further along from the zebra crossing, at the traffic lights. In other words, the BBC report was correct.

But if I hadn’t been there, which source would I have taken as accurate? How would I have judged the two accounts? How could I tell? Perhaps if there had been more information about the accident, I would have been able to infer that one of the accounts was wrong because of the geography of the location, which I might have had details of from other sources. But they could also have been written up on the basis of surmise from the accident's location.

There are a lot of studies of the New Testament which look at different sources. The three gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke have a lot of common material, and clearly have at least one common source. The wording is so much the same, that literary dependence is obvious.

I should comment that the gospels are in fact anonymous. Despite having been given ascriptions, “The Gospel According to Matthew” etc, these are later scribal additions which may have dubious accuracy.

Usually, it is believed that Mark wrote first, and Matthew second, Luke last. Whether Luke knew Matthew has been the subject of debate. The common material between the two has been ascribed to an independent source, termed Q (the German “Quelle”) means “source”), or simply to Luke borrowing from Matthew.

There are contradictions in the text, which are like the road accident report, where we cannot be sure from different sources what happened, if one assumed in any case that the reporting was accurate.

For example:


While he was thus speaking to them, behold, a ruler came in and knelt before him, saying, "My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live."


Then came one of the rulers of the synagogue, Ja'irus by name; and seeing him, he fell at his feet, and besought him, saying, "My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live."


And there came a man named Ja'irus, who was a ruler of the synagogue; and falling at Jesus' feet he besought him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter, about twelve years of age, and she was dying.

Interestingly, the first harmony of the gospels, Tatian’s Diatessaron (from the 2nd century), goes with the version in Mark and Luke, that the girl was dying, and follows the wording of Mark and not that of Luke (who gives the age and that she is an only daughter at this point)

And a man named Jairus, the chief of the synagogue, fell before the feet of Jesus, and besought him much, and said unto him, I have an only daughter, and she is come nigh unto death; but come and lay thy hand upon her, and she shall live.

For fundamentalists, who believe that the text is inerrant, this poses a problem, as two texts say “at the point of death” or “was dying” while one says “has just died”. Often quite convoluted acrobatics take place in fundamentalist commentaries to “prove” that the texts actually agree, but as no fundamentalist believes the translation should actually be amended, we may take this as special pleading.

And there is a good deal of special pleading for what seems to the average reader to be a casual and not significant difference. An example of special pleading can be seen in Adam Clarke: “The Greek word, rendered “is even now dead,” does not of necessity mean, as our translation would express, that she had actually expired, but only that she was “dying” or about to die”

In that case, would it not be better to translate it otherwise? Fortunately translators are made of sterner stuff, and refuse to let theologically motivated concerns “amend” the proper translation of the Greek.

In fact, we can see that Matthew followed through his editorial adjustment with consistency. As Jairus’s daughter dead when Jairus comes to Jesus, leaves out the subsequent arrival of men with news that the daughter has died; in Matthew’s account, that would not make sense.

Mark has:

While he was still speaking, there came from the ruler's house some who said, "Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?" But ignoring what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, "Do not fear, only believe."

And Luke:

While he was still speaking, a man from the ruler's house came and said, "Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the Teacher any more." But Jesus on hearing this answered him, "Do not fear; only believe, and she shall be well."

In fact there is a further discrepancy – Mark has “some” who come from the house, whereas Luke just has “a man”.

If we return to our traffic accident, we note that different reports began to circulate almost immediately but despite discrepancies in location, they still reported an actual incident. No one in their right mind would attempt to harmonise these difference, and yet fundamentalists seem to have an almost pathological desire to harmonise even more slender differences in gospel narratives.

The story of the actually healing has other discrepancies:


And when Jesus came to the ruler's house, and saw the flute players, and the crowd making a tumult, he said, "Depart; for the girl is not dead but sleeping." And they laughed at him. But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl arose. And the report of this went through all that district.


When they came to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, he saw a tumult, and people weeping and wailing loudly. And when he had entered, he said to them, "Why do you make a tumult and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping." And they laughed at him. But he put them all outside, and took the child's father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. Taking her by the hand he said to her, "Tal'itha cu'mi"; which means, "Little girl, I say to you, arise." And immediately the girl got up and walked (she was twelve years of age), and they were immediately overcome with amazement. And he strictly charged them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.


And when he came to the house, he permitted no one to enter with him, except Peter and John and James, and the father and mother of the child. And all were weeping and bewailing her; but he said, "Do not weep; for she is not dead but sleeping." And they laughed at him, knowing that she was dead. But taking her by the hand he called, saying, "Child, arise." And her spirit returned, and she got up at once; and he directed that something should be given her to eat. And her parents were amazed; but he charged them to tell no one what had happened.

The Diatessaron:

And they reached the house of the chief of the synagogue; and he saw them agitated, weeping and wailing. And he entered, and said unto them, Why are ye agitated and weeping? The maid hath not died, but she is sleeping. And they laughed at him, for they knew that she had died. And he put every man forth without, and took the father of the maid, and her mother, and Simon, and James, and John, and entered into the place where the maid was laid. And he took hold of the hand of the maid, and said unto her, Maid, arise. And her spirit returned, and straightway she arose and walked: and she was about twelve years of age. And he commanded that there should be given to her something to eat. And her father wondered greatly: and he warned them that they should tell no man what had happened. And this report spread in all that land.

Matthew’s accounts is almost a précis. He compresses Mark. Luke eschews the Aramaic.

But there is also an interesting example of what Mark Goodacre calls “editorial fatigue”. Luke -who has already moved the age of the child to earlier in his text in his reworking of Mark now has those within the house weeping and then laughing at the notion that the girl was sleeping. It makes for a greater dramatic contrast, but it also begs the question who was actually weeping and wailing and laughed. Mark has that incident placed outside the house before Jesus enters, which makes more sense.

The Diatessaron follows the Markan order but adds little touches from the others - the Lukan “and her spirit returned” and from Matthew “this report spread in all that land”. Curiously he refers to Peter as just “Simon”.

But was the incident a fiction, or could something like a healing have taken place? The following I see as strong historical pointers to something strange taking place, some kind of healing that was out of the ordinary:

1) The lack of references to fulfilment of scripture. While the writers used quotations from the Hebrew bible as a means of suggesting Jesus was fulfilling prophecy, these always raise the question posed by John Dominic Crossan, that they are “prophecy historicised”, that the narrative was created from the prophecy. Conversely, where no allusions are given, that potential invention is much less likely.

2) The mention of Jairus – this is a name which is not significant elsewhere, and it has been strongly argued that when names are mentioned - Simon of Cyrene is another – this is pointing to significant witnesses to the events, and whose names do not feature elsewhere. It is a way of suggesting authenticity. This is that argument of Richard Bauckham.

3) The interjection of the woman who had a haemorage. This story, of the woman who touches Jesus garment and is healed, comes after Jairus has come to Jesus, and while Jesus is on the way to Jairus house. It breaks the flow of the narrative, and yet has been retained.

4) The use of Aramaic in Mark. Mark uses an Aramaic phrase, and Jesus spoke Aramaic. He also translates for his readers, who clearly did not understand Aramaic. Interestingly Matthew and Luke both eschew the original language.

So I see good grounds for treating the material as authentic.But the story shows us how reporting can change, how while the essential substance of an event can be retained, the accidentals of history can vary. That is as true of modern reporting as it is of ancient texts, when both are in fact second hand to the events themselves.

Although I should add one brief postscript - whether the daughter was in a coma like sleep, mistaken for death, or really dead, is a matter for faith, and not historical research. It is not something on which I would comment.

No comments: