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More on ur-source theories vs. undesigned coincidences

Several years ago, after receiving a question by e-mail, I wrote this post about attempted "ur-source" hypotheses as an alternative explanation of undesigned coincidences. If you're interested in this question, I strongly urge you to read that post (if you haven't already). This post is meant to be a supplement to it, not a replacement.

In the last few days I've been writing quite a bit more about this type of objection to undesigned coincidences because I received some questions about it again. I wrote up so much material in response that I've decided to post some of it here for others who might find it useful.

As used in this post, an "ur-source hypothesis" intended to explain away an undesigned coincidence would go something like this: The accounts we have in our actual Gospels are separated pieces of what was a larger, earlier, oral tradition. They fit together in an explanatory way because the earlier "tradition story" fit together in a plausible way, though it may or may not have been true. It could be seen to be probably true only by some other argument--for example, because it was in existence early. Of course, we do not have this earlier oral tradition and are only conjecturing about its content and appearance. Then (goes the theory), our gospel authors chose to report different parts of that earlier oral ur-source, which produced the appearance of a coincidence between the gospel accounts that we have.

I urge you (again) to read the earlier post, which makes several very important points in response to this. These include, for example, the implausibility of a copier's leaving something highly surprising and inexplicable unexplained by copying only a fragment of an earlier tradition. Also included in the earlier post is the fact that any critic like Bart Ehrman who implies that the unique material in the Gospel of John was invented much later than the other Gospels cannot consistently, simultaneously, hold that the unique Johannine material existed in a stable oral tradition, combined with material now found in Mark and the other synoptic Gospels, before the Synoptic Gospels themselves were even published.

I am not going to deal in this post with a different version of an "earlier source" hypothesis according to which only a portion of what we now find as a UC was already "known to the community" and a later fictionalizer simply added fictional aspects to the story that fit in with other facts already present "in the tradition." That type of theory is already extensively dealt with in Hidden in Plain View itself, since in the book I assume for the sake of the argument that Mark was available to Matthew and Luke, Matthew was also available to Luke, and all three of the Synoptics were available to John. I then discuss, repeatedly, the implausibility of a later fictionalizer's subtly connecting his fictions with material already available in the earlier written Gospels. The very same considerations I give there apply to already available oral versions of the stories.

Concerning "ur-source" hypotheses according to which both sides of a UC were present in some oral ur-source and just got separated in the Gospels we have, I have decided from my more recent correspondence that it is very important to emphasize this: The mere fact that many scholars think that there were some kind of earlier oral traditions in existence prior to the writing of the Gospels does not mean that such earlier "oral traditions" took a form that would make an ur-source hypothesis a good alternative to an undesigned coincidence between the accounts we have. Some kind of earlier oral traditions could mean many different things. Such a phrase, for example, could merely mean that the eyewitnesses themselves talked about their experiences. That is not the same thing as a compendium including both/all parts of an undesigned coincidence. Even if some witness's version of his story were repeated by others fairly faithfully and (say) Luke got hold of it at a couple of removes and put it into his Gospel, it would still be just one side of the story and hence could easily participate in a UC with something told in John. It wouldn't in that case be an "ur-source" from which Luke broke off a piece.

An idea that is popular (partly popularized by Richard Bauckham) is that there were stable, oft-told story versions of the stories in the Gospels (particularly the Synoptic Gospels) and that these were presided over by "tradents" (e.g., the apostles) to make sure that their retelling did not stray from the truth of what actually happened.

Bauckham is using such a theory as an alternative to the much more liberal ideas of form criticism, of which he is an opponent. The more liberal alternative is that the retellings of the stories varied without control and that what has made it into our Gospels is something many times removed from what actually happened and greatly morphed. In other words, Bauckham is arguing against the "telephone game" idea such as one hears from Bart Ehrman.

But it's important to remember that, if a Gospel author either was an eyewitness himself or talked to eyewitnesses, he would not need to rely on such formal, oft-told versions of a story. Bauckham expressly denies Matthean authorship, so he apparently considers the "traditional story" theory to be particularly relevant both to Matthew and to Luke. He thinks that Mark shows strongly the witness perspective of Peter and that John (though not John the son of Zebedee) was a disciple of Jesus and an eyewitness of many things, so the "tradent-certified story version" theory seems most relevant, in Bauckham's view, to Luke and Matthew. If Matthew was an eyewitness (as I believe he was and as patristic evidence supports), the theory becomes even less relevant.

Even for Luke, it's important to remember several things: An oft-told, preserved story version could have been much like the one-sided story we have in our Gospels, not at all like a larger ur-source. (This is similar to what I said above about what could have been the case even if Luke got his version of a story at a couple of removes.) And if the author was able to talk to a witness himself, such a formal version, told by a non-eyewitness, is an unnecessary theory. Since we know that Luke probably did have such opportunities, although it is not impossible that he got some stories at multiple removes, we should not assume that his Gospel is heavily dependent upon formal earlier "oral traditions" as opposed to informal interviews. And we certainly have no reason whatsoever to think that Luke's Gospel is heavily dependent upon formal oral traditions that looked very unlike what he records, off of which he has broken bits and pieces.

The fact that a theory of tradent-certified oral traditions is an improvement over an ever-morphing telephone-game tradition, finding its way ultimately into our Gospels, does not mean that we should settle on the idea that our Gospels were constructed out of such oral traditions as opposed to being known in more natural ways.

Of course, the theory that the Gospels were written by witnesses or in direct consultation with eyewitnesses is "on the table" only because we know on independent grounds that this is historically quite possible. If we knew independently that they were written several hundred years later, they would have to be based upon some kind of earlier, preserved materials, whether oral or written, though that wouldn't (even so) mean that these earlier materials took the form of umbrella sources containing all the material, subsequently dispersed into multiple documents. (Even in the case of Old Testament stories in Kings and Chronicles, where the books themselves may have been compiled long after the fact, we rightly do not assume that what lies behind somewhat different versions of a story in Kings and Chronicles was some ur-source that somehow combined both.)

Any hypothesis that a Gospel was constructed out of much earlier oral traditions is even more implausible, if possible, for the Gospel of John, where the plethora of unique material (which has so often been used to argue against the Gospel's historicity) is actually evidence that the Gospel was written by a witness who wished to supplement what was already known. At least, that is the case once we see John's unique material confirmed over and over again, as it is by undesigned coincidences and external confirmations.

It is possible that the idea that the Gospels (including John) were constructed out of earlier oral traditions is thought to be independently supported because of some term usages by New Testament scholars. "Moderate" NT scholars have a "complimentary" way of using a phrase like "based on earlier tradition" that absolutely must not be allowed to confuse us. When, for example, such a scholar comes upon a case where he believes that a pericope satisfies one or more of the famous "criteria of authenticity," he may magnanimously confer upon that pericope the accolade of "based on earlier tradition." This does not mean that there is some evidence there in the contents that the story was based on earlier tradition as opposed to being based more directly or more informally on reality. It does not mean that the pericope shows that it was based on oral tradition rather than being written directly by an eyewitness (the author of the gospel) or rather than being based on an interview with an eyewitness. On the contrary. The evidence of historicity is ipso facto evidence that supports more simple and direct connections with reality, at least in cases where this is otherwise possible, as it is for the Gospels. It is simply that the scholar does not want to say that. He prefers, thinking of himself as being somehow "cautious" and "careful," to speak of being "based on tradition." The alternative he has in mind, the more "liberal" alternative he is rejecting, is that the pericope was mostly made up out of whole cloth. That is why the phrase "based on earlier tradition" is considered a compliment. But let us not become confused into thinking that this means that there is independent evidence that strongly supports a vast network of earlier, formal, oral tradition, recited regularly by non-eyewitnesses, predating that particular Gospel, out of which the Gospel was constructed.

D.A. Carson explicitly notes that C.H. Dodd uses a phrase like "based on tradition" in a sense indistinguishable from "historical." (Carson, “Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel: After Dodd, What?", p. 106) In other words, Dodd uses this phrase as a compliment to a passage in the Gospel of John, to single that passage out as something that he thinks may actually be historical. This doesn't mean that Dodd has objective evidence for an oral tradition predating John as opposed to John's having witnessed the event or having spoken to an eyewitness. Far from it. It's just that he prefers "based on tradition" to "based on reality."

It may be some improvement over, "The Johannine community made up this incident" to say, "This incident is based on earlier tradition." But when the "tradition" hypothesis begins to be set up as a competitor to "based on reality," we must speak up and point out that such a competitor has never been established at all. It would be ironic indeed if evidence supporting historicity (e.g., criteriological evidence that leads a scholar to say that a story in some Gospel is "based on earlier tradition") were ultimately taken to undermine other evidence for historicity (such as undesigned coincidences) because the bias of scholars makes it appear that "based on earlier tradition" is the most that we can ever say.

One almost wonders if scholars have the faulty idea that postulating some source or tradition rather than reality is always "simpler" than postulating reality. No doubt such a confusion could arise from the mere pressure of scholarly trends. Saying that John or Matthew "knew what happened" is taken to sound naive and incautious. So saying instead that they appear to be "based on earlier tradition" is a use of scholar-ese that signals that you are not one of those hasty fundamentalists and are taking the more "careful" and hence (allegedly) the more justified position. But this is not actually true. As I pointed out in the earlier post, never talking about reality but always about traditions is a history-dissolver. It means we literally never get around to talking about reality! It is also a violation of simplicity to hypothesize an extra layer of "tradition" in between what we actually have and the events as they occurred when this is unnecessary, when the author could have known of the events in some more direct way. After all, reality is out there. So the intervening "tradition" is just an extra entity. And it becomes all the more complex as one has to attribute to the "tradition" a set of highly specific characteristics in order to use it as a replacement for reality in our model.

But someone might ask, "Is there not evidence in Paul's epistles of the existence of earlier oral traditions?" Yes, there is some, but by no means in a sense that would support an "ur-source" hypothesis for undesigned coincidences. The existence of something like the "creed" in I Cor. 15 indicates only (at most) that early believers were catechized using traditional formulas. It does not mean that any of the Gospels themselves were composed by putting together formal, oral traditions as opposed to being based upon reality more directly. (It's worth noting here that no such "creed" is incorporated into the text of any of the Gospels.)

At this point, readers may be wondering about the two-source hypothesis and Markan priority. But the two-source hypothesis concerning the synoptic gospels does not at all mean that the synoptic Gospels, nor even Matthew and Luke, were based upon a large network of pre-Gospel oral traditions. Mark itself is neither a hypothetical entity nor an oral entity. It is a document that we possess and can evaluate on its own merits. If Matthew and Luke are based on it in part literarily, it does not follow that Matthew and Luke are, for their other information, based upon formal "oral traditions."

In any event, Matthew may have been an eyewitness himself. Luke had opportunity to interview eyewitnesses. And, as I point out repeatedly in Hidden in Plain View, the evidence of undesigned coincidences cuts across the "synoptic problem" and the two-source hypothesis, because Matthew and Luke show evidence of independent access to the truth at multiple points, even in some places where their narratives bear similarity to that of Mark. There is no good reason to infer that, since Luke and Matthew may have been partly based literarily on Mark, they are otherwise composed by putting together formal oral traditions as opposed to witness testimony--their own or that of others. And it would be even more implausible to think that they were composed by putting together mere fragments of such oral traditions.

When I went back to Hidden in Plain View recently, I was especially struck by how many of the undesigned coincidences discussed in it bring together information from more than one incident--more than one "pericope," as they are called. For example, the UC concerning Jesus' trial and the claim that he threatened to destroy the Temple brings together that trial scene and a completely different context--his words in John when he cleanses the Temple in John 2: "Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up." The explanation of John the Baptist's words, "I saw and bare record that this was the Son of God" in John 1:32-34 brings together that scene, in which John the Baptist is later talking about the baptism of Jesus, and the actual story of Jesus' baptism as told in the Synoptic Gospels. The UC concerning Peter's boast that he will never deny Jesus and Jesus' later words to him, "Do you love me more than these?" in John 21 also brings together different scenes and incidents. And there are many more.

I had brought this point up briefly in the earlier post, but I hadn't realized just how many of the UCs have this feature. It comes up again and again. This is especially relevant for any attempted ur-source hypothesis concerning "oral traditions," because any common "oral tradition story" idea will concern specific stories as told in standardized form. Thus a parable might (allegedly) have circulated in such a "tradent-cerified" form, or the story of a healing, and so forth. Hence, the idea of such earlier oral stories does nothing to explain away the occurrence of UCs that cut across two or more pericopes in the Gospels. There is no reason to think that a "tradition story" of Jesus' words as told in John when he cleansed the Temple (if there even was such a thing, which there may well not have been) would dovetail with the "tradition story" of the accusation against him at his Sanhedrin trial unless both were true. In other words, in that case the same UC argument that applies to the Gospel accounts would apply to separate "tradition stories." If a "tradition story" of a single pericope is a conjectural entity (as it is), a single "tradition story" that just happened to contain two completely different pericopes concerning different parts of Jesus' life is truly wildly conjectural and is not even what is usually meant by the concept of an "oral tradition."

This is not to say that an "ur-source" theory works at all well even for a single incident, such as the feeding of the five thousand. For all the reasons given here and in the earlier post, a conjecture of a composite "tradition story" of the feeding containing all the information needed for the UCs surrounding that incident, which later fragmented into the Gospels we currently have, is highly implausible and unjustified. But the "ur-source" hypothesis is, if possible, epistemically even worse if one were to try to apply it to UCs that cut across multiple incidents.

One more topic has occurred to me in this most recent exchange on ur-sources, which I didn't discuss in the earlier post: Apparent discrepancies.

Take, for the sake of concreteness, the feeding of the five thousand. I can think immediately of two apparent discrepancies concerning the feeding which have puzzled scholars for a long time: 1)The apparent difficulty concerning "pros Bethsaidan" in Mark and the statement in Luke that the feeding took place near Bethsaida. I discuss that here. 2) The apparent discrepancy between Mark 6:45 and John 6:15-16 concerning whether the disciples went away by boat before or after Jesus went up into the mountain by himself. Nor are these the only apparent discrepancies in the feeding of the five thousand.

If there is one thing that apparent discrepancies are good for, it is opposing various causal dependence theories. And an ur-source theory is a causal dependence theory. (This is an area of my professional specialty in probability theory.)

If there were ever (implausibly enough) some compendium version of the feeding of the five thousand story that contained all of the details now found dispersed in various gospels, or all of the details used in a given undesigned coincidence, we would expect that compendium version to be at least coherent in the sense of resolving such apparent discrepancies. Jesus would either appear to dismiss the crowd and go up into the mountain before the disciples leave in their boat or after, not both. Such a version of the story (being just a single version) would be expected to be somewhat clearer about what direction they rowed after leaving the place of the feeding so as not to appear (even prima facie) to contradict the statement that the event occurred near Bethsaida. A well-honed official story version has the opportunity to smooth out these rough edges or to avoid producing them in the first place. Indeed, part of the job of creating one version of a story that will be told over and over again would presumably be making choices about which direction to go if one's underlying evidence had some apparent discrepancies in it already.

But separate witness testimonies, as cold-case detective J. Warner Wallace has repeatedly pointed out, often contain small apparent discrepancies concerning ancillary parts of the story. Hence, the apparent discrepancies between the feeding accounts are yet another characteristic that makes them look like independent witness testimonies in the form that we now have them, not like broken-off parts of a pre-existing ur-narrative from which they were copied.

It cannot be stressed too strongly: The fact that NT scholars have an unfortunate tendency to construct sources or traditions at the drop of a hat and to endow them with all sorts of specific characteristics on the basis of no independent evidence does not mean that doing so is reasonable or constitutes an epistemically problematic challenge to UCs. Undesigned coincidences tend to support a simpler model, and if that simpler model is regarded as "radical" when compared with the more convoluted approach that one might expect "critical scholarship" to take, we need to let the data speak for themselves. Hobbling the conclusions that can be drawn from UCs by pointing out that a scholar or a skeptic could make up a hypothetical "ur-source tradition" and gerrymander it so that it included everything found in the Gospels' separate stories is not a good scholarly practice.

Nor does such a practice deal with the inconvenient fact that, when all is said and done, the Tradition mountain in the middle has, now that the Gospels exist, magically turned back (in the accounts we have) into varied accounts with the properties that we find normal witness testimony to have--puzzling incompleteness, casualness, inclusion of vivid and unnecessary details, fitting-together with other partial accounts, and occasional apparent discrepancies. That is quite a coincidence if these are merely broken-off fragments of some ur-tradition rather than being independent testimony to reality.

As I said in the earlier post, contemporary NT scholars appear to be largely unaware of or uninterested in undesigned coincidences, though one does see occasional positive references to them (whether by that name or not) in the works of more conservative scholars. Both Leon Morris and Craig Blomberg discuss them in the context of supporting the historicity of John's Gospel.

The fact that there is no contemporary, back-and-forth literature to speak of on undesigned coincidences means that the NT scholarly guild has not yet taken much of a whack at explaining them away. This is just as well from my perspective. I tend to think it would be a weariness of the mind and flesh to have to read the convoluted theories that critical scholars, motivated to discredit UCs as independent evidence for the Gospels' historicity, might try to come up with. But so far, we must conjecture about what they "would say."

Since ad hocness, construction of phantom sources on a case-by-case basis, and rampant violation of simplicity are pretty common faults of the discipline, it is possible that some sort of ur-source hypotheses will end up being the favored "go-to" if and when more "mainstream" critical scholars start trying to dismiss undesigned coincidences. The fact that the question comes up from time to time among my correspondents may indicate that the wind will blow in that direction. That will be particularly interesting to see insofar as it involves the Gospel of John: Will we then see a scholar who has talked expansively of the inventive proclivities of the late-1st-century "Johannine community" suddenly start solemnly telling us that John's story of Jesus' trial before Pilate was part of a larger, oral ur-source that existed before Luke and that John's version of the feeding of the five thousand is a broken-off piece of a larger, oral ur-source that was standardized in the Christian community prior to Mark? I suppose anything is possible, and NT critics are, in practice, great believers in the maxim that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. I would like to think that, if that happens, there will be plenty of others besides me around to point out, once again, that the Emperor is unclad. If needed, these posts should enable us to make that point in some detail.

Comments (29)

Why would Ur Source be a problem for you? Way back in the middle of the last century the great scholar Stephen Neil supported the Ur Mark theory in his work on New Testament 1864-1964. He was a believer. As log as a theory supports the historical basis for the Gospel why is it a problem?

I just wrote a whole post on why the entity that goes by the specific definition of an ur-source, as I explained it, is not the best explanation of an undesigned coincidence. And I have another, earlier post that I link on the subject as well. I have quite a lot of material out on undesigned coincidences, including a book called Hidden in Plain View. It would be useful to start by finding out what an undesigned coincidence is and seeing what I'm actually talking about.

In any event, in general I don't just blindly accept any idea because one could view it as "supporting the historical basis for the Gospel." Or because it's advocated by "a believer." I want to know what is true and how we actually got these documents. Any hypothesis of a "source" is an hypothesis of an entity and bears a burden of proof.

But I don't think you really understand what I'm calling an "ur-source" here in any event, given your comment.

Here is a lecture I gave a couple of years ago on undesigned coincidences.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ito1Xc6KxBM

It will give some of the background. Putting that together with these posts will help to explain better what the "ur-source theorist" I am talking about is trying to explain away. The point of the "ur-source theories" as discussed here is to undermine the force of undesigned coincidences as independent evidence for the reliability of the Gospels, as explained above in this post.

The problem with the theory that oral tradition “explains” undesigned coincidences is that oral tradition, or the transcribing of it, would have to mimic the way that human memory filters reality. It is entirely possible that someone might remember Pilate’s challenge to Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?”, because that would be a vivid, striking moment, but forget, or not be aware of, what led up to it, i.e., the accusation that Jesus was making himself king. Or one person might be particularly struck by the argument that preceded the foot washing, while another person might be more struck by the foot washing itself.

But in order for oral tradition to preserve details of a story, the links between events would need to be made explicit. When the story of the night before the crucifixion is told and retold, the story-teller would need to make it clear that the argument led to the foot washing, because that sort of coherence in a story makes it easier to remember. And it would make no sense at all if this coherence suddenly disappeared when the oral traditions were committed to writing. On the other hand, if there are real events which are remembered in different ways by different witnesses, then there isn’t the same need to preserve the story as a coherent whole.

The phrase Ur Source (as in Ur Mark) has been in use since around the 1850s or 60s. It is perfectly natural that I would assume that's what you meant. BTW after hearing your lecture on undesigned coincidences it's exactly what I thought it was.

>

Of course I don't care about truth because I'm not inside your circle of wagons so I must be one of the savages out side trying to get your hair, right?

one question: Let me ask you this, are you using that to deny the redaction process?

Joe, I think this essay was particularly about the idea that oral tradition was the source which supposedly explains undesigned coincidences. If the idea is that there was a *written* source underlying the Gospels, that would be different. But just imagine what this written source would have to be like! It would have to be a Super Gospel which included all the elements that make up all the undesigned coincidences. The burden of proof would surely have to be on anyone positing such a document to show that it existed.

Right, David, even a written ur-source in the sense as defined in the post would be an extremely unlikely explanation of the undesigned coincidences.

Generally the best way to find out what a person means by a term, when they have defined it, is to read and follow the definition. I did define it and explained what I meant by it in the context of undesigned coincidences.

By the way, at the moment I'm not thinking of a single undesigned coincidence that I use in the book or elsewhere that has both of its parts contained in Mark. So an ur-Mark (which I think highly unlikely, by the way) would not lie behind any of the UCs I advocate.

There is one UC that some speakers do discuss involving the fact that Jesus was both blindfolded and struck. One part of this is in Matthew and one in Luke. I generally do not use that one because both parts are in Mark, because they are close to one another, and because one part could be inferred from the other if necessary. In theory this could result from a dispersal from Mark to Matthew and Luke. However, an ur-Mark is not necessary as an explanation there; Mark itself will do.

"Are you using that to deny the redaction process?"

I don't know what the antecedent of "that" is in Joe's question, nor precisely what he has in mind with the phrase "the redaction process."

So I will answer the question as best I can in broader terms:

I think that much redaction criticism involves overcomplex, unjustified theorizing beyond the facts, based upon rigid assumptions. For example, if Matthew has some small difference from Mark, this will often be put down to Matthew's consciously redacting Mark rather than telling the story in his own words in a natural fashion. Or, if Matthew has a fact not contained in Mark, this will be attributed to Matthew's redacting Mark without justification in the facts rather than Matthew's actually knowing an additional fact.

As an epistemologist, I am therefore not very friendly to most of what goes by the name of redaction criticism, because it violates simplicity considerations at multiple points and treats hypotheses (such as Matthean authorship with genuine contributions of eyewitness testimony, even to incidents also told in Mark) as off the table when they should be on the table.

However, I am not closed to the idea (and I even mentioned it in the post explicitly) that Matthew and Luke may have been partially based upon Mark literarily. For example, Matthew could have used Mark to refresh his own memory at points or to make writing a Greek version of his Gospel a simpler process. Luke could have used Mark as one of his sources, in addition to direct eyewitness testimony. This may be called "the redaction process" in a very broad sense.

One other important thing to add, however: There were probably no large writing tables used at the time, a fact that I have written about elsewhere. This makes explicit redaction in the sense of constantly jumping back and forth from a scroll of an earlier written source (such as Mark) and one's own scroll almost impossible. If Mark or any earlier written source was used, the later Gospel author almost certainly made notes and/or relied upon his memory of the written source itself. See here:

http://lydiaswebpage.blogspot.com/2015/04/what-was-writing-like-in-1st-century.html

David, yes, I agree that if there were an "ur-source" for a UC the causal connection would be much more obvious between the two parts. And making it explicit would make it easy to remember. I suppose it might be made clear simply by proximity. Sometimes I will orally tell my own version of Jesus' decision to wash the disciples' feet in response to their bickering, and I don't have to make it absolutely explicit, but my whole way of telling it makes it absolutely clear that the one is a response to the other. "So Jesus sits there. And then he gets up, and he takes a towel..." Etc.

In general, any advocate of an ur-source theory to replace a UC must make two different types of moves, both without any independent evidence: He must theorize that the two parts of the UC, just those details and parts needed, were not only vaguely "known" at that time but were both found in a single story, which we do not have any trace of. Then he must hypothesize that the subsequent authors, for reasons unknown, chose to copy from that earlier, "umbrella" story just certain parts, in some cases leaving their own versions incomplete or raising unanswered questions.

This is wholly unmotivated theorizing.

I think that anyone who thinks such a theory is an equally good "explanation" of what we have simply does not understand epistemic issues like simplicity, ad hocness, and the issue of empirical equivalence.

We encounter empirical equivalence constantly. For example, I could make up (with enough imagination) a conspiracy theory according to which the Masons control all the banks and politics in the world that would "look" identical to what we actually have. That would not mean that it is equally probable, on the evidence, to the theory that the Masons do not control all the banks and governments and that there are, in fact, separate banks and governments.

Christians, like everyone else, need to get a firm grasp on the fact that a gerrymandered theory is just a gerrymandered theory and not, therefore, a good competitor to a simpler theory.

Yes, Lydia, it seems that wildly ad hoc “explanations” are the stock in trade of anti-Christians. For example, what would be the simplest explanation of the fact that Paul considered Jesus to be an authority on moral issues and that we have a striking portrait of Jesus as a moral teacher? Surely, it is that Jesus actually was a moral teacher. Or is it that Paul considered Jesus to be a celestial being who communicated moral teachings via revelation? And did this celestial being favour teachings that were packed with metaphors drawn from rural life? This would have proved very useful when the early Christians decided to “invent” a rural Galilean figure as a spokesman for the celestial Jesus.

I’m not sure whether one should try to explain to the advocate of this view why it is ad hoc, or just say, “You can't be serious!”

"Joe, I think this essay was particularly about the idea that oral tradition was the source which supposedly explains undesigned coincidences."

>>>It wouldn't have to explain all of them. Some UDC can stand as what such, but then all over lapping content doesn't have have to be UDC some can be the result of copying a prior source, or the development of oral tradition.

"If the idea is that there was a *written* source underlying the Gospels, that would be different. But just imagine what this written source would have to be like! It would have to be a Super Gospel which included all the elements that make up all the undesigned coincidences. The burden of proof would surely have to be on anyone positing such a document to show that it existed."

>>>There is such a theory,It's called the Pre Mark redaction,(PMR)it has come to be consensus.It was discussed by Koester and several other scholars such as Jergan Danker,and even Crosson. The PMR doesn't have to contain all the readings, it just the version that Mark drew from,or the version Matt used in addition to Mark, it might have have been Q but that is a difficult problem.

I think that much redaction criticism involves overcomplex, unjustified theorizing beyond the facts, based upon rigid assumptions. For example, if Matthew has some small difference from Mark, this will often be put down to Matthew's consciously redacting Mark rather than telling the story in his own words in a natural fashion. Or, if Matthew has a fact not contained in Mark, this will be attributed to Matthew's redacting Mark without justification in the facts rather than Matthew's actually knowing an additional fact.

I really don't see how there could be any doubt that Matthew copied Mark and Luke copied either Matt or both. They also used other sources to supplement. It's undeniable that there is massive copying because they are word for word copies. The structure of every sentence is the same, in synoptic passages.

Presumably the reason for dyeing the copying would be to protect Matt's authorship. We don;t for a fact know who wrote Matthew. Assume for the sake of argument that it wasn't Matthew does that mean the writing is not inspired? why would it? One does not have to be an inerrantist to see inspiration in the Gospels.

The Gospels were produced by communities,the redaction process involved community,you can see the communal element in John, where the elders testify to the historicity.

Joe, I’m not quite sure what your position is. You seem to suggest that *some* undesigned coincidences are genuine – i.e., they really are the result of independent recollections of things which actually happened. But then you suggest that other undesigned coincidences, perhaps most of them, are the result of something else.

But the whole point of the argument is that other “explanations” of UDC are very implausible, and you have said nothing to suggest otherwise. Oral tradition doesn’t work because it would require that a coherent story in which all the pieces fit together is passed down and then the Gospel writers inexplicably fail to retain the coherence of the story when they transcribe it. If the oral tradition did not already contain a coherent version of the story, then you have a slightly different problem. Suppose that the Gospel writers notice the gaps in the stories and deliberately plug the gaps. It would then be inexplicable that one writer would plug one gap and then leave another gap to be filled by another writer – which is the whole point about UDC.

As far as the existence of written sources underlying the Gospels is concerned, there is no *theory* that these sources would explain UDC, nor is there ever likely to be one that is remotely convincing.

I really don't see how there could be any doubt that Matthew copied Mark and Luke copied either Matt or both. They also used other sources to supplement. It's undeniable that there is massive copying because they are word for word copies. The structure of every sentence is the same, in synoptic passages.

Presumably the reason for dyeing the copying would be to protect Matt's authorship.

Well, since the *are* differences (often very small, when the stories are the same) in synoptic accounts, these have to be accounted for in some way. I deny that Matthew *had Mark open in front of him* partly because of independent evidence about how writing was carried out in those times. (I've linked a post about the absence of writing tables.) That is not some deep, theologically inspired motive. It's historical data. And the very fact that Matthew and Luke diverge from Mark at times even in their very similar accounts has to be accounted for somehow. As I have said above, it's possible that they did use a written Mark by taking notes of it. Then the divergences can be accounted for by their partly relying on memory either of the event (or additional witness testimony) or of having read Mark. Where the divergences involve adding *information* about the events, this is some evidence in itself that they had another source of information.

As for Matthean authorship, we do have independent patristic evidence (unanimous, in fact) to that effect. So we might as well give that theory a run for its money, and it is in fact explanatory of aspects of what we find.

I get the feeling, Joe, that you aren't even reading what I'm writing. I'm familiar with this approach. One hastily attributes a motive or a "camp" to the other person and then assumes that everything the other person says is somehow informed by that.

I'm not even (in any ordinary sense of the word) an inerrantist. Surprise, surprise.

then all over lapping content doesn't have have to be UDC some can be the result of copying a prior source, or the development of oral tradition.

I don't even know what it would mean to say that all overlapping content among the synoptic gospels is "the result of" undesigned coincidences. It certainly is not a claim that I have made. Perhaps you need to familiarize yourself more with what undesigned coincidences are and how they are used in evaluating the gospels.

>>>There is such a theory,It's called the Pre Mark redaction,(PMR)it has come to be consensus.

Joe, perhaps you could explain it a little? Because when I search for "Pre Mark redaction" I get absolutely no results for pre Mark redaction. Maybe it is a consensus in some circle of scholars, but it is not a GENERAL consensus in the wider world (which includes, by the way, "scholars" who are Jesus mythers and so on).

I really don't see how there could be any doubt that Matthew copied Mark and Luke copied either Matt or both.

Because there is no definitive proof that Matthew came after Mark, nor that Matthew copied Mark. There is, for example, the traditional belief that Matthew came before Mark. There is also current scholarship that holds that Matthew came before Mark, such as:

http://digital.fides.org.pl/Content/1704/Kowalczyk_Origin_of_Mark.pdf

Presumably the reason for dyeing the copying would be to protect Matt's authorship. We don;t for a fact know who wrote Matthew. Assume for the sake of argument that it wasn't Matthew

Alternatively, assume for the sake of the argument that it WAS Matthew: since "we don't know who wrote Matthew", let's simplify all authorship references for Matthew by simply assigning the name "Matthew" to the author of Matthew. Isn't that ever so much nicer? [After all, "the works of Homer weren't written by Homer, they were written by someone else with the same name."]

The Gospels were produced by communities,the redaction process involved community,you can see the communal element in John, where the elders testify to the historicity.

Which is just a bald-faced assertion without proof. Even if one is relying on the "consensus" of so-called scholars, the reality is that (as) there is no real consensus, and (b) among that subset who agree THAT the gospels were produced by communities, there is constant disagreement as to the details, and they all rely on many assumptions, hypotheses, conjectures, and mere assertions anyways.

Communities don't write anything but bureaucratic tomes, "consensus reports," and other such nightmares of the modern world.

It's always a little interesting how the author of John is said to have such a distinctive, individual voice that his "making" Jesus sound like himself is taken to call his historicity into question. But at the same time the Gospel of John is said to have been written by a community. Squaring that circle must be hard.

But as I said in the o.p. NT scholars are often very committed to the maxim that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

"Joe, perhaps you could explain it a little? Because when I search for "Pre Mark redaction" I get absolutely no results for pre Mark redaction. Maybe it is a consensus in some circle of scholars, but it is not a GENERAL consensus in the wider world (which includes, by the way, "scholars" who are Jesus mythers and so on)."

Joe: Sorry that is sort of my private name for it, from message boards. The official name is "Pre Msrk Passion narrative: One major source Helmutt Koester's book Ancient Christian Gospels (1992).It's rooted in Brown's discussion of PN but Koester et al include in that phrase much more than the passion.That's why I call it pre Mark redaction.,

My position is that while there are some good arguments for authorship of name-sakes we really knkow who wrote the gospels, Even if we accept a liberal view and use liberal assumptions in Biblical criticism you can still defend historical validity of the Gospels. I see new atheists all the time who assume that if Matthew didn't write Matthew then it can't be valid that's just nonsense.

That is not just some crazy strategy I don't really believe in. I don't argue things I don't believe in.My Masters is from Perkins school of theology,so I was trained in modern theological liberalism. But I never lost faith in the Gospel or in the Lord,so I use my liberal training in service to the Gospel.

"Because there is no definitive proof that Matthew came after Mark, nor that Matthew copied Mark. There is, for example, the traditional belief that Matthew came before Mark. There is also current scholarship that holds that Matthew came before Mark, ..."

Joe During my time at Perkins the late Dr. William Farmer was still there. I knew him fairly well. Of course he's the champion of the Griesbach hypothesis. I never bought it but I have respect for it as a viable option because Dr. Farmer was a great scholar. Even so that still means Mark copies Matthew. Copying did take place.

community as author hypotheis

Which is just a bald-faced assertion without proof. Even if one is relying on the "consensus" of so-called scholars, the reality is that (as) there is no real consensus, and (b) among that subset who agree THAT the gospels were produced by communities, there is constant disagreement as to the details, and they all rely on many assumptions, hypotheses, conjectures, and mere assertions anyways.

The proof is the redaction process itself, We see the community at work at the end of John where they get a committee of Elders to vouch for the work. You imply that people who accept community as author are not valid scholars but I first encountered by view in book by Luke Timothy Johnson, Early Christian Writings He's pretty moderate do you not accept him as a scholar?

Yes there is a degree of disagreement on the overall hypothesis especially depending upon how far one goes. There is vast overwhelming acceptance of redaction and the idea of community producing the works is a logical corollary to the redaction process,redactors are not hermits they are in a community.

There is some evidence for oral tradition,which would be another source of communal contribution to the production of Gospels.In the last several years a lot of studies have claimed to find traces of oral composition in sources like Mark.

Notice I say communities "produced" Gospels not that they wrote them. The difference being the work itself was began by a single author then the redaction process produces the final product. We might see that in John where the committee is talking about the major author.

Tony (I think)

"As for Matthean authorship, we do have independent patristic evidence (unanimous, in fact) to that effect. So we might as well give that theory a run for its money, and it is in fact explanatory of aspects of what we find."

Joe Papias is the oldest source I believe who said Matt wrote Matt.But he didn't say it he said he wrote the logia. "The "oracles" is a good way to translate that but "the sayings" would be more literal. I theorize that,based upon that information, Matt, wrote a saying source and the Matthew school produced the narrative form using Mark.

I get the feeling, Joe, that you aren't even reading what I'm writing. I'm familiar with this approach. One hastily attributes a motive or a "camp" to the other person and then assumes that everything the other person says is somehow informed by that.

Tony, I apologize for giving that impression. This is not the case,I don't have a camp to defend.Liberal theology types don't do apologetics,I have been doing apologetics on the net for 20 years so I have allied with all manor of Christians, yes even evangelicals.;-)
Me and anyone who love Jesus vs atheists.

I am sorry for skipping around on issues here I just don't have time to deal with all of it.

I'm not even (in any ordinary sense of the word) an inerrantist. Surprise, surprise.

Joe I didn't mean that as a pejorative. I should not have assumed it either.

Joe, I think the problem here is that you think this is a debate between conservative and liberal views of Gospel authorship. There *is* such a debate but it is not the central issue here. The question is not whether, say, redaction has occurred but whether redaction could explain undesigned coincidences. So if you simply argue that redaction has occurred but don’t say how it could explain undesigned coincidences, you have really missed the point.

Undesigned coincidences reveal a previously unrecognised level of coherence in the Gospels. There are two ways of explaining this, which we might call the top-down approach and the bottom-up approach. According to the top-down approach, the coherence would be imposed from above by redaction of written sources. One author would notice a gap in the story of another author and then plug the gap by inventing a new detail in the story. My guess is that this is the way sceptics would love to explain undesigned coincidences. Unfortunately for them, it doesn’t work. The problem is that when one author “invents” a detail to plug the gap in the story, he fails to include the element in the original story which supposedly prompted him to invent the detail in the first place. This happens repeatedly.

Then there is the bottom-up approach. The advocate of this approach concedes that the coherence which emerges comes from below, but he tries to argue that the source is just another layer of storytelling rather than reality itself. This is hopelessly ad hoc.

Joe, you have said that you try to use your liberal training to support the gospel. In a way I can sympathise. You believe that the liberal view has prevailed but you still want to keep the gospel alive. However, suppose you can do better than this. Suppose that there are very compelling arguments to show that the Gospels are reliable accounts of actual events. Would it not be worth your while to find out more about these arguments?

Thank you, David, well-put.

By the way, even if the last two verses of John were written on behalf of a "community" putting their stamp of approval on the Gospel, that's two verses. That isn't even good evidence that chapter 21 was produced by a community, much less all of the gospel. Bauckham has an interesting argument that even those last two verses represent the author speaking of himself in the third person. I'm not wholly convinced by it, but I go back and forth on it. But it's trivial anyway, because all that it would mean would be that two verses were appended to the rest of the gospel. People go way overboard in what they think is implied by those two verses.

In any event, the argument from undesigned coincidences intersects with authorship questions indirectly. In theory, the incidents could be the accurate reproductions of witness testimony even if the gospels were written by someone other than the traditionally ascribed authors. I don't think that's the way to bet, though.

David:Joe, I think the problem here is that you think this is a debate between conservative and liberal views of Gospel authorship. There *is* such a debate but it is not the central issue here. The question is not whether, say, redaction has occurred but whether redaction could explain undesigned coincidences. So if you simply argue that redaction has occurred but don’t say how it could explain undesigned coincidences, you have really missed the point.

Joe: I did state I don't reject UDC. They do account or some of the duplication, but not all. There has to be a reason why you are pushing it, I can't believe it's just for the sake of UDC itself with no other reason.


David:
Undesigned coincidences reveal a previously unrecognised level of coherence in the Gospels. There are two ways of explaining this, which we might call the top-down approach and the bottom-up approach. According to the top-down approach, the coherence would be imposed from above by redaction of written sources. One author would notice a gap in the story of another author and then plug the gap by inventing a new detail in the story. My guess is that this is the way sceptics would love to explain undesigned coincidences. Unfortunately for them, it doesn’t work. The problem is that when one author “invents” a detail to plug the gap in the story, he fails to include the element in the original story which supposedly prompted him to invent the detail in the first place. This happens repeatedly.

Joe: All fine and good but UDC are not the only indicator of coherence. The redaction process and oral tradition can also infuse coherence.


David:
Then there is the bottom-up approach. The advocate of this approach concedes that the coherence which emerges comes from below, but he tries to argue that the source is just another layer of storytelling rather than reality itself. This is hopelessly ad hoc.

Joe: I don't believe "story telling" per se. Oral tradition is not just story telling, nor is redaction. They are a means of controlling and disseminating information to the community. That is importation not to control in a dictatorial sense but as a means of keeping the truth whole. They were not just repeating folklore, they were spreading the Gospel.

David:
Joe, you have said that you try to use your liberal training to support the gospel. In a way I can sympathise. You believe that the liberal view has prevailed but you still want to keep the gospel alive. However, suppose you can do better than this. Suppose that there are very compelling arguments to show that the Gospels are reliable accounts of actual events. Would it not be worth your while to find out more about these arguments?

Joe: I am always interested in arguments and I'm not interested in camps for the sake of camps. I've seen real dishonesty from both conservatives and liberals, as well as fine scholarship from both.


Lydia
Thank you, David, well-put.

By the way, even if the last two verses of John were written on behalf of a "community" putting their stamp of approval on the Gospel, that's two verses. That isn't even good evidence that chapter 21 was produced by a community, much less all of the gospel.

Joe: Of course they are evidence that the Gospel is the production of a community, they are talking about the whole work. The redaction process is evidence of their work.

Lydia
Bauckham has an interesting argument that even those last two verses represent the author speaking of himself in the third person. I'm not wholly convinced by it, but I go back and forth on it. But it's trivial anyway, because all that it would mean would be that two verses were appended to the rest of the gospel. People go way overboard in what they think is implied by those two verses.

Joe Sorry that makes no sense to me. They only make themselves known in two verses and that's at the end because they are referring to the whole work they just got through editing.

Lydia
In any event, the argument from undesigned coincidences intersects with authorship questions indirectly. In theory, the incidents could be the accurate reproductions of witness testimony even if the gospels were written by someone other than the traditionally ascribed authors. I don't think that's the way to bet, though.

Joe they would also be part of the redaction process because we only way we know about the events to which they refer is because they are preserved in redaction.

“They do account for some of the duplication, but not all.”

I’m not quite sure what you mean but I’ll have a stab at it. Perhaps you are saying that not every undesigned coincidence is what it appears to be or what Lydia and others claim it to be. Sure. It doesn’t bother me if there are some false positives in the bunch. On the other hand, the person who believes that the Gospels are completely unreliable has to argue that *all* undesigned coincidences are bogus.

“There has to be a reason why you are pushing it, I can't believe it's just for the sake of UDC itself with no other reason.”

You have got me there, Joe. I do have an ulterior motive: I would like to have a good argument for the reliability of the Gospels, and I believe that undesigned coincidences provide such an argument.

“All fine and good but UDC are not the only indicator of coherence. The redaction process and oral tradition can also infuse coherence.”

Again, I’m not quite sure what you are saying. Perhaps you are saying that the redaction process and oral tradition can also generate coherence and we don’t have to assume that it stems from an underlying reality. Those processes may generate coherence in some respects, but the argument which is being made is that *only* reality itself could generate the kind of coherence that we find in undesigned coincidences.

“I don't believe "story telling" per se. Oral tradition is not just story telling, nor is redaction.”

The question is whether oral tradition can explain undesigned coincidences. You could think up a convoluted scenario in which there is one tradition stemming from one eyewitness and a different tradition stemming from another eyewitness and that this ultimately leads to an undesigned coincidence between two written sources. But it would be simpler to posit a more direct connection between the written sources and the eyewitnesses.

Joe, I am not sure what you mean by "redaction". Can you be more specific and more explicit? I think that there is a level of ambiguity in how the word is used in scholarly circles, and that ambiguity is doing some of the "work" of some of the not-quite sound arguments running around. On the one hand, it would be a kind of "redaction" for an author - either a single person or a community, it doesn't matter - to take a series of eyewitness accounts and prepare them, order them, and (to the extent two or more accounts are about a single actual event) to fuse them into a gospel. This can be called, loosely, an "editorial" redaction. In quite another sense, the author can generate from his own imagination details that he did not hear from eyewitnesses, details that he has no reason to believe are the actual details of the event. Or, to go further, he can generate whole events from his imagination. Or, on a slightly different twist, he can suppress details and as a result intentionally mislead the reader as to what actually happened in an event, such as leaving out a critical sentence someone said that clearly explains their action, as if the sentence was never spoken. The latter kinds of "redaction" cannot be attributed to mere editing of the sources available to the author. It is quite definitely fictionalizing.

The point of Lydia's (and many other writers) using UDC is to show that the author DID NOT engage in fictionalizing, and thus that the account in the gospel is accurate as to the event as it really happened.

One can claim that redaction can be a source of "coherence" in EITHER SENSE of "redaction". In the editorial sense, an author can resolve the many details he hears from several eyewitnesses into a single account that makes a coherent pattern by carefully working at the source material he hears until he recognizes a coherent pattern that makes sense of all of the details as received. He does not generate any detail that he inserts into the account, he only arranges the details that he receives. In this sort of editorial redaction, we tend to think that the coherence arises from the basic fact that the ACTUAL EVENT did in fact happen with the individual details that were real: since reality itself "fits with itself" usually quite well, the accounts of what happened is borrowing from reality itself to achieve coherence in the account.

The kind of coherence that occurs with the second kind of redaction, that of fictionalizing, is the kind of coherence we call effective story-making. When we make up stories, the ones that are believABLE are the ones that mimic well the way things tend to really happen, so that it is easier for the reader to temporarily suspend their disbelief and "enter into" the story-making as if it were real. But because the act to suspend disbelief is (on some level) a voluntary act stemming from the will, on another level the reader knows all along "this is fiction". So "effective" story-telling of fictional events has to harbor real-seeming events or details of events in order to encourage that suspension of disbelief, and thus necessarily the story-making is borrowing from reality the KIND of coherence that attends real events, but transposes that coherence into details "about" what did not actually happen. The details given enable the reader to see that the event "makes sense" because this is the KIND of thing that happens.

Undesigned Coincidences of the type Lydia is identifying don't happen within good fictional story-making. The coherence of good fiction means that the author inserts into the story the details that are necessary to have it "make sense" to the reader. UD are details that ARE NOT IN the story as given that make sense of it, the details are found in some other place, so the reader has to do the "making sense" independently of the story as given. This has never been considered effective story-telling. The coherence is not due to the author's arranging, but due to the reader's own independent sources of information and work on them. So the kind of coherence we are seeing in the UD instances are due to the coherence that comes from the actual event itself, not from an author's effective story-making fictionalizing.

I actually pointed out in the main post that sometimes a pericope contains both undesigned coincidences *and* apparent discrepancies. That's part of the reason why the ur-source hypothesis is a poor explanation. Again, see the o.p. for details. So merely talking about "a source of coherence" is too vague. As of course, talking about "the redaction process." If something is to be an alternative theory one must get down to brass tacks, not simply wave one's hand and say, "I'm sure the redaction process is a cause of some of these."

I will just clarify my point about false positives with an example. In 2 Cor. 3:1 Paul makes a sarcastic remark about people who need letters of recommendation. This is probably an allusion to Apollos. If so it corresponds to the statement in Acts that a letter of recommendation was sent to Achaia on behalf of Apollos. This would be an undesigned coincidence. However, it *might* just be a coincidence. Paul might not have been thinking of Apollos - although this seems unlikely given the context.

But if there *is* a connection, the only plausible explanation is that the author of Acts has knowledge of what happened which is independent of Paul's letters to the Corinthians. The alternative is that the author of Acts read between the lines of Paul's letters, deduced what Paul meant and used this to invent a fictional incident in Acts. This is utterly implausible.

So when I say that perhaps not every undesigned coincidence is genuine, I don't mean that there are alternative mechanisms which could generate UDCs. And an alternative mechanism is what the sceptic needs. When you have *multiple* UDCs, you need (if you're a sceptic) an an alternative mechanism for generating them because the sheer weight of numbers rules out the possibility that they are all just coincidences.

Yes, I agree. Generally when I think that an apparent undesigned coincidence is plausibly explained some other way, it has nothing to do with sources or redaction or anything but just, "This could just be a coincidence" or "This could very easily be referring to something else." As in the example you gave. One reason in the example you gave is that, if letters of recommendation *were* common as a mechanism, then there could definitely be someone other than Apollos to whom Paul could be referring. Sometimes (though not always) what one does in that case is to point out correctly that it is a slightly different kind of UDC--that is, both passages point to a custom or reality "standing behind" both of them. In this case, both attest to the use of letters of recommendation and hence confirm each other indirectly, even if Apollos is not in view.

Of course, that isn't always correct to say, either. I've occasionally had people suggest possible UDCs to me where I've simply thought it looked like a pure coincidence, though an example is not springing to mind as I'm writing this comment.

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