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The beard and the heap

Knox%20beard.jpg What is a sorites paradox, and how does it apply to biblical criticism? The paradox of the sorites or heap arises from the fact that if we add a single grain of sand to others, there is not a sharp line at which we say that we have a heap of sand. If we take one grain away at a time, there is not a sharp line at which it ceases to be a heap. Yet (mark this) there are cases that fall unambiguously on the side of "heap" or "no heap."

We can also think of this as a beard problem. When does a man have a beard, and when does he just have a five-o-clock shadow? There are fuzzy cases (pun intended) where we are unsure what to say. Yet this does not mean that there are no unambiguous beards and no unambiguously clean-shaven men.

Those making a misleading use of the term "paraphrase" in biblical studies will trade on the fact that there is no sharp line between garden-variety paraphrase, loose paraphrase, and completely different content. Hence they will ask something harmless like, "Do you believe that the Gospel authors sometimes paraphrased Jesus' words?" and thus try to pressure one into a false dilemma: Either one accepts wild "transformations" such as changing, "My God, why have you forsaken me?" into "I thirst," or inventing (on the basis of theological reflection) entire scenes in which Jesus utters "I am" sayings, or else one is an unlearned wooden literalist fundamentalist who thinks we must have a verbatim transcript of Jesus' words.

This is simply a failure to recognize that the absence of a sharp line along a quasi-continuum between A and not-A, between beard and no beard, between ordinary paraphrase and utter invention, does not mean that there are no clear cases.

Sorites issues come up in biblical studies in other areas as well. For example, consider my statement here that the world of biblical studies cannot be divided neatly between "liberals" and "conservatives." My point there was that one needs to consider positions and arguments on a case-by-case basis rather than labeling someone as a "conservative" and then trusting everything he says or disagreeing with everything said by a "liberal." But the fact that scholarship lies on a quasi-continuum and that evaluations have to be nuanced and are sometimes mixed does not mean that there are no biblical scholars who can reasonably and informatively be labeled "liberal" or "conservative." Again, the existence of a continuum does not mean that there are no clear cases.

Then there is my statement here that "when a conceptual parallel is close enough it becomes a type of verbal parallel, and a distinction between verbal and conceptual parallels can become artificial if pressed too hard." But it doesn't follow that there are no clear-cut cases in Scripture where one incident is definitely the same as the other or different from one another or where Jesus is using the same words as he does in a different scenario.

Moreover, there are places where we can talk about purely verbal matters or matters that are purely stylistic. My next post about the Gospel of John will concern some of these. For example, if in some speech by Jesus in John the Greek word "kai" is used to express a contrastive meaning (like "but"), where Luke (if he had reported the same scene in Greek) would have been more likely to use the Greek word "de" (which more expressly states a contrastive meaning), this really is a purely verbal matter. Jesus may well have been speaking in Aramaic in a given scene reported in John anyway, and "kai" may be a better parallel for the Aramaic all-purpose conjunction waw, but that doesn't mean that a Synoptic author would be making anything other than a legitimate verbal translation decision if he chose to render Jesus' "waw" using Greek "de." So the fact that there is not an extremely bright line between matters of conceptual content and mere matters of verbal style (or translation or paraphrase) does not mean that there are no questions or issues that fall unambiguously on one side or other of that divide.

The question, "Did Jesus expressly claim to have existed before Abraham, did he unambiguously identify himself with the 'I am,' Yahweh of the Old Testament, in the course of making this claim, and did this occur in a scene separate from anything in the Synoptics and recognizably the same as the scene recounted in John 8?" is an unambiguous matter of important conceptual content that should not be brushed off with vague talk of "paraphrase." The question, "How did Jesus express a contrastive conjunction, was he speaking Greek or Aramaic, and is John's Greek or Luke's Greek closer to the way that Jesus habitually expressed contrast by a conjunction?" is really a purely verbal matter that doesn't need to trouble anybody. It falls clearly on the other side of the line.

Don't be bullied by the beard. If Jesus didn't historically say, in a recognizable fashion, in a separate scene from anything in the synoptics, that he and the Father are one, then John is telling a shaggy dog story. And that ain't a paraphrase.

Comments (7)

This is so much common sense. Just like with miracle claims, there really isn't any way to avoid dealing with things on a case-by-case basis and making the evaluation based on the specifics of that case.

Some of Jesus' claims in John are so extreme, so "I'm God"-ish (or more "I fully partake in deity and am not just a man"-esque), that either John is reporting the correct essence or gist of what was said, or he was writing 1C clickbait fit for the Roman Enquirer, Drudgius Chronicle, or the Weekly Empire News. This seems to relate to CS Lewis' idea that one is not simply or innocuously mistaken when one claims to be deity; one either is divine or one is mad. I don't see how somebody can take an innocuous garden-variety utterance of Jesus and "paraphrase" it into "I and the Father are one" or "Before Abraham was, I am"; that's just too big a leap.

(Yet, I've seen this sort of thinking criticized as too simplistic, and not in keeping with the spirit of modern criticism.)

I don't see how somebody can take an innocuous garden-variety utterance of Jesus and "paraphrase" it into "I and the Father are one" or "Before Abraham was, I am"; that's just too big a leap.

What they usually try to do is up-play (a word I just coined) Jesus' utterances and actions as recorded in Mark or other synoptic gospels (because Mark is treated as more historical than John by "critical scholars") and hold that John knew of these "Jesus traditions" in which Jesus "presents himself as God" in a "more implicit way," and then "paraphrased" them--meaning, made up the more explicit scenes found in John. So the real utterances aren't precisely garden-variety but are certainly completely different scenes.

Examples of the supposedly historical self-presentations that John was inspired by:

--Jesus' claim to be able to forgive sins (found in the synoptics).

--Jesus' claim to be able to bind Satan, to be stronger than Satan (found in the synoptics).

--Jesus' ability to calm the seas (found in the synoptics).

--Jesus' claim to be Lord of the Sabbath (found in the synoptics).

These and some more like that are then gathered up and characterized as something like "the surprisingly high Christology of Mark." Then it's claimed that we don't actually *need* John to be historical in order to argue that Jesus both believed he was God and "presented himself as" God.

Sometimes this is cast merely as a strategic move: Oh, let's not use John to argue for Jesus' self-understanding that he was God. That gets us into the weeds arguing against the critical scholars. Let's just argue from the stuff they would admit probably really happened.

But in those taking the "paraphrase" view, it's used in a stronger way: These self-presentations are the literal things that happened, approximately as narrated. The uniquely Johannine scenes are "paraphrases" of that "more implicit self-presentation" (aka, dramatic, made-up scenes that never happened but were inspired by the realization that Jesus was presenting himself as God in these other ways).

But in those taking the "paraphrase" view, it's used in a stronger way: These self-presentations are the literal things that happened, approximately as narrated. The uniquely Johannine scenes are "paraphrases" of that "more implicit self-presentation" (aka, dramatic, made-up scenes that never happened but were inspired by the realization that Jesus was presenting himself as God in these other ways).

What counts as actual evidence that the unique-to-John events are "paraphrases" of that "more implicit self-presentation" that is found in Mark? I'm trying to find some examples of possible things that might make me think that the critical scholars have a good point here. I can immediately find some lines of argument that would not count as evidence to me:

(1) some whole evolution-of-Christology argument that would argue that explicit linkings of divinity to Christ came later (2C or 3C); this is the sort of argument that say argues against Paul's calling Christ "God over all" in Rom 9:5 because Paul could not possibly have had that advanced a Christology, same for other interpretative arguments involving the use of theos with "son" or "Jesus" or "Christ" in the NT.

(2) an appeal to some abstract principle (without providing some justification of its own) that the ancients were satisfied with non-historical things passing as historical

(3) an appeal to the fact that the Jesus of John is fundamentally different than the Jesus of the synoptics, and denying the historicity based on accepting the Jesus of the synoptics in opposition to the Jesus of John.

So what actual non-question-begging arguments are there that John is carrying out the "paraphrase"? What internal/external clues would make a reader of John read a text where Jesus says "I and the Father are one" (say) and cause the reader to think: "Ah, John is paraphrasing here, this didn't really happen as written...he simply wanted to emphasize the point that the Lord of the Sabbath who can forgive sins is in some meaningful way the Lord Incarnate." The "null hypothesis" as it were would seem to be that the text is saying "what happened = what is written". So, since dead Anglican bishops are allowed occasional 80s references (deal with it), I ask for these arguments: where's the beef?

(This has pastoral applications. In dark times of my life in recent years I have taken great comfort from the various "I Am" statements in John, and the deity of Christ is what makes all the statements work. Is the critical scholar going to say that a "paraphrase" is what gave comfort? I'd feel rather foolish and taken in if that were so. Christianity is an all-in worldview. There really is no stable middle/lukewarm ground that I can see. Rendering reputed events and sayings as paraphrases really eats at the historical foundations and justifications for the faith.)

Yeah, it's more or less start with your suggested "reason" #3 and then take comfort in your suggested "reason" #2 in order to make it "not lying."

In his debate with me Craig Evans literally went so far as to say he is counting votes on the character of Jesus and it's three to one against John!

He gets away with such a jaw-dropping comment only because he has so much antecedent respect. If I ever said something like that, given scholarly views about interdependence among the synoptics, Q, etc. (which he himself tried to patronize me about in that very debate), it would be touted as more evidence that I am "out of my depth" in NT studies. But he can say it and not a peep from the literary device side. Especially in an area such as the verbal similarities among sayings of Jesus, or whether or not Jesus tells parables (he does in the synoptics but doesn't really in John), etc., the fact that the synoptics are *not* entirely independent of one another makes a statement about "counting votes" and "it's three to one" just out of court. We already know that John is telling many different things. That's what makes John...not a synoptic gospel.

Anyway, so yes: It starts off with this incredibly strong anti-John bias. The "I am" statements then come under special scrutiny partly because of the residue (usually unacknowledged and unrecognized) of the influence of "developmental Christology" views referenced in your #1. Evans shows the residue of that as well when he keeps using phrases like "in light of the Easter event" or "in light of his resurrection." Then everything is wangled into that. Is something in John similar to something in the synoptics? It was probably a reworking of the other scene as he knew it from the Jesus tradition. Is something in John different from anything in the synoptics? It probably didn't happen but may have been inspired by some abstract idea in the Jesus tradition.

There are unprincipled exceptions to this. When Jesus calls himself the Son of Man in John, they appear to be willing to take this to be historical and even separate from the scenes in the synoptics where Jesus calls himself Son of Man. Totally arbitrary. By the "logic" of the way John is treated otherwise, the Son of Man sayings in John should be John's only semi-historical reworkings of facially different scenes as found in the synoptics. Indeed, if anything, it would make *more* sense to say that about the Son of Man sayings in John than about the "I am" sayings or, heaven help us, "I thirst." At least there is some minimal similarity. But it's all quite ad hoc. "Son of Man" just has less of a critical prejudice against it than "I am," so with "Son of Man" they suddenly start treating John as an "independent historical source" to Jesus' calling himself that.

If I'm understanding you correctly, you're saying there really isn't much evidence for the "paraphrase" view. Since I don't find the Jesus of John at odds with the Jesus of the synoptic gospels, it looks like the main argument for the paraphrase view loses most or all of its force. So what's left then? Just scholarly speculation?

However, the whole John vs synoptics seems to be mainstream now, so for them I guess they have some sort of argument. From my end, it looks like cloud castle theorizing.

I find CS Lewis' essay "Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism" (if I remember the name correctly) to be a good high-level common sense corrective to all this silly stuff.

The other thing that Evans and others will try to add in there is all the other stuff about supposed "ancient pedagogy" in which the students were allegedly encouraged to sock puppet using their teachers after the teachers were dead. There is pretty much zero evidence for that view. It is largely based on a terrible misreading of rhetorical textbooks (such as Theon's Progymnasmata) which have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with how to write a biography of your recently deceased mentor.

The really strange thing about that sort of argument is that they start by applying it just as much to the synoptics, using it to "explain" differences in Jesus' sayings among the synoptics. Wording variations are pretty easy to find, since the synoptics *do* report the same sayings of Jesus, or sometimes similar sayings on different occasions.

But then suddenly out of the blue this kind of thing is applied to John in some *especially strong* way. I tried like crazy in my debate with Evans to point out that his whole "chreia pedagogy" view is supposedly just as applicable to the synoptic Gospels (though I think it's totally wrong there as well) and that he therefore has no grounds for using it as a special stick with which to beat John. I tried to point out that in his 2012 comments he said John is *less* historical than the synoptics, but how can this "pedagogy" theory support *that* thesis, since it would apply to the synoptics just as well.

And he really had no answer. He never answered or explained. It's like they just get these fairly silly (but somewhat less radical) theories about the synoptics and then bank on a general *assumption* that John is taken to be less historical, so *whatever* dehistoricizing they did about the synoptics (under whatever label--chreia, ancient pedagogy, compositional devices, and more), it can *automatically* be ratcheted up by a couple of orders of magnitude for John because...just because. Because everybody knows that whatever you can say against the literal historicity of the synoptics you can say a fortiori against John.

Evans more or less said in the debate that John is doing this "chreia" thing but is just doing it "more radically." How does he know? Well, partly because of the alleged vast difference from the synoptics and partly because Jesus "sounds like Wisdom" in John--another point I've answered in detail.

So there are all those alleged other lines of argument--that we supposedly "know" on independent grounds that the ancients had all these fictionalizing compositional devices or that students were encouraged to put words in their teachers' mouths.

I've answered those separately, of course, and at length.

I think that making mountains out of the molehills of the sorites "problem" is all part and parcel with modernist skepticism. For modernism generally refuses to accept the reality of there being natural kinds at all, or that the human mind would be capable of knowing them as true and certain knowledge, mere well-formed opinion being the most we are capable of. Thus they turn all questions of categorization into debates at the level of "preference" and "opinion" and mere numerical prevalences. Never mind that modernists also USE real kinds in their argumentation all the time, for that's how humans think and talk.

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