Last entry here I already mentioned one of the issues that came up: my stumbling into several muddles in New Testament studies that I thought had been reasonably resolved by now. Many issues I thought were cut-and-dried are actually mired in complexity, and my research in these areas has absorbed far more time than it should have. The two most annoying examples of this (though not the only ones) are in dating the contents of the New Testament and identifying their authorship and editorial history. There is no consensus on either, even though standard references (like Eerdman's Dictionary of the Bible, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, and The New Interpreter's Bible) tend to give the impression there is. Even when acknowledging some disagreements, they do not accurately convey the shear number of disagreements and the complexity of determining their relative merits.
In other words, not only is there no consensus, but there are dozens of positions, and arguments for each are elaborate and vast. It was only after over a month of wasting countless hours attempting to pursue these matters to some sort of condensable conclusion that I realized this was a fool's errand. I have changed strategy and will attempt some sort of broader, simpler approach to the issues occupying my chapter on this, though exactly what that will be I am still working out. It will involve, however, a return to what historians actually do in other fields, which New Testament scholars seem to have gotten away from in their zeal to make sense of data that's basically screwed in every conceivable way. For when it comes to establishing the basic parameters of core documents, I have never met the kind of chaos I've encountered in this field in any other subfield of ancient history I've studied. Elsewhere, more often than not, either the matter is settled, or no one pretends it is.
It would bore me (and you) to attempt a thorough account of all I encountered on this subject of late. So I'll just walk you through one tiny example of the countless annoying paths I ended up on. And that only as briefly as I can (which is not very brief at all), since even this one story would bore the bristles off a boar if recounted in detail. It's probably boring enough as it is.
In most standard references or scholarly discussions, it's routinely claimed that the early Christian martyr Ignatius quotes the Gospel of Matthew in his letters, and Ignatius wrote those letters in the year 107 A.D. (or so), therefore Matthew was written before 107 A.D. That would be a fine example of establishing what we call a terminus ante quem, "point [in time] before which," the latest year a particular document could have been written. If either premise were a settled fact, that is. Unfortunately, they aren't. Yet typically this little problem isn't mentioned or explained, and these premises are declared in some form as if no one doubted them.
Already I encountered a general muddle even before getting to this particular vexation. In any other field, when historians don't know the exact year a book was written, they determine a terminus post quem ("point after which," also written terminus a quo) and a terminus ante quem ("point before which," also written terminus ad quem) and then conclude the book was written sometime between those two years. And they admit they can't know any more than that, which is something New Testament scholars tend to gloss over, often wanting to fix the year more exactly than the evidence actually allows, and then browbeat anyone who disagrees with them. In other areas of history we don't try that. If the terminal dates for On Playing with Small Balls (an actual book written by Galen, no kidding) are "between A.D. 150 and 210" then we accept that On Playing with Small Balls may have been written at any time within that sixty-year span. We don't scoff at someone who suggests it could have been written near the end of the author's life, nor claim as if it were a decided fact that it was written at the start of his career instead. Either is possible.
But in New Testament studies, the fact that the evidence only establishes termini for Matthew between A.D. 70 and 130 isn't something you will hear about in the references. Indeed, I say 130 only because the possibility that the earliest demonstrable terminus ante quem for Matthew may be as late as 170 involves a dozen more digressions even lengthier than this entire post. Because all the relevant issues of who actually said what and when remains a nightmare of debate so frustrating that I actually gave up on it mid-research, seeing it would take months to continue to any sort of conclusion, and not even a clear conclusion at that. Mind-numbing, truly.
But what about Ignatius? First of all, the year he wrote is not actually known. He doesn't say (which is always odd of Christian letters--real ancient letters were routinely dated). And there is no consensus now, either. Dates from 102 to 117 are still defended by well-qualified scholars, and from what I can tell, any of these are possible. Normally that entails a terminus ante quem of 117, not 107. Until possible dates later than 107 are conclusively refuted, we must accept that the termini for Ignatius are from 102 to 117, so if Ignatius mentions Matthew, that sets a terminus for Matthew of 117, not 107 (because any date up to 117 is possible).
But no, it can't be as simple as that. For yes, of course (as if you didn't see it coming), there is still contention as to whether the letters of Ignatius are even authentic, or which ones are authentic, or whether they have been edited or interpolated, or whether the one datable reference in them (to the reign of Trajan) is inauthentic (and thus Ignatius actually wrote in a different, later reign), and on and on. The concerns are not crank. But sorting through and assessing them all would take months of research. And that's just on this one, entirely, mind-numbingly peripheral issue of the authenticity of the current text of the relevant epistles of Ignatius, all just to establish a terminus ante quem for Matthew!
Okay, but just for instance (just one point among a great many): some scholars argue that the context of the Ignatian letters makes exactly zero historical sense. Ignatius is supposed to have been arrested and sent to Rome on a crime of illegal assembly (as a Christian), and on his journey to court his Roman jailers willingly take him to visit community after community of felonious illegal assemblies, and to meet with them and write letters to them and generally continue to flagrantly commit the capital crime for which he was arrested, in the presence of entire communities of fellow Christians also flagrantly committing that same crime, and in fact actively promoting the commission of that crime across half the Empire, and his Roman jailers don't mind. Not only do they not report any of this illegal activity, but they even aid and abet it at every step, taking him from church to church, allowing him ready access to his fellow criminals, a regular supply of papyrus and ink, and interfering not one whit. That sure is odd. Don't you think?
Now, let's suppose there is some brilliant response to this observation that explains everything and makes historical sense of these letters again. To find it and evaluate it--not just all the evidence and merit opposing this perplexing observation but supporting it as well, to give each side of the debate a fair shake--is a time-consuming task of no small order. And that's just one of literally dozens of objections to the authenticity of the Ignatian letters. But if they aren't even authentic, their date is no longer secure (even if it ever had been).
We could still argue for a terminus ante quem for these letters if they are all forgeries (since it wouldn't matter if they were, as a forged quotation of Matthew is still a quotation of Matthew) by observing that Polycarp, at some unspecified time in his life, wrote his own letter as a preface to the entire collection of Ignatian letters, and Polycarp was martyred sometime between 155 and 168. Or so we think. In actual fact the evidence is problematic and some scholars argue his martyrdom could even have been as late as 180. Again, resolving that issue would require mountains of research (which, I must keep adding, might not in fact resolve the issue at all but merely demonstrate conclusively that it cannot be resolved on present evidence). And all that just to establish a terminus ante quem for the letters of Ignatius, just to establish a terminus ante quem for the Gospel of Matthew. (Oh, and remember, that's just one Gospel. Multiply all this by Mark, Luke and John and you will only begin to touch the depths of my vexation in all this).
Okay. That's all just for the first problem with the Ignatian terminus for Matthew. The date. It gets worse when you start on the second problem: Did Ignatius even quote Matthew? Now things get extraordinarily annoying. Most scholars agree only some of his letters are authentic and that several were definitely forged, and that even the 'authentic' ones were expanded by forgers later on--we think we have the earlier, undoctored versions, simply because we have shorter, unembellished versions, although there is no secure reason to be certain these shorter versions aren't just longer redactions of even shorter but now lost originals...which we might even have in Syriac translation (and so on and so on and so on). But all that aside (Really? Can we just throw all that aside?), in his supposedly "authentic" letters (which ones are those again?), Ignatius definitely shows he knows of various stories peculiar to Matthew (like Matthew's nativity story), and he appears to quote Matthew verbatim a few times, and vaguely many times more.
Case closed, yes? Well, no. First, just because Ignatius knows the Matthaean nativity story doesn't mean Matthew preceded Ignatius. That would follow only if you assume (and note this) that Matthew invented that story. Now, that's a rather damning assumption. But if you reject it, then you can no longer conclude that Ignatius knows that story from Matthew. For he might know it from the same source Matthew learned it from. In which case, Matthew could possibly have written after Ignatius (indeed, he might even have taken details he learned from Ignatius and embellished them into his story). Again, resolving this, one way or another, takes considerable work, since the scholarship isn't entirely decisive or in agreement on these things. The problems are typically glossed over, as if there were no ambiguities or uncertainties here. Yet dig a little, and that's all you find.
Here's an example of what I mean:
Now the virginity of Mary was hidden from the Prince of this world, as was also her offspring, and the death of the Lord; three mysteries of renown, which were wrought in silence by God. How, then, was He manifested to the world? A star shone forth in heaven above all the other stars, the light of which was inexpressible, while its novelty struck men with astonishment. And all the rest of the stars, with the sun and moon, formed a chorus to this star, and its light was exceedingly great above them all. And there was agitation felt as to whence this new spectacle came, so unlike everything else above. Hence every kind of magic was destroyed, and every bond of wickedness disappeared, ignorance was removed, and the old kingdom abolished, when God appeared in human form [or revealed himself in a human manner] for the renewal of eternal life.Ignatius is supposed to be attesting here to his knowledge of Matthew. Hey, sure, right? Matthew talks about a nativity star. Bingo! Often scholars or reference books will simply assert this as a given. Yet clearly Ignatius knows a completely different story. Ignatius does not appear to know Matthew's star story at all. He makes no reference to Magi, nor any moving star rising in the east and settling over the manger, no Herod, no Bethlehem. And in Matthew the star is but a sign, not the Savior Himself. Instead, Ignatius knows some completely different star story, one that arguably conflates (or more likely lies behind, as more original) the nativity stories that found their way into Matthew and Luke (e.g. Luke mentions a chorus of angels in heaven, but no star, Matthew mentions a star but no chorus, while Ignatius knows about a chorus of stars in heaven). As far as Ignatius appears to know, the star was the arrival of Jesus himself (not a mere sign of his birth or birthplace), it was brighter than even the sun, all the stars in heaven sang, and the whole world was astonished and agitated by all this. Clearly, Ignatius has some other Gospel in mind. Or stories that precede all the Gospels we have. Or neither (because, remember, this letter could be a fake). But just as clearly, there is no evidence here that Ignatius knew the Gospel of Matthew.
Ignatius, Letter to the Ephesians 19
Well, what about the exact quotes, and the paraphrases? Surely that's conclusive! I wish. Annoyingly, much of this evidence seems to imply the opposite: that Ignatius had no knowledge of Matthew's Gospel at all. For on several occasions when Ignatius is supposed to be "quoting" Matthew he uses the material in a completely unrelated context, as if he never knew how Matthew used it or even that he did. Problem number one. Ignatius also never mentions that he is quoting anyone (much less a Gospel, and much less a Gospel attributed to anyone named Matthew) or even indicates that he is quoting. Problem number two. In any other field, those two facts, combined with the first fact that Ignatius appears to employ phrases and wording and concepts found in Matthew, would indicate that Matthew borrowed from Ignatius, not the other way around. Or does it? Again, there are arguments pro and con from here. And again, they are elaborate and vast. Time sucks down a rabbit hole.
Once again, I'll just give you one single example among several:
Ignatius quotes verbatim Matthew's phrase "He that is able to receive it, let him receive it" (in Smyrnaeans 6:1). But in Matthew's Gospel (Matthew 19:12) Jesus utters this phrase about castration, becoming a eunuch for Christ, while Ignatius uses it in reference to receiving salvation. Ignatius says:
The things in heaven, and the glory of the angels, and the rulers, both visible and invisible, if they believe not in the blood of Christ, shall, in consequence, incur condemnation. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.It is inconceivable that Ignatius would quote what Jesus said about accepting castration in a line about angels and demons accepting the salvation of Christ. One would sooner expect that Ignatius had no idea this line was ever used about men cutting their balls off. Hence this "exact" quotation would seem to suggest Ignatius didn't know Matthew, but knew a common stock of phrases and idioms shared by Matthew. But again, one could argue the point, and resolving any such debate is arduous.
Oh, by the way, did I also mention the manuscripts even of the "authentic" letters of Ignatius don't agree with each other, often containing entirely different sentences or even radically altered paragraphs? And that there may be evidence of retroscription? (That's later scribes correcting "inaccurate" quotations with "correct" quotations, a phenomenon that is definitely found in the manuscripts of Irenaeus, for example, thus calling into question any reliance on Irenaeus for the original readings of biblical passages, hence it might be circular to say Irenaeus confirms a biblical reading...yeah, because medieval sneeks rewrote his text to, but I digress). If we can't even know for sure what the original text of Ignatius' letters said, you can only imagine how much more this multiplies the task of sorting out issues of quotation or paraphrase.
And then there is the question (frequently overlooked) as to why Ignatius would rely on Matthew at all. For his soteriology is exactly the contrary of Matthew's and agrees instead with Mark's. For instance, Ignatius rails against the idea that Christians must obey Torah laws, but Matthew's entire Gospel was written to defend that position as endorsed by Christ (whereas Mark's entire Gospel was written to defend the position held by Ignatius), yet Ignatius supposedly repeatedly quotes and relies on Matthew (the Gospel of his enemies) without having any idea that Matthew copied from Mark, the very Gospel Ignatius would surely have preferred. How can Ignatius not know Matthew had doctored an earlier Gospel in order to advocate the very doctrines Ignatius opposes? Why doesn't he throw that in the face of Matthew-quoters, instead of inexplicably becoming a Matthew-quoter himself? Sorting these questions out is yet more time consuming madness.
Now sure, everything above can be debated endlessly. But an endless debate on one detail, multiplied by a dozen details, multiplied by a dozen problems, multiplied by a dozen documents (since the Gospels aren't the only vexations among early Christian documents, not by a longshot), you end up with nearly two thousand endless debates. Even supposing you can fit an eternity into a day and thus nail a conclusion on any one point in under ten hours, ahem, two thousand days still works out to more than seven years (as you'll surely be taking weekends off at least--to drink yourself into a stupor, if nothing else). And at the end of it, you have perhaps only a few pages to show for it all, since that's all that will be needed to summarize your conclusions regarding the basic facts of your evidence before moving on to the actual topic of your book. A handful of pages. Which took seven years of soul-crushing tedium to compose.
The field of New Testament studies needs to get its house in order. Until it does, I'll have to do without what I can normally rely upon in other fields: well-supported conclusions (or a ready consensus on the range of conclusions possible) on the most fundamental issues of evidence.