Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Eyewitness Testimony and TC

Irenaeus makes an intriguing comment when he is about to discuss the variant readings of the number of the beast (666 vs. 616) in Rev 13:18. I quote from the translation in the Ante-Nicene Fathers, Against Heresies 5.30:

"... and this number being found in all the most approved and ancient copies [of the Apocalypse], and those men who saw John face to face bearing their testimony [to it] ..."

Besides the testimony of the 'ancient copies' (which in Irenaeus's case cannot have been very ancient), Irenaeus also appeals to the testimony of those who saw John face to face and who apparently confirm the reading 666. Though their testimony might have come to Irenaeus by means of a written testimony (I don't know), it is fascinating that he attributes independent force to the wider tradition within the church which secured this particular reading. I have never seen this appeal to 'oral testimony' before in textual criticism of the NT, but am wondering if there is more out there.


  1. I've always assumed that Irenaeus was including Papias.

  2. You have thrown me for a loop with this one. The general sense I get in reading the AFs is the primacy given to the oral tradition above the written documents during the first and second century. The OT canon had not yet been reduced to a written canon either. It is not for another 100 years before the Mishnah will be codified by haNasi. Papias' statement was forceful, and certainly not incongruent within the times. Where would a preference for a written document - rather than the oral testimony - have come from within the oral culture of the second century? A document can readily be forged (and were), but it is hard to change the rising tide of popular oral tradition of the early and diverse church.

    I rather think I've completely misunderstood your question.

    Mitch L.

  3. Mitch, my surprise when reading Irenaeus was not so much caused by his emphasis on authority based on personal acquaintance with the author per se, but on the fact that he uses this as an argument in deciding between variant readings (a textual issue is decided with the help of 'oral' tradition). The application of this type of argument to Textual Criticism is what I find most intriguing and have not encountered elsewhere.

  4. Mitch: "Where would a preference for a written document - rather than the oral testimony - have come from within the oral culture of the second century?"

    I am not opposed to the idea of an oral culture. Fourth century monks stressed memorizing large portions or even all of the New Testament. The sermon on the mount illustrates the role of orality (Matt 5:17+). In Acts, the earliest church devoted themselves to the teachings of the Apostles. The church fathers are interested in the opinions of their predecessors. At the end of the day, Christianity was very much a religion of the written word. Origen amassed a large library for himself. A codex-nomen sacrum biblical tradition rapidly developed. There must have been an significant amount of literacy present in the early Christian tradition.

    There needs to be great care taken when dealing with the term "oral culture." I have not read the recent books on the subject, but it strikes me that typically papyri numbers peak in the 2nd century CE. In these ancient terms, this cultural period is a less "oral culture" (more literate) than the cultures before and afterwards. It is only in comparison to our modern information age that we can produce the term oral culture for the early Christian period.

    How oral Christianity/Judaism was compared to other groups in the same period? Every group is going to be oral to some extant. Do we know of any groups that only communicate by writing? Even if they did, there would still be some orality to the writing as it would at times be extemporaneous. Issues of scripture, writing, canon and authority seem to be critically intertwined in the earliest Christian movement. I would prefer the term "semi-literate" culture, and I would be careful to reference the context(s) of comparison.

  5. We know that Irenaeus studied under Polycarp who had heard John (Against Heresies III.3.4 = Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. IV.14.3-8; Letter to Florinus cited in Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. V.20.4-8).
    So I am not sure that Irenaeus is thinking of a wider church tradition, rather his own recollections of earlier days.

  6. When an unorthodox teaching would be preached in the early church (second century), one reason cited for not accepting it was NOT ONLY what was "written" by the Apostles, but also by appealing to the oral testimony of the previous generations of churches during the Apostolic era.

    With the passing of time, moving the early church more and more away from the Apostolic era, the need for collecting the authoritative biblical writings grew in significance.

    By "oral" culture I simply mean a culture that accepted as authoritative the majority oral tradition created by the teachings of the Apostles and their entourage of the first century. Besides, after the death of John, there would still have been some prophets, although there number would now "be fixed." These final prophets from the end of the first century would have drifted into the second century, up to the middle period. With the presences of Apostles and prophets, the first century could remain oral. The second century, with only the few remaining prophets, would eventually have to compensate for the loss of the oral tradition keepers.

    Remember, Paul told those in Galatia not to be moved by a letter as if from him. If it disagreed with what was the authoritative teachings of the church, reject it.

    Christianity became a religion of the book, but this developed with time.


  7. Mitch, your reconstruction could be accurate, but I am far from convinced due to the reasons which I have already stated. There is ample evidence for the earliest Christians being "a people of the book," even if the earliest "book" is the Greek OT read Christologically. I am also sure that there were oral traditions, but it would not want to assume that these were widely regarded as equal or superior to the (later recognized as) canonical writings.

  8. Christian

    Sorry. Yes, I have only been referring to the Apostolic teachings that eventually became the NT canon.

    By oral also, I mean the ability to interact with the source to get the "feel" for what was said. There is an exchange that takes place when the oral traditions are being communicated that you can not obtain in a scroll.


  9. Given that Irenaeus also reports that eyewitnesses confirmed that Jesus was almost 50 when he was crucified, I wonder if too much credence can be given when he makes such appeals to the elders.

  10. "Almost 50" is pushing it. What Irenaeus said was that Jesus, while in the flesh, reached his forties.
    (Against Heresies 2:22)
    There is nothing in Scripture itself to call this number into question; in fact, John 8:57 directly implies it.

  11. Hi Daniel,
    You said, '"Almost 50" is pushing it. What Irenaeus said was that Jesus, while in the flesh, reached his forties.'

    But Irenaeus says, "Now, such language is fittingly applied to one who has already passed the age of forty, without having as yet reached his fiftieth year, yet is not far from this latter period...He did not then want much of being fifty years old."

    You also said, 'There is nothing in Scripture itself to call this number into question; in fact, John 8:57 directly implies it.'

    The chronology as given by Luke and Matthew falls apart if Jesus is in his forties at the time of the crucifixion, and all the more so if "He did not then want much of being fifty years old". Irenaeus is clearly involved in a severe error of chronology, which he attributes to "those who were conversant in Asia with John, the disciple of the Lord, [affirming] that John conveyed to them that information...Some of them, moreover, saw not only John, but the other apostles also, and heard the very same account from them, and bear testimony as to the [validity of] the statement." Quite a disturbing circumstance for him to err so greatly, on such strong authority. How did that happen?

  12. Most scholars don't have any problem reading a few thousand years here, or a few million years there into the chronogenealogies of Genesis 5.

    So what's to say that the Evangelists may not have skipped over a dozen or so Passovers in their telling of the life of Christ?

  13. "So what's to say that the Evangelists may not have skipped over a dozen or so Passovers in their telling of the life of Christ?"

    The Passovers are not the only chronological markers. I was thinking more in terms of the information about the beginning of his life and the end.

  14. Anonymous,
    In order to prove that Jesus was less than 50 at the crucifixion, you have to set up a chain of dated events starting with Luke 3:23 and including the crucifixion.

    But it has to be even more airtight than Genesis 5 (Masoretic text), which has been found by learned scholars to be replete with gaps so well hidden that the average layman would not even suspect their existence.

    Good luck.