Embarrassed by Discontinuity

In my review of A Marginal Jew, Vol 4, I opined that Meier applies the criteria of authenticity better than most scholars. But he does slip on occasion, especially with the notoriously difficult criterion of discontinuity. Let’s look at the example of oath-taking.

In order to show that Jesus’ prohibition against oaths is authentic, Meier first invokes discontinuity with Judaism, which granted isn’t the best argument, but fair enough. He then proceeds to discontinuity with early Christianity, as follows:

“In the first Christian generation, Paul swears on a regular basis, without giving it a second thought. His epistles are strewn with various oaths… The Epistle to the Hebrews makes much of solemn oaths pronounced by God and presupposes the habit of human swearing with no hint of disapproval. In the Book of Revelation, John the seer apparently sees no difficulty in portraying an angel taking an oath by the living God… Hence…the criterion of discontinuity argues strongly for the prohibition of oaths going back to Jesus.” (pp 199-200)

Now in the very next sentence, Meier appeals to multiple attestation to supplement his argument. Concluding that since Jas 5:12 is a clear parallel to Matt 5:34-37 in content, structure, and vocabulary:

“The most reasonable conclusion is (1) that Jas 5:12 is an alternate form of the saying attributed to Jesus in Matt 5:34-37; and (2) that this Jesus tradition was transmitted in the early oral Christian tradition in two streams: the ‘gospel’ stream that retained an attribution to Jesus and that wound up in Matthew, and the ‘epistolary’ stream that wove sayings of Jesus into general Christian parenesis without attributing them to Jesus… We have in Jas 5:12/Matt 5:34-37 an unusual but valid example of multiple attestation.” (pp 204-205)

So taking the criterion of discontinuity (with early Christianity) in tandem with multiple attestation, we see that the prohibition against oaths is not attested enough in the NT, yet is attested enough in the NT, and thus must be authentic. Heads I win, tails you lose!

As far as I’m concerned, the criterion of discontinuity with early Christianity cancels that of multiple attestation. The latter is the better criterion, the former almost useless. It’s different from the criterion of embarrassment, which remains useful and supplements multiple attestation. That’s what we see in the case of divorce, and where Meier is on more solid ground, noting how Jesus’ prohibition caused later Christians to squirm and create wiggle-room in different ways — Paul allowing divorce when a pagan spouse is unable to live in peace with a Christian partner, Matthew permitting it in cases of unchastity.

Thumbs up to embarrassment, and down to discontinuity. They’re not as closely related as many people think.

UPDATE: On XTalk, Chris Weimer defends Meier as follows: “Meier is implying that Paul, John, Hebrews do not have access to such a tradition about oaths, but Matthew and James do. Since Matthew and James have this statement that conflicts so much both with other writers of the early church (Paul, John, Hebrews) and Judaism which proceeded it (Philo, Ben Sirah). How else, he is implicitly asking, would this prohibition against oaths arise in two independent documents of Matthew and James? It’s certainly a fair question to ask. For me, it’s merely a variation of multiple attestation, since one author alone could invent something that is discontinuous both from earlier Judaism and the early church. But when two authors do it, the likelihood of it becoming historical (under this paradigm we have assumed) increases.”

UPDATE (II): Doug Chaplin believes that “Meier is not as inconsistent as [I] propose. It would be perfectly possible to have a strand represented by Matthew and James which gave emphasis to the prohibition on oaths, while this failed to make much impact on those who had become accustomed to swearing them, thus satisfying at least double attestation and discontinuity.”

2 thoughts on “Embarrassed by Discontinuity

  1. Loren,

    So what's new? Gospels studies are rife with the kind of false logic and inconsistent speculation that you spotted. That's why I don't play in that sandpit. The problem with the gospels is that we have no controls and it is impossible to avoid speculation (for which Jim has an excessive intolerance). Come work on Acts instead. Acts is the axis about which the entire NT revolves, and Acts can be compared against Paul's letters. Acts is the battleground.

  2. Trying to make a convert out of me? But I wouldn't say gospel studies are that futile. To put the ball in your court, you should start a blog on Acts and Paul. You do plenty of work in this area, and I'm sure you'd have a wide readership before you know it.

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