9 August 2017

Papyri and Fallibility (2)

"S Mark's Gospel must be the earliest to have been written because it is so much simpler; and its rough, primitive unsophistication ... "

"Early Christological models are inevitably simpler, indeed, more sincere, than the later Christologies, with their complex and artificial ... "

"The sophisticated theology and complex narratological techniques of S John's Gospel make clear that it can hardly predate the second decade of the second century ... "

"The worship of the Christian Churches, as it developed from the simple fellowship meals held by the early Christians in memory of Jesus of Nazareth ... "

"The palaeographic indications which appear to suggest that the papyrus [containing the prayer Sub tuum praesidium] dates from as early as the third century, must give way to the realisation that its developed Mariology cannot possibly ... "

So very many of the 'assured results of modern scholarship' have rested ultimately upon comfortable and rarely interrogated Enlightenment prejudices. To the mentality of the last two-and-a-half centuries, it has seemed obvious that 'primitive' simplicity must have been transformed, in a simple linear process, into greater complexity. Rousseau's Noble Savage, dated into mythical human pre-history, must necessarily predate the Bourbon Court! That such a methodological presupposition still survives among 'liberal' Christian academics is, it seems to me, another example of the intellectual naivite of such writers and of their chronic inability to keep up with advances in the secular study of the ancient world. Here is a passage, written in 1998 by Peter Parsons, Regius Professor (now emeritus) of Greek in this University and a very great papyrologist. He is surveying the large number of 'new' ancient Greek texts which the sands of Egypt had yielded in the couple of decades before he wrote. (It is worth adding that further papyrological discoveries in the two decades since, have done nothing to weaken his argument.)

" ... the new texts test the categories and structures of scholarship, the faible convenue which nineteenth century positivists based on the assumption that the texts then surviving were typical and to be explained simply in relation to one another. As usual, aesthetic prejudices and unquestioned categories lie below the scientific surface. Scholars used to regard Aeschylus' Suppliants as the earliest of his plays; it has a simple plot, little action, and long choruses. Now a papyrus has dated it, less than ten years earlier than the Oresteia. False assumption: that artists develop in linear mode, from simple to complex, irrespective of theme. Now that we have Simonides' celebration of the Battle of Plataea, the great patriotic war of classical Greece, we see how he reinvented epic in elegy, the Trojan war in the Persian war, Homer in himself. Standard literary histories had put such generic mutations and complex intertextualities two centuries later. Another false assumption: that classical poets were all genius without artifice (and that their successors [of the 'Hellenistic' period were] all artifice without genius)."

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