Who Do You Trust?

I was having a conversation on Twitter, and Marcus Borg came up, and I said that I basically agreed with his Pauline chronology, even if I don't agree with many of his conclusions in interpretive work. And that was interpreted as a statement of how far I trust him. Which is an interesting twist—because the more I get to know Borg's work, the more thoroughly I trust him. I just don't agree at many points farther down the road. And I said as much, and explained that there are many scholars I trust, with whom I will disagree profoundly; and on the other hand, many I distrust who, nonetheless, make valid points that I will not deny.

Of course, that wasn't what the initial question meant by asking to what extent I trust Marcus Borg. In a more basic sense, we use the question of trust to imply reliance, even to the extent of not questioning conclusions. And I could say, to twist that point the other way, that I trust even people with bad intent—to do bad things. There's something honest about an unpretentious crook, who knows what and why they do what they choose freely to do. But that isn't what I mean, either, when I say I trust many people with whom I often disagree.

So, a counterexample. What causes my distrust? The short answer is, epistemological shortcuts. And the biggest of those is authoritarian traditionalism, regardless of its specific form. Why do I trust Marcus Borg? Skepticism, and thorough engagement with the field as it has taken its science seriously. Of course, others don't trust me for exactly the opposite reason: I refuse to compromise my epistemology for traditionalism. (Which is ignoring the real reason I shouldn't be trusted, as an unreliable narrator.)

So, after all that, it occurs to me: I don't trust the tradition. Period. There are authors within the tradition that I trust, whether or not I agree with them entirely, but the tradition itself gets no faith from me. Well, what about the Bible? I'm pretty sure the answer is that I also don't trust the Bible. Which depends greatly on what we mean by "trust." I trust God, to whom the various scriptures we have give testimony, but the authors of those scriptures are frequently unreliable as witnesses. And as a canon, this set of writings is the bearer of agendas I am not wholly willing to cosign. But let's break those writings out, even just for the New Testament:

I trust Paul, in his seven original letters, because he is being profoundly honest about what he does and why and how, and what he will not do, and why not. He is good, and his editors are clumsy. I trust the authors of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, in spite of their unreliability as witnesses, because I understand what they are each attempting to do with the same material. I don't trust the author of Acts, who at least had the good sense to leave most of Luke intact in his editing of the earlier composition. I know exactly what Acts aims to do, and its self-justifying retelling of history is terrible. (This is eroding my trust in the gospels, but slowly, since I work mostly on Pauline canon pieces. But none of them are witnesses, and all of them are stories well after the fact, so the gospels don't have so far to fall as they might for someone else.) I trust Hebrews, and the Apocalypse, and James, and even 1 Peter, because what they are doing makes sense, and they seem to be honest about it—even if we have not been honest about where they come from in doing it. (Again, agreement is not implied here!) I trust Colossians, but not Ephesians, because only one of those authors had a good-faith reason to write their Pauline pastiche. 2 Thessalonians, Jude, and 2 Peter get no love from me—which may be odd considering the Apocalypse does. And I feel like I'm in an odd place with the Pastorals, because they are the absolute worst forgeries in the canon, but their naked ambition is profoundly honest in its abuse of apostolic authority.

Who do you trust? Why do you trust them? Clearly, I am my authority. People have told me that as though it were a bad thing, but they usually mean that in contrast to trusting the tradition, in a kind of hyper-selective majority-rule authoritarianism sense, to know better than anyone else. Because obviously I'm not smart enough, and they all were brilliant and unquestionable, and worked on problems that were truly general and could be solved for all time.

So yeah: I trust me. I don't expect you to trust me, though. I expect skepticism, and I expect you to verify my work. Or falsify it, if I'm wrong. I need that. And so I also trust you, to the extent that you're willing to step up and do that. But I expect much from you, just as from myself.


  1. Let me preface my question by saying I do trust you -- well enough, for what it's worth. (And Prof. Borg too, I suppose.)
    But if the author of Acts is offering a "self-justifying retelling of history," how is is that different from what Luke does -- assuming the two works have two authors, an assumption I'm not necessarily making?

    1. Well, I did suggest that my distrust of Acts is eroding my trust in the gospels, but yeah, that's a good question.

      I could be wrong, in that I tend to posit as shorthand a prior sort of proto-Luke acquired and edited by the author of Acts in order to account for the significant differences in narrative style. However, from all I can tell, while it is important to emphasize the common "authorship" of Luke–Acts as a work, the author of Acts is free-composing a novel story in ways that differ radically from the edition of synoptic material—even if the same author is the editor/redactor of that material from scratch rather than from a prior form.

      The more Pauline work I do, the more reason I have to distrust even the synoptic material as anything other than a set of period stories fleshing out the interactions of famous historical names around Jesus. And yet the gospels have far more evident source materials, and are far more evidently composed by redaction, than Acts. Acts is also a period story fleshing out the interactions of famous historical names, but without Jesus. It is written out of the tailings of the gospels in the same way that the post-Pauline forgeries are. But its intent is apologetics against Jerusalem and the territorial Judeans in favor of ethnic Christ-following as God's favored and directly-guided path. It takes that strand from the gospel narratives and follows it out to a logical end without any of the countervailing benefits provided by legitimate source material in the gospels themselves. The gospels, in other words, always subvert their redactors' intentions because they insist on fidelity to source material even as they interpret it. But Acts isn't interpreting source material. It is strictly ecclesiastical self-story, pure auto-apologetics built on rewriting history.

      Does that make more sense of the difference?

    2. Put differently: I distrust Acts for the same reasons I distrust the Deuteronomistic Historian and the Chronicler. But again, even more so, because the DtrH and Chronicles are also being faithful in their own way to prior sources. I can see through them, like with the gospels, in ways Acts cannot be seen through. Acts is all there is behind itself.

  2. Yes, thank you, it does. Yet it only raises more questions for me -- questions I don't currently have the time and resources to sort out for myself, perhaps -- so I'm shooting the breeze here!

    What is the case to be made that Acts is not using source materials, at least in part? I presume by the 80s or 90s CE (or whenever the Gospel and Acts were being finally redacted), stories about the earl Christians would have been circulating for decades alongside stories from the Jesus tradition. And the question, then, could be turned back upon Luke, who also has apologetic interests. Another thing -- though this is something of a side point -- it seems to me the question of whether a text betrays apologetic interests seems distinguishable from the trustworthiness of the source materials behind it. (Thus, for example, the Gettysburg Address is an apologia, spin, but the events in question are all too real.) This is an ongoing (as yet unanswered question) I have for those who engage source and redaction criticism: How is it possible to demarcate very clearly the line between being a witness and conveying a source, on the one hand, and slanting that witness to a particular religious or theological objective? It's something of a kernal-husk question. And what standpoint allows the critical neutrality necessary to even propose such judgments? It may be an easier matter, say, when one is examining what Matthew or Luke is doing with a given pericope, because there you have a control. But how do we assess traditions and stories (or fictions, as you'd have it) in Acts, when we aren't exactly sure from where they're coming?

    1. It's not like we have a shortage of comparable literature. We just didn't canonize any of the rest of it. And in its far more significant obedience to the synoptic strand, Acts deserves that status by comparison with the rest of the pseudo-apostolic-histories. For all that I can say against it, it is at least a story obedient to the logic of the literature of the gospel canon and Pauline canon.

      So, from that perspective it isn't that Acts doesn't have sources. It's that we already have significant representatives of the literature its author had. I'm not trying to say Acts is less of a historical fiction than the gospels, less of an interpretation of history that happened. But it is far more like the broader genre of Hellenistic historical fiction, than like the middle gospels in their clear piecemeal jointedness. Its literary characteristics differ significantly from Matthew and Luke. Acts is episodic, like Mark, and it answers questions an audience might have when faced with the existing literature, as Matthew and Luke and John do, but it flows, in one hand, out of one mind, without conflict. Whatever its sources beyond the canon, they have been homogenized rather than spun. The audience knows enough informally that formal reference in the historical narrative is unnecessary.

      Acts can be judged in many of the same ways the post-Pauline forgeries in the canon can, as commentary and extension of existing canonical literature. And that requires no objective place to stand beyond what we have; it requires a reading of the text and its rhetoric, its literary character but also its authorial intention in the best historical context we can make for it. It requires letting the text speak for itself, basically. That "critical neutrality" is had by using historical and textual criticism and not using the tradition, because the tradition has always known less than we do, and has never known the authors or audiences of the NT texts. We have never not inherited these texts from outside, no matter how far back we go. We have always only speculated, and the farther back we go, the more clearly it was only that: imaginative fancy based on only the versions of the text available to the writer. But today we have better tools and vastly more sources available. Our imaginations are quite as good, but we have more and better data to be responsible to.

    2. The other question you raise, I want to break apart. I don't presume we have any uninterpreted sources. The only sources our sources had were interpreted. Sources are themselves interpretations. There is no point at which, sans time machine, we can get to pure sources upon which the only interpretations are our own. In NT we have many advantages over the OT side, in terms of the wealth of preserved materials and parallel contextual materials. But the deeper we go, the clearer it is that those advantages don't get us over the basic hurdle the OT critics have been faced with: there's no bottom. OT critics are still significantly more advantaged than classics scholars, but their materials have all been canon for so much longer that there is no question of seeing truly early forms. It has to be done internally, not externally. And for internal textual criticism, all we have is what a given text provides. So we pay very close attention, and we complicate distinctions as much as possible in order to see which really don't matter and which can't be so easily resolved, and we put as many eyes and minds on the problem as possible to weed out personal idiosyncrasy.

      Really, it's very much like Barth scholarship at that point, except Barth is far closer and we have far more of his œuvre to work from.


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