Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Where single attestation is preferable to multiple attestation

Further to my thoughts about the contradiction between "multiple attestation" and "embarrassment" in Historical Jesus Research, I'd like to throw out a related thought that I think compromises the value of the "multiple attestation" criterion.  Sometimes single attestation might in fact be a far better indicator of historicity than multiple attestation.

Mark is often rightly seen as more primitive in its representation of Jesus in comparison with Matthew, Luke and John.  There are moments where Mark provides a rough witness to an earlier stage of the tradition, where single attestation is a better indication of historicity than multiple attestation would be.  Where Jesus heals the Deaf Mute with physical agents (Mark 7.31-37) and where he heals the Blind Man of Bethsaida with some apparent limit to his abilities (Mark 8.22-26), these pericopae are not included by Matthew and Luke, no doubt because of the uncongenial picture of Jesus they imply.  Here, single attestation is a better indicator of primitivity than multiple attestation would be.  To put it another way, is the Multiplication of the Loaves, attested six times in the Gospel tradition, the more likely to be historical than Jesus spitting in the mouth of the deaf mute, which is attested only once?

I am aware, of course, that multiple attestation, as it is usually configured, refers to multiple independent attestation, and so one is searching for material that occurs in allegedly independent sources like Mark, Q, Thomas and John.  Notwithstanding my scepticism about the existence of Q and the independence of Thomas, the point still stands by analogy between the written Gospels and attestation in traditions, that uncongenial material will often have dropped out, so that some of the more unusual, primitive features will be at best singly attested where they are attested at all.  In this context, multiple attestation is actually a weaker indication of historicity than is single attestation.

6 comments:

Bob MacDonald said...

I love that unique pericope in Mark about the healing of the deaf mute. It strikes me as a literary personal signature. The man who sees trees walking could be a second one since it fits the story of Mark in Paul. I see no reason why these could not have been literary constructions from a young Hebrew created to act out his abbreviation of Matthew-Luke. So I am being Griesbachian.

I haven't progressed much in this area of study in 10 years! Too busy learning Hebrew. Thanks for bringing these things up though and reminding me there's a whole other Testament.

Stephen C. Carlson said...

In the case of these Markan healings, don't we really have a case of multiple attestation to its embarrassing nature? ;-)

Alex Dalton said...

I doubt the probability of its authenticity would be reduced if we had multiple independent attestation of this event, so I can't agree with Mark's argument here.

mikew1584 said...

I don't think the loves is as well attested as you state. We have to eliminate instances where one author is merely repeating another. If i tell 50 people at work about the accident I see, it is still only one one witness to the accident. Of course, different criteria can compete with one another, and in this case the healing with one attestation do beat out the more widely told multiplication of loaves (i suspect both have only one attestation.)

Mark Goodacre said...

Alex: right, but in the absence of multiple independent attestation of that event (and many others), it is worth reflecting on what single attestation can imply. It's the logic of single / multiple attestation that I want to try to get at, and to try to think the issue through.

Mark Goodacre said...

I am inclined to agree, mikew. For what it's worth, I don't think we have multiple independent attestation of the feeding miracles. At least it is not easy to demonstrate that.