[Revised July 10]
A big part of the challenge we face, especially in the study of Gospel texts, is that:
1) the main content does not offer clear, external historical references as to time of composition and/or editing (very unscientific of them, not to date and time stamp and version control their work!); and
2) manuscripts tend to fabricate and improvise anachronistic historical references, such as putting the names of legendary leaders, “Mark,” “Matthew,” “Luke,” “John,” “Peter,” etc., at the beginning (incipits) of texts within manuscripts.
Without clear external historical references and yet burdened by mythic/traditional notions of apostolic authorship, Gospel scholars often give up on dealing with questions of actual historical importance.
For those of us who do try to get at the history of and behind these texts, we still have not learned how to approach our work in a truly scientific way.
Showing that one text copied another is not enough on its own to show how those two texts are related historically. Right now I can quote or copy a portion of a 2000 year old text next to me, but that does not put me into a close relationship of historical proximity to that text.
Unfortunately, most of the analysis and discourse of Biblical studies is structured in terms of mere two text comparisons. We look primarily for simple dependencies, not layered dependencies.
Even when we add a third or fourth text to the mix in a parallel set—as we so often do in our synopses and academic literature—we still find the task of persuading our colleagues of our reconstructions difficult if not impossible. It all just seems so subjective, and our entrenchment in traditional schools of thought (Q, Farrer-Goulder, Matthean priority, etc.) only makes it worse.
To be scientific and actually develop historically consequential proofs, we need to come back to basics. How do scientists date stuff, especially old stuff?
Well, there are two kinds of phenomena in the world: dead things and living things.
Dead things degrade. They decay. That’s why and how scientists can date them reliably, using carbon dating. The older it is, the more degradation can be detected. Just like telescopes look at the deep past of the stars, carbon dating looks back at the deep time of our planet and its life forms.
Living things, however, flourish. They copy themselves. They multiply. Whenever they multiply, they carry information about their origins. That information often transforms as it is transmitted or reproduced.
Evolution meet Gospels.
This scientific life-principle applies fully to living texts, especially sacred texts whose heirs are committed to reproduce them, but who also cannot help but transform them in the reproducing.
But how can you chart sequential relationships in the multiplication of texts in a scientific way? Genetics are one thing. But texts are something different.
In a phrase, a well-designed three-point signals analysis.
The best way to establish historical relationships among a group of interdependent yet otherwise undateable source and receptor texts, following the principles of science (particularly math and physics), is to start from a three-point comparison.
Text 1–Text 2–Text 3
The hypothesis itself is built into the chronological ordering of the texts: Earlier–Middle–Later.
To put that in signals terms, that would be:
Node 1—Node 2—Node 3
The hypothesis would posit: Starting Signal Generator–Signal Mediator–End Signal Receiver
To prove the sequential relationships of interdependence among these texts, you must find three types of signal transmisions.
It is essentially the same as this scientific thought experiment. You are tasked with determining the relative geographical position of signal station locations. You do not have GIS or satellites, but you do have access to transmission systems and signals. How would you approach this problem?
You would do so by grouping transmission stations into subsets of three and then start running a bunch of signals, looking for three specific types of tranmission receptions.
Transmission Type 1. Node 2 receives a transmission directly from Node 1 (1->2; 1st independent direct transmission).
Transmission Type 2. Node 3 receives a transmission directly from Node 1 (1->3; 2nd independent direct transmission)
Transmission Type 3. Node 3 receives a transmission originating from Node 1 that was transformed, repackaged or piggybacked by a transmission from Node 2 (1->2->3; 3rd dependent transmission)
Once you have repeated confirmation of these three signal transmission types, you have strong proof that Node 2 is somewhere between Node 1 and Node 3. The more data you generate, the stronger your proof and the more certain your hypothesis.
For textual signals that we endeavor to map across time rather than space, you would do essentially the same thing. Select a subset of three texts with obvious interdependent relationships, and arrange them in parallel according to your hypothesis of their historical, sequential relationships, from earlier/originator (Text 1) to middle/mediator (Text 2) and finally to last/receiver (Text 3).
Reception Type 1. Text 2 receives/copies Text 1 (1->2; 1st independent reception)
Reception Type 2. Text 3 receives/copies Text 1 independent of Text 2 (1->3; 2nd independent reception)
Reception Type 3. Text 3 receives/copies Text 1 as mediated or transformed by Text 2(1->2->3; 3rd dependent reception)
Once you have detected all three reception types, well, then you’ve got it. You have established a historical, sequential relationship among these texts. Again, the more evidence and data you run in your analysis, the higher your confidence can be in your conclusion.
Try it in reverse, and it would not work, because the Mediator text does not piggyback backwards in time, from a Later text to an Earlier text. The signaling moves one direction in time: forward. That forward directionality is what makes historical sequencing possible. All living things, including sacred texts, are time-bound.
Showing exactly how far apart chronologically a group of three connected textual strata might be is something else entirely. At some point, some externally verifiable point of reference has to come into play.
For the Gospels, the destruction of the 2nd Temple of Jerusalem in 70 CE is certainly one of those events. A close runner-up is when Pliny the Younger tried and executed “Christians” around 110 CE for the very first time in history. As an imperial legate to Bithynia-Pontus, Pliny’s records exquisitely thorough and careful, far beyond anything written by early Christians. His correspondance is both our first external reference to the word “Christian” outside of Jesus tradition texts, as well as the first time any Greco-Roman source mentions anything about the later followers of Jesus. While Tacitus and Suetonius write about Christus / Chrestus / Christiani / Chrestiani (whatever they intended to convey by their inconsistent terminology), they are both subsequent to Pliny, knew Pliny quite well, had read his work, and had their own political agendas guiding their writing and rewriting of history. (Roman officials talked together, even if they did not always know about what they spoke.) So Pliny is a highly important historical anchor for our dating of early Christian texts. The Jewish revolt of 117 CE is probably the third most important factor, and the Hadrianic persecution of Jews during the revolts in 132-135 CE next. (Noticing the recurring pattern of revolt against Roman imperial authority in provincia Iudaea? That should explain quite a bit of the DNA of Qn for you.) But I digress.
So, three-way signal reception analysis and the occasional external historical marker—that’s essentially how we can date the relative sequence and interdependent relationships of the various Gospel textual strata.
Author’s caveat and disclosure: So, to be perfectly honest, I have no idea if the theorem I have elaborated above is already a well-known thing in the hard sciences or not or if I’ve come up with something genuinely new. I doubt it’s new. It seems too obvious if you just think like a scientist and not a religious ideologist. Fortunately, I loved math and science a lot as a young person before I ever took an interest in religious studies, so this was just what made sense to me as I started to think creatively about solving these historical-textual puzzles. Natural Language Processing might dovetail with the above approach or provide a completely different angle.
Call for expert scientific advice: It’s precisely because I am a non-expert in the domains of Signals Analysis, Computational Linguistics, and Natural Language Processing that I have started to reach out to experts to advise and help us. If you know of interested experts, please send them our way. Also, while I obviously trust my own carefully considered hypotheses and conclusions enough to put them out there publicly (risking looking like a fool if I’m wrong, yet completely, scientifically confident I am right), I fully acknowledge that I trust the analysis and conclusions of actual scientific experts and authorities more than I trust my own. So I am sure I will learn and adjust as I go, and I will make corrections and even confessions/retractions if and as needed. Every version of this iterative book is open access, so scholars can scrutinize, if they wish, the whole history of the conversation.