By page-count, most of this book is an English translation, with detailed scholarly commentary, of St Matthew's Gospel. However the book is about precisely what the title says - the evolution of the gospel in general. In his closely-reasoned preface Powell argues that the text of `Matthew' is the source, and the sole source, of Luke, and that Luke in turn was drawn on by Mark, but only for help with his own account, also deriving directly from `Matthew'. The derivative synoptic gospels, in Powell's view, followed quickly on their original, and before distinct families of copies came about. For this reason he gives no `stemma codicum' or hierarchy-chart of the MSS such as normally accompanies a critical edition of the Greek or Latin classics. His reasoning basically is that the text of `Matthew' is a complicated (but intelligible) combination of two main and two subsidiary threads, the two main threads representing two conflicting early schools within the new faith, the two minor threads being a `Joannine' school that interpolated as many references as it could to John the Baptist and a careful attempt, with an eye to avoiding trouble with Rome, not to criticise the Roman imperium. By adducing examples Powell illustrates his conclusion that Luke and Mark were concerned to give coherency and consistency to the slightly chaotic and self-contradictory text of `Matthew', given its importance as the basic document of the new faith. In his translation Powell himself deploys a variety of typefaces to illustrate the various influences - original, interpolated, edited and corrupted - that for him make up the text of `Matthew' as we find it.
There is nothing adversarial in Powell's style, which is dispassionate and detached, although he shows a touch of humour here and there in the course of arguing that this or that passage does not make sense. He was no stranger to controversy in his political career, and he will have known that some of his conclusions would on their own be dynamite to conventional believers. He explicitly ignores the work of other scholars and presents his own findings backed up with detailed ratiocination but with total indifference to the effect they may create. He says in so many words `The agony in the garden is transparent fiction', and if I have even understood him he seems to say that the crucifixion of Christ never happened, as once Christ was convicted in the Jewish court of blasphemy the penalty for that, namely death by stoning, was inevitable. His approach throughout is the traditional one of the great textual critics, and he subjects the text of `Matthew' to exactly the processes that his great Cambridge predecessors Bentley, Porson and Housman (his own teacher) applied to the texts of Manilius, Horace, Juvenal or whoever.
In trying to grapple with a work like this there is no need for any of us to be unduly overawed by the fact that we are less brainy than the writer, something that would go for most of us as far as Powell is concerned. The reader is like a juror applying thought and common sense to the case put before him or her. I am not particularly convinced when Powell jibs at `Get thee behind me Satan' on the grounds that Satan is as dangerous behind as in front. To me this order is contemptuous and imperious, given by one who had nothing to fear. Again, Powell is amusing about `Capharnaum-on-sea' and may well be right in thinking the adjective superfluous as there was no other Capharnaum. On the other hand it was quite regular in Homeric Greek for a place name to have an adjective tagged on, e.g. `sandy Pylos', and although I know the usage is far less common in Greek prose I would have to do a lot of work to prove the issue one way or the other, and similar idiom survives into modern place names. There is only one Bexhill and one Angmering in the English gazetteer, but one sees them called `Bexhill-on-Sea' and `Angmering-by-Sea' at times. At other times he is acute and to the point, as in pointing out the absurdity at 21.18 of a text that seems to tell the disciples that if they just have faith they too can go around shrivelling fig-trees. Nor, surely, can he have been the first to see that something must be wrong with the text about the seed of `mustard'. At other points it is a matter of knowledge of Greek, and in these cases I recall an expression P used in a political context - `There are no two ways about it except a right way and a wrong way'. Powell finds a `splinter' not a mote in someone's eye because `skarphos' (a stick) cannot mean `mote', and he is not even too sure it can mean `splinter'. Again, `ou me timeseis' in Greek is an emphatic prohibition `thou shalt not honour' and cannot bear any weaker meaning; and the master who rewards his workers `kata ten idian dynamin' rewards them not according to their ability but according to his own ability to reward them. Throughout, P properly draws attention to cases where the usage, or even the word itself, is unparalleled, but is equally properly wary of jumping to conclusions. Greek is a huge, flexible and untidy language, not a neat standardised little effort like Latin, and it lends itself to on-the-spot coinages.
The production of the book is top-class. I noticed only one error in the Greek throughout, a smooth breathing for a rough breathing on the first letter in the footnote on p 95. In doing so I exercised textual criticism. It is not magic and not a mystery - one exercises it in noticing and correcting a minor misprint. In the commentary Hebrew is translated at all points, and is always a matter of citing parallels, references and quotations, never central to the argument. Greek is usually but not always translated or explained, and a reader without it will struggle a bit. The real struggle will be for anyone who believes that every word of the bible is true. Sometimes the Greek bible says one thing and the English another, sometimes the text has been altered, and sometimes we have to conjecture what the author said. So the question has to be `WHAT bible, precisely?'
on 21 July 2011
I have read this book a few times now and I am very thankful for the insights I have imbibed. Enoch Powell's stance in his political career of thinking through problems from first principles and producing a persuasive solution is fully in evident in the pages of this book, although in a completely different sphere of intelectual effort. Here are apparent the skills of an astute, painstaking, and masterful textual critic and a superb analyser of the distortions and additions of later interpolators and re-writers.
I have been influenced most I think by the way the author emhasises the importance of taking into account the allegorical intentions of Jesus's actions and parables.The Centurion's son is healed at a distance by a word and this illustrates the healing power of missionary work in lands and places at a distance from the presence of Jesus. The woman with a flux is healed without the knowledge of the Lord. His healing power operates without his consciousness, all that is needed is belief in the Lord'd divinity. Healing first of all takes place when belief in pagan gods is replaced with acceptance of Jesus as the Son of God. The faith that moves mountains rejects the the formulations of the old mosaic Law as symbolised by the temple mount in Jerusalem. Designations such as 'the poor' and 'children' are really code words that represent converts new in the faith and contrast with the 'rich' who claim prestige and credit for the exercise of the old Jewish practices. The wise virgins stay up to meet the bridegroom with their lamps. Such lamps represent lights of faith that shine in new lands and the oil with which they burn is the number of new recruits they have brought to the faith.
Jesus began his mission amongst the fishermen of Gallilee, the gentiles whom God wished to bring into the fold of faith. It was the main reason why Jesus found grievous fault with the Jewish hierachy, they kept their sacred roles and gifts to themselves. They had not spread their knowledge of the righteousness of the God of Israel. Previous prophets had made known the desirability and justice of converting the gentiles and extending faith but had been been rebuffed and suffered gruesome ends at the hands of the authorities. Jesus made advances to John the Baptist and his Essene supporters. The main difference was that Jesus's disciples had a meal and ate sacred bread, with which way they fed the four and five thousand. The converts who were addressed in the sermon on the mount were former Jews who faced threats and torture from their Jewish relations. Jesus's disciples were trained with the future destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in mind. Pontius Pilate was given a role in the crucifixtion of Christ but the original ending would have represented the Jews as performing the deed, no doubt by stoning. A major rewriting of the first Christian narrative took place to make an accommodation with certain Jewish converts, and there is a battle in the gospel we now have in the view of Jesus as The Son of David or The Son of God. A picture emerges of a fragile faith that had to be subtle and flexible to survive, but a faith that had divine support, one that retained a narrative in a gospel about its founder, his birth, his life and passion; it is a commentary which underlined his words and actions and pointed to a mission to the gentiles across the Mediterranean Sea. It has been sufficient in its intrinsic acceptablity to fire the belief and actions of countless Christians through the ages.