Spontaneous Generation and Scripture Scholarship

I was reminded of the theory of spontaneous generation by yesterday’s homily. Yes, I’m that odd. In particular, the deacon delivering said homily asserted as simple fact that Mark’s Gospel was written first – this is widely spoken of as a fact by people who have read a book or two on Scripture, or the introductions to the books of the Bible found in many editions of the Good Book. (1)

I myself do not know what order the 4 Gospels were written in – and neither does anyone else, including Scripture scholars. What we would mean to say, if we were scrupulous about the truth, is that there are historical and textual reasons to think that maybe Mark’s Gospel is the oldest Gospel, but that no one really knows.

Matthew, Mark and Luke share a lot of common stories and even turns of phrase, so it is perhaps reasonable to suppose they shared literary sources. Or, perhaps, all these similarities are the obvious and expected result of having three roughly contemporary writers write about the same person after talking to the same witnesses. Or some combination: the Evangelists talked to same people sometimes, heard the same stories repeated among believers sometimes, maybe even saw the same text or texts somebody else forgotten to history wrote down. Maybe they talked to each other, and compared notes? Luke, at least, says he did a bunch of research – we would expect him to have looked into things, talked to witnesses, and so on.

Who know? To answer that rhetorical question: nobody! There were no giant publishing houses with archives to search, nor had the species of careful modern biographers yet arisen. What we have are numerous copies of three texts that seem to have written around the same time in the first century, and lovingly and laboriously copied by hand by many people over centuries and thousands of square miles, so that they survived to modern times. That’s what we know, for all useful definitions of ‘know’.

Yet, we – at least, some of us – are not happy with that. No, scholars and wannabe scholars keep repeating somebody’s interesting theories as if they are fact – or even important. In reality, lots of odd things happen, people write and rewrite stuff, certain things survive, other things are lost, certain connections are preserved, others forgotten. When Inigo Montoya says that he must know, the Dread Pirate Roberts replies: “Get used to disappointment”. Good advise. Better: recognize idle curiosity for what it is.

On to maggots: spontaneous generation is a very good theory that covers all the common observations very well. It sure seems like dead animals decay into flies, right? Just check any sufficiently dead body you might come across in the wild, and maggots will be found climbing out of it. Case closed – why even think about it? (2) But Francesco Redi did think about it, and – brilliantly – put a piece of  “fine Naples veil” over a piece of meat in a container and let it rot – and no maggots or flies were generated, since, as we would smugly say from our superior vantage point, the veil kept the flies out so they couldn’t lay eggs. But that wasn’t obvious until after Redi did his little experiment.

So, while I should have been meditating on the eternal and salvific message of Sunday’s Gospel reading, I instead was wishing there were something like “fine Naples veil” with which we could test the various theories so confidently expounded as fact regarding things we can’t know about given the evidence. The idea is that people, once they know something isn’t true, would shut about it. Right.

Get used to disappointment.

  1. He also mentioned as fact the Needle’s Eye Gate story, which asserts there was a gate in the walls of Jerusalem that was so small that only an unencumbered camel on its knees could pass through it, and that that’s what Jesus was referring to in the ‘camel through a needle’s eye’ comment about the rich young man – except that there’s no historical or archaeological basis for that story – there never was a Needle’s Eye Gate. Nice story though.
  2. Especially considering how icky it is.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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