Politics and Proof Texts Exegesis and Canon

A Test of Falsification

To show that two parties share a common debate presents more problems than to demonstrate the opposite. We have now accomplished the more difficult of the two tasks and turn to the easier but equally important one: to locate points at which no debate took place. Let me explain. A catastrophic political event imposed upon both sides a single agendum, and that is why each party defined issues in the same way. The same reason explains why each side appealed to a set of facts conceded as accurate by the other. That is, the requirements of discourse about a crisis shared in common demanded appeal to arguments that the one side imagined the other would find intelligible.1 The categories of history, Messiah, and Israel presented the same principles of cogency and logic to both. A single historical imperative constituted by political change bearing religious implications impressed all sides, so we should hardly be surprised that one argument joined the two in a single prickly discourse. To test this theory, spelled out in the preceding chapters, we have to compose a test of falsification. Specifically, we ask whether the absence of a matter of public policy characterizes a case in which Judaic sages and Christian theologians do not undertake a debate on the same terms. The test must address a matter on which both parties formed opinions, that is, an issue of theological consequence. But discourse on such a matter, far from involving the same definition of what is at issue and invoking the same evidence, should show each party talking essentially to itself. Then we may discern the consequence to be imputed to the cases in which the two sides really do debate the same matters in

1. In this respect Aphrahat is our model. In all his arguments addressed to (imaginary) Jewish counterparts, he appeals only to verses cited from the Israelite prophets and writings. When he turns to Christian hearers, he cites New Testament writings. Overall, his mode of argument is historical, in that he appeals to historical facts he believes all parties concede, and then he adduces from those facts propositions that sustain his case and demolish that of his opponent. None of this is directed (in his mind) only to Church interests.

the same terms. For, as we have seen, the fourth century really did produce debate between Judaic and Christian intellectuals in a way in which the first, second, and third centuries did not.

The matter of the political consequences of debate therefore proves critical. Without them no confrontation on the same matters will have taken place— just as, for the rest of the history of the West, none did. I have argued that the reason for the shift in the fourth century derives from political events, which determined what we should today call public policy. My explanation is that what happened in the government of the Roman Empire imposed on all parties that uniform program of debate. We have now reviewed three cases in which, talking among themselves to be sure, each side in fact addressed an issue the other also took up. More significantly, each introduced into evidence arguments and evidence the other conceded to be valid. In each case, moreover, I was able to point to the political foundation of the issue: the consequences, for public policy, of the debate. So within a single framework of interpretation I have read Eusebius, Chrysostom, Aphrahat, and the sages who put together Genesis Rabbah, the Talmud of the Land of Israel, Leviticus Rab-bah, and, again, Genesis Rabbah. I have asked an essentially political question and shown that each party answered that essentially political question.

The matter of public policy in these cases may be easily discerned. The interpretation of the historical turning, the identification of the facts of a shared systemic teleology, the definition of the social entity—all three formed at their foundations distinctively political issues. The reason is that conclusions people would reach on such matters would determine how each group would relate to, and treat, the other. In the case of the Christian government, public policy based on the theology at hand (in secular terms, the Christian ideology of state and government) would dictate the treatment of the Jews; for example, differentiating Jews from pagans as to matters of law and policy. The legislation of Theodosius on what Jews could and could not do constitutes an act of public policy; and that legislation expresses in political terms judgments on the Jews as a group, on the nature of the Christian state, on the identity of the Messiah and the salvation brought by him, and on the definition of Israel.

In the case of the Judaic sages, of course, the public policy entailed matters of attitude and viewpoint more than of immediate legislation. Christians ran the state and Jews governed, at best, some aspects of their collective life as a community. But Jewry too constituted a political entity, in that it did act collectively, and as an entity it did impose its will upon its members. So if Jews determined that, as a family, they carried forward the salvific history of Genesis, yet awaited redemption in the future, and truly constituted the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then they would follow one set of policies rather than another. If, as was the case, they reached such conclusions, then as a group they would pursue one course of action rather than some other. They would persist in their hope, and therefore in their distinctive group life (these things seem nearly too obvious to say). They would not collectively convert to Christianity—surely a decision bearing important consequences, within the Jewish polity, for public, not merely social, policy.

To spell out the terms of the present exercise of falsification, I must exclude as well as include, explaining what is not, as well as what is, subject to description. For I maintain that the three categories we have treated are not exemplary of a general capacity for argument between Judaic and Christian intellectuals. I have then to explain why these categories—and no others— defined the condition for a genuine exchange of conflicting views on a single point, such as I have demonstrated took place, to be sure in a theoretical framework, if not in a concrete face-to-face disputation. My thesis concerning the centrality of political change in affecting theological discourse explains omissions: they bore no political consequences recognized by participants to the confrontation. In insisting on the political dimension of the three theological issues, I have now to construct a test of falsification of my theory. That is to say, I must now ask whether other issues, confronting groups but not of a political character, may present themselves. If they do, then I have further to find out whether, in disposing of such issues, a single shared program—a common definition of what is at hand, a common designation of probative arguments—turns up as well.

If in an essentially nonpolitical setting we find the two sides arguing about the same thing on the basis of shared evidence and modes of thought, then the political dimension is not what explains the fact that different people, talking to different people, argued about the same things. Some other explanation then will demand attention, not the political one. Then my argument as to the essentially political character of the theological debates on history, teleology, and theory of the social group fails. If, on the other hand, I can point to a topic of inquiry important to both sets of intellectuals, in which each side frames matters in a way distinctive to its own setting and draws on evidence not utilized by the other, then I may ask what differentiates that shared topic from the ones before us. If it should turn out that what characterizes that topic differs from what characterizes the ones we have treated, in that the latter topics entail decisions on public policy and the former topic does not, my test of falsification will have been passed. So the issue is whether, in the aggregate, any sort of issues may prove to undergo much the same analysis along nearly identical lines of definition, fact, and argument. How then shall I show that it is the political dimension of the three important categories we have surveyed that differentiates those categories from others? The answer derives from Scripture.

The one thing that drew the two groups together is Scripture, and that in two aspects: exegesis, on the inner dimension, and identification and definition of the canon of Scripture, on the outer. Let me now specify the test of falsification: when they address the most important shared heritage, one prized by each, do the two parties take up the same issues and invoke the same evidence as they did in their discussions of the matters treated earlier? And do they pursue the same lines of thought as I think their discussions examined in prior chapters showed they did? If the answer to these questions proved to be affirmative and if, as I said, no issues of public policy find a place at the end of the argument, then everything I have proposed is false.

Now as to the positive side of the same test of falsification: if, in talking about the same thing, the two sides in no way and at no point compose intersecting agenda, then we must ask what differentiates the topic at hand from the topics considered in chapters 2,3, and 4. If the trait that differentiates the topic before us from the topics treated earlier is that the former set bear political implications in a direct way, so that the results of argument affect public policy, while the present topic bears no outward-facing implications but focuses upon internal issues, particular to each of the two groups respectively, then my basic thesis will have passed the test. So what lies before is what will tell us whether, to this point, we have been right or wrong. The nub of the matter is simple: on the topics at hand are the two groups talking about the same thing at all? And if not, why not?

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