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On “Spitballing” and Informed Inferences

March 16, 2019

Having spent a few decades investigating early Christian usage of the codex and what all was entailed, including reading everything I could find written by other scholars about ancient books, and examining examples of rolls and codices for myself, I find it by turns amusing and a bit annoying when individuals obviously totally new to the issues confidently offer “simple” answers to the questions about why early Christians preferred the codex.  Their proposals are what is popularly referred to as “spitballing”, which in the Urban Dictionary is defined as “to shoot ideas out in the open, that may cause yourself to seem like a complete dunce.”

That’s a bit harsh, but, really, is there any other field of academic work in which rank amateurs with none of the skills involved, none of the relevant training, and no proven competence in publishing in the subject so readily and so confidently launch their opinions?  This also often involves disdain for the work of those scholars who actually have the necessary attributes to be taken seriously.

So, for example, on the matter of the early Christian preference for the codex,  it is not too much to ask those who haven’t already done so to at least read some of the key scholarly studies of the matter before launching their own speculations.  You might begin with my discussion of the matter in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans, 2006), 43-93, and then follow up on other studies cited in my notes.  Then, feel free to ask questions, or even to ask for further clarification of issues.  But, please, it is rather tiresome to have spitball efforts to solve a complex and demanding issue.

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11 Comments
  1. Prof. Hurtado actually references Urban Dictionary. 😄 Totally made my day.

  2. Todd permalink

    “is there any other field of academic work in which rank amateurs with none of the skills involved, none of the relevant training, and no proven competence in publishing in the subject so readily and so confidently launch their opinions?” Yes. Philosophy.

  3. Tom permalink

    I am a urologist. Same problem.

  4. Don Wilkinson permalink

    On a totally different topic than above, I was going through my library the other day and came across Eldon Epp’s book, Junia. I would be interested on your take of this book, assuming you have read it. If in fact Junia (Julia in the ESV) is female, it raises interesting issues concerning women’s role in the Church.

    • Epp’s book is a very good treatment of how the variants have been handled down the centuries, and he proposes an original reference to a female.

  5. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Sometimes there is due suspicion of the opinions of experts when they don’t apply their own stated methodology, if I may be so bold as to present a relevant example.

    You have stated that extant evidence should take precedence over theories or inferences when deciding historical questions. Well what about this question:

    How did the Jewish LXX/OG treat the divine name in the first century C.E.? The extant evidence from the first century and earlier is clear that various forms of the divine name were used: in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek letters. There is no clear example of kyrios replacing the divine name in the pre-Christian Jewish LXX/OG. So the weight of the extant evidence is pretty clear and one sided on this issue. Nevertheless some esteemed experts in the field argue that the Jewish LXX/OG did use kyrios, and rely on inferences to overturn the extant evidence on this issue.

    How do we account for this abandonment of methodology to reach a certain conclusion? And since ordinary readers can see this discrepancy without being experts, isn’t it reasonable to draw our own conclusions? Especially when there are experts who also draw the reasonable conclusion that the pre-Christian LXX/OG employed the divine name, and give good reasons for doing so, including, but not restricted to, the extant evidnece.

    • Donald: First, there are two distinguishable issues that you seem to confuse. (1) How was YHVH rendered in earliest Greek mss; and (2) how was YHVH rendered orally in Greek or Hebrew. On the latter, the evidence is rather clear (Josephus, Philo, NT, et alia)–the Greek surrogate was “kyrios”, and the Hebrew was “adonay.” On the first question, if you actually read the works relevant you’ll see that the argument that the earliest practice in the Old Greek was “kyrios” is based inferences from evidence, not simply assertion. Everyone agrees that by the list century AD or earlier YHVH was rendered in Greek mss in one or another forms. But the question is whether this was the original practice.

  6. John Mitrosky permalink

    The thing I find most interesting about the early Christians being “bookish” is gives the quest for the historical Jesus so much complexity and an exciting sense of wonder.” There are so many examples of this, but please let me share one, in case you have a comment to share back:

    “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow, they neither toil or spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Matt 6:28, or maybe Q 12:27; cf. POxy655 36, or GThom 36).

    In Matt and Luke, or in Q, if Luke is not copying Matt here, we see the comparison to Solomon again, “Something greater than Solomon is here.” We now know so many writings associated with Solomon: Wisdom, Psalms, Odes, Songs, etc., and we wonder if Jesus himself was familiar with Solomonic writings, or if this is already the literate “bookishness” of the first Christians at play? And then we compare the saying with Greek and Coptic Thomas, where the comparison to Solomon is understandably absent, since Thomas cares for no Jewish hero figures, except Jesus, John the Baptist, James, Thomas himself and perhaps ladies like a Mary and Salome.

    So my question to you Larry is: “What might we wonder is going on here? Is the reference to Solomon reflective of the historical Jesus? Or does it reflect the extremely early `bookishness’ of many literate first Christians, already familiar with Solomonic writings?”

    • John, I don’t see any reference to bookishness in that Gospels statement. The comparison is with Solomon’s royal grandeur, not any bookishness. The saying has good credentials as a bit of Jesus-tradition.

  7. Sadly, spitballing is the most common specialty if us non specialists. Thanks for posting resources!

    • But there’s a difference between posing something as a question: e.g., “Is it at all possible that X is the case?” and statements such as “The answer is simple–X is the case.” The one is an appropriate query, not spitballing. The latter statement is unfounded confidence.

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