I thought today I would break up the monotony of the current thread by posting on something completely different. It will take me a couple of posts to finish up my reflections on what kind of training is necessary to make a good textual critic – which is really a sub-thread (OK, call it a tangent) within my larger thread about how I went about writing my textbook and what changes I made in it. And I’ll get back to both the sub-thread and the larger thread. But this post is on something else. Changing one’s mind.
The reason this has become a topic of interest for me – today, for instance – is that I just finished reading something that I wrote ten years ago and something that I wrote on the same topic seven years later, just three years ago, and noted that, well, I had changed my mind! Reversed directions. Completely altered not only what I thought but what I said. And that has led me to reflect on the phenomenon of mind-changing itself.
I should say that when I wrote the new thing three years ago that I realized with full clarity that I had changed my mind. It was a big deal for me – not because it was a topic that matters so much for my life, as that it is a topic I had long thought and written about and it took a lot to convince me that my previous views were wrong. But when I attacked the evidence with full gusto and considered every argument and counter-argument that I could, I decided that I had simply always been wrong.
I don’t think that’s a bad thing. On the contrary, I think it is a very good thing – as I’ll discuss more fully at the end of this post. For now let me just indicate what the issue was/is. It’s not something that probably any of you has ever given a second’s thought to, as it concerns a writing that is not well known and not much read outside the ranks of professional scholars and their students.
The text is called the Martyrdom of Polycarp. It’s one of the Apostolic Fathers and is the text that my PhD seminar is based on tomorrow. The book is written in Greek (as are all the Apostolic Fathers) and the students in my seminar will be translating the first seven chapters (that’s what I was doing on the plane coming back from a speaking gig, just now; reading the Greek text), and they will have read both my Introduction to the text in the edition of the Apostolic Fathers that I produced for the Loeb Classical Library (2003) and the discussion of the text found in my book Forgery and Counterforgery (2013). (For the class they aren’t reading *only* what I’ve written! Among other things, in our three- hour seminar, we will be discussing a now-classic in the field of early Christian martyrological literature, Judith Perkins’ wonderful little book, The Suffering Self: Pain and Narrative Representation in the Early Christian Era).
In my Loeb introduction, I took the “party-line” on the Martrydom of Polycarp: this is our first account of a Christian martyrdom from outside the New Testament. It is an account of the arrest, trial, and execution of a Christian named Polycarp, who was the bishop of the church in the city of Smyrna in Asia Minor in the early to mid-second century. The book appears to be based on an eyewitness report. It is a letter written by the Christians of Smyrna to the Christians of the church of Philomelium, also in Asia Minor. In it the authors claim to have witnessed the event, and they describe exactly what happened. Scholars have debated when this martyrdom took place, some dating it as late as 177 CE or so, others opting for earlier dates. My view in the Loeb is that it is best put somewhere around the year 155 or 156 CE.
It is a terrifically interesting and moving account; and I as I point out in the Loeb, despite the fact that it appears based on eyewitness reporting, there are clear literary touches to the account, made in an effort to show that Polycarp imitated Christ in his death. Some of the parallels to the Gospel tradition are obvious, and the author comes out and tells his reader that the death of Polycarp was in conformity with the Gospel. So, for example, as in the Gospels here Polycarp knows in advance how he is going to die, he tells his disciples that it must be so, he prays to God before being arrested, asking that his will be done, the person who is in charge of his arrest is named Herod, he rides into town on a donkey, and so on.
The views that I printed in the Loeb were the ones I had had more or less for twenty years – all the way back to when I first became acquainted with the text in graduate school. What I changed my mind about, after many years, has to do with this question of the “eyewitness” reporting. After looking into the matter deeply, on every level I could imagine, and considering all the evidence and arguments I could muster, I came to conclude that in fact the book was not based on eyewitness reports. It was written much later by someone *claiming* to have been an eyewitness. In other words, it was a forgery. That means it was written much later, possibly 50 years or so later, by someone wanting his readers to think he was an eyewitness when, in fact, he was not.
Maybe I’ll devote some posts later to what makes me think that is so. For now I just want to reflect for a second on this phenomenon of changing one’s mind.
I know scholars who never, ever seem to change their minds about something. Ever. And they seem to be proud of it, as if not changing one’s mind shows a kind of firmness of belief and a stalwart character, whereas changing one’s mind shows that one is indecisive and fickle. I have to admit, the people I know who are most like that tend to be conservative Christians who think that if they are detected in changing their mind about one thing then people will think they can’t be trusted in bigger things, such as their overarching theological views.
In any event, I don’t see it that way *at all*. I think scholars who are unwilling to change their minds simply are hard-headed, stubborn, and recalcitrant. Not being willing to change your mind means not being willing to grow, to learn new things, to look at the world in a different perspective. My view is that we should all be open to changing our minds, about big things, about little things, about what we think, about how we want to behave, about what we believe.
Certainly don’t think that we should willy-nilly change our views about everything any time someone tells us something different. I think a change of mind should come slowly, thoughtfully, based on a careful weighing of the evidence, considering the pros and cons of both sides. If we aren’t willing to do that, we may seem to be like a solid rock; but like a rock, we are dead, not alive. I’d rather, any day, to be a strong, vibrant, and flourishing oak tree; there is solidity there, but also life, and growth, and change.