The Alpha investigation is an attempt to apply standard historical and philological methods to the NT texts.
Many of the standard methods were known in antiquity, and for that matter, are intuitively obvious in any age. For instance, an eyewitness is better than fourth-hand gossip, a later inserted passage must be removed from the text before the text can be expected to make its original point, and spurious plays of Plautus must be subtracted from the corpus of supposed Plautus plays (this was done in the 1st century by Varro, who reduced the then current list from 130 to 21 plays), before we can safely hold forth on the brilliance of Plautus as a dramatist. These methods were further refined in the Renaissance, and were brought to a new level of consciousness in the 19th century. Part of that consciousness centers on the work of Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), to left a number of guidelines for historical investigation. Among these guidelines are: (1) The past exists, and it is what we are trying to find out about, as it was in its own time and not as later people came to see it. (2) Since later people did have an interest in reshaping the past to suit their own needs, the earliest evidence is normally the best evidence, precisely because it has been less exposed to these reshaping tendencies. (3) Later "histories" summing up the past are highly processed, so instead use original documents wherever possible: sources which had direct knowledge of the past. (4) It takes considerable time to acquaint oneself with the evidence, and absorb the results of that acquaintance, which is why there are no child prodigies in history; "the historian must be old." (6) A certain amount of experience with how things happen in the real world is a great aid in understanding what seems to be happening in the past; this too takes time to acquire. So go out and acquire it. (5) Courage is also necessary, to face the sometimes surprising results of historical investigation, and to share them with others who may also be affected by them. The result may not be what you expected, and it may be unwelcome. For fuller explanations, and for some German originals, see our Ranke page. For a summary (prepared for SBL), emphasizing that methodology is the same in all of the text-based sciences, see
There are not two ways of doing these things.
Philology. As is noted in the Summary, before a text can be interpreted, it must first be philologically inspected. Is it simple or composite? (If composite, we have more than one item to date and interpret). Does it have a growth history? (For example, is it accretional, like a diary or a chronicle?). Are there interpolations? (Interpolations are perhaps the commonest means of updating texts). Clumsy interpolations can be recognized by their contradictions in immediate context, and confirmed if, when they are experimentally removed, the surrounding text joins together consistently and consecutively. For some relatively simple specimens of interpolation in several languages, see
Unfortunately, not all interpolations are clumsy, and if they have been smoothed at the edges, or if the passage in question has been rewritten (so that the original text is no longer present), the detection process is much more difficult. But it is not necessarily impossible. One factor which comes to our aid in this and other difficulties is the long-term collaborative nature of the historical enterprise, which brings different eyes together on the same passage. Few can do their own radiocarbon testing, or determine if the ink on this 14th century parchment was made after 1935. But some can do these things, and whatever some can do is in principle available to all. The corollary is this: if a needful preliminary can be done, it should be done. To do less, or to skip preliminaries altogether, is to trifle with the subject.
Another question often raised concerns the validity of arguments from silence. Our view is that the best interpretation of lack of evidence is (to use the standard phrase) that it is evidence of lack. Like any other principle of inference, this one must be applied with tact and cultural sensitivity. See
The bottom line is that the only trace which something not yet present is capable of leaving, in the evidence, is precisely a lack of traces.
Past Results. The present investigation is essentially de novo, but some results of past scholarship are sufficiently well established that they need not be redemonstrated here. Among these are the priority of Mark among the Gospels, and the identification of seven authentic letters of Paul. Markan priority can be extended by what we call the Trajectory arguments, which establish a chronological sequence for all four Gospels. This result contains much more information than the simple fact that Mark is earliest. For samples of those arguments, see
The situation is complicated by the fact that three of the four Gospels are stratified, so that the sequence established above refers only to the final canonical state of each Gospel. For a sample of the argument for stratification in the Gospel of Luke, see this brief essay:
More information is available, if desired, at the Luke and Acts pages, not to mention the Mark and John pages.
In sum, if texts are scrutinized before use, and if they are interpreted with a view to understanding the time from which they come, and not with a view to serving the present age, then as in any science, the results of different investigations will tend to converge. The bottom line is that the past is out there, independent of ourselves. It is one thing and not another. Of several hypotheses about what it is, some will be more adequate than others. For, as Ranke says, "die Wahrheit kann nur eine sein." It is this agreed way of proceeding, and this tendency for the results of different investigators to converge, and the fact that we can sometimes distinguish between better and worse answers to the same question, that makes history a science - a Wissenschaft, a body of duplicable and mutually consistent results, which together tell us something about the past. Whether or not we expected the past to be exactly like that.
25 Nov 2011 / Contact The Project / Exit to Alpha Index Page