Time travel thought experiment

Here’s a thought experiment that I’ve been musing on since finishing the draft of my dissertation.

Let’s say you have access to a time machine, and you have one round-trip ticket to any location or time period in the past. If you took this opportunity to try and solve the Synoptic problem (and only a scholar would bother with such a triviality) where would you go, and when?

To simplify the parameters, you can arrive at any time, and come back whenever you like. And let’s also say that you will be able to question anyone you want without worrying about significantly changing history.

Here’s my vote.

I would not send myself. I would find someone a little younger and more charismatic with a talent for picking up languages. Tipping my hat to Philip Jose Farmer, a 25-year-old Richard Francis Burton would be ideal. The more Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic they know before they leave, great, but the ability to learn in the field will be far more useful. Besides, if they beam into Alexandria and expect Erasmian pronunciation, they’re going to get a shock.

Our intrepid adventurer will need to move freely about the Mediterranean. Given the target date will be somewhere in the 1st century CE, he could do worse than be a Roman merchant with citizenship, combining legal protection with a cover story of looking for new markets. A small fortune in newly minted coinage based on currency of the period would also help. An early task would be to find a money exchanger. Also, it would not be a bad idea to hire a guide or bodyguard.

As for time and place, I should eliminate some choices first. Chasing the authors of the four gospels is the least promising idea. We don’t know where any of the gospels were written – Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem – and if we try to chase the authorship of Mark, we’d not only have to deal with the Jewish revolt (65-73 CE) but face the real possibility of arriving too early or too late by a nose. Our time-traveler could spend years sailing around the Med without finding an author, and if they went too early, without finding a gospel, either.

A better plan, I think, is to look for Mack’s Q1, a passion narrative, or a proto-Mark in the mid-50’s CE. There are three people that our time-traveler should look for – Paul, Peter, and James – and they shouldn’t be too hard to find, assuming they exist. Jerusalem would be the place to start. Interviews with these individuals should be enough to determine if there is a saying source in existence, and what the status of the Jesus narrative is. If a bright young man named Mark is found furiously scribbling down whatever Peter says and mumbling something about the ‘messianic secret’ to himself, that tells us one thing; if Paul doesn’t know who Judas is, that tells us something else; if James takes our adventurer in hand and shows him a papyrus that begins with John the Baptist coming out of the wilderness and complaining about vipers, then we learn something else.

Going later than the 50’s is problematic. If our time-traveler goes in the 60’s, Paul-Peter-James will be probably unavailable for conversation. Going earlier than the 50’s is also problematic – early Christian writings don’t appear until the 50’s, so our adventurer might undershoot the first compositions.

But why bother with the Synoptic problem, you say? Why not hunt the historical Jesus? Well, that’s even harder. The location is easy enough – Jerusalem – but which year do you go? 35 CE, or even 30 CE, risks being too late. Let’s say our time-traveler goes in early 26 CE to be completely safe and not miss the first year of Pilate’s governorship. As Pilate is prefect for a decade, they may have a ten-year wait. Meanwhile, they get to search the city and countryside with nothing to go on but the one of the most common, if not the most common, first name in 1st century Judaism. An unpromising task, and even if successful, I wonder if the man located could tell us much about the religion that follows.

Probably the most limiting factor to the entire enterprise is the technology level of the 1st century. Even with mastery of the local dialects, locating anyone could take a very long time. No newspapers, yellow pages, telephones, emails, or reliable and speedy post (the cursus publicus, instituted by Augustus, was for government use, and only moved 50 miles a day). Paul’s letters would have traveled more slowly through private channels. Sometimes I wonder if early Christianity, or at least Paul’s version of it, benefited from converting someone who owned a reliable ocean-going vessel.

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