November 25, 2012

Matthew's Historical Use(s?) of Irony

It's very difficult to compose a narrative about historical persons without employing dramatic irony at some point. Given hindsight, the writer naturally observes significant moments in ways the participants did not, and leveraging those contrasting contexts or awarenesses is very tempting, for understandable reasons. Using irony gives one's reader a perspective superior to the figures or characters in view and engages the mind more enjoyably during a storyline, not to mention the educational advantage of using irony to provide critical relief, illustrating more clearly and helpfully for a novice some previously unrealized aspect of what past times were actually like. To accomplish all this, however, the use of irony (ironically!) draws the reader's mind just as much towards the present as into the past, which is why some historians detest using irony, or at least over-reliance upon it. Nevertheless, for as long as historians continue to write, some amount of dramatic irony will inevitably find its way into most forms of History, especially historical narrative.

In my present study, I'm examining whether Matthew's use of dramatic irony in 2:22 should be recognized as clear literary evidence of a more specific intent on the part of the writer. I mean, I'm convinced that it should, but I'm working on the argument more carefully. Here's a quick offset summary, in one paragraph:
Since Matthew draws the reader's mind to an ironic contrast between past and present - in this case, Galilee under Archelaus (which already was unsafe) versus Galilee after Archelaus (which turned out to be safe) - we should count this as evidence that Matthew assumed his readers would be familiar with both ends of that context, including the distinction or 'gap' between time periods.* Further, because he placed that demand on his readers' collective cultural memory, we can take confidence that Matthew is giving this episode a very specific chronological setting. For critical purposes, it does not matter here whether Matthew intended to relate fact or compose a historical fiction. In either case, Matthew has effectively set Jesus' return from Egypt precisely into the earliest weeks of Archelaus' reign, when the younger Herod was actually "King" over all Israel. (*) For more on the historical period from 4 BC to 3 BC, and for a rough sketch of the argument-in-progress, see this post. (*)
The payoff here is that a deliberate and fairly precise chronological context was intended by Matthew to go along with this story. What we do with that conclusion is another discussion; today's post is to continue refining what I'm doing so far.

Today, I'm hoping you can help me find Irony elsewhere in Matthew.

But, ah, what kinds of irony (in Matthew) are very similar to this kind of irony!?!?

I have enough confidence in my analysis so far that I might proceed without parallels, except of course for the intrinsic value and potential surprise benefits of simply doing the diligence to examine Matthew more broadly. Is this as unique in Matthew as I suspect, or is it part of a pattern? I'm not really sure how to begin answering that question.

For starters, I'd rather not research broad irony in general. Yes, Jesus becomes the true King and Herod/Archelaus/Caesar/Antipas was not. I see that, and I like it too. I could stand to be oriented towards more examples like that, personally, but in the end I'm not sure it's a helpful comparison for my study on the implied future context about Archelaus in 2:2. What I'm looking for is dramatic irony relating to historical context/s that were both recent and well known in Matthew's day.

Are you aware of any other "historical irony" (so to speak) in Matthew's Gospel? Is there other dramatic irony in the Jesus storyline, or something about the disciples? Could there possibly be any such irony regarding the implied futures of King Herod or Pontius Pilate? (I mean, aside from them dying or being recalled in disgrace, which is so general I'm not sure it qualifies. What do you think?) Or the future of the high priest? Does anything in Matthew allude to the rising influence of the Pharisee party? (Post AD 70?) Or am I overlooking someone else whom the original readers may have known as a historical figure? Is there any irony implied about John the Baptist's future legacy? Does Jesus wink at us, via Matthew's pen, about JTB's future legacy, when Jesus discusses the old wineskin? It'd be a stretch to think Matthew was concerned about Apollos, but perhaps there were other folk running around Judea not too different than Apollos. Or perhaps not. Of course, since we're unaware this kind of irony would be hard to detect, but it could potentially be there. But - again - is it like the implied reference to Archelaus' future in 2:22?

These questions today are just me spitballing, of course. I'm trying to purify my own expectations before I begin research, and I guess you can see that my tactical focus is starting to narrow a little bit.

For now, friendly readers, if you have any ideas or prior knowledge about Irony in Matthew - whether about any kind of Irony in general or whether the specific kind I'm considering - I will greatly appreciate all your suggestions. Thanks in advance!

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