December 10, 2012

The Historical Jesus-birth-census

Only Luke calls this a "decree" but it was Augustus' regime which first expanded the Roman census outside Italy. Since provincial governors were responsible for their provincial registrations, it's no surprise that we can't find a record of one universal census happening everywhere in the same year. There would be no practical reason to have everyone count simultaneously. Obviously, without instant telecommunications, last year's numbers were as good as next year's numbers.

I'm not sure what Luke was thinking, but it's mostly our own reading of 2:1 that assumes Luke meant "the whole world, all at the same time". Yes, the next line flows into "everyone" going home, but the third line jumps ahead to Quirinius in AD 6, whereas Augustus' new census was probably put into effect during the 20's BC. Whatever Luke thought he was accomplishing, that's a long span of history being collapsed into not many words. If the first and third line are 30 years apart, how can we decide whether that "everyone" belongs at one end and not the other?

If the conservative grammar police would allow Luke the soft fallacy of awkward usage, everything would be simple. If Luke tried to say (or meant to say) that the Jesus-birth-census was "before" that more famous one two decades later - that's "before" and not "first" or "when" - then these awkward book ends would clearly reveal themselves, merely, as broad scale historical framing. Luke would then only be saying, my story begins after Augustus changed censusing but before Quirinius put down Judas' rebellion.

That is, it could all be so simple if we allow that Luke apparently slipped into coherent but nonstandard grammar. Alas, theologians apparently require an inerrant linguistics much more than a coherent accounting of actual events. Tis pity, tis true. Some of them feel that way about *you*, too. (Caring much more that you say the right words than what you do with your life.)

Nevertheless, despite Luke's lack of clarity he does reference the Jesus-birth-census 4 times in 5 verses, so let's home in on that. If Augustus decided to count Herod's subjects, it had to be punishment for the alleged offense of 9/8 BC, the precise years when the Proconsul of Syria was Gaius Sentius Saturninus, Augustus' former brother-in-law, the one whom Tertullian cites as being actually responsible for the Jesus-birth-census.

Besides, that fruit basket turnover plan was so ludicrous, it must have been unique (at least, to that point). Personally, I suspect Saturninus came up with it on his own. He was probably trying to be thorough, since there were no previous records to go by, but the logistical and scheduling nightmare that surely ensued does make him look like a bit of an idiot. As it happens, Saturninus isn't known for any notable accomplishments in his long career babysitting important provinces. Ah, nepotism!

To sum up: I don't care so much about explaining what Quirinius is doing in verse three. What matters much more is that - as it so happens - we do in fact possess a coherent accounting of factual data to explain how and why Joseph had to go down to Bethlehem. That Mary came too probably means the census was their excuse to relocate and leave scandal-town.

Faith doesn't and shouldn't depend on having facts to support what we might as well already believe... but such background evidence is still very nice when we happen to have it. Don't you think?

search bar: [Luke census] or [Saturninus] or [Quirinius] for much more on this site

December 3, 2012

Steve Mason on Irony/Josephus*

(*For the hopeful takeaway towards my own research in Matthew, skim to bottom.)

I've been re-reading Steve Mason's chapter in Flavius Josephus and Flavian Rome, called "Figured Speech and Irony in T. Flavius Josephus". It's amazing how the same piece can be so much more helpful when much reflection goes on between first and second reviews. Anyway, here's what I got this time around:

Ancient people were "partial to figured speech" but modern ironologists find definition impossible. The most elusive forms of Irony involve "saying something without saying it". Of course, doing so effectively depends on having a clued-in observer, so the writer's challenge is how to clue them in, and the analyst's challenge is how to determine where/when the game is afoot.

The two types of irony (in literature) are text-dependent irony and audience-dependent irony. Mason explains carefully:
Text-dependent irony is the simpler and less risky of the two forms. An author wants to ensure that an audience, or an indefinite number of audiences, will detect his intended irony. So he frames the ironic story within an authoritative statement, for the audience alone, of facts unknown to characters in the story.
The most famous [non-comedic] example is probably the Gospel of John, which includes an authoritative divine prologue (John 1:1-18) concerning Jesus' heavenly origin... The repeated claims of ignorant characters in the story to certain knowledge of Jesus' origins (John 2:45-6; 6:42; 7:41-3) are devestating because the audience - any audience at any time - knows otherwise. 
Audience dependent irony is what the ancient critics had in mind when they discussed 'figured speech' (above). [Mason had previously cited Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, and several others.] ... Because of the tacit connections with current affairs, the genre is not easily portable: a modern reader of Aristophanes can only appreciate these references through diligent background study... [But] It was prior audience knowledge of the plot that gave poignancy to Oedipus' vow to find and punish the one who was polluting Thebes... 
Audience-dependent irony can be subtler and more effective than text-driven irony, though it is riskier because it operates without the safety net of authoritative guides. The author must be sure not only that the audience will know certain crucial items but, in potentially dangerous contexts, that they will not read the wrong sort of irony into his presentation.
From this point, Mason goes on to show the necessity of dissimulation in the upper classes of early Imperial Rome, from Augustus' age to Domitian's. The rest of the article is a compelling argument that much of Josephus' writing included sly winks to his Flavian readers. A comment about Nero served as a subtle jab at Domitian, for example. In such cases, Mason argues, what helps contemporary readers to feel certain about Josephus' true meaning is the contemporary knowledge we have about ancient Rome in those days.

It's a great article on the whole, and Oxford only wants $225 for a copy of the whole book. Alas, I don't get by TCU as much as I used to. But if anyone wants to get this for my christmas gift... seriously, don't do it. $225, are you crazy? But thanks for the thought. (!)

As far as my new questions about Irony in Matthew, this helps tremendously by giving me practical terms in which I can proceed. Instead of reading the Gospel again and asking "Okay, where's the irony?" it seems more appropriate (and more obvious, suddenly!) to ask, "What did Matthew expect his readers to know, at any given point?" To be thorough, of course, I'll look for both text-dependent irony as well, because any time one character knows something another does not, the reader is "clued in" as well.

One more thing; Quintilian found three "contexts" [appropriate times for usage] for such language. They are: "when it is unsafe to speak frankly, or unseemly to do so, or merely for subtle effect." After I've gone through and found places where Matthew either (type 1) directly provides or (type 2) seems to expect any special knowledge from his readers, I shall also consider which of these three (if any) may have motivated his usage.

Tons of fun, right? I actually think so, though it can be exhausting.

Feel free to join in and help...
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"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton