December 3, 2013

Gospel History vs Political History

Here's a favorite quote of mine from Richard Bauckham, speaking on The Gospels as Micro-History & as 'History from Below' during his 2011 visit to Waco, TX.

"One of Popper's complaints was that such metanarratives exalt the history of political power, which is one form of history, one aspect of human life, to the status of all history. Political history subsumes all other history, as though all people were to find their goals fulfilled in political power. [Popper now, in Italics:] In reality... (and for this statement you need to know that he's writing in 1945) In reality, the history of power politics is nothing but the history of international crime and mass murder.

"Popper also rejects any kind of theistic concept of the meaning of God in human history. He writes, To maintain that God reveals himself in what we commonly call History is indeed blasphemy. If History were to concern itself with the forgotten, the unknown, the lone individual, his sorrow, his suffering, his death - for that is the true experience of people through the ages - then I would certainly not wish to claim that it's blasphemy to see the finger of God in it.

"Exactly. God is not in the power politics of Roman domination, in which Polybius saw the hand of fate unifying history, but in the Gospels' micro-history from below, in the forgotten, the unknown, and present in the suffering and death of the abandoned Jesus. It's a story that resists integration into the history of power politics, but it has its own kind of universality and it's own kind of power in History."

End of Quote. 

Any Thoughts?

November 6, 2013

Words about Words, and Evangelicalism

The internet is accelerating pluralism like the last metastasizing phases of cancer. Not that pluralism is bad for us like a cancer, but it's definitely killing something that used to seem healthy and good.

I find myself wondering if evangelicals are marked by such verbal strictness (about tight definition and word meanings) in part due to their political insulation. An ecumenical or "catholic" community must soon enough find itself being more prone to flexibility in using language, simply because it's not possible to enforce rigid standards for discussion within a broad based meta-community. Sometimes that linguistic flexibility may serve to increase relativism, or produce syncretism, but communication requires listening and understanding one another's personal languages, with or without becoming overly agreeable.

I realize it has been theological distinctiveness which traditionally isolated strains of Protestantism from the rest of God's people, but I'm suggesting that isolation itself does much to strengthen someone's intellectual rigidity. If your political world is quite small, it's easier to enforce standardized "definitions", so that Paul's vocabulary always means precisely what we define it to mean, as opposed to Paul's words being tools for whatever he was trying to express at a given moment. 

It seems to me the more practical and natural view should be obviously more reasonable, but I suppose it's harder to see that if one has been conditioned to believe that (or *pretend* that) community thinking can actually can be kept within strict verbal boundaries.

This whole train of thought today was sparked today by conversations on Facebook about NT Wright's new Paul book. (It sounds like NTW may take a broad view on "justification", which many will be eager to quibble about. Soooo not my thing, but the sociology is fascinating.)

For me, I'm realizing more and more that conservative power brokers simply don't change their minds because someone reasons with them about scripture. The language barrier is too high, too pre-emptive, too deeply reinforced, and too deliberate. Something else may be needed to crack that intellectual shell.

Possibly something like "duck season, wabbit season". But I'm not sure anyone should play Elmer. #Boom

Anon, then...

October 14, 2013

Mmmm, shall we keep "narrative"?

Narration is, above all, ongoing. Whether description, or critical analysis or fuller representation, if your discourse happens to survey a topic that is dynamic, at all, then some type of  four dimensional consideration is necessary. In Mathematics, we plot the major inflection points with precision, and then sketch the curve approximately. So history (like calculus and physics) must balance its "critical points" with a broader sense of transpiring affairs. If we mean to examine a 4-D existence, we must eventually *incorporate* narration.

If we stubbornly eschew all but frozen data, snapshots of real experience, we distort natural things in a different way (than narrative would distort). Worse by far, we then tacitly demand of the public the curve to be sketched. It cannot be avoided. Whether in history or theology, the dots themselves demand to be connected!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

*This quick post was sparked by the general musings of Chris Tilling, on his blog today. I realize "narrative" has partly become a tag or a placeholder for referencing broader academic debates, but in my own studies to now I've come to see Narrative as more of a natural force. ((It is what it is, if you know what I mean, but don't take my word for it!)) (!!!)

At any rate, thanks to Chris for the spark.

August 27, 2013

The Top 4 Mistakes in NT Chronology

They're all sins of omission. In example after example, scholars have failed to take account of the following four things:

1. Event planning
2. Prep work
3. Sailing season
4. Travel time

For examples, scan the index tabs above. Today, all I can say is that the greater sin of Positivism is not trusting the sources, but failing to imagine the real world referenced by those texts.

The real world is always four dimensional.

Sometimes, apparently, defending "inerrancy" has been more economical in two dimensions. But we ought not defend the letter of the law, so to speak. If words describe things, we should cut some slack on description, and concern ourselves more with determining what was being referred to.

And that, in a nutshell, is why conservatives, more than anyone, need to study the New Testament historically.

Anon, then...

August 23, 2013

The Dramatic Ironies of "Galilee" in Matthew 2:22

Commentators routinely point out what the text leaves unstated, hidden meanings which become obvious to those "in the know". In retrospect, the reader is to recognize that Archelaus held Judea and his brother Antipas received Galilee. Also, Jesus went on to live safely in Galilee before his eventual doom in Judea. Both sets of contrasts impregnate Matthew's juxtaposition with a foreshadowing of things to come. However, one set of these contrasts has been regularly misinterpreted, anachronistically, and its literary effect at this precise point in the narrative has thus gone unrecognized.

The problem isn't with Jesus. The foreshadowing of Jesus' geographical life-arc is fulfilled clearly and consistently as the narrative proceeds on from 2:22. Over and over, Galilee is good for Jesus and Judea is bad. The implied reader does not even have to be spoiled in advance to find this contrast being repeated as the story goes on, and most any reader/listener should begin to 'catch on' sooner by the second or third reading/hearing. Of course, it was probably the case for many of the earliest Gospel readers/listeners, that if they had heard anything at all about Jesus, they probably heard he was: *the popular Galilean teacher crucified in Judea*. That is to say, it's hard to imagine a more succinct or direct way to identify Jesus among his immediate posterity. There were other Galileans, other teachers, other messiah figures, others killed in Judea, and others whose popularity climaxed up north, but there is no major figure known to history, other than Jesus, whose basic life story includes each and all five of these points. It is therefore not speculative, but in fact tantamount to a definition, that if anyone knew who Jesus was, they knew these five points. 

In terms of dramatic irony, the plot thickens further. For readers who did already know these most basic identifying details about Jesus, the synoptics do not so much create a spin on Jesus' story so much as they play against that popular knowledge somewhat ironically. With prior knowledge of the famous Passover crucifixion, the readers' big surprise is not that Jesus dies in Jerusalem. It's that he goes there willingly and deliberately in order to be killed. In a similar way, this Judea/Galilee contrast in Matthew 2:22, which has so often been called foreshadowing, is more helpfully recognized as a knowing aside to the audience, as an historically based use of dramatic irony. With one nod from the text, an initiated reader recognizes that she knows more than the characters do at this point, about where this Judea/Galilee aspect of Jesus' story is going to wind up, and that dramatic tension is allowed to keep building as the story goes on.

Now, compare this view with scholars' treatment of the implied Archelaus/Antipas contrast. What typically appears in the commentaries and introductions is a synopsis of the way Augustus settled Herod's will, after which Archelaus was officially demoted to "ethnarch" over his territories and Antipas was allowed to claim Galilee independently as "tetrarch". This material is usually presented as interesting background information, an explication of the reference for the curious student, but rarely as something that impacts the narrative or its observable literary effects. No one calls this contrast an instance of "foreshadowing", which makes sense on one level, because these background currents aren't carried forward as threads in the ongoing narrative. Significantly, the character of Antipas isn't explicitly mentioned in 2:22 and the character of Archelaus is never mentioned again. But that's precisely the problem. What happens to Archelaus?

To the knowing reader, the juxtaposition of "Archelaus" with "Judea" and "Galilee" is unmistakably intended to imply safety for Jesus specifically under Antipas' jurisdiction. As many commentators do note, the implied contrast of safety/danger fits well with general knowledge about Archelaus, who was reckless and caused horrifying problems in Judea during his first weeks of power, versus Antipas, whose rule over Galilee was generally prosperous and benign. But this compares 40 years of Antipas' rule to less than 10 years of Archelaus' in Judea. And there, again, is the problem. 

The commentaries on these aspects is generally transhistorical and ana-chronistic, as opposed to the commentary on that so-called "foreshadowing", which was chronologically nuanced. In other words, the commentators generally recognize that Jesus' thread keeps going, but they treat the Herodian point as if it sits here with no extended impact. To the contrary, however, both sets of contrasts are presented by the text as an ongoing part of Jesus' own lived experience and both sets of allusions reference events known to the educated reader, events which take place (explicitly or implicitly) within the Gospel's developing sense of it's own narrative time.

Recall that the allusion to Jesus' geographical life arc at 2:22 qualifies as foreshadowing for the uninformed reader, who only begins to catch on as the narrative pattern goes on to repeat itself, but that same allusion works more powerfully as dramatic irony for the clued in reader, evoking the reading community's collective recall of famous historical events. Properly taking their cue, the knowing reader supplies historical knowledge about the narrative's background details and proceeds to apply that knowledge in apprehending certain implications about the world of the narrative.

Now, observe that this same dual literary function is exactly what's happening with the allusion to Archelaus' and Antipas' opposing characterizations and inverse fortunes. It is foreshadowing if the uninformed reader needs time to figure out that Galilee winds up being ruled by another person, this Antipas (introduced later), and to figure out that Archelaus must have been disposed with somehow before Pilate showed up. However, for the reader who already knows about Archelaus' exile, and Galilee's independence, and Rome's eventual direct takeover of Judea, the reference works as dramatic irony based in historical knowledge. The reader knows something Joseph does not know. And this becomes more significant with closer examination.

Critics generally allow that when Matthew does not explain who Abraham is, or Herod, (etc), this illustrates a writer's assumption of particular reader knowledge. By this token the commentators have written that Matthew 2:22 clearly evokes retroactive knowledge about Galilee and Judea, regarding Jesus' career, but they have not seen the similar evocation about Galilee and Judea, regarding the Herodians' changing fortunes. Or, rather, they have observed this rather ana-chronally, as noted above, but the passage requires a sharper measure of chronological awareness. 

On closer examination, the background material at 2:22 evokes no settled state of affairs, but a chaotic (and thus, memorable!) transitional phase in between one famous status quo and the next. Specifically, by juxtaposing the name "Archelaus" with the words "Judea" and "Galilee", a clued-in reader is prompted to recall that Archelaus lost Galilee and Antipas took Galilee, but the truly knowledgeable reader should also know that this change of fortunes did not happen quite all at once - contrary to what some commentators appear to suppose, simply judging by their synopses in print. But since the allusion to Jesus' geographical fortunes is chronologically nuanced to a particular duration of the narrative, interpreters should have seriously investigated the possibility that Matthew's allusion to these Herodian princes may be chronologically nuanced as well, to some extent or another. 

At this point in the narrative, if Archelaus is still ruling, then Archelaus is not yet deposed. But when did Antipas claim Galilee independently? What was the historical sequence, and what did Matthew expect readers to know about the historical background of his story, at this precise moment?

It will be argued here that Matthew 2:22 presents a second evocation of dramatic irony by evoking a precise chronological period of time, after Herod died but before Augustus had settled his disputed Herodian inheritances. That is, the reader is supposed to recognize this narrative background as the brief period of Archelaus' first weeks in power, when everyone expected him to inherit the whole Kingdom, and before it was known that Galilee had become independent. With such a context, in the world of Matthew's story, the character of Joseph should not feel overly secure about moving to Galilee, because at that moment of the narrative time - the precise historical setting - Joseph should have thought Archelaus ruled Galilee also. The narrative effect, therefore, is to enhance Joseph's brave obedience to God's strange instructions, and to glorify God's prescient ability to send Jesus and his earthly parents into a place that did not yet appear to be safe, but which soon would be safe, from the horrifyingly dangerous Archelaus.

To be continued, with...

An explanation of the Chrono-Geographical dynamic, of the timing in that transition during 4 BC
     A draft of this section has been posted here: The Surprising Independence of Galilee

A literary and philological examination of the narrative time and historical description in Matthew 2:22
     Watch the index The Herodians for posting information.

A three-level historical reconstruction of likely posterity (aspects of social memory): 
     (1) from the Josephan narrative to a micro-history of 4 BC, 
     (2) from that micro-history to its reflection of the most commonly lived experience during those months
     (3) from that lived experience to estimating the relative memorability of various experiences
     Watch the index The Herodians for posting information.

A plausibility comparison of the reconstructed posterity against Matthew 2:22
     Watch the index The Herodians for posting information.

And finally:

A summative literary analysis of possible reasons why the Gospel writer chose to write with such a chronologically precise background, and with such particular ironies.
     Watch the index The Herodians for posting information.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I AM CURRENTLY SEEKING A CO-WRITER FOR THE ACADEMIC IMPROVEMENT AND PUBLICATION OF THIS PROJECT. PLEASE CONTACT ME ON FACEBOOK OR VIA (myname) AT GMAIL. THANKS IN ADVANCE!

Anon, then...

August 22, 2013

The Surprising Independence of Galilee

The first Tetrarch of Galilee was Herod the Great, who held that title as a regional governor under his father, Antipater and King Hyrcanus. The second Tetrarch of Galilee was Herod's son, Antipas, whose position was equally subordinate to a King based in Judea. At least, it was supposed to be. In Antipas' case, the intended king was Antipas' brother, Archelaus, who while not yet confirmed as king did hold the kingdom in anticipation of such. For that brief time, which officially lasted for approximately six to eight months during the year 4 BC, the Tetrarchy of Galiliee was not independent of the larger Judean Kingdom.

This surprises us today but it followed established precedent and should have been what was expected at that time. What must have been surprising, actually, was the announcement (whenever it came) that Rome's Emperor had split the kingdom and made Galilee independent.

Augustus Caesar was a genius, a political progressive and a natural innovator who left his creative and re-organizational mark on virtually every aspect of Roman government, culture and life, including overseas policy. The provincial government was reorganized, taxation was reformed, the army was permanentized and creatively financed, colonization and road building was expanded, and client kings were aggressively courted and groomed, their potential heirs being shipped into Italy for formal education in the ways of Imperial control. In settling dynastic disputes overseas, Augustus was basically ad hoc, showing no fear of imposing whatever situation seemed most workable from his vantage point, whether precedented or not.

In contrast to the Emperor, while Herod the Great was progressive in foreign relations and ambitious about economic development, the King of the Jews had remained conservative domestically, where he nurtured his constituencies among very traditional people. Politically, Herod made it quite clear for decades that he intended to establish his own dynasty in some form or another, following Hellenistic and Hasmonean precedent, a thoroughly conservative ambition.

It should stand without question that Herod intended his kingdom to go on with his descendants in power because it was not until late in the game that he became so famously volatile in favoring or disfavoring his various sons as chosen heir, and disowning or executing the most recent offender/s. These sins were anomalous from the larger continuity. As late as 6 BC, Herod was sharing rule with family members in subordinate positions, his eldest son Antipater and his brother Pheroras. Further, each late dynastic crisis was immediately patched with a new heir, and there were both early and later versions of Herod's will inclusive enough to name subordinate heirs, while the revision of 12 BC called for joint rule among three, an anomaly towards the other extreme, which was probably misguided. In all this, by and large, the family succession remained an unchanging assumption, with absolutely no mention or the faintest hint of a notion about dividing the kingdom politically.

The radical adjustment in 4 BC was entirely due to Augustus. The circumstances which compelled him to it probably involved the increased difficulty of governing greater Judea after such chaos and rebellion had erupted, and certainly had to do with the increasingly bitter contentions among the royal family as they waited for Caesar's decision. One also might speculate that Augustus also had one eye looking forward to claiming Judea directly, but the bottom line was probably that Antipas and Archelaus were fighting so venomously in Rome. How could the Emperor deliberately confirm one as subordinate governor under his rival? But whichever aspects of the situation were most responsible for inspiring Augustus decision, the critical point to observe is that Caesar innovated this solution autocratically, and that it was unprecedented.

The narrative of Josephus offers two details which indicate this with particular clarity.

The first point he puts as a thought into the head of P.Q.Varus, Governor of Syria during the conflict that year. Undoubtedly following the account left by Nicolas of Damascus at this point, Josephus has to explain how and why the youngest Herodian prince, Philip, winds up so suddenly in Italy for the judgment, late in sailing season, when Philip had been left in Judea by the family so many months earlier, before the fighting broke out. Whatever caused Philip's travel in fact, Josephus puts it down to the advice of his new friend, Governor Varus, who supposedly "saw a partition coming" (Loeb, AJ 17.303, Cf. BJ 2.83).

Now, while we obviously don't know what Varus may have begun to foresee, the more helpful perspective is that Josephus himself has shared this conception with us, and it expresses the author's account of those days somewhat directly. In using Varus' impressive and unique foresight to get Philip to Rome, Josephus takes no pains to defend or explain the content of that contrived vision, the not-yet-in-effect and the uncommonly-foreseeable nature of the "coming" division. Rather, the narrative completely assumes what ought to be evident by now, that in fact the kingdom had not yet been divided at that time. Therefore, since Josephus' narration shows that Herod's will had not effected such a division, even tentatively, it seems impossible to understand how Josephus' earlier description of Herod's will could be taken as evidence that Herod had been the one to stipulate such a division.

The second and more practical set of details involves finance. There is a point at which it becomes indisputably clear that Augustus' problem was not merely something political, like the assigning of jurisdictions to a proconsul or any other official. No, the real world implications of Josephus' narrative swing dramatically at the point when Augustus transfers control of the real estate, by permanently redistributing the direct receipt of all property-based revenues. Again, note that Josephus introduces this as the personal decision of Augustus, which of course it could only have been, but the key point is to recognize that these revenues must have been assigned differently before Augustus' surprising solution. In other words, the most dramatic change that the Emperor caused was not for Archelaus to lose a mere title or prestige, but for Archelaus to lose control of the revenues which accrued directly from half of his previous territory, which meant that Archelaus lost control of those territories. This, in turn, implies that Archelaus had possessed them all previously, which obviously requires that Antipas' original position in Galilee, as inherited, must have been a merely subordinate tetrarchy.

From first analysis, it should have been difficult to think the Great King had proposed an independent Galilee for the sixteen year old Antipas, even during his swelling psychopathy in those final days. For all of these reasons, Antipas' original position must be understood as a subordinate tetrarchy, as indeed the Galilean tetrarchy had always been previously, and certainly as it had been, both exclusively and explicitly, in Josephus' Antiquities, prior to King Herod's death.

The Augustan settlement therefore must have come as a surprise to everyone in Judea and Galilee, whenever it was finally announced, late in 4 BC or perhaps early in 3 BC. In the final experience of those people, it may not have been Archelaus' demotion to "ethnarch" that was seen as the  most humbling consequence of his earliest mistakes as a ruler, but it was probably Archelaus' loss of Galilee - the shocking, near-unthinkable dissolution of the Kingdom, no less - by which later posterity would come to associate most strongly with its cultural memory of the Herodian princes' return from their voyage to Rome.

Fin.

*********

Briefly, now. Why does any of this matter?


Postscript One:

If Matthew's Jewish readership in the mid to late first century brought this contextual understanding to its reading of the background referenced in verse 2:22, then the literary effect of that verse becomes much more significant. Recognizing that Galilee's independence from Judea was neither immediate nor immediately known to the general public, the text now appears to glorify God in unstated retrospect, for his divine foreknowledge, as it therefore also lifts up Joseph's bravery in following God's strange advice. In the world of the story, with chronological precision, God is telling Joseph to choose Galilee at a time before Galilee became independent of the infamously horrifying Archelaus, whom Joseph purportedly worked to avoid.


Postscript Two:

The implications for reader knowledge will be discussed at a future time. After reconstructing history from Josephus' narrative, we can further reconstruct some details about what the lived experience must have been like, for the common people. Finally, it is from that second reconstruction that we may observe some connection between which experiences were most likely to have lingered in the cultural memory, and thus informed Matthew's readership. At least, if Josephus' Italian readership in the late first century was aware enough to appreciate this distinction without too much authorial assistance, then how much more easily might a Judean readership have remembered it, possibly in the mid-first century?

Although it may be anticipated that this work will be able to find (or easily be tempted to "produce") a substantial connection between the textual phrasing with and whatever posterity is supposed to have developed (perhaps, skeptically, however much this literary reading needs the text to evoke?!), it could, nevertheless, be profoundly interesting to see how plausibly such a case can be made, and how likely it could seem - in the final analysis - that Matthew's original readers may have actually known (or rather, remembered!) this particular context, which, I very firmly believe, Matthew 2:22 was originally composed to rely upon.

In the end, it may not be the reconstructed reader memory that supports said reading of the text. It may be that a compelling reading of the text can transform into equally compelling evidence for particular reader knowledge, at least, that assumed by the author. Maybe! ; - )

Anon, then...

August 19, 2013

History as Fertilizer (some very personal reflections)

Years ago, my favorite preacher laid down a challenge one night by saying, "I've never heard anybody teach Life." A few months ago I found myself reflecting again on that challenge, scrawling notes on a paper placemat. Instead of trying to turn them into a full essay now, I'll just transcribe them as was, and then comment below.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

How does one "teach Life"? How does one instruct, didactively issuing propositional truth, without imposing a fixed immobility of ideals, without quenching the desire for creativity, for dynamic expression, for ...

Tell stories. Fiction & Non-fiction...

This is History, not as blueprint, not as exemplar, but as fertilizer for the imagination. It is the very particularity of History (when properly done) and the infinite variability of context (contexts gone by in the past). This is precisely what tells us that History cannot be preached, as if it's triumphs bear repeating and its failures bear avoiding. History cannot be repeated and History cannot be avoided. (Ignored, certainly, but never avoided, as all that has gone before now has indeed founded this moment.)


Thus, instead of shaping history as a mold for contemporary actions...


What if History is most productive in our present day experience only when re-composted.

George Washington is long since food for worms, and cannot save us now. More importantly, no amount of lionizing via any perspective can ever make us... [? inspire us to be something we're not ?]

Instead of saying, "This is what the past was like and so, too, should our future be" the most we can honestly achieve is to learn the infinite powers of sometimes and maybe.

The only sure lesson of History is that nothing ever works out as anyone intended. If, therefore, you and I do not know what our efforts may achieve, then why toil, why LIVE? Why present a History of any sort at all?


For Heritage. For Fertilizer.


Imagine the past, as it was, as it was, as nearly as we can know it to have been, as it was. Not as we might wistfully suppositionally hope it to have been. See what worked & what didn't. Acknowledge the world's infinite variabilities. And then boldly try something new!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

As much as anything, I suppose this sums up how completely my changed feelings have cemented themselves since the days when "The New Testament Story" was our model for church life, in Georgia and Florida. There is no single model of doing church in the NT. There never was. And yet, there is much that has been overlooked that may yet inspire, that is worth re-viewing for it's own sake, as it was, as it was, as it was.

This also touches on some aspects of how I feel about these "Social Memory" theories I've begun studying. Although I appreciate more and more the value of understanding how communities shape and mold their preferred version of past stories, the field has enflamed my insecurities about writing anything that comes across as *my* own preferred version of things. And, worse, in studying Irony this year I've realized that whatever *I* publish will, by definition, stand *as* my own preferred version of things. Unavoidably.

For all practical purposes, I become more and more completely antiquarian, except that eschewing agendas is, itself, technically, an agenda. At any rate, none of this seems likely to attract much of an audience. At least, not as of yet.

I know, I know. Many of you have encouraged me to just keep doing my thing. And yet I keep on chasing this horizon of greater literary ambition, and here's hoping even that hasn't all been for naught.

Something should shake out here before long. Especially now that I'm settling in (again) at work. Fourth new job in as many years. First one with a future. Promoted after six months. Finally starting to find time to re-focus on all this. We may find out if it's really as simple as that.

Thanks for reading.

Anon, then...

July 25, 2013

Does it matter (to you) whether Jeremiah Steepek actually exists?

The story went around this week on Facebook about a new Pastor who disguised himself as a homeless man before being introduced on his first Sunday. Despite several non-credible aspects (imho) many people seemed to react as if it were true. By Friday, however, the Snopes page on this was also circulating, and I saw that a few people's reactions had changed.

It makes a nice case study, I think. When *you* saw the story, did you take it as a moral fable, a parable, or as a factual account? Did you assume it was true or suspect it was fiction? And when you found others were pretty sure it's all made up, did your opinion or feelings about this story change, at all?

For me, the moral lesson didn't change. It's still a vividly illustrated reminder about one of Jesus' more challenging teachings. What changed for me - because a part of me had been hoping it had really happened, at first - was that the story itself became non-interesting. The moral lesson is heard before, many times, but if someone dismissed a worship service for their moral failure, on the spot, that's a story I'd want to know more about, fervently. But if an entire church had been handled that way, I think we'd be hearing more soon, one way or another... And that may be the chief difference.

If the moral lesson is all that matters, then the story can still work the same way, to a point. But if life practice and human interaction is more intriguing to you, as it usually is to me, then the "Jeremiah Steepek" story becomes infinitely more meaningful IFF it actually happened.

Did a pastor do this? Should a pastor do this? How well did it work, short-term vs long-term? Was the church more helped or hurt by this stunt? Did Jeremiah stay very long with that congregation? Would he do it differently if he could do it over again? Was anyone else inspired to impact their own churches after hearing his story? In what ways, and how well did that go?

Obviously, since this story doesn't hold water, I can't push these questions too far... but those are the *kinds* of questions I think we should want to ask IFF we believed this had actually happened. And wouldn't those stories be far more helpful, far more practical, and thus far more impactful than a merely verbal reminder about principles we already know very well?

Draw your own parallels if you wish. Today I'm not going any farther than "Steepek".

Did it matter to you, if you saw the piece, when you realized it was fiction? If so, how?

Feel free to join the conversation on my FB page, or here.

Anon, then...

May 31, 2013

Jesus in the desert, with or without pesky Devil talk

Those who handle the Gospels most intelligently are too eager to dismiss their basic historical aspects, and those who handle the Gospels most reverently are completely unwilling to reconstruct historically upon it's "reliable" evidence. As for me, I no longer desire to handle the material uncritically, but I still fail to understand why "critical analysis" seems to require the associative dismissal of so many incidental fact claims. For example, in my work on Matt.2 I've said dismissing the Egypt sojourn doesn't mean Joseph didn't flee from Archelaus. Or perhaps Joseph dreamed "Galilee" and then blamed God for that dream. At any rate, we deserve more nuanced acceptance from our skeptics. And that leads us to this...

The closest I've found to a middle ground is the new memory scholars - recent work by Dale Allison, Chris Keith and Anthony LeDonne. In particular, Allison's 2009 book charts a brilliant course to trusting the spirit of an episode above and beyond the letter of the text which is telling the tale. Allison himself cannot, for example, accept as factual the fantastical accounts of Jesus and Satan actually having conversation in the desert. And yet, quite admirably, the gentleman does not let that judgment erase all historical value from the Gospel story. In his own words:
this legend is steeped in memories of Jesus. Was Jesus not a miracle worker, as our story presupposes? Did he not refuse to give authenticating signs, just as he does here? Did he not think of himself as leading a victorious battle against the forces of darkness, for which Matthew 4 and Luke 4 stand as fitting illustration? Did he not have great faith in God, a fact that the dialogue between Jesus and the devil presupposes and expounds? The temptation narrative may not be history as it really was, yet it is full of memory. My judgment is that, taken as a whole, its artistic originator has managed to leave us with a pretty fair impression of Jesus, even if the episode does not contain one word that Jesus spoke or narrate one thing that he did."
To my knowledge this was groundbreaking work in 2009, and I like it even more today than I did then. Furthermore, I must admit I have swelling respect and increasing sympathy for the reasons Dale gives for seeing the story as "haggadic fiction", a la the tradition of similar rabbinical writings. For more on this view, see Chapter 1, p.25, of The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus. But, I do have a "but".

Personally, I remain skeptical about our human powers of skepticism. I mean that sincerely and straightforwardly. In the same way I enjoy Allison's effort to find truth in this "fiction", I would seek to find more. As much as I applaud Allison's finding memory consistent in these general impressions, I wonder why the story chose to be so specific in the details. In short: If I consider the temptation conversation as a metaphor, must I also dismiss the time, place and details of its setting?

Apart from their incredible mysticism, the temptation narratives purport that Jesus celebrated his baptism with a period of self-denial and solitude. Indeed the details are heavily typological (40 days, desert wandering, temptation by hunger/idolatry) but instead of "prophecy historicized" it strikes me more realistically as "history scripturalized" (borrowing Mark Goodacre's turn of phrase, contra Dominic Crossan).

In other words, the most likely way to explain this story - with or without accepting the fantastical elements - is to suppose that Jesus really went into the desert after his encounter with John, that he likely wandered and fasted, that he likely battled hunger while wrestling with deeply personal concerns. Would people accept his intended message, and/or his special position, if he offered no signs to prove his authority? Would he be offered a measure of political power as a salve, or would he feel bitter through subtle desire for that ultimate earthly power, for that which his dynamic spearheading of "God's Kingdom" naturally suggested he should have full right to claim?

From another perspective, I must add that if this story were pure haggadahic fiction then we might have expected much more from the writer! I mean, there are certainly parallels, but it's hardly a full parallel of Israel's desert wanderings: Jesus' 40 days was for testing, but Israel's 40 years were punishment. Moreover, where is Sinai? Where is God's further instruction? Where are the commandments? Where is the Tabernacle or the daily provision? Is it a parallel that Israel received bread daily, when Jesus fasted? And - perhaps not least - where is Satan in Exodus? But again, none of this is to say the writer did not attempt parallel. This is merely to say "prophecy historicized" could have done much more with the material... which is why "history scripturalized" seems more convincing to me.

So what to conclude? Is there incidental history in the Jesus-wilderness narrative? We must grant that some things simply must remain indeterminable. At the end of the day, we are all free to believe or to disbelieve whether or not Jesus fought off temptations of Satan "in person", if at all. However, although that question may not require black or white answers - as I discussed imaginatively years ago - it is indeed the side question for me. At least, such considerations are far beside today's point.

Satan or no Satan, whether in person or as metaphor, whether present or merely imagined-in later... regardless... there is much about the story in Matt.4 & Luke 4 that bespeaks to a particular time in Jesus' personal development.

In addition to Dale Allison's wonderful observations - how significantly it reinforces our general knowledge about Jesus' received public identity - my own modest suggestion is that remembrance can be chronologically specific. In terms of memory, we might say the "legend" of Jesus' temptations grew up in the way that it did for reasons we cannot fully surmise, but that legend attracted to itself some specific details that happen to fit best into one particular time of Jesus' life. That's worth further consideration.

My overall point, as usual, is NOT the evangelically-popular "therefore we really can trust the Gospels"! No. Bleeecch. *shudder* Of course we can trust the Gospels. I mean... Or not.

The way I feel about evangelical positivism is the same way Dale Allison felt about the Jesus' Seminar voting black on Jesus' temptation narratives. This is not where we quit. This is where we begin.

My larger hope, as always, is that scholarship will someday include more four-dimensionally reconstructive work that is more particularly based on the Gospel material we do have... and perhaps that doing such work might soon be possible without quite so much apologizing to our various constituencies, with their shades of belief and/or skepticism.

Anon, then...

May 14, 2013

God vs Irony

If context is king, then irony is queen. Sometimes you can't tell which one wields more authority. Sometimes she likes it that way. Then again, the linguistic nature of irony's supremacy proves that "man" being the measure of all things is ultimately an illusion. Every author eventually loses authority. Every ironist is immediately subject to irony. But if there is a God then our ignorance is trumped by God's knowledge. Or would be... if we could know what God knows.

The authoritative grand narratives of past ages have given way because we are too knowing, and too meta-knowing. Yet, I believe we are also too self-confident in our ability to see through human deception. Consider the paradox of models - that a simplified explanation becomes more inaccurate as it becomes more comprehensible. This hints at an ultimate paradox for all language and explanation, including all literature, science and history. We do not really know quite as much as our explanations imply and we cannot really say quite as much as we [think that we] know.

If we cannot explain it, then how do we know (that we know) it?

We do not. We cannot. That is why all our talk is dependent on recognizing authority and that is why authorities are evidently made manifest by the recognized power of their words. We are gods to ourselves, or we'd like to be. Or, at least, we'd like to convince others to think so, for a while.

But what of God? What of God's authority? What of God's words?

If human words cannot fully express human knowledge, how can God's words - in human language - ever hope to express God's knowledge? How could God ever have put his hope into words?

Consider the irony of the 2nd (3rd) commandment: no graven images. Technically, the alphabetic Hebrew characters carved in stone were icons, which are images. Visibly, words are images. Obviously, this technicality does not mitigate the force and intention of the commandment. Images lead to idolatry. Words, also, can lead to idolatry. The Bible has become idolatrous to some. So also, in some places, depictions of the Ten Commandments have been set up as shrines, as graven images, as idols.

Nevertheless, we believe, God handed down this commandment.

The fact that God's own words are so hopelessly susceptible to ironic redefinition (to say nothing of simple misunderstanding) suggests that (1) God's words must not be held too literalistically, lest the partial implication obscure the whole understanding, and (2) a God who is greater than our human language must of necessity fail to communicate with humans. And yet, we believe, God attempts to communicate anyway.

It is up to us to make sense of God's words, and yet it cannot not be up to us. But a God who is greater than language must know this. If he communicates to us via human words, he must do so secure in the knowledge that he *will* express himself incompletely, and that humans *will* understand him imperfectly.

The church as incarnation is ironic because we cannot really know which humans might be speaking for God. The scripture is ironic because it's treated as the last word but we cannot avoid further interpreting it's words. The christian life is ironic because we speak about following God, and yet which of us actually hears him?

Is, perhaps, God himself being ironic? What he says, we must presume, he means straightforwardly. That is, if he still speaks. But does he? Does God present his thoughts to us - in words so much infinitely less than all that God's thoughts might possibly mean - straightforwardly? Does God speak words that he intends us to accept plainly, that he expects us to understand perfectly?

Perhaps he does. Perhaps God has said it all perfectly and now therefore maybe God feels that it has all been said. On the other hand, what if God himself is not yet sure what else God wants to say? Interpreters of scripture disagree about whether God knows (or doesn't know) everything about what's going to happen next. Maybe God is or is not maintaining complete operative control over everything going on around here.

The grand narrative of Calvinism has absolutely served calvinist authoritarians very well, but it may or may not have served God's own agenda. What does God think of Calvin's grand narrative? Oh, how grateful God must have been when one among us was finally bright enough to have re-explained God. And how upset God must therefore equally be when all the rest of us fail to re-explain him with as much accuracy. On the other hand, if our redefinitions of God are so weak, then perhaps even our best explanation is not much more greatly pleasing to God than our worst explanation. Do our explanations, then, work to please only ourselves? (This one may. Yours, I decline to judge. Maybe.)

We continue to re-explain God. Has God ever explained God's own self?

If God's greatest self-explanation is not with words, then perhaps that is why God does not seem to have any active provision at work for counteracting our recontextualizations and redefinitions and our re-explanations. We go on, battling among ourselves. As we say more and more, God seems to say less and less.

But despite all that, I must suppose he does intend to outlast us. If so, that means the ultimate irony is not yet, but will come. The ultimate redefinition of meaning awaits time's own end. The ultimate subjective opinion, will be God's own viewpoint. The ultimate interpretation will be reality's own denoument.

The authoritative, limitless, uniform and final account of reality - words and deeds - can only be accounted for by whatever story God tells Godself.

The Bible may be God's words, or human words, or both. In any case, our perceptions of God's meaning is limited. Our narrative accounts of God's own story are necessarily limited. If the Bible itself presents a tragic-ironic view of our own limited self-awareness, and limited God-awareness, the Bible therefore succeeds most of all at expressing God's greatness, in contrast to all of our lack.

I suspect the truth is that God does not write human words any more than he paints human pictures or plays human music. I suspect the truth is as simple as what I will now try, but surely somehow fail, to illustrate:

God expresses himself in Christ.
God portrays himself by making images of Christ.
God communicates his thought by the Word, Christ.
God is moved to move within our world by incarnating himself, again and again.
God expresses himself as Christ, in the Body of Christ.
(And, occasionally, we attempt to write words about it.)

The mystery, of course, is whether or not this great limtlessness of God can ever be known or expressed through such very limited human forms. My guess is, yes. I suppose that it can. I suppose - and I can only believe - that Divine fundamentals remain active despite the human condition, despite our deeply ironic "fall".

The hope of God is nothing other than Christ being expressed in a gaggle of christians.

This cannot be, and yet somehow it is. This cannot work, and yet sometimes it does. All is not right, and yet it's somehow alright. The church is dead or dying in each place that we look. And yet we hear stories of God's love and life blooming again and again.

What is more ironic than life out of death? What more can God express but that God is not human?

Apparently, God's chief strategy is simply biding his time. God expresses Godself when God desires to do so. The ironic fall in literature is ultimately that whatever we say or do is so much infinitely less than whatever we are and might do. What I'm proposing is that, if this is true about persons, so all the more is this true about God.

God does not merely get the last word. God gets the last everything.

Of the making of many books there is no end. There will always be more to say. Commentary begets commentary. But God begat Christ.

What we say and what we believe and what we author... in words... cannot be Christ. Because words are not Christ. Words can never amount to the sharing of Christ. Only Jesus is Christ. Jesus' Body is Christ. God IN us, that may be Christ.

And where is Christ? Who is Christ? What is Christ saying? We may all try to say, but God will not speak to settle our arguments. We may all claim that we know, but only God silently knows. We may all try to judge, but only God is the judge. If God has given us that which might settle these issues, God does not seem to have done so using words.

So, then. After all that, what else can *I* say? What on Earth can *I* write? What words that are mere words can be helpful for building up anyone as part of what God is doing now, on Earth, in Christ?

I am not sure. But for now, I suppose, that's okay...

Maybe God knows. Maybe we'll find out someday.

Anon then...

April 11, 2013

That's it. I'm at loggerheads with myself.

I need an editor and academic advisor. I can't do without one any more. Does anyone have any suggestions for how to proceed? Or with whom? Or through what institution?

Money is *not* available right now. Nor will it be in the near future. But I'm stuck stuck stuck stuck.

I know what I think, and I'm doing my homework, and I'm aware of many landmines and wrinkles within my topic. If you've been following the blog these past six months, you can see the new day job has given me TONS of time to think carefully and thoroughly and I've made progress. What I'm struggling with is the writing.

What happened is that I finally submitted a paper to SBL. It was one of "many fine" submissions that were "too many to accept". So that's okay. My plan was (is?) to continue submitting. But I find myself second guessing each paragraph and completely of two minds about such editing choices.

It's not that I can't keep writing and submitting. It's that I suddenly feel groundless. What I submitted may or may not have been good enough to present. But self-doubt isn't hardly the problem. The problem is that I know it can always be better, and I'm fighting that battle between "finished" and "done". The perfect is the enemy of the good. But as an amateur, I feel it's an appropriate concern that anything I submit better be really, really, really impeccable.

In past years, when I faced a block such as this, I'd switch topics and hope for a breakthrough eventually. What I've found is that breakthroughs do come but only in thinking, in argument, in understanding. That isn't nearly my problem. It's the writing. I just don't have enough confidence and experience in communicating with my intended audience (New Testament Scholars) to make good, firm, clear-headed decisions about paper content, style, approach, footnote moderation, and argument strategy.

I've come at this thing six different ways. I can revise it again. I can keep trying. None of that is the problem.

The problem is I have no guidance on which of these multiple options might work best.

I guess, in lieu of other options at the moment, I just have to write all six versions and hope to submit the best one by chance. Apart from divine guidance, which - though I don't know about you - never seems to come to me in such a finely tuned form, I will be firing blind.

I guess the only thing to do is embrace that, and to fire away.

But I'm more than willing to be rescued here, if anyone feels so gallantly moved...

April 6, 2013

What Year was Jesus' 13th Passover?

The odds are incredibly strong that Archelaus' exile preceded the episode in Luke 2:41-51. That's not speculation. What we have is a statistical coincidence with nearly 100% correlation, which in turn suggests a reasonable probability of actual causation. Allow me to explain.

First, we begin with 7 BC and 6 BC and 5 BC - the years most often suggested by scholars for when Jesus was born. Next we count forward, but remember that three Roman calendar years spread across four Jewish festival calendars. That leads to what we'll call options Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta.

Here's the Math. (Remember, there is no "year zero".) Option Alpha: If Jesus was born in very early 7 BC, then he turned "1" before Passover of 6 BC and he turned "12" before the Passover of AD 6. Option Beta: If Jesus was born between March/April of 7 BC and March/April of 6 BC, then he turned "1" before Passover of 5 BC and "12" before Passover of AD 7. Option Gamma: If Jesus was born between March/April of 6 BC and March April of 5 BC, then he turned "1" before Passover of 4 BC and "12" before Passover of AD 8. Option Delta: if Jesus was born in mid to late 5 BC, then he turned "1" before Passover of 3 BC and "12" before Passover of AD 9. To sum up, the leading options require Jesus to turn 12 before Passover of AD 6 or 7 or 8 or 9.

Now, Archelaus was called to Rome and sailed there in the middle of AD 6, from whence he was immediately exiled. In three of the four cases above, Jesus' pilgrimage at age 12 did in fact take place *after* Archelaus was exiled. Furthermore, those three cases represent approximately 94% of the 36 months under consideration (those being the 36 months which fall 12 years subsequent to 7, 6 and 5 BC).

Altogether, therefore, unless one is willing to posit that Jesus was born prior to March/April of 7 BC - and almost nobody does - then one must accept that Jesus' 12 year old pilgrimage (if historical) belongs after Archelaus' exile

The only remaining questions are - How long afterward? and Was this merely a coincidence?

Suddenly, this is the proper point at which to begin considering the relevant material in Luke and Matthew's infancy narratives. First, Luke's strong implication is that Mary & Joseph avoided bringing Jesus to Jerusalem until he was twelve. Second, Matthew's direct claim is that Joseph feared Archelaus for Jesus' safety's sake. In the light of the above statistical review, is it now harder to suppose that these points are related, or that they are unrelated?

The obvious hypothesis presents itself immediately without any speculative leaps. It's the suggestion that most succinctly accounts for all evidence. Joseph's fear of Archelaus not only seems to have been historical, it was significant enough that it evidently did not disappear until the Ethnarch of Judea was exiled by Augustus. 

Interestingly, the most basic form of this hypothesis does not necessarily require Joseph to bring Jesus to the very first Passover after Archelaus' exile, although that indeed seems most likely. To be fair, for all that we know, Joseph could have continued to wait a year or two, perhaps making sure that there would be no riots under the new Roman rule. On the other hand, however, the Roman takeover under Governor Quirinius seems to have encountered little resistance, capturing the would-be-revolutionary "Judas of Galilee" while the property registration was still going on (Josephus never says any uprising actually took place, only that the plan to revolt "made much progress" - Loeb). 

By that measure, the stability of Judea should have seemed well in hand before winter of AD 6/7. Still, Joseph does not have to stop being caution just because Quirinius had ruled well for six to nine months. Yet, all in all, it seems more speculative to imagine that Joseph's extreme caution lived on after Archelaus was gone, especially since the Gospel tradition which got passed down was of a particular fear of a particular man, or perhaps of two Herodian rulers. It seems more speculative to concoct an additional reason for Joseph to restrain Jesus in Nazareth for the Passover of 7 AD. By comparison, it seems much less speculative to allow this evidence to declare what it most naturally suggests.

Given the statistical near-certainty that Jesus' 13th Passover occurred not before Archelaus' exile, and given the aspects of tradition which seem so neatly correlated between Luke and Matthew, the most reasonable conclusion is that the Passover episode of Luke 2:41-52 belongs to the year 7 AD. The less likely options, that it belongs to 8 or 9 AD, are more speculative by far.

Working backwards, to conclude, this means that if Jesus was 12 in March/April of 7 AD, that he was born between early Spring of 7 BC and early Spring of 6 BC. This happens to coincide with a very popular time-frame into which most scholars have been dating the Lord's birth for the last several decades. Again, this is highly likely to be not mere coincidence. With no other scenario being demonstrably more plausible, and unless some grave dilemma surfaces about putting Jesus' historical nativity in the above window, BC - Spring 7 to Spring 6 - the most likely and least speculative conclusion available to us is apparent.

Jesus was born in 7/6 BC and attended Passover at age 12 in the year 7 AD.

March 29, 2013

The Disciples on Good Friday

"Jesus - Mother". One word in Latin could have saved John from getting arrested.

I don't know that he said it, or wound up needing to say it, but I do suspect it was one reassuring contingency plan someone came up with to help John when he set out with the Marys to watch Jesus be executed. Now, I doubt seriously that John the fisherman from Capernaum knew a word of Italian. But who might have? Any one of the 120. Mary Magdalene may be the most likely, if she'd made any "business" trips to Capernaum.

This is one more area where we've overlooked the disciples' corporate decision making. Our traditional narrative about the other 10 disciples was that their courage failed. Yes, they abandoned him. But look at John. His courage obviously remained. But that may not be the difference. And John may not have decided alone to go stand with the women on Good Friday.

It's likely Mary was the one protecting John. Ostensibly, he was supporting the aggrieved mother. In reality, it's most likely nobody bothered him that day. But in the morning, when the disciples were all hiding together, it was those men - as a group - who could not have allowed those women to go out alone. It was therefore most likely those men - even if John volunteered - it was those men as a group who came up with a plan. Because that's what guys do.

Even when basically hapless together, a group of guys will still put together some kind of a plan for the day. Even when they don't need to. Again, this is universal to the gender. It's not even hard to imagine the dialogue might have gone something like this.

Okay, John. You go. But if a Roman soldier hassles you, say she's the mother. 
That should keep you from having to run.
Or fight.
Yeah, ha. John wouldn't last long in a fight!
Wait, you stupids. John doesn't know Roman.
Does anybody here know any Latin words?
"Mater" The word for Mother is "Mater".
Okay, John. If they try to arrest you, just point to Mary and say "Jeshua Mater".
And keep your arm around her, to show that you're comforting her.
And you should practice that word. What was it again?
"Mater" "Jeshua Mater" "Mater, Mater"


Although I wouldn't bet a denarius that John needed to say it, or said it, I bet that was the plan. And although I don't think it would have been hard for 120 of them to come up with "Mater", I'm not really suggesting the plan necessarily required Latin.

All I'm really suggesting is that we should not look with western eyes as individualists and imagine that John made a decision all by himself to go stand with the women that day. The disciples abandoned Jesus, but their hiding was prudent. In some sense, I suggest, John was their representative.

They weren't all cowards. Peter's two swords were gone, and they only had one shield. Jesus' mother.

(And don't you dare say it was cowardly to hide behind Mary. She probably needed to feel like she could protect somebody on that day. It probably comforted her that she and John would be helping each other. But that's a whole different story...)

Have a thoughtful Good Friday, everyone.

March 24, 2013

Fundamentalist Scientists: "Physicists Know Nothing"

Just a bit of fun: This conference report from the Scientific American yesterday is still cracking me up. Physicists Debate the Many Varieties of Nothingness. What could possibly be less falsifiable for scientific investigation than theories about, literally, nothing!? Ah, but apparently there are multiple types of "nothing". How amazing. Who knew? (I can hear Leonard Hofstadter protesting ironically, "My theory has internally consistent logic.")

My favorite part of the recounted debate is when the athiest chimes in about someone being "insufficiently enlightened". Right on! No, seriously. I'm totally with that guy. Skeptics ought to be skeptical. Scientists ought to be scientists. But how in the world anyone could discuss these outlandish theories with such dogmatic confidence and then turn around and criticize the idea of religious faith, that's a mystery to me.

Seriously, scientists. Believe what you want, for whyever you want. But admit it. You're faithers.

Full disclosure: All of this felt especially rich because I'm currently enjoying my way through Stephen Prickett's 2002 book, Narrative, Religion and Science: Fundamentalism Versus Irony, 1700-1999, in which he begins with Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) and proceeds to illustrate similarities in the ways different folks go about constructing their preferred meta-narratives. It's fascinating.

By the way, Prickett's book was next on my list after I finished meticulously devouring Clare Colebrook's Irony (The New Critical Idiom). Not much to say about either right now, except I recommend them highly, if you're interested in their topics. I have really enjoyed both of them, but together they've taken up most of my free time the past couple of weeks.

And all of that is really just to explain (partly) why I haven't blogged anything yet this month.

This, too, shall pass...

February 24, 2013

Why is Fiction so much more popular than History?

This was sparked by a quote from Hayden White, On Paul Ricoeur:
Historical stories and fictional stories resemble one another because whatever the differences between their immediate contents (real events and imaginary events, respectively), their ultimate content is the same: the structures of human time. Their shared form, narrative, is a function of this shared content. there is nothing more real for human beings than the experience of temporality - and nothing more fateful, either for individuals or for whole civilizations. Thus, any narrative representation of human events is an enterprise of profound philosophical - one could even say anthropological - seriousness. It does not matter whether the events that serve as the immediate referents of a narrative are considered to be real or only imaginary; what matters is whether these events are considered to be typically human.
If you don't think he's right, then please read it again. He's absolutely correct, in the sense that he means what he says. But if your head's already swimming, then just dive into my take, as follows:

Most people, if asked, will tell you that - Yes, of course it matters! And it does. That is, knowing whether something is a true story or not has an effect on people. Try telling someone a story is true, and afterwards reveal it was actually false, and you'll find out! However, the quotation above is not actually saying the opposite.

White's point, a la Ricoeur, is that reading a novel or watching a movie is most engaging to us precisely because of this representational interplay. We know some aspects of the story are "false", but it's the aspects of the story that do strike us as "typically human" that cause us to be so fully engrossed, disturbed, enlivened, or even inspired. In other words, Fiction has a powerful ability to present us with realistic aspects of what real life is actually all about.

So what's History's problem?

The major trick, I think, is probably all about letting the audience know where the boundaries are, right up front. Nobody gets upset about fiction being "untrue" as long as the boundaries are made clear as things move along. Once an audience knows where the truth can be found, the realistic and compelling aspects of fiction are free to have their natural impact. It's not that your hero's situation isn't completely ridiculous. It's that you recognize aspects of what it feels like to be truly alive. And you feel you've gained something.

Sadly, however, Historical Storytelling has too often focused on declaring or convincing or proving that such-and-such is the true version of things gone past, or that version-you-heard-once-before, well, that isn't the real story. Such ugly work can be necessary, and certainly has it's place, but it necessarily reverses the dynamics that make Fictional Tales so effective, and so enjoyable. Instead of marking off reality first, and then getting to the story, we work through the story in order to (finally) set boundaries.

Booooring!

What's even worse is when a Historian is inordinately authoritative. Usually, unless the audience has other reasons to agree, the tale can be as likely to spark skepticism as confidence. After that, well, the whole thing can seem pointless. In Jesus studies, liberal and conservative portrayals alike have leaned hard on this authoritarian approach to Storytelling. The results for both sides, to be fair, have been mixed, but the disappointed seem to outnumber the elated.

One must admit - although this will serve case in point - that whenever a reader or a room full of listeners is agreeable to the truth value of the History being presented, Historical Storytelling can become a rousing affair, quite on par with the emotional experience of the most powerful fictions, and often more so, because of the belief that this story is fully, wholly and completely true.

Sadly, however, the general experience is that huge segments of an audience which really should by all rights greatly enjoy engaging with history -- with past sagas as relatable human experience, with case studies as compelling true-to-life dramas, with the endless fascination of how and why people go about behaving in the odd ways people do -- these large crowds who should hang on History's stories have instead become turned off to the whole subject area.

The battle over history has rendered it seemingly impossible. This is tremendously unfortunate, because the magic of narrative is exploring possibilities.

There may yet be hope. I have personally found, on occasion, that it can spark curiosity in some readers and listeners if I first lay out the boundaries of our historical knowledge right from the start. If I tried to summarize that tonight, it might sound something like this:

Here's what everyone agrees with, and over here's where we've got some solid clues to work with. Now, here's where I'm doing my bit. If I'm wrong, the Story changes, and we explore a different Story. Maybe you'll decide which version you believe, and maybe you won't, but these possibilities are what History has to offer. The adventure is discovering how these different Stories might affect our worldviews differently.

If there is Truth in a Story, that truth should be able to present challenges, naturally, as the Story unfolds. But whenever we engage with Stories, we prefer to know the boundaries up front. Exploring stories together is a wonderful way to share aspects of life experience, and to connect with others despite all of our differences. Exploring past stories together eventually brings these dynamics into play. What is real? Do we know?

Whether we aim to explore various stories, or present one cherished version of Truth, and whether we aim to produce History or Historical Fiction, our Retellings of History will always have fuzzy boundaries. That is, History and Fiction get fuzzy in very different ways, but they do both get a bit fuzzy.

The chief sin, in either case, is pretending they don't.

February 16, 2013

Evoking Archelaus in Matthew

I think words primarily evoke images; secondarily, emotions. This post begins as reflections to that effect about how literature works and then it turns toward applying such considerations to Matthew's evocation of Archelaus. If you want to jump to that part, I've bolded his name where it picks up, below. 

A thousand words cannot replace most pictures(*), but a single word or two can potentially conjure thousands of images in mind of engaged readers. Engage, if you please, and consider now. War. (pause) Interstate Highway. (pause) Food court. (pause) NFL Football. (pause)  Shopping mall. (pause) Sunday services. (pause)

Do you see? No. Did you see?

It is precisely because words are so limited that the writer's task is always to do more with less. But it's precisely because words are so pregnant that the writer believes she can communicate. In the final analysis, "good writing" may be nothing more than whatever happens to provide a particular author and a particular reader with a communicative link.

Reconsidering those pauses at top, my choice of "NFL Football" likely evokes more for some readers than others. It does well if you happen to have that experience. It fails utterly if you do not. For analysis of literature, however, my success or failure may not matter so much. That is, estimating the likelihood that I have strategized effectively (for any particular readers) may be less important than recognizing the fact that I have, in fact, strategized deliberately. My choice of "NFL Football" reflects that I spent a moment of believing you would recognize that term and recall visual images and remembered knowledge about what "NFL Football" denotes, and connotes. If I had then proceeded to mention "Superbowl parties" it might imply my expectation that you, my reader, have almost certainly been to at least one superbowl party. Unless, that is, I went on to explain and describe in detail what a "Superbowl party" is like.

This is the essence of what I've been getting at in my recent posts about composing through ambiguity.

Exposition implies authorial insecurity. The lack thereof implies assumed reader knowledge. 

Getting back to images, specifically, it's worth considering that most human memory is probably emotional or sensual, auditory or visual. Sometimes I remember striking words seen on a page or words said to me with a bold tone of voice. When you say my Dad's name, I don't think verbally. I conjure images and I remember emotions. It's the same way, collectively, when I say, "Barack Obama" or "Richard Nixon" or "General Custer" or "Archelaus", in that you probably conjure an image more than anything else.

It doesn't matter that you've never seen the man called General Custer. You probably conjure whatever image your mind first constructed the first time you heard the story of Little Big Horn. If there's no such memory, the word probably has no meaning. Or perhaps the word only recalls for you the confusion you felt at some time when you heard the name but received no exposition. In such a case, the image you recall is of your own past experience, and whatever emotions you associate with slight to moderate confusion.

Likewise, since you've not likely seen images of King Herod's ultimate heir, the name "Archelaus" may only evoke for you personal memories; perhaps you may recall visually seeing that text in the Gospel, or recall where you were sitting on the last memorable occasion when you heard the name, or read the scripture. Alternatively, as some do for Custer, you draw the mental blank, and I've evoked only confusion.

However, suppose I go on to exposit the term. "Archelaus was Herod's son who took the crown briefly in 4 BC, was demoted to ethnarch and later exiled by Augustus". Now you're most likely accessing mental files that have to do with "Herod" and "crown" and "Augustus" and perhaps "4 BC". You still have no precise picture in mind for "Archelaus", but the next time you hear "Archelaus" it should evoke some collage of these newly associated images.

Quick sidebar: In Thursday's post I mentioned "Senator Barack Obama" with no hesitance. You understand I am referring to the man as he was during a brief window of time. I should be able to speak the same way of General Washington, candidate Lincoln, David the shepherd boy, or baby Moses. In composing literature, we often seek to evoke awareness of temporal distinction just as efficiently as we do anything else. If the audience is aware of something (or at least, if the writer believes them to be aware of that something) then the writer can (or at least, will) reference that something as efficiently as possible. You already know Washington and Lincoln and Obama became Presidents. You already know David and Moses grew up, and the rest of their stories. Therefore, I have no reason to waste words by reminding you of what you already know! Our purpose in this composition is to connect with each other and consider ideas about these people, whom we both already know.

Another word on this evocation in general: Some writers attempt to capture their mood or surroundings with descriptive details. This style can be popular, but it is not extremely common, most likely because it requires tremendous duration (as I noted about Dickens, Hugo and Rowlings). The more efficient, which is to say, the more evocative writers find ways of conjuring up moods and images that already exist in the reader's mneumonic vocabulary (so to speak). It is this evocation, this efficiency, that makes a writer more effective, IFF he correctly connects with a reader's memory - or with readers' collective memory/ies.

And now, a final word on Archelaus: The more I read up on lit theory and the more I consider such things for myself, the more I am convinced that I'm not imagining things, and that it can be demonstrated how Matthew intended this one verse to evoke readers' collective memory/ies of Archelaus' early rule, at the precise period of time when he was, de facto, "King". The word 'basilewei' was not enough by itself, or else Josephus' two uses would have been confusing. [Citation forthcoming; check Perseus if I don't get around to it soon.] But where Josephus appears to refer to the young ethnarch's 10 seasons of rule in general (an idea apologetical translators may or may not have followed knowingly) the reference in Matthew is buttressed by other aspects that make temporal precision more certain. These I have mentioned here repeatedly, and will no doubt mention again soon.

But today it is the simple task of language at work that impresses me most. By itself, this point is no wise conclusive, but it's just impacting me greatly today. The fact that language must evoke (or else exposit ad nauseam) in order to communicate succinctly - and Matthew's reference to Archelaus is nothing if not succinct - strongly suggests Matthew cannot have meant nothing. But more precisely, the combination of elements - even the "when Joseph heard" expresses freshness - altogether, I'm convinced, show that Matthew himself intended to evoke King Archelaus, and not other memories of him.

Finally, to bring all this together: In terms of evoking visual and emotional memory, the evocation of Archelaus would have been something like 9/11 or the Kennedy assassination or Pearl Harbor; but especially that last one. There was no television in December of 1941, but millions of Americans got the news on that day, and for decades later - even before artificial commemorations of the audiovisual variety began compromising the integrity of remembered details - many of these rememberers could still tell you fifty and seventy years later where they were and how they felt, what they heard, and how it affected everyone.

I believe it is reasonable to reconstruct the natural consequences of that Passover massacre, the way news gradually filtered back throughout Israel/Palestine, the way every soul who'd not lived through the experience had to "hear" (as did Joseph, in Matthew's story) about the new tyrant, the new acting King, the new Archelaus. In fact, I believe we can reasonably show through a reconstructed chronology  that many families left for Jerusalem before news of Herod's death had even got around, and so the first news about Archelaus, for some high proportion of all Judeans and Galileans not at the festival, would have been the massacre. Thus, "afraid" also connects directly with what Matthew's readers most likely recalled, at the evocation of "Archelaus".

All in all, it must have been a powerful bit of rhetoric, at the time.

I hope I can eventually do half as well in demonstrating that it was.

Work continues...


----------------------------

(*) "Words and Images" go together like chocolate and peanut butter, and they have a long history of doing so. Without question, visual storytelling has profound advantages over text, a fact recognized long before film, TeeVee, graphic novels, the Sunday funnies, or Sports Illustrated, there were Egyptian hieroglyphs, cave paintings, Grecian urns, and the Sistine Chapel. In those cases, the words would be spoken, as the artist surely intended. I mean, you can't imagine Michaelangelo did all that work on that ceiling without anticipating - and desiring - all the discussion it would generate? Or the glyphs and urns, constructed somewhat ambiguously by artists who doubtless expected that verbal-aural interpretation would accompany the visual media on occasional viewings. But spoken-visual storytelling eventually inspired textual-pictorial storytelling. Art students can trace the development from stained glass windows with captions engraved underneath, to moralizing or allegorical triptychs in the middle ages, to Linus, Snoopy, Nancy, Sluggo, Dilbert & XKCD. All of this, by the way, is available in far more detail via the brilliant, singular and acclaimed study produced by Scott McCloud, in graphic form, called Understanding Comics.


February 14, 2013

King Archelaus: a Microchronology of 4 BC

It's well known that, but not when, Augustus Caesar demoted Archelaus to 'ethnarch' of Judea. Commentators often write as if the official demotion was retroactive, but I doubt anyone living in 3 BC cared to re-label their memories of Archelaus from 4 BC. Today, we may say "Senator Obama scared Republicans to death" and nobody misunderstands. It's a reference that plays on historical knowledge and requires basic chronological nuance.

Recognizing from Josephus that Archelaus indeed ruled as "King" briefly - and quite impactfully at the time - allows a new reading of Matthew 2:22. It now appears the Gospel writer was employing historical irony, speaking to readers who he assumed could recall (collectively if not individually) the different temporal context between the fresh "King Archelaus" and the humiliated "Ethnarch Archelaus". There are other clues: mentioning "immediately" after Herod's death (twice), using the word Basileuei, qualifying the dominion as being 'anti' Herod's, and playing on the chrono-geographical irony of whether Galilee was safe-already or safe-almost (as Matthew has God predict that it would be).


In the guild, some may suspect this seems too good to be true. Did Matthew really intend to set this episode (whether fiction or non) in such a precise window of historical infamy? And even though this reading only provides a contextual verisimilitude, without proving the historicity of Jesus, Mary or Joseph reacting to these things, how can scholars feel confident this new reading is not merely wishful thinking or christian apologetics in scholarly clothing?

To show more conclusively that this reading deserves pride of place among scholars, a more cautious and rigorous study is underway, examining the verse from exegetical, literary and historical perspectives. However, since the foundation of this reading comes from knowing about the events of the year 4 BC, it's worth considering that in the first place. 

What follows here remains only a sketch for the moment. It may even have mistakes I've not caught yet. But a better version is, alas, for the future. Thus, without further ado, here's what I have at the moment.

King Archelaus: a microchronology of 4 BC


It is famously well known that Herod the Great died about mid to late March, but Augustus cannot have rendered his final verdict on Herod's will until around October. First, the Emperor's judgment followed a final report from Governor Quinctillius Varus on the violence in Judea that summer, and that final stage didn't begin to wind down until at least August, on top of which the imperial post should have taken about 48 days for Varus' report to arrive. Similarly, the last-minute sea voyage of Philip (the Herodian prince, soon to be named tetrarch, who sailed from Antioch no sooner than August, and more probably later) journeying to Rome must have taken a minimum of six weeks, and likely more with the late summer Norwesterlies (the etesian winds) blowing hard throughout August. Basically, September is the earliest possible date for Augustus' decision, and circumstances mixed with probability lean hard toward a slightly later occasion, especially for the Emperor who lived by festina lente.

What and where was Archelaus, in between? From before April until no later than June, Archelaus was in Jericho, Jerusalem, and Caesarea. (Cf. Josephus' Antiquities17.188-222) In Jericho, the soldiers acclaimed him as King, a title Archelaus later claimed he refused, but with title or no title he still ordered them onwards. In Jersuaelm, Archelaus stood high on a golden throne and platform when he made his "I'm-not-calling-myself-king" speech of the week, and afterwards, of course, he made promises only a king could have offered to keep. At the Passover the Judean not-a-King commanded the royal army with such authority they entered the Temple on what Josephus calls the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, and brutally massacred thousands of innocent pilgrims along with the outspoken protesters. Following that, the non-King decreed that every non-Jerusalemite at the Passover had to exit the city and return home, immediately. In other non-Kingly actions, Archelaus had also (earlier) sent an appeal to Governor Varus, and obviously commandeered the royal treasury and the royal palace(s) in each city he visited, and presumably also the royal fleet, once the sailing was good.

There is more. Standing before Caesar in Rome, at an early hearing, probably sometime in June, one Antipater (son of Salome, sister of the departed King Herod) argued that a primary reason for Augustus to forbid Archelaus the kingship was precisely because "since he had in fact taken over the royal power before Caesar granted it" (Ant.17.230). In Josephus' words, Antipater continued, and "assailed him with reproaches for the changes that he had made among the officers of the army, for publicly seating himself upon the royal throne, for deciding lawsuits as if he were king, for assenting to the requests of those who publicly petitioned him, and for his entire performance, which could not have been more ambitious in conception if he had really been appointed by Caesar to rule." And so forth.

On the larger chronology, the eclipse of March 12/13 was most likely at Purim, with the fast on the 12th an effective occasion for Herod to require Israel's chief men assembled in Jericho; the Passover was then about April 11th (as it ought to have been for all practical purposes, and not because of metonic-cycle hypotheses). When we chronologize the activity required all before the battle at Pentecost (Ant.17.254ff) we see that if Varus' arrival at Caesarea was indeed brought on by Ptolemy's appeal (Ant.17.221) as Josephus claims, then Ptolemy's commission cannot have been given after Passover. [In other words, there was not enough time between Passover and Pentecost for all the additional activity after Varus' arrival, if not only the Legion's departure from Antioch but also Ptolemy's travel to Antioch (300+ miles) had not begun until April 12th. Moreover, beyond chronological impossibility, sending Ptolemy to Varus within hours of Herod's death was the smart thing to do, politically, and Nicolas of Damascus Aunt Salome was supportive enough of Archelaus in those early days that she absolutely would, or at least should have suggested it.]

In other words, Ptolemy's trip to Antioch must have begun prior to April 11th, and not after. However, if Josephus is also accurate in locating Ptolemy among the royal party exiting Jerusalem on the morning of April 12th, then Ptolemy must have had time to both reach and return from Antioch  before festival time. Estimating Ptolemy's speed as much as 50 miles a day (if commandeering fresh horses and nightly lodging en route) the latest King Herod may have died would have been somewhere between March 20th and 24th.

This means Archelaus began ruling as King sometime between March 20th to the 24th. His departure for Rome probably wasn't right at the (slightly dangerous) start of the Mediterranean sailing season, so most likely late April or early May.

Finally, the early hearing around June was dismissed without ruling from Caesar, who waited first until Quintus Varus was satisfied in Judea that all rebellion had ended, plus approximately six weeks for an imperial messenger to arrive in Rome with Varus' dispatch to that effect, plus some further days if not weeks of deliberation before announcing his decision, at the Temple of Apollo, near the Rome's (Jewish) Trastavere district. That was probably October-ish, give or take.

In sum, that means that Archelaus' Kingship - in practical terms - lasted only for about four to six weeks at the most, even though Archelaus' Kingship - in retroactively officialized terms, according to our modern perspective - lasted for either five to six months (if based on Herod's final will) or perhaps zero days long (if based on Caesar's eventual failure to ratify that will).

Despite all modern attempts at categorization or characterization, the micro-chronology of 4 BC shows, first, that Archelaus was proclaimed King in late March, ostensibly declined premature coronation as a show of false humility, but in fact continued right on ruling as if King with complete and virtually unquestioned autonomy, at least until leaving Jerusalem on April 12th. Second, the micro-chronology of 4 BC shows that while the official position may have been murky, the practical situation was entirely straightforward; or to put that another way, if the official political truths were entirely straightforward, then the practical situation contradicted it fully. 

Whether king or not-king, Archelaus was acting as king for those few weeks. What is more, Archelaus' general inactivity after April 11th was unknown to those pilgrims who left Jerusalem, as was the non-King's eventual departure for Rome.

In short, the plain facts not only present an Archelaus who was acting as King for all practical purposes, they show that no commoner in Judea at that time had any good reason to think of him otherwise. Neither did any Passover pilgrim, and thus, neither did Joseph. And thus, it absolutely appears that Matthew 2:22 at least happens to be set within a well known historical context - or what ought to be a well known historical context - with exacting chronological precision.


For more work on Matthew's intention as author, and what modern critics should reasonably expect of his readers...

Stay tuned!

February 12, 2013

Cross-referencing Ambiguities: towards Algorithms for Writing and Reading

My working theory and methodology of literature continues to develop...

Is it too strict, or not, to say that language is representational in its denotative function and evocative in its connotative function? That is, the denotation(s) within a word are referential, and the connotation(s) within a word are contextual. "Cow" gives you both a thing to envision as well as a pre-loaded collection of typical places to put it, people it typically works with, and things a cow would typically make and do. Like chewing its cud, giving milk and, on rare occasions, parachuting into stadiums.

As any sentence progresses, each word offered in sequence introduces vast ambiguities, unclear possibilities of endless potential meanings, which our mind processes at nigh infinite speed. For example, just look back two lines: "As", "any", "sentence", "progresses"; even that phrase has no coherent meaning until the possibilities of those first three words are tied together in one meaning by the fourth word in its turn. Likewise, "progresses" by itself conveys many possible meanings, but, as the fourth word in this particular phrase, the potential meanings for "progresses" have been reduced to a single meaning, due to the combination of cross-referenced ambiguities when combined with "As any sentence".

Likewise, the pool of uncertain meanings for "As" and "As any" and "As any sentence" becomes gradually smaller, by association, and thus more clear. The first three words restrict the fourth word to its intended meaning, and although this is addition of words is a constructive process, the work being done is actually a reductive enterprise. In order to write with clarity, the proliferation of meanings from individual words must be cancelled out by juxtaposition with other words. In order to be clear, the writer does not encode specific meanings so much as cancel out extraneous ones.

Eventually - early on, actually - the human computer learns to process whole phrases as units, so frequent combinations don't require reprocessing each time. Consider, as a unit, "And they're off." Does that refer to horse racing, or something else? Consider these familiar standards, each three words long: "Can I have", "Did they really", "How do you" and "Would you like". Each phrase, as a unit, conveys a normal set of referential and evocative potential. Now, consider that "Would you like a" presents another infinitely different set of meanings than "Would you like to". Different, and yet, smaller.

Observe that "Would you like" contains all the potential of "Would you like a" plus all the potential of "Would you like to" as well as several other possible variations. ("Would you like several" of something; "Would you like not" anticipating a gerund; Etc.) The variation of meanings appears to multiply, but in practice it actually divides. Comprehensively, it is not the vast difference of "a" versus "to" that somehow 'creates' a new set of thoughts. Rather, it's the combination of potential meaning sets that strategically reduces ambiguity until one meaning is clear. Potential meanings are reduced by cross-referencing against one another.

This explains both why and how the last word in a phrase often causes re-evaluation of the first word in a phrase, and of the entire phrase. The process has been going on all along. It isn't magic, it's an algorithm! What feels like magic is when a particularly surprising combination appears, just at the end. The common suddenly twists to become something uncommon. But! There isn't a different process going on when the last word is surprising. In fact, this process of detecting such "hidden meanings" - whether symbolism, irony, sarcasm, or punch lines - is always precisely the same.

A connection of two or three words (meanings) doesn't create a new meaning, it cross-checks, or 'triangulates' their trajectories from all possible meanings. As those vectors are starting to converge in a general area of thought, a new laser beam joins the rest from an unexpected angle, and shouts 'hey, over here'. Now the semantic search area gets smaller. The combining of words is what provides more precise meaning, but the eventual meaning we're given (*or, the one that we 'take') was actually there all along, waiting to be discovered, once we knew where to look. (*Unless the reader gets truly inventive; on which, see below.)

Remember Mark Twain's famous dictum on word choice: "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning." Actually, that's the original quote, according to Bartleby.com, but the famous line has been popularly rephrased, so that "bug" now tends to be the last word of the quote. This collectively approved revision slightly improves on the quotation, if not the idea, because, to a broad audience, it better illustrates the point being made. While Twain's original emphasis moved from weak (an insect) to impactful (a storm), and thus encouraged authors to work for poetic effect, the "bug" ending (while more pedantic) emphasizes the most basic aspect of what's being discussed in the first place. What better way to illustrate the power of word choice than by employing the ever popular 'twist'! 

Just as the last scene in a story can cause reevaluation of the entire plot line, the last word in a sentence has a well known ability to provide this same counter-interpretative effect. My point today is to observe that there's nothing especially magical about the last word, at least, not apart from all the words that preceded. As we all know, 'the twist' doesn't change things. It reveals things that were already there.

The best writers have known this for eons. The real power behind a punch line is all in the setup. For instance, here's a groaner that I happen to adore. Did you hear the one about the golden retriever, in the old west? He limped into town one day and said, "I'm looking for the man who shot my paw." (Cue groan.) I enjoy telling that one mostly for the brevity and efficiency. Set the stage. Load the twist. Pull the trigger. Paw!

It's not the funniest joke, but the minimalism of construction is beautiful. Telling that joke is like a social experiment. The phrases pile up, the world of infinite possibility is slowly whittled down, and the search for understanding is visible on your listener's face. A positive subject (lovable dog, must be our protagonist!), a setting (time and place, probably visualizing the cliche'd main street or ghost town) an odd detail (the limp) more familiar cliches ('into town', 'looking for a man', together evoking the well worn pastiche of the main street showdown) and the punch line, which evokes one last familiar 'old west' cliche, replete with the pun ("shot my Pa"). 


The cliches and the pun certainly undermine the joke's quality but the efficiency is breathtaking. A whole world is built - actually not built, but evoked - fleshed out and then made unique. The uniqueness comes in the surprise juxtaposition. We've heard all these phrases before, but never in this particular combination. Again, meaning is not so much constructed as restricted, with fine tuned precision. A series of denotations and evocations in sequence systematically reduces the listener's ambiguity, as they process rapidly, and the potential meanings coalesce into one particular world, denoting one particular event, including the twist. (Note: the most work this joke has to do, linguistically, may be in the opening. I've tried variations on this one dozens if not hundreds of times, and when I leave out "Did you hear the one about", the punch line sometimes leaves them hanging. In other words, you have to set up that this is going to be a joke! Apparently golden retrievers and cowboy movies aren't well known for being used in comedy. However, with the first line included, or perhaps with people who know me as a joke-ster, the punch line rarely fails to deliver - laughs and/or groans, that is!)

In many ways none of this is news to our understanding of human communication, but the innovation in terms of literary and language theory is that instead of looking for "the loaded word" which connects with the twist, we recognize that *all* words in an effective composition are designed to contribute - not just to the 'punch line' but - to a strategic, even a systematic, sentence-wide program of reducing ambiguity by cross-referencing ambiguities. 


All the words must be checked against one another, while considering meanings, in sequence, before the last word can fly in and take all the glory. Even with normal sentences, that don't appear to have such a big 'twist', the last word can be fairly predictable, but it still ties up the meaning. Thus, all last words in sentences (or phrases, or clauses) perform this type of a function, but some last words get less glory than others.

There's a grammatical corollary here, also. Punctuation doesn't so much indicate a pause for breath or style, so much as when to pause and compile the most immediate unit of meaning, or when to stop and re-compile several units as one. Alas, the period will never get as much glory as that crucial last word!

Here's a common experience summed up in a well known sarcastic saying. It goes, "How come you always find something in the last place you look?" We recognize the absurdity alongside the familiar emotion. Finding something after much exasperated searching does feel that way, producing that Aha! moment in a way that feels more dramatic than if you hadn't spent so much time looking fruitlessly in all those places at first. Except that's just it precisely. 


You didn't look fruitlessly in all those other places. You concluded, sequentially, that each of those other places was not the desired location. Thus, revelation arrives not by a sudden discovery, but by a gradual process of elimination, which can quickly approach exhaustive proportions. Whatever the proportions, this much is true. In general, the more work goes on during that elimination process, the more profoundly one feels that satisfying surprise at the end. You thought it was going to be in all these other places, but it's here, and you didn't see it, but it seems so obvious now.

So goes the twist sentence. You thought the meaning was going to be all of these other things, but it's this, and you didn't see it, but it seems so obvious now. Like the 'fruitless search', t
he more work being done by all the words being cross-referenced, the greater the impact of a twist at the end. But - and this is vitally important - the twist both is and isn't the thing, at least not like we think of twists. That is, the twist may almost always be there, but it rarely has to be something incredibly special.

Observe: Jack and Jill go up a hill
Jack and Jill go up a ladderJack and Jill go up to bedJack and Jill go up the org-chartJack and Jill go up the meter. Jack and Jill go up the anteJack and Jill go up in flames.
Here, it's easier to see how the clarifying power of the final word always takes effect in reverse. Again, the period is a pause to compile. In these elementary examples, note how the meaning of "go" and "up" changes based on whatever comes next. Even the context of going up
a ladder conjures a dramatically different situation than going up a hill. Further, if we add "go up the ladder" you might mentally insert 'corporate' before 'ladder'. This is not merely elementary.

What's most instructive is recognizing what all this implies. All language begins in ambiguity and the progress of working towards clarity is actually negative, rather than positive. All language works together in varying juxtapositions, constricting meanings both ahead and behind, meta the linear sequence, but in order to communicate more precise meanings the work being done is not constructive so much as reductive

Sentences are built but meaning is sculpted.

In theory, this implies a heavy role for the writer. In practice, of course, the reader's role is as important as the writer, if not much more so. As they say, "Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, going backwards in high heels." In all the strategy of composition, it is ultimately the reader who does the hard work of reducing ambiguities. There is much more to be said here about the reader's role which is positive.

On the flip side, however, an overly subjective approach to reader-theory destroys the whole game. If readers create new meanings after the writer has finished composing, then those new meanings were not available to the writer (as part of the collective pool of all meanings shared by their culture or sub-group of language users) and thus a fully reader centric approach to "meaning" is, by definition, a deliberate sabotage of authorial intent.


On the other hand, both writer and reader know that language is always evolving. Both writer and reader know that the writer is capable of coining new phrases. Indeed, an enjoyable writer will often invent neologisms and neophrasisms as well, although the experienced reader knows that this type of surprise meaning construction will generally be rare in most compositional efforts. Either way, the reader who leans heavily toward creative interpretation in meaning "construction" has definitively dropped all respect for the writer as strategist, and for the dynamic of composition itself.

Composition itself, as this theory now holds, works by strategy. Without strategic reduction of ambiguities in language, there is no possibility of communication between two persons. Thus, overly subjective or creative readings can be valid as interpretive exercises, or perhaps even as defiantly personal affirmations, quixotically, but when the reader divorces the writer she destroys the text as composition. In a real sense, it remains true that "All meaning is constructed" but strong minded readers should also grapple with "All text is composition" and "All communication is reductive."

In short: Please do not attach onto my words any additional meanings because the whole point is that I was busily trying to whittle them down, for your sake.

And yet, there is a fundamental problem remaining.

Creative readings become inevitable whenever compositions are less than completely effective at reducing ambiguity. Of course, this describes all writing, at times.

Here is where the rubber finally meets the road.

So far, this theory has implicitly described the way in which "good" writers communicate effectively and the way in which "good" readers follow the appropriate cues in "making meaning" successfully. Ah, but who is a "good" writer? Everyone sometimes, but nobody always. Therefore, in practical terms, the real challenge is not what to do when ambiguity persists. The real challenge is what to do when a writer is unclear. Technically, that should say, "when writing is unclear", but although this does not often describe whole works of literature, but it does often describe portions and snippets and phrases within literary works. 

Quite often, compositions show consistent patterns in their attempted strategy, however inconsistently effective it may be. The most basic axiom of this 'Ambiguity Theory' has to say about Literature is that writers attempt to be clear by reducing ambiguity, and that any persistent ambiguity may indicate a point where the composition needed additional work, but it also indicates a moment when the composer expected the opposite. In short, patterns of persistent ambiguity may, themselves, suggest the readers' path towards clarity.

To underscore the point a bit: Just as there is no Santa's list of naughty or nice little children, for all are both at times, so also there is no way to divide writers between "good" and "bad" and there is no way to judge units of language as objectively "clear" or "unclear" - at least, not in a Boolean sense. If this theory only worked for "good" writing, then it would be no theory at all. Rather, perhaps it would not even be necessary. (!) To illustrate, we may recall that the most frequently misconstrued book in the western civilization is widely believed to have been written by God, and there is probably no theory of "authorial intent" which can square that paradox objectively. (!!) 

Where, then, is the "good writing", and how do we judge portions of it to be relatively clear or unclear? In one sense, there is none and we cannot. In a more practical sense, however, we may have some graspable handles on this problem, right in front of our faces.

What we need is a method for measuring - comparatively, if not independently (although, according to Physics, all measurement is technically comparative and no measurement is technically independent, but I mean here to draw contrast against the conventional sense of how people measure things, in practice, versus (say) how we measure people, which is by comparison to other people) - just how often any given writer appears to be clear or unclear. 

This, at last, may present a practical algorithm for readers. Are there any patterns to notice in the way a text leaves some terms are unexplained while providing other references with (alternately) minimal or excessive amounts of expository attention?

Given that all writers vary somewhat in terms of how effectively they provide readers with clarity, or 'reduce ambiguity' as we can say now, then the best way of understanding a given writer should be to study their most ambiguous elements first of all, gather observations and draw tentative conclusions if possible, and then apply those discoveries as a comparative standard for recognizing and interpreting less ambiguous elements within the same work.

Wherever meanings can be exhaustively catalogued - which may not be very often - then exhaustive cross-referencing may be possible, perhaps by computer. In all fairness, a full application of this seems completely unattainable for most words/meanings in any language, but a moderate application may be somewhat more feasible for certain categories of meaning than others.

For starters, historical information may be of some use here; if a writer shows by greater ambiguity which historical references he expects his readers to need no help in remembering, then we might ask - Where by comparison does the writer spend more labor, attempting to help the reader recall, or (alternatively) attempting to help the reader reframe particular facts and suggest her opinions? Where does he work less, and where does he work more? In the more laboring passages (note: I do not mean 'laborious'), we will have to judge: is this verbal labor sufficient to identify and introduce, or does it seem more characteristic of what is modernly called 'spin'? Is the amount of explanation being provided for some historical reference unduly dissimilar to the amount provided for a related reference, which was provided with complete ambiguity (ie, total confidence of reader recognition)? 

Depending on how we answer these questions, we might well discover what the reader "knows" (or perhaps, remembers) and when the writer is trying to reframe in some fashion, to clear up popular misconceptions or to push an agenda (whether personally or narratively driven), as opposed to when the writer is merely trying to inform ignorance. (The greater bulk of all literature, one suspects, takes by far the less noble endeavor. I don't merely want you to know what I know. I want you to see as I see. If I have to inform, it becomes harder to spin. Spinning works best when there is a shared experience to start from. Thus, we should expect writers to assume that readers know a great deal. It's only how to know, and what they know, that are questions for us.)

Still with regard to historical references: Even in places where we lack external corroboration (or lack additional information that bears against some apparent non-information in the composition being studied) we may be able to delineate patterns that show what is substantially explained, versus what is substantially unexplained, versus what perhaps seems more "spun" than explained. In turn, all of this might begin to show how the writer's compositional mind was working, strategically, at least some of the time.

If we find success via this method for discerning historical meanings, we might then proceed to more esoteric meanings that convey 'themes', ideologies and so forth. The kind of trope (irony, metaphor, etc)  should not be the determinative difference, but the accessibility of meanings. 

For another example, let's consider geographical references. If a modern writer says "New York" it may remain completely ambiguous, unless he wishes to draw out particular aspects of New York, to highlight or refresh particular connotations in the popular awareness of "New York". Alternatively, if a writer says, "Yonkers" or "Pougkeepsie" or "Oneonta", the burden of necessary explanation would probably rise. Naturally, the most efficient writers would find ways to both inform and to spin simultaneously, which also enhances engagement for differently informed readers all at once, and the more pedantic writers (or those writers deliberately aiming at lower levels of readers) might explain before proceeding to spin. Nevertheless, researchers in some post-apocalyptic library in the far future would likely be able to determine, comparatively, that the burden of reducing ambiguity fell disproportionately on the less familiar of locations. Even if the state and island of New York were completely obliterated (in this hypothetical future), the ubiquity of that term, "New York", and (more importantly) the high levels of ambiguity that various writers felt comfortable allowing for that term, would naturally testify as to the familiarity that pre-apocalyptic readers were assumed to have had with the term, "New York". The post-apocalyptic critic could then proceed to consider how much literal exposition "Yonkers" and "Pougkeepsie" and "Oneonta" received, comparatively. And so forth.

This results in the kinds of observation that have been obvious in ancient studies, at the times when they've been obvious.

What I am wondering about in this theory is whether this can be made systematic, algorithmically. 

Now, let's try and pull this all together.

Instead of focusing primarily on looking for 'unknown unknowns' (or, more accurately, worrying about not knowing when we're missing a hidden meaning and thus a hidden connection) we might gain more ground by beginning with 'known unknowns', that is, identifying the most blatant ambiguities across one piece of literature and using those as a sort of 'meaning map', detailing what types of information the writer assumed (whether thoughtfully or tacitly) that the reader would also assume. 

Such a catalog, or meaning map, built on the most ambiguous aspects of a text, could be helpful in discerning the strategic purpose of less ambiguous phrase work, whether that might be to introduce completely new information, or to redirect the readers' thoughts about familiar information, or perhaps to do both at one time. Again, it should be the comparative patterns of one writer within one work (or across multiple works) that can reveal what a writer most likely assumed readers to recognize, to know, to remember, to varying degrees.

The basic idea is to begin with a text, analyze it all throughout, and consider what types of reader knowledge (or memory) this writer went about assuming, in general, before finally going back to review individual statements. The basic hope is that we might determine, at least, whether some phrase of dubious clarity has any parallel in linguistic construction or in topical similarity, elsewhere, that can reveal the more likely angle of the phrase under scrutiny, whether: to inform afresh, to explain known curiosities, to reframe the familiar, or to ironize (play on) the familiar. Note that all of these angles can be for various purposes, whether: rhetorical, narrative or ideological.

All of this contrasts with the opposite method: speculate, fill in perceived "gaps", and then put it all together with a semblance of objectivity.

Clear writing reduces ambiguities through precise cross-referencing. Unclear writing perhaps attempts this but fails at reducing precisely enough, for whatever reason. The critical problem of bad writing is assuming too much. The critical problem of good writing is assuming just enough. No one writer is perfectly "good" or "bad", but many writers display a consistency of technique and ability across individual works, for the most part. Comparing the relative ambiguities allowed to remain in a single literary piece may be the best way to determine precisely how much is being left "in between the lines".

This is all I can say without further experiment.

Look for an application of this theory to the Gospel of Matthew, as soon as I'm able.


Thanks for reading. I know this was somewhat repetitive, but I sure hope it was clear!

Recent Posts
Recent Posts Widget