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Geographic Irony in the Gospels

Because Jesus was primarily distinguishable as 'the popular Galilean guru arrested and executed in Judea', as I said recently, a similar designation must have been hung on him shortly after his own time. That is, since this basic synopsis of contrasting fortunes according to geography was the best way to identify Jesus, in common terms that would have been widely agreeable to all concerned, then that very synopsis must have become the most fundamental basis of knowledge about Jesus, across the various posterities within first century Palestine. Again, if this is the most succinct version of Jesus' story that remains distinctly identifiable as being his unique story, then this must have been the basic information which became universally known about him.

In short: the easiest way of identifying Jesus must have been the primary thing most people knew about Jesus. That makes the above synopsis virtually certifiable as assumed reader knowledge for all four Gospel writers. And whenever we realize the reader and author share the same unspoken knowledge, we are able to look for, and perhaps to detect, various ironies at work (or 'at play') in the text.

In this particular case, the practical discovery is that whenever Gospel writers play on Jesus' contrasting fortunes in those geographical regions, those writers are not really creating a theme in the readers' minds, but playing upon a theme already present and easily accessible within those readers' minds.

[Update: I neglected to mention why this qualifies as "Irony". I called it Geographic Irony in the post title, but it's technically dramatic irony, or what I might call historical irony. Basically, the reader already knows that Jesus will experience good fortune in Galilee that Jesus won't be arrested or killed until he goes to Jerusalem at the end of the story. So, for as long as Jesus himself does not seem to know his own future (see below) the reader's knowledge provides the irony. In hindsight, the "Ironic" contrast isn't the most significant way of looking at what here follows. A more general theory of literary analysis, befitting these ideas, is in the works.]

This is known as reader dependent irony, as opposed to text dependent irony. In such cases, a writer can even come close to spelling it out, moreso as the story goes on, perhaps in order to be more emphatic, or just in case someone's not clued in. In any case, though, so long as we, in our historical and literary analysis, have good enough reason to know that the bulk of an audience was already clued in, then we are absolutely right to conclude that the irony is there, and to demonstrate how the irony works on the story, and plays with the readership.

In this case, again, the readers of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John should not have to be told that Jesus remained safe while in Galilee and met ill fortune in Judea. Indeed, knowing that much was essentially a prerequisite, tantamount to being told, "This is a story about Jesus." In the rare case that any reader audience member was ever unsure about Jesus' identity, the most succinct way to prepare them for the story about Jesus was for another reader audience member to quickly interject something like, "You know. That guy from Nazareth who led his followers to Judea and got crucified at the Passover." To restate the point, though already belabored: there was no more effective description to offer, as basic identifying information.

Given this reasonable reconstruction of first century posterity, any Gospel reference to the regional geography of Palestine is automatically viable as reader-dependent irony. That is all my conclusion. All that follows here, in this piece, serve as tentative illustrations, and perhaps partly as celebration. Enjoy.

To begin:

This may be why Matthew says Jesus "withdrew into Galilee" (anachoreo) after John was arrested in Judea (4:12; 3:1,13). Matthew doesn't have to explain that Jesus might have felt danger at this point; he simply alludes to the well-known geographical contrast. In fact, the irony works even if Jesus was not in real danger at this point, in terms of actual historicity. By saying 'anachoreo' and 'Galilee', Matthew cues the reader to recall what they already know. It obviously heightens the tension and foreshadows the (also to-be-expected) ending, but the general theme is not purely Matthew's creation. It plays on expected reader knowledge.

A similar subtlety may also play at John 4:1-3, where Jesus disappears from Judea when the Pharisees begin talking about him. Although John's audience wasn't exclusively Jewish or regionally Palestinian, nevertheless, to whatever extent the readership was clued in, they did not have to wonder why Pharisaic conversation was such a big bad thing to avoid. As in Matthew, the side allusion to John's arrest is enough to remind the readership/audience of what it already knows. Oh, that's right. Jesus gets killed in Judea. This must be him retreating to Galilee, just to make sure he'd be safe. Also as in Matthew, the potential historicity of any implied dynamics doesn't affect how the irony plays in the readership's minds. Any hint of a threat in Judea plays - with the audience - as a more dangerous threat. They know why Jesus retreats here, even without the narrator telling us anything about what Jesus may have been thinking.

On a much broader scale, and for a more significant example, this phenomenon is most likely the main reason why no synoptic writer offers a strong explanation for Herod Antipas' seeming ignorance of Jesus. Of course the fourth Gospel never mentions this at all, but it shouldn't require much defense to point out that the explanation offered by the Synoptic writers seems fairly unrealistic. How much time are we to suppose must have passed before Herod realized the dead baptizer was seemingly "at large" doing wonders, drawing big crowds and visiting every solitary town and village in Antipas' entire tax base!? Or how much of Jesus' activity took place while the baptizer was imprisoned? Surely no reader quickly supposes that Herod was actually so stupid? Ignorant, perhaps. But not stupid. So why, then, do the synoptic writers get away with such a slight explanation? The best answer is probably: the readership's previous awareness.

When we realize the general audience of Matthew, Mark and Luke was already widely aware that Jesus had in fact, somehow, become very popular in Galilee without getting arrested - because, as previously determined, that was the basic story everyone passed on Jesus, and because apparently it went unquestioned - then it makes sense for the Synoptic writers to offer what little explanation they had, remaining unconcerned about how well it satisfied anyone's curiosity. In the end, this was not a detail any audience would require explanation for or feel skeptical about.

When you think about it, posterity rarely seeks much explanation for ubiquitous absolutes. It doesn't provoke much challenge to mention something so universally familiar, which is why few bother wondering for very long about things like, why the sky is blue, or why the President doesn't make laws, or why public schools perform poorly. The handy response - air molecules reflect/refract H20, the Congress makes laws, poor schools skew the statistics - doesn't provide a true answer, but it fills the role of an answer, more than enough to satisfy casual inquiry. We assume it's complex on some level, but we've got the whole gist already.

Moving on, it must also be noted that each Synoptic writer shows Jesus departing Galilee and skirting round its edges after the precise point in each of their narratives when Herod Antipas does become aware about Jesus. This itself may be the stronger "explanation" for the readership, but again it leans hard on posterity at large; Jesus was safe in Galilee because, somehow, there was a time when Antipas just didn't know he was doing things. And then later, whatever the reason, once Antipas did know about Jesus, you see, Jesus began avoiding Galilee also. Some modern readers might find consider this, too, as a fairly weak explanation, but - let us refresh the thesis - once we realize posterity's complete pre-knowledge about Jesus' basic geographical story-arc, the meager explanation is easy to allow, simply because no further explanation was absolutely required.

The writer isn't telling a story unknown to the reader, but building upon a story already known, the purpose of which was to enhance the story's significance, to review or entrench select details and to sharpen the writer's own favored perspective. There is art in all history, especially storytelling, but the narrative slant is no more fabricated than the narrative content. Sometimes, the basic narrative arc has been pre-imposed by posterity.

Back to the illustration: By continuing to play on reader knowledge, this last move (above) heightens the tension, despite the ultimate lack of suspense. Even though Jesus' final Judean dangers are foreknown, Jesus' expatriate phase after John's death allows the readership/audience to feel the expected narrative's screws as they are tightening (so to speak). Galilee was *the* safe place for Jesus. Now the safe space is shrinking, as we see Jesus avoiding Galilee but also staying completely away from Judea as well. Finally, after persisting at some length in this roundabout theme, each synoptic narrative unveils the actual surprise; not that Jesus would go to Judea and get killed, but that he would anticipate and embrace such a fate! (Mt.16,Mk.19,Lk.9)

Altogether, this analysis shows how the long noted geographic "theme" in the Gospels is not something the writers worked to create, or superimposed over their facts, but that the long observed literary technique is actually an ironic filter being laid over a familiar narrative pre-imposed by posterity, a posterity reconstructed with great confidence by reducing the basic facts about Jesus' identity to their very most distinguishing details.

There is more to be said, and much more work to be done, but this should demonstrate the promise of my thesis for the moment.

In the near future, hopefully, I'll apply this to my ongoing project to fully explicate how the irony in Matthew 2:22 is both geographic and chronological... but this is more than enough irony for one post.

"Don't ya think?"


DavidMorgan said...

I like your web site and blog posts a lot, they are very inspiring and informative. Thank you for providing such quality post.

Just wanted to say that reading the Bible is so very important for me. Finding time to spend in the Word of God is probable the best use of my time. I also like the Audio Bible and listen to that when I am driving. Found that to be a great time saver.

Problem is that people really don't seem to have enough time to read or listen to the Bible as much as they would like to in today's hectic pace.

However, I try to put time aside everyday to read my Bible, If I don’t then I just feel that my day is not complete and I'm not fulfilled. Some people are dedicated to working out, playing golf, and many other things they do all the time.

For me it’s reading my Bible and I would advise the same for everyone. It’s a source of joy and inspiration as well as comfort and encouragement.

God Bless you in your ministry

David Morgan

Anonymous said...

How can you be certain that John was arrested in Judea? Neither Matthew nor Luke specify where he was arrested. Matt 3.1 says that John had been preaching in the Judean wilderness, but with him in Antipas' custody perhaps he had crossed over into Perea? Matt 3.13 merely states that Jesus arrived from Galilee, but not where to. Luke 3.1ff does not state that John was in Judea, just in the region around the Jordan.

Given that Pilate and Antipas ostensibly became friends only later at the time of Jesus' trial in Luke 23.12, I doubt that Pilate would have arrested John in Judea and turned him over to Antipas to imprison given Josephus' account that John's death was due to Antipas being afraid of John's influence among the people of Perea and Nabatea. That would not have been prudent of Pilate. I know that Luke 23.7 says that Pilate turned Jesus over to Antipas, but there was a legal reason.

Rick Carpenter