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.

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