January 29, 2013

If Theology is OK, then History is OK

If the christian life were all about what we believe, about God, then I suppose we'd have to look through scripture and ask questions like, "What else did Paul believe about God, based on what we have here?" and "What else did Jesus really believe about God, based on what we have here?" and "What else did the Gospel writers really believe about God, based on what we have here?" And so forth.

Whenever it wasn't clear, I suppose we'd have to build up from clues and reconstruct the beliefs of those writers as approximately as possible. For instance, we might not find Paul explaining clearly that God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were three persons and One God... but we might successfully propose that such a theory (a) rests soundly on logical analysis of certain key pieces of the info that we have and (b) does the best job of explaining all the info that we have. After doing such work thoroughly well, we'd probably decide to accept our new theory... even though Paul nor Jesus nor the Gospel writers ever said such a thing, precisely, in the scripture.

And I think this would be good.

Now, then...

If the Christian life were also all about what we do, as believers in God, then I suppose we'd also want to look through scripture and ask questions like, "What else must Jesus have done, based on what we have here?" and "What else must the disciples have done, based on what we have here?" and "What else must Paul and his co-workers and his converts have done, based on what we have here?" And so forth.

Whenever it wasn't clear, I suppose we'd have to build up from clues and reconstruct the activities of those characters/historical figures as approximately as possible. For instance, we might not find the Gospels explaining clearly that Jesus spent three decades of Sabbaths silently learning, without parading his knowledge in Nazareth, and that he slowly developed a deep and active devotional life before God... but we might successfully propose that such a theory (a) rests soundly on logical analysis of certain key pieces of the info that we have and (b) does the best job of explaining all the info that we have. After doing such work thoroughly well, we'd probably decide to accept our new theory... even though Paul nor Jesus nor the Gospel writers ever said such a thing, precisely, in the scripture.

And I think this would also be good.

And possibly much, much, much better.

The Arbitrated Division of Herod, Incorporated

A half jewish, half arab, business executive & real estate tycoon was dying. Despite reaching his fifth decade of incredible corporate success, having married ten wives who produced seven legitimate sons, the family resembled a Greek tragedy. Eight of the wives and four of the sons had been banished, disinherited or snuffed out, for offenses real, imagined or rumored. Alleged disloyalty also stained the potential of the man's last three legitimate sons, who were named Andy, Archie and Phil. Because of all this, the old man had great trouble settling on which remaining son should inherit the company and replace him as the next CEO.

It didn't help that he was also suffering through the last stages of an unspeakably horrible disease.

But despite all of this, at his core, the old man naturally envisioned these young kids running the company together, just as he had worked together with his father and brother in the company's earlier days, both before and after the old man first became CEO. As with any large company, theirs had always been subdivided under regional managers, who just as naturally and always had answered to one powerful chief of command. So the three young men would inherit together, but who would take on the CEO position?

In his last and possibly most confused days on earth, the old man changed his formally legalized will by making handwritten modifications, right up to the end.

Remember, the three sons were Andy, Archie and Phil. The legal will had named Andy as sole heir (while rumors had been affecting the other two), but the new handwriting replaced him. Now the will said that Archie was going to be chief heir and CEO, but with Andy and Phil as co-inheritors and junior executives, with all three working together to sustain what their father had built.

Unfortunately, Archie let the new power go straight to his head and almost ruined the family empire within just a few weeks.

Predictably, key family members now rallied around Andy and took their case straight to the supreme court, hoping the chief judge would declare that the first will, the one legally filed in advance, might win out.

The court’s decision was difficult. It was clear the old man’s primary concern hadn’t been for his children, but for his own great legacy, and now even that was in serious jeopardy. Perhaps Andy was more suited for takeover, but Archie had all the reigns of power at the moment. The youngest, Phil was wise not to make waves, but he did greatly impress one key officer of the court, who urged the judge to consider Phil also.

There were a few too many options, but that wasn't the actual problem.

Above all, what became most clear at this point was that joint leadership of the company seemed increasingly unworkable. The old man had left each subordinate son in charge of one major division, but at this point it didn't look like Andy and Phil were going to do very well as middle men always answering to Big Archie, and due to his early and spectacular failures Archie didn't look at all capable of being in charge over both of them, either.

The head judge had a very difficult choice. The legal will could have simply replaced Archie with Andy, and that might have been best for the company, but at this point it was now also likely to lead to a family war. Besides that, the handwritten will had been treated as legal across the whole company for several months to this moment, so undoing all that momentum was also going to cause difficulty. Either decision guaranteed the conflict would continue, but neither decision could ultimately preserve all that the old man had built.

This must have been sad for the judge. The old tycoon had been something of a friend. At least, they had swapped important favors for several decades. Having hoped for those corporate favors to continue, the judge would have been most pleased with a strong CEO as successor, but the company no longer seemed capable of staying in business, with these three brothers in charge.

After much deliberation, the chief judge chose a third option!

Archie would stay in control of the company, but the company was going to be split apart. Only the main line of operations would remain in Archie's company. In a stunning development, the judge decreed that Andy and Phil would now become independent CEOs of the company's former subdivisions.

The old man’s empire was no longer intact, but the brothers now received full incentive to preserve their own portion, instead of undermining or attacking each other.

It wasn't anyone's first choice, but it probably did make the best of a bad situation.

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

Hopefully by now you've recognized all of this as a true story.

The judge was Caesar Augustus and the deceased executive was of course Herod the Great. His last three legitimate sons, Archelaus, Antipas and Philip were intended to rule the company (Kingdom) together with one another, but each wound up ruling separate territories - Judea, Galilee and the Trachonite region. The biggest loser, Archelaus, had his total revenue cut in HALF!

The revenue splitting was the Emperor's critical innovation, but without that there would have been no political division. Previously, Archelaus would have decided how much of the Galilean and Trachonite income his brothers could keep, and Archelaus would have ruled over all three regions in the Kingdom, supervising his underling brothers. Instead, Archelaus suddenly lost everything from those territories - both income and power - but the revenue was the key bit. Territorial autonomy came automatically, with one remarkable move by Augustus.

The point of this exercise is to illustrate and hopefully begin to remove an anachronism that's unconsciously assumed in many historical studies today.

Herod the Great never intended to break up his kingdom. That was purely Augustus' decision, brought on by the family's embarrassing disunity in Rome.

There will, of course, be more to say on this, in time...

January 22, 2013

What do Readers Remember?

Literary Theory and Social Memory Theory have developed independently, but I've been studying them together and they seem very much connected to me. Here are some fresh personal reflections, considerations and contentions:

 * If a text attempts to evoke reader knowledge of historical information, that reader knowledge is likely a form of social memory. The writer may be expecting that reader (singular) to draw from a particular community's general or standard or preferred recollections about their historical past.

 * If a text featuring an unexplained historical reference was specifically written to be read, shared and/or performed in community, then that text may work best by evoking the memory of readers (plural) in collaborative recollection. That is, whatever prior reader knowledge is being expected of each individual reader is all the more likely to be fully recalled by an entire community of readers/listeners sharing their individual recollections.

 * If a writer has aimed at readers from one particular social group, who not only share the same preferred version of past history but who can also collaborate actively to recall details more fully, then the writer most likely expected to evoke specific historical knowledge and opinions from the community of readers.

 * If a writer has aimed at readers from various social groups, whose familiarity with the past diverges somewhat in recalling history differently, then the writer most likely expected to evoke only generally agreed upon recollections of historical knowledge, without assuming opinions from any particular community.

 * Any significant words which a text does not overtly explain can be taken as words the writer hoped or expected would be recognized by the reader(s). If a collected sample of such words displays any pattern of appearing to require greater amounts (*or lesser amounts*) of historical knowledge, that pattern might stand as possible evidence that the actual writer intentionally wrote for a specific community (*or a more general audience, respectively*).

Update: in hindsight, these next two points are the biggies!

 * If it cannot be determined, or has not yet been determined, whether a text (as we have it) was written for a specific community, then the safer hermeneutical strategy is to assume the writer is only capable of evoking recollections of historical knowledge that would find broad based agreement across social groups. In performing such analysis, if a reasonable reconstruction can be proposed for what evocations were potentially accessible with a general audience of various social groups, then the same evocations (at least) should be equally accessible for a specific community audience.

 * At any rate, it is difficult to suppose how one might determine how MUCH expected knowledge to assign for any imaginary reading community. However, if the cross section of all possible communities provides a basic or minimum level of historical memory from which to begin, then it should be completely reasonable to assume any writer requires at least so much - which is to say, merely so much - from any contemporary audience.

In retrospect, these points are an attempt to re-formulate and to strengthen the basic thinking behind the new "Posterity Theory" I've been working on recently, beginning with trying to figure out what all got into the brain soup to begin with. Also, of course, I'm trying to get these thoughts into more precise terms, and into more acceptable, or presentable, or at least recognizable (!) terms, for an SBL audience. (That's specific AND general!)

I've been reading and I'll keep reading, but I've not yet found anyone combining Social Memory Theory with Literary Theory, certainly not as a foundation towards any methods of teasing new historical data out of a text by ascertaining literary/narrative implications. I have noticed that Narrative Criticism for one seems to have been originally designed to steer clear of historical issues altogether, and though I have heard multiple Narrative Critics say they believe it should lead to connections with history, they may be hamstrung by allegiance to tools that simply prevent any connection with history. I'm only beginning to learn about "implied readers" and "implied writers", but I don't think those concepts would have gotten me here, tonight.

At any rate, as always, any public or private feedback will be greatly appreciated.

Anon, then...

January 19, 2013

Chris Keith, Relative Literacy & Scribal Status

If one sticks with a haystack long enough, one may indeed find, eventually, a few needles. Such uniqueness, I daresay, belongs to this impressive discussion about Jesus' Literacy, a book that just moved to the top of my buy list. What impresses me most, even aside from the very impressive results of the author's actual study, is the method.

Just from this interview, it would appear that Dr. Chris Keith has successfully (1) embraced differences in the four Gospel accounts but (2) avoided the trap of attacking those differences - either by tossing out his own less preferred details, as do many critics, or by smoothing over those details creatively, as do many apologists & harmonists. Instead, (3) Keith seems to care deeply about finding the most plausible way to actually account for what material we do have... not by accepting some bits and rejecting others... and not by brushing things under the rug, or by timidly suggesting something 'really' means something else... but rather by attempting to account for the reality of variance in human perspectives, and thus treating the material respectfully. Also, that pomo stuff about "social memory theory" apparently helps a great deal as well! ; - )

Here's Chris Keith describing this 'new' angle, in his own words:
...the various images of Jesus must factor into an overall theory about the historical Jesus.  In other words, it wouldn’t be appropriate historiography simply to choose Mark’s scribal-illiterate Jesus or Luke’s scribal-literate Jesus, then dismiss the other image from the historical task altogether.  Whatever theory one proposes, it must explain how we already have differing images in the first century.
For more on the method, again, see the interview.

Now, the concluding hypothesis / explanation that's eventually presented is, of course, what really and ultimately validates his entire method. In short, Keith discovered that just as literacy is a relative aptitude, so was scribal status a bit relative by perception.

I think I may understand this point a bit better than most. As a "wannabe scholar", I am very much like what Keith describes from his thesis. My friends among the village folk, who both know me and like me, will occasionally describe me to others as something of a scholar. On the other hand, the Jerusalem Scribes with whom I try to interact sometimes struggle politely to make sense of my overall presentation. Even if I'm correctly observing some particular point, my verbal manner and conversational stylings aren't quite right. Or sometimes my logic presents itself well, but my field knowledge displays large gaps, which is automatically troubling to specialists. While it's very obvious I'm kinda smart and I've read some stuff, it's equally obvious that I'm not properly trained in the ways of the Force. Uh, I mean, in the ways of the Academy.

All of that, to say nothing of the personal aspect that I usually happen to be coming from left field, with my own unique questions. (That's not bragging unless you think unique = better, which it does not.) And we know Jesus himself, as it only so happened, seemed to come at these guys from surprising perspectives. So there's that. (I'll trust you now to understand where this comparison starts and ends.) But enough of me using myself to illustrate someone else's thesis!

The eye-opening point is that Jesus must have seemed differently abled to various perceivers. Country folk thought he was a rock star caliber Rabbi with high level educational knowledge & skills. Jerusalem's scribes got a distinctly different impression. Something like this, at least, is what Dr. Keith has concluded, and I find it a brilliant suggestion, all personal empathy aside.

The entire discussion, by the way, is expressed in terms that are highly field specific. I'm kind of glad that I didn't get to read this interview last May when Matthew posted it. Having met Dr. Keith at the Jesus Criteria conference in Dayton last October, having listened to him present and interact, and having recently read and re-read his contributions to the atomic bomb of an icebreaking book that accompanied the conference... the discussion was much easier to follow with speed than it might have been otherwise.

Nevertheless, I will be going back soon to read and re-read this blogpost over at New Testament Perspectives.

If you want to learn something about developments in the field which I think are extremely promising, I encourage you to go read, and re-read, and (if necessary) re-re-re-re-read the interview, as well.

Finally, the book's like $100 in hardback, but I heard recently they're soon releasing a paperback. When that's accomplished, I may post more here in time.

Thanks for reading my wannabe scholar blog post!  XD

-----------------------
(A big H/T also to Christopher Skinner whose old blog posts I was skimming, which reminded me to finally go read that interview. The new job is wonderful at helping me catch up on missed reading, but it wouldn't work nearly as well without the excellent and helpful curation. So many thanks to Chris, Matt & Chris also, just for continuing to blog.)

January 16, 2013

Posterity Remembers

Perhaps it's the "lowest common denominator" of various memories, whether individual or social/collective, but if that definition is indeed reasonable, functional and suitable, then Posterity may sit helpfully low, like a foundation stone. At the very least, "Posterity" is becoming a key term in my own thinking about historical research, and I realized today I've been using the term somewhat uniquely. To recap:

Twelve days ago I merged several of my own recent thought streams into a post called Narrativizing Critical Points, which clearly owes much more to gleanings and reflections on recent discussions among NT scholars than to anything resembling mastery of those scholars' actual positions. Natch. At any rate, in that post, I began coining this usage:
Sometimes narrative merely records the natural selectivity of a moment's posterity. 
Modern historians of our own recent past work from the first draft known as mass-media journalism. Ancient historians of their own recent past had no such advantage, but in their culture at large some expectations were doubtless more prevalent than others ... popular and dramatic envisionings sometimes pre-impose a particular narrative before the writer begins.
Sometimes a slanted narrative isn't necessarily imposed by a writer, so much as pre-imposed by the writer's sources, or by general posterity beforehand.
In grasping at ways of explaining my thought, I borrowed this less frequent use of "posterity" as something not in the future, but something current, ongoing, or instantaneous. A Google search for "posterity remembers" turns up a slew of examples (mostly from journalism) which illustrate the conceptual shift. Instead of predicting that future generations will remember certain aspects of the past with some degree of mnemonic uniformity, people sometimes remark that today's population at large currently shares some basic understandings of the past that are uniform in detail. (You've probably heard a similar phrase before. "Posterity remembers Lincoln as the great emancipator" and so forth.)

To my current knowledge and understanding, this is not necessarily the same as what any published scholar has yet referred to by "Social Memory", which is often described as being shaped within social groups, motivated by present needs. (Update: Not quite completely; See here.) In contrast, I suggest that "Posterity" may refer to the more generally shared recollections of multiple social groups, across any society with a shared historical background. By definition, then, this requires that Posterity's recollection will almost always claim and reflect less knowledge than any personal or collective memories, but in exchange those claims will also be more foundational regarding any particular topic. By foundational, I do not mean merely more reliable, but also more definitive.

For example, 2013 Democrats may remember Ronald Reagan in certain ways, and 2013 Republicans may remember Ronald Reagan in other ways, but while all of these "memories" are heavily suspect due to ongoing politicization of the past, it may yet remain possible to ascertain commonalities across all of these variously constructed accounts of the past. In the case of Reagan, Democrats and Republicans would probably agree that he was bold in dealing with Russia about nuclear weapons, and that it seemed to have a big impact. Such a common perspective, I submit, does more than testify to the basic veracity of the past memory. In the future, it will almost certainly dictate some contours of future historians' future narratives about Reagan. In short, the ubiquity of Posterity demands its own place at History's writing desk.

Four days after my post about Narrativizing Critical Points, that newly crystallized thinking suddenly intersected with some (also recent) deeper reflections on R.T. France's introductory remarks (in one of his commentaries on Matthew) about Judea and Galilee in the Gospels. Things that occurred to me in parallel now connected, and I posted on Identifying Jesus Geographically:
the basic geographic arc of Jesus' story, along with its corresponding good or ill fortune, was more than enough in the first century to let anyone know 'who he was', or at least who you were talking about.
the popular Galilean guru executed in Judea" is enough to distinguish him against anyone else with remote similarities
People said many things about Jesus' identity, but posterity recalled one basic set of parameters by which to identify Jesus.
The argument of that post built a case for discerning expected reader knowledge (which plays into my search for irony, below) but regardless of that at the moment, my use of "Posterity" continued finding its way toward helpfulness, hopefully. Anyway, by that point I think I had gotten a stronger hold of posterity as societal memories' "least common denominator", although I hadn't phrased it so succinctly for myself until beginning this post tonight, from the top.

In the follow-up post, Geographic Irony in the Gospels, the only new development was attempting to use the new language and/of the new concepts helpfully. The first paragraph from that post tried five or six different ways of saying the same thing, since I honestly had no idea which would make most clear what I was trying to say. Other linguistic and historiographical experiments from that (loooong) post include:
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 
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." 
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 
posterity rarely seeks much explanation for ubiquitous absolutes. It doesn't provoke much challenge to mention something so universally familiar 
once we realize posterity's complete pre-knowledge about Jesus' basic geographical story-arc, the meager explanation [for Antipas' ignorance of Jesus] is easy to allow 
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. 
the long noted geographic "theme" in the Gospels is not something the writers worked to create, or superimposed over their facts [but] 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.
In conclusion tonight, I must again underscore how much I am still exploring my own paths towards saying helpful and meaningful things, both in analyzing the Gospel narratives for historical benefit and working towards more substantially confident ways of composing Narrative History based on the Gospels.

This fresh approach may or may not be entirely original, but I hope it has been applied uniquely and helpfully,  with all proper respect due to past posterity and present posterity, and for the sake of present posterity and for future posterity. (Or should that be "posterities"?)

Moreso than ever, now, your feedback and constructive criticisms will be greatly appreciated.

Anon, then...

January 10, 2013

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?"

January 8, 2013

Identifying Jesus Geographically


He was the popular Galilean guru, arrested and killed in Judea. That's not nearly enough to explain Jesus' identity, but it's the minimum information sufficient to identify Jesus, distinguishing him from other famous gurus of his era. (Or prophets. Or rabbis. Or rabble-rousers. Or what-have-you's.) While other distinctive elements of Jesus' story are far more significant in explaining who he was and what he was all about, the basic geographic arc of Jesus' story, along with its corresponding good or ill fortune, was more than enough in the first century to let anyone know 'who he was', or at least who you were talking about.

While Judas "the Galilean" was also dispatched by Romans in Judea, he was not known to be popular in Galilee, nor did he generate much influence around his true home of Gamala in Gaulanitis, until his sons were fully grown, decades after Judas' death. While Judas "son of Ezekias" gained influence in Galilee, he was not known to show much interest in Judea, or to make any impact there, and he was destroyed by the Romans who burned Sepphoris. While John the Baptist was arrested in Judea, he was beheaded in Antipas' territory by the Herodian tetrarch. John's popularity spanned both Judea and Galilee, but his famous end was not blamed on Judea. And although, years later, one Theudas was also killed by the Romans in or near Judea (or at least, near the Jordan), this mysterious man was never said to be anyone among the Galileans, much less even a Galilean himself.

Again, that Jesus was "the popular Galilean guru executed in Judea" is enough to distinguish him against anyone else with remote similarities. It is further unique that Jesus was arrested and pushed toward Roman justice because of the Judean authorities, according to the Gospels.

At any rate, no other would-be or so-called revolutionary guru met his end in Judea, before 67 to 70 AD. 

Along with Judas of Gamala, Jesus was the only other significant outsider who took his mission and message evangelistically into Judea, and the only other rebellious-type to be taken down within Judea itself. But unlike Judas of Gamala, Jesus was the one and only such figure to be arrested and dealt with by the Judean authorities primarily. This makes all the more sense given that Jesus’ chief target of criticism was not Rome or Caesar, but those would be authorities over Judaism, the authorities whom Jesus’ followers believed were ruining the glorious nature of what Judaism was supposed to be all about, truly.

At least, all this was the story being told at the time and for years afterwards. Setting aside today’s scholarly discussions about imperial criticism and Roman responsibility for Jesus death, the point at hand is that Matthew’s original audience was being told a story whose basic parameters were extremely familiar.

The record supports this and the Gospels themselves [that is, their strong narrative reliance on Jesus' geographical story-arc; that is, such reliance, itself] strongly suggest that this pattern was indeed fully unique.

Who was Jesus? In the most primary of identifications possible, Jesus was the popular Galilean guru, the one arrested and killed in Judea, reportedly due to machinations of the Judean authorities. People said many things about Jesus' identity, but posterity recalled one basic set of parameters by which to identify Jesus.

Therefore, whenever a Gospel writer plays up the contrast between Judea and Galilee, whatever else that Gospel writer may be doing, he is, at the very least, building upon information the audience already knows.

And that tiny point is my clever segue for another blog post, in days to come...

January 4, 2013

Narrativized 'Critical Points'

In Algebra/Calculus, "critical points" or "inflection points" are said to occur where the curve* changes direction. In Narrative/Storytelling, there's a similar phenomenon.

Events can feel more dramatic when they alter potential, instead of causing actual change. Consider the departure of a powerful or dynamic individual. An enormous drama attaches itself to such moments, not merely because of various opportunities that might suddenly open or close, but (more significantly) because a massive amount of psychological energy is immediately expended by people trying to make sense of their altered expectations.

Anticipation is inherently dramatic. In our minds, we are all stage actors, constantly rehearsing, rewriting and redirecting our own future scripts. Thus, major changes in life feel more "dramatic" because they wipe the script clean, which demands immediate mental rewriting of tomorrow's blank page. Your own mental narrator prepared you to expect things would go in a certain way, and now things are suddenly different. Dramatically different.

Now consider the narration of history. Modern critics are right to hold as suspect any writer whose narrative is a little too dominant or a bit too convenient for the sponsor of its publishing. But what of dramatic perspective? Emplotment is always dramatic, but is that always suspect?

The narrative emphasis on certain critical points may not always reveal an overly selective bias on the part of the writer. Sometimes, in a non-fiction account, the dramatic positioning of plot elements may simply reflect the dramatic tension felt by participants at the time. Sometimes, assuming the writer worked from good sources, a dramatic telling of history may be giving us much fact and slight bias, instead of the opposite, which is what critics often [try to] assume.

'Emplotment' isn't always misleading. The human proclivity to narrativize is more than our way of creating sense out of chaos. Sometimes, narrativizing gives us the ability to recognize sense within chaos. By simplifying, although hopefully without over-simplifying, a good narrator can at least illustrate how major factors contributed to altering the more popular (or culturally dominant) projections. Sometimes narrative merely records the natural selectivity** of a moment's posterity.

Modern historians of our own recent past work from the first draft known as mass-media journalism. Ancient historians of their own recent past had no such advantage, but in their culture at large some expectations were doubtless more prevalent than others. The lunar eclipse that came near Herod's death was no portent, but it was remembered because so many minds were predisposed to considering it as portent. Thus, popular and dramatic envisionings sometimes pre-impose a particular narrative before the writer begins.

Whether making or recognizing sense out of chaos, patterns can/do emerge in the vast sweep of massive human activity, and the simplest pattern to observe is the 'big change'. Call it***, the Critical Point.

In Math, a critical point is the easiest to "zero" in on, to identify [locate], and to "plot". In Historical Literature, a critical point it's exactly the same. In both cases, the critical point is just one of infinite points, each contributing to ongoing tangential change. In both cases, the critical point is a supremely helpful location from which to begin exploring, understanding, and eventually sketching/presenting to others all that preceded, and all that followed. 

In a practical sense - whether for purposes of engaging with narrative or reconstructing a history, or both - the critical point is always much more significant because all other points absolutely appear to lead into and flow out from the critical point. In working with narrative, I think the helpfulness of these critical points matters much more than the way we prefer to characterize them.

History changes far less than the projected futures that lived and died as actual history developed, and there are far more historical changes at play than the number of critical points that present themselves for examining. As always, if the choice is to tear down or build, my personal preference is clear.

Sometimes a slanted narrative isn't necessarily imposed by a writer, so much as pre-imposed by the writer's sources, or by general posterity beforehand. 

Progress isn't always progress, of course, but as long as human beings cannot help but keep projecting ahead of themselves, things will always progress. Or appear to. And we will keep on narrativizing critical points.****

Writing them. Reading them. Learning from them.

Hopefully...

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

*Mathematical inflection points aren't really about the curve, but the tangent. When we say the "direction" changes, we're talking about the instantaneously projected angle (slope/derivative/tangent).

**Pun only partly intended, but even anti-evolutionists believe in some degree of natural selection. At any rate, if some ancient narratives survived because they are fittest, then social memory may be somewhat Darwinian. Perhaps. So to speak. ; - )

***I used this term elsewhere in discussing chronology as a math problem, where some data points are more helpful in finding solutions because they provide boundaries, such as the classic 'terminus a quo' or 'quem'. Here I obviously mean something a bit different but the metaphor is almost the same.

****I'm pretty sure I said something stupid or revealed my true ignorance somewhere while trying too hard to be oh-so insightful in this piece. If you find it, please tell me. I've run out of editing time. But hey... it's a blog, right?
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