March 17, 2014

Did Gospel Narrativizing Evolve?

History can't be apologetics when you're trying to *construct*. I'm not focused on defending the Gospels but on building up their offensive capacities. I hope this attitude has also been clear in my recent musings about collective narrativizing or "posterity" as the first draft of history. Instead of trying to build up"reliability" of what I see as chronological markers in the Gospel narratives, as if to prove they can be trusted (which feels like a silly sentence even to type), what I'm after is a relative reliability, as in, where is the bedrock? Where's the starting point? Which point of the Gospel narrativizations, if any, is the *most* reliable place to begin when constructing a history of Jesus' life that's *based upon* these narratives?

Some years ago I supposed that one such "critical point" was the death of John the Baptist, primarily because of its dynamic impact on the course of events, in the way certain opportunities appear to have opened or closed at that moment for Jesus, purely as a result of that death. These days, although I still feel the same way, what I'm trying to do is look behind the Gospel narratives, and behind even the Gospel writers themselves, to ask whether the death of John was an inevitable part of early collective narrativizations. In other words, can it be shown that the impact of some particular event was psychologically affective on a large enough scale that it *must* have altered the internal storylines of enough individuals to necessitate its inclusion in the earliest stories about Jesus' career?

While part of me thinks the answer is an obvious "no" - simply because that's a tall order, as phrased above - I continue to think otherwise.

While the Fourth Gospel doesn't even mention John's death, much less turn its plot around that event, it does allude to John in the past tense, making his death a point of conversation for Jesus at least, and Richard Bauckham has shown that the beloved disciple likely wrote for many readers who would have been familiar with Mark's gospel, and thus familiar with chronologically distinct markers integral to the Jesus story, such as when John's imprisonment did or didn't begin.

So, the later Gospel does not but the earlier Gospels do make John's death a significant plot point, a dynamic event, a distinctive turning point, reference point, critical point, chronological reference, pivotal moment. Things before and after the baptizer's death were quite different for Jesus... or so these narratives would at least make it to seem.

But, which seems more unlikely? Is it easier to believe that the Synoptic writers all happened to concoct this plot point, or at least Mark did and Luke and Matthew followed suit? Is it easier to believe that this particular selectivity of the narrative writers is entirely artificial? Or does it seem more plausible that narrativization can build on natural selectivity? Is it more likely that collective cultural stories would dramatically morph into radically re-chronologized plot structures, or that such collective memories would morph by a more gradual evolutionary process? 

While it's certainly possible that any writer could put forth as dramatic a reconfiguration of past events as that writer desired, we must remember that writers do not perform their artistry in social vacuums. Whatever audience Mark wrote for, those people already had *some* awareness of how past events had involved Jesus and John. And for pre-Markan oral tradition, the same applies but even more so. Stories about known figures do not tend to succeed if they depart drastically from whatever social narratives have been successfully proffered up to that point. Rather, just as the best lies are built upon large swaths of truth, the most effective spin doctor is going to succeed precisely because he builds with prior knowledge without altering so much material that he tempts readers to reject the whole story. Too much alteration would put his precious agenda at risk. If artistry is the aim, either malignant or benign, then slight changes are more likely to be accepted, and promoted, and passed around, and eventually accepted as cannon.

[Note: I've gotten no farther than Jens Schroter's preface and introduction of the new Coppins translation for "From Jesus to the New Testament", but I'm obviously being influenced already, more so by his illustrious herald Chris Keith. Recent developments continue to be very encouraging... but to get back to my own discourse, here...]

My own work for the past two years has been focused on Matthew 2:22, on whether Joseph* expected Archelaus to be ruling Galilee, which makes the verse read both more dramatically and with more theological purpose. [*I mean the character of Joseph, in the story-world, according to what the reader would suppose]

But in doing that work, a key argument of mine is the significance of Herod's death as the chronological marker which Matthew uses to establish a precise window of narrative time, during which all Judeans and Galileans *I contend* would have been expecting to see Archelaus wind up with the entire kingdom. No one predicted what Augustus would split up the kingdom, so if Mt.2:22 evokes a particular memory of that specific time frame, the effect is dramatic irony, as I've blogged about previously.

But that argument, about Herod's death, is what keeps bringing me back to John the Baptist.

And that need to consider how I can reconstruct a plausible social memory, based on the lived experience of historical events, that's what keeps bringing me back to these ideas about the connection between critical events and the initial narrativization of immediate posterity.

Or maybe something like that. I'm just an ex-math teacher with a keyboard in the back of a semi, waiting for this warehouse to unload 30 thousand pounds of tasty old cucumbers.

Hey! Maybe the Gospel narratives are the pickled result of farm fresh posterity. The writers have still done their farm work, but perhaps we can tell which types of narratives are most likely nearer to actual events.

Naah. That's not what I'm suggesting.

I've got a story in mind that *I* am hoping to tell. I'm no interest in defending the Gospels, but apparently I care very much about defending the way *I* wish to build upon them. But what's wrong with that? It's not easy being *this* fresh with no cover. But I keep working.

Anon, then...

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