May 12, 2014

Four Ways the Gospels Chronologize

OR: How Historical Fiction and Non-fiction Narratives Chronologize, as illustrated by the cannonical Gospel writings 

and also as illustrated by the movie Forrest Gump


To narrate is to sequence, but narrative sequence is not the same thing as chronology. While formal chronology is recognized as the delineation of specific times and dates, and the correlation of those with significant events (and thus, by extension, with entire chains of events), there is usually little of this formal chronologizing to be found within most types of narrative. On the other hand, any narrative (by definition) represents temporality in the plainest sense of events progressing from one to another - because stories need to have "a beginning, a middle, and an end", as they say - and of course there are various ways in which narratives work to convey aspects of that temporality, and/or to manipulate those aspects in creative ways for literary effect. Thus, time itself (so to speak) is an integral part of what narrative is, but a narrative itself is not remotely the same as chronology, whether formal or informal.

More to my particular interest, all these points apply equally to historical narratives, also. That is, even historical narratives are not recognized as such because they make efforts to convey recognizable times and dates with a formal chronological layout. In fact, most historical narratives do not make formal chronology a prominent part of their style. Rather, the primary characteristic that makes stories recognizable as "historical narratives" is being set in the recognizable past (background) and telling stories about figures who were part of that era (foreground, non-fiction) or stories about characters a writer puts into that era (foreground, fiction).

Thus, whether fiction or factual, the key point is that any historical narrative must be set in the recognizable past, preferably in some particular portion of the past which an audience will find to be particularly familiar. Now, putting aside the question (for a moment) of how it is that an audience recognizes past things - and whether that occurs more by memorizing key points of factual knowledge or by recognizing social memories (memorializations) of those historical periods, or both - my question for today will restrict itself to the chronologizing efforts apparent in narrative as literature.

That means today's question is not How do narratives chronologize? or How does social memory chronologize? but more basically and more specifically, How do historical narratives chronologize?

To begin with, there is always the representation of temporality that occurs in generally the same way(s) within all narratives, to convey continuity and progression of events within the "narrative time" of a story itself. In a manner of speaking, we might call this "foreground chronologizing", noting how it occurs in similar ways in all narratives, fact or fiction, with or without a recognizably "historical background". However, regarding historical fiction specifically, there are sometimes different methods for chronologizing foreground events as opposed to background description (I'm thinking specifically about types of stories where historical references merely provide exposition or enhance the setting, and only this type of narrative has what can be strictly delineated as "historical background" as this term is most commonly used). But in many if not most types of historical narratives, fiction and non-fiction, there is no clear divide between methods of chronologizing foreground material as opposed to background material. Let me give an example.

Paul Maier's novel about Pontius Pilate and Peter Richardson's biography about Herod the Great both represent recognizable figures from history and famous events from the past as a portion of their foregrounded narrative, or central storyline. One is historical fiction and one is nonfiction narrative, but both are historical narratives because they tell stories about figures in a recognizable past era, a familiar period of history. Although Richardson's biography makes formal efforts to align its narrative at points with the dates of specific calendar years, so does Maier's novel, although the novel does this much less frequently than the biography. Likewise, in Suetonius or Plutarch or Thucydides or the Odyssey or the Gospels there is very little in the way of formal chronology (though there is some in each of these sources) but compare this with the consistent reference to years and dates and durations that one finds in Tacitus or Dio Cassius or somewhat less frequently in Josephus.

Undeniably, all of these works are accurately to be described as historical narratives. The Odyssey begins at the time of the Trojan War, which was believed to be a real event however legendary its epic treatment had become, and that places it in the Mycenaean age, which classical Greeks could at least recognize as a historical epoch prior to the eras of Herodotus and Thucydides. Likewise, the Gospels are set within recent decades of their first century audiences, each one fixing their narrative in the age of Augustus and Herod and Pilate and Annas and so forth. In fact, since the historical figure of John the Baptist appears to have been more recognizable than Jesus for many social groups in the early and later first century, the baptizer's narrative purpose is arguably to be a reference point as much as a character.  Certainly, Pilate and Antipas are both historical figures who also act and speak as characters within the story. Their dialogue does not necessarily make these characterizations any more fictitious than Dio's Augustus or Thucydides' Pericles, but their foregrounding within narrative does make the challenge at hand less distinct than one might wish it to be. If the Gospels are fiction they are more like Maier's Pilate and less like Homer's Odyssey. But the point here is not their degree of fictitiousness, but their degree of utilizing familiar elements of the audience's historical past.

Therefore, if we are to determine how the Gospels chronologize, we must consider more than whether they state true facts or how often they present any formally chronoligcal data points. Instead, we must consider more carefully the specific ways in which all sorts of historical narratives chronologize. How do stories about the past help a reader to recognize a particular historical era(s), not to mention the ongoing progression of that  past? In particular, how to the Gospels chronologize? How do they "keep time" so to speak? How do they sort out the correlation of narrated events with the recognizable events of "background settings".

I will now suggest four basic categories for preliminary consideration, In simple terms, these categories are:

   (1) Numbers
   (2) Names
   (3) Death, and 
   (4) Irreversibles

A quick note here, at the outset: the first two categories are based on association while the last two categories are based on contingency. Technically, the third category could be a subset of the fourth, but I believe death is so frequently used to demarcate our remembrance of past times that it deserves its own discussion.

Again, these categories I am suggesting are not complicated. The innovation here (hopefully) is to demonstrate that certain types of historical references are also intrinsically chronological . The impact here (hopefully) will be to establish that the Gospels therefore *do* present more of a chronological awareness than has been recognized in the past, albeit an informal or literary (non-scientific) style of chronological awareness. The tricky part is only to keep in mind that we are analyzing a narrative as literature in order to note it makes reference to particular and recognizable periods of historical time.

What follows are preliminary observations. This entire post - as with most of my online work - is mostly to suggest, to help formulate and to inspire future research. This is what I have so far: the question, laid out thus far as precisely as I can, and these preliminary options for answering it. So without further ado...

   (1) Numbers

As with Suetonius or Thucydides, there are some places in the four Gospels that distinctly employ numbers to mark ages, days, years, and so forth. Obviously, these are the first places interpreters have traditionally looked in for any hope of reconstructing a formal chronology of Jesus' life. Infamously, their scant supply and arguably dubious value have assisted many commentators towards the conclusion that "the Gospels are not chronologically oriented" or something to that general effect.

Now, while my purpose in this piece is not to catalogue or to analyze such numerical (formal) chronology in the Gospels, I would like to point out that the numerical method (formal dates) for keeping track of past epochs in a story is far from being the most common method that people normally use. To illustrate this, I ask you to consider the movie Forrest Gump (1994) which was universally recognized as a fiction story set against recent decades of United States history, and yet which rarely mentioned what year it was in the ongoing progression of story time. There was one scene at a New Year's Eve party where the number appeared for a moment or two. Can you think of another such bit? How was Forrest Gump so recognizably a story that took place in historic periods of time if the movie rarely mentioned the date?

Although numbers can help keep track of how stories move through past time, the informal methods appear to be far more efficient and reliable at assisting people to recognize certain phases or periods of times past.

   (2) Names

The famous references that open Luke's second and third chapters are easily recognizable as a deliberate effort to chronologize because Luke name-checks these political figures while mentioning political times - "in those days", "the first census", "the fifteenth year [of rule]", or simply "when" each big name was the ruler of some place. However, the rhetorical effect of name-checking a famous historical figure becomes even more significant for the chronologizing of a story when that historical figure also steps into the foreground of the narrative.

As mentioned above, at whatever moment a Gospel writer inserts Herod or Pilate into the thick of the story, that historical reference immediately notifies the reader/audience that this part of the story takes place during a recognizable portion of their political history. What is critical to note here is that this reference is entirely chronological without being precise. To say that Pilate was governor ('hegemon', Mt.27:2, Lk.3:1) is inherently a chronological reference for any audience who could remember that different governors served before Pilate and different governors served after him. In fact, this facet holds even without the word governor, which Mark's and John's Gospel writers apparently felt would have been unnecessary exposition.

Likewise, any mention of Herod 'the tetrarch' (or even Herod as the man who ruled Galilee) is automatically a chronological reference, albeit again imprecise, because any audience with even cursory knowledge about their own past history will immediately place this portion of story time in-between the prior epoch, when Herod the Great ruled a much larger kingdom, and the later epochs, when Herod Agrippa restored the old Kingdom (under Emperor Claudius) or when Roman Governors took the same jurisdiction after Agrippa was gone. To illustrate how the Gospel's utilize Pilate or Herod as a chronological reference point, consider the way Forrest Gump utilized the American Presidents. When JFK, LBJ and Nixon appeared on the screen with the movie's protagonist, there was no need to detail whether it was 1961 or 62, 68 or 69, and so forth. For that matter, although Nixon's appearance was narratively coordinated to reference the night of the famous Watergate break-in, there was no need to provide the very knowable date of that event. Case-in-point, it was far more chronologically evocative for the American audience to think, "Oh, the story is now taking place on the night of the Watergate break in." In other words, that event is *when* the movie now was. By contrast, to have flashed the date "June 17, 1972" without illustrating its significance would have been more precise but far less telling. We do not remember numbers so well as we remember events.

Also, as touched on above, John the Baptist may indeed be as much a chronological reference point as a character in the story, if a readership could be expected to remember that period of time when the baptizer was much publicized for his notorious preaching and ministry. In this case, the general chronologizing that is relative to John would simply be that before John there had never been quite such a person. To make another illustrative analogy via the movie Forrest Gump, John the Baptist was an inherently chronological figure in the same way as was the televised and pelvis-shaking Elvis Presley. Both were surprising and controversial figures who arrived suddenly and immediately changed people's awareness about what was possible in their respective fields of religion and music. The remembrance of either man is inherently chronological, because there was no complete precedent before him, and because after him many things became truly and irrevocably different.

   (3) Death

This is the big one (Elizabeth). The most obvious way in which death counts as chronology is the ancient custom of counting periods of years from the death of a previous king or an Emperor. Ancient calendars were very efficient to reckon by "regnal years" because each new zero year was a major nexus of change, and all the successive years marked an ongoing phase of stability, and to some degree that's really all that traditional political history ever tried to record. They looked back to recount moments of change in between periods of stability. In full effect, therefore, the death of a king or an emperor is tantamount to a numerical reference, because that was always year zero for whatever succeeding regime.

In far more practical ways, the death of a major historical ruler was always a chronological watershed because a vast number of things necessarily changed when that person was gone. If the king had been weak, many things would now change at his death. If the king had been strong, things would change in many different ways. The death of Herod the Great is an intensely chronological reference because so many dramatic events were only then set in motion, and because none of those drastic changes could have possibly taken place in the years and days when Herod was still alive. The fifteenth year of Tiberius was a long time after Augustus had died, and the amount of change was incrementally greater the more time passed from when everyone had lived under his great political shadow.

Which is more chronological? To put a number on something or to imply a point before and after which everything seemed to change? Again, illustrating this principle in the movie Forrest Gump, the movie's strongest sense of chronology comes in Forrest's personal life by the deaths of his Momma, his friend Bubba, and his beloved Jenny. No dates are necessary for these major life changes. Rather, these changes are better than dates. Before and after each death, all of life changed for Forrest. When a moment exists before and after which your dearest friend and daily companion is gone, there is no more succinct way to distinguish one period of life as being different from another.

In the Gospels, this same principle applies in different ways to the deaths of non-rulers. At some points the Gospels illustrate that John's death changed things for Jesus because they show different kinds of events happening after John's death which had not seemed possible in the narrative's previous phase. While John was alive and in prison, Jesus gained notoriety in Galilee. After John died, Jesus travels more widely and seems to avoid Galilee. Whether this change in geography makes this Gospel pattern seem reliable as history is a separate concern, but this change in our protagonist's movement is narratively correlated with the dramatic death of a well known historical figure. That, by definition, is a chronologically precise reference to specific aspects of the Gospel's historical background.

In minor ways, perhaps, the principle of death as a chronological marker may also apply to minor characters that could have been known in real life by the Gospel's original recipients. If Rufus and Alexander were either dead or not yet dead when Mark's Gospel was first published, but either way any audience who knew those men could determine generally how long ago Jesus' execution might have been simply by comparing (alternatively) the age of these men or how long it had been since they died. This goes likewise for the beloved disciple, if indeed John's original audience knew such a person in real life. Although these characters' later life does not impact the chronology going on within the Gospel story itself, their death or non-death (for an original audience who knew them) actually puts their chronological value in the category of name-checking (2), IFF the original audience could use their life to place events in the past, just as a wider audience could use Pilate or Herod the Tetrarch of John the Baptist to date events in the past.

This brings us to the final category which I have to propose. While I admit it's a bit of a catch-all, it may actually provide the most important considerations of all, for understanding how historical narratives (such as the Gospels, or Forrest Gump) seek to chronologize. I was going to call this category "Contingencies" but I decided that term has far more value as a general concept than a distinct category, and I also decided to go with something that hopefully sounds more specific.

   (4) Irreversibles

Death is obviously the most irreversible, but death deserved it's own category. Nevertheless, death makes the point. If a writer can legitimately purport that two distinct events happened which could only have happened in one particular sequence, then those two events may be called "irreversible". For another obvious example, consider birth. The birth of Jesus or John the Baptist cannot be narratively restructured to occur in the middle of their lives. This seems so obvious it borders on being stupid or insulting, but it's not so very different than other overlooked changes which take place in the interior space of the Gospels' narrative accounting.

If John the Baptist has a period of freedom, and then goes to prison, where he is eventually killed, that sequence of events bears a powerful and obvious contingency which makes that sequence quite absolutely irreversible. There is no rational way to propose that the narratives have creatively rejuxtaposed this particular collection of fact-claims. We cannot suppose that John's period of unrestricted ministry took place after his imprisonment any more than we can suppose that John died before he was arrested. The most a critic might do is find reason to doubt one or all of these fact-claims in themselves, but if the fact-claims are accepted their internal chronology cannot be considered suspect as the product of narrative. John was born, grew up, became notorious in his ministry, got arrested, sat in prison, and was executed. If it all happened, it necessarily happened in that order. True or false, such a sequence is clearly irreversible.

There are more examples that are less noticed but just as obviously irreversible, assuming the details are factual. To list a few: the disciples could not have been sent out before they were called. On any trip to Jerusalem, or to any place else, Jesus could not have departed from there before he arrived. In any homecoming story, Jesus cannot have "returned" to his hometown before he had left them. If Jesus talks to someone about events from the previous day, the necessity of that timing does not rely on a narrator telling us it was "the next day". If John sends word to Jesus from prison, John has obviously been imprisoned but not yet executed. And so on and so forth.

These examples are almost insulting to point out to anyone, and yet it has gone unnoticed that these examples, when aggregated, quickly begin to account for the majority of significant actions by Jesus, events that took place in the company of both his companions and his antagonists. Any scene with the disciples present may be tentatively declaimed by responsible criticism, but any scene with the disciples that's admitted to have some historical value is a scene that can only be fitted within a particular chronological phase of the larger timeline being purported about Jesus' life. For one disciple-shaped slice of that contingency pie, consider this sequence: Jesus was private, he went public, he attracted followers, he selected the twelve, he sent them on special missions, they abandoned him at his arrest, they returned to him after he rose from the dead. If these things happened, they can only have happened in that particular order.

As above, any critic may feel free to disclaim any of these purported events, but no one can both accept one of these happenings AND also move it to a different point in the above sequence. In the end, many purported events in the Gospels wind up being irreversibly sequenced by the contingent details that take place successively within the otherwise stable continuity, for as much continuity may be evidenced at a given point in the narrative.

To complete the illustrative analogies, there are plenty of irreversible aspects of the Forrest Gump narrative. He went to grade school, high school, college, and then to the military. He could not have learned about shrimp boating from Bubba after Bubba died or after becoming a successful shrimp boat captain himself, and he could not have welcomed Lieutenant Dan to his boat as an old friend before having first met Dan in the army in Vietnam. And so forth. That these events are all fictional in nature is not relevant at this point. What is relevant is that, as presented, they could not have been resequenced in the timeline of the protagonist's own life experience.

What begins to occur to me, while considering Forrest Gump as illustrative of the way human beings all tend to remember their own lives, is that we do not focus so much on Time or Dates or historical figures or a memorized series of major events. What we tend to focus on, in remembering Time, appears to be aspects of Contingency. We seem to remember most whatever it was that appeared to cause change, or whatever we most associated with major moments of change. The present need (for an individual) is that we simply can't remember all of the past, and I suspect this is simply the most efficient way to keep track, which we simply must do if we are to attain any sense of stability in the face of that change.

But now I really digress.

So much for the four categories. I've gone on long enough, still more, and then some. So let me now sum up and conclude the argument of this piece in three sentences, after which I will segue toward my intentions for future research.


The end result of realizing all of this is that any scholar who posits anything to this effect, that "the Gospels are not chronological in their arrangement" has failed to even remotely understand how historical narratives go about establishing chronological relevance in the minds of an audience. Rather, it needs to be recognized that there are at least four ways the Gospels establish chronological reference points, and contingent temporal relativity. They occasionally provide numbers, it is mostly the historically recognizable names, the prominent instances of death and the generally irreversible aspects of narrative content, which altogether provide these historical narratives (fact or fiction) with their intensely chronological character.


The applications of these observations to historical study of the Gospels are probably significant but my own recent work has been going in a more theoretical direction, which I feel has been necessary, partly by way of disclaimer but primarily for the sake of furthering and deepening the research begun here.

One bothersome aspect (to me) in working on these considerations is that I have here only discussed narrative chronologizing in its literary aspects, for its rhetorical effect. I have not here (yet) considered at all whether the underlying memories (which can be detected through narrative) were themselves somewhat chronologized or not. There is much I am still learning how to articulate about memory studies and social memory theory, but it is memory related questions that began to occupy all of my mind shortly after these four categories were conceived, and it is these questions which I will more likely be returning to in the near-er future, before getting back (hopefully) to emphasize more straightfowardly historical issues.

Another primary difficulty of these issues (to me) is the issue of what "Time" actually is. This relates directly to memory in the following way.

It may not be obvious that "Time" can be easily discussed in the context of narrative literature, but for this reason, precisely because Time is a literary effect, a human concept, and an aspect of how we go about representing our storied accounts of the past. What seems least obvious to most is that "Time" is not necessarily a direct aspect of either memory or lived experience. That is, to put this quite bluntly, "Time" is not observably a thing in itself, in the physical universe. (This is an issue which Physicists have debated but the recognition of this position recently seems to be growing.) Among the strongest evidence for this "non-existence" of time (imho) is that the immediate perception of time in actual lived experience is notoriously variable. (I say 'variable' to avoid saying 'relative', because I don't mean relativity, but variety.) If we say time flies and drags and even stops on occasion, in the way we perceive it, then what do we think we are discussing when we speak about "Time"? No real experience, surely, but a perception, an idea, a pure concept, a narrative shaped recollection.

So if "Time" isn't real, except within narrative, then my arguments need to show how chronology can be reasonably considered to represent the actual past and not merely reflect aspects of narrative. Or, if not, we may have serious problems. (!??!)

Let me size up this problem more rigorously. To begin with, if it's correct to say "Time" is merely an aspect of narrative, and time is not part of nature, then time cannot be part of lived experience, and thus it remains unclear whether Time is necessarily an aspect of Memory or Perception, or to what extent brand new perceptions and memories might take shape in our minds before their contents become narrativized.

Therefore, I suspect, what makes the best sense is to reconfigure all arguments by finding ways to keep "Time" out of questions about Memory and to focus instead on whether there are special ways in which human beings memorialize aspects of Contingency.

But that's all yet to come. What I need to say now is that it was these initial considerations, the four ways of Gospel chronologizing, which recently led me to considering how Memory might deal with "Time" (so to speak) and ever since then my brain has been all fixed on considering various aspects of "Contingency".

So, "Contingency" is a topic you might expect to read more about here, very soon.

How do we memorialize contingency? More ultimately, can we trace backwards the trajectory, from narrative to memory, to perception, in order to learn how narrativized and memorialized aspects of contingency might reflect the lived experience of contingent events in the actual past? In short, is contingency a reliable bridge for getting from retrospectively narrativized literature to the actual chronological sequence of particular events in the past? Or does the bedrock lie elsewhere? Or, failing that, is there simply no bedrock at all?

I am hopeful about these research avenues. I appreciate you sticking with me on this...

Anon then...

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