June 18, 2014

Archelaus' brief reign and the district of Galilee - an exercise in rhetoric, irony and remembered chronology

In three paragraphs, I will now summarize the past two years of my work.

Instead of debating accuracy, let’s consider artistry. While it’s clearly a stretch for Matthew’s verb basileuei to suggest Archelaus was reigning as king, the rhetorical maneuver evokes a particular time period, for the knowledgeable reader (or audience). Shortly after King Herod died, when nobody could imagine that Galilee would become independent, Archelaus was widely acclaimed as the presumptive king, waiting on Caesar’s approval to inherit the whole kingdom, within which two of his brothers would each manage their subordinate tetrarchies. Obviously, the evocation of this brief era works diachronically for the knowledgeable reader, who realizes what Joseph will presumably discover, and what God presumably already knows. In the world of the story at this moment, God’s providence is a matter of foreknowledge, but the courageous Joseph is expecting Archelaus to reign over the entire kingdom, including the subregion (merh) of Galilee. An unprecedented separation of previously subordinate tetrarchies is future knowledge for Joseph, as Matthew winks at the reader, who knows it was Archelaus’ trip to Rome that broke up the kingdom and rejected Herod’s longstanding vision of dynasty. If Archelaus is kinging in Judea, he cannot yet have sailed off to Rome. (Cf. Lk.19, Mt.25) Ergo, the district of Galilee was not yet declared independent.

This dramatically ironic new reading becomes self-evidently plausible from a literary perspective once a fresh exegesis permits the necessary historical context to be assumed, but the potential validity of this new interpretation raises a number of difficult questions. First, context – was the order of major events in the years 4 to 3 BC, indeed, as here described? Second, rhetoric – could Matthew’s original audience be expected to know so much about change in particular sequence? Third, memory – can a plausible trajectory be traced from the likely impact of historical events to a social memory of events that retains the necessary contextual information. Fourth, history – if the proposed understanding of Matthew’s background material is accepted, and allowing for various judgments on the historicity on Joseph’s fearing Archelaus, what are the possible ways to reconstruct Joseph’s movement with Mary and Jesus (Egyptian sojourn aside). And finally, in full circle, the text – depending on all the above, what are the various alternatives for explaining why this kind of story about Joseph would be remembered, passed down, and/or constructed as such?

It is easy enough to propose this ironic reading as the writer’s original intention and easy enough to respond with a tentative “how could we know”. What may not be so easy is to determine for oneself whether one really thinks the historical Joseph may have moved from Judea to Galilee – from Judea, that is, if not Egypt. Perhaps Jesus was born in Bethlehem and they only left after the infamous massacre. The possibilities are more than binary, to be sure, and a responsible critical treatment should consider all combinations of possible facts mixed with reasonable interpretations. However, in the final analysis what may be most captivating is how this investigation raises possibilities for understanding the past through Gospel texts. What is the rhetorical nature of the way historical narrative relies upon reader memory? How often does dramatic irony require reader memory of contingency and/or chronology? And last but not least – how else could writers (of narratives set in the past) ever hope to chronologize their historical backgrounds, to provide what is known as “historical context” unless readers are indeed capable of remembering enough major events from the actual past, and/or purported events from the memorialized past, in order to recognize the literary background of a narrated story as being precisely what anyone might consider ‘the’ historical past? In sum, doesn't an ironic historical emplotment require of reader memory a previous baseline of the agreed upon chronicle (narratologically: an historical fabula), and isn't that chronicle (fabula) necessarily constructed of major events? Surely, to some degree, yes. But how can we determine how much readers of a particular era might have been expected to remember? I am confident we may have tangible options to pursue on this last point, and that's as far as I've gotten.

All in all, these questions provide many valuable reasons to consider the impact of Matthew’s artistry in representing a potentially historical relationship between Joseph, Archelaus and Galilee. The ultimate ramifications of this project may indicate new ways of analyzing the Gospels’ historical content, an outcome which, I daresay, we should greatly desire.

Any help or correction in these continuing efforts will be GREATLY appreciated…

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