November 25, 2016

Some Things I Learned at #SBLAAR16

The Society of Biblical Literature meets jointly with the American Academy of Religion. Thus, "SBLAAR16", although many don't realize the official hashtag now alternates each year, according to the downloadable app. If you want to search tweets and facebooking for this year, you'll need to search both #sblaar16 and #aarsbl16. Next year, I assume, it'll be #aarsbl17.

Its mission today depends on whom you ask.

I was in San Antonio for six days. Here's a recap of the highlights from my experience there.

On Thursday, 11/17/16: Before SBL started, I learned a lot listening to Anthony Le Donne and Larry Behrendt discuss Jewish-Christian borders in the context of their friendship. I also learned Anthony cannot shame me into ordering something other than a hamburger, and that Irish Pubs in San Antonio, strangely, do not serve vindaloo.

On Friday, 11/18/16: I learned the IBR (an SBL Affiliate group) has a regular program unit called Ancient Historiography and the New Testament. How did I not know about that before this year? I learned that Anders Runeson is an amazing doctoral supervisor, because he's not only responsible for Jonathan Bernier and Jordan Ryan, but Wally Cirafesi, who presented impressively on Synagogues in the Fourth Gospel. Later at the IBR session, I learned that NT Wright likes to talk during presentations when the crowd's large enough (because he sat behind me). I also learned that Ben Blackwell loves to talk about Biff Tannen. Go figure.

NOTE: From this point on, if you want more information, you can search by presenter and read their abstracts at the SBL web site's 2016 Online Program Guide.

On Saturday, 11/19/16: I learned that both Elizabeth Shively and Michael Whitenton have been following the work of David Herman in cognitive narratology, which is thrilling. It was especially interesting to hear Shively combine genre theory and schema theory in discussing "the mind-narrative nexus". In that same session, Mark Matson showed how the absence of specific locations and temporal detail in Luke's travelogue contrasts sharply with the rest of GLuke, essentially telling the audience to suspend "story time" for a "fictive space". Although I'd wanted to attend the Josephus section, I committed to spend time in sessions on the Synoptic Gospels, because that's where I need to do the most anthropological research, observing the Gospels scholars in those sessions. They are indeed such fascinating and curious beings. My notebook is filling up rapidly.

After lunch I caught some reviews of Richard Hays' Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels. Unsurprisingly, there were strong and general compliments, but some felt Hays pushes his method too far. For example, Moberly passed out a copy of Yeats' The Second Coming, pointing out the two famous excerpts "the centre cannot hold" and "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity", which we've all heard many times but which do not - for most of us - evoke the rest of the poem's content. Thus, how can we say "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me" is necessarily meant to evoke ALL of Psalm 22 on Jesus' lips at the cross? The line was undoubtedly familiar, but did people know the whole thing? It seems difficult to say so. Still, I bought the book and I'll look forward to reading the Matthew chapter especially.

My favorite is the one whose eyes follow you.

I missed the Historical Jesus session with A.-J. Levine and Dominic Crossan (see Anthony's write up of that on The Jesus Blog) but I caught the one later on, in which Chris Keith's work in Jesus' Literacy was rightfully praised. Also in that session, a senior scholar acknowledged the prominence of the recent memory approach, in his general survey of the field, but when politely pressed during the Q&A that senior scholar couldn't describe how it might be compared or contrasted with his other main topics. It's disappointing when professionals haven't fully done their homework on the growing trends in their fields. Another senior scholar (who presided but did not present a paper this year) also said to my wife (something to this effect) that the memory approach was a niche designed to support new scholars in the field. That comment is a tragedy only for the scholar in question. The memory approach is a big part of the shift that is presently underway, and those who don't pay more attention are only going to be hurting themselves.

That night was the blogger dinner, which has shrunk over the years (as has blogging) but it was still fun to see friends old and new. It was also the first time since breakfast on Saturday that I saw my wife, Sarah. She'd been in different sessions all day, learning all sorts of things, which you can read about on her blog.

At some point on Saturday, I also learned from one seminary professor that a comment/idea I shared in our conversation last year is now a regular part of his class lectures on reconstructing the historical Jesus, which is not a bad start. May his tribe henceforth increase!

I briefly raided the book room on Saturday morning to find Jonathan Bernier's new book, hot off the press, but Michael Barber had just snagged the last copy, right as I got there, so I ordered one at the conference discount. I dearly wish J-Bern had been able to make it. When the subject is historical Jesus research, a bit of Bernier really makes everything better.

I can't be mad. I'm glad Michael loves him some J-Bern. Grrrrr...

On Sunday, 11/20/16, Sarah and I both attended the John, Jesus, and History session where Marianne Meye Thompson, James Crossley, Chris Keith, and Jens Schroeter. It was probably the best all around panel I got to this year, and the Q&A was absolutely the most fun. Mid-day sunday was our afternoon in the book room, catching up on new books and running into old friends. By the end of the week, Sarah wound up buying eight books and I bought ten! We also bought a copy of Dale Allison's Constructing Jesus (2010) for a dear friend who really should read that book asap, and he knows who he is, and I hope that he will.

On Sunday evening we sat in a session on Ancient Fiction and heard an interesting paper from Eric Vanden Eykel that's related to his new book on the Protoevangelium of James. After that we split up again and I did some more anthropology in the Matthew section, observing Matthean scholars in their native environment. They didn't eat me. Perhaps someday I will acclimate to their peculiar ways and their deeply embedded cultural repertoire of textual and theological references. Maybe someday I'll also learn the best way to pitch them an abstract about literary representation of the historical past. I got some more excellent advice on that front. More news may come soon, hopefully, on my own ongoing development...

On Sunday night I had a wonderful surprise dinner invite from some young scholars who give me very much cause for great hope. I shall say no more, except that historical imagination is of critical importance for NT studies, and that hope is a precious thing, always.

A magnificent masterpiece of historiography! 

On Monday, 11/21/16, I began my day with the highlight of my week. All four panel reviewers heaped glowing praise on Steve Mason and his magnum opus (for now), A History of the Jewish War: AD 66-74. It's a magnificent book - I've read nearly half of its 689 pages to date, and I may attempt a review at some point, but not now. Hearing Dr. Mason and Erich Gruen give lectures is always exceptional, although I wish their type of thinking were more common among New Testament scholars. On that note, perhaps the best news of all is that Mason promised a new book addressing historical theory and methodology from a pedagogical angle, to be published next year. I will put out further details about that as soon as I can confirm.

Mid-day Monday, I made some appointments to meet individually with a couple of scholars and I snuck in just in time for the Q&A of what must have been a whiz-bang session in Bible in Ancient and Modern Media. Sometimes I learn more from the Q&A when I'm not well versed in the sub-field. Make that, especially when I'm not well versed in the sub-field. I also got to meet Tommy Wasserman for the first time IRL, and a senior textual critic and patristics scholar told me he's enjoyed reading my blog for several years now, every time it shows up in the running feed on Tommy's blog. This fine gentleman of very obviously good taste also said I do a good job of "asking the perennial questions" and he thinks that doing so is important. Well, hallelujah and amen to that, kind sir!

It matters, you guys. It all matters. Keep working!

A final highlight on Monday evening was catching most of the review panel for Eva Mroczek's intriguing new volume, The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity. (This is another area where I sit in mostly to learn new things about a related sub-field.) I haven't yet perused more than her table of contents, nor gathered about this new book much more than its gist, but it's garnered some chatter among those whom I notice. What's more, if I'm gathering correctly, its basic argument seems unassailable, and its impact seems potentially enormous. Best of all, meeting Eva was another first time "online IRL" moment, and it was fun watching her live non-verbal reactions to the presenters' thoroughly positive reviews. I must say, I don't think I've ever seen anyone be simultaneously so kick-ass and so adorable. We should all take notes watching Eva, probably. I know I'm going to do so.

Constructing Worlds in Books, in Minds, in Groups

By the way, that's the best thing about going to SBL, really. You not only cement your familiarity with the names and faces, but you get to put personalities together with scholarship. You get to learn who's an insufferable blow hard and which ones are absolutely the salt of the earth. Yes, there surely are some of each, but then, we all have our moments!

On Tuesday, 11/22/16, I was delighted by Eve Marie Becker's "Beyond History: How the Fourth Gospel Transcends Ancient Historiography" and absolutely in awe of Rafael Rodriguez' "What is History? Reading the Gospel of John as a Historical Text". I had to run out quickly from there, however, because someone scheduled the John, Jesus, and History section concurrently with the final Historical Jesus session. With a bit of speed, and a scheduled break for the HJ group, I arrived in time to hear Jordan Ryan present on "Jesus and Synagogue Disputes: A Historiographical Approach to the Institutional Setting of Luke 13:10-17", after which followed the delightful surprise of Bas van Os (first name sounds like "Bus"), on "Deconstructing the Chronology of Jesus". Admirably, my new best friend Bas demonstrated a stunning mastery of the ancient record from Josephus, Tacitus, and Dio Cassius, and surprised me with a connection or two that I had not made myself. Provocatively, he reviewed problems with the universally rejected chronology of classicist Nikos Kokkinos, but then argued persuasively that the more preferred chronologies among NT scholars aren't necessarily any more defensible than Kokkinos' chronology, if you apply the same rigor to examining all of them. As soon as I can make time, Bas and I need to talk more; hopefully, a lot more.

Between Bas van Os' SBL paper, Helen Bond's recent NTS article, "Dating the Dath of Jesus", and Jonathan Bernier's forthcoming project on dating the NT books, a time may be soon coming where we might need to clear the field a bit and formally re-open the field of New Testament Chronology. Perhaps someone with the appropriate privileges might even propose a new SBL program unit? I can be patient. I raise my game a bit more every year...

One last word on that Tuesday morning schedule. It's an absolute crime that those two sessions were scheduled competitively because I had to miss out on top quality papers by Anthony Le Donne, Tom Thatcher, Michael Barber, and Brant Pitre. Whoever's responsible should be scowled at severely. Harumph.

After that last paper, Os and Jordan got a free airport shuttle run in the Heroman mirth-mobile, and then Sarah and I drove north. The pain of leaving SBL16 was diminished somewhat by my very first trip to the famous Texas instittution known as Buc-ee's, and Sarah would blog about her first SBL the next day at Earth's Crammed with Heaven.

In the end, the only bad thing about this year's SBL was that it ever had to end.

Hopefully we'll see all y'all next year in Bawstan...


October 15, 2016

"Historical" Narratives: Foregrounding and Backgrounding

Stories set in the historical past include histories AND historical fiction, which means "fiction or non-fiction" can be an unhelpful distinction. To suggest more helpful categories, let's try "foreground or background".

Story worlds set in the "present day" easily evoke readers' extensive awareness of their own present world. In most fiction and journalism, as well as much that is memoir and contemporary biography, the narrator can frequently, easily, and confidently refer to ubiquitous facts, terms, locations, contexts, customs, and practices which need no explanation. Whether fiction or non-fiction, then, stories set in the recent past (or "specious present") can devote nearly all their attention to foregrounded material, usually without working hard to evoke much "background" at all.

In contrast, story worlds set in the past must evoke audience knowledge that is sketchy or second-hand. Whatever audiences think they know about "the past" may derive from personal, social, collective and/or cultural memory but that "knowledge" will surely be evoked with all the distortion, uncertainty, and vagueries of mnemonic awareness. Narrative representations of famous figures and well known events must construct their historical background by evoking familiar and sometimes unfamiliar aspects of history, which means some stories therefore work harder than others to establish just how a foregrounded storyline relates to the background of history.

In short, background evokes things the reader already (thinks that she) knows, and foreground informs the reader about developments previously unknown. And, just to reiterate, these dynamics affect any story situated in the historical past, whether fiction or non-fiction.

Now, what's really interesting is how differently these two basic functions can be applied.

In his contribution to Reading Historical Fiction (2013), Hamish Dalley suggested a working taxonomy with two types of Hist-Fic storytelling, focusing on the historical status of the protagonist in terms of personal agency. To illustrate using popular movies, one type is like Cameron's Titanic and another is like Spielberg's Lincoln. That is, one type keeps historical material predominantly in the background, while the other foregrounds historical figures as protagonists.

In Titanic, the protagonists' power to affect their own lives (in the foregrounded narrative) does not extend as far as altering the famous event (the historical background), which - we know from the outset - is going to dominate that movie's basic plot. The story is therefore focused about how Jack and Rose react to the boat sinking. Background and foreground interact at key points, but remain mostly separate, running parallel for most of the storyline.

That's a very different relationship between background and foreground than we find in Lincoln, in which the protagonists themselves are historical figures whose personal agency works to bring about the famous events, which - we know from the outset - are going to bring about the story's denouement. Because foreground and background are more fully integrated, the story focuses on illustrating and explaining how that ending comes to pass, and what else happened along the way.

Note: Dalley noted this probably isn't a full taxonomy, and I won't try to expand it myself in this space, but it might be fun to sketch a punnet square on foreground/background, and evocation/information. A third division might regard fact & fiction. Are there any kinds of storytelling where the whole background is both non-historical and built largely by exposition? Sci-fi and counterfactual histories come to mind. Or what about foregrounds that stick entirely to well known points of historical fact while the background (remember, not the back-story, but the period-setting) is fictionalized? I'd have to imagine something like Shakespeare's Julius Caesar set on Jor-el's Krypton. But, now I have severely digressed...

Dalley's two categories provide a working taxonomy for stories set in the past. He applied it to literary works of historical fiction, but the same principles hold for non-fiction, despite considerations of historicity. For a quick proof case, I could tell you the story of how my grandfather was captured in the Battle of the Bulge (1943). In telling that story, the relationship between foreground and background would clearly parallel the case of Titanic, rather than Lincoln, and yet the story is completely non-fiction. For the other category, while most proper works of history are easily distinguished by incorporating substantial stretches of analysis (authorial exposition), it's just as obvious that historians routinely ascribe agency to the major figures in their non-fiction literary portrayals.

The point by now should be clear. Whether fiction or non-fiction, stories set in the past can be categorized based on the way they construct a relationship between foreground and background.

To wrap up today, let's connect this with New Testament studies.

Whether fiction or non-fiction, Matthew 2 is like Titanic. We know Herod dies and Archelaus takes over. We know Galilee is going to be split off from Judea and handed over to Herod Antipas. We know Jesus will be safe there. Because we already know all this stuff (or we should, because a first century Judean audience absolutely would have known these major events from their own recent history before hearing the Gospel according to Matthew) the writer is focused on forming connections, explaining how his protagonists (Joseph & Mary) reacted to these famous events and were affected by them. For another example, we might consider the episodes where Jesus stands before Pilate, in which Jesus' pending fate has caught up with him so completely that his agency as a character (actually, if not potentially) has effectively disappeared.

Other episodes in the Gospels, whether fiction or non-fiction, are more like Lincoln. The early christian audience already knew Jesus was going to be crucified at the end of the story. What's shocking is the idea that Jesus embraced this fate early on, and that Peter was initially against it. Likewise, we already know Jesus is going to rise from the dead. That's why the original (shorter) ending of Mark could get away with 'cutting out' at the end. The resurrection could be referred to "off stage" (so to speak) because it was thereby evoked in the audience's memories of oral tradition; so the style of that evocation enabled the type of poetic effect that the writer was aiming to create, but the fact that a writer could rely on the substance of that evocation is what made such a literary gambit viable in the first place.

These are just a few thoughts about foreground and background as a more helpful tool for analyzing the Gospels - not as fiction or non-fiction, but - as stories set in the past.

There may be much more worth considering about this...

Note: For an acknowledgement of narratology's traditional lack of attention to non-fiction or "historical" narrative, see p.380-81 in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory.

October 9, 2016

Imagination is...

Imagination is NOT a synonym for fantasy, fiction, or falsehood. Imagination IS a synonym for vision, insight, analysis, and constructive remembering. 

Imagination is the reason why cakes get baked and why parties get planned and why buildings get built. Imagination is what makes parents have babies, what makes children grow smarter, what makes young adults start adventures, and what makes old folks continue to hope.  

Imagination IS and has always been the single most important aspect of all science and enterprise. It's the foundation of thinking, and learning, and action. Imagination IS how we envision our futures. It's the only way we are able to look at the past. It's the only way we gain empathy for understanding other people. 

Imagination is a gift from God and the chief wellspring of powerful, creative, healthy, productive lifestyles. Imagination ought to be part of the way Christians read scripture and it ought to be recognized as one part of what it is that we really do in our actual prayer lives with God. 

Imagination, at its best, is NOT random invention and make believe wish fulfillment. Far from it. 

Imagination at its best IS the exuberant and yet chastened discipline - the proper mental discipline - of all our thinking, perceiving, remembering, and awareness of everything.

The amazing possibilities of our human lives are endless. Write more narratives about the past. Perceive the present more fully. Envision improved futures for everyone.

Please, take more time to imagine...

October 8, 2016

Gospel Narratives *ARE* Historical Representations

In New Testament Narrative Criticism, as far as I've seen, the prevalent trend for at least 34 years has been to isolate individual aspects of narrative theory. Published studies of Gospel texts invariably focus their observations through the lens of one traditional "element of literature"; so they write about plot or characterization or settings or rhetoric or narration. The great contribution of these studies has been to focus on "the whole text", a simple practice which NT Historical Criticism (bizarrely) made difficult long ago. By the 70's and 80's, Hans Frei, Norman Petersen, David Rhoads, Donald Michie, and Mark Allan Powell (among others) were charting the new route to study "the whole text". But here I come, an unpolished amateur in 2016, to complain that they did not turn our focus toward appreciating "the whole story".

They talk about story worlds, but they eschew bringing in much historical context. The whole program seems to have been designed specifically to prevent readers from imagining events in the narrative as if they were actually taking place in the real (remembered) world of the historical past. Obviously, the new field was born with a need to set itself distinctly apart from historical studies, but consider the fact that Hans Frei's The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative came out in the same year as Hayden White's Metahistory. We've learned a lot since 1974, but I don't think anyone (except Steve Mason) quite realized until recently how to properly differentiate between history and literature, when reading narrative in context. In the early 80's, the NT NC foundation was not built upon recognizing the intricate relationship between history and literature. Instead, it did everything in its power to build a Berlin Wall in between them. If you understand the things I've been blogging about recently, then I'm asking you to agree. It's time to tear down that wall.

I've been building my case slowly in recent blog posts, since my deeply felt objections finally became clear to me while working through Frank Ankersmit's Meaning, Truth, and Reference in Historical Representation. (Ankersmit, by the way, may be the world's leading expert on Hayden White, and stands as something of a successor, except he seems devoted to ending the confusion which White (thankfully!) started.

Here is my contention about the NT NC problem in one sentence. By confusing reference and representation, while attempting to bracket out consideration of historicity, they have misunderstood not only non-fiction narratives, but fiction narratives also. Historical criticism had convinced them that historical judgment must precede exegetical reconstruction. Like Steve Mason and Brant Pitre, I believe we need to reverse that sequence.

Texts convey stories. Discourses evoke story worlds. But those worlds are constructed by audience memory and imagination. The imagined world of the remembered past is not referenced. It is represented. We read the writings of historians as hypothetical representations of the actual past. We ought to do no less with the Gospels themselves. Anything less is not studying the Gospels as narratives. Fact or fiction, narrative is not narrative unless it offers itself to be taken as representation.

If you want to read more of my thoughts about this, here are several recent posts (July - Sept):

Description vs Representation
Propositional Truth vs Representational Truth
Suspending Historicity while Reading Narratives Historically
Narrative is Representation
Exegesis before Historicity
Truth and Change
The Real and Represented World(s)
Gospels as Narratives: Reference vs Representation

There should be, hopefully, much more to come...

October 7, 2016

Men cannot be less bad. Men must be different.

Some awful misogyny hit the news tonight. I won't invoke it. But I felt moved to put this on Facebook, and so I'm posting it here:

It's too easy for men to express outrage when another man gets caught celebrating the same kind of lust that better men push away. It's especially tempting to condemn the offender whose gross misconduct makes my own latent sexism look tame by comparison. But even though it seems necessary to ostracize the offender, male bursts of outrage against one other man does nothing to prevent these aggressions against women from continuing at large. What can we do?

While I feel unable to continue associating with any man who crassly celebrates in private what is shameful to say or do in public, I also struggle to rebuke him in that moment. My silent disapproval and future avoidance of him probably helps no one but myself. And while I cannot shrug off - but I do condemn those who shrug off - the possessive, dehumanizing aggressions of any man who brags about acting out his basest instincts, who plots violence against women to fulfill his own sexual whims, and who laughs and instructs other men about the best ways of getting away with such criminal actions, I cannot simply leap to the opposite extreme of conscience soothing outrage. It is too easy to shrug, and it is too easy to yell. What can we do that will actually help?

I want to offer help, support, encouragement, and resources to any woman who feels unable to speak out against male aggressions. I want to find ways of building up the women who cross my path, of helping them feel empowered to start changing this culture in small ways, every day. I want to push women to lead us in this area. I want to help women enforce these changes, locally and globally, socially and politically. I want to be the second voice someone hears speaking out against sexism, each time proudly echoing the female voices that thankfully are growing louder each year. I want to figure out better ways of sharing with other men about how much Ive learned, and how much I am still learning.

I want to follow the advice of brave women who are willing to teach me how I can help them make this better. 

Men cannot fix this. But men can help fix this. 

We need to listen respectfully and encourage women to lead us. And then we must follow. 

If we do not do these things; if we do not actively encourage the exact opposite of that domineering attitude which says women are tools for the desires of a man; if we do not share the small powers and responsibilities in basic walks of daily life; if we do not seek to empower, rather than coast on our own cultural power... then we men - and our selfish outrage against other men - are merely, ultimately, in some ways perpetuating the grossly destructive extremes of our very own sexism. If we do not do the opposite of what our most awful men do, then we are actually contributing to the problem.

If we are not strengthening the women in our lives, then we are weakening them. If we are not actively empowering them, then we are making them even more vulnerable - and indirectly encouraging them to have the same influence on other women, who thereby also remain vulnerable - to these horrible, unspeakable things which we claim to abhor. 

Help us, Lord. Help us become better men.

Help us to listen, to encourage, to support, and to follow strong women.

October 4, 2016

Gospels as Narratives: Reference vs Representation

One way Mark Allan Powell's What Is Narrative Criticism? (1990) distinguishes "Literary Criticism" from "Historical Criticism" is to say Lit Crit "views the text as an end in itself" (kindle loc.119; Chp.1). Here's a lenghty quote for discussion (emphasis mine):
The immediate goal of a literary study is to understand the narrative. The story that is told and the manner in which it is told deserve full scholarly attention. Historical criticism inevitably treats the text as a means to an end rather than as an end in itself. The "end" for historical criticism is a reconstruction of something to which the text attests, such as the life and teaching of Jesus... 
The difference between these approaches has been aptly described through the metaphors of a window and a mirror. Historical criticism regards the text as a window through which the critic hopes to learn something about another time and place... Literary criticism, in contrast, regards the text as a mirror; the critic determines to look at the text, not through it...
Literary criticism, it is sometimes said, deals with the poetic function of a text, whereas historical criticism deals with its referential function. This means that literary critics are able to appreciate the story of a narrative apart from consideration of the extent to which it reflects reality. The story world of the narrative is to be entered and experienced rather than evaluated in terms of historicity... [Supernatural] features have sometimes been problematic for historical critics who evaluate the Gospel narratives in terms of their referential funtion, that is, their ability to refer to the real world. The literary critic, however, is interested in the contribution that these elements make to the story and in discerning the effect that such a story has on its readers... [They] bracket out questions of historicity in order to concentrate on the nature of the text as literature.
I heartily agree with every word in the first paragraph, and the "window" metaphor describes the old style of NT historical criticism quite aptly. While I must say that "mirror" seems odd, if not sadly ironic - for I hope that we do not read stories in order to see ourselves - I take the contrast to mean "look at, not through". A better piece-of-glass metaphor would have been "screen", as in movies, TVs, and portable devices. (We could also say "canvas", but Powell used glass twice, so.) A screen is a piece of glass we look "at" while pretending to look "through". That's a far better metaphor, in my humble opinion. (Actually, hold that thought just a moment.) Lastly, I sincerely adore, near the end, that we're challenged to "appreciate the story of a narrative apart from consideration of the extent to which it reflects reality. The story world of the narrative is to be entered and experienced..." Yes! My blog's readers know I despise fighting about historicity and I do not believe in defending the Gospel's supernatural claims. Enter the story world! Experience the reality of the narrative! I'm on board. This is absolutely the first thing we should do as readers of the Gospels.

But then Powell goes and says "referential". (The one word I've bolded, above.) He says we should NOT read narratives "in terms of their ability to refer to the real world". Wow.

Look, in some sense or another, that is precisely the main thing that narratives do.

Yes, we desperately need to "bracket out questions of historictiy", and we must enter the story world without worrying about how well it "reflects reality", but do fiction narratives not ever "refer" to the real world? It's one thing to suspend judgment about historicity. Powell sounds as if he denies the very possibility. I said I didn't want to argue about the accuracy of a narrative. Powell seems to be saying we should avoid thinking in terms of the real world at all. Once again, that is never how storytelling works.

This is a practical problem, not primarily philosophical, but in trying to understand my own objections to Powell I keep coming back to Frank Ankersmit's distinction between reference and representation. A reference "picks out uniquely". I can point out "that car" or "your friend" or "Bethlehem of Judea". That's naming and labeling. That's definition. If you can describe something with propositional statements, you're being referential. Reference is about specificity and objectivity. Representation is different. Whether or not a narrative "reflects reality" involves something more than reference. It's not the same thing to discuss whether narratives "reflect reality" or "refer to the real world". A narrative might refer to several objects in the real world, but if a narrative represents aspects of the real world, it goes beyond words and achieves poetry. It evokes images, feelings, or memories. Representation involves cognitive efforts. The writer depicts and the reader constructs and somehow Pooh and Piglet make you think of human friendships.

Reference is not representation, but in multiple ways, Powell equates the two concepts.

In Ch.2, he equates "referential" with "mimetic", which means representational.

Early in Ch.5, he cites "the referential fallacy of interpreting literary elements in terms of supposed antecedents in the real world." I suppose he means don't confuse Luke's Pharisees with historical Pharisees, and I'll grant that's a fair point, especially when the state of our knowledge today makes that risky (albeit for some more than others). On the other hand, there is no way on earth that Luke's original audience would have understood or made any sense whatsoever of Powell's advice here. Conflating Luke's Pharisees with historical pharisees is precisely what Luke intended for his audience to do! Indeed, if the audience knew who and what "Pharisees" were, they could not have done otherwise.

Late in Ch.5, Powell says that Pharisees and Saducees in the Gospel "do not 'stand for' any real people in the world outside the story, but [they] fulfill a particular role in the story. First, they both do and don't "stand for" actual persons. Perhaps that's semantics. More importantly, what counts as the world of the story? If the first-century audience was able to enter this story world and experience it, they did so because they envisioned that world as the real world. So what is outside the story? This is also one of those places - "filling roles in the story" - where Powell unfairly pits rhetoric against representation - the "referential function" as opposed to the "poetic function". Case in point: it's difficult to talk about the narrative's effect on an audience if you don't imagine that narrative was being recieved as a reflection of the real world (the accuracy of that reflection not necessarily withstanding).

Early in Ch.7, the light threatens to break through, but he snuffs it out quickly (I've italicized the light breaking and I've underlined the 'snuff'):
There is increasing appreciation among scholars today for the ability of stories to enage us and to change the way we perceive ourselves and our world. What is it that makes stories so infectious? Some have suggested it is their resemblence to life itself; there is an intrinsic narrative quality underlying all human experience. Stories have power to shape life because they formally embody "the shape of life." This does not mean that stories derive their power from a referential function. Stories are not like life in many ways, and the most lifelike tales are not necessarily the ones that affect us most deeply. Rather, the narrative form itself corresponds in some profound way to reality and thus enables us to translate our experience of the story world into our own situation. Entering the story world of a narrative may be likened to attendance at a modern-day motion picture... our encounter with this simplified and perhaps outlandish view of reality [may] have an effect on us...
Notice three things here. At first Powell is praising representation (poetic mimesis), but he shifts the idea to reference (objective accuracy) when he needs to pull back. Next, he brings up mimesis again but wraps it up in the language that serves his larger argument here. Third, he treats "immersion into a narrative world" merely as if it's the tool for a different purpose. What matters to Powell is that the audience self-reflect, not get lost in the movie.

Having finally thought of the proper glass metaphor, Powell leaves the screen and goes back to the mirror.

He does not really want experiencing the story to be an end in itself. In chapter one, he said the TEXT should be viewed as an end in itself. But it's not even that. He now shows the text is a tool for producing effects. Oh, boy. We may as well be sitting below a medieval pulpit. This may be fine, and it may be valid, but it is NOT an appreciation of NARRATIVE for its own sake. (Deep breath; okay, sorry. I'm good now.)

But my absolute favorite part comes a bit later in Ch.7, when Powell counters the objection that NT Narrative Criticism is patterned on the study of fiction. My own objection? If only that were more true!
The Gospels are not works of fiction but intend to convey historical truth. To the extent that the genres of novel and gospel share a narrative form, however, both are subject to narrative analysis. [Citing Eric Auerbach:] any narrative that presents [realistic] depictions may be studied as literature regardless of whether or not the depiction is intended to be accepted as accurate. The poetic function of any work that assumes a narrative form can be analyzed... the dichotomy between "history" and "fiction" in literature is a false one. It is better to speak of referential and poetic functions... not whether the Gospels should be classed as history or fiction, but whether they should be read in terms of their referential or poetic function... The recognition that [the Gospels] share certain formal characteristics with fictional works does not in any way prejudge the degree to which they reflect history or the reliability with which they do so.
Finally, there we have it. The Gospels purport to be history, and narrative is representation, but we are free to ignore all of that. Because we do not want to wrestle with "history or fiction", let's just be done with the representational aspects - as usual, Powell switches to "referential" when he needs to deep six mimesis - and focus on "poetic functions". Note, that last sentence closes out his response to this objection. It's a bit of P.R. boilerplate that genuflects to the pews, and although I'm honestly sure he means it quite sincerely, the way he says it primarily underscores the major "money" point that he already made. In effect, this says - Yeah, maybe they're reliable historically, and that's fine, but that's all we need to say about that.

If you can hear my "Harumph" there, please don't misunderstand. Remeber, I'm not faulting Powell for dismissing the Gospels as history. I'm faulting Powell for dismissing the Gospels as Fiction!

Having opened that passage by invoking four great masters of narrative fiction - Wayne Booth, E. M. Forster, Seymour Chatman, and Eric Auerbach - Mark Allan Powell then proceeds to throw out the baby they cared for and keep only her bathwater. He wants to teach us about "Narrative" but he's just jettisoned "Representation". That makes no sense. It doesn't work. It makes me truly sick. For 3.5 years, this has given me absolute fits.

But I finally understand why.

Mark Allan Powell was standing on large shoulders (whose, I'll address in future posts) but What Is Narrative Criticism? is presently one of two "must have" introductions to NT Narrative Criticism, and it has been for 27 years, but it is not about Narrative. It talks about elements of Narrative, but the "Whole Story" is systematically ruled out. The "Whole Text" is addressed, helpfully, effectively, even beautifully so, but the book really stays focused on Discourse, not Story. It employs elements of Narrative, but the emphasis is on Rhetoric. It talks about Poetry, but it cares only about the effect of the poem, and gives lip service to the poem itself. It talks about story worlds, but it says that story world cannot reflect or refer to the real world.

Well, then we aren't talking about Narrative.

Powell and his (well-meaning?) ilk have given us Narrative without Representation.

And we really need to cut. this. $#!+. out. now.

Excuse my emotions. You've been told.

Think about it...

September 23, 2016

The Real and Represented World(s)

I've not read much Mikhail Bakhtin but a serendipitous footnote elsewhere directed me to this "odd but good" gem from The Dialogic Imagination (Russian 1938, English 1981 ; Full PDF is here.)

Bakhtin's strange academic conceit of "chronotopes" basically refers to stereotypical frameworks of plot and setting (e.g., the chronotope of 'crisis', or the chronotopes of 'mystery', 'the road', 'threshold', 'encounter', 'carnival-time', ad infinitum. Despite his overly-categorical formalism, Bakhtin's fixation on schematized story worlds leads him to helpful insights about story worlds in general. Obviously, as indicated by "chrono-", and the chapter heading "Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel", his focus here is on temporality; or, more precisely, temporal representation. Thus, he summarizes:
What is the significance of all these chronotopes? What is most obvious is their meaning for narrative. They are the organizing centers for the fundamental narrative events of the novel. The chronotope is the place where the knots of narrative are tied and united. It can be said without qualification that to them belongs the meaning that shapes narrative./ We cannot help but be strongly impressed by the representational importance of the chronotope. Time becomes, in effect, palpable and visible; the chronotope makes narrative events concrete, makes them take on flesh, causes blood to flow in their veins. An event can be communicated, it becomes information, one can give precise data on the place and time of its occurrence. But the event does not become a figure [obraz]. It is precisely the chronotope that provides the ground essential for the showing-forth, the representatability of events. . . . Thus the chronotope, functioning as the primary means for materializing time in space, emerges as a center for concretizing representation, as a force giving body to the entire novel... permitting the imaging power of art to do its work. (p. 250-1)
While Bakhtin's larger project is to combine Setting with Plot (space with time) in the "chronotope", his argument here is that audiences can engage (immerse) most fully when storytelling is based in familiar narrative territory, so to speak. In turn, one supposes effective writers would be wise to build upon or play off from Story worlds which are already familiar to their audiences. But all this is background/subtext. The present argument is focused on narrative's central need to be set in a "concretized" story world:
Thus the chronotope, functioning as the primary means for materializing time in space, emerges as a center for concretizing representation, as a force giving body to the entire novel. All the novel's abstract elements - philosophical and social generalizations, ideas, analyses of cause and effect - gravitate toward the chronotope and through it take on flesh and blood, permitting the imaging power of art to do its work. Such is the representational significance of the chronotope.
And then he FINALLY generalizes further beyond his idiosyncratic conceit:
[A]ny and every literary image is chronotopic. Language, as a treasure-house of imagaes, is fundamentally chronotopic... It was Lessing in the Lacoon who first.. established the temporal character of the literary image. Those things that are static in space cannot be statically described, but must rather be incorporated into the temporal sequence of represented events and into the story's own representational field. Thus, in Lessing's familiar example, the beauty of Helen is not so much described by Homer as it is demonstrated in the reactions of the Trojan elders.. Beauty is drawn in to a chain of represented events and yet at the same time is not the subject of static description, but rather the subject of a dynamic story.
Lo and behold, we find another 20th century master of narrative distinguishing Description vs Representation! (For related thoughts in recent posts, see also here, here, and here.)

After some qualifications about Lessing, Bakhtin concludes his main point:
The distinctiveness of those generically typical plot-generating chronotopes discussed by us above becomes clear against the background of this general (formal and material) chronotopicity of the poetic images conceived as an image of temporal art, one that represents spatially perceptible phenomena in their movement and development. Such are the specific novel-epic chronotopes that serve for the assimilation of actual temporal (including historical) reality, that permit the essential aspects of this reality to be reflected and incorporated into the artistic space of the novel. (251-2)
Indeed. Read that last paragraph three times, please.

The novel incorporates reality.

Fiction incorporates history. 

The crown jewel of Russian Formalism was its distinction between Fabula and Sjuzhet - what we in the west now call Story and Discourse, and - it just now occurs to me - perhaps the eastern mind has some advantage in keeping these concepts separate. It's difficult for a western thinker to be told, "There is no story in the text." But there isn't. There's a story, a storyteller, and an audience. A text is a discourse (sjuzhet) but a story (fabula) is something the teller has in mind from the outset, and then becomes whatever an audience retains after the telling. In that sense, a story may not be something other than the contents of its discourse, but it normally is - and always ought to be - something more.

Without question, academics should always emphasize the distinction between the real world and the represented world, but academics must also recognize the various functional aspects of delivering and receiving narration. In a really good story, your mind blends the narration together with its concepts from the real world. Whether fiction or non-fiction, this is always what happens - always! - to some degree or another.

So, to my dear friends in New Testament scholarship, I now offer two challenges:

1. We need to stop equating story with discourse.
2. We need to stop separating narrative from history.

The Gospels' first hearers could ONLY imagine the narrative story world AS the real world of their past.

We ought to try and read the Gospels like they did...

UPDATE (9-24-16): I forgot to include this quote from page 253-4, from which I took the title for this post:
[T]here is a sharp and categorical boundary line between the actual world as source of representation and the world represented in the work. We must never forget this, we must never confuse - as has been done up to now and as is still often done - the represented world with the world outside the text (naive realism)... But it is also impermissible to take this categorical boundary line as something absolute and impenetrable (which leads to an oversimplified, dogmatic splitting of hairs). However forcefully the real and the represented world resist fusion, however immutable the presence of that categorical boundary line between them, they are nevertheless indissolubly tied up with each other and find themselves in continual mutual interaction; uninterrupted exchange goes on between them, similar to the uninterrupted exchange of matter between living organisms and the environment that surrounds them. As long as the organism lives, it resists a fusion with the environment, but if it is torn out of its environment, it dies. The work and the world represented in it enter the real world and enrich it, and the real world enters the work and its world as part of the process of its creation, as well as part of its subsequent life, in a continual renewing of the work through the creative perception of listeners and readers.
One final comment: Narrative is representation, and if you deny that the Gospels "refer" to actual past events, you are no longer working with narrative proper. You've actually destroyed the environment of your story world, and you're probably mostly dissecting a discourse.

I cannot understand Narrative without Representation.

September 11, 2016

How Jesus Redefined "Kingdom"

The ancient kingdoms of Herods and Caesars were nothing at all like a mustard seed, or a pearl, or a slave who invested a few coins successfully. The kingdoms of the Selucids and the Ptolemys were nothing at all like a sower wildly scattering seeds, or a landowner who paid latecomers a day's wage, or a woman baking with yeast. Rather, the kingdoms of ancient overlords were like huge stretches of territory inhabited by supposedly free people who paid exorbitant taxes while living in annual fear from the very real threat of invasion by conquering armies. The kingdoms of earth were like an army on the march, like a mining colony of slaves, like a large scale construction project that required everyone in town to work two jobs for a number of years - and made them pay for the privlege!

The kings of the ancient world were overlords who seized things from people against whom they remained always aloof. They were domineering autocrats who could casually execute any one of their subjects, sometimes literally on a whim. The kings of the earth were nothing at all like a father embracing and forgiving his truly despicable offspring. They were nothing at all like a wealthy host who invited vagrants and beggars to an expensive party when his friends didn't show up. They were nothing at all like a small child who obediently came when called, and then sat there silently, serving as an ironic illustration of "greatness".

The word "kingdom" for Jesus was a set up, a word game, a mysterious twist. According to Jesus, God's kingdom was going to be full of children and people with one eye, full of poor people and only a very few rich guys, and possibly even scribes who were focused enough to suggest actually loving God and actually loving their neighbor. For Jesus, the kingdom was like a large banquet table that welcomed everyone but reversed all their ideas about who was important.

For Jesus, God's kingdom was not "coming soon". It was already "near". Yet, Jesus prayed that it might "come". It was not visibly in the midst of them. It was only "at hand". It was always being proclaimed, and yet only "some" would "see" it. Jesus told one man he was "not far" from the kingdom, and he told his disciples to announce it had "come near" to individual towns. He said his kingdom was not divided, and it was not of Satan, and it was not like those kingdoms Satan offered to give him. The kingdom was said to be like things that individuals could possess, move, and hide in secret places, and yet Jesus also said God would give it (collectively) to his "little flock". And having already prayed it would come near, and having said that it was near, and having said it was not far from some, and had come near to others, Jesus came to Jerusalem and predicted a volatile future and said "when you see these things happen, you will know the kingdom is near". It was near. It had come near. It was coming near. It would be near in the future.

That is one very strange kingdom.

In the fourth Gospel, Jesus stands before Pilate of Rome and makes all of this blatant. "My kingdom is not of this world." That line is not in the synoptic literature, but it still seems like the only conclusion that a reader should draw. Whatever Jesus meant by the term "kingdom", it was nothing like earthly kingdoms. Whatever Mark, Matthew, and Luke intended their audiences to understand by this term, there is no cause for scholars to excerpt *some* of those writers' dozens of uses while ignoring all of the others, as if being selective about usage in context can support the idea that Jesus intended to build a political kingdom.

When Paul wrote all about "agape" to Corinth, he was redefining the term. No Greek person had ever used such language to denote what 1.Cor.13 is suggesting. The highest form of "love" in pre-Christian Greek was the term "philia". ((Check the listings in Liddell-Scott some time. The instances and variants of that root vastly dominate those of "agape". It's not even close.)) So, in the same way, in the Gospels, Jesus is making an effort to systematically redefine how this word could be used.

In the Gospels, then, what demonstrative clues offer a hermeneutical recourse for understanding Jesus' use of the term "kingdom"?

Let's go back to Jesus' Moral Biography.

In Jesus' private life long before public ministry, his motivation (according to Matthew, implicitly) was to please God. He wanted to obey God, not just by obeying the Hebrew commandments, but by keeping a high standard in his conscience. Everything Jesus talked about paints the picture of someone who cared deeply and personally about pleasing God, doing what God liked, living the kind of life that would make God "well pleased". According to Matthew 5-7 (implicitly), Jesus wanted to possess God's kingdom, and he expected to receive it. He longed to see others live righteously before God. He lived his life focused on God at the expense of public approval and earthly rewards. Jesus gave up his own property and forgave those who wronged him. He loved his enemies because he cared most about "filling up" God's commandments. He went above and beyond in these efforts. He contented himself with little physical comfort and he despised money. He honored God devoutly, but privately. He gave money in secret. He prayed secretly. He snuck away to pray like he was every day re-burying his own pearl of great price. But most of all - Matthew says "first" of all - Jesus sought after God's kingdom and God's righteousness.

Jesus sought first God's kingdom. He obeyed God as his personal King. He desired most of all that God's name would be hallowed, and that God's kingdom would "come" (advance? grow? assert itself more often?).

Jesus said no one would enter the kingdom without having an excessive level of righteousness. He said those who enter the kingdom are those who do the will of his Father in heaven.

This is how the synoptic writers (most obviously Matthew) portrayed Jesus' idea of the kingdom. Whatever may or may not transfer - according to your own judgment - from that literary portrayal to the actual Jesus of History, or however much that portrayal may or may not be accurate, I cannot see any way to avoid one very simple conclusion at a primary level of interpretation. There is only one option I see for understanding Jesus' ideas about "kingdom" in the Gospels. There is only one way to explain it. There is only one way to define it. There is only one way to re-read it. There is only one way. There is only one...

Question: What would I myself personally be putting at risk if I actually pray what he said?

Thy kingdom come...

September 10, 2016

Truth and Change

Propositions are static. Propositional thinkers incline towards positivism because equating history with a series of statements gives the past sharp definition. What the text says is what happened. The truth is right there on the page, with no need for hypothesis or imagination.

Stories are dynamic. Words cannot delimit complex processes because developing situations and their various contingencies are difficult to describe. A set of changes is not one single entity. That's why the French Revolution is referred to as an event, instead of a fact. 

The proposition "A is Φ" can be falsified by demonstrating that Φ is not a property of A. Water is always wet. Fire is never cold. These propositions are unchanging because they do not attempt to represent complex dynamic processes (or systems) as a single conceptual whole. 

A portrait of Napoleon or a history of the Revolution can only be challenged by other portraits and histories of their subjects. Propositional thinking wants factual accuracy to stand or fall by proving isolated statements, but representations are verified by other means. You trust a local map because it compares helpfully to the physical landscape, and you trust a foreign map because it has been vouched for by others, who undertook to experience their surroundings.

Propositional truth cannot define human experiences like fixing an automobile, touring a professional kitchen, or fighting a war. Representational truth depicts these things through mimesis, at whatever reduction of scale. 

Historical thinkers cannot just affirm a discourse. They must imagine actual experiences.

Truth does not change, but reality does. 

We cannot deal with change by ignoring it.

September 9, 2016

Jesus' Moral Biography

The "sermon on the mount" isn't your to do list. It's Jesus' resume. If we mirror-read Jesus' public advice, it reflects (Matthew's claims of) Jesus' private experience. This is one place the Gospels may be read to provide biographical details about Jesus' so-called "silent years" in Nazareth. It even says so in the text. When Matthew 7.29 says Jesus "spoke with authority", that's in contrast with the hypocrites (5.20, 6.2,5,16, 7.5,29), which means the narrator's opinion (or, if you prefer, Matthew's Testimony) is that Jesus knew what he was talking about. He had already spent many years living his life in this way, before offering this advice.

Furthermore, this implicit claim is a follow up on a similar one in Matthew 3.17, which informs the reader (quite dramatically!) that God was pleased with Jesus. Ancient readers would not have accounted God's pleasure to fatherhood, in the way that modern parents sometimes say, "Of course I'm proud of you. You're my son!" No, for ancient parenthood, to express public approval was a sign that your child was doing everything in just the ways that you desired. Thus, 3.17 implies that Jesus had been living a God pleasing life, in those years prior to John's baptism. And shortly thereafter - one chapter later, when Matthew first represents Jesus' public teaching - we get a detailed illustration of exactly what pleases God.

Thus, Matthew 5-8 is the writer's implicit description of specific God-pleasing behaviors and personal attitudes which had characterized Jesus' personal life, before his public debut. These are Matthew's ideas about Jesus' background and identity, which may (or may not) also represent the historical Jesus. On one level, or both, the silent years are hereby echoed for three chapters.

What follows here is my attempt to invert some of Matthew's discourse, but hopefully moreso with logic than with pure creativity or devotional wishfulness. The idea here is to approximate some of what Matthew implied (believed? assumed? supposed?) that Jesus' own private devotional life must have been like. Eschewing literalism, and without pretending to much rigor, here is a first draft - a rough attempt - to infer some aspects of Jesus' not so "hidden" past.

You can be the judge, but remember this plays on two levels. First, you tell me how many of these things the Gospel implies are/were true of Jesus himself in the narrative story world. Second, you decide for yourself how many of these things might have been true about the historical Jesus in his life in Nazareth, before his public ministry.

Some of these lines have always been difficult to swallow. But now, instead of asking yourself "Are we really supposed to do all of these things?", try asking yourself "Did Matthew believe Jesus did all these things?" And then ask, "Do I believe Jesus really did all these things?"


Jesus' Personal Attitudes

5.3) Jesus was blessed. Jesus was poor in spirit. Jesus desired the kingdom of heaven, and expected to obtain it.
5.4) Jesus had mourned and found comfort. Specifically, Jesus had personally felt comforted as if by God.
5.5) Jesus was meek. Jesus desired and expected to someday inherit the earth.
5.6) Jesus yearned to see and feel righteousness among others. He felt unsatisfied in situations when righteousness was lacking.
5.7) Jesus was merciful. He had experienced mercy. He desired and expected to receive mercy again.
5.8) Jesus was pure in heart. Jesus had seen God, or felt he had seen God, metaphorically and/or actually; cf. 3.16.
5.9) Jesus was a peacemaker. Jesus considered himself a child of God.
5.10) Jesus had been persecuted for righteousness' sake. He had acted righteously at some personal cost. Through those experiences, he had felt/claimed a citizenship in the kingdom of heaven.
5.11) Jesus had been hated and mistreated and spoken evil of falsely. He considered it a blessing.
5.12) Jesus rejoiced in those things because he believed that he would be rewarded in heaven, and because the experience helped him to identify with Jewish prophets of old.

Jesus was Salt and Light

5.13) Jesus was the salt of the earth. He made the earth palatable to God. This quality in him was long lasting; Jesus did not lose his saltiness. God kept him and valued him for it.
5.14) Jesus was the light of the world. He was God's light in the darkness. He needed to be displayed.
5.15) Jesus did not hide his light; he had not hidden his light; his light was not hidden; it had been visible to everyone who had watched him.
5.16) Jesus had allowed his light to shine before others. People had seen his good works. Jesus believed this was evidence of God's greatness. Jesus felt his own good works were a way to glorify God in heaven. Jesus thought of God as his Father.

Jesus Upheld the Law (and then some!)

5.17) Jesus paid close attention to the Law and the Prophets. He believed he had the best interpretations about the Hebrew scriptures. He felt his own life was somehow the fulfillment of them.
5.18) Jesus was honest. Jesus revered the Law. He believed the Torah was for all time.
5.19) Jesus did not look for loopholes in scripture's commandments. Jesus followed them and taught them. Jesus believed he was a pretty awesome guy in the kingdom of heaven.
5.20) Jesus' righteousness was far above that of the scribes and Pharisees.
5.21) Jesus had never murdered anyone. (!)
5.22) Jesus kept a strict conscience about his emotions toward other people.
5.23) Jesus had cared more about interpersonal interactions than about gifts and sacrifices to God.
5.24) Jesus valued relational reconciliation, and affirmed giving gifts at the altar.
5.25) Jesus was a shrewd negotiator, and preferred to reconcile in person rather than by formal judgment.
5.26) Jesus recognized the consequences of debt and judgment.
5.27) Jesus had never committed adultery. (!)
5.28) Jesus kept a strict conscience about his behavior and intentions around women.
5.29-30) Jesus believed in strict discipline to the point of sacrifice.
5.31) Jesus acknowledged the legality of divorce.
5.32) Either Jesus had not been divorced, or he'd been married and she had been unfaithful.
5.33) Jesus had not sworn false oaths. If he had sworn anything to the Lord, he fulfilled it.
5.34-6) Jesus had not taken oaths, neither by heaven, nor earth, nor Jerusalem. Jesus believed Jerusalem was God's special city.
5.37) Jesus had answered people with a simple 'Yes' or 'No'.
5.38) Jesus recognized the legality of fair punishment.
5.39) Jesus had offered no resistance on occasions when someone had wronged him.
5.40) Jesus had given his personal property to those who demanded it (his kinfolk, perhaps?), and he gave them even more than they wanted.
5.41) Jesus had been commanded to walk a mile by someone powerful, and he walked two miles.
5.42) Jesus gave to beggars. Jesus loaned out money and items, when he was asked.

Jesus Practiced Righteousness

5.43) When Jesus had neighbors, he loved them. When Jesus had enemies, he hated them.
5.44) Jesus (also) loved his enemies. When people persecuted Jesus, he prayed for them.
5.45) Jesus felt this was a way to make God proud, for which he did not expect any special reward.
5.46) Jesus loved everyone, not just those who loved him. Jesus did not love like a tax collector.
5.47) Jesus was kind to everyone, not just his own kinfolk. Jesus did not live like the gentiles.
5.48) The only ones who had (so far) lived up to this standard were Jesus and God.
6.1) Jesus acted rightly whether or not people were watching. He was only motivated to please God.
6.2) Jesus gave to people in need, and he often did so very quietly. He believed his reward was in heaven.
6.3-4) Jesus was sneaky about giving, and preferred to give secretly. He always felt like God was watching.
6.5) Jesus prayed. He asked God for things. He did not call attention to those requests.
6.6) Jesus would often go into a room, shut the door, and pray to God in secret. And his prayers were answered.
6.7) Jesus did not use lots of words when he prayed. When he asked God for things, he got to the point.
6.8) Jesus believed God was paying attention to his daily needs.
6.9) Jesus had prayed prayers "like this" often. Jesus revered God. Jesus wanted God's name to be sacred.
6.10) Jesus wanted God's kingdom on earth. Jesus wanted God to rule on earth.
6.11) Jesus was hungry every day, and satisfied with daily bread. Jesus asked God for basic provisions.
6.12) Jesus felt a great debt to God. He felt he could not pay God as much as God deserved to receive. Also, Jesus had loaned money or items to people and had them fail to repay him, and Jesus forgave them.
6.13) Jesus felt temptation. He knew God would sometimes test him (Mt. 4:1). Jesus asked for less testing. Jesus desired to be spared from encountering evil.
6.14-15) Jesus had forgiven people when they'd wronged him. Jesus felt that God was forgiving toward him.
6.16-18) Jesus would sometimes go without eating, but he didn't tell anybody. To hide his own hunger and fatigue, Jesus would put oil on his head and wash his face, so that people would not notice. Jesus did these things to please his father, who was always watching from heaven.
6.19-20) Jesus was poor. Jesus did not store up treasure. Jesus focused on storing up treasure in heaven.
6.21) Jesus fixed his heart on pleasing God.
6.22-23) Jesus had a healthy way of looking at things, and he felt filled up by God's perspective.
6.24) Jesus served God and he despised money. He loved God and he hated money.
6.25) Jesus was not anxious about earning his living, or about physical needs. He ate and drank, he clothed himself and maintained his basic health, but he felt that his physical life in the body was worth only so much.
6.26-32) Jesus believed his daily food was provided by God. Jesus thought worrying about needs was like trying to grow taller. Jesus didn't try to impress people with his appearance. He trusted God to provide.
6.33) Jesus' first priority was always to treat God as king, and to please God by behaving correctly. He knew God would take care of the rest.
6.34) Jesus dealt with various problems on a daily basis. Jesus took life one day at a time.
7.1) Jesus did not judge others. Jesus did not want others to judge him.
7.2) Jesus was kind to people. Jesus believed God had been (and would continue to be) kind to him.
7.3-4) Jesus took pains to consider his own conscience before criticizing someone else.
7.5) Jesus had scrutinized his own behavior and attitudes so stringently that it made him able to see clearly when examining others.
7.6) Jesus often refrained from advising others on holiness, because he didn't want them to scorn truth.
7.7-11) Jesus prayed successfully for what he wanted. He sought after the kingdom of God and he found it. Jesus asked God for opportunities and they arose. Jesus asked God for good things, like fish and bread.
7.12) Jesus himself had treated other people the way he wished others would treat him. Jesus had spent a lifetime reflecting on the Law and the Prophets.

Jesus Lived the Right Way

7.13) Jesus had lived his whole life on a narrow path, watching many other people live destructively.
7.14) Jesus had difficulty on his path, and he found few others along that path (if any), but he felt it was the only way to live.
7.15) Jesus was a true prophet. His insides matched his appearance.
7.16-20) Jesus was known to be healthy and fruitful. People recognized that about his life.
7.21) Jesus didn't just talk about serving God. Jesus truly lived to do the will of God on earth.
7.22-3) Jesus saw himself as Lord of God's people. Jesus was wary of great speeches and exorcisms and other mighty works. Jesus despised phony righteousness. He wanted to know and to see people truly give their lives to doing God's Law.
7.24,26) Jesus heard God's words and did them. Jesus was wise. This was his foundation in life.
7.25,27) Jesus had suffered through troubles and hardships but his lifestyle stayed steadily in place.
7.28-29) When Jesus spoke, people trusted him. Jesus spoke from experience, and people could somehow tell that he knew what he was talking about. Jesus stood out as being different from the scribes.


It's hard to avoid closing with "Go and do likewise" but we've heard that often enough.

I think Matthew had a very high opinion of Jesus' personal lifestyle, and I think Matthew implicitly testifies here that Jesus had been living by these standards for a very long time. If I'm right about that - and if Matthew was even half right about Jesus - then the "silent years" are hereby echoed in Mt.5-7. The "hidden years" are evidently made known by their fruit.

Jesus' past life in Nazareth is reflected in the content of his Galilean teaching.

That is, assuming you can believe it...

August 27, 2016

The Audience of James' Epistle and the Nazareth Synagogue Riot

the people in the Synagogue were furious (Luke 4:28, NLT)

I want to be delicate here in nuancing this argument about the most likely audience of James' epistle. First, I will make three points about Luke's story, and then I'll get to the epistle.


Point One: That Luke's Nazarines are "filled with wrath" (ESV) is an aspect of Luke's narrative portrayal. Whether or not a group of people from the synagogue gathering actually attempted to throw Jesus off of a cliff is not a question I'm asking right now. That question matters for other discussions, but not for this one. In this post, I am only taking Luke 4:25-30 as an artistic depiction rendered by Luke and presented to his audience. For our purposes today, that story may or may not have been based in actual fact.

Point Two: Modern scholarship has rightly and justifiably objected to any interpretation of this passage which supposes that animosity towards gentiles was typical among Jews anywhere in the first century. This ought to be beyond debate. For one thing, because general conditions cannot be extrapolated from one particular case, the objectionable interpretation of Luke 4 would be utterly invalid even if those events (as portrayed by Luke) are fully accurate in their representational truth. Just because such a thing might have happened once is NO evidence that such a thing was typical. To the contrary, with storytelling, it is far more often the exceptional kinds of events which tend to be remembered and narrated. More importantly, the massive amount of research into first century Judaism reveals hundreds of positive reasons to form a different picture of Synagogue ethos at large. The milieu of first century Judaism may have been diverse, but the customs they all had in common were healthy and positive, albeit sometimes peculiar - as discussed in this online piece by A.-J. Levine. If nothing else, the recent emphasis on diversity should demonstrate that the behavior in Luke 4 - if depicted with accuracy - would have been severely atypical, to say the least.

Point Three: Luke's particular story was presented to his audience with some degree of plausibility. That is, the reaction of Jesus' hometown synagogue is portrayed as a natural event not-entirely-outside the realm of expected potential behavior. In the imagination of Luke's audience, the writer assumed, this extreme event would not be viewed as entirely absurd. However atypical - and we cannot underscore too strongly that it would have been severely atypical - the writer and audience must have shared some basis in reality for believing that the political disposition of at least some members of some rural synagogues in the first century might have been strongly opposed, - if not socially hostile, albeit not physically violent - toward the idea of including uncircumcised gentiles (non-converts) as full recipients of the blessings once promised to Abraham's seed.

To be clear, the scenario in Luke 4, while extreme, is more likely caricature than fantasy. Even as fiction, the story is being represented with some degree of realism as its contextual basis. Even as fiction, Luke would not expect his audience to be shocked that synagogue members would react negatively to the Christ-based imposition of gentile equality. Shocked to hear they tried to kill him? Surely. But shocked to think there was negativity toward that idea? Apparently not. Even as fiction, the story works because it builds upon basic plausibility. (Also, by the way, if the story is non-fiction, all these points would be equally true.)

Point Three, again: It was plausible for first century people to suppose that the some members of any given synagogue would be opposed to full inclusion of uncircumcised gentiles.

This qualified and measured assessment of plausibility in Luke 4 brings me to my point.


Arguments about the date of James' Epistle tend to hinge on his silence about gentiles. Supposedly, if James had heard about Paul's churches, he would have certainly mentioned those gentile believers. This, of course, depends on the assumption that James was writing to congregations of Jewish-christians across the Jewish diaspora. Admittedly, when working from that assumption, it is nigh impossible to imagine why James would fail to mention the acceptance of uncircumcised gentile believers, if the letter was written after the council of Acts 15.

An alternative hypothesis should be considered, however, based on a different assumption about audience. If we take James' opening lines of address at face value, then he is actually writing "To the twelve tribes dispersed". Why would James do that? My guess is public relations.

On the basic gist of Acts 21:17-26, James and the church in Jerusalem were concerned to present themselves as faithful keepers of Torah. Note especially, here, that even if that passage tells us nothing about James' opinion of Paul's ministry, it still purports something about James and the Jerusalem church. Whatever James did or did not think was appropriate for Paul's churches in far away towns, that's a separate discussion. My point on this passage is that James was concerned for the public perception of his own group and that public's perception of all those who were obviously associated with them. That included Paul on one occasion, according to Acts 21 (c.57 CE), and so it could have included any christians in Jerusalem between 33 and 66 CE.

If we suppose James sent his epistle, quite literally, to the twelve tribes dispersed, then the audience was Jewish but not christian, and this would explain lots of things very nicely. This would explain why James identifies himself as "a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ" but says nothing about the cross, the resurrection, or the holy spirit. It would also provide nuance to 2:1, which may thus be translated, "My brothers, do not with partiality regard the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ of glory." That is, the possessive sense of "exw" (have, hold) does not necessarily imply that James' addressees are themselves personal holders of faith in Christ. Rather, if we remember the addressees are in fact Jewish synagogue members, we should understand they are obviously not christians. Therefore, the essential meaning must be, "do not discriminate against the faith of our Lord". Note also the "hmwv" (our) applies to James and his fellow believers in Christ. There is no indication here that "hmwv" here is meant to include the letter's recipients. This reading also helps explain why 2:2 talks about people walking into their "synagogue".

If we read the entire epistle this way, a lot of reasonable connotations begin to present themselves. The notorious contradiction of Paul, for example, cannot be read as a direct refutation aimed at Paul's churches; rather, it is a corrective reassurance being offered to a general public who has probably heard negative reports about Paul's libertarian message. (Whether James would have offered the same words to Paul - in rebuke of Paul, deliberately in Paul's own terms - is a separate discussion.) More mundanely, the passages about wealth and poverty can be read as alluding to James' own economic dilemma, that the christian-Jews in Jerusalem had become poor due to various prejudices against them in the wake of Jesus' and Stephen's deaths. More generally, passages about wealth and poverty - like other passages in James that echo the words of Jesus in the Gospels - would seem more naturally addressed to a strictly Jewish audience, like those to whom Jesus had preached.

To the initial point raised above, this reading would certainly explain why James does not mention gentiles. 

If James' purpose was to improve public relations, then it behoved him to demonstrate that the Jews who followed Jesus were indeed good Jews who had not forsaken Moses, but still cared about purity and observing the law. To this end, the letter acknowledges the author's group affiliation in 1:1 and makes a brief appeal for non-discrimination in 2:1, but otherwise keeps to a litany of exhortations which ostensibly represent an appropriately Jewish message, roughly along the lines of Jesus' (by now famous) preaching in Galilee and Judea. James' primary goal is to elevate the status of Jewish-christians in the eyes of Synagogue members everywhere.

If he tried to do that, while talking about gentiles, it would simply run the risk of spoiling everything.

Note well: I am not saying it *would* have spoiled James' plan. I am not saying James expected that it definitely would have hampered his goal. What I am saying is that James had to anticipate the likelihood of it being a risk. Thus, even assuming James did have a desire to mention positive things about gentile christians (and I say that despite my own hunch that he probably didn't), there would still be a much greater need to avoid saying such things. Especially if rumors were already flying around about Paul's message, after Galatians.

Finally, if someone wants to object that James should mention the controversy over circumcision when writing after the council, I would simply repeat all these points once again. There is no good reason to air out the gory details of internecine disputes during a public address aimed at improving opinions at large.

In summation, the primary argument for dating James before the council of Acts 15 is misguidedly dependent on a hermeneutically gerrymandered inference of a christian audience. However, if James' audience was Jewish synagogues, as I have argued, then the plausible risk of inflaming racial tensions - as illustrated by the underlying dynamic which atypically leads to violence in Luke 4:25-30 - explains why James does not mention gentile believers in his public relations project.

All of this, by the way, puts the letter more likely after Galatians than before it. But the date of Galatians would obviously be yet another discussion.

Anon, then...
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