March 15, 2016

Jonathan Bernier's Critical Realism

I'm sorry for being a bad friend. I mean, to all of you. I first discovered Jonathan Bernier when The Our Favorite Jesus Blog featured his PhD monograph about the Historical Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (Brill, discounted at $2,342.00). In the two years since then, reading his blog, interacting on facebook, and IRL at SBL, I have developed a full-on man crush (not on Jonathan, but) on his astonishing brain. The fact is that our dear Doctor Bernier - that’s BUR-nee-ay. The "BUR-nee" is French and the “eh” is Canadian - happens to enjoy thinking with a rigorous and disciplined imagination about events, ideas, memories, and accounts of the past. He quotes historians like Marc Bloch and Hayden White while interacting with top shelf discussions of the New Testament guild. He likes to illustrate the dynamics of historiography by piecing together intriguing contextual details about his grandparents’ early lives. Most importantly, he has been a kind friend to me and a great encouragement to my hopes for the future of historical Jesus studies.

All of this is to say that I’ve been a bad friend to all of you for not featuring him here sooner. Jonathan's blog is called Critical Realism and the New Testament. (You should add it to whatever links list has replaced your Google Reader.) His tantalizing book projects are currently underway. His penchant for favoring DC over Marvel is easily forgivable. In sum, you should all begin reading his work. To get you started, here are some excerpts from a few of my favorite posts which he's blogged.

In that post I suggested the problem with mythicists is that they simply are not familiar with either the philosophy of history or the work of historiography. It goes deeper than that, I realize upon reflection: they are not in fact familiar with even the basics of how storytelling works. The problem really is a failure on mythicists' part to distinguish between story and fiction. My late grandfather regularly told stories about his WWII service. They weren't fiction, even if at times they were probably a bit embellished. He really did meet my grandmother whilst stationed in England. He really did serve in north Africa, southern Italy, and the Netherlands. And that summary of things that my grandfather did is itself a story, however short, and still not fiction. He really did tell these stories. I know, because at least later in his life I was probably his primary audience.

The balance of the data suggests that in this case the written record is probably mistaken and the oral tradition probably correct. Yet the historian, at least any worth the name, will not stop there. In fact, this is where historiography really gets going, because the question now to be asked is "Why did this error arise?" . . .  because history is not the enterprise of adjudicating which sources are true and which are in error, even though (as in this case) one might recognize demonstrable error in the sources. Rather, history is the enterprise of explaining why the extant data relevant to a certain event (in this case, the birth of my grandfather and the registration of that birth) takes the form that it does and only that form. Sometimes the best explanation might actually appear in our sources, and if so that is a happy evidentiary boost, but very often we have to infer it using our imagination. The trick is to develop an imagination disciplined by reason and informed by data.

Bloch notes that the narrative sources are valuable with regards to chronological framework, despite often being quite inconsistent. This, I think, is a crucial point. Due to the pernicious influence of a particularly virulent inerrancy New Testament historiography has tended to put far more emphasis upon chronological and other inconsistencies in our narrative sources than is probably helpful or healthy. Those given to Chicago-style inerrancy want to show that the sources lack any inconsistency at all, a quest that would make Don Quixote proud. Such persons adopt an all-or-nothing approach to the narrative sources: either all is consistent or none is useful. The problem is that many of their opponents adopt the same approach, the only difference being that where one chooses "all" the other "chooses" nothing. Neither allows the possibility that it might very well be the case that, yes, Paul did indeed appear in front of Gallio in 51/52, even as, for instance, everything that Gallio is reported to have said during that meeting is entirely a Lukan construction. Or Luke might get details of Paul's itinerary wrong even whilst depicting the overall sweep of the church's early missionary expansion with reasonable fidelity. Etc. So many, probably far too many, of our debates regarding history method are really engaged with disputing the Quixotism of inerrancy instead of dealing with the actual work of historiography.

It should go without saying that the question "Was Jesus A or B?" falls victim equally to the charge of being other than scientific, seeking the nature of Jesus unrelated to any other entity (indeed, it is when one puts Jesus in relation to other entities, asking for instance, "How did Jesus relate to Jewish peasant Cynicism?," that one realizes the true poverty of the argument. One realizes immediately that there was no such thing as Jewish peasant Cynicism, and this for two reasons: there is no evidence of a Jewish Cynicism, and Cynicism was a thoroughly urban phenomenon. Thus one is asking "How does Jesus relate to this unattested phenomena?" If one can simultaneously construct from the data a reasonable account of how Jesus relates to, for instance, the well-attested Jewish prophetic tradition, then surely that account is to be preferred to one that seeks to relate Jesus to the unattested).

Consternation about alternative possibilities is a result of defining proof and truth as synonymous. If that which can be held as true is that which can be proven then, indeed, one cannot affirm that Luke-Acts was written before Paul died, because I cannot prove it, certainly not if by "proof" we mean "conclusively exclude all alternative possibility." Of course, the opposite is true: if I cannot prove that it was written before Paul died neither can another prove that it was written afterwards. In a discipline such as ancient historiography were I to affirm only what could be proven beyond any doubt then I would have very little to affirm.

...the earliest Christians had sufficient numbers to begin writing and reading each other’s work. After all, it only takes one to write and another to read a text. Compounded with the reality of the Second Temple Jewish world’s cultural and social investment in written text this is more than sufficient to call into question the “oral-only" hypothesis.
This hypothesis does not adequately apprehend media diversity in the production of Mark’s Gospel because it treats orality and literacy functionally as a contradictories when in fact they are contraries. They coexist quite happily...

Anon, my friends. Enjoy reading non-fiction and strengthening your disciplined imagination about past contexts. Class is now in session. Enjoy reading Jonathan Bernier.

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