August 12, 2016

Suspending Historicity while Reading Narratives Historically

My single favorite SBL memory comes from Atlanta 2010, during the Q&A after Steve Mason's presentation extrapolating from a bit of Josephus' The Jewish War. Specifically, I think that presentation was on the bit about a failed attack on Jerusalem by Cestius Gallus in the autumn of 66 CE, but that's irrelevant right now. What happened in that Q&A was that someone asked Mason, essentially, "So, is that what you think actually happened?" And he began his lengthy and brilliant response by saying something like, "Oh, I have no idea."

Steve Mason had just spent 20 or 25 glorious minutes reconstructing a plausible situation about a small section of Josephus' narrative history, and none of it had yet considered whether or not that reconstruction itself might be accurate. The entire analysis had been merely preliminary.

To that point, historical inquiry had not yet begun. The narrative was being employed as an opportunity to consider historical representation of actual events, while suspending judgment about whether or not the reconstructed scenario might or might not be accurately described as "historical". If there was to be an investigation regarding the past itself, that would come later. The study of narrative "as though historical" was a starting point, rather than a conclusion.

Helpfully, after that conference, I was able to find Mason advocating for this approach as early as 2003, in "Contradiction or Counterpoint? Josephus and Historical Method" (available at the moment on or in print as chapter 4 of Hendrickson's 2009 Mason anthology, Josephus, Judea, and Christian Origins). On page 133 (Cf. n.137), he discusses "trying to understand Josephus' narratives in situ first, as an entirely distinct exercise from historical investigation", and focusing "on Josephus's narratives only, as prolegomenon to future historical work", noting that while a critic had accused him elsewhere (in a piece regarding Josephus' discussion of Pharisees) of doing this as a way of explaining historical significance of Josephus' narrative references, "I did not attempt a historical investigation [of the Pharisees] there." On page 134-5, he talks about going "from text to reconstruction", pointing out that "where Josephus's narrative is the only evidence to be explained, we have no way of making a hypothesis probable." To which, Mason concludes:
The upshot: we have no place to stand that affords traction for getting behind Josephus. We might prefer one hypothesis or another on the basis of taste. We might have strong impulses about particular passages: "Why would Josephus lie about this?" or "It seems like Josephus is not being straightforward here." . . . Any effort to extract some strands of Josephus' tapestry while leaving others will seem more or less arbitrary to those with different tastes. 
[But] Even where Josephus' narrative provides the only information we have, it may still be possible to do history if we can take a more expansive view... on the principle that "the journey is the destination," we may construct hypotheses for heuristic purposes only, abandoning any claim to probability. The very process of constructing models... can have some value in keeping us aware of the range of possibilities underlying Josephus' artful stories. There is indeed "no harm in asking".
Likewise, in the Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism (2010), Mason's entry on Josephus offers similar reflection on "New Approaches" (p.831-2):
...the old criteria for source criticism have been disqualified as rules of thumb... There is no doubt that Josephus used sources for most of what he wrote about... Extracting sources from his finished work, however, may be as difficult as reconstituting the eggs from a baked cake. What we have now is his artful creation. It always remains possible that any particular oddity might be explicable as the vestige of a source, but our first obligation is to understand it as part of the composition... 
This new approach has direct implications [for] historical study... To remove elements of the story, in which words and phrases are chosen in relation to others, merely destroys their narrative meaning; it does not thereby produce facts. The logic of recent analysis drives us toward viewing Josephus' (and other ancient writers') historical narratives as artistic productions, not unlike historical films that we may watch today. In both cases the art undoubtedly derives from real events and lives, but we cannot simply move from the production to some underlying reality...
If we postpone our speculations about what may lie beneath Josephus' literary legacy, and turn our attention to exploring the surviving narratives in their literary and historical contexts, we begin to wonder at the impact they must have made on whatever audiences he was able to assemble in Rome.
I would add here only that one of the obvious impacts on Josephus' Roman audience would be, of course, to receive Josephus' narrative as a purported representation of the historical past. It would have been just as Mason says, "not unlike historical films that we may watch today". 

Film is a helpful analogy. When you finish watching the movie Braveheart, you shouldn't (and hopefully wouldn't) believe that you now know exactly what happened in that historical era, but you would (and probably should) suppose that you now know something about the events of that historical situation, to some degree, more or less. However, that supposition does not constitute your final moment of interest, and this brings us back to the point.

Sometimes it's best to "understand narratives in situ first". After watching the film narrative of Braveheart, we may use that artful representation of history as a starting point, to inspire questions about "the past as it actually happened". From that point, we may use these questions as a springboard into proper historical inquiry. We may, for instance, begin to look up more reliable source material about William Wallace of Scotland and England's King Edward I. If we do this, the artful "historical" representation will be a starting point for our interest, rather than a last word on the subject.

Likewise, after reading Josephus' narrative about Cestius Gallus, or Josephus' collected descriptions and depictions of Pharisees, or the stories of King Herod's death, or John the Baptist's beheading, we may use those artful representations as a starting point, first to reconstruct one or more plausible scenarios which might contextualize and/or explain Josephus' narrative, and then to inspire questions about what might have actually happened.

The tricky part of all this - which many New Testament scholars especially may struggle to get past - is that this first task of reconstructing "in situ" is exactly like doing historical reconstruction, except that considerations of historicity can be suspended. 
This does not mean historicity will not be considered. This does mean that historicity should not be used as a road block which keeps us from considering "the range of possibilities underlying Josephus' artful stories."

As Mason says, these reconstructions are themselves hypothetical representations of the past, constructed for heuristic purposes. They should not be an effort to conclude. They should be a foundation for proper historical inquiry.

For more heaping doses of Mason's methodology, in spades, see this year's fresh release of his (thus far) magnum opus A History of the Jewish War. (From Cambridge; at $150, it's worth every penny!)

For those with serious interest, you may also wish to peruse Mason's much referenced resource, Christopher Pelling's Literary Texts and the Greek Historian (2000).


As a final note, it is not incidental to my thinking tonight that I have just begun reading Brant Pitre's Jesus and the Last Supper, in which I anticipate - or at least in which I dearly hope - Brant may perhaps be attempting to follow a similar line of methodology in line with Steve Mason's approach, as I've presented it here.

I began reading Brant's book this week because Christopher Skinner is blogging a multi-part review of it. So if Chris gets a chance to read this humble blog post of mine - and if he can bring himself to consider the value in what Mason has advocated - I would ask him kindly to help me decide whether something like Mason's approach is indeed what Brant might be attempting to do, except with regards to the Last Supper narratives in the Gospels.

At the moment, I have tried to suggest this (in brief) to our dear Doctor Skinner - twice now - and he doesn't seem to think that suspending historicity in this way is a viable option.

Perhaps, my dear friends, you might help him to consider this...


Brant Pitre said...

Hey Bill, thank you for this very insightful piece! Thanks also for calling Mason's work on this important issue to my attention. I just put it in my Amazon cart.

Although I have not read Mason, this is indeed remarkably similar to what I was attempting to get at in my section on "Interpretation and Historical Plausibility" in Jesus and the Last Supper (pp. 50-52), which I consider one of the most important contributions of the book. There I suggest that a historical Jesus scholar should first attempt to situate/interpret the evidence in Jesus' historical context (in situ, as you put it) before moving into an evaluation of the arguments for and against its historical plausibility (Here I was following Gerd Theissen and Dagmar Winter's extremely important book, The Quest for the Plausible Jesus [2002, pp.193-207]). I didn't use the language of "suspending historicity," however. Maybe that would have helped readers like Skinner see more clearly what my aims were.

As you'll see if you keep reading--and I really hope you do! I'd really appreciate your feedback--I try to actually implement this consistently by always trying to (1) interpret the text in the context of the leben Jesu before (2) turning to arguments both for and against historical plausibility. This keeps the two movements distinct, and in the proper order, as opposed to (1) declaring on historical plausibility before (or without!) (2) even attempting to situate the text in its purported context.

Looking forward to future posts on this important subject.

Bill Heroman said...

Thanks for this encouragement, Brant, and I'm sorry for my delay in responding. My work schedule changed and I've been playing catch up. Thanks for your patience.

I'm thrilled to recommend Mason and I trust you'll enjoy his work greatly. (Btw, "in situ" was his term, not mine.) I still haven't yet cracked Theissen & Winter but I may have to soon. I'm curious as to whether their notion of "plausibility" (and yours, and Sanders') aligns well with Pelling's notion of plausibility. Pelling (and by extension, Mason) talks about the author needing to craft a world their audience would find plausible. I think this is different from your position. You seem to follow Sanders (and Theissen & Winter?) in taking "plausible" as a stepping stone towards judgment about historicity. I think "plausible" is more akin to "hypothetical". For example: we trust Herodotus' basic tale about the Spartans at Thermopylae, but we're in no position to judge whether that battle did or did not actually happen. It's plausible, and nothing disallows its historicity, so we tend to accept it as historical fact. However, because we have no way of confirming it, our acceptance technically amounts to a permanent hypothesis. Historicity isn't really a point of business in this instance at all. The story provides a representation of a historical past, the basic contours of which we've excepted from skepticism, indefinitely. We don't confirm or defend it. Our acceptance of it is largely by default.

At any rate, something like this ^ awareness is what I hope to see Gospel scholars embrace in the future, at least for most "basic" material in the Gospels. Sanders' three points (your pp.32-46) can indeed offer arguments in support or against, but I would argue they cannot be conclusive. You seem to disagree... but I am still working through the book slowly.

In summary, there's a lot that I'm enjoying about Last Supper and a few points that confuse me, but I definitely plan to celebrate the important advance of while continuing the conversation. Thanks so much for letting me join in so heartily.

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