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...

August 20, 2016

Exegesis before Historicity

If you'd like to keep up with Christopher Skinner's serial review of Brant Pitre's Jesus and the Last Supper, here's a timeline to use as a checklist. I will update as possible. Skinner's reviews are appearing at Crux Sola with Pitre's responses posting at Jesus Blog. I've interjected myself with one post here so far. A lot of interesting stuff has been happening in the comments of all these posts, as well.

Aug. 12 - Pitre's Second Response
Aug. 12 - Heroman's Interjection
Aug. 13 - Skinner's Response to Pitre

This is a really important conversation, imho, partly because it's been so challenging - for Skinner and Pitre themselves, not to mention the rest of us - and partly because Historical Jesus studies are at a crossroads, and Pitre's new book offers a fascinating cross section of something old and something new.

We are patiently awaiting much more...

August 14, 2016

Narrative is Representation

In the early 20th century, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf pushed the envelope of literary fiction by injecting plots with randomness to intensify realism (a.k.a. “representation”). Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (English 1953, free online; German 1946), concluded by waxing philsophically about Joyce and Woolf specifically, anticipating (nay, seeding) the historical theory of Louis Mink and Hayden White by twenty to thirty years (p.548-53): “He who represents the course of a human life, or a sequence of events extending over a prolonged period of time, and represents it from beginning to end, must prune and isolate arbitrarily.” Does that sound more like literary theory or historiographical theory? It is both. This is one thing the past 50 years of struggling with “the linguistic turn” should have taught us.

Thus, when Wayne Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) heroically argued against the popular dogma of composition instructors everywhere - "show me, don't tell me" - his valid claim that "telling" could and often did accompany "showing" in literature can serve as case in point. Such an argument would have been meaningless if the field of literary critics had not all agreed that the purpose of fiction was to represent human experience. Observe, as Booth prepares to mount his somewhat contrarian argument, how he deftly acknowledges all of this common ground:
[N]ovelists and critics of widely different schools have echoed again and again the belief of Flaubert that the fully expressed "natural" event will convey its own meanings far better than any explicit evaluative commentary might do.* [And here Booth cites Auerbach on Flaubert’s skillful “showing” (Mimesis, p.486), and quotes from R.G. Collingwood's The Principles of Art (1938): “If you want to express the terror which something causes, you must not give it an epithet like 'dreadful.' For that describes the emotion instead of expressing it, and your language becomes frigid, that is inexpressive, at once. A genuine poet, in his moments of genuine poetry, never mentions by name the emotions he is expressing' (p.112)." (Booth, footnote, Kindle loc. 7505)]
“When I read in a novel, 'John was peevish,'" says Ortega, "it is as though the writer invited me to visualize, on the strength of his definition, John's peevishness in my own imagination. That is to say, he expects me to be the novelist. What is required, I should think, is exactly the opposite: that he furnish the visible facts so that I obligingly discover and define John to be peevish" (p.59). Some decades before this formulation of the need for purity, the unknown James Joyce, revising [Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man], carefully expunged most of the adverbs and adjectives [and] authorial commentary... Having once written, "Stephen stuck his spoon angrily through the bottom of the [egg] shell," he reconsidered and crayoned out "angrily." Why? Because it was clearly the author refusing to let the natural, the pure object -- in this case a physical action -- speak for itself. . .

We can admit, of course, that the choice of evocative "situations and chains of events" is the writer's most important gift -- or, as Aristotle put a similar point, the "most important of all is the structure of the incidents." The gift of choosing the right "object" is indispensable, whether that object is a thought, a gesture, a descriptive detail, or a great character involved in a significant action... (Booth, Chapter 1; Kindle loc. 1685)

In this preface for his own counterbalancing argument, Booth acknowledges the dominance of "expression", "visualization", and "action”, as indicators of "showing", over things like "commentary", "definition", and "adjectives” which qualify here as "telling”. Enhancing the point further by genuflecting to Aristotle, Booth acknowledged "evocative 'situations and chains of events'" or "the structure of the incidents" as having supreme importance for the critical tradition of analyzing fictional narratives. The most prominent task of fiction is to represent the dynamic activity of human change over time, and if narration inserts descriptive asides that is more or less incidental. But before Booth’s can argue that “telling” is less incidental than many believe (Cf. Mieke Bal’s similar championing of “description” alongside “representation”, almost 30 years later), he must pledge allegiance to Flaubert, along with Ortega and Auerbach, and he absolutely must acknowledge the greatness of James Joyce and Aristotle. Delightfully, however, what all these writers have in common is best illustrated (in this excerpt) by the erstwhile historical theorist, Collingwood, whose treatise on aesthetics, The Principles of Art, was published eight years before his more famous The Idea of History.

For Collingwood, the novelist is a long form poet that happens to be crafting prose. In his view, if you merely "describe" then you have not "expressed" because the art of narrative properly involves representation. A poet never tells the reader to be sad or happy; a poet immerses the reader in a vicarious experience that evokes the desired effect of her rhetoric. For the novelist, the foremost desired effect is to make the reader imagine aspects of reality in some particular way, and to do this requires a solid grounding in referential objectivity and verisimilitude -- the representation of a plausible world, as an imaginable story.

While Booth correctly draws out the delicious irony that ALL narrative is telling, and therefore every “showing” actually *IS* telling, it would be pragmatic of us to consider this merely a technical point. To pursue such a line of reasoning, for contrarian ends, would be pedantry. Yes of course it's all words. This is obvious; duh. But although every narrative is a discourse, it is far more pertinent that not all discourses are narratives. A story cannot be defined by its verbiage. What is Narrative, really, actually? It is art. A story must provide representation, an expression of realism. This is why Aristotle and Auerbach invoked mimesis, and why Collingwood talked of poetry.

Poetry is mental telepathy. It's an effort to make words do what words should not be able to do.

Just like Poetry - and Metaphor, and Irony - Narrative offers a special way of making words convey things which actually remain unsaid. But this is the key: a good storyteller does not just convey words along with an additional, unstated, extra something. Rather, a good storyteller conveys the vicarious experience of a hypothetical reality, but that immersive depiction is not something that can be conveyed by individual words, phrases, or sentences. Likewise, a good story does not consist of its individual elements: plot, character, setting, and so forth. Rather, a good story becomes a dynamic integral. How can mere words convey something that feels tangibly four-dimensional?
The proper word for this phenomenon is “Representation”.

A good narrative tells you far more than words should be able to say.

As a clarification, please note that I am not here describing the way Narrative conveys unstated themes, although narrative obviously can do this also. For instance, when you read Tolkien you should realize he isn't really talking about Hobbits and Orcs but about courage, responsibility, and fellowship. That's an unstated, overarching theme. What I'm talking about in this post is not meaning, concepts, or themes. I’m talking about Representation, which takes place, for example, when reading War and Peace makes you recognize the broad, sweeping importance of its titular subjects, not in abstract ideals but in terms of illustrated human experience. You should recognize this as Tolstoy’s reader long before you arrive at his philosophical epilogue (which, not incidentally, Booth praised as an effective “telling" that remained poignant far longer than some of Steinbeck's “showing” symbolism in The Grapes of Wrath, which for Booth had grown "decidedly outmoded and obtrusive" in just 22 years (Kindle loc.3270). For Booth, Tolstoy's epilogue "told" and Steinbeck’s narrative "showed" but the trick was done properly as long as each writer conveyed solid ideas about human struggle, in all its fallen glory; frustration, faith, and grace.

To sum up, then, my point is that Narrative can do more as a whole than when broken up into pieces. When you think about Homer's Odyssey, you envision a chain of events working all together. What you think of is therefore nowhere in the text. Likewise, when present day Joyce fans celebrate Bloomsday in Dublin each June 16th, they spend time envisioning (if not quite re-enacting) a related chain of events which - to them - represents the massive cacophony of represented experience accounted by Joyce to the randomness of a single day, in the fictional (and-yet-actual) Dublin of Leopold Bloom's uniquely imagined existence.

Structurally, Joyce is nothing like Homer. Rather than a traditional unity of plot and conflict, Ulysses coheres purely through its main character and his associates, with their shared civic setting. One man, on one day, in one city, makes his way amidst hundreds of circumstantial details. In contrast, as Aristotle declared, the exploits of Odysseus comprise one single action - to get back home and to repossess it. These are vast differences in terms of classical Plot. Despite that, what Ulysses and the Odyssey DO have in common is the point of today's post. It is not structure, content, or form that they share. It is not setting or characterization. What they both do is achieve viable mimesis. Each narrative is a representation of actual life that offers - at least in some respects - plausible verisimilitude. If they did not, why would anyone bother reading them?

Granted, Homer's style of realism obviously includes the "magical" (supernatural), in addition to being contrived and formulaic. Despite that, Homer’s primary purpose was precisely the same as Joyce's. Each storyteller conveyed the idea of an actual human being undergoing a succession of experiences, sometimes with and sometimes without having enough power to thwart circumstance. What the audience receives from each narrative is not simply plot plus character plus setting with a few clever rhetorical moves and ex machina devices. What the audience receives from each narrative is a combination of all that and yet something else also.

We do not learn about each character universally, but under specific conditions. We do not merely observe a plot sequence, but imagine how real persons would plausibly navigate such events. We don't look to translate settings like the Ormond hotel in Dublin or Circe's island of Aeaea into symbolism, we just imagine those places as the sites of specific occasions in the characters’ hypothetically “actual” lived experience. To quote Ankersmit for the Nth time this month: “We read the novel as if it were true.” Fiction lives or dies based on verisimilitude.


This is standard and proper literary theory about how fiction narratives work. Their central aspect is representation. As a reader of fiction, your primary task is to be in your head, constructing the story world, building up as much as you can build from the narrator's discourse. The writer must provide raw material and arrange it to cause her rhetoric’s effect, but it is only the reader who can imagine a story world, regardless of whether that world is real or imaginary or a mixture of both. Therefore, any critical reader of narratives should ideally recognize (in whatever terms they see fit) that fiction narratives are exactly like historical narratives in the way they attempt to represent human beings in a plausible story world. One way that historical narratives (F or NF) differ from other types of narratives is that the audience may integrate the story world with their own images of the rememberd past.

My own personal takeaway from all this, for reading New Testament Narrative Criticism, is that I will always keep hoping to see each critic embrace that representational aspect in historical context, whether or not they believe the Gospel literature is more accurately described as fiction or non-fiction. Likewise, I will always feel disapointed when a critic deliberately proffers a view of narrative’s atomized functions and elemental aspects which amounts to viewing narrative merely as a formulaic discourse, or viewing narratives as if they cannot provide representation.

To me, there is nothing so hollow as Narrative without Representation...

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...

August 4, 2016

Propositional Truth vs Representational Truth

In a recent post, Description vs Representation, I contrasted the static timelessness of description, as it takes place within narration, against the dynamic quality of narration itself, as the representation of (the human experience of) temporality. To illustrate that contrast, I discussed a lengthy excerpt from Mieke Bal's classic Narratology (3rd edition). Having established that contrast in such terms, I then asked why "Historical Jesus" scholars have tended to focus on issues of description, rather than (temporal) representation. In an update the next day I found one possible answer in a book by Frank Ankersmit. Description is essentially a form of propositional truth, while dynamic human experience is not so easily summed up by individual statements. Combining these two lines of thinking is my subject today.

Idea Number One: Narrative Description is static while Narrative Representation is dynamic.
Idea Number Two: Description is propositional while Representation invokes another kind of truth altogether.

Instead of Bal, today's excerpts are from Ankersmit's 2012 masterpiece, Meaning, Truth, and Reference in Historical Representation. And so, without further ado...
In the case of true descriptions -- think of statements of the form "A is Φ" -- one can always clearly distinguish between that part of the statement that exclusively refers and another, predicate part exclusively attributing some property to the object that the statement refers to. In statements such as "A is Φ," the term "A" refers to some object in the world... whereas the phrase "... is Φ" attributes the property Φ to A... This picking out uniquely is truly crucial for a description's being capable of being either true or false; as long as we cannot be sure what object in the world the statement or description refers to, we cannot decide about propositional truth or falsity. If the condition of this unique picking out is satisfied, one may turn to the object referred to in the statement and ask whether it possesses the property. If it does, the statement is true; if it does not, the statement is false. (p.65) 
But the case of representation is quite different. Think of painting... In a portrait one cannot distinguish between spots of paint that exclusively attribute certain properties to the sitter. The distinction makes no sense in the case of portrait painting. Thus pictorial representation is essentially different from description... And the same is true for historical representation... Think of a book on the French Revolution. There you cannot pinpoint those chapters, sections, paragraphs, or sentences that exclusively refer to the French Revolution and those other that exclusively attribute certain properties to it, as typically is the case in the singular true statement... This also explains why we cannot speak of the propositional truth or falsity of representations (as they are found in portraits or history books). (p.66)
So far, what we have here is another explanation of the distinction I blogged about last time. Description is one thing and Representation is another thing. There's a cognitive mystery here (imho; Ankersmit doesn't delve into Psychological literature) but however it works we can all recognize that a whole is often much more than the sum of its parts. If propositional statements are always well defined, and dynamic experience is not so easily wrangled into subjection, then how can we understand Representation if we're stuck in propositional thinking? Ankersmit says:
I propose to define representational truth as what the world, or its objects, reveal to us in terms of its aspects.// So let us have a look at this definition... just like the more current definitions of propositional truth -- such as the correspondence and the coherence theories of truth -- representational truth succeeds in bridging the gap between language and reality. It does so by linking at the textual level of historical representation and its presented -- which is, as we have found, not a conceptual entity like a word's meaning but an aspect of the world itself. However, since these aspects are not identifiable individual objects in the past, correspondence and coherence theories explaining propositional truth could not possibly apply here. Anyway, bridging the language/reality gap is achieved by both propositional truth and representational truth. (p.107)
From the propositional standpoint, truth is defined by what we can say. From the representational standpoint, truth is found in what we can see. What follows across the next fifty pages is a philosophical tour de force over linguistic aspects of reference and truth, but Ankersmit always brings things back to (historical) Representation. In what is probably the book's most significant chapter (7), the author concludes:
The paradox is that the text -- apparently a most contrived and artificial linguistic construction if compared with the simple and ascetic structure of the true statement -- is in fact more basic than the statement. However, we believe the statement to be the basic component in our use of language -- more basic, anyway, than the text. Does the text not consist of true statements? What other access could we possibly have to the text than a route beginning with the true statement? So we tend to think. But it is in fact the other way around... Paradoxically, representation precedes true description. This, then, is the "Copernican Revolution" advocated in this book.(p.154,6)
To that last statement, in a footnote, he adds: "The dogma presupposed by most of contemporary philosophy of language is the existence of a world of objects giving us access to propositional truth. But this dogma requires the philosopher's critical scrutiny."

Despite all this sublime brilliance, I suspect the author's most practical takeaway was perhaps made way back in chapter 3, where he argued that representation precedes interpretation:
...we should distinugish between interpretation and representation and, more specifically, avoid looking at the historical text from the perspective of interpretation only. ...representation takes priority over interpretation in the historical text; there can be interpretation only after there has first been a representation and therefore an either real or imaginary reality represented by the text. Needless to say, this permanently present "memory" of a represented reality occasioned by representation will limit the freedom of maneuver of the practice of interpretation. When we interpret a text, we can never wholly discard an image, however unclear and imperfect, of what the text might be "true" of. (p.62-3)
Notice that juxtaposition between "either real or imaginary reality represented". I want to underscore this phrase with one final quotation from a delicious footnote on page 119, where this crucial point is repeated: 
...representation precedes interpretation. We do insufficient justice to the novel when we interpret it only while refraining from asking ourselves what it represents. And the fact that what it represents will often be an imaginary reality does not diminish in any way the urgency of this question... We read the novel as if it were true, and the failure to do so will make nonesense of the literary text.
As far as this goes for the novel, so it goes for historical fiction, and none the less for historical narrative. Description is propositional. Representation cannot be contained by such thinking. Representation should, rather, constrain all types of interpretive thinking, provided one is interpreting any kind of a narrative.

Representation is the essence of both fiction and historical writing, and the Gospel narratives were written as purportedly "historical narratives", even though some call them fiction. It is thus my belief that Ankersmit's work gives us more than enough reason for New Testament scholars to stop relegating "Representation" to the realm of "Historical Jesus" studies.

We have every reason to bring "Historical Representation" fully into the proper domain where it always should have belonged - that being the narratological approach of "New Testament Narrative Criticism". About this, I will hopefully say much more in future posts.

Anon, then...

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