September 30, 2017

Luke's Caesarean Perspective in Acts

My perspective on Acts begins with chapter 21. When Luke meets the church in Caesarea, where Cornelius had astonished Peter so dramatically, and we come into the house of Philip ("the evangelist"), who spent time with Peter in Samaria. This evokes a contrast from two earlier episodes. Just as the episode with Cornelius is portrayed is an "eye-opening" for Peter, I believe the episode in Samaria is meant to illustrate Peter's earlier blindness.

The traditional explanation for Philip's failure to share the Holy Spirit in Samaria is that only Apostles could do that sort of thing. What I see, instead, is a clear implication that Philip didn't know that Samaritans were sons of Abraham whose men were all circumcised. This subtext becomes more explicit immediately thereafter when Philip encounters the eunuch and - again - baptizes him in water but does not provide the Holy Spirit. Just like the poor gentile widows whom Peter would not eat with, this poor eunuch was unable to fully convert. But although Philip had disappeared from Acts after that episode, he now reappears in this church which began with Cornelius. This suggests Philip has also changed his mind about circumcision and the Spirit.

It's significant in Acts 21 that Luke meets Philip in Caesarea.

After Luke leaves Caesarea when Paul leaves, Luke presumably returns to Caesarea after Paul returns - certainly some time before chapter, when the "we" narration picks up again. Therefore - within the world of the narrative - Luke stays in Caesarea for up to two years. Given this point, and remebering how much information Luke has already shared about Philip and Cornelius, there should be no doubt that Acts wants us now to suppose that its narrator learned about Philip and Cornelius by spending much of these two years in Caesarea.

Please note, the point here is strictly literary. This applies equally whether you take Acts to be fictional or non-fictional. Either way, the character who is narrating has just met Philip and spent time in Cornelius' church. We don't have to take this as history. We have to take this as realism. We have to take this as if it were history... because if this is fiction, it's very sophisticated fiction, and that's the kind of reading sophisticated literature demands. (F.R. Ankersmit: "We read the novel as if it were true, and the failure to do so will make nonsense of the literary text.")

Fact or fiction, this is how Acts works, as literature. Ostensibly, Luke's two years in Caesarea provides a narrative explanation as to how and where this narrator learned certain characters' stories. More importantly, this binds Luke's perspective on their stories to these Caesareans' perspectives about their own stories. When Luke narrates the story of Peter and Cornelius, we ostensibly get Cornelius' slant on that story. When Luke narrates the stories about Peter and Philip, we ostensibly get Philip's perspective as a member of the Caesarean church. Ostensibly, there's a reason why Luke picked up and passed on those stories about these people, whom he now settles down for as much as two years. The Caesarean perspective puts a heavily critical spin on Luke's stories about hungry gentile widows, the samaritans, and the eunuch, and the hungry gentile widows.

As a character in the story world, the narrator's perspective identifies with the Caesarean perspective.

This makes us read the stories about Philip as critiques against Peter's early position on circumcision, intended to illustrate that Peter's initial bigotry against Cornelius was neither a rare nor an isolated event. This stretches out Luke's critique, which continues in Acts 15 when "certain ones from Judea" demand circumcision in Antioch, and when Peter stands up to argue against the christian Pharisees in Jerusalem who were still arguing the point at the council of Jerusalem. Note this carefully. The fact that Luke has Peter arguing against these Pharisees is a compliment to Peter. The fact that it's been many years since the Cornelius incident and Peter hasn't already convinced everyone in Jerusalem is a critique against Peter. It's also a critique against the entire church in Jerusalem.

In Acts 21:12, after Agabus' warning, the Caesarean church urges Paul to avoid Jerusalem. By itself, that urging can be seen strictly as a response to Agabus. However, in the context of all I've just said, Caesarea's urging to avoid Jerusalem cannot be taken as an isolated element of Luke's narrative, and especially not given what follows. When James mentions "many thousands" of Jerusalem christians, in 21:20, he goes on to describe people who are not willing to welcome Paul as a brother unless he can prove he keeps the law in precisely the ways they expect him to keep it. Putting this description on James' lips is a condemnation from Luke. This condemnation harkens back to the warning of 21:12. The Caesarean's urging was not about Agabus prophecy. The Caesareans knew what these Jerusalem christians were like. They'd had first hand experience, dating as far back as Philip's first hand participation in the dinner-time bigotry against unconvertable widows. And since Peter (apparently) left, the culture had only gotten worse.

I could go on. Here is my point, in a nutshell.

Acts 21 is the place we must start if we want to understand how Acts works as literature because it shows us that Luke shares Caesarea's perspective on the church in Jerusalem, and that identification colors everything else that takes place in Acts (that doesn't center on Paul).

By the way, I do not personally see Luke's critique as anti-Jewish or anti-Judean. Because Luke liked most Jews, it seems, we must conclude that Luke's critique is anti-institutional, or anti-authoritarian. We see this most clearly in Stephen's speech. Unforunately, connecting that argument with today's argument would require a whole different discussion.


September 22, 2017

Galatians 2 = Acts 15

Galatians 2 absolutely refers to the council of acts 15. One of my professors raised the question on Facebook today, and I found myself typing quickly:

It's been twelve years since I did the research, but I don't recall anyone who argues for this; at least, not anyone who argues particularly well. My own reconstruction comes together by starting with the "men from James".

Assuming the Judaizers in Galatia were almost certainly the same men who caused trouble in Antioch - because when & where else, before the council, could they have heard about churches in Galatia?! - we must reconstruct their itinerary in parallel against Paul's itinerary. So, if these men who prompted the trouble in Antioch which sparked the council in Jerusalem LEFT Antioch and went into Galatia, then it is far more likely that Paul and Barnabas were traveling to and from the council around the same time the Judaizers were traveling to and from Galatia. In that case, Paul & Barnabas visit Jerusalem, do the council, return home, split up, and THEN Paul gets word about Galatia, and then he (alone) writes the letter.

Otherwise, you'd have to suppose several unlikely scenarios, each in turn: Paul (1) waits around in Antioch (WITH Barnabas) ignoring the problem with Jerusalem... ignoring it for at least a year...for so long that the whole Galatians problem has enough time to develop, boil over, and have word get back to Paul; (2) Paul then writes Galatians (WITHOUT Barnabas, who is also there) and Paul sends it to them without being able to follow up soon in person; (3) Paul next travels down to Jerusalem (WITH Barnabas), submitting himself to the people he's just written about so resentfully (as opposed to submitting to them and *then* writing about them resentfully!); (4) Paul finally returns home to Antioch, and incidentally splits up with Barnabas, who didn't want to visit Galatia, even though he should know by now that Galatia needs help recovering from a festering crisis; (5) And only THEN, after all that, Paul finally says, yep, I better go visit these relatively new believers who are desperate for help and have nobody but me to rely on! That's implausible in the extreme.

The traditional argument for the consensus is that Galatians doesn't mention Acts 15 - in particular, Jerusalem's letter - but I like to point out Paul didn't share Jerusalem's letter with Corinth, either. That's why Peter's visit to Corinth raised so many questions about those three rules, which Paul then had to answer in 1Cor. If Paul didn't mention those three rules during 18 months living with the Corinthians, there's no reason to expect he should mention them during a single letter to the Galatians.

Also, there is Titus. (This is less weighty, but it's my favorite part!)

Because Paul assumes the Galatians know who Titus is, it seems obvious that Titus must be the letter carrier. But because it's unlikely Titus would have gone alone, he probably went with a partner. If we suppose that partner was probably Luke, it would explain how and why Paul finds Luke in Troas - the same town Titus seems to frequent in later years, and the only church in Acts whose origin Luke doesn't explain. To me, it looks like Titus and Luke carried the Galatian letter and then proceeded to an agreed upon rendezvous at "Troy" (as the most famous location west of Galatia they could be sure to remember correctly, and ask about, it was a perfect rendezvous point for inexperienced travelers from Antioch). The point, here, is that the explanatory power of all this vanishes completely if Paul sends the Galatian letter with no immediate follow-up plans. This can't happen if Luke & Titus are waiting in Troy indefinitely, because Paul (WITH Barnabas) is waiting on the Jerusalem council. And besides all that... Paul didn't need to write about the council because Titus had been there with Paul. If you want, you can easily suppose Titus carried the letter from Jerusalem along with Paul's letter. It would have been wise to keep that in reserve, and save it after reading Paul's letter, if at all.

On balance, there should be no question that Gal.2 = Acts 15.

Someday in the far future I will hopefully publish on this. In the meantime, dear readers, please share this post far and wide. I'd seriously love to find a co-author to help me develop this argument for publication. 


September 16, 2017

Human Agency in Historical Fiction and Non-fiction Narratives

I've blogged about this amazing chapter by Hamish Dalley once before, but I was reading it again tonight and felt a strong desire to quote extensively from its introduction. If you enjoy this, you can read much more at or go find the book: Kate Mitchell, and Nicola Parsons, Reading Historical Fiction: The Revenant and Remembered Past (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). You're looking for chapter three: "Temporal Systems in Representations of the Past".

By the way, Dalley's a Lit professor who apparently thinks like a philosopher of history.

In other words, get ready for greatness.
A common response to the historical novel's blurring of the boundary between history and fiction is to search for something that distinguishes the two. A concept sometimes invoked is the idea of 'distance' - a spatial metaphor that names the conceptual separation between past and present assumed to be a precondition of historical understanding. Disciplinary history, the argument goes, depends on respecting the distance between the current-day researcher and his or her objects of inquiry. Fiction, by contrast, breaks that distance down, creating a seductive but disabling illusion of immersion in a past world. ...temporal distance affirms the superiority of professional history and dismisses the historical novel as entertaining, but epistemologically misguided. Yet the idea that history and fiction can be distinguished like this occludes the ways that temporality is constructed textually... This essay examines the construction of temporal distance in historical novels. I argue that historical novels generate complex temporal structures through an array of narrative strategies and that, far from offering an easy way to draw a boundary between history and fiction, temporal distance complicates the relation between the two.
...while the notion that historical novels always collapse distance might seem to be a reasonable assumption, close analysis reveals them to be segmented texts characterized by internally varied relations of distance... I propose that historical novels possess 'temporal systems' - multiple overlapping constructions of time organised into a more or less coherent order - that are a major part of the text's symbolic structure. ...we need to understand temporality as a kind of topography in which historical novels are structured by uneven relations of distance. ... by analysing the construction of distance in [two historical novels], I demonstrate that temporal systems cannot be categorized straightforwardly as 'historical' or 'fictional'. Recognising this complexity ensures that the diversity of the historical novel is not flattened by simple generic distinctions, while pointing to the significance of time as a narrative effect whose ideological implications are often obscured when it is treated as a fact of nature. 
Predicated on the idea that past and present are distinct temporal zones separated by a 'clean break' (Attwood 2008, 76), affirmations of the epistemological value of distance assume to be natural what is really a textual effect, produced by historians as they construct the past as a discrete object of inquiry (Phillips 2003, 437-8). 
...novels almost always derive their narrative focus from characters' decisions... action takes place in an imagined present, for which the future is undecided and can still be affected by characters' decisions... This presents a paradox for the historical novel in particular... how can the protagonist of an historical novel be depicted as possessing agency? How can the open-ended 'presentness' of novelistic time coexist with the objectified 'pastness' of the historical setting? 
History's need to objectify the past, therefore, clashes with the novel's reliance on temporal contingency, resulting in an apparent contradiction... this problem forces historical novels to produce hybrid temporal systems... The contradiction between distance and narrative contingency is resolved by relocating distance inside the text... an internal divide between.. 'public' events of social existence, and.. 'life sequences' of the characters... The relationship between these constituent parts is fundamental to how novels negotiate historical representation, individual agency and narrative uncertainty.

Clear as mud? Well, then read it again. Maybe read more slowly-er, also, too.

Now, in my last post about this chapter, I piggybacked on Dalley's thinking a bit to talk about Foregrounding and Backgrounding, specifically looking at this way in which fiction and non-fiction narratives are often similar, rather than different. Micro-histories, for example, may feature a protagonist whose efforts to change her own situation are likely to be more effective than her efforts to change the wider world around her. Also, most oral histories which cite historical circumstances would fit very well into one of Dalley's two categories for historical fiction. Alternatively, the more formal types of historiographical narratives routinely ascribe agency to major historical figures, at least frequently during the micro-narrative sized statements which pepper their non-narrative analyses.

Once again, I find myself thrilled by the narrative theorizing of a fiction lover, but I also find myself trying to apply that narrative theory towards a more robust non-fiction narratology.

As I've been saying for years... I will find a way or make one.


Recent Posts
Recent Posts Widget
"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton