It is standard practice in Gospel studies to distinguish literary representations from the actual past. We see this most often with characters (e.g., Matthew’s Pilate, and Philo’s Pilate, and Josephus’ Pilate are distinguished from the historical Pilate) but sometimes with events (e.g., each Gospel represents Jesus’ Passion Week differently, and reconstructions (like the traditional stations of the cross) are yet another version of the (hypothetically, actual) past.
Another standard practice in Gospel studies involves performing literary analysis (e.g., “historical criticism”) before attempting historical reconstruction. Within “the criteria method” this meant dismissing material deemed inauthentic and then suggesting an alternative version of the Jesus story, but the more recent “memory approach” also prioritizes literary analysis before suggesting possible explanation(s) for how or why the Gospels portrayed Jesus in some particular way.
It should be self-evident that both of these basic methods are logically sound, because (1) the history which is literature does not equate to the history which is past happenings, and (2) the extant artifacts (written narratives) are still directly accessible while the actual happenings (past events) are gone forever. These two points justify the two standard practices fully. These basic hermeneutic and heuristic principles are logically necessary, good, and indisputable. That said, I would like to encourage a bit more nuance in our application of these principles.
In reading Literature and writing History, how do we employ Imagination and Judgment?
In the typical implementation of these two standard practices, above, Judgment takes place exclusively during Literary Analysis (because judging the authenticity or at least the relative plausibility of the narrative material is part of preparing to do reconstruction), and Imagination is solely engaged during Historical Reconstruction (because once your view of the text is established you are more or less left with your wits to explain it somehow). Let me repeat that. Judgment is typically wrapped up in Literary Analysis, which effectively becomes “stage one” in the process, and Imagination is reserved for Historical Reconstruction, or “stage two” as it were.
Basically, scholars of the Gospels have been reading with Judgment and writing with Imagination.
There’s nothing wrong with doing those things... depending on the application... but to whatever extent this two stage model describes the whole game with some accuracy, I have to say I find that whole game to have been (too often) simplistic and incomplete. But perhaps the best way to see what I mean is to look for the interplay and the overlap between judgment and imagination, during the process.
When should judgment enter?
When should imagination take effect?
When should they both work together?
When should they be kept apart?
Gospel scholars who read critically only before they’ve engaged their historical imagination aren’t reading robustly enough to guarantee critical rigor, and Gospel scholars who construct scenarios only after they’ve formed judgments about the material aren’t extrapolating enough possibilities to maximize judgment’s effectiveness. Now, let's turn those negatives into positives. If we engage our historical imagination (hypothetically) during (the later stages of) literary analysis (and all while suspending judgment about historicity), we can often generate a number of ways of reading the narrative content within various shades of contextualized realism. After that, having analyzed the literature imaginatively (and repeatedly), we can start constructing historical scenarios that will help us move towards a more involved critique -- which is not merely a singular critique of the visible text but a comparative critique of the invisible (and pluriform) possibilities to be found in the hypothetical past/s.
Clear as mud? Let me break that down in detail.
In practice, this extends and amplifies the standard process, as I described earlier. If the standard model has been: (1) Literary Analysis, (2) Historical Reconstruction; then the expanded model would be: (1) Literary Analysis, (2) Imaginative Reading/s, (3) Historical Reconstruction/s, (4) Critical Judgment.
Now, allow me to explain these four stages in detail.
(1) Literary Analysis -- This includes making any observations which are textual, philological, rhetorical, or otherwise “literary” (pertaining to style, usage, and other patterns of the writer’s discourse). I can say less here because this is the stage where New Testament scholars run rings around me, and where I will humbly and gratefully keep learning. This stage takes absolute priority because it involves the underlying levels of exegetical observation, and prepares the interpreter for a more complete and contextualized exegesis in stage 2, as follows.
(2) Imaginative Reading/s -- While suspending judgment on historicity and engaging the narrative “as if it were true” (Ankersmit), the scholar receives the narrative, reading actively, imaginatively constructing the world of the story with a contextualized verisimilitude. This stage resembles historical reconstruction in some ways but it should be properly called “narrative reconstruction” (or “reconstructing the narrative in situ,” a la Steve Mason). In some cases, texts which offer multiple interpretations (e.g., when a significant textual variant exists or a conjectural emendation has been proposed) may produce a choice between multiple representations in the mind of the reader; in such cases, at this stage, critical judgment of the plausibility of each reading must remain suspended.
(3) Historical Reconstruction/s -- By this point, a question must form, if it had not formed already. (Historical inquiry is driven by asking questions; see anything by Mason or Jordan Ryan on Collingwood.) This question could simply be something like the old historical criticism, such as, “Did the writer make a mistake by saying _X_?” or, “Is it plausible to accept the statement that Jesus [did such and such]?” or, "How closely were John and Jesus connected?" or (more basically), "What happened during the day Jesus was cricified?" Pursuing each question must take its own course, and the reconstruction of multiple scenarios during this stage is to be encouraged, but the various reconstructions produced at this stage will not be identical to the imaginative reading/s of stage 2. Each potential scenario considered must remain hypothetical at this stage. The immediate objective at this stage is to blend imagination and judgment together. Where stage 2 involved a robust literary imagination while suspending historical judgment, stage 3 retains the goal of expansive imagineering but has now introduced content-critical considerations. E.g., Jesus really rose from the dead, OR Jesus appeared to be resurrected but was really a ghost, OR Jesus did not rise but the disciples had a mass hallucination, OR Jesus did not rise and the disciples swore themselves to a lie. Again, the more scenarios one can generate at this stage, the better.
(4) Critical Judgment -- Now, at last -- that is, as often as may be possible -- one can finally begin to adjudicate. In some cases this can include a straight up decision about which scenarios to accept or reject, but other cases can only boil down as far as assessing relative plausibility against one another. To be clear, the competitive aspect of this process is advantageous! The old model unfortunately encouraged two options: accept the text or reject it, with alternative scenarios presented as needed. By such competition, the new model allows for multiple imaginatively generated scenarios to be compared and contrasted. Among other benefits, the end of this 4-stage process should assure that scholarly discussion has successfully moved on after discussing the text, and has completely transitioned into discussing the past.
Clear as mud? I need to revisit this and offer more examples, someday soon.
For tonight's blogging, this will have to do.
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