October 6, 2018

Methods for Narrative: Interpretation Precedes Investigation

Today I offer two excerpts, using one as a form of response to the other. The first excerpt is from Hans Frei's The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative (1974) and the second is from Steve Mason's Flavius Josephus on the Pharisees (1991). Most of this material should speak for itself, but I will make one suggestion before you read each passage, and close with a bare hundred words of my own.

In this first excerpt, please observe Frei's emphasis on an ongoing crisis in methodology. I will highlight references to this need for "procedure".
     To state the thesis: a realistic or history-like (though not necessarily historical) element is a feature, as obvious as it is important, of many of the biblical narratives that went into the making of Christian belief. It is a feature that can be highlighted by the appropriate analytical procedure and no other, even if it may be difficult to describe the procedure--in contrast to the element itself. It is fascinating that the realistic character of the crucial biblical stories was actually acknowledged and agreed upon by most of the significant eighteenth-century commentators. But since the precritical analytical or interpretive procedure for isolating it had irretrievably broken down in the opinion of most commentators, this specifically realisitc characteristerist, though acknowledged by all hands to be there, finally came to be ignored, or--even more fascinating--its presence or distinctiveness came to be denied for lack of a "method" to isolate it. And this despite the common agreement that the specific feature was there!
     .... Some commentators explained the realistic feature by claiming that the stories are reliably or unreliably reported history. Others insisted that they are not, or only incidentally, history and that their real meaning is unconnected with historical reporting. In either case, history or else allegory or myth, the meaning of the stories was finally something different from the stories or depictions themselves, despite the fact that this is contrary to the character of a realistic story.
     In the days before empirical philosophy, Deism, and historical criticism, the realistic feature had naturally been identified with the literal sense which in turn was automatically identical with reference to historical truth. But once these thought currents had had their effect, and the "literal sense" of the stories came to be [subordinated to] historical veracity, the reverse would have had to be the case: . . . one would have had to distinguish sharply between literal sense and historical reference. And then one would have had to allow the literal sense to stand as the meaning, even if one believed that the story does not refer historically. But commentators, especially those influenced by historical criticism, virtually to a man failed to understand what they had seen when they had recognized the realistic character of biblical narratives, because every time they acknowledged it they thought this was identical with affirming not only the history-likeness but also a degree of historical likelihood of the stories. Those who wanted to affirm their historical factuality used the realistic character or history-likeness as evidence in favor of this claim, while those who denied the factuality also finally denied that the history-likeness was a cutting feature. . .
     In both affirmative and negative cases, the confusion of history-likeness (literal meaning) and history (ostensive reference), and the hermeneutical reduction of the former to an aspect of the latter, meant that one lacked the distinctive category and the appropriate interpretive procedure for understanding what one had actually recognized: the high significance of the literal, narrative shape of the stories for their meaning. And so, one might add, it has by and large remained ever since. [pages 10-12]
     . . .
     ...in effect, the realistic or history-like quality of biblical narratives, acknowledged by all, instead of being examined for the bearing it had in its own right on meaning and interpretation, was immediately transposed into the quite different issue of whether or not the realistic narrative was historical.
     This simple transposition and logical confusion between two categories or contexts of meaning and interpretation constitutes a story that has remained unresolved in the history of biblical interpretation ever since. [page 16]

In this second excerpt, please observe how methodology proposed by Mason (following Jacob Neusner) happens to offer a two-stage procedure which happens to cover the problems of dealing with narrative which Frei had in sight.
     We are confronted, then, with a purely exegetical phase of historical research. This phase is called for by the realization that every written source is limited by its author's perspective; it is not, therefore, a collection of bare facts but is already an interpretation and formulation of events that needs to be understood in its own right. As A. Momigliano observes, "Between us (as historians) and the facts stands the evidence". The source conveys only δόξα, opinion. It is conditioned negatively by the author's imperfect perception of events and, positively, by his conscious purposes in writing and by his own style.
     How accurately an author perceived events is not a question that exegesis can answer. The author's style and intentions can, however, be uncovered, for literary analysis seeks to answer the question: What does the author mean to convey? [here citing Ben F. Meyer, Aims of Jesus] In exegesis, the author's motives and purposes, the genre and structure of his work, his empheases, key terms, and characteristic vocabulary all come under scrutiny. The interpreter considers, as a stimulus to grasping the author's intention, how the original readership would plausibly have understood the document. All of this is familiar to the biblical exegete. But it is a necessary first step in the probing of any historical problem; to bypass the literary analysis, as Neusner says, is to ask the historical question too quickly.
     Applied to the problem of the Pharisees, these considerations will require that the passages bearing on the Pharisees in each of the relevant sources cannot be seconded as data for any historical reconstruction until they have first been understood within their original frameworks. . . . the historian is only entitled to make use of documentary statements about the Pharisees when he has first understood the literary meaning and function of those statements.
     . . .
     How, then, to convert the "potential data" [citing Meyer, again] offered by the sources into historically probable information about the Pharisees? An adequate approach must certainly take into account the tendencies of the sources (Laqueur, Cohen) and any coincidence of detail that might emerge between them (Rivkin), but it cannot enlarge either of these factors into a complete system for reconstructing the past. Such a system requires a method and this can only be imparted by the historian as a thinking subject. What is required is that the critic, having now listened to each of the sources' presentations of the Pharisees, step forward to pose his own questions and develop his own reconstruction of events. Thus, B. F. Meyer proposes, "The technique of history is the hypothesis." The critic seeks to formulate a hypothesis as to what really happened that will account for all of the relevant presentations in the sources. As Momigliano puts it, the historian "has to assess the value of his evidence not in terms of simple reliability, but of relevance to the problems he wants to solve".
     This formulation and demonstration of hypothesis requires of the interpreter a fundamental shift in perspective from the exegetical phase of the investigation. Then, he was concerned with grasping the author's meaning; now, he will present his own account. Then, he was looking for the witness's intentional statements; now, he seeks the unintentional evidence that will expose the witness's biases and limitations. Thus, historical analysis has often been compared to a courtroom cross-examination. Once the witnesses have all been heard on their own the investigator steps forward to pose his questions, in order to rediscover the events that stood behind all of the accounts. [pages 12-16] 

Isn't that beautiful?

Now, let me repeat a few key bits from Frei, again.
     ...one would have had to distinguish sharply between literal sense and historical reference. And then one would have had to allow the literal sense to stand as the meaning, even if one believed that the story does not refer historically. But commentators, especially those influenced by historical criticism... every time they acknowledged [the realistic character of biblical narratives] they thought this was identical with affirming not only the history-likeness but also a degree of historical likelihood of the stories.
     ...in effect, the realistic or history-like quality of biblical narratives, acknowledged by all, instead of being examined for the bearing it had in its own right on meaning and interpretation, was immediately transposed into the quite different issue of whether or not the realistic narrative was historical.
And, finally, I repeat a few bits from Mason, again.
     We are confronted, then, with a purely exegetical phase of historical research. ...
     How accurately an author perceived events is not a question that exegesis can answer. ...for literary analysis seeks to answer the question: What does the author mean to convey . . . But it is a necessary first step in the probing of any historical problem...
    What is required is that the critic, having now listened to each of the sources' presentations of the Pharisees, step forward to pose his own questions and develop his own reconstruction of events. ...
     This formulation and demonstration of hypothesis requires of the interpreter a fundamental shift in perspective from the exegetical phase of the investigation. 
Once again I ask: Isn't that beautiful?

Here's how I might put it.

Reading is reading. Writing is writing. One should not re-write a text and pretend one is reading it. One should not re-write a text while one is supposed to be reading it. One should, instead, allow any "history-like" narrative to represent the past regardless of judgment about historicity, and then only after interpreting that narrative as representation, one may then begin an additional process of proper historical inquiry and judgment.

As Laura Nasrallah said last year at our regional SBL, "Historical criticism is dead. Long live history."

Anon, then...

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