August 21, 2021

Situational Context for Critical Exegesis

If we all agree Luke is wrong about Quirinius that still does not allow one to claim Luke 2 sets its census during Quirinius’s era (6CE), and that’s because Luke 1 is set within Herod’s era (pre-4BCE). No storyteller would give Mary a ten year long pregnancy. This illustrates a grievous error of historical criticism, which has blended exegesis and judgment together as one procedure (rather than two). 

Historical judgment about dubious claims should not affect the interpretation of narrative material. First we understand what the text is trying to say; then we may proceed to render judgment about its claims and perhaps make our own. But whatever history we write, Luke’s narrative art will still attest (however incredibly) an unprecedented Roman census in Herod’s kingdom. Quirinius may not belong there and then, but his ostensible presence does not erase the larger narrative situation. 

The misguided tenets of “historical criticism” allowed “critical” reading to become editorial rewriting, but exegesis does not have the power to tell us what is true. Nor should one blotch ruin our sight of the whole portrait. If Tolkien had given Gandalf a Winchester rifle, you wouldn’t put middle earth into modern times. You’d just find that one bit to be out of place. And so it is with Luke 2. 

But this is only one example. 

Many arguments in biblical studies have swallowed gnats and thereby strained out camels. We must recover reading narratives as literary histories, reconstructing the larger situational context for specific exegetical meanings, and we must bring in historical judgment only once we have first grasped the author’s vision of events as an overall tapestry. 

The referential details of a narrative text may be low hanging fruit, but they are less critical for determining the historical significance of a text than the representational aspects of an overall narrative construction. 

If you’re eager to read a great deal more from me on this topic, feel free to raise money and buy me a few months off work so I can finish this thesis!


February 20, 2021

Why Josephus is not "Reliable"

Steve Mason's work on Josephus displays a mastery of two crafts: literary analysis and historical inquiry. In concluding the second chapter of his magnum opus, A History of the Jewish War: AD 66-74, Mason briefly sums up the (general and preliminary) results of his literary analysis, which serves to prepare for the subsequent historical inquiry. That conclusion (p.136-7, exerpted below) happens to offer a world class survey of Josephus's compositional setting. That alone makes this blogpost worth your time.

More importantly, the following excerpt also provides clear and helpful reasoning as to why we cannot merely read Josephus's text critically if we wish to extract historical judgments. Rather, our use of Josephus requires a skillful execution of both crafts (again, literary analysis and historical inquiry), with the primary task serving our subsequent efforts. 

The most important point of this chapter is the distinction between real life, in our case the boundless complexity of lives interacting in the 60s and 70s of the first century in southern Syria, and the meagreness of any survivals from that period. This distinction holds even for the best possible case: a seemingly detailed and full ancient monograph written at the time by an intelligent eyewitness to all sides. That happy situation, for which we can only be grateful, does not change the reality that a narrative is an entirely different thing from real events.

Josephus’ War was not immaculately conceived. It was incubated in the quotidian reality of Flavian Rome. There, in a lively but unforgiving literary culture, Josephus wrote as the spokesman of the defeated nation. Judeans had been humiliated in the  Flavian triumph and local scribblers were now converting the themes of Flavian propaganda into historical prose. Josephus, a prominent aristocrat from Jerusalem with unique knowledge of the subject, wrote to stake his claim. Dismissing the others as cheap polemicists, he could reasonably posture as a statesman of uncommon gravitas and moral-political insight. Authoritatively tracing Roman-Judean relations from their origins until the recent conflict, he sought to elevate the character of his nation and such leaders as himself in Roman esteem. Rather than advancing a thesis, he worked to create an atmosphere of understanding among like-minded elites concerned with polis affairs. His literary character together with his flesh-and-blood presence in Rome provided the medium and chief moral exemplum.

It should now be clear why this literary effort could never be reliable for us. We might as well ask whether a song or a mountain is reliable. When scholars declare Josephus unreliable, they usually do so to complain about him. They mean that his War is biased or tendentious, sloppy and careless, filled with gaps. The criticism assumes that he should have written with either no biases or better ones. I hope to have shown that such a longing for safe, unskewed data is not only a mirage but a recipe for misery. A realistic approach to Josephus' work is far more interesting.

Josephus, like Tacitus or Dio, did not write for us. We could not share his values and interests even if we wanted to. We cannot meaningfully speak of curses incurred by polluters of Jerusalem's sanctuary, about the moral quality of various ethne, or about his degree of insight into polis leadership. We can only try to understand his work as a product of its time. Our task is different: to formulate and investigate our problems, such as: Who was Cestius Gallus and what did his expedition intend? Or, what were the Flavians' aims in Galilee? No ancient historian formulated these problems as such; much less did they methodically investigate them. We must conduct our inquiries and let Josephus rest in peace. Although we should be pleased that he wrote as much a he did, so well and so durably, our historia is our responsibility.

If you wish to understand more thoroughly, there is no better way that to work through and digest the brilliant craftswork on display in this utterly delightful doorstop, now in paperback for only $40. I also highly recommend the companion book, Orientation to the History of Roman Judaea ($10 on Kindle). The chapter on methodology alone is worth ten times that price, quite easily.

Finally, for today, here is my own relevant bit of advice. As Momigliano famously said, "To see how the historian transforms sources into the life of the past, it is easier to learn from Herodotus, Guicciardini, Burckhardt, and Marc Bloch than from any manual of historical method." That is, we learn how to do history by reading actual histories written by skillful historians.

If you work in Gospel studies, and you want to do history critically, then you should absolutely move Steve Mason to the top of your reading list.


January 23, 2021

Stories are "Third Things"

 The text and the past are two things. When a reader approaches the text--whether casually or academically, while assuming either critical or uncritical posture--the reader's experience (and effort) produces a third thing.

Most obviously, whenever we use the text to reconstruct a version of history, we have made a third thing. Even if all my suppositions and deductions are amazingly correct, my reconstruction is not identical to the actual past. My reconstruction is a narrative I have written. Obviously, the narrative I write is not precisely the same as the narrative I have been reading. Also, the narrative I write is not precisely identical to real events of the past that I wish we could know, see, or experience. Again, even if my historical reconstruction is a well written and reasonable account of the real past as it actually happened, my narrative account of it obviously remains something different. It is not the text. It is not the past. My attempt at historical narrative is a third thing.

Now, when scholars of memory and oral tradition attempt to reconstruct something "behind the text," they also construct a third thing, but a different kind of third thing than what I described above. For example, when Chris Keith impressively determines that Jesus's immediate posterity perceived him in different ways, which led to different ways of remembering Jesus (roughly: that illiterate fans thought he was a great rabbi while highly literate critics thought he was kind of a rube), those reconstructed memories are obviously a third thing. These memories are clearly different than the story conveyed by the text. Neither are they the "real" version of events ostensibly being depicted by Gospel narratives. 

Arguably, the underlying theory and the methodological dynamic of the memory approach in Gospel studies, from the beginning, was precisely this goal: To see that memory is something other than the text and something other than the actual past has enabled us to move beyond the old pre-conceived dichotomy of words and things. Nevertheless, this old dichotomy still affects our thinking in ways we need to recognize more clearly, and so I underscore that I am using this old dichotomy to provide the context for this one point I'll keep making. In the sense that a given text ever purports to depict some specific event from the actual past, the memory approach reconstructs something else. Memory is a third thing.

I have one more example to cover before I get to the subject of stories in general.

When scholars estimate whether or not some particular datum was known to early Christians apart from the texts--that is, when scholars determine what type of story content was passed down via word of mouth--they are once more reconstructing a "third thing." For example, a scholar of oral tradition might suppose that the Lord's Prayer was being spoken repeatedly by early believers over time as they followed one another into a common practice of reciting those words. Obviously, this kind of reconstruction is entirely plausible, and the specific tradition thereby envisioned is likely quite true, but what I am saying (quite simply) is that this scholarly reconstruction obviously does not envision a "real-life" version of what the Gospels depict. 

What the Gospels depict, in the passages we call the Lord's prayer, is a single occasion when Jesus taught his disciples to pray by using those words himself. That depicted origination is something other than the later dissemination of its tradition. Granted, the oral tradition could arguably be taken as the best explanation for the LP. That is, we might decide that oral tradition provides our best accounting for the historically lived experiences which actually led to the LP becoming a text, whether or not Jesus ever said those words in real life. However, the reconstruction of oral tradition does not purport any "historical version" of this event which the Gospel purports to have happened. In the most basic sense of that old dichotomy between narrative and history, it remains a third thing.

I have now illustrated my with three different cases: the reconstruction of represented events, the reconstruction of memories, and the reconstruction of oral tradition. In all three cases, even if some reconstruction is entirely justified, that reconstruction remains neither the text nor the actual past.

Now, I said all that to say this. 

Stories are also a "third thing" in precisely the same way. 

This has long gone unappreciated within Gospel studies, and the deeper truth of it often remains fundamentally unrecognized, but here it is. Narrative studies distinguish "story" from "discourse" not just technically or theoretically but actually and pragmatically, in that narratologists recognize how inescapably the reader participates in constructing the story. The building of the world in breadth and length--the structure of both story worlds and story lines--is necessarily constructed by the reader.

Ergo, that story world, for each reader, is something other than the text. Furthermore, even if the reader's reconstruction aligns with the authorial vision to an amazing degree of precision, those two things will inevitably diverge at some points, to some degree or another. Although we should and will try our best as interpreters to reconstruct the author's own intentions (before proceeding to make our own critical efforts thereafter), the reader is still building afresh in her own mind. The story remains a third thing. 

This principle becomes self-evident upon reflection. "Romeo and Juliet" reads the same in your text as it does in my own, but it plays somewhat differently within each of our minds. Even if there remain some respects in which we all envision the same vision, it remains true that we have each constructed the story independently out of sheer cognitive necessity. The author cannot do our imagining for us, and the most skillful of writers can only lead us as horses to water. It is each of us, always, who must drink.

Discourses exist on paper. Stories exist in our minds.

Thus, stories are third things.

Go in peace, then, to reconstruct as you will. We may envision the passing on of traditions. We may envision the development of collective or cultural memories. We may envision the hypothetically actual version of purported narrativizations. We may even remain purely focused on some authorial narration while extrapolating from the discursed details to perform "narrative inference," thereby envisioning a more robust story world in our own minds.

In future posts, I might begin to consider whether or not any of these different "third things" might sometimes bear logical priority over the others. Perhaps occasionally they do. Perhaps it depends on the contextual situation. I haven't given this priority question much thought as of yet. What I will confidently declare is that narrative readings should be constructive. 

We begin as interpreters. We may then move on from interpretation to reconstruct events or memories or traditions. However, we may also pause to recognize that interpretation itself can examine narrative inferentially and attempt a more robustly contextualized exegesis of the text. In all four of these cases, we try to maintain a distinction between our reading and our writing. Whether or not we correctly infer any authorial meanings, we try to avoid imputing our own thoughts to the Gospel writers.

But my central point today is that examining the stories of scripture should require a constructive approach. Otherwise, we are not really examining "stories" per se.

Most of all, I am hoping this blog post will help my scholarly friends to distinguish between narratological reconstruction and historical reconstruction. We infer things about story worlds differently than we infer things about the actual past.

Unfortunately, I must leave the methodology of narrative inference for some other time.


January 11, 2021

Passion for Histories

 I just came across this gem of a quotation, while re-reading Tessa Rajak's essential classic, Josephus (p.77, n.16). Accordign to Rajak, the following personal reflection originally appeared in Peter Gay, Style in History (1974), p.198:

I am not prepared to deny--how could I?--that the historian's mental set or secret emotions often cause partial blindness or involuntary distortions, but I would argue that they can also provide a historian with a clear view of past actions that other historians have been too ill-prepared to understand, too indifferent even to see . . . Passion, notorious as the historian's most crippling liability, may become his most valuable asset.

Indeed. Sometimes.

Many others have noted this type of thing over the years, with varying qualifications. Gay says it well here but there are several occasions when I have also blogged sentiments to this effect. 

Most obviously, nearly everything I've done here has been largely driven by my strong personal inclination towards reconstructing timelines and storylines in the first place. When I imagine the past, I like to do so in four dimensions.

More specifically, a few of the major areas where I feel like my personal bent has helped me to reconstruct uniquely (either while interpreting narrative scenarios in historical context or) while hypothesizing events of the actual past can be glimpsed in my blogging about Jesus in Nazareth, The Approachable Jesus, and Paul's Developing Ecclesiology

Whether each particular insight holds up under scrutiny is up to those who scrutinize, and the struggle to convince others, apparently, is academia. 


Back to work, then...

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