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!



James F. McGrath said...

I am not aware of any commentators suggesting that Luke gave Mary a decade-long pregnancy, rather than simply being wrong about the census. Who exactly holds the views you are arguing against here?

Bill Heroman said...

Hey, James. Not sure how I missed this comment. What I am saying about the ten-year pregnancy is that said absurdity should be the logical ramification of reading Luke 2 as if it were happening during the year 6 CE. Ergo, I did not say anyone holds this view; rather, I suggested they have not thought it through.

Now, I have since learned that some argue "Herod" in Luke 1 could refer to Archelaus, but this shocking maneuver (aside from being quite a stretch) strikes me as something like removing a mountain for the sake of a molehill. So much revisionism for the sake of one little name drop. Surely the parsimonious verdict would be that Luke was purporting events during Herod's era and simply cited the wrong name.

In support of my own larger point, I should have added that Luke evidently knows nothing about the actual census of Quirinius in 6 CE because Quirinius did not require Galileans to be registered in Judea. In Josephus, Quirinius registered property ownership within Archelaus's ethnarchy. In Luke, not only Joseph but "all" had to travel to be counted (a head count, not a property assessment). Thus, whether real or imagined, Luke's census does not align with Quirinius's census. Moreover, Luke's census takes place in a unified kingdom, implying that Herod the Great is still alive in his story world.

In all these ways, the overall representation reveals far more about Luke's vision of the past, than a passing and dubious reference to a single name. That is my point. People who take the simple reference as an establishment of temporal setting are not only missing the forest for one tree, they are unjustifiably making one tree into a forest.

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