November 29, 2022

Kelber, Bultmann, & Scholarly Games with Words

Here's a beautiful quote from Werner Kelber's 2002 article, a quote about which I have thoughts:

 Bultmann’s model is burdened with significant problems stemming from a lack of understanding of orality, gospel narrativity, and, last but not least, memory. First, there is no such thing as “the original form” in oral speech. When the charismatic speaker pronounced a saying at one place and subsequently chose to deliver it elsewhere, neither he nor his hearers could have understood this other rendition as a secondhand version of the first one. And when the second rendition, delivered before a different audience, was at variance with the first one, neither the speaker nor his audience would have thought of differentiating between the primary, original wording and its secondary, derivative version. Instead, each proclamation was an autonomous speech act.

 First and foremost, please observe Kelber's majestic command of disciplined historical imagination, as he logically reconstructs a few basic dynamics of what this experience must have been like for the early days of the Jesus movement. Here Kelber has in focus actual persons, repetitive human behaviors, the lived experience of that era, and a deep respect for the complexity of those processes and the indirect way they contributed to the eventual production of written Gospels. By contrast, Bultmann plays the role of fundamentalist, not only because he privileges the one correct version of Jesus's words (albeit a version he thinks has been lost), but also because he plays games with words, creatively editing texts until they fit with the ideology he deems most like Jesus. 

 My point is not to bash Bultmann but to demonstrate the contrasting focii: where Bultmann works with words and ideas, Kelber in this passage is thinking about people and events. Even today, when few Biblical Scholars stake any value on Bultmann conclusions, the rhetorical gamesmanship at SBL still depends largely on what kinds of transformations you can justify during an exegetical demonstration. "You have seen where it says XYZ & AOK, but I can draw in this comparative text to suggest that the writer actually meant ABC & PDQ." We have here the text. You think it means one thing. The scholar says it means something else.

 Quite often, at SBL, that's pretty much the whole game.

 Not that there's anything wrong with that, per se.

 It took me several years of going to SBL to realize that the field of Biblical Scholarship, at its core and from its origin, is a guild populated by approved keepers of texts. They are not historians. They are not literature experts. They are curators of the sacred documents (or curators of once-sacred-but-still-culturally-relevant documents) who are trained to know the ancient languages, and they are expected to provide interpretation so that everyone else can be told what means what. Unfortunately, they do so much work on the text that their thinking often becomes fixated within the bounds of the page. 

 Momigliano said historians of ancient times need to read the text while thinking about the past, and although that advice requires a great deal of unpacking I believe it remains the one central problem in Biblical studies today.

 Case in point: the only past Bultmann tried to reconstruct was a hypothetical text. Likewise, the only area of discussion in which Gospels scholars routinely exhibit historical thinking, both defending hypotheses and extrapolating developmental trajectories, is the "synoptic problem," which again involves hypothetical texts. Even historical Jesus scholarship (with few exceptions) did the same thing up until very recently, using historical criticism to determine whether given snippets of text were "authentic" or not, and then providing a summary of the results so that we knew how many bits of the sacred text they could recommend for acceptance. In all this, consider the scope. Original forms. Hypothetical documents. Authentic words. Even those who put "vox" over "verba" remain fixed on the words in the text; extrapolating the gist of a given statement is still games with words. 

 All these examples show scholars who LITERALLY see nothing in the past but the text.

 Perhaps it should not go unsaid that all such endeavors can be strictly controlled, whereas historical imagination cannot be measured or regulated.

 The activities of Jesus, including his preaching, generated a living and active experience, for thousands of perceivers. The Jesus movement was a dynamic years-long adventure from whence our sacred texts quite indirectly (and at least somewhat inadvertently) came into being.

 Understanding Gospel narratives should require us to think like full-fledged narratologists, a task that even those who employ "narrative approaches" still, by and large, refuse to attempt, probably because studies about plot, setting, and character still fit the old game, letting interpreters declare that this character means X and that character means Y and it all thereby illustrates something theological and/or political about the writer's opinions. And maybe that's all true sometimes. However, the idea that a narrative passage might primarily represent the author's view of past events is STILL not on the table and "narrative critics" of the Gospels NEVER talk about ways that representation might be taken up for consideration by historical Jesus scholars.

 Sadly, my complaints would require these curators of texts to think like both narratologists AND historians. And that is probably too much work; truly, I am not without sympathy. My scholar friends study reams of materials that I still won't bother to take on, and I suppose in most cases that somebody must. 

 However, for the good of humanity, not to mention christendom, this kind of system-wide default obstructionism needs to stop. 

 We need more Biblical scholars to raise their game off the page, first by learning how to reconstruct a dynamic narratological situation which represents the author's vision of past events, and second by learning how to challenge that authorial vision and investigate possibilities of the actual past.


 Before I end this post, here is Kelber's promised critique of Bultmann's blind spot on "narrativity":

 It is evident that Bultmann cannot attribute constructive powers and narrative creativity to the final gospel productions. As he views them, they are almost entirely the outworkings of tradition. Mark, generally considered the oldest of the canonical gospels, merely brings to fruition what in the tradition had already been well on the way toward the gospel formation. Because the gospels are considered the expected summations of pre-gospel processes, they offer in principle little new information over and above tradition, and are for this reason unworthy of any attentive narrative consideration.

 Insofar as this goes, it's correct, and these are solid points, but "narrative critics" generally use these principles to keep playing the same old games. Recognizing narrative constructedness simply allows them to play games with larger passages all at once; but still, X means Y.

 There has been some progress on constructive reading in Characterization, but it stops short of inferring things about the represented world as a whole, or the represented Jesus movement across its represented duration. And, as always, what they reconstruct of the story world they do not proceed to reconsider through historical inquiry.

 But these are topics I have addressed elsewhere, as I will continue to do.


October 30, 2022

The Place of "Story" in Christian Formation

 Reality is vast and chaotic but consciousness is paltry and linear, so the past through remembering becomes ordered and sequenced. We cannot think about time without imposing this narrative mode. We cannot even keep track of time objectively without selective correlation of unrelated but comparable dynamics. In our daily lives we filter out a multitude of churning incoherence and we fixate on anything constant, which allows our minds comfort and stability. How much more do we fail to grasp, beyond ourselves, the complexities of a passing year or century? 

 The stories we tell about the past are inevitably distorted, to some degree or another. 

 Nevertheless, storytelling and ordered remembering are essential cognitive tools, absolutely required for operating in the world. Comprehending the origins and development of things usually helps us to anticipate and prepare for inevitable challenges, not because history repeats (for by and large it does not), but simply because the expertise required for skillful living includes an understanding of how to deal with frequently variable conditions. In sum, it is precisely because of reality’s unceasing cacophony that we must make all efforts to truncate, to compress, to organize, to curate, to narrate, and to process factual and true information. 

 This miniature treatise sums up all that I’ve learned in my research, except to add that we ought to have regular clinics about how to do all these things more effectively. 

 To select an example that illustrates the above, let's go back to where I began. 

 In understanding Pauline eccclesiology, my original impetus was to argue that Christian teaching was too fixated on absolute principles, too willfully ignorant of practical circumstance and actual human experience, and my chosen strategy at that time was to demonstrate that Paul’s approach to ministry and church government (such as it was) was more complicated than our religious principles could allow. Paul's ecclesiology was conditional in each situation. Paul's ideas about elders evolved as he learned more from working with each different church. Paul's efforts to train extra-local itinerant workers also developed over time. He was experimenting and advising up to the level of his growing wisdom with each new set of journeys.

 To understand such complexity, however, we begin with a simplified timeline. Paul and Barnabas went to four cities in Galatia BEFORE the circumcision party wreaked havoc on those churches AND THEN Paul found out that brand new baby Christians make terrible elders. AND SO ON. Paul then leaves Titus in Troas and Luke in Philipi and Timothy in Thessalonica and Silas in Berea and Paul himself stays in Corinth AT WHICH POINT he realizes that God's work needs more workers. SO THEN he makes plans for a training in Ephesus and INVITES qualified candidates from various churches to join him in moving to Ephesus so he can teach them, daily, in a rented lecture hall. AND THEN AFTER SOME YEARS OF TRAINING Paul takes them back around the Aegean and appoints elders in all of those churches where he previously left his associates as church planters. AND SO ON. AND SO ON.

 The simplified timeline distorts reality in one way, but to avoid thinking about Paul's work in four dimensions distorts history in a way that is far worse. To suppose that "biblical principles" can be extracted and codified as universally applicable would require us to establish an unchanging religious system that forces people to fit into its rigid mold, rather than building a more adaptive method of responding to spiritual need with practical wisdom gained from a variety of hard won experiences.

 As I said further up, "the expertise required for skillful living includes an understanding of how to deal with frequently variable conditions." If we wish to live skillfully, we must collect and tell Christian stories that account for differing circumstances, differing personnel, differing social conditions, and differing cultural conflicts. We must collect and tell Christian stories that allow God to remain sovereign rather than placing God in a box of our own principled certainties. If we believe in the biblical stories, then we must observe above all that God's movement is not always predictable.

 It is the vanity and fatigue of old authoritarians that insists on crafting an invariable system but a living experience must adapt and allow for adaptation. The choice between these two impulses depends on whether you wish to foster interaction between humans and God, or whether you only wish to get it right on paper.

 The way we tell our Christian stories, including our grasp of the New Testament itself, must recognize these undeniable truths.


October 2, 2022

Narratology (bigger than a breadbox) vs Linguistics (smaller than a breadbox)

 Linguistic theory has not yet accounted for the scope of narrative texts, and may not be able to; at least, so says Frank Ankersmit in his 2012 opus, Meaning, Truth, and Reference in Historical Representation. This theoretical divide has practical problems and I have written about those here before. Today's blog post is simply to sum up the difference by way of an interesting comparison.

 Way back in the 90's, someone told me a big problem in Physics was that relativity theory dealt with everything "bigger than a bread box" and Quantum theory dealt with everything "smaller than a bread box." Apparently, some physicists were trying to unify the two theories, and I don't know if they ever did, but let's leave that issue apart from this analogy. My point is that one theory dealt well with the micro stuff and a different theory dealt well with the macro stuff.

 In a similar way, linguistic theory does a good job observing distinctions between meaning, truth, and reference when linguists examine language on a small scale; that is, when linguists examine particular uses of words and phrases and individual statements, their explanations make a lot of sense. Everything within their purview remains smaller than a breadbox, so to speak. In student textbooks, the examples, illustrations and exercises which populate each chapter and lesson, invariably, focus on making sense of language in bits and chunks, in semiotic and/or propositional units. If at some point the student must analyze an entire paragraph, the exercise only works for one linguistic unit at a time. The summary content of one descriptive paragraph has never been, and of course cannot ever be, diagrammed or dissected as a unit. 

 By comparison, Ankersmit explains that trying to understand narrative passages **AS A WHOLE** requires us to reconsider our concepts about meaning, truth, and reference. I will not in this space attempt to explain HOW it is that we must begin doing so. I will simply point you back to that 2012 opus. What I will say for now is that extended swaths of narrated content, as a whole, simply cannot be mapped onto reality with the same kind of precision. We can use words with precision when situations are fixed and distinctions are simple, but narration attempts to account for complex dynamics (e.g., human activity over time). This reality implies we need one way of understanding how language works in the small scale and another way of understanding how language can work when amassed altogether in the authorial effort to represent a dramatic or comedic or historical or biographical emplotment.

 We can almost dial this back to Thomas Carlyle who said almost 200 years ago that "narrative is linear" whereas "action is solid," but if all this were merely that simple then why are New Testament scholars still hedging their narrative studies for fear of encroaching on "referential" concerns? Why do "narrative critics" and "narrative theologians" *STILL* follow Hans Frei by engaging narrative meaning only when they can insulate themselves from asking questions about historical truth? 

 Personally, I do not believe that the problem is merely dogmatic concerns and religious commitments. Rather, I actually think there are academic pathways still being followed (like calf-paths through the woods) in which scholars have wrongly attempted to understand, for example, Gospel stories about Jesus returning to his hometown, by using the same tools that linguists use for understanding words and phrases and statements. In my humble opinion, the narrative value of those stories has been summarily overlooked because scholars are accustomed to treating groups of sentences and groups of paragraphs as if the entire narrative passage were the same as one semiotic bit or chunk. Brilliant professional scholars actually talk as if the complex narrative situations being represented in Matthew, Mark, and Luke must be judged as "the same story" or "a different story." They speak as if they must judge the truth value of the passage as a whole, either up or down. These are merely some aspects of the problem.

 But enough of my pet peeves. Let's get back to these breadboxes.

 A community of language users who share the same conceptual repertoire can agree to delimit only those concepts which can be distinctly and coherently delimited. At some point, we run up against the natural limits of human cognitive function. For example, if American English speakers all decide to use "sign" in one way and "symbol" in another, that convention is cognitively workable. Our brains can successfully keep track of such "one to one correspondences" when the scope remains greatly limited. We can learn to associate thousands of "signifieds" and "signifiers" so long as they all remain distinguishable. What we cannot do, and have never done, is assign a given set of sentences as "THE" corresponding label for a given set of events.

 When Tacitus and Josephus wrote about Rome attacking Jerusalem, they each used a very large set of words. The scale of the narration in each case is linguistically massive. That is, the physical volume of each writer's discourse is measurably immense. One wrote in Latin and one in Greek, but that is the least of our problems. Ankersmit's question would be: does either man's extensive collection of narration deserve to be granted the official status of "THE" set of words which precisely accounts for the full range and breadth of events which took place during that ancient conflict? 

 There is no possible way for scholars to judge, say, that Tacitus's narrative account should be the signifier and the Judean War should be its signified, while Josephus's narrative account comparatively fails to achieve the proper amount of precision required before we can recognize a referential correspondence between that set of words and the true historical events. For a second problem, if the guild of scholars did declare such a thing, not even their own brightest minds could ever hope to retain such a massive (collective) linguistic signifier. Oh, some scholars could go around saying, "Tacitus got it right and Josephus did not," or vice versa in other circles, but they could not actually complete the cognitive task of uploading the one approved set of language into their cultural repertoires as THE understood and agreed-upon way of "referencing" the historical "truth."

 In sum, the narrated emplotments of historians are far too voluminous, much too much bigger than a breadbox, for any scholar to approach the analysis of these writings by employing tools which are useful when analyzing linguistic units that are smaller than a breadbox.

 This is where I should conclude today's humble blogpost, but please bear with me for a brief application of these thoughts to the study of the Gospels.

 Given all I have said above, it therefore follows that we must prioritize the reconstruction of authorial meaning (if and) when we seek to receive narrative texts as (erstwhile) representations of history. Assessments of referential value and questions about possible truth must be dealt with subsequently, rather than prioritized during exegesis. Indeed, no exegete who prioritizes questions about historical accuracy can ever successfully comprehend narrative meaning. 

 First, we seek to understand what is being claimed by the writer, we seek to grasp the full measure of that writer's purported depiction. Furthermore, this task is not a sidebar pursuit, in the way that "literary" and "historical" studies have been kept ever apart. Rather, the task I describe is priority one. 

 Narratological comprehension comes first. Historical judgment comes later.

 As it does, as it will, as it must. 

 At any rate, if you want to understand these things more completely, please read Ankersmit's first seven chapters in MTaRiHR.


August 28, 2022

Why the Lukan Census is NOT set in 6 CE

 Today's post is about reading narrative properly when that narrative includes a dubious historical reference. Today's lesson is that figuring out Luke's narrative's temporal setting (aka historical context) requires us to put more weight on that narrative's overall construction of reality, rather than a single detail. Today's key point is that Luke purports and depicts a particular kind of registration event, one which counts heads and affects people living in Galilee, whereas the census of 6 CE was entirely unlike Luke's census on both of these points. Today's conclusion is that Luke's census (whether representing truth or fiction) cannot be mistaken for the census of Quirinius, unless one does not understand how to make sense of Luke's narrative as a representation of reality.

 Now, here comes today's blogging.

 Think of Luke's reference to Quirinius like the address number on the front of a house. If someone painted your house with your neighbor's address number, would your neighbor come tell you to get out of their home? Think of Luke's reference to Quirinius like the hood ornament of a car. If someone put a little jaguar figurine on the front of their Volkswagen, would you then expect to pay twice as much for the VW? Think of Luke's reference to Quirinius like a name tag on a colleague or co-worker. If you walked up to Mark Goodacre at SBL and you saw that his name tag said "Lou Ferrigno" then you might make a Hulk joke but you would never sincerely mistake the telegenic British Jesus scholar for the arguably less telegenic Italian actor and bodybuilder.

 Despite your immediate grasp of these common sense illustrations, I came across the common error yet again tonight. On page 138 of Bruce Chilton's new Herod book, he correctly observes that Matthew's Gospel places Jesus's birth in the days of Herod the Great but then says "Luke's Gospel disagrees, placing the event a decade later. Luke makes Jesus's birth coincide with the Roman intervention that ended Archelaus's tenure in a census under the Roman governor Quirinius." 

 Ahem. Luke does no such thing.

 First, that "Roman intervention that ended Archelaus's tenure in a census" did not include a registration of persons. Josephus (Ant. 17.355) tells us, "Quirinius, a man of consular rank, was sent by Caesar to take a census of property in Syria and to sell the estate of Archelaus." (The Loeb edition unfortunately includes a footnote from Wikgren preceding Chilton in the misguided Lukan conflation.) Let's hone in on that key detail: a census of property. According to our only source on this, Quirinius did not undertake a registration of people, whereas Luke's purported census famously says that every man had to be counted. Note carefully here that Luke's claim does not need to be verified in order to be comprehensible; we clearly have a depiction of something other than what Quirinius is said to have done. 

 The Augustan age observed two types of taxation: the poll tax (tributum capitis) and the land tax (tributum soli). The land tax was the older custom, practiced widely in antiquity, and historically such "tribute" could often be paid at least partly in kind., which helps explain why Josephus could plausibly claim that Julius Caesar had exempted Judea from taxes "in the seventh year." Ancient wealth was almost exclusively landed, which made the property tax a prudent first step when Augustus exiled Archelaus and annexed his territories. The best way for Rome to begin raising revenues from Judea was to survey the holdings of wealthy landowners. The proconsul's property based survey was also a complimentary activity so that Quirinius could ascertain which holdings were definitely owned by Archelaus, free and clear of other claims, and thus which holdings were immediately and directly forfeit.

 For these reasons, there should be no doubt that Quirinius was indeed sent (if he was sent at all) to take a registration of property rather than people.

 The second major problem with Chilton and Wikgren's misguided conflation is that Quirinius was explicitly sent to conduct his registration within the bounds of Archelaus's surrendered territories. Obviously this excludes the domains of Antipas and Philip, and yet no one seems to have noticed that Luke's purported census requires at least one resident of Galilee to be counted along with Judeans. \

 Now, if someone wants to suggest cleverly that Joseph could have been called to Judea on the basis of property he owned in Judea, then I say do not put the cart of historical hypothesis in front of the horse of narratological interpretation. Even if we set aside the charge of special pleading, this is not the appropriate time to consider whether the historical Joseph might have owned property which was subject to the assigned scope of Quirinius's registration. The question at hand regards Luke's depiction. Nowhere in his narration does Luke suggest anything that might imply Joseph owns property in Judea, let alone whether such an invisible detail might be the sole cause of his needing to join in the census. Quite the contrary, Luke 2:3 explicitly claims that it was not merely Joseph but ἐπορεύοντο πάντες ἀπογράφεσθαι, ἕκαστος εἰς τὴν αυτοῦ πόλιν. Purportedly, "everyone" had to be counted. Purportedly, "everyone" had to travel.

 Again, please note the potential veracity of Luke's astonishing claim does not impenge on the question at hand, which remains exclusively focused on whether or not Luke's constructed narrative should be read against the backdrop of the year 6 CE. In sum, the issue is when Luke sets his story. If Luke presents us with a census in which Galilean residents are being counted by Roman administration, then Luke has not presented us with a census that mirrors the known events of Quirinius's census in 6 CE.

  Why, then, did Luke mention Quirinius? I return to my three common sense illustrations at top. If you see your neighbor's house number on your house, you have found a mistake. If you see a small jaguar on the hood of a VW, you are looking at a dubiously modified VW. If you see Mark Goodacre wearing the wrong nametag, you are either looking at a jokester or else someone who has been pranked. Along these lines, the most likely explanation has always been and will always be that Luke goofed on a detail. He got the name wrong. An alternative mistake--and this is less likely linguistically but it fits better into Luke's overall narrative--is that Luke got his grammar wrong, using πρώτη to mean "before" rather than "first". Either way, as Mary Smallwood offered decades ago, quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus.

 Whatever the case with this name dropped in 2:2, my purpose today was to demonstrate that a singular reference should not matter more in our exegetical work than the overall situation being depicted by Luke's narration as a whole. Luke's story world entails activities which imply their own setting within the days of the unified Herodian kingdom. 

 Thus, you remain free to suppose that Luke made it all up but you should no longer parrot the claim that Luke's text implies Jesus was born in the aftermath of Archelaus's exile. As this humble blogpost amply demonstrates, Luke's text does no such thing. Quite to the contrary, Luke's narration exhibits a profound lack of any possible detail which might cause his story to align recognizably with the census conducted by Quirinius. Rather, Luke has constructed a story which specifically depicts a time and place when the people Galilee and Judea were supposedly being registered by the Romans, at once.

 By the way, there's a larger methodological issue behind all of this. I wish more Jesus scholars would ask why it is that scholarship on the Gospels has so willfully disregarded the hermeneutic challenge of receiving narratives as representation. I wish I did not need to inform Gospel scholars that the contextual implications of an overall narrative representation should be weighed more heavily, for the purposes of basic reading comprehension, than a single reference to a person whose claim to fame lies demonstrably outside the given narrative situation.

 But I do need to explain this. Apparently.

 And so I shall keep explaining it.


August 20, 2022

Hans Frei: The Good and the Bad

 The following 2,091 words excerpts my erstwhile thesis, in which I discuss the following two points: (1) Hans Frei's excellent analysis of a deeply seated problem with critical readings of biblical narrative, and (2) Hans Frei's regrettable (cough Barthian cough) opposition to all aspects of reading and critical thought which had anything at all to do with factual truth and historical thinking. 

 In my humble opinion, Frei's 1974 analysis of the critical turn is spot on but his anti-historicism, quite sadly, has been incredibly influential among Biblical scholars, including plenty of non-Barthian theologians and some foundational works of the field of NT narrative criticism as well. Alas, however, all that would be two other stories. 

 The last 45 words of section two, below, sum up three ways in which I differentiate my own approach and outlook against Frei's.


(1) From Pre–critical to Historical critical Exegesis

Hans Frei’s intellectual history of biblical interpretation, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, helpfully contrasts two ways of dealing with narrative material by surveying the transition from pre–critical exegesis to historical critical exegesis.[1] According to Frei, pre–critical interpreters believed Bible stories were true because the words “meant what they said,” conveying literal meaning and referring to historical events.[2] The realism of narrative depiction invited a literal reading and the assumption of historical truth.[3] Thus, meaning, truth, and reference were hermeneutically united.[4] This naiveté broke down once the new empiricism distinguished literal meaning from “how the facts really occurred.”[5] The world of the bible now diverged from the world of actual history because “historical critical reading” required “matching the written description against the reconstruction of the probable historical sequence to which it referred.”[6] Wherever the biblical text seemed historically questionable, interpreters redefined the “true history” or “true sense” of narrative material, as needed.[7] In this new paradigm, Frei says, the meaning of Bible stories became something other than the depictions themselves.[8]

   Effectively, “the realistic or history–like quality of biblical narratives, acknowledged by all… was immediately transposed into the quite different issue of whether or not the realistic narrative was historical.”[9] Prioritizing judgments about historical accuracy requires critics to find textual meaning in ways that accord with those judgments. They engage narrativity only after weighing historicity. To illustrate this dynamic we need only recall the previous chapter, where most interpretations of βασιλεύει in Matt 2:22 are logically oriented around the question of referential accuracy: some find Matthew’s writing “confirmed” by Josephus while others explain Matthew’s “incorrect” usage, or claim the word means something else.[10] Prior historical judgment restricts interpretative possibilities. Where pre–critical meaning once dictated truth, assessing truth would now delimit meaning; the dynamic reversed itself, but truth and meaning stayed unified.[11]

   In sum, historical critical exegetes maintained the pre–critical unity of “history–likeness (literal meaning) and history (ostensive reference).”[12] Engaging narrative realism was thought to affirm some degree of historical probability and this correlation was assumed inversely as well.[13]

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… they thought history–likeness identical with at least potentially true history.[14]

Indeed, this category mistake remains evident when scholars claim that verisimilitude suggests a greater historical likelihood or plausibility,[15] as also when scholars dismiss bits and chunks of material to produce piecemeal readings.[16] That both positive and negative claims demonstrably confuse/conflate narrativity with historicity helps validate these deeper insights of Frei’s unique intellectual history and illustrates the problem with historical critical exegesis.[17]

   The prioritization of judgment in reading implies an assumption that narrative should or must depict past events accurately. While distinguishing particular narratives from the actual past, historical critics continued to conflate narrative depiction with referential accuracy in general. This hermeneutic roadblock is what subsequent narrative approaches attempted to bypass.


(2) “Realistic Narrative Reading”  (Postliberal Theology)

Frei prescribed his own solution via scattered fragments, which cohere logically as follows.[18] He suggests critical readers may “distinguish sharply between literal sense and historical reference” and “allow the literal sense to stand as the meaning, even if one believed that the story does not refer historically.”[19] Exegesis of story content depends on literary realism rather than factuality or truth because “the peculiar way in which realistic narrative means or makes sense” involves “the cumulative rendering of a temporal framework through realistic depiction and chronological continuity.”[20] Realistic stories “mean what they say” whether or not they report history reliably, and realistic readers understand that the world of the narrative is not necessarily the real world of actual history.[21] There is much to commend in these axiomatic assertions.

   Unfortunately, Frei sees little value in going “beyond the narrative text” because historical claims are either modest or incredible, and always based on speculation.[22] Historical questions may be important but that does not make them answerable.[23] The impossibility of historical verification takes us back to “the story simply as a story.”[24] Narrative meaning is best identified when suspending judgment about the “philosophical puzzle” of reference; determining how narratives might “refer” requires a type of judgment that goes beyond hermeneutics, so narrative interpretation should ignore “the relation of the text to reality.”[25]

   With these arguments, Frei distinguished his method (“realistic narrative reading” or “narrative interpretation”) from historical critical exegesis, saying the two might both exist “side by side” without disrupting each other.[26] However, when presenting to the Karl Barth Society in 1974, Frei detailed an explicitly subordinate dynamic.[27]

You utilize, on an ad hoc basis, what the historical scholars offer.… Always be a theological exegete and then in particular cases of texts you will find an ad hoc relation [with] the always tentative results of historical criticism.[28] . . . [Barth] felt confident… there was no conflict… provided always that historical critical exegesis was not the governess but was in service of the theological exegete.[29]

Altogether, then, “realistic reading” can utilize and regulate prior judgments, exclude judgment while reading, and suspend future judgment indefinitely. From every angle, Frei’s separation of meaning and truth ensures dominance of theological “truth” over historical facts.[30]

   For all his talk of narrative, Frei rarely did exegesis himself.[31] His straightforward approach to “history–like” material is arguably designed to prohibit subjective interpretations.[32] Indeed, Frei’s fellow Barthians and “post–critical” followers typically cite his work to justify reaffirmations of traditional theology.[33] Nothing in Frei’s approach supports narratological reconstruction, let alone historiography. Thus, in contrast to Frei, my proposed method will suspend judgment temporarily (not indefinitely), contextualize the story world historically (not theologically), affirm that context is determined by audience reception (not by previous dogma), and invite critical judgment to have the last word through historical inquiry.

[1] Hans W. Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 1–16. By “historical critical exegesis,” I indicate readings that emphasize historical judgment. For a nuanced survey of all that “historical criticism” properly entails, see Beth M. Sheppard, The Craft of History and the Study of the New Testament, (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012)., 24–29.

[2] Frei, Eclipse, 1–5.

[3] Frei, Eclipse, 11; Cf. Hans W. Frei, Reading Faithfully, ed. Mike Higton and Mark Alan Bowald, vol. 1 (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2015), 75. According to Frei, Eclipse, 2–7, allegory, figuration, and metaphor constituted a secondary layer of meaning (naturally constrained by the literal meaning) and became “something like the opposite” of literal reading only after the rise of biblical criticism. Cf. Frei, Eclipse, 17–50; Frei, Reading, 1:74–6.

[4] Frei consistently frames his discussion with these three terms.

[5] Frei, Eclipse, 10–11.

[6] Frei, Eclipse, 5–7.

[7] Frei, Eclipse, 8–11; popular interpretative foci included reconstructing events, compositional origin, cultural setting, allegory, myth, and more. See also Frei, Reading Faithfully, vol. 1., 28, 76–7.

[8] Frei, Eclipse, 10–1, 103; cf. Frei, Reading, 31, 100.

[9] Frei, Eclipse, 16; cf. Frei, Eclipse, 51–65; Frei, Reading, 76–7, 100.

[10] See Chapter One, Section 2a & 2b. The exceptions were McNeile and Smallwood, whose assessed narrative meaning contrasted against their own judgments about historical accuracy.

[11] Cf. Frei, Reading, ix–x, xvi.

[12] Frei, Eclipse, 12, decries “the hermeneutical reduction of the former [=meaning] to an aspect of the latter [=reference],” a common refrain throughout Eclipse; see, e.g., 93–104, 138, 141, 160, 220–23, 230, 274–5, 323–4.

[13] Frei, Eclipse, 11–12.

[14] Frei, Eclipse, 12.

[15] R. T. France, “Scripture, Tradition and History in the Infancy Narratives of Matthew,” in Richard T. France and David Wenham, eds., Gospel Perspectives. Vol. 2: Studies of History and Tradition in the Four Gospels (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1981), 255, 59–61, Craig A. Evans, Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2012), 9–10; Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016), 343–4. Leveraged disclaimers are also common; e.g., “While verisimilitude does not guarantee historicity, it is for historians its sine qua non” (D. Moody Smith, quoted by Robert Kysar in Paul N. Anderson, Felix Just, and Tom Thatcher, eds., John, Jesus, and History, (Atlanta, GA: SBL, 2007), 84, cf. 184, 218–9) and “Verisimilitude by itself does not and cannot establish historicity. But it does [make some portrayals] more plausible” (Paula Fredriksen in Anderson, et al, John, Jesus, and History, 269).

[16] Dale C. Allison, The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2009), 35–42, 54–8; Nolland, Matthew, 120–1, 121n.151; cf. Brown, Birth, 615. The Jefferson Bible is only rare as a printed publication; by preserving one man’s piecemeal reading, it exemplifies something more typical.

[17] For further validation of Frei’s meta critical claims, see Tom Thatcher, “Anatomies of the Fourth Gospel,” in Tom Thatcher and Stephen D. Moore, eds., Anatomies of Narrative Criticism (Atlanta: SBL, 2008), 2–6.

[18]  Hans W. Frei, The Identity of Jesus Christ: The Hermeneutical Bases of Dogmatic Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975). 60–1, eschewed the word “method” and declared his own theory “minimal… enough to elucidate what is actually being done in exegesis.”

[19] Frei, Eclipse, 11. Elsewhere in Eclipse, Frei’s own vision is conveyed obliquely by repeated laments against what others failed to see or do; e.g., 156, 181–2, 198–9, 217–8, 220, 235, 269–70, 273–4, 277, 280, 322–4.

[20] Frei, Identity, 106, 145; Frei, Eclipse, 150–52.

[21] Frei, Identity, 59–61.

[22] Frei, Identity, 103–4. The full quotation says historical reconstruction “forces us to rely [on] the independent power of our own interpretative devices to unlock the significance of the story,” as if historiography amounts to exegesis.

[23] Frei, Identity, 176.

[24] Frei, Identity, 133, 145–6, 165, 175, 177.

[25] Frei, Reading, 40, 44, takes narrative texts “to refer translinguistically or representationally” (as if representation is a sub–category of reference), and suggests integrating correspondence and coherence theories of truth into a “super–theory.” Cf. Frei, Reading, 99 and 104–5, which goes on about “symbolization,” semiotics, “reality–laden” symbols as “trans–hermeneutical concerns,” and “that representationalism all of us want to avoid,” again conflating reference with representation. Frei, Reading, 40, 44; cf. 99, 103–5; cf. notes 25 & 28, above.

[26] Frei, Eclipse, 135–6.

[27] Hans W. Frei, “Scripture as Realistic Narrative: Karl Barth as Critic of Historical Criticism,” in Thy Word Is Truth: Barth on Scripture, ed. George Hunsinger (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2012), 54–5. See also the editorial remark by Mike Higton and Mark Alan Bowald in Frei, Reading Faithfully, vol. 1., 49.

[28] Frei, “Scripture as Realistic Narrative,” 55, positing slight nuance between Barth’s early and later work.

[29] Frei, “Scripture as Realistic Narrative,” 59; Cf. Hans W. Frei, Theology and Narrative: Selected Essays, ed. George Hunsinger and William C. Placher (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993): “depending on what we do, one kind of reading will have priority.” For more confessed religious motivations, see Frei, Reading, 37–9, 106–7.

[30] Frei, Reading, ix–xi, 28, 37–40, 44, 104–5.

[31] The prominent exception being Frei, Identity, 145–83.

[32]Cornel West, “On Frei’s Eclipse of Biblical Narrative,” USQR 37 (1983): 299-302; Stephen Prickett, Words and The Word: Language, poetics and biblical interpretation, Reprinted. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989)., 194–5; Mark I. Wallace, The Second Naiveté: Barth, Ricoeur, and the New Yale Theology, Studies in American Biblical Hermeneutics 6 (Macon, GA: Mercer, 1990), 41–4. These critics, responding to Frei’s standard rhetoric (e.g., Eclipse, 218: meaning = “the realistic, fact–like depictions themselves”), perhaps overlooked rare exceptions e.g., Eclipse 181–2 (meaning = “the event and its interpretation”) and Eclipse 2–3, 6 (typology = “an extension of literal reading”) and Frei’s actual practice of using depiction as a springboard for theological analysis; still, by and large, their criticisms are fair.

[33] On his lifelong engagement with Barthian hermeneutics, see Frei, Eclipse, viii; Lance B. Pape, The Scandal of Having Something to Say (Waco, Tex: Baylor University Press, 2013), 15n35, 18, 41; Frei, Theology and Narrative, 3, 5–7, 9, 256–7 (cf. 186, 208); Cf. David Ford, Barth and God’s Story (Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 1981). On Frei’s lasting influence, see, e.g., George Hunsinger, “Postliberal theology,” in Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 42–57; Jason A. Springs, Toward a Generous Orthodoxy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

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