June 19, 2022

Properly Ordering a Necessarily Layered Hermeneutic

As a complement to last month's excerpt (from the might-have-been dissertation) regarding Frank Ankersmit's theory on narrative representation, please enjoy the following 2,200 words surveying Steve Mason's methodology of narrative interpretation. It so happens that Mason's work in this area preceded Ankersmit's by almost thirty years, and yet I offer Mason's exegesis as an illustration of how we may apply Ankersmit's insights. A few quick comments precede the excerpt below.

The primary aspect shared by both Mason and Ankersmit, in my own view, is an overriding interest in clarifying the relationship between literary analysis and historical judgment; one cannot determine the accuracy of a text until one first determines what the text actually claims. Meaning does not define truth but we must assess the one before challenging the other. Josephus's Pharisees may not be the historical Pharisees but their literary being sets the terms for the beginning of our historical inquiry. Likewise, Mark's Jesus may not be the historical Jesus, but claiming this or that about Mark's Jesus should not be (as it often seems to be) tantamount to a veiled claim about the historical Jesus. The literary analysis is one layer; it does not have the last word but it should inform the subsequent process. Historical investigation is a separate endeavor, but it should be informed by the previous one.

The second important concern shared by Mason and Ankersmit is prioritizing the layers of one's literary hermeneutic. Ankersmit says "representation precedes interpretation" and Mason talks about the necessity of inference and gap filling, but what both are getting at is the importance of narratologically reconstructing the authorial vision. This is what Seymour Chatman called "the substance of the content," something Chatman's Story and Discourse (p.30-1) acknowledged as a vital foundation of interpretative reasoning, just before declaring it beyond the scope of that particular project. This "substance" of narrative content, along with the inference and gap filling so vital to its discovery (Chatman, 30-1, again), also happens to be (imho) the elephant sized lacuna in so called "narrative criticism" of the Gospels. If you care about such work, please observe that Mason's narratology of Josephus embraces that challenge where others have shied away.  

Thirdly, there is also a delightful twist in Mason's argument about Josephus NOT being a Pharisee. His method on that point is important for a host of reasons, related to the second point above, but I have now prefaced more than enough for one excerpt. As always, we hope to say more in the future.



2.7     Reconstructing the Narrative Situation

In his landmark study of the Pharisees in Josephus,[1] Steve Mason insists on distinguishing contextualized interpretation from historiographical reconstruction, prioritizing the former as preparation for the later.[2] While acknowledging that other sources occasionally confirm particular facts in Josephus’s material, Mason considers it naïve to extract “raw data” from narratives for historical reconstruction without first understanding literary meanings “in their original frameworks.”[3] Adjudicating historicity during interpretation is pointless because “how accurately an author perceived events is not a question that exegesis can answer,” but historical context remains essential for interpreters who wish to discern “how the original readership would plausibly have understood the document.”[4] Thus, historical research should begin with “a purely exegetical phase” of receiving authorial representations as such before formulating one’s own questions and attempting to answer them.[5] “Only when the evidence is thus understood in situ can we reasonably formulate historical hypotheses to explain it.”[6]

   Eschewing source–critical theories that had previously denied Josephus “authorial responsibility” for his configuration of material, and paying careful attention to the language use in each relevant passage, Mason primarily aims to understand the ancient Jewish writer’s own deliberate (re)presentation and observable biases.[7] To that end, he details his method:

Our procedure will always be to look first within Josephus’s writings for clues… His general usage and the immediate context will, so far as possible, be the arbiters of meaning. . . . [If this were] a historical investigation, which seeks to circumvent the witness’s intention, incidental notices [would be] the most valuable because they are more likely to yield unintentional evidence. Since our purpose, however, is to grasp Josephus’s intention, we must try to be sensitive to his own emphases; this will require that primary attention be given to his deliberate discussions of the Pharisees. It is in those discussions, if anywhere, that he spells out what he wants the reader to know about the group.[8]

To summarize, in a manner of speaking, Mason will read against the grain (as a historian) only after reading with the grain (as an interpreter) carefully enough to scrutinize all the ways in which that grain actually (arguably) runs. Repeatedly emphasizing that he is reconstructing “the story” and not “the real past,”[9] Mason’s hermeneutic also emphasizes the need for “sensitivity” to “clues” because Josephus’s ideas are not always “spelled out.” The contextual “whole” is therefore something each reader must reconstruct for themselves by filling gaps and drawing inferences.[10] To wit, Mason’s efforts “to construct an adequate synthesis of the Pharisess in Josephus’s narratives” proceed as follows.[11]

   Surveying War and Antiquities broadly, Mason establishes Josephus’s perspective as a Jewish and Flavian elite: fronting his priestly aristocratic lineage, admiring the Hasmonean family dynasts, advocating senatorial rule, disdaining the masses who empower tyrants (and thus wary of monarchial succession), but nevertheless deferential to established authority.[12] In contrast to these “principal concerns” (which occupy the bulk of Josephus’s attention), the Pharisees were “more or less irrelevant.”[13] But Josephus also “passes up many opportunities to mention Pharisees, especially in contexts that might have elicited his praise.”[14] Instead, their occasional appearances consistently elicit disdain from Josephus, who repeatedly and explicitly aligns their party with the common folk of Judea, and depicts them in negative ways (as many have noted).[15] Mason summarizes:

In this narrative world, Pharisees appear as an occasional aggravation to the elite. They are a nonaristocratic group with enormous popular support and a perverse willingness to use that support demagogically, even on a whim, to stir up the masses against duly constituted authority.[16]

In sum, Josephus’s Pharisees are “power–hungry opportunists, whose actions undermine their reputation for piety.”[17] The ancient writer has made his views clear through both commentary and depiction. The “what” of story has indeed illustrated the “how” and the “why” of authorial composition. And yet, there is more.

   In the process of assembling these narratological inferences, Mason observes an important distinction between the narrated text and the reconstructed story world. In revising War’s episode about Queen Alexandria’s alliance with the Pharisees (Ant. 13), Josephus introduces “a backstory, the preceding interval from Hyrcanus I to Alexandra, as a failed experiment in governance without the popular Pharisaic jurisprudence.”[18] Mason explains: “We must connect some dots if we wish to understand.”[19]

When interpreting a narrative we are entitled to accept conditions of Judean life painstakingly established by the author at one place (Ant. 13) and assumed again later (Ant. 18) as holding in the intervening narrative as well. He need not pause every few pages… to remind us that Pharisees are still influential.[20]

Thus, “Josephus portrays the reestablishment of Pharisaic jurisprudence under Alexandria as a necessary condition of governance, which has persevered until his own time.”[21] The Pharisees therefore “hold complete sway over the masses and therefore over political life” in Josephus’s story world.[22] Through narrative depiction and logical implication, the author has represented an ongoing situation in which higher authority figures respected Pharisees primarily because “their influence” had to be “reckoned with.”[23] Collectively, all this exegetical inference provides Mason with grounds for explaining the odd remark (Ant. 13.297–8, 18.17) that “one who accepts office must listen to ‘what the Pharisees says.’”[24] Lacking power, they exerted influence.

   While it should go without saying that Josephus’s depiction may not be historically accurate, even if Mason has read him correctly, what bears mentioning is that Mason is inferentially reconstructing Josephus’s Pharisees, rather than history. Basically, the hermeneutic strategy is that Josephus’s remarks should remain grounded within the context of Josephus’s depictions. We should also observe that, although writing to a Roman audience quite unfamiliar with Pharisees gave Josephus no opportunity to evoke knowledge not explicitly provided by the text, Mason has elsewhere demonstrated that Josephus does exactly this when the narrative regards other topics.[25] The task of literary criticism inevitably requires all sorts of inferences.

   The major interpretative payoff from Mason’s representational groundwork regards the Jewish–Flavian’s autobiographical claim at Life 12b about his youth: ἠρξάμην τε πολιτεύεσθαι τῇ Φαρισαίων αἱρέσει κατακολουθῶν.[26] Influential renderings by Thackeray (“I began to govern my life by the rules of the Pharisees”) and Whiston (“…to conduct myself according to the rules…”) suggest a personal commitment to discipline.[27] Perceiving this as a claim (whether sincere or deceptive) to hold membership in the Pharisee party,[28] centuries of interpreters problematized most of Josephus’s material on the Pharisees.[29] Mason reverses this trend by privileging that bulk of material before arguing exegetically about the single remark.[30] Thus, because Josephus’s “overall portrayal” of the Pharisees makes the former reading impossible, Mason argues for a different understanding,[31] translating 12b as, “I began to engage in public life following the school of the Pharisees.”[32] That is, based on Mason’s constructive literary reading (detailed above), we find Life 12b makes the author’s young self politically savvy, prudently “even if unwillingly” recognizing the need to “side with” popular Pharisaic views.[33] By itself, this alternative exegesis might have seemed contentious, but the weight of contextual grounding makes the revisionist reading compelling, and arguably determinative. In Ankersmit’s terms, Mason’s representation of Josephus has preceded his interpretation of Josephus.

   Grounding hermeneutics with this kind of narratological inference is both necessary and unavoidable, whether or not such literary reconstructions can ever be verified. Even if Mason has read Josephus incorrectly, he has shown us the proper procedure. Our ancient Jewish writer did not say, “Here’s what I think of the Pharisees.” Rather, he portrayed them episodically, intermittently, with many details offered only in passing, and even the plainest descriptions are framed and lit by his own narrativized configurations. As such, interpreters seeking to determine authorial bias and narrative meaning must engage the full measure of Josephus’s situational grounding. The authorial “hows” and “whys” can become more accessible if we prioritize a careful and deliberate reconstruction of “what” the author was trying to represent. Moreover, we must reconstruct the authorial vision before we can leverage that representation while investigating the actual past. Although we might ultimately disbelieve our reconstructed view of Josephus’s world, the process of interpreting material on its own terms is a necessary first step. Such imaginative exegesis must conclude before historical judgment can effectively begin.

   A final observation is required. Mason’s work on the Pharisees contextualized his readings so robustly that some critics mistook his constructive interpretations for historiographical verdicts.[34] This confusion was no doubt exacerbated because Mason’s interpretation logically ruled out several prior interpretations which had wrongly been equated with historical fact.[35] To such critical confusion, Mason replied that historical debates “played no role in my efforts to understand Josephus,” and clarified, “I did not attempt a historical investigation there.”[36] At the other extreme, Mason’s colleagues who correctly grasped his distinction between literary interpretation and historical reconstruction had begun to doubt whether his careful preparatory work would ever give way to the next stage (although eventually it did).[37] To avoid such confusion and doubts about this project, therefore, I will follow my narratological reconstruction (in chapter four) by sketching out three divergent hypotheses (in chapter five) about what might have really happened in the actual past. Because these rough examples of historical reconstruction merely need to illustrate what the process could look like (in order to establish a categorical distinction), the only theoretical and methodological explanation they require at this point is to re-iterate how the previous discussion applies to the question of this dissertation.

[1] Mason, Pharisees; Mason, “Josephus’s Pharisees: The Narratives,” in Jacob Neusner and Bruce Chilton, eds., In Quest of the Historical Pharisees (Waco, Tex: Baylor University Press, 2007), 3–40; Mason, “Josephus’s Pharisees: The Philosophy,” in Jacob Neusner and Bruce Chilton, eds., In Quest of the Historical Pharisees (Waco, Tex: Baylor University Press, 2007), 41–66; Mason and Helfield, Origins, 103–37.

[2] E.g., Mason, Pharisees, 10–7, 43–4, 53

[3] Mason, Pharisees, 10–16; Mason, “Narratives,” 3–4; both citing Neusner.

[4] Mason, Pharisees, 13.

[5] Mason, Pharisees, 12–16. Steve Mason, Orientation to the History of Roman Judaea (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2016), 73–83, prescribes the opposite sequence (forming questions before embarking upon exegesis) but keeps historical reconstruction separate from and subsequent to interpretation.

[6] Mason, “Narratives,” 3. See also Mason and Helfield, Josephus, 7–67.

[7] Mason, Pharisees, 43, 53; 18–53; e.g. 113, 118, 176–7, 207–11, 274–80, 306–7, 327; defending this position against source criticism is a major component of Mason’s original 1986 [1991] monograph, which spends over 25% of its argument on vocabulary and source analysis (e.g., 84–110, 133–52, 231–40). By contrast, authorial autonomy is entirely presumed by Mason, “Narratives,” [2007], with source critics briefly refuted by Mason, “Philosophy,” 41, 60–1 [2007].

[8] Mason, Pharisees, 43–4.

[9] E.g., Mason, “Narratives,” 4, 35, 38; Mason, “Philsophy,” 63.

[10] Mason, “Narratives,” [2007] is more articulate about exercising inference than Mason, Pharisees, [1991 publication; 1986 dissertation].

[11] Mason, “Narratives,” 38.

[12] Mason, “Narratives,” 6–8, 14–6, 20–1; Mason, Pharisees, 50, 59–60, 228, 238, 240, 243–5. See also Tessa Rajak, Josephus: The Historian and His Society, 2. ed. (London: Duckworth, 2004), 8, 21, 42.

[13] Mason, “Narratives,” 4–5, 17, 30–1, 37; Mason, Pharisees, 181–7, 322, 373; Mason, “Philosophy,” 54–5, 64.

[14] Mason, “Narratives,” 11–13, 38.

[15] Mason, “Narratives,”8–11, 17–28; Mason, Pharisees, 18–39, 82–4, 110–23, 173–6, 195, 213–63, cf. 272–308. The most relevant passages include War 1:107–14; 2:162–6; Ant. 13:288–98, 13:400–32; 17:41–5; 18:12–15.

[16] Mason, “Narratives,” 37–8.

[17] Mason, Pharisees, 345.

[18] Mason, Pharisees, 38ff.

[19] Mason, Pharisees, 38.

[20] Mason, “Narratives,” 433n.59; cf. 10–11, 22–3.

[21] Mason, “Narratives,” 39.

[22] Mason, “Narratives,” 32–3.

[23] Mason, “Narratives,” 14.

[24] Mason, “Narratives,” 29–30, 38; Mason, Pharisees, 353–4, cf. 279, 304, 308, 373.

[25] Steve Mason, “Figured Speech and Irony in T. Flavius Josephus,” in J. C. Edmondson, Steve Mason, and J. B. Rives, eds., Flavius Josephus and Flavian Rome (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 244–88.

[26] Mason, Pharisees, 374.

[27] Mason, Pharisees, 347; cf. German renderings (348, 54) and discussion there.

[28] Mason, Pharisees, 325–46; cf. 18–39, 55–6, 194; Mason, “Narratives,” 31–2, 38–9.

[29] Mason, Pharisees, 18–39, 46–51, 325–41, 356, discusses source–critical theories; e.g., that Josephus included unflattering material reluctantly, or had sections drafted by compositional assistants.

[30] Mason, Pharisees, 342–56, ; Mason, “Narratives,” 31–3.38–9.

[31] Mason, Pharisees, 342–56.; Mason, “Narratives,” 32–3.

[32] Mason, Pharisees, 351 [347–53].

[33] Mason, Pharisees, 353–6; Mason, “Narratives,” 33. NB: Josephus’s overlapping content allows Mason to build one narratological context from three separate works. Also, Josephus’s self–inclusion as a character allows Mason to combine historical inferences about the author with narrative inferences about the story world. However, despite the advantages of these specialized opportunities, Mason’s inferential hermeneutic remains exemplary.

[34] Mason and Helfield, Josephus, 133–4; Steve Mason, “What is History?” in Mladen Popović, ed., The Jewish Revolt against Rome: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2011), 198–200.

[35] Mason, Pharisees, 373–5; Mason, “Narratives,” 38–9.

[36] Mason and Helfield, Josephus, 133n.137; Mason, “What is History?” 198.

[37] Neusner and Chilton, In Quest of the Historical Pharisees, 423; Mason, Orientation, 66—70; Mason, Pharisees, 375. Cf. Steve Mason, A History of the Jewish War, A.D. 66–74 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

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