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 Today's post is about reading narrative properly when that narrative includes a dubious historical reference.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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