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.


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