October 31, 2023

The Nature of Historical "Knowledge" for Early Gospel Audiences

 As Dunn said with orality decades ago, here is another default setting that we need to reset.

 Even if your hermeneutic of the Gospels considers "ideal readers" or "the authorial audience" instead of reconstructing actual first century readers and hearers, we should not assume that early Jewish/Christian knowledge about their own recent history would equate to a list of key facts. Their word of mouth style of posterity was quite unlike a wiki stub cribbed from an old World Book, and I mean different not only in form or format. I mean that ancient historical knowledge was quite different than our modern concept of factual knowledge as something learned from official sources who verified the information before passing it down. The difference is also more complex than simply imagining that ancient people were generally more susceptible to authoritarian pronouncements and biased spin, because that also happens to some degree in officially verified publications. That common danger has never not been part of telling stories about the past.

 The difference I am getting at starts with Dunn's notion that we need to reckon with a culture of orality but I believe it goes farther. We need to think about memory and storytelling. Specifically, we need to think about the fact that our limited cognitive capacity means that only simplified explanations had the potential to gain widespread adoption as "common knowledge" about what happened in the past. 

 For example, consider the contrast between the stories Josephus tells to his audience of upscale Roman elites, on the one hand, and the stories Josephus reports had been told among common folks back in Judea and Galilee. 

 To explain the fall of Jerusalem to his privileged peers, Josephus offers a complex set of justifications that rely on various factors of culture and politics, ultimately suggesting that the governing class in Jerusalem didn't mean to oppose Rome until they were forced into it by the spontaneous guerilla assault on that insufficiently prepared Legion from Antioch. (Obviously, I compress greatly; but see Mason's History of the Jewish War, 2016.) 

 To explain the Nabatean conquest of the fortress at Gamala (Gamla), Josephus tells us, folks in Galilee said that God was punishing Herod Antipas for having executed John the Baptist.

 Although I feel confident that such extreme superstition did not characterize every single historical explanation which circulated among Jewish and Christian people of the first century, I do mean to suggest that something like that level of simplicity was a prerequisite for a story to gain widespread acceptance, or at least to be recognized as the norm of historical knowledge. Thus, if an savvy author was writing to an audience of common folks and said author wished to refer to historical events, the target knowledge would need to be simple. I mean the FORM of that story would need to be simple.

 Briefly, now, here are just a few specific suggestions as to how this might affect our interpretation of some material in the Gospels.

 (1) The parable in Luke 19 is less likely a reference to the singular story about Archelaus and more likely a reference to the larger pattern by which that kind of thing happened repeatedly. That is, many rulers of Judea had sailed to Rome to be granted the rule back at home, including Herod the Great, Herod's oldest son Antipater (unsuccessfully), Archelaus, Antipas (twice, both times unsuccessfully), Agrippa I (who successfully gained the rule of Trachonitis from Caligula and later received the re-unified kingdom from Claudius), and more. Thus, it is far more likely that common pattern (and not the one relatable factoid that Lukan scholars picked up while studying Matt 2:22) which provided a targetable bit of historical knowledge for the writer of Luke to expect from their ancient audience.

 (2) John 2:20 cannot be a reference to anything which required the audience to get out a reference book and perform careful arithmetic. If the number "forty-six" has any hermeneutic significance, my bet is that it was meant to evoke 'a few less than 49', thereby associating the crucifixion of Jesus with the year of the Jubilee (although whether the author meant that symbolically or literally, or both, would obviously require a whole other discussion). My point is whatever historical idea the author was trying to reference, it needed to be simple, obvious, and immediately retrievable.

 (3) Repeated Gospel references to John the Baptist as one who "came before" and "prepared the way" involve a simplified chronological schema which implies a basic sequence no more complicated than 'one before the other'. On this basis, I have previously argued that Bauckham's argument about John 3:24 is misguided to suppose that one allusion in John could prompt a verbatim recall of Mark 1:14 as a specific textual reference.

 (4) Even more broadly, the simplified narrative structure of the basic synoptic storyline is largely built upon another simplified schema with embedded chronology. If the audience knows in advance that Jesus became popular in Galilee and got killed in Jerusalem, they would naturally expect the storyline to begin in Galilee and move to Judea only in time for that death. If this was indeed the likely expectation of most audiences, it could help explain why the earliest writers of narrative Gospels chose to simplify the story structure of Jesus's ministry period, in that way.

 (5) Finally, the one about which I was previously dissertating: the writer of Matt 2:22 could most reasonably have expected those references ("Herod... Archelaus... Judea... fright... Galilee") to evoke only the most impactful events from that overall time frame. Thus, rather than cherry picking a few details from Josephus's account or finding some criteria for deciding how much of that written history might have also been common knowledge, I reconstruct the matter in multiple stages. 

 (example 5, continued) FIRST, from a LITERARY perspective, I extrapolate the vision of events which Josephus apparently had in mind and attempted to convey (e.g., the division of Herod's kingdom was Augustus's original idea and it was not even suggested until Herod had been dead for several months). SECOND, from a HISTORICAL-CRITICAL standpoint, I scrutinize the authorial vision of Josephus (e.g., reconsidering causative factors more comprehensively) and reconstruct my own view of KEY EVENTS as they actually unfolded (e.g., the people of Judea and Galilee spent a year living in complete ignorance about who if anyone was going to emerge, from the ongoing chaos and violent upheavals, as the new overlord of the land of the Jews). THIRD, from the standpoint of social and cognitive memory theory, I perform a PSYCHOLOGICAL reconstruction, this time considering which events (from among those which actually transpired) would have been the most likely to leave a mnemonic traces on a cultural level for decades to come (e.g., Passover pilgrims returning to Jerusalem each year, for many years, undoubtedly would have remembered the massacre of Archelaus each time they walked through the streets where the smallest of children were the first ones to be trampled, and each time they walked to the Temple where the protestors were first assaulted by the armed forces of Archelaus, the apparent king-to-be. FOURTH, on the basis of all the above, I can only then find a reasonable basis for reconstructing HERMENEUTICALLY that the writer of Matt 2:22 most likely expected their audience to believe a few key "facts" based on the general P.o.V. of Judean posterity (e.g., it had appeared from all angles that Augustus split the kingdom in response to the upheavals, and that Archelaus deserved his eventual banishment by Augustus, among other reasons, primarily because of the Passover massacre at his accession). 

 Here endeth my list of examples for today. Feel free to search the blog for previous thoughts on the five topics just reviewed. 

 Now, let me sum up the overall point and be done with this post.

 Altogether, this kind of approach creates a lot of work, and the first reaction of some Gospel scholars may be to scoff dismissively, because what I propose will seem, to them, quite a stretch. Against that likely response, please consider that the popular alternative for centuries has been just to cherry pick a few verbatim factoids as purported by Josphus and then to magically impute those "facts" as the "knowledge" shared by ancient author and audience alike.

 Realistically, I'll be doing well if I can even start this conversation, let alone get the last word. But maybe that is enough.

 As Dunn said with orality decades ago, here is another default setting that we need to reset.


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