March 11, 2024

What Would "Acts as History" Mean?

 History may be one thing after another but a literary history is the author's attempt to convey their own vision. The authorial representation should therefore guide scholarly interpretation of the text. 

 Steve Mason's dissertation on the Pharisees in Josephus is a masterclass in narratological interpretation. Previous scholars had not taken a single line of Josephus's autobiography (an odd phrasing which seemed to declare Pharisaic affiliation) as evidence for doubting all the passages in Josephus's narrative work which expressed criticism of Pharisees. Since that dissertation, scholarship has recognized Mason's superior exegesis of the one difficult line and henceforth overturned the previous dogma that Josephus identified as a Pharisee. I am speaking here of New Testament scholars; Josephus scholars have since come around to the larger issues which NT scholars have not. If you haven't sussed quite yet what that larger issue might be, please bear with me a bit longer.

 Frank Ankersmit has argued that a narrative text cannot be comprehended in the same way linguists exegete a single propositional statement. Let us examine the difference.

 When reading one sentence, we decode individual words while looking for grammatical cues and patterns of syntax. Piecing those things together is how one comprehends the proposition. The task is to build meaning from the bottom up. If a statement mentions "Elvis Presley" we might wonder whether that refers to Ed Sullivan Elvis or military service Elvis or Blue Hawaii Elvis or Las Vegas Elvis or the Elvis purportedly haunting Graceland today. As exegetes of a single reference, we must deduce which Elvis the author means us to recognize, and our initial deduction may be confirmed or corrected a few words later, or perhaps a few lines later, further down in the text. This is not necessarily the case with a large collection of sentences.

 The first distinction to recognize is that a narrative passage cannot "refer" in the same way as an individual word or a propositional statement. If you mention the name of my dog, you "refer" to one identifiable being. It is "picked out uniquely" by the label I use. Even if I may have given my dog a common name, we can easily clarify with further specification. "I mean the cocker spaniel Taffy who lived at Bill's childhood home until he was 13." The ideal one-to-one correspondence is at least achievable, even if our collective vocabulary (or "cultural repertoire") does not contain a single term to label each object on Earth. With enough added words, we can still pick out which dog I mean to describe.

 Narrative cannot do that. It simply cannot. A published story about the battle of Waterloo can only "refer" to its subject in general (what Ankersmit idiosyncratically calls "aboutness"). Of course I can cite a year to specify which Treaty of Paris or Ocean's Eleven I might have in mind, but that is not the point. The one and only battle of Waterloo can be identified with a single place and time but it cannot be identified by a single set of words. That is, we cannot select one verbal discourse as the proper description of that singular battle. It was unique, but words cannot designate it uniquely. If that were possible, then we should expect to find only one proper description of the battle, only one proper biography of Napoleon, only one acceptable version of any given event in Earth's history. Obviously, this is not the case. The one-to-one correspondence between words and things cannot be extended to words and events. This necessarily shifts our hermeneutic away from objective decoding of a linguistic construction and towards the subjective interpretation of an aesthetic construction. 

 Narrative is not reference. Narrative is representation. 

 The construction of meaning from narrative, therefore, cannot be treated exclusively as a bottom-up endeavor, in the same way we construct meaning from the propositional statement. Unlike the grammatical and syntactical bits of a sentence, the individual sentences within a larger narrative text create a whole which is not merely the sum of its parts. Thus, instead of piecing together the meaning of each text by tackling one sentence at a time, one must rather prioritize a determination about the overall meaning of an authorial representation IN ORDER TO have any chance at properly understanding each single statement within it. Although this prescription may seem paradoxical, because of course we must read the text one statement at a time, the point is that our hermeneutic spiral must build and build and built UNTIL we have reached the point where we can look back on each part and see how they all fit in the whole.

 Impressively, that is precisely how Mason engaged the corpus of Josephus's writings. Where other scholars had camped out on one troublesome sentence and erased several passages which appeared to contradict it, Mason argued that we should rather prioritize understanding Josephus's whole body of work before turning again to that difficult bit in his autobiography. When taken in context, Mason demonstrated conclusively, there was a different way to interpret the one bit. Josephus had not joined the Pharisees. He had merely studied them for a while. The single ambiguous statement was best understood in the context of Josephus's larger narratological construction. 

 I have argued the same thing about Luke and Quirinius: whatever else we think about that difficult bit of text, it cannot be taken as evidence that Luke thought Jesus was born in the year 6 CE. Rather, the larger story Luke tells obviously fits in a world where Judea and Galilee were being administered in a unified way. Rather, a reconstruction of Luke's esthetic vision must be prioritized. The author's view of the story he means to tell should be our first reconstruction, after which we can use that reconstruction as context for attempting to understand what Luke was trying to say about that odd proconsul Quirinius.

 I have argued the same thing about Matthew and Archelaus. Instead of getting stuck on one word ("basileuei") and declaring that to be inaccurate (because Archelaus was an ethnarch and not a king), we should rather go back several verses and prioritize Matthew's narratological context. Even if Jesus living in Egypt is pure fiction, Matthew's angel wakes Joseph precisely at Herod's death so that Matthew's readers can recognize the timeframe. Archelaus was indeed, just then, playing the king. He was literally "kinging" in Judea, in his father's position. Recognizing this temporal context lends dramatic irony and praises God's foresight, because Galilee was not yet safe from the dangerous princeling, but it would soon be once Augustus slapped down the upstart.

 I have argued the same thing for the book of Acts. Instead of treating each episode as more or less random, we must first reconstruct the authorial viewpoint. First, the author inserts himself into the story, aligns himself not just with the gentile mission and Paul but also with the narrative climax in Caesarea. The author, as character, appears to remain for two years with the Caesarean church as his base. That the apprehensions they feel for Jersualem have lingered is not anti-Jewish but anti-mother-church. Within that context, it cannot be coincidental that Luke's outstanding point of view characters for the early chapters - Stephen and Philip and Cornelius and Barnabas, the ones Luke goes out of his way to introduce and to follow - also happen to align with the gentile mission, with Antioch, and with Caesarea. Philip and Cornelius in particular signal an authorial focalization. These are not random characters with marginal stories Luke felt bound to include. They are some of his favorites. In terms of comprehending narrative to be representational, that authorial construction should be prioritized as the context for everything else in the text.

 As I said at the top of this post, history itself may be one thing after another but a literary history is the author's attempt to convey their own vision. One cannot merely analyze bits of narrative content and then think about them as truth claims, or potentially true. The exegetical analysis of any passage must root itself in a larger awareness of the "history" as a literary construction, an authorial representation. The individual truth claims are not merely tainted by authorial bias; they are painted with brushstrokes of meaning. As Josephus's overall view of the Pharisees elucidates a proper exegesis of each statement he makes about them, so should we apply Luke's overall disposition (against the heavy-handed Christians in Jersualem) to our exegetical analysis of each line and episode in the book.

 Narrative history is not simply a story, to be taken or left. It is not simply "narrative" because that's what we call this stuff. Narrative history is an authorial representation. Before we judge the potential veracity of a narrated claim, we must first be careful to understand the meaning of that claim, NOT with a bottom-up semiotic and linguistic approach, BUT with a top-down approach of narratology and literature.

 The authorial representation should guide scholarly interpretation of the text. After which, THEN AND ONLY THEN, historical critical judgment should absolutely proceed to have its field day by assessing the evidential value (or lack thereof) in each claim and action depicted. But those claims must be judged with a full awareness of their nature as brush strokes, rather than log entries.

 At any rate... I said all that to say this.

 If any NT scholar happens to be thinking about doing a project called "Acts as History" I dearly hope they pay attention to these important distinctions. 

 Anon...

 

January 24, 2024

Simplify AND THEN Complicate

 When critics frame simple stories versus complex reality as a binary choice, authoritarians thrive. So long as it's one or the other, the domineering "reality is what I say it is" leaders can simply assert "the stories we tell are NOT fictions." Polarization is not the result of such conflicts; it is their fertile ground.

 If I could wipe away that false binary and re-write critical dogma I would tell academia to assert that simple stories often are and can more often be a pathway to more complex understandings. Scientists know this. Where the university history professor takes an oppositional stance against stories their students have previously heard, the university physics professor affirms the basic concepts of high school teaching and adds, "now we're going to incorporate friction and wind resistance." Although not everyone can keep up with the math in that case, they gain a new appreciation for how simplified the earlier teaching had been.

 Imagine if politicians were culturally expected to share two versions of each story. First, tell me the short version. Next, expand on that with the complicated details. The liars and spin doctors who prefer that the public options for narrative rhetoric should remain binary, suddenly, would be unable to compete. Because they only have their one simplified version of lies, expanding upon which would require receipts. In contrast, the earnest and honest would no longer face an automatic competitive disadvantage. Rather, those who understand the complex version and wish to convey it completely would simply need to learn strategic methods for non-fiction storytelling as an introductory practice.

 The logic here reminds me of the twin gatekeepers in Labyrinth. One liar and one truthteller, one guarding safe passage and one trying to doom you; the trick is to ask both of them, "Which door would he tell me to take?" The liar points to doom, the honest one points to doom, and you pick the opposite door.

 It may be optimistic of me, but I suspect "Give me the simple version and then follow up with the long version" would upend lots of nonsense... especially if we could establish that every purveyor of claims should be expected to follow that custom.

 On a personal note, this whole suggestion developed in me because I wish biblical scholas would see the four Gospels in a similar way - not as simple claims to uphold or dismiss but as authorial representations which point the way to considering various complex possibilities about the real historical past.

 A simple story should invite us to ask questions about the more complex reality.

 The false binary only empowers those who thrive on such conflict.

 Anon...


January 21, 2024

Go Read Rosson on Staples

 Please direct your attention to Loren Rosson's extensive reviews of two recent books by Jason Staples. If you can read only one review, the second briefly synopsizes the first. Both books regard Paul's sense of what "Israel" meant in the first century. You can search for other positive reception of Jason's work. I recommend Rosson because he writes clearly and offers perspective illuminating for non-specialists.

 Go read those reviews to understand why this new work is important. My comments which follow are strictly personal.

 It was something like twenty-years ago that Jason made some common sense observations, framed by a genuinely fresh perspective, and it took him this long to contextualize those observations comprehensively and defensibly for academic reception. 

 After earning his Ph.D, Jason spent years supporting his family with jobs outside academia while doggedly pursuing his goal of completing his grand passion project. It took him two books. Both have been well received. I admire him greatly.

 Doing scholarship on one's own time is always costly, often thankless, and completing one's work does not guarantee that anybody will care. Although I cannot yet compare the caliber of my work to Jason's, I must say I find it vicariously thrilling to see his long-term project, triumphantly, finding its audience.

 Anon, then...

Recent Posts
Recent Posts Widget
"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton