One of my first posts on this blog asked why the Gospel of Mark was not more often interpreted in a way we would normally interpret any other form of literature. I was referring to Frank Kermode’s discussion of the Gospel of Mark in The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative. This post explores a more in depth reading of Kermode’s chapter titled “What Precisely Are the Facts?” Here Kermode addresses what it is about the Gospels — the literary devices used in them — that lend them an air of being “true” or believable narratives. When on occasion I encounter even an academic scholar affirming that a Gospel narrative “rings true” or has an “air of historical plausibility” about it I am dismayed at the naïvety of such assertions.
Conscious awareness of the power and functions of rhetorical styles is easily lost on many of us and Kermode goes some way to explaining why. Not everyone has ready access to Kermode’s book, so I allow readers to glance over my shoulder and see the following snippets I have taken from this chapter. I have bolded the main points that I think deserve quick attention. The first point ought, to my mind, be simple enough to take for granted if we stop to reflect that the written word is just another means of human expression and humans are by nature capable of being misread, misunderstood, and — whether for good or ill — skilled in pretence and deception. Were it otherwise there would be no need for court systems and no place for a lot of theatre and not a lot of point in lying.
In practice we may feel that we have no particular difficulty in distinguishing between narratives which claim to be reliable records of fact, and narratives which simply go through the motions of being such a record. But when we think about it, as on occasion we may compel ourselves to, the distinction may grow troublesome. (p. 101)
Kermode zeroes in on a passage from the Gospel of John that contains a number of quite diverse devices that combine to create a sense of realism. I embold only two of them here.
Since it was the day of Preparation, in order to prevent the bodies from remaining on the cross on the sabbath (for that sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him; but when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. He who saw it has borne witness–his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth–that you also may believe. For these things took place that the scripture might be fulfilled, “Not a bone of him shall be broken.” And again another scripture says, “They shall look on him whom they have pierced.” (John 19:31-37).
Only John has this part of the narrative. The first thing we notice about it, in all probability, is the strength of its claim to be a report of something that actually happened. This claim is asserted in several ways. Next day is not only the sabbath (which in itself could be a reason for taking down the bodies, though in fact the Law ruled that they must be taken down before nightfall, sabbath or not) but Passover; John is reminding us of his chronology once more, but also, by emphasizing the peculiarity of the situation, achieving an effect of the real. Other confirmatory details work to the same end: soldiers were seen to break the legs of the other crucified men, but in the case of Jesus this happened not to be necessary, since he was dead already; nevertheless, one soldier was observed to pierce the side of Jesus with his spear. These events have an appearance of fortuity, they happened to occur, and the slight abnormalities of procedure reinforce the claim to factual reporting.
Moreover, the text demands urgently that we accept it as an eyewitness account. It seems that everything depends upon our doing so; hence the intervention in the narrative of a voice asserting its veracity. . . . “the one who has seen has witnessed, and the witness in him is true, and he knows that he speaks truly.” Nowhere else in the gospels . . . are we so insistently urged to accept a narrative as a transparent account of historical fact. Indeed, because it is so exceptional it has been thought to be spurious, an interpolation; but this view is not widely held. (p. 102)
Kermode perceives something deeper at the level of the way the literary can weave its magic in our psychology. The motif of fulfilled scripture works as a technique for presenting the scenario as part of a larger coherent narrative in which little clues in the earlier part of the book are brought together with their surprising significances and meanings in the final chapters. This sort of narrative coherence has a critical impact on how we relate to what we are reading as Kermode over several pages explains.
The passage immediately following this intervention is equally extraordinary, considered as part of a simple historical record. For it now appears that the intention of the report is not merely to provide an accurate and dependable account of what actually happened, to affirm as a matter of historical fact that the legs were not broken, that the dead man’s side was pierced. It serves a further purpose: it affirms that these events had been foretold, in detail, a long time before. It claims they were notable not merely because all the detail of so great an historical moment must be obviously so, but also because they were the fulfillment of discrete events in another, earlier narrative — events which if no such fulfillment had been recorded, could never have been supposed to need one, for they already had their own context in history and song. The soldier’s failure to break the legs of Jesus, and the thrusting in of the spear, are therefore not only what is said to have happened, not only chronicle, they also continue and form part of an existing book, part of a literary plot. (p. 103)
So we have realism, detail, the assertion of veracity, the parts taking meaning from a greater whole . . . .
And some commentators continue to insist that the realism of John’s narrative is easily explained: it conforms to the historical facts. The practice of breaking the legs of crucified criminals existed; it was an act of mercy, but Jesus was beyond the need of it. The verb translated “pierced” in verse 34 may rather mean “pricked” or “prodded,” as if the soldier’s object was the reasonable one of discovering whether Jesus was still alive. On rare occasions blood and serum, which looks like water, may issue from a dead body. The verse about the veracity of the witness means exactly what it says. John provides an eyewitness account of the proceedings, and then passes on to suggest their deeper meanings by leading the reader to a consideration of types and symbols.
Such are the arguments of those who cannot accept that the historical account is an invention, founded on a repertory of texts brought to fulfillment by a literary narrative. (pp. 104-5)
By “figurations” Kermode is referring to literary types or typology. They are not exclusive to the Bible. A literary historian can ply them to historical narratives, too. Commentators of the Gospels generally make much of the theological bias of the authors and how this has shaped the way they have spun the narrative. But ideology is as much a part of many modern historians’ works, too.
. . . figurations, usually of an ideological origin whether acknowledged or no, will be found in history as well as in the history-like. (p. 105)
In discussing the use of Psalm 22 in the crucifixion scene Kermode explains that it has more than a “proof-texting” function.
. . . .these plot relations are not of the causal kind admired and recommended by Aristotle. They are rather . . . “hermeneutic” — that is, the earlier texts are held to contain, possibly in a disguised or deceptive form, narrative promises that will later be kept, though perhaps in unexpected ways.
The habit of finding such clues was not confined to the evangelists, and the search continued after their narratives were established and canonized. The same use of types and testimonies persisted: as proofs of divine organization, they were also proofs of the historicity of the narratives. (p. 106)
The Gospels do something to the Jewish Bible that not all believers like to admit. Further, while many modern readers will interpret the Gospel use of professed fulfilment of scriptures as a sign of fiction, it must be conceded that for others the reverse is the case.
So far as I know, this is a unique way of writing history. In its extreme form it implies the abolition of the Old Testament except in its role as a type-source for the New — in short, “the total destruction of its historical character.” The entire Jewish Bible was to be sacrificed to the validation of the historicity of the gospels; yet its whole authority was needed to establish that historicity. A mind habituated to modern assumptions about history may be inclined to see the emphasis on type and testimony as evidence that the narrative is fictitious; but on the view I am describing it is otherwise: the more farfetched and improbable the intertextual relations, the more certainly historical the narrative must be. (p. 107)
The Gospels pull out all stops to create the illusion of realism. The narrative voice is part of it. Realistic detail is another. And being the most meaningful part of a larger narrative is also central.
. . . it was important to the survival of the new religion that the evangelists’ reports should be taken as true, against rival accounts. So they used all means to assert their truth, John’s metanarrative voice is one such device, the provision of verisimilar detail is another. At the same time, it was necessary that the truth should be acceptable as such, that it should accord with contemporary presumptions as to what the truth was; and it was also necessary (though this is really part of the same point) that the report should have the backing of the scriptures. (p. 109)
And plausibility is one of the most vital ingredients in the mix with scripture fulfilment. Kermode addresses two questions.
We may ask two questions of these pieces of historical writing [the trial and execution]: how intimately are they related to Old Testament testimonies? How well do they conform with what may be plausibly said to have occurred? (p. 110)
Q 1. The question of historical fact and fulfilled scripture, the source of the “historical” record?
We remind ourselves once again that these pleromatic [fulfilment of scripture] conformities were intended not to detract from history-likeness, but on the contrary to enhance it. And for some modern scholars they continue to do so. Dodd, who had a highly developed sense of the ways in which the factual narrative could be constructed “according to the scriptures,” nevertheless remarks that there were many more possible testimonies that could have been brought in and were not, and finds in this restraint a hint that the narratives do respect historical fact. There is some desperation in this argument . . . . Dodd’s point could be made with the same force, or lack of it, if there were twice as many allusions to testimonies in the accounts.
It must appear, then, that the historical record as we have it is constructed in considerable measure from the testimonies, in a manner now sufficiently familiar. (p. 111)
Q 2. The matter of plausibility
That these accounts have seemed plausible and continue to do so is not the point; for to seem plausible is the aim of a great deal of fiction. The trial has been the subject of the minute inquiry and endless dispute . . . .
It is fairly widely agreed that an original narrative less acceptable to the ideologies of the trials. With different emphases it is argued that the political interests of Jesus must have been stronger than now emerges . . . . And by the time these documents were written, the need to attribute guilt for the death of Jesus to the Jews rather than the Romans had increased.
Yet whatever the necessary distortions, the narrative must continue to seem factual, for, as C. F. D. Moule puts it, the faith “stood or fell with the sober facts of the story.” Here was a strong incitement to “realism”; and a remarkable degree (p. 112)
It’s the historical realism that makes even the Resurrection work.
. . . realism was achieved, despite the competing demands of the figural plot, and the necessities of ideology. The gospels sound like history, and that they do so is the consequence of an extraordinary rhetorical feat, one without which the Resurrection would not have had its place in a context of sober fact. (p. 1 13)
The final scenes of the trial and execution are unlike the first part of narrative that lacks narrative plot features. It’s the “followability” of the latter that is the magic ingredient.
This is why historians as well as novelists . . . place such value on “followability”; it limits the possibility of awkward questions, it leaves less to explain; for historians usually write narrative rather than explanation if they can. Thus the detection of occult figurations, and the questioning of the narrative as a report on fact, is delayed.
Add the power of a number of authorities with the desire for comfort.
The delay was lengthened, in the present instance, by the power of the institution which undertook to uphold the absolute veracity of the reports, and to enforce it not only by dogma but by the use of vast resources of liturgy, sacrament, and art. We should never underestimate our predisposition to believe whatever is presented under the guise of an authoritative report and is also consistent with the mythical structure of a society from which we derive comfort, and which it may be uncomfortable to dispute. This desire for comfort, this willingness to believe what bears the ordinary signs of the credible, explains the rhetorical success of such works as Defoe’s “Apparition of Mrs. Veal.” There is an agreed way of registering reality; and it has authority over us. There is also authority in the person making the report or maintaining its veracity; part, but not all, of this is the mere authority of the printed word. There is also the authority of the institution or the person. (p. 113-114)
Some simple truths are hard to keep in mind.
. . . there are some fairly simple ideas that we find it difficult to keep hold of . . . . One such is the proposition that no narrative can be transparent on historical fact. “There is no textual property,” says John Searle (and why should we be dismayed) “that will identify a stretch of discourse as a work of fiction.” Of course, it can be labeled as such, metatextually: most novels find ways of assuring the reader that they are fictions, or what Searle calls “non-deceptive pseudo-performances,” thereby ensuring the suspension of the conventions by which we normally judge the felicitousness of other kinds of discourse. Historical discourse is also guaranteed by metatextual announcements, references to sources and authorities, assurances as to the credibility of witnesses (such as John included in the narrative I began by discussing). In general, history-writing, even more than fiction, relies on third person narration. Novels quite often have first-person narrators, but their presence in an historical account gives it a different generic feel — it becomes a memoir. The advantage of third-person narration is that it is the mode which best produces the illusion of pure reference. But it is an allusion, the effect of a rhetorical device. We cannot escape the conclusion that “the fact can exist only linguistically, as a term in a discourse,” although “we behave as if it were a simple reproduction of something or other on another plane of existence altogether, some extra-structural ‘reality’.” (pp. 116-7) The matter of factness of a report — that ‘ring of truth’ — seduces us. (Bauckham take note!)
. . . and the dependence we have on the myth that felicitous assertion equals accurate reference . . .
. . . . We resist, drugged by the comfort of the conventional, fearing the consequences of losing an accessible truth.
What historians really do is write causal and explanatory narratives — that is what makes them convincing. And by adding the little realistic details they offer us firmer assurance. (And two words that I have referred to in other contexts entirely are interestingly — reassuringly even — repeated by Frank Kermode: von Ranke and midrash!)
Historians are aware of these problems, but tend to confine discussion of them to a separate discipline called “philosophy of history.” Within that enclosure they discuss, each in his own way, the relation between history and chronicle. Few, I think, maintain, when thinking along these lines, that there can be an immediate relation between hisory-writing and “what actually happened” (wie es eigentlich gewesen, in Ranke’s famous formula). Indeed, they seem to be most interested in questions of explanation and narrative, that is, in matters of telling and causal connection (explanations are ways of filling gaps in the causal sequence established by the narrative, a kind of modern midrash). They think that history, like story, has to have the property of “followability,” . . . that a history . . . is “a narrative structure imposed upon events.” Such narratives will have the logical structure of other stories, though their purpose is to provide explanations by establishing connections other than those immediately suggested by a chronicle sequence.
This philosophical effort seems to be directed at the same problems that I have been discussing in relation to the Passion narratives. We are offered a narrative structure, with all its mnemonic and suasive advantages. We get the benefits of followability, and whatever is followable is on the way to being acceptable. A “convincing” narrative convinces mainly because it is well-formed and followable, though for other reasons also; for instance, it reassures us by providing what appears to be an impartially accurate rendering of reality. When John gives the distance from Bethany to Jerusalem, and names the place where Pilate sat in judgment, he may well be wrong in both cases but the detail is immediately reassuring. (pp. 117-118)
So it’s all an art. History is an art, too. (That’s also von Ranke, but Kermode does not draw on him for this aspect.) When thinking of art think of creativity, of artisans, artifice. The Gospel authors — well certainly “John” did, and surely “Luke” — were (as Kermode himself says) motivated by a strong need to find every artifice to make their narratives sound historically true. Faith depended — still does — upon it. (At least it does for many whose religion is grounded in the things of this world, as Schweitzer might have said.) There is much more to Kermode’s lecture but I have selected just one slice of it. He also explores the functions of meaning and how meaning is necessary to establish what is a “fact”, and the need for people to relate to and find meaning more than “facts” as such. But I can’t cover all sides of his discussion here.
Lest they should be disbelieved or misunderstood or corrupted, there was a need for realism, and an equal need for the structure of testimonia [of Old Testament passages], so that this sequence of events should seem a piece of, even the crown of, an historical development perceptible to the eye of the interpreter and written into the structure of the world, now seen as a book, as a codex. (p. 121)
So how does one tell the difference between real history and fiction? It is not from the art with which it is told. Clearly it is naive ever to think we can tell the difference between what is true and what is fiction simply by examining the literary art and conventions we read. Art is about aesthetics and feelings. Just feeling that a narrative has a “ring of truth” won’t do. That is why I have argued that we need more rational methods just to find a starting point at a positive probability. Independent testimonies and controls can establish positive probabilities. Granted, there are some historians themselves who take their craft for granted and lazily drift into assumptions that are less than professionally justifiable. There are a few “bad” (or thoughtless) secular historians. Fortunately not all biblical historians follow them, however.
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