A few days ago someone thoughtfully sent me a link to a Westar video interviewing Professor Arthur Dewey, author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus Was Remembered. Dewey begins by addressing the prevalent belief that the Passion story of Jesus is essentially true history. He says:
Of course regular readers will know that it is that assumption that we regularly question here. But Dewey, his interviewer and Westar generally are addressing a different audience and I like to think that that is the reason they seem to couch arguments in a way more appealing or acceptable to a certain kind of Christian believer, in something of a “liberal apologetic”, than I like to do.
I have not read his book (there does not seem to be a copy available either commercially or in any library in Australia, not even digitally) so my comments here are entirely my reactions to the interview.
Arthur Dewey begins by pointing out that ancient historians were primarily interested in “truth” as “insight” into the meaning of events for their audiences. He does not say that they were not interested in “facts”, too, but that their main focus lay elsewhere. There is a certain truth to this as (again) we have discussed many times when posting on the methods of ancient historians. What niggles me when I encounter a biblical scholar elaborating on this point (Dewey is far from the only biblical scholar to present this “truth as insight” characteristic of ancient historians) is that I think the other side of what ancient historians were all about is lost. I think they too easily overstate the case in the interests of attempting to keep the gospels relevant at least for the more liberally minded believers. I hope that’s not too harsh or unfair but it is how it comes across to me.
The fact is that ancient historians regularly made strong claims for getting their facts right. Yes, sometimes they would acknowledge that they had no firm idea of what happened, but when they were writing of relatively recent events they stressed the superiority of their work by declaring that they themselves were eyewitnesses or that they spoke to eyewitnesses. Yes, we further know that sometimes ancient historians were not entirely (or even remotely) truthful when they made such claims, but the fact that they did make them at all demonstrates the importance of the ideal of “getting the facts of what actually happened right” for their readers. Rather than take the time to set out examples here I will merely note that examples of these sorts of details can be found in Ancient Historiography and Historians — Vridar Posts.
Biblical historians in recent years appear to have taken to speaking of the gospels as “true fiction”. Bart Ehrman is one of the more prominent names who has certainly pushed this message. The flaw in his presentation is that he is confusing two different senses or applications of the word “true” and implies that the fault lies in the reader if that reader for keeping the two types of “true” meaningfully distinct:
It might matter to people whose only concern is to know what really took place in the past. But why should that be a person’s only concern? Shouldn’t we be concerned also about other things? If we want to read a book, do we really only want to read histories and historically accurate biographies? Are our only human interests tied to what has really happened in the past? Don’t we also want to read novels? And short stories? And poetry? Don’t imaginative storytellers who piece together complicated plots with intricate but invented characters have something to say to us? Can’t “truth” be bigger than the bare-bones question about what happened before now?
. . . .
At the end of the day, I find it troubling that so many people think that history is the only thing that matters. For them, if something didn’t happen, it isn’t true, in any sense. Really? Do we actually live our lives that way? How can we? Do we really spend our lives finding meaning only in the brute facts of what happened before, and in nothing else?
Think about the things that matter to us: our families, friends, work, hobbies, religion, philosophy, country, novels, poetry, music, good food, and good drink. Do we really think that the brute facts about the past are the only things that matter?”
(Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels, digital edition)
Of course the brute facts of what is and was in the world matter as “truth”. So does the “truth as meaning” matter. It is mischievous, surely, to suggest that his readers must bury the one in preference for the other. Scholars themselves don’t do that in their research. Why try to pummel readers into embracing “the truth of the gospel story” even though it is not really true? Once again, I can’t help but wonder if we are seeing scholars like Ehrman attempting to justify or impute meaning to what they themselves are doing. A kind of apologetic, as I said before.
But there is more. Recall the criticism that even biblical scholars fallaciously assume that the gospel narratives “reflect what actually happened”. But even “liberal biblical scholars” like Bart Ehrman make that same assumption:
No one today would seriously maintain that these memories of Jesus and his followers were historically accurate. These are not accounts of the past that depict events that really happened in the ways they are described. But does that really matter?
My emphasis. In other words Ehrman, and I think many other ‘liberal’ scholars, continue to rely upon the assumption of historicity. They only quibble over the details.
But I am veering off course from Arthur Dewey’s interview.
Dewey speaks of memory and memory patterns. Using memory theory to explain the gospel narrative is surely based on an assumption that the events are historical and remembered as such, no matter how garbled they eventually become as memories tend to do. So again, I think he is beginning with the same fallacy as the literalists with the difference being primarily in how much of the detail is “true”.
Dewey refers to Mary Carruther’s book on memory, The Book of Memory: A Study Of Memory In Medieval Culture. I’d like to read that. Related to his discussion of points in that book, and most interestingly for me, was his focus on George W. E. Nickelsburg’s discussion of literary motifs or patterns in Resurrection, Immortality, and Eternal Life in Intertestamental Judaism and Early Christianity. Nickeslburg analysed a number of ancient stories of persecution and vindication — Joseph, Ahikar, Esther, Susannah, Daniel, Maccabees — and identified structures they all share: Introduction, Provocation, Conspiracy, Decision, Trust, Obedience, Accusation, Trial, Condemnation . . . Rescue, Vindication, Exaltation . . . . Mark’s Passion narrative deploys the same elements. By doing so it fits the regular pattern of the same type of story that had been known for well more than a single century. I suppose real historical events can be fictionalized to be told through similar patterns but then the work becomes historical fiction and no longer history. And remember, we don’t want to stand on mere assumptions of historicity. That’s not being hyper sceptical. It’s simply holding judgment in abeyance until we can find some external control to give us a valid reason to tip our judgment either way. Perhaps the plethora of fictional narratives being found to use the same structural elements is that sought-after external control.
Another interesting point made by Arthur Dewey towards the end of the interview: he said that by making Jesus special we are playing into the hands of Empire. Ah yes, Westar and its political scholars! Carrying on the tradition of Crossan? 🙂 The point was that the Markan community found meaning in Jesus’ death because it enabled its members, many of whom were also dying or witnessing crucifixions of their community around the time of 70 CE, to identify with the innocent sufferer who would be vindicated. By making Jesus special and exalted this identity is broken. Perhaps. I would need to read his book. I’m thinking of Paul both identifying with the sufferings of the Jesus he himself exalted.
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