Monday, September 21, 2009

Choosing your method

Today I want to address the issue of methodology which any reader of my blog knows is on my mind frequently. I see my generation of scholars in a precarious situation in terms of method because so many have left the hard work of historical criticism to pursue the post-modern literary trends that are of interest to so many in the academy, especially those scholars who are confessional or interested in contemporary theological interests. Literary criticism can provide the means to disengage with history while still leaving the impression that what has been done is a historical investigation.

I have nothing against literary criticism. In fact, various literary methods inform my research. But as I have argued in my publications and on this blog, literary methods alone are not a replacement for historical criticism, because they do not operate by the same assumptions and they do not seek to answer the same questions. I have discovered that the best methodological approach seeks to bring three fields together : historical criticism, literary criticism, and social-scientific criticism.

But nothing can replace historical criticism, and training in it is the best thing that we can give our students whether they know that or not. Without it, we run the risk of falling into the erotics of the text itself or apologetics, and confusing history with story (or worse theology) and de/re-contextualizing its conversation. So you have to choose. There isn't a middle ground. You can't research and write from a semi-historical method. There is no such thing. If you do this, you are allowing your confessional stance to influence your history. It is like being pregnant. Either you are or you aren't. Either you are a historian operating by the critical perspective, or you are not.

These are the 10 'commandments' or 'operating principles' for the historical-critical interpretation of ancient texts which inform my research:

1. There is no such thing as a neutral text. There is always power and persuasion involved.

2. The author always has a viewpoint and that viewpoint is always engaging another viewpoint (hidden or open) whether to polemicize against it or to develop it or to interpret it or to pass it on.

3. When the text is read against the grain (not for its intended purpose of persuasion to its own viewpoint and its own 'history'), the social dynamics of the text become visible and voices that are hidden by the author begin to emerge. It is the job of the historian to not only concentrate on recovering the dominant voice(s) in the text, but the submerged and oft-silenced voices too.

4. The text is not reporting history, it is reporting theology and it is using story to do so. This makes recovering history extremely difficult because all is not as it seems. We need to ask questions such as why is the author reporting his history and his theology this way? What other histories and theologies does the author know about? What traditions has the author received? How has the author shaped those traditions? Why has he shaped them in the manner that he has? Who has something to gain by this view of history and theology? Who has something to lose by this view of history and theology? What are the author's assumptions and how do these impact the author's narrative? How is the author's narrative related to other narratives? How is the author's narrative related to history? Etc.

5. There is always something before, during and after the text. The traditions it yields are part of a dynamic ideological, social, and religious network with strong geographical semblance. This geographical semblance developed along the roads, trade routes, sea routes, that connected the major cities and the various intellectual schools in those cities.

6. There is rarely (perhaps never) an either-or solution to our texts. We must not expect things to fit nicely in two boxes. The real historical situation is complex and complicated, and any solution we develop must be willing to pull things out of the boxes and allow them to get messy.

7. There is no such thing as 'background' to a text or a tradition. The text or tradition is fully immersed and fully engaged in the dynamics of ancient culture written and performed and transmitted from the minds of ancient people. The author isn't grabbing this idea from here and that idea from there, and so forth, and accurately representing them. The author is a person of his time and culture in which he is immersed in the richness and dynamics of his world where things are not laid out in neat columns, but are mixed up, and often confused. He may know bits and pieces of things due to his cultural exposure, but those bits and pieces may or may not be accurate representations of the ideas. Most often they have been arranged into some kind of pattern that makes sense to the author, but doesn't necessarily represent the bits and pieces accurately. For instance, if he were living in Alexandria, he likely is exposed to Hermetism. But this doesn't mean that what he knows about Hermetism is actually what the Hermetics were practicing in their lodge meetings. And his mixed up versions of things may become foundational for later people.

8. To understand the texts historically, it is necessary to figure out the ancient mindset the best we can, mapping its assumptions and expectations, and allow those to inform our reading of the text. This can only be garnered through a cautious cross-cultural study of the ancient peoples who lived around the Mediterranean, reading from medical literature, studying archaeological remains, shifting through documentary evidence, engaging the whole range.

9. There is nothing new under the sun. The perspectives transmitted in these texts are part of a social memory dynamic that constantly shuffles received traditions to align them with the present experiences of the individuals and groups.

10. The historian must remain skeptical of what the author of the text claims to be true or false.

18 comments:

Jared said...

I have I think two responses:

1. You can be an acute literary scholar without confessional stances--look at Classics or the study of Shakespeare, for example. While people may hijack literary methods for confessional purposes, they do the same thing with any other method. Whether one approaches the text with literary tools or historical tools, they can do this rigorously. They are different questions, but one method is not better than the other. They are simply interested in different things. I do not think the dividing line is between historians and those doing confessional work. I think the dividing line is those who take a rigorous methodology--whether it be a historical one, a literary one, an anthropological one, etc.--and those who use those methodologies for theological purposes.

2. I don't think one can be a good historian without a sound grounding in literary criticism--that's how you find the grain your reading against to begin with, and literary critics are as good as anyone at reading against the grain. I do not think one can be a good literary critic without a sound grounding in historical method. Even if you are just speaking to literary technique and qualities, etc., contextual interrelationships should always be in one's mind. One's publications may not employ the other method fully, but one's perspective should be shaped by the other. The best approach, in my opinion, is the eclectic one. This is probably why I like "new historicism" so much.

James F. McGrath said...

Hi April! I've enjoyed your posts on this subject, but it seems to me that #4 is too sweeping as it is currently worded: "The text is not reporting history, it is reporting theology and it is using story to do so." Would it not be fairer to say that any given text may not be reporting history, and even when doing so, it may be interpreting and even rewriting history in pursuit of a theological point? To suggest we can assume that there is never anything we could call "history" reported in texts would seem to eliminate the possibility of historical-critical reconstruction of history using ancient texts!

April DeConick said...

Jared,

RE: #1. Yes, confessional scholarship can (and does) 'hijack' other methods too.

RE: #2. Agreed. I wrote in my post: "I have nothing against literary criticism. In fact, various literary methods inform my research. But as I have argued in my publications and on this blog, literary methods alone are not a replacement for historical criticism, because they do not operate by the same assumptions and they do not seek to answer the same questions. I have discovered that the best methodological approach seeks to bring three fields together : historical criticism, literary criticism, and social-scientific criticism."

April DeConick said...

James,

Thanks for your response. And I know the point you are making. But I maintain my sentence for just this purpose. Our texts are not reporting history. They are reporting refracted memories at best that needs to be carefully sorted out. So we might be able to reconstruct history from the text and its interpreted memories (or we might not). But this is a process of reconstruction. That is what our job as rigorous historians is all about.

Pastor Bob said...

This may surprise all and sundry but I agree with most of what April has said. In fact I would suggest that for a preacher or a theologian this work must be done before writing a sermon or a theological tome. If the preacher or the theologian does not do this hard work how can she be sure that she knows (to the extent possible) what the final editor of the text means to say? And if she does not know what that final editor means how can she then interpret that passage in a modern context?

Geoff Hudson said...

There is a glaring difference between how you say history should be interpreted, and how the writings attributed to Josephus are interpreted. For example, a recent book, Rome and Jerusalem by Martin Goodman interprets and quotes the writings literally. Barbara Levick with her book Vespasian does the same. Barbara Levick, for example admits to "a particularly thick overlay of propaganda that obscures the truth about the Jewish War, the year of the Four Emperors, and the entire reign" (of Vespasian). Then she goes her own sweet way with her literalistic interpretations, citing other literalistic authors, repeating their sins. Goodman does the same, and to some extent Eisenman does the something similar. When is it going to be realised that winners get to write history?

Jared said...

Yes, I realized you had said that by the time I published the post. I would just additionally say that just as literary methods do not replace historical methods, neither is historical criticism a replacement for attending to the literary characteristics of the text, etc. At the same time, the the histories of the development of these methodologies are highly intertwined. Historical criticism has much of its genesis in literary criticism, literary criticism is always looking over at what anthropology is doing and vice versa. And every so often they find inspiration in the sciences!

Christopher said...

April,

It is good to see these points plotted out with greater clarity. Your previous two posts seemed to oversimplify and create a bit of a false dilemma (either confessional OR critical--there are more options after all). However, I still think you are undervaluing the value literary studies can have for historical research. Above all, it seems to me that literary studies can teach us more about the nature of the texts we have and can limit some of the positivism that pervades historical Jesus research. I do, however, agree with much that you say in this post.

Chris Skinner

David Hillman said...

Very interesting, and a lot to think about. Bit how concretely do you read against the grain? Do you have to find bits and pieces that were originally used for another purpose, or try to see where the author protests too much, or what? I always read the books of Samuel and Kings against the grain, but is that me, because of a different morality, or are the alternate

J. K. Gayle said...

There's some irony here. As Susanne Scholz suggests,

"The pressure to promote and protect the dominance of historical criticism is strong today because, for the most part, Western biblical scholars do not see the need to engage systematically theological, political, and international issues of our day. This detachment often [and here's the irony] serves conservative theological and cultural-religious purposes, and so, unsurprisingly, the field of biblical studies is largely dominated by a conservative agenda--religious, political, and academic."

--"'Tandoori Reindeer' and the Limitations of Historical Criticism", Her Master's Tools?: Feminist And Postcolonial Engagements of Historical-Critical Discourse, pp 47-70, Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature (June 30, 2005).

jprapp said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David said...

The most important question is: how far is one willing to go in one's research?

If there are questions you will not ask because they make you uncomfortable or you fear they might challenge your assumptions, then is not the integrity of your research somewhat compromised? If you are unwilling or unable to follow the evidence wherever it leads, how can your answers be trusted?

IMHO, April is right on with her list in this post. When I studied Critical Theory in grad school, I was impressed with the idea that all written and oral communications have a point, have a winner and a loser (from the perspective of power) if an idea is accepted. There are no innocent communications. Not even with the Bible.

Geoff Hudson said...

The one thing I am convinced about is that things were much more deliberate, much more contrived, than ever we could imagine.

jprapp said...

Geoff (2009 6:14 AM) - “... [ancient] things were much more deliberate, much more contrived ...”

So are we standing on their shoulders or shouldering their understanding?

I wonder why so much theological criticism mimics post-modern re-inventions of Xeno's Paradox with arrows of meaning flying toward targets of intended audiences and never arriving because of failures of meaning to traverse half the remaining distance. Since it all makes perfect apodictic sense. Okay, credit that one theologically inclined showed that a certain infinite series “more deliberate, much more contrived” converges to finite limits.

Mirabile dictu.

Cheers,

Jim

Geoff Hudson said...

Jim, I don't understand what you are saying.

jprapp said...

Geoff, sorry about that. Half-baked metaphor and sloppy writing on my part. You made a good comment about ancient history and its records as more deliberate and contrived than we might think. In some ways, we stand upon the shoulders of the ancients (Archimedes, Euclid, bunch of others) by building progressively on their knowledge through science, and in other ways, anti-science attitudes today would have us shoulder and live under ancient confusions (your language about “contrived”) by re-inventing many of the ancient paradoxes. Nothing fancy.

Cheers,

Jim

Geoff Hudson said...

"I see my generation of scholars in a precarious situation in terms of method because so many have left the hard work of historical criticism to pursue the post-modern literary trends that are of interest to so many in the academy, especially those scholars who are confessional or interested in contemporary theological interests. Literary criticism can provide the means to disengage with history while still leaving the impression that what has been done is a historical investigation."

Er, well yes. But never mind about post-modern literary trends. The typical academic approach is that of Mark Goodacre. http://ntweblog.blogspot.com/2009/09/thomas-and-q-again.html His recent blogs about Q, Thomas, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John go around in ever decreaing circles. So what makes him think that he could ever discover the origins of the earliest 'christianity' by considering documents that were created after it was conceived? Why torture himself with such bizzare methods? How does he hope to get at the history, unless he considers the lead-up to it, what happened before? He and others have their heads in the sand.

Leon said...

Among the many inaccuracies here, #4 is quite wrong and quite a big assumption. To say that the text is reporting theology is scholarly theology. This is the scholarly way for scholars to impose their own voice on the texts and erase any possibility of discovering history. This is not historical-critical method. This is theology in the service of suppressing evidentiary questions. It is quite a tragedy that scholars get to do this and call themselves historians.

Leon Zitzer