Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Convergence and Historical Hermeneutics

As I work on writing my paper for the Codex Judas Conference, I have been thinking about astrology and the idea of sympathy or correspondence, the old saying "as in heaven, so on earth". This has led me to further thoughts about the job of the historian interpreting these ancient documents. Is locating anything close to "authorial intent" possible? Because texts are what readers say they are, does that mean that the historical inquiry is without merit? Since texts are multivalent in terms of their interpretation, is there a point to historical methods?

Certainly this is not a new discussion to this blog. But what is new to me is something that is sort of in my peripheriel vision, not quite focused clearly. It has something to do with convergences or correspondences. Although a text can be multivalent in its interpretation, not all interpretations are historical, nor are all historical interpretations equally convincing. Why is this (here I am speaking of the latter observation)? Because some historical interpretations have a more convincing frame, have more elements that converge with what we know from other literature (and material remains).

What should govern our historical inquiry so that the convergences or correspondences with other information is the fullest it can be? I can think of several things. First, the frame that I want to use when I am discussing any given text is traditional. That is, I want to make sure that the text I'm discussing is being discussed against the frame of its tradition(s). If the text is Valentinian, then I want to talk about it within the pool of Valentinian literature and information that we have access to, and I want to do it against texts that are regionally and chronologically similar (if at all possible). So besides framing it traditionally, I also want to frame it geographically and chronologically.

The other frame I try on is an oppositional one. Are there texts which are competing with the ideology, the sociology, the narrative of the one I'm studying (again, always with regionality and chronology in mind)? What can be known from this comparison?

The final frame I try on is turning to material external to the particular tradition (i.e, not Valentinian) to see if the discussion in my text is being developed or discussed in other places? What can be gained from this frame? is a question I then pursue.

I find this way of working to be very valuable and honest, because it transcends in many ways the interpretative cavern that post-modernity has left us with. But this is hard work, and it requires historians to become more careful and sensitive exegetes. It means that we have to try to work from inside the texts and traditions we have, rather than imposing on them our own wishes for their meaning.


Richard said...

I agree 100% with your approach to analysis and understanding of historical texts. said...

The hermenuetic breaks down when faced with Flavian historians - those who influenced the writings attributed to Josephus, and probably the New Testament also. I have quoted Brian W. Jones before: "Once again, the Flavian historians on whom Seutonius relied strained the truth to and beyond its its limits.." Seutonius Vespasian, page 35. said...

And here's quote from a literalist historian Barbara Levick: "but there is a particularly thick overlay of propaganda that obscures the truth about the Jewish War, the Year of the Four Emperors, and the entire reign. Contemporary information concerning the War and the Flavian coup comes from Josephus, a disingenuous source close to the Emperor, while the loss of most of Tacitus' histories has left literary material meagre and conformist." Vespasian, Page 3.

I laugh, because she failed to state what she considered untruthful or disingenuous about the Vespasian's reported history - an untruthful history that that she stated applied to "the entire reign". said...

If Barbara Levick would have relied on Tacitus' histories, then she might have changed her mind on reading Martin Goodman's comment in his book Rome & Jerusalem, page 430 where Goodman writes about Tacitus: "He is not, as he confesses, an unbiased witness." Goodman follows-up with Tacitus's obsequious words: 'I had no acquaintance with Galba, Otho, or Vitellius, through either kindness or injury at their hands. But I cannot deny that my political career owed its beginning to Vespasian; that Titus advanced it; and that Domitian carried it further." Thus Tacitus himself is a biased Flavian witness.

Goodman's favourite 'Get Out of Jail' card, repeated umpteen times, is the phrase 'according to', that is according to Josephus or Tacitus. Having described Tacitus as a biased witness on page 430, Goodman then literalistically quotes Tacitus on page 535 in connection with Nero. Now one would hardly expect a favourable comment about the displaced Nero from a biased Flavian historian. The eternal literalist Goodman wrote: "Thus the first great persecution of Christians broke out in Rome in 64 after a fire had devastated Rome. Despite the expenditure of vast sums of for rebuilding and improving security in the future, and a series of religious ceremonies to appease the gods, Nero found himself still unpopular, with rumours that the fire had been started deliberately. According to (Goodman's standard get-out)Tacitus, writing half a century later (would you believe): 'to suppress this rumour, Nero fabricated scapegoats - and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians, as they were popularly called. ... Their deaths were made farcical. Dressed in wild animal skins, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or crucified, or made into torches to be ignited after dark as substitutes for daylight. Nero provided his gardens for the spectacle, and exhibited a display in the circus, mingling with the crowd - or standing in a chariot dressed as a charioteer.' So this is just the kind of slush that one had from a biased Flavian historian such as Tacitus. Much more likely is that this was a cover story for ruthless persecution of particular Jews by the Flavians themselves. For example, what happened to those several hundred prisoners led in Vespasians so-called triumph?

What then happens to your hermenuetic when the subjects of your history control what their historians write. Tacitus, Suetonius and the the editors of the writings attributed to Josephus were all under Flavian control.