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Was Rudolf Bultmann's impact on biblical studies generally positive or generally negative?

Friday, October 26, 2012

In Defense of Revisionist History - Le Donne

There are many, many of us who think that the Gospels are best understood as historical fictions. I am less comfortable with this genre designation than others because this category projects too much baggage onto ancient texts. I am more comfortable calling the Gospels “ancient biographies”. Please note that ancient biographies act a whole lot like what we would now call “historical fictions”. And if you think that your favorite Bible professor or pastor has a different view, ask him and her about the genre of John’s Gospel.

Unlike many of my colleagues, I think that every word in the Gospels reflects historical memory (except καί; all of those conjunctions were added by the Judaizers). I think that bracketing out the “fictive” portions of the Gospels is a deletion of valuable historical information. Even if we were to label the Gospels “revisionist history” from Matthew 1 to John 21, we would still have four extremely valuable narratives that guide us toward a reconstruction of the historical Jesus. Revisionist histories provide us with extremely valuable historical data. I would point you to Dale Allison’s comments on the temptation narratives in this book.

For example, let’s look at an example from contemporary American presidential politics. In 2011, Mitt Romney spoke openly about Obama’s “timetable for withdrawal” of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Romney called this Obama’s biggest blunder in office: "In Afghanistan, the surge was right, announcing a withdrawal date was wrong. The Taliban may not have watches, but they do have calendars." No less than a year later, Romney adopted this very policy, claiming to withdraw troops in 2014.

Now, without a doubt, the dissemination of this kind of information is always rife with agenda. I have my agenda, George Will does, Rachel Maddow does. We all contextualize, select, omit, spin (well, all of us except Bill O’Reilly). Placing a quotation within any narrative is an act of “revision”. But, and this is crucial to my argument, bracketing out the Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow versions of the story is counterproductive to the historian’s task.

One might say: “Romney flopped again!” Another might say: “Romney, as educated people often do, changed his mind upon further consideration”. Still others might say, “I’m not familiar precisely with exactly what I said, but I stand by what I said whatever it was.” What the responsible historian does is to assess all of the information available and postulate the most plausible relationship that explains it. It would be folly to begin by attempting to decide which Romney is the “fictive” Romney, because every version of Romney is a fiction.

One could point to similar contradictions in the stories told about Obama. My version of the story is that Obama and Bush are almost identical when it comes to both tax cuts and unilateral strikes against Islamic states. This Obama is remarkably different from the Obama who campaigned for office in 2008. I am fully aware that I’m offering a revisionist history of Obama. But is my narrative any less valuable than David Axelrod’s narrative?

Every historical memory that is narrativized contributes to revisionist history. So to say that the Gospels are revisionist does not diminish their value for historical construction. This claim is just further proof that these narratives were driven by the vehicles of human memory.

Now, I know all too well what the next jab will be from my biblicist friends. “But if the Holy Spirit was involved, the corruptions of human memory do not apply!” Fine, have it your way. But isn’t the inclusion of 1 and 2 Chronicles an indication that revisionist histories have a place in the inspired Word of God? Is not Luke explicitly stating that he is revising in his prologue?

Not only would I say “yes”, I would argue that all histories are revisionist.

Part II is here.

17 comments:

  1. At first I liked the way "historical fiction" sounded. It seems to speak to the gospels as a finished product but does it really help us as an analogy as to the process? When I think of the writer of historical fiction I think of someone who fills in the gaps, knowing full well that she is not simply writing what was remembered but providing plausible ways of understanding the story more fully. While it is possible a gospel writer could do this, wouldn't you agree that the gospel writers probably wrote what was remembered?

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    1. Dear Unknown,

      Yes, I think this is another reason not to like the designation "historical fiction". ...please understand, however, that "what was remembered" is not a trump card in my vocabulary. As I have written several times in several places "all memory is memory refraction".

      -anthony

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    2. Thanks Anthony. By the way, I don't really intend to post anonymously, I just need to figure out how to do otherwise! I just purchased your book, Historical Jesus, and am finding it enormously helpful.

      I didn't really mean to imply that "what was remembered" is the same as what happened. I found your point about memory refraction very helpful in my own journey to understand how the story of Jesus has come to us.

      Bob Hartley

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  2. We might agree that the different versions of Mitt Romney we see in the media, are all semi-historical. But what about Bart Simpson?

    If confronted by a three year old who violently asserts that Bart Simpson is real, should we concede that surely all historical stories are to a degree revisionist, but in that sense Bart Simpson is historical?

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    1. The Simpsons is not historical fiction, nor is it revisionist history... and If there are three-year-olds who have opinions about historiography, I should really spend more time with three-year-olds.

      -anthony

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    2. My point would be: aren't we making a mere assumption, or an appearance, right up front? That indeed, this or that figure like Romney, IS historical in at least SOME way, and not completely fictional. And while this assumption seems justifiable in the case of Romney, is it equally justified in the case of Bart Simpson. Or Jesus?

      In fact Jesus could be, according to Mythicism say, ENTIRELY fictional. And not "historical" in any realistic sense whatsoever. To be sure, you could redefine "Historical" to mean say, "commonly taken to be Historical or real." Still? It would be nice to use less equivocal and ambiguous terms.

      For centuries admittedly, the "high style" of theology, has been to speak a sort of polysemic double tongue; a language that would seem to affirm one thing to one crowd, but another to another. Though this has been useful for centuries, it may be that it is just about time for at least some of us to partially realize ancient prophesies, and speak far more "plainly."

      Speaking very plainly or critically is a very hard thing for someone who wants to remain employed in religious departments, to be sure.

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  3. "all histories are revisionist"

    I'm going to leave aside the dubious genre argument and the other highly problematic assertions here for the moment (maybe I'll have some time later). But I have to take exception with the premise here.

    It is a misuse of terminology to conflate the fact that history is always reconstructive with "revisionist history". That term has a meaning which you completely obscure. Revisionist history is tendentious. It begins with a conclusion and cherry-picks evidence to support it. It is pseudo-historiography with an agenda.

    This is simply not what is going on with a 'narrativisation of historical memory' or whatever mushy postmodern circumlocution is in fashion at the moment. Yes, of course each present and each individual personality brings new perspectives and interpretaions to bear on past events, and every history is a reconstruction. These are givens that don't have anything to do with revisionism, unless you've decided that words can mean whatever you want them to, in which case you're not making an effort to communicate and I see no reason why I should then make an effort to understand you.

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    1. Thank you CJ,

      You are quite right that I am attempting to rehabilitate the phrase "revisionist history" here and have a particular rhetorical agenda in doing so.

      It just so happens that the categories that we've inherited from the previous "fashion" in historiography obscure the nature of memory and history (and perception for that matter). In an attempt to correct outmoded definitions of history and memory, I have decided to bend a few others categories.

      Language is fluid, so why not swim?

      -anthony

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  4. Language is fluid, but a better analogy might be a firehose. It takes more than one firefighter to direct the flow.

    Why not "reconstructive" or even "interpretive"?

    Attempting to co-opt "revisionist" leaves a whole category of tendentious pseudo-historical propaganda without a clear category, which can only muddy the waters and make it easier for it to hide (yet another water analogy).

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    1. Good point, CJ. But before I judge that using "revisionist" is misguided, I would like to hear what Anthony's rhetorical agenda is. Re-appropriating terms can be done, and sometimes should be done, but the only examples I can think of are minority and political labels. I can't imagine why a historian would want to rehabilitate "revisionist."

      I do find it very inappropriate for a professor communicating difficult ideas to revel in the fact that language is fluid.

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  5. I think a helpful (though not wholly adequate) contemporary genre analogy to the gospels would be historical film. The film makers/script writers combine several motifs of history, worldview, and artistic craft into the final product - often unconsciously.

    The designation "historical fiction" is too loaded, as fiction creates too much confusion. But if fiction is used more broadly as "literary craft" then perhaps it is a helpful word. Words like "agenda" and are also loaded, since we normally take agendas to be distorting rather than illuminating. I prefer "selectivity" or "narration," as these are more neutral.

    Anyway, regardless of our attempts to find a contemporary genre analogy, I still think the most fitting is ancient biography or historiography. The problem is, most people today do not know how different that is from modern conceptions of history.

    Thomas

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  6. LeDonne: ” What the responsible historian does is to assess all of the information available and postulate the most plausible relationship that explains it."

    When we use the term "revisionist history," at least when we use it in its negative sense, don't we mean that the reviser is not assessing all of the information available and postulating the most plausible relationship that explains it?

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  7. Anthony, I wonder if you'd weigh on the nomenclature issues here, which I increasingly see as problematic with regard to effective communication on these issues. Even as the responses here indicate, there is simply grand misunderstanding in precisely what you mean. Phrases like "revisionist history," "historical fiction," "memory refraction," "memory distortion," and even "ancient biography" simply mean one thing to one group and quite another to another group. To a certain extent, there will always be a jargon issue between people who have done advanced studies and people who have not. But I can't begin to count the number of hours you and I and some of our good colleagues spent trying to explain this over the past two years. Sometimes it's the case that we're saying precisely what they think we are. Other times we're not. And on some occasions, I've been surprised to see people think we're saying something that's the polar opposite of what we're actually saying. I sense often that the non-jargon meaning of these phrases is simply too strong to permit a more nuanced understanding. But for those of us who feel a responsibility to communicate our research to ecclesial contexts or simply a more popular audience, this is a problem we must address. Do you personally see any way around this, or any way forward?

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    1. As someone who has not had advanced studies in your field, I appreciate your comment and concern very much. I agree with you that it is unreasonable to expect to dialogue with a popular audience by re-purposing terms and concepts with generally understood or accepted meanings outside the field.

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  8. My own sense of it has been that it's not even a matter of simple, honest misunderstandings. Many thinkers have long claimed that there's always been a degree of deliberate "obscurantism" in religious writing. In effect the claim is often that the clerical elite always speaks a sort of deliberately obscure, double tongue; because the everyday public would find it emotionally hard to face what a more educated scholar is often seeing and saying.

    In that case, it is probably a matter of educating the public a little better. And/or risking being a little more frank and open and clear, about the academic or "criticial" perspective (polysemny intended).

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  9. I agree with the statement that bracketing out the “fictive” portions of the Gospels would be a deletion of valuable historical information. History is meant to be non bias. It lays out all the facts from every party that is involved. It would make no sense if a history teacher only taught what they thought to be important. To be able to understand it as a whole, all the parts have to be present. It's like a puzzle, if a couple pieces are missing how will you know what the whole picture looks like?

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  10. Thanks for a provocative post. I really enjoy the blog.
    Are you using the term fiction to mean fashioned or made? If so, then I see what you are saying about the Gospels, which are made from remembered facts at hand, preserving historical memory.
    I am not at all clear on how you mean to rehabilitate revisionist history. I understand two forms of revisionist history. One is Stalin airbrushing human beings out of official photos and records as easily as he erased them from the Earth. This form shouldn’t be rehabilitated. The other form is viewing a person or event differently based on new research, additional facts or scholarship. For example, the popular idea that FDR ended the Depression through Keynesian spending programs has been challenged by scholarship showing that these policies actually extended the Depression which was actually ended by World War II. This form doesn’t need rehabilitation.
    The example you give of two contemporary politicians first attacking a specific policy and then later adopting it does not seem to me to be revisionist history at all. It is simply two people changing their views and other people commenting on the change. Revisionist history of the first type would be Axelrod claiming that Obama never attacked the policy he now adopts and the media accepting that claim. The second type would need additional facts relating to why they changed and how that affects the way people view the change.
    Finally, while you can swim in language, you can also drown. When meaning becomes arbitrary in a subject area, everyone but the people who assign the meanings tends to lose interest. I am interested in the idea of memory and the Gospels, but also wary.

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