Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Romancing the Gospels

Reality, that is to say the way things are "out there all around us," is not directly apprehended by the mind.  Things "out there" are communicated to the mind indirectly through the senses (seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling).  The mind processes what information the senses provide and deduces the situation "out there" from the received data. Thus, the reality that each individual perceives "out there" in society and nature is unique to the individual.

Narratives also reflect "narrative realism," which is the reality effect authors produce for the reader, whether they intend it or not.  At least five kinds of narrative realism have been used in Western literature; they are: fantasy realism, mythical realism, romantic realism, fictional realism, and historical realism.

Romantic realism describes the activities of superhuman beings in a supernatural world.  It portrays characters like us, only much better than we are in every way, in a space similar to ours, in a time of marvels.  [Hedrick, "Realism in Western Narrative," JBL 126.2 (2007): 352-53]

Romantic realism portrays a world in which the ordinary rules of nature are suspended and the extraordinary regularly occurs.  The early Christian gospels portray a narrative realism that is akin to the King Arthur legends and Harry Potter tales, and hence fit better into the category of romantic realism than into the category of historical realism.  Historical realism portrays what has actually happened in common space and time, as it can be reconstructed on the basis of empirical evidence.  The subject of history is real people and actual events portrayed in terms of natural cause and effect.

That the early Christian gospels correspond to a realism best described as romantic implies that their realism is due to how the evangelists perceived reality or chose to portray it, which is the case with any author.  The circumstances of Jesus' career, however, are not necessarily identical with the evangelists' perceptions of it.  For example, Mark, Matthew, and Luke portray Jesus performing exorcisms, but John does not perceive Jesus as an exorcist, and has no exorcisms.  It is true that historical narrative is whatever we say it is, but that statement is actually a caveat, a warning to historians that they should not be overly confident in their reconstruction of history, since it is only a reconstruction, whether others agree with it even it in part.

The early Christian gospels are not "history" in the sense of what was actually lived; they are only particular reconstructions of history.  History itself is the aggregate of the lived past; that is to say, history is comprised of all the billions of things that have ever happened in the past, significant and insignificant, public and private, natural and arranged, remembered and forgotten, personal and impersonal, seemly and unseemly, etc.  Narratives about the lived past (or selected aspects of it), on the other hand, are attempts at reconstructing the lived past—never in its aggregate totality but in what the historian considers the more significant moments of aspects of it.  Hence history is different from historical narrative.  The reality that was the moment as it was actually lived can never be recaptured, but its scattered bones (individual artifacts and memories) can be gathered, catalogued, and analyzed.  From these vestiges of the past the historian aims to revive a given "lived moment" by making connections between the bits of data and imagining how things might have played themselves out given the data at the historian's disposal.  Thus the historian attempts to codify the lived past into a reconstructed historical narrative.  But a reconstructed historical narrative is no more "history" than a corpse is a human being.

            Thinking of history as lived past and historical narrative as later reconstruction may actually free us from the idea that Jesus' "lived past" is what the evangelists said it was.  The widely differing reconstructions of Jesus by modern scholars graphically illustrate the shortcomings of the early Christian gospels as historical sources.  It is not simply a case of one is right and the others wrong; but that the sources themselves are simply flawed and cannot be trusted. [From the epilogue: Hedrick, The Wisdom of Jesus, Cascade Books, forthcoming].

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

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