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Friday, July 22, 2005

Fact and fiction

There is more discussion related to the Jesus Seminar and Mark7 and we are promised more from Loren Rosson. Some of the further comments made by the ever provocative Michael Turton on literary composition and historicity reminded me of one tendency in scholarship to see careful use of literary structure and motifs as evidence of historical invention. As an aside on all this current favourite blogging topic, this is something that is problematic for me. All non-fictional narrative, ancient and modern, is inevitably cast in some kind of literary form. Hayden White, for all his faults, got this point dead right. Some may be more aesthetically pleasing than others but it is impossible to avoid. Yet this does not mean that when historians write they are failing entirely to represent the past. No matter what narrative style we find in E.P. Thomson, The Making of the English Working Class, and even if it does construct and impose a model on the past, it still remains true to say that there was still (to paraphrase Thompson) a deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, that this poor law or that poor law was passed, there were no disputes between this person and that person and so on. No one, including Hayden White, is denying that events happen: it’s what you then do with them. The most literary of modern day historians like Simon Schama accept this. Schama’s Landscape and Memory self consciously arranges his narrative into a very definite thematic structure (water, forest, rock etc.) and has been widely praised for its great literary merits but this does not mean that the people he discusses didn’t write, act, say, the things he attributes to them. Schama stands in a long tradition of literary historians of the modern era, stretching back through Churchill, Trevelyan, and some the 19th century English narrative historians, none of whom ever thought that their self conscious literary style was compromising historical facts. So(say) Mark did use bread and food symbolically this does not mean he could not have got this from earlier tradition or a historical event only to mould them into his own distinctive style. After all, disputes such as Mark 2.23-28 and Mark 7.1-5 are the kind of disputes that are both reflected across the synoptic tradition and in Palestinian Jewish thought contemporary with Jesus. This is why I’m sceptical about the strength of the argument that literary composition can decide whether something happened or not. But don’t get me wrong, the gospel writers were perfectly capable of inventing things from scratch as are modern historians (even Schama deliberately invents characters in one book!) and literary devices can help us to some degree understand the ideological motivations of a given author.

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