Category Archives: Early Christian Rhetoric

Pre-Turkey

I’m sitting in my office, staring at my unfinished article on Origen and Augustine. It’s made great strides, many in the last hour, but there’s still a lot to do and that can be simultaneously inspiring and depressing. So much of my writing takes place in very short intense bursts after long periods of thought – I just finished one of those, and now I feel slightly cheered, but also mentally drained. I have enough in me to reread an old dissertation for ideas, then I think it’s time for the break.

Thinking

I have two writing projects set for the fall. I have sketched both of them out in some detail.

The first is my longstanding paper on Origen and Augustine, which feels like the most scholarly idea I’ve had. I may not finish it by Xmas. If, so that’s ok; I want to do this one right and if that means the spring, then so be it.

The second is an old idea whose time has finally come: termination letters. This piece has been delayed more times than I could count. It was my master’s thesis in 2005 – yes, that old. I don’t have the patience to do a survey of usage again, so I’m going to do an ethics piece. I figure that cuts to the quick anyway – the exact form of the letter or frequency sent, which would be revealed by a survey, doesn’t answer the questions I’m interested in – namely, whether they should be sent, and what form they should take if yes.

The author of Mark

Doing some badly needed reading today, and I thought of an old question of mine: How did the author of the Gospel of Mark introduce the text to an audience?

There’s always been the assumption that it was done anonymously, but I’ve never read an explanation of precisely how that was done. Did he drop the scroll off at an early church like a baby in a basket and run for the hills? That seems a rather undependable delivery method, especially if there was only one copy.

Did he introduce himself as a former disciple or biographer of Peter, as the legend goes, and distribute copies from church to church? Seems unlikely, especially given my ongoing thesis that the author of Mark disliked Peter, the original disciples, and the Jerusalem church.

The only likely explanation I can think of is that the author of Mark was a disillusioned Christian preacher far from Jerusalem and that he wrote the text for his own use in church, mixing prophecy, myth, extent Jesus stories, and rhetoric in way that was particularly useful for him after the siege of Jerusalem. People hearing it read obtained copies to start their own churches, or to introduce the text to other churches (either when they relocated, or on their own initiative). He could claim any origin for it, but only if he wrote it post-70, when he knew all the principals were dead or far away enough to not easily contradict his tale. The other gospels sprang up out of a recognition of the persuasive opportunities provided by the new genre and dissatisfaction with some of its initial content.

Another thought I’ve had over the last few years is that the author of Mark is young, perhaps early twenties at most. I see a lot of writing patterns in the text that remind me of college writers that are smart, even brilliant – and on the verge of developing their own style – but are still held back by recurring usage problems and lack of planning.

The Limits of Apologetic Conspiracy and Required Hang Time on Gospel Dating

My mentor and I have been reading some recent literature making the case that the NT gospels should be dated fairly late – say, post-100 CE, as far out as 120 or 130, rather than the usual 65-100 CE range. I’m actually open to this idea, despite the fact that I have a book manuscript in review that assumes the usual range. I’m not convinced yet, though, and I thought I’d work out here what my two main objections are to late dating, especially for Mark, because the last time I had a conversation about this, I was not as articulate about it as I would have liked.

My first objection is something I’ve been calling ‘the limits of apologetic conspiracy.’ Namely, if the late-date folks are right, then most if not all of the early proto-orthodox apologists would have had to have known the gospels were recent because they were only one generation removed from their writing. So they either all do a fantastic job of hiding this knowledge, which I find unlikely, or, more likely, they were at least two or three generations removed from the gospels’ first appearance, in which case the origins of the text would have been beyond their grasp.

Working through the dates makes this clearer.

Justin Martyr, who has the first unequivocal quotes from the synoptic gospels in his work (1st Apology and Dialogue with Typho), lived roughly 103-165. The works in question are late in his life – 150-160, when he would have been late 40s-early 50s. As such, when he writes of the ‘memoirs of the apostles’ – almost certainly a harmony of the synoptics – we have to consider whether the text suggests a Mark-like gospel appeared first during his life, or earlier, especially since some time needed to pass for the need for a harmony to appear and be met.

As far as I know, there is nothing in his work that indicates the material he is referring to was new during his lifetime. He refers to them in the past tense, as written by the apostles themselves and their followers. Unless he thinks the apostles are still alive (unlikely) they would necessarily have to predate his own existence. And he references gospel material with similar authority to OT scripture. So either he’s participating in a huge textual conspiracy by knowingly concealing the fact this gospel appeared out of nowhere when he was alive, or he’s doing what he appears to be doing – quoting from a harmony that’s been around awhile, and would have had to have been constructed from at least three previous texts.

You can probably see where I’m going from this. Apply the same argument to Polycarp, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, all 2nd century Christian authors known. Do they treat their textual mentions as ones that appeared in their lifetime, or something that predates their own existence? It even works for Ignatius. If you find none, then you’re left with arguing they were all part of a big apostolic cover-up despite their theological differences.

My second argument is something I call ‘required hang time.’ Namely, we can’t expect the gospels to have caught on immediately, especially if we’re going to hang on to the usual source-critical theories. So after Mark is written there must be some time for it to circulate and gain influence, enough influence to prompt a response(s) (Matthew, Luke, John), with indeterminate hang times between each, even if composed near-simultaneously as I sometimes think Q advocates want Matthew and Luke to have been written. And then there’s even more hang time after three or four are in good circulation, before harmonies can appear.

To put it bluntly, I don’t see all of this happening in Justin Martyr’s lifetime. He converted around 130, making him in his late twenties. I assume he knew how to count by then.  So I can safely assume the gospel harmony he’s citing has been in previous use for at least a generation before him. Assuming it is the first harmony (which I again seriously doubt), one generation back lands us at 110, and that’s about right if we assume the usual 65-100 range for all four gospels.

I’ll note this is also consistent with Ignatius’ almost-quoting of gospel bits around 110-115, assuming you think those seven letters aren’t pseudepigraphical. They’re being read in church, but the authority isn’t quite there yet.

Wise Men Still Seek Him

Saw this on a church sign this morning; it’s yet another ambiguous entry due to compression. Does it mean:

a) Contemporary wise men through history, like the ‘wise men’ of Matthew 2:1 (in Greek, the ‘majoi,’ some sort of magicians or astrologers from the east, perhaps Zoroastrians), seek Jesus just like the magi did, though in a more spiritual than physical sense;
b) Similar as a), but physically – wise men are literally hunting in modern-day Israel and the West Bank for Jesus like the magi did;
c) Similar to a) or b), but only contemporary wise men, not throughout history;
d) A criticism of contemporary ‘wise men’ – they’re STILL seeking him? Give up already, dudes;
e) ‘Him’ lacks an antecedent and may be anyone, perhaps even a concept like a masculine Wisdom.
f) Only ‘wise’ men still seek him; the rest, apparently of mere average or lower intelligence, do not;
g) Wise women don’t or can’t seek him, unlike men.

Post-Turkey

I ate no less than three Thanksgiving dinners over the last week. Yummy. And, as an added bonus, Mississippi State beat that school up north. So most everything is right in the world.

I worked pretty heavily on my book revision this morning and got through an entire chapter, doing the kind of citation-crazy work that I did during my dissertation. It felt good, like a bout of strong exercise. I haven’t really felt ‘scholarly’ in awhile, and I think the feeling carried over into my two classes today, when I did something I rarely do – talk for almost the entire period.

If you haven’t even wandered onto Vridar’s site from the links to the left, you should. I don’t know where he gets the time to write up all his NT analysis, but I’ve caught myself while writing more than once, wishing that I could cite him from some peer-reviewed pub.  He does better textual criticism than the majority of the peer-reviewed secondary stuff that I sift through, and I end up having to cite something else less perceptive.  His ongoing epistemological duel with James McGrath is even interesting, though I’d keep your distance unless you’re into the online scholarly version of blood sport. I suppose I mention this because the links on the left are very out of date and reflect more what I was reading a year and a half ago than what I read now, but I still check that blog regularly. It’s time, perhaps, to clean house?

Oh, yes. WikiLeaks. That H and I are finishing off the audio version of the Millennium Trilogy , with one of its protagonists being a corruption-fighting journalist, is probably contributing to my glee. I find it really interesting that there is so little interesting in the cables. It is not surprising to me that so many diplomatic decisions are made based on little or no evidence, and rather on first impressions and fleeting, incomplete observations – the diplomats work with little more information that I have about, say, North Korea –  or that no one trusts anyone else, with the possible exception of Britain and the U.S. I don’t see much fodder for a real scandal, yet, though a clever and ambitious reader that needs little sleep may find one in the next two weeks; most of it is only going to be useful for historians present and future.

Bowersock’s Fiction as History

Summer reading continues. I am behind on summaries so I’m not even going to pretend to catch up with the backlog, but start with the most recent. I read Bowersock’s Fiction as History: Nero to Julian this afternoon, a series of lectures given in 1991.

I know why it was recommended to me – it offers a sort of alternative interpretation of the relationship between the gospels and Greek-Roman fiction of the period. Namely, Bowersock’s thesis, which is first only hinted at before being given in earnest in the last lecture, is that the gospels (or, rather, the narrative they contain) started a literary fad of sorts during the reign of Nero. Greek novels like Chaereas and Callirhoe and similar ilk are not merely contemporaries, but reflections of the influence of the singular Christian narrative, which represents something unique, coming out of a Jewish narrative tradition that is intellectual and has a scripture, rather than ritualistic like the pagan polytheism absent of scripture that marks Hellenistic and imperial religion. By the second century there has been enough cross-pollenation that Celsus recognizes the gospels for what they are – the same sort of fanciful tales he’s seen elsewhere.

I have some problems with this picture. Now there is little to argue with when it comes to his emphasis on context and time period, and complex rather than simple this-was-first-and-this-was-later literary relationships. That’s all good. However, the timeline is really fuzzy, and the extent of Christian influence seems overstated.

Let me explain that, in reverse order.

It is important to realize that there weren’t that many Christians in the first century. By Nero’s reign (54 to 68 CE) I see little reason to think there are more than five to six thousand Christians in the entire West, if that, including larger populations in Jersusalem, Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch, and if Revelation and Paul’s letters are any indication, a mess of cities in Asia Minor and Syria. By 100 CE, there /might/ be twice that. They were certainly growing quickly – if Stark’s estimates are right, 40% or 50% a decade – but in 54 they were still a minor cult of the larger Jewish religion, not really even a blip on the imperial radar. Pliny the Younger, early in the second century, a young, well educated administrator, doesn’t seem to have even heard of them before the occasion of his letter, and he was ruling over a fair number of them.

Far more important, though, is that the gospels hadn’t been written yet. The consensus dating for Mark these days is 65-70. I vote 70 or 71 myself, but let’s say it’s 65 for argument’s sake. Is that enough time for a gospel intended for a Christian audience to start a sweeping literary trend, three years until 68 and Nero’s end – not to mention a gospel that got an aggressive edit and expansion with the intent of replacing it, within 10-15 years in the form of Matthew, not to also mention the next two gospels? One thing Bowersock doesn’t mention is the cult of personality surrounding Nero’s death, which is a more likely culprit for resurrection/divinity tales. Nero was the Elvis of the 1st century – there was a widespread belief for a time that he was going to return to the building/empire and ruthlessly take care of business, thank you very much.

In any case the Christian ‘gospel’ before Mark, let’s say around Nero’s rise to power in 54,  is a sketchy affair. There’s a resurrection but no empty tomb, some liturgy but only the roughest sort of theology (Paul seems to invent his on the fly from letter to letter) though it is unusually scripture-based, and some sort of passion narrative, but it’s quite short, not nearly as developed as Philoctetes’ tale, and doesn’t have all of the wonderful ironies that Mark will introduce to it later and which offer the real parallels to contemporary Greek fiction. So it surprises me that Bowersock doesn’t center his theory on Mark – perhaps because much of that territory has already been covered by Frank Kermode? Maybe he feels out of place in source criticism? Both? Don’ t know.

This leads to the dreaded SO WHAT question. What comes out of this thesis? Most of us, I think, know that Celsus had the better argument on the gospels in the second century, linking them to fiction and mythology, but Origen in the third century, regardless of the tank-sized holes in his apology, won hands down and along with the general robustness of his religion, set the stage for the domination of his basic system of interpretation for the next, oh, 1600-1700 years. For my part, I am more interested in how Origen ‘won’ and Celsus ‘lost’ in the big historical p[icture than on who was right about the nature of the gospels – I want to know why and how they were persuasive. But then again, I’m a rhetorican and we don’t care about truth, even abstractly, as a general rule (though there are notable and stubborn exceptions). Lucian and Celsus, Bowersock’s initial examples, are in good company in my relative-truth-welcome discipline. So I have to ask – if Bowersock is right, and the gospels started a literary trend, how did the gospels come to be scripture? Why aren’t churches offering readings from Chaereas and Callirhoe instead of Matthew? The answer, unfortunately, involves genre (a word Bowersock doesn’t seem to like at all), audience, and by extension, the nature of the imbedded claims. C&C offers entertainment. Matthew offers a way to rethink your grubby earthly existence and rationalize your upcoming grisly death. If you’re like Celsus, of course, they’re BOTH entertainment, but how many humans are like Celsus? Even today, there aren’t many, but there are always plenty of Origens.

What is Rhetorical Criticism, Anyway?

I get asked this question a lot, and as it pertains to some manuscript revisions I’m making, I thought I’d take a informal stab here first.

I need to revise the question a little, though, and change it to “What makes a good rhetorical critic?” or even, “What do I think, personally, makes a good rhetorical critic?” Just talking about the criticism itself as some objective, free-floating entity seems a bit of a cop-out to me – reasons forthcoming shortly.

A good rhetorical critic starts with several bedrock epistemological assumptions.  Ignore or sidestep them at your peril.

The first assumption  is that all meaning worth talking about is an artifact of human perception, and thus limited by the boundaries of our particular physiology, evolutionary processes, personal experiences, sociocultural forces, etc, etc. Meaning outside of human perception is not worth talking about because, quite  honestly – and quite ironically – we can’t talk about it in any meaningful way. We can, however, analyze our perceptions and the perceptions of others to our heart’s content.

The second assumption builds directly upon the first. If all we have is human perception to play with, and our perception is limited, flawed, and problematic as Hume astutely put it,  then the grand bulk of human communication will necessarily have to be a series of arguments about the nature of the world. We will constantly be trying to communicate our perceptions – or at least what we want others to think are our perceptions – to others, who, limited by their own perceptional filters, will try to communicate back to us, and will be forced to deal with exactly the same problem in reverse. Imagine the human race as a giant room filled with brains in vats, who can do little more than send each other a constant barrage of garbled text messages  and then argue over the contents of these messages using precisely the same medium. The simplified medium in this metaphor stands for the whole human sensory suite – sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing, vesticular system, etc. In other words, all communication, all our efforts to communicate in this perpetually confused state, is rhetorical and epistemic by nature. As such, rhetoric is a kind of applied philosophy and vice versa.

The third assumption builds on the second. The observation that all communication is rhetorical and epistemic is not terribly useful by itself.  Our order-seeking, category-hungry brains prefer simpler fare in order to avoid overload, confusion, and general insanity. And so we are drawn inexorably to classify the communication that we use and encounter by genre, by tone, by purpose, by anything, really – the taxonomic urge, the pleasure of stereotyping, is quite powerful. With this comes the realization that while all communication might be rhetorical, some of it seems really, really rhetorical, whereas other texts are far less so. This is a byproduct of our preference for simpler fare; effective rhetoric is almost always hidden in some way, for if it is noticeable, then it becomes suspicious and challenges our worldview. Remember, we don’t want to fully acknowledge the extent of how all communication is rhetorical and epistemic – it’s just not possible to live with such a fundamentally bleak assumption second-by-second. So we simplify. Naked persuasion becomes undesirable as it exposes the constantly refreshed epistemological white lie that allows us to get through a simple conversation without going nutters. The good rhetorical critic, therefore, knows that much of what seems at first to be bereft of persuasion will turn out, with close attention,  to be rhetorical, though there is no telling in many cases until some careful reading of the text in question is performed. But there is a necessary limit to this where insanity lurks and we start theorizing about the rhetoric of bowling. Good rhetorical critics lurk near the edge, but they don’t go over.

The fourth assumption might be the most important: rhetorical critics cannot escape from this strange communication system with anything like objectivity. The good rhetorical critic knows he or she is embedded and complicit in whatever medium and text that he or she chooses to study. There is no magical  scholarly impartiality; those who pursue it like the Holy Grail, interestingly enough, tend to end up the most compromised, trapped within their own methodology. This corruption is everywhere, and everyone knows about it; a good rhetorical critic, however, embraces it like an old friend, shines a light on it, and reminds everyone about it, all the while noting and admitting their own complicity. This is why talking about ‘rhetorical criticism’ absent of its agent feels a little dishonest to me; there are as many flavors of this activity as there are practitioners. The term is useful shorthand, but it has limits.

The fifth assumption is a bit more mundane than the rest; this is where “methodology” finally creeps in (you might have been wondering when it was going to make an appearance). Holding the previous assumptions, the good rhetorical critic realizes that genre and its ilk, playing off of the brain’s propensity for order in an inherently chaotic world, are the key to understanding how texts persuade. The reason for this is that it is impossible to do good rhetorical criticism without knowing what kind of text you are examining. If the initial classification is poor, then the resulting analysis is near useless. This means, fortunately or fortunately, that rhetorical criticism is an art, not a science; that initial classification is made more by gut instinct and experience than by evidence, especially if evidence is hard to come by. Furthermore, that initial classification cannot be fixed in stone. It has to have some serious give. If you kick it, it should shift an appreciative amount.  Otherwise, all your analysis can ever do is prove your initial assumption and you are reduced to pronouncements, not arguments, when you choose to tell others about texts. The sciences know this, generally, but not always the arts.

The sixth and last assumption is more obviously a special topic or a value than the others:  namely, a good rhetorical critic thinks rhetorical criticism is worth doing, much like Ebert thinks talking about films does wonders for humanity. Calling attention to how the previous assumptions apply to certain texts – namely, that persuasion is going on – is a good idea. And it’s a good idea because rhetoric tends to be hidden, misunderstood, and used for nefarious purposes as much as for good ones; understanding how it is used, how it works, and what the ethical dimensions are contributes to the general human enterprise. It also makes it far easier to teach speaking and writing  if the teacher knows how to deal with rhetoric on an abstract level that is not wedded to any specific genre or context. And it’s certainly a good idea to promote more effective communication between human beings.

So that’s it, really: all meaning is limited by human perception,  all communication is rhetorical and epistemic, some texts are more rhetorical than others and rhetoric tends to be hidden for effectiveness as well as general sanity, subjectivity needs interrogation, genre identification is key, and examinations of rhetorical texts promote better understanding of human communication. That’s rhetorical criticism in a nutshell. I suppose I could go on to talk about specific things to look for in texts, reading strategies, terminology, etc, but these assumptions, at least to me, are far, far more important.