Sunday, December 25, 2011

Interpreted events

Since the historical Jesus stands in varying degrees of contrast with the Jesus of the Gospels Jesus historians are left with a problem: what should one do with the Gospels and their Jesus?…Since the earliest sources for Jesus are (1) necessary and/or unavoidable but (2) already interpreted and serving an agenda, a primary concern in historical Jesus scholarship–if not the primary concern–has been establishing methodological means by which scholars can find the historical Jesus amid the interpreted Jesus of our earliest sources. They often do this by separating “authentic” Jesus tradition, thought to reflect the historical Jesus, from “inauthentic” tradition, thought to reflect the Christ of faith.

C. Keith & L. Hurtado, Jesus Among Friends and Enemies: A Historical and Literary Introduction to Jesus in the Gospels (Baker 2011), 272.

i) This type of analysis can be of some value in apologetics. Take the “minimal facts” strategy of William Lane Craig. It’s something we can do for the sake of argument.

ii) But from the vantage-point of Christian faith, this orientation is fundamentally misguided. The proper object of Christian faith is not the bare event, but the recorded event. The interpreted event. That’s what God has given us to live by.

iii) This type of analysis also suffers from positivistic reductionism. It acts as though interpretation is in tension with history: the more interpretation you have, the less history you have. So the objective is to strip away the extraneous layers of interpretation to uncover the buried kernel of truth. But that’s philosophically and theologically naïve.

The empirical aspect of an event doesn’t generally reveal the significance of the event. A physically accurate description of what the observer would have seen doesn’t give the reader an understanding of what it means.

For instance, three men were crucified on Good Friday. Even if you were an eyewitness, what you can see is fairly undiscriminating. One death by crucifixion is much like another. Had you been at Calvary, watching the situation unfold wouldn’t single out the death of Christ as more important than the death of the two thieves. Yet his death is uniquely significant.

Take two photographs of two different high schools. Both photographs are accurate. They depict the physical appearance of each school. But there’s a critical dimension they fail to capture.

Suppose you attended one of them, but not the other. If so, then looking at a picture of your alma mater is a very different experience than looking at a picture of someone else’s high school. You could look at pictures of a thousand schools you didn’t attend, yet it's all be the same to you.

But if you look at a picture of your alma mater, that’s different. That means something to you. That triggers a wealth of memories. A wealth of associations–good, bad, or both.

In one case, there’s nothing more to the photograph than the image. In the other case, the photograph is emblematic. It conjures up something far beyond what can be seen in the photograph. For better or worse, your high school experience is highly significant to you.

You don’t just see the image on the photograph. Rather, the image on the photograph reminds you of many inner representations you retain of your three years there. Rooms, words, names, games, faces, voices, emotions, and so forth. You see that picture through the prism of memory.

There’s more to remembered events than bare events. For bare events are discrete, self-contained happenings, but remembered events have a larger context.

Take one of those excruciating formal dinners among foreign dignitaries. Everyone is dressed to the nines. Everyone is polite. Everyone smiles. No one says what he means. It’s an elaborate exercise in concealing your true intentions. The diplomats are probing each other for weaknesses without tipping their hand.

Maybe the ambassador’s wife is having an affair with the attaché to Hungary. But he’s about to be reassigned. At this diplomatic function, the illicit lovers will feign emotional distance.

Suppose a director filmed that as is. In one sense it would be accurate, but in another sense it would be misleading. For there’s so much just beneath the surface that isn’t captured by merely depicted what was seen or said. The guests say the opposite of what they think. They speak of peace as they plan on war. The body language is false. So a purely descriptive portrayal would lack insight into what was really going on.

Instead, suppose the director put words in the mouths of the conniving characters, making them say what they actually thought, but avoided saying in real life. The director makes the Austrian ambassador whisper to his aid that he despises the Czech foreign minister. He has the illicit lovers go out onto a balcony, where they share a passionate kiss. Where they exchange a passionate embrace. Where they speak in desperate tones about no longer seeing each another.

Would that be less accurate–or more accurate? In a sense it’s unhistorical. That’s not what happened at the diplomatic function.

Yet, on another level, it’s a truer account of what really happened. For it goes behind appearances to hidden motivations. The unseen psychology of the event.

If you stepped into a time machine and traveled back to the original event, the director’s interpretation would stand in contrast to outward events. Physically inaccurate in various respects. Yet in others ways the director’s interpretation would be truer to the event. More faithful to what was driving the conversation. Instead of just showing us what happened, it would account for appearances.

Take another case. Suppose summer camp was the highpoint of a boy’s life. Two back-to-back summers when he was coming of age.

Suppose a director is filming the man’s life story. Suppose he combines two summers into one summer. Combines four months into two weeks. At one level that’s unhistorical. Some boys were there one summer who weren’t there the other summer. Different things were said and done each summer.

But at another level, he’s not adding anything. Everything the characters say and do in the film corresponds to something they actually said or did at summer camp. Just not all in one summer. Just not all in two weeks.

It’s simply a more efficient way of telling the story. Cut the dead wood. Eliminate extraneous details. Focus on the memorable, life-changing encounters.   

The gospel writers have techniques to clue the reader into the significance of the events they relate. They may rearrange the chronology to put things in their teleological relationships. They may use language from the OT that implicitly compares an event in the life of Christ with an earlier event in the life of Israel.

This is interpretation, but their interpretation reveals the invisible purpose of outward actions. For the meaning of who did what when and where doesn’t just lies on the sensible surface of events.

For instance, the order of intention reverses the order of execution. I have a goal. I then reason back from the goal to the things I must to do achieve my goal. I must do them in a certain order. But that’s not the order in which I must think them. Suppose I go to the beach. To do that I must drive there. To drive there I must get in the car. To drive the car I must get the car keys.

There’s a chronological order and a teleological order. There’s a physical depiction and a psychological depiction. Both are equally true. There’s more to history than what lies on the surface. In addition, there’s whatever motivates the historical actor. The meaning that he assigns to his own actions. His plans and aspirations.

Or take possession. You can see the demoniac, but you can’t see the demon. A sensory depiction would be quite truncated, for what lies behind the eyes is just as real, and more important, in that situation. How does a writer show possession? Possession has some empirical effects, but that’s a shallow perception of the invisible, underlying cause.

This goes to the inerrancy of Scripture as well as the historicity of Scripture. Even if you stepped into the time machine, went back into the past, saw the event for yourself, and observed some notable differences between the reported event and the actual event, that of itself wouldn’t mean the Biblical account is erroneous. For there’s more to accurate reportage than a physically accurate depiction. And if you confine yourself to a physically accurate depiction, that may even be deceptive–inasmuch as that leaves out of account many real factors that escape a purely empirical account.  


  1. Incredibly illuminating Steve. Thank you.

  2. Seems like you are saying,
    "History without interpretation is ahistorical".

    Wishing you a historical New Year, Steve. A New Year with tons of interpretation...