Sunday, September 8, 2019

On "The Pelican" by Edith Wharton (7614 words) *****

There's something about stories that are written in the first person about someone else that I seem drawn to. I think of The Great Gatsby, On the Road, and A Prayer for Owen Meany. The latter seems less like the first two insofar as things actually seem to happen around Owen that affect the narrator; by contrast, the narrator in the first two pieces isn't really a large part of the story. He's a hanger-on, a person fascinated by the characters around him--and most especially one. (Brideshead Revisited has a similar dynamic, I'm now realizing.) Perhaps it's the narrator's fascination that works its magic on me: I too become interested in knowing more about this acquaintance or friend, as mystified as the narrator is. "The Pelican" works a similar form. Here, the narrator is a man who happens to fall in with a woman whose husband has died and who has a young child. She takes to the lecture circuit to make money. Unlike those other stories, however, here perhaps it is the narrator himself who is rather fascinating--this because he seems so much to detest the woman but still spends so much time writing about her, dropping in on her lectures, trying to avoid her, and so on. In short, he finds her lectures facile. But years go by, and every five to ten years he ends up running into her, each time, she's still at it, raising money to educate her son. At some of these drop-ins, she's wildly successful; at others, she's down on her luck. Such is fortune. But that son, well, she's been doing this a long while--and we begin to realize something more about the woman, that she's a con of sorts. And we begin to wonder also what exactly it is that draws her to lecturing, what makes her tick. Read the story here.

On "Jesus and the Eyewitnesses" by Richard Bauckham *****

Cogently written and elegantly argued, this monograph was not only a breeze to read but a joy. I took it on because the subject seemed interesting, but I wasn't expecting to enjoy reading it so much as I did.

Bauckham essentially makes the argument that many contemporary scholars have it wrong. The Gospel accounts of Jesus's ministry are not oral traditions passed along for generations, many of them mythologized in the telling. They are actually written accounts based on eyewitness accounts of the happenings, from the lives of people who actually had interactions with Jesus. And he says there is evidence in the Gospels of this. In other words, those like third-generation-from Jesus Papias who say that the Gospels were written by people they knew, who themselves got their information directly from people who had interaction with Jesus aren't fibbing. Papias, in fact, says he preferred to get information from these eyewitnesses, who by his time were few in number, than from written accounts--such was the preference of historians at the time. That is, Roman writers only wrote about the distant past as needed to set the context for events that they themselves had firsthand knowledge of. It was no different for Papias, whose work largely no longer exists except in these passages where he explains his objectives. Putting such words into writing would have been especially important as the generation with firsthand knowledge of Jesus would have been passing away, the opportunity thus lost to capture these reminiscences.

For material internal to the Gospels, Bauckham looks at different features. One is the use of names in the accounts. Names used, he argues, coincide to the actual witnesses who were still living--and were part of the church--at the time that the account was written. Thus, if someone wanted to verify a story, one need only ask the person named. Unnamed persons are generally those not bearing witness, not connected with the church, but rather being talked about. Helping to confirm this idea is the very names that show up in the Gospel accounts, which tend to match by percentage the relative popularity of the names given to people in ancient Palestine (as we find in ossuaries and other archaelogical evidence). Thus, we have many Simons and Josephs, as one would expect if the stories were originating with witnesses to Jesus's ministry in Palestine.

Much is made in the scriptures themselves about the need that those who serve as apostles be witnesses from the beginning, corraborating the importance of witnesses being those who tell the stories. Bauckham looks specifically then at Peter, who by tradition (and by Papias's account) was the source of much of Mark's Gospel. Is there evidence within Mark that this was so? Bauckham points to the way that the Gospel essentially starts and ends with Peter's witness and the way in which Peter is a major character; certainly, his importance in the early church might account for this, but it can also be accounted for by his being the source of much of the information. One of the most interesting parts of Bauckham's argument comes from his analysis of the grammer. Much of the story uses a "plural-to-singular" narrative device, a feature that is used five to ten times more often by Mark than any other Gospel writer. That is, the sentence starts off in the plural and then focuses on the singular: e.g., "They came to the place, and then Jesus said to his disciples." The language is a bit strange in third person; put it into first person plural, however, and it seems quite natural: "We came to the place, and then Jesus said to us." It's as if Mark took Peter's account (we did this, we did that; he told us) and wrote it out in the third person (they did this, they did that; he told them), given that Mark was a nonpartaker in the events.

Another interesting feature is the way certain people aren't named in some of the Gospels but are in others. Why? Bauckham argues that it had to do with legal jeopardy and persecution. Thus, Mark merely mentions that someone cut off the priest's servant's ear, but John, writing much later, tells us it was Peter against Malchus. Why the secrecy, especially if Peter was the source? Because if the Jewish leaders had written evidence as to who had done the deed, Peter might have been able to be prosecuted for it. (This also explains why Peter so adamently disavowed being a follower of Jesus, even though he followed Jesus to the place where Jesus's trial was--if he had admitted to being a follower, others might have pointed to him as Malchus's assailant [John tells us that one of those who asked about Peter was related to Malchus].) Once John was writing, much later, Peter was long since dead--no troubles could follow from revealing his identity.

Or take Mary (sister of Martha and Lazarus), who annointed Jesus but who goes unnamed until John's account. The annointing, Bauckham argues, set up Jesus as the "annointed one," the "Messiah," thus adding to Jesus's followng and posing a threat to the Jewish powers, who would likely have wanted to persecute Mary for doing so. Once she's dead, however, it doesn't matter to name her.

Or what of the man who runs away naked when the priests come to get Jesus. He likely got involved in a scuffle with the priests and then to get away loosed himself from his robe; as with Peter, protecting the identity from being known as an assailant would have been important to prevent later prosecution. Some have posited that this was Mark himself (a sort subtle signature to the book), but Papias wrote that Mark never had any direct dealings with Jesus--only with Peter--and Bauckham finds it more probable that it was another disciple (possibly not one of the twelve) or even Lazarus.

Lazarus's story isn't given in any account until John. Why is that, given that it is a major reason the Jewish leaders decide to do away with Jesus according to John? Bauckham suggests that it was to prevent the leaders from themselves killing Lazarus, something John says they sought to do. Not putting the story in print would thus keep it from being spread about as easily and thus putting Lazarus in further jeopardy of being killed. Once he had died, however, once again, the reason to keep the story and Lazarus's identity somewhat hush-hush becomes less important.

From here, Bauckham recounts different theories regarding the passing on of oral traditions, showing how the idea that the Jesus stories were largely folktales by unknown community traditions rather than stories related by specific persons is unlikely--that is, showing how the various theories don't pass muster. This section, while easily understandable in Bauckham's deft rendering, was heavy on theory.

What is interesting also is that Bauckam generally does not take the namesakes as being the authors of the various accounts. He thinks they're pseudonyms. Likewise, he accepts the generally accepted idea that the Gospel accounts were written at later dates--in his case, just as the witnesses were beginning to die out (thus, the reason for rendering such information in writing).

One of the most interesting chapters in the book applies psychological theories of memory to how they would apply in the case of eyewitness testimony--and specifically with regard to how they apply to the Gospel accounts. What do we remember in detail, why, and how likely are those memories to be accurate and stable over time? No doubt, memory is often unreliable--we conflate various events or we come to think, given the power of suggestion, that we witnessed something we actually only heard about. And yet courts rely on eyewitness testimony, as indeed virtually any account of a happening.

And yet, in one example given, of a contemporary memory compared with a newspaper account from decades earlier, the person recounting the story, who was about ten at the time of the event and was part of the community where the event occurred, was amazingly precise and accurate. How and why? Bauckham, drawing on the work of pscyhologists, lists several extenuating circumstances that make certain memories more accurate and precise than others: (1) uniqueness or unusualness of the event; (2) consequentionalness of event; (3) emotional connection to the event, and (4) frequent rehearsal. All four lend to our ability to remember the event. Other important factors that tend to be part of accurate memories were (5) vividness of the imagery--memories we remember well tend to be remembered with with more imagery than other memories; (6) inclusion of irrelevant detail--we tend remember inconsequential items that happened as part of or around the event; (7) point of view--we tend to remember an event both from our own first-person perspective and from a third-person observer perspective; (8) dates--we don't tend to remember specific dates of events but we will remember the season, the time, the locale; (9) gist and details--we are better at remembering the general idea of an event than specific details, but that does necessarily mean that the memory becomes inaccurate (it's the way we begin to "interpret" the event in our memory). No doubt, Bauckham notes, those healed by Jesus or who witnessed a spectacular event would have had good reason to have good recall about it--it was unique, often consequential, had emotional connection (if you were the one healed), and would have been retold as a story frequently. As such, many of the accounts in the Gospels include vivid imagery, seemingly irrelevant detail, shifts in point of view, and elements of time and place. Even though the gist of a memory might be all that was recalled, often some details remain important in the recounting: the number of fish and loaves of bread, for example, and the size of the audience, as well as the baskets of leftovers taken up.

Bauckham then shifts his discussion to the Gospel of John, presenting several compelling arguments for why he believes the gospel to have been written not by John the apostle from among the twelve but by John the Elder, who he claims is the actual beloved disciple. (In this sense, Bauckham departs from conservative tradition but is still more conservative than others who see the Gospel as not being written by any John at all.) Some of the major reason for this belief are that two Johns (the elder and the apostle) are mentioned by Papias. Likewise, Polycrates, when writing of John denotes him as being related to the priesthood, which seems unlikely of the brothers of Zebedee; indeed, the book of John (18:15) references a disciple as being with Peter at the court during Jesus's trial--one who knew the various members of the council. The elder likely garnder his name because of the length of his life, as denoted near the end of the book of John, wherein some thought he would never die. That the apostle became associated with this John is not strange, as such mixing up of people with the same surname was typical of the period and after; as another example, Bauckham presents Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany, who are often conflated even though it's pretty clear from the Gospel accounts that they were two different people. Further, John's use of third person to reference himself, except near the start and end of the book, were not atypical of Roman biographies at the time, which tended to subsume the author except at the start and close, suggesting a John really was the main source and/or author. (Personally, I still find it difficult to think that John of the twelve is not the supposed author--he seems to take on such importance with Peter and James that it seems odd that he would have more or less disappeared into history after the few very clear references to him in the Gospels and Acts, whereas John the Elder, who appears only in second-century sources and who presence is only implied in the Gospel of John played such a huge role in the first-century church. That said, Matthias, who became one of the twelve after Judas's death, is noted as having been with them from the beginning, so it is indeed possible there were yet others who were not noted by name who witnessed a large number of Jesus-related events and who played a role in the early church, as indeed is Bauckham's whole point.)

The final chapter closes in on what the fact that eyewitness testimony can be and should be relied upon as part of historical analysis says about how historians should approach their subjects--that is, with more respect than perhaps has always been shown.