Sunday, June 11, 2017

Colin Hemer on the genre of Luke's writings

I have recently been reading and reveling in portions of Colin Hemer's magisterial The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History. If you can at all get hold of a copy, consider doing so. The American publisher, Eisenbrauns, advertises it in paperback for $49.50, which I know is pricey but better than it appears to be if you check Amazon. Unfortunately, Eisenbrauns is saying it is "out of stock" on their site. I hope that is just temporary. Maybe they have gone to a print-on-demand model for the book. Oddly, Eisenbrauns is selling it as a merchant on Amazon for $55, so this is a bit mysterious. The book is so worth having.

I read and used several sections of the book in detail when preparing Hidden in Plain View, and I referred several times to Hemer's amazing lists of external confirmations of Acts, some of them discussed by Esteemed Husband here. Hidden in Plain View is dedicated to three people--William Paley, the late Colin Hemer, and Timothy McGrew.

Now I'm reading even more of the book and finding even more amazing stuff in it. Hemer is simultaneously so judicious and so brilliant that it is impossible not to respect him immensely. He's not at all afraid of scholarly fashion (though he's more polite about dissenting from fashion than I am), he cares only for where the evidence leads in his own scholarly conjectures and conclusions, and he is so careful, that it is a joy to read him and immensely profitable, even if one doesn't agree with him at every point. Hemer is pretty firmly on the side of a south Galatian destination for the book of Galatians and even more firmly on the side of a very early date, making Galatians the first of the Pauline epistles we possess. I disagree with him on the latter point and lean away from his position on the former, but just reading his discussions is clarifying and has allowed me to consider the issue in all of its ramifications.

The astounding thing about Hemer is his consistent soundness. Nowhere yet in the book have I encountered the sudden flight into dubious fantasy nor the sudden, sickening plunge into dreadfully bad argument that plagues so many even of the best scholars of the New Testament. (E.g. See here for a summary of historian Richard Bauckham's weak argument against Matthew authorship.) Never does Hemer make a weak conjecture, then abruptly treat it as an established fact, then proceed to string together several such conjectures, then act as if he has established the conclusion on firm ground. He is, par excellence, the scholar of the cumulative case and is always aware of the fact that he is incorporating uncertain or speculative premises as part of his case. Hemer also recognizes again and again that evidence can go in more than one direction. He will refer to some scholar who, say, treats a particular year of the crucifixion as set in stone and then subordinates all other evidence to it and will point out that, if there is evidence that seems to tell in another direction "downstream," we should be willing to reconsider the earlier premise (e.g., the year of the crucifixion).

So after devouring his discussion of the end of Acts and his section on the context of the composition of Acts, et. al., I finally decided to read portions of the section on the placement of Luke and Acts in ancient historiography--in other words, genre, a topic I generally find boring almost to the point of madness. But in it, I found this absolute gem of a passage, in which Hemer anticipates current trends to classify Luke as a "Greco-Roman bios" and to downplay its normal, ordinary accuracy on that basis, a problem I discuss here, here, and here. Hemer's comments, I believe, apply with (at least) equal force to the other gospels.

The Gospel at least is, on the face of it, a [bios]. But from the perspective of our theme we need to measure Luke-Acts by a more exacting historical standard than that of Plutarch. The relevance of biography to this question is largely negative. It is another kindred strand in the ancient cultural complex. It testifies to the existence of an anecdotal or encomiastic tradition of the interest in personality....There are certainly parallels between Luke-Acts and features of history, biography and technical literature. But those parallels are neither exclusive nor subject to control. They are fluid, relevant to the general milieu, if perhaps partly in reaction against it and hard to place accurately within it. Most of the New Testament is perhaps best seen as a popular literature, imperfectly representative of any defined literary type, and motivated by a dominant theological purpose scarcely paralleled in pagan writing. If Luke is a partial exception, aspiring to a more formal style in addressing a man presumably of some literary education, his type is still somewhat free and mixed, a concisely effective vehicle for what he had to say, drawing on a flexible use of the style most natural to him. The uninitiated reader might have taken the Gospel at first sight for a biography, but soon have found it an unusual one, and then have been moved by the impact of the double work in directions other than the normal reactions to biography or history. It is my contention that one of the inevitable questions posed as a result of the document was whether it really happened. Ancient biography, no less than ancient historiography, may need to serve as a historical source. The question here is whether the work is a good source. And it needs to be measured by the stricter rather than the laxer measure. Rigorous concepts of history existed in Luke's world: Luke must be judged by his performance rather than on the slippery ground of parallels. (Hemer, pp. 93-94, hardcover edition published by J.C.B. Mohr, emphasis added)
This is extremely perspicacious. I have to draw attention to several of the virtues of what Hemer says, in contrast with current fads. My emphases in the above quotation already draw attention to some of them.

Above all, Hemer avoids the simplistic use of genre identification that is suddenly dogging evangelical New Testament scholarship in 2017. That simplistic use goes something like this: "The gospels are bioi. The authors of bioi all thought they were justified in making up speeches, changing events to different days, and in various other ways doing things that we would generally consider contrary to real historical reliability. Therefore, we need to revise our standards of reliability, because the original readers would have recognized the gospels as bioi and wouldn't have expected them to be accurate in those senses." On this approach, we take the identification of something as "bios" to create a kind of probability distribution of accuracy according to which a bios is generally no less accurate than x but no more accurate than y.

Some evangelicals welcome the identification of bios in contrast to, say, legend because this imagined probability distribution at least sets some very broad limit to how creative the author is likely to get with the facts. Phew! At least we can get some historical knowledge from the gospels. What a relief! But on the other hand, this approach is also being taken to set an upper limit on how conscientious the author is going to be concerning the facts. Hemer blows all of this out of the water, because he simply rejects the silliness of the false dichotomy: Either the gospels are bioi in some highly explicit sense or else we have no idea how legendary or inaccurate they must be, because if we reject bioi we don't have a sharp genre designation for them.

Hemer realizes that something can have various features of a genre without our being able thereby to draw firm conclusions about whether the author was trying to be historically accurate on such issues as dates, what was actually said, etc. Hemer also recognizes that identifying a precise literary genre for the gospels, as opposed to a general sense of what they are attempting to do, isn't really terribly important. (Shocking as that may sound.) The more important point is that Luke had something important to say, not that he adopted a genre in a self-conscious sense and then considered that it freed him from a need to be accurate in the story he wanted to tell. Indeed, the importance of the story to Luke and to his audience made it important to get things right. Hemer's nuanced, scholarly mind allows him to think of ancient biography as part of Luke's general milieu (in the case of Luke more so than the other authors if he was a well-educated Gentile) rather than as some kind of esoteric pass-key to the gospels that allows us to draw deductive conclusions.

Moreover, as Hemer points out, it is completely false that back in those days nobody expected a source to be rigorous in its approach to truth and falsehood. Nor can slapping a genre label of "bios" on a book magically erase any relevance of high standards of historical accuracy in the ordinary sense. Hemer is openly declaring that we are right to wonder whether Luke and Acts (and I would say, Matthew, Mark, and John as well) are telling the truth about what happened, not in some dodgy sense of "telling the truth," but in a straightforward sense. That is not being anachronistic or unsophisticated at all. On the contrary, the evidence of the books themselves is that Luke was trying to get it right, in an uncomplicated sense of "right." While it may sound sophisticated, it is actually patronizing Luke and the other gospel writers to imply that they, writing in an ancient genre, didn't have our modern standards of accuracy or wouldn't have thought that (for example) they were misleading their readers if they stated explicitly that a certain event happened on a Saturday when they knew full-well that it really happened on the following Wednesday.

Hemer's relegation of Greco-Roman bioi to, at most, the general milieu of the gospel writers is even more important when we consider the Jewish authorship of the other gospels--Matthew, Mark, and John. Insofar as we have evidence for the traditional ascriptions of authorship of those gospels (and bearing in mind the lesson that evidential relevance goes both ways), that evidence tends to count against the thesis of any self-conscious or explicitly trained influence by or adoption of such a Greco-Roman genre. The picture of the young Matthew literally sitting in school and being taught Greco-Roman literary "compositional devices" is farfetched, to put it mildly. It would take a good deal of strong evidence to lead a careful historian to think that any such thing ever happened, and such strong evidence has not been forthcoming.

Now more than ever we need Hemer's care and his ability to keep all the threads of an argument in his hands at any given time, not putting too much weight on just one thread nor "running with" a theory. And then, too, there is the Preface to the book by the editor, Conrad H. Gempf. Gempf got the work ready for publication after Hemer's rather sudden death of an illness in 1987. At his death, the manuscript was found handwritten on nearly 400 narrow-ruled sheets of notebook paper, each containing nearly twice as much material as a single-spaced typed page. Gempf describes the pages as "meticulously clear."

As the Facebook meme might say,

This is Colin.
Colin was a bad-ass scholar.
Be like Colin.


Callum said...

I really hope to get my hands on his book. I have to say he seems a top notch historian. Him and Hengel were two of the 20th centuries best ancient historians

Lydia McGrew said...

If you try to order from the publisher, Eisenbrauns, let me know what happens--if they just say it's permanently out of stock or what.