The New Historicism and the narrative-historical method

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Probably, for most people interested in biblical studies, “historicism” is a bad word, associated either with a positivist historical-critical methodology that hammers the theological life out of a text or with a certain mode of nineteenth century German historical idealism that culminated in the racist teleogies of Nazism.

The New Historicism is no longer very new—it emerged as a philosophical and literary critical movement, mainly in America, in the early 1980s. It has taken a while for biblical scholars like me to catch on to it, but it has attracted some attention over the last twenty years as a way of re-engaging with the historicality of texts after poststructuralism or, we might say, post-poststructuralism. Michal Beth Dinkler does quite a lot with it in her recent book Literary Theory and the New Testament (2019).

Roughly speaking, what a new historicist biblical criticism does is take the poststructuralist paradigm and apply it to the original context in order to explore alternative perspectives on the writing and reading of texts under the relevant historical conditions.

I suspect that a lot of what has gone on under the name of historical biblical interpretation, for some time now, has been unknowingly new historicist; and I’ve just come across a passage in Stephen D. Moore’s essay “History After Theory? Biblical Studies and the New Historicism”(Biblical Interpretation 5.4, 1997), which makes me think that my “narrative-historical” argument about the scope of New Testament eschatology would slot quite neatly into the theoretical framework.

Only, the argument is that the New Testament documents are the work of a particular historical community, telling its story from a rather limited outlook. The writings of the New Testament may bear witness inadvertently to alternative perspectives on the course of events, but the church has a peculiar hermeneutical involvement in the outlook and purposes of groups that were already other and inconsequential, either to Judaism or to Greek-Roman civilisation, in their various manifestations. I’m not entirely sure where this is going but I’ll come back to this point.

Let’s get to the passage in question.

Moore has been explaining what new historicism asserts. Literature and art do not “form an autonomous, timeless realm of transcendental value and significance” (Boyarin) but belong to history and must be studied as part of history. We cannot be confident in the “relative neutrality of the professional historian” or in the “relative retrievability of objective historical facts.” Ideological commitments on all sides must be exposed and critiqued. And so on….

He then makes reference to an essay in the same collection, written with Susan Lochrie Graham, in which they undertake a new historicist “commentary” on John Dominic Crossan’s 1991 book The Historical Jesus. The argument of this essay is summarised in the passage that caught my attention:

Graham and Moore argue that current reconstructions of Jesus as the instigator of a peasant resistance movement (epitomized by Crossan’s book) beg redescription as a covert new historicist drama of power, resistance and containment—of Roman state power, specifically; of a singular instance of resistance to such power; and of the state’s spectacular ability not only to crush the resistance but, in time, to absorb it into itself, to turn it into a version of itself, and to turn itself into a version of it. (297)

So here’s how I think it plays, at first blush, with the narrative-historical approach.

In the first place, the political initiative taken by Jesus as described in the Synoptic Gospels cannot be characterised as a “peasant resistance movement.” It no doubt draws on a range of social, economic, and above all religious grievances felt by ordinary Jews in Galilee and Judea, but it’s hard to claim that Jesus had concrete acts of resistance or transformation in mind. The Jesus’ movement was fundamentally prophetic—a call to repentance in view of the foreseen catastrophe of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. The proclamation of the coming kingdom of God was a warning of divine action, not a call to human activism.

In this perspective, Rome is no more than the agent of divine judgment.

The argument about the “redescription” of Crossan’s peasant resistance movement thesis as a “covert new historicist drama of power, resistance and containment” gets at the new historicist emphasis on “ideological self-awareness” (296). In fact, it appears that Moore merely reframes one ideological revision inside the larger one of Rome’s hegemonic assimilation of the Jesus movement. But this is swing away from a close focus on Jesus to the expansive narrative of Roman political action at least corrects the traditional idea that the New Testament merely records the deposition of a single, universal “gospel.”

The “eschatological” climax to Jesus’ mission was the public vindication of the Son of Man and his followers, within the lifetime of “some standing here,” in the aftermath of the war against Rome.

The eschatological horizon of the apostolic missions in the Greek-Roman world was much wider, but the telos was not anti-imperialist. Two outcomes were in view, one theological, the other political. First, the Greek-Roman world would abandon its idols and serve the one God who made the heavens and the earth. Secondly, the peoples of the Greek-Roman world would confess that the one true God had made his Son “King of kings and Lord of lords,” above all other powers, which would finally overcome the opposition between rule in heaven and rule on earth—see the chapter on the Colossians Christ-encomium in my book In the Form of a God: The Pre-existence of the Exalted Christ in Paul.

In this context, the eschatological vindication of the churches—the deliverance and glorification of these communities of the Son of Man—would come when these empire-wide or oikoumenē-wide outcomes were achieved.

Moore is right to say that Rome endeavoured to “crush” the forces coming out of Judea which so determinedly opposed it. In the first place, of course, the opposition or “resistance” was Jewish, and it was crushed by Rome’s overwhelming military superiority. The apostolic Jesus movement, however, was less resistance than prophetic witness, embodied in an alternative communal religiosity and allegiance.

It is also true, I think, that the state absorbed the Jesus movement into itself somewhat on Greek-Roman terms, which is the obvious new historicist, ideologically self-aware reading of events. But the other side of this coin should not be ignored—that the state turned itself into a version of the Jesus movement.

Moore’s language here safeguards the prophetic outlook of the apostolic churches, which in historical terms was that the God of Israel was intent not only on delivering his priestly people from their sins but also on annexing the idolatrous imperial oikoumenē for his own glory.

It is important, it seems to me, that the church today as a reading community brings an ideological self-awareness to the task. But that must mean owning our entanglement in the eschatological programme. We cannot pretend to adopt a position of ideological neutrality, as we back away from acknowledged hermeneutical commitments, even if that were possible. We have a vested interest in the particular line of witness. We are bound by covenant to tell the story that runs through the New Testament and onwards from the prophetic perspective, as later members of the same story-telling community, which was saved from the shattering consequences of its sins back in the first century.

Samuel Conner | Sat, 06/03/2023 - 00:22 | Permalink

Can one make a case that many of these documents, in addition to telling the community’s story, seek to shape the future of that story.

I suspect that Mark and Matthew may have been intended as reminders to Jewish believers of Jesus’ “coming war” warnings (the “let the reader understand” warnings, and Matthew’s warning to avoid being trapped in a siege of Jerusalem.)

Remembering Jesus’ warnings was part of the Jewish church’s narrow path into the future; the written Gospels were helpful for that purpose as the apostles passed from the scene.

(Perhaps that was even part of the function, in “in the land” context, of the Eucharistic meal — “remember what the Romans did to Jesus” as a reminder of the seriousness of Jesus’ warnings to not take up the sword).

Douglas Wilkinson | Mon, 07/10/2023 - 03:55 | Permalink


Since your eschatology has the millennium beginning after the conversion of Rome, and the issue of telos would be somehow associated with the completion of the millennium, then wouldn’t the following events from Rev. 20:7-11 be associated with the end of the millennium and the collapse of Christendom?  It seems like those are proposed historical sequential events that have some theological meaning late in the game.

@Douglas Wilkinson:

Doug, I seem to remember you suggested this a while back.

It’s certainly of interest that the thousand year period of Christ’s reign with the martyrs is qualified in this way. The Christ-confessing people remain vulnerable. It keeps us within history.

But the events of Revelation 20:7-10 appear to be climactic and terminal, so if this is the end of Christendom, we are about to face a final judgment. My assumption is that there is a lot of history still to run, but I could be wrong.

John clearly felt the need to do something with Ezekiel 38:1-39:6: Israel dwells in security but then is threatened by Gog. But what he meant by it is hard to say. It would be difficult to identify Gog and Magog with secular humanism, given the background, but then such developments were entirely beyond John’s purview anyway I would have thought.

Still, it may give us some ground for historicising the thousand year period as an outcome of the victory over pagan Rome.

@Andrew Perriman:

If I remember correctly, my original thoughts on your position about the end of Christendome were that your position was too Eurocentric since the church seems to be exploding in the third world.  But, if for the sake of argument I accept that it is over (and I presume that it is directly associated with the millennial reign of the saints that began in Rev. 20:4), I can’t see any other prophetic material that might address the end of that reign.  It does seem contradictory to Daniel 7:18ff and Rev. 22:5, where the reign is described as “forever”, but that’s assuming the language related to “forever” is as literal as English seems to imply (“for ages” or “for the age or ages” may not require absolute “forever” the way we think of it in modern terms).  Still, if that reign is in fact over I don’t see any scriptural prediction (thin as it is) other than something catastrophic on the horizon.