Sunday, 1 February 2015

Media and Lonergan: Interpretation

Over the last few years Jesus studies has developed something of a fixation upon media history (Hurtado, with some impish wit, calls this an "oral fixation"). I have, for purposes of my second book, been thinking about how to situate such concerns within a Lonerganian framework.

The first step is to think about Lonergan's notion and identification of functional specialties, of which those most immediately relevant to the work of historical Jesus studies are interpretation, history, and dialectic. I have come to the conclusion that vis-à-vis historical Jesus studies the concerns of media history are to be situated most properly within the specialties of interpretation and dialectic; in this post I will deal with the former, in a subsequent post with the latter.

Vis-à-vis interpretation the work of media history entails asking whether and if so how the medium chosen by the communicator determines or influences the meaning of that which is communicated; put otherwise, is it the case that, following Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message? In historical Jesus studies this has led to a concern with what have been called "oral hermeneutics" and "written hermeneutics." The idea is that oral communications are so fundamentally different from written communications that each requires a discrete mode of interpretation.

Let us grant for one moment that this is indeed the case. It should follow from this that oral hermeneutics are of complete irrelevance for the study of the Jesus tradition. Why is that? Well, the reality is that by their very nature ancient oral communications about Jesus are no longer extant. If oral and written media are by definition fundamentally different then it follows that in being written the oral Jesus tradition was radically transformed so as to no longer resemble itself. If that is the case then we cannot know what the oral Jesus tradition looked like; and if we cannot know what it looked like then neither can we judge to what extent it resembled the written Jesus tradition. Thus is the study of oral hermeneutics vis-à-vis the Jesus tradition hoisted on its own petard. Only if we grant that the oral Jesus tradition closely resembled that which we have in at least some of our extant texts can we claim to know anything about the substance of that tradition; but in so granting we also functionally obviate the very idea of an oral Jesus tradition distinct from the written Jesus tradition.

Moreover, the very idea that there was ever an oral Jesus tradition that existed independent of a written Jesus tradition is itself a hypothesis, and one that stands on perhaps less-than-solid ground. Given that they came out of a religious milieu that placed a high premium upon literary production and consumption; given that they were writing letters to each other by c. 50 C.E.; given that they were writing gospels by 70 C.E. and most likely sources for those gospels earlier than that: given all those matters we would have to assume that if early Christians ever went through an extended period wherein things about Jesus were not written down they did so consciously and intentionally, and frankly I see nothing in the data that would suggest that this was the case. It is probably better to imagine the oral and the written Jesus tradition always interacting with each other in some sort of dialectical fashion from more or less the beginning; combined with the above-mentioned difficulties in establishing the existence of substantive differences between oral and written Jesus tradition, let alone the nature of those differences, and with Barry Schwartz's observation that generally one can expect the content of messages produced by the same people in different media to more or less conform to each other, and the putative oral/written divide begins to seem a bit more, well, putative, and a bit less significant for the specific work of interpretation.

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