Flowchart: On Alleged Literary Devices

Flowchart: On Alleged Literary Devices

by Lydia McGrew
September, 2017

This is just the first entry in which I intend to display this flowchart. You’ll be seeing it again! Here I want to discuss the flowchart itself and how it applies both to biblical and to non-biblical texts. The intention is to provide a framework for evaluating the claims of Richard Burridge, Michael Licona, and various Roman history scholars concerning the alleged presence of fictionalizing “literary devices” in an ostensibly historical work.

To begin with, I should explain what I mean by “fictionalizing literary devices,” since the phrase is my own. In broad terms, I mean by that phrase an author’s deliberately including in a putative historical work incidents, details, or speeches which he has (at least) no reason to think are accurate or even knows are inaccurate. I also mean, if the action is to count as a literary device as opposed to ordinary truth embroidery, deception, etc., that such an act of fictionalization was something the author believed he was allowed to do without violating the expectations of his readers as to his accuracy and truthfulness and (moreover) that he was right about that–that there really was such a convention in the social context in which the author was writing that this type and degree of fictionalization would have not caused surprise or consternation among the majority of the readers of the work, because it was expected of that type of work. Here are a few definitions from Licona’s own book that provide paradigm examples of what I mean by fictionalization:

Transferal: When an author knowingly attributes words or deeds to a person that actually belonged to another person, the author has transferred the words or deeds.

Displacement: When an author knowingly uproots an event from its original context and transplants it in another, the author has displaced the event.

I note in passing that most of the time, though not with perfect consistency, Licona uses the term “displacement” to refer to cases where he is alleging that the author definitely implies or even states that an event took place in a different context from its original context. In other words, most of the time he is not talking about cases where, according to him, the author merely narrates events out of chronological order. The distinction is crucial, and Licona’s failure to admit the importance of the distinction and to maintain it creates some confusion. In one egregious instance he says that there is “displacement” when Plutarch literally pauses to tell the reader that he is jumping forward in time to narrate an event that happened later and fit together topically with what he was talking about. Licona then speaks as if this is “displacement” and so are cases where, he alleges, the author deliberately made it look like the event really took place at a different point in time from the time that it really happened.

Conflation: When an author combines elements from two or more events or people and narrates them as one, the author has conflated them.

(All of these definitions are from p. 20, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels.)

Another example of fictionalization would be simply inventing a speech for an historical character when one has no reason to believe that the character either said those specific words or expressed those ideas in something approximately like those words.

Obviously, “crafting” an entire scene or incident counts as fictionalizing. So would making up a detail, such as a number or a name, that one has no reason to believe is accurate, and inserting it into the story just to make the story more vivid or interesting.

But here I want to emphasize again that, although I would count any of these as fictionalization, it doesn’t follow that I would count them as “literary devices” even if they occurred, since they might just mean that the author was careless about truth or liked to embroider his tale or engage in propaganda.

Here are a couple of things I do not consider to be fictionalization:

–What Licona calls “literary spotlighting.” Kindle tells me that “literary spotlight” and cognates occur 36 times in Why Are There Differences in the Gospels. It comes up a lot in the book. But it really isn’t particularly literary at all, and it doesn’t deserve to be categorized with the above acts of fictionalization. “Spotlighting,” despite being made to sound like some sort of technical thing, is really just focusing on one thing, person, etc., in a scene rather than another. So if one author says that there was a man present at a scene who made a certain statement, and it turns out that there were really two men, the author was simply discussing one of the men who was there. That’s all that is meant by “spotlighting,” and it is so banal and so non-literary that it should not be used to inflate the numbers of “literary devices” in historical works or testimonies.

–Micro-trivial differences of wording. If one author says that Peter was “standing” by the fire and another author says that he was “sitting” by the fire, this wording variation doesn’t count as a “literary device,” and frankly, shouldn’t even be mentioned. One of the most frustrating aspects of Licona’s book is that he fills page after page with this sort of micro-trivia. It is not that he is claiming that all of these, or even many of them, constitute contradictions, but he does treat them as worth mentioning and as “changes” that the authors allegedly made to their “sources” as opposed (apparently) to their just naturally telling a story as a normal person does (perhaps even an eyewitness) in their own words. This habit of Licona’s makes such micro-trivia sound like deliberate redaction, and it further increases the impression that, say, Matthew didn’t actually witness any of the events he relates and tell them naturally as he remembers them. To Licona’s credit, he tends to leave out this sort of itty-bitty trivia in his lectures (see here and here), which for that reason are better representations of his approach than the book itself. See two of my earlier posts critiquing Licona’s talks here and here.

–Some degree of approximation or paraphrasing in telling what people said, as long as the author has good reason to believe that this really is approximately what the person said at that time, is not fictionalization as I’m using that term.

With my use of the term “fictionalizing literary device” clarified, on to the chart. The flowchart is meant to show how difficult it should be for a reasonable person to conclude that there is a fictionalizing literary device in a text where the author provides no clue that such a device is being used. In a post last year I stressed that a characteristic of the “devices” that Licona and others claim to find in Plutarch and the gospels is that there are no such clues in the text. This is important to remember. The authors do not give you a “heads-up.” Instead they “write as if” things are a certain way. This creates all sorts of empirical difficulties with drawing this conclusion. The flowchart shows that there are many hoops one has to jump through before reaching the conclusion that something so complex is going on.

Most of the claimed instances of such “devices” given in New Testament scholarship and (in Licona’s book) concerning Plutarch and other ancient authors don’t even make it past the first step: Can the accounts be harmonized without undue strain by traditional methods?

Naturally, each person’s concept of “undue strain” will be slightly different, so (as they say), your mileage may vary. But New Testament scholars are the most sensitive of plants when it comes to the idea that a harmonization is strained. They pretty much consider the most obvious ideas to be strained. They start with a wooden reading of the text, often a strong over-reading, and then they proceed to create some sort of “tension” between that text and another text, and they then resist the sensible suggestion that one needn’t read the texts as saying that at all. On other occasions there is some degree of prima facie tension between the accounts, but it can be pretty easily resolved with a little intelligent imagination–something we do all the time, quite rightly, in dealing with witnesses in daily life. All of this is mis-calibrated in certain disciplines. Cases that shouldn’t even be thought to require harmonization at all are treated by these scholars as real head-scratchers. Cases that are somewhat more puzzling are automatically treated as irreconcilable differences. I plan to illustrate these points in later posts, and I plan to begin with Plutarch, because I was interested to see how few of the Plutarch examples of supposed “literary devices” even got to first base. I came away from my study with a much higher view of Plutarch’s care and accuracy than I’d ever had before!

The second question is an even more difficult hurdle for the proponent of fictionalizing literary devices to get over: Why should we think that the author was deliberately introducing data contrary to fact into his narrative? This is an especially pressing question when the point in question is a matter of detail, timing, the name of a person, etc. There are so many other possibilities, far more probable: The author may have made a good-faith error. The author (if he himself told the story twice, in ways that seemed to imply two different sets of facts) may have obtained additional information in the meanwhile. Nor does the fact that the accounts weren’t published very far apart refute this suggestion. One can obtain new information in a single day! The author may have had information he was justified in considering reliable that was slightly different from the information that another author had, which the other author was justified in considering reliable. Two people may have remembered things slightly differently, if they were both present when an event happened. An author may have simply lacked information and written in a way (true as far as it went) that reflected this lack of information. (E.g. When Luke 2:39 says that Mary and Joseph returned to Nazareth after the purification in the Temple, leaving out the flight to Egypt, this may simply mean that Luke hadn’t been told about the flight to Egypt.) And so on through near-infinite variations on the many ways that people get information and try to relate it truthfully. Remember too that we’re talking here about secular documents as well as the New Testament. Even if you shy away from saying that John made some minor error (but I don’t think you should), why shy away from saying that Tacitus did so? And I would add that attributing deliberate fictionalization to John is a far heavier and more serious matter than attributing a trivial error to him, as I have discussed before.

I have now gone through Michael Licona’s entire book, and every single example that he gives from Plutarch and the Gospels fails, in my opinion, at either the first or second step. As already mentioned, most fail at the very first step. In a few cases (either biblical or non-biblical) I can see serious difficulties with harmonization, leading to the possibility that there is some inaccurate information in one or the other account involved. But in no case where harmonization seems implausible between accounts does Licona argue persuasively that the author did it on purpose. Indeed, he usually just asserts it. He hardly even seems to realize that he needs to argue at this step in the chain of reasoning, that it is far more complex to assert that Plutarch, Tacitus, or John the evangelist deliberately inserted non-factual material than to conclude that he just got it a bit wrong at some point or just remembered it differently from someone else or from his own earlier version. One is claiming to be getting inside the author’s mind and to be able to tell that he did this on purpose–a strong claim. Therefore, there should be some pretty robust argument that the fictionalization was deliberate. This is so obvious an epistemic point that I find it a little astonishing that it needs to be made explicitly, but apparently it does. Nor is Licona the only scholar to have this problem. In fact, he seems to be picking it up from others.

Burridge does slightly better (Four Gospels, One Jesus, pp. 169-170) when he argues that Tacitus probably invented the speech including the famous line “solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant” and attributed it to the Scottish chieftain Calgacus, who (if nothing else) almost certainly didn’t speak in flowing Latin parallelism. Tacitus presumably knew that as well as we do and therefore probably knew that he was including an invented speech. If he wrote the speech himself, he of course knew that he invented it himself. And we know that Polybius complains about people who invented speeches in historical books, so it was something that was done, though it was (as Polybius’s own complaint shows) not universally accepted as a harmless device. But as I pointed out in an earlier thread, Tacitus is known to be quite accurate in his narratives, which shows that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about an author’s “license to invent” across the board even within his own writings, even if we decide that in some given, circumscribed aspect of his writings (such as speeches) he probably did invent.

But Licona’s examples concern names, places, events, and (perhaps most often) chronology. These are the types of facts that one could easily report (or imply) without realizing that one was not getting them quite correct or that one was giving one’s readers an incorrect impression. That such simple hypotheses receive such short shrift in these disciplines is a sign that something is very wrong. One is tempted repeatedly to ask why in the world a scholar would jump to the conclusion of deliberate fictionalization when so many more common options exist.

If one manages to get this far with a given example, another problem looms, one which I hinted at in my previous post. If we (somehow) know that the author deliberately inserted false information, why not just call him a liar rather than assert that he’s using a “literary device”? In fact, even finding quite a number of examples of “fake news” in the ancient world would hardly suffice to justify the conclusion that these were “literary devices” and accepted as such by audiences. Would that be the correct conclusion in our own culture, if a later historian found numerous cases in which news sources fudged their facts, reported with extreme carelessness from unreliable sources (and hence got it wrong), or outright made stuff up? Of course not. The correct conclusion is that these news outlets, which should care about truth and whose stories are supposed to be taken as factual, are insufficiently concerned with getting it right. That they are liars, or play fast and loose. That they are propagandists. These are all well-known phenomena in human experience. It is far more probable, if (say) Josephus at some point really fudged his facts, that he did it as a sinful man than as a literary lion.

Note, too, that the fact that some people, even many people, know that one does this sort of thing still doesn’t make it a “literary device.” Maybe the common man on whose emotions one intended to play does not realize that it is made up, but some other people have tumbled to the truth. Cynicism doesn’t create fancy literary devices. Even if I realize that the Huffington Post is sometimes unreliable in ideologically freighted areas, it doesn’t follow that they are doing something perfectly licit and “literary” when they bend the truth. It just means that I am justifiedly cynical.

Once again, when scholars are alleging “literary devices” and even making explicit statements about what readers would have expected, they rarely seem to bother to argue for this thesis beyond producing the examples themselves. The simple question never gets asked: Even if this author did this on purpose, why should I not think he just liked to make stuff up?

A more lighthearted example here will help to illustrate. All my life I have greatly enjoyed the memoirs of the late Gerald Durrell, a naturalist who traveled all over the world collecting animals for zoos. In his childhood, Durrell lived on the island of Corfu for five years, and his beautifully written (and hilarious) books about that time are among those I’ve re-read so often that I nearly have them memorized. The most famous is My Family and Other Animals, and if you’ve never read it and need an enjoyable and relaxing book for your next vacation, I cannot recommend it too highly. If you like it, try the sequel, Birds, Beasts, and Relatives. Don’t look for deep insights. Just amusement of a mid-20th-century British variety that treats drunkenness, homosexuality, and the incompetence and melodramatic temperaments of Greek peasants as comedy fodder. I’ve read that Durrell said that his childhood in Corfu unwound before his eyes like a film when he went to write about it, and his descriptions of the island are incredibly vivid.

But later, as I got to thinking about it, I came to have my doubts about the truth of some of the anecdotes. It wasn’t just that I assumed that Durrell constructed dialogue he didn’t remember clearly, for basically factual scenes, to make the dialogue sound novelistic, detailed, and seamless. That might really count as a 20th-century “literary device” that an audience fully expects. (No, I don’t think there’s any reason to believe it was a 1st-century literary device, much less that the authors of the Gospels engaged in it.) It was rather that I started thinking that some of the stories he tells are too fantastic to be true. Also, I read a few scattered stories about Corfu and about his family that Durrell wrote later in life, and those read like pastiches of the earlier stories. This caused me to put a bit of a question mark over the earlier stories as well. Did he really have a hunch-backed tutor who lived in a fantasy world where he repeatedly saved damsels in distress? Could that same tutor really have had an elderly mother with long, undying red hair who believed that she could hear flowers talk? Did the Belgian consul in Corfu really shoot starving, feral cats from the window of his house with an air rifle (as a form of euthanasia) while trying to teach French to young Gerry? Did the Durrells really use rare postage stamps to bribe a philatelist Corfiote judge to decide a minor court case in their favor? And so forth.

Now, maybe all of that really happened. Truth, they say, is stranger than fiction.

But let’s suppose that my suspicions are correct and that some, at least, of those incidents are made up. Is that a “literary device”? Heck, no. Nothing so high-falutin’. It would just mean that Durrell was a mischievous guy, a great raconteur, that he made his living and funded his animal collecting trips by writing books and was very good at it, and that he didn’t have qualms of conscience about mixing fiction with fact to make a better story. It doesn’t matter all that much if he did so, but the reason that it doesn’t matter has precisely zilch to do with “literary devices.” Instead, it has to do with the intrinsic lightness of the subject matter. If Durrell were asking me to commit my life to a religion, I would be rightly indignant at his fictionalizing in the service of that goal.

And then there is the final node. I admit that the distinction between this node and the previous one is not sharp. I included the final node for the sake of completeness. How plausible is it that the author himself believed that he was using an understood “literary device” but that, as it turned out, most of the members of his intended audience had no way of knowing about such a device, unbeknownst to him? But I suppose one can imagine something like this, using the previous example: Suppose that Durrell inserted fictional tales among his true memoirs, and suppose that he thought to himself, “I bet that everybody understands that this is the sort of thing that an author like me does. Surely people will realize that the fantasizing, hunchbacked tutor is too weird to be true.” In that case, he was, as it were, trying to use an agreed-upon literary device but being too subtle about it, and for most people he probably failed. I don’t think I’m atypical in that regard. I certainly took all the stories as intended to be factual for many years.

The assertion that Licona et. al. blithely make about ancient audiences and ancient peoples is incredibly hard to support. I really don’t know how they think they can support it for such a wide array of fictionalizing “devices.” They might, might be able to support it for some isolated type of thing in a work–speeches, for example, that (upon examination) are “too good to be true.” But if so they’d have to show it on a case-by-case basis, and I don’t think they do show it even for, say, the speeches in Acts. (Which, by the way, appear to be remarkably accurate even if somewhat paraphrased.) If this could be done for some isolated aspect of a work, it would be similar to showing that most 21st-century American and British readers realize that a person who writes his memoirs will often change the names of various people involved so as to protect their privacy. Audiences realize this in part because books will occasionally even say this in an introduction, but even when they don’t, no one is really surprised. For example, I was not at all surprised to discover that “James Herriot,” the Yorkshire vet whose memoirs I have always enjoyed, was really named Alf White and that his partners, who figure so prominently in his stories, had different names as well.

But these are isolated types of things, and one can argue for them carefully on a case-by-case basis. I have found no such persuasive argument for the general recognition, by audiences, of the range of “devices” Licona discusses. Licona presents a reference to one brief statement in the work of Lucian of Samosata which may endorse the invention of speeches by historical writers. Lucian says that when a writer of history introduces a speech, he has “the counsel’s right of showing [his] eloquence.” But Lucian is just one guy, and even the invention of speeches (much less the other “devices”), even in the pagan world (much less by the authors of the New Testament), was not universally accepted. One statement about speeches from Lucian is a thin reed on which to rest the weight of Licona’s sweeping claims about the ancient world and a whole zoo of fictionalizing devices.

Besides presenting his Plutarch examples (some of which I’ll discuss in a later post) and more or less saying, “Behold!” the longest attempt Licona makes at an argument for the widespread acceptance of fictionalizing literary devices is his deeply flawed discussion of “compositional textbooks.” There are many problems with that, beginning with the fact that we have no reason to believe that any of the Gospel authors with the possible exception of Luke would ever have laid eyes on, say, Theon’s Progymnasmata. Moreover, it doesn’t appear that such “textbooks” were teaching about a societally understood set of conventions for fictionalizing history but rather merely giving writing exercises and trying to teach how to write well, whether the content is fiction or fact. As I discussed in this post, writing advice/exercises and a treatise on fictionalizing history are completely different things–a point Licona doesn’t seem fully to grasp. I could say more at length about the confused use Licona makes of Theon, but Theon himself warns against long digressions, so I’ll leave it at that for now.

Similarly, Licona quotes (twice) a passage from Lucian about how the historian should try to make his work flow gracefully. Licona then interprets this to mean that Lucian was teaching that it’s okay for historians explicitly to change the time when things happened so as to make the series of events flow more gracefully from one thing to another! But Lucian says nothing of the kind in the passage Licona relies on. The passage is merely a more or less vague discussion of writing in a way that is “smooth” and “connected” and in which the various topics fit together like links in a chain. A quotation from Quintilian, used by Licona in a similar way, is similarly vague and also does not support Licona’s conclusion (pp. 89-90). I note, again, that it is perfectly possible to narrate events more topically than chronologically while not even implying that one is narrating chronologically, much less implying that one is narrating a different chronology from some other document or from the way things actually happened. Hence, injunctions that might support a somewhat topically arranged narrative order do not go any distance toward supportingchanging the chronology of events, which is a completely different matter.

It is therefore worth questioning whether the fictionalizing “literary devices” that Licona lists (transferal, displacement, etc.) even existed in any meaningful sense–a question that makes the last two nodes of the flowchart particularly pressing.

This is another way in which the argument doesn’t even get off the ground. Some people to whom I have spoken about these issues seem to think that it’s established that there “were these literary devices at the time” and that, then, the only question is whether the Gospel authors would have used them. Certainly the second question needs to be asked! Even if one runs the gauntlet of the entire flowchart for some particular passage in Author A, one is by no means entitled to populate the entire ancient world with authors of this kind, much less assume that some particular other author was also inclined to use such a “device.” But I would press the skepticism further, questioning whether “transferal,” “displacement,” and “conflation” qua literary devices were even hanging around in the corporate mind of society to be used at the time of the Gospel authors. And so much the less for more radical “devices” such as “crafting” the entire incident of Doubting Thomas, suggested by Licona (p. 178). So far, I haven’t seen anything that convinces me that such abstract entities existed. The flowchart helps to explain why.

Originally posted on What’s Wrong With the World.

Lydia McGrew

Lydia McGrew

Dr. Lydia McGrew is a widely published analytic philosopher specializing in formal epistemology, probability theory, and philosophy of religion. She is the co-author, with her husband Tim McGrew, of the article on the resurrection of Jesus in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (2009). Her articles have appeared in many professional philosophical journals, and she is the author of the entry on historical inquiry and theism in the Routledge Companion to Theism (2012). Her recent book, Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts, revives a largely forgotten apologetic argument for the reliability of the Gospels, Acts, and the Pauline epistles. Without using any technical terminology, Lydia brings to bear her training in the evaluation of evidence and argues that this internal evidence strongly supports the eyewitness nature of these books of the Bible.

More posts by Lydia.


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