Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Modality of Early Christian Prose

Much like the lavish incongruities observed in the apocalyptic genre, the panoply of early Christian gospel texts appears more or less disinterested in conforming to any particular narrative of Christian origins and instead exhibits an all-but-whimsical freedom, an astonishing prose creativity in depiction and variance in the telling and ordering of scenes. Of the hundreds of Christian works that survive from the first three centuries of the Common Era, no reliable histories exist aside perhaps from fragments of the five books of Papias. Of these hundreds, setting aside the various epistles and apologies, thus focusing on the narratives, we find a single unifying feature: the early Christian narratives were all fictive in modality. Whether one considers the collection of early Christian gospels, the various apostolic acts, the assortment of apocalypses, or the burgeoning stock of hagiographa, until Eusebius’s fourth-century Historia Ecclesiastica, itself a myth of Christian origins, though intended to be read as a history, one encounters nothing deserving of the genus “historiography”; one finds only legends, myths, folktales, and novelistic fictions. Albeit, considering the characteristic gravitas of these texts, one would be mistaken to dismiss them merely as works of aesthetic entertainment. As all of these works exclude the requisite signals distinguishing ancient works of historiography, that is, no visible weighing of sources, no apology for the all-too-common occurrence of the supernatural, no endeavor to distinguish such accounts and conventions from analogous fictive narratives in classical literature (including the frequent mimetic use of Homer, Euripides, and other canonized fictions of classical antiquity), no transparent sense of authorship (or even readership) or origin, the ecclesiastical distinction endeavored by Irenaeus of Lyons et alii to segregate and signify some such works as canonical, reliable histories appears wholly political and arbitrary.

Richard C. Miller, Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity (New York: Routledge, 2015), 133.

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