Presenting at the Society of Biblical Literature 2018 Annual Meeting in Denver, CO

If anyone has been wondering about my absence over the last couple months, I had to take medical leave at the end of Spring Quarter, due to a number of health conditions, and I’ve henceforth been taking time to rest from both school and the blog. My situation is gradually improving, though I’m still feeling far from optimal. Today is the first day that I have felt up to writing again.

Right now I just want to post a brief announcement about an important conference that I’ve been accepted to present at. For the 2018 Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature–which will take place on November 17th-20th in Denver, CO–I have had a paper accepted to the program unit “Ancient Fiction and Early Christian and Jewish Narrative.” I’ve presented at two regional meetings of the SBL before, but this will be my first presentation at the large, national meeting. I’m quite excited!

My paper’s title is “Staging Bíos: A Diegetic and Mimetic Analysis of Speech in the Gospels within the Biographical Tradition.” Below is the abstract:

By analyzing the role of narrator and dialogue in the New Testament Gospels, this paper will compare their mimetic narrative techniques with the fictional tone of biographies like the Life of Aesop, while contrasting the historical tone of biographers like Plutarch and Suetonius, drawing attention to how the two styles of biography achieve characterization. Whereas biographies of a historical tone are more prone to “tell” (diegesis) a man’s character, by interjecting judgements in the author’s own voice, the Gospels “show” (mimesis) their central character, by staging Jesus in dialogue.

When distinguishing the Gospels from the writings of ancient historiography, Auerbach (2003: 46) notes their “numerous face-to-face dialogues” as a point of contrast to how “direct discourse is restricted in the antique historians to great continuous speeches.” The use of dialogue in ancient historiography was rare, with a historian like Thucydides including it only twice in his entire narrative (3.113; 5.84-116). The latter instance of the Melian Dialogue is such an exception to Thucydides’ narratological technique that Dionysius of Halicarnassus in On the Language of Thucydides (37) emphasizes how Thucydides begins by summarizing the exchange in reported speech (διηγηµατικóν), but then “dramatizes” (δραματίζει) the narrative through dialogue.

Although the Gospels are shorter and focused more on the life of a single individual than the broader scope of historians like Thucydides, scholars such as Burridge (2004) have identified the Gospels with the genre of ancient biography. Speech patterns in biography are more diverse than in historiography, but the role of dialogue generally bears a connection with that of narrator. The biographies of authors like Plutarch and Suetonius are told by a first-person, authorial narrator, who often interjects his own judgements and experiences into the narrative. The narratology of these biographies is not anonymous, whereas the Gospels–particularly Mark and Matthew–are anonymously told by a third-person, external narrator. Other anonymously narrated biographies include the Life of Aesop. The frequent use of dialogue, narrated within historico-geographical settings, is chiefly a characteristic of anonymous biographies, and it pertains to their fictional rather than historical tone.

Rhetorica ad Herennium (1.13) uses the Latin “argumentum”–a word associated with comedy–as the term for “fiction” to distinguish it from “historia.” Theatre is characterized by mimetic narrative techniques, in which dialogue is performed in direct discourse. Fictional writing, such as the ancient novel, resembles theatre in part because of an emphasis on dialogue. Diegetic narrative, however, is more characteristic of history, in which conversation is “reported” more than “shown.” Historiography is likewise characterized by first-person narration (Baum 2008), and the presence of the authorial narrator is central to how historians diegetically report discourse and events. The diegetic narrative techniques of biographers like Plutarch and Suetonius–particularly in their first-person narration and tendency to eschew dialogue–are distinct from the mimetic narrative techniques of the Gospels, which are replete with anonymously narrated dialogues. In this respect, biographers like Plutarch and Suetonius exhibit a greater affinity with historiography, whereas anonymous biographies like the Gospels align more with the novel.

For those who want to learn more about the terms “diegesis” and “mimesis,” which may sound a bit like scholastic jargon above, you can check out my previous blog essay–“Diegesis and Mimesis: A Very Brief Introduction.”

As time moves forward, I will gradually get back into the swing of things. I’m aware that there are some pending comments that I still need to answer, which I will get to as soon as I feel able. I’ll likely answer some comments sooner than others, depending on the time commitment, so don’t be alarmed if I don’t get to yours right away. They are all on my mind and will each be addressed in due course.

To better days ahead,

Matthew Ferguson

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3 Responses to Presenting at the Society of Biblical Literature 2018 Annual Meeting in Denver, CO

  1. busterggi says:

    Feel better, I just started physical therapy myself a few weeks ago myself.

  2. Awesome! Sounds really fascinating! I love the topics you’ve covered thus far. I find it really fascinating that you study biblical literature and Early Christianity in a secular context. I liked your articles on how you compare the Gospels to common literature of the day, versus the highly learned literature, and the more simple sentence structure of the Gospels providing evidence for that.

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