What’s Wrong with the World

The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.


What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

St. Augustine on Narrating dyschronologically vs. narrating achronologically

Repeatedly I remind those interested in the New Testament and in issues of historicity that there is a crucial distinction between an author's simply being non-specific about chronological order and his changing the chronology in his account so that it is contrary to fact.

Again and again (as I pointed out in this talk), literary device theorists fail to make this crucial distinction. They will say something vague like, "Ancient authors did not always narrate chronologically" or "Ancient readers did not always expect authors to narrate chronologically" and then use that to defend the conclusion that a Gospel author changed the chronology in a story, deliberately, to make it appear that events happened in a different order than they actually happened or took less time than they actually took. Narrating without indicating a specific chronology is what I call narrating achronologically--without a chronology. Changing chronology is what I call narrating dyschronologically.

Now, as I made clear here, I am not saying that every scholar who attributes dyschronological narration to a Gospel author is failing to make this distinction. Perhaps a scholar makes the distinction, makes it quite clear that he means dyschronological narration, and says that's what the Gospel author is doing. In that case, I think he's wrong. There is no case where we have good reason to believe that the Gospel authors deliberately changed chronology. But he may not be eliding the distinction. He may just be openly, clearly wrong.

But I will say this: If a scholar wants to defend the claim that "the ancients" thought dyschronological narration was fine, that it was "accepted at the time" that the Gospels were written, rather than just asserting it without argument, he is not even going to be able to make a passable pretense of such a defense without eliding this distinction. The reason for that is quite simple: There is no good evidence that the ancients, much less the evangelists and their audiences, did accept dyschronological narration as a "literary device," but there is lots of evidence for the use of achronological narration. Indeed, we do a fair amount of achronological narration ourselves, especially in informal speech.

Therefore, any time a scholar starts claiming to give citations and arguments that the ancients just accepted dyschronological narration, you can pretty much take it to the bank that he is going to start eliding that distinction, citing passages that exhibit or discuss narrating achronologically and treating them as if they support narrating dyschronologically.

Unfortunately, other scholars don't know this. So they just docilely accept Eminent Scholar A's assertion that, "The ancients didn't think it was necessary to narrate chronologically" as if Eminent Scholar A must have some knock-down evidence that "the ancients" were all in favor of dyschronological narration. And thus the meme gets passed along.

As far as I know, I'm the first person in modern times to come along and point out this problem, to track down the alleged evidence that "the ancients" accepted dyschronological narration, and to challenge the conclusion.

Recently I was doing such tracking down by following up some cross-references in Craig Keener's commentary on John's Gospel. Keener suggests that John changed the time of Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple from late in his ministry (when, according to Keener, it actually occurred only once), making it appear to have occurred early. He claims that such a dyschronological change would be compatible with ancient narrative practices. Says Keener, “As noted in the introduction, ch. 1, ancient readers did not expect ancient biographies to adhere to chronological sequence.” (Keener, John, p. 518)

So back I went to the introduction to read up about this. Obviously, as the concept is used on p. 518, it refers to dyschronological narration, since that is what Keener is attributing to John. But, exactly as expected, the references in the introduction support only the practice of achronological narration. For example, Keener refers to the fact that Plutarch accidentally narrates the same incident twice in his Life of Alexander. In this little anecdote, one of Alexander’s followers, then getting on in life, says that those Greeks were deprived of great pleasure who died without seeing (as he saw) Alexander sitting on the throne of Darius. (Life of Alexander, 37.7, 56.1) But this repetition is not dyschronological. Plutarch merely drops in this particular short anecdote in two different places without at all implying that it happened at any time contrary to fact. The accidental duplicate narrative (the second time he tells it) is not time-stamped in any clear way at all.

One of the most surprising citations Keener gives in support of the statement that "ancient readers did not expect ancient biographies to adhere to chronological sequence" is to St. Augustine. Keener says of Augustine, "Nor did early Christians expect the Gospels to reflect chronological sequence; Augustine suggested the evangelists wrote their Gospels as God recalled the accounts to their memory." (John, p. 13) If one reads just this early part of the commentary, this is frustratingly ambiguous. What does "reflect chronological sequence" mean? If something does not "reflect chronological sequence," is it achronological or dyschronological? But five hundred pages later, Keener will refer back to this segment of the introduction to defend what he is expressly identifying as a dyschronological narration in John. So apparently, he thinks that at least inter alia, this claim about ancient readers and the Gospels, supported inter alia by his reference to Augustine, means that readers of the Gospels thought it was okay for the evangelists to narrate dyschronologically.

So I chased down the citation in Augustine. Indeed, Augustine does say that the Gospel authors probably wrote as God brought things to their minds. And indeed he does say that this might result in their narrating in an order that is not the chronological order of events.

But there the resemblance to the use Keener wants to make of the citation ends. And ends abruptly. And ends dramatically. For St. Augustine (in this passage of his Harmony of the Gospels, which Keener cites) is explicit in distinguishing between achronological narration and apparent narrative discrepancies. He is emphatic that he is only saying that the Gospel authors may have sometimes narrated achronologically. In fact, he goes even farther: He expressly states that, if they are clear about chronology, and if there is an apparent discrepancy between what appear to be clear chronologies, then such an apparent discrepancy does require harmonization. Augustine could not be clearer in his rejection of dyschronological narration and his insistence upon traditional harmonization when there is an apparent discrepancy. He is merely saying that the evangelists sometimes narrated without being clear about chronological sequence.

This point, by the way, has been a standard tool of traditional harmonizers throughout the ages. It is by no means something that literary device theorists have given us. Very much to the contrary. The literary device theorist will repeatedly claim that the author has a chronology when he doesn't, that it is in conflict with the chronology in some other document, and then, voila! He will claim a "literary device" in which the author changes chronology in order to resolve a "discrepancy" of his own making. I discuss that point here.

Back to Augustine. Augustine's actual statements in context are entirely antithetical to the use that Keener will (indirectly) make of them to defend the alleged acceptance of dyschronological narration by early Christians and hence by John. Here is the passage in Augustine, at length:

Matthew proceeds in the following terms: And when Jesus had come into Peter's house, He saw his wife's mother laid, and sick of a fever. And He touched her hand, and the fever left her: and she arose, and ministered unto them. Matthew has not indicated the date of this incident; that is to say, he has specified neither before what event nor after what occurrence it took place. For we are certainly under no necessity of supposing that, because it is recorded after a certain event, it must also have happened in actual matter of fact after that event. And unquestionably, in this case, we are to understand that he has introduced for record here something which he had omitted to notice previously. For Mark brings in this narrative before his account of that cleansing of the leper which he would appear to have placed after the delivery of the sermon on the mount; which discourse, however, he has left unrelated.... For of what consequence is it in what place any of them may give his account; or what difference does it make whether he inserts the matter in its proper order, or brings in at a particular point what was previously omitted, or mentions at an earlier stage what really happened at a later, provided only that he contradicts neither himself nor a second writer in the narrative of the same facts or of others?... [I]t is reasonable enough to suppose that each of the evangelists believed it to have been his duty to relate what he had to relate in that order in which it had pleased God to suggest to his recollection the matters he was engaged in recording. At least this might hold good in the case of those incidents with regard to which the question of order, whether it were this or that, detracted nothing from evangelical authority and truth.... For this reason, therefore, when the order of times is not apparent, we ought not to feel it a matter of any consequence what order any of them may have adopted in relating the events. But wherever the order is apparent, if the evangelist then presents anything which seems to be inconsistent with his own statements, or with those of another, we must certainly take the passage into consideration, and endeavor to clear up the difficulty (emphasis added). (The Harmony of the Gospels, II.21.51-52)

It would have been difficult for Augustine to be clearer on the matter.

I believe that the failure to distinguish achronological from dyschronological narration is a very serious problem in discussions of these matters, especially when scholars try to justify the implication that "the ancients" accepted dyschronological narration as a literary device. See Dr. Keener discussing the issue of chronology in the same ambiguous way here with reference to the cursing of the fig tree. After setting up a chart that indicates a contradiction between Matthew and Mark in explicit chronology, Keener "resolves" this with the slightly arch comment, "But guess what? Ancient readers didn’t expect ancient biographies to be in chronological order, and moving material around was considered a matter of arrangement, not of accuracy." While we are using that phrase, I will go ahead and use it myself: Guess what? We don't have any evidence that ancient readers expected ancient biographies to change chronology from true to false.

It simply is not well-understood that there is no good evidence for this and that the evidence for achronological narration is being "ported over" and treated as if it supports acceptance of dyschronological narration. The astonishing thing in the Augustine quote is that Augustine expressly blocks that use of what he says about the Gospel authors, and yet his quotation is being used (indirectly, in a conclusion drawn five hundred pages later) in that way anyway, apparently through a sheer failure to realize the importance of the distinction.

We simply must be more precise than this, particularly when research conclusions are going to be taken up and repeated from scholar to scholar. And they are. William Lane Craig states expressly that for John to move the Temple cleansing--to narrate dyschronologically--was accepted by the "standards of the day." Why does he think that? Well, he doesn't give any citations of his own, but I have followed up all the citations I've found from scholars, and none of them provide good support for this statement! Not one. In some cases the claim (particularly in Licona's book) is that he has actually found Plutarch or another ancient author narrating dyschronologically, which is supposed to be part of an inductive case for such acceptance, but all of these fail, for a variety of reasons. (See some Plutarchan examples discussed here.) Sometimes they fail precisely because Plutarch appears to be narrating achronologically but Licona insists on interpreting him as implying a chronology. Sometimes they fail because Plutarch or some other author could be making an honest error. Sometimes they fail because the accounts can be readily harmonized by some other normal means. See the flowchart here and note, while we're at it, that secular authors at least may engage in propaganda or truth-changing without using an "accepted literary device."

When it comes to supposed actual statements from ancient historiographers and historians about order, these never turn out to support dyschronological narration. At most, they sometimes talk about achronological narration. As does St. Augustine, for that matter, making a careful distinction between this and places where the order is indeed indicated.

We have to follow up the evidence, not just repeat the conclusion. It's bad enough when the alleged evidence simply fails to support the conclusion in question. It's even worse when, as here, the quotation in context goes directly against the use that is ultimately being made of the citation. These are dusty matters, but they are important for understanding important matters, and unfortunately we can't afford at this point to take the word of the experts with unquestioning faith.

Comments (10)

It is nice to hear someone defending the NT in an intelligent way. This approach I also saw on your husband's lecture and it makes a lot of sense.

How's the book coming along Lydia?

Working like a beaver, Callum. It's good stuff.

Augustine is one philosopher that has a lot of important ideas

What is interesting to me is that this phenomenon takes only a little bit of bad will and lack of academic integrity, for it to snowball into a central theme of "scholarship" through uncritical borrowing by many others. It only takes one or a small handful of early scholars to, for example, make comments that assert explicitly on the basis of achronology things that require dyschronology, and to imply or claim examples (or approval) are found in Plutarch or Augustine. And then other scholars pick up on the assertion without bothering to critically notice the difference between a- and dis-, and without bothering to CHECK the sources and the examples claimed and see whether they are consistent with a- or dis-. The first authors using it might be guilty of exaggerating what the source material is evidence for, or might be guilty of full-on intentional equivocation, or (possibly) might even be merely stupid and not even recognize the distinction to begin with. The later scholars are guilty of being gullible, of failing to check sources, of failing to think critically and demand proof of assertions before accepting them - but NOT of actual lying about the what the ancient authors did or were expected to do: they just are bamboozled by the claims made and run with them. While the latter scholars are guilty of bad scholarship in these faults, they are not guilty of bad WILL in them, except in this: in wanting to find reasons to disparage the historicity of the gospels. They wouldn't have been so gullible, or so accepting, had they not been hearing something that they wanted to hear.

Or hearing something from a source they trusted. Hyper-specialization is a huge problem here. I have had one scholar tell me that he "doesn't consider himself qualified" to evaluate the Plutarchan material. Just take my word for it--this person is qualified. It's not hard. It's just a matter of reading. Mind you, I totally understand that it's *time-consuming*, but that's not the same thing as requiring specialized training of some esoteric variety. Plutarch's Lives are available on-line, both in Greek and in English. I just recently found an error in a literary device theorist--a straight-up error, not even something subjective, but something cut-and-dried--in reading a speech by Cicero. The Cicero speech is available on-line, in both English and Latin. It's like people are living in a world where nobody can check anybody else's work.

Frankly, I think that is a big sociological thing. It's considered insulting to check someone else's work and part of the "understanding" among these scholars that one begs off doing so and just accepts the other person's conclusions unquestioningly, saying self-deprecatingly that one "isn't qualified." Then someone comes along who *does* check and says that a big mistake has been made, and if that person can be dismissed as an outsider, they are.

In some cases of course even those with undeniable credentials *do* disagree, and then what are the other scholars going to do? Eeny-meeny-miny-moe, I suppose, to pick their preferred expert. Or whichever one they know personally, or something. To give just one example, Richard Bauckham completely disagrees with the interpretation of "chreiai" in Papias used by Craig Evans. Bauckham is *at least* as qualified as Evans (more, really), and Bauckham isn't even all that conservative in some other ways. (He denies Matthean authorship of Matthew, for example.) Yet I've seen a big-name evangelical scholar, probably unaware that Evans's claims are open to question, citing Evans uncritically. One wonders what he would do if it were pointed out that Bauckham says "chreiai" in Papias doesn't mean that Mark and/or Peter were influenced by rhetorical training. Just still stick to citing Evans arbitrarily? I've checked it out, and Bauckham is undeniably right and Evans definitely wrong--taking the word wildly out of context. Moreover, this is par for the course for Evans, who makes a combination of blunders about history, content of texts, and extremely bad exegesis quite frequently. But I had to *check* to find that out.

It's very frustrating, but I tend to think there are laymen out there who will listen when someone points out the various ways in which the emperor has no clothes rather than just deferring to a combination of credentials and somewhat random selection of which credentialed expert to agree with.

Lydia, I think what you are pointing to is a grave and far advanced symptom of the disease of modernism in academia. At least that's what it seems like to me. I will admit that my reading here may be skewed by my training and background, but I think there is enough here to at least claim a hearing.

The modernism movement in the academic arena has many, many different effects, but they all hang together as a family grouping. They all hinge on or at least play to a POV that either there is no such thing as Truth with a capital T, or that even if there could theoretically be such a thing, humans cannot possibly have access to it. The manifestations of this POV include professors who cannot see their way to calling foul on other professors' professional work, no matter how awful they think it is "in their own POV" (of course). And this naturally leads to, first, course-work that is idiotic (in perfectly normal courses), and then whole courses that are idiotic, and finally whole disciplines (like "trans studies") that are idiotic: not only are professors unwilling to disparage a section or chapter of a colleague's book, they are unwilling to completely (and directly) disparage a colleague's specialty course, or their whole life's "work" in a made-up discipline. And "academic freedom" is taken to such an extreme that even the university administration is disallowed to weigh in on whether a professor's work or his discipline is worthy of being offered. In that kind of topsy-turvy environment, "tenure" is not just a sought-after plum, it is a tumor that accentuates the overall problem and creates almost impenetrable barriers to making fixes to the system. And given this framework, being "recognized" as a colleague in the almost entirely arbitrary mechanism of getting a qualifying Ph.D. constitutes the gateway for whether everyone else in academia will say of your work "hands off, don't say a word in protest" versus "pile on and cut her down at the knees for not being "one of us", regardless of the content of her work. (That's only partly true, of course: academia is also a liberals-only club, and when avowedly conservative professors and Ph.D.s say what liberals don't like, the gloves come off and the "don't disparage" rule is thrown in the trash.)

But it all stems from a disbelief in truth. Who can say nay to a course in comparing Mapplethorpe to Stephen Hawking, if "truth" is merely "what you make of it"? Who can demand an accounting of a "scholar" who screws up distinctions left and right, once he has his tenure and is thus "qualified" to decide which distinctions he will abide by and which he will reject? What does it mean to "prove" a scholar is wrong, when the grounds of proof are rejected? What does it matter whether an academic is a fruitcake, if the administration keeps funding his half-baked nonsense? Modernism as a practice consists in putting pretty lipstick on all this piggy nonsense so that the uninitiated are unwilling to say the emperor is porcine: the semantic two-step is to take away with the left hand every assertion made on the right, so that everything is clouded by theses going everywhich way and back again. Except that the whole facade rejects unambiguous claims of truth: THAT kind of "scholarship" is not tolerated by the high-priests of toleration.

My alma mater was founded with the clear perception that modernism and its descendants were ascendant in academia, and in rejection of the whole project. The whole point was to say back at the modern university: you are pig-headedly in denial of the very purpose of a university, and in honesty you should disband your empty institutions, but we will pursue the truth that you reject.

It's very frustrating, but I tend to think there are laymen out there who will listen when someone points out the various ways in which the emperor has no clothes rather than just deferring to a combination of credentials and somewhat random selection of which credentialed expert to agree with.

A big breakthrough for me in my 20s was in gaining confidence in my own thinking and assessment of arguments. This doesn't mean a state of 100% iconoclasm, but it does mean that weak arguments or arguments based on convention or whatever the flow of modern scholarship was did not carry any weight. I learned that the earlier scholars, like my cyber pen name here, weren't ever refuted or shown to be wrong, nor was new evidence discovered that rendered their conclusions (while defensible at the time) wrong; they were merely bypassed, consigned to the dustbin with negative labels like "Victorian" or "pre-modern" or "fundamentalist".

From my own foray into academia, I have first-hand experiences and first-hand reasons to not take it seriously in the sense of credentials or publications meaning much. What matters is evidence.

It would be great to get younger people equipped with a critical apparatus to where they're not snowed by credentials. Would save quite a bit from dropping out of the faith due to supposed intellectual problems. There are enough tough questions and difficulties with Christianity even when one has one's head screwed on straight; one doesn't and shouldn't add more difficulties. (But there are so many more tough questions and difficulties with any other competitor to Christianity IMHO.)

Lydia, I think what you are pointing to is a grave and far advanced symptom of the disease of modernism in academia. At least that's what it seems like to me. I will admit that my reading here may be skewed by my training and background, but I think there is enough here to at least claim a hearing.

The modernism movement in the academic arena has many, many different effects, but they all hang together as a family grouping. They all hinge on or at least play to a POV that either there is no such thing as Truth with a capital T, or that even if there could theoretically be such a thing, humans cannot possibly have access to it.


Seriously though, you've nailed it. I'd also add that behind this modernism movement as you call it is nihilism. Don't know if it is me, but as my life goes on all the worldview choices that used to seem distinct seem to coalesce into Christianity vs nihilism. Sometimes even I wonder if this is too binary or starkly dichotomous, but I keep coming to that conclusion.

St Augustine is the source of some great ideas that got into the work of Jewish scholars during the Middle Ages. However when people borrow from him or any Christina source, the source of the idea is usually not given. But even more than specific idea there is his whole Neo Platonic approach which became part and parcel of approved Jewish thought--mainly starting with Saadia Gaon.

One of the well known ideas of Augustine is that time is a creation. But there are many more.

In other words when you hear, "ancient historians said x" take it with extreme skepticism.

Post a comment

Bold Italic Underline Quote

Note: In order to limit duplicate comments, please submit a comment only once. A comment may take a few minutes to appear beneath the article.

Although this site does not actively hold comments for moderation, some comments are automatically held by the blog system. For best results, limit the number of links (including links in your signature line to your own website) to under 3 per comment as all comments with a large number of links will be automatically held. If your comment is held for any reason, please be patient and an author or administrator will approve it. Do not resubmit the same comment as subsequent submissions of the same comment will be held as well.