“In Their Own Terms”

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This past semester in my upper level seminar we were discussing anachronistic uses of categories, among which “religion,” in describing and therefore understanding the past and most specifically ancient Greece, reading among other things Brent Nongbri’s book Before Religion. For those not familiar with the book, Nongbri is offering a historical study of the category religion tracing its origins not in the ancient world but in modern Europe; when used to describe ancient practices Nongbri suggests that the term is anachronistically projected backwards in time, urging his readers to be self-aware when they use that word to talk about the past.

Now my students, as a final assignment, were asked to find examples where they see similar moves happening elsewhere, that is, anachronism used to talk about the past. All the students, prior to writing their final assignments, had to present in class the example they would work on in order to get feedback from their peers. They all came up with wonderful examples from Morgan Freeman’s search for the Afterlife (a National Geographic documentary), to Campus tours, to Church restorations and Disney animated films.

Two of the examples, that were presented this past Monday, struck a particular nerve in me. One was the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” directed by the Coen brothers; set in the 1930s US south, it tells the story of a convict, played by George Clooney, who, along with two friends, escapes prison to get back to his wife and home — a movie that as we learn from the opening credits, is based on Homer’s poem Odyssey. The other example was on a modern illuminated, handwritten Bible that was commissioned by Saint John’ University — a Bible that was described in the Library of Congress’s site as “at once old and new.”

Concerning the first example, I remember the first time I saw the movie, several years ago; although I quite like it, in part, I should be honest, because who doesn’t like a George Clooney singing “I am a Man of Constant Sorrow” (even if not with his own voice!!)…., but oh well back to the point…I admit that I was quite disappointed about the way the myth of Odysseus was represented, that is, it was yet another American movie that “distorted” an ancient Greek myth, something that certainly speaks of my own cultural sensibilities, and my sense for how ancient Greek myths ought to be told.

During our class discussion both examples were evidently understood as modern and that the creators of the movie, for example, were constructing something new by using something old, and of course that they were not trying to understand or describe the myth in its own terms — all this is very obvious to us. Even if in the case of the illuminated manuscript the author suggests, that, “the contemporary bible is at once old and new” it is obvious to us that it is very modern, something explicitly evident in the artistic representations. Both cultural items are intended for a specific, modern audience and are therefore influenced by the cultures in which they emerge.

The reason, though, that I find these two examples interesting enough to talk about is because they can both become an opportunity to think about and challenge the things that we do not so evidently understand as modern, mainly scholarly descriptions and interpretations of past materials guised under phrases such as, for example, “understanding them in their own terms.” I think it is a phrase that, though commonly used, helps to naturalize and thereby authorize new scholarly vocabulary and schemata that critique and replace descriptions and interpretations of a previous generation of scholars; it is a phrase that makes possible a scholarly move that shifts the attention from the author and her/his interests — deriving from her/his theoretical questions and methods — and from her or his intended audience, and, instead, places emphasis on the object, as if it predates the interpreter and the descriptor. The key, then, is to see the contemporaneity and historicity of every description and every interpretation as a modern act, whether in a movie, illuminated manuscript, art restoration or scholarly work.

In other words, the challenge is to take seriously our own historicity, and positionality and maybe let go of the idea that somehow we can describe and therefore understand people who lived 2000 years before our time “in their own terms.” What studying anachronism therefore invites us to do is to take seriously that the way we talk about the world, present or past, speaks primarily of our own interests, positions, situations, cultural sensibilities as well as the intended audiences to which we are writing or talking.

This is definitely a challenge for anyone working with ancient artifacts, a challenge that is similar to Odysseus’ adventures and efforts to get back to Ithaca, and perhaps a challenge of constant sorrows…!

4 Replies to ““In Their Own Terms””

  1. In the same spirit :
    « In the English translation of Eusebius of Caesarea (Praeparatio Evangelica, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1903, Book xiv, Chap. 3, §2–5) the word “religion” translates the Greek word “εύσεβίας,” which designates more exactly “piety” or “respect.” But in rendering it into English by the word “religion,” derived at any rate from the Latin and not the Greek, E.H. Gifford follows in a certain way the work of his author. In fact, he inserts into this text from the beginning of the fourth century a notion that did not exist in terms of its subsequent traditional acceptance. The modern reader will no doubt not pose the question and, if it were posed, he or she would answer that the religion talked about in the Greek text is of course his or hers, and thus of course it is familiar. In doing this, the translator’s slight “helping hand” reinforces to a certain extent the demonstration that Eusebius wished to make, but via a route that the latter could not have foreseen, much less enunciated. It is not easy to give a faithful account of this highly precise mechanism, whose semantic shiftings and tendentious translations associated with subtle narrative anachronisms deform historic reality by covering it with a unilateral teleology whose origin, naturally, is situated, by its own doing, in the New Testament.
    Jennifer Eyl has analyzed the same complex mechanism with respect to a term that is no less crucial for (the retrospective re-writing of) the history of Christianity – the Greek word “ekklēsia” in Paul, in her “Semantic Voids, New Testament Translation, and Anachronism: The Case of Paul’s Use of Ekklēsia,” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 26/4–5 (2014):315–339. She concludes: “This retroactive and anachronistic appending of church-associated concepts and meanings obscures the fact that Paul was using a word which may have had special meaning to him, but was unremarkable to his gentile readers, for whom ekklēsia likely meant something like our word ‘assembly’ or ‘gathering’” (332).
    In the two cases, there is a retrospection into ancient Greek terms of anachronistic translations – “religion” or “church” – which allows them to appear as milestones that reinforce the cohesion and unity of Eusebius’ narrative ».
    Daniel Dubuisson, Religion and Magic in Western Culture, Brill, 2016, p. 68 note 8 (shortened quotation).

    1. Thank you Daniel!! This is certainly in the spirit of my blog and my class. The “ekklesia” example is great and I often times use it in my classes as well.

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