Jens Schröter on the Differences between Historical and Literary Narratives

In connection with my other Schröter posts on historiography, this “key quotation” on historiography and New Testament scholarship will be taken from the 10th chapter of Jens Schröter’s book Von Jesus zum Neuen Testament/From Jesus to the New Testament, namely Luke as Historiographer.  As usual I will begin with the English translation so that the (selective) grammatical commentary directly follows the German text.

From Jesus to the New Testament, p. 215: “The joining of historical material and interpretive presentation is thus a constitutive characteristic for every presentation of history. The differences between historical and literary narratives lie, however, in the ‘documentary’ aim of the former, which is oriented to the securing of the traces from the past. This distinguishes it from novelistic presentations, which on the basis of their genre already show themselves to be works that are not obligated to a critical processing of the source material. The task of historiographic works, by contrast, can be described as ‘representation’ (Repräsentanz), insofar as the historical narrative stands for the past in the present on the basis of the historical material.”

Von Jesus zum Neuen Testament, p. 234: „Die Verknüpfung von historischem Material und interpretierender Darstellung ist somit ein für jede Geschichtsdarstellung konstitutives Merkmal. Die Differenzen zwischen historischer und literarischer Erzählung liegen indes in der ‚dokumentarischen‘, an der Sicherung der Spuren aus der Vergangenheit orientierten Ausrichtung der Ersteren. Dies unterscheidet sie vom romanhaften Darstellungen, die sich bereits von der Gattung her als Werke zu erkennen geben, die nicht auf eine kritische Aufbereitung des Quellenmaterials verpflichtet sind. Die Aufgabe historiographischer Werke lässt sich dagegen als ‚Repräsentanz‘ beschreiben, insofern die historische Erzählung auf der Basis des historischen Materials die Vergangenheit in der Gegenwart vertritt.“

(Selective) Grammatical Commentary:  “Verknüpfung” has the force of “joining”, “linking”, “connecting” or “combination”. “Darstellung” could be translated as presentation, representation, or portrayal. “somit” can often be translated as “thus”; “therefore” or “consequently” could also be good options here. Instead of “a constitutive characteristic for every presentation of history” it might have been better/clearer to translate the German phrase as “a characteristic (or feature) that is constitutive for every presentation of history”.  “Ausrichtung is modified by ‘dokumentarischen’ and “orientierten”, and the phrase “an der Sicherung der Spuren aus der Vergangenheit” is dependent upon “orientierten” – a good example of syntax that is difficult to follow and even more difficult to translate! One obviously cannot write: “in the documentary, to-the- securing-of-the-traces-of-the-past oriented aim of the former. The translation of “Ausrichtung” as “aim” is perhaps not ideal. Normally, “orientation” is a good solution, but this would be awkward here since it is followed by the word “oriented”. “Focus” or “direction” might be workable options, but aim is probably just as good or better.  “zu erkennen geben” has the force of “show themselves to be” or “reveal themselves to be” – as usual the verb is moved to the end of the subordinate clause. “lässt sich … + infinitive” has the force of “can be verb-ed” (here: can be described). “Dagegen” can be translated as “by contrast”, “however,” or “whereas” depending on the context. In FJNT I chose to translate “Repräsentanz” as “representation” and “Vertretung” as “standing for” (p. 90), and I have consequently translated “vertritt” as “stand for” here. But if my memory hold true, I believe that Ricoeur’s translators take the opposite tack in Time and Narrative, i.e., they translate “Repräsentanz” as “standing for” and “Vertretung” as “representation”.

Substantive Analysis: This paragraph captures well the nuanced position that Schröter is trying to develop. On the one hand, he is concerned to highlight the epistemological inadequacy of the “Aristotelian opposition between history writing, which transmits what happened, and literature (or poetry), which fabricates what could have been” (FJNT, p. 13). On the other hand, he is concerned here to stress that it is still possible to identify differences between historical narratives and literary narratives or novelistic presentations, namely with reference to the obligation to a critical processing of the source material. Finally, Ricoeur’s category of “representation” is taken up as a valuable concept for communicating Schröter’s nuanced view of the task of historiographic works (see further FJNT, index: Ricouer).

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