There is no such thing as a time machine. Ancient history can only be understood by modern peoples through the cultural documentation that was left behind. Writings from the period of the New Testament exist but they do not provide information into every aspect of everyday life. Consequently, historians and scholars must analyze the documents that are in existence in order to gain a greater understanding into the world's past. One technique that makes it possible for current populations to understand ancient texts is the use of literary ethnography. This procedure is the endeavor to use qualitative means to learn about and to better understand various cultural documentation and ideology which mirror that culture's society. Particularly of importance to ethnography is the ways and means of knowledge acquisition of a culture and also the system of meanings and which dictate that culture, such as language and the roles of particular members of the population. What can be empirically correct or incorrect about a long-gone culture can be best determined by the use of ethnography. Certain components of literary ethnography are more useful in the interpretation of given texts than others. In order to understand the text of the New Testament, modern scholars should investigate argumentation exemplified in texts, the concept of providence in these same documents, and the concept of the simple life.
Argumentation is, by definition, the ways in which an individual, or a given collective body, tries to convince others of a point. In sociology, argumentation is the study of how humans should, can, and ultimately do reach conclusions and how they utilize logic to determine these conclusions. These are claims which must have a base or a premises on which to be justified, not merely a hypothesis without discernable evidence to support it. In Ancient Greece and Rome, students in the educational system had to be trained to argue and debate amongst themselves and also with their teachers. This was deemed important because it would allow them to question their authorities later on in their lives. People must be taught not only how to learn, but also how to question the motivations behind the information they are being taught. In essence, students were trained to consider various options before taking a course of action, making them more thoughtful men in the process.
In order to be able to debate, students were trained in a series of pre-rhetorical exercises called progymnasmata. The progymnasmata were separated into fourteen distinct lessons which would begin with simpler lessons about grammar, syntax, content, and the key component: argumentation (Aphthonius 1). As the student progressed through the series, he would see that the lessons would become more complicated and the requirements for completion would be more complex as well. By the time that the student finally finished the entire series of fourteen progymnasmata, the student would be well prepared to undertake lessons on rhetoric and in effective argumentation.
One of the first lessons that a student would have to pass was the chreia. A chreia is a story or anecdote about another person which is used in order to educate and inform the listening audience. It is comparable to a moralistic story or a personification tale in the modern vernacular. The traditional chreia was divided into three parts: a chreiai with a saying, a chreiai with an action, and a chreiai that is mixed; being comprised of both the chreiai with a saying and the one with an action. A teacher would use the technique of the chreia to inform the students about a lesson, using the story as a form of textual evidence. In this text, Aphtonius of Antioch uses the quotation by Isocrates who said, "The root of education is bitter, but its fruit are sweet." There are eight steps in performing a proper chreia: 1) the encomiastic or appraisal, 2) the paraphrastic, 3) rationale, 4) from the opposite position, 5) performing an analogy, 6) providing an example, 7) hearing testimony from the ancients, and then 8) providing a short epilogue. In order to prove the quote by Isocrates is true, the author goes through each of these steps. The encomiastic step is where the author is praising of the creator of the quotation and providing reasons to believe in what he is saying. The paraphrastic step asks the author to paraphrase the main point of the quotation. This makes it more understandable to people who may not truly comprehend the quotation without elucidation. The rationale by definition is providing a rationalization for why the quote is necessary and accurate. Providing the opposite argument is an effective argumentation tool because it ensures that the author understands the opposition and yet dismisses it, adding veracity to his perception and limiting credibility to the opposition. The next two steps, performing an analogy and providing an example are similar in concept. This requires that the teller of the story is able to apply the lessons of the quotation or the story into other avenues. Additional testimony adds credibility to the position of the teacher and providing an epilogue forms a bookend to the conversation and makes it more difficult for those listening or reading the chreia to discount the position of that author.
Another aspect that scholars can use to better understand the culture under investigation is the concept of providence. Many people associate providence with fate or destiny and this is an apt association. However, providence, as opposed to those other terms, is more about the divine plans that a higher power has for the individual. Providence is the understanding and acceptance that everything happens because of some larger ethereal plan. It is the comprehension and knowledge that humans are more or less unable to change the determinations of providence.
Author Epictetus believed in the unrelenting power of providence and exemplified his belief in his writings. He writes that often people only accept providence when things are beneficial to them. Providence is praised when a person has achieved or received everything they could hope for. However, providence is admonished or the existence of it is denied when things are not happening in a way the person would hope for. Everything, he argues, must be attributed to providence because only a divine plan for the world would explain how things work. He uses the example that it would be irrelevant for colors to exist if there were no beings capable of sight to witness them. Neither of these would have any matter, he states, had not a supreme being also created light with which the various colors become visible. This also explains why there are some creatures that are capable of reason and understanding, such as humans and why there are irrational creatures that can sustain their existence through food and sleep without questioning the world around them.
The third component of literary ethnography that can be used to better understand ancient cultures is the idea of the simple life. What exactly did the given culture desire in terms of their existence? Were they a predominantly economically-minded society or were they more concerned with individual contentment? The lands of Ancient Greece and Rome were heavily interested in the idea of the simple life. Philosophers of the era were most supportive of a simplistic lifestyle wherein minimalism and a concerted effort to indulge in the possession of less was considered indicative of an individual who was in some way superior than those who coveted massive amounts of material goods.
Philosopher Diogenes in "Principal Representatives of Cynic Philosophy" makes the point that anything of value will inherently lose value. In addition, the things that are the most costly are often the things that a person could do without. Wealthy people invest in such unnecessary spectacles as statues while people in the streets are starving. These people could be fed for pennies and yet they starve. This is just one example of the ways in which discrepancies and misunderstanding of true values is made evident. Another example is when Diogenes saw a boy drinking water. The philosopher himself was drinking from a cup and yet the boy using only his bare hands was able to get the same amount of water. This educated the man that even though he believed himself to be knowledgeable about how to live simplistically, even he could be taught something new.
A literary work from the era, entitled "The Dream, or the Rooster," exemplified the ancient Greek and Roman ideas about the benefits of living a simplistic life. In this tale a man is angry at his rooster for crowing at an inconvenient time and waking him from a dream. This man, in his waking life, is poor and living in poverty. He is miserable rather than understanding that he is actually living the philosophical ideal of existing in a simplistic and ultimately more fulfilling life. The rooster in this story is actually the voice of wisdom, warning his master of the dangers of dreaming of wealth at the…
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