The Power of Point of View

Did the Original Biblical Audiences “Watch Movies” in their Heads?

Sears photo - 9 - croppedby GARY YAMASAKI   Is it possible the stories of the Bible were composed with the intention that the readers/hearers would view the action of the stories in their “mind’s eye”? In Everything You Never Realized You Wanted to Know, I suggested this as a possibility, but did not at the time provide a defence of this idea. Then, in a subsequent post, I did offer a defence, in the face of a challenge to this suggestion, but because of limited space, it ended up being only a bare-bones defence. This post will provide a more substantial case in support of this proposition.

I have often experienced, when hearing or reading a story, the phenomenon of seeing the action of the story unfolding inside my head, as if there were a movie screen set up in there. And I have suspected that this might very well be a universal human experience, and if so, something the biblical authors could have been aware of, and could have exploited in their crafting of the narratives of the Bible. However, I did not have any hard evidence to support the premise that this phenomenon existed back in biblical times.

Then I came across a book by Harry Maier entitled Picturing Paul in Empire (T. & T. Clark, 2013). Now, this is not a work intent on addressing the issue of whether people in biblical times had images appearing in their mind’s eye while reading or hearing a story; rather, this is a book focusing on the importance of interpreting New Testament texts against the backdrop of the iconography of the time. But the introductory section of this volume presents some points that are pertinent to our issue.

The introduction includes a section entitled “Ekphrasis” (28-31), a component of ancient rhetoric whose distinguishing feature is “vivid speech.” However, Maier is careful to make clear this was a type of speech possessing a visual element. He notes it was vivid speech that “had a critical role in exciting the imagination of listeners so that they could ‘see’ what they were hearing.” And he goes on to support this contention by presenting excerpts on ekphrasis from ancient rhetorical training manuals that bring out this visual component: “Ekphrasis is descriptive language, bringing what is portrayed clearly before the sight. . . .a vivid impression of all-but-seeing what is described” (Theon); “descriptive speech, as they say vivid and bringing what is being shown before the eyes” (Hermogenes); “It is a great virtue to express our subject clearly and in such a way that it seems to be actually seen. . . .[persuasion entailing] setting forth our facts in such a striking manner that they seem to be placed before our eyes as vividly as though they were taking place in our actual presence” (Quintilian).

From these quotes, it is clear ancient rhetoric envisioned that audiences would not just be hearing words, but would also be undergoing a process of visualizing, as they were listening. This being the case, it is entirely conceivable that the biblical authors, in crafting their narratives, could have been attending to what type of images their audiences would be “watching” in their mind’s eye.

2 Responses »

  1. Gary: For a number of years those of us connected with Sociorhetorical Interpretation, led by Vernon Robbins, have been working on “Visual Exegesis” which we call “Rhetography,” an elision of “rhetoric” and “graphic.” A number of items have been published and more are coming soon. Rhetography is a leading feature of the forthcoming Rhetoric of Religious Antiquity commentaries which will begin to appear in 2015. Here are some links from a conference last September at Emory, including a piece by Harry based on the book you mention. Also my own essay. These are forthcoming in a volume of essays. FYI, our group meets at SBL. Roy Jeal

    Click to access Religious%20Antiquity%202nd%20Session.pdf

    Click to access JealVisualInterp%20Final.pdf

    • Thanks, Roy, for these links; I will be sure to look into them. My particular interest is in the use of “point of view” in the crafting of biblical narratives, and I believe that biblical authors not only composed with an eye to the images their audiences would visualize, but further, the particular angles from which the audiences would see them (e.g. a view of a character’s face from close up versus a view looking out through the character’s eyes). I briefly address this in an earlier post with an experiment related to how a reader/hearer is intended to visualize the account in the Gospel of Luke of Jesus’ resurrection (here is a link to that post:

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