Newman Research Focus – Saara-Maria Jurva: The Cognitive-Emotive Functions of Biblical Narration in the Letter to the Hebrews

We’ve had the pleasure of welcoming Saara-Maria Jurva from the University of Eastern Finland to our department for the last few months. Saara is currently working on her doctoral research on the Letter to the Hebrews and has been working closely with, our resident Hebrews and OT in the NT specialist, Susan Docherty.

On October 24th, Saara presented a PhD seminar on her work. Her research examines the way the author of Hebrews retells stories and events from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) in a way that resonates on both cognitive and emotional levels. Saara’s seminar focused upon the author’s retelling of the wilderness experience in Hebrews 3: 7-19.

Saara applied, literary critic, Patrick Colm Hogan‘s theory on Narrative Empathy to the text. Hogan argues that the eliciting of empathy, as well as a cognitive understanding, is essential to the literary experience. In fact, he goes as far as saying that it is impossible to study narratives without studying emotions and that there are no emotions without narrative.

Hogan describes two types of empathy:

  1. Categorical empathy – this relates to creating or identifying connections and a sense of belonging to the same category (for example, ethnicity or belonging to a certain social group).
  2. Situational empathy –  this is produced by creating analogues with shared situations (for example, ‘I feel the heroes pain because I too have been in a similar situation). Saara noted that suffering was the most common trigger used to evoke situational empathy.

The ability to evoke these types of emotional response is is all the more important when the author is trying to present a message intended to persuade, encourage or warn the reader.

Saara noted that the retelling of the wilderness narrative in Hebrews, which itself is based on a retelling (Ps. 95) of Num. 14, could be seen to evoke (or attempt to evoke) an empathic response from the reader toward God, the Israelites and the author. Saara’s study highlighted the ways in which categorical empathy was attempted generically through ancestry and religion (sharing of scriptures and tradition) and situationally (shared experience in creating an environment whereby they too hear God’s voice; vv 7 and 12).

Saara’s presentation and the following discussion also served to show the subtle power dynamic between author and reader. In many ways reminiscent of Paul, the author appears to be skilled in using language that could create a sense of shared community in which they could feel that they were all experiencing the same tensions and dangers (through its use of categorical and/or situational empathy) – while, at other times, use more distancing language when warning or giving instruction- for example, the frequent switching registers from ‘we’ to ‘you’.

Meet Saara-Maria:

Saara-Maria imageMy doctoral study examines cognitive-emotive functions of biblical narration in the Letter to the Hebrews. The focus is on renarrated stories of the Old Testament in the letter (Heb 3:7–19; Heb 6:13–15; Heb 7:1–10; Heb 11:8–19; 12:16–17). The purpose is to analyse cognitive and emotive structures in the renarrated stories in relation to the argumentation of the author. The question is how does the author influence the audience through narration?

My thesis is that emotions have a significant role in the use of biblical narration in the Hebrews. The author uses narratives in order to persuade the audience to adapt his point of view. The power of narration is in an emotive impact it produces. As the message of the author is in coherence with a particular narrative, the emotions the story elicits strengthen the verbal message. Besides exegetical methods, I will use the methods of cognitive poetics in analysing the narratives.

I have carried out my doctoral studies for two and half years. I have worked since March 2013 as a grant funded researcher or as a hired junior researcher at the University of Eastern Finland. In 2015–2016, I was on maternity leave for a year. My aim is to complete the work by the end of 2017. The first supervisor of the work is the Professor of Biblical Studies is Lauri Thurén at UEF and here, at the Newman University, my work is being supervised by the Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism, Susan Docherty.

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