Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Parables and Their Social Contexts: "Peasant" Readings/Hearings (Douglas Oakman)


More excerpts from chapter 7 of the revised and expanded edition of What are They Saying about the Parables? 

Ancient Economies: 
"Peasant" Readings/Hearings of the Parables 

Douglas Oakman argues that Jesus’ words and actions articulate a coherent response to first-century economic realities. In antiquity, economic exchanges within and between villages were based on reciprocity (exchange by gift or barter). The larger “political economy,” however, was characterized by redistribution—the extraction of a percentage of local production from the powerless to the powerful (e.g., taxes, tithes, or rents). The exploitative political-economic system instituted throughout the Roman Empire, including under the Herods, redistributed wealth from the non-elites to the elites, impoverished the (rural) peasant population, and that heightened tensions between elites and nonelites. Peasants (an apparently anachronistic term that Oakman argues is accurate) provided the labor and generated the wealth on which agrarian societies were based, but because peasants were left struggling to maintain their lives at a subsistence level, they were often forced to curtail consumption or enter into a hopeless, downward spiral of debt. One rationale for this deprivation (besides greed) was that if the vast majority of the agrarian population (i.e., those not in the major cities) were kept struggling to survive, they would not have the strength or resources to mount a revolt against the rulers. Such oppression disturbed the reciprocal economic relations within villages and promoted what Oakman calls a “survivalist mentality” (78–80) because of the narrow margin between subsistence and starvation. 

A peasant’s view of “the good life” revolved around three interrelated values: a reverent attitude toward the land, strenuous agricultural work as good (but commerce as bad), and productive industry as a virtue (whereas elites such as Roman senators would consider such labor shameful). Jesus created his parables within the context of these peasant realities (100–102). Yet Jesus—because he was an artisan (a building laborer who worked with both wood and stone)—also had social contacts and familiarity with the social circumstances of the wealthy. Many parables thus demonstrate detailed knowledge of large estates, behavior of slaves and overseers, and other economic aspects of the elite. 

The parable of the Sower, for example, agrees with the peasant view of the primary producer in an immediate relationship with God. The sower is not negligent, as some modern interpreters suggest; instead God provides the harvest in spite of all the natural, inimical forces that threaten the crop. But through this parable Jesus critiques the peasant values of frugality and strenuous labor by declaring that God will provide the harvest (107–9). The providence of God is also clearly seen in the parable of the Weeds among the Wheat (Matt 13:24–30), which invites nonelites to stop “hoeing” and to wait for the imminent reign of God (129). This advice, once again, undermines the values of Jesus’ peasant audience, which focuses on frugality and hard work. 

In the face of the exploitative urban elite, the concentration of land holdings in the hands of a few, rising debt, and other destabilizing forces, Jesus responded by calling for a reversal of the centralization of political power and economic goods. In addition, Jesus advocated exchanges built on “general reciprocity”—giving without expecting anything in return (e.g., the remission of debts; 168). Such general reciprocity fosters unity and propitiates potential enemies, but for Jesus it also fosters the reestablishment of kinship among all peoples. Love for enemies is a corollary of this general reciprocity, which profoundly expresses human dependence on God’s graciousness and willingness to provide for material human needs.

Next up: Doug Oakman's important and innovative reading of the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Parables and their Social Contexts: John H. Elliott and the "Evil Eye"


More from chapter 7 of the revised and expanded version of What are They Saying about the Parables? 

This post talks about one of the many contributions of John (Jack) H. Elliott, who was one of the pioneers of the renaissance of the social-scientific method starting in the late 1970s. 

Elliott’s analysis of the “Evil Eye” in the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard provides a different interpretation from that of William Herzog (see March 25, 2024, post below). Belief in the Evil Eye includes the notion that certain individuals had the power to injure another person just by a glance. Because the foremost malevolent emotion associated with the Evil Eye was envy, Elliott believes that the parable contrasts divine compassion with invidious human comparison: An Evil Eye accusation (20:15) is employed to denounce envy as incompatible with life in the kingdom of heaven (52–53). 

Elliott states that the landowner appropriately contrasts his goodness with the evil of his accusers and deservedly shames them by exposing their “Evil-Eyed envy” (60–61). Such envy manifests a failure to comprehend God’s benefactions, an unwillingness to renounce “business as usual,” and a refusal to rejoice in the blessings of others. Thus, for Elliott, the householder represents God: The story illustrates the unlimited favor of God, condemns Evil Eye envy as incompatible with social life as governed by the rule of God, and affirms Jesus’ solidarity with the poor and undeserving (61–62). 

The analyses by Herzog and Elliott appear incompatible, and Herzog’s interpretation seems closer to demonstrating Jesus’ solidarity with the poor. In my view, however, the differences primarily stem from the ideological perspective taken on a social-scientific level: Elliott’s analysis is closer to an “emic” perspective—an interpretation that centers more on the viewpoint, categories of thought, and explanations of the group being studied. Herzog’s interpretation, on the other hand, even though it evaluates the first-century social contexts, comes from a more “etic” perspective—the perspective and classifying systems of an external investigator. 

Elliott focuses on the pervasive notion of the Evil Eye and its implications for the story, especially in its Matthean context (i.e., he follows Matthew’s interpretation of the parable). Herzog, on the other hand, openly declares his etic agenda. He believes that it is important to minimize interpreters’ anachronizing tendencies, but it is also crucial to acknowledge that every interpretation “modernizes Jesus.” Such modernizing is not only unavoidable but is necessary to make Jesus’ teachings understandable and relevant to modern persons. 

Thus Herzog, in contrast, uses Paulo Freire’s “pedagogy of the oppressed” to assert that the “social construction of reality” of peasants is dependent on the elites in their society. In other words, peasants internalize the world as understood by their oppressors because the elite deposit their worldview in the peasants’ minds and hearts (e.g., through dominant language patterns). It takes a new vocabulary and “outside teachers” for peasants to realize their situation and to facilitate building a new social construction of reality (19–21). For Herzog, Jesus served as this type of “outside facilitator” because his parables were designed to stimulate social analysis and to expose the contradictions between the actual situation of their hearers and the Torah of God’s justice (28).

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Parables and their Social Contexts:: Ernest van Eck


More from chapter 7 of the revised and expanded version of What are They Saying about the Parables? 

This post talks about some of the contributions of Ernest van Eck who interprets the parables of Jesus as the “stories of a social prophet.” 

Van Eck's methodological approach has three foundational principles. First, parables should not be interpreted in their current literary contexts but “within the political, economic, religious, and sociocultural context of the historical Jesus.” Second, interpreters should use the tools of social-scientific criticism to try to avoid anachronistic interpretations of the “social realia” found in parables. Third, whenever possible, ancient papyri should be used to identify possible social realities and practices assumed by parables (19). 

Van Eck then explores the parables of the: Sower (Mark 4:3b–8), Mustard Seed (Q 13:18–19), Feast (Luke 14:16b–23), Lost Sheep (Luke 15:4–6), Vineyard Laborers (Matt 20:1–15), Unmerciful Servant (Matt 18:23–33), Tenants (Gospel of Thomas 65), Merchant (Matt 13:45–46), Friend at Midnight (Luke 11:5–8), Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–26), and Minas (Luke 19:12b–24, 27). He follows the same structure in each analysis: (1) the parable’s history of interpretation; (2) the parable’s “integrity and authenticity” with the aim of arriving as closely as possible to the “earliest layer of the Jesus tradition”; (3) the cultural scripts that help modern interpreters read the parable in its first-century social context; (4) the resulting interpretation of the parable; and (5) a decision on whether the parable stems from the historical Jesus. The concluding chapter argues that Jesus’ parables are “symbols of social transformation.” 

In my view, social-scientific approaches to the parables can help modern interpreters identify and avoid anachronistic, ethnocentric, and domesticating interpretations. Jesus, for example, was an impoverished first-century Jewish artisan who was a member of a politically, militarily, and economically oppressed minority and who spoke prophetic words of judgment against the oppressors of his people. His parables and other teachings focus extensively on issues of money and power, including condemnations of the wealthy elite because of their oppression of the poor. 

Such socio-economic contexts thus are essential for understanding numerous aspects of the parables of Jesus, but they are not the only contexts that deserve exploration. Van Eck’s conclusions about the parable of the Sower, for instance, ignore the fact that sowing was a standard analogy for instruction. Instead, van Eck focuses on what he believes is “behind the parable,” the exploitation of “peasant farmers,” which results in some unlikely allegorical/metaphorical interpretations: For example, the seed that falls on the road symbolizes “tax, tribute, and rents”; the road designates exploitation since roads assisted the elite in siphoning wealth from peasant farmers; and, since birds (especially the eagle) symbolize the Roman Empire or imperial ideology, the seed eaten by birds symbolizes that part of the harvest “devoured by the elite.” The point of the parable, van Eck argues, is that in the kingdom of God, the bountiful harvest should be shared with everyone, and, if that is done, everyone will have enough (80–102). In the end, such extensive allegorical reinterpretation serves as a warning about these conclusions. Van Eck correctly argues that modern readers must “fill in the gaps” of social facets and dynamics that an ancient audience would have understood, but those unexpressed elements also include literary-rhetorical gaps that engage hearers/readers and must be “filled in.” Van Eck does not ignore the rhetorical effect of the parables (e.g., 41) but sometimes underestimates its importance (e.g., 64, note 47), in my view.

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Parables and their Social Contexts: John Kloppenborg


More from chapter 7 of the revised and expanded version of What are They Saying about the Parables? 

This post talks about some of the contributions of John Kloppenborg.

Kloppenborg’s The Tenants in the Vineyard provides a comprehensive approach that includes evaluating the Tenants parable more fully in its historical context through the extensive use of ancient papyri. Kloppenborg compares the versions of the parable found in Mark 12:1–12, Matthew 21:33–46, Luke 20:9–19, and the Gospel of Thomas 65. He concludes that Matthew’s and Luke’s versions are dependent on Mark—with redactions characteristic of each (e.g., 198, 203)—and that the version in Thomas, which does not include Mark’s allegorizing details, is closer to the form in which Jesus told the parable (e.g., the parable originally did not contain an “explicit allusion” to Isaiah 5:1–7 and ends with the death of the owner’s son; 172). Mark’s version turns the parable into an allegory of judgment, and Kloppenborg discusses the history of such allegorical interpretations in later Christianity (50–105) as well as recent studies of this parable as “realistic fiction” (106–48). 

A major contribution of Kloppenborg’s approach is that he documents his socio-economic, historical conclusions based on extensive social realia: ancient papyri. The versions of the parable in Mark and the Gospel of Thomas both reflect themes that are found in ancient papyri about viticulture: wealthy, absentee vineyard owners; their tenants; and negotiations/conflicts between them with intermediaries. These wealthy landowners harshly oppressed their tenant farmers with heavy rents, and Kloppenborg concludes that Jesus’ parable repudiates the wealthy and their socio-economic power structure: “a reading of the ‘originating structure’ of the parable as critical of wealth, inheritance, and status is the most coherent one, given what we know of other values of the Jesus movement” (351).

Monday, March 25, 2024

Parables and the Social Sciences: Contributions of Willam Herzog II


Chapter 7 of the revised and expanded version of What are They Saying about the Parables? talks about how work in the social sciences has increased our understanding of the parables (I begin up with works in the 1970s and continue to the present day). 

This post talks about some of the contributions of William Herzog, whom I met for the first time at an SBL meeting in San Diego (we happened to share a taxi), shortly after the first edition of WATSA Parables? had come out. He was a kind and gracious human being (he passed away in 2019). 

Herzog’s 1994 Parables as Subversive Speech provides the first modern explicit and detailed analysis of the social setting of the parables. The crucial difference in Herzog’s approach is that he views the parables through the lens of a “pedagogy of the oppressed” (the description comes from the Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire). Herzog’s brief critique of the fa├žade of an “objective observer” is one of the most cogent I have read (15–16). Thus Herzog brings his own ideological perspective into the open, a move that should be applauded and emulated, even if one does not agree with his perspective or his interpretations of specific parables. 

The focus of the parables, Herzog argues, is not on a vision of the glory of the reign (kingdom) of God, but on the gory details of how oppression serves the interests of a ruling class. Parables explore how human beings could respond to break the spiral of violence and the cycle of poverty created by such exploitation. Therefore, the parables of Jesus were forms of social analysis just as much as they were forms of theological reflection (3). 

Herzog claims, for example, that a recognition of the social code of honor significantly alters our understanding of the Laborers in the Vineyard parable (Matt 20:1–16). Previous interpreters negatively evaluated the voices of the complaining workers so that the action of the owner of the vineyard symbolized God’s generous goodness (82). Herzog proposes instead to divest the parable of theological accretions to focus more clearly on the social world depicted: the agrarian world of rural Galilee and Judea. 

The characters of the parable are not abstract theological types but belong to identifiable social groups in advanced agrarian societies. The landowner is a member of the urban elite who owns a large estate that produces a great harvest. The day laborers, on the other hand, are members of the “expendable” class who live at or below subsistence level. 

Note: Herzog argues that the “excess” children (i.e., those who cannot be fed) of peasant farmers and others constitute members of the “expendables” who ranged from 5 percent to 15 percent of the population. The elites in the ancient world squeezed the dwindling resources of the peasants through taxation and other forms of redistribution, so these persons were forced into the most degrading and lethal form of poverty. Herzog estimates that “expendables” typically lived no more than five to seven years after entering this class, but others continually were forced into this lethal poverty (65–66). 

Although the wealthy landowner has a steward as retainer, Jesus portrays him as hiring the workers directly to depict a direct confrontation between these two social groups. They represent the two extremes of agrarian society: a ruthless and exploitative landowner and the poor, desperate expendables who are fighting a losing battle for survival (90). 

Herzog argues that when the last-hired workers are paid first, the landowner deliberately insults the first-hired workers. Because he pays the workers who worked just one hour the same as the workers who toiled all day, he shames the labor of the first-hired (20:8–10), and they respond to his provocation (20:11–12). Therefore, the wage settlement initiates an honor/shame contest with the steward delivering the insult (20:8). The workers, however, fight to maintain their meager position in society. The episode concludes with the final riposte from the shrewd but exploitative landowner (20:13–15) who feigns courtesy with a condescending form of the word “friend,” banishes the spokesperson of the workers with an “evil eye” accusation, and blasphemes by asserting his control over what should properly be seen as Yahweh’s land (94). The landowner thus demonstrates his sinful allegiance to the aristocratic view of the elites: Despising peasants enabled them to rationalize their exercise of power over these “expendables” and to justify their exploitation (69). So this parable, instead of using the landowner as a symbol for God, codifies the incongruity between the coming reign of God and the earthly systems of oppression that pretend to be legitimate guardians of its values (97). 

For a critique of Herzog’s analysis (besides my What Are They Saying about the Parables? revised and expanded edition!), see V. George Shillington, “Saving Life and Keeping Sabbath (Matthew 20:1b–15),” in Jesus and His Parables, ed. V. George Shillington (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1997), 87–101. Shillington argues that Herzog pays too little attention to the subjects in the parable who did not have a full day’s wage. Shillington thus has a more positive view of the landowner who “learned from his trip to the marketplace at the end of the day that gross inequality of life exists between worker and worker, and between the workers and himself” (98). One wonders, however, if Shillington accurately gauged just how shocking this information would be to a first-century landowner. Cf. Herzog’s statement about the elite “despising” peasants (69).

Friday, March 15, 2024

Second expanded edition: What Are They Saying About the Parables? (Chapter 6, Part 6): Willi Braun and Luke 14's Great Dinner


Willi Braun’s study of the parable of the Great Dinner in Luke 14:16–24 also exhibits the productive nature of Hellenistic-Roman comparative texts and demonstrates the multifaceted interaction it has with its social, cultural, and literary environments. The healing of the man with dropsy is the fourth and final Sabbath healing performed by Jesus in Luke, and it takes place during the third and final meal that Jesus shares in a Pharisee’s house. In Luke 14:1–14, Jesus chastises (again) the social elite for seeking after honor.  

Braun’s investigation of Hellenistic-Roman texts brings to light an element of the narrative that modern readers had previously not recognized. Dropsy is a metaphor used by the Cynics because of the paradoxical symptoms of dropsy: The person suffering from dropsy has an unquenchable craving for fluids, even though the body is already inflated with fluid, and when the person drinks more fluids, it serves not to ease but to advance the dropsy. The symbolism is clear to readers familiar with this first-century metaphor: At a meal scene with social elite, the man with dropsy symbolizes the rapacious and avaricious persons whom Jesus denounces in Braun’s words, “with a barrage of terms that reads like a Hellenistic thesaurus of slurs” (69). 

With his use of Hellenistic-Roman texts, Braun constructs an extremely plausible hypothesis: The parable is a rejection of all types of self-aggrandizement, love of money, love of honor and prestige, and a radical statement of a perspective that rejects the social and economic mores of the elite. 

The early Christian era was an age of active polyglossia, that is, a time when different national languages were interacting within the same cultural systems. Scattered throughout the entire Mediterranean were cities, settlements, and other areas where several cultures and languages directly “cohabited,” and they interwove with each other in distinctive patterns. Parables thus germinated and flourished in these fields of active polyglossia because parables themselves are dialogues that actively engage a wide range of different cultures, societies, and peoples.

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Second expanded edition: What Are They Saying About the Parables? (Chapter 6, Part 5): Parables and Paideia


Parables and Paideia 

In addition to ancient rhetoric, many New Testament scholars cast their comparative nets in areas beyond only Jewish cultural waters and discovered in the broader range of Hellenistic-Roman literature and culture many aspects that expand our understanding of the first-century contexts in which the parables were spoken/written and heard/read. Ronald Hock, for example, pointed to the limitations of previous scholarship’s investigations of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31) and called for a broader comparative framework for reading the parable, one that includes rhetorical, literary, and philosophical texts from the Hellenistic-Roman intellectual tradition. 

Hock argues that the repeated claims that the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man was adapted from an ancient Egyptian folktale are overstated—the “parallels…are neither compelling nor as explanatory” as suggested in scholarship. He laments the fact that sources from the larger Hellenistic-Roman environment are seldom considered seriously as comparative texts, and he argues that the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in particular “has an unmistakable Cynic coloring” (462). To demonstrate his thesis, Hock cites two Lucian texts Gallus and Cataplus, in which the poor man Micyllus is compared with rich men. Micyllus, a poor, marginalized artisan, goes hungry from early morning to evening, and he must bear the slights, insults, and beatings of the powerful. At their deaths, Micyllus and the rich tyrant Megapenthes make the trip to Hades. Megapenthes, like the rich man in Jesus’ parable, tries to strike a bargain to alter his situation, but to no avail. Finally, Micyllus and Megapenthes face Rhadamanthus, the judge of the underworld. Micyllus is judged to be pure and goes to the Isles of the Blessed. Megapenthes’s soul, however, is stained with corruption, and he will be appropriately punished (459–60). In Hock’s opinion, both this story and the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus illustrate Cynic views on wealth and poverty (463). 

Hock argues that many elements of these two parables, such as the reversal in the fortunes of the characters after death, partake in the broader arena of the social and intellectual life of traditional Mediterranean society (461). By limiting the comparative texts only to Jewish contexts, scholars place artificial blinders on their eyes, blinders that hinder access to the cultures in which this parable might have arisen and been told in the first century, and certainly in which it would have been heard. 

Other scholars provide examples from an even broader spectrum of Hellenistic-Roman culture. For example, the rather puzzling presentation of Jesus’ parables in Mark 4:1–34 (especially 11–12, 33–34) proved to be fruitful soil for much scholarly speculation, both with and without “depth of root.” Burton Mack’s analysis, for example, illustrates the fertile nature of various comparative texts from Hellenistic-Roman traditions. 

Mack acknowledges that the images of field, sowing, seeds, and harvest are standard metaphors in Jewish apocalyptic, wisdom, and prophetic traditions for God’s dealings with Israel. Mack, however, contends that this precise usage of such traditions would be conceivable for a later Christian thinker, but not for the historical Jesus (55). 

To cite just one example: The content of the parable of the Sower makes one “suspicious,” because agricultural images, especially that of sowing seed, were standard analogies for paideia (Hellenistic-Roman education) during this era. First-century Mediterranean ears would have heard this analogy/parable and “would have immediately recalled the stock image” for instruction, especially that of inculcating Hellenistic culture. These stock analogies used the sower (teacher) who sowed (taught) his seed (words) upon various soils (students). Therefore, this parable in Mark that illustrates Jesus’ “mysterious” teaching (4:11) actually was itself an established image of instruction. Because the imagery and the standard mode of referencing in the parable would have been clear to most first-century persons, the “mystery” has to reside in the nature of the culture and/or kingdom the parable seeks to illustrate (160). Mack then attempts to show how the entire section (4:1–34) constructs a cogent and clever rhetorical elaboration of the parable of the Sower—one that follows conventional modes of argumentation (152–58). 

Vernon K. Robbins’s analysis of Mack’s study demonstrates that social rhetoric of Mark 4 interacts with both Jewish culture and Hellenistic-Roman culture, and this interaction is twofold: On one hand, the argumentation is “deeply embedded” in Jewish and Hellenistic-Roman modes of culture, for example, by assuming many elements of those cultures; on the other hand, in this complex and variegated relationship, the parables in Mark 4 also reject, subvert, or transform other features found in Jewish and in Hellenistic-Roman cultures (80–81). 

Next: The Great Dinner parable in Luke 14.

Parables and Their Social Contexts: "Peasant" Readings/Hearings (Douglas Oakman)

  More excerpts from chapter 7 of the revised and expanded edition of  What are They Saying about the Parables?   Ancient Economies:  "...