Wednesday, April 20, 2022

What are They saying about the Parables? (Chapter 4 , part 6): Evaluation of recent contributions from Ruben Zimmermann


Ruben Zimmermann's contributions to parable study are vast and significant, and more is forthcoming from him. In brief, though, through his books (and dozens of articles), Zimmermann makes significant methodological, hermeneutical, and ethical contributions to parable interpretation, including his efforts to facilitate collaboration among scholars around the world. 

The “integrative method” of historical, literary, and reader-oriented approaches that Zimmermann proposes advances dialogues not just in parable scholarship but also in historical Jesus scholarship. 

Zimmermann’s work is also comprehensive in the ways discussed in the Preface to my WATSA Parables? book. He investigates what parables do and how they work; he explores their meanings; and, perhaps most importantly, he endeavors to ascertain what parables want, the ways in which parables challenge their hearers to act. 

Yet these explorations, discussions, and collaborations need to be extended. An integrative method, for example, is not new or unique, and, in fact, should be—as some already are —even more comprehensive, integrating not just literary, rhetorical, and socio-historical analyses but also additional insights, for example, from socio-economic, socio-cultural, and other social-scientific analyses of the first-century Mediterranean world. 

In addition, a richer dialogue with literary approaches would strengthen discussions about the dialogic function of parables embedded into larger narratives, which includes (a) centripetal elements that necessitate interpretation of the parables within their literary contexts and (b) centrifugal elements that require analyses of how the narratives can attempt to impose more-monologic discourse on the more-dialogic parables (see the discussion of “monologic authority” at the end of Chapter 3 above). Sometimes embedding parables into larger narratives can change their meanings dramatically. In these cases, the tensions between parables and the larger narratives in which they are embedded cannot control, contain, or complete the parables’ ability to create or communicate meaning.

The next post will offer a brief conclusion about heteroglossia, polyphony, and parables. After that, on to discussing Chapter 5 of What are They Saying about the Parables?

The Eye of the Needle is NOT a Gate in Jerusalem


I keep seeing over and over again the claim the the "eye of a needle" means a gate in Jerusalem, so I thought I should repost this comments about that error:

In a commentary for Fortune, I included the following:
Jesus told a wealthy man to sell all his possessions and to give the proceeds to the poor. Jesus then told his disciples how difficult it was for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God (as likely as a camel going through an eye of a sewing needle).
I added the word "sewing" because I did not have the space to explain that when the Gospel texts said, "a needle," they meant a sewing needle (Hobart argued it was a physician's needle in Luke, but Cadbury put the "Lukan physician's language" theory to rest).

The editor(s) of Fortune removed my citation of the biblical texts (Matt 19:24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25) in this instance and for all the other biblical references, so in the numerous comments by readers of the essay who responded to the article, several observed that I had made a mistake or that my knowledge of the Biblical context was incorrect. For example (taken from the Yahoo! Finance page, where it was also posted online):
I agree with Mr. Gowler's assessment, except for one thing. The "eye of the needle" was a gate in the walls of Jerusalem...a little gate. For a camel to pass through, it had to be unburdened and had to stoop down a little. In other words, hold on to your possessions and your pride, and you'll never get through. As far as Mr. Ryan having a problem with the poor carpenter's son from Nazareth, I am in complete agreement.

Other commenters were more caustic about my alleged lack of knowledge of this gate in Jerusalem.

It's interesting how these misconceptions persist, and these domestications of Jesus's words--efforts to tame his radical message--all derive from interpreters' unease with this shocking, hyperbolic statement. 

There is no evidence that the saying refers to a gate, including a particular gate in Jerusalem. That arose sometime, most likely, in the middle ages (I remember the version about this mythical gate that I heard from a pulpit growing up is that the camel actually had to pass through the Jerusalem gate on its knees).

If you change one letter in the Greek word (an eta to an iota) that would change the word "camel" to "rope" or "ship's cable," and some scribes evidently made that change in a few manuscripts (e.g., S, 1010, f13), and Origen, Cyril of Alexandria, and a few others favored that view.* 

Others claim that the Aramaic word "behind" the Greek word meant a thick rope or a ship's cable (e.g., Lamsa, Gospel Light, 115-116). Others suggest that the word actually means a "large wooden beam" (noted but rejected by Ibn al-Tayyib).

One of the better studies of this saying is in Kenneth Bailey's Through Peasant Eyes, 165-166, and he convincingly makes the argument that this needle is indeed a needle. He also points out that there is a later rabbinic saying in the Talmud (probably dependent) that speaks of the impossibility of "an elephant going through the eye of a needle" (an elephant being the largest animal in Babylonia; Ber. 55b; there also is a comparative text in the Qur'an: Sura 7:40). 

One can also point to the analogous saying of Jesus about straining the gnat and swallowing a camel (Matt 23:24) for a similar hyperbolic, impossible task.

The text speaks about something that is impossible for human beings; that rules out a gate where a camel's burden needed to be unloaded before it could pass through.

Many interpreters point to this passage as an example of Jesus's "peasant humor"--it is impossible for the largest animal in the area to pass through such a small aperture--but told from a deadly serious perspective, from a prophet similar to Amos, a "voice from below" who cried out against the injustices of the wealthy of his day. 

*Thanks to James Ernest for catching a typo in the earlier version.

Friday, March 18, 2022

A Lenten Meditation in NCR: The Way of the Cross from Advent to Lent


This article is not about a parable, but I want to share it on this blog. The article is found in today's issue of The National Catholic Reporter. In this Lenten meditation, using the work of Adolfo Pérez Esquivel and illustrated by Alastair McIntosh, I argue that the Way of the Cross begins with the Magnificat, is inaugurated by Jesus’s Nazareth sermon, and is completed by Jesus's last week in Jerusalem. The first two paragraphs of the article are:

The Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem begins with commemorating Jesus’s condemnation by Pilate in the traditional site of Pilate’s Praetorium and ends at the Holy Sepulchre with remembering his internment in the tomb. At each of the fourteen stations in this “Way of the Cross,” pilgrims are urged to meditate on the events and meaning of Jesus’s death. 

Yet Jesus’s path to the cross did not really begin in Jerusalem. Jesus’s teachings and ministry were the first stages of his path to the cross in Jerusalem, as prefigured in Mary’s Magnificat and proclaimed in Jesus’s inaugural sermon in his hometown of Nazareth. The seeds planted in verses read during Advent thus prepare us for Jesus’s ministry, and Jesus’s proclamation of good news for the poor and his critiques of power, wealth, and oppression led inexorably to the Way of the Cross that we commemorate during Lent.

The article can be found here

The illustrations by McIntosh can be found here.

Saturday, January 29, 2022

"The Mote and the Beam" gives insight into COVID-19 debates

"The Parable of the Mote and Beam" (circa 1619) by Domenico Fetti (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Parable of the Mote and Beam (circa 1619) 
by Domenico Fetti (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Last summer I had another essay accepted by The National Catholic Reporter. I wrote it primarily to convince myself to have more patience with anti-vaxxers, something that is almost exponentially more difficult to do several months later. You can find the full essay (1200 words) here.

The essay discusses what the Gospel of Luke calls a parable--the Mote and Beam--and Domenico Fett's awesome painting of it (above). Along the way, I use Howard Thurman's "three Hounds of Hell," which I think is very helpful in understanding what motivates those who intentionally lie about vaccines, masks, and other mitigation efforts. 

Here's a sample:

Jesus' admonitions are often difficult to implement, and the task is especially arduous when applied during a pandemic that is prolonged by people hesitant or even adamant about not taking simple actions to protect themselves and their neighbors. It seems that the "beams" are in their eyes, not ours, and that they are blind to both the danger and the solutions — and maddeningly so to the rest of us.

In addition, some influential voices — for fame, power and/or profit — deliberately mislead others about actions they should take to protect themselves and their neighbors, such as convincing people that the COVID-19 vaccines are unnecessary, or harmful, or a "personal choice" that does not affect others.

In such cases, it seems clear why Jesus prefaces the mote/beam parable in Luke with the parable about the blind leading the blind, with them all falling into a pit. Disaster is sure to follow, just as Jesus warned.

The arguments against masks, social distancing and vaccines are scientifically false, so their opponents are in error, sometimes tragically so. To be clear, Jesus' admonition not to "judge" other human beings in this section of Luke (6:37) does not mean that we should avoid correcting such erroneous beliefs and behaviors; it means instead that we should not judge in a condemnatory way (as noted in the same verse) and that our critiques should be merciful, generous, loving and intended to be redemptive, all of which are included in a humble acknowledgement of our own failings — noting the beams in our own eyes.

I don’t know if I’d say the same thing at this stage of the pandemic, but maybe I should:

Friday, December 24, 2021

Howard Thurman's "The Work of Christmas"


"The Work of Christmas," by Howard Thurman

Howard Thurman’s poem, “The Work of Christmas” is my favorite Christmas poem. It provides a vision of a society informed by Jesus’s parable of the Sheep and Goats in the Gospel of Matthew and the biblical principle of hospitality:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.  

Thurman reminds us of how Jesus wants us to respond to our fellow human beings in ways that God demands and in ways that echo, as Jesus of Nazareth declared in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere, how God loves and treats us. 

May we truly make "music in the heart" for others and therefore ourselves in 2022.

Monday, November 1, 2021

What are They saying about the Parables? (Chapter 4 , part 5): More contributions from Ruben Zimmermann

Zimmermann’s single-authored book, Puzzling the Parables of Jesus, introduces his “integrative method” to English-speaking audiences in order to bridge a perceived gap between parable scholarship in continental Europe (especially in Germany) and the United States and to map out a “postmodern hermeneutic” that integrates historical, literary, and reader-oriented approaches. As a result, Zimmermann offers several methodological challenges to both parable and historical Jesus scholarship.

The first five chapters of the book (Part I) introduce hermeneutical issues that face parable interpreters, including apparently contradictory aspects of Jesus’ parables (e.g., “Parables are incomprehensible in order to lead to comprehension”; 6). Zimmermann’s “hermeneutical approach” endeavors to explore the dynamic interaction of the historical author, text, and readers, and he declares that “meaning is constituted in and through their reciprocal engagement” (11). 

Chapter 2 gives an overview of parable research categorized in three arenas: historical approaches, literary approaches, and reader-oriented and theological approaches, and the following three chapters provide detailed analyses of each one. In Chapter 3 on historical methods (57–103), for example, Zimmermann concludes that the best approach is the “memory paradigm” that focuses on the “remembered Jesus” in the Gospels, since the “historical Jesus” is inaccessible (87). Zimmermann argues that genres have a tradition-creating function, a community-creating function, and a meaning-creating function, so these aspects open up a new mode of investigation of the Gospels as “different written artifacts of a memory process” (88). This new approach also emphasizes, through its inclusion of the “meaning-creating function” of parables, the necessity of a focus on “the contemporary applicability of parables” (96). The goal of “parable understanding,” Zimmermann concludes, is the “binding of the entire person to Jesus and his message”: “parables want to lead us to faith or more concretely, to a life of belief in Jesus” (98). 

Part II of the book begins with a brief chapter describing Zimmermann’s “integrative method” of parable analysis that offers a “methodological guideline” for parable interpretation (183). Since each source for the parables is a “memory text that has remembered and preserved a version of Jesus’ parables” and since the “macro-text in which the parable is embedded plays an important role in interpretation,” rather than analyzing parables in categories, Zimmermann examines them in the contexts of the sources in which they have been transmitted (189). 

Subsequent chapters demonstrate how this approach works in practice in specific texts and their contexts: the Lost Sheep in Q (211–36), Mustard Seed in Mark (237–59), Ten Virgins in Matthew (261–92), Good Samaritan in Luke (293–331), Dying and Rising Grain in John (333–60), and Empty Jar in Thomas (361–92). 

As I analyze in detail in What Are They Saying about the Parables?, Zimmermann’s “integrative and open model” is well illustrated by his analysis of the Good Samaritan (cf. his chapter in the Kompendium, 538–55). I also argue that, although Zimmermann’s analysis of the Good Samaritan includes significant insights, more integrative work is needed. For example, the contrast between the teachings of Jesus and other first-century Jews is not as great as Zimmermann sometimes implies (e.g., “Jesus opens up a completely new scope of questions concerning ethics”—although Zimmermann also notes that it “is part of the Jewish ethos”). The use of a Samaritan as a “neighbor” may be shocking, but it is a further reflection on the Jewish scripture that the lawyer quotes and Jesus affirms: Leviticus 19:34 gives the same command to love the “alien” as it does to love one’s “neighbor” that the lawyer cites and Jesus affirms (Lev 19:18). When Jesus includes the Samaritan as a “neighbor,” he takes one more distinctive step down the path already blazed by Jewish Scriptures. 

In addition, any attempt to make the parables of a first-century Galilean Jew relevant for contemporary Christians should try, as best it can, to avoid the “peril” of domesticating Jesus’ message—ignoring his radical message and social critique—and the “peril” of modernizing Jesus anachronistically. The challenge is to modernize Jesus and his message authentically to make them more relevant, not to domesticate Jesus—a first-century, poor, Galilean Jewish prophet of an oppressed people—or anachronize his radical message. For example, Zimmermann correctly rejects the interpretation of the Good Samaritan as only applying to “individual ethics” (326) but also suggests that the parable’s characterization of the Samaritan and the innkeeper may lead interpreters to “conclude that the ethos of the individual is protected by social and institutional insurance systems” (327). For example, Zimmermann argues that the Samaritan’s injunctions to the innkeeper about repaying him can be interpreted as approval of the idea of “working with fiscal deficits” (328). Such a reading minimizes the vastly different religious and political systems between the first century and ours. In practice, then, Zimmermann’s interpretation of the parable can emphasize its polyvalent nature more than the guiding nature of its socio-historical contexts.

The next post will give an overall evaluation of Zimmermann's contribution to parable studies.

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

What are They saying about the Parables? (Chapter 4 , part 4): Contributions from Ruben Zimmermann (edited works)


Ruben Zimmermann's "Integrative Approach” to Parables (summarized from Chapter 4 of WATSA Parables?)

Ruben Zimmermann has published a plethora of studies on the parables over the past two decades, including three co-edited volumes and one authored book. The first of these volumes, the 1101-page Kompendium der Glechnisse Jesu (Compendium of the Parables of Jesus), is the result of a two-year project with forty-seven contributors. The volume examines 104 texts that, according to their working definition, are “parables” (25–28): (1) a short narratival, (2) fictional (3) text that is realistic in that it tells of plausible events or experiences in the world (sie erzählt von der erlebbaren Welt), (4) but which indicates through implicit and explicit “transfer signals” that the meaning of the narrative must be differentiated from the literal wording of the text, and that (5) in its appeal structure or dimension, (6) challenges readers to carry out a “metaphoric transfer of meaning” (einen metaphorischen Bedeutungstransfer) that is guided by “co- and contextual information” (25). 

The Kompendium consists of seven main sections that examine parables in: the Q source (49–254; Mark (257–382); Matthew (385–509); Luke (513–695), John (699–847; e.g., “Jesus as the new Temple”); parables found in the Gospel of Thomas that have no parallels in Matthew, Mark, or Luke (851–93); fifteen parables found in the Agrapha (literally, “unwritten [things]”), purported sayings and deeds of Jesus that are not written in the Gospels but are found in other New Testament texts (e.g. Acts 20:35, “It is more blessed to give than to receive”) or additional early Christian writings (“Be skillful money-changers,” Agraphon 31). 

Although the definition of parable used in this volume is too expansive—not all figurative sayings qualify as parables (e.g., Mark 7:27)—the Kompendium is a significant milestone in parable scholarship and a tremendous resource for interpreters of the parables (and other related texts). 

The essays in the book, Hermeneutik der Gleichnisse Jesu, also stem from papers presented during the conferences on parables out of which the Kompendium came. This volume focuses primarily on theories and methods of interpretation—with contributors who have different perspectives on parables and their interpretation—and it is more explicitly in dialogue with North American parable research. 

After three introductory essays (e.g., proposing an “integrative parable hermeneutic,” 3–24, and a review of parable research, 25–51), the volume’s essays are grouped into three categories: (1) historical and socio-historical perspectives that include notable essays on parables and memory research by Zimmermann and Karl-Heinrich Ostmeyer (cf. Ostmeyer’s essay on the Prodigal Son in the Kompendium, 610–17); (2) perspectives on tradition and redaction that incorporate insights from research on parables in Jewish traditions by Andreas Schüle (205–16) and Catherine Hezser (217–37) and Greek rhetoric by Zimmermann (238–58); (3) linguistic and literary perspectives that include essays on using parable as a means of categorization (“Parabeln – sonst nichts!” by Zimmermann, 383–419) and allegory, allegorical interpretation, and allegorization and the parables (by Kurt Erlemann, 482–93); (4) aesthetic responses and theological interpretations of parables, such as Eckart Reinmuth’s “Vom Sprachereignis zum Kommunikationsereignis” (“From Speech Event to Communication Event,” 541–57); Stefan Alkier’s “Himmel und Hölle” (“Heaven and Hell,” 588–602), which uses the parable of the Fishnet (Matt 13:47–50) to argue that the message of the parable is incomplete if it is interpreted as an “autonomous work of art” or as an isolated speech event rather than in its particular context; and Mary Ann Beavis’s reflections on the “parable” of the Woman with Seven Husbands (Mark 12:20–23)—an exemplary story that portrays the woman “as a paragon of virtue who marries the seven brothers in obedience to the law of Moses” (616) but is “somewhat disturbing” to modern (feminist) readers (617). 

The volume Metaphor, Narrative, and Parables in Q includes an Introduction by Zimmermann (3–30) and fifteen essays—ten in English and five in German—in three sections that explore, respectively, “Metaphor in Q” (31–137), “Narrative in Q” (139–252), and “Parables in Q” (253–396). Sarah Rollens’s chapter is especially notable because of its use of relevant documentary papyri “to flesh out the meaning of metaphors and concepts” of justice and injustice that Q uses in its attempt to persuade its audience (93–113; cf. John Kloppenborg, “The Parable of the Burglar in Q: Insights from Papyrology,” 287–306; Erin Vearncombe, “Searching for a Lost Coin: Papyrological Backgrounds for Q 15,8–10,” 307–37). 

In sum, Metaphor, Narrative, and Parables in Q, continues and extends the discussions begun in the Kompendium and Hermeneutik and provides additional avenues of investigation for the study of Q as well.

The next post will examine Zimmermann's single-authored book, Puzzling the Parables of Jesus.

What are They saying about the Parables? (Chapter 4 , part 6): Evaluation of recent contributions from Ruben Zimmermann

  Ruben Zimmermann's contributions to parable study are vast and significant, and more is forthcoming from him. In brief, though, throug...