Friday, July 23, 2021

The Stations of the Cross by Adolfo Pérez Esquivel

Station 7 
of The Stations of the Cross
by Adolfo Pérez Esquivel

One work of art on which I am writing for The Virtual Commentary on Scripture (King's College, London) is from The Stations of the Cross by Adolfo Pérez Esquivel. As he says in his 1980 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech: [The life and teachings of Jesus show the way] “to achieve by nonviolent struggle the abolition of injustice and the attainment of a more just and humane society for all.” The image above is Station 7. The entire Stations of the Cross may be found here.

Pérez Esquivel’s Stations of the Cross reflects on Jesus’s death and connects his suffering with contemporary Latin American people suffering from colonialism, poverty, hunger, illiteracy, economic inequality, and other oppression—including torture, imprisonment, and death.

These contexts mirror the oppression of the Jewish people during the time in which Jesus lived, taught, and was martyred.

Monday, June 28, 2021

What are They saying about the Parables? (revised new content in Chapter 4 ): The Parables of Jesus in/and the Gospels: The Dialogues Continue (Part 3)


Chapter 4 (part 3): Authenticating the Synoptic Parables as Parables of the Historical Jesus 

The conclusion that the parabolic tradition contains bedrock authentic sayings of Jesus has been foundational in New Testament scholarship. Even historical Jesus scholars less confident in the authenticity of Jesus traditions accepted the basic authenticity of the parables in their reconstructions of the teachings of Jesus. The Jesus Seminar, for example, agreed that Jesus primarily taught in aphorisms and parables, that parables were distinctive creations of Jesus, and, as a result, have “certain distinguishing marks.” In the end, members of the Seminar voted for the basic authenticity of twenty-one of the thirty-three parables on which they deliberated (see my WATSA Historical Jesus? for details). 

In his fifth volume in his series of books entitled, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, John P. Meier challenges the consensus that scholars should use the Synoptic parables as foundational elements of the Jesus tradition to reconstruct the teachings of the historical Jesus. For Meier, historical Jesus means “the Jesus whom we can recover, recapture, or reconstruct by using the scientific tools of modern historical research” (I:1). These “criteria of authenticity” include the criteria of embarrassment, discontinuity (dissimilarity), multiple attestation, coherence, and rejection and execution. Other secondary criteria, such as traces of Aramaic, Palestinian environment, and vividness of narrative, are much more problematic and should only be used to reinforce impressions gained from the five primary criteria. 

Meier’s views on the parables’ authenticity changed over the course of writing these volumes. In his first volume, he concludes that parables play a significant role in Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom, and, in his second volume, Meier is confident in the parables’ basic authenticity: “That parables were a privileged form of Jesus’ teaching is a fact accepted by almost all questers for the historical Jesus...The abundance of parables in the Synoptic tradition, distributed among all the sources, plus the absence of equally deft, artistic parables elsewhere in the NT, argues well for the origin of many—though not all—of the Gospel parables in Jesus’ teaching” (II:145). Meier argues that Jesus’ powerful preaching and teaching, especially the riddle-like parables, confronted his listeners with a kingdom of God that challenged their present ways of thinking and living. Through the parables, people experienced the kingdom as present in their everyday lives (II:1043). 

Meier offers a much different perspective on the parables in his fifth volume, where he challenges the “free pass” most scholarship gives the authenticity of the parables (xii). A crucial factor for Meier’s conclusions about the authenticity of the parables is his decision that the Gospel of Thomas does not represent an earlier, independent tradition of Jesus’ parables (44–47). This elimination of the Gospel of Thomas as an independent witness is devastating to Meier’s ability to demonstrate the authenticity of Jesus’ parables because of the importance of the criterion of multiple attestation to his approach (e.g., no parable found only in Matthew, Mark, or Luke can meet the criterion of multiple attestation). 

In the fifth volume, subtitled Probing the Authenticity of the Parables, Meier argues that relatively few parables attributed to Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels can be authenticated with a good degree of probability (48). In fact, after applying “thorough testing,” Meier concludes that only four parables can be determined to derive from the historical Jesus: Mustard Seed (Mark 4:30–32; Matt 13:31–32; Luke 13:18–19; Thomas 20), Wicked/Evil Tenants (Mark 12:1–11; Matt 21:33–43; Luke 20:9–18; Thomas 65), Talents/Pounds (Matt 25:14–30; Luke 19:12–27), and Great Supper (Matt 22:2–14; Luke 14:16–24; Thomas 64). 

Only the parable of the Mustard Seed is clearly attested in multiple independent sources (The “Mark-Q overlap”), and it also passes the criterion of coherence, since it “fits perfectly with the eschatological message” of the prophet Jesus (239–40). The criterion of embarrassment suggests the authenticity of the Wicked Tenants (210). The cases of the Great Supper and the Talents/Pounds are more “muddled” (253), but Meier judges them to be created by Jesus because, in his view, they are not from the source Q shared by Matthew and Luke; instead they are multiply attested in the independent sources M and L (278). 

Meier notes that just because a parable cannot be determined as authentic by his criteria does not necessarily mean that it was not created by the historical Jesus. Since Meier, however, does not use those words and deeds he considers to be non liquet (not clear either way) to reconstruct his historical Jesus, his conclusion that just four parables can be definitively attributed to Jesus leads him to decide that parables can play only a marginal role in reconstructing the message of Jesus of Nazareth. 

Like other historical-critical approaches, Meier’s methodology cannot overcome the inherent limitations of the criteria of authenticity. Meier is especially dependent on the criterion of multiple attestation, so the decisions scholars make about source theories (e.g., Markan priority) determine in which direction a long line of dominos of (in)authenticity fall. Can multiple attestation, dissimilarity, and other criteria of authenticity give us adequate reconstructions of Jesus? Even Meier admits that the application of these criteria is “more art than science” (V:19), and, as Steve Bryan notes, many of Meier’s historical judgments could “easily go the other way.”

Ironically, one impact of Meier’s A Marginal View series is to illustrate the limitations of the historical methods he employs, and to shift more attention to scholars who rely on other approaches, such as ones who incorporate contemporary cognitive studies of memory (e.g., Dale Allison’s “communal memory”). Some recent parable studies have followed this path, as illustrated, for example, in the work of Ruben Zimmermann, whose work I will discuss in the next post.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Evan Christensen's "Virtual Museum" Reception History Website

"The Rich Epicure and Poor Lazarus" by Jose Arana
Included in Evan Christensen's "Virtual Museum"

My thanks to Dr. Mark Vitalis Hoffman of United Lutheran Seminary for sending me this reception history of the parables website from one of his students, Evan Christensen. 

Evan created the website for one of the assignments in the parables class that he took with Dr. Vitalis Hoffman. In that class, students select a parable on which to focus, and one of the assignments is to provide a “re-presentation” of receptions relating to or interacting with the parable. 

Evan chose the Rich Man and Lazarus parable (Luke 16.19–31) and created this virtual museum of media artefacts that effectively presents differing receptions of the parable from which we can learn. Check it out here.

I am grateful for Evan’s excellent work. I love his inclusion, for example, of the Golden Gospels of Echternach, James Janknegt, Martin Luther King, Jr. (“The Impassible Gulf” sermon), Nigel Lawrence, Jose Arana (Solentiname), Laura Jeanne Grimes, Johnny Cash’s version of “Hurt,” and many others (I’m still pondering David Bowie’s music video, “Lazarus”). 

Take a look for yourself. There are many ways to talk about the importance of this type of work that Evan does here and how much we can learn from it. Four of the ways I have mentioned already on this blog include: 
  1. Mikhail Bakhtin: “Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction” (The Problem of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, p. 110).
  2. The title of this blog comes from a quote from Gregory the Great, who also uses an example from music to make a similar point (although in a different context) about the need for dialogue. In his Pastoral Rule (III.22), he cites the admonition of Psalm 150:4—to praise God with tambourine and chorus—to point out that with a tambourine, “a dry and beaten skin resounds, but in the chorus voices are associated in concord.” One person plays a tambourine; many people work together in a chorus.
  3. John of Salisbury, quoting Bernard of Chartres: We are like those of small stature “on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.”
  4. As I note in The Parables after Jesus, interpreters tend to find what they expect to find in a narrative. What interpreters expect to see influences what they see. This selective attention places blinders on interpreters, blinders that can only be removed when interpreters join in dialogues with other interpreters who have different perspectives (cf. the famous “invisible gorilla” experiment by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons illustrates how our perceptions of what we things is “reality” are skewed by our preconceptions; almost half of the viewers of the video did not see the gorilla). 
Reception history like that encouraged by Dr. Vitalis Hoffman and accomplished by Evan Christensen helps to overcome these shortcomings and to remove exegetical blinders from interpreters, especially when such diverse voices from various perspectives are included in the conversations. 

Congratulations to Evan for his great work--I learned a lot from it--and best wishes for his future endeavors!

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Initial Page Proofs of WATSA Parables?





Delighted to have received the initial page proofs for the revised and expanded second edition of What Are They Saying About the Parables? The volume will appear this fall, at least before the annual meeting of Society of Biblical Literature in November.

After corrections are made in the initial proofs, I will then receive a copy of the final page proofs and create the indices. The first volume only had a Scripture Index, but it's clear that I need to add a Index of Names to the volume as well, because there are a large number of additional scholars whom I discuss/cite in this volume.

I have a couple other posts to do before I resume the summary of the chapters of this new edition.  
 

Friday, April 2, 2021

Chapter 4 (Part 2) new content of revised What are They saying about the Parables? The Parables of Jesus in/and the Gospels: The Dialogues Continue (Part 2: Klyne Snodgrass)

 

Chapter 4: The Parables of Jesus in/and the Gospels: The Dialogues Continue (Part 2: Klyne Snodgrass) 

The second section of this chapter, The Parables and Jesus’ “Intention,” focuses primarily on Klyne Snodgrass’s Stories with Intent, now in its second edition. Snodgrass states that interpreters should strive to understand the “intent of Jesus to his contemporaries—his disciples and fellow Jews”—and then “appropriate” Jesus’ messages in the parables in our current contexts for “people who are ready to learn and follow his instruction” (2–3). Snodgrass argues that Jesus’ parables presuppose and seek to disclose the kingdom of God: to explain the kingdom, demonstrate God’s character, and elucidate God’s expectations for human beings to believe and act (3). In most cases, Snodgrass concludes: “a parable is an expanded analogy used to convince and persuade” (9, emphasis his).

Snodgrass describes eleven characteristics of Jesus’ parables (17–22):
  • They are brief and straightforward, usually excluding unnecessary details.
  • They are marked by simplicity (e.g., at most two characters or groups interact in the same scene) and symmetry (e.g., repetition).
  • They mostly focus on humans, mirror the commonness of first-century Palestinian life, and their main purpose “is to goad people into response.”
  • Although they may draw on historical events, they are fictional descriptions taken from everyday life that do not necessarily portray everyday life. They are pseudo-realistic in that they can contain hyperbole (e.g., a debt of 10,000 talents) and elements that shock.
  • They are engaging; their intent is to elicit thought and require a decision, so “[f]inding the implied question a parable addresses is key to interpretation.” 
  • Since parables often seek to change one’s thinking and behavior, they regularly contain elements of reversal (e.g., a Samaritan as hero).
  • Like a punch line of a joke, the crucial aspect of a parable usually comes at the end. 
  • Parables are addressed to specific contexts in Jesus’ ministry, serve a specific teaching purpose, and seek to bring about change in people’s beliefs and actions; they are not general stories with universal truths.
  • Parables illuminate God, God’s kingdom, and the new reality God seeks to establish on earth (e.g., fathers, kings, and masters in parables generally are archetypes of God).
  • Parables frequently refer to Hebrew Bible themes, ideas, and texts (e.g., the Good Samaritan illustrates the love commands at the heart of Judaism).
  • Most parables appear in larger collections of parables, such as the Lost Coin, Lost Sheep, and Lost Sons in Luke 15. 
Not all parables work the same way, and gospel authors have distinctive redactional tendencies, so, Snodgrass cautions, each parable should be analyzed separately to determine its meaning, how it functions, and how it calls its readers to respond. 

Snodgrass then offers guidelines or “regular practices” for how to interpret individual parables (24–31). Interpreters should, as much as possible, set aside their presuppositions and analyze each parable thoroughly. Snodgrass’s goal is the communicative intent of Jesus, so he urges interpreters to seek to hear a parable as Jesus uttered it in the oral culture of his first-century Palestinian audience. In Snodgrass’s view, not only are the parables “the surest bedrock we have of Jesus’ teaching” (31), but the gospels are also generally reliable guides to the contexts of the parables in the ministry of Jesus. Therefore, interpreters should examine the redactional “shaping” of each parable and how it fits into each author’s plan and purpose before determining “specifically the function of the story in the teaching of Jesus” (26). The major issue is to ascertain how the analogy of the parable works, including where to start and where to end (e.g., not all elements of a parable mean or correspond to something). Finally, interpreters should strive to determine the theological intent and significance of the parable, including where the parable intersects with other teachings of Jesus: “If you cannot validate the teaching you think is in the parable from nonparabolic material elsewhere in the Gospels, you are almost certainly wrong” (30). 

The book devotes over five hundred pages to exploring thirty-three parables grouped into nine categories, and Snodgrass follows a roughly similar format in his analyses (see his book or WATSA Parables? for details). 

Snodgrass’s Stories with Intent is a significant contribution to parable scholarship, a comprehensive guide to the interpretation of these thirty-three parables, and a mandatory component of any exploration of the parables of Jesus. One limitation in his approach—despite his reservations about the ideological points of view of other modern interpreters (e.g., social scientific and feminist interpretations)—is that Snodgrass underestimates the fact that all decisions on approach and methodology, including his, are ideological decisions. He is a modern interpreter reading the parables in their gospel contexts and (optimistically) reconstructing both the historical Jesus and Jesus’ first-century Palestinian audience from those contexts. Thus it would be more helpful to consider not only important primary sources but also additional cultural, social, and other contexts of the first-century Mediterranean world. For example, Snodgrass’s interpretations of such parables as the Rich Fool would be enhanced by incorporating dynamics of economic oppression of the non-elites by the elites in the first century. This perspective of those with their “backs against the wall” is reflected in a significant proportion of the teachings of Jesus, not just the parables (see Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited). Snodgrass argues that these social and cultural insights assume “that the concerns of these stories are not theology but political and economic oppression” (585), and therefore he does not fully appreciate that these aspects are not mutually exclusive; they are integrally related in the teachings of the Jewish prophet Jesus of Nazareth, as they were in earlier Jewish prophets. 

The next post will discuss more of Chapter 4 of WATSA Parables?, including the focus on the parables of the historical Jesus by the Jesus Seminar, John Meier, and others.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Chapter 4 (totally new chapter!) of revised/expanded What are They Saying about the Parables, Chapter 4 (part 1)




What are They Saying about the Parables (second edition), 
Chapter 4: The Parables of Jesus in/and the Gospels: 
The Dialogues Continue (Part 1: Arland Hultgren) 

Introduction 

Parable scholarship consists of diverse and sometimes diametrically opposed points of view. Diversity, however, is not chaos. Parable scholarship can best be described as heteroglossia, which the philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin describes as the dynamic interaction of a number of voices, ideologies, and positions (see Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination). Scholars speak in various discourses, from different perspectives, and using diverse approaches. Yet Bakhtin’s dialogical perspective, even though heteroglossia contains voices that can contradict each other (262–63), also can include polyphony, where many contesting voices representing a variety of ideological positions engage as equals in dialogue (see Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, 6–7). Similar to the concept of heteroglossia, the term polyphony—in all of its profoundly pluralistic aspects—is certainly analogous to current parable scholarship. Such divergent voices are essential, because, as Bakhtin notes, “Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction” (Bakhtin, Dialogic Imagination, 110. Cf. David B. Gowler, “Heteroglossic Trends in Biblical Studies: Polyphonic Dialogues or Clanging Cymbals,” Review and Expositor 97:4 (2000): 443–66). 

That search for truth in parable scholarship continues, and scholars have made significant progress in recent years, for example, in placing parables more firmly in their Jewish, Hellenistic-Roman, and social contexts. Those aspects are covered in chapters 5, 6, and 7 of What are They saying about the Parables? In addition, although scholarly works since 2000 are discussed in every chapter of this book, this new chapter (Chapter 4) analyzes recent discussions that exemplify a continuing focus on familiar topics: whether, to what extent, or how Synoptic parables should be interpreted as parables from the historical Jesus. It also is different in that a smaller number of scholars and their recent books/articles are examined in greater depth. 

The first section of this chapter, In the Shadow of Jeremias: The Synoptic Parables of Jesus for the Church, focuses primarily on Arland Hultgren’s The Parables of Jesus. This book seeks to fill a void that Hultgren saw within parable scholarship, namely, “a study of the parables that is comprehensive, drawing upon the wealth of parable research, and that is at the same time exegetical and theological” (xi). Hultgren thus primarily interprets the parables of Jesus “within the Christian church” and for proclamation in the church (17), an aspect central to Christian theology and experience, since parables are Jesus’ principal mode of teaching (1). 

In Hultgren’s view, Jesus’ parables have universal appeal as stories that connect with the “human condition,” but they also have been “preserved, taught, and interpreted in the preaching of the church precisely because they are parables of Jesus, regarded as the crucified and resurrected Redeemer.” The parables, then, must be interpreted as communicating Jesus’ distinctive experience, understanding, and proclamation of God’s kingdom (11–12). Although discerning the “original setting” of the parables in Jesus’ ministry is extremely difficult, Hultgren does not want to abandon this historical task completely. Yet since he seeks to interpret the parables of Jesus in the context and proclamation of the Christian church, he advocates examining them in their literary contexts in the (canonical) gospels, not in light of the “Jesus of one’s construction” (17) or “within a preconceived notion” of how Jesus “really” used parables. His main goal remains the exegesis of and theological reflection on “the parables of Jesus as transmitted within the Synoptic Gospels” (19). 

Hultgren’s interpretations are often insightful, and he includes significant discussions of parables’ first-century contexts and the resulting implications for how modern readers should understand the parables. His important exegesis of Matthew’s “Final Judgment” (25:31–46), for example, cogently argues that the judgment portrayed is universal—“all of humanity stands before the Son of man awaiting judgment” (313)—and that the acts of mercy to “one of the least of these my brothers and sisters” means helping any person in need (pace interpretations that argue it designates helping Christians in need, such as early Christian missionaries; 317–26). 

Yet Hultgren’s interpretations sometimes appear to domesticate Jesus’ more provocative parables. For example, he tends to downplay the economic contexts of parables such as the Rich Fool (104–9) and the Rich Man and Lazarus (110–16). Jesus’ parables tend to step on his listeners’ toes harder than Hultgren often allows. 

The next post (Part 2 of Chapter 4) will discuss the section of this chapter, The Parables and Jesus’ “Intention,” that focuses primarily on the second edition of Klyne Snodgrass’s Stories with Intent.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Hope and Despair in Rembrandt's 'The Good Samaritan'


I am delighted that my essay, "Hope and despair in Rembrandt's 'The Good Samaritan'" just appeared in today's National Catholic Reporter. 

This essay builds upon one of the four short essays I did for the Visual Commentary on Scripture published by King's College, London, which they entitled with the rather distinctive, "Sh*t Happens."

The National Catholic Reporter essay not only has a more family-friendly name; it also, I think, has a very timely message for the difficult era in which we live, specifically because interpretations of Rembrandt's etching shed light on divergent yet interlocking ways in which human beings respond to difficult circumstances.

One response is of hope; the other is of despair.

I won't post the entire essay (even though the essay is brief), but here is the conclusion:

Another way to approach this image and the parable itself, however, is that this act of compassion and mercy takes place not just in the midst of evil or even in spite of evil, but as a radical and in some ways redemptive act against evil.

To be clear, the parable does not focus on what should happen to the perpetrators of such injustices, whether individual or structural; instead, it illustrates how one should treat the victims of injustices, no matter who they are.

The great theologian Howard Thurman believed that the parable of the good Samaritan demonstrated that the transformation of society ultimately depends on the transformation of individual human beings and that this personal transformation should create not just transformed individuals but a community of like-minded human beings (e.g., a "beloved community") dedicated to social transformation in response to the human need that surrounds them.

In times of personal and societal distress, it is often difficult to believe, as did Theodore Parker (and Martin Luther King Jr.) that the arc of the moral universe, albeit long, "bends toward justice." Thurman realized that the pervasiveness of injustice does not provide an "escape hatch" of despair that one's actions will not make a difference in creating a better society. He believed that there is a persistent struggle between good and evil, both in oneself and in society, and that all are responsible for acts of justice, mercy and compassion in the world of parable and in the world in which we live.

The command at the end of the parable, to go and do likewise, to show compassion and mercy to those who suffer injustices, focuses our attention on the need to transform ourselves into people who work actively on the behalf of other human beings who suffer similar injustices, doing our part to try to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice.

The parable of the good Samaritan and Rembrandt's response to it accurately portray the injustices in their worlds and ours. They also do not downplay the fact that the results of one's actions to assist other human beings may be seen as foolhardy or even fruitless. Yet we will never know, unless, as Jesus urged at the end of the parable, and as Thurman himself suggested, that we "try it and see."

Not bad advice from Jesus ("Go and do likewise") and Thurman ("Try it and see"). 

The Stations of the Cross by Adolfo Pérez Esquivel

Station 7  of The Stations of the Cross by  Adolfo Pérez Esquivel One work of art on which I am writing for The Virtual Commentary on Script...