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.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Hot off the press!: Author's copies of What Are They saying about the Parables?

My author's copies of What Are They saying about the Parables? just arrived! It was a privilege to publish with Paulist Press again. The first two times were great, and the third time was the charm (I hope)!

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!

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 pro...