Sunday, December 29, 2013

Rembrandt and the Parable of the Rich Fool of Luke 12:16-20 (Part 2)

A previous post noted how some things about paintings/parables are made extremely clear by a close viewing/reading of a painting/text, while other aspects of both visual and textual exegesis become clearer when we study carefully the various contexts of the parable/work of art. Other aspects, however—often by design—will be forever shrouded in mystery.

Think, for example, of this Russian parable (see V. N. Voloshinov/[Mikhail Bakhtin], “Discourse in Life and Discourse in Art”):

Two people are sitting in a room. They are both silent. Then one of them says, “Well!” The other does not respond.

No matter how carefully we do a “close reading” of that parable, we are lost without more context. To understand the parable more fully, we need what Voloshinov/Bakhtin calls the “extra-verbal context”: the “common spatial purview” of the interlocutors (they looked out a window and saw that it had begun to snow); their “common knowledge and understanding of the situation” (it was May, and spring was long overdue), and their “common evaluation of the situation” (they were tired of winter and bitterly disappointed by snowfall in May).

Other than what if anything we can glean from the narrative context, such detailed information is usually not available to readers of Jesus’ parables. Instead, parables often function like enthymemes: syllogistic arguments in which premises are assumed, not expressed directly, and these unspoken premises have to be filled in by readers/hearers of the parables. Compare this syllogism:

Socrates is a man
All men are mortal
Socrates is mortal

with this enthymeme that assumes the premise “all men are mortal”:

Socrates is a man; therefore, he is mortal.

Sometimes the unspoken premises are unclear, and different readers/viewers fill in the unspoken premises in different ways. Consider these three examples of different interpretations of the Rich Fool parable:

1. The rich man utters a soliloquy that repeatedly uses the first person singular in just three verses—“I” six times and “my” five times, in addition to speaking to his “soul.” Charles Hedrick sees the man’s numerous first-person references as being “quite natural in the context of a soliloquy.” +Joel B. Green, however, argues that people who engage in such soliloquies are “consistently portrayed negatively by Luke” (2:35; 5:21-22; 6:8; 9:46-47). Although Hedrick is more concerned about the parable of Jesus and Green is more concerned about the parable as found in Luke, I think Green has the better argument. The man focuses entirely on himself, takes no account of others, and, most importantly, takes no account of God. His resulting decision earns him the title “fool” from God (12:20)—in the only instance of God being a (direct) character in a parable of Jesus.

2. Interpreters also disagree about the farmer’s competence. The wealthy man already has storage barns, but this crop is so extraordinary that his existing facilities are insufficient. At what point did he recognize this extraordinary harvest? Was he incompetent, as Charles Hedrick suggests, because he did not see this unusually abundant crop until harvest time? A capable farmer would have seen it coming for weeks, so perhaps the parable caricatures the farmer (cf. how Jesus castigates the crowds for their lack of discernment about signs of the Kingdom: 11:14-32; 12:54-56). Klyne Snodgrass, however, “finds no evidence for such an interpretation.” The difference is that Hedrick interprets the aorist form of the verb εφορέω
  (euphoreō; “produced abundantly”) as designating that it was already harvest time before the farmer recognized his extraordinary crop.

3. Scholars also debate the perspicacity of the rich man because he decides to tear down existing barns to build newer, larger ones. Why not merely build additional facilities? Does this aspect also function to caricature the farmer, or in Brandon Scott’s words, “burlesque” the everyday, because the man misjudges both the harvest and the remedy? In addition, interpreters postulate different reasons for building the storage facilities. Perhaps the man’s intention is to hold back his harvest to help drive up the price of grain—or at least to store it until the price goes up—and to receive a higher price for it later.

Is he a bumbling fool or a shrewd agribusinessman? Is he a typical covetous member of the elite class seeking to hoard his wealth at the expense of others, or primarily an example of the uncertainty and fragility of life, a life that does not consist in the abundance of possessions? Green and Hedrick believe the farmer plans to store the crops to get a better price (Green, Luke, 490; Hedrick, Parables as Poetic Fictions, 156-57). Snodgrass argues that since those plans are not explicitly stated in the parable, such interpretations read “into the parable intentions that are not there” (Stories with Intent, 397-98).

The answer depends not one whether readers decide to fill in the gaps (or “missing premises”) of these parables—because every reader does in some way, whether they admit it or not. The answer depends on how readers decide to fill in the missing “social premises” of this enthymematic parable and what contexts one chooses to inform one’s reading:

  • The most obvious comparative text for this parable is the version found in Gospel of Thomas 63 (although the stories have significant differences). The Lukan story seems to focus on the use of one’s possessions, whereas the Thomas version functions more as an admonition against greed.
  • Some scholars point to biblical comparative texts that stress that hard work and diligence lead to wealth (Prov 10:4, 22) and that God rewards those efforts with wealth and possessions (Eccl 5:19). Yet, even texts that have a positive view about gaining wealth can warn those who do so to be careful: “One becomes rich through diligence and self-denial, and the reward allotted to him is this: when he says, ‘I have found rest, and now I shall feast on my goods!’ he does not know how long it will be until he leaves them to others and dies” (Sir 11:18-19; cf. 5:1, 3).
  • Other comparative texts, though, chastise the wicked as being always at ease and increasing in riches (Ps 73:12). Some comparative texts assume that the wealthy will become increasingly wicked while bemoaning the plight of the poor: “Keeping watch over riches wastes the flesh . . . . The poor man toils for a meager subsistence, and if ever he rests, he finds himself in want” (Sir 31:1-5). Still other texts condemn those who become wealthy through “unjust means,” who “have grown rich with accumulated goods,” and whose “granaries are (brim) full as with water”; such riches, we are told, “shall not endure” (1 Enoch 97:8-10).
  • Hedrick cites comparative texts about farming practices, for example, from Roman elites like Cato, Varro, and Cicero (who praises the “provident and industrious” farmer who always has storerooms and cellars filled with abundant provisions). Roman farming manuals contain admonitions that storage facilities should be used so that the farmer can wait until a more propitious time to sell his crops. Cato, for one, advises that a farmer should “have a well-built barn and storage room and plenty of vats for oil and wine, so that he may hold his products for good prices; it will redound to his wealth, his self-respect, and his reputation” (On Agriculture 3.2).
  • Proverbs 11:26, on the other hand, says that “people curse those who hold back grain.”

Using comparative texts, while helpful in filling in the “gaps,” raises difficulties. What types of comparative texts are appropriate? Do we use comparative texts to ascribe a profit motive to the rich man? Is it permissible to use Roman farming manuals that stem from the elite in society, who obviously have very different views about wealth than the non-elite like that of the *“peasant artisan” Jesus? Does it matter for the comparative texts we choose that our story says nothing about either the farmer’s diligence or acquisition of wealth through unjust means?

Thus, the quest for comparative texts often leaves the context ambiguous, and it drives us to examine the social and cultural texture of the Rich Fool parable to see if questions about the character of the rich man can be answered more fully.

I won’t summarize the arguments in my published article, but, in brief, the first-century cultural setting of this parable demands—from the perspective of “peasant artisans” such as Jesus—that the rich man be seen in a negative light even before his condemnation from God. Although the parable never says directly that the man wants to drive up prices, Green’s observation is apt: “Given the subsistence economy of the peasant population surrounding him, this need for increased personal storage space not directly related to his agricultural activity must have seemed odd in the extreme, if not utterly monstrous.” What elites like Cicero might deem good agribusiness practices actually have “detrimental consequences for the peasants and tenants who are [the Rich Fool’s] neighbors.”

Because of the enthymematic nature of parables, not all questions can be answered through analyses of the parables themselves or through comparative texts or even through cultural analyses. The parables’ often deliberate ambiguity continues to “leave the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought,” as C. H. Dodd famously put it.

The reality is that such debates about cultural contexts and comparative “texts” also apply to interpretations of the painting by Rembrandt that is often entitled “The Rich Fool.” The next entry will turn to those fascinating debates, including whether Rembrandt’s painting actually about the Rich Fool.


*I realize that “peasant artisan” is a problematic term, but I agree with Doug Oakman that we haven’t yet found a better term to describe the economic status of the majority of people in first-century Palestine.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Chapter 1: Who/What to include?

I will return to the parable of the Rich Fool after Christmas, but here is the list of who and what I plan to include in Chapter 1 of the book:
  • Irenaeus
  • Clement of Alexandria
  • Tertullian
  • Origen
  • The Gospel According to Philip
  • John Chrysostom
  • Augustine
  • Macrina the Younger
  • Ephrem the Syrian
  • The Good Shepherd in Early Christian Art (e.g., the Catacombs of Domitilla and the House Church at Dura-Europos)
  • Illuminations from the Rossano Gospels
  • Byzantine Mosaics, S. Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy
I will discuss details of these works after I finish talking about the Rich Fool parable.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Rembrandt and the Parable of the Rich Fool of Luke 12:16-20 (Part 1)

Rembrandt’s painting that is entitled The Rich Fool in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie provides an excellent example of the ways that textual and visual exegesis (or interpretation) overlap. This is in addition to historical questions of authenticity or provenance, such as whether Jesus actually said a certain parable or saying (and if so in what form) and whether Rembrandt is the actual person who produced the painting (e.g., many paintings initially attributed to Rembrandt are no longer thought to be by his hand, such as the portrait of Jesus in the Rembrandt Room of the Gemäldegalerie).

With Lukan parables, for example, one begins with analyzing the literary context of a parable in Luke’s narrative and the literary-rhetorical elements of the parable itself—the specific manner in which a text attempts to persuade its readers. This analysis is often called a “close reading” or an analysis of the “inner texture” of the text. Similarly, a careful and systematic “close reading” is also fundamental to an interpretation of a painting, where all of the details of the painting (including the formal elements of composition and design) must be analyzed carefully and systematically.

A future post will talk about the literary context of the Lukan parable, but first I want to give one example of how textual and visual interpretations can inform each other. Here is the NRSV translation of the text.

The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” 18Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” 20But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

Note how the words attributed to the rich man focus entirely on himself. He utters a soliloquy that repeatedly uses the first person singular in just three verses—”I” six times and “my” five times, in addition to speaking to his “soul.” The man’s deliberations demonstrate his (fatal) error. He takes no account of others, and, most importantly, takes no account of God. He decides to build new storage facilities, not just for the bumper crop, but for all his “goods” as well. These possessions, he thinks, will ensure his well-being for “many years.” That decision earns him the title “fool” from God (12:20; cf. Psalm 14:1)—in the only instance of God being a (direct) character in a parable of Jesus.

Charles Hedrick thinks that the man’s numerous first-person references are “quite natural in the context of a soliloquy.” I agree with Joel Green, however, who argues that people who engage in such soliloquies are “consistently portrayed negatively by Luke” (e.g., 2:35; 5:21-22; 6:8; 9:46-47). That fits the literary context in Luke better.

Now look at Rembrandt’s painting. I will attach a photo that I took of this painting in the Gemäldegalerie (Berlin) in July 2010.




The room is dark, illuminated by a single candle. An elderly man sits at a desk/table overloaded with books and papers, some written in what appears to be Hebrew script. The man, a pince-nez perched on his nose, thoughtfully examines a coin. The hand holding the coin—with fingers made partially translucent by the candle’s light—blocks the viewer from seeing the candle directly, but its glowing light illuminates the man, a small area of the desk, and other elements in the darkened room.

All inessential elements are cloaked in shadows. On the desk are a gold-weigher’s scale with a box of weights, as well as chaotic stacks of books and papers, with a huge (account?) book open on the man’s right through which large Xs have been marked through some of the entries.

The man’s face is brilliantly lit, and we see virtually every detail of his aged, wrinkled face—including his reddened nose, right ear, and eyelids, as well as the soft shadows produced by his glasses—as he gazes at the coin in his hand. Other coins on the desk glimmer in the reflected glow of the candle’s light, as do the epaulets on the man’s shoulder. The fancy ruff around his neck also glows in the light, which then reflects even more light onto the man’s face.

Who is this man, and what does this painting say to its viewers? Is he the rich man of the parable, thinking only of himself and his wealth?

Scott Spencer, who served as editor for the Review and Expositor volume in which my article on this parable appeared (some of this post comes directly from that article), wrote me that he was blown away by Rembrandt’s chiaroscuro technique (the interplay of light and shadow), and he noted that in this painting the use of chiaroscuro seemed to function a bit like the soliloquy “technique” in several of Luke’s parables. That is, the lighting spotlights the main character. Scott also noted that in this painting the rich elderly man appears to be smugly reflecting on this coin/fortune, and that the painting almost “begs” for the accompanying soliloquy.

The psychological depth opened up by Rembrandt’s chiaroscuro is seemingly bottomless. In addition, Rembrandt’s manipulation of light and shadow, in this instance, along with the man’s seemingly introspective detachment, also create a sense of mystery. That is, we get a strong sense of something serious going on in the mind of these figures, but the precise nature of their thoughts and feelings is, at best, only darkly implied.

That is the issue I also want to discuss in future posts: The rays of light are reflected in various ways and sundry places in the painting, just as parables are reflected in different ways in different contexts and heard in numerous ways by various hearers. Rembrandt illuminates some objects clearly, while other aspects remain murky or obscure, placed deliberately in the shadows, creating uncertainties and provoking debates. In a similar way, the parables of Jesus illuminate some things as clear as day; other aspects become more clear as we learn more and more about the first-century contexts in which Jesus created and his followers preserved, transmitted, and transformed his words; some aspects of the parables will, by design, be forever shrouded in mystery.


Deciding what elements of the parables and paintings belong in each of those three categories is part of the fun of interpretation!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

What led me to write this book on the reception history of the parables?

One last introductory post before I start discussing aspects of the reception history of specific parables: How did my research over the past 25+ years lead me to write this book?

My early research and publications were in three main, overlapping areas: I started as a historian but then ventured into literary-rhetorical criticism and social-scientific criticism (e.g., my 1991 book, Host, Guest, Enemy, and Friend).

My first real introduction to reception history occurred when I was visiting my former professor, Chris Rowland, at the University of Oxford (in 1999, when I was teaching in London). Chris asked me if I would be interested in writing a volume in a new reception history commentary series he was editing for Blackwell. At the time, though, I was finishing my book on the parables and getting ready to start my book on the historical Jesus.

In 2004, the first volume of the Blackwell Bible Commentary series appeared, the volume on Revelation by Chris Rowland and Judith Kovacs. When I saw it, I realized just how fascinating it would be to do a volume in the series. I spoke with Chris and decided to submit a proposal to write the commentary on the Epistle of James after I finished my book on Jesus.

Then in 2006, Chris Rowland and I team taught a course called “Portraits of Jesus,” a course that explored the NT Gospels and how they had been interpreted in visual art. I then taught the course in Emory’s British Studies program at the University of Oxford (summer 2007). I have taught the course ever since at Oxford College of Emory University and will be doing so again this spring (2014). In the process of teaching that class, I started working more with visual art and integrating it with biblical interpretation. That research also, to my delight, took me to many art galleries around the world.

My reception history commentary, James Through the Centuries, has just appeared, but I have published some other reception history articles in the meantime. I was asked, for example, to write a reception-history article for the Journal for the Study of the New Testament (“Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation: Textures of a Text and its Reception,” JSNT 33:2 (2010) 191–206).

I was also asked to write an article for a volume of the Review and Expositor:  “The Enthymematic Nature of Parables: A Dialogic Reading of the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-20),” Review and Expositor 109:2 (2012) 199-217. The volume consisted of articles by parable scholars, and we were asked to include something about how the parable was interpreted in another medium. As I was trying to decide which parable to work on, I attended the Society of New Testament Studies conference in Berlin (July 2010). While I was there, I went to the Gemäldegalerie to do some research. When I walked into the Rembrandt room, my decision was made: I would write on the parable of the Rich Fool and the painting that many scholars think is Rembrandt’s interpretation of it.

The experience of writing that article led me to start thinking about writing a book on Rembrandt and the three parables he interprets. When I broached this possibility to James Ernest at Baker Academic, he suggested that a reception history of the parables would be an excellent supplementary textbook, one that I should write to complement my earlier book on the parables. I realized that his idea was a better one at this stage and may be the perfect bridge to writing the Rembrandt book next.


That's a brief history of how this book project came to be. Now I will turn to parable interpretation, and the next few posts will discuss the parable of the Rich Fool and Rembrandt’s painting, including some ways that textual and visual exegeses are similar.

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