Saturday, January 11, 2014

Some Random Thoughts on Chapter 1 before beginning Irenaeus and the Parables

How did I start deciding what to include in Chapter 1? On one hand I want to cover the most important and influential voices; on the other hand, I also want to cover voices that are usually unheard/silenced (i.e., both expected and unexpected voices).

As with all historical/literary research in general, the vast majority of my focus is on primary sources, but it is informed by secondary sources. Besides all of the normal academic reasons for having primary sources dominate my research, I especially want the entries on various interpreters to be accurate and fair. I also want the interpreters to be able to speak for themselves (in addition to my analysis), so I am including some extended excerpts from primary sources whenever possible.

I can still be surprised by what I find in primary sources. Secondary sources make factual errors, omit items, and make other judgment calls about primary sources. If any of my students are reading this: Always read the primary sources themselves. You’ll be amazed at what you can find (e.g., Origen’s discussion of ancient pearls is absolutely fascinating in his interpretation of the Pearl of Great Price parable). You also can change your mind about things/people/issues. One example from my recent book comes to mind: I have never been a fan of some of John Calvin’s theology, but I read very carefully his commentary on James for my James Through the Centuries commentary. I was (again) impressed by Calvin’s brilliance, but I learned much more not only about his exegetical brilliance but also about his humanity—he captures perfectly, for example, James’s concern for the poor and is also quite eloquent about the problems of what Calvin calls “rich folk.” The sections where he speaks about God’s mercy and God’s resulting call for human beings to be merciful, gentle, and courteous to others are especially good (e.g., Calvin’s discussion of James 3:13-18). I look forward to reading Calvin’s commentaries on the parables for this book (I had only read his Institutes before I did my James commentary).  

In addition to people I already had in mind to include in Chapter 1, I looked through secondary sources for other ideas, such as The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters, Handbook of Women Biblical Interpreters, Handbook of Patristic Exegesis, and many other volumes to get other ideas. Currently, in addition to my own books, I have 287 books checked out from three Emory University libraries. That’s just for researching the first two chapters! Most of the books are primary sources, but I also use The Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) for primary sources. It is a fantastic resource ( I downloaded many pdfs of the primary sources from that site, which made it easy to do searches of the material on the parables. One downside is that the CCEL translations (in the public domain) are rather antiquated.

Before starting to write Chapter 1, I briefly checked secondary sources on the parables for ideas (e.g., Warren Kissinger’s helpful book) but put them aside until after I read the primary sources carefully myself. Only after I read the primary sources carefully do I then go through secondary sources to double-check what I had found and to fill in obvious gaps.

The first draft of Chapter 1 is 35,000 words; I need to cut it to ~20,000. Ouch! Part of the problem is that I tend to write long and edit down, no matter what I write (I should check my Strunk and White more often: their Rule #17 is “Omit needless words.” I’ll try to write more concisely on this blog!). But part of the length of the draft also is due to these issues:
  • I did not know what I was going to find in the primary sources in the early church, so I wrote comprehensively about as many parables as I could for each author. That helped me think through each person’s understanding of the parables and gave me a better idea of how they treated parables overall.
  • It also will allow me to cover a wide range of parables. I want to cover as many parables as possible, so now I can go over what I have written and delete some sections on certain parables that are mentioned many times by others (and also may be a bit redundant) and keep sections on parables that don't appear as often (e.g., Irenaeus on the Barren Fig Tree).
  • The comprehensiveness of this first draft means that I can go through what I wrote, cut sections, and make sure it fits together better; that way as many of the pieces of the puzzle as possible can be included.
  • Parables like the Good Samaritan or Prodigal Son will still appear more often in the book since they appear more often in the sources e.g., (in the Middle Ages the Good Samaritan, Prodigal Son, Rich Man and Lazarus, and Wise and Foolish Virgins dominate discussions and works of art).

Bottom Line:  Who/what did I decide to include?: 

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

If you see any glaring omissions or want to suggest one that should be deleted, feel free to add those suggestions in the comments for this post. The decisions are extremely difficult. The book can’t be comprehensive, but it needs to be representative.

For the people I cover, I start with a brief biography (some bios are much too long in the first draft). Then I discuss their use of the Bible and parables overall. Then I discuss (with extensive quotations) how they interpret specific parables.

The next post will discuss Irenaeus and the parables.

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