Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Oxford Lecture/Jesus and Brian Conference

Jesus and Brian: A Conference on the Historical Jesus and his Times

While editing my lecture for the University of Oxford, I was reminded that there was a conference at King's College London June 20-22 on the Historical Jesus and the film, Life of Brian. I am already scheduled to be in London during that time to do so additional research for my parables book, so I decided to sign up for the Saturday of the conference. The conference dinner features, it was just announced, John Cleese as a speaker. There are a number of excellent historical Jesus scholars speaking at the conferences (the program is here), so I look forward to attending.

My lecture is on Monday, 16 June, at Trinity College, University of Oxford: "Killing the fatted calf: some variations on the reception of the prodigal son."

I decided to speak on five examples of the reception of the Prodigal Son parable, ones that show interesting (I hope) elaborations of/on the parable:

Chartres Cathedral (stained-glass window)
Antonia Pulci (play)
Albrecht Dürer (engraving)
Robert Wilkins (blues song)
Thomas Hart Benton (lithograph)

Here is a brief statement of why each one is particularly interesting:

Chartres Cathedral (stained-glass window). I chose the depiction of the Prodigal Son parable in the stained-glass window at Chartres Cathedral because it elaborates two major aspects beyond what is found in the parable itself: (1) It details the younger son’s behavior while he is away from home, and (2) it gives a clear answer to the ambiguity of the parable’s ending in Luke (i.e., the brothers are reconciled).

Antonia Pulci (play). I include this play as an example of one of the many “Prodigal Son plays” that proliferated starting in the 16th century. These plays, among other things, tend to emphasize the prodigal’s debauchery in order to stress moral teachings. Pulci’s play is notable for incorporating the seven deadly sins into the narrative, extending the theme of gambling, reconciling the two brothers, and explicitly applying the message to all humanity.

Albrecht Dürer (engraving). I chose Dürer’s The Prodigal Son amongst the Pigs (1496) because of the impact this powerful image had on later representations of the prodigal, and because of the possibility that Dürer himself identified with the prodigal.

Robert Wilkins (blues song). I include this blues song in the lecture because it illustrates three major things: (1) how people identify with the prodigal, (2) how the parable is used as a universal call for repentance, and, (3) most importantly, how the parable of the Prodigal Son—the redemption that comes after returning home from leading a life of sin—provides the most-traveled bridge between the sacred and profane in African-American music.

Thomas Hart Benton (lithograph). I chose Thomas Hart Benton’s lithograph of the prodigal son as my final example, because it is one of the most powerful visual images of the prodigal son that I have found. Depending on one’s interpretation, it serves as a dire warning of not waiting too long to return home, as a portrayal of the desperate situation facing many people during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, and/or as an autobiographical statement of Benton’s personal situation.


  1. I should thank my sister, Nancy Gowler Johnson, for the reminder of the conference. I think she got word via a Mark Goodacre blog post. I had heard about the conference when it was announced but had forgotten. I was just lucky I had scheduled some research time in London during the same time.

  2. I'm happy that you can attend, but (not so secretly) jealous! I look forward to your reflections on the conference.


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