Thursday, March 24, 2016

Shakespeare and the Parables (part 3)

NOT William Shakespeare

The number and types of Shakespeare’s references to the Bible are subject to vigorous debate, but it is clear that Shakespeare refers to the Bible more than any other source. A recent volume cataloguing such allusions consists of 879 pages (Shaheen 1999; cf. Wordsworth 1892 with 420 pages). Every single play and many of his sonnets contain significant allusions to the Bible, and some plays are “not fully comprehensible without some biblical knowledge, such as The Comedy of Errors, The Merchant of Venice, and Hamlet” (Hamlin 2009: 225).

The first English translation of the entire Bible only became available between 1380 and 1400. It was translated from the Latin Vulgate by John Wycliffe and his followers. This Wycliffe Bible was banned in 1408 (it still spread but wasn't printed until 1731), but by Shakespeare’s time, other English translations were available to him, but his biblical references usually seem closest to the Geneva Bible (e.g., the reference to the Prodigal Son parable about eating “husks” with pigs in As You Like It 1.1.37-38 comes from that translation). The Bishop’s Bible was also important to Shakespeare, since, starting in 1559, every church in England was supposed to own at least one copy of it (e.g., Shakespeare specifically uses it in Richard II 1.3.201-2; see Shaheen 1999: 17-50). The fact that Shakespeare utilizes the Bible so often in his plays does not mean that he was particularly religious himself. Among other things, the Bible is a rich storehouse of stories of drama, intrigue, and pathos. In addition, it provides a rich variety of words and themes that would be easily recognizable to his audiences, since the Bible was so familiar to them (e.g., church attendance was required by law):


. . . allusion was one of Shakespeare’s most common rhetorical, dramatic, and poetic techniques . . . . All of Shakespeare’s plays regularly allude to other works. Yet no book is alluded to more often, more thoroughly, or with more complexity and significance than the Bible. The explanation for this is simple: the Bible was the most important and most widely known book in Shakespeare’s culture. In truth, knowledge of the Bible is necessary fully to understand Shakespeare’s plays; understanding Shakespeare’s use of biblical allusion also reveals a great deal about the nature of early modern English biblical culture (Hamlin 2013: 3).

Monday, March 21, 2016

Ethics of Jesus class: Yes; I love my job (part 2)

My Ethics of Jesus class (most of them) at the Carter Center, March 17, 2016
Photo by Cathy Wooten

This post is also not about the parables of Jesus, although in class tomorrow we will talk about the Rich Fool parable.

Last Thursday's meeting with President Carter was with my Ethics of Jesus students (pictured above) and the Oxford College Interfaith Council, which is sponsored by our chaplain, Lyn Pace.

As I noted in the last post, President Carter started the hour by discussing his view of the Ethics of Jesus; then he gave the students a little quiz (which they passed). The rest of the hour President Carter answered students' questions--very good ones--and, as always, President Carter answered completely, honestly, and brilliantly. He is amazing. Fortunately, no one asked about the current embarrassing presidential campaign, and President Carter only mentioned it in a brief, wry aside. (and did not comment on anyone specifically).

The Ethics of Jesus course is not taught on the Atlanta campus of Emory University, and it is my favorite course to teach; it is my favorite topic and research interest, in fact (my second favorite course, which is also not taught on the Atlanta Emory campus, is "Portraits of Jesus," a course on art and the Gospels that I first taught in Emory's British Studies Program in the UK).

I am pleased that, as previous students have told me, the Ethics of Jesus class also has had a huge impact on the students who have taken it (which says a lot more about the material/subject than about the professor!). I have only taught the course three times, but each time has been fantastic. Oxford's students are great, and the ones who have taken this particular class have always been extra special. This class is no different; I (and, I hope, they) am really enjoying it.

Yes; I really love my job. Our students make it all worthwhile.

One final picture: Cathy Wooten also took a picture of Rita, Jacob (our son), and Jacob's friend Mary while we were at the Carter Center. Our son Camden was not able to attend this time.


From right to left: Mary, Jacob, Rita, and me
Photo by Cathy Wooten

Saturday, March 19, 2016

President Carter: Yes; I love my job (part 1)

President Carter, my Ethics of Jesus class, the Interfaith Council of Oxford College/Emory, Chaplain Lyn Pace, me, and some other family (including Rita and Jacob) and friends at the Carter Center, March 17, 2016.
Photo by Cathy Wooten
This post has almost nothing to do about the reception history of the parables, but I should be forgiven an occasional lapse, should I not?

At the risk of betraying my age, my first vote was for Jimmy Carter for President in 1976. I never thought I would see him in person, much less meet him, but my position at Emory has given me the chance to do so three times.

I did see President Carter once in 1981. I was working for Quaker State Oil Company in St. Louis, MO, and I took a week's vacation to go to Washington, DC. One day that week I visited the Capitol, and there was a group of people standing in one of the hallways downstairs. I asked several of them what they were standing there for, and none of them knew, but I decided to wait a couple minutes to see what happened. Almost immediately after that, President Carter and Tip O'Neill walked down the stairs nearby. Speaker O'Neill immediately ducked into a room, but President Carter broke into his famous smile and came over to greet us and to shake our hands. 

After I came to Emory University in 2000, I learned that President Carter's role as a Distinguished Professor at Emory means that he meets with selected Emory faculty and students several times a year. So back in 2001 I contacted Dr. Steven Hochman, the faculty assistant to President Carter, and he arranged for President Carter to speak and to answer questions for the students, faculty, and staff of Oxford College. We brought over 300 people the 30+ miles to the Carter Center. I got to meet President Carter beforehand, enter the room with him (to a standing ovation that he joked was for me), walk up on the stage with him, and then introduce him to the audience. It was a tremendous thrill and honor.

Several years later we did the same thing. This time President Carter invited me beforehand to visit him in his office at the Carter Center. I got to sit in one of the rocking chairs that President Carter made by hand and chat with him for a few minutes. Once again, that was a tremendous honor.

This past week, President Carter spoke for "me" a third time. Our Chaplain, Lyn Pace, wanted President Carter to meet with the students of the Interfaith Council to speak about the role his faith made in his public decisions (President Carter is a great supporter of the separation of church and state). It was a perfect topic for my Ethics of Jesus class as well, so when I contacted Dr. Hochman, he, with President Carter's approval, graciously once again arranged for us to meet with President Carter.

Instead of 300+ people, we brought around 40 this time, which allowed our students to have a much more in-depth session with him. As our students can attest, President Carter not only is a brilliant man, he is also very gracious, thoughtful, and kind. 

It is also hard to believe that he is 91 years old.

We talked for an hour about the Ethics of Jesus, so the current presidential election season only came up in passing. 

The students asked great questions, and President Carter gave, as always, impressive answers (he also gave them a bit of a quiz, which they passed).

Yes; I really love my job. 


Friday, March 18, 2016

Shakespeare and the Parables (part 2)

William Shakespeare


Some parts cut from the final version of the book:

“All Shakespeare’s Plays might be summed up in the three maxims—love God, love your neighbor, and do your work. Professor Morley, Times October 19, 1881 (Wordsworth 1892: 49).

“Thou shalt never get such a secret from me but by a parable” (Two Gentlemen of Verona 2.5.34-35).


“Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing” (Matt 13:34; cf. Mark 4:33-34).

Shakespeare usually creates his plays based on other sources. Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, for example, were both based on the writings of Plutarch (ca. 46-120 CE). None of his plays, however, are explicitly based on biblical stories. For the play, Measure for Measure, Shakespeare’s primary source was George Whetstone’s two-part play Promos and Cassandra, which was first published in 1578 but apparently never performed, perhaps because it simply was not very good. A prose version of the play was published in 1582, which Shakespeare also used as a source, as well as other sources (e.g., Cinthio’s “Story of Epitia,” the “Disguised Ruler” stories in folklore, and so forth; Shaheen 1999: 245). The title of the play comes from Matthew 7:2: After Jesus commands his listeners in the Sermon on the Mount not to judge lest they be judged, he adds: “For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” There are a fair number of biblical allusions in this play—but no more than normal for Shakespeare—but Richmond Noble suggested that the plot of the play may itself parallel the parable of the Talents: a ruler leaves on a journey of unspecified length, and he leaves his servants with a varying number of “talents.” At the end of the story, the ruler returns to render judgment upon how well his servants have done (1935: 221; other scholars argue that the play also follows the plot of the Workers in the Vineyard parable, e.g., Marx: 2000: 79).  

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Shakespeare and the Parables (part 1)

The First Folio


One of the sections of the book in its earlier drafts that was way too long was the section on William Shakespeare. There was so much material to cover, so much biblical imagery, and so much interaction with the parables of Jesus--especially the parable of the prodigal son.

This blog allows me the freedom to include elements that didn't make it into the book, and over the next few days, I will post a few things about Shakespeare and the parables that I found the most interesting.

But first, for those who don't know, a bit of context about Shakespeare himself:

William Shakespeare was baptized at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford, England, on April 26, 1564. Like many details of his life, the exact date of his birth is unknown, but between his birth and his death on April 23, 1616, Shakespeare composed the greatest dramas ever crafted in the English language. 

The next certain official record of his life  (unless he is the “William Shakeshafte” in Sir Thomas Hesketh’s 1581 will; see Honan 1998: 61-2) is his marriage at the age of eighteen to Anne Hathaway in 1582. Except for the baptism of their children—Susanna, in 1583, and the twins Judith and Hamnet, in 1585—Shakespeare disappears from view for a number of years until he resurfaces in London as an actor and playright. 

By 1594, Shakespeare had established himself as an actor, writer, and partner in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later the King’s Men), a successful acting company in London, a group that built the Globe Theatre (1599) and acquired the Blackfriar’s indoor theater (ca. 1608). Shakespeare published both plays and poetry (the first poem was published in 1593) and became wealthy enough to buy the second largest house in Stratford (the “New Place”) before returning to Stratford between 1611 and 1613. He thereafter spent most of his time in Stratford until his death in 1616.


Shakespeare’s extant literary corpus includes thirty-nine plays—comedies, histories, and tragedies—with Henry VIII being his final play (ca. 1613). In those works Shakespeare refers to the Bible more than any other source. Although the number and types of allusions are vigorously debated (a recent volume cataloguing such allusions consists of 879 pages; Shaheen 1999; cf. Wordsworth 1892 with 420 pages), every single play and many of his sonnets contain significant allusions to the Bible. 

On one hand, the Bible is a rich storehouse of stories of drama, intrigue, and pathos, but it also provides a rich variety of words and themes that would be easily recognizable to Shakespeare’s audiences, since the Bible was the most familiar and important book in Shakespeare’s England. Therefore, knowledge of the Bible is critical for understanding Shakespeare’s plays, especially such plays as The Comedy of Errors, The Merchant of Venice, and Hamlet (Hamlin 2013: 225; 2013: 3).

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Book title announced

Yesterday I received word from Baker Academic that the official title of the book has been finalized:


The Parables After Jesus: 
Their Imaginative Receptions across Two Millennia



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