Wednesday, April 20, 2022

What are They saying about the Parables? (Chapter 4 , part 6): Evaluation of recent contributions from Ruben Zimmermann


Ruben Zimmermann's contributions to parable study are vast and significant, and more is forthcoming from him. In brief, though, through his books (and dozens of articles), Zimmermann makes significant methodological, hermeneutical, and ethical contributions to parable interpretation, including his efforts to facilitate collaboration among scholars around the world. 

The “integrative method” of historical, literary, and reader-oriented approaches that Zimmermann proposes advances dialogues not just in parable scholarship but also in historical Jesus scholarship. 

Zimmermann’s work is also comprehensive in the ways discussed in the Preface to my WATSA Parables? book. He investigates what parables do and how they work; he explores their meanings; and, perhaps most importantly, he endeavors to ascertain what parables want, the ways in which parables challenge their hearers to act. 

Yet these explorations, discussions, and collaborations need to be extended. An integrative method, for example, is not new or unique, and, in fact, should be—as some already are —even more comprehensive, integrating not just literary, rhetorical, and socio-historical analyses but also additional insights, for example, from socio-economic, socio-cultural, and other social-scientific analyses of the first-century Mediterranean world. 

In addition, a richer dialogue with literary approaches would strengthen discussions about the dialogic function of parables embedded into larger narratives, which includes (a) centripetal elements that necessitate interpretation of the parables within their literary contexts and (b) centrifugal elements that require analyses of how the narratives can attempt to impose more-monologic discourse on the more-dialogic parables (see the discussion of “monologic authority” at the end of Chapter 3 above). Sometimes embedding parables into larger narratives can change their meanings dramatically. In these cases, the tensions between parables and the larger narratives in which they are embedded cannot control, contain, or complete the parables’ ability to create or communicate meaning.

The next post will offer a brief conclusion about heteroglossia, polyphony, and parables. After that, on to discussing Chapter 5 of What are They Saying about the Parables?

The Eye of the Needle is NOT a Gate in Jerusalem


I keep seeing over and over again the claim the the "eye of a needle" means a gate in Jerusalem, so I thought I should repost this comments about that error:

In a commentary for Fortune, I included the following:
Jesus told a wealthy man to sell all his possessions and to give the proceeds to the poor. Jesus then told his disciples how difficult it was for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God (as likely as a camel going through an eye of a sewing needle).
I added the word "sewing" because I did not have the space to explain that when the Gospel texts said, "a needle," they meant a sewing needle (Hobart argued it was a physician's needle in Luke, but Cadbury put the "Lukan physician's language" theory to rest).

The editor(s) of Fortune removed my citation of the biblical texts (Matt 19:24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25) in this instance and for all the other biblical references, so in the numerous comments by readers of the essay who responded to the article, several observed that I had made a mistake or that my knowledge of the Biblical context was incorrect. For example (taken from the Yahoo! Finance page, where it was also posted online):
I agree with Mr. Gowler's assessment, except for one thing. The "eye of the needle" was a gate in the walls of Jerusalem...a little gate. For a camel to pass through, it had to be unburdened and had to stoop down a little. In other words, hold on to your possessions and your pride, and you'll never get through. As far as Mr. Ryan having a problem with the poor carpenter's son from Nazareth, I am in complete agreement.

Other commenters were more caustic about my alleged lack of knowledge of this gate in Jerusalem.

It's interesting how these misconceptions persist, and these domestications of Jesus's words--efforts to tame his radical message--all derive from interpreters' unease with this shocking, hyperbolic statement. 

There is no evidence that the saying refers to a gate, including a particular gate in Jerusalem. That arose sometime, most likely, in the middle ages (I remember the version about this mythical gate that I heard from a pulpit growing up is that the camel actually had to pass through the Jerusalem gate on its knees).

If you change one letter in the Greek word (an eta to an iota) that would change the word "camel" to "rope" or "ship's cable," and some scribes evidently made that change in a few manuscripts (e.g., S, 1010, f13), and Origen, Cyril of Alexandria, and a few others favored that view.* 

Others claim that the Aramaic word "behind" the Greek word meant a thick rope or a ship's cable (e.g., Lamsa, Gospel Light, 115-116). Others suggest that the word actually means a "large wooden beam" (noted but rejected by Ibn al-Tayyib).

One of the better studies of this saying is in Kenneth Bailey's Through Peasant Eyes, 165-166, and he convincingly makes the argument that this needle is indeed a needle. He also points out that there is a later rabbinic saying in the Talmud (probably dependent) that speaks of the impossibility of "an elephant going through the eye of a needle" (an elephant being the largest animal in Babylonia; Ber. 55b; there also is a comparative text in the Qur'an: Sura 7:40). 

One can also point to the analogous saying of Jesus about straining the gnat and swallowing a camel (Matt 23:24) for a similar hyperbolic, impossible task.

The text speaks about something that is impossible for human beings; that rules out a gate where a camel's burden needed to be unloaded before it could pass through.

Many interpreters point to this passage as an example of Jesus's "peasant humor"--it is impossible for the largest animal in the area to pass through such a small aperture--but told from a deadly serious perspective, from a prophet similar to Amos, a "voice from below" who cried out against the injustices of the wealthy of his day. 

*Thanks to James Ernest for catching a typo in the earlier version.

Friday, March 18, 2022

A Lenten Meditation in NCR: The Way of the Cross from Advent to Lent


This article is not about a parable, but I want to share it on this blog. The article is found in today's issue of The National Catholic Reporter. In this Lenten meditation, using the work of Adolfo PĂ©rez Esquivel and illustrated by Alastair McIntosh, I argue that the Way of the Cross begins with the Magnificat, is inaugurated by Jesus’s Nazareth sermon, and is completed by Jesus's last week in Jerusalem. The first two paragraphs of the article are:

The Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem begins with commemorating Jesus’s condemnation by Pilate in the traditional site of Pilate’s Praetorium and ends at the Holy Sepulchre with remembering his internment in the tomb. At each of the fourteen stations in this “Way of the Cross,” pilgrims are urged to meditate on the events and meaning of Jesus’s death. 

Yet Jesus’s path to the cross did not really begin in Jerusalem. Jesus’s teachings and ministry were the first stages of his path to the cross in Jerusalem, as prefigured in Mary’s Magnificat and proclaimed in Jesus’s inaugural sermon in his hometown of Nazareth. The seeds planted in verses read during Advent thus prepare us for Jesus’s ministry, and Jesus’s proclamation of good news for the poor and his critiques of power, wealth, and oppression led inexorably to the Way of the Cross that we commemorate during Lent.

The article can be found here

The illustrations by McIntosh can be found here.

Saturday, January 29, 2022

"The Mote and the Beam" gives insight into COVID-19 debates

"The Parable of the Mote and Beam" (circa 1619) by Domenico Fetti (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Parable of the Mote and Beam (circa 1619) 
by Domenico Fetti (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Last summer I had another essay accepted by The National Catholic Reporter. I wrote it primarily to convince myself to have more patience with anti-vaxxers, something that is almost exponentially more difficult to do several months later. You can find the full essay (1200 words) here.

The essay discusses what the Gospel of Luke calls a parable--the Mote and Beam--and Domenico Fett's awesome painting of it (above). Along the way, I use Howard Thurman's "three Hounds of Hell," which I think is very helpful in understanding what motivates those who intentionally lie about vaccines, masks, and other mitigation efforts. 

Here's a sample:

Jesus' admonitions are often difficult to implement, and the task is especially arduous when applied during a pandemic that is prolonged by people hesitant or even adamant about not taking simple actions to protect themselves and their neighbors. It seems that the "beams" are in their eyes, not ours, and that they are blind to both the danger and the solutions — and maddeningly so to the rest of us.

In addition, some influential voices — for fame, power and/or profit — deliberately mislead others about actions they should take to protect themselves and their neighbors, such as convincing people that the COVID-19 vaccines are unnecessary, or harmful, or a "personal choice" that does not affect others.

In such cases, it seems clear why Jesus prefaces the mote/beam parable in Luke with the parable about the blind leading the blind, with them all falling into a pit. Disaster is sure to follow, just as Jesus warned.

The arguments against masks, social distancing and vaccines are scientifically false, so their opponents are in error, sometimes tragically so. To be clear, Jesus' admonition not to "judge" other human beings in this section of Luke (6:37) does not mean that we should avoid correcting such erroneous beliefs and behaviors; it means instead that we should not judge in a condemnatory way (as noted in the same verse) and that our critiques should be merciful, generous, loving and intended to be redemptive, all of which are included in a humble acknowledgement of our own failings — noting the beams in our own eyes.

I don’t know if I’d say the same thing at this stage of the pandemic, but maybe I should:

What are They saying about the Parables? (Chapter 4 , part 6): Evaluation of recent contributions from Ruben Zimmermann

  Ruben Zimmermann's contributions to parable study are vast and significant, and more is forthcoming from him. In brief, though, throug...