Monday, May 26, 2008

What on Earth Is Evangelical Biblical Scholarship? Snodgrass on the Parables

Klyne R. Snodgrass has contributed a wonderfully researched and beautifully written treatment of Jesus’ parables (Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus [Eerdmans, 2008]). After the publication of Bernard Brandon Scott’s Hear Then the Parable (Fortress, 1989), this is the second comprehensive and somewhat conventional (I mean this descriptively, not pejoratively) study of the parables. (The other is Arland Hultgren’s The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary [Fortress, 2000].) Snodgrass’ massive book will remain a standard reference for interpreters of the parables for decades.

So far I’ve only read the introduction and scanned some discussions of particular parables. Snodgrass recognizes the difficulties involved in defining the parables. I think his own definition, though broad, represents a genuine contribution: “A parable is an expanded analogy used to convince and persuade” (9). This approach honors the diversity of parables attributed to Jesus, and it introduces the rhetorical dimension of parables. By using “analogy,” Snodgrass successfully rules out arbitrarily allegorical interpretations while affirming that the parables refer to something beyond their story worlds. He writes, “If meaning is the value assigned to a set of relations, parables provide new sets of relations that enable us (or force us) to see in a fresh manner” (8).

All that said, what grabs my attention for the moment is something I find not in the book itself but on its dust jacket, which proclaims Snodgrass’ “consciously evangelical approach.” What on earth does that mean? As one of many biblical scholars who once identified as an evangelical, and a person whose faith and piety remain evangelical, I am totally confused when it comes to describing “evangelical biblical scholarship.” On occasion my seminary students will complain that I don’t provide enough readings that advocate an evangelical perspective. In reply, I wonder: what would that look like? What is an evangelical approach to the Bible?

Many evangelicals today identify themselves by their loyalty to the Bible. In particular, they mean a view that the Bible is a trustworthy guide to divine truth. Is that what evangelical biblical scholarship means, interpretation that takes the Bible’s reliability for granted? If so, then evangelical scholarship is an oxymoron: it’s one thing to pose evangelical questions to the Bible, but to assume one knows the answers in advance is no scholarship at all. We might have evangelical interpretation that is scholarly in many respects, but not evangelical scholarship as such.

Nowhere in his introduction does Snodgrass advance a particular view of biblical reliability. However, I wonder if some of his claims do reflect a bias toward the Bible’s reliability that goes unspoken. Indeed, there are points at which his arguments simply don’t persuade me at all, largely because they build upon unspoken assumptions or ignore critical evidence. In other words, I wonder if an unspoken agenda animates some of his judgments.

Here are a few.

  1. Snodgrass affirms that the parables were “oral instruments in a largely oral culture.” Indeed. From this, he claims that “any attempt to reconstruct the original version of a parable is misguided” (25). In this he is probably correct. Why should we assume that Jesus only spoke parables once, or that he always told them the same way? However, I don’t think many people think they can identify Jesus’ actual words on the basis of critical judgment. That’s not the question in scholarship. The question is whether we may discern probable levels of tradition and redaction (or editing) that accrue to the parables. And the answer to this is, of course we can – not with certainty, but of course we can. One looks at the ending to the parable of the dishonest manager (Luke 16:1-13) and sees what C. H. Dodd described as notes to several different sermons attached to the end – it’s that obvious in some cases. We will never achieve certainty with most such judgments. But scholarship isn’t about certainty; it’s about our best judgments that enlighten our understanding. Snodgrass largely avoids this entire line of thought.
  2. Snodgrass also rules out conventional redaction criticism with this stinger: “Any thought of slavish literary dependence as the only way to account for Synoptic relations is ill-informed” (25). Okay, if he means that an informed person knows there are other proposals on the table. However, the basic insight of modern gospel criticism – since the nineteenth century – is the insight that the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) agree so closely in content, diction, and sequence that some relationship of dependence and redaction is the only way to account for it. No, that doesn’t explain everything. No, the conventional hypothesis that Mark was independently used by both Matthew and Luke is not certain. No, literary dependence in the gospels is not “slavish.” But to suggest that the similarities and differences in parables common to multiple gospels do not reflect a process of copying and editing is a position held almost exclusively by people who want to defend the Bible’s historical reliability.
  3. Snodgrass aims at Jesus’ intent in speaking the parables. So do many scholars, and it’s a legitimate interest. He recognizes that each gospel has its own way of using the parables, as does everyone else. However, Snodgrass maintains that the gospel narratives “provide an interpretive field within which both the parables and the larger narrative shed light on each other” (26). There’s a strong element of truth to this claim: one would expect that as parables were told and retold, their original functions might make their way into the gospel traditions. (Against most parables scholars, I argue precisely this for some of Luke’s more famous parables in a fairly obscure essay.) However, once again Snodgrass has loaded the dice. We almost certainly know that the gospels sometimes change their traditions dramatically to make certain points. Why wouldn’t we expect this with the parables?

Here I’ll stop listing and start arguing. Every gospel shows signs that its authors took some liberties with the traditions they received. Mark narrates two miraculous feeding stories and three passion predictions. I would not argue against the traditions that Jesus miraculously fed a multitude and that during his career he said something about his fate. But that’s not the point. The point is that in each case Mark uses the tradition to make another point. The two feeding stories and the three passion predictions both allow Mark to dramatize the disciples’ cluelessness. After the second feeding story the disciples still worry about bread, whereas after each passion prediction they reject the ethos of righteous suffering. Mark couldn’t care less how many times Jesus fed or predicted; Mark uses these stories to make a different point entirely.

Or Matthew. Mark 7:19 relates that Jesus declared all foods clean. But Matthew insists that Jesus honored the law and taught his followers to do so as well. In telling the same story about handwashing – at points identically Greek word for Greek word, at points differently – Matthew entirely cuts the declaration that all foods are clean. In this instance this is no minor omission. Likewise, Mark is much tougher on Jesus’ disciples than is Matthew. Having confessed Jesus’ messianic identity, in both Matthew and Mark Peter scolds Jesus’ passion prediction. To soften Jesus’ stinging rebuke -- “Get behind me, Satan!” -- Matthew adds material concerning Peter’s insight, giving Peter the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” (16:13-23; par. Mark 8:27-33). No innocent editing, this.

Meanwhile, the author of Luke explicitly tells us that he has combed the sources and improved upon them (1:1-4). So Luke’s gospel is not the least bashful about rewriting material. Consider Jesus’ reception in Nazareth (4:16-30). Luke moves the story far ahead in the book’s sequence, then adds a huge block of material that explains why Jesus receives an unfavorable reception. It’s not because of who Jesus is (as in Mark and Matthew), it’s because of his Gentile-inclusive mission.

I rehearse these examples – familiar to anyone who’s taken an introductory Bible course – to show that Snodgrass simply rules out of hand any suspicion that the gospels might not present the parables in something like their original form. But here is where the problem rises directly to the surface. I’ll quote Snodgrass:

We must read stereoscopically for both the intent of Jesus and the intent of the Evangelists. Those intents are not identical, but if they are not coordinate or at least reconcilable, we have no hope of understanding Jesus. (26)

Snodgrass is entirely correct in advocating a stereoscopic approach. Yet his rationale amounts to nothing but an argument from consequences: If the gospels don’t reliably portray Jesus’ teaching, then Jesus will be elusive. Right. And that is precisely what historical scholarship does: it seeks to discern authentic Jesus material among the gospel traditions without assuming that the gospels provide directly reliable accounts of Jesus’ words and actions. The gospels provide our best and only significant source for Jesus material, yet they represent highly problematic sources. We would say similar things for essential sources like Thucydides, Dio Cassius, Josephus, and Eusebius.

Luke’s unique parables suggest a high level of creativity in early Christian circles. These include the Samaritan, the Prodigal, the Dishonest Manager, the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Widow and the Judge, and the Pharisee and the Toll Collector. These parables are so memorable precisely because they come with a literary flourish that likely does not derive from Jesus. All of these parables, absent from the other gospels, include relatively complex plots and memorable characters. A single literary device, soliloquy, makes most of these characters so rich; that is, only Luke tells parables in which we overhear characters’ thoughts and motives.

Which hypothesis is more likely: that Jesus told parables like the L parables but only Luke had access to that tradition, or that Luke’s gospel includes a healthy does of early Christian creativity? With Luke’s unique parables it looks like a little of both. In many instances Luke’s redactional hand comes through fairly obviously, suggesting an early layer of Jesus tradition. At the same time, these parables all reflect emphases distinctive to Luke: Mercy is given to the poor (or should be); sinners find welcome, even affirmation; those who think they are insiders find themselves outside. Some blend of ancient tradition and creativity best accounts for this pattern. To suggest that the settings and interpretations we find in Luke’s gospel reflect the authentic teaching intent of Jesus simply begs the question.

Let me be clear. From what I’ve seen of it, I admire Snodgrass’ book greatly. I could not have written this impressive piece of scholarship, and I intend to refer to it frequently. It already carries an asterisk in the bibliography I give my students. However, if Snodgrass fairly represents “evangelical scholarship,” then I would say evangelicals need to rethink what they’re doing. I’ll even offer a constructive suggestion.

Evangelical scholarship should not be about defending current dogma; it should be about asking evangelical questions. Feminist scholarship, African and African American scholarship, Latino/a scholarship, Asian and Asian American scholarship, queer scholarship, postcolonial analysis – none of these movements pre-certify the results of investigation. What identifies them is not the answers they offer but the questions they pose. So it should be, I think, with evangelical scholarship – if it wants the rest of us to honor it as scholarship in the public arena.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Fall Book Alert: In the Shadow of Empire

Recent years have witnessed an explosion of interest in how early Christians related to the Roman Empire. A new collection of essays edited by Richard Horsley represents a major attempt to introduce popular readers -- pastors, interested laypeople, and students -- to the intersection of empire studies and biblical studies. Currently in production, In the Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance should roll out this fall. It includes essays by Norman Gottwald, Jon Berquist, Walter Brueggemann, Warren Carter, John Dominic Crossan, Brigitte Kahl, Neil Elliott, and myself.

When I was in seminary we basically learned some key names and dates. Who was Pontius Pilate? What happened in 70 CE? Who was Herod the Great, and who was Herod Antipas? What was not emphasized, was that the entire Bible is a product of imperial cultures -- Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman. We certainly never asked about the Bible as a tool of European and American imperialism, with missionaries giving away Bibles while colonial administrators appropriated land, cultural and natural resources, and people. In the Shadow of Empire speaks to the first question, the Bible and its resistance to empire. It's the first such resource to address the question of empire to a wide range of the biblical canon and with a popular audience in mind.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

What Jesus Learned (part 2 of 2)

What Jesus Learned (part 2 of 2)

In my last installment I suggested that Mark depicts Jesus as an unusual sort of hero. That is, he learns – actually, he is called out into ministry that brings him across social boundaries. We looked in particular at the story of the leper in Mark 1:40-45. Now we’ll apply a more brief treatment to three other examples.

The healing of the paralytic in Mark 2:1-11 is fairly straightforward. Jesus is, Mark says, “at home,” but there is no rest for him. Perhaps because the paralytic disobeyed Jesus by spreading the news of his cleansing, crowds so press in on Jesus that there’s no room in the house. This is not Jesus’ choice. Moreover, the paralytic’s friends force the issue with a dramatic initiative: they dig through the roof of the house to lower their friend in before Jesus. Jesus responds to their faith.

Jesus often receives credit for healing – and touching – a woman with a flow of blood in Mark 5:24b-34. As the argument goes, this woman is ritually unclean because of a chronic menstrual flow. However, Mark does not describe the nature of the woman’s hemorrhage. Nor do any factors in the story suggest that people are surprised that Jesus contacts the woman. How, after all, would anyone know the nature of her ailment? Thus, it’s doubtful at best that Jesus crosses a purity boundary here.

Even more important, it’s not Jesus who does the touching! The woman reaches out and touches the fringe of Jesus’ garment. Pressed by the crowd (a recurring theme in Mark), Jesus does not know who touches him, so he asks. Once again, Jesus does not merit credit in this case; rather, he is drawn out by the woman’s aggressive faith. His heroism consists in his response to the woman’s faith.

Finally, there’s the well known example of the Syrophoenician woman (7:24-30). She is a Gentile, the first who wins Jesus’ blessing. Like the leper, the woman kneels before Jesus, commanding his attention. As with the leper, Jesus issues a stern rebuke. Some people rationalize Jesus’ misbehavior by saying he was “testing her faith.” Mark does not even hint in this direction. Instead, with a snappy retort the woman wins the argument with Jesus – the only character to do so in the Gospel. A boundary does separate Jew from Gentile, but Jesus does not cross that boundary on his own. The woman brings him across.

All four of these characters – the leper, the paralytic (through his friends), the bleeding woman, and the Syrophoenician – command Jesus’ attention by placing their bodies in his way. The leper and the Syrophoenician bow before Jesus’ feet, the paralytic’s friends lower him through the roof, and the bleeding woman reaches out to touch Jesus. The Syrophoenician even wins a debate with Jesus. In none of these cases does Jesus reach out to cross religious or social boundaries; if any boundaries are being crossed, it’s the people Jesus blesses who cross them.

According to Mark, Jesus learns from people who confront him with their need and their faith. These people draw Jesus into new fields of ministry. They are heroes. If Jesus is a hero in these stories, it’s because he recognizes their faith and responds to their initiative.

Theologically, the churches would benefit by following this example of Jesus. Rather than assuming the church is the sole source of truth and that the church knows what people need (or even deserve), perhaps the church should allow itself to encounter its neighbors, to experience their need, and to respond in humility. Like Jesus in Mark, the church has a lot to learn.

Monday, May 5, 2008

What Jesus Learned (part 1 of 2)

Jesus receives credit he doesn't deserve.

Granted, that statement aims to provoke. Yet it's a serious claim concerning an important matter with respect to Jesus and the Gospels. One often reads that Jesus transgressed social and religious boundaries that tied people to their oppression. In particular, the argument goes, Jesus liberated people from the Jewish purity laws that tied them down. He touched lepers, healed on the sabbath, came into contact with menstruating women and with corpses. In short, many say, Jesus' "casual" attitude toward the purity laws demonstrated a commitment to compassion over purity.

Three things are wrong with this argument, and I'd like to dwell on the third. First, when this argument comes from preachers and theologians it carries with it an often subtle anti-semitism. Jesus is good news because he freed people from their restrictive Jewish laws. This line of argument has an old and pernicious history.

Second, it's not at all clear that Jesus ever violated the laws of Israel. Touching lepers and corpses made a person unclean, but it did not constitute a violation of the law as such. One might imagine debates over the legality of healing on the sabbath, but it's far from clear that Jesus violated the law in that respect. Tellingly, all of the Synoptic Gospels narrate arguments between Jesus and his contemporaries concerning the legality of his behavior, but only one of them -- Mark -- suggests that Jesus actually violated the law. Mark 7:19 says that Jesus declared all foods clean, a statement that Matthew omits and Luke lacks. Instead, Matthew, Luke, and John all suggest that Jesus was law-observant, not a transgressor of the law. (One might add that all of our evidence suggests Jesus' followers continued to observe the law after his death. Why would they do that if Jesus himself did not observe the law?)

For our third point, let's take a cue from the Gospel of Mark. Mark is absolutely clear that Jesus often reaches out to people. He travels from village to village, he sees people with disabilities and heals them on his own initiative. He keeps company with sinners. He seems committed to human wellbeing, even liberation.

Yet several key stories in Mark suggest that in some important cases Jesus was himself the learner, called out by others to perform his wonderful deeds. We'll look at Jesus' famous interaction with the leper (1:40-45), the healing of the paralytic (2:1-11), his encounter with the hemorrhaging woman (5:24b-34), and his dispute with the Syrophoenician woman (7:24-30).

For today, let's just look at the story of the leper.
  • Jesus does not approach the leper. Rather the leper comes and kneels before Jesus. This action locates the initiative with the leper, not with Jesus.
  • We should pay more attention to the leper's act of kneeling. We tend to see kneeling as a form of reverence and devotion, as indeed it probably is. But kneeling is also a powerful physical act that claims attention. If a person is walking along, and someone kneels before them, the act of kneeling blocks that person's path. Moreover, the act of kneeling demands some sort of acknowledgment. Perhaps the leper is showing reverence to Jesus; certainly, the leper is impeding Jesus' progress.
  • The leper's action combines with his speech, "If you are willing, you can make me clean." This claim poses a challenge to Jesus. It does not request Jesus' intervention so much as it poses a test of Jesus' character. The leper is calling Jesus out.
  • At this point we should attend to a major text critical problem in 1:41. Most of our ancient manuscripts tell us that Jesus was "moved with compassion" for the leper. But a few describe Jesus not as feeling compassion but as angered. (* See below for a discussion of this problem.) Now, why might Jesus respond with anger? Perhaps Jesus is angry because (a) a leper (b) has gotten into his way and (c) challenged his good will.
  • The leper does not obey Jesus. Jesus commands the leper to keep silent about his cleansing, but the leper goes out disseminating the word about Jesus. In effect, the leper forces Jesus out of the closet into a new mode of ministry. This, according to Mark, forces a reluctant Jesus into the public light.
The leper's bold initiative wins Jesus over. Jesus takes hold of the leper, pronounces him clean, and effects his restoration. When we read this story in this light, one wonders how anyone ever thought to credit Jesus for crossing the boundary between clean and unclean. Everything happens at the leper's initiative.

That said, Jesus deserves a great deal of credit in this case -- and in a way that might instruct his twenty-first century followers. Confronted by the leper, Jesus follows through by entering a new phase of his ministry. He does touch the leper, he does effect cleansing, and he does continue as a public advocate of the marginalized. In this way Jesus makes for a wonderful hero, the example of a person called forth into a world of hurt and need. Whatever his agenda is before he meets the leper, it's not the same after. Jesus does not set his own agenda; rather, his mission is shaped in response to the people who call him forth.

* An increasing number of interpreters find this minority reading compelling. It's easy to explain a Christian scribe would change an original text from anger to compassion, since early Christian copyists tended to smooth over the portrayal of Jesus. But why would a copyist do the opposite? Can we imagine a scribe turning Jesus' compassion into anger?