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.


youcancallmenana said...

I am looking forward to referencing, if not reading the Snodgrass tome. You did say something that I need clarified.

"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. "

While I agree with you on the need for an increased level of scholarship from an evangelical perspective, I'm not sure I agree with you regarding other types of admitted bias's such as those you name. If by pre-certifying the results of investigation you mean that African, Asian, LGBT scholarship attempt to interpret scripture without filtering for it's own agenda I would strongly disagree. I would submit that every cultural group who is interested in Christianity is interested in finding affirmation of themselves and their agenda (dogma) in the text. This extends, of course, to evangelicals as well. This is not the ideal but it is often the reality.
It is the responsible student of scripture who is constantly asking, "what did/does God mean to communicate through this passage", not "what evidence can I find in this passage to support the theory I have already adopted". The attitude "don't confuse me with the facts, my mind is made up" has no place in biblical scholarship.
It's true that am just as guilty as the next person but I am, as you know, trying to be objective.
Sally from LTS

Greg Carey said...

Thanks, Sally. No, I don't mean to imply that anyone interprets without filtering through their biases. What I mean is, I cannot necessarily anticipate the results of, say, a feminist interpretation. I know feminist concerns will be addressed, but I don't know what conclusions will be reached. I'd like to see an evangelical approach that openly names evangelical concerns -- where I step off is when the results are dogmatically predetermined. I got that sense reading Snodgrass.

But to your point, I believe in accountability, not objectivity.

Nana said...

Oh now I understand.
I would suggest, however, that it is easier for you and I to anticipate the evangelical questions since we are/were steeped in them, unlike feminist, African American or LGBT.
Yes, accountability, since real objectivity is unrealistic in any sense.

Martin Hogan said...

I teach New Testament studies in Mater Dei Institute, in Dublin, a teacher training college that specializes in Religious Education. I agree with your comments on biblical interpretation. It echoes what I have read in John Barton's recent book, 'the Nature of Biblical Criticism', which I found very helpful. said...

So, I don't actually believe this will work.