Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Canon (and Dungan)

All of us who teach the New Testament get the same question: "How did we get the Bible?" Or, "Who decided what should be in the Bible?"

In the post-Da Vinci Code age, this question often comes with some suspicion. Was the canon formed in some smoke-filled room by imperial or ecclesiastical authorities? A book sure to grab attention affirms that to be the case, sort of. David Dungan, Constantine's Bible: Politics and the Making of the New Testament (Fortress, 2007) is concise, affordable, and likely to appeal. Dungan essentially argues that Constantine's influence shaped the decision to determine a formal canon.

In contrast, I would argue that the canon grew organically. People made and passed around copies of early Christian books because they perceived them to be valuable. Some books grew wildly popular (Gospels, Acts, Paul, some other letters); others widely popular; still others too hot to handle. Well after Constantine, our copies of "Bibles" (bound collections of early Christian books) and canonical "lists" (published by various early Christian leaders) vary in their particulars. Thus, whatever Constantine's influence, he neither initiated the canon process nor did he determine its outcome.

A recent respondent to this blog, Garwood Anderson, has published a helpful review of Dungan's book on the Review of Biblical Literature site: I recommend it.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Surprise in the Parables: More on Snodgrass

I’m working my way around Klyne Snodgrass’ book on the parables (Stories with Intent, see below) very slowly. One great strength of Snodgrass’ book is his refusal to offer a simple, single-layered approach to interpreting parables. The influence of Adolf Jülicher, who over a century ago insisted that each parable has a single point, has created an aversion to multi-textured interpretations. Perhaps the pinnacle of this line of analysis may be found in the brilliant interpretations of John Dominic Crossan (particularly, his In Parables) and Bernard Brandon Scott (particularly, Hear Then the Parable). For Crossan and Scott, the power of Jesus’ parables resides not in the “ideas” they promote but in their ability to undermine conventional ways of perceiving and relating to the world. The key to this line of interpretation lies in the parables’ proclivity to take strange or surprising turns. Unfortunately this same approach cannot accommodate parables that look as if they’re talking about something fairly specific or intuitive. Indeed, Crossan and Scott tend to excise such specific (or, to use Snodgrass’ term, analogical) elements from Jesus’ parables and attribute them to Christian tradition or redaction.

Snodgrass, however, refuses to prejudge Jesus’ parables based upon a narrow (perhaps romantic) theory of how they might have worked. By opening himself to the possibility that the Gospels might actually reflect the gist of Jesus’ teaching, Snodgrass also creates space for a world of challenging interpretive issues. This is a good thing, and he deserves credit for wading into this brier patch. Let’s take the parable of The Workers in the Vineyard (Matt 20:1-16) as a test case.

Snodgrass lists seven interpretive options for this parable that have surfaced through the ages, though his own conclusion amounts to something like option 6, that the parable undermines “envy, greed, boasting, or any kind of reckoning among Jesus’ disciples” (371). Among the other options, I think Snodgrass takes most seriously the possibilities that (a) the parable demonstrates the gracious generosity of God (though he rejects this) and (b) the parable defends Jesus’ companionship with sinners. Snodgrass rejects outright another plausible possibility, that (c) the parable (Matthew’s version, if not that of Jesus) promotes the rejection of Jews and the inclusion of Gentiles.

I love Snodgrass’ way of proceeding. He makes some exegetical observations, then names several interpretive questions that require resolution. That’s exactly right. We’ll use just one here: is there a possible tension between Matthew’s use of the parable and that of Jesus? That is, might Jesus be concerned with how God treats people in general or how people treat one another, rather than the issue of Jews and Gentiles, which is a huge preoccupation for Matthew? It’s not clear to me that Snodgrass effectively rules out the anti-Jewish potential of the parable as we find it in Matthew, though he does offer an argument (373). Here I think Snodgrass fails to appreciate what it means to suppose that a Gospel author might turn a parable of Jesus to a very different use. In such cases we would expect editorial touches, not necessarily thorough reworking. Snodgrass has a point when he judges that interpretations that read early workers as Jews and the later workers as Gentiles require “a divining rod that the text does not give.” Nevertheless, that interpretation is grounded in one detail of the text, taken within the larger (and complicated) matter of what’s up with Jews and Gentiles in Matthew.

That one detail provokes me to post. Snodgrass makes almost nothing of what seems to me the strangest point of the parable: the earlier workers must wait while the later workers get paid first (20:8). As one who has done hourly labor myself, I can imagine that the earlier workers might resent receiving the same payment as those who had worked less. In itself, that’s not cause for outrage. Having to stand around while the latecomers get paid first, however, and then receiving the same payment, that would provoke a harsh reaction. Remarkably, Snodgrass judges Matt 20:16 (“So the last will be first, and the first will be last”) not as Matthew’s – or even Jesus’ – conclusion to the parable, but as a conclusion to the larger unit of Matt 19:13-20:34. Snodgrass does not discuss this, but distancing 20:16 from the parable has two significant consequences. First, it downplays the significance of 20:8, which would be amplified through its connection with 20:16 (noted on p. 371). Second, it distances the motif of reversal, key to the Israel-Gentiles line of interpretation, from the parable itself.

I am not arguing for the Israel-Gentiles reading, about which I’m entirely uncertain. Unlike Snodgrass, I enjoy the luxury of being a critical observer at this point, with no obligation to pronounce a definitive judgment on the parable. However, in this one case I think Snodgrass has tamed the parable by overlooking one of the great insights from the line of parable scholarship that runs from C. H. Dodd through Crossan and Scott. That insight is that many of Jesus’ parables, nearly all of his narrative parables, feature a “hook,” a moment at which the ordinary flow of the parable ceases to make sense. Snodgrass is correct to deny that all parables feature this, and his introduction notes the power of many parables to shock or surprise (18). However, he entirely skips over this dramatic feature of the parable of the Workers.

Snodgrass fundamentally sees the parable of the Workers as discouraging the tendency to judge the merits of others to receive God’s favor. I’m inclined to agree, though I’m not certain that Matthew rules out interpreting this principle through the relations of Jews and Gentiles in the church. However, Snodgrass overlooks one point of the parable that begs for emphasis: the force of surprise and disorientation. With Dodd, Crossan, and Scott, I would elevate the importance of surprise as a criterion for evaluating the parables that feature it.