Gowler -Parables After Jesus Part 3 (Gupta)

Previous posts: Part 1, Part 2

Chapter 5

Parables After Jesus

The last main chapter focuses on both the 20th and 21st centuries (pp. 207-153). Here Gowler covers 9 people/groups including Thomas Hart Benton, the Blues, Flannery O’Connor, Martin Luther King Jr., Godspell, Latin American interest in the parables, David Flusser, Octavia Butler, and Thich Nhat Hanh. I will mention a few interpreters that were especially interesting to me. I love Flannery O’Connor. Her novel, The Violent Bear It Away, is considered to be inspired by the Parable of the Sower, a harrowing but vivid modern tale. As for Martin Luther King, he preached with passion about the Parable of the Rich man and his storehouses. Also, unsurprisingly, King was inspired by the Parable of the Good Samaritan. My favorite musical of all time is Godspell and as a young Christian I learned many of the teachings of Jesus through it. Gowler is no doubt right when he says that Godspell more than any other Jesus film/play/musical “incorporates parables so deeply into its narrative of Jesus’ life and teachings” (232).

Conclusion

Gowler’s conclusion is concise, less than three pages. He simply affirms that we see such creativity and  rainbow of readings of the parables no doubt because they are puzzles and riddles worth pondering extensively. Gowler likens them to art works, inviting the reader into active imagination.

Gupta’s Final Thoughts

Gowler’s The Parables after Jesus is such a fun book to read – the case studies are well-chosen and refreshingly diverse. Gowler balances ancient and modern, East along with West, men and women, academic and art/popular culture. The visuals in the book are helpful and show the impact of the parables even in earliest Christian art. If I have one lingering desire after completing the book, though, it is for more synthesis and guidance from Gowler. I would have enjoyed some commentary on trends and distinctives of certain periods or communities, perhaps briefly at the end of each chapter. In the conclusion, Gowler could have adumbrated how readings have flowed through various watershed moments. These ideas notwithstanding, I warmly recommend this book to all students of the Gospels and the parables of Jesus.

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses – 2nd Ed (Gupta)

 

Confession: I was one of the few folks that did not read Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses when it first came out in 2006. So I felt compelled to wade through this 600+ page updated edition. Bauckham, as many of you know, is an incisive and interdisciplinary scholar, having made important contributions to the study of Revelation, NT Christology, and women in the Gospels, just for starters.

In Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Bauckham makes his intentions clear. He argues that

“in the period up to the writing of the Gospels, gospel traditions were connected with named and known eyewitnesses, people who had heard the teaching of Jesus from his lips and committed it to memory, people who had witnessed the events of his ministry, death, and resurrection and themselves had formulated the stories about these events that they told” (93)

Bauckham realizes that he is cutting against the grain of modern scholarship by appealing to these “eyewitnesses.” One of his overarching concerns is to propose “testimony” as a better description of what the Gospels offer, rather than either what we call (pure) “history” or religious legend. Some have scoffed at this idea of testimony, as if it is “faith-based” rather than scientific. Bauckham responds, though, by claiming this: “From a historiographic perspective, radical suspicion of testimony is a kind of epistemological suicide. It is no more practicable in history than it is in ordinary life” (506). Here is a longer statement on the subject:

“To insist, with some Gospel critics, that the historicity of each and every Gospel pericope must be established, one by one, with arguments for each, is not to recognize testimony for what it necessarily is. It is to suppose that we can extract individual facts from testimony and build our own reconstruction of events that is no longer dependent on the witness. It is to refuse the privileged access to truth that precisely participant testimony can give us. Ancient historiography rightly valued such testimony as essential to good history, and the Holocaust shows us how indispensable it can be when the events we confront are ‘at the limits'” (502)

Bauckham.jpgHow does Bauckham go about proving that the Gospels are supported by eyewitness testimony? His approach is necessarily multiform, focusing, for example, on the use of names in the Gospels and what the appearance of so many named characters tells us; “these people joined the early Christian movement and were well known at least in the circles in which these traditions were first transmitted” (45). Bauckham reasons that there would have been no reason to name such figures except for this identification as real participants in the story and probably known eyewitnesses (47). But could it be that the Evangelists made these names up for narrative purposes? Bauckham argues that from what we know of the popularity and use of Jewish names in the ancient world at large, the Gospels reflect the same (see 84). And what about those unnamed characters? Bauckham proposes that some of these may have been eyewitnesses who were not named due to “protective anonymity” (2000).

I have offered just a taste here of what is in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Bauckham is interested not only in names, but also the earliest reception of the Gospels, recent scholarship on individual and communal memory, problems with form criticism, and ways that the Gospels identify eyewitnesses. In this second edition, Bauckham has added three new chapters that appear at the end of the book. The first extra chapter deals with Mark, specifically offering more detail regarding Bauckham’s argument that Mark presents Peter as a key eyewitness source for his Gospel. A second extra chapter digs deeper into the identity of the Beloved Disciple – Bauckham defends his conclusion that this was not John the son of Zebedee. Finally, Bauckham further discusses his rejection of form criticism. I love this line: “I discovered the death of form criticism and reported it. I did not attempt to kill it” (590).

So, what is my take on Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (2nd ed)? Again, I am deeply impressed by Bauckham’s ability to tackle his argument from various angles which requires facility in several disciplines. I believe he is at his best when he demonstrates how eyewitnesses are emphasized and identified in (non-biblical) ancient texts, such as in Lucian, Porphyry – and in the new chapters he adds Polybius, Plutarch, and Josephus. This is exactly the kind of spade-work that will lead to a paradigm shift, if Bauckham’s findings hold up to further scrutiny.

But, I hasten to point out that in many ways Bauckham is pioneering new territory, and this makes it very difficult to prove how the Evangelists were divulging the eyewitnesses. Note for example how he admits: “I know of no comprehensive study of the ways in which ancient historians indicated their eyewitness sources” (514).

Despite the length of the book, I felt that Bauckham should have given more attention the the matter of genre and the Gospels. If he is going to focus on how texts mark eyewitnesses, I believe this merited a chapter on gospels as biographies. This is somewhat implicit in his work, but it deserves space, because then one is able to determine more clearly the best comparative texts.

In the end, what Bauckham offers is plausibility. He shows how it is plausible that the Gospels should be taken as historical works that come from eyewitness testimony, similar to the way other ancient historical works relied on eyewitnesses. Obviously, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses will remain an important voice in the wider discussion of the origins, development, and nature of the Gospels and what they tell us about Jesus and the early Christians.

 

Barth and Ephesians – Book of the Year Contender (Gupta)

Barth EphesiansGood news! A NEW book from Barth….Ok, since Karl Barth has been dead for almost half a century, he hasn’t been publishing much. But Baker just published a newly-translated-into-English book-version of Barth’s German lecture notes on Ephesians. Put simply, what we have now in English are Barth’s lectures on Ephesians. To be more specific, Barth’s extensive notes on Ephesians chapter one, with a brief overview of Ephesians chapters two through six. Putting all the caveats aside, this little book is exhilarating reading, bring the voice of Barth alive to a new generation! This is a contender for book of the year!

Preliminary Notes

This edited work is based on Barth’s 1921-22 lectures on Ephesians. Apparently, Barth had so much to say about chapter one, that he had to rush through the rest of Ephesians in one lecture (Feb 23, 1922). I love an announcement that Barth made to his class pre-empting any questions about the pace of the course:

Announcement: In response to the complaints that we are moving too slowly, I would point out that the text we are considering is not easy to interpret, not insignificant, and not merely a matter of controversy. Our goal is to understand the text. We have no control over how far we go or do not go when it is a matter of understanding something from the word” (92)

The translator offers this comment: “By this point in the course, Barth had delivered five lectures, roughly one half of the semester, and covered only three verses [from Ephesians chapter one]” (92)!

Notes on Barth’s Notes

Authorship: Barth argues that “It seems to me much more likely that one author wrote both letters (Col and Eph), drawing from the same conceptual framework but expressing his ideas in different situations, freely adapting his own ideas the second time, repeating, paraphrasing, and occasionally modifying them, much as any of us might do today when we have lectured on or written about similar material to different audiences” (56); Later: “Personally, I would defend the authenticity of Ephesians” (58)

Who Cares?: “frankly, I do not have any great interest in the (authorship) question. As far as I am concerned, it could be otherwise…[I]t is enough to know that someone, at any rate, wrote Ephesians (why not Paul?) thirty to sixty years after Christ’s death, someone who understood Paul well and developed the apostle’s ideas with obvious loyalty as well as originality” (59)

An Apostle: “An apostle is a person with a mission and the power to carry it out. He is sent to enemy-occupied territory to break up a blockade…” (59)

Incarnation: “The message of the incarnation is not proclaimed as an idea, in the normal sense of the word; rather, the word from the peaceful kingdom enters the world as a battle cry, as a declaration of war” (61)

Faith: “Faith is the action of the new person in me, the person I am not, the new person whose identity within me is the source of the greatest possible honor. Faith is a fundamental and eternal event that is beyond all temporal processes.” (68)

Grace and Adoption: “Grace is the reality of forgiveness, which has no continuity whatsoever with anything that we can grasp (apart from the continuity that is established by God’s will and God’s alone!): this human creature, who is fallen and without exception fails to recognize God, is recognized by God as his child” (73)

The Incomprehensible Nevertheless! “Despite God’s holiness, Grace! Despite human sin, Peace!” (77)

God as Lord: “There is no cause to shudder as before a despot, because his despotism is the despotism of love” (100)

Transforming Forgiveness: “Forgiveness is not a matter of merely excusing a person; the one who is forgiven is also made obedient. The rule of God does not refer only to the dynamics of God’s action; God’s acquittal effects a corresponding dynamic in the creature, whose action is completely dissolved, reconstituted, and established on a new foundation” (106)

Hope: “To hope is to intentionally align oneself with God, with all the risk that such partisanship involves. It is a declaration of war against the reality of this world. You could call it the willingness to see the world completely unromantically and without any illusions” (119)

Pilgrims: “true theology is and will always be theologia viatorum. But if all we can be is pilgrims, then pilgrims we should be…The ambiguity of our existence corresponds to the liveliness of our hope; and hope in turn enables us to live to the glory of God, neither blind to life’s difficulties nor resigned to them” (146).

 

 

 

Scripture and Its Interpretation (Baker) – Book Notice (Gupta)

Scripture.jpg

This is a book I have been wanting for a long time. I teach a biblical hermeneutics and exegesis course where I want students to think through different modes of reading and also different perspectives. This is perfect -and I absolutely love the cover!

From a variety of contributors, this book introduces everything from African and Asian biblical interpretation to Latino/a, Catholic, Orthodox, and Pentecostal readings. There are also handy essays on theological interpretation, and how Scripture relates to such topics as spirituality, politics, ethics, and mission. I am excited to see a very diverse group of contributors, not only from different faith traditions but diverse perspectives in terms of gender, ethnicity, and location. Congrats to Michael Gorman (editor) and the contributors. [Easter egg: my co-blogger Chris has a nice essay in here on noncanonical writings related to the Bible. I guess they weren’t interested in my suggested essay, “Keeping Bible-reading ‘Portland’ Weird”]

Status, Ambition, and the Way of Jesus, Craig Hill (Gupta)

 

A handful of years back, one of my senior colleagues told me this: “I have been hearing from people in the guild that you are ‘ambitious.'” I said, “Ok, thanks.” He said, “Ummm….that’s not a compliment.” That moment left me both surprised and disappointed. Some were interpreting the hard work I felt I had done as something off-putting and cocky. It made me feel guilty for being “ambitious.” Is ambition really that bad?

I just finished reading Craig Hill’s new book on this subject, Servant of All: Status, Ambition, and the Way of Jesus (Eerdmans). It strikes me as one of those books that will help many Christian leaders and aspiring professors to reflect maturely on the matter of ambition. It is not a traditional “academic book,” but more like a series of theological reflections on the matter. Here are a few memorable nuggets:

HillA quote from C.S. Lewis where he likens Hell to the kind of stuffy academic atmosphere of his time: “We must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment” (Hill, 20-21; from Screwtape Letters, preface, p. ix).

[Hill offers a helpful statement about humility and generosity in our leadership]:

It is only in a specific and limited sense that the NT authors ask us to deny ourselves. They do not teach self-abnegation, that is, the loss or destruction of self. Christianity is not masochistic, and it should not promote, much less require, self-loathing. We are asked to give out of the abundance we have received, and for every loss, there is a corresponding, even greater gain. It is essential to understanding, however, that this is not necessarily a gain in kind. There is no guarantee that finding our identity in God is going to make us famous or wealthy. Indeed, it is overwhelmingly likely to have the opposite effect. (33)

[Later]

Note that Jesus did not ask his hearers to become nothing. It is the source of their significance, not their need for significance, that was challenged. (50)

[Hill paraphrasing 2 Cor 12:7-9]: “we can be filled by God only to the extent that we are not already full of ourselves” (103)

These are just a few snippets. At the end of it all, Hill concludes that ambition is neither inherently good or bad. He writes, “[Ambition] is the fire that warms the house or, unchecked, burns it to the ground. A gifted person who lacks ambition will achieve little. Yes, and the worst people in history have been spectacularly ambitious” (150).

Along the way, I have learned that I cannot control what other people think of me. I need to be driven by what I think is right, keep my pride in check, have friends and colleagues who can graciously call me out if I err, and pass on generosity to those who are struggling just as others have lifted me up. I think we will be held back from doing all that we are called to do if we are overly occupied with how our work “looks” to others. I try to believe that if we commit ourselves to quality (and not just quantity), we should not be embarrassed with our work and productivity.

 

Gowler -Parables After Jesus Part 2 (Gupta)

Parables After JesusWe are continuing a short series on David Gowler’s The Parables After Jesus (Baker; PART 1)

Here we will look briefly at chapters 3 and 4, respectively on the interpretation and use of the parables in the 16th-17th centuries, and on the 18th-19th centuries.

Chapter 3: “The Afterlives of Jesus’ Parables in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

Here Gowler examines ten case studies, we will just mention a few of these. The first is Martin Luther. Luther rejected allegorical interpretation, calling it “stupid.” He promoted a more simple approach which drew out the plain meaning, though Luther himself did not discount the possibility of symbolic meaning. As can be expected, Luther focused his interpretation of the parables on Christ. When it comes to the parables, they often focus on moral behavior and good works. How does Luther handle this? According to Gowler, as far as Luther was concerned, “The ‘works’ are outward signs of one’s inner faith…Works do not make anyone good; instead, works bear witness to the genuineness of one’s faith” (120).

I was also fascinated by Gowler’s discussion of Shakespeare’s interest in the Synoptic parables. Apparently, Shakespeare was especially infatuated with the plot and themes of the Parable of the Prodigal Son – sibling rivalries, rebellious children, mercy, restoration, etc. Gowler notes how Shakespeare alludes or tips his hat to the prodigal son in numerous works such as Comedy of ErrorsLove’s Labour LostKing LearTimon of AthensTwelfth Night, The Winter’s Tale, and Two Gentlemen of Verona.Prodigal.jpg

Perhaps my favorite case study in this chapter is Rembrandt. While Rembrandt famously portrayed many biblical texts in his artwork, he did few on parables, though when he did, they all came from Luke (152). Rembrandt’s painting of the Return of the Prodigal Son is especially famous, though he did more than one version of the scene (see image). It is especially satisfying that Gowler included artwork images throughout the book.

Chapter 4: “The Afterlives of Jesus’ Parables in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries”

There are nine case studies here, including Fanny Crosby and Charles Spurgeon, but I will briefly mention tidbits about Leo Tolstoy and Emily Dickenson.

Tolstoy was not shy about criticizing the structured and dogmatic Christianity of his day. He longed for the simple way of Jesus that focused on love of God and love of neighbor. He wrote a story called “Where Love Is, God Is” and drew from his own reading of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. Dickenson also took interest in this Parable, which inspired a poem based on Matthew 25:35 called “I bring an unaccustomed wine.” Dickenson’s interest in and use of the parables is not just thematic, but perhaps also hermeneutical, as her reflection on poetic communication seems to align with the riddling nature of parables.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant–

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind

(see Gowler, p. 197)

Again, very insightful chapters, lots of fun learning, and prods the reader to follow up on many of these interpreters of the parables.

 

Salvation by Allegiance Alone – Bates (Gupta)

 

SBAAAbout two years ago, Matt Bates was traveling in Oregon and we had a chance to meet up for the first time. He heard that I was working on a book on Paul’s faith language, and I knew he was writing his Salvation by Allegiance Alone (SBAA; Baker, 2017). It is nice now to see the end product, though sadly my own project is not going to see the bookshelf for a while longer since I am not quite done yet.

In many ways, I wish Matt’s book didn’t need to be written. While I deeply appreciate his thoughtful discussion of this subject, to me it represents a reading of Scripture that should simply be clear and assumed, rather than something needing such careful defense. But the reality is that there is a history of scholarship that has locked “faith” (pistis) into being something cognitive, a non-work, and even some have referred to it as “passive”! Matt does a fine job of connecting pistis in the NT to the broader idea of commitment to the kingship of Jesus, the kingdom of God, and what it means to trust God. I will not take the time to give a thorough summary (see HERE), but rather I will give a few points of consideration.

Strengths: The idea that pistis is a polyvalent and polysemous word has been long Bates.jpgacknowledged, and volcanic pressure has been building against a passive or merely cognitive view of pistis such that Matt’s work serves as a major eruption point. As Matt acknowledges himself, this is a broader look at the word pistis, how it functions as allegiance or trust language, and how one can assimilate that within a kingdom perspective on the Christian faith. The way he constructs this broader biblical-theological perspective is refreshing, clear, and thoughtful. And Matt is disarming with his humor, which helps the reader ease into what could be a tense subject. Matt also masterfully connects pistis language across the NT, trying to be careful not to operate with a canon within a canon – this is much harder to accomplish than one thinks. Finally, Matt handles thorny questions and potential pushback with wisdom and aplomb, especially related to questions about judgment and works (see esp. ch 5). You can tell this material has been “classroom tested” because he has anticipated the most pressing questions and responds to them with thoughtful answers – the answers are not simple or “neat,” but if they were I would be very disappointed.

Random Note: Matt – my friend – you sound very Wesleyan in this book. Just an observation (*I will wait patiently for your further awakening*)

Other considerations: Again, I want to acknowledge that I have studied the use of pistis in Paul (and the Synoptics) rather carefully over the last several years and in the main I am in hearty agreement with Matt’s arguments in Salvation by Allegiance Alone. Still, in the spirit of ongoing dialogue, I want to raise some additional considerations.

  • A couple of times (e.g., 44, 103) Matt tries to translate/interpret the verb pisteuo as “give allegiance.” While I agree broadly with how Matt reads pistis, I am much less persuaded (esp without thorough defense) that this applies to the verb. We simply don’t find enough (any?) clear uses of pisteuo that would lead one in this direction.
  • As Matt himself explains, SBAA is more than a lexical study; still, I think he focused too narrowly on pistis. I think he would have profited from weaving pistis (as “allegiance”) into the wider fabric of the way the NT expresses inter-relationality, with (e.g.) language of knowing, loving, sharing, pleasing, honoring, remembering, etc.
  • Matt spends ample time on the motif of the kingship of Jesus and the Kingdom of God – and rightly so – but given how often pistis appears in political texts in non-Jewish/non-Christian literature, it would have been very helpful for this book to show how commonly pistis appears in ancient texts in relation to political alliances between armies (or between soldiers), in patronage language (see Zeb Crook’s work), and in Greek discourse on friendship. In my opinion, it is crucial that this word pistis is placed within the wider context of its daily use in Antiquity – nobody would have considered it a “passive” or “non-works” term. These points could have strengthened Matt’s overall argumentation.
  • Finally, I think Matt whetted the readers’ appetite for the notion that pistis is a rich and complex word that defies a single meaning or translation in the NT, but he does not do much more than concentrate on the times when it means “allegiance” (or something similar) and leaves aside other occasions where it has a different meaning. I can understand why he does that (to stay focused on his main concerns), but it seems to hold the reader is suspense (until more is said on the subject….*ahem*).

When I saw the endorsements for SBAA, I thought, “wow, Gary Anderson, Scot McKnight, Mike Gorman, Mike Bird, Josh Jipp – these are great conservation partners and allies.” It is also a testimony to Matt’s rich teaching. There have already been critics, but I know Matt welcomes the dialogue, including pushback. Congrats to Matt on this – and I hope many will read and engage in Salvation by Allegiance Alone.