Sunday, September 27, 2009

reading Matthew's mission discourse (well, almost)

It is well known among those of us who read the gospels that Matthew structures Jesus' teaching into five large discourses. The second of these, the "Mission Discourse," is found in Matthew 10. In this post I'm not reading Matthew's Mission Discourse as much as I am reading Pheme Perkins's discussion of the Mission Discourse, in Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 169–70.

Perkins begins by making the standard observation that Jesus' disciples, in Matthew 10, do not seem to go on mission despite their being sent on mission. (I describe this as a "standard observation" not to imply anything negative about Perkins's discussion but rather to signal that she stands firmly within the mainstream of NT scholarship here.)
Although Matthew's second discourse opens with calling and naming the Twelve as apostles to be sent on mission (10:1–5a), the Twelve do not leave Jesus' side. Instead, at the conclusion of this teaching Jesus gets up to go and preach in the towns (11:1). From a narrative point of view, that change makes the mission discourse instruction for later use, not for immediate action. (169)

But I'm not sure that this "narrative point of view" actually sheds any light on Matthew's text. First of all, in Mark's gospel the disciples do leave to go on mission (Mark 6.7, 30); should we, then, suppose that Jesus' instructions for his disciples lacked any significance or applicability for Mark's readers? Perkins does suggest this interpretation when she contrasts Matthew's Mission Discourse with "a one-time expedition while Jesus is alive" (169). Not that she says Mark 10.10–11 refers to a "one-time expedition," but she does contrast (a) Matthew's Mission Discourse with Mark's instructions for the disciples, and (b) Matthew's Mission Discourse with a one-time expedition. But I'm not at all convinced that we could read the Markan Jesus' sending the disciples out two-by-two this way, and the suggestion, even if only by implication, really isn't very helpful at all.

Second, if Mark's actual description of the disciples going out on mission does not strip Jesus' mission instructions of its significance for Mark's readers, then I'm not sure that Matthew's failure to explicitly send the disciples on mission "makes the mission discourse instruction for later use, not for immediate action." Clearly Perkins has identified a "gap" in the text, a space that the author has left unfilled and which requires the reader to supply some information in order for the story to go on. Perkins, in her reading, has filled in this gap by looking outside the text—the Matthean Jesus' Mission Discourse is directed at Matthew's readers and not at the Twelve.

John Miles Foley, however, has been arguing for nearly twenty years for the concept of "traditional referentiality," in which items explicitly within the text of an oral performance or an oral-derived text (a written text with roots in oral performance)—here Matthew's Mission Discourse—evoke items not explicitly within the text. In 1997 Werner Kelber suggested the image of a biosphere as an aid for understanding this dimension of tradition. Jesus' tradents lived within a world circumscribed by the Jesus tradition; they did not rely solely on written texts in order to access that tradition. If the gospels worked this way, rather than according to the narrowly textual dynamics according to which we gospel scholars have learned to read them, then perhaps the Mission Discourse itself signaled the disciples' missionary activity, even if the latter isn't explicitly narrated. In other words, without stripping Matthew 10 of its significance for Matthew's readers, we need not read the Mission Discourse as Matthew using Jesus' sending the disciples out "to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (10.6) as a pretext for instructing his own readers about mission.

I must admit, however, that I'm uncomfortable with the open-ended, rather loose method of reading I'm proposing. If narrative elements outside the text governed the earliest receptions of the text, then how do we "recover" an authentic reading that is sensitive to these gaps and does not impose our own readings on the text? If I can point to something not in the text and say that Matthew wanted us to understand that it was there by means of implication, how do we determine which implications are historically appropriate and which distort the narrative? I have no answer to this except to insist on continued, close reading of the text we have. But I would notice that this problem does not escape readings such as Perkins's, either; she, too, has to "fill a gap" with extratextual phenomena. In her case, she posits a primary significance for Matthew's readers rather than for events internal to the narrative.

But the reference to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel," above, is significant, because I think Matt 10.5–6 actually supports the reading I'm proposing (namely, that the Mission Discourse itself signals the disciples going out on mission, even if Matthew doesn't explicitly narrate that mission). Perkins, because she is such a careful reader, wrestles with these verses and how they fit her reading of the discourse:
[I]f Matt 10:5b–6 articulates mission rules for later Christians, the two most vital areas of early missionary activity, Gentiles and Samaritans, are excluded. On the other hand, the Evangelist does have the risen Jesus commission his followers to go out to "all the nations" (28:16–20). . . . Exegetes are divided over how to understand that final command. (170)

This problem, I suggest, arises only because we have read the text too narrowly and without "ears to hear" the larger traditional evocations signaled by the Mission Discourse. Jesus' restrictions in 10.5–6 work within the narrative and are not Matthew's restrictions for his own readers' missionary practice. The Twelve go out on mission among "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" and not among the Samaritans and the gentiles. The text does not explicitly mention that mission because it doesn't have to; the mission already constituted part of the "traditional biosphere" in which the early Christians lived and according to which they read/heard Matthew's narrative and filled in gaps such as this.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

sacrifice: What's all the fuss?

As I pursue my interest in the analytical difference made in our exegetical and historical reconstructions by the so-called "Parting of the Ways," both the book of Hebrews (I can't bring myself to write "epistle to") and the presence of cultic images/metaphors/references in the NT have caught my attention. So I've been reading Christian Eberhart's essay, "Characteristics of Sacrificial Metaphors in Hebrews" (Hebrews: Contemporary Methods—New Insights [Gabriella Gelardini, ed.; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005], 37–64) and, quite frankly, learning a lot. Eberhart begins by arguing that burning, rather than slaughter, is the central idea of θυσία [thusia] and זבח [zevaḥ], especially since what is burned in the burning rite rises up to God.
So both the Hebrew term זבח and the Greek term θυσία need to be understood in a broader sense. Another general Hebrew term for sacrifices, קרבן, literally means "what is brought near" and will be translated as "offering," just like its Greek rendering προσφορά. Once more, neither the Hebrew nor the Greek term stresses or alludes to animal slaughter. Instead, both express the inherent dynamics of a sacrificial ritual which, throughout its performance, "moves" toward the most holy altar, thus "approaching" God who resides in the sanctuary. Therefore a first conclusion of this survey of the sacrificial cult in the HB/OT is that the slaughter of animals is rather insignificant. (44; my emphasis)

I was a bit surprised to see the word "insignificant" used to describe the "slaughter" of sacrificial animals; I would have thought that if death weren't an important part of the idea then some animals would have been offered alive (and kept that way). But at the same time I find myself somewhat persuaded that the emphasis of this language is on "giving (up) to God" rather than "killing (for God)."

This has some rather important consequences for a number of well-known (and well-worn) passages from the NT, including 1 John 1.7 and Rom 12.1–2, which Eberhart touches on (50–55). And while sometimes he seems to be making distinctions without meaningful differences (e.g., 52, n. 32), I do find his reading compelling.

My question is, Do any of you—who probably know more about the sacrificial cult in the Hebrew Bible, in second-Temple Judaism, or as refracted in the NT—find Eberhart's argument as compelling as I do? Is there something to be said in defense of the traditional emphasis of sacrifice on "death" rather than—or simply more than—on "offering"?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

how we make our points (or not) in NT discourse

I've picked up again an article I began writing last July and will hopefully have its first draft finished this week or next. More on that later, perhaps. But in the process of gathering some research, I returned to Charles H. Talbert's 1978 essay, "Oral and Independent or Literary and Interdependent? A Response to Albert B. Lord" (in William O. Walker, Jr., ed. The Relationships among the Gospels: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue [San Antonio: Trinity University Press], 93–102), which responds to Lord's argument that the synoptic gospels are examples of oral traditional literature.

Lord was a world-class, first-rate scholar whose breadth of knowledge was vast and whose ability to raise and address unexpected questions was enviable. His landmark book, The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960) gave birth to an entire field of study (Oral-Formulaic research). And although some of his proposals now seem narrowly restricted in light of the variegated expressions and experiences of oral performances throughout history and around the world, we can ask the questions we ask in part because Albert Lord taught us how.

I emphasize Lord's stature because it provides the frame of reference from which I re-read Talbert's response this afternoon. Talbert—himself an impressive scholar and, perhaps more importantly, a gentle and kind person—picks up on Lord's conclusion:
The texts of the Gospels "vary from one another to such an extent as to rule out the possibility that, as a whole, one could have been copied from another" (p. 90). From my point of view, however, the divergent wording is no obstacle to our viewing the Synoptic Problem as a literary one. Given the practices of the Hellenistic Age, it is exactly what one should expect. (Talbert 1978: 95; my emphasis)

Does Talbert suppose that Lord is unaware of the relevant "practices of the Hellenistic Age"? If so, it would have been nice of him to state them briefly and explain why these mitigate the force of the comparative arguments Lord adduced for his conclusion. Instead, Talbert turns to to Josephus's use of sources for his Antiquities of the Jews, although the utility of Josephus and his Antiquities of the Jews for understanding either the evangelists or their writings is highly questionable. Should we assume that Josephus was a "normal" or unremarkable example of "practices of the Hellenistic Age"? Even if so, which practices, precisely, does Talbert have in mind?

Even five years ago, when I first encountered Walker's book, I was struck by the non-answer Talbert provides to Lord's arguments. Granted, Lord's Oral-Formulaic paradigm isn't as applicable to the gospels as we might have thought in 1978. But Talbert's response is, in essence, to suggest that Lord's explications of oral-traditional dynamics also apply to literary products. Talbert seems to assume this settles the question of whether or not the synoptic problem is properly addressed as a literary problem, but instead I think it raises the question of the oral (or better, traditional) dynamics of written texts in the ancient world.

But I come back to the dismissive gesture I italicized in the quote from Talbert's response, above. The appeal to the ill-defined, unspecified "practices of the Hellenistic Age" ducks and dodges Lord's argument rather than responds to it. And while I'm interested in the questions Lord's legacy has left behind for gospels scholars, I would also like to encourage myself, my students, and my colleagues to avoid the very sorts of appeals to "the way it would have been" that allow us to shy away from actually very interesting and challenging questions.

reading Hebrews

This morning I finished reading through the Greek text of Hebrews (whew!), and I resumed reading Hebrews: Contemporary Methods—New Insights (Gabriella Gelardini, ed.; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005). I say "resumed," but the truth is I had only read Gelardini's introduction and the Foreword (by Harold Attridge).

So this morning I read Ekkehard and Wolfgang Stegemann's essay, "Does the Cultic Language in Hebrews Represent Sacrificial Metaphors? Reflections on Some Basic Problems" (13–23). The Stegemanns begin with the postmodern critique of Western epistemology (or rather of invisibility of that epistemology [17]); they then pursue the motivations for and significance of describing Hebrews's cultic presentation of Jesus' death as "metaphor." We apply the label metaphor because "the crucifixion of Jesus in Jerusalem, which is taken as the historical referent outside the relevant passages in Hebrews, neither shows any feature of the performance of a cultic sacrifice nor regards Jesus as a substitute for an animal victim" and functions rather "as a means toward a theological understanding of the death of Christ" (15).

The Stegemanns, then, demonstrate the culturally contextualized nature of this way of thinking about history and about the text. I found their conclusion particularly stimulating, and I hope to follow up their argument in the future:

The decision between a metaphorical and non-metaphorical interpretation of the death of Jesus depends on our assessment of the historical referent to which a textual passage is related. Therefore it depends on the respective model of reality that, as far as our model is concerned, we take as universally valid. We easily admit that the metaphorical use of sacrificial language is very helpful and deepens our interpretation of the crucifixion—but just as interpretation of the crucifixion, not its representation. On the contrary, the discourses of the social and legal aspects of the crucifixion of Jesus in Jerusalem are in our view not interpretations of the historical events but their representation. (18; original emphases)

If I've read the Stegemanns rightly, they suggest reading the cultic language of Jesus' death in Hebrews as representation rather than interpretation (18). Their reading provides interesting material to ponder, but I think scholarship in general has reacted to postmodern critiques in a different direction. Rather than reading Hebrews's sacrificial language as representation, I think we would tend to highlight the interpretive functions of other, presumably non-metaphorical representations of history. I am not sure, however, whether these are actually two different reactions.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Jesus' Roman cross and the art of crucifixion

The historical significance of Jesus' mode of execution is a complicated matter. On the one hand, scholars (e.g., John Dominic Crossan) have emphasized the Roman-ness of crucifixion to distance the Jews/Jewish authorities from responsibility for Jesus' death. Luke's portrayal of Stephen's execution in Acts 7 stands in some contrast to the crucifixion narratives: Death by Jewish hands is administered by stoning. For that matter, John's gospel also makes references to stoning, whether of the adulterous woman (8.5, 7; admittedly questionable texts) or of Jesus himself (8.59; 10.31–33; 11.8). If Jews had been responsible for putting Jesus to death, they would not have nailed him to a cross. Since Jesus was crucified, he must have been executed by Roman authorities for Roman reasons. The gospels, then, set out to minimize Christianity's offense to Rome, so they paint the Jews as the real Christ-killers.

On the other hand, the ethnic affiliations of crucifixion as a means of execution don't seem as secure as this. For one thing, in the famous discussion of Jewish methods of capital punishment in the Talmud (b. Sanh. 43a), "Jesus the Nazarene" (the translation is Peter Schäfer's [Jesus in the Talmud; Princeton University Press, 2007]), the text says a herald went out forty days prior to Jesus' execution to announce that Jesus was to be stoned and to seek out witnesses for his defense. When none were found, Jesus "was hanged" (tela’uhu), which Schäfer interprets as the post-mortem demonstration of Jesus' body after he had been stoned. But Joseph Fitzmyer argues that the root תלה [tlh], at least in the DSS, refers to crucifixion ("Crucifixion in Ancient Palestine, Qumran Literature, and the New Testament" [CBQ 40 (1978): 502–7]). I don't think b. Sanh. 43a provides any historical information about Jesus' death; rather, it reflects ongoing debate (between Jesus' followers and other Jews) about Jesus' significance. The world(s) in which Talmudic traditions were formed was/were also inhabited by Christians proclaiming a crucified Christ, and I'm impressed that, in the midst of this proclamation, b. Sanh. 43a accepts Jesus' execution at Jewish hands (regardless of the precise referent of תלה).

An additional complication comes from a very well-known story from Josephus, who describes the Hasmonean king/high priest Alexander Jannaeus as crucifying 800 Jews while he enjoyed a meal with his concubines, and as the men hung on their crosses he slaughtered their wives and children in front of them (Ant. 13.380). Josephus describes this as "the cruelest act of all" [πάντων ὠμότατον ἔργον; pantōn ōmotaton ergon), a phrase which may suggest the scandal of a Jew administering crucifixion as a means of executing people of his own nation. But the story remains as evidence that crucifixion could function as a Jewish means of execution. And, again, Fitzmyer finds similar phenomena in 4QpNah and in the Temple Scroll.

In all of this, I would suggest that we cannot read the gospels' Passion Narratives as mitigating Roman responsibility for Jesus' crucifixion and foisting blame on the Jews and/or the Jewish leaders. Rather, the gospels rather clearly portray Pilate's role in Jesus' trial and execution (whether or not we accept the historicity of their portrayal), and I would suggest the gospels even portray Jesus' fate as the result of the political posturing of Pilate and the Jewish authorities. The Jewish leaders wanted Jesus executed while Pilate made it clear that he wasn't simply their instrument to achieve their goals. Jesus' crucifixion served both the Jewish leadership's and the Romans' interests, but Pilate also made sure reinforce the political order over which he had been appointed by the emperor. After all, even the titulus Pilate had hung over Jesus' head announced not only the charge against Jesus but also, by why of parody, Judea's subjection to Rome.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Jesus and purity

I was sent home by the campus nurse late this morning with symptoms that might be early signs of swine flu. Though I have been washing my hands more frequently and taking advantage of the myriad hand sanitizer dispensers that have suddenly and magically appeared all over campus (and throughout the rest of the city!) like acne on a twelve-year-old, I do not truly believe, apparently, that nothing outside the body that goes into my body can defile me.

During my self-inflicted semi-quarantine this afternoon, I began reading from Mark's gospel. Perhaps in the throes of my current state purity is especially on my mind. Perhaps I haven't been drinking enough fluids. But the end of Mark 9, which bears some thematic resemblance to Matt 5.29–30 (remember that Matt 5–7 is typically attributed to Matthew's reworking of Q material), suddenly struck me as a passage on purity:
43 If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off! It is better for you to enter into life maimed than to be sent away into hell—into unquenchable fire—with two hands. 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off! It is better for you to enter into life lame than to be cast into hell with two feet. 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, cast it away from you! It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to be cast into hell with two eyes, 48 where their worm never dies and their fire is never put out. (Mark 9.43–48; vv 44, 46 were likely later additions on the influence of v 48)

I have always read this passage (and its Matthean parallel) in terms of the radical undesirability of sin. Of course, only an idiot would lop off his hand or foot or pluck out his eye, as if the impulse to sin weren't more closely rooted in the major organs. But Jesus, I've always thought, is speaking hyperbolically. "Avoid sin so radically, so passionately, so consequentially," Jesus is saying, "that you would remove your own self rather than lust after that woman or steal that loaf of bread or do harm against your neighbor." This reading will preach, but is it the best reading of this passage?

Everyone recognizes that purity issues appear from time to time in various NT texts; Acts 3.1–10 and 8.26–40 are the first two that come to my mind. Both texts center on a man (a crippled Jew in Acts 3; a [probably] gentile eunuch in Acts 8) prevented from worshiping YHWH because of a physical deformity. Both texts emphasize the power of Jesus' name to bring these types of men directly into God's presence. And both texts, I think, implicitly contrast their disabled protagonists with the able-bodied Jewish hierocratic leadership that has unrestricted access to the Temple but nevertheless fails to come into God's presence as mediated through Jesus.

Perhaps because I've just finished reading Richard Horsley's recent book, Jesus in Context, I wonder if the Markan passage (and even the Lukan passages referred to, above) provides a glimpse into the distinctive forms that Hebrew biblical traditions could take among the non- or (sometimes) semi-literate, non-elite populace outside the Temple, especially in Galilee and beyond the immediate reach of Judean power structures. In other words, if the "great tradition" embodying the Hebrew Bible among the urban elite, especially in Jerusalem, emphasized physical unblemished-ness as requisite for coming into God's presence, how significant is it that Jesus espouses intentionally (if symbolically) becoming physically blemished precisely in order to enter into God's presence? The priestly expressions of Judaism went to great lengths to protect the people from the dangerous holiness of God, and there were highly stylized, ritualized, and scripted procedures for coming into God's presence. Jesus, if I'm reading Mark 9 rightly, isn't suggesting that Israel's God is actually much safer than the Temple system, with all its buffers against defilement, portrays. Rather, Jesus is suggesting that rather different purity prescriptions grant a person access to God. Not physical wholeness but child-like innocence (see Mark 9.42). Not ritual precision but care for the poor, the powerless, the widow, orphaned, and sojourner.

I'm not sure where this type of reading would lead me. I have a few hunches, though. Rather than simply christocentric (or, following Richard B. Hays, ecclesiocentric), Mark and people with whom he was associated experienced Hebrew biblical traditions as little tradition (rather than great tradition). And they preserved the memory that Jesus did likewise. Torah, the prophets, and the writings weren't simply "about" Jesus; Jesus established [at least some of] the principles according to which the Tanakh functioned in the community. Christocentric/Ecclesiocentric, yes. But not merely so. I also suspect that a number of other pericopae receive brighter illumination by being read in terms of purity and other peculiarly Jewish theologoumena. Here Serge Ruzer's book, Mapping the New Testament, is helpful (even if some of his interpretations are unconvincing).

You Markan scholars out there, Am I way off base? Or has this been the standard interpretation of 9.43–48 for some time now?

Monday, September 07, 2009

"unstable," but not "developing"

I'm wrapping up my review of Richard Horsley's Jesus in Context this morning. As I began reading Horsley's conclusion (pp. 224–228), I found an occasion to articulate the basis for some of my disagreement with Horsley's argument. This articulation has been difficult precisely because Horsley asks many of the questions I think need to be asked and examines many of the established assumptions and procedures in biblical scholarship that have gotten us into the mess we're in (to say things a bit too strongly). In other words, Horsley is having exactly the conversation I think we need to be having, and for that I praise his book.

Nevertheless, I think he does miss some important facets of that conversation, and these need some illumination. Horsley begins his concluding thoughts in this way:
As we have seen, recent research is undermining some of the assumptions on which standard study of the Gospels previously depended. We can recognize now that there were no stable written texts of Mark, Matthew, Luke, or John in late antiquity. the written texts were "unstable," that is, they kept developing, in part because any texts in antiquity, whether written down or not, were generally recited or "performed" before groups of people. Oral communication was predominant, even in literate circles. (Horsley 2008: 224)

Whatever we might think about the gospels, one of the things about which we can be most confident is that they were, indeed, not stable in the sense in which we think of stability. I am sitting in my office surrounded by bookshelves lined with printed texts, every single one of which has a copyright notice even before the title page and has been printed through a highly developed process that guarantees that every copy of that book is identical, even to the point of reproducing any errata. What's more, when I refer to these texts, I am careful to do so precisely and exactly, in part because I know that any one can check my references in their own copies of those texts.

The gospels did not have any of these features. Of the thousands of copies that survive as manuscripts, none of them are identical. While most of the differences are relatively insignificant, some are rather important. How/Where does Mark's gospel end? Where does the story of the woman caught in adultery belong in the canon, if anywhere? Similar questions attend every book of the New Testament. Does Paul, for example, tell his readers that they have peace with God [ἔχομεν; echomen], or does he exhort them to pursue peace with God [ἔχωμεν; echōmen; Rom 5.1]? This instability doesn't just attend the transmission of the written text but also the performance of the traditions contained therein. In other words, just because the written text of Matt 5.3–12 has a very specific number and order of beatitudes doesn't mean that every time the Matthean evangelist performed Jesus' covenantal sermon he began with that specific number/order of beatitudes. Obviously, when Luke performed a similar tradition, he had a different number of beatitudes, but I would also suggest that the Lukan evangelist also may have performed that tradition differently before as well as after writing the text we call Luke.

But I balk somewhat at calling this instability development because of the evolutionary trajectories that have structured our thinking about gospel traditions at least since the advent of form criticism. Whether or not Horsley intends "developing" in this sense, he is bound to be read this way among biblical scholars. I suggest that the texts' movement—French scholar Paul Zumthor uses the term mouvance in a highly technical sense—was a feature of its function rather than its development. In other words, later texts (Matthew and Luke?) were not "more developed" than earlier ones (Mark? Q??) even despite the differences between them. Instead, in very many instances, the differences between them manifest the tradition's transcendence of written texts. The Jesus tradition was evoked by the written texts rather than contained by them, and shifts in the text were shifts in respect to the larger Jesus tradition rather than shifts in the tradition itself.

I should say that the tradition itself could shift, could develop, and we may see that in the relation between the synoptic gospels and John, and again with the Gospel of Thomas (and even within Gos. Thom., if we follow April DeConick), and certainly in some of the other texts that call themselves gospels. But we don't detect that development in the tradition as a whole by tracing minute changes in wording. Despite the sometimes awesome changes a single word can manifest (e.g., "Spirit of God" versus "finger of God" in Matt 12.28||Luke 11.20), the tradition often remains intact even as the evocation of the tradition responds to the dynamic and vibrant life of the communities cherishing, preserving, and living within the memory of Jesus.

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