Thursday, October 24, 2013

Parables as Poetic Fictions—Questions from a Reader

I received this set of questions about my view of parables as stated in my book Many Things in Parables from a doctoral candidate in Australia.  My comments in italics follow the questions.
[Q] This is not actually a question about one of your blog posts, but rather about one of your books. I have been reading "Many Things in Parables" and am not sure if I quite understand how you conceptualise parables as symbol/poetic fiction.
[A] "Parables as symbols" is a suggestion made by the late New Testament scholar Norman Perrin but the idea has never attracted any interest among scholars.  You are correct that I regard parables as poetic fictions.  They are invented stories, creations of Jesus' ingenuity and observations of life around him.  I do not regard parables as symbols; see pages 65-66 of Many Things in Parables.
[Q] I *think* that what you are saying is something like this: Parables are polyvalent partly because rather than expecting the reader/hearer to stand outside and analyse them, they invite her/him to enter their world and will therefore evoke different responses from different people, depending on what they bring to the parable.
[A] The nature of narrative is to engage readers and draw them into its narrative world—as the late Bob Funk put it "to take up roles in the narrative."  Polyvalence/polysemy (the potential for generating multiple meanings) thus is innate to narrative, as the history of parables scholarship clearly shows with its multiple contradictory explanations given to the same story.
[Q] Some parables also function as allegories? metaphors? because they are so constructed that they draw the reader/hearer out of the parable in a particular direction – ie, it is obvious to what or whom various elements of the parable refer. If this is the case, then the intention is that the parable has referential qualities. If not, it isn't appropriate to try to analyse it in this way.
 [A] Metaphor and allegory, deliberately created as such, use either heightened or unusual language to deliberately refer the mind "away-from-here" to some other specific thing.  Allegory and metaphor are also reading strategies.  In the case of allegory certain language in parables is regarded as heightened or unusual and is thought to serve as code or a cipher for something else.  In the case of metaphor the reading strategy is to regard the entire narrative as a figure describing one thing under the guise of something else—i. e., the narrative is not really about a woman making dough (Matt 13:33), but rather about the kingdom of God.  I argue, however, that those parables of Jesus, which have not been modified by early Christian interpretation (like Mark 12:1-8, par.; but compare the more realistic version in the Gospel of Thomas), on the other hand, are realistic narrative.  Their realism works against their being allegory or metaphor, and serves as a brake to fanciful interpretations.  Those who want to argue that parables are allegory or metaphor must validate their judgment by identifying the language in the parable that deliberately propels the mind outward in the target direction of the interpretation, and must show how such language is a deliberately designed "trigger" to lead the mind out of the story in a specific direction.
[Q] Another part of the polyvalence of parables comes from the fact that they are open ended – they have no conclusions that tell readers how they should react, nor do they make moral judgements on characters, so readers make sense of them out of what they bring to it.
[A] From my perspective you have stated the situation correctly.

[Q] While there is no one 'correct' interpretation, there is a range of plausible historical readings.

 [A] Yes, that is my view.  Readers of the parables who allow themselves to be guided by the realism of the parable will find a range of plausible readings for the parable that a fair person would likely admit: "yes, I can see how you came up with that reading.  Readers who disregard the realism of the parables will inevitably produce what I regard as implausible readings, such as Mark does with regard to The Sower (4:14-20).  Implausible readings leave one perplexed as to how the interpreter arrived at such a reading of the parable.

[Q] Some people may not respond at all to a particular parable (and that's not a problem), but if they do, the parable will suggest to them different ways of experiencing and living in the world.

[A] Narrative, which a parable is, can raise a reader's awareness of new ways of viewing and acting in the world, but it can also influence a reader to challenge former cherished beliefs and ideas—it is simply in the nature of narrative to do that.  Frank Kermode said that narratives "are ways of finding things out"—nothing mysterious about it.  So narratives that are read carefully can either change a person's life, or at the very least unsettle the old way of life.

[Q] The comparative frames and interpretations are later additions, rather than from Jesus, so we need to look at the parables without them to get the full range of possible meanings.

 [A] Yes!  Precisely so! When the fictional story-world of Jesus stops, readers enter the evangelist's story-world about Jesus.  Interpretations of the parables are from the evangelist's story-world about Jesus.  Only the story originates with Jesus; interpretations come either from the evangelists or early Christian interpretation.  I have argued in a separate essay that Mark is likely responsible for the introductory frame "the kingdom of God is like...." If that is correct, Jesus himself never used his parables as metaphors or symbols for the kingdom.

[Q] Would that be a reasonable summary? Have I misunderstood, or missed out something critical?
[A] See pages 83-88 of Many Things in Parables for my brief statement of my own view, its critique by Amos Wilder, and my response to Wilder.  Two essays published on parables since the appearance of Many Things in Parables may or may not add something further to the approach to parables as poetic fictions: "Flawed Heroes and Stories Jesus Told: The One about a Killer," pp. 4.3023-56 in Tom Holmén and Stanley Porter, Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus (2011); and "Survivors of the Crucifixion. Searching for Profiles in the Parables," pp. 165-80 in Ruben Zimmerman and Gabi Kern, eds., Hermeneutik der Gleichnisse Jesu (2008).
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Gospel of Mark is Wrong—and other Quibbles!

Perhaps I should say Mark is clearly incorrect in at least two places, and that fact has been known since the late second century.  Jerome (4th/5th century) in a letter (57.9) cites the writings of early critics of Christianity (Celsus, On the True Doctrine [late 2nd century], Porphyry, Against the Christians [3rd/4th century], and Julian, Against the Galilaeans [fourth century] ) on a number of errors, which according to Jerome these critics of Mark called "falsifications."  Probably many of my readers will be unfamiliar with the two errors I describe here, but they are well known to most historians of Christian origins.
Jerome calls Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian "impious men," but he does not deny the errors.  One well known error is Mark's citation (Mark 1:1-3) of a passage supposedly from Isaiah, but which turns out to be a collage of Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3.  A second error is even more glaring.  In Mark 2:25-26 Jesus cites the actions of David who "entered the house of God when Abiathar was High Priest."  When this event happened, however, actually Ahimelech was high priest (1 Samuel 21:1-6); Abiathar was his son and met David only after the bread incident in the house of God (1 Samuel 22:20-23).
            Jerome in response to the first error simply solicits the indulgence of the reader for Mark's error, and for the second he argued that the evangelists were more concerned with the sense of Old Testament passages than with giving the literal words (Letter 57.9).  Matthew and Luke correct Mark's errors in the following ways: Matthew (3:3) and Luke (3:4-6) correct Mark by eliminating the words of Malachi and then the reference to Isaiah (40:3) is correct—Luke also adds more material (40:3-5) to the Isaiah quotation.  Both Matthew and Luke also correct Mark's historical error in naming the wrong high priest by simply eliminating Mark's erroneous phrase: "when Abiathar was high priest" (Matt 12:4; Luke 6:3).
            Strictly speaking, the ascription of Mark 1:1-3 to Isaiah is wrong, for the passage contains statements from both Malachi and Isaiah.  Strictly speaking, David took the dedicated bread from the altar when Ahimelech was high priest; so Mark was wrong when he says the incident took place when Abiathar was high priest.
            What do these obvious errors suggest about Mark's reporting of his narrative of the public career of Jesus?  Perhaps nothing!  But since we have no way of verifying his narrative and its details, we should take it very seriously when we catch him in an error.  These obvious errors suggest that we should read the gospel closely and not give Mark a pass when other questionable statements are reported in his account.  For example, Mark egregiously exaggerates in reporting that John, the baptizer, baptized "all the county of Judea and all the people of Jerusalem" (Mark 1:5) and exaggerates again at Mark 1:33 in reporting that the "whole city was gathered at the door."  Mark is simply not reporting responsibly in these instances.  Accuracy in historical detail is not in itself a signature of historical narrative, but inaccuracy in historical detail is a clear warning of the possible historical unreliability of the narrative.
            Questions can also be raised about some of the sources of the narratives Mark reports—specifically with respect to how Mark knows about things he reports.  Here are two narratives that are clearly challengeable as historical narration.  How does Mark know the precise words of the conversation he reports in the story of Jesus in the high priest's home (Mark 14:53-72)?  His only likely source is Peter who was not present, but was out in the courtyard of the high priest's home, and not privy to what was happening inside the house (Mark 14:54, 66).
In Mark's story about the beheading of John the Baptist (Mark 6:14-29) Mark has used the narrative technique of time compression to create the fanciful story about the dance of Herodias' daughter and her dramatic request for the head of the Baptist in front of Herod's guests (Mark 6:24-25).  Mark situates the narrative in the Galilee area (Mark 6:1, 14, 21, 45); so the banquet for "his courtiers, officers, and leading men of Galilee" took place at his palace in Tiberias.  According to Josephus (Antiquities  18.5.2), however, John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded in the fortress at Machaerus  located in modern Jordan (at that time Nabatea) a number of miles east of the Dead Sea and at a level near its mid-point.  Mark's compression of time (6:25-27: "with haste," "at once," "immediately") forces the reader to understand that John the Baptist was near at hand, and hence his beheading takes place while the dinner party was continuing—a much more dramatic story than sending a soldier of the guard on a long trip to Machaerus for the head!  And, of course, there is always the question of how Mark knew the precise words of the conversations during the party—was it actually oral tradition or simply Mark's imaginative recreation, or simply whole cloth invention?
Such problems suggest that Mark is not early Christian history; rather it has all the earmarks of historical fiction—that is to say, much of the gospel is due to Mark's imagination and inventive recreation.
What are your thoughts?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Monday, October 7, 2013

God the Spirit in a Material World

In the Christian tradition God is conceived as invisible Spirit (Colossians 1:15; John 4:24) and not as matter—that is to say, God is not material or substantial, but rather is—in a way that cannot be apprehended by the physical senses—that is, by seeing, touching, tasting, hearing, smelling, which makes any description of God completely subjective.  Hence God is invisible, intangible, tasteless, inaudible, odorless.  A God, comprised in any way of substance, would be subject to the change, dissolution, and decay of the cosmos, as all cosmic stuff is.
God's immateriality makes it rather difficult for one to describe God with any degree of reliability.  Hence a responsible description of God is simply impossible, a logical fact which renders all descriptions of God inadequate.  Therefore in the community of faith believers in God are only describing inherited concepts of God's character and activities (i.e., describing what they have been taught); and they do so as if God were a human being (i.e., using anthropomorphic language).  With direct knowledge of God lacking, the Church is driven to use analogical language.
            The word spirit as used in English generally describes a force or energy that is not directly accessible but only accessible as we observe what we take to be animating forces in the world about us.  So, for example, some describe people possessed by evil spirits, because of their behavior, or a person's mood is described as exhilarated or depressed (high spirits, low spirits) for the same reason.  The only uses of the term spirit in the physical sciences of which I am aware are in Chemistry and Pharmacology, where spirit is used to describe the essence of an active principle in a solution.  The language is not a scientific description from what I can tell but analogical, since the active principle is not a separate identifiable entity.  The Gods are only able to be identified as active in human reality by the visible manifestations of communities of faith.  Yet a faith community is not direct evidence for God, but only evidence of the community's belief that God acts in the world.  Spirit does not appear in the periodic table as one of the basic elements of the universe—as of 2013 the periodic table has only 114 confirmed elements, 84 of these existed before the origins of the earth.  Of course Spirit would not appear in the periodic table since it is not elemental matter.  The foregoing brief discussion raises this question: if Spirit is part of our common material reality in some way, how is it related to matter, if at all?
            Does Spirit simply permeate matter--like leaven, for example?  A little leaven mixed into flour and water and kneaded becomes dough, which rises in the oven (Matt 13:33).  There is one theological explanation for the relationship between Spirit and matter called "panentheism"—God as Spirit permeates all matter in the universe but is not to be identified with it, that is to say God maintains a Spirit identity without mingling with matter.  But if that is the case why is not everything "enhanced" or "raised" to a higher level, like leaven in flour; and why are we still bothered with the problems of an imperfect universe: disease, floods, drought, famine, etc.?  Our natural world does not seem "enhanced" but flawed, as Paul clearly recognized (Romans 8:19-21).  Does God as Spirit interface with matter, perhaps only periodically here and there?  The general regularity of the universe seems to eliminate this possibility.  On the other hand some assume the regularity of the universe is God as Spirit enabling the universe.  But if that is the case why is the universe flawed?  Perhaps God as Spirit simply hovers over the universe similar to Genesis 1:2 and is not involved in the universe at all.  There were religious groups in the early years of the Christian period who argued that there was a sharp divide between the cosmos and God.  Thus the highest God had nothing to do with the creation of the cosmos; some attributed it to the work of a lesser God in the divine realm.  In such systems of thought the matter of the cosmos was seen as flawed and evil.
            My colleagues would describe my question as a fool's errand.  My evangelical friends would say accept on faith that God as Spirit is involved with matter, even if how Spirit and matter are related cannot be quantified.  My critically inclined friends would also counsel me to abandon the question for the same reason, on the basis that Spirit itself falls outside any kind of objective proof.  Perhaps they are correct, but if there is no way logically to explain how Spirit and matter are related, Christianity is left open to the charge of superstition and self delusion on a grand scale—human beings through time have simply convinced themselves of a parallel "spiritual" universe of Gods; and Christianity is merely one more in a long line of inadequate religious views of reality, convincing to the masses perhaps, but whose description of reality is ultimately found to be seriously flawed.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University