The Poet Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) concludes his comments on analogy in poetry with this statement: "Thus poetry becomes and is a transcendent analogue composed of the particulars of reality, created by the poet's sense of the world, that is to say his attitude, as he intervenes and interposes the appearances of that sense."1 Thus poetic truth (which the poem is) as seen by the poet is an agreement with a particular aspect of reality viewed through the poet's imagination.2 In short the poem is a description of some aspect of reality as the poet himself/herself imagines it.
Stevens draws on (but misquotes) an example from the Gospel of Matthew describing Matthew's imagination at work.3 Jesus went about cities and villages teaching and preaching, and "when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they…were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd" (Matt 9:36; Mark 6:34; and compare Matt 26:31 and Mark 14:26; Zech 13:7). Here is how Stevens describes Matthew's imagination working on particular aspects of reality:
There came into Matthew's mind in respect to Jesus going about, teaching and preaching, the thought that Jesus was a shepherd and immediately the multitudes scattered abroad and sheep having that particular in common became interchangeable. The image is an elaboration of the particular of the shepherd.4
Actually, in this case Matthew took the image from Mark 6:34 and Zech 13:7 (compare Matt 26:31) and applied it to Jesus. Still Stevens' description of the way image making is done is accurate, as his other examples in the chapter show.
Jesus made his parables in much the same way as Stevens describes a poet making poems. The parables in the gospels, if they originated with Jesus, "are the creative inventions of the mind of Jesus…" and fragments of his fictional view of reality.5 His reality was first-century life in Judean villages, and he invented the plots for these brief narratives by applying his imagination to particular aspects of that reality.
As a whole, the stories suggest that Jesus was a shrewd observer of life about him, but the information for inventing realistic characters in his stories would not have come only from his imagination. His stories arose from a blending of creative imagination with shrewd observation of everyday [village] life in Roman Palestine.6
His stories are notable for their secularity and realism. In short Jesus saw and described things as they are. Few of the stories have what may be described as religious motifs,7 and they also sport a goodly number of flawed characters. Nevertheless, the narrative voice of the stories neither commends nor condemns the actions of Jesus' invented characters. The stories conclude but the complications that are raised for readers are not resolved, and that feature appears to be deliberately designed into Jesus' narratives.
The stories reflect a kind of moral ambiguity. When read closely as creative fictions against their background in Palestinian village life, they raise perplexing moral/ethical questions but offer no solutions. They do not even hint at a preferred solution, but interpreters, beginning with the gospel writers themselves, have regularly turned them "into stories about Christian theology, social justice, religious morals, and metaphors for the reign of God."8
One can never be certain about such things, but judging from the nature of his oral compositions, as they have come down to us, it appears that Jesus did not turn to God to inspire his imagination, but rather he turned to the reality of the Palestinian world.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
1"The Effects of Analogy" in The Necessary Angel. Essays on Reality and the Imagination (New York: Alfred A. Knopf and Random House, 1951), 130.
2Necessary Angel, 54.
3Necessary Angel, 113
4Necessary Angel, 128-29.
5Parabolic Figures or Narrative Fictions, xv.
6Hedrick, "Survivors of the Crucifixion" in Zimmermann, Hermeneutik der Gleichnisse Jesu, 176.
7Hedrick, Wisdom of Jesus, 128-29.
8"Survivors of the Crucifixion," 172-73.
Hi Charlie, I offer the following summary of an essay found at the Westar blog-site. My response is also found at that site. What say you?
Mysteria Poetica: Some Reflection on the God Question by David Galson http://www.westarinstitute.org/blog/
Freud found the idea of “God” in our primal fear of nature. Schleiermacher noted the perception of levels of dependence: the community, the earth, the universe. The big picture will always be expressed symbolically, but are our only choices our own fear and dependency. Galston suggests “God as poetics,” poetica/poiesis, the “making or doing” of poetry, in this case doing the mystery of God, not the modern sense of thinking about it. Similarly the French “do or make” (faire) sports, not play them. Galston suggests that the Samaritan, the Prodigal, the Pear of Great Price are examples of poetica from Jesus. “God is implied as part of the work the parable performs…consider God, not as the belief in, but as the doing of life.”
Very nice little essay on the parables of Jesus, Charles. The parables -poetic forms of communication- are a mix of Jesus' imagination and reality and they prod the hearer to think about any issue that arises in consciousness. I also like the comment of Gene Stecher, based on Galson, that God is contained in the act of imagining. (God is not easily eliminated in discourse about human affairs, a sad fact for the atheist or agnostic.)
Good Morning Gene,
Actually I like the idea and applaud the attempt to keep the idea of God relevant, but the elephant in the room remains: is God "over there" rather than just all in the head. At some point everyone's mind turns to thought! We are thinking animals; it is our nature to think and cannot help it. My view is just as the shepherds of traditional religious faith insist on adherence to the mantra's of faith to force thinking about religion out of the mind, so the call to "do God" without thinking about God is another way of holding the thinking animal in thrall to a God that may or may not be "there." The comparison with Canadian football is a give away for me: even football has rules; what are the rules for "doing God" and who decides them?
Good Afternoon Paul YR,
But if God is found only in the imagination of our minds and in our discourse, how is that different from a kind of self-delusion?
I hope that the following statement is an accurate summary: Jesus was a shrewd observer of life...who turned to the reality of the Palestinian world to inspire his imaginative bent...for tales of moral ambiguity.
We've had this conversation before, but it's important enough to me to see what another do-over might bring.
Could we be neutral about whatever goals and passions propelled Jesus forward. Can we agree that a healer and teacher would have goals and passions? Do not we all? How many boundaries might we be willing to push as a result of our own orientation.
Jesus was a boundary pusher: the office manager cheated his boss to ensure future employment, the widow harangued the judge until she got a favorable ruling, a merchant gave up all to purchase the pearl, the Samaritan paid for the complete care of a Jew, the father put family solidarity in jeopardy to welcome the younger son, the shepherd left the entire herd to find one wanderer, the manager risked a worker uprising to give everyone the same pay in spite of differences in hours worked, the passion of the assassin to complete his task is offered as a role model, and so forth.
One can't help but wonder about the goals and passion of Jesus as he walked with some followers toward Jerusalem. Was this more than just a shrewd observer with an imaginative bent?
Good Morning Gene,
Thanks for engaging the blog and pushing me.
Here are a few thoughts in response.
Paragraph 1: Your statement is accurate if a bit bare of supporting data. I was describing how the parables appear if you take them as stories, and then speculated about the mind that might have produced such secular and morally ambiguous stories.
Paragraph 3: Perhaps; we all have passions, but I have known some pretty clueless people where personal goals are concerned or people who have unrealistic goals.
paragraph 4: Can you fill in for me how these particular stories lead you to the conclusion that Jesus pushed boundaries? I have a different take on many of these stories you mention: for example, the story of the judge and the widow pretty clearly focuses on an honest Judge who faces a professional crises: will he rule in the nagging widow's favor to get rid of someone from whom he fears bodily injury. How the judge ruled is not given so we are left wondering what judgment the judge rendered.
Last paragraph: The evangelists clearly thought Jesus was more than just a teller of intriguing tales, and today we are left to ponder if that was a case of their faith influencing their narrative--particularly when we note their religious takes on such secular stories.
Good afternoon Charlie,
What are the chances that Jesus was literate? Could any of his parables been influenced reading portions of the Talmud?
What are the chances that any of his disciples were also literate? I used to think the gospels were first hand accounts of what Matthew, Mark, Luke and John witnessed... Until it was pointed out to me that the gospels were written in third person. (and they weren't signed "Sincerely, Matthew.")
Have you ever read any of the 63 tractates of the Talmud?
Many thanks, Elizabeth
Good Morning Elizabeth,
The Talmud is collection of Jewish rabbinical literature, which is a base for Jewish legal and moral understanding. It (actually they) is a commentary on the Mishnah, which was made in 200 AD. The Talmud is later so Jesus could not have read portions of the Talmud.
It is not likely that Jesus was literate (my view). I base this on the low rate of literacy in the ancient world (see W. V. Harris Ancient Literacy Cambridge: Harvard, 1989). For a comparison: the illiteracy rate in America in 1870 is given as 20% for whites and 79.9% for blacks and others. We know little enough about Jesus and next to nothing about his disciples.
I have read all of the Mishnah and parts of the Talmud that commented on sections of the Mishnah on which I was working.
With regard to Elizabeth's literacy question, I guess by literacy we mean the ability to read and write rather than the accumulation and interpretation of knowledge. I think that Jesus was probably literate in the latter sense.
Maybe Jesus had a "photographic memory." Perhaps he attended a ton of torah, history, and prophetic readings in synagogue. Many of his teachings would be hard to appreciate without understanding their grounding in the Jewish scriptures.
For example, comparing the Mustard seed to the kingdom of God can only be appreciated if one knows the comparison with the mighty Cedar in Ezekiel. Comparing Leaven to the kingdom can be appreciated more if one knows its use in the story of Sarah being fertile beyond child-bearing age and in its association with evil in the Passover story.
Of course, perhaps this kind of scriptural awareness is an argument for the parables being spun by later literate followers.
Good Sunday Morning Gene,
Here is an observation on your third paragraph: how does one know that the parallel is intended by the creator of the narrative rather than its having been read into the narrative by an overly zealous interpreter of the parable? In other words is the parallel due to the imagination of the creator or the imagination of the interpreter?
Yes Gene- I did mean the ability to read and write... But I also wonder how much he was exposed to the Oral Torah, which is what the Talmud is comprised of. "A Sabbath-day's journey" is referred to in Matthew.... How would the writer of Matthew even know what a Sabbath-day's journey is- had he not been exposed to the Oral Torah?
Charlie, I too wonder if the parallel is due to the imagination of the creator or the interpreter... Perhaps a bit of both. Either way, the gospels were manipulated to make them appear as "proof texts" that fulfilled OT prophecies. And of course, there's the supposed reading of the Torah where Jesus proclaimed that he was the fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah chapter 61... It's very doubtful that he actually read it, but maybe he had it memorized. Do you even think that such a thing ever took place?? It's difficult to speculate.
Thank you as always, Elizabeth
Good Morning Elizabeth,
On your last paragraph: The judgment of the fellows of the Jesus Seminar (Acts of Jesus, 273-74) is that the account is a Lucan fiction. And I agree that it is a product of the piety of the early Church.
"A Sabbath days journey": I did not find the expression in Matthew. I did find it in Acts 1:12. It is about 2000 cubits that in later rabbinic tradition is based on Exodus 16:29 interpreted by Numbers 35:5 (Jackson and Lake, The Beginnings of Christianity, volume 4, page 10). 2000 cubits is estimated as about one half mile.
Are you aware of any evidence that can be offered that Jesus was familiar with the Jewish scriptures?
I'm not sure that we're reading the same judge and widow story. Are there nuances in the Greek that have led to some of your conclusions.
I've looked at the NRSV and Jesus Seminar's SV, and neither mention fear of "bodily injury." Also, the judge says outright that he will rule in the widow's favor in order to stop her pestering, this in spite of the fact that he is his own man, neither fearing God nor respecting man.
Also, I'm thinking that it is not unusual for Jesus to give the lowly hero status as is evident in such teachings as the kingdom of God belongs to the poor and to children.
Your question is many layered and deserving of a much longer response, but I cannot do that in this forum. But I can say a few things. First: the only clear evidence in antiquity (in my view) that Jesus "knew" the Jewish Scriptures is provided by the gospel writers. They clearly thought he was familiar with the Scriptures and that he could read. But note that the Jewish Scriptures we think of today did not come into being until after 90 CE, when the Pharisees decided the fate of the nature of Judaism shaping it in their image.
Second: I looked through "Wisdom of Jesus" (my book) and found one saying (Mark 12:38-30 = Luke 20:46) Where Jesus cautions people about the "experts in Torah." If that saying is appropriate to your question, it passes muster as a saying that came from Jesus in my view, but it only suggests that Jesus was aware of Torah (which was a Scripture shared by Samaritans, Sadducees, and Pharisees alike). But even if we agreed that a saying with Jesus quoting a Scripture that passed muster as a saying that originated with Jesus it would not tell us whether it came from a written book that Jesus had read.
If you will send me an email at email@example.com with your address I will send you a photocopy of the pages in Parables in Poetic Fictions that cover my discussion of the Judge and the Widow. I do in the book speak to the questions you ask, but I can only deal superficially with it in this forum. If you find that I have not addressed the questions, then let me know and we can be more pointed in our discussion in this forum.
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