Complex Pharisees: Literature and History

TissotOne of the first sermons I can remember hearing as a young Christian, possibly even as an unbeliever, was an exposition of Luke 18:9-14, where Luke recounts a stinging parable aimed at the Pharisees. In that sermon, our preacher took a sledgehammer to legalism, the attempt to justify ourselves before God through works-based righteousness. He then pleaded with us to confidently take hold of Christ’s imputed righteousness by faith. Now, do not mishear me: Jesus clearly strikes at justification through works, and concludes the parable by telling us that the tax collector went away justified, apart from works. But we must avoid the lure of reductionism. For this parable is also told to the righteous who had become condescending (18:9), who may or may not have held a warped view of their works’ value in the economy of salvation. Furthermore, even legalism is more complex than we often tend to allow for. Basically, we must be wary if works-righteousness and a reductionistic legalism are the only applications tied to Gospel episodes involving the Pharisees.

In my previous post in this series, In Defence of the Pharisees, I argued against an oversimplified view of the Pharisees that Jesus met in the Gospels. I suggested one of the reasons for this view is that we have inherited an interpretation of the Gospels from the Reformers, who drew too strong a line between the gross legalism of the medieval Catholic Church and the Jewish sect of the Pharisees. The two points I made in response were: (1) Israel’s religious observance was not irreconcilable with God’s grace and (2) the Pharisees’ fastidious piety became a source of pride when it should have daily reminded them of their need for God’s grace. I then concluded with an appeal, to all those who handle the Gospels, for careful exegetical and historical attention. Under the next two headings I will address both of those areas by considering the literary nature of the Gospels and their historical milieu.

Narrativization

Book of KellsIn his essay on the Jewish leaders, in Jesus Among His Friends and Enemies, Anthony Le Donne discusses a few key considerations for reading the Gospels and draws our attention to narrativization. That is, we must bear in mind that the Gospels come to us in the form of stories, revised history; “When telling stories, narrators produce accounts that fall into typical patterns. These patterns obscure certain details, focus on others, embellish/invent themes and motifs, and dramatically restructure time lines.” In my opinion – though others would disagree – this does not mean that the Gospels are less than reliable historical accounts. But narrativization, “the process of creating a story,” means that the Evangelists’ material was shaped. Therefore, as Le Donne states, “The process of storytelling reduces and dulls our picture of the Jewish leaders.” Despite the many pitfalls of literary criticism, Le Donne’s point encourages a more careful reading of the Jesus event as story and understanding the characters within the plot (I attempted to do this with John’s Gospel, here). In my previous post I appealed for a more careful exegesis of the Gospel texts; part of doing that is to read them as narratives and the Pharisees as antagonists, whose simplicity and opposition helps us interpret Jesus’ life, teaching, and mission. When we turn the Pharisees into singularly flat characters we lose out on the richness of the Gospels.

Historical complexity

Secondly, N. T. Wright, in his outstanding The New Testament and the People of God, highlights the Herculean task of presenting and understanding the Pharisees with historical precision. Wright notes that the Pharisees spanned over 300 years: they originally arose as a political pressure group during the Maccabean revolt; later they became an entrenched de facto political group under the Hasmoneans; and through the Herodian dynasty they retained an intense and zealous ardour for Israel’s freedom from pagan practices and rule. Some have therefore argued that over those three centuries the Pharisees’ interests shifted from the political to the pious. Wright shows that up until the utter ruin of Jerusalem in 135CE many Pharisees were undoubtedly engaged in civil unrest and revolt. The Pharisees are historically complex, zealous for Israel’s liberation from foreign rule and the maintenance of stringent religious purity. As we interpret the Gospels we must remember this duality. The political ambitions of the Pharisees do much for our understanding of certain episodes in the Gospels, episodes that make little sense if the Pharisees were purely troubled by Jesus’ liberal love and message of free forgiveness.

It is my hope to write another post (or few) in this series that will offer my own observations in reading the Gospels. But if you are interested, which you must be if the made it through this spectacularly dull post, then why not commence your own study on the Pharisees in the Gospels, always considering their literary and historical context.

In Defence of the Pharisees

Mihaly MunkacsyRegardless of which Christian tradition you belong to, I would wager that when a Pharisee is encountered in the Bible reading your expectation is overwhelmingly negative. After all, literary critics would label them flat characters, for in the Gospel narratives they are fairly consistent and predictable. But I do not think I am alone in growing weary of pre-packaged and predictable explanations of 1st century Pharisaism, which is an unhelpful and inaccurate generalisation. Though beguiling legalism threatened Israel’s faith throughout the nation’s history, “There was certainly a more humane and spiritual tendency within [the Pharisees]. It produced men of lofty character and genuine piety who did lasting service to religion” (C. H. Dodd, The Meaning of Paul for Today). So in this post I want to challenge the oversimplified view of the Pharisees and how they understood the relationship between their works and justification.

Apart from the lazy reproduction of what we have heard from the pulpit or read in popular-level Christian literature, I think one of the reasons for our misapprehension of the Pharisees is owed to the Reformation. In the introduction to The Justice of God, James Dunn critiques the Protestant understanding of justification by faith. And while I disagree with Dunn on a host of issues, I think he makes an excellent point worth reflecting on: the Reformers’ imagined that 1st century Judaism was identical to the Catholic medievalism of the 16th century; in other words, they were guilty of eisegesis, reading the stifling legalism of the established church they knew into the Gospels. Today, in our interpretation of the Gospels, I wonder if we make the same mistake.

Rembrandt But how should we view, interpret, and teach about the Pharisees in the Gospels? Firstly, in Basics for Believers, D. A. Carson argues that Philippians 3:6-9 should encourage more nuance than lawful obedience leading to self-righteousness: “Paul does not mean he had attained sinless perfection. Far from it: the law provided the remedies for sin, prescribing certain sacrifices, teaching earnest young Jews to look to the God who was addressed each ‘day of atonement’ by the high priest who sprinkled the blood of animals in the Most Holy Place, to atone both for his sins and for the sins of the people. Paul followed the entire pattern of religious life carefully.” Though misunderstandings of the law undoubtedly crept in, central to the old covenant was God’s forgiveness appropriated through faith. Since Yahweh prescribed obedience to his law, works were not irreconcilable with grace. Thus the Pharisees’ emphasis on religious duty cannot be oversimplified to works righteousness.

Secondly, developing the above point, Calvin (Institutes, 3.11.3) writes, “When Christ upbraids the Pharisees for justifying themselves, he does not mean that they acquire righteousness by well doing but that they ambitiously seize upon a reputation for righteousness of which they are devoid.” The difference between this and our view inherited from the Reformation is subtle, but significant. Calvin argues in 3.11.2 that justification by faith was not a novelty of the New Testament, but clear throughout the Old Testament. Right standing with God has always been an imputed status and not an attribute, a gift rather than achieved merit. As Calvin says, Jesus’ searching criticisms of the Pharisees were not merely an indictment on law keeping and dutiful faith. His issue with the Pharisees was the pride that accompanied their supposed righteousness, which the sacrificial system should have emphasised none of them possessed. The Pharisees’ exaggerated self-righteousness was not the means by which they thought they were justified before God but rather it became their identity, providing them with self-image and worth, in place of God’s gracious acceptance.

HoffmanI have briefly touched on major ideas in this post, which presently fuel massive theological debates, so in closing let me restate my purpose in writing and summarise my points. Biblical studies and hermeneutics has always been a richly diverse gathering of disciplines, therefore we should be weary of reductionistic handling of the biblical texts, both in private study and from the pulpit. To think of the Pharisees we meet in the Gospels as advocates of an entirely self-righteous and solely works-based religion is a historical – and, in many places, an exegetical – fallacy. We must work hard to understand the historical and textual nuances when Jesus encounters Pharisees. And we must stop smoothing over those details in order to preach works versus grace. These things should not be so.

Risks in Reading for the Art of Biblical Narrative

Poetry is a dangerous game-by-whitefeatherGraham has recently written a couple of posts (here and here) on Alter’s seminal work, “The Art of Biblical Narrative”. The “New Literary Criticism” movement is not new any more although it certainly retains its exciting lustre for Bible students. This is true because the literary movement (the “new” one anyway, as opposed to the old “redaction critical” type of “literary movement”, in case any nerds were wondering) has a number of great strengths over its predecessors.

First, I love the fact that we are encouraged to view texts as a whole, assuming the author/editors were not idiots and were constructing something coherent. I love the fact that discernible shifts that would previously have caused scholarship to break texts apart now inspire attention to why they would have been brought together and how they build on one another.

Second, because the shift (especially in Old Testament studies) has been from a “looking through the text at the period in which it was written” kind of approach to an analysis of the text itself, I appreciate the new focus. Now the text is at the forefront. This is great news for people who think the Bible is living and active and suitable for training in all righteousness. It great news for people who think Scripture is God’s Word and has something to say to us today.

Third, studying the Bible does not have to be an obscure scholarly discipline dependent on thorough knowledge of original languages, etymology and some strongly held opinions on historical reconstructions that are mostly best guesses. It is something anyone can do because much of what should be gleaned from a narrative can be gleaned in a secondary language. It’s like the reformation or the translation of the Bible into English that saw the lay person empowered to interpret Scripture for him/herself. Of course it comes with its own set of problems but they’re a better set of problems than the alternative. One thing to note is that this is less and less the case as literary techniques are carried over and the field once again becomes filled with jargon and defined methodologies not apparent to the lay person. Nevertheless, pointing someone to the text and saying, “read it and try to make sense of why it was written” is not a bad start and it’s encouraged by the literary movement.

There are, however, two dangers associated with literary techniques. If you’ve read this far, you should check out Longman’s article, “The Literary Approach to the Study of the Old Testament: Promise and Pitfalls” which I have found valuable to my own thinking and has been formative in my thinking on the subject. The critiques I’m raising are not ground breaking nor are they necessarily the most significant. They are simply the concerns that are at the forefront of my mind and are simply raised to contribute to the discussion Graham has started.

1. Loss of Grounding in History

Well GroundedI think the most disturbing trend in literary readings is the willingness to abandon external objectivity. If all that matters is the text and its effect on me today, then reference to anything historical loses significance. One of the most disturbing features of The Art of Biblical Narrative is Alter’s dismissal of David’s historicity. As far as Alter is concerned, there was perhaps a king named David but all that stuff about giant slaying (and most of the rest of his life actually) is myth built up around him so that Israel have something in their history to be proud of.

Alter’s perceptive observation of type-scenes, while insightful, results in a further severing of text from history. Now every time we find a meeting at a well we know that we are not reading actual occurrences, it’s just the “ol’ hookup at the well scene” – the Hebrew idiom for engagement. To be honest, this doesn’t seem like much to lose – and it’s not if the well scene is just the Hebrew idiom for engagement – in fact it’s a superior reading, but only if we are right that an account couched in historical setting is really idiomatic. The advantage is that we realise how often historical grounding doesn’t matter much (and so we don’t have to fight to the death over how many years the Judges period covers, for example) but the danger is that we similarly don’t worry when it does. The question is, are we losing something if we read the stories of David as ahistorical? It’s a question that I’ve been wrestling with for quite some time but not one I think is anywhere near being solved.

Down The Rabbit HoleNevertheless, in his article, Longman (1985:394) quotes Frye, “The Bible possesses literary qualities but is not itself reducible to a work of literature.” This seems an important corrective. As we venture down the literary rabbit hole – often in flight from historical-critical methodologies – we need not (perhaps, we must not?) let go of history. In their major contribution to the subject Provan, Long and Longman (2003:81) write, “The ahistorical path is a dead end. Where biblical texts make historical truth claims, ahistorical readings are perforce misreadings – which remains the case, whatever one’s opinions may be regarding the truth value of those claims.”

If in our quest for literary readings, we gain textual unity and prominence but lose its historical roots I think the quest will, in the end, have been futile.

2. Loss of Stability in Interpretation

JengaLongman’s (1985:391) fourth concern is “the danger of moving completely away from any concept of authorial intent and determinant of meaning of a text.” In recent years the idea of textual meaning outside of its reader has been radically challenged. In “Narrative in the Hebrew Bible”, Gunn and Fewell’s follow up to Alter’s “Art of Biblical Narrative”, we find one of the more eloquent defences of reader response interpretation. We read (1993:xi), “Most significant, however, it differs from all these books in its hermeneutical assumptions. Unlike the others … our book understands interpretation to hinge crucially upon the reader, and not just in terms of a reader’s ‘competence’. Meaning is not something out there in the text waiting to be discovered. Meaning is always, in the last analysis, the reader’s creation, and readers, like texts, come in an infinite variety.”

To be fair, my experience of Gunn and Fewell has been that they are pretty responsible. The point is that when the author’s stabilising influence is lost, the stabilising influence of the text is lost for the same reasons. In the end, the many and varied interpretations of the reader(s) are all that is left. This means that there is no stability to meaning. Whether or not this matters is the topic for another oversized post, I’m going to assume that it is.

An example of this was given in a recent Christianity Today article about the Bible and Technology,

Bible tech has provided personal epiphanies, such as when he [Evans] learned the Hebrew word for bread, lehem. “Lehem is bread! Bethlehem means ‘House of Bread’! Jesus is the Bread of Life! Hebrew is magic!” But the same software that draws such connections also taught him to think more skeptically—even about the very connections that got him so excited, Evans said. “What we’re doing here makes it very easy to run with theological scissors.” The tools can be used, to use an example several people referenced, to develop an intense numerological theory about the significance of the 153 fish caught in John 21. It’s kind of a throwback to the early church, when preachers loved pontificating on repeated words, images, and numbers in disparate biblical books. But database-driven interactive text seems to especially encourage this kind of reading, where one simple mouse click pulls up thousands of pages of cross-references and commentary on each word. It’s an awful lot like 2001’s A Beautiful Mind, where Nobel laureate John Nash is able to see real patterns no one else had seen—but also sees patterns that don’t really exist.

In his small masterpiece, Exegetical Fallacies (an absolute must read), Carson speaks of “Verbal Parallelomania” in which the “bare phenomena” of verbal parallels are said to “demonstrate conceptual links or even dependency” (2nd Ed. pg43). Carson is particularly critical of these parallels when they are found in extra-biblical literature (à la Babylonian creation myths?).

It is remarkably easy to find parallels (in fact Carson speaks of “conceptual parallelomania” later in Exegetical Fallacies as yet another way of finding dubious parallels) especially with the power of Google on your side. In the era of literary readings, it is difficult to critique the abundance of parallels that can be discovered because those parallels are discovered by the reader and, for better or worse, the reader has become the hermeneutical pivot around whom meaning revolves. Maybe it’s just that I’m a stodgy conservative but that is a bit of a problem for me. Carson noted that of the 300ish parallels found by Bultmann and Dodd in the prologue of John there was only a 7% overlap.

Running with ScissorsThis is not to say that parallels never exist and certainly not that they never matter. It is, however, a caution to this author. I have often found myself making the argument “the writer of this passage of Scripture has the entire corpus of biblical literature memorised, so of course when he says this similar sounding thing he has in mind that primary idea which he is extending”. It is very easy, by means of methodologies introduced by the new literary criticism, to introduce radical instability into textual exegesis or to, “run with theological scissors”.

Conclusion

The loss of history and the loss of stability in meaning are not inevitabilities in literary readings but they are both pitfalls into which literary critics have already fallen. In our era it is in vogue to be a sceptic but I am confident that as the philosophical tides change we will look like real plonkers if we are found to have succumbed to absolute relativism, having detached everything from anything. In the process of investing our time and energy into the new literary criticism which, as has been seen, promises much fruit, we must coordinate our text with history and we must not descend into a myriad of meanings that leave us in a sea of meaninglessness waiting and hoping the tide will carry us back to land.

Readings Cited

Carson, Exegetical Fallacies. 1996.

Longman, The Literary Approach to the Study of the Old Testament: Promise and Pitfalls JETS 28:4 pp. 385-398.

Provan, Long, & Longman, A Biblical History of Israel.  2003.

Yee, The author/text/reader and power: suggestions for a critical framework for biblical studies eds. M. A. Tolbert, F. F. Segovia – pg109-118.

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/march/bible-in-original-geek.html?paging=off

Biblical Historicity and African Folklore

One fairly appealing argument for the historicity of Old Testament narratives is that Jesus/Paul/Some-author viewed treated them as historical. By this, we mean that they make arguments from them. One example from the Old Testament is Exodus’ use of the creation account in the Ten Commandments: “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth and the sea and all that is in them, and he rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy” (Ex 20:11).

Thandi, a young South African Zulu woman came to her mother with a complaint.
— “I don’t want to go to church today,” Thandi told her mother, “it’s boring …”
You must go Thandi,” her mother tenderly replied.
— “But why?”
Look at the moon, my daughter.
— “What?”
Long ago there was a woman like you who didn’t want to go to church. She thought that her time would be much better spent collecting wood which she did. She took her child on her back and went to the forest and began bundling up logs of wood. Later in the afternoon, when lunch was to be served her family realised that she had not done any preparation. They looked for her far and wide all day long. It was only in the evening that they found her though.
— “Where was she?”
She had been swallowed by the moon. Later in the evening, her family looked up …” At this, Thandi’s mother pointed to the moon and passed her hand over it’s strange shadows, “… and there in the moon, they saw her, a young woman with her child on her back and carrying a bundle of logs.

That’s why you should go to church, my girl.

Admittedly, there is a moon. What’s more, one could probably identify the silhouette of  a woman carrying a bundle of sticks and a child (in a “what do you see in the clouds?” kind of way). However, those hardened in Zulu culture believe the story to be true no more than skeptical Westerners. It’s simply rhetoric of Zulu culture: “look at the moon – that’s why you should go to church.” For some skeptical Westerners, “look at the rainbow, that’s how we know God is merciful,” is not that different.

My concern, and it is simply a concern, is that our claim for historicity on the basis of the way arguments worked in the first century AD (or before that) may miss the rhetorical style of author’s culture.  It’s simply food for thought and an attempt to sharpen our arguments by cutting the dead-wood. If you can think of other/better arguments, please let me know (comments are good) – a while ago I jotted down a few thoughts on the importance of historicity here.

P.S. Tempering these thoughts is the rhetorical value of historicity. Job, for example, seems a far more powerful argument to endure suffering as historical narrative than as parable. Could this just be my Western rhetorical style though?

Theology in History

I wanted to make the title, “God is History” but that doesn’t work practically as well as “Theology is History”. Of course, “Theology is History” doesn’t have quite the same provocative effect. So instead, I went with something that actually describes the content of this post. I’ve been thinking recently about the relationship between history and theology. This, particularly with reference to Old Testament narrative; how we are to regard the literary nature of narrative arguing theology to actual history. I’ve come up with three points because Bible college has had an effect on the structure of my thinking. This is my thinking thus far:

1. The Authorial Attestation

Supposing we reject the historicity of old testament narrative. The authors of the stories we find are simply fable and lore, told to argue for a certain type of god. The Exodus, for example, becomes a tale of a god who redeems his people. At first glance, it seems that not much is lost: we may still highly value the literary character of the Old Testament narrative and the narrators’ arguments remain within our grasp.
The problem with this view is that we are left with a Bible of stories. The examples to which the authors point in order to prove their affirmations about the character of God have no place in history. What we know of God’s character resides in the mind of the authors of fiction. The Exodus does not prove God’s love for His people and demonstrate the truth that God redeems His people, it can only claim that this is God’s character.
Theology embedded in history means that history is an argument for God and His character, it is the place to which we can look for evidence and examples of the way God deals with His people and ultimately, the way He deals with sin.

2. The Authorial Activity

We must realise, further, that if theology is not rooted in history, we are left with a god who does not act in history. It is a different god who does not exist immanently, in time, who does not act to bring about his purposes and whose activity we cannot perceive.
Theology being rooted in history means that we can look at history and see a God who acts. We can discern His sovereignty over events in time: we can see His command of nature as creation comes into being and is ordered, as the sea parts and as His purposes come to be.

3. The Authorial Insertion

Ultimately though, a theology that is not founded on history loses the cornerstone of the Christian faith. An enormous claim, made because theology and history intersect in a spectacular way when the subject of theology becomes an object of history. The Incarnation is the final and ultimate reason that theology and history cannot be torn apart. C. S. Lewis reflects on the fact that a character in Shakespeare’s plays could never meet Shakespeare himself: that is, Lewis muses, unless Shakespeare were to write himself into the script and interact with a character. Of course, the character could never know Shakespeare fully but it would be a revelation of the author to players in the story. This is what inspired the third point’s title. Ultimately without the author of the stage of history divinely writing himself in, we are left with a hidden god unlike anything in Christianity and, I would argue (though not here), not worth believing.

Theology and history cannot be torn apart without losing Christianity. What does that mean?
It means that we must affirm the historicity of what we find in Scripture.