Thursday, May 24, 2012

Reflections on New Testament Ethics: On Luke Timothy Johnson's Canonical Theses

In his book Scripture and Discernment: Decision Making in the Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), Luke Timothy Johnson sets out to address the challenge of the church’s ability to read the biblical text in all its diversity and integrity, for the sake of obeying the will of God as a community of faith, in response to new and unforeseen moral and practical challenges that arise over time. The work is therefore “an exercise in practical theology” (p. 9). Specifically, Johnson sees, and consequently wants to present, “decision making in the church” as “a theological process,” grounded in an explicit bias: “when the church makes decisions, the Bible ought somehow to be involved” (p. 10).

Part One, the first third of the book, is devoted to “Theory,” and that is where I will focus my engagement of Johnson’s argument. In particular I want to take up the concise content of Chapter 2, “Debates: The Authority of the New Testament in the Church,” and offer questions for, challenges to, and extensions of the case Johnson makes there. The chapter is split up into three sections: theses proffered for a right conception of the shape and function of the canon; a proposed model for reading the canon; and a brief display of the modes of the canon’s authority. In the following I will largely focus on the theses, with forays into the following sections when appropriate.

Johnson’s first thesis is wonderful, calling the biblical canon “the church’s working bibliography” (p. 35; this phrase recalls Brian McLaren’s suggested image for the Bible as a “portable library”). The second thesis is similarly exemplary, though worth spelling out in a bit more detail. Johnson makes the claim that the canon “is more than the residuum of a historical process” (p. 35). How so? “It is a faith decision for the church to make in every age and place.” This decision takes place “not by council but in liturgical use” and is just so “the most fundamental identity decision the church makes” (p. 36). It seems clear what Johnson has in his sights to be speaking against: a sheerly contingent historical process devoid of meaning or normative import, as a correlative of the notion that the canon is just there devoid of any ongoing personal agency on the part of the church. A salutary corrective to traditional ecclesial diversions to the left and to the right.

The subsequent three theses raise important questions—though not, it should be noted, in necessary disagreement with Johnson’s conclusions, but only for further thinking and clarification. Within these theses Johnson makes the related claims that “canon and . . . church are . . . correlative concepts,” that “the nature of a canon [is] to be closed,” and that the canon “can be catholic, that is, have universal and enduring pertinence” precisely because it is “closed and exclusive” (p. 36). My first question is terminological: Does not using the very language of “canon” from the outset predetermine certain claims in these theses? For example, what if Johnson had called them “scriptural” theses, and “Scripture” had replaced every use of “canon”? It is not necessarily the case that the nature of religious scripture is to be closed; nor would scriptural universality necessarily be based on its closed nature, for perhaps such universality might be predicated exactly upon temporal catholicity, a kind of ongoing gathering up of resources and authorities determined by subsequent generations to be wise and useful (as, say, the Hebrew Bible developed leading up to the first century). Such a Scripture really would be the church’s working bibliography, in the strictest sense of the term!

Of course, this may merely seem a semantic quibble, but it is an important point (with which Johnson would likely agree): because the biblical texts as we have them are both a product and a collection of the church, they are just so radically contingent and subject to the church’s determination of what they are, how they will be seen, and how they will be used. My only point is that “canon” is not the sole term, historical or theological, by which to understand and conceive of the Bible; and to restrict oneself to it may, at times, rig the deck in terms of what one can, cannot, and will be led to say about what it is or is not.

Theses 6 and 7 are alike commendable and unexceptionable. Theses 8 and 9, on the other hand, raise further questions about biblical authority. I am interested here in Johnson’s precise formulation regarding Scripture’s divine inspiration (thesis 9), which is “one of the ways of expressing” (moving back to thesis 8) “the acknowledgement that [the canonical writings] not only speak in the voice of their human authors but also speak for an Other” (p. 37). Further elaborated: “Within [the texts’] time-conditioned words and symbols . . . there speaks as well the singular Word of God” (p. 37; my emphasis). I want to connect this phrasing both backward and forward to claims Johnson makes about the way he is approaching the Bible. Earlier in the chapter, Johnson states that he is “considering only the question of the New Testament’s authority as read text” (p. 35; my emphasis). In this way “we cannot mean something [authoritative] that simply inheres in the book as book; we must mean a quality that is ascribed to the act of reading the text” (p. 35).

What might it mean to say that the biblical text is authoritative only insofar as and when it is read by and in the community, and yet to say also that “within” the particular texts of the one canon “there speaks as well the singular Word of God”? Immediately prior, Johnson says something similar: “the critical questions posed to the texts by a reader are far less significant than the critical questions the texts pose to the reader” (p. 37). Is the text of Scripture as such the Word of God and/or inspired? Or is the Word of God a present and living event whenever and wherever the text is read? Or, even further, is the inspiration of which Johnson speaks something inherent to the actual “time-conditioned words and symbols”—in that case, in the original languages, in the translations, or something else—or something that happens in the space and time of a community’s reading and hearing the text in the power of the Holy Spirit?

Looking now toward the end of the chapter, Johnson offers a helpfully forthright account of when and how the community may disagree with particular biblical texts: “To be faithful to the Scripture, we cannot suppress its reading; we must be able to say why we do not live in accord with its clear directive” (p. 43). This is a coherent position in itself. But how does it relate to the claim that, as a whole, Scripture is the Word of God, inspired by God’s own Spirit? Does not at least the former denotation (if not the latter ascription) logically entail a more cautious weariness in “not living in accord with its clear directive”?

To take a most controversial subject of moral discernment (one which Johnson addresses later in the book), homosexuality would seem to be in a perilous position in the confluence of Johnson’s expressed views. For if the texts are somehow together the Word of God, somehow inspired by God, somehow even an agent in the community’s life pressing it into shape and asking it questions—by what means would someone come to read Romans 1 in a light that would explicitly reject its view of same-sex relations? It seems as if one side must give: either the canon cannot as a whole be called the inspired Word of God, or (sans significant tension internal to the texts) the rule of reasoned and intentional disagreement with the text cannot be a viable option for the church. Perhaps a more robust, less constrictive definition might be offered for “Word of God” or “inspiration,” but that only raises a larger question: On what grounds should we identity Scripture as or with God’s Word at all? It seems to me that Johnson has the resources to articulate why an alternative definition might be beneficial both to the integrity of the Bible and to the life and faith of the church—rooted, for example, in the fact that the texts are a product of the church, chosen by the church, read by the church, and kept by the church for their catholicity, apostolicity, and usefulness as faithful witnesses, rather than taken to be a kind of supernatural ruler (!) by which to order timelessly every minute detail of the church in any context.

Thesis 10, on the irreducible diversity of the New Testament, is a happy corrective to abstractions from and alien impositions onto the text, and thesis 11’s proposal of a properly ecclesial hermeneutic for reading the Bible in its “primary function, which is to mediate the identity of the church as church,” is no less welcome in its insistence on the rightful place and purpose of Scripture: the gathered worship and communal life of Christ’s disciples.

To conclude, I want to reflect on the connections between this ecclesial hermeneutic and Johnson’s suggested “midrashic model” for its practice (p. 38-39). My question relates to division and judgment: In the “public context” of “discussion, debate, disagreement, and decision,” in which the church comes together to perform its discernment in the light of Scripture, how are we to judge the community’s final decision? What if two communities come together and, in good faith, argue the issue out both textually and Spiritually (capital-S intentional), taking members’ experiences and arguments into account along with the tradition’s witness—and yet come out with diametrically opposed conclusions? That is, how are we to make moral, biblical, or theological sense out of congregations’ radically different stances on (to stay with our issue so far) homosexual orientation and practice? Do we have at our disposal, or within the biblical texts, the means by which to judge or determine right process or right decision? Can a community “do it right” and still “come out wrong”? What then? If a church claims “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us,” and yet the same claim comes from another church with an opposite determination—are we left, finally, with mere silence between incommensurate and untranslatable options?

Monday, May 21, 2012

Reflections on New Testament Ethics: A Theological Engagement of Richard Hays' Proposed Focal Images

(This is my second engagement of Hays' text; see the first here.)

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In The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), Richard Hays proposes three focal images as a kind of hermeneutical key for reading, interpreting, and performing the various texts of the New Testament as a coherent witness to a Christian form of life. These images are community, cross, and new creation. Hays argues both that he has discovered these within the texts themselves and that, while perhaps arbitrary and only a suggestion toward further discussion, they remain faithful to the voices of the texts themselves and therefore offer a reliable guide for moral textual discernment.

In the following I will undertake, rather than a straightforward critique of Hays’ argument or explication of the text, a broader, more reflective theological engagement, particularly of the focal images themselves, their relation to the rest of Scripture, and their generic applicability to other communities as well. Though I am often in agreement with Hays’ interpretations—if not necessarily with his authorial assumptions or method—I want to question the implicit originality of Hays’ proposal and to see how it “shakes out” after sustained theological interrogation. I suspect that an inductive exploration will unearth interesting facets to the images that are not immediately evident on the surface.

Hays’ argument is that there is “a single fundamental story” (p. 193) at the heart of all the New Testament documents, the latter being merely different expressions and articulations of the one story as captured in disparate genres and forms—letters, narratives, history, apocalyptic. On the one hand, a single flattening account would silence the particular voices’ witness, while on the other hand, if left on their own, the church would be left with cacophony, rather than (an intended?) polyphony (pp. 187-89). Thus, the church may “identify certain key images that all the different canonical tellings share,” grasping “the unity and sense of Scripture . . . only through an act of metaphorical imagination that focuses the diverse contents of the texts in terms of a particular ‘imaginative characterization’ ” (p. 194). These will “serve as lenses to focus our reading of the New Testament: when we reread the canonical documents through these images, our blurry multiple impressions of the texts come more sharply into focus” (p. 195).

The three focal images are, as noted above, community, cross, and new creation. With a bit further elaboration: community names the eschatological people of God, redeemed and called by God in Christ to be witnesses in the power of the Holy Spirit (pp. 196-97); cross names the concrete pattern of life, embodied in the life and death of Jesus, to which the church is called as a paradigm of servanthood, love, and obedience (pp. 197); new creation names the eschatological tension of cross and resurrection, of the “now” of new life in Christ and the “not yet” for which the church longs along with the rest of creation (p. 198). Among other explanations and comments, Hays notes that the images’ given “sequence is important”: the community did not begin with the church, but with Israel, whose prior existence is mere fact (p. 199). From there, the cross serves as a reminder “that the death of Jesus is the climax and pivot-point of the eschatological drama,” and new creation signals the anticipation and final not-yet at the heart of the church’s life in time (p. 199).

In an interesting footnote, Hays notes that he “would not object” “if these same images were described by the terms ‘Israel, cross, and resurrection,’ ” albeit with some qualifications (p. 205n.21). This observation raises the intriguing question: To what extent might these focal images, or others like them, already apply (or be able to apply) to the Old Testament—indeed, to all of Scripture?

The only way to answer this question would be to offer potential answers to the more pertinent question of what the Old Testament’s own focal images might be. Sticking with the number and pattern of Hays, a first set might be: covenant, exodus, and conquest. Covenant would include both circumcision (a restrictive image, in more ways than one), the promise to Abraham (“promise” is not much of an image), and the initial covenant with Abraham as well as the covenant at Sinai (and beyond). Exodus would of course be the equivalent to the cross as the dramatic climax of Israel’s constitutive story, and conquest would stand as the fulfillment of the promise, the dénouement of slavery and deliverance, and the more generic idea of “the land” (though that certainly could be exchanged as an equally valid term).

But of course, the Old Testament does not end with settlement in the land; in a sense, it begins there. So what might another set of images be? Modifying the previous three, we might say: exodus, covenant community, and exile. In this formulation, the constitutive event would be the exodus, launching into the cohesion of the community as bound and set forward by the covenant at Sinai (as well as prior and subsequent covenants). But at this point, the third image would be exile, with both negative and positive overtones: negative, insofar as the exile is God’s decisive judgment on Israel’s covenant unfaithfulness and the lingering condition of Jewish existence; positive, inasmuch as exile is transformed by Jeremiah into mission and God promises to fulfill new and final promises in the gathering of the exiles on the last day.

(A final, though highly peripheral, suggestion would be the internal and ancient triply “focalizing” name of the Hebrew Scriptures: Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim. Rather than focal “images” through which to read every discrete text, these would serve as textual poles around which and in relation to which every interpretation of whatever text must be read, never forgetting the witness of the whole. Moreover, these textual focalizers, simply by virtue of their being explicitly internal textual lenses, would be faithful to the heart of Judaism’s express commitment to the reading and embodiment of a particular set of texts.)

One could continue this exercise seemingly in perpetuity, not least through taking up focal images for the entire Bible (perhaps premodern exegetes might urge incarnation as a more holistic fit between community and new creation?). In any case, it is interesting that Hays’ triple lens is not only suggestive in a horizontal direction, that is, “backwards” into the Old Testament and diffuse throughout all of Scripture. It gestures also in a vertical direction: to the mapping of the triune persons’ roles in time.

This can be taken in two ways. The first is to admit, with the tradition, that any strong linkage between one Trinitarian person and a particular divine activity risks modalism, while going ahead with the caveat—hence replacement phrases like “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier,” when it is acknowledged by all that Son and Spirit create, Father and Spirit redeem, and Father and Son sanctify. In that spirit, then, Hays’ focal images could be loosely mapped trinitarianly: the Father calls forth and constitutes the community, the Son is the suffering Messiah on the cross, and the Spirit is the proleptically received power of the new creation. (Even Hays’ translated terms fit: the Father is the God of Israel, as the one whom Jesus called “abba,” and Jesus’ and future believers’ resurrection obtains solely in and by the power of the Holy Spirit.)

The second way is no less potentially modalistic, but is more creative in its formulations, and more dogmatic in its exegesis (here I draw on the work of Robert Jenson). In a profound sense, the life of the Trinity may be mapped to the arrows of time, such that God’s eternity is an infinite temporality of Origin, Goal, and Mediation—otherwise known as Father, Spirit, and Son. That they are one God is their perfect harmony; that they are temporal is the revelation that this God is no security against time but the fulfillment of divine transcendence within time.

The way this might be seen in Hays’ focal images is to “discover” the life of the Trinity within each image. Thus, the community will be understood as the people of God, the body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit—at once the theater of the trinitarian roles, while identifying the “location” of the community in the divine drama with that of what is given, that is, with the Father, the “whence” of the divine life. Just so, new creation will be located with the wild wind of the Spirit as Goal of all, yet finding the Father as the speaker of the promised final future and the Son’s return in glory as its catalyst. Finally, the cross is indeed “the climax and pivot-point of the eschatological drama” (p. 199), but not only of the human drama—the saga also of the personae dramatis who constitute the triune life. In this way the crucifixion of the Son of God is the axis upon which the very identify of God turns, for at this moment the Father gives the Son over to death, whose final breath gives up their Spirit of love.

These images are not, then, only hermeneutical tools for reading the ethics of the New Testament—they are fundamental moments in the divine drama of the triune God! Nor is this suggestion alien to Hays’ proposal, for Hays’ work in the years since Moral Vision was published have focused on and endorsed these sorts of figural and traditioned readings. What else is a theologian to find in a three-point dramatic rule of faith for interpreting the canon?

A final word, though, about the implications of connecting Hays’ proposed images with time. In a straightforward sense, all Hays has done is to arrange moral interpretation of the New Testament according to the way in which any community reads its history, texts, stories, and so on. All of created life, all of communal life, is constituted by the three arrows of time: by the perduring community, by its founding event(s), and by some particular horizon to which the community looks and for which it hopes. For example: America was founded by the crisis of the Revolution and looks forward to “a better life for our children.” How ought America then to read its Constitution, interpret its stories, live its life together? As the present community in the light of the Revolution with a view toward a better future for coming generations. Though I do not believe this realization indicts Hays’ proposal, it is at the very least a curious sociological fact to note, and one which calls either for a lessening of claims for originality or for a clarification of how community, cross, and new creation are not merely the three arrows of the church’s life in time, but something more substantial and unique to it as such.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Edward Perronet

We sang a throwback in our neighborhood Episcopal church this morning, and one that brought a smile to this church of Christ-er's ears. What a joyous hymn. Enjoy.

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All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name

By Edward Perronet

All hail the power of Jesus’ Name! Let angels prostrate fall;
Bring forth the royal diadem, and crown Him Lord of all.
Bring forth the royal diadem, and crown Him Lord of all.

Let highborn seraphs tune the lyre, and as they tune it, fall
Before His face Who tunes their choir, and crown Him Lord of all.
Before His face Who tunes their choir, and crown Him Lord of all.

Crown Him, ye morning stars of light, who fixed this floating ball;
Now hail the strength of Israel’s might, and crown Him Lord of all.
Now hail the strength of Israel’s might, and crown Him Lord of all.

Crown Him, ye martyrs of your God, who from His altar call;
Extol the Stem of Jesse’s Rod, and crown Him Lord of all.
Extol the Stem of Jesse’s Rod, and crown Him Lord of all.

Ye seed of Israel’s chosen race, ye ransomed from the fall,
Hail Him Who saves you by His grace, and crown Him Lord of all.
Hail Him Who saves you by His grace, and crown Him Lord of all.

Hail Him, ye heirs of David’s line, whom David Lord did call,
The God incarnate, Man divine, and crown Him Lord of all,
The God incarnate, Man divine, and crown Him Lord of all.

Sinners, whose love can ne’er forget the wormwood and the gall,
Go spread your trophies at His feet, and crown Him Lord of all.
Go spread your trophies at His feet, and crown Him Lord of all.

Let every kindred, every tribe on this terrestrial ball,
to Him all majesty ascribe, and crown Him Lord of all.
To Him all majesty ascribe, and crown Him Lord of all.

O that, with yonder sacred throng, we at His feet may fall,
Join in the everlasting song, and crown Him Lord of all,
Join in the everlasting song, and crown Him Lord of all!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Reflections on New Testament Ethics: On Synthesis, Canon, and Context in Richard Hays' Moral Vision

I first read Richard Hays’ The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997) in the summer of 2007, while serving in a missions internship in Tomsk, Russia. At that time Hays’ work affected me powerfully; and there is no denying that the book is a towering achievement of biblical scholarship. In it Hays accomplishes a remarkable synthesis of ethical insight, biblical expertise, close readings of texts, serious attention to the latest scholarly trends and findings, and theological thinking in its highest form, coming together as a cohesive whole that is a gift to the practice, ministry, and moral discernment of the church.

I later re-read the book for a class taught by Luke Timothy Johnson in the fall of 2010, and since then have encountered more than a few substantive critiques of it. Though the original confluence of factors—cross-cultural, ministerial, personal, missionary—in my first reading led to the book leaving a lasting impact on me, time and reflection have helped in gaining some critical distance. In the following, then, I want to focus my engagement of the book into three modes: defending, extending, and/or problematizing particular arguments, points, or claims made by Hays. I will then take up further concerns (of a bit more playful nature) in my next post.

To begin, Hays states the “primary goal” of the book thus: “to engage the theological problem of how the New Testament ought to shape the ethical norms and practices of the church in our time” (p. 9, emphasis original). The book’s structure reveals Hays method and proposal for undertaking this goal: (1) the descriptive task of attending to the individual witnesses; (2) the synthetic task of discovering a coherent witness within the diversity of texts; (3) the hermeneutical task of reading these ancient texts as somehow texts for today; and (4) the pragmatic task of practicing the New Testament’s moral vision in the lives of concrete communities (pp. 3-7).

The first question that arises out of this methodological proposal is that of synthesis: Is it possible, and even if so, is it to be commended? As regards the former, Hays wants to preserve the diverse voices of the New Testament in their integrity, not imposing an alien vision upon them, much less an arbitrary unity; but nonetheless he believes that there is a real unity to be discovered when all the witnesses are read together. Instead of a unifying principle or single thematic thread, Hays proposes three focal images: community, cross, and new creation (p. 5). Though he will explore this in much greater detail later, mention of them suffices to answer the question of the possibility of synthesis.

As for the commendableness of the synthetic task, Hays addresses this challenge as well, but I want to extend the conversation in a different direction. Fundamentally, one must have a theory or, better, a theology of Christian Scripture in order to posit both real unity (rather than accidental) and a normative ethical vision drawn out of that unity. Hays understandably assumes the straightforward fact that the Bible functions authoritatively in the church, and rightly so, for (somehow) God acts to speak, guide, order, judge, and renew the believing community through it. But even granting this assumption—though it too ought to be argued—it is not thereby clear that the form or substance of the various canonical texts will articulate the same vision; for what if the very heart of their authoritative ordering word is their canonically approved diversity? That is to say: What if the authority of the New Testament (see below for the Old) were to be found precisely in the disparate and ultimately differing moral views found within it—a formative event of communal moral thinking frozen in ember as a decisive image of how the church should do its ethics?

This challenge raises the question of the Old Testament. Again, Hays addresses the issue head-on, responding that “the reader of the pages that follow will see that my approach to the New Testament is fundamentally shaped by the conviction that the New Testament is intelligible only as a hermeneutical appropriation of Israel’s Scriptures” (p. 9). The ensuing work should “show how deeply the convictional structure of the New Testament writers is shaped by the witness of the Old Testament.” The topic arises more extensively in the much later chapter, “How Shall We Use the Texts?” (pp. 306-9), as well as practically in the chapter on violence when Hays explicitly cites the New Testament’s witness over against that of the Old (pp. 336-7).

The remaining question, however, is that of the moral authority of the Old Testament in its own integrity as a source for Christian ethical reflection. The broad spectrum of the Christian tradition has assumed that one can find moral answers in the Old as well as the New Testament, and though few have attempted to discern there resources apart from or in opposition to the gospel or the revelation of Christ, they have not always been functionally routed or read through the lens of Hays’ three focal images (or some other filter). In other words, when asking about wealth and possessions, or the relationship between women and men, or societal governance, and so on, do Proverbs, Exodus, Ezekiel, or Genesis not offer a moral vision in their own voice? Are they not also legitimate sources of ethical discernment for the church?

On the one hand, it would seem as if Hays has implicitly excluded them from Christian moral discernment, for insofar as they are present, they are so as found within the New Testament, or as the backdrop for its writing. What, then, does the Old Testament finally have to offer? Presumably if one is able to consider five pressing contemporary ethical issues in almost sole reliance on the New Testament (along with other, non-textual moral sources), then one has effectively lost what representatives of an older generation called “the whole counsel of God.”

On the other hand, Hays may really be presenting an alternative vision to the ordinary way of doing things which, though radical, just so is faithful to the gospel and to the canon as a whole. For perhaps the question is wrongly stated. Rather than presume something called “the Bible,” then presume its authority such that Christians ought to be “biblical people,” then presume that to be a “biblical person” involves living a life properly defined by “biblical ethics”—why not come at the question from the reverse direction? That is, perhaps we ought to ask first, How is the Christian community supposed to live? and thus, What funds the form and substance of that way of life?

Hays’ answer is simple at root: the gospel of Jesus Christ—that is, the paradigm for all human life revealed in the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, in relation to God his Father and the Spirit who empowered him. Insofar as this life and the events surrounding it is are not merely an example but the central crux of the ages, the cosmos’ own proleptic redemption and the beginning of the Spirit-led welcoming of the Gentiles into Israel—how could one simplistically “look into the Old Testament”? If “the ends of the ages” have indeed come upon us, and the life of the church is ordered by the end rather than the beginning, then there can be no choice but to read the Old in light of the New! Not as a dismissal of the Old, but as an honoring both of what came before and of what God has done today, in obedience to the central Christological and eschatological question for Christian ethics: “What time is it?”

A final question raised by Hays’ account is one of context in relation to textual authority: Are Christians today, or Christians at any time after the first century, meant to hold and perform the very same moral vision as that of the first century writings in the New Testament? Put differently, is the only substantive difference between the (normative) ethics of the first Christians and that of Christians at any other time or place simply one of context? Given Hays’ method and proposal, it would seem that the answer is yes: the “enterprise” of “normative Christian ethics” “must begin and end in the interpretation and application of Scripture for the life of the community of faith” (p. 10). But what are the implications of this position?

One implication comes late in the book, when the New Testament texts, not having dealt with the issue of abortion, cannot speak decisively on the matter (pp. 444-61). Further, a second implication follows Hays’ “working assumption” of “the commonsense acknowledgement that texts do have determinate ranges of semantic possibility and that a text’s world of signification can be meaningfully distinguished from the tradition’s construal of it” (p. 8). Even allowing for a generous construal of authorial intent or internal textual meaning, this perspective implies that, to some extent, the entirety of Christian ethics and moral discernment is exhausted in the minds of the authors of the canonical texts, in the texts themselves, and/or in the formative communities of faith that led to their writing. For if “normative Christian ethics” both begins and ends in the hermeneutical appropriation of the New Testament, what resources exist to speak and act confidently and constructively to new challenges and ethical situations nonexistent or unimportant in the first century?

An interesting consequence of this apparent self-cornering is Hays’ “Appendix” discussing gender in Paul (pp. 46-56). Though I substantially agree with Hays’ argument in this section, in a real sense he must be right, for if not, the relations between men and women in the church would forever be set by the New Testament’s (contextually comprehensible!) patriarchal perspective. But this seems to back Hays even deeper into a corner, for what if his account were demonstrated conclusively to be wrong on this matter—as seen, for example, in the beliefs and practices of nearly the entire tradition before him? I suggest that Hays would benefit from thicker, more flexible theological resources for gospeled moral reflection, not confined solely to the text.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Reflections on New Testament Ethics: On Wayne Meeks and Questions of Methodology

In The Origins of Christian Morality (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), Wayne Meeks performs a superb and wide-ranging juggling act of history, ethics, religion, theology, and ethnography in analyzing the first two centuries of Christian morality. After an introduction notable both for its concision and for its usefulness, Meeks arranges his study of Christian morality’s origins through ten focal areas, and proceeds to take them up by swift combinations of anthropological scrutiny, historical clarity, ethical insight, and deft anecdotes. Meeks’ thesis is that to understand moral formation is to understand communal formation, and this proposal is enacted in what follows. In appreciation and respect for—not to mention common agreement with—Meeks’ work, below I will focus primarily on his method as laid out and explicated in the introduction, in particular relation to questions of objectivity, cultural interaction, religious identity, and textual inclusiveness.

Early on, Meeks comments: “Texts do not have an ethic; people do” (4). He says this by way of explanation of his terminological distinction between “ethics” and “morality” and between “New Testament ethics” and “Christian morality.” To engage in “biblical ethics” or some synonymous discipline would involve questions of normative practice, of prescription and proscription, and in this case grounded in the particular texts of an authoritative canon. Meeks’ method, instead, is to approach early Christian morality: that is, first order discourse engaged in calling persons and communities toward or away from particular actions and attitudes, over against second order discourse (“ethics”) concerned with reflection on and about morality. For Meeks, this task is distinctly descriptive: searching and discovering the myriad ways in which early Christians actually lived and directed one another to live.

Meeks calls this approach an “ethnography of morals,” taking his cue from modern anthropological approaches to studying native cultures’ form of life (10-11). “Culture” is in fact the right word here, for “morality” is not some discrete portion of life describable apart from the whole complex of factors and variables that make up the entirety of a community’s life in the world. Thus Meeks’ is a “holistic approach” (10), “an interpretive ethnography” (11), insofar as these webs of meaning are not self-evident, but must be discerned in their context. The metaphor employed for this approach is that of an anthropologist who lives among a native tribe for a length of time, gleaning details about their life in the process—though, admittedly, “[i]n the absence of a time machine” (10), analysis of the early Christians will rely heavily, if not almost exclusively, upon texts (11).

Two different sets of questions immediately arise in response to this (to be sure: clear, thoughtful, well-stated) methodology. The first has to do with objectivity. The image of an anthropologist embedding herself in a foreign culture—a “tribe”—for a set amount of time and “gleaning” information about them is at once imaginatively helpful and deeply problematic. Is our intrepid student of human culture invisible? Is she learned, cultured, religious, thoughtful, respectful—or might she be destructive, imperial, rapacious, foolish, close-minded? Does she hail from nearby or from far away, from a rival or a friendly culture, from “civilization” or a similar tribe? Does she propose to remain as she was or is she open to being changed by her encounter? Is she truly embedded in the culture of the tribe—and thus a participant in its form of life—or merely an observer hovering in the wings, taking notes while they go about their days?

These questions may seem silly upon first glance, given that Meeks obviously has a sophisticated and honorable person in mind, but if the metaphor is to work, there must be a degree of realism in the image for there to be anything substantial with which to compare his methodology. And the unspoken fact of this governing image should be clear from my tone above: there is no such thing as an “objective” or “unaffected” observer of human affairs in the sense suggested. Upon entering into any community, much less as an outsider intent on understanding a strange (i.e., unknown) way of life, either one must remain an outsider, and inevitably both disturb the integrity of the culture while never actually encountering it deeply enough to understand it from the inside; or one must legitimately be received into it, and therefore both see it from the inside out and open oneself to be affected and changed in the process.

On the one hand, because the reading of ancient texts does not offer a “host culture” to disturb in the sense just outlined, Meeks’ metaphor stands in this regard. On the other hand, there is a kind of “host” potentially disturbable in both sides of the comparison: that of the anthropologist, and thus Meeks himself. But the one thing left unmentioned in the introduction is any evidence of a “cultural encounter” between Meeks the moral anthropologist and the (relentlessly imposing!) “foreign texts” of early Christian morality. Given that Meeks’ goal is largely descriptive and historical, this fact is understandable; but is it finally justifiable? That is, can (much less ought) any work of anthropology or morality or religion claim or aim to be totally pure of self-involvement, of personal investment?

At the least, descriptive transparency must be offered from the outset for purported descriptive objectivity to be considered trustworthy. Is Meeks a Christian? Is he Jewish? Does he think Jesus a ridiculous myth? Does he consider the Bible to be infallible? Does he belong to a church? Does he take the New Testament to be morally authoritative? Does he confess the creed? Does he view any one stream of Christianity to be normative? These and other basic questions would offer a minimum of context for this textual ethnographer embedding himself in the ancient church—for on the other side of the metaphor, it would make a great deal of difference if our anthropologist were studying her tribe with a prior attitude of agreement rather than of ridicule in relation to its rituals, beliefs, and morals.

(Meeks’ “Postscript” (211-19) addresses these issues to an extent, though the mere fact of their being relegated to a 9-page “P.S.” already says enough. Moreover, the tonal switch from the descriptive to the prescriptive, while welcome (and on point!), is jarring just to the extent that it is nowhere to be seen until the very end.)

The second set of questions raised by Meeks’ method involves the texts themselves. Undifferentiated, taken at face value, there are a whole host of texts available for modern study that claim to be or are representative of “Christian” communities. But, akin to the (shall we say) sola descriptora approach critiqued above, is the question of Christian identity, and therefore of what may or may not be taken to be properly “Christian,” merely moot for historical study of this kind? Inasmuch as Meeks engages the Gospel of Thomas and Gnostic texts, with the issue remaining largely untouched, the silent answer is a straightforward “yes.” In looking to the first two centuries of “Christian morality,” whatever belonged to nominally Christian communities or texts is taken on face value; whether later or even contemporary communities or texts rejected these as false or unfaithful is beside the point, for they represent the wide diversity available to the historian/ethnographer today (who, in any case, is not in a position to judge).

This approach may indeed be a legitimate one; but doesn’t it at least call for argued substantiation? Taking up Meeks’ proposed metaphor again, say our beloved anthropologist’s tribe were called “The J.C. Clan,” and upon getting to know the convictions and experiences of this tribe she discovered that a neighboring tribe claimed the same name, though the former rejected the latter as derivative, perverse, other. Would the next move be to spend time in the second tribe, then to report her findings about both tribes as “Life in the J.C. Clan”?

Meeks’ method and analysis are of course significantly more complex than this simplification; but the point is that the choice is left unargued. To call any and every self-identified group “Christian” is already to have assumed a position. Left unarticulated, this position becomes implicit: there is no normative Christian identity, and so we may understand “Christian morality” by variously studying whoever self-identifies as Christian, full stop.

(To note another exception that proves the rule, in a small section in the chapter “A Life Worthy of God” (163-66), Meeks notes in two paragraphs the difficulties of marking out the boundaries between those later deemed “heretics” and “orthodox.” He then lays out in two pages the views of the character of God held, respectively, by Valentinus and Marcion. Such a brief section three-fourths through the book is significantly less than what I am arguing for here.)

Another problematic of dealing primarily with texts is the question of actual practice over against merely written claims or exhortations. Because Meeks is distinctly aware of this difficulty, I raise it less to critique him than to restate the importance of keeping it mind: the steps involved to get from Paul’s letters, to his messages therein, to the receiving communities, to the concrete moral lives constituting the latter is an enormous and perpetually imperfect process. Meeks remarks more than once that the lists of virtues and good morals offered by the New Testament and other early Christian documents do not contain much at odds with the lists of the philosophers; perhaps it is only a question of putting these virtues into practice, combined with the radically mundane inclusion of all persons in a socially unique community, that distinguished the early Christians from their (ordinarily non-philosophical!) neighbors.

In many ways I have intentionally overstated the case against Meeks’ method. He avoids the worst extremes of the pitfalls outlined above, and it is in fact the distinct feature of his thesis that allows for his simultaneously objective and textually inclusive approach. That making morals means making community is found, Meeks wants us to see, precisely in the fact that when a Marcion enters the scene, the community’s morals undergo a new socialization process of identity formation that did not exist before. This way of telling the story is both welcome and unobjectionable. My only request would be for the author to have laid all his cards on the table from the start, for the agent of investigation and the object under investigation cannot always be so clearly disentangled or distinguished.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Reflections on New Testament Ethics: On the Apolitical, Nonnormative Jesus of Wolfgang Schrage

In his substantial book The Ethics of the New Testament (trans. David E. Green; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982, 1988), Wolfgang Schrage proposes to take up the ethical practices of the earliest Christian communities and to analyze and appropriate them for the sake of Christians’ contemporary moral questions and challenges (1). Though his knowledge and scholarship are unquestionable, his conclusions and method leave much to be desired. In the following I will take up a number of issues and questions stemming from his engagement of New Testament texts and ethical topics and, through critical interaction, explore his successes and failures while offering my own judgments on some particular matters.

To begin, though one must search without a topical index, the question of violence and war—in relation to the individual, the church, and the state alike—appears randomly throughout. However, in its unannounced appearances the question is only rendered more problematic by Schrage’s treatment, rather than clarified or at least explicitly addressed. For example, in the introduction, Schrage says that “the superior status of the law of love means that there can be no directives to be followed for their own sake, for example, no universally valid law of nonviolence” (11). There is no citation or argument offered, though this might lead one simply to expect a fuller treatment in the course of the book; by the end, however, one will be disappointed by its relative absence. Furthermore, Schrage seems to contradict himself later, in discussion of Paul: “love does no wrong to a neighbor. I cannot love my neighbor and at the same time deceive him in the person of his spouse, rob him of his possessions or his reputation, or seek to take his life” (217). So which is it: no categorical “law of nonviolence,” or a concrete “law of love” that refuses to seek to take the life of the neighbor?

This blatantly overlooked contradiction (in evidence elsewhere in the book) already indicates numerous problems with Schrage’s approach and, therefore, with his ethical conclusions. Just how slippery is the “law of love”? What does “concrete” or “material” mean if anything at any time is up for grabs in moral deliberation? Is there anything that cannot be made to fit in or finally squeezed out of this law, given the right situation? Even in seeking to claim the commandments’ validity in the light of the law of love (216-17), how can they retain authority if they can be qualified per any individual discernment of contextual appropriateness?

In fact, according to Schrage’s methodologically enacted example, there simply cannot be absolutes or unqualified directives for Christian ethics (though even here “the New Testament must still be taken as an absolute standard” for “Christian conduct” [2]; what can this mean?). Schrage or an ally might rejoin that Christian ethics is precisely the irreducible task of discerning what love calls for at any moment, a task no one claims to be easy or simple or admitting of answers in advance of situations. Fair enough; but would such an interlocutor then be willing to defend, given some fitting context, the use of nuclear weapons? the practice of adultery? murder? rape? Indeed there are and must be starkly drawn moral absolutes in order to see the breadth of gray in between. To impute to the “law of love” priority over any and all commandments—which, as such, must always be obeyed in obedience to the will of the God revealed in Jesus Christ—is a strangely vacuous conception of a love so abstract one wonders if indeed it has any content at all.

This absence of content relates directly to Schrage’s clear discomfort with the notion of imitation, or of Jesus setting any kind of “earthly example” to follow. This leads to the truly odd interpretation of passages like the Christ Hymn in Philippians 2 and Paul’s encouragement of the Jerusalem collection in 2 Corinthians 8 to have only to do with “the preexistent Christ” (208). To be sure, the Hymn likely envisages such a preexistent situation, and perhaps the latter passage as well, but they cannot thereby be reduced to such a state. What of the second half of the Hymn—Christ “being found in human form” (v. 7) and being “obedient to death—even death on the cross” (v. 8)? Is this still a preexistent being? About what, on such a reading, are the Philippians to have “the same mind” as Christ—one executed not pre-incarnate but as incarnate human being! Or similarly in 2 Corinthians 8:9 (“became poor for our sake”): Is Christ’s poverty merely the fact of his humanity? If not, to what else could it refer except the concrete life conditions—unavoidably moral in content and thus imitable by definition—of Jesus of Nazareth, the man?

Schrage codifies his claims thus: “Certainly any attempt to copy or imitate the life of Jesus that views Jesus as a model is not Pauline” (208). It is not difficult to translate the meaning of “not Pauline”: to be un-Pauline is to be improperly Christian. That would be acceptable if there were some basis—stated or not!—on which to presume that what is “Pauline” is more to be trusted or appropriated as Christian over against the deutero-Pauline and catholic epistles; unfortunately, there is no such basis. Thus we are left with “examples . . . nevertheless significant” which “establish . . . a formal purpose and intention,” “define . . . a fundamental orientation of Christian living,” and “impl[y . . .] ethical conformity” (208-9)—but once again, these words sound hollow precisely as supposed “material criteria.” What are we finally to understand as “material” about ethical “examples” that are not to be “copied or imitated” but nonetheless call for “conformity”?

Related to (and typical of) Schrage’s squeamishness with Jesus’ earthly life as humanly paradigmatic—either as cause or as consequence—is his reading of the Lukan Jesus as apolitical. This is all the more disappointing given that his book was published a full decade after John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, which, put simplistically, is a straightforward (but against the grain) reading of the text of Luke’s Gospel as explicitly political. For Schrage the evidence lies in both Luke and Acts, and he begins literally at the end, with the last word of Acts (“unhindered”; 28:31) signifying the way in which “Luke is quite concerned to prove that the Christian religion does not represent any danger to the state” (157). As should be evident by now, it matters significantly how one reads and interprets the text; and here Schrage takes what supports his thesis as authentic, of the plain sense, and explains away or qualifies what does not.

An example of this procedure is his deeply anachronistic and naive account of John the Baptist and Roman soldiers, commenting that this scene indicates “there is no conflict in principle between faith and military service, and indeed implies a fundamental loyalty” (157). Immediately thereafter, however, the statement in Luke 4:5-6 that “Satan has power over all the kingdoms of the world” is explicitly reinterpreted so as “not to be misunderstood as suggesting that the state is satanic.” But what if Rome does not have such an able expositor in its ranks? Caesar just might (however strangely) find himself threatened by trans-regional followers of an executed rebel called Kyrios, who proclaimed a basileia theou over against all other basileiai—the latter of which, incidentally, this rebel claimed to be ruled by a demonic spiritual power!

Why, one is compelled to ask, is Schrage so committed to an apolitical Jesus? It is possible that this is merely a consequence of his a priori conviction that the earthly Jesus is not normative for Christian ethics, and therefore there are no other available options. However, it could also be the inverse: that insofar as Jesus remains apolitical, just so he must not and cannot be normative for Christian imitation. But what if this false image of a docetic Jesus is shattered? What if the man Jesus, hailing from Nazareth, was flesh and blood, constituted socially and politically by his community, commitments, convictions, practices, family, and impinging structures of civil and religious power? What if the incarnate Word of God lived a sociopolitical life indistinguishable from our own after him except by (humanly common) particularities of time, place, and ethnic makeup? The answer seems clear, though it is not Schrage’s: this Word made flesh would be—and to this day would remain—normative for human life seeking to be faithful to his way in the world.

We can best conclude explication of Schrage’s unfortunately conceived apolitical Jesus—and the consequences for Christian ethics—by returning to the issue of violence. In this case, however, it is not the general subject in question, but the possibility of Jesus’ having been tempted to employ it for his own ends. Legitimately concerned not to make of Jesus a violent revolutionary, Schrage calls the notion “dubious” and “doubtful” that Jesus may have been tempted by revolutionary violence or that “a specifically messianic temptation” arises in his ministry (109). To be sure, it is “beyond doubt that Jesus rejected Zealot extremism” (110)—but is this the same as to say he was not tempted by it? Moreover, Schrage’s most unreserved affirmations of Jesus’ rejection of the sword—in Matthew 26:52 and 5:39, respectively—he swiftly writes out of the historical record (and therefore out of the authoritative canon) by claiming they “can hardly go back to Jesus” (110) and “probably derive from Matthew” (111). And so we end where we began: while Jesus’ words “refuse to let anyone answer . . . violence with violence,” nonetheless “they do not imply . . . fundamental nonviolence” (111). From a nonnormative, apolitical, reconstructed historical Jesus, could we expect anything less?

Wolfgang Schrage’s book is not bad; it is merely a hostage to self-sabotage before the first chapter begins. A clarified methodology, a more robust treatment of the normativity of Jesus as incarnate Word and crucified Messiah, and a less simplistic treatment of violence vis-à-vis the “law of love” would have greatly enhanced its impact as an ethical reading of the New Testament.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Edward Hoagland on the Multifarious Joys of Creation

"I never totaled a car (machines may not have interested me enough) or broke my bones, and had an upbeat view of life, experiencing the kindness of many strangers when I hitchhiked, for instance. I speculated as to what the anthropological purpose could be of the brimming, broad-gauge affection people like me felt when watching a wriggling tadpole or clouds wreathing a massif—sights that have no reproductive or nutritional aspect. Call it 'biophilia' or agape; it wasn’t in response to a hunter’s blunt hunger, or kinship-protective, or sexual in some way. Was it a religious wellspring, then? Silence and solitude are fertile if the aptitude is there, and love in its wider applications is also, I think, an aptitude, like the capacity for romantic love, indeed—stilling for a few minutes the chatterbox in us. That massif wreathed in clouds, or the modest pond that has been left in peace to breed its toads, is not a godhead. Like sparks flung out, each perhaps is evidence instead (as are our empathy and exuberance), but not a locus. And yet a link seems to need to take hold somewhere around nine, ten, or eleven—about Mowgli’s age, in Kipling—between the onset of one’s ability to marinate in the spices of solitude, in other words, and puberty, when the emphasis will shift to contact sports, or dress and other sexual ploys and fantasies or calculations. . . .

"I loved metropolises and saw no conflict between exulting in their magnetism and in wild places. Human nature is interstitial with nature and not to be shunned by a naturalist. This accidental ambidexterity enriched my traveling because I enjoyed landing and staying awhile in London on the way to Africa, or exploring Bombay and Calcutta en route to Coimbatore or Dibrugarh. Didn’t just want to hurry on to a tribal or wildlife wilderness area without first poking around in these great cities, which I rejoiced in as much. Although there are now far too many people for nature to digest, we are all going to go down together, I believe. We are part and parcel of it, and as it sickens so will we.

"In the meantime, joy is joy . . .

"Awe is not a word much used lately, sounding primitive, like kerosene lamps. What’s to be awed about—is this the Three Wise Men following the Star?—what hasn’t been explained? Actually, I don’t know what has been explained. If we are told, for example, that 99 percent of our genes are similar to those of a mouse, does that explain anything? Apprehension, disillusion, disorientation, selfishness, lust, irony, envy, greed, and even self-sacrifice are commonplace: but awe? Society is not annealed enough. Trust and continuity and leadership are deteriorating, and the problem when you are alone is the clutter. Finding even a sight line outdoors without buildings, pavement, people, is a task, and we’re not awed by other people anymore: too much of a good thing. We need to glimpse a portion of the axle, the undercarriage, of what it’s all about. And mountains (an axis, if not an axle) are harder to be glib about than technological news reports. But if you wait until your mature years to get to know a patch of countryside thoroughly or intimately, your responses may be generic, not specific—just curiosity and good intentions—and you will wind up going in for golf and tennis and power mowers, bypassing nature, instead. . . .

"You may prefer the ubiquity of electricity to seeing fields of stars after dark, but losing constellation after constellation in the night, and countless water meadows along uncontoured rivers, and bushy-tailed horizons, may be a titanic change. Our motors similarly wipe out the buzz and songs of insects, birds, the sibilation of the breezes that hunters used to front, always stalking into the wind and studying the folds of the terrain for how it flowed, because meals were won by knowing the intimacies of the wind. To lose moonlight, and compass placement, and grasshoppers telling us the temperature by the intensity of their sound, poses the question of whether we can safely do away with everything else. The ecology of solitary confinement on this planet may be calamitous: not to mention the sadness. To assuage the emotional effects, already one notices an explosion of plant nurseries, pet stores, computer-simulated androids, and television animations. We’ve boarded up our windows so as to live interiorly with just our own inventions—though sensing too that we are in the grip of a slow, systemic illness, somehow pervasive—as meanwhile chimpanzees are being eaten up wholesale in Africa as 'bushmeat,' the elephants butchered, the lions poisoned. . . .

"Nature throbs in us through our digestive gases, sweaty odors, wrist pulse, unruly penis or bloody vulva, and nervy tics. We flinch, gasp, fuck, cluck, grin, blink, panic, run, fight, sleep, wake, and wolf a meal like animals. Our official seven deadly sins are rather animal, too, and so is bliss, I think: not only lust but that out-of-body happiness you may feel when being quite still, yet aware and self-contained. Nature is continuity with a matrix and not about causing a stir in the world, and as we destroy our links to other forms of life, it's like whittling at our heels and shins and toes. You can do it for a while until you cut a tendon, nick a bone, and find you limp. And we've now done that. . . .

"Glee is not complacency—in the middle of a roaring city it may seize you—and I think of it as possibly generated at life's origins, like a filament from, or footprint of, that original kick. Nature seems more than Evolution, punctuated or otherwise, and the Creationists may be onto something when they insist that it is an effusion of God's glory. Their god isn't mine, but glee may be a shard of divinity. . . .

"We reach for where we came from, our older folk a bit homesick: the nights not being starry anymore and distances not quite real. Is there anything untoward that we don't take a pill or press a button for? Nature envelops us, nonetheless, in the piquancy of cottage cheese, the giggle of thunder in the next county. Our lewdness and acquisitiveness bray to prove how recidivist we are, still with our feet in the primal muck. I love alone at the moment, and would smell piquant after a stroke, if I weren't discovered immediately. Nor, when I laugh, do I feel in the twenty-first century—I could be Babylonian. And my rapport with friends is more a refinement of ancient habituations than contemporary. Nature, when abused, may react eventually like a tiger whose tail has been pulled. We shall see, indeed, if that is the case. We will definitively find out. But in the meantime we live like those amphibians: sometimes on the dry beach of modernity and sometimes swimming in the oceans that were here eternally before."

—Edward Hoagland, Sex and the River Styx (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2011), 12, 13, 15-16, 21-22, 24, 28-29, 31

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Reflections on the Gospel of Matthew: The Parable/Allegory of the Ten Virgins in Matthew 25:1-13 (With a Glance at a Thoughtful Article)

The parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25:1-13 is a remarkable literary construction, resonant with echoes and intertextual allusions in both directions of the Gospel’s narrative. A fairly straightforward exhortation to watchfulness, the parable functions in its context to emphasize through story what Jesus has just previously been communicating by direct address, namely, that the community of discipleship must be ready and alert for his (perhaps delayed, yet no less imminent) great and terrible coming. After offering my own reading of the passage, I will turn to a scholarly article to see what another pair of interpretive eyes discovers in it.

First, the wider literary context. Matthew 21:1-11 marks the decisive entry of Jesus the (potential) messianic figure and (perhaps) heir of David into Jerusalem, climaxing immediately in his cleansing of the temple (vv. 1-17) and cursing of the fig tree (vv. 18-22). From then on come the focused time of challenges brought to Jesus the (would-be) teacher of Torah, and he responds in pithy trap-escapes and subversive parables (21:23–22:46). Chapter 23 contains Jesus’ brutal polemical takedown of the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees—in a real sense, the climax of Matthew’s own sustained polemic throughout the Gospel—which then leads directly into Matthew’s version of the “Synoptic Apocalypse” (24:1-51) and Jesus’ subsequent eschatological parables (25:1-46). What follows is the beginning of the end: Jesus’ final prediction of his crucifixion (26:1-2), the simultaneous finalization of the plot to kill him (vv. 3-5), the anointing for his burial at Bethany (vv. 6-13), and Judas’ betrayal (vv. 14-16). The cross which has loomed for so long over Jesus’ path finally comes into view.

Note especially the difference of audience between the polemic against hypocrisy and the eschatological discourse: in the former, Jesus is speaking “to the crowds and to his disciples” (23:1), whereas in the latter Matthew specifies that “the disciples came to him privately” with questions about the time and “sign of [his] coming and of the end of the age” (24:3). In short, all that Jesus has to reveal about the details of his Parousia and the Eschaton is strictly insider knowledge, shared with and for the disciples and no others.

The parable itself is fairly transparent. The disciples—and therefore the community of discipleship after them that is Matthew’s audience—are to be like those wise virgins who, dutifully and expectantly awaiting the coming of the bridegroom, prepared sufficiently for a delay in his arrival, such that when he tarried they had enough oil to keep their lamps burning. Unlike the virgins who had to go buy oil, they did not miss the bridegroom but went with him into the wedding banquet, whose door is thereafter closed to the foolishly unprepared virgins. As Jesus sums it up: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (25:13).

The parable is, first of all, positively bathed in sapiential language and themes. Apart from clear allusions to Israel’s canonical wisdom literature (note the similarities between 25:8, “The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out,’” and Prov. 13:9, “The light of the righteous rejoices, but the lamp of the wicked goes out,” as well as Job 18:5, “Surely the light of the wicked is put out, and the flame of their fire does not shine”), the passage serves also as a kind of final gathering place of the various wisdom sayings and gestures throughout the Gospel. In 11:19, Jesus rebuts the accusations against him as being demon-possessed or a drunkard by saying that “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds,” and goes on just a chapter later to claim that “the wisdom of Solomon” drew foreign royalty to come see him, “and see, something greater than Solomon is here!” (12:42). Moreover, in his visit to Nazareth he is recognized—albeit with resentment—by his “wisdom and . . . deeds of power” (13:54).

Jesus had much also to say about wisdom (and foolishness) in relation to his disciples. The programmatic set-up for the Gospel as a whole is found in the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus pronounces whoever “hears these words of mine and acts on them” to be “like a wise man” (7:24), whereas whoever “hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man” (v. 26). Furthermore, in his sending of the Twelve, Jesus calls on his disciples to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (10:16). Fittingly, Jesus reserves the bitter (and forbidden!—cf. 5:22) title of “fool” (moroi) for the scribes and Pharisees (23:17).

Two suggestive word plays are worth noting. Early in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus calls his disciples “the salt of the earth,” but laments the loss of its taste. The word Matthew uses (moranthe), however, can also mean to become foolish or a fool, so that we might be led to hear from Jesus that for the salt of the earth to lose its taste translates as the disciples losing their wisdom and becoming foolish. But just what marks the wise (phronimos) character of Jesus and his gospel, after all? It is nothing less than the cross, as Paul discerned, unlike Peter—whose rebuke of Jesus’ first prediction of his suffering death is, according to Jesus’ response, the result of Peter “setting [his] mind [phroneis] not on divine things but on human things” (16:23).

In any case, like so many of the crucial gravitational passages that mark the high points of Matthew’s narrative, the parable of the ten virgins serves both to elucidate its immediate context and to encapsulate the paradigmatic vision of the kingdom as set forth in the Sermon on the Mount. Thus, on the one hand, at the conclusion to the parable (25:13) Jesus repeats verbatim his command in 24:42 to “Keep awake therefore” (gregoreite oun), not only recapitulating his message in 24:36-44, but also foreshadowing ominously the disciples’ inability to stay awake and alert in Gethsemane (26:36-46). On the other hand, just as Jesus promises in the Sermon that “for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (7:8), the disciples here have already knocked and so must be not only ready but faithful in “[doing] the will of my Father in heaven” (7:21; cf. 25:14-46). For “[n]ot everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (7:21), foreshadowing the foolish virgins begging, “Lord, Lord, open to us” (25:11). Jesus’ question then stands as a haunting but unmistakable charge: “Who then is the faithful and wise [phronimos] slave, whom his master [kyrios] has put in charge of his household?” (24:45).

In an article written more than three and a half decades ago (“The Allegory of the Ten Virgins [Matt 25:1-13] as a Summary of Matthean Theology,” Journal of Biblical Literature 93 [1974], 415-28), Karl Paul Donfried offers a succinct but masterful reading of this passage. His approach is methodologically precise: following Quentin Quesnell, he takes up the text through five stages: alone unto itself; in its immediate discursive context (chapters 23–25); in the context of the entire Gospel; in the context of the New Testament writings; and in its immediate cultural and religious context (p. 416). In doing so, he offers a vigorous interpretation of the passage, but one no less scholarly for that.

Much of Donfried’s analysis is a simple demonstration of why a “naked” reading (like that offered above), however beneficial, is not always sufficient to the task. His first point is at once the most simple and the most opaque to my original reading: according to Donfried, this pericope is not a parable but an allegory (pp. 418-19). I simply took it at face value that an analogical narrative told by Jesus just is a parable; yet this has been a hot topic for discussion in Matthean scholarship for decades. This fact renders a “straightforward” interpretation highly problematic.

I caught most of the connections between the allegory and its place in the last of Jesus’ five teaching discourses, such as watchfulness, faithfulness, separation, eschatological judgment, and the like (pp. 420-21), and Donfried similarly finds thematic mirroring between this, the last discourse, and the first (i.e., the Sermon on the Mount; pp. 422-23). One seemingly obvious link that I somehow missed which Donfried helpfully notes is what Jesus has to say in 5:14-16 about lighting a lamp and letting it shine before others, defining the light directly as “good works,” thus hinting at this early literary moment what the allegorical “oil” to come is meant to signify.

After demonstrating from elsewhere in Matthew how the bridegroom is definitively identified with Jesus—a point I took for granted—Donfried goes on to make the first of his three most pressing points: that the sleeping and rising of the awaiting maidens is nothing less than “the death and resurrection of the virgins” (p. 425). Taking the allegory seriously, the use of these terms elsewhere in Matthew combined with analysis of his redactional habits leads to no other conclusion. Though Donfried does neglect the connection to the scene of the sleeping disciples in Gethsemane, his reading is enhanced by the next point, taken from comparison with the rest of the New Testament, that “the church is the parthenos which meets her bridegroom at the wedding banquet,” the term on the whole, “just as in Paul, refer[ring] to all Christians in the interval before the marriage which will occur when Christ returns at the parousia” (p. 426).

Finally, the remaining mystery of the allegory of the ten virgins is the intended referent for the mysterious “oil” so central to the brief tale’s plot. Donfried provisionally suggests reading it as the “good works” of the light to be shone before others in 5:16, but waits for confirmation in the form of “external identification . . . which would be congruent . . . with the general religious environment in which Matthew’s Gospel was written,” which indeed is exactly what he finds (p. 427). For “in the Midrash Rabbah to Numbers,” it there “comments that” “the phrase ‘mingled with oil’ in Num 7:19 . . . ‘alludes to the Torah, the study of which must be mingled with good deeds, in accordance with that which we have learned.’” Thus the oil ends up making perfect literary and thematic sense in its use, as the public moral rectitude of the to-be-resurrected church living faithfully as a community of discipleship in the interim between Jesus’ comings.

Donfried happily proves that biblical scholarship need not be stiff or one-note, but can instead be generative, focused, and open-minded while attentive to text and context, interpretation and history. Though his reading does not close off others, much less decide the correct ascription of genre once for all, any Christian reading of this passage -- that is, of the parable/allegory of the ten virgins -- would benefit enormously from his article.