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mark-exegesis

I remember a few years ago I watched the movie The Machinist, starring Christian Bale. I thought it explored some interesting issues, and I later went online to see what people were saying about it. I encountered one online forum in which someone suggested that he had found a mistake in the film: the clock appeared to be showing exactly the same time at different times of day in the film. Now, the observation was correct, but the assertion that it was a mistake betrayed the fact that this person had missed what the film was trying to do with that motif: the viewer was supposed to be provoked by this apparent problem to look deeper into what was happening within the movie.

I think the same thing can happen with the Bible. I’m currently thinking about Mark’s interaction with the Syrophoenician woman, and pondering why Mark includes this episode. Here are some of the numerous questions I’m currently thinking about:

  • Why did Jesus go to Tyre in the first place? To get a break? But he already knew there were people in this region who were interested in him (3:6-12) To reach the Gentiles? But he had already done this decisively in the Decapolis (5:1). Because of an impulse to follow the ministries of Elijah/Elisha? If so, why? To escape Herod Antipas?
  • Why does Jesus initially rebuff the woman? Because he is not convinced that it is time to go to the ‘unclean’ Gentiles? But he has already intentionally gone to the uncleanest unclean Gentile imaginable – a bleeding, grave-dwelling, pig-lover in the Decapolis! And he willingly cleansed him. Is it because he can’t imagine opening his healing ministry to the child of a Canaanite woman? But this would not have been a shocking thing for a Jew: Elijah had done exactly this in exactly the same area – a fact which Jesus elsewhere explicitly approves at the beginning of his ministry (Luke 4:25-26). Is it in order to engender a response that he wishes to hear? If so, why?
  • Why mention that when Jesus leaves Tyre, he goes to the Sea of Galilee via Sidon? This is clearly the complete wrong direction.

I have a few hunches about some of these questions, but I’m still thinking them through. I had a browse online to see what other people are saying, and I found some similar comments to those I found about The Machinist: ‘Aha! Mark has made a mistake! He thinks Sidon is on the way to the Sea of Galilee!’ But as a master storyteller, couldn’t it be that Mark is doing something similar to the director of that movie? Perhaps he’s provoking the reader, causing us to ask, ‘What, why go to this classic Gentile duo of Tyre and Sidon??’ It might be that by paying attention to apparent anomalies like these that we will attune ourselves to what Mark wants us to see in Jesus’ ministry.

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Why is the religious dimension so often excluded from the academic study of religious texts? I’ve just read a chapter by Roland Deines, in which this issue is explored. In a volume devoted to the Hebrew Bible, Deines takes the example of the emergence of the New Testament writings (particularly Paul) to show that it is possible for religiously authoritative writings to arise not from established institutional hierarchy (at the time that Paul’s letters were received, he lacked the saintly authority that would later be ascribed to him), but rather from a widely believed experience of personal divine revelation. Deines suggests that the same sort of model provides a useful and persuasive account of the emergence of much of the Hebrew Bible. He writes:

It is therefore ultimately much more likely and in line with what the texts themselves claim that at their core stands an “inspired” individual rather than a professional clerk, scribe, bureaucrat, or other religious functionary. This person formulated the essence of what he saw, heard, or otherwise experienced as divine disclosure with the rhetorical and literary means within his reach. Most likely these would have included certain preconceptions based on the already available prophetic traditions, which might have helped and formed to a certain degree the recording of what was revealed. Historians of religion need not appreciate or regard these divine encounters as binding in any way, but they would do well to adopt a certain readiness to consider them… (315)

The chapter is: Roland Deines, ‘Revelatory Experiences as the Beginning of Scripture: Paul’s Letters and the Prophets in the Hebrew Bible,’ in Cana Werman (ed.), From Author to Copyist: Essays on the Composition, Redaction, and Transmission of the Hebrew Bible in Honor of Zipi Talshir (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2015), 303-336. You can find the book here.

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Of course, you can do it in other languages too! – But what I mean is that it’s best to either do Greek exegesis properly (i.e. sticking in the Greek text), or else English exegesis properly (i.e. using English translations), than to do English exegesis + ‘deeper’ insights from Logos.

I’ll be teaching Greek exegesis of 1 Cor and English exegesis of 1 Cor next semester (as separate classes), and so I’ve been thinking a bit about this. I’ve had students in the past who have tried to do English exegesis + insights on the ‘deeper’ significance of the words, by hovering their cursor over each word of the Greek text in their Bible software. Given that these are people who haven’t successfully studied, or kept up, their Greek, this invariably results in misunderstanding. For example, on one occasion, a student based a key point of their exegesis on the significance of a particular preposition, which ‘all of the commentators missed’… the only problem was that the student had not recognised that in context, this preposition could not mean what they thought it meant. Logos had offered a series of standard possible glosses for the preposition, from which the student had chosen their favourite. But if you don’t understand the language, you won’t understand how the words actually function in relation to each other.

Better to trust that there are a number of good English translations, and to work from the text as they present it. There’s a lot of scope for good analysis of a translated text. Of course, you can still consider the insights from commentators who comment on the Greek text, but my opinion is that those doing English exegesis should be confident that it is possible to do English exegesis well (despite a few shortcomings), and those doing Greek exegesis should work directly with the Greek text, rather than translating it and then working from their translation.

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Today I received my hot-off-the-press copies of All That the Prophets Have Declared: The Appropriation of Scripture in the Emergence of Christianity. As well as my introduction and conclusion, the book has twelve chapters, by various contributors. So over the next couple of weeks, I’ll give snippets from my conclusion to the book, in which I talk about each of the chapters. Note that the conclusion itself has a particular aim in mind, so it doesn’t try to give a full summary of each chapter; it just points to things in each chapter that connect with the central thread of the book. So there’s a lot more to discover in each chapter besides what you’ll see here – including some genuinely fresh contributions to exegetical debate. So anyway, here’s the section of the conclusion in which I discuss Larry Hurtado’s opening chapter:

The volume opens with a substantial study by Larry Hurtado, immediately drawing our attention to case studies of the appropriation of Scripture in earliest Christianity. Hurtado argues that the earliest Christians’ sudden novel interpretations of their scriptures occur in response to christological convictions that arise from their experiences – especially visions of the risen Jesus. He suggests that the New Testament readings of these key texts can by no means be explained with reference to standard methods or interpretations prior to Christ. He uses such terms as ‘innovative’, ‘remarkable’, ‘novel’, ‘creative’, and ‘astonishing’ to describe early Christian reading, concluding that it is not only radical in relation to contemporary interpretation, but that at times it clearly ‘exceeds’ any original meaning of the source text. It is important to Hurtado to note that this radical re-reading of Scripture does not emerge at the end of a long evolutionary process, but as early as can be traced or conceived, being already assumed as traditional in Paul’s letters from the fifties CE. (p202)

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Stanley Porter surveys approaches to theological interpretation by Joel Green, Daniel Treier, Stephen Fowl, and Todd Billings. He finds that across these contributions, there is general dissatisfaction with historical criticism, high esteem for pre-critical interpretation (especially as seen in the ‘rule of faith’), significant regard for the church as interpretative community, acknowledgement of the role of the Holy Spirit, and divided opinion on whether ‘theological interpretation’ is actually a method, and how it relates to general hermeneutics.[1] He finds a lack of hermeneutical clarity and linguistic precision in a number of the works under consideration, and brings to the foreground the question of whether ‘theological interpretation’ is in fact a coherent and sufficient hermeneutical model. His answer is ultimately in the negative.

While expressing sympathy with the movement’s critiques of historical criticism, Porter finds that in practice, proponents are divided on its continuing value for interpretation, and in fact are quite willing to co-opt other non-theological modes of analysis into their interpretative approaches. He finds that the commendation of pre-modern interpretation involves a simplistic grouping together of diverse approaches, which in fact included major interpretative disputes. He is troubled by the attempt to see the church as useful control on interpretative practices, because the church is patently marked by rich diversity. He finds discussions of the role of the Holy Spirit to be lip service rather than offering anything substantial.

Porter concludes that the authors he has surveyed do not promote a robust hermeneutic, although they do each (whether intentionally or not) present somewhat eclectic methods of interpretation. Elsewhere, Porter sharply distinguishes the ‘theological interpretation’ that he has critiqued above from ‘theological hermeneutics,’ which he regards as the philosophically informed attempt to discern a robust hermeneutical model that coheres with the Christian theological tradition. He sees this enterprise as exemplified in the work of Anthony Thiselton.[2]

[1] Stanley E. Porter, ‘What Exactly is Theological Interpretation of Scripture, and is it Hermeneutically Robust Enough for the Task to Which it has been Appointed?’ in Stanley E. Porter and Matthew R. Malcolm, Horizons in Hermeneutics: A Festschrift in Honor of Anthony C. Thiselton (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2013), 234-267.

[2] Stanley E. Porter, ‘Biblical Hermeneutics and Theological Responsibility,’ in Stanley E. Porter and Matthew R. Malcolm (eds.), The Future of Biblical Interpretation: Responsible Plurality in Biblical Hermeneutics (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2013), 16-35.

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I just read this article on The Gospel Coalition website, by Andrew Wilson, on the clarity of Scripture. He makes some good points – that Christians are agreed that the Bible teaches the essentials in the Nicene creed, and that according to Jesus, much misunderstanding of the Bible is due to the hardness of heart of the readers, rather than a lack of clarity in the Scriptures.

But I think more could (and perhaps should) be said on this touchy topic. Three things strike me as useful considerations…

1) Jesus also says that sometimes the Word is intentionally resistant. That is, he speaks in parables so that some people will not understand. Certainly, he wants them to be understood by those ‘insiders’ who are given the keys to the kingdom – but this shows that there is more at stake than a simple face-value plainness in the words.

Other parts of the Bible also admit to a lack of clarity – most famously, where 2 Peter says this of things in Paul’s writings. We should be up front that this is part of the data we’re dealing with.

2) Classic formulations of the clarity of scripture ascribe this clarity to the canon as a whole, rather than every individual part. So Augustine says:

Some of the expressions are so obscure as to shroud the meaning in the thickest darkness. And I do not doubt that all this was divinely arranged for the purpose of subduing pride by toil, and of preventing a feeling of satiety in the intellect, which generally holds in small esteem what is discovered without difficulty….

Accordingly the Holy Spirit has, with admirable wisdom and care for our welfare, so arranged the Holy Scriptures as by the plainer passages to satisfy our hunger, and by the more obscure to stimulate our appetite. (On Christian Doctrine, 2.6)

Thomas Aquinas says:

those things that are taught metaphorically in one part of Scripture, in other parts are taught more openly. (Summa, I.q.1.a.9)

The Westminster Confession says:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all (2 Pet. 3:16); yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them (Ps. 119:105, 130). (1.7)

Note that for the Westminster Confession, Scripture as a whole is plain enough for ordinary people to understand salvation. Thus a doctrine of clarity is related not only to the overall stretch of the canon, but also to the subject matter of salvation. Indeed, most of the time when Jesus is indignant at people’s lack of understanding of the Scriptures, it relates to their failure to perceive that at the centre of this subject matter is himself.

3) Multiple interpretations are not necessarily a problem. I’m not saying that multiple interpretations are never a problem, just that they are not always a problem. The article by Wilson says: ‘But whatever the reason [for our disagreements on interpreting Scripture], we can all agree on this: the problem is probably at our end, not God’s.’ But the two most prominent genres of the Bible are narrative and poetry, both of which give some allowance for a plurality of senses, for readers from a plurality of reading contexts. Is It such a problem if we have different senses of Micah 6? Augustine thought that God might very well have put obscure bits in with the happy intention of provoking multiple perspectives, so long as they were kept in check by the rest of the canon!

Anyway, take this as sympathetic conversation with the article, rather than fierce criticism.

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Is this really a solid objection to Christian regard for ancient Scripture? No, for at least three reasons:

1) It is simply not the case that everyone prior to Columbus (or take your pick of any other figure) thought the earth was flat. Plato, in the Timaeus, considers that it is round, Aristotle in On the Heavens, considers that it is round. Aquinas, in the Summa, considers it well known that the earth is round. In fact, it’s hard to find anyone in antiquity who thought the earth was flat.

2) The Bible makes no comment on the topic

3) The logic of this objection is not very weighty: if certain ancient people had some largely unspoken assumptions that later turned out to be false (e.g. that all swans were white), why would that therefore mean that key topics they actually did speak passionately about were also false? Imagine that in 500 years, people are looking back at the year 2015, and casting everything we believe as spurious, simply because we don’t yet know that disembodied travel is a scientific possibility (obviously I made that up). Wouldn’t that make you feel a little indignant? If the point of the clichéd saying is simply that some beliefs from the past have proven to be wrong, who wouldn’t agree with that? We are in tomorrow’s past, and some of our beliefs will also turn out to be wrong. That’s the nature of human finitude. But the Christian claim is that in the midst of human finitude, God has spoken.

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