Theme of the Book
- Dear Prof. Allison,
Understanding from your remarks so far that publication of this
prospective work may not be imminent, I wonder if you would comment
on the relationship between the material you've given us and the
theme of the book, as suggested by the purported prospective title
_Secularizing Jesus_. Is it the argument of the book that one
_should_ "secularize Jesus" or that one should not, and what would
that mean in any event?
Mt. Clemens, MI
The Coptic Gospel of Thomas, saying-by-saying
- Dear Mike:
You ask about the relationship between the material you are reading and the title of the book. Well, since I'm still developing the book--again, you're looking at very rough chapters--I'm not sure. The publisher told me that Jesus was a sufficient organizing principle for my book, which tentatively looks like this:
1. The Secularizing of Jesus
2. Jesus, Torah, and Conflicting Imperatives
3. Jesus and his Audiences
4. Jesus and Gehenna
5. The Apocalyptic Jesus as Apologetical Aid and Theological Problem.
I'm also tinkering with adding a chapter tentatively entitled on Resurrecting Jesus, which would be in part a response to Tom Wright's new book, which I've looked at (although I don't wish to respond to questions about that in this forum because I'm still trying to figure out what I might say). There will also be an excursus on the poet Shelley, arguing that in several fascinating respects he anticipates some modern criticism.
In any case, the title of the book comes from the first essay, which is an overview of recent generalizations about Jesus research. I do several things here, including argue that there is no such thing as the third quest. Since none of the descriptions of it make sense, there is no it there. Anyway, having argued that the usual generalizations are faulty, I then try to make a very small one of my own. It arises from the fact that I have noticed, in the last fifteen or so years, use of a word to describe Jesus or some item in the tradition that I do not think can be found in the literature with reference to Jesus before very recent times. It is the word "secular." This leads me then to reflections of what I call the secularizing of Jesus. By this I do not mean that non-religious publishers now give us books on Jesus and that presumably they garner readers from outside the church. Nor do I mean that nonChristians now contribute to our discussions, although that is happily true enough. What I mean rather is this, that many texts which have, for two thousand years, invariably received explicitly religious interpretations, do so no longer. In other words, they are now sometimes given diminished theological content or no theological content at all. Some samples from the article of the sort of thing I'm interested in here:
1. On p. 287 of Robert Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels, Jesus is called a "secular sage" who used "secular proverbs," and on p. 201 we read that in debate his "responses were more secular than legal in character."
2. The parable of the sower recounts the four different fates of seeds that fall in different places. The allegorical interpretation that accompanies the parable in the synoptics turns the narrative into a lesson about preaching the gospel. In stark contrast to this theological understanding, Charles Hedrick, Parables as Poetic Fictions, has argued that our parable, which fails to remark upon the farmer's plowing or God's intervention, "tends to subvert a religious view of the natural processes, a view that looks to God as the source of the blessings and the curses of nature, a view that sacramentalizes the cosmos" (p. 177). Indeed, "because of its secularity and its tacit failure to acknowledge God's sovereignty over nature and to insist on the fulfillment of an individual's holy obligations to God in order to ensure the harvest, the story resonates with impiety. Hence the story subverts the faith of Israel by challenging its fictive view of reality." (p. 185). For Hedrick, Jesus' parable actually opposes the Shema (Deut 11:13-21), which promises divine intervention to make crops prosper if one wholeheartedly loves and serves God.
3. In Matthew and Luke, the parable of the unexpected burglar functions as a warning to watch for Jesus' eschatological return (so too Paul in 1 Thessalonians). The Jesus Seminar, however, does not attribute an apocalyptic eschatology to Jesus, so its conclusion is this: "The root metaphor itself in [Luke 12] v. 39 could have come from Jesus but it would have been understood on his lips in a secular sense" (Five Gospels, p. 542). What that sense might have been they don't tell us.
4. The parable of the wheat and weeds is, in Matthew, about the last judgment. This is made plain in the allegorical interpretation of Matt 13:36:43: "The one who sows the good seed is the Son of man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age . . . ." If one sets aside this allegory, however, other interpretations become possible. Among them is the recent proposal of R. David Kaylor: the parable is "a social critique of the patterns of land tenure developed during the period immediately prior to Jesus' lifetime" (Jesus the Prophet, p. 143).
5. The parable of the tenants of the vineyard is about a man who plants a vineyard and then leases it to tenants. Later he sends for his portion of the produce. The tenants ignore his requests and mistreat the messengers. Finally, the owner returns, destroys the tenants, and gives the vineyard to others. In the canonical gospels, this story is an allegory about faithlessness and judgment, and Christian readers have traditionally understood the householder to stand for God, the tenant farmers to stand for Jewish leaders, the rejection of the servants to stand for the rejection of prophets, etc. Yet some now suppose that these equations were not implicit in the original parable, and in fact that the theological focus may be ecclesiastical overlay. According to Bruce J. Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, for example, "If at the earliest stage of the gospel tradition the parable embedded here was not a riposte to enemies in Jerusalem, it may well have been a warning to landowners expropriating and exporting the produce of the land" (Social Science Commentary, p. 164).
6. Within in Matthean and Lukan contexts, the parable of the hidden talents is filled with transparent religious symbols. The master is Jesus. His slaves represent the church, whose members have received various responsibilities. The master's departure is the departure of the earthly Jesus. The period of the master's absence is the age of the church, his return is the parousia of the Son of man, and the rewards for the good servants stand for heavenly rewards given to the faithful at the great assize whereas the punishment of the evil slave represents those within the church who, through their sins of omission, condemn themselves to eschatological darkness. Scholars have long thought that Jesus, if he authored the parable, must have meant something a bit different; and recently William R. Herzog II has proposed that originally the parable praised the third servant, the one who hides his talent, because he does not participate in the exploitation of the economic system. For Herzog, hearers of this parable might have asked these questions: "How would you react to a whistle-blower? Would a former retainer find a welcome in a peasant village? Or would the former hostilities suffocate even the possibility of a latter-day coalition? Do the people of the land realize the role played by retainers? Do they understand how their bitter animosity toward them plays into the hands of the ruling elite? Can peasants and rural poor folks realize how their interests can be tied to the very class of people whom they despise?" (Parables as Subversive Speech, pp. 167-68).
7. In Matt 10:26 and Luke 12:2, Jesus says that nothing which is covered up will not be uncovered, and that nothing which is secret will not become known. Most commentators find in these words a somber allusion to the final judgment, when all will come to light. Burton Mack agrees that this is the right reading for the second level of Q. But for the primary level he declares that the saying was far less loaded: it was "general cautionary advice" (Lost Gospel, p. 166).
8. Often in the gospels Jesus refers to himself as "the Son of man." Traditionally most Christians have understood this in terms of the incarnation: Jesus was not only the Son of God but also a true human being. Until recently most modern scholarship preferred instead to interpret the expression as being either a title from Jewish eschatological expectation (cf. the Son of man 1 Enoch) or an allusion to Daniel 7 and the eschatological vindication of the saints. On both readings the term is full of religious connotations. At present, however, a large body of contemporary scholars has argued that, at least for Jesus himself, the expression may have been nothing more than a common Aramaic idiom, a roundabout way of speaking about oneself. In other words, in and of itself the expression had no theological meaning.
I think that the all of this material shows a trend. As one would expect in an increasingly secular age, in which transcendent realities are for so many distant or even altogether illusory, there is an increasing number of what may be fairly called secular readings of some gospel texts. This is not to imply that the proponents of those interpretations are not themselves religious, only that they are sometimes forwarding interpretations that shift the focus away from traditional theological, christological, and eschatological concerns.
Now it is always possible that, just as modernity has in other ways brought us new knowledge about the past, so here too; and maybe some of the interpretations I've referred to are correct. Maybe our more secular outlook and the ever-diminishing influence of traditional ecclesiastical readings are helping us to see things others our predecessor were blind to, such as ancient economic realities. I in fact think this is the case. Certainly we have often thought of religion as an isolated thing, separate from economics, politics, etc. It wasn't. At the same time, one must wonder how often we are once again looking at our own reflections in the bottom of the well of history. Do we see less theology than earlier exegetes because we are today less theological? Do not secular readers make for secular readings? If so, how does this affect the quest of the historical Jesus?
The earliest extant interpretations of the Jesus tradition are all what I would call thoroughly religious. This is because the first interpreters were all consumed by thoughts about the invisible God, miracles, and eschatology. One good explanation of this circumstance is that Jesus himself was just such a person, that he was a deeply religious personality who interpreted everything in terms of an unseen world, and that he and the traditions about him attracted like-minded others. I think that maybe our growing secularity may sometimes make us see something or someone else. Does this make sense?
To return then Mike to your questions of whether I'm suggesting that we secularize Jesus or that we don't secularize him, I'm simply warning that we not too quickly read ourselves into him; that will just repeat the mistakes of the past.