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Hermeneutical Questions

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  • Davis, Robert C.
    Dear Prof. Allison: Allow me to join with the others in this seminar in expressing thanks to you for your generous contribution of time and energy. No doubt
    Message 1 of 3 , Mar 31 1:29 PM
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      Dear Prof. Allison:

      Allow me to join with the others in this seminar in expressing thanks to you for your generous contribution of time and energy. No doubt you are in the midst of a busy semester yourself, which makes this all the more heroic!

      I would also congratulate you on the depth of scholarship found in the chapters under discussion. Your survey of the history of interpretation is one of the finest I have ever seen, and will become a valuable resource when finally made public. I have also particularly appreciated your honesty concerning your own assumptions and the background you bring to the table as you conduct your work. You have caught a point that seems to have escaped a great many scholars even today: that being that there is no such thing as a "neutral" or even "objective" approach, but that the very fact that a person is doing the work means that all the person him or her self is up to that point is involved in both the construction of the work to be done and in the conclusions to be drawn. More people need to learn this lesson!

      I would like to engage you on a couple of points, if I may, which I will break down by the relevant chapters. Knowing your all too busy schedule, you may comment on what you have time for, if indeed this message is chosen to be forwarded on to you.


      I was particularly interested in your articulation of a hermeneutic by which to approach both the sayings of Jesus and their intended audiences. It immediately reminded me of J. Christiaan Beker's hermeneutical approach in his 1976 book PAUL THE APOSTLE. There, as you will recall, he labeled his own approach as one of "coherence and contingency," so as to show that Paul's basic kerygmatic message was consistent throughout his letters, while at the same time its particular application was informed by the specific situation of the audience itself. [By the way, that book happened to come out at just the time when I had the fortune to study with Beker at Princeton, and so we had the advantage of his further reflections on the various topics he had covered there-fascinating stuff, as you can imagine!]

      I personally find such a hermeneutic to be quite valuable and obviously quite correct, both as applied to Beker's work on Paul and to your own here, if I have understood you correctly. Yet as I think on this, I have not as yet been able to see how such an approach is able to separate out, in the case of Jesus' sayings, which are to be assigned as being directed toward his followers, and which toward unsympathetic listeners. Nor do I see as yet how it would go on to help us decide which sayings were meant for, say, the Twelve alone and which for those of Jesus' larger circle-however that might have been comprised at any particular time.

      To give an example: I am not certain of how this particular hermeneutical approach helps us to decide what of the collected sayings assigned to Matthew's Sermon on the Mount were meant only for the Twelve and which for the larger crowds. If we follow the approach of some previous interpreters and posit that, in essence, the sayings are to be gathered together as elucidations of the two-fold commandment to love God and love neighbor, then such a message would surely be relevant for anyone and everyone listening. [I shall leave aside for the time being the problem of Matthew's artificial construction of that discourse and assume that at least some of the sayings were actually spoken in such a venue.] Indeed, such a grouping would even be relevant for those Jews who had come to gather information with which to trip him up!

      Now, there are some sayings which, as you correctly point out, are set in articulated circumstances which help us to understand the nature of the intended audience: the missionary instructions would be one such set. And there are others which, by the nature of their subject matter, would seem to be similarly particularized-I have in mind here the instructions in Matthew concerning what has come to be called "church discipline," which obviously was intended for followers and not for non-followers. But unless I have missed something, I am not certain that these necessarily function as examples of your stated hermeneutic, at least not beyond the common-sense level of Jesus' needing to address different issues to different people from time to time. And I am not at all certain that there are more than a handful of these which are even indirectly assisted by that hermeneutic.

      Furthermore, in choosing our own hermeneutical approach, it seems to me that we cannot overlook the intended audience of the written gospels themselves. In other words, what was the function of the inclusion of Jesus sayings in Matthew (since I have been discussing him most specifically here) as the author intended them to be heard and appropriated? It would seem to me that the very fact of their inclusion in such a document would of necessity lead us to conclude that the author intended for these sayings to be widely internalized-certainly by those who comprised the Christian community to which the author was writing. I can personally find no hint of particularized application as concerns that particular audience, but rather the opposite: there seems to be something of a universalizing tendency which would apply these prescriptions to everyone who would be cast in the role of a follower of Jesus.

      You made reference, once or twice, to the use of a "history of religions" approach to some of these questions. Let me take up that challenge briefly, if I may: I would suggest that what we seem to see in the vast majority of institutional religions-and certainly the major historical religions-is a tendency to particularize the teachings of the founder/teacher at a later stage of the religion's development, when a higher amount of institutional organization has led to such sub-sets as a priesthood, monastic movement, etc. But these developments would seem to belie-and perhaps even betray!-the original intent of the founder/teacher, whose expression of those teachings was intended for anyone and everyone who wished to know the truth. Indeed, as the truth itself is egalitarian, so it might be said, the appropriate of that truth must be equally so-and probably was in the beginning. Later, however, as the institutionalization of those teachings led to competition among various groups for power, prestige, position, etc., some of the founder/teacher's sayings would be taken up and particularized, as now applying only to the leadership, however that leadership was defined. Thus we have, in Christianity, the development of a priesthood, and later of a monastic movement, both of which were seen to be more spiritual and more perfect expressions of teachings of Jesus than the conventional family person was thought to be capable. In Confucianism we have the development of a civil service, complete with examinations, which particularized the duties of the citizen to those who were chosen specifically for government service. Islam continues to fight the battle of who are the most appropriate inheritors of the Mohammedan line; and finally Buddhism has also particularized the living out of the eight-fold path to those who dwell in monasteries-although some might argue that this has been carried out to a lesser extent than in other religions.

      As applied to the sayings of Jesus, such an approach would seem to suggest that we should see Jesus' own applications of his teachings as being more widespread than was later the case as the institutional priesthood developed, and that failing to find any inherent markers in particular cases which lead us to conclude a more obvious particularization, we should err on the side of egalitarian application where any such question is raised. In saying this, let me hasten to point out that none of this obviates the quite correct statement you make, that there were indeed sayings of Jesus that, in accordance with your stated hermeneutic, were intended for more specific groups. I am only suggesting that these are probably a minority, and that the "coherence/contingency" hermeneutic only confirms what the particularizing markers within the sayings themselves have already told us in those cases.


      First let me say that I fully understand your hesitation in the use of the "A" word! As I am certain we all were, I was thrown into the role of bemused observer of all sorts of "superstition" as the time of the new millennium drew near. And as with all the rest, I got positively sick of it!!!

      However...it has long fascinated me that the gospel authors (and Paul, for that matter!) made such extended use of apocalyptic references in a cultural circumstance in which apocalyptic language was not particularly common. By which I mean that the Hellenism of the Mediterranean world did not especially allow for apocalyptic language as a common part of the intellectual, philosophical, and/or religious parlance of the time. That this was so is easy to see in First Thessalonians, where Paul's own apocalyptic and eschatological claims were substantially misunderstood, thereby leading to Paul's own need to "backtrack" on at least some of what he had previously said. Put simply, for Hellenists this apocalyptic stuff was foreign-sounding, and one has to wonder how many newly baptized Christians found themselves completely at a loss to understand what Paul and the gospel authors were talking about when they heard it.

      This said, what I want to wonder about with you is whether the very usage of such "foreign" terminology in a cultural circumstance where it had no immediate meaningfulness isn't in itself something of a sign that the original use of apocalyptic language needs to be assigned to Jesus himself! If that were true, then the transmitters of the Jesus tradition would have no choice but to include that sort of language as part of their transmission, and more important, the gospel authors and Paul would have had no choice but to include it as part of their own kerygma, even though doing so was bound to complicate things more that it cleared them up.

      Indeed, as I think about it here, Paul's own use of apocalyptic language, to Greek speaking peoples whose intellectual training was based more in Plato and Aristotle, would have to be seen as anachronistic when seen in the light of Beker's "coherence/contingency" hermeneutic. If one applies one's kerygma in particular ways for and to particular groups, then one would certainly have to take the language base of those groups into consideration-and in many ways, Paul did that. But he also threw in a good deal of apocalyptic language, which, if he were being consistent with that sort of hermeneutic, he probably should have left out. The fact that he did not could mean that the kerygma he appropriated from the Jerusalem apostles and perhaps even in Antioch was already apocalyptic oriented, and that this was so because Jesus himself had made use of that sort of language originally. And if this was true of Paul, then it might also be true of the gospel authors, who were similarly ensconced in the Hellenistic cultural milieu. Put simply: none of these authors had any choice, since to subtract the apocalyptic elements attached to Jesus' sayings as they had been transmitted would have been to change the meaning of the sayings themselves!

      The other possibility, of course, is that Jesus himself was not as apocalyptically oriented as this claims him to be, but that the various apocalyptic references were a "veneer" added by the early generations of his Jewish followers as they meditated on what he had taught them from a vantage point that they themselves shared. But then, assuming that Jesus, as a Jew, shared the same cultural and intellectual venue as did they, we must wonder why he would work so hard to leave out a form of language with which his own audiences were familiar, thus forcing his eventual followers to have to put it back in?

      More could easily be said about this, but I don't want to wear out my welcome and put any more pressure on your schedule than is seemingly necessary. So I will leave it at that and close by renewing my thanks to you for consenting to be a part of this discussion.

      Greetings and respects,

      Robert C. Davis
      Associate Professor of Religion
      Division of Humanities
      Pikeville College
      Pikeville, KY.
    • Dale Allison
      Dear Prof. Davis: Thank you very much for your kind comments and thoughtful questions. I ll take things in order: i. You suggest that there is a connection
      Message 2 of 3 , Apr 1, 2003
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        Dear Prof. Davis:

        Thank you very much for your kind comments and thoughtful questions. I'll take things in order:
        i. You suggest that there is a connection between Beker's coherence/contingency approach and some of my suggestions about audience. I'm slow on my feet so will need more time to think this one through. Initially I think that there is something to what you're saying I'm saying, e.g., when I assert that there is only one ethic of Jesus but that there are different demands made upon different people.
        ii. Yet you wonder how we can really figure out, in the case of Jesus' sayings, which might have been directed originally to insidsers, which to outsiders. I haven't gone back to my essay, but I hope I was saying this: internal indicators allow us to assign some plausibly to insiders and some plausibly to outsiders; but there are many we can only guess about. I have not ever thought I could go through the tradition and sort it all, or even most of it. I agree that I don't have any general principles for figuring out what in the sermon on the mount, e.g., goes back to teaching for the inner circle and what does not.
        iii. There are several issues here. One is our picture of Jesus. It does, does it not, make a difference to our reconstruction whether we suppose that he asked absolutely everybody he ran into to get rid of money and property and go about without bread bag or staff? My argument makes Jesus I guess look less radical, because it sees some of the concrete, radical demands aimed only at disciples in the proper sense, not sympathizers in general.
        iv. Another is the issue of the meaning of individual sayings. I like the example of Q 12:8-9, to repeat what I say in the essay. Now I don't know the original audience. But let's say Jesus said it. It means one thing if he said it to the itinerants around him. It's meaning is very different if he uttered it to a crowed with all sorts in it. Problem is, too often we can't feel confident about guessing the original audience. So my essay amounts to issuing caution, to warning that we can't be sure of meanings that presuppose one audience as opposed to another if we can't pin down the audience.
        v. There is a contemporary hermeneutical problem. I agree completely with you, and said plainly, that the gospels expand the meaning of sayings; they seem to suppose that things said to Jesus' coworkers should somehow apply to everyone who believes in Jesus. This is the natural direction of the tradition. The writers imply that we should all be able to get something out of whatever Jesus said. I have no problem with this. Think about the warnings to scribes and Pharisees: these have always communicated something to people who aren't scribes and Pharisees. It's the same with everything else. The original people are all dead. If Jesus speaks, he can't be speaking to his original audience anymore! Everything then must be reinterpretation and reapplication. Ultimately then I think we are, if we want to make use of the gospels, looking for the fundamental impulses--love of God, service of neighbor including enemy, committment to the point of real self-sacrifice, etc. I don't think it makes sense to read Matthew 10 and ask what God or Jesus wants me to do about my sandals (I've got several pairs of shoes; am I breaking scripture by having them?) or about my walking sticks (again I've got several; my kids and I go to Maine each summer and carve big walking sticks; it's never occurred to me in that context to worry about Matthew 10:10). But I suppose by drawing a distinction between demands made of itinerants--you don't have time to bury your father, sell everything you have and follow me--and demands made of others, I'm giving the theologian or preacher some precedent for distinguishing between Jesus' ethics and the concrete, radical demands he sometimes makes in the gospels. The general principles, for want of a better expression, are enough (and tough enough).
        vi. You suggest that the history of religions shows us sometimes a narrowing in application. Well, I don't disagree, but traditions can also do the opposite. That is, sometimes traditions expand application, sometimes they narrow it. In my essay I argued that we see both in the Christian tradition--expansion in the synoptic writers, contraction with the monastic interpretation. It wouldn't be hard I think to document other examples of both. For every Tolstoi who expands everything, there is someone who does the opposite (Dale Allison for one, and the patristic tradition of applying the first two parables in Matthew 25 to church leaders).
        vii. I have no comment on Confucianism, which I don't know well. But--if I may digress--I do recall, many years ago, reading the Analects and thinking about the disciples in Mark. To go back to an earlier email to Ted Weeden, I was wrestling with his book. I think it was my NT professor, David Suter, who suggested one might approach the issue by looking at religious founder literature in general to see how disciples or hearers are typically presented. I think I recall--it's been a long time, so maybe it wasn't the Analects but a Buddhist source--finding disciples who asked dumb questions. The point was to serve as set up for the wise teacher. I've wondered ever since if it wouldn't be helpful for someone to do some comparative stuff here. But--that's off the topic.
        viii. I agree with your final comment on audience-->>there were indeed sayings of Jesus that, in accordance with your stated hermeneutic, were intended for more specific groups. I am only suggesting that these are probably a minority, and that the "coherence/contingency" hermeneutic only confirms what the particularizing markers within the sayings themselves have already told us in those cases.<< I hope I haven't sounded less cautious than this.
        ix. To turn to apocalyptic--why do we all--I include myself--keep using a word that keeps betraying us? Anyway, you suggest that Paul's apocalyptic language did not always suit his audience. You then, if I understand, argue that this shows how firmly embedded--I can't use this word today without thinking of reporters in Iraq!--apocalyptic was in his Christian tradition, which is consistent with it having roots in Jesus; it doesn't look like a veneer. I won't argue againts this. But a few words of caution.
        First, You don't want to draw too strong a line between Jewish apocalyptic and the rest of the Hellenistic world. Stoics could speak of an fiery, earth-ending conflagration. Virgil could do politics in apocalyptic-like imagery. Plato had judges, rewards, and punishments in the afterlife, etc. T. F. Glasson's old book on Greek Influence in Jewish Eschatology is still worth knowing (second time he's come up in this forum).
        Second, I suspect missionaries are often like the rest of us, that is, they may not be wise and may like to hear themselves talk. I'm not here slamming Paul, but I don't see why missionaries couldn't make the mistake of assuming that what makes sense to them should make sense to others. My children do this to me all the time. You don't want to apply the coherence/contingency paradigm everywhere; some people aren't coherent, and some aren't very good at seeing what's appropiate in this or that contingency.
        Third, I can't agree that >>none of these authors had any choice<< with regard to apocalyptic. Seems to me Matthew and Mark in some ways intensified apocalyptic; seems to me Luke in some ways lessened it (although here I want to be very careful; I've never really figured a lot of Luke out; Matthew and Mark are much easier for me). And John certainly does let a lot of it go, doesn't he? Seems to me Thomas also lets a lot go. So I see flexibility, variation, and freedom here.
        Fourth, concerning your point that >>we must wonder why he would work so hard to leave out a form of language with which his own audiences were familiar, thus forcing his eventual followers to have to put it back in?<< you certainly could find nonapocalyptic Jews (Philo and Josephus come to mind). So I wouldn't want to express myself quite this way. What I have argued is that it's significant that nothing in the tradition repudiates the sort of eschatology I've attributed to Jesus--although Steve Patterson would insist that this is precisely what Luke 17:20-22 does. But that's another issue.
        All the best,
      • Dale Allison
        Dear Bob: i. I m honestly puzzled as to why anything I ve said raises the issue of cultural relativism. I m a modern person so I try to be tolerant, and I
        Message 3 of 3 , Apr 2, 2003
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          Dear Bob:

          i. I'm honestly puzzled as to why anything I've said raises the issue of cultural relativism. I'm a modern person so I try to be tolerant, and I suppose I'm a relativist about some things. But I'm not a relativist about everything, and I don't think, e.g., that moral issues are issues of taste. I think that "You shall not bear false witness" is more akin to "2 + 2 = 4" than it is to "I like chocolate ice cream the best" (which I do). You ask, Are there any fundamental impulses which transcend all cultures? Well, for what little it's worth, given that I'm nothing more than a bumbling historian, the answer is: I both hope so and think so. Now what's my justification for that? I don't know how to answer that quickly, or in such a way as to satisfy a skeptic. I suppose my conviction here is the result of a million things thought and experienced and read over the course of a lifetime. I do think, however, that if there isn't some transcendent grounding for some ethical impulses, we can't speak against horrendous evils in ways we all want to speak about them. And because I believe in a Supreme Being, that transcendent ground becomes religious.

          ii. Given who I am, then, I'd have to say that love of God, service of neighbor including enemy, and committment to just causes to the point of real self-sacrifice are fundamental impulses rooted in the transcendent and so in the nature of things.

          iii. Was Jesus just a first century Jew? The cute answer is: We'll just have to ask him when we see him. But the serious answer is: I go to church and recite the creed. Now, I have questions about some parts of the creed and have my doubts about how some of the christological debates went (I would have been rooting for some significant compromises); but I nonetheless live (at least in my own mind) within the tradition. Others may think I've unwittingly forsaken it because some of my views don't harmonize with traditional orthodoxy. But the church hasn't kicked me out.

          iv. In response to your question, In what senses is he still relevant today?, my answer is twofold. First, just look around. Don't ask this question theoretically, but ask it concretely. Just see what people do with Jesus. He is obviously quite relevant to hoards of people (including me). Much of what we see we won't like, but that doesn't change anything. Second, if you want to pursue the issue of ought as opposed to is, I suggest you enlarge the data base: see what people have done with Jesus through the centuries. I take the history of interpretation seriously as the history of revelation. I don't believe in Jesus and me, or the Bible and us. Jesus comes to me through 2,000 years of tradition, and if I'm to think creatively, realistically, and in an informed way about his meaning today, then I must immerse myself in the tradition--only that allows me to see what Jesus has, so to speak, been up to over the centuries. Whatever he's up to now should bear some resemblance to what's he's been doing up to now. Here the philosophy of Ulrich Luz's commentary on Matthew is on target (and everybody should have and study these four volumes if they have any theological interest in the Bible). I would also, if I may modestly, observe that my own little book on the Sermon on the Mount shows the continuing relevance of Jesus' ethical teaching in all sorts of ways. But that hardly is the end of things.

          v. Having said all this, Bob, my guess is that I've missed your point since I still don't see what called it forth. Seems beyond obvious to me that we can't find the relevance of Jesus' teaching in statements about neglecting burial, not taking staffs, or going withou extra shoes but rather in religious and moral principles that have in fact moved from his time and place to many other times and places because they do in fact transcend Jesus' time and place. What am I missing?

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