Campus news piece sent out by email today featured our recently edited book on Mimesis Criticism of the New Testament. Thank you to the most excellent team in Strategic Communications for sharing this publication and those of other faculty!
An inquisitive, contemplative, beloved friend and all-around glorious person recently asked me, “Is it commonly cited in the first commandment, when they say to love the Lord, that they say with your heart, soul, and mind? All three things?”
Simply put, the answer is “sometimes.” 🙂 To be more precise, the answer is “it’s complicated.” 🙂
To explain the earliest history of the so-called First Commandment or Great Commandment, it is important to note three distinct stages.
Stage 1: The Shema in the Hebrew Bible
Deuteronomy 6:4-5, probably written around the late 7th century BCE, is the opening of the Shema. I would translate it as follows:
(6:4) Listen, Israel! YHWH our god, YHWH (is) one. (6:5) You will love YHWH your god with all your heart and with all your life and with all your might.
The words “life” (Hebrew, nefesh) and “might” (Hebrew, meod) are particularly fascinating and important. Often “life” gets translated as “soul,” but this Hebrew term should not be confused with Greek/Platonic notions of an invisible and immortal soul. It is instead the life-force within persons and animals. Meod is often translated as “strength,” but could also be translated as “force” or even “excess.” In Rabbinic interpretation, it was common to read meod as a command to demonstrate love for god with all of one’s financial means.
Stage 2: The Shema in the Septuagint (Hellenistic Jewish Bible)
The translation of the Hebrew Shema into Greek in the Septuagint (created 2nd century BCE) transformed its meaning in certain ways.
(6:4) Listen, Israel! Lord our god, Lord is one. (6:5) And you will love Lord your god with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your power.
The Greek translation of the Hebrew nefesh (“life”) as psyche (“soul”) lends itself to more Greek/Platonic notions of the soul, and the Greek translation of the Hebrew meod (“power/force/excess”) as dunamis (“power/strength/energy/ability”) may narrow its semantic potential and make financial/economic interpretations less likely.
Stage 3: The Great/First Commandment Identified by Jesus in the New Testament
In the Gospel of Mark (12:29-30), written around 70-75 AD/CE, Jesus is quoted as saying that the “first” (prote) commandment is that mentioned at the outset of the Shema:
(12:30) You shall love the lord your god with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your thought and with all your strength.
The text of this commandment is later followed/copied word for word by the Gospel of Matthew (22:37) and Luke (10:27). The word for “strength” here (ischuos) is slightly different than what is found in the Septuagint, but it probably doesn’t transform the meaning very much.
Far more significant is the addition of a fourth term, dianoias, which is typically translated into English as “mind” or “understanding,” but could also be translated as “thought” or “thinking.” Through the expansion of terms from three to four, the New Testament (proto-Christian) version of the Shema becomes more involved, more internalized, more a matter of patterns and habits of thought. In other words, the way we think becomes a way of worshiping, honoring, and loving God.
It should also be said that Matthew and Luke do recontextualize Mark’s quotation, though. Mark has Jesus quote it in response to scribes, but Matthew and Luke make it a response to a “lawyer” or “Torah-expert.” In Matthew, it is described as the “greatest” (not “first”) commandment, whereas in Luke it is not called “first” nor the “greatest” commandment, but is instead simply a response to a question about how to inherit eternal life. In other words, the custom to call this the “First Commandment” comes from Mark, but the custom to call it the “Great/Greatest Commandment” comes from Matthew.
Where has time flown? The last week of the semester is upon us. During the last half of the semester, I participated more in specific discussion threads instead of giving the bird’s eye view that I had during the first part of the semester. Given that, I thought a selection of highlights from my posts would be useful to share.
Luke 11-12: On the Lord’s Prayer
Socratic question: since we have three different versions of Jesus giving instructions about what to say in prayer in early Christianity (in Luke, in Matthew, and in the Didache), is there actually such a thing as “the Lord’s Prayer” in the Bible, or is the idea of “the Lord’s Prayer” a later imposition on the Bible?
Same thing could be said about “the Ten Commandments.” Exodus and Deuteronomy give two different versions. So which one, if any, is the “real Ten Commandments”?
To put it differently, why did later Christian interpreters want to boil down these diverse texts into one definitive “Lord’s Prayer” and one definitive “Ten Commandments”? What does that say about how they saw and used the Bible?
Hint: liturgical/worship and educational interests can overshadow and overdetermine interpretation of the Bible!
Luke 11-12: On Judith and the Fall of Jerusalem
Fascinating connections between Judith to the suffering of Jerusalem. You might be interested in a popular article I wrote about Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds as a kind of modern day Judith. https://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings/seeing-nazis-massacred-followed-humorless-analysis-mark-bilby
Judith and Revelation in the New Testament have quite a bit in common. Revenge fantasies lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, and a call to resistance against imperial rule.
Luke 13-14: Theological and Social Readings
When I read Luke 13:22-30, I read it as a warning against presumption. That theme is very strong in Calvin’s theology. While he says that those predestined to salvation can have assurance, he also stresses that believers should not be presumptuous, and that salvation/election manifests in mortification (self-denial) and good works.
Another way to read the passage is a warning not simply to go along with the crowd.
Yet another way is to read it as a warning to Jesus’ Jewish co-religionists not to assume that their Jewish religious/ethnic standing guaranteed them a place in the eschatological family reunion of God’s people. Gentiles may show themselves more devoted to YHWH than YHWH’s own people.
Lots of possibilities. I wonder if the Jewish/Gentile one is more in keeping with the original context of Luke in its historical context. If so, we should note Calvin’s focus on predestination is itself a profound transformation of the meaning of this passage. My master’s thesis on election and predestination in early Christianity may be helpful here. Early Christian theologians before Augustine saw election and predestination as corporate/ecclesial, not individual. Calvin’s individualistic way of thinking about election and predestination was quite likely a very different way of thinking than what was initially reflected in Luke within its original historical contexts.
Luke 13-14: Individual vs. Communal Interpretations
Ambrose’s interpretation reminds me of the point I made in my reply to another student’s post. Even in ancient Latin Christianity, interpreters took passages (like the fig tree) that had corporate/national/historical significance (as about the fall of Jerusalem) and reinterpreted them to be about the salvation of individuals. If we compare Western (Latin) interpreters to Eastern (Greek/Syriac) ones, often you’ll see that the Western interpreters are more individualistic, and that Eastern interpreters are more corporate/community focused.
Luke 13-14: Calls to Repentance
I’m curious as to whether you would describe these passages as focused on national/corporate repentance and judgement or individual repentance and judgment.
I was meeting with one of my grad student mentees today and we were talking about how English translations of the Bible are so stilted because there is no second person plural (as in Spanish and most Western languages). Because of this, and our individualistic culture, we tend to read the Bible as all about individuals when in its original context it is often speaking to groups of people (families, cities, nations, etc.).
For those of you who read Spanish, French, German, or other Western languages with a second person plural, be encouraged to compare English translations to translations in those languages so you can have more insight into the group-focused mentality that is typical of the books in the New Testament.
My favorite example of this is 1 Cor 6:19. Most people in the US today read that as about individuals (i.e., my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit), and then make it about working out or fitness or something that has nothing to do with the original context of the passage, when the original passage uses all 2nd person plural pronouns and possessives and is speaking of the Church as the collective/shared temple of the Holy Spirit.
Luke 19-20: A Soldier’s Devotion
In addition to the parable of the pounds, the story of the centurion in Luke 7 is also quite reminiscent of the teaching of Epictetus about the taking of oaths. Interesting to think that Jesus expected soldier-like devotion among his disciples.
It’s not well-known in popular circles, but many scholars would say that the historical Jesus led a guerilla warrior movement, and that this is what got him executed. Romans didn’t execute people for teaching about love and forgiveness. They did execute people who were seen as leading revolutionary/independence movements. The fact of the crucifixion is the most important evidence in this argument, but there are other hints throughout the gospels (e.g., the disciples carrying swords and staffs).
After the death of Jesus, and especially after the fall of Jerusalem to Rome in 70, the authors/editors who gave us the Gospels very carefully attempted to make Jesus sound less and less threatening to the so-called Pax Romana. The later the Gospel, the more involved its commitment to picturing Jesus as innocent and that his trial was a travesty of justice.
Luke 19-20: Religious-Corporate Personhood
We don’t often think today about “corporate personhood” in religious terms. It’s interesting to think about the character of Jesus in the Gospels as representing the life and history of a community. In this case, the cleansing of the temple may represent how early (proto-)Christian communities practiced worship that did not exploit the poor, but instead supported them, and the conspiracy to kill Jesus may reflect the sense of opposition these communities had to their way of life in solidarity with the poor.
There were several threads this week that piqued the interest of several students as well as my own interest. Since I can’t cover everything, I’ll pick three matters on which to focus for this post.
Body and Soul
There was some interesting discussion among students about the relationship of the body and soul. It’s important here to note that Christians through the centuries have borrowed the idea of the soul from Plato’s philosophy. In Plato’s thought, psyche (soul) is invisible and immaterial. It pre-exists the body, temporarily inhabits the body, and then leaves the body after death. In Christian theology, this usually is expressed in terms of the soul coming into the body (at conception or later), the soul inhabiting the body, and then the soul leaving the body and going to heaven or hell.
What Christians through the centuries have not recognized (or perhaps not wanted to recognize) is that this view of the soul is not based on the Bible, but instead on Plato. If you scan some translations of the Hebrew Bible / TaNaKh / Old Testament, you can find the terms “soul” and “spirit.” But nefesh (usually translated soul) means “life.” It is not an invisible thing that pre-exists the body or lives on after the body. It is the life-force that courses through the body. Similarly, ruach (usually translated spirit) means “breath” or “wind.” It is not an invisible object or ghostly version of ourselves. It is the breath we breathe, from the moment we are born until the moment we die. (Incidentally, these different understandings of soul and spirit are crucial to why Judaism has a very different ethical assessment of abortion than do most Christian traditions today.)
The New Testament does show hints of being influenced by Platonic thought about the soul, but its anthropology is customarily holistic, in keeping with Hebrew tradition, or focused on the resurrection of the body, in keeping with Zoroastrian tradition.
No Birth Narrative!?!
Several students found in their ancient lenses that there were few if any connections with Luke 1-2. This might have felt like a failure to find connections, but I see it far more as a success to see and be honest about the differences among these texts. Yes, Q did not have a birth narrative. Yes, the Gospel of Phillip did not have a birth narrative. This was also the case for the majority of Gospels written in the 2nd century. In the broader sweep of the earliest Christian literature, Matthew and Luke were strange for their focus on Jesus’ birth. Some roughly contemporaneous texts followed their lead and expanded their themes, especially the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (IGT) and the Protoevangelium of James (PJ).
So then the question is why. Why did Matthew and Luke and IGT and PJ have birth narratives, but most other Gospels did not? Why did Mark, the earliest Gospel written, not say anything about Jesus’ birth or childhood except (maybe) that his mother’s name was Mary (Mark 16:1)? For that matter, why did Paul, the earliest author represented in the texts of the New Testament, say almost nothing about Jesus’ birth and childhood except that he was “descended from David” (Rom 1:3)? Why did John, which speaks so emphatically about Jesus being the incarnate Word of God, ignore his birth and childhood?
When one steps back and looks at these texts with the critical eye of an historian, it leads to a healthy scepticism about the historicity of the birth traditions in Matthew, Luke, IGT and PJ. The earliest Christian texts didn’t say anything about Jesus’ birth and childhood likely because they simply didn’t have much information or interest in them. As time went on, Christians became more curious about the birth and childhood of Jesus, and as their curiosity grew, so did the texts and traditions treating of Jesus’ birth. Matthew’s birth narratives, written between 80 and 120 CE, started down this path of curiosity. Luke’s birth narratives, written between 120 and 150 CE, expanded it. By the late 2nd century, IGT and PJ expanded these traditions even more.
Interpreting the Interpreters
As students read later interpretations of Luke (Later Lenses), a skill that I want everyone to cultivate is to think critically about later interpretations and how they differ from the original meanings of the texts. Interpreters throughout history have their own cultures, biases, prejudices, priorities, and perspectives. If we look carefully at later interpretations of Luke, we can see their self-reflections embedded in their interpretations.
One potentially instructive example of this during week 4 was an interpretation by Ambrose of Milan. Regarding the story in Luke 1 about the elderly Elizabeth finally becoming pregant, Ambrose says, “But once a person has reached a more advanced age, an age more apt for instructing children than for giving them birth, there is a sense of shame in presenting the outward signs of a marriage that has been consummated – however honourable and legitimate that union may have been” (Luke, trans. Tomkinson, p. 24).
Critical scholarly commentaries on the books of the Bible where stories of barren or elderly women become pregnant (e.g., Sarah in Genesis, Hannah in 1 Samuel, and Elizabeth in Luke) give a very different take. (Feel free to check!) In ancient Semitic patrilineal cultures, having a child—especially a male—was seen as a tremendous blessing for a woman. Any prior barrenness would likely have been seen as a curse, and thus an unexpected pregnancy and birth would be a reversal of the curse. Such a woman’s social status and economic security, tied to the son who would take over control of the household, would be elevated greatly.
Ambrose, therefore, is likely not reflecting the original context of this passage. What is he reflecting then? Himself, his time, culture, and context!
Ambrose was an aristocrat and politically connected bishop in late 4th century northern Italy. His claim that Elizabeth’s late-aged pregnancy brings shame reflects his own aristocratic Roman cultural context.
This is the exact kind of gap or dissonance that I want to train you all to see with every passage in the New Testament. These texts had ancient contexts and meanings (revealed by the use of Ancient Lenses), but later interpreters had different contexts and thus transformed these meanings.
Every week, every assignment in this class is a chance to find and explore examples of this ancient vs. later dissonance. The research bibliography, discussion forums, topic paper, and even the creative project.
Here I continue the initial summary of reviews of my 2013 monograph, as well as my summary of the review in Bryn Mawr Classical Review. Again, allow me to provide quotes directly from the reviews in their original languages, along with English translations for those who would prefer them.
Meiser’s thorough and positive review is summarized in two specific statements:
B., der auch des Syrischen mächtig ist, kann für sich beanspruchen, ein facettenreiches und lebendiges Panorama altkirchlicher Schriftauslegung vermittelt zu haben.
B(ilby), who is strong in Syriac, can claim for himself to have conveyed a multifaceted and lively panorama of the ancient church’s interpretation of Scripture.
B. kann man zu seiner materialreichen, problembewussten und methodisch stringent argumentierenden Arbeit nur gratulieren.
One can only congratulate B(ilby) on his materially rich, problem-conscious, and methodically stringent argument.
Dulaey gives a positive summary toward the end of the review:
On trouvera encore dans le livre nombre de thèmes parénétiques exploités par les auteurs grecs, latins, syriaques et coptes sur la base de ces versets. On aura profit à lire cette étude qui est d’une remarquable exactitude pour tout ce qui touche à l’authenticité des oeuvres et à leur datation.
We can find in this book a number of parenetic themes exploited by Greek, Latin, Syriac and Coptic authors on the basis of these verses. One can profit by reading this study, which is of a remarkable exactitude on everything it treats regarding the authenticity of works and their date.
Right after this summary, Dulaey calls critical attention to my tendency to find more influence between one interpreter and another than may be merited at times, and also to note that some ideas could become widespread without passing directly from one known interpreter to another. I saw the attempt to draw possible connections as part of the value of a diachronic, comprehensive study of the early reception history of a single passage of Scripture. Raising the possibility of specific connections (e.g., between the poems of Ephrem and those of Gregory of Nyssa and Nazianzus) points out openings for future studies. In my defense, I often qualified these possible connections with tentative language (“may have influenced,” “might have read,” etc.).
Prior to this summary, Dulaey expressly disagrees with my diachronic case for Augustine changing his interpretation. I concede Augustine makes other references to martyrs being defined not by their death but by the cause/reason for their death. But that misses the point of my argument, that Augustine implicitly disagrees with Cyprian’s martyr-reading of Luke 23:39-43 prior to 419 and expressly agrees with Cyprian in 419 and after, and that Vincent Victor (not merely the Donatist controversy) was the reason for this shift in his interpretation.
Unfortunately, Dulaey (an Augustine specialist) elsewhere misreads or misconstrues the book on some important points, such as the range of options early interpreters evinced regarding synoptic disparity (not just chronological or sylleptical harmonization). Most astonishing to me was the claim that the church fathers “hesitated to see in him a martyr” (!). Augustine did not hesitate in this regard; he wavered from one position (that the bandit wasn’t a martyr) to another (that we was a martyr). Many other interpreters (such as Cyprian, Eustathius of Antioch, Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose, Jerome, Chromatius) were quite explicit and consistent in claiming that the bandit became a martyr on the cross.
– Mark G. Bilby
Scott McGill kindly shared the working drafts of his translation and notes on this seminal early Christian epic poem. Now that his book is published, I am informally publishing all of the comments that I sent to Scott between March and May of 2015. Some of these comments made their way into his monograph, while others (understandably so) did not. I publish the this feedback online as a supplemental resource to Scott’s excellent and valuable monograph. I would like to thank Scott for allowing me to provide feedback and for his gracious acknowledgement of my assistance.
While several copies are still out for review in different journals, the first few reviews have started to appear:
Review 3. Widdicombe, Peter. Review of As the Bandit Will I Confess You: Luke 23,39-43 in Early Christian Interpretation, by Mark Glen Bilby. Journal of Theological Studies 66.1 (April 2015): 435-437.
– Mark Glen Bilby
Today I completed my feedback on Scott McGill’s forthcoming annotated translation of Juvencus’ Four Books of the Gospels, the first major Christian epic poem, a metrical retelling of the Gospel of Matthew (more or less). My interests in the text are manifold, but especially for the ways in which the Gospel of Luke finds its way into the retelling.
As noted in a previous blog post, book 1 of the Evangeliorum relies heavily on Luke, especially its birth and childhood narratives. As is well known, John and Mark have nothing to say about Jesus’ earthly life before his ministry, and Matthew’s infancy narrative is much shorter and quite different than Luke’s. So it makes sense, given the canonical sources available and Juvencus’ efforts to retell the whole life of Christ, that he would depend so heavily on Luke for his birth narratives, even while taking Matthew as his base text for the bulk of his composition.
What I found among books 2-4 were rare and fairly brief references to Luke’s Gospel. For example, in 3.81-83, Juvencus borrows Luke’s unique phrase, “that is enough,” in order to make a clever intertextual connection between the Gethsemane arrest and the feeding of the five thousand:
The disciples showed that there was nothing more
to eat but two fish and five pieces of bread.
“This is enough,” he said.
Besides the Lukan infancy narratives, the longest episode pulled from Luke is 14:7-11, a passage Aland’s synopsis entitles “Teaching on Humility,” but one that amounts to instructions on where to sit as a guest at a feast, and on whom to invite to the feasts one hosts. In 3.614-621, Juvencus weaves in this uniquely Lukan teaching so as to bolster the brief Markan/Matthean counsel about how those who humble themselves will be exalted. This appears immediately after Jesus’ rebuke of the sons of Zebedee for their request for eschatological places of glory. Apparently Juvencus thought that meal decorum, humility, and (perhaps) the inclusion of the poor were important enough so as to adventure out from his base text.
Surprisingly, book four had only one clear and very brief reference to Luke, specifically 17:34, about judgment dividing two people “in the same bed.” He inserts this saying in place of the Matthean mention (24:41) of two women at the mill. Perhaps he found the Matthean text too rustic.
What is most surprising about book four of the Evangeliorum is that the uniquely Lukan details and narratives related to the Passion and Resurrection are almost entirely absent. Juvencus’ retold Gospel has no second cup at the passover, no miraculous healing of the servant’s ear, no Annas, no Herod, no threefold assertion of innocence, no repentant criminal, no mourning crowds, no Emmaus road encounter, no post-resurrection feast with the disciples, and no ascension.
In summary, Juvencus was not primarily interested in navigating through or creating a harmonized Gospel (akin to Tatian’s Diatessaron). Instead, he sought to fashion a harmoniously epic version of the life of Jesus. Given the priority of Matthew’s Gospel for many early Christian interpreters, it makes a lot of sense that Matthew’s Gospel remained his consistent default.
– Mark G. Bilby
This is the third in a sequence of reflections on Scott McGill’s forthcoming (December 2015) annotated translation (the first ever complete English translation) of the Four Books of the Gospels by Juvencus, the first great Christian epic poet. I continue to be impressed at the way Juvencus interweaves allusions to Latin classical poetry (especially that of Vergil), the narrative of Matthew, and also intertexts with other scriptures.
One such interweaving appears in lines 630-635 of book 3. This one stands out to me not only for its content, but also for its creative resequencing. As McGill mentions in his preliminary notes, these lines invert the order of Mt 21:4-7 (630-632 render Mt 21:6-7, while 633-635 render Mt 21:4-5).
Without delay, the disciples did as told.
They led the pair, spread a soft cloak upon
the gentle foal, and made a place to sit.
The ancient prophet’s vatic voice streamed down:
“Behold, your kind king comes; a gentle ass
and trailing foal bring him upon their backs.”
In my view, this inverted sequence dramatizes the episode. Rather than keeping with Matthew’s customary narrative pauses to quote a prophecy fulfilled, Juvencus makes the ancient speech into a present heavenly portent and voice that accompanies Jesus’ ascent. This shift also creates a resonance with other heavenly portents in the scriptures, most notably the “voice from heaven” at the baptism (Mk 1:11, Mt 3:17, Lk 3:22) and elsewhere (Dn 4:31, Jn 12:28, Ac 11:9, 2 Pt 1:18, Rv 10:4, 8, 11:12, 12:10, 14:2, 7, 13; 18:4). The inclusion of a heavenly portent here at the triumphal entry also recalls many possible scenes from Greek and Latin epic poetry.
– Mark Bilby
I’ve been working on some articles for the Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception that deal with the reception of Luke, including its reception in literature. The Four Books of the Gospels by Juvencus, written around 330 CE, is the earliest known great work of literature exploring and retelling Lukan narratives. Thanks to the work of Scott McGill, a complete English translation is forthcoming this December.
Scott was kind enough to share with me a working draft of his translation and notes for book one. In return, and at his request, I happily offered my feedback, some of which should find its way into the notes. While Juvencus primarily relies on the text of Matthew, much of book one retells the scenes and almost all of the dialogue found within the birth narratives of Luke (chs. 1-3). The poem is replete with classical references, but also, perhaps more surprisingly, intertextual Biblical references and allusions that require a deep familiarity with the Scriptures for the reader to catch. For example, on the surface of lines 35-38 we find refashioned the words of Gabriel to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist:
Now I, whom the Lord, Creator of the earth
and sky, made serve before him, am received
Now man’s ungrateful ears and eyes; I’ve done
the bidding of great God, to have it scorned.
But subtly embedded in these lines is Juvencus’ clever attempt to draw a parallel with the angelic epiphany found in Isaiah’s calling (Isaiah 6), and, more profoundly, to fashion the angel Gabriel as a divinely sent but humanly rejected prophet, akin to Isaiah (Isa 6:9-10) and his imitators (Mt 13:14-15, Acts 28:26-27).
Compare the text of Isaiah 6:9-10.
And he said, “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ 10 Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.”
– Mark Glen Bilby