Tag Archives: reception-history

RLST 201: Week 4 Discussion Summary: Body and Soul, (No) Birth Narratives, and Interpreting the Interpreters

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.

Supplemental Notes on Scott McGill, Juvencus’ Four Books of the Gospels: Evangeliorum Libri Quattuor (New York: Routledge, 2016)

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.

Review of first book in Bryn Mawr Classical Review

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Here I continue the initial summary of reviews of my 2013 monograph.

Review 4. Feldmeier, Reinhard. Review of As the Bandit Will I Confess You: Luke 23,39-43 in Early Christian Interpretation, by Mark Glen Bilby. Bryn Mawr Classical Review (2015.09.58).

Reinhard Feldmeier, Professor of New Testament at Georg-August-University, Göttingen, recently reviewed my first monograph for Bryn Mawr’s prestigious Classics review journal. As is customary in scholarly book reviews, much of it represents a thoughtful and appreciative summation of the various chapters of the book.

Two critical comments appeared in the review. First, he (rightly) pointed out that my initial presentation of the “Roman-sympathizing sentiment of Luke-Acts” was eindimensional. In my defense, an overview of modern critical scholarly viewpoints on Luke-Acts was not the focus of the book, and Feldmeier recognizes this. Still, it would certainly have strengthened my monograph had I included a more nuanced and slightly more involved discussion of modern interpretations of the social and political significance and context(s) of Luke-Acts. Second, Feldmeier deems fraglich (questionable) my reconstruction of the Luke vis-à-vis the Gospel of Peter. I had come to the conclusion that the Gospel of Peter actually represents an earlier version of the story of the crucified bandits than does that of Luke. Feldmeier’s disagreement with my conclusion here certainly reflects the majority scholarly view, including that of Paul Foster in his recent critical edition and commentary on the Gospel of Peter. I would only mention that the textual evidence, at least in regard to the tradition of the co-crucified criminals, weighs against the majority scholarly view here and that alternate scenarios regarding the relationship of Luke (which scholars are increasingly viewing as a second century text) and the Gospel of Peter should be given serious consideration based on that evidence.

Overall I took the review as quite favorable, based on the two following, summary statements, which I translate for those who do not read German:

Der Schwerpunkt der Monographie liegt in dem, was der Untertitel andeutet: in der sorgfältig recherchierten und ausgelegten Rezeptionsgeschichte dieser Perikope in der alten Kirche (bis ca. 450 n.Chr.).

The main focus of the monograph lies in that which the subtitle intimates: in the meticulously researched and presented reception-history of this pericope in the ancient church (up to 450 AD).

Es ist das unzweifelhafte Verdienst dieser Studie, anhand der Rezeptionsgeschichte eines einzigen Textes gezeigt zu haben, welche Vielfalt und auch theologische Originalität die patristische Exegese auszeichnet. Auch für den modernen Interpreten ist es immer wieder faszinierend, welche Facetten einem Text abgewonnen werden können und wie dies seine eigene Ratio hat.

It is the indubitable merit of this study to have shown, on the basis of the reception-history of a single text, that variety and also theological originality distinguishes patristic exegesis. It is also always fascinating to modern interpreters which facets could be acquired from a text and how it has its own reason.

I take it as high praise to have an esteemed German professor at Göttingen call the work of this North American scholar “meticulously researched and presented” and accord it “indubitable merit.”

– M. G. Bilby

First Reviews of First Book

While several copies are still out for review in different journals, the first few reviews have started to appear:

Review 1. Clark, Roland. Review of As the Bandit Will I Confess You: Luke 23,39-43 in Early Christian Interpretation, by Mark Glen Bilby. Catholic Library World 85.2 (December 2014): 122-123.

Review 2. Phillips, Thomas E. Review of As the Bandit Will I Confess You: Luke 23,39-43 in Early Christian Interpretation, by Mark Glen Bilby. Religious Studies Review 41.2 (June 2015): 75.

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

Reflections on Juvencus, Evangeliorum libri, Book 4

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

Reflections on Juvencus, Evangeliorum libri, Book 3

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