Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Context and Nuance in Jesus' Sayings

I have enjoyed the blogging thread initiated by Michael Turton on The Sword and followed up by Stephen Carlson in Hypotyposeis with a contribution from Loren Rosson on The Busybody. Turton's post focuses on Mark 7.15, and the undue importance that is given to this saying in the work of the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels: What did Jesus Really Say. I'd like to add to what Michael, Stephen and Loren say by noting that the undue stress placed on this saying by the Jesus Seminar focuses a problem with Historical Jesus research, like theirs, that places so much stress on the authenticity and interpretation of particular sayings. One of the reasons that I am sceptical about the general attempt to sift sayings, highlight supposedly key ones and recontextualise them is the problem of context and nuance. We do not have the equivalent of the Nixon tapes when we are doing Historical Jesus research, and even if a given saying is in some respects original, we can never recover the context in which it was said or the particular nuances Jesus might have given it. There is an excellent warning on this topic in E. P. Sanders and M. Davies, Studying the Synoptic Gospels: 188:
'Ignorance of the precise context in which sayings were formulated often prevents the recovery of precision and nuance in interpreting Jesus' teaching. Meaning is determined by context, and sayings whose context is unknown cannot be pressed too hard in the quest of original meaning. Often we shall have to remain content with a more general understanding than we might wish.'
Consider, by analogy, the following editing and recontextualizing of something I have written in recent days:
Mark Goodacre . . . . may point to the reason for the lack of consensus on consensus when he observes, "consensus emerges over time and is something that is the result of ... conversations over a beer." Indeed, rather than giving greater confidence to outsiders, this seems to only give cause for Jim West's cynicism. (There is a general consensus among experts and non-experts that beer impairs judgment.) (my
Now let us say that Ken Ristau's enjoyably facetious post was not a blog post in which the link was provided to the original context for the saying, you would get quite the wrong gist about my views on the topic, and this even when Ken quotes me verbatim (except for the ellipsis).

Let us say that Jesus did say something like "It’s not what goes into a a person from the outside that can defile; rather, it’s what comes out of the person that defiles" (Mark 7.15). Could we really conclude, with the Jesus Seminar, that "Jesus is abrogating kosher food regulations across the board--a broadside against his own religious traditions" (Five Gospels: 30-31)? It is a somewhat hackneyed analogy, but still a valuable one, that Isaiah 1.15 speaks against prayer:
So when you spread out your hands in prayer,
I will hide My eyes from you;
Yes, even though you multiply prayers,
I will not listen.
Your hands are covered with blood.
Is this Isaiah's broadside against his own religious traditions like prayer? I don't think so. But this saying recontextualized and with loss of the nuance it currently has (in Isaiah 1, I mean) could be taken quite differently.

Update (18.37): Stephen Carlson has more of interest and relevance on Hypotyposeis, and further links to more. Colo(u)r me puzzled too. What's the Jesus Seminar's colour for puzzled?

1 comment:

Stephen C. Carlson said...

I was thinking that a good color for being puzzled is a plaid.