Short Stories by Jesus by Amy Jill-Levine

Amy-Jill Levine is a New Testament and Jewish Studies Professor. However, she is not your typical New Testament Professor; she is an Orthodox feminist Jew who studies and writes scholarly articles on the New Testament. In this book, she attempts to place the parables of Jesus in their original 1st century Jewish context and offer new interpretations of some of the most important parables with this context in mind. She tries to explain what these stories would have meant to a 1st century Jewish audience hearing them for the first time.

In order to do this, she posits that Jesus was a real historical figure and that many of the parables in the Bible represent mostly accurate versions of the stories he told to the crowds. While the parables found in the New Testament may be the original stories of a teacher named Jesus, the authors of each Gospel frame the parables in terms of Christianity and its developing theology. The narrative frame added by the anonymous authors of the Gospels changes the meaning and purpose of the parable from what it may have originally meant. For example, the Parable of the Lost Sheep is framed by Luke as a response to a hostile group of Pharisees complaining about Jesus welcoming sinners among them.

“But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:2)

Jesus answers the criticism with a series of parables in which the Parable of the Lost Sheep is one of them. Luke then ends this particular parable:

“I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:7)

Luke transforms the parable into an allegory in which the sheep are Christians returning to the church and God’s grace. For him and many Christians, the parable is about God’s stewardship over his church and his desire to recover sinners and bring them back into the fold. Jesus is pointing out to the Pharisees that his main audience should be sinners because they are who need him the most. By framing the story in this way, the author of Luke is interpreting the story for us and doing so with a Christian lens.

Matthew also offers a version of this parable (Matthew 18), but with a different narrative frame. In Matthew’s version, Jesus is speaking directly to his disciples, not Pharisees. His ending frame is also a little different.

“In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.” (Matthew 18:14).

There is some overlap in the messages: God wants to redeem the lost. However, there are also differences between the two versions. Luke’s Jesus is responding to the criticisms of the Pharisees about consorting with sinners, while Matthew’s Jesus is answering his disciples’ question about who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Although these parables do retain similar messages the general point still stands; by framing parables differently, the same parables potentially take on different meanings. The fact that we have so many of the same parables across different Gospel narratives suggests to Amy Jill-Levine that many of these parables originated with an historical Jesus, but were reinterpreted by later Christian writers in specific ways once Christianity’s belief systems began to develop in ways distinct from Judaism. This is why she believes we should try to understand the parables in the context of 1st century Judaism, separate from the narrative frames that later Christian writers added to them. How would the original non-Christian Jewish audience have understood these stories?

Although Levine cannot cover every single parable, she does cover the most important ones: The Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Lost Son, The Good Samaritan, The Kingdom of Heaven is Like Yeast, The Pearl of Great Price, The Mustard Seed, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the Laborers in the Vineyard, The Widow and the Judge, and the Rich Man and Lazarus.

Parables are supposed to be provocative, they’re supposed to challenge our views of the world, and call us to action, but often traditional interpretations by the church, church fathers, and even modern scholarly commentators transforms these parables into allegories and domesticates them into palatable forms. It softens the message into some symbolic gesture that is easily digestible. Worse, many of the traditional readings are fundamentally anti-Jewish. For example, many traditional readings of the Parable of Prodigal Son see the elder son who complains to the father about the prodigal son returning as a symbol of Judaism complaining about the inclusion of gentiles in a New Covenant. In this reading, the father symbolizes God the father or Jesus, the elder son represents Judaism, and the younger son represents the originally wayward gentile who is being brought back into the fold by divine grace. Notice the allegorical nature of such a reading. Levine shows with evidence from Josephus, the Talmud, the Mishnah, and the Old Testament that these interpretations are misguided and are misrepresentations of Jewish ideas and beliefs. Likewise, using these sources she shows they do not make much sense in the context of 1st century Judaism.

Levine views the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and Lost son as representing a pair of three parables with similar messages. She has this to say about the Parable of the Lost Son. “Without Luke’s allegory of a repentance and forgiveness and without the easy equating of the elder son with those grumbling Jews, the parable has no easy or comfortable interpretation (68).” She argues that the message of the three parables is not about the recovery of lost sinners, but rather the joy we feel at recovering a precious object lost to us and an exhortation that we shouldn’t stand on ceremony waiting for them to apologize or for them to come back to us. We should go out and find them! The Parable of the Good Samaritan is not a tale about how Jews are bad and gentiles good, but rather it is a parable that emphasizes the importance of taking action when someone is in need of our help. It’s not an argument for mercy, but an argument for compassion. It addresses the question: who is my neighbor? The answer to this question is that everyone is our neighbor, even our enemies, and the parable challenges us to help anyone in need. The Pearl of Great Price is not an allegorical tale about selling all one has (or devaluing one’s material possessions and the material world) in order to achieve the kingdom of heaven in the afterlife, but rather it is a tale about self-discovery and the importance of identifying what truly matters to us. Once we realize what truly matters to us, we should get rid of everything superfluous and meaningless in our lives. This parable is presented as an analogy to the kingdom of heaven. What is the kingdom like? Figure out what is truly important in your life, find your “pearl,” and you will discover what the kingdom of heaven is like. All her interpretations have this in common: the parables are a call to action, if we want the kingdom of heaven on earth, we have to work towards it here and now.

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Is the Bible a Literary Masterpiece?

Is the Bible a literary masterpiece? For many it is impossible to disentangle their religious beliefs or their antagonism towards religion to judge the question fairly. Among literary critics this is a rather uncontroversial question. As Harold Bloom states in his book, The Shadow of a Great Rock, the KJV is “the sublime summit of literature in English.” While on an aggregate site that consulted 25 different recommended reading lists put out by literary critics and major colleges, the bible appeared on 7 out of 9 relevant lists (excluding lists that only included novels or were solely 20th century works). It made 77% of the relevant lists.

The influence of the Bible on Western culture is inestimable. Often this influence includes everyday expressions, modes of thought, references, etc. Sometimes it is argued that you don’t need to read the Bible to understand these references, but it is precisely this fact that proves the Bible’s influence on culture. To put it more simply, the bible has been so influential on our culture that we often don’t need to read it in order to understand the expressions and ideas that originated within it; we can take them for granted since they are that integrated into the fabric of the culture itself.

A more explicit influence can be seen in the arts. Walk into any museum and you’ll see endless walls of artwork based on Biblical stories. Biblical allusions abound in literature, performing many different functions. Indeed, authors such as the anonymous writer of Beowulf, the Arthurian romances of Chrétien de Troyes, John Milton, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Charlotte Bronte, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Lord Byron, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Toni Morrison, William Faulkner have all written works with Biblical allusion. This is not even close to being an exhaustive list. A major writer like Shakespeare, often considered the Greatest English Writer, uses a staggering 1,300 biblical allusions throughout his plays, according to a study by Naseeb Shaheen.

Many of the artists turn to these stories for inspiration because the stories found in the Bible are memorable: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Cain’s slaying of his brother, The Great Flood, the binding of Isaac, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Joseph and his brothers, Moses and the Burning Bush, King David’s seduction of Bathsheba, Jonah and the Whale, the story of Job, Esther and Haman, The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus walking on water, the turning of water into wine, etc. This also is hardly an exhaustive list. I bet I don’t need to describe any of these stories in detail to you and you can probably retell large chunks of those episodes from memory.

As the late literary critic D. G. Myers wrote in response to someone complaining about the horribleness of the Lot story:

“Whether or not your interpretation of it is correct, you remember Lot’s story “to this day.” Quite a testament to its power as literary art!”

You might find this story nasty and immoral, but nobody ever said literature is required to be uplifting and inspiring. This story is powerful and memorable. Even people who dislike the Bible can still remember the story after encountering it. Like Myers, I agree that its ability to shock and stick in one’s memory is a testament to its power as literature.

The Bible, however, is more than a bunch of memorable stories. The language of the Bible is at times quite beautiful and there are some powerfully constructed metaphors. Some of my favorite are:

“Spare Me the sound of your hymns, and let Me not hear the music of your lutes. But let justice well up like water, Righteousness like an unfailing stream.” – Amos 6:24 – 25. 

“Raise your eyes and look out from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west, for I give all the land that you see to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, then your offspring too can be counted. Up, walk about the land, through its length and its breadth, for I give it to you.” Genesis 13:14 – 13:17

 “For wisdom is better than rubies; no goods can equal her.” – Proverbs 8:16. 

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” – Matthew 7:12

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes 1:9

 “We must all die; we are like water that is poured out on the ground and cannot be gathered up.” – II Samuel 14:14

How deserted lies the city,
once so full of people!
How like a widow is she,
who once was great among the nations!
She who was queen among the provinces
has now become a slave.

 

Bitterly she weeps at night,
tears are on her cheeks.
Among all her lovers
there is no one to comfort her.
All her friends have betrayed her;
they have become her enemies.” – Lamentations 1

Another quality that bolsters its status as a literary masterpiece is its ability to be interpreted in many ways. Often this is seen as a demerit against the bible, despite the fact that many literary works have multiple ways they can be interpreted. The tens of thousands of articles on Shakespeare’s works suggests there are many different ways people understand Shakespeare. To pick another example, there are many different ways people have interpreted Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, a candidate for the Great American Novel. Is it an allegorical story in which the ship’s precarious journey is a symbol of the United States as a nation on the eve of the Civil War where the democracy of sailors is threatened by Ahab’s tyranny and the ship itself (the nation) is threatened by the whale (a symbol for obsession, representing the U.S.’s debate over slavery)? Is this a story about the evils of capitalism represented by the whaling industry and how sometimes nature fights back against the system’s attempts to exploit it? Is this a story about alienation and the quest to find a connection with human beings? Is it about the search for transcendence and meaning itself and the way absolute meaning often alludes us? Is it about the dangers of getting caught up in others’ irrational obsessions? All of these rhetorical questions are based on actual interpretations by literary critics.

If there was a single objective meaning to a literary work there would never be any reason for discussion about that work afterwards. Instead all we would need to do is read the work and we would all come to the same conclusion, but rarely does literary interpretation work out so neatly. I see no reason we should praise some writers for their ability to be interpreted in many different ways, calling it depth and complexity, but change this standard for the Bible.

As I pointed out in my post on the Cain and Abel story, the bible packs a lot of meaning and depth in a story that is only around 350 words (the equivalent of modern day flash fiction). Like any other work of Great Literature, the Bible offers insight into the historical practices and ideas of the ancient culture that produced it and explores problems and concerns that are part of the human condition in a way that even a modern audience can appreciate.

Bible as Literature: Genesis 4:1 – 4:16: Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

The man and his wife, Eve, have two children: Cain and Abel. Cain grows up to be a farmer (or as the Bible puts it a “tiller of the soil”). Abel grows up to be a shepherd. God accepts Abel’s offering of his choicest lambs, but ignores Cain’s offering of his crops as inferior. However, God speaks to Cain and tells him not to be distressed that his offering wasn’t accepted because if Cain makes the right moral choices, good things will happen to him.

Shortly after God’s admonition, Cain brings his brother to a field and viciously murders him. God arrives asking Cain where his brother is and Cain responds with the famous line, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
God immediately responds to Cain’s verbal dodge with “What have you done?” suggesting he knew Cain had murdered his brother and was testing to see if Cain would admit it of his own freewill. God punishes Cain by making the soil fallow for him, forcing him to live a nomadic existence for survival. Cain cries that his punishment is too great to bear since he won’t be able to get his own food and he will have to rely on others to provide him with his food as he wanders across the earth, thus making him vulnerable to those who might wish him harm. God responds to this plea by marking Cain so that anyone can identify him as under the protection of God and tells him if anyone should kill him they will experience a punishment seven times worse.

This story has a lot of depth for one that it is literally only a couple of paragraphs long (around 350 words) in the JPS translation. When I used to write my own fiction and participate in critique groups, the short stories my friends wrote were usually somewhere in 3000-6000 word range. Before we move onto a deeper analysis of the story, let us look at the many aspects of the human experience this tiny little story covers: sibling rivalry, domestic violence, the dangers of envy, and the way selfishness and immoral behavior go hand-in-hand.

The first important detail is the contrast of occupations of the two brothers: we have, Cain, the farmer, and Abel, the shepherd. This level of the story is allegorical. Literally the characters functions as types rather than full-fledged characters. The shepherd is shown to be superior because he provides meat, while the farmer only provides grain to the community. On a symbolic level, the story implies that meat is a superior food source than grains.

Likewise, we are told Abel gives the “choicest” of his flock, while Cain just offers any old portion of his produce. There is an issue of translation here.

“brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock” – JPS

“brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof” – KJV

“fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock: – NIV

The JPS is interpreting the lines for us so that a modern audience can understand the ancient audience’s perspective, in which “the fat” of a firstborn would be the “choicest.”

Since the text specifically mentions Abel gives the choicest of his flock (or a specific quality that would’ve been considered the choicest by an ancient audience), while not designating Cain’s offering with any particular descriptor, we can assume by the omission and juxtaposition of the passages that Cain just gave any old offering. So we have another contrast between offering the best one has for sacrifice and anything one has. God distinguishes between the two and for this reason accepts Abel’s offering. By not offering the best part of his produce, Cain is basically saying he doesn’t care enough to sacrifice his best to God. It should not be surprising that in response God doesn’t extend his blessing to this half-hearted effort. From these details we see that the story is a dramatization of the proper way to offer sacrifice and offerings to God. You should offer the best you have, otherwise God is likely to reject it.

God’s admonition to Cain suggests that although He rejected his offering, He hasn’t rejected Cain outright. He really does want Cain to succeed and is giving him advice on what to do. The ending of this poetic piece of advice encourages Cain that he can still master his own sins. It is worth exploring the ambiguous language of the passage.

“Why are you distressed,
And why is your face fallen?
Surely, if you do right,
There is uplift.
But if you do not do right
Sin crouches at the door;
Its urge is toward you,
Yet you can be its master.”

These words serve as a link between what has already happened with the ritual worship of God and the moral behavior God expects from us that features in the second half. When God admonishes Cain to “do right” there is a sense He means on an ethical level, but also that He is chastising Cain for not having done the right thing in regards to the rituals Cain is expected to perform. Failing to do the right thing in one’s ritual obligations and failing to act morally are linked here. The text implies that when one fails in their ritual obligations they will also likely fail in their moral obligations. Religious ritual and moral behavior go hand-in-hand. The two ways to master sin, according to the text, are engaging in specific rituals and ethical behavior. If Cain cannot be bothered to offer his best fruits and worship God properly, why do we expect him to put effort in making proper ethical considerations?

Right after hearing that he can still obtain God’s blessing by leading a moral life, what does Cain do? He murders his own brother. The text never states an explicit motivation, but from the details in the text it would seem he does it out of jealousy. Abel’s offering was accepted and his was rejected. Even though God gives him another opportunity and tells him what he needs to do, Cain’s jealousy overwhelms him into committing the horrific murder of his own brother. Even after being caught, he seems more worried about himself than the fate of his brother or remorse for his crimes, suggesting a highly egotistical and narcissistic person. Cain refuses to recognize his own moral failings or ways he can improve himself. Thought of in the context of the tribal Israelites, the story is suggesting the type of person who would kill his own brother and fail to perform his duties and obligations, is a selfish egotistical person who puts himself before the community. Such a person would kill his own brother if provoked and thus is harmful to community cohesion.

The language when God punishes Cain parallels Adam’s punishment, although worse; now the land will not “yield its strength” at all. When God questions Cain about the murdered Abel’s location earlier in the story, this scene also recalls Genesis 3 when God calls out to the naked Adam and Eve and asks them where they are in the garden. God’s initial response is also the same in both stories, “What have you done?” These parallelisms suggest a sophisticated literature in which later episodes of the Bible purposefully echo linguistic and motivic patterns from earlier episodes, but often with some important changes. Cain doesn’t just disobey God as his parents do by eating a piece of fruit, but actually murders another human being. Both Adam and Eve try to assign their blame to others, but do fess up right away to eating the fruit; Cain blatantly lies, claiming he has no idea where Abel is shortly after killing him. The parallelism between episodes creates a contrast that allows us to see that the Israelites understood there were different levels of sin and some sins are worse than others.

Additionally, Cain’s loss of his ability to farm probably served as a fable-like warning to the original Ancient Israelite audience, many of whom were farmers. The moral would look like this: if you engage in sinful activities like murder, your crops will fail to grow because God will punish you.

Even though Cain doesn’t live up to his side of the bargain by acting righteous or by performing rituals in a manner worthy of God—indeed, he shows himself to be an all-around terrible human being—God still shows him pity and provides him with some protection. God’s mercy serves to highlight Cain’s hypocrisy when he murders his brother and asks “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This rhetorical question implies that Cain doesn’t see it as his job to watch over his brother and protect him. By placing his protective mark on Cain, God does what he expected morally of Cain. Am I my brother’s keeper? Well, as God illustrates here, it is our job to watch over others, even if their behavior deems they may not deserve it.

Further hypocrisy exists in Cain’s behavior; he fears strangers will harm him because he imagines them to be just like himself, ready and willing to betray another human being out of jealousy, distrust, or for profit. Cain’s viewpoint is cynical about people because he thinks all people are like him, which is yet another way the story criticizes such selfish behavior.