Mary, Did You Know?


Over the last few weeks leading up to Advent, I’ve seen this meme shared a handful of times on social media. It references a 1991 CCM Christmas song by Mark Lowry and Buddy Greene titled, “Mary, Did You Know?” (click the link, listen to the song, bask in the schmaltz).

The song is written as a series of rhetorical questions directed at Mary:

Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
The child that you’ve delivered will soon deliver you.

The punchline of the meme (that most savvy readers of the Gospel of Luke already grasp) is that of course Mary knew all these things—they were announced to her by Gabriel at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel and reflected once again in Mary’s hymn of praise.

When I was working on my master’s thesis on the questions of Jesus in Luke, I spent some time parsing out the very first words spoken by Jesus in the Third Gospel. In Luke 2:41-51, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus travel to Jerusalem for Passover, and then depart for home once the festival is over. After traveling a full day outside the city, Mary and Joseph realize that Jesus isn’t with them, so they head back to Jerusalem and look for him for three more days before finding him in the Temple precincts, “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions”:

And having seen him, [Mary and Joseph] were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I were anxiously searching for you!” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s [house]?”

According to Keith Reich in his book on rhetorical tropes in the Gospel of Luke, the point of confusion here is the word father. Mary apparently refers to Joseph as “your father,” while Jesus refers to God as “my Father,” a fact reflected in the NRSV’s translation of the first instance of the word in lowercase and the second instance capitalized. But in Greek, the question Jesus asks (ouk ēdeite, “Did you not know…?”) is in the relatively rare pluperfect tense, which suggests that Mary should have already known exactly where to find Jesus. The implied force of Jesus’s question is effectively, “Of course I must be in my Father’s house. Where else would I be?”

In fact, if it’s Jesus’s use of the term father that confuses Mary and Joseph, the reader only has to go back to Gabriel’s annunciation in Luke 1:32 (“He will be called Son of the Most High”) and 1:35 (“He will be called Son of God”) to know which Father Jesus is referring to.

In essence, the boy Jesus asks his mother, “Mary, did you know?” But despite Gabriel’s annunciation and Mary’s subsequent hymn in the previous chapter, the answer is actually negative: “They did not understand what he said to them” (2:50).

So what’s the deal? Why this apparent amnesia on Mary’s part? Either the author of Luke is horribly sloppy, not worrying about narrative consistency from one chapter to the next, or something else is going on. (Hint: I don’t believe for one second that Luke is a sloppy writer. Want proof? The very first question spoken by Jesus in Luke 2:49 is echoed again at the end of the gospel in the question posed by the two men in dazzling clothes outside Jesus’s empty tomb: “Why are you searching for the Living One among the dead?”).

What is really going on here?

I think Reich’s observation is right on the nose. The repetition of the word father referring to two different entities—a rhetorical trope known as epanados—re-emphasizes the definition of Jesus’s sonship as being of God and not of Joseph. For Luke, Jesus knows from the beginning that he is the “Son of the Most High,” as well as all the proper behaviors that accompany that designation (hanging around the Temple and asking questions of its teachers), even when Mary appears to forget.


Brief Review: “The Gospel According to Flannery O’Connor,” by Jordan Cofer

51CN5CgpWIL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Flannery O’Connor redefined both the literary landscape of the American South and the image of the 20th-century Christian novelist. Strangely, however, few scholars have attempted to peel back the layers of her work to consider the extent to which the Bible itself played a role in shaping O’Connor’s imaginative fiction. In The Gospel According to Flannery O’Connor: Examining the Role of the Bible in Flannery O’Connor’s Fiction, Jordan Cofer sets out to do just that, arguing that upon close examination, O’Connor’s novels and short stories bear unmistakable signs of influence from biblical narrative.

Chapter 1 serves as the introduction for the book, laying the groundwork for Cofer’s contention that biblical allusion and intertextuality pervade O’Connor’s oeuvre. O’Connor’s dependence upon scriptural tradition, says Cofer, exists in three primary forms: the recapitulation of famous biblical narratives, the introduction of characters who serve as backwoods prophets, and ironic reversals like those found in the parables of Jesus. In chapter 2, Cofer zeroes in on O’Connor’s debut novel, Wise Blood, as an exemplar containing all three of the characteristics outlined in chapter 1. According to Cofer, the narrative of O’Connor’s protagonist and Christian malgré lui, Hazel Motes, closely resembles the story of the Apostle Paul found in the Book of Acts. As the founder of the “Church of Christ without Christ,” Motes, with his black preacher’s hat and dilapidated car, serves as O’Connor’s archetypical backwoods prophet, even though he initially sets out specifically to undermine the Christian worldview so prominent in the American Deep South. Finally, ironic reversals abound throughout Wise Blood, most notably in Motes’s journey from being a prophet with “unseeing sight” to becoming a literal “blind seer.”

Chapter 3 analyzes two of O’Connor’s short stories, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “Judgment Day,” which according to Cofer exemplify O’Connor’s method of biblical recapitulation. “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” says Cofer, is a grotesque retelling of Jesus’s conversation with the so-called “Rich Young Ruler” of Mark 10:17-22, while “Judgment Day” relies heavily upon Paul’s theology of the resurrection of the body in 1 Cor. 15, a passage that O’Connor herself had marked in her personal Bible. In chapter 4, Cofer focuses on O’Connor’s backwoods prophets in “A Circle in the Fire,” “The Lame Shall Enter First,” and her second and final novel, The Violent Bear It Away. The final chapter illuminates O’Connor’s use of ironic reversals in “Parker’s Back,” “Revelation,” and “A Temple of the Holy Ghost.” In the first story, O’Connor’s tattooed protagonist—who, according to Cofer, represents a modern-day Moses—inscribes a Byzantine image of Christ on his very flesh, while his fundamentalist wife looks on disapprovingly. In “Revelation,” a well-to-do white southerner experiences a vision in which she finds herself at the back of the line of saints marching to heaven, while those members of social classes she previously looked down upon with disdain are positioned near the front. And in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” one of O’Connor’s more deeply Catholic stories, an intersex sideshow attraction is recast as a priest through whom the Holy Spirit is mediated.

The Gospel According to Flannery O’Connor is a profound, well-written work with a remarkable thesis, and Cofer’s insight into O’Connor’s knowledge and use of scripture is incredibly lucid. The book would have benefitted greatly from a concluding chapter, or even a few paragraphs of closure to tie everything together. Without it, the reader comes to a screeching halt at the end of the final chapter and is left with the impression that Cofer’s book was more a collection of related essays than a single work with an argument that builds to a comprehensive conclusion. This minor issue aside, however, Cofer’s methodology offers a wealth of possibilities for creative interdisciplinary pedagogy. Cofer is a literary scholar drawing heavily on biblical scholarship to argue his thesis; might this approach work the other way around? Could Cofer’s method be useful in promoting literary study among biblical scholars? How might O’Connor’s fiction be employed in the classroom to better illustrate biblical themes? Her short story “Revelation,” for instance, may potentially be used to teach Jesus’s trademark reversals in the Synoptic Gospels, or particular thematic elements from John’s Apocalypse. How might O’Connor’s ham-fisted and defiant backwoods prophets help illuminate the character of biblical prophets like Jeremiah, Joel, Amos, and Jonah? The creative possibilities for further application of Cofer’s work in the biblical studies classroom are indeed promising.

— — — — —

[Note: The final, definitive version of this review will be published in a forthcoming issue of Review & Expositor by SAGE Publications Ltd, All rights reserved. © Joshua Paul Smith]

In (Cautious) Praise of Yvonne Sherwood’s Jonah



Jonah and the Whale in Haifa Port, Eugene Abeshaus, 1939.

Yvonne Sherwood’s A Biblical Text and Its Afterlives represents the very best of interdisciplinary biblical scholarship. One might be hesitant to call her work mere “biblical studies” at all: Contrary to Roland Barthes, whose claim that “Interdisciplinarity consists in creating a new subject that belongs to no one” serves as the book’s opening invocation, Sherwood seeks to show how disciplines may be used against each other—like iron sharpening iron—to “destabilize and expose the myopia of one another” (p.5). Biblical studies challenges popular conceptions of “The Bible” as a singular, univocal entity, while Jewish studies and cultural studies each offer challenges to Western mainstream biblical studies for its inherent Christian bias and overly simplistic interpretive methods that attempt to smooth out the rough edges of a given text’s history of reception. Using the text of the biblical prophet Jonah as an exemplar, Sherwood drops a handful of chum into the interdisciplinary exotic fish tank and watches as these disciplines writhe and flail against one another, battling it out for a morsel of food </OverwroughtMetaphor>.

Sherwood’s thesis, as it pertains to Jonah, is that “biblical texts are literally sustained by interpretation, and the volume, ubiquity, and tenacity of interpretation make it impossible to dream that we can take the text back, through some kind of seductive academic striptease, to a pure and naked original state” (p.2). Such a claim seems fairly obvious; after all, any living text relies on continuous interpretation as its very life support; lacking the ventilator necessary to breathe fresh air and meaning into its lungs, the text dies on the table and is relegated to the graveyard of other dead “historical” texts. In chapter 1, Sherwood parades before the reader a number of “Mainstream” interpretations of Jonah (which she invariably equates with Anglo-European Christian colonialism), tracing its history among Christian interpreters from the very earliest disagreement regarding the meaning of Jesus’s “sign of Jonah” (cf. Matt. 12:38-40 and Luke 11:29-30). From there, the hapless yet indignant Jonah is imagined by the early Church Fathers as a proto-Christ figure whose three days in the belly of the fish prefigure Christ’s three days in the tomb. Medieval interpreters morph the book into an anti-Jewish tale about Christian supersessionism, and Reformation figures like John Calvin and John Hooper locate Jonah’s body as the site of divine physical punishment, drowning, beating, and burning him into submission as the ideal “docile disciple”.

In chapter 2, Sherwood explores Jonah’s reception history among Jewish communities, in addition to other less recognized interpretations representative of the “ex-centric, the marginalized, the ones that got away” (p.91). Such a pursuit is admirable, as it seeks to acknowledge and affirm those readings judged implicitly by mainstream scholarship to be irrelevant. These various readings of Jonah poke and prod the text, questioning (and approving) Jonah’s motives in fleeing to Tarshish, traveling along with him as he suffers one indignity after another at the hands of a calculating anthropomorphic deity. Following the midrashic tradition, they tease out minute details into entirely new narratives. In one reading, Jonah is swallowed by two fish—a male and a female, respectively—due to a gender-flipping error in the Hebrew text. In Wolf Mankowitz’s one-act play, It Should Happen to a Dog, Jonah becomes a sort of biblical Rodney Dangerfield—“No respect, I tell ya!”—who recognizes the ludicrousness of his situation and conveys that absurdity by way of pithy one-liners. And Norma Rosen’s “Justice for Jonah, or a Bible Bartleby,” a midrash from a post-Shoah worldview, challenges the very core of the text’s message of a merciful God, inviting Jonah effectively to sit shiva with those still living in the aftermath of unimaginable cruelty.

Sherwood’s methodology, bouncing around from history to theology to the visual and performing arts, is enthralling. At the same time, however, she dismisses altogether readings of the text that exhibit what she calls a “Sunday school morality” (pp.95-96). It is clear from A Biblical Text and Its Afterlives that Sherwood much prefers the so-called “Backwaters” of exotic interpretation to the (mostly Christian) “Mainstream”. And yet, strangely, in her rush to castigate overly simplistic moralizing readings, she overlooks the ending of one of her favorite midrashim—the Pirkei de-Rabbi EliezerJonah’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea adventure in which the gaping interior of the fish becomes a synagogue lit by pearl-light. After encountering and chasing away the Leviathan by showing him the marks of his circumcision (i.e. “the sign of the covenant”) and exploring the primordial waters in his piscine submarine, the midrash ends with a sweetly simplistic reflection on the conversion of the pagan sailors to the worship of YHWH: “And because of them, we pray for the welfare of the righteous converts” (Rachel Adelman, “The Poetics of Time and Space,” p.380). If one wishes to take seriously the reception history of a given biblical text, one must also take these moralistic readings into account, no matter how boring or repulsive we find the “Mainstream” to be.

“A Lump of Concrete and Stone”: Emmanuel Levinas on Jewish Art and Representation

This quarter I’ve been taking a doctoral colloquium on text, image, and artifact in the study of religion. One of the assigned readings was an essay by Emmanuel Levinas titled “Reality and Its Shadow,” in which Levinas offers a critical view of the concept of Jewish figural representation in art.


Emmanuel Levinas

As is often the case with Levinas’s writing, the central thesis of “Reality and Its Shadow” is not immediately apparent. He begins with the confession that his project is primarily critical: “Not content with being absorbed in aesthetic enjoyment, the public feels an irresistible need to speak…The fact that one cannot contemplate in silence justifies the critic.” And yet the primary function of art, says Levinas, is not to communicate an idea or concept. In fact, it’s precisely the opposite. The purpose of art is to obscure. Thus the central focus of Levinas’s essay is to invert this popular understanding of art as imitative of reality. “Art does not know a particular type of reality; it contrasts with knowledge. It is the very event of obscuring, a descent of the night, an invasion of shadow…[it] does not belong to the order of revelation. Nor does it belong to that of creation, which moves in just the opposite direction” (emphasis added). Levinas argues that the act of producing visual art is fundamentally the act of substituting an object’s image for the thing itself. It is not the communication of a concept, since a concept is “an object grasped, the intelligible object.”

For Levinas, visual art, like the human subject, is “greater than the sum of its parts.” In addition to its composite elements—canvas, paint, texture—the most primary component of image, which distinguishes it from symbol, sign, or language, is its function of resemblance to its object. Elsewhere, Levinas would refer to this phenomenon as the “surplus of being.” Where I grew up in rural Missouri, it was common to refer to a child who especially took after one parent or the other as the “spittin’ image” of their mother or father. One folk etymology of this odd phrase suggests that it is a truncation of the idiom “spirit and image”; that is, not only does the child resemble the parent in physical appearance, they also embody their parent’s very being, or spirit. Similarly, Levinas argues that “being is not only itself, it escapes itself.” It is precisely this phenomenon of simultaneously being and escaping being to which Levinas refers when he calls art the “shadow” of reality.

In a move that would make René Magritte proud, Levinas uses this concept of art as reality’s shadow to reinforce the distinction between the image and the object it resembles. “The consciousness of [artistic] representation lies in knowing that the object is not there. The perceived elements are not the object but are like its ‘old garments,’ spots of color, chunks of marble or bronze.” The painting of a pipe, in other words, is incapable of being stuffed with tobacco and smoked. “The painting then,” says Levinas, “does not lead us beyond the given reality, but somehow to the hither side of it. It is a symbol in reverse.” Incidentally, though Levinas does not fully explore this avenue of thought, it is this very distinction between an image, its component parts, and the object it resembles that lies at the heart of the religious category of idolatry—the image of the object is taken for the object itself. While visiting the home of a teacher at a Buddhist monastery in Myanmar in 2011, our host noticed me staring curiously at a large statue of Buddha, adorned with flowers and incense, resting in a prominent place in his living room. “We do not pray to the Buddha,” he said, offering an answer to a question I never asked. “The Buddha is a lump of concrete and stone.”

Levinas draws nuanced distinctions between the performing arts, literature, and visual art (the varieties of which he collapses into the category of statue, meaning static). For Levinas, these distinctions have to do primarily with how each medium captures, employs, and exists in time. “The life of an artwork does not go beyond the limit of an instant.” Levinas calls this instant the “meanwhile”: the eternal freezing of a single moment in time in which there might be a past, but there is certainly no future. To use Levinas’s own examples, Laocoön and his sons will forever be trapped in the grip of sea serpents, and Mona Lisa’s smile will never progress beyond a slight upturning of the corners of her lips. By contrast, however, where images capture a single, infinite moment, texts (particularly novels) place their characters in an infinite closed loop of narrative time: “A novel shuts beings up in a fate despite their freedom.” Thus, unlike an image, each successive reading of a text recapitulates the action of the narrative in the unfolding present. To read O’Connor’s Wise Blood a hundred times is to cause Hazel Motes to blind himself over and over again.

Laying aside criticism in the conclusion of his essay, Levinas returns to a discussion of the phenomenology of aesthetic enjoyment: “[Art] frees. To make or to appreciate a novel and a picture is to no longer have to conceive, is to renounce the effort of science, philosophy, and action. Do not speak, do not reflect, admire in silence and in peace—such are the counsels of wisdom satisfied before the beautiful.” Thirteen years after the publication of “Reality and Its Shadow,” Levinas will further develop this concept of enjoyment—which he calls by the French jouissance—in Totality and Infinity (1961). While Levinas’s discussion of aesthetic enjoyment is not the end of “Reality and Its Shadow,” it is here that I would like to conclude on a personal note.

I do not always understand Levinas; in fact, I often misunderstand him. His writing is dense and rich. He chooses words for their etymological exactness and not necessarily for their conventionally agreed-upon meaning (as in his use of the word statue to indicate all visual art, discussed above). The concepts he attempts to illuminate are often highly abstract. Despite these difficulties, however, I nonetheless deeply enjoy the sheer act of reading Levinas. Breaking down his ideas sentence by sentence and wrestling with his descriptions of phenomenological experience fills me with something analogous to his description of aesthetic enjoyment. Perhaps this is precisely the point that Levinas is attempting to make with respect to art. To gaze upon art, to be absorbed in the act of visual stimulation with no specific need for total comprehension but rather to simply soak it up, so to speak, is itself to surpass the bounds of being, and to exist outside oneself.

On Anti-Jewish Art in the Middle Ages


“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God,'” Illumination of Psalm 52, Psalter and Hours of Bonne of Luxembourg

This week I finished reading Sara Lipton’s recent book, Dark Mirror: The Medieval Origins of Anti-Jewish Iconography, for my doctoral colloquium on Text, Image, and Artifact in Judaism.

At once enthralling and horrifying, Lipton’s book calls for a reevaluation of anti-Jewish iconography in medieval art. Long attributed by art historians to a rising tide of xenophobic Christian attitudes in the Middle Ages, Lipton instead suggests that the gradual development of anti-Jewish art and rhetoric originated primarily as a reflection of Christian moral teaching; as images became increasingly popular as pedagogical tools for exhorting Christians to live and behave in certain ways, the figure of the Jew gradually became more and more distinct and slowly took on a negative valence.

The best summary of the thesis for Dark Mirror comes at the conclusion of the book:

Rather than view depictions of Jews simply through the lens of Jewish-Christian relations, much less of anti-Judaism, we need to situate the medieval artworks examined here within the devotional, intellectual, political, and even legal cultures of medieval Christendom…The primary realm in which these images must be understood is, simply, the realm of religious imagery. At almost no point, I believe, did medieval Christian clerics or artists consciously set out to create an anti-Jewish visual repertoire, much less to inspire anti-Jewish violence or retribution. Rather, when they needed to think about how to see and understand the material world, they turned to a figure that had long stood for materialism and fleshly ritual (pp. 279-80).

Yet despite the fact that medieval Christian artists did not consciously “set out to create an anti-Jewish visual repertoire,” Lipton argues, this nevertheless failed to prevent the rise of anti-Jewish sentiment in art and culture. In service to this thesis, Lipton traces the figure of the Jew as it unfolds throughout the history of High Medieval art, from early depictions of Jews as wise sages and prophets to later configurations of Jews as greedy and murderous foreigners. Throughout the book, Lipton argues that medieval Christian thought regarding Jews followed a somewhat linear trajectory as Jews increasingly became the subject of artistic interpretation beginning in the 11th century. Originally understood as the foundation and progenitors of the Christian faith, over the course of three or four centuries Jewish physical characteristics became increasingly exaggerated and caricatured. This ultimately created a sort of feedback loop—or, to use a term from Baudrillard, a simulacrum—by which life began to imitate art. As anti-Jewish sentiment began to rise in Europe throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, civic authorities often turned to earlier artistic depictions of Jews as evidence of their difference and otherness, and used those images to reinforce common prejudice.

I was frequently reminded throughout the book of another early medieval writer I’ve been reading lately who expressed anti-Jewish sentiment in his biblical commentaries and Ecclesiastical History: the Venerable Bede (ca. 672 – 735). Though a span of about four hundred years separated Bede from the High Middle Ages that are the subject of Lipton’s book, it was fascinating to read them in conjunction with one another and to discern the origins of late medieval anti-Jewish iconography in early medieval monastic texts. The figure of the Jew stands in for all sort of abominable traits in Bede’s exegetical and historical works, from dishonesty and greed to spiritual blindness. In his Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, for example, Bede argues that Jews began their descent into materiality and idolatry at the very moment the Israelites worshiped the golden calf in Exodus 32.[1] In a rhetorical apostrophe elsewhere in the same volume, Bede suddenly and unexpectedly interrupts his second-person exposition of Acts 5:23 to address a hypothetical Jew directly: “Why, profane Jew, are you prompted by blind frenzy to say that the Lord was taken away from the tomb by thieving apostles?”[2] Two things are notable here: the explicit reference to Jewish “profanity” or worldliness, and the focus upon Jewish blindness toward Christian truth—a motif that, as Lipton demonstrates throughout her book, would eventually become the subject of a number of depictions of Jews in High Medieval art. The irony, of course, is that as an English Northumbrian monk living on the extreme margin of the known Western world, Bede very likely never saw a Jew in his entire life. Rather, Bede inherited his anti-Jewish sentiments from the patristic authors he read in his library at Wearmouth-Jarrow: Eusebius, Augustine, Jerome, Gregory the Great, and Ambrose, to name a few.[3] Just as Lipton argues of medieval art in Dark Mirror, for Bede the Jew was a textual blank slate, upon which could be written any number of cautionary tales used for the teaching of fellow monks and Christian laity.

[1] Lawrence T. Martin, The Venerable Bede: Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1989), 73.

[2] Ibid, 59.

[3] Ironically, Bede was also deeply knowledgeable of the works of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, of whom he has almost nothing but good things to say.

Is the Bible “Literature”?

Student with pipe / c.1868

A student with a pipe. – Photograph, c.1868 (Bullock Brothers, Royal Leamington). From the private photo album of G.E. Barnes. Archie Miles Collection, Coll. Archiv f.Kunst & Geschichte.

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the application of literary criticism/theory to biblical texts, and was recently challenged with a surprisingly simple question: Is the Bible even literature in the first place?

Postmodern literary critic J. Hillis Miller has expressed his doubts regarding the claim that the Bible constitutes literature. According to Miller, the approach to the Bible as word of God carries an entirely separate set of assumptions that call into question its suitability to be read (and approached critically) as literature:

The reasons to read (or not to read) the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis are quite different from the reasons to read (or not to read) Dickens, Wordsworth, Shakespeare, or even Dante and Milton, religious poets though these latter two are. The demands made on the reader by sacred and secular texts are quite different from one another…The Bible, for Christians in our culture, has absolute authority as God’s word. That word was dictated to various inspired scribes and prophetic mediums. It was canonized by the highest church and state authorities.[1]

Miller goes on to argue that the main reason the Bible has been given its authoritative status as an icon of Western culture is because “in recent centuries [biblical authority has] tended to be sanctioned by state power.”[2] For Miller, the Bible’s religious status as “the Word of God” calls into question its cultural status as literature. While Miller is correct to note the power dynamics that complicate reading the Bible as literature, his argument—brief as it is—ultimately lacks any qualitative substance.

One of the most obvious difficulties with Miller’s claim is that he employs an anachronistic understanding of the dichotomy between sacred and secular, a categorical division that did not emerge with prominence until the European Enlightenment.[3] The selections of texts that constitute what we today refer to as the Bible were composed in an historical context in which the division between “sacred” and “secular” simply did not exist. Moreover, Miller seems to operate on a set of theological assumptions of the meaning behind the Bible as “God’s Word” that is almost solely informed by conservative American Evangelicalism. This much is evident from his simplistic characterization of the Bible as “absolute authority,” and “dictated to various inspired scribes and prophetic mediums,” which by no means adequately represents the vast canvas of Jewish and Christian traditions regarding sacred scripture. The insistence that the Bible is not literature because of the way it is read by one specific community of readers operates on the same logic as the claim that Shakespeare’s The Tempest can only be properly read through a postcolonial lens.

In my opinion, a far more appropriate (and difficult) challenge is whether or not the application of post-Enlightenment methods of literary criticism are applicable to an ancient text composed in now-dead languages. While Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan argues in her book on narrative fiction that one may engage in an analysis of the elements of story regardless of translation, this still leaves the question of time and historical context.[4]

James Kugel, for instance, engages in no small amount of academic hand-wringing over the lack of a universal, trans-historical standard for literary interpretation. For Kugel, “there is nothing timeless or universal about literary values. Texts are framed in an environment of convention, and read in an environment of convention, and sometimes the conventions are not the same. In the case of the Bible and the modern literary reader, the disjunction is enormous.”[5]

This is of course true, but we should acknowledge that differences in literary conventions are almost always a matter of degrees—twenty-first-century American literary conventions are not the same as seventeenth-century German literary conventions, and yet most of the time we are able to get along just fine regarding seventeenth-century German narrative works as literary, at least to a certain degree. In Kugel’s view, while the Bible is an important historical (and theological) artifact, it is nonetheless inappropriate to apply modern literary theory to it as if it were part of the accepted literary canon:

One does not read the U.S. Constitution as literature, nor Muzzey’s History of the American People as literature, nor (to stick to an American context) Billy Graham’s sermons, Poor Richard’s Almanac, or the monthly bulletin of the Federal Reserve as literature…In some important ways, the Bible is not literature, and, more precisely, ‘literary analysis’ is not, simply because it exists, an operation to be performed on any text that comes along.[6]

For Kugel, none of these examples constitute literature because none of them claim to be literature themselves. Furthermore, he argues, just because literary criticism is a hammer in our tool belt does not necessarily imply that the Bible is our corresponding nail.

Yet, as Adele Berlin has responded to Kugel, “The question of literariness should not be decided on the basis of function, nor on how the work identifies itself. Few works, after all, claim to be literature.”[7] For Berlin, the Bible is in fact literature precisely “because of its artful verbal expression and compelling ideas.”[8] Instead of writing off the entire enterprise of biblical literary criticism, Berlin argues that a more nuanced approach is necessary: one that includes sensitivity to historical context as well as knowledge of current and ancient literary conventions: “Modern competence alone is not enough; it must be balanced by knowledge of philology, scribal practices, ancient near eastern history, literature, etc.”[9] Moreover, the task of literary formalism isn’t to read into the text what isn’t actually there, but to describe formal elements that are (at least in some sense) universal to all narrative systems. Formalism is about description, not evaluation.

I suggest that Berlin’s “artful verbal expression and compelling ideas” is helpful in determining whether the Bible can or should be read as literature. For my part, I prefer a simple maximalist definition of literature: that which is widely read or viewed for enjoyment or personal edification. Counter to Kugel, biblical narrative is not dependant upon anachronistic applications of literary theory. And against Miller, the fact that some readers of Biblical narrative belong to communities that understand the text as the word of God while other readers do not makes little difference; sacred literature must first be literature before it can become sacred.



[1] J. Hillis Miller, On Literature, New York: Routledge, 2002, pp.83, 85.

[2] Ibid, 86.

[3] See, for example, Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007).

[4] Rimmon-Kenan, 8-9.

[5] James Kugel, 229.

[6] Kugel 218-19.

[7] Berlin, 323-24.

[8] Berlin, 324.

[9] Berlin, 326.

New Tattoo

 Violent_Bear_Away_BA_largeFrom the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.

—Matthew 11:12

This week I got my second tattoo, a reference to the closing scene of Flannery O’Connor’s final novel, The Violent Bear It Away.

The book tells the story of Francis Marion Tarwater, an orphaned teenager living on a remote rural farm with his fundamentalist Christian and self-styled fire-and-brimstone prophet uncle. Over the course of his formative teenage years, his uncle constantly impresses upon Tarwater that he will become a prophet, just like the old man:

While he was telling this to Tarwater, he would jump up and begin to shout and prophesy there in the clearing…With no one to hear but the boy, he would flail his arms and roar, “Ignore the Lord Jesus as long as you can! Spit out the bread of life and sicken on honey. Whom work beckons, to work! Whom blood to blood! Whom lust to lust! Make haste, make haste. Fly faster and faster. Spin yourselves in a frenzy, the time is short! The Lord is preparing a prophet. The Lord is preparing a prophet with fire in his hand and eye and the prophet is moving toward the city with his warning. The prophet is coming with the Lord’s message. ‘Go warn the children of God,’ saith the Lord, ‘of the terrible speed of justice.’

But after his uncle dies, Tarwater leaves the farm and heads for the city, where he encounters another uncle, Rayber, who is a schoolteacher, a rationalist, and a staunch atheist. The two characters clash frequently throughout the novel, with Tarwater simultaneously struggling to avoid and live up to the calling his old uncle had bestowed upon him. O’Connor beautifully portrays the conflicted heart and mind of the modern human being, the person ripped mercilessly in two by faith and reason.

In the closing scene of the novel, Tarwater returns to his uncle’s farm and sets it on fire. Standing before a tree blazing against the night sky, the boy is struck to the ground and experiences, for the first time in his life, his divine prophetic calling:

He stood there, straining forward, but the scene faded in the gathering darkness. Night descended until there was nothing but a thin streak of red between it and the black line of earth but still he stood there. He felt his hunger no longer as a pain but as a tide. He felt it rising in himself through time and darkness, rising through the centuries, and he knew that it rose in a line of men whose lives were chosen to sustain it, who would wander in the world, strangers from that violent country where the silence is never broken except to shout the truth. He felt it building from the blood of Abel to his own, rising and engulfing him. It seemed in one instant to lift and turn him. He whirled toward the treeline. There, rising and spreading in the night, a red-gold tree of fire ascended as if it would consume the darkness in one tremendous burst of flame. The boy’s breath went out to meet it. He knew that this was the fire that had encircled Daniel, that had raised Elijah from the earth, that had spoken to Moses and would in the instant speak to him. He threw himself to the ground and with his face against the dirt of the grave, he heard the command. GO WARN THE CHILDREN OF GOD OF THE TERRIBLE SPEED OF MERCY. The words were as silent as seeds opening one at a time in his blood.


In the end, Tarwater’s prophetic calling is not to cry out against the sinfulness of the modern world, or—taking up the mantle of his uncle’s fundamentalism—to proclaim the Lord’s avenging justice. Instead, Tarwater is called by God to warn Christian believers of the terrible speed of God’s mercy.

The ongoing clash of faith and reason, Tarwater’s unexpected vocation, and the gritty reality of rural life portrayed in O’Connor’s novel are just a few of the reasons The Violent Bear It Away is among my favorite books, and well as the reason O’Connor herself remains my favorite author.

More Thoughts on Biblical Canon

“If you put chocolate coating on an Oreo, it’s a different cookie, and you ought to be able to charge more,” says Paul J. Caminiti, a vice president at Zondervan. “The packaging has to scream that this is something really new: First time! Fudge-dipped! Chocolate coated!” If I follow this metaphor correctly, the Bible is the Oreo, and the fudge dip is the extra stuff that the publisher adds. As we’ve seen, there’s at least as much double-stuffing as there is fudge-dipping. In any case, as he himself says, “it’s a different cookie.” Is it still an Oreo?

—Timothy Beal, The Rise and Fall of the Bible, p.69

The last few weeks I’ve been thinking about what, in the broadest of terms, counts as “Bible.” Since January in my biblical canon class, we have explored dozens of examples of “values-added” bibles, from the King James Bible to the New Revised Standard Version, from Biblezines to Rob Lacey’s The Word on the Street Bible. We have seen pictographic additions to ancient papyrus manuscripts, manga editions of the New Testament, and a seven-volume, three-foot-tall, modern illuminated Bible; we have seen photos of ancient frescoes depicting biblical narratives on the walls of catacombs, and we’ve even touched a bookworm-riddled Latin bible from the 16th century. In fact, while we have discussed how the Bible is “interpretation all the way down,” I wonder if we might also benefit from considering that the Bible is “values-added all the way down,” as well.

A recurring question that this course has posed is What exactly counts as biblical canon today? Given the numerous examples listed in the paragraph above, we are naturally led to wonder whether all of them fall under the rubric commonly understood as “Bible.” If a manga bible features no exact quotations from what is generally recognized as a biblical text, but instead contains only images and dialogue between characters with chapter-and-verse citations footnoted at the bottom of each page, does it still count as “Bible”? If not, what about Lacey’s The Word on the Street Bible, which reconfigures Paul’s epistles as “emails” and paraphrases words like “Lord” (translated from the Greek κύριος) as “Boss,” or “Coach”? If The Word on the Street Bible is not a “true Bible” (whatever that phrase might mean), what about Eugene Peterson’s loose paraphrase, The Message? And if The Message is too textually “loose” to be considered “Bible,” how about actual translations of the Bible that hold to more of a dynamic equivalence theory of translation rather than formal correspondence (e.g. the NIV, The New Living Translation, the CEV)? Still other Bibles that are more recognizable as such have added value that calls into question the integrity of the text itself—take, for instance, Your Personalized Bible, an online business that specializes in inserting the name of a reader (or, perhaps more accurately, “customer”) into the text of the scriptures. Once again, when it comes to the question of what constitutes a recognizable Bible, it appears that we have a paradox of degrees.

In response to these questions, I found Jonathan Z. Smith’s essay, “Sacred Persistence: Toward a Redescription of Canon” extremely helpful.[1] “I have come to believe,” Smith says, “that a prime object of study for the historian of religion ought to be theological tradition, taking the term in its widest sense, in particular, those elements of the theological endeavor that are concerned with canon and its exegesis.”[2] This does not mean that the question of canon must be answered confessionally, resorting to one’s particular views on theological concepts like revelation, but rather that the notion of canon by necessity must be recognized as arising from certain key theological beliefs. Smith offers two conceptions of canon that he think to be inadequate. The first is the idea that canon is rigid, imposed, unchanging. In this view, the phenomenon of the biblical canon would be noted for its ‘givenness,’ and characterized as ‘primordial.’[3] The second view that Smith rejects is that canon is arbitrary, entirely dependent upon the culture from which it emerges, indistinguishable from other cultural norms. Against these two extremes, Smith suggests the possibility of a middle way using the universal human phenomenon of food and diet as a metaphor to speak of canon as a sort of dialectic. According to Smith:

Granted that food is best understood as a cultural rather than a natural category, the dynamics of its limitation and variation are more complex than a simple relativism would suggest. A given foodstuff represents a radical, almost arbitrary, selection out of the incredible number of potential sources of nutriment that are at hand. But, once the selection is made, the most extraordinary attention is given to the variety of its preparation. That is to say, if food is a phenomenon characterized by limitation, cuisine is a phenomenon characterized by variegation.[4]

Screen Shot 2016-03-11 at 10.40.31 AM.pngIn this way, canon can be properly understood to represent an ongoing tension between limitation and liberty. Continuing with the metaphor of food and diet, there are three key steps to which Smith alerts his reader that are applicable to canon formation: 1) The initial variety of food available for human consumption is almost limitless; 2) Limitations emerge as the result of cultural conditioning (e.g. “Pork is unclean”) geography (e.g. “Tomatoes do not grow here”), or other factors; 3) Within these limitations, a seemingly inexhaustible plurality of interpretation emerges in response to restriction. Using Smith’s imagery, we may conclude that the Christian biblical canon emerged as a number of texts selected by broad consensus that held value for early Christian communities, and which continue to provide ongoing meaning for the church today. Rather than deviations from a pristine and Platonic ideal “Bible,” the plethora of “values-added” bibles, paraphrases, and graphic novelizations of biblical narratives available on the market today are instead expressions of canon and in part reactions to the restrictive nature of the process of canonization. To put it succinctly (at the risk of oversimplification), the answer to the question, What is biblical canon? is Whatever the Church or faith community says it is.



[1] Jonathan Z. Smith, “Sacred Persistence: Toward a Redescription of Canon,” in Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 36-52.

[2] Ibid, 43.

[3] Ibid, 41.

[4] Ibid, 39 – 40. Italics original.

Will the Real Gospel Please Stand Up?

Magritte_The-Son-of-ManIn my last post, I used the philosophical problem of the Sorites Paradox to illustrate the difficulty in pinning down exactly what counts as a “real” book of the Bible. A recent essay by Ronald Hendel, Professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at UC Berkeley, might help to clarify our thoughts enough to offer a tentative answer.[1] In “What Is a Biblical Book?” Hendel uses the philosophy of art to propose an answer to the question we looked at in my last post. [Spoiler Alert: This post will be a little more technical than my last one.]

In The Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant posed the philosophical question, “What is a book?” Hendel uses this question as a baseline to begin thinking about biblical books. According to Hendel’s reading of Kant, a book is a “physical object—that is, a manuscript or printed text” that functions semiotically “‘to represent a discourse’ to the public…by means of ‘visible linguistic signs.’”[2] In other words, we recognize the Gospel of Luke as the Gospel of Luke by means of linguistic and semiotic markers that are generally recognizable to those who have read the Gospel of Luke before. When we read an ancient text about the birth of Jesus that features shepherds and angels singing “Glory to God in the highest,” we can be reasonably certain we are reading the Gospel of Luke.

Next, Hendel next builds on Nelson Goodman’s distinction between autographic and allographic arts and Charles Peirce and Richard Wollheim’s distinction between types and tokens to narrow and sharpen the way we think about biblical books. While an autographic work, according to Goodman, is a “single object, locatable in space and time,” like a “painting or a sculpture” (e.g. da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Rodin’s The Kiss), an allographic work “exist[s] in multiple and dispersed copies, and any accurate copy is an authentic instantiation of the artwork.”[3] An autographic work cannot be authentically duplicated—copies, even extremely convincing copies, are referred to either as “forgeries” or “prints.” The poster of René Magritte’s The Son of Man that hung on my dorm room wall in college was not the work of Magritte’s own hand, but a cheap reproduction purchased from the campus bookstore. By contrast, an allographic work does not depend upon a pristine, Platonic “original,” but is instead marked by the fact that any copy of the work is a genuine instantiation of that work. The PDF of Hendel’s essay that I read, for instance, is not the same instantiation as the hard copy of Hendel’s essay found in the Library of Congress, yet both copies are unquestionably understood to be the same essay.

Curiously, however, Goodman’s conception of an allographic work depends upon very strict limitations with regard to variations among texts. Should a copy vary from the author’s manuscript by a single character, according to Goodman, such a variation would constitute an entirely different work.[4] It is not difficult to see how Goodman’s hypothesis falls short of proper application to the field of New Testament textual criticism. Not only are the original manuscripts of the Gospel texts unavailable to us (assuming we would even recognize them if they existed), but should we apply Goodman’s hypothesis unaltered to ancient manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke, for example, we would find that the Gospel of Luke does not exist; we would have merely a number of texts with remarkable linguistic/semiotic similarities. To remedy Goodman’s oversight, Hendel points out that texts like James Joyce’s Ulysses and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass exist in a legion of variations and editions, yet all of these variations are still considered instantiations of the same works.

Instead, Hendel suggests that Goodman’s hypothesis be revised to include “sameness of words and word sequences,” or “sameness of substantive readings.”[5] In other words, if two compositions contain extended passages of identical or closely parallel text, chances are good that they are both instantiations of the same allographic work. In this way, Hendel maintains that books are doubly allographic: they are allographic in the sense that any number of copies of an original work constitute instantiations of that same work, but they are also allographic in the sense that variations may exist even among those copies and yet still be considered instantiations of the same work.[6] Thus, each of those twelve early copies of the Gospel of Luke mentioned above can still be considered the Gospel of Luke, despite their numerous textual variants. Yet this still leaves the question posed by the Sorites Paradox in my last post: at what point does a text vary so much that it is no longer recognizable as a particular allographic instantiation? Or, as Hendel puts it, “Can we specify a limit to the range of allowable variation?”[7]

To answer this question, Hendel employs the distinction between type and token as a critical method of distinguishing between copies of texts. A type, according to Hendel’s reading of Peirce and Wollheim, is an abstract concept that reflects a sort of Platonic ideal of a given object, word, or idea. On the other hand, a token is a particular instantiation of a type.[8] For example, the specific bike that I ride to the university almost every day—an 8-speed 2015 Kona Dew—is a particular instantiation of the same model produced by Kona. My particular bike is a token, while Kona’s model design is a type. Even more generally, it could be said that my bike is a token of the concept of bicycle, which is also a type. Likewise, according to Hendel’s argument, we could also say that the idea of the Gospel of Luke is a type, while the individual copies and manuscript fragments mentioned above are tokens of the Third Gospel. Thus the answer to the question posed by the Sorites Paradox to discipline of textual criticism, according to Hendel, is something like this: As long as the linguistic and semiotic markers of a token text bear close enough resemblance to what readers recognize as the allographic type of that text, that particular token text is acknowledged as a genuine instantiation of the allographic type text.

What do you think? Is Hendel’s answer reasonable?



[1] Ronald Hendel, “What Is a Biblical Book?” in From Author to Copyist: Essays on the Composition, Redaction, and Transmission of the Hebrew Bible, ed. by Cana Werman (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2015), 283-302.

[2] Ibid, 284.

[3] Ibid, 285.

[4] Ibid, 286.

[5] Ibid, 287.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 289.