In Tents # 13 The Story of Jesus the Pharisee, But First Yet Another Digression, This Time About the Nature of Interpretation

Yet another digression? Is this turning into the Tristram Shandy of blogs? Digression following digression following digression, never actually getting to he thesis? No, the thesis is easy to demonstrate. Consider Luke 13:31

The same day there came certain of the Pharisees, saying unto him, Get thee out, and depart hence: for Herod will kill thee.

This is the passage James Carver gave in a 1988 Institute class in Seattle when he told us he had read a book arguing Jesus was a Pharisee and I asked for an example. His question, “Why would the Pharisees warn Jesus of Herod if they were Jesus’ enemies?” set me to looking for other examples. One will suffice for now, one of several questions posed, by who is ambiguous (yes, I know whom is correct but every time I hear that word I think of Soren Cox’s comment that anytime he wanted to intimidate a nephew who was being obnoxious he’d just throw in a couple of whoms) to Jesus in Mark 2:

18 And the disciples of John and of the Pharisees used to fast: and they come and say unto him, Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but thy disciples fast not?


Does the question have to be read as a challenge? Could it be read as a question from people sincerely wanting to know why this young rabbi was departing from practices of other groups? If they had heard talk that Jesus considered John his forerunner they might wonder why his forerunner fasted but he didn’t.

19 And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them? as long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.

Does the answer have to be read as combative, as a rebuke or retort? (The answer might even be given by a new bride and groom, just married the day before Fast Sunday.) Substitute a different question:

Why do you take the sacrament with your left hand? Don’t you know the right hand is the hand of covenant?

Is that question combative? It may sound like a busybody question or a rebuke, but maybe it comes from a child who has just been taught in primary about how important it is to take the sacrament with the right hand.

Consider this answer:

So does that mean that people who have lost their right hand or have a withered hand are incapable of making covenants with the Lord?

Does such an answer have to be argumentative? Maybe it comes from one who worships on Sundays with people who can’t grasp a piece of bread–can’t guide a thimble-cup to their lips–with either hand but want as fervently as any who can to renew their covenants with the Lord.

Re-reading the imagined conversation above I realize I’ve created a context for the question and answer about taking the sacrament, and that is what we don’t have in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s encounters with the Pharisees. Which reminds me of that very useful sidebar, “Bringing the Words to Life,” on p. 124 of Biblica: The Bible Atlas (Viking, Penguin Group (Australia), 2006).”Biblical texts often record the outline or gist of a story because it would have been too costly for ancient scribes to record everything verbatim.”

The sidebar goes on to say that Israelite storytellers added details, filling in the outline, in performance. I suspect the early Christian storytellers used the written texts in the same way. It wasn’t as if the gospel writers could go into the church library and pull a bunch of scratch paper from the garbage can next to the copier. Writing materials and literacy were much scarcer than that, which may partly account for that intriguing final comment in The Gospel John:

And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen.
John 21:25

The comment echoes the beginning of the gospel: The world created by the Word could not contain the words that could be written about the words and deeds of the Word. But I suspect it’s also an elegant way of saying what Mormon says repeatedly, that there’s not room on the plates to contain even “a hundredth part” (Words of Mormon 1:5). Indeed, I wonder if John’s words don’t represent an editorial comment. Probably not, because of their elegant echo of the beginning, but verse 24 may well be an editor’s identification of a source rather than the author’s self-identification.

Suggesting that the gospels represent a recitation outline intended for people who know the story raises the question of what happened to the story when those reciters died? One thing that happened was that people who had no personal knowledge of the events, who didn’t know the people involved, started filling in the details themselves.

That is, there are precious few adverbs in the gospels. I just yesterday finished a 26-hour listen to Moby Richard and it’s clear Ishmael never read Stephen King’s dictum, “The adverb is not your friend.” (On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Simon and Schuster Audio, 2000). But not having any adverbs can leave you feeling friendless. The problem with not speaking adverbially is that unless you have a narrative that clarifies the manner of speaking, or the dialogue implies a gesture (God do so to me and more if . . . (see II Kings 6:31 and many others) there’s no indication of whether the question was shouted, or asked humbly, or whether the answer was given sarcastically or dolefully or vividly–that is, full of life and joy, maybe even a carefree shrug.

Without words to specify the manner of speaking, we imagine the manner, or we adopt the imagined manner that has been handed down by our culture. But once you re-imagine the manner of speaking, once you ask yourself if there’s another way to see the encounters with the Pharisees, those encounters begin to look less like combat, more like the debates between a philosophy professor and students, between rabbi and disciples.

OK, so why the digressions? my questioner from the first paragraph asks. Why not just give examples and build on them? Because once you start thinking of Jesus as a Pharisee the examples seem so obvious that you wonder why it took so long to see them. And the answer to that question has a lot to do with how you conceive of perfection and what you believe about interpretation.

Consider Matthew 6:2:

Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

and this commentary from the Jewish Annotated New Testament, “Jews did not, contrary to popular Christian preaching, have trumpets announce donations” (p. 13).

Assuming both Jesus and his hearers knew that no one sits in the temple blowing a horn for every donation, he must be exaggerating or making his point with a humorous figure of speech, that we can remember every time we see a commercial with some company touting all the good they do in the community.

But would a perfect person say something that wasn’t sincere? Would a perfect person exaggerate? I’m not being flippant. There are all kinds of sources arguing that the Gospels are figurative, not meant to be literal history, that the Virgin Birth and Resurrection are parables, that we need to look at the anagogical or spiritual meanings of the miracles and not get hung up on the literal meaning of the stories. (As if literal events don’t have spiritual significance.) But I have seen very few sources arguing that we shouldn’t take Jesus’s encounters with the Pharisees at what we believe to be their face value as combat.

Why? I suspect it’s because we have so much reverence for Jesus that we don’t think of him as using the same kinds of discourse the rest of us do. Or maybe we think the gospel writers had that kind of reverence. But that kind of reverance may mask something else. We might think we’re simply establishing a respectful distance between ourselves and deity, but that respectful distance can distance us from God in other ways. As Scott Parkin said in his comment on In Tents # 10, “I would argue that the idea of a passionless (and by corollary, emotionless) god is one of those destructive additions to plain and precious truths that separates us from God and attempts to make him unknowable and incomprehensible–and thus outside our daily concern, real relationship, or direct accountability.”

There’s a handy example of Jesus using the same kinds of rhetorical tropes as the rest of his culture in Mark 7:

25 For a certain woman, whose young daughter had an unclean spirit, heard of him, and came and fell at his feet:
26 The woman was a Greek, a Syrophenician by nation; and she besought him that he would cast forth the devil out of her daughter.
27 But Jesus said unto her, Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it unto the dogs.
28 And she answered and said unto him, Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs.

When we were talking about this in the Gospel Doctrine class I teach at the care center I suggested that Jesus was not always tactful in what he said to others. Up shot the hand of the branch president’s counselor. “Dogs was what the Jews called gentiles.”

Precisely. I had been thinking of the scene as Jesus choosing the most striking metaphor he could to explain that his mission was only to the covenant people, and not paying attention to the metaphor’s literal meaning. The fact that the literal meaning of a metaphor drops away can give metaphors great coercive power. As often as not they’re designed to end the discussion. The reason Jesus gives to the Syprophenecian woman is a dead metaphor meant to kill the discussion.

But she revives the metaphor, gently or passionately reminding Jesus of what his words actually mean. She changes the connotation by reminding him of the denotation. And Jesus responds not with crumbs but adoption and affection.

29 And he said unto her, For this saying go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter.
30 And when she was come to her house, she found the devil gone out, and her daughter laid upon the bed.

But maybe it’s not our ideas about how a perfect being behaves that stop us from rethinking Jesus’s relationship with the Pharisees. It might be our ideas about the nature of interpretation. Back in January when the Gospel Doctrine class was studying Lehi’s dream one of the women asked me afterwards about the etiquette of interpreting scripture. Did she have the authority herself to interpret scripture, to think about what the iron rod might mean in her life?

I assured her that she did, and when my teaching turn came up again two weeks later I addressed her question. (Of course, she wasn’t there that day.) I asked the class, “How do you interpret the iron rod? What does it mean to you?” I thought I would get some responses like, “The Ensign,” or “General Conference,” or other examples of the word of God being spoken among us, or passed among us like the sacrament, and I would say something like, “Lots of good examples. Are any of them wrong?” And they would say, “No, of course not.”

But the mind readers weren’t in class that day so the mine-defusers stepped in. The afore-mentioned counselor’s wife said, “Since the interpretation is given in the text we don’t need to interpret it further. We already have the correct interpretation.”

“A correct interpretation.” I said, “There isn’t just one. Otherwise General Authorities couldn’t expound on the dream in their Conference talks.”

I relearned something important from that class (other than, “Could we stay a little closer the the manual,” as the branch president said later that afternoon on the way to the Wells Fargo wagon to deposit that day’s donations). Interpretation is transparent, that is, we don’t often think of interpretation as something constant as breathing. We think of it as what we do when we’re trying to make sense of a difficult passage in some text, not as something we do in the very act of reading or listening or smelling or touching or tasting.

We think of interpretation as departing from our normal activities, and departing from a norm is risky. Two thousand years of separation between Jews and Christians has set up a tradition of interpreting Jesus and the Jews as enemies. Indeed in his commentary on John Willis Barnstone (see In Tents # 11) points out repeatedly that John’s calling those Yeshua debates with the Jews obscures the fact that Yeshua was a Jew as much as using the English transliteration of the Greek transliteration of the Aramaic version of Yeshua’s name obscures his Jewish identity.

So are the digressions done? I hope so. Next month I hope to start looking at more examples of Jesus as a Jew among Jews, as a Pharisee (but perhaps not “of the most straitest sect” (Acts 26:5)) but in the meantime please forgive me one more digression as I note that my story about the Gospel Doctrine class is itself an example of how telling a story in bare outline can cause confusion if those reading the story don’t know how to fill in the outline. Someone aware of how LDS Church units are organized will infer from the story that the Gospel Doctrine teacher is also a member of the branch presidency and has as one of his duties counting donations and delivering them to the bank with the branch president. Someone who doesn’t know how a unit is organized might just find the parenthetical comment mildly confusing.

Next month more confusion, but I hope the confusion will fulfill the hope in what Earl Peirce (who told me he was a descendant of the people Hawthorne had written about in The House of the Seven Gables) used to say. Earl was our neighbor down the street and our hometeacher at one time. My father used to tell his students that after a wide-ranging and vigorous discussion Earl would say, “Maybe we haven’t solved all the world’s problems here, maybe we haven’t cleared up any confusion here, but I like to think we’re confused on a higher level, and about more important things.”

This entry was posted in Literary Views of Scripture and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to In Tents # 13 The Story of Jesus the Pharisee, But First Yet Another Digression, This Time About the Nature of Interpretation

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Very interesting. The notion of the gospels as prompts for contextual discussion is one I certainly had never considered, though I’ve long lamented the lack of context, sometimes in the New Testament but even more strikingly in much of the Old Testament. I recall as a teenager reading stories from (say) the book of Judges, and wondering: who’s the bad guy here? Is this thing I’ve just read about supposed to be a good thing, or a bad thing? (I remember in particular wondering this about the phrase, “In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes” [Judges 17:6; 21:25].)

    • Harlow Clark says:

      Thanks for your comment, Jonathan. I had a seminary teacher who raised the same question for me when he said, “I don’t think Heavenly Father was pleased by Jephthah sacrificing his daughter. Jephthah should have fallen on his face before the Lord and said, “Lord, I spoke rashly, please forgive me and release me from my vow. I cannot sacrifice my daughter.”

      My first reaction was that that was a naive reading by someone unfamiliar with the tradition of the word that cannot be unspoken, which is what Northrop Frye says at one point in The Great Code, but I haven’t believed that for a long time. It seems to me now that the story is a portrait of–or testament of, or testimony against–a culture that values women less than it values men.

      I got a further confirmation of that last fall when I was simultaneously listening to Robert Graves discussion in The Greek Myths of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia (What is it like to be running? Only she who is running knows, running knows, running knows, as Iphigenia in Brooklyn has it) and I Samuel 14, where Saul makes a rash and unbreakable vow that anyone who eats before evening will be put to death.

      Unaware of this, his son, your namesake, comes back from battle and eats. But do the men of the camp allow Saul to put his son to death? No, they rescue him. I wonder if they would have rescued Jonathan’s sister Michal if she had been the one to eat?

      Graves mentions the story of Jephthah’s daughter as a variant of Iphigenia and says Iphigenia is clearly a story about men suppressing goddess worship. He says we should we should read the story literally as a story about men who put women to death to further their own aims.

      I don’t know if my seminary teacher knew what a great gift he was giving me, the permission to question what scriptural characters say about themselves, about others, and even about the motives of others. This is particularly true in The Book of Mormon where Mormon balances inflammatory statements his narrators make about the Lamanites with a relentless portrait of Nephite mendacity. (Actually the Nephites are breaking culture down, rarely mending a city.)

      • Dennis says:

        That pun is not worthy of a comment, let alone a common tarry, so I’ll just say “Fair thee? Well….”

        • Harlow Clark says:

          All I can say is I learned to pun from the very best. Family legend has it that the year I was born my brother was out of school with rheumatic fever and took care of me.

          Apparently he also taught me language, and my prophet on’t is that I learned to speak nonsense. I can still remember the visceral shock I felt when my father read a poem about my brother from his newly published book Moods: Of Late and there right in the middle of an oft-told family story he spouted out a string of my private stock of nonsense words–words I had said my whole life, but only in private–attributed to Dennis, words I realized I hadn’t made up.

          So having made the shameful confession that I spout a lot of nonsense I will also confess that I rather enjoy the company of Sinbad the Sailor and Tinbad the Tailor and Nimbad the Nailer and Jinbad the Jailer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>