Friday, May 30, 2014

New Insights in Scripture

I’m not a Scripture scholar, but I think we’re living at a time when traditional interpretations of biblical passages are being re-evaluated and on occasion a new exegesis emerges.

Take, for example, Jesus’ parable about the ten gold coins (Luke 19:11-27). A king gives his servants gold coins and advises them to invest them in his absence. Upon his return the king finds that one servant earned ten additional coins, a second servant earned five more, and a third simply returned the coin with no interest. We usually make heroes of the two servants who returned more than they had received, and criticize the third for being unproductive.

Recently, however, we have put the parable in an historical context, identified the king as Archelaus, the Roman-approved ruler who had executed some 3000 rebels and then went to Rome to ask Emperor Augustus to give him the title of king. The servants are his henchmen whom he left in charge and their “additional coins” represent the terrorism they imposed while Archelaus was away. The servant who had no additional coins was the hero –he refused to be as cruel as his master.

This exegesis makes it easier to understand the king’s decision to slay his enemies on his return.  Jesus was not suggesting that the king was God, but was insisting that establishment of the kingdom of God would not be accomplished without persecution. Franciscan Richard Rohr concludes that Jesus’ lesson is: “If you want to live the truth then you must be prepared to pay the price for it” (Simplicity, Crossroad Publishing, 2003, p. 167).

Or take a second look at the Our Father in Matthew 6:9-13. Jesus has advised his followers, “Go to your room, close the door and pray to your Father in secret.” And recall that at Mass, the presider prefaces our recitation of the Lord’s prayer with “we dare to say.” Our daring and the secrecy Jesus suggested may reflect the subversive nature of that prayer.

Recently scholars have interpreted the “Father” not as parent but as patron. In Jesus’ day in conquered Palestine the Father-figure was the Roman emperor. The patronage system was part of the culture the Romans brought to the lands of conquest. In this cultural construct persons of means and influence (patrons) would do favors for clients (in exchange, of course, for loyalty and services). The emperor was the chief patron, and was known as pater patratus.

Social-science exegetes Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh explain that “the mutual obligations between patron and client were considered sacred and often became hereditary…The Roman emperor related to major public officials this way…A pervasive social network of patron-client relations thus arose in which connections meant everything” (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Fortress Press, 2003, pp. 388-89).

Christians who called upon God as “Father” were subtly challenging the emperor’s position and prestige. In his analysis of the Lord’s Prayer, Capuchin-Franciscan Michael Crosby concludes, “I have found it better, for cultural reasons as well as for my stance at prayer, to approach God not as parent called ‘Father’ but as patron upon whom we can always rely” (The Prayer That Jesus Taught Us, Orbis, 2002, p. 33).

This exegesis makes it easier to understand Matthew’s Jesus who says, “Your Father who sees in secret will repay you” (6:6) and “Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven” (23:9). Jesus was challenging the political scene with this prayer --perhaps a good reason for his followers to pray “in secret.”

A third participant in the patronage system, was the broker, the go-between who brings patron and client together. Malina and Rohrbaugh cite the story in Matthew 8:13 in which Jesus acts as broker for the centurion whose servant was suffering dreadfully. The patron is God, the centurion is the client, the broker is Jesus.

Episcopalian priest, teacher and writer Cynthia Bourgeault notes in her book The Wisdom Jesus (Shambalah, 2008) that we have had several avenues opened for us to better understand Jesus, his teaching, and the biblical accounts. She points to the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Codes (“a veritable treasure trove of early Christian writings”), to the influence of “a relatively new field of scholarly study known as Syriac studies,” to the recovery of the Dead Sea scrolls, and to a return to the contemplative tradition which had been “an important stream of insight” in the early Church (pp. 16-18).

These developments in history, language, and prayer have influenced the way we interpret what we read in the Bible.

The Pontifical Biblical Commission in September of 1993 issued the document “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church.” It acknowledged that biblical interpretation can be a problem, calling the historical-critical method “the indispensable method for the scientific study of the ancient texts,” but acknowledging that “no scientific method for the study of the Bible is fully adequate to comprehend the biblical texts in all their richness.”

Nevertheless, “Catholic exegesis freely makes use of scientific methods and approaches which allow a better grasp of the meaning of texts in their linguistic, literary, socio-cultural, religious and historical contexts…Catholic exegesis actively contributes to the development of new methods and to the progress of research.”

Our study of the Bible is inexhaustible.  I think it engaging that we live at a time when history, archealogy, and other sciences give us new insights into these sacred writings. Even as we look out into space and discover a far greater cosmos, universe or multiverse than we ever imagined, we can likewise explore the Good Book and discern meaning and subtleties we never knew were there.

I’m not a Scripture scholar but I am energized when I read of new ways of interpreting the New Testament.

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