Quiz for Skeptics at Tekton

I took this Quiz for Skeptics at the Tekton evangelical site and tested as an open-minded skeptic, apparently in contrast to most infidels who take it. Whether or not I’m ripe for conversion, as these charitable folks seem to think, is another issue. But it’s fun business, and I was pleased to see Dick Rohrbaugh acknowledged as a good guy in one of the questions.

Here are my answers. The A answers earn you 1 point, B 2 points, C 3 points, and D 10 points. Obviously the D answers are correct from Tekton’s point of view. I answered 27/43 questions with an unqualified D.

(See also Peter Kirby’s answers.)

UPDATE: Chris Heard, though a believer, answers some of the questions.

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Limited Edition Lord of the Rings DVDs

Thanks to Jacob from the newly launched Grey Havens for mentioning an upcoming treat:

“Three Lord of the Rings Limited Edition sets, one for each movie, will hit store shelves on August 29. Each two-disc set will include the original theatrical and the extended versions of the film, along with Costa Botes’ feature-length documentary on each film’s creation… How can they do this? By using a ‘branching’ format that gives you a visual cue to view an extended scene if you want to while you’re watching the film.”

Like Jake, I can’t understand why anyone would want to watch the inferior theatrical versions. And the visual cues will end up wrecking the viewer’s experience in any case. Still, as a hard-core fan I’ll be getting these for the documentaries alone, and even if this is a shameless way for New Line to make more money.

The Dishonest Steward: "The Power of the Weak"

The parable of the Dishonest Steward (Lk 16:1-8a) is known for being the most difficult parable in the gospels. How does one make sense of a master who commends dishonest behavior? Luke implies the master is a cipher for God who forgives dishonesty beyond all human expectation, and many critics interpret similarly. But this ignores the glaring problem: God is being depicted as commending dishonesty (v. 8a), not forgiving it.

In the original parable (minus Luke’s heavy-handed editorial in 16:8b-13), the master isn’t a cipher for God. He’s exactly as portrayed. The key to understanding his behavior is that, in the culture of honor and shame, the perception of a subordinate reflects directly on a superior. So when the steward is suddenly confronted by hostile charges — that he has been “squandering his master’s money” — it is the master who’s put on the spot. As David Landry and Ben May explain:

“It is not the steward who is on trial, but the master, and the court is the court of the opinion of the public and his peers. To save face and recover a measure of his honor, the master resolves immediately to dismiss the steward. Thereby he acquits himself of the charge of the inability to control his inferiors and recovers some of the loss of face.” (“Honor Restored”, p 4)

But is the steward actually guilty as charged? Landry and May think so: that he was irresponsible and misappropriated funds. But it could also be that he was taking too much “honest graft” for himself, so that peasants suffered and retaliated by spreading false rumors about him. That’s what William Herzog thinks.

If the latter — and I prefer this, since it gives the story a more suggestive thrust — then the slander needs to be seen in terms of what James Scott calls the “weapons of the weak”: everyday forms of peasant resistance like “foot dragging, dissimulation, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, and sabotage” (Weapons of the Weak, p 29; followed by Herzog in Parables as Subversive Speech, p 252). In agrarian societies such covert tactics are used by the powerless in the face of forced labor, high taxes, rents, loans, and interest. Weapons of the weak can be very effective, especially for not subjecting people to the dangers of open revolt. In this parable, the off-stage peasants use malicious slander or gossip to put the steward on the defensive, throw him off balance, and cause his master to banish him.

But after being banished the steward turns to his own counter-tactics. Knowing he is under attack, he reduces the debtors’ contracts, not removing his own “honest graft” (that was always taken off the record anyway), but cutting directly into the master’s profit. What does he hope to gain by this? Revenge? Not at all. The question is not what he hopes to gain by cheating the master, but what he hopes to gain by being generous to the peasants. Landry/May again:

“When the steward decides to forgive a portion of the amount owed by his master’s debtors, he is not trying to ‘get even’ or to defraud his master to win favor for himself; he is trying desperately to get out of trouble any way that he can. While this seems at odds with appearances, and certainly with the standard scholarly interpretations of the parable, it squares with what we know about human behavior. The first impulse for many people when they discover that they are in deep trouble is to try to make up for the misdeed and thereby get themselves out of trouble.” (p 9)

The steward saves his hide by making the debtors a fortune. Yes, the master has lost profit as a result. But if he insists on banishing the steward, it will blacken his reputation among the people who now favor the steward (and thus him) for lowering the bills. It’s definitely in the master’s best interest to keep the steward, since because of him he will now be hailed as a charitable benefactor. Honor is the greatest form of wealth in this culture.

So the steward really hasn’t cheated his master. He has simply put new cards in the master’s hand. The master commends him for acting shrewdly (phronimos; not “dishonestly”), not only because his hands are tied, but because he truly appreciates the steward’s tactical strategy. The master has taken a short-term loss but will realize a long-term gain, on account of his new reputation as a benefactor. In the meanwhile, says Herzog,

“Out of this battle comes a temporary respite for the peasants, a glimpse of time when debts would be lowered, and a place where rejoicing could be heard. This may not be a parable about the reign of God, but it suggests how weapons of the weak can produce results in a world dominated by the strong.” (p 258)

Bibliography

Herzog, William: Parables as Subversive Speech, Westminster/John Knox, 1994.

Landry, David & May, Ben: “Honor Restored: New Light on the Parable of the Prudent Steward”.

Scott, James: Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance, Yale University, 1985.

The complete series

The Prodigal Son
The Unmerciful Servant
The Mustard Seed
The Talents
The Dishonest Steward

Questions About Blogging

Mark Goodacre responds to Francis Ward’s questions about blogging. Since Francis is apparently looking for many responses, I’ll take a stab at them.

1. How long have you been blogging?

Since July 11, 2005.

2. What got you started?

Other bloggers inspired me, most notably Mark Goodacre (NT Gateway), Stephen Carlson (Hypotyposeis), and Michael Turton (The Sword; now dead). I thought blogging would be a good way to keep sharp in the biblical field (since I’m an amateur), and get across some ideas that have been coalescing for years now.

3. Do you have a history of diary/journal/log writing beforehand?

No. My previous writing energies went into fiction, reviewing, and list-serve activity.

4. How in your own mind do you negotiate the boundary between private and public? E.g. are there things that you would not put on your blog that you would put in a journal?

The focus of this blog is on Christian origins, with sub-topics including J.R.R. Tolkien and evolutionary theory. I do some film review too, and I have an abiding interest in the medieval crusades. Occasionally I relate personal things for a little variety (and humanity) but prefer not to do much of this. I expect most of my readers will be checking in for the regular blog topics.

5. How do you decide? What criteria do you use for inclusion/exclusion?

Anything related to the academic study of the bible, Tolkien, the medieval crusades, and evolutionary psychology are fair game.

6. How much time, on average, do you spend blogging each day or week?

As of today the blog has 297 posts to its name. So I’ve averaged 5-6 posts a week since I started.

7. How many other people do you actively engage with – e.g. are part of your blog community?

Too many to count these days. See my blogroll and Wason & West’s biblioblogs.com.

8. Who is your readership – literally; as far as you know?

Regular readers of this blog include professional scholars, independent scholars, amateur exegetes, and friends who don’t study the bible much themselves but are interested in what academics have to say about it.

9. and metaphorically? Do you imagine someone to whom you write/with
whom you engage?

I want to accommodate all my readers (see 8. above). So I try not to pitch too high or too low, and also keep most of the posts brief and concise to engage everyone’s interest.

10. What counts as successful blogging?

(1) When readers keep coming back. (2) When they resent you not blogging. (3) When others in your particular blog community value your insights, link to you, etc. (How successful I am by these yardsticks I’m not entirely sure.)

11. What does blogging offer as a method of theological reflection?

I don’t normally do that kind of thing on this blog.

12. What potential do you see for blogging as a method of theological reflection?

N/A

13. Do you know of examples of theological education programmes where students are required to keep a learning journal and blog as a form of journal?

No.

14. Blogging and gender: do you think gender makes any difference to
any of the above questions?

Yes.

UPDATE: Rick Brannan, Michael Barber, Pete Phillips, Stephen Carlson, Sean Winter, and Chris Weimer provide answers.

The Talents: "The Fate of an Unlikely Hero"

Stripped of any metaphorical overlay, the parable of the Talents (Mt 25:14-28) is about a servant who acts honorably by burying money given in trust, courageously by denouncing an exploitive master, and as a result is consigned to extinction for his audacity.

Most people understand the story as Matthew has (cf. Lk 19:12-24). But his concluding editorial, “To all those who have, more will be given, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” is at odds with everything else Jesus says on the subject of haves and have-nots (Mk 10:25/Mt 19:24/Lk 18:25; Mt 6:19-21/Lk 12:33-34; Mt 19:30; Mt 20:16; Lk 6:24; Lk 16:19-31); and Jesus was obviously no capitalist. Matthew’s editorial implies that the first two servants are the heroes of the story, which Jewish peasants would have found outrageous.(1)

Richard Rohrbaugh and William Herzog have argued that the third servant is the hero of this parable, because he acted honorably and refused to participate in the rapacious schemes of the master. Contrast with the agenda of the first two servants:

“First things first: the master’s initial investment must be secured, then doubled; after that, the retainers can make their profit. They are always walking a tightrope, keeping the master’s gain high enough to appease his greed and not incur his wrath while keeping their own accumulations of wealth small enough not to arouse suspicion yet lucrative enough to insure their future. The master knows the system too, and as long as the retainers keep watch of his interests and maintain a proper yield, he does not begrudge their gains. In fact, he stands to gain a great deal by encouraging the process. Not only do the retainers do his dirty work, exploiting others for profit, but they siphon off anger that would otherwise be directed at him.” (Herzog, Parables as Subversive Speech, p 160)

The first two servants do exactly as expected of them, doubling the master’s money and presumably making some “honest graft” on the side, as all retainers did in agrarian empires. But the third servant acts completely out of character — this alone is the tip-off that he will be the story’s hero — by digging a hole and burying the master’s money to keep it intact, acting in accordance with Jewish law.(2)

When the master (naturally) rewards the two servants, the third servant acts stunningly by blowing the whistle on him (as Herzog puts it), while at the same time giving him back the money he had buried in trust: “Master, I know that you are a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, gathering where you did not scatter.” This retainer says what many peasants have always wanted to say.

An alternate version of this parable was preserved in the Gospel of the Nazorenes (now lost), reported by Eusebius. Here the third servant is accepted with joy, while the other two are condemned. In “A Peasant Reading of the Talents/Pounds”, Rohrbaugh notes the chiastic structure:

The master had three servants:

A one who squandered his master’s substance with harlots and flute girls
B one who multiplied the gain
C and one who hid the talent;

and accordingly,

C’ one was accepted with joy
B’ another merely rebuked
A’ and another cast into prison.

(Eusebius, Theophania; from Hennecke & Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha 1:149)

Though I’m eternally suspicious of arguments based on chiastic structures, this one is powerful. Here we have an ancient author who rejected the Matthean judgment on the third servant, while modern critics insist on vilifying him.

Like many of Jesus’ parables, the Talents ends on dark ambiguity. “The whistle-blower is no fool,” says Herzog. “He realizes that he will pay a price, but he has decided to accept the cost (p 167).” The question is who his friends are after banishment. Will peasants acknowledge and respect his honorable course of action, or would the fact that he was a retainer make such meeting of the minds impossible? Listeners are left pondering the fate of an unlikely hero.

Endnotes

1. The ways in which critics have followed Matthew’s (and Luke’s) demonizing of the third servant are astounding. C.H. Dodd thinks that the third servant’s “overcaution” and “cowardice” led to a breach in trust. T.W. Manson believes that the punishment for the third servant’s “neglected opportunity” was a complete “deprivation of opportunity”. Dan Via says the third servant’s “refusal to take risks” led to repressed guilt and the loss of opportunity for any meaningful existence. John Donahue thinks that out of “fear of failing”, the third servant refused even to try to succeed. The list could go on and on. (See Herzog, p 153.)

2. According to the Mishnah, money could be guarded honorably only by placing it in the earth: M.B. Mes. 3:10; B.B. Mes. 42a.

Bibliography

Eusebius: Theophania (from Hennecke & Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha, Westminster, 1963.)

Herzog, William: Parables as Subversive Speech, Westminster John Knox, 1994.

Malina, Bruce & Rohrbaugh, Richard: Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Second Edition, Augsburg Fortress, 2003.

Rohrbaugh, Richard: “A Peasant Reading of the Talents/Pounds: A Text of Terror”, BTB 23:32-39, 1993.

The complete series

The Prodigal Son
The Unmerciful Servant
The Mustard Seed
The Talents
The Dishonest Steward

A Sense of Humor

The recent issue of Psychology Today (July/August ’06, pp 76-77) has a test for determining your sense of humor. The four types listed are (1) put-down, (2) bonding, (3) hate-me, and (4) laughing-at-life.

(1) Put-down humor is used “to criticize and manipulate others through teasing, sarcasm, and ridicule”, which can be harmless enough if used sparingly. In heavy or nasty doses it becomes “a socially acceptable way to deploy aggression and make others look bad so you look good”. (examples: Eddie Murphy, George Carlin)

(2) Bonding humor “gives humor a good name”, used “to reduce tension in uncomfortable situations”. This is good-natured humor used by warm and kind people. (examples: Ellen DeGeneres, Rosie O’Donnell)

(3) Hate-me humor is “often deployed by people eager to ingratiate themselves” and who enjoy being clowns. Small doses are charming, but heavy doses can erode self-respect. (examples: Chris Farley, Rodney Dangerfield)

(4) Laughing-at-life humor involves a wry perspective used “to cope with challenges” and take a step back by laughing at the absurdities of everyday life. People like this have a positive outlook, and tend to be healthy in general because of it. (examples: Dave Barry, Bill Cosby)

The test scores you in each category:

18-28 is HIGH
11-17 is AVERAGE
0-10 is LOW

Here’s how I turned out:

Put-down: HIGH (24)
Bonding: LOW (3)
Hate-me: LOW (10)
Laughing-at-life: LOW (6)

So according to these graders I’m fairly humorless, save on the put-down front. That would explain my distaste for comedy films, with the glaring exception of hard-core yelling/screaming satire like All in the Family (which I still can’t get enough of on DVD).

One of my colleagues firmly diagnosed me before I took this test (a not-so-subtle hint about put-downs and insults, however playfully intended), and my results are pretty accurate as far as they go. But I think there are special categories which go unacknowledged here. My humor goes beyond put-downs, but it’s rather off-beat humor which gratifies me in weird ways. So these results are only part of the story.

The Mustard Seed: "A Kingdom for the Unclean and Disorderly"

Unlike most parables in the gospels, the Mustard Seed (Mk 4:30-32/Mt 13:31-32/Lk 13:18-19/Thom 20) is an actual metaphor for the kingdom of God. Jesus likens the kingdom to a mustard shrub to which birds flock and make nests in the shade of its branches, mocking, in effect, the cedar of Lebanon (Ezek 17:22-24, 31:5-6; Dan 4:10-12; Ps 104:10-17). What do we make of a mustard shrub that has pretensions to such grandeur? Before answering this we need to address discrepancies regarding (1) where the mustard seed is planted and (2) what it grows into.

Where is the seed planted?

There’s no agreement where the mustard seed is planted. In Mark it is “on the land”; Matthew “in a field”; Luke “in a garden”; and Thomas “on tilled soil”. Mark and Luke could have claims to earliest tradition on this point. Brandon Scott prefers the latter, since the planting of mustard seed in a garden was forbidden in Jewish Palestine (Mishnah Kilayim 3:2), pointing to subversive originality (Hear Then the Parable, p 376). On the other hand, as he acknowledges in the same breath, Luke could have been simply conforming to Roman/urban custom, as he often does (as in Lk 5:19, altered from Mk 2:4). Matthew’s “in the field” is clearly his own stereotyped phrase (see Mt 13:36, 13:44, 24:18, 24:40), and Thomas’ “tilled soil” is a late idiosyncrasy. William Herzog goes with Mark:

“The seed is sown ‘on the land’, a reference to the Promised Land… Although this image is preferable to the ‘garden’ image in Luke, it is possible to read the reference to the garden as an image of the land as a new Eden, in which case the two variants are not so far apart as they seem.” (Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, p 206)

That’s a nice way of accommodating Luke “just in case”, but it seems safe to view his garden as much a product of evangelical redaction as Matthew’s field.(1)

What does the seed grow into?

In Mark’s version the mustard seed culminates in “the greatest of shrubs”; in Matthew it grows into “the greatest of shrubs” and then “a tree”; in Luke it grows right into “a tree”; and in Thomas it ends in “a great plant”. Matthew and Luke’s versions are inappropriate, since a mustard shrub obviously isn’t a tree. Mark has it right (Thomas offers a variant), but the question presses: how do we make sense of a shrub that has pretensions to be a tree in two gospels?

The myth originally undermined by Jesus (in Mark) and gradually reclaimed (halfway by Matthew, completely by Luke) is the cedar of Lebanon, an eschatological metaphor for Israel (Ezek 17:22-24, 31:5-6; Dan 4:10-12; Ps 104:10-17) depicting the fall of empires, nations humbled in Israel’s presence, beasts taking shade under the limbs, birds nesting in the branches. Jesus’ mustard shrub is a burlesque, a deliberate mockery of the cedar, though reincarnated into more holiness (the tree) by the time of Matthew and Luke.(2) As Scott explains it, “even though Jesus’ parables play against common wisdom, in the end common wisdom frequently wins, removing the parable’s fangs” (Hear Then the Parable, p 67).

What’s the meaning?

Despite Matthew and Luke’s attempts to sanitize, mustard seed is a sacrilegious metaphor for the kingdom, representing uncleanliness and disorder. Herzog summarizes:

“Once sown, it spreads like a weed, causing havoc on the ordered garden of the land. It also throws purity boundaries into confusion precisely because it spreads indiscriminately, thereby violating the prohibition against planting two kinds of seed in the same field (Lev 19:19; Deut 22:9). The mustard shrub becomes an agent of confusion and source of uncleanliness. The goal of sowing is not to turn it into something it isn’t (a tree) but to maximize what it is (a ubiquitous shrub), a force to be reckoned with. Like the land itself, the purpose of the shrub is to provide for others, the birds of the air.” (Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, p 206)

But Herzog marginalizes the future aspect of the kingdom — and Scott erases it altogether, saying that because “God’s mighty works are among the unclean and insignificant” the kingdom “will not meet grandiose expectations” (Hear Then the Parable, p 387). Like most members of the Jesus Seminar, Scott thinks Jesus preached a purely sappiential (here-and-now) kingdom of God. But the mustard shrub points to the apocalypse as much as the cedar of Lebanon. The fact that Jesus’ kingdom consists of low-lives doesn’t mean it will never meet grandiose expectations, only that it will meet grandiose expectations in surprising ways — the “reversal of fortunes” manner characteristic of millenial movements. Empires will still fall. God will wipe out the kingdoms of men. A restored Israel will rise from the ash, but it won’t be the Israel of David’s time. Jesus and his fisherfolk disciples will be sitting on thrones, and a whole new politic will be in play.

Like all of Jesus’ vulgarities (the Leaven, the Tares), the Mustard Shrub suggests a kingdom of pollution in which simple folk, sinners, and outcasts will be vindicated.

Endnotes

1. The Farrer theory makes best sense of the movement assumed here. On Scott’s assumption that “garden” is the original, the two-source theory offers the better explanation; but see further.

2. On the two-source theory, we’re stuck with “tree” in the earliest source (Luke/Q) instead of the latest. That’s what Scott thinks: “The Q tradition clearly saw the reference [to the cedar of Lebanon], and so the shrub became a tree, and Thomas and Mark sense the dilemma and refer to the great and the greatest.” (Hear Then the Parable, pp 385-386) Why would the earliest source “clearly see the reference” and sanitize so heavily, but not later sources? Once again, the Farrer theory makes good chronological sense: the movement from “shrub” to “shrub/tree” to “tree” (Mark to Matthew to Luke) shows the Christian movement becoming increasingly clean over time, as all millenial movements do when the apocalypse doesn’t come.

Bibliography

Herzog, William: Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, Westminster/John Knox, 2000.

Oakman, Douglas: Jesus and the Economic Questions of His Day, Edwin Mellen, 1987.

Scott, Bernard Brandon: Hear Then the Parable, Augsburg Fortress, 1989.

The complete series

The Prodigal Son
The Unmerciful Servant
The Mustard Seed
The Talents
The Dishonest Steward