The 12 (or 24) Things that Freud Got Right

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Austrian psychologist. Freud theorized that mental illness could have psychological as well as physiological causes. He believed that the mind contains conscious and unconscious levels. bad memories are repressed and stored uncoBut who’s counting?

On Facebook, David Livingstone Smith offers a list of 12 things that Freud got right:

1. The mind can fruitfully be modeled as a connectionist system.
2. The back-propagation of error (Paul Werbos explicitly derived this algorithm from Freud’s 1895 “Project for a scientific psychology”).
3. Mental processes are physical processes.
4. Introspection does not provide access to the causal structure of mind.
5. Causal-role functionalism is a good way to understand how the brain instantiates mental states.
6. All human beings are “polymorphously perverse”
7. All mental processes are unconscious in themselves.
8. Religion is a response to human helplessness.
9. Speculative metaphysics is a “disease of thought”.
10. Illusions can be either true or false.
11. We are not acquainted with our own cognitive processes.
12. Free association is the best way to learn about oneself.

David is mirroring a Huffpost Science article from last year, which ran its own list of dozen plusses for Freud. They should give us pause before dismissing Freud too lightly. I always say that if Freud had been alive in the ’90s, he would have been an impressive figure. He was scientifically driven in his day, but didn’t have the right interdisciplinary tools (genetics, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, etc., and the result was a lot of pseudo-science. But there are still nuggets to salvage. We may not like to hear that we’re strongly motivated by sex and other “dark impulses” — especially given the outlandish way Freud explained the matter — but the proof of the general truth isn’t hard to see. And how many of us are open to the idea that free association (David’s last point) is the best way we can learn about ourselves, or even that introspection (his fourth) is so overrated? Food for thought.


Retrospective: Faerie Tale

faerieRaymond Feist is known for his Riftwar saga, which I never cared for. Before Game of Thrones fantasy was cliche, and in the ’80s especially, aside from the works of Stephen Donaldson, had become near emasculated. But somewhere Feist took a break from Pug and wrote Faerie Tale (1988), a horror novel which allowed him, in his own words, to “stretch myself as a writer, as the serial fantasy genre didn’t allow me to address aspects of contemporary humanity — sexuality, fear, the day to day considerations of relationships”. Again, in the post Game of Thrones world, that’s a silly dichotomy, but it does remind us how hard it was to think outside the box in the ’80s, when fantasy, much like the D&D game, was being increasingly sanitized and not allowed to breathe a hint of adult realism.

I first read Faerie Tale in ’92 when I was in the Peace Corps. It was one of many beat-up paperbacks sent to me in a care package, and on my mountain in Lesotho I read almost anything. It turned out quite a surprise — one of my favorite novels which still holds up today. I reread it this month to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. If it isn’t the scariest book I’ve read, it’s certainly the one which most convincingly conveys the fear of its characters. I’m not easily unnerved, but in his experimental stretch Feist gave me more scares than Stephen King at his best.

The plot is simple: a family moves into an old farm house in New York State, with acres of woods in their backyard, which happens to be the playground of spirit beings out of Irish folklore. The novel explores the dark side of these faeries. Puck and Wayland Smith make an appearance, as does the Wild Hunt. There are sprites and leprechauns — but again, not the benign creatures we think of on St. Patrick’s day — and contorted creatures of demonic fury (see the book cover above). The strongest of these beings have the power to incite terror and lust in a person, fan those passions like a blaze, and then feed on both until there is nothing left of the soul. That’s how they “feast” on humanity, in envy of the mortal form they can only artificially assume.

Gabbie’s scene in the barn is the first example of such an attack. It’s a vivid depiction of every adolescent girl’s nightmare, being in thrall to a rapist’s sexuality. Her attacker is a “boy” who looks about fifteen years old, but who we are given to understand is Puck:

“The youth moved in front of her and she saw that his eyes were electric, a blue like flashing lightning. His boyish features were masked by a shadow of ages, both childlike and ancient. He was beautiful and terrifying to gaze upon. Her mind shrieked and yet she could make no sound; and from deep within, a desire was building. Her own body became a thing unto itself, alive with awareness. Her nipples were hardened to a painful state and her stomach and groin were awash in damp heat. A distant voice deep within screamed in horror, pleading with her to flee.

“Through a crimson haze of her own pounding blood, she could see the youth moving to position himself over her. A face of cruel beauty regarded her, which lowered to meet hers. His hot breath was as sweet as mulled cider, his thrusting tongue hinting at peppercorn sharpness. His kiss seared her lips; his touch shocked her skin, and pleasure mounted to levels of intensity beyond her capacity to endure. The burning wet heat between her legs became electric, and as she climbed new heights of desire, the gratification of that desire remained just beyond her reach. Seeking unobtainable release, Gabbie crossed the boundary between passion and torment. Desire fled as, in that instant, pleasure turned to pain.

“Terror engulfed her. Within her own mind she screamed, but her lips only moaned in pleasure, as her body remained a thing apart from her. She screamed again in her mind, but her body only made hoarse sounds of sexual satisfaction. The youth attacked her with animal fury, his teeth and nails leaving fire upon her white skin, each nip and scratch eliciting a yelp of pleasure. Deep within herself, Gabbie shrank away in fear, a spectator to her own body, so mindless in its grotesque lust that even this pain became a delight. Silently, inwardly, she wept in mortal terror.”

I’ve compacted the narrative. Puck’s assault on Gabbie actually goes on for pages, with her lust and terror building, opposing and reinforcing each other in a much more graduating crescendo. It’s a phenomenal scene that Feist apparently sweat over and revised several times.

That scene pales, however, to the one much later on, when Sean and Patrick are molested in their beds. The Faeries go after children too, and the nastiest of them all, The Fool, appears in their room late at night, pummeling Sean with lusts his eight-year old body can’t interpret:

“Sean lay frozen, barely able to breathe. Someone stood in the corner. Hidden in the darkness of the farthest corner, he was motionless, but his outline could be faintly seen. Sean felt him there. Cold terror clutched at the boy’s chest. He fought to will breath into his lungs, so he could shout, but sound lay beyond his ability. He could not move. The dark man stepped forward, closing the distance to the bedside, as if to get a better look at the boys. Sean wished nothing more than to scream for Mommy and Daddy, but no sounds came forth. He scuttled to the head of the bed, trying to get as far from the glowing black figure as he could. His small feet scraped against the sheets and covers. Tears ran down his face as his eyes were locked, staring at the invader.

“Then the dark man leaned close, until his face was scant inches from Sean’s. In his eyes Sean saw lightning dance, as electric-blue orbs sought to burn his soul. A beauty so pure it was terrifying greeted Sean in that instant, something alien, beyond the ability of the human mind to accept. And in that instant Sean wanted nothing more than to give up all will and go with the man, and in that rush of unexpected longing came a desire so concrete Sean’s body rocked. For that desire was something he was not ready for, but now it struck Sean with a wanton heat, a hunger so intensely sexual that his body could not interpret his desires. Sean found his child’s penis stiffening unexpectedly, while his body shuddered and his skin prickled with chill bumps. His heart pounded in his chest and he could endure no more. His bowels contracted, and his tiny erection vanished as his bladder emptied. And in that instant of adult longings shocking his child’s body, of beautiful passions twisted to black lust, Sean screamed.”

Again I’ve compacted a much-longer narrative that includes other nasty elements, not least the kidnapping of Patrick, who is supplanted with a demonic doppelganger to confuse the family. The entire scene is probably the scariest terrorizing of a child I’ve read in a work of fiction, and yes, I’m including The Shining‘s Danny Torrence.

The novel also explores the idea of forgetfulness: the cultural forgetfulness of people who treat myths lightly throughout history, and individual forgetfulness inflicted by way of enchantment. One of the reasons the Hastings family stays in the house for six whole months is that the Faeries are able to make them forget (or barely remember) the strange occurrences and attacks. Thus Gabbie doesn’t manifest any rape-victim symptoms (anger, depression, anxiety) unless her memory is triggered in some way. The boys are the exception. Unlike their sister and parents and visiting neighbors, Sean and Patrick can remember everything, the Fool’s attack being the worst, but also the incidents before, like the monkey-like demon (on the book cover) which almost tears Patrick to shreds under a stone bridge. That the kids can’t confide in the grown-ups revs up the horror factor considerably. Feist also seems to be saying something about the nature of children, for whom everything is magical and are thus receptive, and most vulnerable, to the supernatural.

The final act takes place in the actual Faerie lands, which Sean enters on a suicide mission to rescue Patrick. The description of this dark wonderland is of the highest order, and the showdown a ripper. Thanks to this book, I think of St. Patrick’s Day as a second Halloween. Leprechauns and changelings have all the potentials of ghosts and vampires, and if Faerie Tale doesn’t convince you of that, you’ve grown up too much.

The Wicked Tenants: Martyr Prophecy or Critique of Violence?

Paran15_400_466Something to ponder for Good Friday.

In the three synoptic gospels, the parable of the Wicked Tenants is an allegory of judgment against the Jerusalem leadership:

“A man planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and dug a pit for the wine press, and built a tower, and let it out to tenants, and went into another country. When the time came, he sent a servant to the tenants, to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. And they took him and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent to them another servant, and they wounded him in the head, and treated him shamefully. And he sent another, and him they killed; and so with many others, some they beat and some they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son; finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ And they took him and killed him, and cast him out of the vineyard. What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants, and give the vineyard to others. 10 Have you not read this scripture: ‘The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; 11 this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” (Mk 12:1-11; cf. Mt 21:33-43/Lk 20:9-18)

The man who planted the vineyard is God; the vineyard is Israel; the tenants are Jerusalem authorities; the servants are God’s prophets, some rejected and others killed by those authorities; and the son is the final prophet Jesus, who is also killed and then (as the “stone”) resurrected. Matthew and Luke follow Mark in this scheme.

In the gospel of Thomas, the parable is a gnostic (or quasi-gnostic) allegory about the failure to grasp knowledge or wisdom:

“There was a good man who owned a vineyard. He leased it to tenant farmers so that they might work it and he might collect the produce from them. He sent his servant so that the tenants might give him the produce of the vineyard. They seized his servant and beat him, all but killing him. The servant went back and told his master. The master said, ‘Perhaps he did not recognize them.’ He sent another servant. The tenants beat this one as well. Then the owner sent his son and said, ‘Perhaps they will show respect to my son.’ Because the tenants knew that it was he who was the heir to the vineyard, they seized him and killed him. Let him who has ears hear.” (Thom 65)

The master (God) sends servants who are rejected, and he laments that the tenants do not “recognize” or “know” the servants, especially the son. Thomas knew the synoptic gospels, and in this parable he conflated the versions of Matthew and Luke while giving it an entirely new meaning that squared with his quasi-gnostic agenda.

The question is what the parable meant from Jesus, assuming it originated with him.

The parable as a martyr prophecy (Meier)

John Meier thinks Jesus spoke the parable much as it stands in the synoptics, but without the end consolations in verses 9-11. It was indeed an allegory recapitulating the cycle of rejection and martyrdom of Israel’s prophets. This was the story of Israel’s life — told in Jer 7:24-28, II Chron 36:13-21, Neh 9:26-37, and other places. After the execution of his mentor John the Baptist, Jesus mulled over his own fate and placed himself in this dark cycle. He would soon face off the Judean authorities. They would kill him and dishonor his corpse. The consolations came later in the Christian movement, first in the punishment of those leaders (verse 9), then in Jesus’ vindication by making him the “cornerstone” or keystone of the new state of affairs (verses 10-11, which refers to the resurrection). “It’s nigh impossible,” says Meier, “that the primitive form of the parable in Mk 12:1-8 was composed by some believer in Christ in the early post-Easter period of the church”. But from Jesus it made perfect sense. He was saying he knew full well what awaited him if he pursued his confrontation with the Jerusalem elite. He knew the connection between a prophetic career and danger zones like Jerusalem where prophets were often rejected and/or killed. As an Elijah-like prophet he accepted his destiny of martyrdom.

The parable as a critique of violence (Herzog, Kloppenborg)

William Herzog believes there was originally no allegory. Jesus was codifying a spiral of violence by describing a local peasant revolt on a great estate. (He takes Mk 12:1-9a as the original story.) Rebellions like this were small and seldom made the news of historical record, but seem to have been typical of the brushfires that kept breaking out in the harsh economic landscapes of Galilee and Judea. Violence erupted when peasants were threatened with loss of subsistence, and in Herzog’s view, the parable exposes the futility of such peasant revolts. Vigilantism is the point of the parable’s critique. The thrill of revolt is satisfying but always short lived. As the story’s narrative gains momentum, Jesus stops it dead in its tracks with the question, “What then will the owner of the vineyard do?” The answer is obvious. He will crush the revolt. Revolts never led to revolutions in the ancient world. Vigilantism simply called forth worse forms of oppression. With his closing question in v 9a, Jesus points to the futility of peasant rebellions.

John Kloppenborg also dispenses with allegory. Jesus critiqued vigilantism (as Herzog claims), but also the elitist coercion that ignites it. (He takes Thom 65 as the original story.) The papyrological evidence on Palestinian viticulture depicts clear patterns of rich absentee landlords who pursue wealth and bully others with status displays. In cases where tenants ignored the owner’s deputies, the typical strategy was to send agents of increasing social status, as portrayed in the parable. In the story they are all rejected and/or killed, but the twist is that there is not a hint of the landowner using any violence to take the vineyard back (in Thomas’ version). He does nothing, according to Kloppenborg, and is thus honorable. This concurs with Jesus’ view of honor found everywhere else in the gospels: that one should not retaliate with violence or vindictiveness (Mt 5:39-40/Lk 6:29; Mt 5:49/Lk 6:30; Mt 5:44/Lk 6:27; the Parable of the Great Supper, in which the host is grievously insulted but simply responds by inviting outcasts and low-lives to his banquet; the Unmerciful Servant, in which the king refrains from violence and writes off an immense debt, while the forgiven slave refuses to do the same, which is the point of the parable’s critique; and so forth).

Which is it?

I’m divided in mind, frankly. Either interpretation is plausible. As an apocalyptic, Jesus more than likely had a martyr’s complex, and as a social prophet, he had acute concerns about violence. When it comes to the parables, I doubt we can pin him to a single genre. One person’s allegory is another’s allergy, but that’s our problem. Jesus could use allegory and metaphor like anyone. But he also told literal stories that were later made into allegories, and it’s not always easy to figure out which is which.

On this Good Friday, I’m prepared to entertain both. The prophet who thought he was about to be crushed with no hope of vindication. And the same prophet who opposed vigilante-violence — indeed any retaliative violence — and precisely for that reason resigned himself to the worst violence known in his world.



Herzog, William: Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed, Westminster John Knox, 1994.

Kloppenborg, John: The Tenants in the Vineyard: Ideology, Economics, and Agrarian Conflict in Jewish Palestine, Mohr/Siebeck, 2006.

Meier, John: A Marginal Jew, Vol 5: Probing the Authenticity of the Parables, Yale University, 2016.


The Longest Footnote: Meier’s critique of Rohrbaugh (The Talents)

John Meier’s Marginal Jew series must surely set a record for long footnotes, and one of the longest by far is his critique of Richard Rohrbaugh’s interpretation of The Talents. It’s over 1500 words, basically an essay in itself. I’ve reproduced the footnote below (in blue), breaking it into paragraphs for easier reading, and interspersed with own observations (in bolded black).

I have long been a supporter of Rohrbaugh and Herzog’s readings of The Talents, albeit with some nagging doubts, and I still think their view is defensible. Readers may wish to read my post, The Talents: “The Fate of an Unlikely Hero” for my summary of Rohrbaugh and Herzog, before reading Meier’s footnote-essay below.

From A Marginal Jew, Vol 5: Probing the Authenticity of the Parables, by John Meier. Footnote #159 to chapter 40 (pp 356-359).

The question of whether the master [in the parable of The Talents] should be seen as a symbol of socio-economic oppression in an unjust society has been raised repeatedly by socially conscious interpreters since the early 1990s. Prominent among such critics are Fortna, Rohrbaugh, and Herzog. Other scholars who have developed this line of interpretation in one direction or another (postcolonial criticism, liberation theology, and/or feminist hermeneutics) include Folarin, Fricke, Ford, Joy, Braun, and Dowling. Fundamental to most of these approaches (some of which are just are warmed-over Rohrbaugh) is the inversion of the presumed optic of Matthew and Luke (the master represents God or Christ at the last judgment, the slaves are Christian disciples or leaders, the first two slaves are rightly rewarded for their zealous doing of God’s will, and the third slave is rightly punished for his failure to carry out God’s will) to recapture what is claimed to be the original message of Jesus (the master represents oppressive socioeconomic systems in general and capitalism in particular, the first two slaves are quislings who cooperate with the system and therefore in their own oppression, and the third slave is the courageous protestor, rebel, or whistle-blower who dares to denounce and unmask the unjust system by refusing to cooperate with it, even though this rebellion exposes him to punishment).

Rohrbaugh’s 1993 essay is often cited by subsequent critics who follow this line of interpretation. He appeals to what anthropologists have taught us about peasant economics, especially within Mediterranean culture, a culture that modern Western exegetes have difficulty understanding because of the presuppositions of Western capitalism. He admits that we cannot be sure of the original historical setting or audience of the parable. From suggesting that the audience may have included Galilean peasants, Rohrbaugh quickly moves to focusing on this hypothetical audience of peasants. To peasants, the rich were inherently evil; they exploited the poor peasants by their exchange economy that multiplied wealth for the rich but siphoned off whatever surplus the peasants might produce in their economy of limited goods. Hence, in the parable, the third “servant” (Rohrbaugh does not translate doulos as “slave”, a translation that would have weakened his whole approach) is wicked only in the eyes of those who share the elitist mentality of the rich master. To a peasant audience, the servant has done the honorable thing by preserving what was entrusted to him without participating in the oppressive capitalist system accepted by the master and the first two servants.

Rohrbaugh supports his interpretation by appealing to a passage in the 4th-century Church Father Eusebius, who offers a brief paraphrase of a different version of the parable that he claims his found in the Jewish-Christian Gospel of the Nazoreans. Rohrbaugh asserts that the chiastic structure in this version presents the third servant, the one who kept the money intact, as the one whom the master receives with joy. Going one step further into unlikely hypotheses, Rohrbaugh suggests that the version of the parable in the Gospel of the Nazoreans has preserved the more original form of the parable and that the canonical traditions adulterated the story early on. In the end, Rohrbaugh offers the possibility that Jesus may have intended the parable to be ambiguous: the elites in Jesus’ audience would have interpreted the parable as good news for the rich and bad news for the peasants, while the peasants in his audience would have taken the opposite tack. It is fairly clear that Rohrbaugh considers the peasants’ interpretation to be the correct one, but he ends on a coy note of studied uncertainty.

What is to be said of such an approach? While the intentions of its champions are admirable, good intentions do not necessarily guarantee correct exegesis:

(1) It is telling that most of the authors do not engage in a detailed analysis of both the Matthean and Lukan texts by way of form, tradition, source, and redaction criticism. Many exegetical decisions are simply announced rather than argued or demonstrated. A hypothetical  original version of the parable in the mouth of Jesus is explained without any hypothetical text being produced (e.g., Fricke). Appeal is sometimes made not to an original text but an originating structure (so, e.g., Pilch). The problem here is that frequently some details of the Gospel narratives and even of the wording are selectively retained, more often from Matthew but sometimes from Luke.

I’m not sure how this would impact either Rohrbaugh’s or Herzog’s readings. Like Meier, they ignore Luke’s subplot of a nobleman who goes abroad to acquire kingly status. Their reconstruction of the original parable from Matthew isn’t at odds with Meier’s (which he argues was independently received in the M and L sources). They all seem to agree that vv 29-30 of Matthew are editorial: “(29) For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. (30) And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Herzog makes some allowance for v 30. In asking about the fate of whistle-blowers like the third servant, and whether or not they would find welcome in peasant villages given former hostilities, he concludes that “these are difficult questions, especially when one lives in the outer darkness, struggling to survive day to day, weeping and gnashing teeth.” (Parables as Subversive Speech, pp 167-68) And Rohrbaugh notes that v 29 is a peasant truism in any case: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and it happens because of the way people like this master treat people. It was probably an early editorial meant this way, until co-opted by the Matthew who approved the truism by turning it into an allegory.

Meier, for his part, allows that “possibly some more severe punishment concluded the original story, in place of the extremely severe punishments added by Matthew and Luke” (A Marginal Jew Vol 5, p 306). Like Herzog, he finds the weeping and teeth-gnashing to be editorial but if authentic would simply extend the natural thrust of the story’s message.

So as far as I can tell, Meier’s first criticism doesn’t amount to anything.

(2) Surprisingly, in the whole process, the essentially metaphorical world of parabolic narrative is often ignored in favor of a literalist reading of the hypothetical original, as though the story were speaking directly about social and economic conditions (on this, see Chenoweth, “The Vulnerability of the Literalist”, 176-77, 182-83, against Herzog). But who then would need a parable to offer such criticism?

A fair point. As a rule, parables are metaphors, extended similes, allegories, or narratives which carry some symbolic meaning. However, there are also the more socio-economic “example stories” like the Good Samaritan, Rich Fool, Dishonest Steward, Rich Man and Lazarus, Pharisee and Toll Collector, and even those outside Luke, like the Unmerciful Servant, which illustrate behavior to imitate or avoid, and these parables have a more literal edge. On Rohrbaugh and Herzog’s readings, the original form of the Talents would be similar to such social-example parables.

(3) Indeed, why amid all the non-metaphorical, direct, and blunt criticism that he aims at certain social practices (e.e., divorce, oath-taking, overstrict sabbath observance) does Jesus never criticize the most glaring socioeconomic oppression and injustice of his day, namely, slavery? The objectionable practices of overaggressive capitalism pale when compared to the ghastly realities of slavery in the Greco-Roman world. Yet in both parable and praxis, Jesus seems not to be troubled by the institution, which he apparently takes for granted. It may be for this reason that some commentators prefer to translate douloi in our parable as “servants” rather than “slaves”, despite the fact that “slaves” is by far the more likely translation (see Beavis and Glancy). One may question whether the whole Marxist/liberation theology approach makes sense of the story if the douloi are understood to be the slaves of the master and not hired servants. For example, Herzog’s explanation depends upon the third servant being a powerful retainer of an aristocrat; this retainer, according to Herzog, has shared in oppressing poor peasants and now, as an honest “whistle-blower”, risks exposing himself to the ire of the peasants he formerly oppressed as he is thrown out of the master’s household to become a day laborer. Needless to say, this does not work when doulos is understood as “slave”. Actually, not all peasants in Galilee were extremely and equally poor; some more affluent peasants might have owned a slave or two and therefore would not have automatically sided with the supposedly heroic third slave who opposes his master.

It’s true that the rest of the gospel and NT traditions offer no critique of the patron-client institutions that everyone in the Mediterranean took for granted. Society would have collapsed without them. Though perhaps that’s the point. Maybe elitist landowning, servitude, and slavery were too much of a given to attack directly and be taken seriously. The whole point of Herzog’s thesis is that Jesus used parables to nudge hearers into entertaining unlikely possibilities on their own. Apocalyptic thinkers dream big, and Jesus may have used some of his stories to hint at a world unencumbered by systematic evils which people were capable of facing off even now in preparation.

Also: translating doulos as “slave” instead of “servant” would only strengthen the general case being made here, not weaken it. If the scenario involved slaves, then Jesus would be condemning what slaves are forced to do by greedy masters. They are the means by which masters rob and take what is not theirs.

(4) That the third slave is a hero who courageously rejects the oppressive structures of capitalism by hiding the entrusted money in the ground (or cloth) collides with the clear statement that the slave hid the money out of fear (Mt 25:25/Lk 19:21), not out of bold opposition to his master. (On this, see Wohlgemut.)

A false dichotomy. Fear would certainly accompany a bold act of defiance that would result in the slave’s banishment, to be left with no support in a hostile world.

(5) The appeal to The Gospel of the Nazoreans suffers from a number of liabilities. No complete text of this Gospel has come down to us; basically, we are dependent on quotations and paraphrases in early Christian authors. It shows definite knowledge and dependence on Matthew. Compounding the problem, the version of the parable in Nazoreans seems to mesh elements from the parable of the Talents/Minas with the details of the parable of the Prodigal Son. Worse still, Eusebius does not quote the text of The Gospel of the Nazoreans in his Theophaneia , but merely gives us a brief paraphrase. In addition, it is by no means clear that there is the kind of chiastic structure in the narrative that Rohrbaugh claims. As Wohlgemut notes, Rohrbaugh’s chiastic reading conflates two different reactions of the master that Eusebius distinguishes: the threat uttered against one slave and “the word spoken against” another slave.

The chiastic structure in the Nazoreans gospel seems pretty clear to me. That it is Eusebius’ paraphrase, and dependent on Matthew, doesn’t really affect Rohrbaugh’s conclusion. The point is that we have an example of dissatisfaction with Matthew’s judgment on the third servant, and thus the idea that he is the story’s hero isn’t necessarily a modern wish-fantasy. In at least one ancient circle, the third servant who hid the talent was the one “accepted with joy”, while the other two were punished.

(6) In the end, one must distinguish between historical-critical exegesis and various forms of advocacy hermeneutics (Marxist, liberationist, feminist) that seek to make ancient texts speak to present-day concerns, whether or not our present-day concerns ever appeared on the mental horizons of the ancient writers. Whatever the hermeneutical validity of such approaches for the present, they usually wind up doing violence either to the Gospel texts or to a sober and credible reconstruction of the message of the historical Jesus.

Well, I say this all the time. There’s nothing worse for historical criticism than advocacy interpretations. But the Rohrbaugh/Herzog reading of the Talents doesn’t necessarily involve that. There are genuine cases when ancient meanings turn out rather nice for us. If the Hebrew prophets alienate us for hurling their bile at idolatry, their same anger resonates with us when it is turned in defense of the poor and oppressed. Meier’s reading of the Talents could be right, in which case the “capitalist” heroes stand for something other than fiscal investment schemes. But Rohrbaugh makes a sound case for the capitalists being condemned as they literally stand in the story. Rohrbaugh and Herzog aren’t eisegetes just because some eisegetes will like their interpretations.

To reiterate what I’ve said elsewhere: Meier’s book on the parables is the best available for its skeptical treatment of parable authenticity. But for interpreting the few which stand a good chance of being authentic, matters aren’t so easy. On the assumption of a prophetically angry Jesus, Rohrbaugh’s reading of the Talents is plausible, and one that I still find convincing.

Five Essential Books on the Parables

These are the books on Jesus’ parables you should read, if nothing else. Represented here is critical skepticism (Meier), peasant readings (Herzog), progressive wisdom (Levine), evangelical restraint (Snodgrass), and breezy table-talk (Scott).

marginal1. A Marginal Jew: Probing the Authenticity of the Parables, John Meier. 2016. If Meier is right, and unfortunately I think he is, then the parables aren’t the guaranteed “voice” of Jesus as everyone thinks. Many of them probably don’t originate with Jesus. Of the 32 stories, we can salvage perhaps four with confidence: The Mustard Seed (God’s rule was already at work in certain human activity, and however small that seemed, there was an organic connection between it and the revelation of God on the last day), the Great Supper (a warning that one’s place in the kingdom can be taken by those who never had any right to it), the Talents (along with sovereign grace and reward comes the possibility of being condemned in hell for refusing the demands contained in God’s gift), and the Wicked Tenants (Jesus knew what awaited him if he confronted the Jerusalem authorities, and he accepted a destiny of irreversible martyrdom). All other parables, even the long-standing cherished ones — The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, The Leaven, The Sower, The Seed Growing Secretly, The Laborers in the Vineyard, The Unmerciful Servant, The Shrewd Manager, The Pharisee and the Toll Collector, The Unjust Judge, The Friend at Midnight, The Rich Fool, The Rich Man and Lazarus — either shout a later creation, or can at best be judged indeterminate. If you’re going to read only one book on the parables, it has to be this one. Meier shows that the dominant view is a house of cards: there is no warrant for giving the parables pride of place, or for reversing the burden of proof by giving their authenticity the benefit of the doubt. See my full review.

2. Parables as Subversive Speech, William Herzog. 1994. Now, if I were confident that many of the parables originated with Jesus, this commentary is a helpful lens. According to Herzog, Jesus’ stories weren’t “earthly stories with heavenly meanings” but “earthy stories with heavy meanings”, meaning they only hinted about the coming kingdom of God by focusing on the gory details of the here and now. The key, he says, is to resist the gospel tendency to equate masters and landowners with God, since these figures are really villains. When a messianic king forgives an astronomical debt but then turns ruthless, he’s not a divine cipher of limitless forgiveness (his ruthless actions prove doesn’t believe in that); he’s an example of messianic pretenders who promise sabbaticals and jubilees but become oppressors themselves as soon as they win the crown. Or when a master commends the self-serving schemes of two servants, and then railroads a third servant who does the honorable thing (by burying money as commended by Jewish law, instead of participating in rapacious investment schemes), he’s a rather poor allegory for God. Herzog reads the parables in the way honorable peasants might have identified with the stories, and while he can be persuasive, he has an Achilles’ heel. His readings depend on literalist readings of social and economic conditions, where parables tend to be metaphorical. But on the assumption of a subversive Jesus whose parables have been reclaimed by the gospel writers on completely different terms, Herzog’s readings are at least plausible.

Short_Stories_Jesus_Levine3. Short Stories by Jesus, Amy Jill-Levine. 2015. Some of the lessons drawn here are great for my personal Unitarian consumption, but they’re highly agenda-driven. The reversal of values theme which permeates the gospels receives no support in Levine’s readings. Whenever themes signal “the last coming first and the first last”, she calls that an editorial intrusion. Not only that, she leaves no room at all for any hint of an “Us-vs.-Them” polemic that could reinforce judgments and divisions, despite that Jesus was a judgmental prophet. Levine has an axe to grind against critics who see everything Jesus said as being aimed against an oppressive Jewish context, to the point where it becomes all consuming. In her mind, if Jesus critiqued purity laws, then Judaism was legalistic; if Jesus was open to Gentiles, then Judaism was racist; if Jesus stood up for widows and women, then Judaism was misogynistic; if Jesus went to bat for the sick and poor, then Judaism was heartless. Unfortunately, if there’s no kernel of truth to any of this, it means Jesus isn’t left with much to criticize. Levine sees anti-Jewish foils under every rock, and while some of her concerns are valid, others betray a politically-correct paranoia. From a theological point of view, I have to admit I like her interpretations of the parables, but they should be seen for what they are: bastardized products of history and modern liberalism. See my full review.

stories with intent4. Stories with Intent, Klyne Snodgrass. 2008. This huge study is best summarized as “a mine of information, both of ancient languages and texts and of modern commentators and debate”. That’s the positive. “Yet something is seriously wrong with a method that, in the end, has the historical Jesus, the early Christian tradition, and any given evangelist practically collapse into the same person.” (Meier, A Marginal Jew above, p 55). Snodgrass is an evangelical, and so his naive optimism is a guarantee. I recommend his tome not as a reliable lens onto Jesus, but as the best reference tool that engages the voices of many scholars. Every parable is analyzed, and prefaced with sections which list all primary sources containing any hint of parallels and relevant information to the parable — passages in the bible, Greco-Roman writings, early Christian writings, and later Jewish writings. It’s worth noting that Snodgrass considers The Unmerciful Servant to be the most revealing and compelling story which illustrates the nature of Jesus’ parables more than any others. The message, according to him, is one of grace and responsibility, a rather traditional reading which dodges some hard questions. I still think Herzog’s interpretation of that parable survives Snodgrass’ attack. The parable seems to be more about an unmerciful king, and an implicit critique of messiahship suggesting that while messiahs can start out benign, they quickly and inevitably become captives of their own command.

hear then5. Hear Then the Parable, Bernard Brandon Scott. 1989. Misguided in almost every aspect of its intention, this commentary is worth reading for that very reason. It’s a perfect example of how not to explain Jesus as a social subversive. If you’re going to make him a revolutionary, then do it right, for Christ’s sake, like Herzog does (see 3, above). Herzog’s revisionism can certainly be criticized, but at least it’s credible within the Jewish peasant framework Scott tries so desperately to assimilate. He interprets the parables against the backdrop of Jewish myths and peasant world-views, which promises to yield good results until he walks right away from them. For example, in the parable of the Talents, he opposes the conclusion that his own analysis demands, that the third servant is the hero of the story. While the third servant’s speech moves an audience to identify with his plight, says Scott, the audience is nonetheless being asked to see the hidden side to the Torah — the “burden of its preservation”. Acknowledging that a Jew would see this as a caricature, Scott still presses the fantasy: “the price for protecting and preserving the Torah is the loss of a future”. The future, in other words, is claimed not by preserving precious gifts, but by acting boldly as if the rules have been changed, to liberate oneself from the paralysis of the Torah’s demands. Breezy table-talk like this fills Scott’s commentary. It’s the wisdom of the Jesus Seminarians masquerading as counterculture, but first-century Jewish peasants could hardly have heard the parables in this way. Scott does provide helpful discussion of the way certain myths are modified (as in The Mustard Seed and The Leaven), but on whole this study is a misfire, though a very instructive one.

Safety Tip: Carbon Monoxide Detectors


No, I don’t work for the Fire Department, but I am a public servant, so take this as free safety advice. Smart home owners use CO detectors, while those of us who think we’re smart don’t give them much thought until something scary happens.

In my case over a week ago, I noticed a “burnt” smell emanating from my utilities room. I went in and found that the top of my hot water heater was over heating like Dante’s Inferno, and so assumed something was wrong with the heater. Not so. Professionals came and found the heater was perfectly fine. What they did find was that a bunch of sheet-rock had collapsed in the chimney, preventing gasses from escaping, backdrafting back down onto the water heater and into my home, which included carbon monoxide. Someone else in my condominium area had a similar problem only a few months ago, and almost died for it. Thanks to the prompt professional responses, my chimney was cleaned that day; the heat and hot water swiftly restored. I was advised to get a CO detector — as if I needed persuading. Hell, I bought two. I chose a digital-display model (see above), which should read “0” most of the time, allowing for the occasional 1-30 PPM which, according to the instructions manual, “can often occur in normal everyday conditions”. When the display reads higher than 30, the alarm goes off. You can buy other alarms which trigger at 50. And according to some wisdom, healthy adults can tolerate up to 70 PPMs if the exposure isn’t long-term.

I wish I could have seen the PPM readings before my gas was shut off and the chimney cleaned. Because I apprehended the problem right away, and threw open all my sliding windows (in my living room and bedroom), I didn’t get sick. But I’ve no idea how much CO was in my home, especially my utilities room. My plumber guessed, based on the amount of sheet-rock taking up the chimney — there was one piece in particular that was almost completely blocking the passage — that it could have been anywhere between 100-600 PPMs in the utilities room with the door closed. Some fraction of that would have seeped into the rest of my home, and obviously if left unfixed, over time, even more.

Before last week, I didn’t know what “PPM”s were. “Parts per million” means the number of CO molecules in every million molecules of air (so, for example, 100 PPM of carbon monoxide means that for every 999,900 molecules of air, there are 100 molecules of CO). Here is the danger chart. A recent study found that the average peak CO levels during home alarm incidents was 452 PPMs.


Victoria: The Single-Shot Sleeper

victoriaVictoria is acclaimed for its single camera shot, which is just, but also somewhat unfortunate as it runs the danger of sidelining the film’s deeper strengths. Whenever I hear a film touted for being shot in a particular way, I’m on gimmick-alert. A correspondent recently said to me, “the one-take phenomenon is getting old, striking me as the aesthetic equivalent of ‘my dick is bigger than yours'”, which isn’t unfair. Hitchcock did long takes in Rope to great effect, and True Detective’s wide tracking shot in episode 4 is an instant classic. But films like Russian Ark and Birdman could have done just as well without relying on their superficial “long-take” aesthetic.

The case of Victoria is like Rope and True Detective, using its uninterrupted focus in the right ways to forge an incredibly immersive viewing experience. In the first hour, a Spanish woman bonds with a group of troublesome but affectionate German guys on the streets of Berlin. They’re hoodlums, but not very bad ones, their crimes usually restricted to shoplifting beer and trespassing onto apartment roofs where they have quiet night parties. Victoria finds them endearing, as did I; frankly I could have watched their casual conversation for the film’s duration. She and Sonne (the group’s sort-of leader) in particular feel a growing attraction, and within an hour we are so invested in these two that if the film stopped here it would be a perfect romantic short.

victoria3Instead it takes a sudden turn. One of the guys passes out drunk and Victoria gets recruited to fill his role in a bank heist. No one really wants to do the robbery; the guys are blackmailed into it by a gang leader who had protected one of them in prison. Victoria is a good sport through all of this, putting up with misogynistic indignities from the gang leader who also threatens to withhold her as a hostage when the guys show signs of cold feet. As the driver, she avoids the dirty business of entering the bank and pointing guns, but the getaway is a ripper. The single camera shot achieves a breakneck momentum as Victoria turns frantically into side-streets and drives too fast instead of blending into the traffic’s speed.

Because Victoria and these guys are basically good people, we alternate between feeling helpless and exhilarated as they sink into quicksand and pull themselves out with surprising reversals. My favorite scene is the celebration after the heist.victoria4 They go to a dance club, and the thundering music and dialogue fade as a soft piano score plays over their manic frivolity. It makes Victoria seem trapped in a naively dangerous bliss, but it’s a strangely precious moment — the last ray of light before the cops descend.

That final foot chase guarantees an unhappy ending, but it’s still impossible to predict. The twists and turns are relentless. Shots are fired, people die, and even a baby is compromised. This is all to say that Victoria’s seamless camerawork never fails on its promise. I was so impressed I watched it again the next day. And I have updated my Best Films of 2015 list, putting this gem all the way up at #3.