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.


2 thoughts on “The Longest Footnote: Meier’s critique of Rohrbaugh (The Talents)

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