Marilynne Robinson, Jörg Frey, and the resurrection of the troubled one

Not long ago I was struck by an unexpected intersection between my current translation of Jörg Frey’s essays on John and my nightly reading of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Lila. Indeed, I think it is quite possible that Robinson is consciously alluding to the Johannine passage that Frey discusses. Whether or not this is the case, however, I at least found the juxtaposition meaningful and am thus passing it along as something of an Easter meditation. I’ll start with the Robinson quotation so that I can include the German of the Frey quotation after the English translation. Finally, I’ve added a bonus resurrection allusion at the end of the post for all lovers of Sherlock Holmes.

Marilynne Robinson (Lila, p. 92): She meant to ask the old man sometime what would happen when they were all resurrected and he had two wives. He had preached about that, which probably meant he had been wondering, too—they won’t be male or female, they won’t marry or be given in marriage. Jesus said that. So the old man wouldn’t have a wife at all, not even one. This girl and her child, after so many years, would be like anyone else to him. He might be as young as he was when she left him. Lila could see sometimes what he’d been like when he was young. The girl would still be holding that baby he had hardly even had a chance to hold. And there would be no change in her, and no change in him, as if dying had never happened. It would be a strange kind of heaven, after all they’d been through, and all the waiting, if he did not feel a different peace when he stood beside them. Lily could watch them, and love them, because old Doll would be there to say, “It don’t matter.” Don’t want what you don’t need and you’ll be fine. Don’t want what you can’t have. Doll would be there, ugly with all the trouble of her life. Lila might not know her otherwise.

* For a recent discussion of Robinson on theology, see see Kathryn Heidelberger’s post at DET.

Jörg Frey (“Bodiliness and Resurrection in the Gospel of John”; trans. W. Coppins and C. Heilig): As in the preceding scene with Mary it is recorded that the disciples saw “the Lord,” i.e. that they recognized the one who appeared to them as their familiar Lord. This is effected not through a demonstrative eating but through a personal experience of encounter that mediates the new assurance and Easter joy. This experience is also ignited here through the address by Jesus (in this case with the greeting of peace) and through the bodily form of the crucified one, which is characterized as unmistakable not through a reference to his hands and feet but—in correspondence with John 19.34—through the reference to the hands and the ‘side.’ The risen one is thus the one who is familiar to the disciples from the time of his activity and—decidedly—the crucified one, with his identity after Easter also being enduringly characterized by the signa crucifixi. The stigmata of the crucified one, the marks of the nails in his hands and the wound in his side, confirm the identity of the appearing one with the crucified one. In them it becomes clear whom the disciples see—namely, the previously crucified “Lord.” His appearance drives away fear, mediates Easter joy, and enables the disciples, in the power of the Spirit, to continue the work of this Lord in the post-Easter period (cf. 14.12).

* N.B. The ET contains a few additions/modifications in relation to the German version

“Leiblichkeit und Auferstehung im Johannesevangelium” (pp. 732-733 in Die Herrlichkeit des Gekreuzigten): Wie in der vorausgehenden Szene mit Maria wird festgestellt, daß die Jünger ‘den Herrn’ sahen, d.h. daß sie den ihnen Erscheinenden als den ihnen vertrauten Herrn wiedererkannten. Bewirkt wird dies nicht durch demonstratives Essen, sondern durch eine persönliche Erfahrung der Begegnung, die neue Gewißheit und österliche Freude vermittelt. Diese Erfahrung entzündet sich auch hier an der Anrede durch Jesus (hier mit dem Friedensgruß) und an der leiblichen Gestalt des Gekreuzigten, die nun nicht durch Hände und Füße, sondern in Entsprechung zu Joh 19,34 durch der Hinweis auf die ‘Seite’ als unverwechselbar gekennzeichnet ist. Der Auferstandene ist somit der den Jüngern aus der Zeit seines Wirkens Vertraute und – dezidiert – der Gekreuzigte, und auch seine Identität nach Ostern ist bleibend durch die signa crucifixi gekennzeichnet. Die stigmata des Gekreuzigten, die Hände und die Seitenwunde, lassen die Identität des Erscheinenden mit dem Gekreuzigten zur Gewißheit werden. An ihnen wird deutlich, wen die Jünger sehen, nämlich den zuvor gekreuzigten “Herrn”. Seine Erscheinung vertreibt die Furcht, vermittelt die österliche Freude und befähigt die Jünger, also Zeugen in der Kraft des Geistes das Werk dieses Herrn in der nachösterlichen Zeit fortzusetzen (cf. Joh 14,12).

Rather than concluding this email with an analysis, let me end it with another apparent allusion to the resurrection that I stumbled upon this year, which I found to be less profound but perhaps even more delightful. This time the connections to Luke 24:36-42 are especially evident, at least to my eye:

Sherlock Holmes (The Adventure of the Empty House, The Complete Sherlock Holmes, p. 485-486):

I moved my head to look at the cabinet behind me. When I turned again, Sherlock Holmes was standing smiling at me across my study table. I rose to my feet, stared at him for some seconds in utter amazement, and then it appears that I must have fainted for the first and the last time in my life. Certainly a gray mist swirled before my eyes, and when it cleared I found my collar-ends undone and the tingling after-taste of brandy upon my lips. Holmes was bending over my chair, his flask in his hand.

“My dear Watson,” said the well-remembered voice, “I owe you a thousand apologies. I had no idea that you would be so affected.”

I gripped him by the arms. “Holmes!” I cried. “Is it really you? Can it indeed be that you are alive? Is it possible that you succeeded in climbing out of that awful abyss?”

“Wait a moment,” said he. “Are you sure that you are really fit to discuss things? I have given you a serious shock by my unnecessarily dramatic reappearance.”

“I am all right, but indeed, Holmes, I can hardly believe my eyes. Good heavens! to think that you – you of all men – should be standing in my study.” Again I gripped him by the sleeve, and felt the thin, sinewy arm beneath it. “Well, you’re not a spirit, anyhow,” said I. “My dear chap, I’m overjoyed to see you. Sit down, and tell me how you came alive out of that dreadful chasm.”

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German Mondays: Thank you for making it to the end of this blog post! I hope to be able to write at least one Monday blog post each month. Best, Wayne


Rediscovering Parables in John with Ruben Zimmermann

Ruben Zimmermann’s Puzzling the Parables of Jesus: Methods and Interpretations is a very fine work. One value of the book is that it consciously seeks to bring together current German and American research on the parables (see here). Another important feature is that Zimmermann applies recent research on historiography and memory to the interpretation of the parables (see esp. 76-98). This post will highlight a third contribution of the book, namely Zimmermann’s perceptive discussion of the genre of parable (pp. 105-150, esp. 132-138) and his convincing suggestion that there are, in fact, parables in John (pp. 333-360, esp. 333-339; see further here).

Before turning to Zimmermann, it may be helpful to illustrate the widely held view that parables are characteristic of the synoptics and not of the Fourth Gospel. To do so, I will quote from two (very fine) books that I have used in my course on John this semester: “This Jesus is not the gritty, earthy, Synoptic preacher of parables from rural Galilee.” (Christopher Skinner, Reading John. Wipf & Stock, 2015, p. 69); “In the Synoptics, Jesus speaks regularly in parables… John’s Jesus teaches not in parables but in lengthy discourses…” (Marianne Meye Thompson, John: A Commentary. WJK, 2015, p. 3; but cf. p. 344).

Zimmermann’s rediscovery of parables in John is based on his reassessment of the definition of a parable. He defines parables as follows:

137: “A parable is a short narratival (1) fictional (2) text that is related in the narrated world to known reality (3) but, by way of implicit or explicit transfer signals, makes it understood that the meaning of the narration must be differentiated from the literal words of the text (4). In its appeal dimension (5) it challenges the reader to carry out a metaphoric transfer of meaning that is steered by contextual information (6).” (p. 137).

137-138: “Concentrating on attributes, we can name a bundle of six characteristics of a parable … Four of them are core criteria (and), which means that whenever one is missing, the genre of the text in question is not really a ‘parable’. Two of them are supplemental criteria, which are relevant for most parable texts (and/or); however, they are not necessarily required. The ‘parable’ is:

1. narratival, and

2. fictional, and

3. realistic, and

4. metaphoric, and/or

5. active in appeal, and/or

6. contextually related.”

In my view, Zimmermann’s definition is very perceptive, and I would only want to quibble with criteria 3. More specifically, I think it is preferable to describe parables as “semi-realistic” rather than “realistic” since it seems to me that there are some cases in which the world under discussion or target domain influences the source domain or level of the image in such a way that it bursts or bends the realism of the image.

Zimmermann’s treatment of parables in John contains at least four important lines of thought. First, he provides a concise response to the reasons that have been advanced for not finding parables in John. Here (pp. 334-335), he notes, inter alia, that “The clear and simple sayings concerning the ‘walking at day or night’ (John 11:9-10), the ‘woman in labor’ (John 16:21), or the ‘shepherd who leads out his sheep’ (John 10:1-5), to mention only a few examples, cannot be characterized simply as allegories; rather, they arise out of the everyday experiences of agrarian life in Galilee”, that “the concept of nontheological parables in the Synoptics must be questioned, since key terms and themes such as vineyard, shepherd, or harvest were already imbued with theological meanings”, and that “the Synoptics bring together and characterize as belonging to the genre of παραβολή texts of varying length and character, a state of affairs that corresponds to the variety of figurative speech in John.” Secondly, drawing upon his earlier definition of parables, he explains that “Bearing in mind the above dynamic theory of genres, several passages can be identified as fictional, realistic, narrative, and metaphorical texts. Thus, using the same standard of justification with which we call such texts in the Synoptics ‘parables,’ we may call them parables in John too. In other words, there are parables in John!” (335). Finally, he takes a further step and asks whether one can identify a specific concept of the parables in John. Here (pp. 336-339) he notes, inter alia, that “If one seeks to locate the Johannine parables within the context of the entire Fourth Gospel, one discovers that they are found in nearly every section of the Gospel, from the first public appearance of Jesus (John 2:19-20) to the end of the Farewell Discourses (John 16:21)” and that “The theological goal of the parables for John is the recognition of Christ, which unfolds especially in relationship with Christ. The addresses of the Gospel should be drawn into a dynamic process of understanding and faith through the παροιμία, a process that culminates in a holistic fellowship with Christ, a ‘remaining in Christ’ as union with the resurrected one.” Fourthly, Zimmermann devotes the rest of this chapter (pp. 339-360) to a close study of the Parable of the Dying and Living Grain (John 12:24).

In my view, Zimmermann has made a very strong case for speaking of parables in John (see further the works referenced on page 335 n.7-8). This is not to say that there are not important differences between the Synoptics and John, both in general and with regard to their parables in particular. But it seems to me that we should no longer frame this issue by suggesting that the genre of parables is restricted to the Synoptics.

Addendum: I am pleased to learn that there will be an SBL panel on the parables this year featuring giants such as A.-J. Levine, J. P. Meier, K. Snodgrass, A. Merz and R. Zimmermann!

For a list of Ruben Zimmermann’s English publications, see here.

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German Mondays: Thank you for making it to the end of this blog post! I hope to be able to write at least one Monday blog post each month. Best, Wayne

Oda Wischmeyer on Love as Agape

I have recently finished Oda Wischmeyer‘s excellent new book Liebe als Agape: Das frühchristliche Konzept und der moderne Diskurs (cf. Google Books), which does so much in less than 300 pages! Showing a remarkable breadth and depth of knowledge, Wischmeyer approaches the topic from multiple perspectives, including perceptive engagement with contemporary conceptions of love such as those of Julia Kristeva, Martha Nussbaum, and Benedict XVI in his encyclical Deus caritas est. In this way, she facilitates a dialogue between the treatment of love in the New Testament and the diverse discussions of love in our own time. For this post, I have chosen a short passage from her fourth chapter. As usual I will begin with the translation and then quote the original text.

Translation (wmc): Common to Paul and John is the interpretation of the death of Jesus as giving up the life for others, understood as the highest form of love. This form of giving up the own life as the highest expression of love undoubtedly forms the theological-christological center of the whole New Testament concept of love. Here in the inner-divine sphere the basic form of love is pre-formed and pre-suffered. When in John 1.1-3, 14, 18 and Philippians 2.6-7 the separation of the Son from the Father is addressed, which is formulated elsewhere as “delivering up (of the Son)”, and Jesus’s fate of death is interpreted as the love of God and of Jesus to human beings, we find ourselves at the center of the concept of love. Love and death mutually condition each other here, and yet in such a way that love and thus life gains the victory.

Liebe als Agape (p. 153): Paulus und Johannes gemeinsam ist die Interpretation des Todes Jesu als Hingabe des Lebens für andere, verstanden als höchste Form der Liebe. Diese Form der Hingabe des eigenen Lebens als des höchsten Ausdrucks der Liebe bildet zweifellos das theologisch-christologische Zentrum des gesamten neutestamentlichen Liebeskonzepts. Hier im innergöttlichen Bereich ist die Grundform der Liebe vor-geformt und vor-erlitten. Wenn in Joh 1,1-3.14.18 und in Phil 2,6f. die Trennung des Sohnes vom Vater angesprochen wird, die an anderer Stelle also “Dahingabe (des Sohnes)” formuliert ist, und Jesu Todesschicksal also Liebe Gottes und Jesu zu den Menschen interpretiert wird, befinden wir uns im Zentrum des Liebeskonzept: Liebe und Tod bedingen sich hier gegenseitig, aber so, dass die Liebe und damit das Leben den Sieg behält.

(Selective) Grammatical Analysis: Not sure if “giving up” is a good solution for “Hingabe”. I considered saying “his life” rather than “the life” (as often, each solution has its advantages and disadvantages). inner-divine doesn’t quite do justice to innergöttlichen but it still seems to be the best solution. Not sure if “vor-erlitten” is best translated with “pre-suffered” or if the sense is weaker, i.e. something like pre-experienced. I also considered translating “Dahingabe” as “handing over” or “giving over” rather than “delivering up”, which might not be a good word choice. I considered translating den Sieg behält with “prevailed” but it seemed important to retain the word “victory” (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:55-56).

In other news, Oda Wischmeyer provides a fascinating analysis of N. T. Wright’s Biblical hermeneutics in her contribution to the forthcoming volume God and the Faithfulness of Paul (see here)!

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German Mondays: Thank you for making it to the end of this blog post! I hope to be able to write at least one Monday blog post each month. Best, Wayne