Parable of the Prodigal Son: Conclusions

This post is the final post in our series examining interpretations of the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Rembrant's Prodigal Son

Rembrant’s Prodigal Son

Last week we examined the interpretations of Hultgren, Rohrbaugh, and Schottroff and demonstrated the hermeneutical diversity concerning parable interpretation in current scholarship. In today’s final post in this series, we offer some reflection upon the implicit critiques that each respective scholar’s position offers the other interpretation before turning to some final thoughts concerning the diversity of interpretation in parables studies. Hultgren’s perspective, being the one most easily identified as “tradition” receives two strong overarching critiques. A social science perspective has little room for theologizing and relying on traditional historical-critical factors to provide the basis for a parable’s interpretation, and thus such a perspective would seem to call for a wider use of critical sources in Hultgren’s interpretation. From the feminist perspective, Hultgren’s interpretation is faulty in two crucial areas. First, his interpretation makes no reference to the implicit patriarchy exhibited in the father character or in the parable’s lack of reference to female characters who were almost undoubtedly involved in the story. Second, Hultgren makes the fatal error of allegorizing, and interprets the patriarchal father as God. Such an interpretation represents that exact form of traditional understanding that the feminist model seeks to overcome. Turning to a general critique Rohrbaugh’s perspective, we note that a traditional and theologically informed perspective would likely find fault with the often wooden sounding meanings and values that come from Rohrbaugh’s interpretation. From the feminist perspective, Rohrbaugh fails to adequately address the context of patriarchy and the role that female characters would have inevitably had in a narrative account. Looking at a critique of Schottroff’s perspective, one would expect a traditional perspective to offer at least a word of caution in assuming the parable affirms patriarchal structures. The argument could be made that since parables are short stories meant to convey messages to their audience, one would not expect to find much superfluous information or character development. From a social science perspective, Schottroff’s perspective would likely be critiqued on the grounds that inadequate or too traditionally employed socio-historical factors were used in the construction of the context of the parable and that more culturally specific datum should be employed. By this general exercise, we have seen that each interpretation presented can dialogue with and ask critical questions of the other perspectives. Have briefly surveyed some general implicit critiques of each scholar’s perspective from the positions of the other scholars, let us now turn to some final thoughts on the diversity of these perspectives. Continue reading

Parable of the Prodigal Son: Luise Schottroff

This post is part of our ongoing series examining interpretations of the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Luise Schottroff

Luise Schottroff

Having surveyed Hultgren and Rohrbaugh’s perspectives in our two previous posts, we now turn to feminist scholar Luise Schottroff’s interpretation of the Parable of the Prodigal Son found within The Parables of Jesus. In this work Schottroff embeds her feminist critique of oppression and patriarchy within the interpretive hermeneutic of the socio-historical method.[1] She employs the socio-historical method with the understood purpose of explaining the details of the text and providing a foundation from which to understand the social function of that text.[2] For Schottroff, parables cannot be understood as allegorical accounts with purely metaphoric meanings and interpretations.[3] Rather, she argues that parables should be understood as a contextually situated literary form that presumes a response by those who hear the narrative and gives rise to a resulting action.[4] Simply put, even with our modern reading of parable narratives “a response is always part of a parable” in Schottroff’s reading.[5] Schottroff also displays a strong critical awareness of several hermeneutical assumptions within New Testament interpretation that she argues need to be critical analyzed and rejected in our modern context, including the assumption of Christian superiority over other religions, dualisms in theological construction, assumptions that provide the foundation for notions of guilt, sin, and suffering through violence, and the common Christian perception of the ‘duty’ to maintain the social status quo and its structures of power.[6] Further, Schottroff emphasizes the importance of rediscovering the Gospel of the Poor within the words and parables of Jesus and rejecting any and all reasons for ignoring or interpreting the words of Jesus that concern domination and poverty other than the proclamation of the Gospel of the Poor.[7] As Schottroff embeds her methodological framework with both a feminist awareness as well as socio-historical methodology, she pays a great of attention to the context of those who would have first been exposed to the literary parables of Jesus, especially their socio-religious context with regard to Torah and their eschatological expectations concerning not the coming kingdom of God, but regarding the ‘nearness’ of God speaking now.[8] To sum Schottroff’s methodological focus, we see that she writes as one critically aware of the traditional socio-historical method, as one fully embedded in the feminist critiques of traditional patriarchal interpretations and methodology, and additionally gives special care to a renewed eschatological understanding that emphasizes the action that results from the delivery of the parable. Continue reading

Parable of the Prodigal Son: Richard Rohrbaugh

This post is part of our ongoing series examining interpretations of the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Richard Rohrbaugh

Richard Rohrbaugh

We now turn to the examination of our second perspective in the interpretation of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the view of Richard L. Rohrbaugh, which provides us with an example of parable interpretation from the perspective of the social sciences. With regard to methodology, Rohrbaugh approaches the text of the New Testament primarily from the perspectives of sociology and anthropology, arguing that one cannot find proper interpretation of the stories contained in the Gospel accounts apart from their socio-historical context within the Ancient Mediterranean Jewish context.[1] While essentially skirting past any substantial critique formed by literary or redaction criticism, Rohrbaugh bases his parable interpretation out of the received text of that parable found in Luke, arguing the likelihood that at least a portion of both the Historical Jesus and Lucan audiences would have contained the characters that Rohrbaugh employs to situate his interpretation: the ancient Mediterranean peasant.[2] In basing his interpretation out of the world of the typical Mediterranean peasant, Rohrbaugh makes a notable assumption, namely that the contexts of the historically delivered parable and the literary parable were essentially the same. Such a perspective may seem to sit at odds with the long-held understanding of Luke’s gospel to have been written with an imperially informed and non-Jewish community. However, Rohrbaugh’s main concern in his interpretation of Luke 15 lies with the supplemental information that it presents in contrast to and in conglomeration with the traditional interpretation of this parable as one of repentance, forgiveness, and a stubborn older brother.[3] With the social sciences as his primary tool, Rohrbaugh relies heavily upon the works of those scholars who have sought to reconstruct the socio-historical world of First Century Palestine. This interpretation provides very little by way of direct evidence for the socio-historical claims made, with far fewer primary or even secondary accounts being utilized in the construction of the social world that is presented as the norm for the parable, making it difficult to weigh Rohrbaugh’s socially located claims against interpreters who would argue for a different set of social norms. Rohrbaugh’s methodology remains situated within the framework of the historical-critical model by its use of social-scientific and contextually oriented investigations of the socio-cultural world in which the parable was first delivered. Continue reading

Parable of the Prodigal Son: Arland Hultgren

This post is part of our ongoing series examining interpretations of the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Arland Hultgren

Arland Hultgren

Arland J. Hultgren’s interpretation of the Parable of the Prodigal Son found in The Parables of Jesus offers a commentary style interpretation that will function within this paper as an example of several facets of the “traditional” Christian interpretation.[1] Before examining his interpretation of this narrative, we must first note several methodological factors in his hermeneutic. Within the context of his commentary, Hultgren write that “the primary interest within this volume is exegesis and theological reflection on the parables of Jesus as transmitted within the Synoptic Gospels.[2] In examining Luke 15:11b-32, Hultgren employs a variety of historical-critical tools, including textual criticism, philology, a contextual understandings of words and phrases during the Greco-Roman period, literary examination of the parable, and theological engagement of the narrative.[3] Hultgren’s overarching approach to the parables of Jesus lies with his declaration that underlies the perspective that parables are to be considered one of the two undisputed facets of historical datum (the other being his crucifixion), which makes their interpretation central for understanding the message of the historical Jesus and early Jesus movement.[4] Within this interpretation, the Parable of the Prodigal Son can only be understood within its context,[5] especially the literary context of Luke 15, in which Jesus is responding to the Pharisee’s and this parable follows those of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin.[6] As a final note concerning Hultgren’s methodological perspective, he affirms that his interpretations are but one of many possible interpretations, though adding the caveat that a parable should not be understood to mean just anything.[7] Thus Hultgren approaches this parable from a typically Protestant interpretative framework that places emphasis on the theological implications of the parable, as well as the surrounding contextual and especially socio-historical concerns. Continue reading

Parable of the Prodigal Son: Introduction

Parable-of-the-Prodigal-Son-imageThe parables of Jesus have long been perceived by Christians and scholars alike as instances of impressive theological reflection and noteworthiness within the writings of the Church for their simplicity, depth, and history of diverse interpretation. Building upon a long scholastic history of reading and interpreting the parables of Jesus found within the synoptic texts of the Christian New Testament, this series examines the interpretive perspectives of three New Testament scholars concerning their understanding of the “Parable of the Prodigal Son”[1] found in Luke 15:11b-32.  Over the next week we will examine the interpretations of Arland J. Hultgren, Richard L. Rohrbaugh, and Luise Schottroff. Each of these scholars builds upon a similar history of Western interpretation and each has unique perspectives and insights into the Parable of the Prodigal Son. We will examine Hultgren’s interpretation as an example of a traditional perspective, Rohrbaugh’s work within his work in the social-science interpretation of the New Testament, and Schottroff’s view as a representation of the general feminist school of interpretation. This series examines these three interpretations and their critical interactions with other interpretations as a demonstration of the hermeneutical diversity within contemporary parable interpretation in New Testament scholarship. Continue reading

God, Genocide, and Context

The Ancient Near East

The Ancient Near East

Several weeks ago I was chatting with some friends about the topic of God (Yahweh) in the Christian Old Testament. And, as is often the case, we ventured into the topic of whether or not Yahweh commanded genocide during the Old Testament period. While I am by no means an expert on this topic, I proceeded to suggest that God did not actually command genocide in the Old Testament, or at least what we would consider to be genocide in today’s context [1]. Thinking about this topic led me to think more about how we read and interpret the Bible.

Many Protestant Christians talk about reading the Bible “literally.” But I often don’t understand exactly what that means. Websters defines “literally” as “in a literal manner or sense; exactly.” When applied to the interpretation of a written text, this type of reading would seem to indicate that you take the text at its simple face value. But there are many portions of the Bible that even those advocating a “literal” reading of the Bible do not suggest should be interpreted woodenly. For example, the parables of Jesus. Is it possible that the Parable of the Sower or the Good Samaritan were actual events that Jesus was merely repeating for his followers? Possibly. But most people who have read or heard these stories have understood them as parables–stories that Jesus told to make a point and teach a truth–and not as historical narrative. But parables are not the only parts of scripture that should caution our desire to read the Bible “literally.” The Wisdom literature of the Old Testament (the central portion of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes) and the Psalms are two additional chunks of Christian scripture that most people are hesitant to interpret “literally.” Continue reading

Head Coverings in Corinth: Conclusions

This is the final post in our series on Head Coverings in Corinth.
Ancient Corinth

Ancient Corinth

In this series we have examined interpretations of First Corinthians 11.2-16 by three notable New Testament scholars, Richard B. Hays, Richard A. Horsley, and Dale B. Martin. To briefly summarize their respective interpretations and understandings of Paul’s views of the human body, we characterized Hays’ position as that of the socially gendered body, Horsley’s view as the ordered body, and Martin’s perspective as the polluted body. After reviewing each scholars contextual considerations for their perspective, their commentary and interpretation of First Corinthians 11.2-16, and the general shape of their understanding of the construction of the human body found in that passage, we turned to an extended consideration of the conception of the human body that can be drawn from this noteworthy passage in Paul’s first letter to Corinth. Here we argued that each perspective relies heavily upon social scientific reconstructions of the Corinthian context that directly impact conceptions of the human body. We noted that each scholar conceived of the Paul’s understanding of the body within the communal framework of the entire Corinthian Christian body. Additionally, we examined Hays, Horsley, Martin, Osiek and Pouya’s interpretations on the impact of Greco-Roman hierarchical norms on Paul’s conception of the human body. Finally, we explicated the various ways in which these scholars understood Paul’s emphasis on bodily difference in Corinth, arguing that the conception of bodily difference was the unifying feature of these three interpretations of First Corinthians.

Interpretations of Paul’s writings, especially those with potentially profound implications for understanding the human body and its relation to other bodies and persons, will undoubtedly continue for years to come. And while this study has only examined three perspectives on Paul’s conception of the human body taken from a short (though notable) passage of one of his letters, the unifying feature of these interpretations concerning Paul’s understanding of Corinthian Christian male and female bodies as different within the Greco-Roman social context, it may be that this unifying conception of body may very well point to a wider field of interpretive discussion and Pauline thought to be found in later studies of the body. As has been the case with the interpretation (and application) of First Corinthians 11.2-16, only time will tell. Continue reading

Head Coverings in Corinth: Comparing Interpretations

This post is part of our ongoing series on Head Coverings in Corinth.
Ancient Corinth

Ancient Corinth

Having examined the respective perspectives of Hays, Horsley, and Martin, we now place their understandings of Pauline conceptions of the body in conversation with each other. First, we note the importance of the reconstructed socio-historical context for each of the scholar’s respective views on Paul’s conception of the human body. For Hays, the need to distinguish between Christian bodies and other Corinthian bodies led Paul to argue for the importance of symbolic distinctions between male and female bodies. For Horsley, the need for ordered Corinthian Christians as living distinctly different lives from the chaos of other forms of Corinthian worship led Paul to enforce the ordered hierarchy of the congregation within the paradigm of an honor and shame context. Martin, while paying less attention to the general socio-historical context of Greco-Roman Corinth, nonetheless uses his reconstruction of the rhetorical and medical conventions of the first century to argue for Paul’s understanding of the female body as especially susceptible to corrupting pollution. Continue reading

The Polluted Body: Dale B. Martin

This post is part of our ongoing series on Head Coverings in Corinth.

Our third perspective on Head Coverings in Corinth comes from Dale B. Martin in his work The Corinthian Body, which examines the constructions of body and sexuality within Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. Here we will examine the contextual concerns Martin argues are important for interpreting First Corinthians 11.2-16, his interpretation of the passage on ‘head coverings,’ and his understanding of the Pauline conception of body. Ultimately, we find that Martin argues that Paul understands the body to be a potentially polluted agent.

Dale B. MartinMartin’s perspective is unique in that he pays little attention to more traditional historical-critical resources in his construction of the Corinthian context. He argues that Paul conceived of Corinth as one of his most important operational locals as he propagated his message about Jesus of Nazareth and that because of this centrality Paul paid special attention to the competing ideologies of the human body within the Corinthian congregation.[1] Key for Martin’s reading of First Corinthians is his argument that the numerous conflicts between the Corinthian Strong and Corinthian Weak stemmed from their differing conceptions of the normative human body. Within this framework, Martin understands Paul, along with the majority of the Corinthian Christians, to have viewed the body as being threatened by polluting agents, while a minority of Corinthians elites emphasized a hierarchical balance in the arrangement of the body without Paul’s concerning for bodily boundaries and pollution.[2] The divide between Strong and Weak encompassed socioeconomic status,[3] though Martin argues that a more important contextual concern were ancient discourses about the body driven by ideological constructions viewing the human body in certain ways due to societal influences and interests.[4] Martin argues that for ancients, the body was a microcosm of the universe,[5] perceived as a transitory point in the midst of cosmic movement,[6] within the hierarchical structure of Roman society.[7] Hierarchy was similarly formative with respect to the construction of sexuality, as all humans were understood along the lines of the spectrums of active/male and passive/female.[8] Setting Paul’s writing firmly within the tradition of Greco-Roman rhetoric,[9] Martin argues that Paul rejected the higher status Corinthians denigrating lower status Corinthians because of their lack of gnosis,[10] as he understands Paul to reverse normal power and hierarchy structures within the church whilst simultaneously affirming communal boundaries between the body and corrupt cosmos, especially concerning issues divided along social status lines.[11] Ultimately, Martin divides Paul’s concerns in First Corinthians into two major topical sections, those concerned with hierarchy and those concerned with pollution, situating Paul’s discourse on head coverings that we now turn to within his consideration of bodily pollution.[12] Continue reading

The Ordered Body: Richard A. Horsley

This post is part of our ongoing series on Head Coverings in Corinth.

Today we turn to Richard A. Horsley’s perspective as found in I Corinthians (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries). Upon examining Horsley’s contextual concerns, his interpretation of First Corinthians 11.2-16, and the conceptions of the human body within that passage, we will note that the human body within this passage should be understood as highly ordered.

Richard HorsleyHorsley argues that First Corinthians must be read and interpreted as a communal letter in which Paul rhetorically pits groups within the divided Corinthian church against one another to contrast their positions.[1] Along with the diverse urban background that made up the urban area[2] Horsley notes the patron-client system of Roman governance (which was not militarily enforced) in Corinth.[3] This combination of the urban setting and patronage system gave rise to the centrality of the emperor cult in Corinthian worship.[4] Horsley also notes the plurality of Roman, Greek, and Egyptian forms of worship within Corinth, relying upon archeological evidence attesting to Corinthian worship of Athena, Apollos, Demeter, Kore, Aphrodite, Asclepius, Poseidon, and Isis in addition to the cult of the emperor.[5] Within this plurality of worship settings, Horsley argues that Corinthians who became Christians were apparently taken by Paul’s working of spiritual acts.[6] Horsley also indicates the deep socioeconomic inequality present in Corinth and the deeply ingrained Greco-Roman hierarchical system which placed masters over slaves, husbands over wives, and the upper strata of society over the lower and led to the development of an aristocratic “spiritual” status within the Corinthian church.[7] Further, Horsley finds it extremely likely that a large number of Corinthian Christians were women.[8] A final important piece of Horsley’s contextual puzzle is his understanding of the major division in the Corinthian church to have been between followers of Apollos and followers of Paul,[9] who disagreed fundamentally not only on which preacher to follow, but also in their understandings of reality and the new social order coming because of God’s work in Christ.[10] This division appears to influence Paul’s rhetoric concerning divisions of belief and practice as he addresses not only his own followers, but seeks to transform the entire Corinthian congregation.[11] Continue reading