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Life Arts    H4'ed 3/6/22

Amy-Jill Levine on Jesus's Parables (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) March 6, 2022: The self-described "Yankee Jewish feminist" biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine of the Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tennessee, served as the senior editor of the highly successful Jewish Annotated New Testament, featuring the New Revised Standard Version of the New Testament (Oxford University Press, 2011) - which was so successful that it prompted the fully revised and expanded second edition (2017).

In between the first and second editions, Amy-Jill Levine published the 2014 book Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York: Harper One/ Harper Collins). I have no problem with the wording "The Enigmatic Parables" in the subtitle.

But I have to ask the question, What made the historical Jesus "a Controversial Rabbi"? Was he "a Controversial Rabbi" because of "The Enigmatic Parables" he taught? Or was he "a Controversial Rabbi" because he somehow managed to attract followers? And if he somehow managed to attract followers, how did "The Enigmatic Parables" contribute to attracting those followers? Or did they? Did "The Enigmatic Parables" perhaps discourage followers, but did they nevertheless become followers because they found his outreach to them attractive?

In Amy-Jill Levine's "Introduction: How We Domesticate Jesus's Provocative Stories" (pp. 1-23), she says that "the parables more often tease us [in the Judeo-Christian tradition of thought] into recognizing what we've already always known, and they do so by reframing our vision" (p. 22). "[T]hey tap into our memories, our values, and our deepest longings [as formed by our Judeo-Christian tradition] and so they resurrect what is very old, and very wise, and very precious. And often, very unsettling" (pp. 22-23).

She then proceeds to tell us her way of proceeding in each chapter: "Thus, each chapter begins with my fairly literal translation of a short story by Jesus; if the literalness makes the parable seem unfamiliar, good. Once we can defamiliarize ourselves of our tried-and-true readings, we are in a better position to hear the parable anew. The chapter next locates the story in its historical and literary context and sweeps away the interpretations that distort Jesus's own context. It concludes by offering fresh readings of what the parable might have suggested to its earlier and original listeners and then what we might do with that impression today" (p. 23).

In the nine chapters that make up the book (pp. 25-273), she carries out this straightforward way of proceeding by examining nine famous parables in detail. In addition to supplying a "fairly literal translation of [each] short story by Jesus," she routinely explains the Greek terminology in the gospel texts, and she regularly surveys historical and more recent interpretations that she argues should be rejected for reasons she explains.

In Amy-Jill Levine's "Conclusion: The Power of Disturbing Stories" (pp. 275-282), she says, "One does not need to worship Jesus as Lord or Savior for the parable to have meaning. The people who first heard him did not, at first, worship him. Yet they paid attention, because for those with ears to hear and some patience to ponder, the parables spoke to their hearts. I do not worship Jesus as Lord and Savior, but I continue to return to these stories, because they are at the heart of my own Judaism. They challenge, they provoke, they convict, and at the same time they amuse. At each reading, when I think I've got all the details explained, something remains left over, and I have to start again. The parables have provided me countless hours of inspiration, and conversation. They are pearls of Jewish wisdom. If we hear them in their original contexts, and if we avoid the anti-Jewish interpretation that frequently deforms them, they gleam with a shine that cannot be hidden" (p. 282).

In short, the parables are polysemous heuristic structures for listeners in the Judeo-Christian tradition of thought to use to explore their own contemporary lives and issues. In her view of Jesus's polysemous heuristic parables, the historical Jesus emerges as an artistic genius who creatively created those short stories known as parables out of his own personal experience of first-century Judaism.

Yes, up to a certain juncture in the life of the historical Jesus, he did not pursue a public ministry of teaching and preaching and outreach to his fellow first-century Jews. However, after a certain juncture in his life, he did undertake such a public ministry.

Amy-Jill Levine herself uses the term genius to characterize the historical Jesus in two slightly different contexts. On page 4, she refers to "the genius of Jesus's teaching."

On page 34, in a more global statement, she says, "And yes, Jesus eats with them [sinners] - that's part of his genius, that he recognizes that they [sinners] are part of the community and he goes out to get them." No doubt the outreach of the historical Jesus contributed to his ability to attract followers.

But just how many of his followers were attracted to his "Enigmatic Parables," and just how many of them were attracted to his outreach efforts despite "The Enigmatic Parables"?

The Testimony of Walter J. Ong, S.J.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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