The Parable of the Weeds in the Wheat (Matt 13:24-30)

At last, a use for my degree in Agricultural Science, and in particular for those hours spent in Crop Botany and Weed Science lectures and pracs, which seemed to have minimal value for an Animal Husbandry major!!

I lead a weekly Bible Study group on campus, and we have agreed to look at the gospel readings from the lectionary, but seeing in the two weeks not long past, many of the parables of the Kingdom that I am studying for my doctorate have appeared, I decided that I would indulge myself a little and spend a few weeks looking at them in a bit more detail. Last Friday we looked at the Parable of the Weeds in the Wheat (or the Wheat and the Tares).

It’s interesting to read commentators on this. They inform me that another name for tares is darnel (and some Bible translations actually say “darnel”) and many of them say that darnel is virtually indistinguishable from wheat until ears form, so you can’t tell which is a wheat plant and which is a darnel plant until they start to form seed. In fact, darnel is a form of bearded rye grass and its leaves are significantly finer than those of wheat, with far less obvious veins in them, so the experienced farmer (any and Ag Sci student who has any hope of passing Weed Science) knows quite a bit sooner than when the heads start to form which plants are wheat and which are darnel.

Once heads form, though, even the most inexperienced person can tell the difference. The seeds of darnel are poisonous, so they can’t be combined with wheat grain and must be disposed of before the grain is threshed from the plants. The problem with weeding a field of wheat is that in order to get a high yield, the farmer needs to plant seeds quite close together, so by the time it’s easy to see which plants are crop and which are weeds, the roots are so closely intertwined that pulling up the weeds means that crop plants are pulled up with them.

In the context of this parable, the people who come to the owner of the field are called “slaves”, not skilled farm workers. The parable says that they come to their master offering to pull up the weeds that have infested the crop only when the seed has begun to set. The owner of the field is a farmer. He would have been aware for some time that there are weeds in his crop and he had already formed his game plan for dealing with them. He did not need the slaves to point out that there were weeds in the crop and it is clear that his priorities for the darnel plants are different to those of the slaves. It is only the seeds of the darnel that are poisonous, so leaving them there is no a problem as long as the seeds don’t get mixed up with the wheat seeds when they are being threshed.  Since he does not have access to a combine harvester with its inability to discriminate between wheat and darnel, he is content to leave the painstaking task of separating the wheat from the darnel until the time of the harvest when there’s less chance of losing good seed along with the bad.

In other words, I think that in its Matthean form, this parable is suggesting that God is not actually looking for church members or church leaders to be throwing other church members or leaders out on the basis of their judgement that said people are “weeds” in God’s Realm.  That, in fact, we don’t have the requisite skills to do this without throwing out “wheat” as well, so maybe we should just get on with being “wheat” ourselves and let God worry about who’s in and out.

I haven’t done any work on the Thomasine version of the parable and it’s not on my agenda for a while yet, but I had previously accepted the commentators’ analysis of the Matthean version, which makes me wonder what I was doing during the Year of Matthew when I was the parish minister in the wheat-growing area of western Victoria.  Maybe that was when I was on maternity leave!

On keeping and open mind…

…and being suspicious

The other day, one of our international students asked if he could come and talk to me about sending his daughter to the preschool that is part of the local Presbyterian Ladies College. I had no idea why he wanted to talk to me about this, but said to come on over.

He has a Muslim name, but he offered to shake my hand, which is not normal for Muslim men when they meet a woman. He comes from India, and almost all our Indian students are Hindu or Sikh. He wanted to send his daughter to a Christian school, so he could also have been Christian. I decided that, rather than try to put him in a box, I had better just listen and find out where he fitted.

It turns out that his name was my best clue – he is actually Muslim, but wants to send his daughter to a school where she will be taught moral values that are similar to those of his own faith tradition. He wanted to talk to someone who is familiar with the local school system and one of his colleagues (another Muslim student) speaks very highly of me, so he chose me.

I try to use the same method when I am approaching my texts. When they present me with a number of contradictory clues to how I might understand them, I try to keep an open mind as I dig deeper, rather than jumping to conclusions that may cause me to treat it inappropriately because I’ve been blinded by my assumptions to other information.

Of course, with text, I can’t just ask a direct question to settle my dilemma, so I need to find or develop some criteria for choosing between the contradictory clues. Listening to what others say about it is often helpful, but working out which others to pay attention to is sometimes challenging. As I said on the Gospel of Thomas email list (perhaps a little more forcefully than is really tactful 🙂 ), I am at least as interested in the reasons given for opinions as I am in who is giving the opinion. Of course, there are some people whose opinions I respect more readily than others and I started thinking what criteria I use when I evaluate the opinions of others. Here’s my working list:

  • does the person who is expressing the opinion have a track record in the particular area? if so, what is it like?
  • does the opinion being offered take the text seriously ie
    • does it look at the whole text rather than just picking up a few keywords and running with them?
    • does it look at the text in its context, rather than treating it in isolation?
  • does the person expressing the opinion make explicit his/her underlying assumptions about the text? eg is s/he assuming it is Christian, gnostic, early, late etc?
  • does the opinion being offered provide evidence from the text itself and/or from other sources or at least reasons to back up the opinion or does it just rely on the audience’s willingness to trust the authority of the person expressing the opinion?
  • where relevant, does the opinion being expressed make sense in other contexts? eg if the interpretation being offered relies on a particular translation of one or two key words, does this interpretation make sense in similar contexts? If not, does the author acknowledge this and provide a justification of using this particular meaning in this particular context?

There may be more, but I can’t think of any just at the moment. You may have some you’d like to add.

So, I’ve come to the conclusion that good textual interpretation is about finding the right balance between keeping an open mind about what is being said – both by the text and its interpreters – and being suspicious. You don’t knock back an idea just because it’s new, but you don’t accept ideas uncritically just because they’re new, either. And you treat tradition in the same way. You don’t accept someone’s opinion just because they have a big name in the field; you certainly don’t accept someone’s opinion just because they have a big name in a related field; but at the same time, you recognise that people don’t normally become big names for no reason. 🙂

Expository Preaching

There is an interesting discussion on Tim Bulkely’s Sansblogue about preaching. In it, one of the people who has posted comments talks about the need for expository preaching – preaching based on the text – rather than simply using the text selectively to back up personal opinions.

While I agree that it is good to base one’s sermons on a biblical text, I think there are a range of ways of doing this, and some of them are more valid than others. I am reminded of some sermons and talks at Christian conventions that I’ve attended, where the preacher/speaker takes the text serious in minute detail. He (it is always he) takes a few words from the text and expands on them, telling us how important a particular adjective or adverb is to how the text applies to the lives of the audience. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I used to find this fascinating and be quite awestruck by the depth of the speaker’s biblical understanding.

Looking back, though, this kind of speaker was rarely looking at the Greek/Hebrew text for his source, so he was basing his exposition on English synonyms and grammatical structure, which is quite often problematic. In addition, the more I look at oral transmission and the psychological literature on eyewitness testimony, the more convinced I become of the invalidity of this kind of text work. What people remember about an event they’ve witness can be so skewed by a range of factors that attributing some divine importance to one or two particular words is simply not on, unless you subscribe to the “divine secretary” theory of inspiration of Scripture (ie that the writers of the biblical texts simply took dictation from God).

I believe that we need to look at the big picture – the themes that are consistent throughout scripture – not the fine detail, for our understanding about authentic Christian lifestyles. Fine detail analysis of text is essential to ensure that we have the big picture right, but the fine detail analysis needs to be of the texts in their original languages as far as possible, and in the context in which they were written.

However, a day or three ago, Chris Tilling’s Quote for the Day over on Chrisendom was from Andrew Perriman and it reminded me of another problem with expository preaching. Perriman talks about the fact that the Bible is not a modern text and was not written to address modern circumstances and therefore should be strange and irrelevant, not immediately accessible to the modern reader/hearer. I’m not sure that I agree with the “should” but it often is and I think that one of the problems of the person who has grown up with or has extensive experience of Christianity from within the church is that they simply don’t realise just how inaccessible the Bible is to the modern reader without a church background. In your average church service, there simply isn’t the time to spend providing the background to help the congregation understand why you are saying that the big picture is what it is – at least in the churches I attend where people start fidgetting after about 15 minutes and cannot be guaranteed to come week after week so they will get all the parts of a series.

A preacher who is trying to work from the text is therefore left with no option but the “trust me – I’m ordained/have studied theology” line, and generally most members of most congregations do trust the preacher not to be making stuff up from thin air, which is quite a sobering thought, really. I mean, how many “biblical facts” have you believed for years on the basis that some preacher years ago said they were true only to find that they actually are not? Preaching is actually quite scarey if you stop to think about it for too long!

Update: Thanks to Pat McCullough of kata ta biblia for explaining how to get a direct link to the Sansblogue post. 🙂

DeConick’s “Thirteenth Apostle”

As some will be aware, I was working at Rice University when April DeConick’s new book The Thirteenth Apostle was in the final stages of preparation. I proofread the main body of the text and one or two of the appendices that April was preparing. I was impressed enough to want my own copy of the final book, even though Gospel of Judas isn’t my particular area of specialty, because it contains a very good overview of Gnosticism and a number of other useful features as well as the commentary on the text of the Gospel.

I looked at the Coptic text of the relevant passages and read her arguments for her interpretation of the text through very carefully and they make sense to me. I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of my own copy – it’s due within the next few days – and plan to write a review once I’ve finished writing the conference paper that’s been hanging over my head for the last several weeks. In the meantime, you might like to look at the review on the Baptist Press website that also includes a report of an interview between April and Gregory Tomlin. My only criticism of it is that it lists the Gospel of Thomas as a Gnostic text and I don’t agree with this! You might also like to read what she has to say about her translation and about the problems that scholars are having in gaining access to the facsimiles of the text.

Update 9 Nov

My copy has arrived and I am very surprised.  I really thought I was going to get a paperback, but it’s hardcover.  I cannot believe that I paid $13.57 US for a hardcover new release book!  Of course, the postage and handling were almost as much as the book itself, but it’s still amazingly reasonably priced, especially given the very favourable exchange rate at the moment.  The last DeConick book I bought cost waaaaaaay more. 🙂

Wisdom from the past

I was recently taken by something that R McLean Wilson wrote in his very early Studies in the Gospel of Thomas (A R Mowbray and Co, London, 1960). He introduces his consideration of the Gnostic element in Thomas by saying:

In the study of an ancient document much depends upon the pre-suppositions with which we begin, on the questions with which we approach the examination of the text.(p 14)

He goes on to say that if you concentrate on details and isolate passages from one another, while you may produce useful information, you may also miss the “range and sweep” of the document. General impressions acquired by looking at the text as a whole, however, may be misleading if not combined with a detailed examination. As Wilson so rightly states, if you start with the assumption that Thomas is dependent on the Synoptics, you can find evidence for dependence, and if you start with the assumption that it’s independent, many of the same things will provide evidence for that, so your initial assumptions are important.

I think Wilson’s comment is sound advice for all studies of ancient text. The challenge is to approach texts with a reasonably open mind and to look at the problematic elements and ask “What sorts of things might cause/explain this? Which of these is most likely and why? What are the minimum conditions that need to apply in order for explanation A to be true? And explanation B? And C, if there is a C? If it doesn’t fulfill either/any of the minimum conditions, what have I missed?”

I try to use this methodology on all occasions and hope that I am usually successful. 🙂

Totally off topic – what kind of hermeneutic?

On Friday, a very miserable young man found his way to my office, referred by one of the counsellors.

Can somebody please tell me how supposedly good Christian parents can disown and cut off all contact with their kind, caring, socially concerned, articulate, intelligent and generally pleasant son just because he happens to be gay? Just exactly what hermeneutical principle does one have to use to get this kind of understanding of Christian teaching?

I can understand how they’d be unhappy, I can understand (although I wouldn’t necessarily agree with their exegesis) why they might think he was not living an appropriate lifestyle for a Christian but . . . “you no longer exist for us”???? Where is the good news for this young man in their behaviour? Where is the modelling of the love and grace of God?

I find helping young people like him to see a different way of understanding God emotionally draining because they have been treated so badly by people who say that they serve a loving God. Of course, it’s far less emotionally draining than burying the ones who decide that living is all too much for them. Why can’t people learn to hold up interpretations of small bits of the Bible against the whole and ask “Did God really say that??”

Update 23 July:

I just discovered that WordPress has a tag called “hermeneutics” and that this post got linked to it. On this page, I found a post by Jay Guin called Interpreting the Bible: Big rocks go in first . In it, he says:

Find the great, overriding principles of the Bible, and never, ever vary from them.

The great, overriding principles are those that the Bible says are the great, overriding principles. The love of God, the gospel, our call to love others, and so forth.

I don’t know anything much about Guin, so we may disagree about what the great overriding principles of the Bible are, but clearly we agree about methodology!! 🙂

Eyewitnesses – accuracy, reliability and trustworthiness

In two of her posts to the biblical-studies list colloquium on Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Liz Fried has raised the issue of witness reliabilty vs truth. Reading them has clarified for me a half-formed thought that has been annoying me for weeks. I was trying to get at it in my post “Testimony as History” but couldn’t quite articulate the problem.

In her post entitled Question for Prof. Bauckham, Fried says that in the discourse of psychology and statistics, her former area of study, “reliability” refers to whether or not a test elicits the same results each time a particular person takes the test. A reliable witness is one who tells the same story every time s/he is asked to say what happened. The test may not be accurate (ie it may not really test what it purports to test) and the witness may be repeating a totally fabricated account, but they are still reliable in the sense that they are consistent.

and in her post RE: [biblical-studies] Bauckham replies to Fried, she says:

A very important experiment was done in the 50’s. Subjects were shown a scene of people standing on a crowded bus. Two people were standing in the middle of the bus facing each other holding on to a pole. One was black, wearing a suit and tie, and holding a briefcase. The other was white, wearing overalls, and holding a wrench.

Subjects were to report back, the next week I believe, to tell the researcher privately what they saw.

The majority of subjects switched the races, they believed they saw the black man in overalls and the white man in a suit and tie. Some reported additionally that the black man was holding a knife (not a wrench). And rather than simply facing each other on a crowded bus, some subjects saw a hostile confrontation.

The point is that people’s perceptions are affected by their prior beliefs. People see what they expect to see.

Besides the research on eye-witness testimony, another important research area is that of story-embellishment . . . Personal stories are embellished with each telling. Gaps are filled in by the teller to supply details poorly understood or unavailable, and they are filled in according to the teller’s idea of what “must have been.” With the next telling these embellished details are recounted as part of what he saw, not part of what he invented.

So, it is not enough to provide evidence that the written versions of the canonical gospels were eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ ministry. As Fried points out, eyewitnesses can misremember what they saw if it conflicts with what they already know/believe/expect, and they can embellish their accounts. Bauckham draws attention to the possibility of embellishment when he mentions Rossini’s account of his attempt to meet Beethoven.

As I understand him, Bauckham is saying that the written version of the canonical gospels were produced in communities where eyewitnesses to the events of Jesus ministry, death and resurrection were still alive and controlled the way in which accounts of these events were recorded. In order for this to be of any value, we need also to be able to identify which eyewitnesses were in control of the accounts and that be sure that they were producing accurate (ie trustworthy) rather than simply reliable (ie consistent) accounts. Bauckham, I think, is assuming that an account that has been controlled by an eyewitness up to the point where it is recorded in writing is more likely to be accurate than one than an account that has gone through a number of iterations of oral transmission between its accuracy being checked by an eyewitness and being written down.

While this may be true, to what degree it is true will depend on a variety of things, including how comfortable the eyewitness in question is about having a “warts and all” account of her/his role in events being recorded for posterity and how seriously a community might take its role in preserving an accurate account. Many communities have at least one person with a memory like a steel trap and an inclination to say “hey, wait a minute – last time you told this story you said X, not Y”, whereas some people are very uncomfortable about appearing in a bad light in public. I think it’s quite clear that most of the people who appear in the canonical gospels would benefit from the services of a good public relations officer, but whether this means that the accounts of their actions are accurate or simply written by someone who didn’t like them much is something that I don’t think we can determine empirically from this far away in time from the actual events.

I don’t think that we can assume that accounts recorded under the influence of eyewitnesses are necessarily more accurate than those recorded some time after eyewitnesses ceased to have influence over their transmission without making some assumptions about the eyewitnesses. On the other hand, I don’t think we have to assume that they are necessarily less accurate, either.

Christian scholars start from the assumption that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person, a teacher/miracle worker who lived in first century Palestine. The majority also assume that the people who recorded the canonical accounts of his life and teaching (and death and resurrection) are trustworthy people who were doing their best to record these accurately (although there are some who would make more radical claims about the accuracy of the gospel texts). Atheist/agnostic scholars do not necessarily assume that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person and may well assume that the early Christians were engaged in a careful conspiracy to trick people into becoming involved in their religious movement. In other words, whether or not you consider a leader of the early church to be a trustworthy eyewitness will depend on your faith stance about Christianity.

So while I am happy to accept Bauckham’s argument that eyewitness testimony was an acceptable form of recording history at that time, I am not sure where it gets us, because we have no independent standard against which to judge whether or not these eyewitnesses were trustworthy ie whether or not they provided accurate accounts of what they witnessed. Without that, Christians are still making faith claims about the trustworthiness of the eyewitnesses, which I don’t think is any different to making faith claims about the trustworthiness of the process of community-based oral transmission without eyewitness influence. I would want to make those faith claims, but I can also see why those outside Christianity might not find them especially convincing. I think we are still left with the reality that it is not possible to “logic” someone into faith, no matter how much we would like it to be otherwise. 🙂