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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Interpretation of the Gospel of Luke: From Apostolic Times Through the 19th Century by Sean P. Kealy (Studies in the Bible and Early Christianity: Edwin Mellen Press) The Interpretation of the Gospel of Luke In The 20th Century by Sean P. Kealy (Studies in the Bible and Early Christianity: Edwin Mellen Press) is a long and-thorough compilation of various approaches of interpretation to the Gospel of Luke.  Kealy is liberal in his quotations of scholars in this field but light on drawing definitive conclusions of his own.

"Who are all those people you have brought with you?"
The disciple whirled around to look.
Nobody there. Panic!
Lao said: "Don't you understand?"

The Way of Chuang Tzu

A work like this can best be described as an unfinished symphony in which the conversation with Luke will certainly continue to take surprising turns as it has so often in the past. At worst it can be described in the words which a cheerful colleague applied to my previous volumes on John, quoting the imaginary (I hope) review of a well-known English scholar: "This is the kind of book which, if you happen to put it down, you will find it impossible to take up again." I do not intend to give a summary of Luke's influence here which quite a number of authors whom I have recently discussed have done so well. In a sense it would defeat my purpose which was to invite the reader on a journey of discovery with Luke down through the ages. My pioneering work is clearly incomplete at every era and if successful will encourage the researches of others to develop my inadequacies. A recent history of interpretation (A History of Biblical Interpretation, Vol 1, The Ancient Period, eds Alan J. Hauser and Duane F. Watson, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2003) begins with some thought-provoking words:

it may seem an anomaly that after more than two "At first glance, thousand years of biblical interpretations, there are still major disagreements today among biblical scholars about what the Jewish and Christian Scriptures say, and about how one is to interpret and understand their content. Indeed, the late twentieth century has been witnessing the dissolution of what had been for well over a hundred years at least a substantial consensus among scholars about how to interpret the Bible, and how to understand and explain what it says. To the outsider this may seem amazing since both the Jewish and Christian Scriptures are a limited corpus of writings, and have been exhaustively studied by Jews and Christians for centuries. Why, then, is it necessary for interpretation to continue in the extensive way that is in evidence today, with a rapidly-growing variety of approaches being employed...why is it necessary to study extensively the many interpreters and methods of interpretation that have been used since the late ancient world?"

Surprisingly - or perhaps not - in this age of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter John M. Court, editor of a collection of articles on the meanings of scripture pa and present (Biblical Interpretation, T&T Clark International, London/New York, 2003), notes that "nowadays allegory has reclaimed some of its fashionable status, through a curious combination of anti-intellectualism, aesthetic romanticism, an the prioritization of reader-response in new-style literary criticism" (p.11). On the other hand my colleague Dr. Angela Kim Harkins drew my attention to the view the well-known medieval biblical scholar Henri de Lubac, S.J. (Scripture in the Tradition, With an Introduction by Peter Casarella, New York, Herder, 1961 p.203):

we would be just as mistaken – and, here again, we are overstating the case, without suggesting that the opinion can actually be supported – if we admired the ancient constructs so much that we longed to make them our permanent dwelling; or if we canonized such doctrines so as to become unconscious of their weak or outdated aspects; or if we believed that fidelity to an author meant that we had to copy him or imitate him slavishly...There is no point in wondering what one of the ancients would do if he were alive today, in totally different conditions, and discovered all sorts of curious things unknown in his own day, enjoyed a more advanced stage of scientific development, could use the new tools of scholarship, was enlightened by an experience of the world whose very orientation could not have been foreseen by him. There is simply no answer to such questions.

Many criticisms can be made against the academic guild. For example in his pioneering account of The Gospel of Matthew and Its Readers (Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis, 2003 p.ix), Howard Clarke comments:

Behind this approach lies the persuasion that an essential way to understand – or experience – a text is to see it not only as a passive field for academic investigation but also as an active and creative force in the lives of individuals, in their religious communities, and in the events of history. One problem with scholarly inquiries into the Bible is that for all their sophistication and erudition they sometimes fail to convey the power of Scripture, the ways in which over the centuries people have been inspired, transformed, and in some cases mystified or even appalled by its hallowed words. So while other commentaries refer back to the text's composers, this one refers forward to its readers, since, as has often been observed, ideas have consequences, and the books that express them can exist as fully in the minds of their audiences as in the minds of their authors. Hence it exploits that tension between what Matthew may have intended (as understood today) and the quite different, indeed often eccentric or bizarre ways his intentions have been received, assimilated, and sometimes manipulated over the centuries; it shows how the Christian denominations have adopted and adapted his words for their theologies and liturgies; it appeals to every reader's natural curiosity to know how other readers in other times have reacted to the first gospel; it testifies to the richness of Matthew's message, or perhaps to its ambiguities and elasticity; and it reminds us that many of our own "established" interpretations may seem equally odd or irrelevant to future readers of this influential text.

Two well-known scholars from the University of Bern, Walter Dietrich and Ulrich Luz (The Bible in World Context, Eerdmanns, Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, 2002) conclude, in an unusual experiment of awarding a prize in the area of "contextual Bible hermeneutics", that Western Biblical scholarship suffers most from being "without context":

It is carried out abstractly and therefore leads to abstract results and truths, which are not related to any context. "Abstract" is not only understood in the usual sense of being opposed to "concrete".

"Abstract" also means: unattached to the life and reading of "ordinary" people, far away from their questions, developed in the ivory tower of the university. "Abstract" means: detached from the present and from its problems, concerned only with the reconstruction of a past with all its problems. Finally, another way of scholarly, "abstract" reading that is disconnected from the real concerns of present-day readers is to flee into an imaginary "text world" – imaginary, because it is entirely created by scholars. "Abstract" in the widest sense means: without context. All this does not contribute to understanding, which is related to our own context ... interpretation of all texts, biblical or other, always happens in both contexts: the past and the present. To a large extent, however, Western biblical scholarship is not aware of this (pp.ix-x).

Luz finds that the Bible which was "the foundation of truth, the source of individual piety ... the starting point of the European liberation movement, the foundation of morals, the basis for political legitimization ... is less read in northern and western Europe than in most other parts of the world ... This is not the same in the Catholic parts of southern Europe (since) Vatican II" (pp. vii-viii). He sees the Bible being rediscovered in the former communist parts of eastern Europe. In the African and South American countries it is "an immeasurably valuable and powerful book" to which countless people listen. But their biblical scholars are frequently "torn between the standards set by the Western science of Biblical exegesis" and their own situation, where they are "torn between capitalism and extreme poverty, between individual, indigenous cultural roots and imported Western culture and science, fascinated by the never-ending task of adopting the Christian faith which became homeless in western and northern Europe" (p.viii). Luz also notes that in Japan, which is the richest and perhaps the most westernized Asian country, the Bible is read among the intellectuals "more intensely than in the educated classes of western Europe, despite the fact that the majority do not belong to any church" (p.ix).

The basic approach to the Bible by scholars for a considerable period of time has been called the historical-critical method. This understood the Bible "as a collection of historically conditioned documents, reflecting the biases, backgrounds and idiosyncrasies of its authors. But such an understanding has had remarkably little effect on the way most people in our culture, whether religious or not, think of the Bible. This is evident in the way it is quoted by politicians, popes and pundits, and is most evident to me in the students I have taught in the last 20 years" (Michael D. Coogan in Biblical Studies Alternatively, ed. Susanne Scholz, Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, p.7). Coogan finds that the intellectual revolution summed up in the phrase historical-critical-method has had virtually no impact because "most people today view the Bible not very differently from the way scholars and laity alike viewed it before the Enlightenment – naively and precritically" (p.7). He calls the Bible probably civilization's most over-studied book with studies often moving to the fringes.

Writing on Androgogy and the Bible in 1987 (ITQ vol. 53, 1987, pp.52-65) I concluded then that there was: "a gap between the researches and statements of scholars and the popular reading of the Bible by many adults in the Church. The dilemma is that while the use of the historical critical method seems essential, the result is that it makes it quite difficult to hear the Bible as the inspired word of God. As the editor of a recent symposium pointed out, some of the conclusions reached by scholars would scandalize the faith of most Catholics, many of whom distrust the scholarly approach to scripture particularly on such topics as the historicity of the gospels and miracles, prophecies, revelations or any type of divine intervention." I quoted also the statement of Ernst Fuchs, retired Professor of New Testament at Marburg, who insisted that the only thing which New Testament scholars have found out in the last fifty years is the fact that Jesus had spoken parables.

Ben C. 011enburger (Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, ed. D.N. Freedman, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2000) gives a very positive overview of the present development:

The most significant recent development in biblical interpretation has been the inclusion of a broader range of voices and interests. Following Vatican II, Roman Catholics and Protestants have worked together. Neither has biblical interpretation remained an exclusively Christian enterprise. While Jewish scholars, especially in Israel and North America, have advanced the historical study of the Bible, they have also helped to expose the anti-Semitic biases of much biblical scholarship. Moreover, the Jewish philosopher/theologians Franz Rosenweig and Emmanual Levinas contributed an "other" voice to the subject-centered hermeneutics that has dominated for two centuries. Liberation and feminist interpreters have drawn attention to, or unmasked, the vested interests concealed in, and hence the political character of, the institutions and practices of biblical interpretation. The interpreters draw on experience and perspectives not represented in past practice. The significance of social location, including gender, race, class, and socio-historical context, is exhibited in biblical interpretation from around the globe. African, Asian and Latin/Latino interpreters have expanded the theoretical and moral-political issues that hermeneutics must engage (p.644).

Luke's Gospel, always popular with ordinary people, because of its wonderful stories and liturgical hymns, not to forget its focus on Jesus as Saviour and on his life as the saving event, has involved different disputes among scholars particularly since 1966 when the modem scholar W.C. van Unnik entitled his survey Luke-Acts, A Storm Center in Contemporary Scholarship. Luke's journey in the last century has witnessed various debates and has been involved in most of the problems of contemporary New Testament studies to which H. Conzelmann gave the main impetus in 1954. He argued that the problems of eschatology, particularly the delay of Jesus' return, were at the heart of Luke's theology and the motive for his writing of Luke-Acts. Many controversies ensued such as the tension between Luke the historian and the theologian, Luke the politician for or against the Roman Empire. Other controversies pitted Luke the evangelist of the rich versus good news to the poor, causing the biggest debate among Christians since the Reformation. Much debate took place about Luke's position for women, even with the suggestion that Luke was the most dangerous book in the world. There was wide agreement as to Luke the literary artist. Many scholars agreed that the

Hellenistic author Luke wrote to show Jesus of Nazareth as Israel's true heritage and enduring legacy to the world.

Whereas in history humanists like Erasmus used biblical books to expose the corruption of the Church and a Calvin would use it as a theological weapon, the question of Luke's intention in writing has received much "objective" examination: Thus, writers like D.L. Bock, R. Maddox and R.P. Martin (New Testament Foundations, rev. ed., Wiff Publishers, Eugene, OR, 1999, Vol. 1, pp.246-50) have surveyed some nine answers to the question of Luke's central theme or message:

1) To explain why Jesus has not returned (Conzelmann).

2) To provide a defense brief for Christianity (Easton, Haenchen).

3) To defend Paul before Rome (Matill).

4) To defend Paul before the community (Schneckenberger, Jervell).

5) To combat Gnosticism (Talbert).

6) To evangelize (O'Neill).

7) To confirm the Word and the message of salvation (van Unnik, Marshall, O'Toole).

8) To present a theodicy of God's faithfulness (Tiede).

9) To provide sociological legitimation of full fellowship and a defense of the new community (Esler).

David L. Bartlett (What's Good About This News?, Louisville, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2003, p.77) notes that historically Matthew has been the Church's Gospel and that for the last thirty years, approximately, Mark and John have been the scholars' Gospel. But Luke with his emphasis on forgiveness and justice is the people's Gospel:

How could it not be so when people who don't get to church very often do manage to get there for the Christmas pageant? Even if they have forgotten everything else, they still remember that the sign of peace among those with whom God is well pleased is a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger. And how could it be so with the two stories everybody knows, the good Samaritan and the prodigal son? Both parables are perhaps mistitled, but both were so engraved on the popular imagination that innumerable hospitals are called "Good Samaritan" and a chain of campgrounds is named "Good Sam." Everyone has a vague idea of what it might be to wander as a prodigal or to return to a fatted calf. In a book with contemporary poems reflecting on Gospel passages that I was given, there was at most a poem or two for any number of passages — and seven retelling the story of the prodigal son. Of course, when people have the birth narrative and the two parables, they actually have a good piece of what makes the Gospel good news for the author of Luke and Acts.

As ever when coming to the end of a long study of a biblical text, I am more appreciative of the wisdom of those words of Cardinal John Henry Newman (Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, ch 2, sect 1, part 14, p. 71, Notre Dame, 1989): "To the end of our lives, and to the end of the Church, the biblical message must remain an unexplored and unsubdued land, full of concealed wonders and choice treasures."

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