What Would Jesus Read?

In response to a post about Scripture and canon on the Emerging from Babel blog, I suggested we might approach a text like Ecclesiastes in the following way:

I suppose one way to approach it is to recognize that Ecclesiastes is both somewhat marginal in the canon, but nonetheless necessary. Faith without any element of doubt easily becomes credulity. Maintaining the tension in some sense seems crucial.

I now want to question my line of reasoning there, not because I’m convinced that my point was mistaken, but because I’ve found myself thinking about whether a Christian approach to the text means approaching the books of the Bible the way Jesus approached people.

Is it ever appropriate to consider the view of one of the Biblical authors marginal? Jesus welcomed sinners and the ritually unclean at table with him (and, with a little coaxing, praised the faith of a Canaanite woman); his followers expanded this to include Jews and Gentiles, not to mention slave and free, rich and poor.

Dare we marginalize Ecclesiastes? Could an approach to the text that gives preferential treatment of some voices over others be considered a genuinely Christian approach to the text? If we don’t think Jesus would marginalize people, then on what basis could we legitimate treat the voices of some human beings as marginal, just because they are a minority within the canon?

My concluding point in the earlier comment was about not losing the tension, and I think that point still stands. But I still find myself asking whether it is not appropriate to apply Christian principles about the marginalized to the books of the canon of Scripture. To sum it up in a short question: What would Jesus read?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16491514886782881340 Phil Sumpter

    Jesus would, indeed only could, read the final form of Qohelet. The final form of Qohelet presents both the two voices of chpt. 3 and 12 (critically reconstructed as two separate speakers) as the voice of one speaker. Jesus would have had to have to read the book in its entirety, and given the allocation of the diverse material to one voice, he would have had to read the parts in relation to each other. Which voice (cynicism, torah obedience) predominates is not a matter of what we personally find the most appealing, but is a matter of the way the voices are presented in the final form of the text. Is one written to cancel the other out? Is it given to provide a broader horizon or corrective? These questions can only be answered after we’ve analysed the book that Jesus read, which is Qohelet strung together, not Qohelet as independent competing voices (regardless of how competing they actually are). I’ve responded to Stephen in more depth on this. Thanks for raising the question!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03126711689901268060 Quixie

    Rather than marginal, this book (and also Job and the parable of Jonah) has always stood out for me as one of “the” crucial books in a way.This book and the others are the books in which we admit that our arms are too short to box with God. They tell us to get over ourselves (“Vanity of vanities!” indeed). This agrarian temperament is not unlike the gospels’ Jesus exhorting us to be humble, to keep a beginner’s mind.It would be interesting to study up on what little we know about the Hebraic practices (or liturgical texts) of the northern Galilee region during the time that Jesus is said to have roamed the lakeshore there. We already know that the Hebrew Scriptures in use south of Jerusalem were pretty much the same ones that made their way into our modern Bible (thanks to the Qumran caves – if I’m not mistaken, there was at least one copy of Qohelet found in that collection there). With this in mind, I have Jacob Neusner and Stevan Davies on my reading list. Any other recommendations?Also, this agrarian aspect which seems to be Jesus’ makes me wonder if he in fact even read at all. Many commentators doubt it.Still, even if he received the scriptures aurally, it’s a good question.:What DID Jesus read/hear in those days in Galilee?Phil:Yes, I think that the ending of Ecclesiastes was written in order to make it more palatable, less skeptically cavalier in attitude (a redaction, in short).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16491514886782881340 Phil Sumpter

    Quixie, thanks for your response. I wouldn’t say that the redaction was to make the book more palatable. If redactor wanted to do that, then why didn’t he reject the unapalatable bits altogether. It’s a fact that, as Childs says, “the biblical editors retained the radical scepticism of the book of Ecclesiastes largely in an unredactored form.” The ending in Ecc. 12.13 functions as a hermenetucial guidline, namely that we should read this scepticism wihtin the framework of Torah. How one does that is another matter. The tension is maintained. All the appendix does is point out the interelated nature of the witness and our need to read texts in unison. I guess this is palatable in that it affirms the continued value of Torah, despite what Qoheleth has said, but it doesn’t explain how the two are to be related. That’s seems to be our job.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04018824090441668781 ntWrong

    If you’re asking what had Jesus read, maybe we don’t know the answer. As far as I can recall, he never quoted Ecclesiastes. But that doesn’t mean he hadn’t read it as part of his study of scripture.But in fact you ask what would Jesus read. He certainly didn’t shun people whose relationship with God was suspect. So presumably he would have read Ecclesiastes with a heart full of compassion for Qohelet’s struggle.I’m beginning to think that the language used in Childs’s article has misdirected the discussion. He speaks of “subordinating” certain voices, and we have picked up on that by discussing “marginal” texts. You’re quite right to question that terminology.But the Jews certainly have (and had) a hierarchy: Law, Prophets, Writings — in that order. Even Brueggemann, who insists that the Church needs to hear Ecclesiastes, categorizes it among the “little texts” and opposes it to “the Great Tradition”.Clearly we can’t make Ecclesiastes normative for the faith. What I think Brueggemann really wants to say is, “Don’t muffle or domesticate the distinctive testimony of Ecclesiastes, let alone ignore the book altogether. Attend to it. Familiarize yourself with it — it’s a valuable resource.”Ecclesiastes isn’t at the heart of our profession of faith, but we shouldn’t consign it to the margins of faith, either. The problem is, how do you capture that ambiguous position in a single word?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17131154882107531113 Qalmlea

    I can’t speak for the Hebrew tradition, but as a Taoist, I find the book of Ecclesiastes to be one of the best in the O.T. I think, though, that every religion needs to balance out in certain respects, and Ecclesiastes provides that balance.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03126711689901268060 Quixie

    Phil:You make some good points.But I find myself thinking about other similar obvious emendation elsewhere in the texts. Why has the scribe who has written John a 21st act not bothered to take out any of the sayings in that text that venture perilously close to the gnostic edge, for instance?Perhaps it has to do with the severity of the acts involved, that is, adding something at the end doesn’t seem as heinous an act as re-writing or omitting from a manuscript. (although Matthew doesn’t seem to have a problem with taking something out of Mark for the sake of his community) Hmm …(? – just brainstorming …)One thing is certain; those two voices (in Eccl) are not the same speaker.Also, the tension that makes Ecclesiastes such an important book reminded me of the handling of disagreements in the Talmud. In that collection, care is always taken to include at least one dissenting minority view (when they come up). Perhaps this kind of Talmudic activity is a reflection of this same Hebraic tendency?(? – again . . . just brainstorming here)Ó

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16491514886782881340 Phil Sumpter

    Thanks Quixie,I’m afraid I can’t answer you concrete questions on the NT. What I am interested is the hermeneutical question of how the Bible should be read if it is to be read theologically, as a resource for the church (the same concern as Stephen). For now I’m taken by the ‘canonical approach’ of B.S.Childs. In this context, I guess he would ask that we look at the effect of the juxtaposing of the various voices. This juxtaposing can have different effects: it can just indicate two conflicting views, or the texts can be placed in such a way that one text is subordinated to another, which then provides the vantage point for viewing the its ‘competitor’. Thus, the epilogue of Ecclesiastes would seem to have had the effect that Stephen describes, Qohelets cynicism is a valid Christian experience and must not be ignored, but it cannot be normative. Only the Torah (ch. 12) has the ultitmate last say. For those who are interested in the question of theological interpretation, I’ve contrasted the proposals of Brueggemann and Childs in a recent post here.


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