Monday, April 15, 2013

hermeneutics done right

A truly excellent example of scriptural hermeneutics can be found here. Biblical scholar James Still offers an excellent analysis and interpretation of the incident that occurs between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman whose daughter has been possessed by a demon. A quick excerpt:

Bultmann calls the story of the Syrophoenician woman an apothegm (a witty saying) which has the purpose of recounting a miracle of Jesus--specifically an exorcism--performed during the Galilean phase of his ministry. A secondary element of the story is to dramatize the conflict concerning the place of Gentiles within the early Jesus movement. Since Mark's gospel is informed by the oral tradition, he preserves what Philip Sellew identifies as the three-part formula of description, performance, and demonstration. This formula is useful in an oral tradition because it helps the storyteller remember how to consistently tell and retell a story to an audience. The oral tradition's three-part structure in this story is as follows:

1. Description of the ailment: the woman's daughter is possessed by an unclean spirit.
2. Performance of the exorcism: The demon is exorcised by word alone and mentioned by Jesus in the past tense after the woman's clever repartee.
3. Demonstration of success: we are told that the woman goes home to find that the demon has left her daughter.

The pericope does not preserve details telling us how it was determined that the exorcism was indeed successful. A natural literal reading of the text assumes one of two things. Either the exorcism was verified at a later time and we are just not told of it or, at the time of the exorcism, it was taken for granted on Jesus' authority that the healing did occur. However, a literalist reading is neither appropriate nor necessary. The purpose of the story is to proclaim the healing abilities of Jesus and to explain the Jewish-Christian attitude toward the Gentiles. No believer at Corinth or Rome would find it necessary to question the validity of the exorcism's cure; Mark's readers are already convinced of Jesus' skills as a miracle worker. For Mark's audience, the matter is quite simple: a Jewish rabbi hears the pleas of a Greek woman, effects a cure, and the cure is successful.

Reading the above gives me a tingle, and brings me back to my grad-school days.


1 comment:

Nathan B. said...

I've always found the attitude of Jesus in that story a bit distasteful because of his apparent reluctance to help the woman. Some scholars, using the "criterion of embarrassment," would argue that this utterance of Jesus's is likely to have been quite historical, rather than simply made up, because Jesus ends out looking like a bit of a xenophobe.

But the focus on merely proving the historicity of this utterance of Jesus in my opinion misses the mark (both puns intended!). We are still a long way from Paul's outreach to the Gentiles here in this story as written by Matthew and Mark. The older I get, the more I feel that it really is Paul who should be regarded as the founder of Christianity.