What Dog Experts and New Testament Experts Have in Common

Today I was reading Mary Ann Tolbert’s book, Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective. In the conclusion she explains why she disagrees with those who see in Mark an attempt to address the same issues that are addressed in the Pauline epistles:

… one of the central principles of biblical form criticism ought to have raised questions from the beginning about the appropriateness of applying this Pauline model to the Gospels, for form critics argued that different genres imply different functions and different settings. (p. 303)

Well, wait a minute, here – who proclaimed “the central principles of biblical form criticism” to be the final arbiter of truth in all situations? Who can guarantee that no one would attempt to do in a narrative what someone else tried to do in a letter? Since the time long ago when people began to commit narratives to writing, how many of those narratives have been written solely to entertain with no interest in teaching or persuading? Throughout the history of literature, different literary forms (in this case, letters and narratives) have often been written in order to perform similar functions, and in similar settings.

Tolbert goes on to explain:

While a letter may be an effective medium for directly challenging a community’s practice or correcting its theological views, a Gospel, a narrative purporting to relate the actions, words, and views of characters from an earlier time, is not.

Why not? This has been a strategy from time immemorial: if you can’t get someone to do what you want them to do now, and if you and they acknowledge a common authority, write a narrative in which the authoritative person can be seen speaking and modeling the behavior you want to promote. You can find excellent examples of this approach throughout the two thousand year history of Christian saints’ lives. The hagiographer is a member of a very conservative community that is not behaving well, so what does the hagiographer do to try to change that? He or she writes a narrative that makes it look as though the saint’s community was doing the right thing under the saint’s leadership way back in the past when the saint was around (although in fact the bad behavior that needs reforming may have around from the beginning). As a result, now, in the hagiographer’s day which might be a hundred years later, the leaders trying to reform the community can say “look at this story about our past: we need to eliminate the corruptions that have gotten us off the proper path that we used to be on” rather than “we need to change to do something new.” A community that is fundamentally conservative – resistant to change – is far more likely to accept the former argument than the latter.

A historian who is not a biblical scholar sees this phenomenon so often it ranks as little more than common sense. Why then can’t some of the greatest biblical scholars of the modern world see it? I am reminded of a book written by Dean Koontz about his Golden Retriever, A Big Little Life: A Memoir of a Joyful Dog. Anyone who owns and loves a dog will identify with what he says in this book about how his dog showed a range of emotions so similar to his own. And yet, as he points out, many so-called experts in animal behavior assert that animals cannot have emotions anything like ours, and ascribing human emotions to them such as embarrassment, sadness, happiness, fear, and the like to them is simply naïve anthropomorphism. I once actually read such a study where a mother gorilla was observed when her baby died and she went through all the outward symptoms of grief and depression, and yet the interpretation was that it couldn’t possibly be anything like what a human feels in a similar situation. I like the way Mr. Koontz responds to such “science,” and what he says here applies equally as well, mutatis mutandis, to scriptural scholars:

Scientists and animal behaviorists have written libraries full of nonsense about the emotions of dogs, suggesting that they do not have emotions as we know them, or that their exhibitions that appear to be emotionally based do not mean what we interpret them to mean in our sentimental determination to see a fellowship between humanity and canines.  Like too many specialists in every field, they are educated not out of their ignorance but _into_ ignorance, because they are raised to an imagined state of enlightenment — which is actually dogmatism — where they no longer experience the light of intuition and the fierce brightness of common sense.  They see the world through cloudy windows of theory and ideology, which obscure reality.  This is why most experts in economics never see the financial disaster coming until the wave breaks over them, why most experts in statecraft and military strategy can be undone by an enemy’s surprise attack. (p. 81)

This is one reason why even today, a text that has been studied so thoroughly as Mark’s Gospel can be fundamentally misunderstood by the bulk of those seemingly best equipped to understand it.


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