Category Archives: Bible

Discussion of historical and textual issues related to the Hebrew and Greek bibles, and their commentators


A film called Patterns of evidence was shown last Monday in a number of theaters across the country, and is showing again this Thursday Jan 29, at the Regal Santa Cruz Theater on Pacific. Cost is $12.50, just enough for a decent bottle of evanescent spirit and a little manna but no quail.

The film claims to be a documentary and examine “scientifically” the evidence for the story of the exodus in the Bible, together with its related stories of Abraham, Joseph, Joshua. As in the disastrous discussions on evolution vs creation(ism), it sets things up—a debate!—as if there are only two sides, and the public can decide for themselves what the evidence means! There is indeed a pattern, that of bamboozling the public. The on-going “debate”, if the public falls for it, should make a little money for its promoters.

I was alerted to the existence of this film a few weeks ago and tried to know a bit more. I looked at the links and watched a few snippets. Very interesting attempt, in terms of modern transformations of religious minds, to go back to a kind of history where facticity and dates are taken to be unproblematic and the real history of the writing of the exodus story never has a chance to be told. It’s another effort to pretend to meet archaeologists’ and historians’ objections to the notion of a historical exodus located sometime in the second millenium: if not in Ramses II’s time (to accommodate the figures given in the Bible), then even more improbably in the Hyksos period (1720 to 1550 or so). It doesn’t ask itself any question about the writing of the story: when was that done, by whom, in what circumstances, and for what purpose? The story of that writing is much more interesting as well as intellectually and theologically more demanding than the tons of suppositions attempting to prove that it happened as told in the book of Exodus.

The language used by the authors of this film and those behind them (I don’t know what the groups are: certain evangelical Christians?) is devious. They speak of “skeptical scholars” who “contend it never happened.” I myself am not skeptical and I don’t contend it never happened. With most scholars, all I say is that there is no evidence whatsoever matching the exodus story as told in the Bible. All kinds of insuperable problems arise if you try, beginning with attempts to isolate and date the “event”.

I’ll give a tiny example of the silly problems one encounters when analyzing “evidence.” It has to do with the supposition regarding an eastern wind that would have helped to dry a shallow body of water then used by the fleeing Hebrews (that word is a problem too). Is there a dry eastern wind (or a western wind for that matter) that blows that way in northern Egypt? I couldn’t find evidence for it in northern Egypt. It is however a well known phenomenon in Palestine. Did the writer(s) at the tail end of the Israelite and Judaean monarchic period (i.e. 7–6th c. BCE) assume the conditions of their own locale for those of northern Egypt? Probably so, but this needs to be argued, very much like it needs to be shown how this text, a book of Exodus, arose at a time of extreme tensions with empires in the eighth to fifth c. BCE (Assyrian > Babylonian > Persian), when Egypt itself collapsed under them (not without rebelling repeatedly, however). Etc…


Tyndale House, Cambridge, is making public a website offering many ancient and modern versions of the Bible in many languages. The website is under active development and calls for volunteers. Some of its features are:

  1. Hebrew versions based on Aleppo and esp. Leningrad codices, with ref. to Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia and Biblia Hebraica Quinta;
  2. Greek versions (Rahlfs, without accents or breathings, and Greek orthodox version);
  3. Each verse number is a link to a floating window giving all the Hebrew or Greek vocabulary in that verse;
  4. Two-panel view an option, with synchronization of one version and another;
  5. Search capability, maps, etc.

Screen shot of site:

Garbini on Israel

Je relis un livre fascinant de G. Garbini, History and Ideology in Ancient Israel (1987) dans lequel il dénonce très justement à mon goût l’emprise de la théologie sur l’historiographie moderne quelle qu’elle soit quand il s’agit de la Bible. Ici ou là, je remarque cependant plusieurs mots ou phrases qui n’ont pas raison d’être: “Jewish scholars…”: pourquoi pas “scholars” tout court? Les savants juifs n’ont-ils pas été à la pointe de la critique historique pour ce qui est de la Bible, en commençant par Spinoza? La rédaction finale de la Bible n’a pu se faire que très tard—après l’exil, et même beaucoup plus tard—, et les premiers documents de type annales qui s’attachent à décrire les événements du début du premier millénaire font déjà une réinterprétation et un choix dictés par les besoins politiques de la maison royale. On ne peut donc leur faire confiance comme le voudraient la grande majorité des historiens spécialistes de la période. C’est dans le creuset de l’exil qu’Israël a réinterprété son “histoire”, ou plutôt se l’est constituée (se l’est inventée, comme le dit d’autre manière Mario Liverani dans son Israel’s history and the history of Israel, 2005), réemployant par exemple le mythe babylonien de création, sous sa forme très tardive, comme point de départ de sa propre histoire…. etc…. L’extraordinaire à mes yeux est à quel point les Hébreux, d’Israël et de Judée (mais ce sont déjà les Juifs, constitués comme tels déjà sous les Perses et plus encore sous les Grecs) ont développé les traits monothéistes de leur religion. On sera alors tenté d’en attribuer l’origine aux influences perses, et de diminuer l’importance des prophètes. N’est-ce pas E. Meyer qui proposait déjà cela il y a plus d’un siècle? Que fait Garbini des prophètes du VIIIe s.? Réponse: il ne les élimine pas, admet que le mouvement vers le monothéisme, un hénothéisme d’abord, a été commencé en partie par eux… Il est curieusement peu critique quand il s’agit de la littérature prophétique.

Good Friday

It is Good Friday as well as the day before Passover. The lilacs are in bloom, and I can’t separate their color and even fragrance from the color of the cloth used to hide statues and the statue of the christ on a cross in my village church, when I was a kid, on this day. The bells stopped ringing the hours and no mass was celebrated until past midnight Saturday, or rather Sunday. No sacrifice but one, the infinitely repeated, enforced self-giving beyond the horizon which we’d like to forget in our modern economic systems. The divinity gone while nature is in its inchoatic glory. As if the god could then become quietly, habitually, and unthreateningly present for the rest of the year. In my village, one had to wait for the all-white glory of the midnight mass and the rekindling of an uncertain light in the cemetery, later processionally glorified in the progressively lit church: Lumen Christi. I can only think of Dylan Thomas’ Fern Hill for a sense of this glory:

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.

But in the afternoon ceremony of Good Friday, at 3pm, while the Stock Exchange is closed (at least the brick and cement one), the passion story of the gospel of John is dropped on Catholic people and others throughout the world without explanation or commentary. Incendiary dynamics of the contemplation or imagining of the beating and killing of an innocent victim and the treason of followers and believers everywhere, beginning with their leader and foundational figure, Peter. The word Ioudaioi (Jews) appears 67 times in the gospel of John, sometimes with positive meaning. But this is lost on the people who listen to the passion story in silence. No music, no bells, no statuary, a dangerous, chaotic moment. And even with music, since streaming Bach there must be, what can an aria like Ach mein Sinn from the Passion according to John do for all readers and traitors, mes frères, as Baudelaire would have it? It moves me to tears, though I try to fight the schmalz back as best I can. And so does erbarme dich (Delphine Galou) from Bach’s Passion according to Matthew. For what good? I can’t separate the power of the liturgical week from what much of Christian and Aufklärung Europe, and their inverse and perverse heirs, did to Jews in 1939-45. Neither can I separate it from the political and social slumber which seems to affect many Christians and others in the industrialized world today, especially in the United States. Forbidding days or days of awe for me: ימים נוראים.

Rembrandt and Jesus’ face

Rembrandt and Le Lorrain exhibits at the Louvre. The first painting at the entrance of the Rembrandt exhibit is most striking: The Emmaus disciples, a painting from 1628-9 (Rembrandt was 23), at the moment they recognize their traveling companion as the resurrected, stunningly backlit Jesus. What does recognition mean here? a remembrance of one’s own origins in the self-giving other, a transfiguration. Their eyes have suddenly opened at the breaking of bread, as he had opened the scriptures for them, that is, as he had broken the book open for them. Same verb “open” used in both cases in Luke 24. But what is the recognition about? The answer, I would like to believe, is in the background, far in the distance as indicated by the perspective, which draws our eyes to the weaker backlit shadow of a woman who is preparing food. Who recognizes her for herself, or her work? Rembrandt paints her as an echo of the blinding Jesus shadow, but I think she is the heart of the matter.

What would it mean to recognize her, and not just as a labor factor? I believe it is this: recognition of the transfigured work is a condition for true appropriation of the self, because re-cognition, as subsequent knowledge which meets the first type of cognition (that of the self-giver, of necessity ill-compensated by whatever social system was/is in existence), is the way to open a dynamics in which one may hope to escape self-justifications and limited economic rationales.

One of the two disciples has been so shocked by the recognition that he has jumped up, his chair has fallen to the side, and he has thrown himself at the feet of Jesus, in the obscurity projected by Jesus’ body. There seems to be fear in the eyes of the other fellow who is still sitting at the table.

Capital, labor, and temptation

What is going on from Tunisia and Egypt to Wisconsin and across the world made me re-read the three temptations in Matthew 4.1–11 and Luke 4.1–13:

  1. to change rock(s) into food (read: the miracles of an automated world) vs the multiplication of bread (read: the making and sharing of food, which responds to a broader need than the incorporation of molecules and is an ever-renewed occasion for human relations, giving and receiving).
  2. worshipping of highly visible glory and authority over all the kingdoms of the world (read: global market controlled by a few interconnected companies and military projection capacity) vs serving transcendence (read: source of life, including the mostly invisible, therefore transcendental, self-giving of each other in a truly sharing society, beyond our grudgingly pacifying payments).
  3. I’m stumped for the third one. I said in another post, after Gaston Bachelard, that the movement of the dreamy fall itself not only creates the abyss but reminds one of the verticality of things. Here we are, with the likes of governor Walker willing to walk to the edge of the abyss and taking all of us into division and strife. A kind of present to labor surely, but with a dose of poison. How will all of the social forces avoid suicidal dreams, and remember that there are peaceful ways to stay vertical?

Quoting Luke:

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.”

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” ’

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you” and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone”.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”. ’ When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Es ist vollbracht

The “it is finished” (es ist vollbracht) is not in Luke, but here is one of the great arias on this sentence, from Bach’s St John’s Passion, in a sublime interpretation, both by the singer and the viola de gamba player. By great I don’t mean the text (O Trost for die gekränkten Seelen, oy veh)! I mean the music:

… [Da nun Jesus den Essig genommen hatte,] sprach er:
Es ist vollbracht.
ARIE (alt)
Es ist vollbracht,
o Trost vor die gekränkten Seelen,
die Trauernacht
läßt nun die letzte Stunde zählen,
der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht
und schließt den Kampf.
es ist vollbracht.

It is finished!
ARIA (alto)
Hope for the afflicted souls,
This fateful night
Now let the last hours tick away,
The hero from Juda battles with might
and ends the fight.
It is finished.

Prodigal or lost son


In Jesus’ time, the vast majority of people in Galilee (and Samaria, Judaea, for that matter) lived from an agriculture in which grain, animals, and fruit trees, esp. olive trees and vineyards, were the main elements.

The basic resource, even for the Greco-Roman cities, was agriculture, an activity which required incessant labor, esp. when population pressure (as seems the case since the Iron age, and certainly the Hellenistic period) drove people to cultivate even the steepest hills, spending much work in stone terracing and retaining walls, paths, towers, and the digging of thousands of cisterns in the rock.

What of the distribution of labor? Most of the agricultural work was done by sharecroppers and their families, day or seasonal laborers (perhaps often coming from the same families), tenants on fixed rents, who probably were less common. There were also independent farmers, especially in the hill country, sometimes fairly well-to-do, as in the case of veteran soldiers in the territory of some of the neighboring Greco-Roman cities. Above these people involved in production, and disposing of more authority over the land than them (and therefore more secure access to food and other goods), were large landowners, often priests, esp. aristocratic priests, who were connected to other landowners and even sometimes princely houses through social, cultural, and kinship bonds. And above them all was the king. Herod Antipas was a client-king of the Romans in Galilee in Jesus’ time, whereas Judaea was under direct Roman rule.

The concept of land property was expressed in Aramaic in terms of authority. Many strings were normally attached to this authority over land. The first one was that the “landowner” owed his authority to someone above him with whom he was in a relation of debt and service, and in the end to the divinity. The second one was that this authority depended on a continuous, active protection of those below.

Role of debt

In this ancient economy, given the lack of exact economic measurements (and inadequacy of censuses), there was no way of knowing if the pressures put to bear in the extraction of a “surplus” from the people under one’s authority (at whatever level) were properly set. There could not be a proper accounting or prediction of what could be extracted as taxes and rents, except for specialized crops such as grapes and olives for which yields are more readily calculable. The tax basis was not well known, owing to the climate of the area, and it is likely that people (including many priests) were loathe to see traditional ways changed (for instance, measurements of land were as sown land, not in the form of surveying pure units of area, as the Romans were wont to do. So, the best way to know if the pressure was being properly applied on sharecroppers, tenants, tax-farmers and even client-kings –in a sort of pyramidal scheme– the best way was to set tributes and rents, from top to bottom, in such a way that subjects would be indebted and come begging for relief, which could then be granted (or not).

Remittance of debt was therefore part of the evaluation of the tax or rent basis. It was expressed in a religious language of debts and release which was part of a larger set of values centered on the temple.

So, for instance, one reads about Herod the Great, in the generation immediately before Jesus, remitting part of the annual taxes on three occasions. His behavior appears to be extremely generous, likewise, during the great drought of 25 BC. But his benevolence fits exactly the (ideal) behavior pattern of landowners in antiquity. In an agricultural handbook for large landowners, for example, the 1st c. AD Roman author Columella reasoned that the landowner had to walk a fine line, between being strict in exacting debt payments from tenants—which could make them despair, perhaps even flee—and being generous and encourage a better investment of labor in the land, which he thought more profitable in the long run. From the landowner’s point of view, work, as well as smoothness of the agricultural operations, is what mattered, because it meant better yields. And better yields, in turn, made it impossible for tenants or subjects to ask for reductions in rent or taxes at a later time. Furthermore, piling up revenues of money and goods, enough to last several years, was imperative in ancient times precisely to be helpful—and in turn be acknowledged as benefactor or savior, which therefore reinforced the demands for future reciprocity, i.e. labor—in times of crisis. At the bottom of the social ladder, however, this translated as an impossibility to store and save and was felt as constant fragility and need.

For Jews in Galilee, Judaea and elsewhere, how did the Temple contribute to the system of debt? Because certain kinds of archives and an enormous mass of wealth were kept at the temple and, more generally, because the temple and its sacrificial system provided the sacred guarantee for contracts in economic matters. In the end, this security really rested on something quite simple, namely on the love that the whole people had for the “house of God,” another name for the temple.

What is striking is that the Aramaic vocabulary makes it clear that bonds and debts could also be seen as sins. The same word and root was used for both. People felt constrained to pay as their debts were also sins, i.e. debts to God, in their perception. This system was open to abuse on the part of the authorities in charge of the temple. But the divine guarantee normally put some pressure also on the wealthy not to push their advantage, since the whole of the biblical tradition puts the stress on the idea of a merciful God, who must be imitated. The Romans tried to control the Temple directly, but couldn’t. They had to resort to indirect control by naming kings and high priests and encouraging marriage ties between both

We know that Herod the Great spent fortunes on the Temple and turned it into one of the most magnificent structures in the East. But he was at the same time increasing his control of the land and diverting wealth towards his Roman masters (whether as rents, taxes, or gifts).

The duty of priests, elders and leaders was to prevent, in a variety of ways, the transformation of Jerusalem into a common Greco-Roman city. To prevent this from happening was to afford direct protection to the Jewish producers against Greco-Roman greed. Physically speaking (knowledge of the quantity of harvest, watching over threshing floors), Romans needed the local aristocracy and priesthood, and furthermore needed to tap the religious authority they exercised, since tithes owed were also sins. The priestly aristocracy was torn: go with the Romans and become Roman-like landowners (perhaps with some official capacity), or resist the encroachments and therefore radicalize the position of Jerusalem and the temple.

Kingdom of God

In their resistance to the changes in control of the land, Jews could appeal to the scriptural notion that God was king and sole owner of the land: hence the formulas “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heavens.” The laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy are based on this notion, for instance in their development of the Jubilee laws (Lev 25.9-13; Dt 15.2). But under Hellenistic kings, and under Rome, one can see much of the land not only owned by the king and his friends, but also by non-Jews. This had consequences for the application of several traditional laws, for instance the Jubilee law, which in turn became an element of the eschatological language calling for a return to God’s exclusive dominion.

Many people, including John the Baptist, Jesus, the rabbis later, shared this fundamental notion.

Repentance and forgiveness of sins

The debt-system in the society of Jesus’ time locked everyone in their position and made impossible a more extensive debt-forgiveness, because in practice, debt-forgiveness, as part of a forgiveness of sins framed in more general terms could or would not be recognized necessarily by the beneficiary or even others as an act of goodness, but as foolishness, and even rebelliousness.
This is the idea in the parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Mt 18.21-35), in which a king wishes to review his servants or slaves’ accounts. The first one, a minister, i.e. the king’s most important tax-farmer or highest bidder, cannot pay the huge sum he owes him, so the king orders him to be sold, along with his family, and payment to be exacted. But the servant falls on his knees, and implores the king to be patient. The king not only is patient but is so moved by compassion that he forgives the debt. The servant, however, perhaps thinking he has played a good trick on his master, doesn’t hesitate to exact payment on a much smaller debt from a fellow servant , threatening him, showing no pity, and eventually throwing him into jail to enforce payment. The minister/servant is eventually called back by the king who condemns him to jailers or torturers until complete remittance.

Or consider the parable of the dishonest steward in Luke 16 (see my other post). His master is coming and he has lost his position. But he still has his master’s symbols of authority at his disposal for a few hours. So, hurriedly and illegally, he uses them to write off part of the debts of a village of sharecroppers, in the hope that the tenants will reciprocate later in food and shelter. He knows that when his master will arrive, the sharecroppers will thank the master profusely and bless him, making it impossible for the landlord to go back on what has been done in his name. The story implies that God as master may actually accept to be tricked into the forgiveness of sins. It also implies that the highly acclaimed benevolence and debt-forgiveness practiced in hellenized Palestine are unauthorized tricks which do not erase the original dishonesty.

Jesus’ solution to the problem of a debt system in which no one could make the first move appears to be no different, on the surface, from that proposed by John the Baptist and others. His main metaphor was also that of the kingdom of God (50 times in Mt alone and many times also in Lk). He also shared the notion of repentance and forgiveness of sins of those around him.

But Jesus proposed these notions, which were held by all those interested in justice, with a new twist, because when he appears on the scene, according to the synoptic gospels, he forgives sins directly (in several stories of healing physical and mental diseases). How could he dare do this, on what authority? The answer to this question appears most clearly in the story of the lost son.

The lost or prodigal son

The parable of the lost son, or prodigal son, gives an inkling of how Jesus (or the storyteller after Jesus) sees himself in relation to these basic metaphors, the kingdom of God and God as father. This parable, which has been seen by tradition as being at the heart of the gospel, one of 31 parables actually, looks like a version of the story of two brothers, elder and younger: Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Jacob’s ten older sons and Joseph, even Moses in relation to Aaron, the seven sons of Jesse and little David… In this kind of story, the second son is often a shepherd. Here too, he becomes a sort of shepherd, but his herd will consist of pigs, animals whose consumption was forbidden to Jews. But the two sons are not the only characters: there are two more actors in this story, the father and the village around, including his own household of house-servants and the workers in the field (sharecroppers?).

The father, who seems to be a wealthy landowner, is a figure of patriarchal authority, over land, wife(s), sons and daughters, servants, sharecroppers. One would expect him to be part of the village or town council of elders, that is to say, deciding in all matters threatening the peace in the village. There is no apparent reason why he should formally divide his estate at this point, since he has sons. Custom would dictate that division be done as follows: 2 shares to the elder son, 1 to the younger one. In any case, the father would retain usufruct.

The request by the younger son for his share of the inheritance is a shocking demand to which the answer normally expected in this patriarchal society is extreme anger, followed by some form of judgment and ostracism or exile, even death in some extreme cases. For instance, Herod the Great accused his own son Antipater of parricide and eventually had him killed right before his own death, because he was too quick to claim the throne (Jewish Antiquities 17.52–53; 61–77; 93–99).

But the father “divides his substance among them” (τὸν βίον, i.e. material possessions indistinguishable from life). There is already compassion, or we the listeners at least can read it into it because we know the end, but do the sons and the village (with its other fathers and sons) and the original audience see it as compassion, rather than weakness, feeble spirit, even irrational, mad behavior?

What is the role of the elder brother at the beginning? Has he remained indifferent? Has he directly encouraged the younger son to ask for the inheritance, or indirectly, by making cohabitation difficult?

The village, perhaps on a hillside or an outcropping over a valley, knows everything or is at least interested in everything, and one may imagine servants and hired workers talking and not necessarily reporting the exact truth. They would be astounded by the father’s lack of severity, and wonder about his authority and the threat to their own.

What happens to the younger son is an inexorable fall, socially speaking. “Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had…” Did the division of property involve renewed arguments? In any case, it took a while to insist again, do the actual sharing and figure out “all he had”, under the disapproving eyes of everyone. His capital now consisted of sheep, goats, money, equivalent to his share of land. Perhaps he lost in the division, but doesn’t care. After that, he cannot stay in the village or anywhere near, because what he has done strikes at the heart of the patriarchal control of land and the inhabitants of the village may become very threatening to him. He has lost any claim to friendship, as well as any possibility of marriage (?) in the whole area, since news travel fast.

“He went into a far country.” Did the listeners imagine the Transjordanian plateau or the coast, Phoenician / Aramaic / and Greek speaking, but dominated by Greek cities (unless Luke’s gospel refers to the Syrian coast). There, he is a foreigner, a *metoikos*, in self-exile, without a protector or safety net, unable to establish a home, and at risk of falling prey to wrong friends. He has to spend his capital (animals, clothing, money, jewels), without any reciprocity, and at the unfavorable rate proposed to foreigners whose relatives can’t retaliate or reciprocate. So, the ἀσώτως of the text is to be understood as “spending carelessly”, but doesn’t necessarily carries the meaning of moral dissolution.

When famine comes, all his capital vanishes, he has no one from whom to borrow, nothing left to pledge as surety, and he can’t rely on bonds of kinship. The point of patriarchal strategies in land transfer, marriage, and the harsh exploitation of sharecroppers and workers was precisely to accumulate reserves in case of drought and famines (as well as to accumulate power).

He becomes a servant, “glued,” says the Greek, to a citizen of the locality. In order to survive, he has lost his freedom, he is at the call and beckoning of this person. Perhaps there is a hint of forced sexual misconduct also? His master may even have taken some vicious pleasure in sending his Jewish servant to keep a herd of pigs.

His dereliction is not yet complete, however: he is not fed by his master and so attempts to eat what the pigs eat (carob pods?), a temporary solution, not for long, and not filling (as in Lazarus’ story, where the same Greek word is used). No one is ready to give him anything, because charity was normally directed to one’s group, usually narrowly defined. He is alone, and facing possible death.

“He came to himself:” He remembers his father’s willingness, which he doesn’t see yet as compassion. His prepared speech still sounds like a prudently phrased calculation. He plans to ask to be treated as one of his father’s hired servants, meaning that he sees himself as living outside of the village, working in the fields, away from possible taunts and cruelties. He is preparing his repentance, and perhaps ready to take some abuse from other servants?

“He arose and came to his father.” But the father sees him before anyone else: has he been waiting anxiously, always with an eye in the direction in which he left (months ago?). He has compassion, meaning the sort of love a mother has for her baby (ἐσπλαγχνίσθη, 15.20). He runs, like Abraham, the paradigm of hospitality in the Genesis story of the three mysterious visitors, but unlike any dignified adult. And he is repeatedly holding him and kissing him.

In response to this outpouring, the son does not repeat the last part of his little speech (“treat me as one of your hired servants”), but lets his father take over. Is it because he doesn’t dare say it, or does he now suddenly understand the depth of the father’s compassion and the risk that he is taking? The rapidity with which the father acts is critical: Quick, says he, give him back the signs of freedom and authority. There is no resistance on the part of house-slaves, naturally, but the village inhabitants or other relatives have no time to react and question the action, because everyone is swept away into a general reconciliation. The feast, around the fattened calf as center-piece, i.e. something kept in reserve for a wedding perhaps, and which must be consumed immediately, would involve many people, all the relatives and neighbors, preparing, talking, dancing and playing music while waiting for the food to be ready and for everyone to come.

The elder son is busy in the field, doing what sons of landowners are supposed to do in like stories, i.e. watching the hired hands or sharecroppers. When he comes back and asks the young servant (παίς) what is happening, the servant misinterprets (“your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.”). Perhaps there is an underlying idea again that the father is weak, and doing very puzzling things?

The son is angry and does a terrible insult, not unlike that in v. 12 above, refusing to go in, and doing so publicly, since the whole scene after the return of the younger son is a public affair. The father responds as before, entreating him repeatedly. The elder son starts hurling terribly insulting accusations: he has been like a slave in his father’s house, and his obedience has never been rewarded. He was never given a young goat to have a festive meal with his friends: another insulting comment, since meals should be inclusive and not the occasion of separation. The rage continues: “This son of yours:” does the phrase imply that the father is like him, or is it questioning whether he is even his?? He adds that the son lost all his capital with harlots (which commentators wrongly read back into verse 13: “loose or dissolute living”). Is that what the elder son wished to do with his friends? With the fatted calf instead of a young goat? The rage might lead to another question: Why don’t you die and let me truly be master?

The father, astonishingly again, shows no anger, which is perhaps misunderstood once more, as in v. 12? In answer to all the constraints of custom and the reference to “obeying commands”, the father says that he didn’t do an irrational thing, but that it was necessary, indeed the only solution.


At the end of the reading, an audience might think: How will the younger son respond to his father’s compassion? with love and devotion, one may imagine. How will he behave towards the “workers in the field”, i.e. the people working and waiting for relief, food, justice? With the same compassion, one imagines again, and the same urgency, risk-taking, and forbearance as those shown by his own father. He will feed the multitudes, heal, and forgive. How will he behave towards his elder brother who is at the door, and in a rage? Here is the greatest risk he can take, because his brother may look at his younger brother as an impostor and hate him rather than trust him.

This tiny beginning in the business of forgiveness, the gospel (after Jesus) sees as potentially expanding to universal dimensions, as a mustard plant growing like a weed to tree-like proportions from a tiny seed, or as leaven acting within a lump of dough.

Further notes on forgiveness and this parable

1. What is forgiveness? the definition of it, or deepening of the notion of divine mercy, entails a redefinition (or rather an infinite broadening) of that of sin.

2. Does forgiveness have a history? One answer to this question is Hannah Arendt’s: Jesus is the inventor of forgiveness (in The human condition) But she seems to think it is an impossible thing, or extremely difficult in practice. Given the impossibility (and unwillingness?) to control the effects of human action, forgiveness, like promise-covenant, are attempts at correction.

3. Another answer to the question: forgiveness is an old notion belonging to the broader one of gift and grace (superabundant grace and gift of life), framed in the Hebrew bible as the main characteristic of the divinity. It was more precisely developed in the vicissitudes of Israelite and Judaean history (yes, but details?). The notion of justice and judgment, as in Job, however, remained overwhelming. See also the apocalyptic texts, still found in the gospels. The notion of debt and forgiveness (release of debt: no more the ancient biblical language of lifting, wiping, removing, transferring, wiping, cleaning) become fundamental in the Hellenistic period and even more under the Roman empire, when it became more clear than ever that all economic actors, no matter their religious pretense or solicitation for cover (paramount example, that of Herod), were in debt and in need of forgiveness or release. On all of this, see Anderson, The history of sin (2009). But note that Anderson doesn’t do an economic analysis, except to suggest that the pervasive metaphor of debt in expressing sin is 1) Aramaic, and 2) perhaps due to the rise of commercial activity within the Aramaic-speaking zone, which cannot be the whole story.

4. The story is throwing light on a most difficult subject, namely the nature of possession or control over land and labor and the seeming aporia that it is given (in fact pure gift, which is formulated as forgiveness). What is at stake? There is a contradiction at the heart of possession. Its hidden nature is of being a gift, and outright possession (that of the older son), or to say it in other words, security in possession (also framed as patriarchal authority in that society) cannot be achieved without recognizing it as gift, and its giver (“donateur”). This can be done only, according to the story, through loss (cf. Aqedah in Genesis 22, the story of the sacrifice of Isaac), and what appears as a more perfect, second giving in which the dimension of the giving appear irrational (climactically so), yet the outcome more rational (“It is fitting”) than the status ante quem, which presented itself as calculation of positions and interests but in fact was hiding bitterness, jealousy, rebellion, and hate.

5. Then, what is sin, what constitutes sin? Is it: not recognizing the nature of the gift and giver? which, given the abundance of the gift (life), means that sin is also of a flexible, potentially infinite nature? The relationship with a unique, personal divinity was the main ground (with power as a way to describe its universality? especially power of creation, which the story in Genesis eventually defined as near absolute: there is a line of development here, from the 6th to the 2d century, with the Maccabees). The logic of economic, religious, and political structures had become more clear and more extensive, its contradictions (especially the religious ones) unavoidable—see already Qumran movement—in the Roman empire. So, the notion of possession and control over resources and labor, including the structure of future control (inheritance), became more clear also, and a fundamental point of debate.

Bibliography for Luke

I put together a bibliography of commentaries of various kinds on the gospel of Luke. I’ve tried to select the more recent ones, but some of the important commentaries are less recent. In the list, I have placed studies that pursue an anthropological or social-scientific approach. Many of these books are in our library. I’m bringing the books I have on Luke up to campus tomorrow and will place them on a shelf near the window in the Classics Library at Cowell (room 239).

For those among you interested in studies of apocalyptics and notions of time, I’ve gathered a more specialized bibliography on that topic.

The dishonest manager

I would love to hear/read your comments on the story and the interpretation I propose here.

This parable is only found in Luke 16.1–9. See the literature cited in Green or Fitzmyer. The story assumes an audience familiar with property management and debt system of the time. A proper understanding of the parable, therefore, has to begin with solid knowledge of the economic and legal background. Some of the questions to be asked are: is the manager a slave? what is the source of his power to enact change in the contracts, granted the willingness of the farmers (tenants)? Second, how is one to explain the fifty percent rebate in the case of olive oil, and twenty percent in the case of grain? Higher class debt in one case, or better calculation? Or irony on the part of the story teller, regarding the real value of olive oil and its marketability? Further, is the absolute quantity about twenty years worth of the stuff? An insurance scheme of sorts then? What can one say about the level of literacy of the tenants? Finally, why does the landowner congratulate his manager for acting shrewdly, when it appears his own interests have been seriously hurt?

The system of debt which was in existence drew the maximum labor possible from tenants or rather sharecroppers and their families (meaning wives and children). Interest wouldn’t be mentioned, but can be assumed to be part of the lump sum that is owed to the master. The manager was authorized to make binding contracts for his master. He was given signs of authority for so doing. Contra certain authors (Fitzmyer more recently, for instance), the steward couldn’t have been pocketing the interest and then expect to see feelings of obligation on the part of the sharecroppers when he returned the unjustly acquired interest. His job is well described in the parable of the Talents: to make money for his master, regardless of the appropriateness of the means, and perhaps make some for himself in the process.

Note on the context: the preceding stories of God’s mercy for sinners imply that one is to share possessions with the needy.


16.1 πρὸς τοὺς μαθητάς (to the disciples): Why is Jesus represented as speaking to his disciples at this point? The answer depends on the interpretation given to the story. For the story of the prodigal son, just before, we only have an εἰπεν δέ (but he said)….

πλοὺσιος: the story is concerned with a rich man, i.e., someone controlling lands scattered through the area, or even beyond the seas, as is obvious from the papyrological and inscriptional record for the whole Hellenistic period, and already before. The third gospel presents rich people very negatively. Does that mean that this particular story cannot be allegorized as usual, that is, with the landowner as a figure of the divinity? “A certain man:” why not a king? Because this story is not concerned with inheritance, but with another aspect of the particular relationship between master, manager, and tenants. A rich man was not necessarily liked and belonged to another world, even though he shared in the culture and religion. The landowner’s far-flung properties would need a manager (οἰκονόμος, who was not necessarily a slave). Note that when landlords visited their holdings, which they did often enough, accounts would certainly be scrutinized at that point. Landlords would make regular visits to their holdings, and checked accounts as well as the health of their investments (ex. given in Josephus, in The Jewish War, of Greek landowners going from Tiberias to see their properties East of the Jordan river).

διεβλήθη αὐτῷ: It was rumored to him…. What means of pressure did the rich man have, in the listeners’ opinion? Could he give a participation in the benefits? If the manager was a slave, the owner could remove everything from him and punish him severely. Notice the role of rumor in controlling people’s affairs. Everything in this society could be assumed to be a public affair. Innuendos were sufficient, in the absence of a truly neutral law courts, as appearance of authority and trustworthiness is everything.

διασκορπίζων, that is to say, “dissipating, spreading (thin) ….” By doing what? What could the manager do that would threaten the master’s interests? He could misuse his borrowed authority in many ways. He could certainly add to rental contracts, or traffic in debt contracts. He could take advantage of measurements at harvest times to favor his master, but taking his own “cut” at the same time. He could use tools and animals to his own benefit, for instance by renting them out to others for money or advantages to himself. The position of power of the manager had as its main reason profit (no neutral position in the ancient world). The position was by nature an invitation to take advantage of the position, at all levels of the system of delegation of authority. For comparison, think of the client-kings and the equestrian or senatorial province governors, who needed to exploit their provinces systematically, the more so because the tenures were so short sometimes.

τὰ ὑπάρχοντα αὐτοῦ = everything was owned by this master, presumably. What did the landowner own, exactly? in a traditional sharecropping system, not only the land, but also the main tools of agriculture and animals, as well as the seed stock. But here, we don’t have a customary contract (i.e. often unwritten, everything according to the customs of the region, as the Mishna and Talmud say). There are written documents involving large quantities of goods which the tenants—or their representatives, i.e. tenancy contractors—must sign themselves.

16.2 φωνήσας: “having called him.” The landowner believes the accusation but doesn’t ask him to bring his ledger with him when he calls him. Why not? Is it because it would obviously alert the manager’s suspicion and lead to more problems, or is it because the landowner of our story is a little slow, compared to his smart representative? It takes time to do the calling and for the manager to respond to it. The rich man’s house is not in a village nearby, but in one of the Hellenistic cities of the area: Tiberias, Diocaesarea (Sepphoris), Hippos, Ptolemais, or even Caesarea). A summons from Tiberias, say, to a village in Galilee, would take a day, and the manager would need another day to respond to it: two days total. He knows the landowner is coming very soon now, because this is a precarious moment for the landowner also, who fears more losses or some further stealing may happen in these few hours between the manager’s return and his own arrival. The manager, if he is to change anything, has to act quickly, within a few hours, perhaps one or two days at most. And he has to act in such a way that he doesn’t raise anyone’s suspicion.

16.3 Suspicion aroused by rumor was enough for ancient landowners to act. Even appearance of malfeasance was sufficient ground for them to get rid of managers. If they didn’t, what were others, such as tenants, to think of them, and how were they to behave themselves, if given an opportunity to take advantage of their landowners? ἀπόδος τὸν λόγον (hand over the account): there was an exact account, a ledger, of all matters concerning the οἰκονομία, i.e. feeding, taking care of things (house slaves?), making sure tenants or sharecroppers were watched but also supplied with the necessary tools or animals if needed (פרנסוות). Cf. the Roman writers on ancient agriculture and management, especially Columella (quoted in my previous post).

τί ποιήσω = What am I to do? There is no discussion, no self-pity, but the moment of truth has arrived for the manager, who is caught between two groups of people who are equally unsympathetic to his position: the landowner and family, the sharecroppers and families, who must have felt his authority also at numerous times, and perhaps even his contempt and harshness or cruelty. After all, their level of debt (or the degree of profit extraction) was in great part dependent on his knowledge of local conditions and what he recommended be done by the master.

The audience may have taken some pleasure in a story making an all too well known and contemptible character squirm a bit. His removal from his managerial position means that it will be impossible for him to get another one, at least in the same area, and it also means a loss of status (note the expression κύριός μου, my master, which leads one to suspect he is a slave). His review of the tasks he doesn’t see himself apt to do may will have drawn some ironical comments on the part of hard-working peasants. Σκάπτειν: to dig, i.e. to hoe and dig deeply around trees when composting, or after plowing in the fall and spring seasons. Ἐπαιτεῖν: to beg, or go begging, which means primarily being confronted with people who will remind him of his previous status.

In the depth of his despair, an illumination, as in the story of the lost son in chapter 15. The ἔγνων τί ποιήσω sounds like an “aha” or a eureka (16.4): I know what I’ll do. He has come upon a scheme to force these peasants to accept him into their houses (note: the Greek word carries the tone of habitations, or tents of Jacob). How could he hope to do that? He knows how to play the culture of honor and shame he mentions, and which was enforced in a myriad of ways. Custom demanded that favors be reciprocated in the future, at different times, but according to quite a precise (though unspoken) schedule.

But he is not in a position to give them anything of his, and neither is he in a position to ask them to return favors he might claim he had done to or for them in the past. Most likely, if he has been a scoundrel regarding his master’s possessions, he has been an even bigger scoundrel when it came to the village farmers’ interests. Some commentators think he is planning to return what he has stolen in the first place, i.e. in less than honest dealings such as contracts of debts and tenancy he rigged to his own advantage in the past (Fitzmyer for instance, or Derrett, who suggest that he has been keeping interest on the debt—there was a prohibition of interest, circumventable in several ways). But this idea surely wouldn’t work, since the farmers wouldn’t have any reason to return a favor to a person who stole from them in the first place. It has got to be something else.

He calls in his master’s debtors. By definition, all tenants, or at least sharecroppers, were in debt: this is part of the land management structure of ancient times. Contracts were written on papyrus or on parchment, and were of the “double-document” kind. The sheet on which the contract was written was rolled, the end of it folded back unto itself, and the scroll tied and sealed. A copy of the most important part of the contract was made on the back for everyone to see, without having to break the seal. The manager, at least from the farmers’ point of view, is still a representative of the master’s authority. The farmers, it must be assumed, know that the manager went to see the landowner, but they don’t know why (I presume). When they are asked to sign a correction to their documents that is massively to their advantage, they are likely to think that the master is being generous (given their difficulties, which were a permanent feature of their situation). Surely they cannot think that the manager is conniving to force the master to make a good turn, since this is antithetical to what managers’ job was, and furthermore the master would likely turn against them (and perhaps change tenants)? But the manager has his idea: not only is he hoping to ride the sentiment of great relief and recognition the peasants are going to have for their landowner. He may also be trying to get even with his master and punishing him, while preparing his way out by canceling the usury practiced by his master. Or must one suppose that he is forcing both landowner and tenants to start afresh after a most significant act of debt forgiveness, and hoping to survive on the good will of everyone (especially that of the tenants, if he is indeed fired, as the landowner told him privately?).

The first debtor owes 100 baths of oil (ca. 450 gallons, or 1,800 liters), and his debt is halved to 50 baths. That’s a significant abatement. Note on yields, for comparison: the yield of modern olive trees is about 4 tons per acre or 9 metric tons per hectare for a consistent year-to-year yield. Oil yield: 45 gallons per ton. So, our text is talking about a remittance of the value of oil produced by 2 to 3 acres. Is there an extra wink to the audience who would have appreciated to hear that the manager is particularly keen on having the oil producers on his side, so he gets olive oil deals or gifts aplenty in the future? To evaluate what’s going on, one would have to ascertain the olive oil consumption of a family over a year. 100 kors of grain: a kor of grain is about a year’s supply for an adult in pre-modern times. So the 20 kors remitted by the manager are a very significant amount which he may hope to get some of in the future.

How did the debtors feel, how would they react, and what would they say to the rest of the village? One may suppose they knew nothing about the conversation that happened between the master and the manager. When called by the manager, they would simply think that the master had ordered him to change the contracts. Or perhaps they may be guessing what trick is going on but don’t let on?

ἐπῄνεσεν: The story is given in shorthand at this point, and it is difficult for us to understand why the manager is praised by his master. What’s missing is what would have been obvious to an ancient audience, namely that when word came that the landowner, surprise of surprise, actually showed up in the village the next day or so, joyful expressions of gratitude were given by the whole village. Everyone would drop everything and would rush to greet him, certainly before he had had a chance to see the accounts and the “improved” contracts. There would be kissing of hands, prostrations, rejoicing, probably a feast, and praise heaped on a divine-like master who took pity on his tenants and saved them.

What is a master to do when showered with this kind of recognition, respect, and love? Surely he can’t go back on “his” decisions and revisit the contracts once more! This would be declaring war to his workers. He chooses to go along and “praises the unjust manager,” that is to say: he accepts to remit debts (he doesn’t know yet to what extent, even: irony again for the audience). Will the “unjust manager” lose his job even? So, what is most probable (but not certain) is that he has acquired an important capital of sympathy for his master, but the latter has no reason to keep him. He has gotten devoted farmers, however, especially if he ends up being fired, and will have to hope that the same remission of debts is extended to him by his superiors.

At this point, after keeping it out of the interpretation and understanding the story as best as possible on its own, allegorization may be re-introduced as a privileged reading strategy (its goal, in fact, according to the author himself and the comments at the end of the story). If the master stands for the divinity, the manager for a servant of God—recognized in that society as priests, leaders, Pharisees—,and the farmers for the common people (the listeners in fact, who are as hidden in the interpretive act done on this parable as they are in the considerations and texts of this ancient society), then the consequences of such analogical reasoning are that after the swift action by the steward, it is not possible for the master (God) to even enter into a discussion on the books and attempt to reconcile the accounts, because the celebration that has been forced by the risk taken by the steward (who knows his society and his master) has engulfed everyone in an atmosphere of joy and plenitude that the master (God) is forced to accept. This doesn’t eliminate the ancient view of debt remission, namely that good will among “tenants” is worth its weight in gold, in the long run. Divine compassion is forced by the steward’s action, and the divinity accepts to go along with the bet made by the steward.

What is being praised by Jesus as being φρονίμως, i.e. skillful rather than wise (according to the evangelist)? The dishonest steward, or rather his practical resourcefulness? Is it a moral tale, an example story? But then, was Jesus teaching that his disciples should imitate the unjust actions of the steward? Or was he teaching the listeners to imitate the steward’s shrewdness and skill? Is it a genuine parable? It would be about the kingdom of God, and a need to be decisive, as in so many of these stories, and about a notion of the divinity accepting to be tricked into compassion for his people.