Theodicy and Spirituality in the Fourth Gospel: A Girardian Perspective

The Rev. Daniel DeForest London, PhD

Every Fourth Sunday of Easter, Episcopalians and Anglicans read a portion of the Good Shepherd discourse in John 10. In Theodicy and Spirituality in the Fourth Gospel, I argue that this discourse functions as part of Jesus’s response to the question of suffering as asked by the disciples in the previous chapter: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (9:2). Sandra Schneiders explains that “the disciples are Christians of any time who agonize over the meaning of life’s mysteries, e.g. innocent suffering, and turn to Jesus for enlightenment” (Schneiders, Written That You May Believe, 157). The disciples’ question invites readers to bring their own questions of suffering to the Johannine Jesus, whose multi-layered response I attempt to unpack in my book.

In John 9 – 10, Jesus does not offer a theodicy, a philosophical defense of God in the face of suffering. Rather, the Gospel of John offers what I call a theodical spirituality, which is the experience of praying the question of suffering and receiving a divine response. In the response, Jesus reveals our dangerous attachment to blaming the victim and scapegoating the innocent (John 9:3-4). He then presents three sets of dichotomous symbols (day/night, vision/blindness, sheep/wolf), which each include metaphors (Light, Judge, Shepherd) that subvert the dichotomy and reveal Jesus’s commitment to liberating both the victim and victimizer. This reading ends up challenging all the dichotomies and dualisms that seem to dominate the Fourth Gospel.

I highlight cues within the narrative that invite the reader to identify not only with the disciples but also with the Pharisees, the Ioudaioi, as well as the oft-overlooked “wolf,” which is featured on the book’s cover. By identifying with the interrogators in the narrative, the reader can begin to see his or her own complicity in systems of scapegoating violence and Jesus’s commitment to dismantling them. Building on the insights and categories of Johannine scholar Adele Reinhartz and philosopher René Girard, I use what I call the “anthropological tale” of the Gospel as a key to interpreting the Johannine symbols and metaphors within the pericope and to demonstrate how anti-Jewish readings of John prove antithetical to the Gospel message.

When the Ioudaioi ask Jesus, “How long will you keep us in suspense?” (John 10:24) their words hearken back to the disciples’ initial question of suffering, especially since their first two words echo the classic question of biblical lament: “How long?” (Psalm 13:1-2; 94:3; Habakkuk 1:2; Revelation 6:10). In fact, a more literal translation of their question is “How long will you steal away our breath?”, which is an especially poignant question today as COVID-19 continues to steal away people’s breath and claim millions of lives. 

Like the disciples in John 9, the Jews in John 10 represent all those who boldly bring their questions of suffering before God, from Job to Julian of Norwich to C. S. Lewis to Elie Wiesel. John’s Gospel not only invites readers to bring their own questions of suffering to God, but the Gospel also invites readers to be transformed by the divine response of the Good Shepherd, who instead of offering an explanation, offers himself. As Anglican theologian Austin Farrer put it, “God does not give us explanations; God gives up a Son” (Farrer, The Essential Sermons, 204).

Ultimately, the beloved discourse read on Good Shepherd Sunday takes on new levels of meaning when we understand it as Christ’s self-giving response to our own personal questions of suffering, questions that can sometimes be laced with our own wolfish rage. 

Daniel DeForest London (Ph.D., Graduate Theological Union) is the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Eureka CA. He teaches at Church Divinity School of the Pacific and is the author of Theodicy and Spirituality in the Fourth Gospel (Fortress Academic), which was recently released in paperback. He and his wife live with two Yorkshire Terriers, one of which is named Gubbio, after the violent wolf whom St. Francis tamed.

AABS June Meeting 2022

The Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars invites you to join a virtual meeting on the topic “Teaching in Context: Towards a Cultural, Native, and Subaltern Reading” on Saturday, June 18, 2022, at 3:00 PM GMT. Our guest speaker will be the Revd Professor David Joy, Principal of the Kerala United Theological Seminary, Trivandrum, Kerala, India. Break-out room discussions will follow, and the session will close with a brief service of worship in one of the many forms of the Anglican tradition. Registration will open in May at the AABS website, and registrants will receive the Zoom link individually. All are welcome.

Guffey, The Book of Revelation and the Visual Culture of Asia Minor

The Book of Revelation and the Visual Culture of Asia Minor: A Concurrence of Images
The Rev. Andrew R. Guffey, Ph.D.

The book of Revelation is one of the most visually rich books of the Bible, and yet it is difficult to come to grips with its intense visuality. What are the “bizarre” images of the book doing? How ought we to go about understanding them? What are we to do with a work that sits on the very edge of textuality and visuality?

In The Book of Revelation and the Visual Culture of Asia Minor: A Concurrence of Images I set out to situate the visuality of the book of Revelation (its images) in the context of the visual world (both material and rhetorical) of Asia Minor. The notion of a “concurrence” of images, which I lifted from the renowned art historian Erwin Panofsky, helpfully deflects questions of “influence,” “borrowing,” or “sources,” and instead invites a recognition of a common cultural project. The images of the book of Revelation, I argue, are not borrowing from the visual culture of Asia Minor; rather they participate in it.

“The old method of the Apocalypse,” D. H. Lawrence, scathing critic of the Apocalypse, once wrote, “is to set forth the image, make a world, and then suddenly depart from this world in a cycle of time and movement and even, an epos; and then return again to a world not quite like the original one, but on another level” (Lawrence, Apocalypse, 97). Under the influence of another Anglican interpreter of the Apocalypse, Austin Farrer, I found myself asking about this world-making power of the images of the book of Revelation. “The book of Revelation,” Farrer wrote, “was the one great poem the first Christian age produced” (Farrer, A Rebirth of Images, 6). Whether or not we ought to call the Apocalypse of John a poem, Farrer’s insistence that the power of the book is in its images is almost certainly correct. Understanding those images and their power is a more difficult matter to unravel.

In concert with an increasing number of scholars, I look to ancient rhetoric and material culture to attempt the unraveling, most especially the rhetorical art of ekphrasis. Ekphrasis (vivid description) names a rhetorical device, but also a certain deployment of imagination. The description of persons, places, and events brings them within the realm of the visual, making them, as the ancient rhetorical handbooks said, “virtually present to the eyes” of the audience. The power of Revelation’s images is just this: in representing another divine world “not quite like the original one,” to use Lawrence’s language, they contest the representation of the gods and the divine world in the material culture of Asia Minor, through Farrer’s “rebirth of images.” The power of the program of images in the book of Revelation, as of ekphrasis, is to reorient the imagination. In the case of Revelation, it is to present the God of Israel, through Jesus Christ, as the principle power of the cosmos and of unfolding history, rather than the many visible gods that were etched in stone and coin. To make this argument concrete, I compare the visual rhetoric of Revelation with exempla from imperial numismatic iconography, the statuary of Artemis of Ephesos, and the so-called Great Altar of Pergamon.

In short, I find in the book of Revelation a tapestry of images that resonates with the visual culture of Asia Minor, if only to contest the world that visual culture represents. It is a project of unseeing one world, and showing an unseen world.

Andrew R. Guffey (Ph.D., The University of Virginia) is Priest-In-Charge of St. Mary’s In-The-Hills Episcopal Church, Lake Orion, Michigan. He currently teaches at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (New Testament) and Oakland University (Religious Studies). He can be contacted at arguffey@gmail.com.

Cover of Guffey, Book of Revelation

The Gospel of Mark is back June 6!

by Elizabeth Struthers Malbon
Professor Emerita of Religion and Culture, Virginia Tech
AABS
Christ Episcopal Church, Blacksburg, Virginia

This is liturgical Year B, the year of Mark’s Gospel in the three-year cycle of lectionary readings. But, in churches who follow the Revised Common Lectionary, we have not yet read much of Mark’s Gospel since the church year began in Advent late last November. During the Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany seasons, we read from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke on a number of Sundays and occasionally from John. During the end of the season of Lent and the season of Easter, the Gospel of John, which does not have its own year in the three-year lectionary cycle, takes center stage. But on the Second Sunday after Pentecost, this year June 6, we finally return to the short and powerful Gospel of Mark for some sustained reading.

The Gospel of Mark has been my research focus as a New Testament scholar. Thus, I have had opportunities to provide introductions to or overviews of Mark’s Gospel on a number of occasions, some of which are available electronically. Here are some links:

And here are two links to dramatic storytelling of Mark, word-for-word by memory, by a Lutheran pastor, theologian, and national colleague and friend of mine, Rev. Philip Ruge-Jones:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhqMmDhc0UU  (Mark 1:1-8: 9)

https://www.facebook.com/ANKOSfilms/videos/i-tell-you-this-is-the-way-it-is-the-passion-according-to-mark/1882968051735717/ (Mark’s Passion Narrative, Mark 14:1-16:8)

Most scholars recognize the Gospel of Mark as our oldest Gospel and an important source for at least Matthew and Luke’s Gospels, and possibly John’s Gospel as well.  Mark is also the shortest Gospel and has long been overshadowed by the other three canonical Gospels, as even the number of Sundays when Mark is not read in Mark’s lectionary year, Year B, suggests. But in

the 20th and 21st centuries, the Gospel of Mark has received renewed scholarly appreciation for its carefully structured storytelling, giving evidence of its birth as a story to hear and retell and witness to its staying power as a well-told tale of good news.

Upcoming AABS meetings

The AABS is holding two meetings in 2021, in June and in November.

June Meeting:
The Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars invites you to join a virtual meeting on the topic “Teaching in Context” on Saturday, June 12, 2021, at 11:00 AM-12:15PM, EDT (Eastern Daylight Time = GMT-4).

Our guest speaker will be Dr. Stephen Lim of Ming Hua Theological College in Hong Kong

Break-out room discussions will follow, and the session will close with a brief service of worship in one of the many forms of the Anglican tradition.

Register to receive the Zoom link via the registration form here.

Annual Meeting (November):
The AABS Annual meeting this year comprises three parts: a virtual meeting on 13 November, a Eucharist on 19 November, and another Eucharist on 21 November.

13 November 2021, 11:00 AM, EDT (Eastern Time = GMT-5)
Program TBD

19 November 2021, 3:00 PM to 9:00 PM
The AABS Friday meeting will be held at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church (315 Pecan Street, San Antonio, TX 78205; https://www.stmarks-sa.org/). All are welcome to join us. Registration via the AABS website will facilitate planning (registration will be available later in the year here on the website). Information will also be sent out on our email list. Contact Elizabeth Struthers Malbon (malbon@vt.edu) if you wish to be added to the email list.

5:30 pm- Gathering and Greeting
Jane Lancaster Patterson, Seminary of the Southwest, Presiding
6:00 pm- Holy Eucharist

21 November 2021, 11:45 AM, EDT (Eastern Time = GMT-5)
A celebration of the Holy Eucharist in the Anglican tradition during the SBL/AAR meeting. All are welcome

Legacy or Lineage?

Rev. Dr. Jane Lancaster Patterson, Seminary of the Southwest and AABS President

Recently, the cartoonist and philosopher of creativity, Austin Kleon, recounted an exchange with a person who asked him what he hoped his legacy would be. Kleon answered that he didn’t think in terms of legacy, but rather in terms of lineage, the whole stream of people in history who have inspired him, and those who will in turn be influenced by his work. As scholars, we are clearly not self-made, always standing in the midst of work that began long before us and that will continue long after us. And while we are working, we are also never alone, the beneficiaries of so many scholars who are pursuing questions related to the ones that inspire us.

Finding a Lineage
In the hopes of stimulating an ongoing conversation about our personal lineages as biblical scholars, I offer a glimpse of the scholarly lineage without which I would literally not be teaching New Testament now. The first is Phyllis Trible, whose Texts of Terror saved me in Bible 100. You would never have seen in my first exam the makings of a biblical scholar. I had no idea what was going on in the lectures. I couldn’t find the starting point, much less gain a sense of where any of the discussion was going. When the first paper was assigned, one of the professors mentioned off-handedly that Trible’s work might be helpful. Desperate, I followed through on the suggestion. I went down to the stacks, found Texts of Terror, and started reading it right there. I devoured it, sitting on the floor in that cramped space, practically glowing with a sense of connection. I was gripped by her ideas, and also the clarity of her method. I was both rescued and hooked in the space of a couple of hours.

Being claimed by a lineage
Thinking about lineages helps to make sense of the stream of influences that come together in my work: reading Wayne Meeks’ article, “The Polyphonic Ethics of the Apostle Paul” for the first time, when I was beginning to focus on Paul; the dedicated scholarship and steady support of my dissertation advisor, Victor Furnish. It seems obvious to say that this is a chosen lineage, but actually the feeling is more like that of being claimed. When I was wandering around in the my early twenties, drawn to the church but really mainly drawn to contemplative prayer, Teresa of Avila came and claimed me, with her blend of forthrightness, wry humor, and mystical intensity. In my role as a theological educator, Phoebe has stepped out of Romans 16 to inspire and encourage me in the task of explaining Paul to people who are quite sure they don’t want to hear him.

Lineages in the New Testament
In teaching my students about the wide variety of ways to follow Jesus in the first two centuries, I speak to them about lineages. The New Testament contains a very narrow stream of the potential lineages that we are coming to know better through, for example, the Nag Hammadi documents. What does it mean to stand in the lineage of Peter (the synoptics), the beloved disciple, Paul, and John the apocalyptist? What are the emphases of this particular stream of practice and thought? What are we missing?

Downstream
Like the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, our hermeneutical lineages stretch back potentially to our origins in God. But what are our creative responsibilities to those who will follow us? Much of my effort in teaching these days is to introduce my students to as wide a variety of interpretive voices in biblical studies as I can possibly gather in a semester. For some, this din of voices is challenging, but for so many it means hearing voices like their own for the first time in an academic setting. My hope is that at least some of them feel that electric moment of being claimed by an elder, and set on a path of discovery.

What lineage do you stand in? What do you hope to pass on?

From Horror to Prevention

Jason M. Silverman, University of Helsinki

Recently the field of Hebrew Bible has been rocked by another scandal, following closely on the heels of allegations of theft and smuggling of ancient manuscripts. Yet I was still shocked by the recent revelation that Jan Joosten, the now suspended professor of Hebrew at Christ Church, Oxford, was convicted of possessing tens of thousands of images of the sexual abuse of children. A flurry of activity on social media and the websites of related academic societies ensued; the most eloquent response I have seen so far was posted on the Shiloh Project (by Johanna Stiebert). To date I have largely remained in stunned silence, for what words suffice in the face of such abuse? And this is merely the tip of a depraved iceberg: there is an entire list of biblical scholars convicted of similar sexual offenses. Even worse, as noted by M. Adryael Tong in the “Annual Meeting Hotel Lobby,” the number of victims of child abuse is staggering: 10% of children. The victimization of children—particularly those of color—is a daily occurrence at the behest of the US government, to little censure by faith leaders. Networks for trafficking children such as those run by Epstein remain un-dismantled, while those supposed to prosecute them are implicated in perpetuating them. We need to mobilize our horror at these things towards stopping them.

How can we, as Biblical scholars, respond in a meaningful way, to change structures that allow such abuse to exist and persist, to protect potential victims, and help heal surviving victims? Biblical scholars might be inclined to turn to their specialty and offer commentary on distressing passages such as the rape of Dinah in Gen 34 or on broader themes of sexual violence in the text.

However, another question is how to treat the publications of scholars convicted of such crimes. From the perspective of the sociology of research, citations are the currency by which reputations and careers are made, funding granted, and positions of power offered. This means that a citation has an effect beyond just the ideas in the work towards the author’s place in academia. Should one continue to cite them as if normal? Erase their memory by never citing them again? Cite them with a footnote noting their crimes? Christianity has long had this debate over art and artists, theology and theologians as well. Should we reject Tillich or Barth because they couldn’t stay zipped up?

Even more, how can we support marginalized communities in and around the guild? Such groups include children, adult survivors of abuse, and transgender students and scholars to only name a few. One response is to donate to organizations that work with and for victims, as Ron Hendel has announced he will do with the proceeds from his co-authored book. There are a number of organizations that work towards child welfare which one could support.

As worthy as all of the above responses are, they are unlikely to accomplish enough structural change in the field of biblical studies (or in the academy at large). In this they are somewhat ‘prophetic’[i] in addressing specific problematic behaviors while leaving intact the social structures that enable them. We need to think more broadly—either with regular ethical and meta-disciplinary seminars on best practices in the field, and/or by fostering more open and democratic structures that reduce the ability of perpetrators to hide behind power and influence. Maybe faculties or professional associations need to make access to confidential spiritual, psychological, and addiction support services easier for victims as well as potential perpetrators. We need better structures for dealing with abuses that neither ignore the voices of victims nor degrade the rights of the innocent. Such changes take time, but they would help address other abuses of power as well (e.g., sexual harassment).

Whatever decisions one comes to in relation to these specific ethical questions or ones I have not mentioned, one thing is clear: neither professional nor lay readers of the Bible can remain content with the status quo. Our responsibility includes changing the structures that enable abuses to occur and their perpetrators to repeat their abuses, not just in their repudiation. This may require some radical rethinking of the way we work.


[i] I.e., like the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible, which call for social justice, but do not call for any changes in the social structures that create oppression.

Their Eyes Swell Out With Fatness: Metaphor and Emotion in Psalm 73

Their eyes swell out with fatness;
their hearts overflow with follies.

Psalm 73:7 (NRSV)

Richard Liantonio, University of Manchester

Gorged-out eyes, fat bulging between eye and socket, a horrifying gaze, an evil scheme. The picture is stark and perhaps shocking, but a reasonable first impression from the line their eyes swell out with fatness. This expression only occurs once in the Bible, prompting debate over its meaning and even proposals to correct the Hebrew text. Some commentators call the expression “absurd,” or “incomprehensible.” Others refer to it as an “ancient” or “archaic” metaphor.  The 1979 American Book of Common Prayer (BCP) translates “Their iniquity comes from gross minds.” This seems to follow the path of changing one consonant in the Hebrew text of “their eyes” (Heb. עֵינֵמוֹ) to “their iniquity” (Heb. עֲוֹנָמוֹ), while interpreting the Hebrew “from fat” (מֵחֵלֶב) metaphorically as a “gross mind.”

My PhD research focuses on the use of metaphor and metonym to express emotion in the Psalms, particularly happiness. Metaphorical language can be notoriously difficult to interpret. Part of the joy of my research is discovering new ways to view texts in light of their ancient linguistic contexts. Psalm 73:7a is often interpreted as a negative metaphor (BCP “gross mind”), as a caricature depicting the disgusting, bulging eyes of an abhorrently evil person. I would like to suggest the possibility that instead of referring to being “gross,” “callous/unfeeling,” “gluttonous,” “lustful,” “proud,” “lazy,” or “unreceptive,” (as other scholars have suggested) this line is a metaphorical figure of speech[1] for the excitement, pleasure, and even happiness of the albeit wicked person. The reasons are as follows:

  • Though at times fat, when occurring with heart (לֵב), has negative connotations related to callousness or lack of feeling (cf. Ps. 17:10; 119:70; Isa. 6:10), we see earlier in Psalm 73:4 בָּרִיא fat, a word semantically related to חֵלֶב (cf. their use together in Judg. 3:17, 22; Ezek. 34:3), where the reference is clearly positive: For they have no pain, their bodies are perfect and fat. The use of fatness to refer to health and well-being is common in the ANE.[2] The larger conceptual domain of fat (דשׁן, חלב, שׁמן, etc.)  is commonly associated with prosperity, abundance (Gen. 45:18; Num 18:12; Deut. 32:14; Psa. 81:17; 147:14), fertility (Num. 13:20; Neh. 9:25, 35), well-being, and happiness (cf. Psa. 23:5; Prov. 15:30; Sir. 26:13, 43:22).
  • While translations like “swell out” (NRSV) and “bulge” (NASB, NKJV, HCSB, CEV) can suggest an abnormal anatomical phenomenon, these are interpretive translations of the Hebrew יָצָא, which simply means to go out. Obviously eyes protruding can seem prima facie abnormal, but not necessarily when contrasted to the opposite – a sunken eye which can indicate (or be a metonym for) unhappiness: my eye becomes weak from grief (Psa. 6:8, also 31:10); my eye melts away (sinks?) from sorrow (Psa. 88:10); my eyes are finished from weeping (Lam. 2:11; cf. Ps. 69:4). In this light, the eye that “goes out” rather than sinks reflects the normal, healthy, and happy condition.
  • Swelling is a common metaphor for happiness in Akkadian and Ugaritic (two ancient languages closely related to Hebrew), though this swelling routinely occurs in the heart or liver/innards, rather than in the eyes. As a representative example from the Ugaritic Baal epic:[3]

Her innards/liver swelled with laughter

Her heart filled with joy

Anat’s innards/liver with victory.

The Hebrew Bible does not seem to contain this particular metaphor, but is replete with broader metaphorical frameworks that happiness is swelling participates in: happiness is expansion/unhappiness is constriction (Psa. 4:2; 18:20; 25:17; 31:9; 66:12)[4] and happiness is an object/fluid in a container (a flexible container will “swell” as it is filled; Psa. 4:8; 16:11; 19:3; 45:2; 119:171; 145:7). 

  • The parallel phrase: their hearts overflow with follies (NRSV) also contains a metaphor for happiness. As noted above, a number of biblical passages depict happiness as a fluid inside the container of the heart, which enthusiastically overflows, often in the form of speech. For example, Psalm 45:2: my heart overflows with a pleasing theme (cf. Psa. 19:3; 119:171; 145:7).

Taken together, it seems less likely that the line in question is a caricature, an intentionally exaggerated and disgusting physical depiction of the wicked. This especially so, considering none of the surrounding verses attempt to do likewise, and the physical descriptions in verse four are overwhelmingly positive (their bodies are perfect!). Rather, in this line, the protruding rather than sunken eyes seem to depict the emotions of a person experiencing happiness and prosperity, similar to phrases describing the shining eyes/face of a person (cf. Num. 6:25; Psa. 34:6; 104:15; Eccl. 8:1; Isa. 60:1). Perhaps this line is automatically taken as negative because it is describing otherwise evil persons. But central to this Psalm is that the wicked are prosperous and well off, while the righteous suffer, creating a crisis of faith for the psalmist. I hope this brief exercise shows the significance of metaphor and emotion in our reading and interpretation of biblical texts.


[1] Technically an instance of metaphtonymy, an interaction between metaphor and metonymy.

[2] cf. Dan 1:15; Gen. 42:2ff.

[3] CAT 1.3 ii 25-27. Cf. also CAD E: 88; CAD : 8-9; 138 for more examples.

[4] Philip D. King, Surrounded by Bitterness: Image Schemas and Metaphors for Conceptualizing Distress in Classical Hebrew (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2012), 140–209.