Exegesis attaca, *non* ad hominem

How’s that slug for mixing languages?  I’m sure the syntax and forms are mixed up, too, but it’s got echoes of Greek, Italian, and Latin.  Fun with linguistics.  Anyhoo….

A few days ago, I read my friend’s proposal to a publisher for his book on how to read (and how not to read) the Bible.  Among other positive aspects of the proposal, I noticed his claim not to have “attacked” individuals who differ with him.  Such attacks are known as “ad hominem,” and I applaud him for not taking the route of attacking individuals and their opinions.

Once in a while, I do name an individual on this blog.  Often it’s a positive mention; sometimes it’s not.  I might do better to avoid using names when engaging in open criticism; on the other hand, the criticism may be better understood, and better applied, if a name is used.

Today, I will not use the person’s name when criticizing something he wrote–1) out of respect for the author, and 2) because I can see no purpose that would be served by using his name.  From this essayist’s recent piece:

Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples. — (Luke 11:1)

While it was customary for a rabbi to teach his disciples a simple prayer that they could use in their devotions, there are things especially informing about this request. As far as Scripture reveals, this is the only thing that Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them. They were soon to go abroad preaching and teaching, forming congregations, and dealing with multiple problems, but they asked only that he teach them to pray, as if appropriate praying would take care of all else.

First off, I love it that [I’ll call him “Howard”] starts with scripture.  I also love that Howard’s scripture knowledge is broad enough that he can legitimately make the claim “as far as Scripture reveals, this is the only thing …”).  I wish I knew scripture that well!

I’m also glad Howard reminded me that it would have been customary for a rabbi like Jesus to teach his disciples a simple prayer, and that the disciples were soon, according to Luke, to be missionaries.  These bits help to set the stage for the text, and for what Howard says in the rest of his essay.

It’s the last couple of phrases that trouble me, exegetically speaking.

they asked only that he teach them to pray,

as if appropriate praying would take care of all else.

Let’s pause to consider those.

First, about inference. We do not know that this is the only educational request they made of the Master (whether Howard means on that occasion only or throughout their association).  What we know is that 1) Luke tells us 2) they asked 3) this thing 4) at this time … and that Luke in particular has purposed to be orderly/organized  in his account.  So, we legitimately assume that it was in fact at this time (i.e., prior to the sending out as missionaries, etc.) that the disciples made the request.  Luke does not say, “This is the only thing the disciples ever asked Jesus to teach them”; that Luke doesn’t explicitly relate other such requests is a different reality than the presumption that there were no other such requests.   It’s quite possible that even weak humans such as they asked to be taught a few other things.

Second, about presumption. The “as if” follow-up may make a good point to duff-sitting Christians who don’t do stuff but only warm pews.  However, this is speculative:  we don’t know what the disciples were thinking when they asked Him to teach them to pray.  Maybe it was exactly as Howard suggests–that they thought this was the end-all question, and that when they learned a certain prayer-incantation, they’d be set for life.  Alternately, though, they could have asked the question …

  1. as if beginning a long series of quests and questions that would prepare them for the disciple’s hard life.”  (Maybe this was just the beginning.)
  2. as if they merely, genuinely wanted to know.”  (Maybe they were genuinely interested in what they perceived of Jesus’ prayer consciousness and wordings, and maybe there was nothing else present or missing in their spirituality at the time.  Maybe, in other words, there’s not much to read between the lines here.)
  3. as if (or since) they wanted to impress disciples of other rabbis such as John.  (Maybe they had only ulterior motives, wanting to be seen as cool.  Maybe John was distant and they were using him as a good example–while really caring more about impressing the disciples of rabbi Ben-Joses from around the corner.)
  4. as if they had come to see prayer as a springboard to supernatural power.  (Maybe they had witnessed Jesus praying and then healing.  Maybe they wanted some of that.)
  5. as if they were jockeying for position in the horse-race of following Jesus.  (Maybe they wanted to impress Jesus enough to be picked as “top gun disciple.”  What?  Our disciples not getting it?  Read Mark!)

There are doubtless other possibilities, too.  The motives and background thoughts of the disciples not stated.  All ascriptions of motives are speculative.

We should take care when supposing what’s behind the express written message of scripture.

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