Sean (THE) Sheep in the Bible

Why do we need bible scholars? Why can't we just read the plain text? You've heard this sort of question. I said it myself as a younger person, deeply suspicious of what these "scholars" might do to my faith. Well, here's some of the reason.

Let's start with kid's TV.  Remember Bob the Builder and Postman Pat. That's a cultural thing, where alliteration is used to attract us to the text. It’s the same in Sean Sheep. Except that if English is not our first language, we might miss the joke in the title. Think about it...

And remember Play School: Noni would be on hands and knees acting the part of the motor car while John the mechanic would make comments about it needing some work on the big end, and then he would look under the car and make comments about the undercarriage. It all sounded just like the language the little kids might hear dad use in the garage, but there was another story going on as well! Biblical stories often operate at two levels: the surface narrative and something deeper. Except that second level is not a joke, but about salvation.

At Pilgrim Church, Jenski and I once did an improvised play about Deborah and Barak, and at the end I said, "Well kids, Barak had a particular male problem." Helen Smith yelled from up the back, "Prostate." The place erupted into laughter, kids included. It so happened that there was a four year old in that congregation who, 15 or 16 years later, became a frequent visitor to our house. I told this story at the table one night, and they said, "I've always remembered everyone laughing at you. Now that I know why they were laughing it's even funnier!"

Not only can we miss the context of a conversation or a text from another culture, we can also misinterpret things. We once had wonderful next door neighbours who happened to be from India. And, in the style of their province, when they were talking to their children they would call me "Andrew Uncle." Some other folks from the same part of India joined my congregation. One day, after many months of hearing folk call me Andrew Prior, one of them asked me how long I had to study to become a Prior...
Let me emphasise the point here: This person speaks six languages. We are not talking about intelligence here. We are talking about cultural knowledge.

When it comes to cultural knowledge about the literature of the bible, most of us don't even know what we don't know. Indeed, for student ministers who want to take their scholarship seriously, it can be hard not to be dispirited once we begin to realise how much we don't know we don't know!

The biblical stories come from Babylonian, Jewish, Greek, and Roman cultures, to name only some. They are then often edited to highlight some things, and to disagree with the original, and sometimes contradict, or at least sit very uncomfortably, with other parts of the Bible. There is a clash of cultures within scripture in multiple places. Sometimes stories are told to deliberately contradict the same story in another culture; the Creation stories are an example.

All this is before we consider the difficulties of translating from Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic and elsewhere into English. And... which English!? King Saul climbed up to the cave "to go to the bathroom!?" (1 Samuel 24 Living Bible.) Well, we might think, there's no harm in being polite. But do you remember where Elijah is having the competition with the prophets of Baal and he says, "either he is meditating, or he has wandered away?" (I Kings 18:27, NRSV) I'm told that's a toilet joke. Elijah's taunting them and, in the Hebrew, suggests maybe Baal is taking his time helping them because he's taking his time with a dump. Do we want politeness, or do we want the point of the text?

Biblical texts often use similar literary conventions to us. They use alliteration. They use phonic repetition, puns, and humour. But they also do the opposite of what we consider good literature.  The Gospel of Mark uses the phrase kai euthus, which means and immediately, 41 times! It's only used 16 more times in the rest of the New Testament. It's painful for us to read. Our English teacher would mark us down for that kind of repetition. The NRSV sometimes hides it for the sake of English readability, so that Mark 1:29 says as soon as, and Mark 1:21 says when. That last translation annihilates the sense of haste and urgency that's in the Greek. For the original listeners and readers, the kai euthus didn't grate; it made the point!

In Matthew 25, Jesus says, "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me," and then Matthew repeats that in varying degrees three more times in the next few lines. My eyes begin to glaze over, but the repetition makes the point. It is a literary pointer for the reader to pay attention. Like the so and so begat so and so bits of Matthew and Luke. They had a point, a purpose. You want to get the point? Ask a scholar.

The authors also create similar pointers with the order in which they tell stories, or they tell the same story with slightly different words that don't always make it into the English. The Greek and Jewish baskets in Mark are an example of that, and the numbers that are used in the two basket stories (4,5,7, and 12) are another way of making the same point. The authors put similar but different stories together: There are three royal feasts in Mark, not just the two feasts with baskets.It occurs to me at this very moment that maybe the fact that the other one has a platter is a deliberate part of the contrast. Stories are deliberately put inside other stories: there's a thing called the Markan Sandwich. Stories are told in a way which will remind us of similar stories in the Old Testament, and we are meant to notice the similarities, or the differences, or both. People are never just sick. Look carefully, and there's usually a reason why this person being healed by Jesus is blind, this one is deaf, and that one is paralysed. It's so common that if I can't see a reason, I wonder what I'm missing. As someone said, sometimes a banana is just a banana, but not often.  

The thing to understand is that much of this was as obvious to the original reader as a joke about Sean Sheep is to us. There is not something wrong with us. Indeed, when our preacher says, straight faced, that Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent, and the serpent didn't have a leg to stand on, the editors of Genesis would likely wonder what the groaning was about.  But the good news is that once we see the pointers in one place, we often begin to see them in others, without prompting.

This is why it's worth going to a bible study that is not just a reinforcement of what we already believe. Even small amounts of scholarship can open us to a world of new understanding.  If we're the personality type who likes hidden humour and subtlety and word games there'll be years' worth of entertainment. We might also hear the Spirit speak to us all over again.

And... as one of my PRC-L colleagues has reminded me, scholars remind us to go back and read the text again. Then we won't be going from memory, which is often wrong, but from what the text actually says. Which is why this article, originally called Sean Sheep and the Bible is now Sean THE Sheep and the Bible.

Andrew Prior (Sept 2022)


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