by Jordan Cardenas
I will be sharing two slices of wisdom that nurture my academic and spiritual growth as a student of Scripture; I learned these both from intellectuals much wiser than myself.
I picked up the first insight from reading An Experiment In Criticism by C.S. Lewis. This book, which is often over-looked by Lewis fans, transformed the way I receive God’s word. The second insight I gathered in an undergraduate class on Johannine literature; it restrains my tendency to compare myself with others. Though these two bits of advice may seem unconnected, they are crucial to my development as an aspiring biblical scholar. I hope they are also of some benefit to you.
Read with Your Ears
In his book on literary criticism, C.S. Lewis invests an entire chapter describing what he regards as an “unliterary” reader. He writes: “They have no ears. They read exclusively by the eye”, and as a result, “They are quite unconscious of style” (29). A few pages later Lewis transitions to the third person singular, and elaborates on his description:
[He] ignores nearly all that the words before him are doing; he wants to know what happened next. […] He is deaf to the aural side of what he reads because rhythm and melody do not help him to discover who married (rescued, robbed, raped or murdered) whom. He likes ‘strip’ narratives […] because in them nothing stands between him and the Event.” (30, my emphasis).
Building upon Lewis’s premise, I propose that good biblical scholars read Scripture with their ears (as well as their eyes!). To put it differently, unless we attend to the aural dimensions of Scripture, we will remain deaf to how our authors use rhetorical devices that shape the meaning of key events in their stories. Allow me to explain.
Scholars often note that St. Mark’s narrative, for instance, was initially intended for aural presentation. (In using the term ‘aural presentation,’ I simply mean that St. Mark’s first-century audience listened to the narrative as it was read aloud by one reader.) In contrast, many of us have the luxury of owning Bibles (some of us more than one!). Consequently, we have the privilege of receiving the words of Scripture visually. While this way of digesting Scripture affords many benefits, it yields at least one potential side-effect: our ability to engage our sense of hearing, as we receive God’s word, has diminished. Our ears are ‘out-of-shape’ so to speak. As a result, recognizing the aural attributes in St. Mark’s narrative has become increasingly difficult. Why does this matter?
Some classicists argue that repetition is a hallmark of aural literature. Similarly, most narrative-critics of the New Testament agree that repetition is one of the aural attributes woven throughout St. Mark’s story. Though, debate surrounds the reason(s) for such repetition. Some suggest, for example, that St. Mark uses repetition in order to trigger the memory of his first-century listeners. Others prefer to understand the repetition in St. Mark’s story as the aimless by-product of aurality. While either of these options may be true, my readings of Mark’s story lead me to conclude the following: behind the seemingly skilless repetition in Scripture, lies hidden rhetorical and theological significance eager to enhance our understanding of God’s word. Don’t believe me? I invite you to hear for yourself.
Next time you open Scripture, slowly read St. Mark’s narrative aloud, in one sitting, and ideally in Greek. (Repetition is more easily heard in a story’s original language.) Listen for the repetition of themes, characters, geography, hook-words, and setting. If you notice a pattern, ask yourself what this might mean. What might its significance be? And, as a former professor of mine would always say, “Don’t overlook the obvious!” Sometimes, theological gems are hidden in plain sight. I myself read St. Mark’s story in this very manner when I was an M.Litt student at the University of St. Andrews. By doing so, I discovered that St. Mark repeats the setting of evening for specific literary, rhetorical, and theological purposes. (I am being intentionally vague here since I am currently revising my research for publication. Though, if you’d like to read about my findings, please e-mail me and I will send you a copy of my work.)
To be fair, a key assumption informs my reading Scripture. Though, it is one which I feel increasingly sure about the more time I spend listening to God’s word. My assumption is as follows: biblical authors—especially St. Mark—are not clumsy compilers of disparate traditions; they are more like composers who orchestrate harmonic symphonies. In the same way every note matters for a composer, every word counts for St. Mark—his repetitions are hardly, if ever, frivolous. A good biblical scholar, thus, refuses to content herself with reading exclusively by the eye. Instead, she tunes her ears to the aurality of biblical narrative and listens for the significance of repetition that is audible only for those “with ears to hear” (Mk. 4.9-23).
“What Is that to You? You Follow Me!”
In the final chapter of the Johannine narrative, Jesus surreptitiously shares with St. Peter the manner by which he will die and glorify God (Jn. 21.18-19); immediately after, he summons St. Peter with the command, “follow me” (Jn. 21.19). Instead, St. Peter inquires of Jesus regarding the fate of the Beloved disciple. He asks, “what about this one?” (Jn. 21.21). Jesus responds, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” (Jn. 21.22). I often repeat to myself these final eight words (six in Greek!) in order to curb the competitive brute that so easily ensnares me.
At a university like Oxford, temptation lures from every nook and cranny enticing me to compare my own progress against my peers. She often whispers: “How many publications do they have?” “What universities have they studied at?” “How strong is their Greek? What about their Hebrew? Their German? They know Latin as well?! I’ll never catch up!” Yet, in the midst of the constant comparisons wrestling in the arena of my mind, Jesus’s rebuke—“what is that to you?”—often reorients my thoughts: What is that to you if your colleague’s German is more polished than yours? What is that to you if your peer pumps out more publications than you? What is that to you if another student gets an opportunity you do not?—“You follow me!”
Each of us have been allotted different portions in life. Some are naturally skilled linguists. For others, language acquisition only comes with blood, sweat, and tears (maybe not the blood!). Some have the privilege of being full-time researchers into God’s word. Others, need to work part-time jobs to support our studies. Whatever the case may be, Jesus’s reprimand challenges us to stop comparing ourselves with others, and instead focus on cultivating the talents he has given us, with the time and opportunity he has allotted us. A good biblical scholar, therefore, focuses on faithfully stewarding the talent, time, and opportunity God has allotted to her, instead of dwelling on the gifts God has bestowed on others.
Jordan Cardenas is an MPhil student at Oxford University.