Anthony M. Ludovici
The New English Weekly 19, 1941, pp. 177178
- p. 177 -
"Regarding any particular point and everything relating to what Jesus is alleged to have taught, it is as well not to affirm anything except with the utmost caution."
"How did he (Jesus) picture the Kingdom of Heaven and its coming? We cannot tell. Our texts date from a period when the delay in the coming of the Kingdom had already modified the ideas concerning it in the minds of Christians."
These passages from Professor Guignebert's profound studies on Jesus and early Christianity are quoted at the opening of this review of Mr. Hugh Ross Williamson's book, because they reveal the amount of uncertainty that prevails in the minds of Biblical scholars on the very matters he discusses in his recent monograph.*
It is traditional in Protestant countries for the individual to regard himself as entitled to interpret Holy Script. Luther himself claimed this right for everyone and nobody outside the Holy Catholic Church seems to contest it. Thus there is hardly a circle of people in England to-day among whom some one cannot be found who will profess to be able to tell you what "true Christianity" is.
The insistence on this kind of "true Christianity" is usually the response to a criticism of the religion, or to a comment upon it made by some member of the circle, which to the self-appointed discoverer of "true Christianity" seems unfair, inconsistent with the supposed "real" teaching of Jesus, or merely incompatible with a purely arbitrary view of his teaching.
It is difficult to regard Mr. Williamson's contribution to the subject as any more than this sort of response. As an individual's speculation it answers the purpose of whiling away an idle hour, but apart from this its value is hard to discover.
The author, indeed, foresees this criticism. He says, "It may be that this essay will be considered to belong to this class" i.e., the class of purely subjective and imaginative treatises on what Christianity or Jesus really mean and I am afraid that nothing he says later on helps me, at least, to get rid of this impression.
When it is remembered that none of Jesus's alleged sayings can be positively asserted ever to have been uttered by him at least that is the conclusion the careful reader forms after perusing the pages of Guignebert (to mention only one Biblical scholar), one may well ask what point is served at this late hour of the day by an individual's trying to interpret the doctrines for others in the light of his own feelings and imagination.
Nor is one's confidence in Mr Williamson's inspirations increased by an actual examination of many of his claims.
Let me give a few examples.
He starts off badly, by denying that the words "Judge not that ye be not judged" constitute a threat. He says they mean merely that if you judge, your judgment will reveal your place in the hierarchy of human beings. In other words, a judgment betrays your culture, your taste, your position, and by making a judgment inconsistent, let us say, with the best taste or best knowledge of your age, you merely reveal yourself as a Philistine or an ignoramus. That, according to Mr. Williamson, is the burden of the text.
If it really is so, one may well ask, not only is it compatible with the orthodox view of Jesus as a brave spirit, but also is it more than a counsel for cowards or for people who are afraid of revealing where they stand? At the risk of appearing an ignoramus, for instance, or a person without taste, is one to be absolutely
* A.D. 33. A Tract for the Times. By HUGH ROSS WILLIAMS. (Collins. Crown 8vo. 128 pp. Price 2/6 net.)
This does not seem to me very helpful, and it is difficult to believe that it is true. For who cares that another should determine one's position by one's judgment except the aesthetic snob?
Besides, Jesus is alleged to have added, "For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again."
Clearly this implies that the first words constitute a threat and the whole text boils down to, "Don't be too severe on others lest your Supreme Judge applies the same severity in judging you" which is the usually accepted meaning. Nor should one forget that krino may mean to condemn, which makes the warning all the more solemn.
My next example is Mr. Williamson's strained view of the word "neighbour." The English word might well be spelt "nighbour" or "nigh-bur," meaning a husbandman who lives "nigh" you, and in fact it was for a time spelt in that way. It has a reciprocal implication, because you cannot be a neighbour unless someone is also a neighbour to you.
Mr. Williamson speaks of "centuries of misinterpretation of this parable." But surely it is he, the innovator, who is misinterpreting!
He says Jesus defined "neighbour" as "benefactor." But how could he? Benefactor has no reciprocal implication. You are not necessarily a benefactor if some one confers a benefit on you. But you must be a neighbour if some one else is a neighbour to you.
The words benefactor and neighbour, therefore, cannot be inter-changeable.
The next thing is to determine the proper attitude of a neighbour. This, according to the parable, consists in what is now understood as "neighbourly," that is "helpful," "kind," as probably being of one kin, or "near" to the other human being in nature, constitution, physiology. This might be its extended use.
When Jesus asks, "Which of those three men was neighbour to the man who fell among thieves?" the words seem to imply, which of them observed the "neighbour" behaviour? This is the accepted sense.
Mr Williamson is trying to prove that the parable is not an exhortation to neighbourliness in general but an exhortation to love one's benefactor.
He forgets that the good Samaritan cannot be a neighbour to the man from Jericho without the latter also being a neighbour to him. Jesus knew that. To say that the parable boils down to, "Love your benefactor," therefore, is purely arbitrary.
Nor is it convincing to argue that any other interpretation makes Jesus guilty of an unoriginal exhortation common to many other codes of conduct. For, as Guignebert points out, "his moral maxims are less original than they are usually supposed to be."
Why should he fear to teach people to be neighbourly? It was as necessary then as it still is now. Nor does the word plesion tend to make the meaning any different from the word "neighbour." Again in the Greek word we have the same idea of nearness, closeness, hard-byness. Jesus, therefore, might have meant which of the three men behaved as if, as a human being, he were closely related to the Jericho human being.
To stretch the meaning, as Mr. Williamson does, in order to try to prove that Jesus wished to show that it is difficult to love one's benefactor why, even the animals do that, and among human beings it is only the neurotic, with intense inferiority feelings, who react in any other way seems painstakingly trivial.
My third example is Mr. Williamson's interpretation of the Kingdom of Heaven. Guignebert flatly denies that we can discover its meaning by examining our only documents on the subject. In view of this statement from a high authority, Mr. Williamson's chapter seems to border on presumption the presumption implicit in Luther's "every man his own priest." Moreover, what purpose is served by arguing, however brilliantly, about something that cannot be satisfactorily determined? Is it not like discussing the colour of God's beard? Is it more profitable? Too much of A.D. 33 is in this vein.
On the other hand let me strongly recommend a study of the chapter on Barabbas, with its fine distinction between a nationalist and a patriot. Whether Mr. Williamson and I are right in assuming that Jesus really held the position claimed for him in this chapter is once more a matter of the reliability of our only records. But the chapter certainly sheds new and welcome light on the possible attitude of Jesus, and is not inconsistent either with the traditional view of him, or with the documents as we find them.
I think less of the chapter on the doctrine of love, and I do not follow him on the question of Judas. But what does my view or his matter on these questions? It is a little late, in any case, to come forward with a fresh interpretation of Christ's teaching, and the result of Mr. Williamson's essay is the less convincing for bearing here and there a little too transparently the signs of having been dictated by what he would have liked Jesus to mean.
The truth is we know only interpretation where Jesus is concerned, and a new, individual interpretation of the classical interpretation is interesting only to the extent that it sheds light on the interpreter.