The above Twitter exchange, between Ben Fulford and me, was prompted by the questions at the end of a Chester PG research seminar paper delivered a few weeks ago by one of our research students, Jason Boyd. Jason’s paper was arguing for treating sermons as a dialogic space, and moving away from the model in which the preacher delivers the word from on high and the congregation sits and listens — a move that echos the current consensus on best practices in classroom pedagogy. At some point during the questions, a statement was made (and I honestly cannot recall by who) equating teaching to ‘telling people what to think’.
The underlying idea that is animating the end of this exchange (at least for me; of course I’m not able to read Ben’s mind!) is what images we project back on to our reading of scripture. Yes, κήρυγμα is often translated as ‘proclaim’ (as in the rendering of Isaiah 61:1 quoted in Luke 4:18:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release
to the captives and recovery of
sight to the blind…
Of course, this sort of proclamation is not really ‘telling people what to think’, more ‘informing them of a change in circumstances’. What they think about it is up to them. Slightly more open to debate would be the proclamation of Jesus in Matthew 4:17: ‘From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”’ It’s a declaration of a change in circumstances and a call to action based on those circumstances; whether it is actually telling anyone what they should think depends greatly on whether one understands repentance as an internal mental/spiritual process, or an external shift in behaviour (or some mix of the two). And this is where we start finding differences of opinion.
Neither Ben nor I is a Biblical scholar, or in a good position to make claims about what the meaning of κήρυγμα would have been at the time the Gospels were written. I read the Christian New Testament through the lens of later Rabbinic literature, which is generally (though not entirely) silent on issues of belief, but has quite literally volumes to say about practice. I haven’t sat down with Ben and quizzed him on his scriptural hermeneutic (though we really should have that conversation over coffee, one of these days), but I feel pretty secure in the assumption that his reading is informed in large part by the later Christian theological traditions with which he works — which tend to be more belief-oriented. Either way, I am, it seems, more inclined than he to read preaching in the New Testament as telling people what to do, instead of what to think, and to emphasise a definite distinction between the two.
However, κήρυγμα is also frequently used to describe what Jesus does in synagogues — sometimes paired with διδάσκω, which the NRSV translates as ‘teach’ (so he teaches and proclaims — e.g. Matthew 11:1), and sometimes on its own (as in Matthew 13:54 + synoptic parallels). And this is where I get myself in trouble with Paul Middleton, because my Talmud-influenced vision of a 1st century synagogue, or beit midrash, is a great deal more like a modern kollel, where scholars gather to debate the meaning of the text, than a modern church (or many modern synagogues, for that matter), where a congregation gathers to sing and pray and read the text and (maybe) hear one person explicate the text for the benefit of everyone else.
I am not inclined to read any of the Jesus-in-a-synagogue texts as Jesus-as-a-guest-preacher, but rather Jesus advocating one view of the text under discussion in the context of many other views being discussed. I am also influenced in this reading by my own brief experience of yeshiva education, in which ‘learning’ a text meant sitting down with a partner, reading it closely, and compiling a list of places where the text appears unclear or inconsistent — in other words, much closer to the dialogic preaching model that Jason was arguing for in his paper.
(All quoted translations from the NRSV)
Alana Vincent is Lecturer in Jewish Studies at Chester