2012 New Testament: Use and Influence

This year, session 2 is a joint session with the Book of Revelation seminar.

Session 1

Louise Lawrence (Exeter University)

‘Blind Guides of the Blind’: Probing a Metaphor of Sense and Stigma

In the contemporary west, blindness’ metaphorical status as a master trope is well established. The Oxford English Dictionary reveals that ‘blind’ can refer not only to the inability to see, but also to that which ‘lacks perception, awareness or judgment’. One need not delve too deeply into the Gospels either, to witness what Susan Sontag terms the ‘lurid metaphors’ of impairment which occupy social worlds, most prominently the metaphorical linkage between blindness and misunderstanding, false leadership and dispositions unbecoming of a would-be disciple. Here I will probe how Gospel blindness metaphors have variously served to castigate groups and dispositions as ‘other’. Second, I will introduce some linguistic and anthropological work done on corporeal metaphors surrounding illness and disability. Third, I will attempt to bring insights from disability studies to bear on the interpretations outlined in three ways (a) Rejection and Retrieval of Negative Images (b) Biographical Criticism of a Blind Interpreter (c) Transgressive Reappropriation from a Blind Perspective.

It is important at the outset to state that my focus here is not on blind characters in the Gospels.  Indeed blind characters often function ironically as a foil to other seemingly ‘average’ or ‘healthy’ bodies which are exposed as spiritually diseased. Rather, my focus here is solely on how blindness functions as a tool of rejection and stigma within metaphorical communication.


Acts 1:11 and All That: an Excursion with Cyrus Ingerson Scofield

Ernest Sandeen avers that the Scofield Reference Bible has been ‘subtly but powerfully influential in spreading [dispensationalist] views among hundreds of thousands who have regularly read that Bible and who often have been unaware of the distinction between the ancient text and the Scofield interpretation’ (The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism 1800-1930 [Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press, 1970], p. 222). This paper examines how this ‘subtle but powerful influence’ is partially exercised by extensive cross-referencing between notes in the Scofield Reference Bible (The Scofield Reference Bible, edited by Rev. C. I. Scofield, D.D. [London: Oxford University Press, 1909, revised edition, 1917]). Acts 1:11 is a significant text for Scofield’s eschatological concepts.  Starting from the notes on this verse, I travel through material offered there and in linked notes on fifteen other texts from both Testaments.  These notes form a complex but coherent series and reveal four of Scofield’s most common, interrelated, dispensational themes: the eternal separation between God’s earthly and heavenly peoples, Israel and the Church, and diverse futures for the Church, Israel and the Gentiles; ‘the kingdom’ to be established on Christ’s return in fulfilment of the Davidic Covenant; the different natures of the kingdoms of heaven and of God; and three of the seven dispensations. 


Session 2

Jonathan Downing (University of Oxford)

The Women Clothed with the Sun: The Reception of Revelation 12 in British Millenarian Movements 1780-1820

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries have frequently been noted as experiencing a revival in apocalyptic and prophetic modes of thinking. The revolutions in France and America and the subsequent Napoleonic Wars prompted renewed speculation about the omens and images presented in prophetic biblical texts such as the Book of Revelation. Chapter 12 of the book, which describes the conflict between the “woman clothed with the sun” and “the great red dragon” emerges as a key text for several key writers and movements within the period. This paper will examine closely three women who identify themselves with this character: the prophet Joanna Southcott; the leader of the Scottish Buchanite sect Elspeth Buchan; and Sarah Flaxmer – a defender of the so-called “Paddington Prophet” Richard Brothers. We will thus explore how each of these women “decodes” this biblical figure – partly to bolster their own personal authority, but also to anchor their interpretations of contemporary historical events and for their expressions of future hope.

Susan Sklar (University of Oxford)

Ultimate Forgiveness?  Reading Revelation 22.17 through the eyes of William Blake

Two centuries ago William Blake created an illuminated epic Jerusalem, which reconfigures imagery, structures, and themes from the Book of Revelation.  Blake’s apocalypse reveals apocatastasis, the universal salvation from which no one is excluded.   He does not, I believe, underminine John’s Revelation in Jerusalem: he allows the Spirit and the Bride to have the last word – as she does in the drama of John’s Apocalypse. Blake’s Jerusalem is what Blake calls an Emanation:  integral to God, connecting humanity to the divine through what Blake calls “fibres of love” – which originate in Jesus who (in Blake) is inseparable from Jehovah.   Blake’s Jerusalem, the bride of Lamb, is (like Jesus) both human and divine – and as feminine as Jesus is masculine.  She seeks to transform fallen humanity.  Even Babylon, who tries to destroy her, is finally incorporate in Jerusalem and Jesus: all creatures ultimately dwell in what Blake calls “the Divine Body, the Saviour’s Kingdom.” 

In Jerusalem William Blake seeks to deliver humanity from the blight of accusation:  damning those who are different and/or threatening severs individuals and nations from what he calls, “the Religion of Jesus, forgiveness of sins.”  Unveiling the subtext of apocatastasis in John’s Revelation reveals that the Bible can end, not with condemnation, but with the restoration promised in Genesis:  the tree of life may be accessible to all. 


Session 3

Michael Sommer (University of Oxford)

The Theology of Bach’s Johannes Passion

Most people who are attracted to Bach’s sacred music – particularly the Passions – engage with them, both as audiences and performers, from an aesthetic perspective. Even those with significant biblical education are inclined to lose sight of the theology under the spellbinding power of the music. But Bach’s Johannespassion is not something we, from a modern historical-critical perspective, would call a proper reading of John’s Gospel. On the contrary, it is a syncretic reading of the text – relying heavily on Christian tradition and above all on Luther. So my basic questions are: 

  1. ‘Does Bach think he is telling the same story as the Evangelist?’ and
  2. ‘How and why does he deviate from it?’

In this paper I discuss among other things how Bach perpetuates a surface reading of Jesus’s opponents in the Gospel, thus reinforcing Luther’s polemics against Jews; how he takes for granted Luther’s totalizing view of scripture; how interpretation is shaped by those scriptural details (eg the flagellation of Christ) Bach chooses to emphasize; and especially how John’s fundamental theological concepts of  Word, Truth and ‘Life’ are obscured by the Lutheran imperative for Christians to recognise their sinful natures and to respond penitentially to Christ who suffered for their sins. A good deal of my evidence will come from the Bible which Bach actually used, the rare and remarkable Calov edition of 1681-2. The biblical text is liberally interspersed with extracts from the writings of Luther and, most pertinent for our purpose, it preserves Bach’s own underlinings and marginalia. From this document we can see in detail the way the composer reads Johannine theology through a specifically Lutheran lens.