Kendra Haloviak Valentine, New Testament scholar and Dean of General Education at La Sierra University, simultaneously accomplished two things in a remarkable series of presentations earlier this school year at the Roy Branson Legacy Sabbath School (RBLSS) in Loma Linda, California. On the one hand, she illuminated several passages in the New Testament’s Gospel of Mark. On the other, she also demonstrated five contemporary methods of interpreting Scripture.
In Part 1 of this report, I present brief summaries of how she demonstrated the use of each method. In Part 2, I offer some comments of my own which focus on the differences between modern and postmodern interpretation.
The title of her series was “The Kaleidoscopic Worlds of Mark’s Gospel—a multi-hued hermeneutical perspective.” Watch the videos of all five sessions in the article below.
These videos are worth watching for how she teaches as much as for what she taught. The video of the first session was swiftly prepared so that Professor Gail Rice, who is Director of Faculty Development at Loma Linda University and a member of the faculty of the Harvard Macy Program for Health Professional Educators, could use it just a few days later at a major conference as an example of effective teaching. Videos of the other four sessions would have served this purpose just as well.
In the first session, Kendra Haloviak Valentine used the first fifteen verses of Mark’s Gospel to highlight the importance of distinguishing the worlds “behind,” “within” and “in front” of the text. The “world behind the text” is the text’s historical context. For example, those who are drawn to this world will put much emphasis upon what “gospel,” “baptism,” “Nazareth,” and many other things meant in the time of Jesus or in the time of Mark’s writing.
The world “within” the text is the text’s literary context. This is the relationship between its words and sentences and other ones in the same biblical book and in the Bible as a whole.
It is telling, for instance, that Mark’s Gospel uses the same Greek word which we often translate as “torn apart” only twice (1:10; 15:38). The first is at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus when the heavens were “ripped open” at His baptism and God declared him to be His “beloved son.” The second is at the end of his ministry when Jesus died on the cross, the curtain in the temple was “split” from top to bottom and a Roman centurion declared that He must have been “God’s son.”
The world “in front of” the text is our own context. This is the sphere of our issues, questions and concerns. This includes the community of faith with which we read the text. It also reaches beyond our own group to those who are different from us in many ways. These three worlds do not necessarily only collide, she contended. They can also collaborate. Yet they will do this only if we consciously recognize them and intentionally enable them to overlap.
WATCH Kendra Haloviak Valentine on Various Worlds: Intertextuality (Mark 1):
In her second session, Haloviak Valentine described “redaction criticism” and demonstrated its use by summarizing two theories about the context in which Mark’s Gospel was written. They both differ from the frequent view that it is Peter’s account of the story of Jesus which was written down by John Mark when they were both in Rome. In this case, the word “criticism” simply means “analysis” with no necessary negative connotations.
We can easily understand redaction criticism if we introduce a German expression which many use in these discussions. It is Sitz im Leben and it means something like “situation-in-life” or, more concisely, “historical context.” The distinctive feature of this approach is that it is interested in two contexts and sometimes more so in the second. The first context consists of the circumstances in which Jesus lived. The second context is comprised of the situations in which groups of the very first Christians found themselves and from which the texts as we now have them emerged.
According to one of these theories, the Sitz im Leben of Mark’s Gospel is the dilemma faced by some early Christians who lived in Syria after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D. They needed to find a third way which sided with neither the rebellious Jews, who often acted like bandits, nor the severe Roman occupiers. Mark’s Gospel, which encouraged them to admit Gentiles, was written to help them accomplish this.
According to the other theory, the Sitz im Leben of Mark’s Gospel is the challenge faced by the first Christians who lived in Rome after Nero’s persecution of them ended. Their difficulty was welcoming back to full participation those who had yielded to the Emperor’s pressure and denied or renounced their Christian allegiance or perhaps even turned in fellow Christians. Mark’s Gospel, which traces how Jesus dealt with Peter and others who betrayed him, helped them understand how they were to treat those who had betrayed them.
WATCH Kendra Haloviak Valentine on Redaction Perspectives (Mark 13, 16):
In her third session, Haloviak Valentine turned to “literary perspectives” in interpreting Mark’s Gospel. This approach does not concentrate on a passage’s two historical contexts as redaction criticism does. Presupposing that the one who wrote Mark’s Gospel was a theologian and artist in his own right and not merely a scribe, it studies the structure of a particular passage in its relation to other parts of the gospel. Among other things, it explores how its various parts are put together, what conceptual themes thread their way through the whole of the material and where significant patterns occur and reoccur.
She used the word “sandwich” to explain what interpreters mean by “intercalation.” Just as the item we eat inserts something else between two pieces of bread, the interpreter recognizes that the author embedded one story between the two sides of another larger one. The interpreter seeks to understand why the author inserted that story between this larger one rather than some other. She or he studies the literary devices the author used to keep the story there and why the author found this arrangement so important.
Sometimes the intercalation of the smaller story is manifest and the correlation between the portions of the larger story on either side of it obviously belong together. The stories we read in Mark 5:21–43 are examples. The larger story is about Jairus’ request that Jesus heal his daughter, which Jesus eventually answered with a “yes” by raising her back to full health even though in the interlude she had died. Although it is quite long, the smaller story is about how the woman who had hemorrhaged for a dozen years was healed by touching the hem of the garment Jesus was wearing.
Many people read the arrangement of these two stories as the sequence in which they took place. Without necessarily casting a vote either way on this, literary analysts wonder why the story of the resurrected girl occurs in two parts around the story of a healed woman. What are possible relationships between the two stories? Why does Mark want his readers to consider them together?
In other places, the arrangement of the stories is more “back-to-back” as Mark places one story after another. This is what we see in the accounts of how Jesus restored the sight of a blind man in two steps (Mark 8:22–26) immediately followed by a Peter who is slow-to-see Jesus clearly (Mark 8:27–38) and then the dramatic answer to this question in the Transfiguration of Jesus as Peter, James, and John “saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus” (Mark 9:2–8).
We see the “in between” pattern in the stories of the Rich Man who turned away from Jesus (Mark 10:17–34), the contests between James and John and the other disciples about who would have the places of greatest honor in the Kingdom (Mark 10:35–45) and the man who gave up his cloak—which amounted to his pillow, blanket, tent and luggage, and everything else he had—to travel “along the way” with Jesus (Mark 10:46–52).
We see the “in between” pattern most dramatically in the stories about the poor woman who gave all she could at the temple (Mark 12:42–44), the prophecies of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (Mark 13:1–37), and the rich woman who gave her dowry to Jesus by lavishing with her hair on His feet the ointment which was her only insurance and security should she be left alone (Mark 14:1–9). Many who use literary analysis see in this sequence an anticipation of the shift Christians would eventually make from the temple to the person of Jesus as the religious center of their lives.
WATCH Kendra Haloviak Valentine on Literary Perspectives (Mark 8 - 11):
In her fourth session, Haloviak Valentine used the famous story of the encounter of Jesus with a Syrophoenician woman whom He initially rebuffs to demonstrate both feminist and postcolonial ways of interpreting Scripture. We are now exploring the world “in front of the text” rather than the ones “within” and “behind” it.
One goal in these methods is to become increasingly aware of how our reading of the text is informed by who, what, and where we are. Another goal is to expand our ability to have what we see in the text reformed by what those with other preconditions see in it.
Haloviak Valentine reported on research she and her husband did in a recent sabbatical. They surveyed 120 people in three groups in Australia and five groups in Thailand after which they discussed things with each of their interviewees. It turned out that some in both Australia and Thailand were disturbed by how Jesus treated the Syrophoenician woman but others weren’t. Far from being offended, quite a few of the Asians found it profitable to explore the nuances of their relationship. In Australia, about half of the white, middle-aged respondents thought that the idea of demon possession makes sense today, about half didn’t, and their debates became quite heated. In Papua New Guinea more than one hundred SDA pastors whom the Valentines met on another occasion found in the story the promise of delivery from demon possession and they pled to be taught how to exercise this power among their members. Nothing else in the story interested them as much.
Her postcolonial interpretation of the story emphasized how many “border crossings” it includes. These boundaries are matters of geography, gender, religion, ethnicity, and social class. The last of these is especially interesting because the report that the Syrophoenician woman and her family ate at a table and that her daughter had a bed suggests to some that she was more prosperous than Jesus. Then and now, putting pressure upon people at these boundaries is one of the things occupying forces do to maintain their power over the masses.
Some see in this story a growing awareness on the part of Jesus that His movement was to include Gentiles as well as Jews. The point is that he probably matured in His understanding of his identity and mission over time just as He did in other aspects of his life.
WATCH Kendra Haloviak Valentine on Feminist and Postcolonial Perspectives (Mark 7):
In her fifth session, Kendra Haloviak Valentine focused on the story of the demon-possessed man in Gentile territory whom Jesus healed (Mark 5:1–20). She did this in a way that demonstrated the overlap between postcolonial perspectives, which are especially alert to political oppression, and eco-critical ones, which are especially aware of ecological destruction.
Although she did not emphasize it, her remarks directly pertain to the tensions which have frequently erupted in our time between those who care most about the economy and those who care most about our ecology.
What she said about the 2,000 pigs that plunged to their deaths in the sea after Jesus banished the man’s demons into them was particularly illuminating. On the one hand, these animals were degrading land that could produce food much more efficiently with much less ecological degradation. On the other hand, they produced the pork which the Roman soldiers who were guarding the eastern edge of the empire relished. The oppressors were forcing the oppressed to exhaust the region’s ecological resources for their own economic benefit. Jesus’ liberation of the man, therefore, included the liberation of the land.
WATCH Kendra Haloviak Valentine on "Eco-critical Perspectives (Mark 5) Legion's Land:
In Part 1 of this report, I have offered summaries of Haloviak Valentine’s presentations and discussions. In Part 2, I will present some thoughts of my own with an emphasis upon the difference between modern and postmodern methods of interpreting Scripture.
Dr. David Larson is Professor of Religion at Loma Linda University.
Image Credit: Video Still
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