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Sense-and-Stigma-in-the-Gospels-Depictions-of-Sensory-disabled-Characters-Paperback-P9780199590094How are we to perceive the ‘disabled’ in the Gospel narratives? Are they flat characters? Are they simply beneficiaries of divine healing?

Louise Lawrence in her OUP book Sense and Stigma in the Gospels: Depictions of Sensory-Disabled Characters seeks to reconceive the ‘sensory-disabled’ characters and avoid the binary and strict divisions of ‘ability’ and ‘disability’ in the contemporary world.

In short, she aims to get rid of the stigma and allow these characters to take center stage rather than being a ‘condition’ that needs to be healed. As she aptly states in the introduction:

In the pages of the gospels, characters with sensory ‘disabilities’ are curiously ‘everywhere’ and ‘nowhere.’ ‘Everywhere’ in the sense that those who are deaf, blind, and untouchable…form numerous stock props in tales of messianic healings; but ‘nowhere’ in that no meaningful identity, agency, or complexity is attributed to them beyond formulaic and flat character traits. (1)

Biblical commentators have utilized either a Western medical model or they have objectified the beneficiaries of divine healing. In both cases, the characters are not important in themselves, but only in the the larger theological schema.

Lawrence employs embodiment and performance, disability studies, and sensory anthropology in order to refigure these various characters.


She examines a number of Gospel narratives including the following: blindness, deaf-mute, the stigma of untouchability, and the epileptic boy.

In chapter 2 she looks at ‘blindness’ as a metaphor both in the biblical text and outside the biblical text arguing it is a tool of social rejection, inner darkness, and transgression. But interpreters themselves have ‘blind spots’ where sight-centric norms have lead to damaging misunderstandings and prejudices concerning sightlessness. She argues that when the biblical texts define individuals solely by a dominant trait such as blindness, it is like defining individuals exclusively on the basis of skin colour, sexuality, or gender.

But using ‘transgressive re-appropriation’ attends to the subversive potential or hyperbolic meanings invested in disabled figures. In this sense disability is conceived as a confrontational challenge to ‘ableist’ ideologies. The biblical text also uses ‘touch’ as a central to a number of the ‘blindness’ stories in the gospels, possibly trying to break out ‘ableist’ blind spots.

In chapter 3 she examines Mark 7:31-37 and the deaf-mute. In this narrative audio-centric channels of communication were reordered and vision, touch, space, vibration, and inaudibility of speech is adopted by Jesus. The performance underscored the point that ‘sense’ does not equate exclusively with hearing and spoken words.

In chapter 4 she takes the leper, legion, and the leaky woman as her subjects. All of these had been marked as untouchable. While most commentators focus on what Jesus did to them, Lawrence looks at what they characters do. “The leper jarringly reversed ‘untouchability’ to reveal how much it made the religious elite, imaged here in Jesus, themselves untouchable. Jesus when prompted however opts to share the polluted space of the leper.” Jesus’ exorcism of Legion normalizes this character and renders him politically ineffective because before he was protesting against the imperial powers. The leaky woman herself approached Jesus, which leads to Jesus’ involuntary bodily seepage displaying the false binary between ‘disability’ and ‘ability.’

In chapter 5 she re-conceives the story of the boy with seizures. Both the western medical and spirit possession models elude the story of the person as the centre of them. This ‘chaos narrative’ is turned into a ‘quest narrative’ by Jesus. Quest narratives do not evoke a cure but rather propose alternative meanings for conditions. Lawrence argues that seizure signifiers were leaked onto other characters (Jesus and the crowd) to challenge the notion that only ‘disabled’ epileptics are exclusive receptacles of such phenomena.

What We Can Learn

Lawrence helpfully pushed me through a few categories that plague modern readers concerning healing stories.

First, she is right to note that many times these characters are objectified and they need refiguration. These characters are not just ‘disabilities’ or ‘conditions’ in need of healing, but themselves characters in the story. Jesus is not the only character in these passages, and interpreters would do well to consider the role these characters have in the narrative.

Second, she had some perceptive comments on the biblical text concerning Jesus’ method of healing. I especially enjoyed chapter 3 where she notes the non audio-centric healing of the deaf and mute person. I think she may be onto something here with the mode of healing by Jesus in this passage. She also had some interesting insights concerning seizure signifiers being leaked onto other characters.

Third, she is right to break us out of the ‘tyranny of normality’ which prejudices ‘able-bodied’ in cultural discourses. Isn’t this just a way to love our neighbor as ourselves and treat the ‘disabled’ as we would want to be treated?

Lingering Questions

There are a number of things about Lawrence’s book that made me uncomfortable as well. (I have done very little work with disability studies, and therefore these thoughts may be fine tuned as I discuss these issues with those who have thought longer and harder about this issue.)

First, she so raised the level of importance and meaning of the sensory disabled characters in the book that many times they overtook the clear main character in the stories, Jesus himself. I am all for examining these characters, but if you focus on them and make Jesus a pawn in the scheme of the story then the story becomes inverted. These are healing stories! For example in chapter 4 on the untouchables, she says:

I will argue that Jesus’ actions are not an abrogation of purity laws, for even when touch ‘utouchables’, his purity status could be reinstated through appropriate means. Rather it is the untouchables themselves who constructively manipulate conventions surrounding their ‘polluted’ conditions and make political points through their bodily performances. It is worth noting that Jesus does not directly approach the leper, Legion, or the leaky woman, but rather the initiative for each contact is audaciously taken by the characters themselves…All three characters are ironically empowered by their ‘pollution.’ (78 and 97)

Although there are some perceptive comments in the paragraph above, Lawrence has the general tendency in her book to downplay Jesus’ healing in these episodes. This is probably because of goal of the book. However her argument would have been more convincing if she had not over-stated her case.

Second, she tried so hard to emphasize the ‘normalcy’ of these disabilities and not assign anything negative to them that at times she insinuated that the characters were not healed at all, or that they should not have been healed. In the story of Legion, she thinks Jesus takes away the power of this character who was protesting the imperial power by his embodied performance (93). But these type of readings turn the Scripture on its head. Shouldn’t we carefully emphasize that these healings are transformances where the persons identity is constituted anew. It is not that they had no identity before, but that Jesus comes and brings them back into social life in a new way. Of course, Lawrence would argue this is not what they need, but I find it hard to escape the desire to be ‘healed’ by these subjects, no matter how politically incorrect that sounds.

Third, and related to the last point, she pushes too hard against any sort of labels. One is left with very few terms to describe what a person is going through. Every term is suddenly loaded with politically incorrect meanings and language is emptied of its power. Many times in her narrative, Lawrence either implicitly or explicitly critiqued the biblical narrative or Jesus for their categorization of these characters. But Matthew and Jesus are simply utilizing the categories that are employed in their culture. If we follow the narrative, Jesus is full of compassion, no matter what labels he uses, so we should not expect them to use language that modern ears will necessarily be tickled by.


Overall, despite its weaknesses, this book provides a new angle into some of the gospel narratives which helps readers not view the ‘disabled’ as simply conditions to be healed. Although Lawrence over-argued her case, and sometimes turned the narrative on its head, I was appreciative of the insights she brought to the text. I will now be asking new questions of the text in my personal reading for which I am thankful.

9780800699123.jpghIn the introduction to Paul in the Grip of the Philosophers: The Apostle and Contemporary Continental Philosophy (Fortress Press), Peter Frick notes there has been a great hermeneutical shift.

The shift is that from the beginning to about the end of the modern period, theological thinking was predicated on a specific hermeneutical assumption, namely, that philosophical thinking will clarify and make more coherent theology’s own self-understanding. As Frick says, “theology was the queen of the interpretive undertaking and philosophy the handmaid.”

But the shift is that now philosophers interested in Pauline thought do not begin with Paul and his texts. “They have their own ideological structures and therefore employ Paul in the service of those structures. They also do not substantially use theology to clarify their philosophy; the former is hardly every the handmaid of the latter.”

Frick and others write this book to clarify for people what to make of this reversal.

Their main critique of Continental philosophy’s appropriation of Paul is that they deconstruct Paul as the “other.” Continental philosophy uses the voice of Paul, but does not always give him his own voice. Paul has thereby suffered “the death of an author.”

The rest of the book goes through a variety of Continental philosophers, Nietzche, Heidegger, Agamben, Taubes, Derrida, Vattimo, Badiou, and Žižek, explaining how these philosophers use Paul, what we can learn from them, and how Paul contradicts them.

This looks like a helpful volume that philosophers and students of Paul should be aware of.


Table of Contents

  1. Neitzche: The Archetype of Pauline Deconstruction | Peter Frick
  2. Heidegger and the Apostle Paul | Benjamin Crowe
  3. Paul of the Gaps: Agamben, Benjamin and the Puppet Player | Roland Boer
  4. Jacob Taubes–Paulinist, Messianist | Larry Welborn
  5. Circumcising the Word: Derrida as a Reader of Paul | Hans Ruin
  6. Gianni Vattimo and Saint Paul: Ontological Weakening, Kenosis, and Secularity | Anthony Sciglitano Jr.
  7. Baidou’s Paul: Founder of Unversalism and Theoritician of the Militant | Frederiek Depoortere
  8. Agamben’s Paul: Thinker of the Messianic | Alan Gignac
  9. Mad with the Love of Undead Life: Understanding Paul and Žižek | Ward Blanton
  10. The Philosophers’ Paul and the Churches | Neil Elliott


6a00e54fc7cbdb883401a51172620a970c-800wiOver on Books at a Glance, I reviewed Karen Jobes new commentary (ECNT) on 1, 2, 3 John. It is a new website which features weekly book summaries which helps you select the right books for you.

One thing I don’t mention in the review is what a natural writer she is. The commentary did not read like most commentaries and I can hardly remember a time when I thought about the writing, because she simply got out of the way.

Read the full review here.



9781451413694_p0_v1_s260x420Although published in 1998, Mark Allan Powell’s Fortress Introduction to the Gospels stands the test of time.

It is a slim book, 138 pages, but Powell includes an amazing amount of material in this short introduction. The lucid brevity of the book will cause it to continue to be a great textbook and introduction. Powell stays away from speculations and for the most part Gospel scholarship fads. He simplifies things by presenting the narrative and emphases of each Gospel. This only comes after years of teaching and synthesis.

Powell himself is a literary critic, and therefore the bulk of the material is on the distinctive themes of each gospel. Unlike most other introductions, I was happy to see descriptions of the Gospels come first, and then at the end of the chapter he goes over the when, why, and who of the Gospel. Each chapter on the four Gospels is divided into three sections:

  1. Characteristics
  2. Historical Context
  3. Major Themes

But Powell is also able to cover in the introduction the world of the Gospels, the genre, the stages of transmission, historical Jesus issues, source criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, the preservation of manuscripts, some translation theory material, and reception.

Maybe the best part of the book are some of the charts he provides. I imagine he created these for classroom lectures and they are valuable resources.

This is a great little introduction that I will be recommending to everyone. Below I have pasted some examples of the charts he uses.

Powell 1: Four Pictures of JesusPowell 2Powell 3


I have his expanded book published by Baker Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey but I have not been able to piece through it to compare the two.

Horizons-in-Hermeneutics-A-Festschrift-in-Honor-of-Anthony-C.-Thiselton-Paperback-P9780802869272In the most recent additions to RBL Donald Hagner reviewed the book Horizons in Hermeneutics: A Festschrift in Honor of Anthony C. Thiselton

He has the following summary paragraph of Stanley Porter’s chapter which is a critique of TIS. I have not read the chapter, but I wonder if it relates to the post just previous to this one by Roger Scruton.

Stanley E. Porter contributes the third essay in this section, under the title “What Exactly Is Theological Interpretation of Scripture, and Is It Hermeneutically Robust Enough for the Task to Which It Has Been Appointed?” Porter makes his way through the subject by means of the comparison of four authors who have recently written on theological interpretation: Joel B. Green, Daniel J. Treier, Stephen E. Fowl, and J. Todd Billings. After a section in which he examines how these authors define theological interpretation, he provides a preliminary evaluation, then proceeds to the question of whether theological interpretation is a hermeneutic. This involves discussions of the relation to historical criticism, premodern interpretation and the rule of faith, the role of the interpretive community, the role of the Holy Spirit, and the relation between general and special hermeneutics. Porter’s answers to the questions in the title: there is no agreement about what theological interpretation is, other than “an undefined and varying set of tendencies or interests”; it is not hermeneutically robust enough to accomplish its task.

9780567442543Rafael Rodríguez has provided a brief introduction to the burgeoning field of oral tradition in T&T Clark’s Oral Tradition and the New Testament: A Guide for the Perplexed (2014).

He begins by acknowledging that the NT is a written text, but also affirms that the earliest Christians told stories about Jesus in a number of different media, both oral and written. Rodríguez argues that although the oral tradition may sound like a part of the modern critical approach called form criticism, form critics actually get started on the wrong foot. We need to ask fundamentally different questions. In fact, contemporary media criticism is, in many ways, a reaction against twentieth-century form criticism.

The most helpful chapter in the book is chapter four, the “how” of oral tradition in NT studies. Rodríguez rejects the typical morphological approach, where scholars look for orality’s shape (or its form) in written texts. They look for oral patterns some of which are described by Walter Ong (additive rather than subordinate, redundant, aggregative rather than analytic, etc).

His examples of those who use this approach are Joanna Dewey and James Dunn, although there are many more. The problem with this approach is that many of the observations work perfectly well in written narratives as well. The catch, as Rodríguez points out numerous times, is that we are always examining a written text because we do not have any remnants of the oral tradition.

The morphological approach fails because 1) it assumes an oral and not written psychodynamics produce certain features of linguistic style or certain narrative features, 2) it assumes that allegedly oral features of tradition survive the transfer from orality to writing. In short these are assumptions, but they stand on shaky ground and therefore the morphological approach fails to produce what it has promised. We cannot find the oral tradition in the NT in the sense the morphological approach desires to.

But this does not mean the oral tradition is not helpful for interpretation according to Rodríguez. The approach Rodríguez puts forward is the contextual approach. This approach does not look for the shape of the oral tradition in the written texts of the NT. Instead, it posits the oral expression of tradition as the context within which the written NT texts developed. What Rodríguez has done (following Foley) is broaden his focus from simply questions of media to consider “works of verbal art” which may have different dynamics than the texts without roots of verbal art. The contextual approach in sum provides the context in which the oral-derived texts developed and were experienced by their readers or audiences.


The book is a helpful little introduction, and chapter four alone makes the book worth buying. I was disappointed with the second chapter, where it simply listed a glossary of terms and their definitions. This seems like a better dictionary article than embedded in a book such as this. Additionally, I would point people to Eric Eve’s book as a better source for survey material than Rodríguez’s chapter three. This is not because Rodríguez’s chapter is lacking but because Eve’s summary and evaluations are so well done.

The second half of Rodríguez’s book is really where he sets himself apart from Eve. Chapter four is described above, and in the last chapter he deals with the “why” of orality studies. Here Rodríguez seeks to demonstrate the usefulness of media criticism within the NT. I think most people reading will be left wondering how media criticism offers a distinct contribution that literary criticism could not bring to light.

Rodríguez does differ from literary criticism in that he is not looking for certain texts being alluded to, but surrounding traditions. But are not texts part of the larger surrounding tradition? Very few literary critics would say they are looking for isolated texts, but are invoking the entire “contexts” or “traditions” that go along with that text. The tradition focus does highlight what he briefly hits upon earlier in the book, that words are not only denotative but connotative and the balance between conferred and inherent meaning. But again, good literary critics would affirm his statements about words and language in their analysis of how words work.

Admittedly, I was bred in gospels scholarship under the tutelage of literary criticism, so that is where my mind runs. But what excites me about this new turn in orality studies is that the literary and the historical streams seem to be merging in their conclusions. What previously raised my excitement about gospels scholarship was that it did not have to be purely a speculative “behind” the text study. But as Rodríguez points out, the new historical approaches are asking fundamentally different questions.